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Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Thank you 2018: Be Kind and Thoughtful 2019

I often wonder about the work of people like Bruce Gilden, Diane Arbus or a bunch of other people, the interplay between who they are, how they make their work, how they frame their work, how (if they're dead) their work is framed. It's something Joerg Colberg talks about here in the curation of Diane Arbus's show, a show where her pictures came with no captions or supporting information. this is what he says about it.

'So a photographer goes to social events at “residences for people with developmental disabilities” and photographs the clearly very unsuspecting subjects in ways that at times find an almost perverse pleasure in what the camera can do to people. Diane Arbus obviously wasn’t/isn’t the only photographer to go about this game (for example, a new Bruce Gilden book just came out). But well into the second decade of the 21st Century, that ought to be the topic for some serious conversations.'

Colberg's ultimate call is for a degree of  kindness in photography and I can wholeheartedly agree with that.

But at the same time, I'm simply not sure about anything in portrait photography. I'm torn between different ideas. I've come to embrace that idea of uncertainty in photography, especially when things get so polarised into clear and definite absolutes.

When I posted the picture above of the Bruce Gilden pictures at the Manchester Art Gallery on my Instagram account, I got a mix of reactions, most of which had a degree of anger.

The size of the pictures, the spectacle, the vulnerability of the subjects, the poverty of the subjects all came up. They were 'the most brutal, ugly and disrespectful pictures' one commenter had ever seen. Gilden was defended by somebody who described him as an insider rather than an abuser, while one great comment, deleted as soon as it went up (why did you do that SR?) laid into Gilden fanboys as 'sausages' - and you get the feeling that's very much linked to the weird machismo of his street photography as featured on old videos of Gilden flashing his thing on youtube.

I interviewed Gilden and some of the people (including Laura Dicken who was fixing for him) about the pictures a few years ago about the portraits above, all made in West Bromwich for Multistory. His basic line is that these are the unseen, the invisible people of Britain, and he's showing them because he comes from that kind of working class community. He could be one of them is the idea (and you can read the entire text below).

Whether I buy that entirely I'm not sure, but I do at least part of the way. I also have a visceral reaction to the control of images, especially when it comes with some kind of moral imperative that is unevenly applied. But at the same time I don't really know. I simply don't know what the long-term effect of these kinds of images is - and how it weighs up against the long-term effects of advertising images or not showing. I don't think anyone knows for all the fire and the fury and the anger. 

And I do think a lot of criticism is based on control, misogyny, class prejudice and a form of colonial moralising. Perhaps that's why sometimes I find myself agreeing with the content of what people say, but not the way they say it. There is a huge control of particular forms of representation and sometimes this is a good and necessary thing, but precedent also shows us the converse can be true.

One of my favourite readings in recent years is Frances Hatherley's thesis on Jo Spence, Richard Billingham, and Carol Morley. This has an abstract that begins

'This thesis reclaims and refigures negative stereotypical images of working-class femininity, proposing an “Anti-Pygmalion” aesthetics (referencing Shaw’s Pygmalion)in which pressure to conform to bourgeois notions of respectability is refused in favour of holding onto aspects of working-class female identity which have been treated as faulty and shameful. It examines a previously under-theorised dimension of the “female grotesque”: its formation under a process of classed construction.

Contesting the disavowal of class identity in much art writing, I explore how it shapes art reception, showing how images of the Anti-Pygmalion female grotesque can provoke sublime experiences in viewers who share an empathetic connection with the work’s presentation of class difference. Against Enlightenment aesthetic theories which associate the sublime with the lofty, this thesis conceptualises it from the perspective of working-class women, connecting it with an excitement and awe that comes from below and bursts up and out.'

Just this week, following the Raheem Sterling racism case, I saw this story on Sterling and the portrayal of  race and people with  learning difficulties in the UK press. It read, 'At the same time, it is not always easy to defend the newspaper industry. There was another jarring moment for me in those early years when it was pointed out that the red-tops didn’t tend to run photographs of people with learning difficulties'.

