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Friday, 26 April 2019

Leica's Tank Man Ad: What they got right

   Still from Leica's Tank Man Ad

I know the recent Leica ad perpetuates ideas of the macho photojournalist as hunter, witness and purveyor of the truth with all the imperialist world views that come with it. It's a bit like seeing the unreconstructed sides of every photo agency ever blended into a giant photo-macho smoothie that will make your lens grow longer and your motor-drive move faster. On that level, it's not great.

The real noise came from China and didn't give a flying fuck about any of that stuff. What was objected to there was the idea that the Chinese Communist Party might be a torturing, massacring, oppressive force of  corrupt evil. And that  Leica's phone partners, Huawei might suffer because of it. Here are a few comments picked out in response to the ad.

“Has Leica gone insane? It’s free to look for trouble for itself, but does it want to throw Huawei into a hole too?” one user wrote on Weibo.
“Do you even deserve to collaborate with our patriotic Huawei?” another user said of Leica.
And here is an alternative response. 

“It captured the spirit of 30 years ago,” said Zhou, a student leader in the protests and once No 5 on Beijing’s most-wanted list. “I was in tears watching it.”

Zhou said that the Chinese government would be unlikely to openly address the advert to avoid drawing attention to the subject matter. But if Leica’s position in the Chinese market suffers as the result of any retaliatory action by the government, Zhou said he hoped the “international market would [stand] up for them”.

Learning later that Leica had sought to distance itself from the promotional video, Zhou said it was “a shame”.

“They could do better.”

So I can't help but feel that in the big scheme of things (and despite the racist tropes that you see all over the place in photojournalism. Let's lose those) Leica got it right in the big picture. And Tiananmen is the big picture here - the ad coincided with the 30th anniversary since the protests began (and if you want to know what the man might be carrying in the bags, watch Chimerica, another flawed, but sometimes fascinating, depiction of  the photography-Tiananmen overlap).

I mean Leica  are making enemies in Chinese government over Tiananmen, they're kicking up a fuss over Chinese human rights, something the world is massively silent on. Almost no-one in photography ever kicks up shit about China. And here's Leica doing it. Leica? Surely that's a good thing right?

Perhaps it could form part of a wider advertising campaign that moves Leica beyond being a plaything for the crazy  to becoming a real force for political openness and change, for an applied concerned photography.

What next? Perhaps Leica could get their cinematic photographer-character (drop the machismo hunter rhetoric, maybe broaden who that photographer might be) photographing in the concentration camps of Xinjiang, maybe they could do a piece on state torture, brainwashing and organ harvesting, perhaps they could sneak into the low-level violence that China is involved in in Africa.

That's the Chinese marketing campaign done.

So let's balance that out with the British side. Our Leica photographer could cover the suffering of people killed by our bombs in Yemen, they could train their lens on the secret meetings where those arms are sold, they could infiltrate British security services, their photographers serving to make people care about the role they played in torture, rendition and murder, and there could be so much more.

They could go to the US and photograph black lives not mattering (oh wait, that's already been done), they could go to Istanbul and see exactly how Adnan Kashoggi was murdered (oh wait, that's already been done), they could, well there's so much they could do. Every country could have its own campaign. The rich and powerful of every country could be offended by Leica's outside interference in their internatl affairs, by their exposure of corruption and cruelty. The Tiananmen ad could just be the start.

So really Leica should be praised for their advert and use it as a starting point for a wider politically engaged campaign that directly addresses human rights around the world. I think it would be a great idea and I really sincerely admire whoever came up with the broad idea of the advert. I mean it fucked up Leica's China market, but so what, it's Extrinction Rebelllion week here in the UK and making markets smaller is what we need.

(See the full ad here)

And if you want to read about Tiananmen, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma is a great start. And if you want to read about contemporary China and forgetting the past, Ma Jian's China Dream is the place to go.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Jonathan Jones reviews Harry and Meghan Markle's Pictures

Jonathan Jones continues to surpass himself. I don't know what to say so here are some snippets. I've done this before so I'll include some old ones.

I reckon his latest offering was a quick order for 400 words sharpish that he wanted to get out of the way before settling down for the snooker.

Prince Harry v the Duchess of Cambridge: who is the better photographer?

'Harry’s nature portraits show someone trying too hard. Kate’s portraits of Louis, on the other hand, show true artistry'

 'No longer content to spend hours posing for professional snappers as their predecessors did, today’s young royals publish their own efforts.'

