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Sofa Portraits now available for pre-order

  1.          Sofa Portraits is now available for pre-order from my website (orders will deliver in October/November)   The pric...

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

School, Race, Advertising, Mamma Mia and the sickly taste of Krispy Kreme Donuts

This French art school was in the news over the summer. It was trying to recruit US students and to make its student body a bit more diverse somebody changed the picture above to the one below. 

There's a variety of techniques in there, including what looks like the retro felt tip effect being used. It's incredibly bad.

I somehow watched Mamma Mia - Here we go Again over the summer. It begins with Donna graduating from the most incredibly diverse Oxford, something quite at odds with the reality of the intake of Oxford University which you can read about here, or here for a more nuanced analysis or here for a student perspective from Cherwell magazine. This includes the incredible statistic that  Oxford admitted more pupils from Westminster School than black students in 2017.

I found this incredibly annoying and did wonder at how and why this was included. My paranoia made me wonder if this wasn't some kind of attempt by Oxford to redefine its student body. And why not. I know people who have photographed literary festivals in the UK and been told to go for the 'ethnics'.

My wife and daughter didn't care about the Oxford element in Mamma Mia. They cared about the film starring Cher and Andy Garcia in and the pointlessness of the endgame. But we all enjoyed it after a fashion (Greek islands - what's not to like about that) and left with a rather sickly aftertaste in our mouths, kind of like the one you get after eating a 6-pack of Krispy Kreme donuts served by a 16-year-old doing an unpaid trial run, all sugar and fat and more sugar and more fat, topped off with a dribble of unpaid teenage sweat.

I was thinking of this (the French school photo) the other week when I chanced upon a copy of the Bath Magazine in the dentist waiting room. Bath is a lovely place, it's very Jane Austen in parts, it can be claustrophobic. It comes with its own stereotypes. I get people who live in 2 million pound houses in the snottiest part of Bristol telling me how wealthy, how snotty, how privileged I must be to live in Bath. It is nice, I am lucky, but fuck off already thank you very much.

Well the Bath Magazine is a reflection of that privileged perception of Bath, especially during schools month and it presents a picture of Bath that is yuck...

The schools issue is when the schools have open days and try to attract students. And it's not just the private schools. It's the state schools as well. Even state education is a market in the paradise that is Britain. Come and live here. It's great!

Anyway, this one gets the message across at the loveliness of Bath. We all live in houses like that here, honest.

This is the ad for Beechen Cliff School, a school which had an incident of a racist nature recently ("it was only bantahhhhhhh!"). It's trying to send a message.

That's one message, this is another one. You learn something from these ads; like a nine-month old baby is not a baby, but a child


Or that fencing is an real-life aspiration.

Much of the private school photography is quite flat (see above) and focussed on creating an image of the good character of the students and the opportunities that will open up for them (and remember it's not about the results, it's about the networks).

Photography is about choices. You choose what to include. You choose what to exclude. So you also get adverts where absence, not presence, is what matters, that the lack of diversity is the assurance you will be with people like you. They will wealthy, powerful and if they do have problems, they will be rich person problems not lived out in Asda track pants.

And then you get the outliers where that lowest common denominator of school advertising, Harry Potter (I had an anxiety dream last week where I was in Hogwarts filled with Chinese students in shorts and caps.) features. You get the feeling that this is one that works.

Don't forget to invest your money wisely! From the father to the son, from the son to the grandson, not the girl and definitely not the wife who has been disappeared.

There's a whole mass of articles (in journals and generally availbable) on various aspects of race in advertising - in car ads, fast food, fashion, finance, consumables, from the US, in the UK, in Canada, in Japan, etc. This is from South Africa, on the lack of diversity in the South African advertising industry and how that links to the surfeit of cliches  of dancing black people in South African television advertising.

Which isn't too different from colouring in faces with felt tip pen really.

Last month, September, was also the time when school pictures get put on Facebook and  Instagram: 'Little Josie's first day at school, hasn't she grown, I can't believe she's at secondary school already, where has the time gone,' that kind of thing. I do it, we all do it.

They did it back in the distant mists of time. These images are from my German family archive, printed from a glass plate. They show my my relatives starting school. And if you think there's anything new about a series, there isn't. They were making series back in cave-dwelling time.

I cried on my first day at school. I still do the same every year. I wish there were more pictures of kids crying on their first days of school. You're entering this government-controlled, highly regulated environment where even the most free-wheeling of teaching individuals are humdrummed in conforming to a corporatist pattern of performance targets related to the successful completion of meaningful tasks. You have something to cry about.