This idea of people being too poor, too disabled to show also finds a parallel in the American Ugly laws

'So-called “ugly laws” were mostly municipal statutes in the United States that outlawed the appearance in public of people who were, in the words of one of these laws, “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” (Chicago City Code 1881). Although the moniker “ugly laws” was coined to refer collectively to such ordinances only in 1975 (Burgdorf and Burgdorf 1975), it has become the primary way to refer to such laws, which targeted the overlapping categories of the poor, the homeless, vagrants, and those with visible disabilities.'

Add the category of protest to those laws and could find it in action recently at the Lianzhou Photo Festival where photographers like Mark Neville had any image not of happy wealth censored from the show. They didn't fit the China Dream by all accounts.

That kind of censorship has parallels Ukraine where both the work of Boris Mikhailove and Sergey and Victor Kochetov (as seen in the excellent photobook Kochetov) made work that was in direct response to Soviet censorship and control of representation. This didn't just include the content, but also included how you framed an image  along with ideas of the body and going beyond ideas of Soviet respectability. Freedom of expression here, showing something that went beyond the politically respectable, was part of the process.

Some of this might be relevant in the criticism of policing. There is definitely a conflation of disgust that runs between Gilden and the people themselves. There is the idea of the correct photograph, the right photograph, the authentic photograph, the uplifting photograph..

On the other side you could add negative representations of  the marginalised, the ways representations of poverty have been, and are, used to debase human beings who aren't wealthy, who fit into some kind of Nazi anti-social element category (and the Ugly Laws link comes from this site on Eugenics survivors  in Canada).

There's a history to this, a truly horrific history that crosses over from anthropology to eugenics and complicates matters further. How one can be clear cut in one's thinking, so polarised that one can dismiss with absolute certainty this picture or that one with no nuance or doubt is beyond me.

One thing I am very much looking forward to (though also with some dread) is unravelling some of these ideas this in a series of posts for World Press Photo over the coming year. I don't think I will have any answers, that's not the point of it.

Rather I'll be looking at some of these questions of how  photography, history and ideas overlap, how contemporary photographers can address the problems of how their work is made, shown and disseminated. It will also look at how voices can be heard in different ways. It's about the powers that are embedded in the practices of making and looking at pictures, and how we can challenge those a little. It's about collaboration, agency and consent. It's about what pictures do, and how they work.
Ultimately, I think it will be about being thoughtful and kind. That's a very simple but very difficult thing. But sometimes it matters more than anything else.

Happy Holidays wherever you are. Be kind for 2019.

Bruce Gilden's Black Country portraits 

Bruce Gilden’s Black Country Portraits are direct in the extreme; close-ups of faces that have the hardships of work, life and family etched into the skin. These are pictures that do not pull punches and are not designed to be decorative. Some people don’t like them. Gilden, however, is unapologetic.

“These people that I photograph are out there,” says Gilden. “I didn’t invent them, I didn’t put make-up on them. They are who they are, pimples, warts and all. When you take a little camera, it becomes a threat. When the photographer takes a picture, it can go further, it becomes a document. But there’s something beautiful in how these people look, their soul, and I don’t believe you can change anything in the world that’s not right if you don’t look at it. It can’t stay invisible.”

The idea of making people visible is something that resonates with Laura Dicken, a locally born researcher who accompanied Gilden on his photographic rounds in the Black Country borough of Sandwell and beyond.

“You get some people and it’s harrowing what they’ve been through especially the drug users, the homeless people, and prostitutes,” says Dicken. “And then you’ve got single mums who are struggling to feed their kids or people who’ve been made redundant. It’s tough stuff all the time.”
“But they deserve to be represented, they are a part of a society, they deserve to be seen and they deserve to heard and the fact that these type of people exist and are struggling and strive for more and can’t get a better life needs discussing. And I think that Bruce’s images are a very powerful tool to open up those discussions.”

The question is how you make portraits in a way that is visually powerful and doesn’t rely on Benefits Street type polarisation.  It’s a tough call for a photographer who is best-known for an in-your-face form of street photography that connects directly to photographers such as William Klein and Daido Moriyama but also has roots in a childhood where his father was a gangster and his mother an alcoholic who committed suicide.

“I had a tough emotional upbringing with my family. You don’t realise how tough it is until you grow up because you think maybe everybody had the same upbringing but they didn’t so I guess that’s  what separates me from others in my photography.”