'As an ecological image, this is eloquent. The only trouble is, Harry’s aesthetic ambitions are too obvious. Black and white always smacks of pretension unless the photographer is a true artist.'

'In this case, it’s all too clear the photographer is emulating one artist in particular: the great SebastiĆ£o Salgado, who travels the planet photographing endangered nature and oppressed humanity. But Harry isn’t Salgado.'

'Good for the Duchess of Cambridge. Her new photographs are simply portraits of her son Louis. Any parent would be proud to have taken them – as would many professionals. Each picture has an intense focus on Louis himself. This not only exhibits technical excellence, but communicates feeling.'

 'The duchess is an active patron of the National Portrait Gallery. I reckon she looked closely at its exhibition of masterpieces by the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, for her concentration on her child’s face is a poetic technique that Cameron pioneered.'

'Harry is play-acting at being a great photographer. The duchess takes family snapshots and shows they can be little works of art.'

'Kate Middleton is rightly honoured for her photographs – they are full of love'

 'I would much rather look at these honest documents of familial love than Mario Testino’s fake flattery of royal glamour.'

'If you want to take a great photograph you need to discover something unique.'

'Kim Kardashian looks at what she loves, too, and so does SebastiĆ£o Salgado. If you want to take worthwhile pictures, concentrate on what really matters to you, be it your bum or the lost peoples of the Amazon. It is the scene that is wondrous, not the snapping of the shutter.'

Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries

'It just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition, in the way paintings have traditionally been shown.'

'It’s amazing how long some people can look at a photograph. I observed the observers, rapt before illuminated images that I really can’t look at for more than a few seconds.'

That is because when you put a photograph on the wall I cannot help comparing it with the paintings whose framed grandeur it emulates, and I can’t help finding photography wanting.

'A photograph, however well lit, however cleverly set it up, only has one layer of content. It is all there on the surface. You see it, you’ve got it.'

A shocking image of Syria's brutal war – a war that will continue regardless

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Reinventing archives: The Past isn't fixed and nor is the Present

                      image from Amak Mahmoodian

My latest post on World Press Photo Witness is Remembering the Past, Remembering the Present. It looks at how archival images are redirected, remodelled and reinvented, at the idea that images are never fixed.

Their meaning changes and as their meaning changes so does our understanding of history. You can see this in her reinvention of 19th century Iranian photography where Qajar women, women confined to a harem living under the gaze of the camera-wielding sultan, are given a life that is renewed in her masked interventions.

image by Amak Mahmoodian

And you can see it in the work of Andres Orjuela, who uses Colombian press images of petty criminals and drug dealers to deglamourise the drug cartels, to act as a small brake on the Netflix-fuelled celebration of Escobar.

I like that idea of the past not being fixed, of something redemptive being found in photographs, in images being used etrospectively to build a story and add character, shape and nuance to something that is so often represented as fixed in stereotyped meanings.

I think both Mahmoodian and Orjuela do that in their work. I think you can also see older images being reinvented and gaining new shades and depths. It's when images are set in stone that they die a little, when their maker fails to change and engage with the times and the ways in which they were made and bring out new dialogues from those engagements. I think that's what I like about the Through the Lens of History exhibition that is also mentioned in the piece - it was quite a simple exhibition of historic and truly iconic original press images, but there was also the start of an examination of where they came from and how they were made, both in photojournalistic and physical terms. And as a whole the exhibition gave an overview of the changing imperatives of press photography. I think that's interesting.

You can read the whole article here. 

Here's a snippet from Andres Orjuela from his Archivo Muerto work. You can buy the book (and it's a great book) here. 

image by Andres Orjuela

“The tension is focused on the violence in this image” says Orjuela, “we empathise with the criminal as we put ourselves at the moment of pain of this person who is going to be the victim of a brutal police beating.”
In Archivo Muerto, the criminal becomes the loser, the state the oppressor, and the popular press is a tool of the state; and so a different social nuance is brought to the affairs. And that is the point of the project: the idea that beneath the superficial use of images, there are darker stories waiting to be revealed, stories where drugs, terror and the CIA overlap, where the notion of the state fighting crime is simplistic and absurd. What happens when the state is the criminal, and the archive upholds that view? This is what Orjuela is trying to counteract in his work.
“What is absent in this selection is triumphalism,” says Orjuela, “the mythical criminal or raised to the level of superstar as nowadays is done with criminals like Pablo Escobar or Chapo Guzman with international series and films.”

