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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...

Monday, 15 July 2019

An abandoned house, an abandoned life

Dievs Daba Darbs by Vika Eksta  is a book about a house in the woods that has lain empty for years. It's a book about Eksta's trips to the house, and the things she finds there. It's about the woman who used to live there, who died (alone), whose belongings,  clothes, and  keepsakes Estra discovers on her trips to the forest. 

And the house is very much in the forest. It's dark and it's surrounded. In summer there is foxglove and fennel and birdsong, in winter there is dankness and solitude and cold.

Eksta photographs herself in this house. She puts on the clothes of the woman, she undertakes the chores every woman who lives in these woods must undertake, and as she does so she photographs. There is wood chopping, sugar pouring, lightbulb changing, clothes washing, fruit picking and child caring. There are slippers and old shopping lists, a pram,  all photographed in a  kind of rough and ready way, with the rougher images being the most successful in creating something very poignant. When we don't know who is in the picture, that sense of Eksta becoming the woman in the house.

It's a modest book. It's made like a schoolbook, with prints stuck onto  the lined pages and then photographed. At the back there's a diary detailing mostly photographic details, but also some notes on the isolation of the place. 

But what makes the book interesting is this found house and this process of becoming this woman, of taking on her home (if only for a few hours), of being in this backwater, of feeling the weight of the past, the land, the forest, the isolation, the cold flow into the present. That's the mood of the book, and that's where the weight lies, in the being of this woman whose presence comes through Eksta's interventions in the remnants of her domestic life. 

Friday, 12 July 2019

Faces of the dead

I submitted my latest article for Witness at the end of last week. I write about a few things including the picture of Oscar and Valeria Martinez lying dead in the rushes of the Rio Grande and deserving and undeserving victims.

I really don't know what the right thing is to do with images of death, to show them or not show them. I don't think anyone knows. I do know that far fewer images of death are shown in newspapers than 30 years ago - and the world appears nicer because of it. But at the same time, there are far more images of death floating around in different channels. The only channels they don't go into are official news channels.

And that's  discomforting because when images aren't there, there is a massive void, a huge gap. The stand out example is the Great Famine in China when 40 plus million people died. And there's not one picture.

The same happened with Srebenica, an industrial scale massacre of over 8,000 people that took place over a few days in 1995.. Are there any pictures of the actual murders?

I don't know if it would make any difference in terms of policy or action (and evidence suggests it wouldn't - not in the long term), but it could hit all those hand-wringing guilt buttons that are kind of better than not having a clue what's going on and being able to remain completely oblivious..

Anyway, these are photos of those massacred in Srebenica... The faces make a difference. It's a hand-wringing, isn't it terrible difference, but I think that's better than nothing, especially in the current climate.

Compare to being callous, cruel and destructive, hand-wringing is an absolutely brilliant response, as is generosity, empathy and kindness.

This is what the collector of the photos, Dzenana Halimovic, said about the images.

'When I started collecting photos of the people killed in Srebrenica, the task at first seemed like a clerical one.

I looked for names, birthdates, and anything else that would help me sort through the records.

In a way it was a microcosm of the Bosnian war itself. Everyone knew the names of the first victims as Yugoslavia disintegrated into interethnic chaos in 1991. But as the war continued over the next few years, names turned to numbers. As humanity seemed to disappear, so did any semblance of personhood.

But then I started to look at the faces.'

Friday, 5 July 2019

Colonialism, Fascism, and Tourism: The view from Italy (and the UK)

Hereafter by Federico Clavarino is a big book. It's a long book. It's about his family and their lives serving the tail end of the British empire.

It mixes contemporary images of his family, domestic emphemera with pictures from the family album. There are childhood notes, sketches, newspaper clippings and overlaps with key figures in Sudanese, Gulf and Jordanian history.

When I opened it, I started reading it immediately and was fascinated by that overlap between the personal, the colonial, the historical.

It's got a directness to it that is sometimes missing in family based photobooks. There's the strange idea that to be sophisticated you need complexity, and that complexity often blends into obscurity. It looks intelligent but strip everything away and there's nothing left except a lot of empty talk. That's not happening here.

It's about family, but it's also about history, and the history, the colonial history is what's front-loaded. I find that fascinating.

But I was also frustrated by it. Because it's very long (part of an ongoing tendency to long under-edited books) that history gets lost in the contemporary images. It's the old dilemma of trying to pack too much in, to include the historical, the archival contemporary. How do you do it? Why do you do it? Do you need to do it?

A default position is to use contemporary images, of people, of places, rephotography and so on, but the disadvantage there is they have a certain flavour and can be much less interesting than the old family pictures. And interesting matters. It really matters.