But with his recent conversion to colour close-ups and a focus on faces, new influences have emerged; Gilden is more personally involved in the people he photographs, and more interested in how they wear their lives on their faces and in their eyes. Now Gilden’s current work links in to the work of artists such as Henry Tonks or Lucien Freud. But where Tonks captured the facial scars made by weapons of war, and Freud used the intimacy of the studio session to capture the reality of his sitters through the texture of their skin, Gilden photographs the marks left on the face by living in a world of austerity; these are faces that wear the fatigue of hard labour, the fatigue of poverty, the fatigue of what can happen when redundancy, abuse or addiction strike.

These are not everyday people with everyday faces in other words. These are faces that know the meaning of hard work; they are weary or exhausted and sometimes spent. And they are not always easy to look at.

“I might also think that people don’t want to look at the pictures because that is something that might happen to them. For example, there’s one picture in West Brom. It’s the lady with one tooth. That’s a great picture. And the funny thing is I showed her the picture and said “What do you think?” And she said, “I’m beautiful.””

“Now I’m not a humanitarian in that sense. I’m human, but I’m not a humanitarian. But the thing is, if you look at that picture and you know that is the response that woman gave to me, you can see all about that woman. Because if you look, that lipstick she tries to put the lipstick on very neatly but she misses; I think it’s on the bottom part of the lip. But there’s an effort made to look good. She must know in her head that’s she’s missing teeth. She was probably a nice-looking woman at one point and now she’s lost it and is having trouble to deal with all that, but there is still that effort made. And she said, “I’m beautiful.” “

Dicken also recognises that effort to look good in Gilden’s pictures, in particular in the image of a lady with rollers in her hair. “She’s got quite a round face and she’s got ruddy cheeks and that is so Black Country. I grew up on a council estate round here, a really really rough one and all of my family are working class. And she reminded me of my Nan. She doesn’t look like my Nan but she reminded me of how my Nan would go to the hairdressers and get a perm, and the type of older women that I grew up around.”

As with all the pictures in the series, this lady is photographed frontally. The picture is made personal. By forcing the viewer to look into the whites of his models’ eyes, Gilden makes the viewer think about who they are and what has happened to them. And because Gilden is selective in the people he photographs, the stories are selective, told through faces that Gilden picked out from the anonymity of the crowds; this is not the Black Country, this is Gilden’s Black Country, a Black Country that echoes the toughness of his own Brooklyn childhood.

“All the people I photograph I’m comfortable with and I assume they’re comfortable with me because I do position their head and I’ll tell them you’re not good or you’re great or you have to do this. For example there was one guy in West Brom, he’s got veins in his face, a big nose. I mean, I thought about him and it breaks my heart. I see this guy coming and it’s relatively cold, maybe three degrees Celsius, and he had bare legs, very, very thin. I’m assuming he’s got cancer, and I took his picture. He could have stayed with us 3 days because what has he got to go back to his room, no-one’s there, no-one talks to him, and you see in his eyes the terror. Here’s a person who doesn’t have that long to live, he’s afraid and I captured what he is.”

“And that’s what struck me, because I’m afraid to die. At the end of the day, I’m photographing me. All these people are me. If you make the wrong choice, this is what you can become, this is what can happen to you. And lots of time it happens to people who are nice people, who aren’t bad people.”
The people represented in Gilden’s portraits have one thing in common; they are working class and they not wealthy. You can find the same people with the same problems in all parts of the UK; people who work hard but are struggling, people who have made mistakes, people who have been let down. But you will rarely see them represented in the press, on television, in novels or even in film or photography. There is no contemporary Cathy Come Home or Boys from the Blackstuff. There is a gap in representation here. Except as figures of scorn, poor people have become invisible in Britain. According to Dicken, Gilden and his Black Country portraits are a way of beginning to fill this gap, to begin a representation of what it means to struggle in contemporary Britain.

“Because of the area and the area’s history, it had been very industrial with very hard work when there was work. And now there isn’t very much work. And things are different. So I think it’s important because it shows people who have been left behind and they are important. They deserve a narrative, they deserve to be represented because they are people with hopes and dreams. They’re strong but they struggle and they’re doing the best that they can.”

