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Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Week 2, or is it 3 of Coronaviruszzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Daily exercise - I have the privilege of space

It's It's week 2 of the lockdown in the UK and everybody is going a little stir crazy because it's monumentally serious and monumentally boring. Things are changing so fast and there are people who are ahead of us who know what is going to come, This is from Francesca Landri's Letter to the rest of Europe after 3 weeks of lockdown in Rome, This is what we know about your future.

First of all, you’ll eat. Not just because it will be one of the few last things that you can still do. You’ll find dozens of social networking groups with tutorials on how to spend your free time in fruitful ways. You will join them all, then ignore them completely after a few days. You’ll pull apocalyptic literature out of your bookshelves, but will soon find you don’t really feel like reading any of it. You’ll eat again. You will not sleep well. You will ask yourselves what is happening to democracy. You’ll have an unstoppable online social life – on Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom… You will miss your adult children like you never have before; the realisation that you have no idea when you will ever see them again will hit you like a punch in the chest. Old resentments and falling-outs will seem irrelevant. You will call people you had sworn never to talk to ever again, so as to ask them: “How are you doing?” Many women will be beaten in their homes.

In other news, the first children are getting named after the disease. This is the case of a 
girl named corona. Corona is a girl's name in this case, maybe Covid is a boy's name, or maybe they're gender neutral names. Who knows. Which leads on to the question of what's in a name, in a virus name, in a disease name. The first time I saw the virus referred to was at the Bath University Sports Centre, it was Wuhan Novel Coronavirus. Then it became just coronavirus, then Covid-19 came into being.

 Coronavirus is  quite gentle. It's stars and flowers and crowns and beer with lime and tequila. It's the kind of virus a fairy would get. It's generic, it doesn't kill you. Covid-19, which is what the disease was named  on February 11th,  is already sounding worse.

And then there's the disease, Sars Covid-2, which sounds far worse. This is the official terminology for the virus from the WHO.

coronavirus disease 


severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 

The first time I saw it referred to in this way was on Sunday, but perhaps I'm missing something. Then again, perhaps I'm not. the name was deliberately avoided by WHO for fear they created unnecessary panic in populations who remembered the 774 people who died from the disease in the early 2000s.

But you don't see the name for a reason. This is what they say on the WHO website. 

What name does WHO use for the virus?

From a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003. 

For that reason and others, WHO has begun referring to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus” when communicating with the public.  Neither of these designations are intended as replacements for the official name of the virus as agreed by the ICTV.

That seems a strange statement to make considering Covid-19 has killed over 30,000 people and counting to date. But it's also an understatement that connects to how the disease has been visually reported. As many have noted, the first substantial photojournalism on the project that seems to have appeared in the rather visually limited English-speaking world at least, is this one from the New York Times on Friday 21st March. Before that the reporting has been bland and lacking in graphic detail to say the least. This might not be the case elsewhere in the world, but stories featuring empty streets and face masks have been doing the rounds since Wuhan in January and God, they are repetitive 

There are lots of possibilities as to why this might be, but I wonder if the ethics of reporting, of not showing suffering and death, of not showing broad brush strokes of catastrophe (which might be simplistic and flawed but in the public interest in a very direct way) haven't been at play here. And I wonder if that not showing hasn't been responsible for people not taking the disease as seriously as it should be taken. Showing people suffering in their front room, or in a packed ward, or on their last breath, does rather cut through the 'it's nothing more than a case of the flu in most cases' rhetoric that as recently as last week people like our prime-minister (who is now suffering from nothing more than a case of the flu) were touting. 

So is there a case to be made that the ethics of photojournalism, that the rhetoric of photographic criticism might have contributed indirectly to hundreds if not thousands of deaths. And that the responsibility to show what is happening outweighs some of the ethical considerations we might normally consider. I think that case can be made.