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Why we care about Notre Dame, Why we don't care about Yemen

Why do we care about Notre Dame? The fire in Notre Dame kicked up just about the biggest load of whataboutism I found at  times infuriating, but with some examples such as the Grenfell fire, incredibly pertinent.

Why do some disasters gain financial attention, and others not.

In this carefully worded text, Carl Kinsella doesn't engage in charmless whataboutery, but states the obvious in a direct but thoughtful way.

He states why Notre Dame is of such importance; spiritual, historical, economic and as an urban and national symbol. But he also wonders why it gains so much financial attention and what that says about our national, political values as a whole. Again he does this with not a whiff of whataboutery, with a certain amount of persuasive charm. I think that matters. His conclusion is quite simple - Notre Dame gets the money because that's what rich people value. But it doesn't have to be that way and to pretend it is in major bad faith.

The next time someone tries to pretend like you need to choose between homelessness or immigration, nurses' pay or a tax cut, a children's hospital or a motorway, remember this moment. The money is there at a click of a finger. It just isn't in our hands.

I wondered about this, and then thought about the countries that matter in the world, the people that matter in the world. the current affairs that matter in the world. I thought of Xinjiang in China, I thought of the Rohingya, and I thought of Yemen. 

I thought of Yemen in particular because of this excellent radio programme, Why don't we care about Yemen, presented by Kavita Puri.

It is a simple breakdown of why people don't care about Yemen, why it is so underreported. It's a kind of flipside to Notre Dame, a place where millions visit every year, which has featured in stories and films and is a symbol of Frenchness and religious power, which has a history of patronage that both absolves their souls and through the power of art absolves their money. There are no barriers to caring about Notre Dame. There are plenty of barriers to caring about Yemen.

The reason we don't care about Yemen, according to Why don't we care about Yemen, is few us have been there or anywhere near there. Unlike Syria it doesn't have neighbours like Jordan or Turkey or Israel which we might have visited.

Next, it's difficult to report on . There are no civilian flights, you need permission to film to get in and you need permissions from local militia to report. Reporting is difficult - fighting happens at night, so you travel during the day. And of course it's dangerous.

There is also no tradition of citizen journalism in Yemen. That's in contrast to Syria - where you also had a verification process. From Yemen, the limited material that does come out is difficult to verify.

42% of Brits had no idea there was a war in Yemen. It comes after wars in  Iraq, Syria, Libya and the rest so there's the idea that there are so many. And the war is further complicated by our de facto involvement in it via our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. You'd think that would increase consciousness but it might be that it does the opposite. There's the ghost of commerce floating around there somewhere.

Add to that the fact that there are no obvious good guys (even by proxy - Saudi Arabia v Iran.), and the conflict is confined within its borders both in terms of fighting and in terms of refugees. Three million people have fled their homes. They are not living in camps but are living with other family members so the refugee crisis is not  visible.

Perhaps most significant of all is the fact that there is a divided diaspora  so there is little mobilisation, absence of a unified diaspora to act as a voice to influence policy makers and there you have it. The people who do have a united voice are the arms lobbyists, and that's a voice that is not going to help anyone anywhere anyhow.

There are limited voices all round then, both in Yemen and from overseas. I am not really sure how you can make people more aware of the war, how you can bring voices out on a large scale. I wonder if in these cases the retrograde 'raising awareness' cliches of photography might actually be valid points to make. It's something I wrote about in this piece for World Press Photo Witness on Tyler Hick's image of a starving Yemeni girl, Amal Hussain. I wonder if sometimes photography does need to take a backward step to make its presence felt above and beyond the limited world of photography.

And after listening to  Why don't we care about Yemen, I also wondered about that retrograde  idea of the photographer or the journalist as some kind of witness, going out there and bringing the news out. Because behind the programme there is that idea that if nobody is reporting an event, it simply isn't happening in the eyes of the world.

And that reminded me of a couple of Susan Sontag's great quote from Regarding the Pain of Others. I'm never quite sure about Sontag, but she does great quotes. This is one on the pain of the observer, the journalist, the aid worker, and the idea of the privilege of 'witnessing'

"We" - this "we" is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through - don't understand. We don't get it. We truly can't imagine what it was like. We can't imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can't understand, can't imagine. That's what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.” 

And then I thought about another quote which is in opposition to that in many ways and is more in keeping with a Rosleresque idea of images being a projection panel to salve our middle class consciences.

“Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it - say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken - or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”

So which one's right? Both of them probably. And it's the same with the whataboutery of Notre Dame, a one-night historical disaster where the conditions for caring are in complete opposition to Yemen, but where the enormous shared consciousness of the fire puts it on some kind of parallel, if lesser, level to that of experiencing war.

But here, you still have the whataboutery, the Notre Dame v Grenfell/Yemen/Palestine/Xinjiang /Planet Earth comparison, which is both unfair and relevant at the same time. But which sides's right? They both are, because there not really sides.

I wonder if what matters isn't the approach, and if there is a right approach and a wrong approach, because Kinsella had an approach that recognises the world that we live in and extends the debate beyond the immediacy of the pain felt at the burning of Notre Dame. It's the approach that makes it the right side.. The right side is the side that looks at everything and understands it's not an ideal world, that recognises we need to make it better, but still has the ability to recognise that some things are incredibly cheap, and devaluing Notre Dame and the heartfelt pain and loss felt by millions of people is one of those things. And if you do devalue it, you devalue every event of destruction and loss, because the whataboutery can never stop.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Chris Killip's Brilliant Pony Box Newspapers

Some snippets of my review of Chris Killips four newspapers published by Pony Box.

These images are from the 1970s but the message of globalised manufacturing, cheapened labour, the disposability of a community, and marginal citizenship could be from the present day. That contemporary relevance is given added weight by the design and printing. Newsprint can have a cheap, disposable quality, and that can be used to its advantage. But it’s not the case here. Printed on a slightly grey paper to give added luminosity, the pictures have both a wide tonal range and a depth that brings the images out of the page. And size matters here. The images are huge, printed on black with Niall Sweeney’s graphics providing a modernist nod to the historical economic and metaphorical power of steel.


They are not still images. They are quietly made, but have an energy that lives beyond the moment; the turns of the mouth, the looseness of the cheek, the drop of the head are expressions of a real self. They are pictures where the camera is, in true Victorian fashion, an evidential recorder of the physiognomic and bodily self.


It’s the high Thatcher, high unemployment years, when the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike had been won, and her record disapproval levels of the early 1980s had evaporated in the face of repeated sell-offs of state assets and the rise of the cult of the financial markets. But this is the north-east and it’s a time of industrial decay and high unemployment – and in terms of regional intensity, Thatcher’s disapproval ratings are at record levels. The people you see in The Station are part of that world and these are rituals of rebellion. They seek escapism in Friday nights in the mosh pit. Killip shows kids with faces knotted in the concentration to escape, lost in the music and the sweat and the energy.

Read the whole text here.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Vincen, Claude, Lilly, Eva and Sol: Don't worry about cool, make your own Uncool...

It was one of my great writing pleasures to write the text for Vincen Beeckman's Claude and Lilly (which you can see here on Vogue Italia).

The project isn't really a project. It is simpler than that. It's a series of pictures that Vincen made of Claude and Lilly hugging and kissing in the final years they were together, now published as a book by APE.

See a video of the book here.

It doesn't tick the boxes of collaboration especially. It's not complete, it's not life changing, there's no staging or performance,  no high-minded statement, there's no reflexivity, it's not challenging the conventions of anything. It's not distant or cool, it doesn't fit into any kind of meta-narrative, it's a love story of two people living on the margins of society. It's something you don't see very often presented in a direct and simple way..

It simply is and it's kind of beautiful for that. Writing the text was about matching that simplicity and beauty. It was very difficult until it became very easy.

I read Sol LeWitt's advice to Eva Hesse (via Robin Cracknell) this morning and it made me think of Claude and Lilly.

Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping,…Stop it and just DO!…

Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety…

You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!…

Try to do some BAD work – the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell – you are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be…

So there you go. Claude and Lilly is a love story, so it's not very cool. It makes its own world, it makes its own uncool. Which is cooler than any cool could ever be. The story of Claude and Lilly begins like this.

“I met Lilly when I was working at the Foire du Midi fair in Brussels,” says Claude van Halen of his late partner, Liliane Maes. “I met her on the 14th of July 1995. The boss of a bar asked me, ‘Claude do you want to go with her, because her man is beating her?’ I said yes. I even left my job for her. I went with her and we stayed together for so long, for 23 years.”

Thank you Alessia Glaviano and Francesca Marani for featuring it. I like that it fits into Vogue Italia, a magazine centred on fashion. But fashion is body, subcultures, it's sex, music, emotion, it's political. It's love.

And that's what Claude and Lilly is. A love story.

Buy the book here.