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Thursday, 14 November 2019

In the Morgue

A morgue freezer; images copyright Arun Vijai Mathavan

Thanks to \Prashant Panjiar for the pointer to Arun Vijai Mathavan who has made this work on Indian morturaries in Tamil Nadu and Andra Pradesh. It's a story about the dalit people who work in the morgue, the people who do post-mortems, it's stuck with me because it's so unexpected and the images are all about the people, the space and the little details like where they sleep and what they eat, and the poverty and prejudice that comes with their work.

Morgue stories usually focus on the dead and either how peaceful they look, how artful they look, the transformation of face to mask, and the conflict between symbols of life and symbols of death and the natural entropy that overtakes us all.

There's a curator of a museum of death in London who once said that we are never more alive than when we die, that our living body is a mechanism of defensive strategies for limiting the species that live in our body. Life, to her, is a controlled farming exercise where the human cells that make up 10% of the body's 100 trillion cells control the 90% of the  viruses, microbes, and bacteria that are not human. When we die however, these cells are allowed to flourish, as are the mass of other microbes, flora and fauna that devour our body. For her, a human body is never more alive than in the few weeks after death. Which is a pretty good perspective for a curator of a museum of death to take.

By the same token, here it's the life that surrounds death, that is created by the death of these morgue inhabitants that is the essence of the project. The bodies are not irrelevant, but they are a side detail. And that's an interesting perspective to take.

Here's a description of the story from Chennai Photo Biennale.

What we do with our dead, how we regard them, is dependent on the specific conditions into which we are born—belief, religion, language, place, sect, caste, gender and, in recent times, science. In India, those classified as ‘untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’ have been forced to handle the dead for centuries. The manner in which they are compelled to do this in modern, state-run hospitals has gone unnoticed and undocumented. My project proposes to shine a light on an unknown, shrouded world.

We live in a time when unnatural deaths are subjected to investigation. Before a surgeon handles the body, a team of trained staff prepares it. There are elaborate procedures relating to how the body should be handled and what the qualifications a technician should have. After the autopsy, highly skilled work is performed; the corpse is wrapped; the ventilators are removed; no visible incision is left to be seen; the viscera are carefully handled; and the body is reconstituted by sewing it back together. In all this, the coroner is assisted by a team of lab technicians.

In India, the reality of this process is shockingly different from our perception. In almost all hospitals in India, a range of tasks, sometimes even the opening of the torso with the Y-incision, is done by semi-literate, low-level staff. They belong to the Dalit communities. Official identity cards designate the men as “Sanitary Workers.” Much like other stigmatized work in a society organized by caste, such as handling all manner of waste (including human excreta), the cleaning of sewers, or the skinning of animal carcasses, this modern work too has become hereditary. The ill-equipped workers, with outmoded refrigerators and crude implements, perform heroic tasks in dismal conditions. They suffer from several occupational ailments and work-related infections from handling the decomposed, verminous bodies. Tasked with endowing dignity on the dead, they face a social death. The untrained, underpaid, Dalits cannot tell their friends and neighbors what they do for a living.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Human Sites of Memory: The Story isn't Simple

image from Enghelab Street 

Hannah Darabi, Dragana Jurisic and Maria Kapajeva spoke at a symposium I chaired in Bristol the other week. 

Hannah spoke on her book Enghelab Street (which won the Best Catalogue prize in Paris Photo the other week - even though it's not a catalogue) and the ways in which conflicting narratives have been squeezed out from the 1979 Iranian Revolution by the idea of an over-arching Islamic Revolution.

Except it wasn't an Islamic Revolution - in the same way the American Civil War wasn't a war to free the slaves and Britain didn't stand alone against the Nazis. Myths are there to be made.

It's a false narrative where images, typography and design are used to claim and counter claim individual, national and symbolic histories in the name of a post-memory Islamic Revolution. She told stories of counter-memories and micro-memories that are stored in books, in bodies, in minds, that have a latent energy that can potentially shift histories and maybe even ways of thinking.

Image copyright Dragana Jurisic

Dragana talked about the history of Yugoslavia, the wars, the death, the ordinariness of it all, and the way that nationalisms creep into our lives, seep into our every pore, there right in front of our eyes but somehow invisible. 

Maria Kapajeva talked about how personal narratives cut through and intersect with dominant political and economic storylines, and in particular how women's experiences of family, work and space overlap in her project  Dream is Wonderful, Yet Unclear.

These came in her project on a former textile mill where her mother used to work. It closed down after being bought by a Swedish company. They bought it to close it down because it was a competitor. That narrative is repeated across many former Communist countries and maybe a little closer to home as well.

The commonly held notion that Soviet Bloc economies collapsed solely because of inefficiencies and incompetence and corruption is appealing because it indicates our western superiority and the power of capitalism to bulldoze over any belief or value system that runs counter to its destructive force.

The narratives that Kapajeva unearthed in the textile mill are simple, they are filled with life, they are embedded in personal histories that we can all understand and relate to, and are also complicated with nostalgia and an over compensating post-memory. Nothing is clear.. The narratives come from more micro-narratives, from altenative sites of memory that were lived rather than conceived, from the diary of workers who wrote of how to avoid pregnancy, how to lose weight, how to cope with a punishing workload - and a family - and domestic work - and still have a life. 

