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Writing is Easy, Writing is Difficult

I'm a photographer. I'm a writer. I teach photography and I have a background in teaching writing. A lot of people as me...

Friday, 22 March 2019

Some thoughts on the Accusatory Mode in Photography

'The most common critical positions on the Ray’s a Laugh series are those that accuse Billingham of producing “artless” work or complain of its grotesque subject matter, those that accuse Billingham of exploiting and/or fetishizing his family, and those that worry about class tourism and poverty porn. 

This overwhelmingly negative middle-class art writing is so hegemonic that alternative counter-readings are needed to address its failure to acknowledge that Billingham’s photographs might actually contain beauty, or that there might be other viewers of his work besides the middle-classes.'

There are serious points to be made here on both sides, but the point made here by Hatherley is that the accusatory mode in photography, the shorthanding of images as exploitative and ugly, is a form of moralising that has its origins in middle class views of the body and the working class. It's a form of control in other words, an example of a moralising patriarchal/colonial/male gaze if you like, and you get it everywhere.

There are more ways of seeing than this.

From Frances Hatherley's phd on the work of Billingham, Jo Spence and Carol Morley.Sublime Dissension: A Working-ClassAnti-Pygmalion Aesthetics of theFemale Grotesque

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Hoda Afshar, Refugees and Moving beyond the Demon-Angel Paradigm

I love Hoda Afshar's portraits and  videos from Manus Island (it's Australia's Refugee Devil's Island - you go in but you never leave). They're not about honour or dignity or posing people as heroes when they are not. 
These pictures open the world up, though not in an easy way. They expose grief, pain, frustration, they present a view that doesn't romanticise or deny what people have been through. I write about them, and many other things, in my latest piece on World Press Photo Witness. Here's a snippet of her views of her portrait of author, Behrouz Boochani.

picture by Hoda Afshar

'It’s not a dignified or happy image. Instead, it’s a troubling image of a troubled man. And when you see it, you wonder if the dignified Native Americans of Edward Curtis might not have been better portrayed in this way.
“I sent this portrait to Behrouz after I returned from Manus in April 2018, and called him,” says Afshar in the image caption.
“I said, ‘This is you, Behrouz, with your passion, your fire, and your writer’s hands. It symbolises your resistance.’ He heard this, and paused. ‘You are right,’ he said. ‘But I do not see myself in this picture. I only see a refugee. Someone whose identity has been taken from him. A bare life, standing there beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring.’ He fell silent, then said, ‘This image scares me.’”
It is right that the image should scare him, because it shows who he has become (but not, one hopes, who he will be forever). There is nothing benign about being forced to flee your homeland to expose yourself to the physical and psychological hardships of travelling over land and by sea to Australia, and ending up imprisoned under a hostile regime with no end of your torment in sight. There is no dignity in that.'

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Thought For the Day: The Civil Contract of Photography


'When the citizen's gaze is diverted from photographs, and direccted by the field of vision created by the ruling power, where, in facct, there are no images, individuals abandon their commitment to the contract and effectively colloaborate with the ruling power even whent they may be explicitly opposed to its actions.'

Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The story has to be real, felt, not contrived...

'She said the story had to be real—whatever that meant for her. I think it meant not contrived, not incidental or gratuitous: it had to be deeply felt, emotionally important. She told a student of hers that the story he had written was too clever—don’t try to be clever, she said. She typeset one of her own stories in hot metal on a Linotype machine, and after three days of work threw all the slugs back into the melting pot, because, she said, the story was “false.”'



Lydia Davis, from the introduction to "A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories,"  by Lucia Berlin, my current read.

I like that, the idea of emotionally real and not contrived and not being too clever because then you end up looking false. And so not clever at all. Soul is the goal.


Monday, 18 March 2019

Format: Soul is the Goal


Carolilne Furneaux

 “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening … I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.”

I love that quote from Alice Munro. I love that idea of the sanctity of the story and the ways in which its inherent storiness can be destroyed by the vehicle in which it appears - be that a novel, a photograph, a magazine, a film.


    Kensuke Koike

Read Alice Munro and you enter a world that goes beyond the page of the book, you feel characters who almost seem to exist as entities in themselves. The story opens them, they flow beyond the narrative, they carry their stories into that world where Munro's story "is still happening."


Maurice Broomfield's Cameras

You get the same in photography. I went to Format at the weekend and my favourites were those where you got the idea that something was happening beyond the simplicity of the frame or the slide-viewer or the magazine or the portfolio.

You also get the opposite in photography so sometimes there was a feeling that any story that was there was blurred and obscured, that things disappeared in a haze of ambiguity and possible meanings. You had to work hard (even when you had seen the work before) to eke out any possible meaning, and when you did, it really wasn't worth it.


Caroline Furneaux

But enough of that. There were also those where there was a visual distancing which came with some reward. I loved the slides (I love transparency - it is a superior film) of Caroline Furneaux. You viewed them through a slide viewer so had to work for your reward and the reward were these wonderful images of women her father had photographed in the days before he became her father. They were possible mothers. I'm not sure I entirely bought that but the pictures did the work for me. The girl with the cactus was just beautiful, and all seen through the four inch screen of an old-school slide viewer.

And Maurice Broomfield was wonderful, a series of industrial image where something else always seen to be going on. They're part industrial sublime, part socialist realism, and part sci-fi something or other. They have the speculative reflexion of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's Evidence, but 20 years before its time. The great thing is you see them and you get them, and then you keep on watching and perhaps you see some more. It's a gift that keeps on giving.