“They’re very beautiful pictures about a very difficult subject and I think they do challenge you. It’s pretty close to the bone because you can see yourself in those people. And I found that. I found some of the pictures difficult, especially of the women who are of my age. And I thought, that could have been me really easily. Really easily. They went this way, I went that way. You can just see it makes people uncomfortable because it’s celebrating the all-encompassing human experience that we all have, but some of us have it better than others and it’s really easy to slip.”

 “A lot of the people we spoke to, they had a job and they had a family and now they’ve got nothing, and they’re on drugs, and they’re homeless. And then you’ve got the women who are my age,who have got 2 or 3 kids and they’re scrambling to do the shopping for the kids. They just want to do best for the kids, they’re going without food so the kids have got enough to eat. They’ve got these really difficult day-to-day lives and you just think: that could  really easily be me.”

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Best Books 2018

It's best books time. My selections range from the brilliant bijou small edition of Emilie Lauwers to the brilliant collaboration of Thomas Sauvin and Kensuke Koike. Click on the links to read more  and see more.

And for the meta-list, go here for Viory Schellekens meta-list.

Emilie Lauwers: Er is Geen Boek (There is no book)

It's both a classic collaborative project, as well as a form of mapping. It maps out the town of Zeldate in a literal sense, put also provides a place and a geography in which the people Emilie worked with are placed centre stage.

Most interestingly, it's a project that is in part about creating a sense of culture in a town that apparently has none, but is even more about bringing out the culture that is already there. It's a psychogeographic project that rethinks a place on the terms of the people who are living there, in terms of cultures that are suppressed within the institutions, expectations and organisations that are seen to dominate the physical and psychogical landscape. It's multi-layered and it's quite fantastic. It's collaborative but it also has a sense of direction and purpose. It's something to be proud of.

Sohrab Hura: Look it's getting sunny outside

‘Look it’s getting sunny outside’ is a love story, between Ma, Elsa and Hura himself. It’s an extension of his photographic struggle to come to grips with his mother’s mental illness, an illness detailed in his earlier book, ‘Life is Elsewhere’. In ‘Life is Elsewhere’, the story was a fragmented, psychotic rendition of Hura seeking external refuge from his home, his family, his mother, and the father that had left them. In ‘Look, it’s getting sunny outside’, as Ma’s condition improves, Hura photographs more in the home, capturing his mother’s relationship with her beloved dog, Elsa. 

On Abortion: Laia Abril

A History of Misogyny: Chapter One. That’s the title of Laia Abril’s latest book and it’s an important one. On the cover of the book On Abortion is erased with a black pen. Scrawled below in pencil is the subheading, ‘And the Repercussions of Lack of Access’.

Flick to the back pages and the very direct and transparent description of the book begins: ‘Every year 47,000 women around the world die due to botched illegal abortions.’

And that’s what the book’s about; the control of fertility, the control of women’s bodies, and the death, suffering and misery that results because of it. It’s a book that’s about something, a book that advocates and is part of a wider body of work on misogyny that Abril is making over a longer period of time.

It’s a book of substance then, and the substance starts with the cover and the endpapers. These feature old newspaper advertisements that feature pills, medicines, and treatments that promise to deal with “the cure of all cases where nature has been stopped in its effects.” It’s a double page spread of synonyms for pregnancy and abortion; “Irregularity, diseases peculiar to females, the most obstinate cases, diseases lurking in the system, cases where nature has stopped,” is some of the language used.

Sergiy and Victor Kochetov: Kochetov

This is pure visual pleasure, the hand-coloured luricki of Sergiy and Victor Kochetov, an example of serious don't-give-a-fuck photography when not giving a fuck was a political statement (of sorts).

Raymond Meeks: Halfstory Halflife

It’s Edenic, it’s ritualistic, and it’s threatening all at the same time. These young men (there are a handful of women in the book) walk along paths and throw themselves into the darkness of a nature that is far from benign. If it is Eden, it’s Eden after the Fall, which makes it a land where misogyny is written into the very soil. This is an American wilderness, half-Promised Land and Manifest Destiny, half Heart of Darkness. Fragments of grass stand in focus against blurred bodies, tightly wound torsos launching themselves into a dark unseen water.