So we all do those first day of school pictures. We also all do school group photos. And the curious thing is how much they look the same. it almost doesn't matter what era they are taken in, your class ends up looking the same as someone else's class. I have looked through other people's class photos and had a weird kind of picture blindness where I can't differentiate between their class and my class. It all becomes a mass of undifferentiated bad haircuts, dimpled grins, dodgy collars and weird jumpers.

That's the essential problem of school pictures. It's difficult to make them look different. How do you emphasise the individual within that institutional setting. Aside from the genius of Ivars' Gravlejs' Early Works, I can't think of too many projects that really capture the individual joy, sorrow, boredom and torment of school, its lesson, its teachers - oh, and the kids themselves. 

Gravlejs' work was done from the perspective of a schoolboy and that's what makes it different. It's puerile but also a little bit savage in a surreal kind of way. It's harsh on the teachers. I'd love to see more work done from a student's perspective. 

For years I've been telling university students for years they should do a project on being a student in contemporary Britain. But nobody's quite got there. Which is a shame because it would be absolutely fascinating, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a slow car crash kind of way, to see where their £9,000 a year is going to in words, pictures and a mix of achievement, realisation, disappointment, and joy that make up the typical student life.

And I'd love to see a project done from a teacher's or lecturer's perspective. Which wouldn't necessarily be harsh on the students, but might rather be harsh on the management. But that's terribly difficult. As a teacher or lecturer, you're either you're part-time or on an hourly contract, so live a marginal life, or you are full-time and have a comfy life. Either way, you have something to protect. Combine that with the fact that academics might be hyper-critical but will never piss in the bed they are lying in, and you can see why it doesn't happen. There are easier targets out there. But it would be nice to see from sometime who's not a coward like me. 

Back to school. I still get a lot out of Raimond Wouda's School. This looks at school with a high view surveillance perscpective that takes in both the architecture but with a focus on how the individual fits into the spaces. It's supremely effective and one which people engage with on a visual and personal level. I've sat with students who used to attend Dutch high schools and they've gone through the ethnic make-up of the people in the pictures, the way they wear their clothes, and how that feeds into the national geography of the schools. And these are non-photography students, yet all those visual elements are still in there. 

They are great pictures.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Broken Camera Pictures

I'm delighted to get into the Taylor Wessing Portratit Prize with this Broken Camera Picture of Isabel in a field in Kent in February.

The camera that was broken was an old Hasselblad. Everything was broken on it - the shutter, the back, the viewfinder. This picture is from a roll where half the pictures were completely black. The next roll was all completely black.

It was the lastest in a long line of broken cameras I have. I used to buy old Rollei 6000 series cameras - the backs would be hanging off them. I had one that I kept together with a piece of string. this is what happens when you keep a back on a camera with a piece of string:

I don't have a broken camera at the moment but I do have a broken flash that I keep together with sellotape. It sits on a broken trigger that is stuck on top of my camera. This is what it looks like.

And that's Tito Mouraz trapped in the screen. Let's release him...

The great thing about having broken cameras is you get these happy accidents that are a product of your poverty. Let's be quite clear about this. I would much rather have fully functioning cameras that don't break, have lens and shutters that work and are predictable. But that not being the case, I will glory in the happy accidents. You can buy those. They have personality. You can't buy personality.

I went to the excellent Tish Murtha (and Alex Prager) exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery last month.

Included in some of the emphemera is a letter from the college in Newport telling her what to bring when she came to study. It didn't amount to much: '...a couple of developing tanks, film clips, and if you have the money buy a Kiev or a Seagull for a tenner.' That's the gist of it.

Oh and her university fees were paid, a maintenance grant was paid, a travel grant could be claimed, you could (and people did) sign on in the holidays. Studying at university was accessible for her. That's how she got to make the work she did, work that she is almost a part of.

Now when you study it's a Macbook (I love it when you get twenty individuals sitting round a room, all with Macbooks. I wish I was an individual too and had one of those nice shiny machines but alas), a massively expensive camera, phone, contracts, subscriptions and all the rest of it.

God help us, God help me, my daughter will be studying an Arts degree in a couple of years. Oh and £9,000 a year. And a student loan because there are no meaningful grants. But just to help out a little, a travel grant from the local council to pay for your bus fares...? Get outta here!

So there's that. It's expensive to study to be a photographer now in a way that it never used to be. And then after you study, it's expensive to be a photographer. Of course if you have money it's much easier. If you are wealthy, it's much easier.