In Hereafter I think the contemporary element that is interesting is the way colonialism, or the post-memory of colonialism lives on in Britain. The historical aspect of that is manifested in the family album images and the snippets of really interesting (contemporary) text - but there's a disconnect with the contemporary images, they come from a different, colder place. The contemporary words do a job that the images don't. There is something going on there about how the past lies dormant and is manifested in these particular, but my distant, brutal choice is kill those visual darlings.

So it's frustrating but at the same time it's an interesting book that could be smaller and shorter. If you're interested in family photography, and old family albums, and the ways in which the past is manifested through real people and real lives still buy it though, because it touches on so much that interests me and has so many ambitious and very direct approaches that are different to the way that Clavorino usually works.

Mussolinia is a short run book by Filippo Nicoletti. It's based on the fascinating idea of the model fascist town in Sicily, Mussolinia. Mussolini himself went to lay the first stone of the town  in a shambles of a trip where humiliation and embarassment plagued his every turn. He even got his bowler hat stolen.

So Mussolini got the building started, but it never continued. Until some years later Mussolini asked how the project was going. "It's going great" was the reply given - the problem was it wasn't going well - there was still only that one stone that Mussolini himself had laid.

To cover up the lack of action, they created a model city, photographed the models and sent them back to Mussolini who was so impressed that he put them in a book on the architectural achievements of fascism. If you want to know how the story ends, you'll have to find out for yourself. I ain't telling....

The book is a post-truth (there's a definition of it at the back) blurry screenprint dream of a book. Crops, distortion, the effect of overlapping layers distance the past and the imaginary project from the present. It's ambitious and it's experimental and it isn't easy to read in places, but so it goes. I think the problem is it doesn't quite have entry points that can draw you into the conceit and create a flow. There are images that I'm guessing are from what would be present-day "Mussolinia" but because Mussolinia is a concept rather than a thing, that doesn't quite work for me. But it's an interesting idea; how do you depict a town that physically only ever consisted of one brick, but conceptually represents the victory of Sicily over fascism.

Sinking Stone by Cristiano Volk is a visual story of tourist Venice. It's edited by Federico Clavarino and it tells in a flow of images where form and shape combine with emotional and political content. It's a dystopian mashup of pairings  of  monuments mixed with tourist bodies and faces, my favourite being the Gorgon statue  paired with the white-haired lady. If you haven't got the message of the grotesqueness of the tourist experience, then the low views, the bright flash, the toxic skies should fill in the gaps for you. Think Parr, Gilden, Rodchenko all mixed up but in his own chaotic style.

The grotesques eyeball gapers in Sinking Stone are in Venice, but then that's what everybody really looks like when they're tourists. You become part of the furniture. That's what you look like. That's what I look like. Dont' try and think you don't because you do.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Pictures Made with Thought and Love: Migration Research, Claude and Lilly

Yesterday I posted about Censorship and Instagram and the day before I attended a really interesting workshop on Image Making in migration research and campaigns in Bristol.

Questions of identity, consent, evidence, story-telling, authorship, witnessing and the functions of photography were just some of the things that came up.

In the work that was shown, faces were blurred, backs were turned, photographs were rejected and there was a strange sense of control at work, very often for good reason. But it was still control and still censorship and it was very much connected with the ease of sharing images on social media and ideas of identification. Which matters of course, but I wonder if there isn't leakage from other areas and we aren't in danger of over-fetishising the image. Sometimes it is really important and is more than just a picture.

Most often, however, it is not. It is just a picture.

How people dealt with consent was interesting. This ranged from Jess Crombie and the research for  guidelines for the People in the Pictures (download the report here). Here the emphasis was not just on consent but on authorship and how voices can be amplified. It's not about giving a voice because people already have a voice. It's about making that voice heard.

Then there was work about the process which included the Asylum Navigaton board. This looks like a game but it's not a game. The game is the hook but actually it's a resource that maps out the process of seeking asylum, of going through a system that Vicky Canning said was "endemically violent" and "designed to fail asylum seekers".

You go into that system and the default position is that you will be humiliated, imprisoned and deported. Physical and psychological violence is done to you and, says Canning, we need to recognise that in the language we use. We need to be more direct in how we communicate about injustices and use direct and hard language. We equivocate too much, there needs to be less ambiguity in key situations.

That has implications for photography where meta-narrative work is often emotionally distancing, dismissive and serving a closed audience. There is no room for ambiguity.

At the other end of the spectrum, consent was informally written into the process of making work by Camilla Morelli In her work with the Matses .. in Ecuador, This looked at the Matses people and focussed on young Matses ideas of living on the fringes of Ecuadorian society - not in tune with their parents' tradition of living in and with the forest, instead 'craving the concrete of the city' (this is what they said) - where they would live a different kind of marginalised life.

