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Thursday, 17 October 2019

Carmelo Stompo and Kindness in Photography

 all pictures copyright Carmelo Stompo

I interviewed Max Pinckers the other week. We were talking about originality in photography, apps and the idea that everything has already been photographed, it's already been done. We talked about the idea of the good photo, and what that even means.

The idea of a 'good' photo is insidious. Most 'good' photos are not very interesting or original or even good. And then people start trying to make deliberately 'bad' pictures to be creative, original and break out of the 'good' photo mode. They make them blurred, or grainy, or off kilter, or burnt out. And then the bad pictures become the 'good' pictures and we're back where we started because who wants to see another set of overexposed, or purple, or blurry pictures.

There are good good faces, good backdrops, good people to photograph, good tonal ranges, good materials, good themes. Everything fits into a pre-ordered template - but as soon as something becomes 'good' it becomes a bit of a cliche right. Just go to Paris Photo or Photo-London and you can see that, you can see where people are making work that fits into something that fits the market, that ticks the critical boxes. It's soul destroying.

And then there are good photobooks. You see them, they have nice paper, nice design, nice covers, nice everything. And they are so good that maybe that goodness is just a mask that shields the fact that they might be not that good. There's the idea that what makes them good has become a bit of a trope and that we're all being blinded by tropes. Some of my favourite books are made by Mack, APE, Akina, RPS, Ceiba, Eriskay etc etc, but sometimes the books are so good I don't know if they are good anymore.

The same thing applies with critical ideas. There are the right ideas and the right themes, and there are smart people who  work with those to make work that fits into particularly critical niches (the really smart people just make interesting work that critical ideas apply to).

I've been looking at some great books on migration recently but I wonder if the rhetoric that applies to them isn't a bit rehashed sometimes, isn't said because that is what you are supposed to say. It's defensive theory to block off criticism that dehumanises and objectifies. Perhaps ideas that restaging and collaboration, and giving people cameras, that scratching and painting and writing, going all the way back to Wendy Ewald and beyond, aren't just a bit tired. Is it just something we say to make ourselves feel less guilty or does it actually mean something. i don't know.

Or is giving somebody a camera or asking them to draw on their pictures or make a collage aren't the most patronising and colonial thing ever., more concerned with the photographer as moral hero than with anything else. Or perhaps the whole calvinist tone of so much of this theory shares more with a colonial era vicar ministering to his flock and lecturing them on the evils of this or that. It shuts out so much, and can be joyless in a way that belongs to a particular geographic and economic privilege. It's like watching what I imagine a Church of England sermon would be on a small British colonised island (oh, and there is theory that thinks the same thing - the greatest legacy of British colonialism is its shitty, condescending moralising voice)

But at the same time, why not, what the heck, talk about broad brushstroke generalisation! As long as it's fun and it's nice and you're not claiming to much. But if you're claiming too much, I don't think so.

Anyway, this is a preamble to Carmelo Stompo's book, Never Stop. It's a book abour Arouna, a Senegalese migrant who Carmelo ran into in his hometown of Catania, Sicily. It doesn't claim too much, and it's kind.

I saw the work at a workshop I ran there and it was great, a mix of images that Carmelo spoke of with great kindness and affection towards Arouna. It told the stories of Arouna's journey from Senegal, his arrival in Catania, and the limbo he found himself in. It's a story of the multiple near deaths he experienced along the way, adn the one he is living through in limbo in Catania.

And within that limbo, the one consolation for Arouna is the people he met along the way, the people he is surviving with, and Carmelo himself. The pictures are great, the story goes beyond the trope of the journey (although I think the story is still continuing, it's just beginning), and Carmelo published the book to raise some funds to rent a flat for Arouna in Catania.

The problem with Carmelo  Never Stop is there isn't really a problem (aside from the text which helps tell the story is almost impossible to read and could be used to much stronger effect). It's a book of kindness because Carmelo is a very kind man, it's a book of hope, because he's an optimistic man It's a beautiful book and it's human. It tells the story of Arouna, the Senegalese boy who ended up in Catania, Sicily, Stompo's hometown. Stompo befriended him, hung out with him, ate with him, helped him find papers and shelter. He's still helping him find shelter. That's part of what the book is about.

He photographed his whole story in fictionalise form - his departure from Senegal and Gambia - his journey across the desert, his arrival in Libya, his escape from Libya, his journey across the sea, and his arrival into the limbo of Catania.

It's a story where Arouna came close to death four times - in the desert, in the badlands of Libya, in the Mediterranean, and perhaps a living death in Catania. And the pictures are great.

But it doesn't fit the theoretical migrant project mode, because that's not how it was made or what it was made for and that's not who Carmelo is. It's an honest book then that doesn't tick theoretical boxes with a nod to collaboration and consent (even though that is exactly how it was made), even if most of these theoretical constructs are arbitrary and contingent. Carmelo helps Arouna, and he does, and that's in there, he's kind to Arouna and that's in there, and photographs him through images that are cinematic ni quality.

And I love that. And I look forward to the ongoing story of Arouna, and how he survives in Catania and beyond, and the pressures of living in Catania and beyond, and if he can ever make a life for himself in Catania and beyond. Because in the story so far, Stompo has humanised and visualised a journey, a brutality, and the quagmire of asylum in images and words.

Buy Never Stop here.

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