If you're rich and want to make work, you make it. You don't worry about cameras, or film, or sd cards that write fast enough. You don't need to wait for grants, for sales, for an invoice to be paid. You don't have to juggle money around, you just make it. And if there's too much time involved in teh making, or there is something you are technically unable to do you can pay for assistants to make it for you.

Then when it comes to showing work, you can print it, you can frame it, you can use light, sound, film, VR, get a troupe of performing monkeys in to liven things up when it gets a bit dull, and pay for people to help you make it good.

You want to print something, you can choose whatever ink, paper, printing technique you can imagine. You want to sell books or prints, you have a ready made network of people with just the right money to buy it.

There's an opening or a talk or a festival you want to go to. You can go. You don't need to think too much about work, or worry about accomodation or airfares. you simply go.

And because you're going to all these festivals, you're meeting all the other people who go to them. You're part of the networks, at one with the publishers, the gallerists, the curators, the buyers
 - and they are in some ways self-selecting. You know what's hot and what's not (and it changes very quickly) so you're up to date with the latest trope (should your hand be holding a rock, a stick, an owl or a stick of asparagus? )Not everybody who is there is minted, but if you're minted you are. You are literally buying access, buying the social and cultural capital that will match so nicely your economic capital.

You get lots of wealthy people in photography who support photographers, writers, publishers by buying work and generally helping people out. They recognise their advantage and use it for the common good. Very rarely do you get a photographer who says, yes I'm minted, it has been an advantage to me. You get the same lack of social awareness repeated again and again. I have friends who send their three children to private school at a cost of £40,000 a year (the grandparents pay), then pretend it gives them no advantage. It's not too different from the Monopoly Effect, an experiment where some players were given a massive advantage in the game, bankrupted their opponents, ate all the snacks, took up all the table space, then said the advantage was nothing to do with their winning.

The reality of it all is that most people in photography exist in some kind of non-recognised, respectable genteel poverty. So many people  are really skint and can't afford all the things that have been mentioned above. They have family responsibilities, are carers, are single mothers, they might appear visibly successful but financially they're not.

I was talking to somebody (who appears extremely successful and makes genuinely great work. But is actually broke) a couple of months ago and she wondered if there shouldn't be a consideration of the wealth of the photographer in evaluating work. If you are stinking rich and can afford that army of assistants and those high production values, should there be a little cross against you was what she was saying. Should there be a red mark of wealth against you.

It's a valid question and one lots of people ask - but not too loudly. Because if you are wealthy, there is a definite advantage (and don't get me started on wealthy people crowdfunding. Don't be so tight!). Not only do you have the advantage of being able to make, install and show work at your convenience, with an army of assistants, and nary a financial worry in the world, you also have all the connections that make life go that much more smoothly. The rich are a different breed, they do look after their own and that's in photography too. That was the case in the past, it's still the case now. The difference was in the past, the rich looked different - they spoke different, they dressed differently, they lived differently. Now they have the ability to look, speak and act the same as everyone else. They live among us! Until it comes time where it is convenient not to live among us. You can pretend it's not the case, but it is.

Oh dear, I'm getting carried away there. I don't know if it should be the case or it can be the case that there should be a red mark against the wealthy. I'll do the same as everyone else and sit on the fence on that, wait to see which way the wind blows, pause a moment till the revolution gets closer.

What I do think is there should be much, much more of a balance for those who are not wealthy, for those who struggle to afford all the things mentioned above.

This post started with me congratulating myself on getting in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. I paid £28 for the privilege, then some money for printing, and then some more for getting it to London. I paid to enter two prizes this year, none last year, one the year before. I enter the Taylor Wessing because it's at the National Portrait Gallery which comes with highbrow cultural capital which I shouldn't care about but still do. And 2) there's a big cash prize and how come I'm not on the shortlist for that. How fucking dare you!

I'd enter more prizes if I had the money. Other people would too. Jim Mortram (who is genuinely poor) has written about the barriers in photography in relation to prizes, exhibitions and various opportunities. It's not just a barrier for him, it's a massive brick wall with razor wire fencing, so broad and wide it crosses, Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Sahara before ending up in an expanse of concrete somewhere on the West Bank. That's how big it is.

For prizes like the Taylor Wessing, there is a kind of transparency in the cultural arena you're working in, a transparency that is manifestly non-transparent. It doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't, it just hides it a bit. Or a lot. Or I'm just rationalising because I'm being exhibited. I think that's probably the case.