Kensuke Koike and Thomas Sauvin: Three different editions of No More No Less, all wonderful (published by Skinnerboox, Jiazazhi, and TheM éditions)

“People think I make these on one attempt but it’s not true. I always apply the final decision on the original, but even though I try to make it as simple as possible, it takes 20 times to get it right.”

“We made an exhibition in Guangzhou, China. We showed this and at that moment we received many offers from publishers,” says Koike. Instead of going for a straightforward single edition however, Koike’s collaborator and manager of the project, Thomas Sauvin, decided to choose a more complex option; to have three different editions of the same book, to be launched at Paris Photo on the same day.

“I asked the three publishers if they would be willing to be part of this adventure on the same day. I received three positive answers without negotiations on that same day! Three felt like the right number. Two would have been a bold competition. Four would have been redundant. Three felt right. Plus I wanted one in Italy, where Koike lives, one in France, where I live, one in China, where the original album comes from.”

“There were three rules; 1. Make a publication in an edition of four hundred, 2. Have it ready for Nov 1st 3. Don't exchange with us in any way.”

Carmen Winant: My Birth

"Very few people asked me about my birth… Most people… are uneasy at the topic. Voices lower, bodies lean out. It is difficult to address suffering, and for the most part I understand their silence as graciousness. Still, I want to say: anguish is only one in a range of dramatic physical sensations that occur; it was more than the pain endured. I want to reassure: my body split open and poured out in front of strangers. I shed any nervousness on this topic along with the solids and fluids. I want to beg: just ask me."

That’s the introduction to Carmen Winant’s My Birth, a book that provides a visual and written response to that "just ask me" plea, a response that came out of the birth of her first child. The book comprises images of birth; found photographs, anonymous photographs and images of "the artist’s mother in the process of giving birth to her own children."

In Belief is Power: Hristina Tasheva

Bulgaria is shown to be a contested country, a border country where identity comes from resistance to outside forces, in particular resistance against invasion by the Ottoman Empire, the subjugation of christianity and churches (which is very visible in Bulgarian chapels), the defeat of the Turks, the Bulgarian revival, Bulgaria's Communist period, all the way through to the present day where you still have a border country that doesn't quite know who it is or what it is or where it's going. Same as everybody really but with a history that is genuinely on the edge of everything.

 Chris Killip: Set of 4 Newsprint Publications

A brilliant set of 4 newspapers that puts old classics and unseen images into a new, affordable context. There are so many things that are admirable about this series - I'll be writing more on this in the New Year.

Read more in an upcoming issue of Photomonitor.

Andrés Orjuela: Archivo Muerto

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.'

Txema Salvans: My Kingdom (Special Edition)

That seems to be the case with Txema Salvans' My Kingdom, a book for which he made phenomenal pictures. It’s a pleasure to look at, but that for Salvans is not enough. My Kingdom is a book of images of Spanish holidaymakers enjoying a day at the beach. When Martin Parr made The Last Resort, he first and foremost made a book of great pictures. There’s a bit of The Last Resort, Spanish style, about My Kingdom.

But there’s a different edge to them as well, a political edge, a bit of Chris Killip if you like, mixed with Ricardo Cases and his Spanish perspective. My Kingdom shows Spanish holidaymakers enjoying their days off against these specifically measured examples of Mediterranean brutalism; flyovers, bypasses, power plants, cement works, pipelines, balconies, apartment blocks, rubbish bins, discarded mattresses, all the detritus of a despoiled, constructed landscape.

(This review is especially for the special edition - you buy this set of stamps and place them in the book at specific points - the stamps fit, the idea fits, it's a great idea. I bought the stamps and everything but then I lost them. They'll turn up)

Matthew Genitempo: Jasper

There is minimal text in Jasper. You read the landscapes, the interiors of the lean-tos and shacks, and they feed into the images of the people portrayed in the book. It’s a lyrical back and forth between imagined psyches, imagined histories, and imagined landscapes. There are no captions to pin things down, to render impotent the ambiguity of the images, the viewer is instead drawn into the resonances between one image and the next.

The theme of escape, and the partner idea of the woods as a place of refuge, a place to escape to, is apparent throughout the book, but the danger here is of romanticising the landscape and the people living within it. “That’s the thing I have to come to terms with,” says Genitempo. “The earlier photographs I took are a lot more romantic, a lot more idealistic, and the later photographs are more the reality of what living in the forest entails.