The one exhibition I really wanted to see taken to a grand scale and expanded upon both conceptually and visually was the Cameraworks exhibition. I'd love to see how those key areas of community, political engagement, and activism have developed (and not developed). The political voice and directness of the writing and images was something to behold, above and beyond the repetition of black and white images albeit of a politically vibrant and destructive time - it's a similar time now but that kind of clarity and voice is notable by its absent. Instead we're hiding stories rather than telling them.



The direct and literal continued in the exhibition of the old Kassel Book Dummiy show with Rebecca Samson's wonderful Apples For Sale. This is a book on the lives of Indonesian maids in Hong Kong, an antidote to some of the really weird and delusional captions I've seen accompanying images of Southeast Asian Maids working overseas, captions which can be described as naive at best, or as an exercise of soft power at worst. There is a lot of visible soft power at play in photography.



Anyway, Apples for Sale is telling a story that is very apparent if you read the news, see the world or talk to anyone where the export of labour is a major industry, and it tells it through images, Facebook Posts (what do you do if your maid has Body Odour. Or wants a day off. Or runs out of jobs to do. Or has a boyfriend), agency rules and all the rest of the dehumanising hoops you have to go through. It's not on scale of the horror stories of murder, sexual harrassment and cheating that you get from Gulf Maids, but it's bad enough and actually it can be a horror story of lying, deceit and abuse. Samson tells that story but with some intriguing touches on the physical, emotional and creative escapism that people find even in the most claustrophobic of circumstances.

Format was a pleasure as always, it's attraction lying in the diversity of the venues and the sheer range of work you can see. I didn't see everything but I came away filled with thoughts and ideas and notions and cliches like keep it real and soul is the goal and the story is the thing.


Saturday, 2 March 2019

Deaths that aren't shown


Ginnalyn Soriano weeps over the body of her elder brother Julius, who allegedly fought back and was killed by police during what they said was a drug sting operation, at a morgue in Malabon, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 22, 2017. At the morgue, the family noticed Julius’ wrists had cuff marks. The arm had a bullet wound too, and the slug was still embedded in his arm right where the cuff mark was, suggesting that the cuffs had stopped the bullet. © Ezra Acayan




My latest offering on World Press Photo Witness is on deaths in photography and how death is shown or not shown.

See my previous post, Rethinking the Ethical judgement of photography here...

I often wonder that what really defines photography is not what is shown, but more particularly what is not shown, and why it is not shown, and who decides it is not shown, and whose purposes that serves.

The not showing of something, the censorship is far more powerful in some ways and shapes how we see and understand the world. We don't see death in UK publications very much for example. It wasn't always that way. It is now.

This is from the piece...

Examples of when suffering is deliberately not shown provide a counter argument to this idea. From its earliest beginnings, war photography has been defined as much by what it doesn’t show as what it does. This tradition of not showing death extends around the world and is quite revealing of the power of photography to shock, outrage, and move people. This power is evident in the fear governments have of photography.

During the Great Leap Forward in China, around 45 million people are estimated to have starved to death. Yet there are no images of these deaths. The only images the government wanted were positive ones. Atrocity images of piles of dead bodies, of cannibalism, of people eating mud and tree bark in a vain attempt to survive do not exist. If they did, perhaps the history of China would be very different.

The political goals of photography are equally apparent in the post-9/11 images of the Iraq War when, 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. That asymmetry of reporting is still something apparent today in the ongoing debates of who is shown and who is not shown to be suffering in US media.

It is the same in the UK. There is an increasing reluctance to show people suffering, and when people are shown to be suffering to focus on those overseas in places where disaster and war are presented as part of the natural scheme of things with limited captioning or reporting to contextualise the image or state otherwise. 

The solution to this is not to eliminate all images of suffering but rather to create a more level playing field. Some of the most terrible pictures I have seen in British newspapers are from the Hillsborough Disaster but I think they serve a purpose, I think they helped in some small part create a counter narrative that was really struggled for and is only now, 30 years after the event, gaining some kind of just end. The trial of the police officer in charge during the disaster did not happen by accident and would not have happened if it hadn't been fought for.


Photography and its publication (and the lack of it), serves political narratives. Photography is also subservient to news, and news is a commodity. It is something that can be traded and sold and photographers operate within that system, creating work that can fit both the demands of the publications they work for, and the narratives that help make a story newsworthy and palatable to governments, owners, advertisers and, finally, the public.

Perhaps that's why I think photographers such as Ezra Acayan, who record death, who lay out murdered bodies for the world to see, are so important. There are people (the murderers) who don't want those bodies to be seen, yet still he, and others persist. This is also from the piece

One of the contributors of Everyday Impunity is Ezra Acayan, a photographer who has photographed more than 500 murders (out of an estimated 12,000) and 100 funerals since the beginning of the War on Drugs in 2016. His pictures are beautifully composed, dramatically lit studies of death, grief and mourning that fit into a photojournalistic template. But they go beyond that as well. In an email interview, he describes the process of photographing the War on Drugs:
“I suddenly found myself in the frontline of this ‘war’, and at first I wanted to show the brutality of it all. Despite the large number of deaths, most of the public never saw the killings personally; almost all victims were poor and were killed in the slums.”

Read the whole article here....