Paying for exhibiting, or publishing, or workshops, or portfolio reviews can be really destructive  when the payments become income generators for festivals, or organisations beyond all else. This is especially the case when that income generation goes hand in hand with the rhetoric of collaboration, witnessing, making-a-difference, and general concerned-ness.

The hypocrisy can be staggering. If you are charging solely for showing work, if you don't address equality of access or opportunity to any degree, then you are full of neo-liberal caca. Which is fine if you're honest about it. Don't pretend to be some kind of concerned, critically engaged, community-centred organisation. You're not.

Fortunately you do get some individuals, organisations and festivals that are beginning to have bursaries, free places, open access to provide opportunities for people who fall outside the totally minted categories. Gazebook festival used to be free and generous: free talks, free portfolio reviews, and even some free workshops. It's never enough but it's something. There's free mentoring, free places on workshops, bursaries, or even affordable workshops. It's more individuals  I think - I know Natasha Caruana has offered free mentoring, Laura El-Tantawy has offered free workshop places and Sohrab Hura is running accessible workshops in Kolkata - but I hope more festivals are going to follow suit.

Anyway, Broken Camera Pictures. They are in a strange way a celebration of being skint, of not having everything perfect, of being able to make something with personallity from a happy accident that no amount of money can buy.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Archivo Muerto

  Marijuana dealers (originally captioned cocained dealers in El Espacio)

The dilemma of the archive is how do you make sense of it. You can regurgitate it in its original form, you can recontextualise it through new captions, editiing or fabrication, you can reconceptualise it through the terms of how you make and show it. You can add voice,  narrative structure, voice to it, you can accentuate certain elements, ignore certain elements, turn chaos into order, or order into chaos. You can bring it forward in time or move it back in time. An archive is like anything, a movable feast. You can do what you will with it, just do it with a straight face and people will believe you.  That's the secret of the archive.

In Archivo Muerto, Andrés Orjuela has worked  on original press prints (which were saved by collectors from recycling for paper) from what was the archive of Colombia's El Espacio, a newspaper that for five decades published bloodstained gore from the 'prehistory' of the drug trafficking that has been immortalised, celebrated and glamourised in the Netflix series Pablo Escobar (which I haven't seen). 

The glamourisation of Escobar's a sore point with Orjuela. He believes it whitewashes the drug lord  (even phrase like drug lord, or drug baron confer a nobility that shields the reality of Escobar's crimes) and conceals the political and economic realities of the cocaine trade; Netflix, says Orjuela, and all the broadcasters and publishers who are involved in the glorification of Escobar '..maliciously conceal the relations among the CIA, the mafia and the dark regimes from Central and South America.'

So for Archivo Muerto, the dilemma was how can you remove the glamour, the spectacle, the impact of an archive which is .designed to have glamour, spectacle and impact. Oh, and gore... The black and white pictures which Orjuela uses in Archivo Muerto were colourised, all the more to emphasise the blood splatters. Topless women and blood, that was the order of the day for the back pages of El Espacio. How do you make sense of that.

Orjuela doesn't ignore the blood. It's there but is limited. His selection of images is designed to show the social exclusion, the creeping politicisation of the drug trade, the police brutality, the prehistory days of smuggling marijuana to the United States and beyond, the way drugs crept into law, into politics, into the very bones of civil society. And with that, there's an undercurrent of the social failures of Colombia to create alternative possibilities.  

It's an attempt to take it all down a notch in other words, to present a human face to trafficking that has some more subtlety than the sledgehammer machismo-cheerleading approach of a hyper-celebrated cartel of psychopaths and thugs.

You see that in the picture of a marijuana smuggler. He's standing in front of a blackboard, he's wearing a (colourised) brown jacket, his hands are behind his back (handcuffed presumably).  and in front of him is a sea-green expanse of marijuana. His face is sunken, sharp features on a head hung low, a picture that serves the function of shame. 

The pictures are reproduced at actual size, with the reverse of the page containing the original captioning and printing instructions. There are mugshots, covered bodies, and carbombings. There are minot criminals, delinquents and drug mules. A young man called Luis Aldana gets a kicking from the police for 'trying to escape'. We see him again later, lying on the ground with a companion whose blood-filled mouth is open in agony, the shiny boots of the police stretched out beside him. 

This picture is printed on a fullsize page. We see his face contorted in pain. Slipped into the middle of the pages are smaller images, folded over so we see the captions but not the face. These are of more serious criminals, criminals who are being 'punished' by scale in the design of the book. 'The Colombian criminal... does not deserve to be shown in the same way as the rest (the most representative of the colombian history),' says the book's designer, Veronica Fieiras. 'They are criminals that don't represent the country and they have to be "punished" in some way. Thats why the picture of Gacha (the closest person to Pablo Escobar) is upside down in the book.'