Read more in the January 2019 issue of the BJP

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Enlarge Magazine, the perfect Christmas gift

Ok, so this is one of those photobooks that everyone looked at in the house. It doesn't happen often (Showdogs, Early Works, No More No Less.... it's not a long list),

It's a magazine about penis enlargement. It's tongue in cheek, except it's not, except it is, except it's not.

It's a serious issue though, and it's dealt with in strange and interesting ways - and graphically it fits with it's full gloss everything and alternative uses for penis enlargers and cock rings.

The perfect Christmas gift in other words.

Buy the Magazine here. It's 10 euros.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The Migrant.: The story of a bird, the story of Singapore

The difficulty with the photobook is how good so many of them are in the sense that they fit into design and narrative forms that look like photobooks, that read like photobooks, with statements and essays that support them and look like the kind of statement or essay that you should get in a photobook.

They interrogate, they question, they fit images into sequences and grids that have been pored over on floors, tables and magnetic boards. Images have been flipped around, they have been shrunk, enlarged, put to one side and then chosen again. People have stood round tables and pursed their lips while ruminating on the precise edit which will make all the difference, while in nearly all cases it won't make any difference whatsoever. Photographers have been consulted, contradictory views have been sought, acknowledged, followed and ignored. Multiple dummies have been made, designers consulted, ephemeral materials added, confusions overcome and added to, till by the end of it you have a real life proper photobook.

And sometimes that's all you have. The life has been sucked out of it and you're left with a voice that is denuded of its more human qualities as people have struggled to do the thing they think they're supposed to do.

That's not a problem with Anaïs López's book, The Migrant. It's a book about a Lopez's obsession with the Javan myna. Here's the blurb:

The Migrant tells the turbulent life story of the Javan Mynah. A member of the starling family, the bird is originally from Java (Indonesia) and was introduced to Singapore in the early 20th century through the songbird trade. Today, he is reviled, persecuted and even killed. It is a story about one bird, but at the same time it addresses broader themes such as the complex relationship between humans and animals, the consequences of rapid urbanization and the position of the unwanted outsider.

The story is told from multiple perspectives with multiple points of views. There's a multimedia, a film, a book, a graphic strip, there are screen prints and a booklet. There's even a pop-up wayang myna at the end of the book. There's a lot going on.

We'll focus on the book.  The photographic part details Lopez's encounter with the bird across the island. She sees how it is poisoned, she finds myna bodies on the streets, she encounters a man who hates mynas, who shoots mynas and dreams of setting up Mediterranean style shooting points to exterminate the bird on its migratory routes between Malaysia and Singapore.

The cartoon in contrast  tells Lopez's story of her encounter with one particular bird who has grounding a real myna whichwas a pet in London (the owner got fined £44 for the noise from its singing) then moves to Singapore. It's engaging and rather like a children's story. I remembered it after the fact which is not always the way it happens with photobooks. It tells the story of how the bird came to Singapore from Java, of its persecution, its unhappiness and its eventual escape to Burma, a country where it is revered.

There is a booklet (in the third person rather than the first) which explains the images in the book. These are engaging too, a metaphor both for the narrative of the myna and for the strangely artificial nation-state that is Singapore.

As mentioned, there's a lot going on in the book which is sumptuously produced. Maybe there's a bit too much, but it's good to see different voices, different ways of telling a story coming through. If you want to get away from the figures with hands on hips standing knowingly round an editing table flippling an image one way and then another, and it not making a blind bit of difference, The Migrant is a refreshing change.

The book is designed by Teun van der Heijden. It contains handmade silk screen prints, illustrations by renowned Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew and a handmade pop-up by artist Moon Brouwer. The book is a work of art in itself that can be used to share the story of the Javan Mynah with others. Specifications: 240 mm x 318 mm / 120 pages + booklet of 16 pages / full colour / English. 450 copies.

See more (Singaporean) Javan mynas in Robert Zhao's Mynas

See the book on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/291125680
and the documentary about Mynah: www.migrant.nu

Buy the book here

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Lu Guang: No right to ask questions

Image by Lu Guang - Fake sheep grazing on the polluted ground that poisoned the live sheep that are now dead sheep

It was good to see Magnum China reviewed in New York Times and then see this review of the book by Melanie Chapman on Photobook Journal and to see it on the Photobook Journal's Interesting Books for 2018 list.

