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Friday, 26 April 2019
Leica's Tank Man Ad: What they got right
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.
“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.