At times the book does look cinematic; the man in the back of a police car with blood stains painted onto his shirt looks like a still from some South American film noir, while the sailor deported from the USA for smuggling marijuana, all beard and sunglasses, is an advert for the 70s. That cinematic quality says something about the relationship between fiction, cinema, crime and photography. They do not stand alone but each is influenced by the other. That relationship is integrated into the sequencing of the book, a narrative that is fed by the captions and leads out into the broader social considerations Orjuela has highlighted.

The book itself feels fantastic. It's cardboard covered with black paper and a red trim, ring bound, the leaves holepunched and loose inside, like an archive but not quite. 

And that's what it is. Not quite an archive, not quite a redefining of history, more of a place where the tectonic plates of how images, history and mythology grind up against each other. Archivo Muerto asks questions which can't really be answered but it does in quite a transparent way. 

It's an archival treatment that brings order out of chaos, but it's an order that is chaotic in nature, that asks us to examine the interconnectedness of things, the way crime ties into civil society and our daily life, and the extent to which we avoid taking responsibility for that, to which we are blind to that even when it is there right in front of our eyes.

Read about about how the pictures for Archivo Muerto were rescued from destruction here

See Andrés Orjuela' previous book, Muestrario, here. This book is a re-representation of blood in Mexican newspapers. 

Read my review of James Mollison's Pablo Escobar here. 

Veronica Fieiras and Chaco Books will be showing work as part of the Panoramic Arts Festival in Granollers, near Barcelona from 27th - 30th September. Free entry for everything which is the way it should be.

Chaco's next book is  "SOBRE LA RESISTENCIA DE LOS CUERPOS" from Mexican author Jose Luis Cuevas in co-edition with Cabeza de Chorlito

Monday, 17 September 2018

Kopi Susu, by Rosa Verhoeve

One of the stranger things about the internet is you meet people online, you get to know them, and things happen to them, but at that strange distance where everything is like a muffled underwater echo, the kind of thing that is so faint that responding to it with a couple of taps, a like or a retweet doesn't seem as dyfunctional and sociopathic as it should.

Every now and then somebody dies and you respond with a sad face and it's quite inadequate. There's a genuine sense of loss that somehow finds expression through the automated mass of responses that is Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. I like to think it's a sign of the victory of humanity over machine, that there is something beyond the algorithm. I like to think that because if I don't, then it's a sign of the victory of the algorithm over humanity. But somehow I don't think we're quite smart enough to make something that can do that yet.

Anyway, I never met Rosa Verhoeve in person, but I saw her posts on Facebook, I chatted to her, I swapped books, I reviewed her book on the PH Museum website. And then she died so I pressed the sad face button and typed some words of condolence. It wasn't much.

I knew her through Kopi Susu, which is a quite beautiful book, a luminous book that shines with an intensity that is both comforting yet searching. It's a good way to remember her, and that idea is embedded within the book. Here is my review.

                      Photo by Daphne Wagemans

Kopi Susu by Rosa Verhoeve

The Dutch colonisation of Indonesia was not a benevolent affair. It came to a premature end in 1942 when the Dutch East Indies (as it was known then) was occupied by the Japanese. This was a brutal occupation in which Indonesians were starved, tortured, raped, murdered and an estimated 4 million were worked to death in Southeast Asia.

With the defeat of the Japanese in 1945 and the Dutch still reeling, an Indonesia free of colonists declared independence on August 17th 1945. The liberation didn’t last long. The Dutch (with some British help) reoccupied the country, another quarter of a million Indonesians died in the ensuing fight for independence before finally the Dutch accepted defeat  in 1947 and returned to the Netherlands.

One of those Dutch soldiers who came in 1945 was Rosa Verhoeve’s grandfather. He met and married a Javanese woman and remained in Indonesia before being forcibly repatriated to the Netherlands in 1957. Verhoeve never knew these grandparents but heard about them through the stories of her mixed-race ‘Indo’ mother, and felt their presence in the décor of her home and within herself and the Dutch community of people with Indonesian heritage to which she half-belonged.

But as she grew up, this heritage remained a mystery shrouded in the nostalgic romanticism of the Tempo Doeloe (Old Times) of the Dutch East Indies. With a background set in two worlds, Verhoeve set out to discover the contemporary reality of her heritage, a heritage personified by Verhoeve as the kopi susu (of milk coffee) used to describe Indo skin colour, the kopi (coffee) being the Indonesian side, the susu the Dutch.