They come from the memories of the women who worked in the mill, memories that are laced with a nostalgia that is at times candy-coated. They come from idealised visions of textile mills in Soviet cinema, visions that overlap with concrete memories of community, achievement, and sense of belonging. 

On one level moving from a single  nationalist economic narrative to fragmented personal narratives is moving from the simple to the complex, from the single over reaching story arc to something that is more nuanced.

On another level it's moving from the  complex to the simple. The narratives of national identity are abstract and metaphysical in nature. They lack a voice, a grounding, they seek to find their place in ever more fanciful conjectures. They are made up. They lack substance. They are smoke and mirrors. 

The narratives Harabi, Jurisic and Kapajeva are interested in  are personal and  link people, place and economics. They are not simple, they are not moral, they are black and white, they don't make sweeping generalisations, they don't even fit into one simple story arc. But they are sited in human bodies, in human flesh, in places that have a life beyond abstractions of ideology and economics.

They don't necessarily make some grand conclusion. They simply are. 

The same idea in a slightly different way comes from Riffae Tammas  who talks about the difficulty of being a refugee who is expected to fit into some preformed story package.

How many stories do we hear about the challenges of young people adapting to a completely new education system? The difficulty of finding employment? The joy of discovery in a new country? If we are genuinely interested in supporting refugees, then we should focus on stories about their present and future, not just their past.

Which again is about human sites of memory that don't fit into pre-conceived narratives or story arcs however well meaning. 

Monday, 4 November 2019

Some rules about how to take great pictures

 How do you know if a picture is any good?

My latest piece on World Press Photo looks at many things, but especially the idea of what good photography is and the rules that we generate to uphold our idea of good photography.

The idea of good photography is tied up with linear ideas of the grid (there is nothing more panoptical than an image fitting into linear frameworks), of orthodox framing and use of light, and a whole range of  taste questions that run across genre and media.

And so you have any number of ways of telling what is a good photograph or is not a good photograph. There's EveryPixel (I've written about this before), a really stupid but addictive app that rates the chances of your photograph being awesome.

On a photojournalistic-conceptual level, there's Max Pinckers' and  Dries Depoorter's Trophy Camera. This uses World Press Photo winning pictures to analyse the likelihood of your picture winning a World Press Photo. And beneath the surface of all this, there is something that is a bit too close to the bone going on. We make pictures that look like other pictures. We make pictures that look like documentary pictures, or photojournalistic pictures, or to get a lot of likes on Instagram. At a supposedly higher end, we make pictures that we think will sell in the art market. We add a graph or a blue dot, or use a blue gel, or turn the picture into a sculpture, because... that's what makes it good right, or will get us a show or a bit of attention, or make us some money. Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or something to run away from.

And if it is, where should we run away to?

There's Ivars Gravlejs' Useful Advice for Photographers, a collection of  Photography Rules (the book was so popular it sold out) which looks at the basic fundamentals of what makes a good photograph - which are actually quite bad, but then are actually good because they are conceptual art pieces. And they also point to what taste evaluates as good or bad so you can see the places where the opposite of good has become good in a particular sub genre or functional area of photography. And of course when the bad becomes good, it becomes orthodox and so is bad again - think the blurred, grainy, out-of-focus thing which Takuma Nakahira was saying was exhausted moments after it was invented.

Nakahira's is just one of many ideas of the exhausted language of photography, and then there are do's and don'ts, cliches to avoid, and there are books that tell you things like>>.

Read this if you want to take great photographs
Image result for read this if you want to take great pictures

Obviously there's only a 1.8% chance of that book being awesome considering the images they chose.

You can Google search for how to take great photographs and arrive at Kodak Moments@

Then grab your camera and start shooting your way to great pictures.
Look your subject in the eye.
Use a plain background.
Use flash outdoors.
Move in close.
Move it from the middle.
Lock the focus.
Know your flash's range.
Watch the light.

Or you can find Petapixel rules which includes stuff I never knew...

35. Hold your camera properly

You might not know it, but there is a right way and a wrong way to hold a DSLR camera. The correct way is to support the lens by cupping your hand underneath it. This is usually done with the left hand, with your right hand gripping the body of the camera. This helps to prevent camera shake. If you are gripping your camera with your hands on either side of the camera body, there is nothing supporting the lens, and you might end up with blurry photos. To get an even stabler stance, tuck your elbows into the side of your body.

But it does have this excellent rule.

18. Charge your batteries

This seems like a simple one, but pretty much every photographer on the face of the planet has been caught out before. Including myself. The trick is to put the battery onto the charger as soon as you get home from your photo shoot. The only thing then is to make sure you remember to put it back into the camera after it has been recharged… 

Er, and there's more as well, and to be honest, most of it is great advice most of the time. The trouble is if you follow any of it, you'll end up making pictures like everybody else. Perhaps that doesn't matter even. The point is to tell a different story to anybody else... and you can do that with exactly the same pictures. So maybe the rules are good, who knows, it's Monday....

Anyway, you can read the article here. 

And if you're a painter, so you don't feel left out....

Baldessari tips to sell paintings

John Baldessari, "Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell," (1966-68). Acrylic on canvas. 68 x 56 1/2 in. (172.7 x 143.5 cm). (Courtesy The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica / © John Baldessari)