Magnum China is a photographic overview of the 20th century in particular. As is noted in the Photobook Journal review, images of the more traumatic events of China's history are absent. There are stories on the human costs of migration, of the destruction of communities during the building of the Three Gorges Dam, of the nerve-racking journey North Koreans make across the country and to freedom. Tiananmen ends with Magnum photographers under lockdown in their hotel. And there are no images in the book of the violent convulsions of the Cultural Revolution (but you can look at Li Zhensheng's brilliant Red Color News Soldier for that). There are no pictures of the suffering enduring during the Great Leap Forward, when a combination of incompetence, brutality and callousness resulted in the deaths of 40 million people people.

But then there are no pictures of the famine  anywhere (yet), there is a visual absence in history. You get many visual absences in history and they're never an accident. Between 2004 and 2005, The New York Times, The Washington Times, Time and Newsweek did not publish a single image of a dead American soldier. The pictures existed, they just didn't get published. There was a rationale for why they didn't get published. But that's a rationale first and foremost and there's also a political reason for why they didn't get published.

That's on one level, on another level entirely is the absence of pictures during what Frank Dikotter calls Mao's Great Famine. Censorship on this level is not just a matter of not publishing pictures, it's not even a matter of not allowing people to take picture, it's a matter of making sure people don't take pictures because they are so scared of the repercussions. It's about getting into their minds and forming false memories from the absence of images.

Taking a picture of a dead body that has been beaten, starved or frozen to death in 1959 is the act of a counter-revolutionary and subject to all the punishments that might entail. If you're a photographer, you don't want that image on your roll.

If you do have it on your roll, then you are making a statement and you might get killed for your troubles. We decry the idea of the heroic photographer, the photographer as witness because so often it's empty rhetoric filled with empty posturing, dumb machismo with a big lens.

But when real danger ensues from making pictures and those pictures tell a story that would otherwise remain untold, or unseen, then perhaps the witness idea is appropriate. So just as photographing a body in 1959 might render you to arrest, so a picture of pollution, or of detainment camps, or tortured bodies might do the same in 2018.

That certainly seems to be the case  Lu Guang, the Chinese photographer who disappeared in Xinjiang Province almost a month ago. It's not a good place to disappear in as Steven Butler states here.

"Chinese authorities must immediately account for Lu Guang's whereabouts, allow him to travel freely, and halt the harsh measures taken against journalists throughout the country," said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Lu's detention is a high-profile illustration of the cruel and arbitrary way that China detains journalists and other civilians in Xinjiang."

Lu's  work is sensitive and it's political in a way that benefits everyone, except the wilfully negligent, guilty and corrupt. It looks at  environmental degradation in China, at pollution, at AIDS Villages. It unravels the deeply cynical failures of factory owners, of businesses, the party, the state to deal with issues fundamental to human welfare. The picture above is one from Inner Mongolia, showing model sheep set out to pasture to replace those that had died from contaminated grassland.

Photography does matter here. In an Interview in the Financial Times, he highlighted how photography could change laws especially on the environment, but also the dangers of  photographing.

“The reality in China is you never know if you’re going to get into trouble because there are no written rules,” Lu says. “The only way to find out if something is permissible is by doing it.”

Anyway it was my birthday yesterday. One of my presents was Ma Jian's new book China Dream.

This is from the introduction.

'China's tyrants have never limited themselves to controlling people's live: they have always sought to enter people's brains and remould them from inside. In fact, it was the Chinese Communist Party who coined the term 'brainwashing' ('xinao'). The China Dream is another beautiful lie concocted  by the state to remove dark memories from Chinese brains and replace them wth happy thoughts. Decades of indoctrination, propaganda, violence and untruths have left the Chinese people so numb and confused, they have lost the ability to tell fact from fiction. They have swallowed the lie that the Party leaders are responsible for the country's economic miracle, rather than the vast army of low-paid workers. The rabid consumerism encouraged in the last thirty year and which, along with inflated nationalism, lies at the heart of the China Dream is turning the Chinese into overgrown children who are fed, clothed and entertained, but have no right to remember the past or ask questions.