Kopi Susu is Verhoeve’s visual investigation of that heritage. It’s a small book, a fragile book, where images of domesticity and the symbols of Indonesian-ness are paired up in short sequences that coalesce into a search for identity.

It’s a search that is creates a partial picture of Verhoeve’s heritage, and that partial picture is ultimately the complete picture; everything is slightly out of reach, a finger’s breadth away, sensed but unseen in the shadows.  And that partial vision is what makes the book so successful, because that is what an Indonesian identity (which like all national identities is one that doesn’t really exist) is like.

There are archival images of her grandmother and grandfather, family album snaps of good times at the lake and by the sea. The contemporary images are matched in pairings that have an otherworldly element to them; giant lily pads paired with a circular pond, a wormhole to the world that lies beneath and beyond Java’s physical exterior. A leg on a wet tiled floor is matched with a tree standing in a mud-scuttled bay, a bag on a palm goes with two girls hanging off blue coloured swings, the sun setting in golden hour glory that will end suddenly and lead to the abruptness of an equatorial night.

The book gets closer as it progresses, Verhoeve’s mother and grandmother echoing in locket photographs and faces being made up. There are white women and brown women and we are never quite sure who is who. The images work like rhyming couplets, one playing off the other, leading you into a new world. It’s fragile, and it’s beautiful and eventually it all merges into one. Just like the title, just like the drink; Kopi Susu.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Holiday Reading: Everyone's an Imposter

We went on holiday to Crete this year to do very little except lie on the beach and read books. I went through Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler which was fantastic; a bunch of crime writers at the top of their game and all interlinked in various ways. Jim Thompson stars in the film adaptation of Farewell My Lovely, the one with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, Raymond Chandler wrote the script for Highsmith's Stranger on a Train and they all died alcohol and smoking related deaths.

They're all massively hardboiled too. If they were eggs, they'd be bubbling away for a couple of hours. Highsmith was probably the hardest-boiled of them all, ending her life holed up in Switzerland hating everyone (as shown in the brilliant play Switzerland). Chandler, by contrast, was a lovely man, with a loveliness that comes across in Marlowe, a man who, for all his hard-boiledness has a socialist nostalgia for a time when corruption and greed didn't define his Los Angeles settings.

But then I ran out of genre novels to read and all I was left with was Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. It's the first in the Children of Violence series and I'd read it before but it's literary fiction and I'd been in the world of Raymond Chandler, and 1940s LA. Farewell My Lovely was all corrupt cops, instutional racism, dysfunctional drinking, sex used as a weapon of domination and oppression. There are struggles for identity and daily life is a grind to get through with only small glimmers of human hope to get you through the phoniness of daily life.

And then I read Martha Quest (which is essentially an autobiographical novel telling the story of Martha growing up in 1930s Rhodesia) and it was essentially the same. There  is corruption and racial injustice, Martha Quest struggles to find a life worth living just as Philip Marlowe does, alcohol and casual sex (both given and withheld) feature largely, as do  the dysfunctional social structures of 1930s  Southern Rhodesia.

The broad themes are basically the same, the only difference being that Philip Marlowe has a gun and Martha Quest doesn't. The big difference is Raymond Chandler is crime fiction and Doris Lessing is literary fiction. I wonder what it would take to slip Chandler into Lessing and Lessing into Chandler. I quite like the idea of Martha Quest (and why do so few people read the Children of Violence series?) being a hard-boiled private eye. It would completely work as well in terms of character but perhaps not in other terms. And Doris Lessing did do the crossover into Science Fiction so she had that ability to slip in and out of genres not just convincingly, but with the whole hearted conviction that made it work completely.

Chandler and Highsmith and Thompson are all brilliant writers so there is some slippage into the literary world. They have been allowed in to an extent, reluctantly and behind times, but allowed in. It's an allowing in that removes their genius from the genre world and places it into a literary field. It's an annexation of their talent if you like. It's a hostile act, hostile to the original world in which the work was placed. Or if not hostile then selectively forgetful, a wilful amnesia of how, why and where the work was written and published.

I was thinking about this generic slippage in relation to photography. It's the kind of thing where Robert Capa tells Cartier Bresson to be a photojournalist and not a surrealist (when he's not either). You can self-identify in photography in a way that you can't in literature. And you see it all the time, people who in all seriousness suddenly decide that they are an artist and not a photojournalist, that they are a poet of images and not a documentary photographer, that they are somebody engaged in conceptual, sculptural, physical, abstract, metaphysical investigations that are altogether more important than whatever it was they had been identified with before.