Morelli didn't use consent forms of any kind in this work as the alienating nature of consent forms, the barriers they create when making work. It was a kind of theme in all the talks - how do you balance the rights (and they are fragile rights) of people you are photographing or filming or interviewing with a lightness of touch of making the work.

Sometimes the very making of collaborative projects, with patronising ideas of empowerment and giving a voice, is just another burden on people who are burdened already. If every encounter you have is mediated through forms, bureaucracy, technology, really you are just another part of the economic structure that forms around refugees, asylum seekers, migrants.

So how do you make something a simple pleasure and part of a life-enriching creative flow is one element of working in this field ? But this is in conflcit with  if you're working for an NGO and there are funding imperatives, how do you tend to those needs, when the historical template for raising funds is still the crying child - a template that is recognised comes with historically questionable perspectives.

And then the other elements are how can you be direct in your work, using language that doesn't sugarcoat or sentimentalise. Which ends up being how can you tell a story well, how can you make a 360 degree story that is meaningful and leads to a longer lasting change of consciousness that goes beyond the £10 pity donation.

Strip all that down and it comes back to how can you tell a story well.

Anyway, I don't think there are simple, clean-cut answers to any of those questions. I like the simplicity of Camilla Morelli piece. It reminded me of my favourite new project of the year, Vincen Beeckman's Claude and Lilly.

The simplicity and open-ness of the images which are not pretending to be something they are not is what appealed to me (and many, many others). It's one of those really basic rounded stories which is not especially collaborative, which is  a simple series of pictures of Claude and Lilly hugging. They are pictures made for Claude and Lilly, but in the book they got a new life and became pictures made for everybody. They are pictures stripped of all the layers that agrandize and conceal, they are open pictures. They are pictures made with love, about love.

I wrote the text for the book, and it's my favourite thing I've written for a long, long time. They are pictures made with love and consideration and caring, combined with words made with love, consideration and caring that also lead to deeper, more meaningful questions that go beneath the surface and strip away all those layers of bureaucracy, dishonesty, pretension and virtue-signalling.

And maybe that'swhat the message of the Migrations Research was about. And there endeth the lesson. Amen ...

This is the story of Claude and Lilly (think of it as a starting point, not an end point).

Buy the book here.

And see Vincen's and other Belgian work if you're at Arles.

“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 and we stayed together for so long, for 23 years.”
“We stayed together from the first day. It was love at first sight. She said, “Claude I have to tell you - I cannot cook”. And then I said, “No problem, I'm a butcher and I can cook for you”. The thing was she really loved to eat so I did cook for her. Maybe that’s what made her strong. But even when Lilly was young, she was strong, even when her husband asked her to prostitute herself she said no and was able to fight back against him and beat him.”
“I fell in love with her simplicity. She was not a woman who lived in luxury or wanted luxury. She never wore make up, there was no product on her face. She just said all the time, “I have a problem. They are too little…" She meant her boobs) ...And I would say “it's not important. That’s what God gave you.””
“We lived on the streets in different places in front of Pierrot rue des Fleuristes, then in my brother’s place, the place where he committed suicide. After that we lived on the streets for more than 10 years on and off, but also in small flats until she got evicted. But we always found a new place in the end. We got by.”
“The most romantic moment we had together was when we were in the woods in Rhode-Saint-Genèse close to Brussels where I grew up. The mayor of the town saw us making love. But luckily I knew her and she said “just remember to take all your stuff with you”. And you know what we forget our underwear. Both of us. That's the truth.”
Lilly passed away on 6th June 2018, Claude by her side till the end. The romance between them is kept alive through Vincen Beeckman’s pictures of Claude and Lilly. They are pictures of love, small sequences of affection, of touching, holding, kissing and being together in each other’s company.
“I met Vincen because of a picture he took at Brussels Central Station,” says Claude. “It’s my favourite, the one where Lilly is wearing the blue jacket. But I like them all and I remember all the places where he made them, and the times he made them, including the time on Lilly’s birthday when Vincen brought us a bottle of champagne to celebrate.”
That first picture shows Claude with his arms around Lilly in the blue jacket, then as the sequence progresses the hats change, the coats change, Claude’s hair changes. Lilly puts her hand on Claude’s leg, they both look at the camera, him in a sheepskin jacket, both looking at the camera. In the next picture, they’ve turned and kissed. They kiss for the camera but also for themselves, for the love that lives on through the memory. Claude grows a beard, he has his head shaved, they wear Belgium football shirts for the big match, they kiss, Claude wraps his arms around Lilly and Lilly wraps her arms around Claude, Claude strokes his beard, they kiss, they are in love. And then gradually Lilly fades away, she’s sick, she falls into her bed, she falls into herself with Claude at her side, and so she passes.
The memories and Vincen’s photographs are what remain but these are not the only pictures that Claude has of himself and Lilly. “One time Vincen gave us disposable cameras and five of my pictures were shown when he exhibited some images in a little exhibition. It was really nice, we had beer and shared some beautiful moments. But I have 2 pictures of Lilly and me from a disposable camera that I didn’t give back to Vincen that I don't want to show anybody. We are naked in them. We made some nude images and I went on my own to get the images at the photo shop. I told the person “don't look at that too much”.”
“I will never find another Lilly. That's why I want to go into an old people’s home. I’m waiting for that to happen.”
Lilly may be gone, but Claude still has his pictures and memories of the love and affection that helped them both make it through the hard times, with the only warmth and comfort that which came from the love they felt for each other.
“I was in love more and more each year,” says Claude. “My love grew and grew, it never stopped.”