It's strange because most functional photography is pulp - in the very best meaning of the word - it's easily digestible, it has a visual hook, it serves emotional narratives, it's spectacular, it answers to your basic needs, it's comforting, it reinforces your prejudices (in both a good way and a bad way), it's beautiful, escapist, addictive, familiar. It's also produced under demanding conditions, in circumstances where security and power are firmly in the hands of other people.

Photography isn't complicated in other words, and photographers are powerless - and at the heart of it all mercenary in a pound shop kind of way (or is that just me). But we like to pretend we have power, and one way of doing that is by making photography complicated. It's almost as though we are ashamed of the basic attraction of photography in the first place  - it's accessibility. And you can double that shame up with the essential powerlessness of the photographer. So we distance it, we make it academic, we project our fantasies of what we would like to be onto it. So photography becomes a tool of witnessing, of salvation, of resistance and change. It becomes an intellectualised weapon in our arsenal of understanding, a tool of science and logic that serves the discourse of sobriety.

It's not always convincing but it's fine as long as you know that the recipe might not work out quite as you planned - that the easily digestible suddenly becomes the indigestible, that what was once engaging and entertaining becomes incredibly laboured and tedious, that our claims to change the world are far-fetched or delusional.

You do get the feeling sometimes that there is a panic-loaded bead of sweat dribbling down the photographer's unconscious, that fear of being found out for the little trick they are trying to pull, that fear of being found out for being an imposter as they dig their fingernails onto the bandwagon that they imagine will pull them onto the first class carriages of the gravy train that lies somewhere there out of sight, just beyond their grasp. But that's fine as well, because everybody is in the same boat, struggling along pretending to be somebody we're not, looking to find the definition that will set us above the rest, that will press the buttons that will earn us money, get us critical acclaim and make us popular and give our images a value above and beyond that sly, slippery surface of an image. We'll no longer be photographers, we'll be artists, messiahs and philosophers. Except we won't. We'll be imposters, but that's in keeping with the world around us. Everybody's an imposter.

And that's really what both Chandler and Lessing were writing about, people trying to live a decent, fulfilled life in a world where corruption, grandstanding, lying and fakery abound. And ultimately Martha Quest is as hard-boiled as Raymond Chandler. They are the same, but different. And the same but different is always good. Except where it's bad. But it's not bad here.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018


Welcome back from the summer. The sad news was the arrest of Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh for exercising his right to freedom of expression (which essentially mounted to saying something that everybody knows on live TV).

The idea of the photographer as witness is flawed. But it's better to have a flawed witness than no witness at all. And Shahidul Alam is an example of this.

This is from Amnesty's Urgent Action Campaign to release Shahidul Alam. 

Shahidul Alam, photographer and outspoken social activist, has been charged under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act after giving an interview to Al-Jazeera on the current wave of school student protests in Bangladesh. Detained and charged solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression, Shahidul Alam must be immediately and unconditionally released.

And this is a call to write to the Bangladeshi authorities wherever you are. And letter-writing really makes a difference in so many ways even though it's just a small thing.

Please write immediately in English or Bangla or in your own language urging the authorities to: • Immediately and unconditionally release Shahidul Alam, who is a prisoner of conscience, and drop all charges as he has been detained solely for peacefully exercising his human right to freedom of expression; • Ensure that activists, human rights defenders, journalists, academics and members of the political opposition and other members of the public are able to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.


Minister of Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal Bangladesh Secretariat Dhaka Bangladesh

 Mobile: +880 1 71 154 1569 Tel: +880 2 957 4800 Fax: +880 2 913 3498 Email: minister@mha.gov.bd Salutation: Honourable Home Minister 

nspector General of Police Mohammad Javed Patwary Police Headquarters Dhaka Bangladesh Tel: +880 2 951 4444; +880 2 951 4445 Fax: +880 2 712 5840 Email: ig@police.gov.bd Salutation: Dear Inspector General 

And copies to: Political Affairs Advisor to Bangladesh Prime Minister H.T. Imam Prime Minister’s Office Dhaka Bangladesh Tel: +880 2 912 9997 E-mail: advimam@pmo.gov.bd; htimam55@gmail.com 

Also send copies to diplomatic representatives accredited to your country. 

Essentially, Shahidul Alam got called out for vocalising the anger so many Bangladeshis feel at the wholesale injustice, corruption, theiving, torture, rape and murder taking place in the country with no recourse to justice or accountability whatsoever. He was saying what everyone knows. But still, you're not allowed to say it. You will be arrested, be tortured, and subjected to a potential 14 year jail sentence.

If you're interested, is the Amnesty country profile and there are a whole

The images above are from a fantastic series of projections mounted in Kathmandu for a summit of Asian leaders, including the Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina.

It's a reminder of how much people don't like seeing their actions laid bare to the world. Corrupt people don't like being told they are corrupt. It's almost as though they feel a little shame, though shame is probably not the right word.. It's also a reminder of how powerful photography still can be, how stating the obvious (in Shahidul Alam's case) or photographing the obvious (in this case) is so feared by the brutal and the corrupt.

I'm always very doubtful about the idea of the photographer as witness, but when you have an enforced absence of photography on a global scale, when photographers are shot, beaten, imprisoned, tortured, abused, it does give the idea that photography still does have some kind of strange evidential power.

Images also matter in journalism with the two Reuters journalists' Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo arrested for their reporting of the Inn Din massacre  during the Rohingya ethnic cleansing/genocide in Myanmar. You see them living, and lined up, and then you see them dead, throats cut, undeniably murdered as the photo of the bodies provided to Reuters by a Buddhist elder shows.

The Myanmar military couldn't deny the massacre - because of the pictures basically - but they could present it as an isolated example, as rogue elements working within the military. That's what militaries do when they get caught with blood on their hands. That's one kind of denial.

Coupled with that denial is the faking of history as this report shows, with images used to whitewash both the massacres of Rohingya and present an orderly return as a reality that is nothing near the truth, truth which this article in Guardian with pictures by Abbie Trayler Smith gives a good overview of.

It is astonishing how few images of the Rohingya ethnic cleansing exist. I might be missing something but where are they? Photographs matter, and there is a bearing of witness in some ways, albeit an imperfect one that is less predictible in its effect than people imagine.

So though we may criticise photographers for their representation of this, that and the other, the absence of images shines a light on the power photography has to frame an event, or a series of events. The Cultural Revolution in China has powerful resonances for us because of the pictures and film footage that were presented to the world. It's used as a kind of template for the brutality of Mao's China with theatrical ranks of little-red-book waving Red Guards weeping tears of either love or hatred defining the extremes of the times.

But head back a few years to and you get to the Great Leap Forward, a famine manufactured by the incompetence and venality of Mao and the communist party in which 40 million people died. And there are no images of that famine. Well, no images? There might be one. In the book Picturing Atrocity, DJ Clark wrote an essay titled A Single Image of Famine. It focusses on a Li Feng image of poor peasants and how images were censored, how photography became something simply to serve the state. Forty million people died in the most man made, cadre led famine ever, there was the most horrific brutality - and no photos. None. Certainly you have oral testimony and histories such as Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine, but photographs cut an emotional short circuit that operates on quite a different level to text.

Given the prevalence of smartphones and the idea that everyone is a photographer, you'd think that images would be all over the place of injustice in the world. But you get the same visual gap in the representation of contemporary state oppression all over China but especially in Xinjiang, a place that in the last year has been

...turned into an Orwellian police state and hundreds of thousands of Uighurs were gradually locked away in concentration camps for what the state calls “transformation through education”. Others have been thrown in prison or “disappeared”. Witness reports of life inside the camps and detention centres have told not only of unhealthy living conditions, but also of regular violence, torture and brainwashing. Writing in the New York Times in February, James A Millward, a scholar who has researched Xinjiang for three decades, argued that the “state repression in Xinjiang has never been as severe as it has become since early 2017”

Again, it might be (and probably is) that there are images in the private sphere or on specific sites somewhere but at the same time something is missing when there are no photographs in the public sphere. The guilty feel like they've got away with something when there is no visual evidence. That's why oppressive governments, secretive organisations, and corrupt individuals don't like photographers. Is it because they are witnesses? I think that's not quite right. But at the same time, I'd much rather go with the idea of photographers being witnesses to history, human rights violations and injustice than the converse. There are many important things to be said about the impotence of photography, the deception at its heart, its unreliability as a tool of evidence, but I think if you do that to the exclusion of its more revelatory possibilities and its ability to strike at least some kind of fear and shame into the Bangladeshi, Chinese, Cambodian, Saudi Israeli, Turkish, Chinese, Nazi, British, American, corporate authorities, then you are rather doing the world a disservice. They don't like it up 'em, and if photography has some kind of power to do that in some way, then so be it.

Indian artist's petition for Shahidul Alam here

Kathmandu Post profile on Shahidul Alam by Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati here

Guardian report on British artists supporting Shahidul Alam here.