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Censored by Instagram

I wrote about Jo Spence in a fanboy kind of post a few weeks back. I like her work because it's both anti-photographic and photographic.

It's anti-photographic because it's not about great images or great subjects. It's not about decisive moments, it's not going to fit into a 100 Greatest Images of All Time compendium next to a Cartier-Bresson or a Robert Frank. It doesn't look like that.

I love those  'great' images, I love 'iconic' images, I love photographs that look like good photographs, but one of the downfalls of 'great' photographs is the ways of making, seeing, thinking and being that 'greatness' ties into. It's a bit limited ultimately. And a bit boring once you get down to it.

But her work is very photographic in other ways; it's tied in to the history of photographic representation and its downfalls and she identifies as a photographer. One of the big disappointments of 'non-photographic' photography is so very often it position itself in a non-photographic practice is a rather sad attempt to work in a more valuable currency than the photographic one. Photography isn't the smartest tool in the box, nor is it the most lucrative. It's kind of stupid and instinctive and all over the place. Which is also what makes it interesting and attractive.

And photography is where Jo Spence positioned herself, the poor person's Cindy Sherman, the political Cindy Sherman. Or it might be that Cindy Sherman is the rich person's Jo Spence, that makes much more sense.

So Spence worked in these conflicting areas in her lifetime and as a result, never really had the financial success she might have had. But then that's embedded in her work anyway. To sell work at a high level, you really have to want to sell work at a high level. You have to sell your services, you have to sell yourself, you have to close your eyes a bit and think of England while the filthy rich pour their money down on you. That's one version anyway. The irony is that now that she's well dead and well harmless, Spence's artefacts are finding a market with collectors, museums, the very wealthy. It's a curious thing, because a melodramatic, romantic view would say that the very act of buying a Spence work strips it of its value, which is a very vocal value. But then that is what a market is for anyway - to take something and, through the market, strip it of its real worth and resell it to you in a distorted and ultimately worthless form. 

Anyway, I put this image from Spence's Final Project (on the breast cancer that eventually killed her) on Instagram a few weeks ago. It got taken down from both Instagram and Facebook - from which I was banned for a few days.  It's one of a number of images that I've had censored on my Instagram account. It was made invisible - and then I destroyed it some more by doing that to it (see above) - so a double destruction. That's what Instagram does, that's what Facebook does, that's what we do in their name. That's what I just did there.

It's a bit like the art market in that way. Anything that goes on there gets distorted by its way of liking, sharing, seeing and being. You're diminishing your work to algorithms, swipes and taps by being on there. But still we go on there. Still I go on there.  And Twitter, and Facebook, and Blogger, and the rest. It's the modern hypocritical condition

Anyway, it's a way of seeing and a censorship that is changing the way we see images, about how we see life. It's a weird misogynist mix that comes from multiple sources but is also about control of childhood, of body, of dress, of seeing and being.

Among others, I know Alessia Glaviano is going to be having an exhibition on this censorship at some point, and now @jorgcolberg is looking for responses on censored Instagram posts. 

It's a vital question about a Zuckerberg inspired misogyny which is having an immediate and global effect on what we show, where we show it and how we understand images. 

This is what Joerg says...

If your work has been censored on Instagram would you mind dropping me an email (jmcolberg@gmail.com). I want to talk to you! If you know someone whose work has been censored on Instagram would you mind telling them to be in touch (ditto). I want to talk to them!

It matters because it is changing not just the way we see work but the way we talk about work and ultimately the way we live. And it's coming from an identifiable place that we still engage with. We engage with Facebook even though it destroys a sane political life, just as we engage with Amazon even though it doesn't pay taxes, we engage with Airbnb even though it creates a housing crisis and destroys communities. 

And then I'm saying that Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb do that. But they don't. They just enable us to wreak their destruction on their behalf. Mmmmmm?