You can read and see the whole story here: We take the dead from morning to night

As the disease spreads across the world there are interesting stories on The privilege of space, on the marginalisation and eviction of health workers in India, on the limiting of freedom of speech for doctors who speak truth on their lack of equipment, on the racist profiling that accompanies the disease, including in China and India where the #Chinesevirus19 was trending on Twitter last week accompanied by all kinds of conspiracy theories that lay the blame for its spread on whoever your enemy of the moment might be. 

The conspiracy theories are appealing because the longer it continues the more untrustworthy the statistics become, the more inconsistent the spread, the more varied the virus mutations, the deeper the erosion of civil rights, the more absolute the freezing of transport links,the more ominous the  development of digital currencies, the more surreal the mass psychosis that has gripped us all. Surely amidst all this chaos, there must be some sinister hand controlling our minds. It's so tempting to see conspiracies all around coronavirus but then you look at our leaders holed up in their Swiss chalets with their wives and concubines, bragging about their television ratings, or being so ultimately dumb as to catch the disease and spread it to the top tier of government, and you remind yourself that the only conspiracy going is the absolute venal stupidity of the leaders of the world's great powers. 

And anyway, who needs conspiracy theories when no matter what you read, watch, or listen to, there is always a relevance to coronavirus, isolation, or contagion. 

It was there when we watched the Great Escape the other week and saw Steve McQueen throwing his baseball in the cooler. 

It was there in this clip from Nightcrawler. 

And it was there in this documentary on Maradona where the Juventus fans sing about Napoli..

The song goes like this: 

Sick with cholera, victims of the earthquake, you never wash with soap. 
Napoli shit, Napoli cholera. 
You are the shame of the whole of Italy. 

Which for me kind of sums up the italian north-south divide in a way that nothing else quite does (the UK football Napoli equivalent is In your Liverpool Slums with Liverpool being an English outlying city). The Napoli song also sums up the ways in which poverty, disease, and death are thrown together in one unholy mess. 

There is the rhetoric of us being all in this together, of everybody being affected, but the more this goes on, the more it will be apparent that it does affect some people more than others, it will attack the weakest, the poorest, the sickest. It knows no borders, but it will sniff out those who are undernourished, who have no space, no home, no money, no food. And there will be a political result from that. 

Enough of that. We were on football. Back to football. The Belorussian league kicked off a couple of weeks ago. I was gutted by my team's (Dinamo Minsk) poor performance in the local derby last week. 

But they're playing again on Friday in the last league standing, in the one thing apart from the death of Kenny Rogers to break through the coronavirus wall of news noise.

There is a disturbingly large part of me that wants to look for Dinamo Minsk streaming sites and buy the shirt, join the Ultras, eat the Belorussian pies, drink the vodka that will protect me from coronavirus (it's better than cow's piss) etc etc - but my subconscious self is giving him a good kicking as we speak so hopefully he won't be popping his shaven head up any time soon. Because this is mad and irresponsible and dangerous.

But just in case you're interested, here's the  Belarus football guide. Anything to break the tedium. And let me know of anyone Belorussian league Zoom conference calls. They will be happening. 

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Covid-19: The Queen, the Pope, and the Grim Reaper...

Covid-19 is really crystallising all those lame but revealing time based comparisons that we all love so much, especially in these mad accelerating times.

Less than two weeks ago, Liverpool were playing Atletico Madrid, 70,000 people were jammed into Cheltenham Racecourse, and I gave my last face to face lecture. Just over a week ago, on the Saturday, I ran a workshop on writing and photography. But there were cancellations and it was already obvious that universities would close, that online teaching would come into being, that a lockdown was getting closer.

My daughter was still working in a bar  a week ago. We went to the pub for a final pie and pint last Thursday. The only other table in the pub was filled with Bath Uni students going home. Town was dead already, and it took one day more for town to become deader still

With everything closing down, the only remaining diversion was last week was  shopping. There was a kind of perverse pleasure in seeing the empty shelves as people stocked up on everything and nothing. It was like being part of the  disaster movie that is unfolding around us. But then what kind of pleasure is that; empty shelf tourism is just one step up from empty street tourism which is possibly the lamest basis for a picture story ever - but that's all anyone is running because what else is there to photograph except for packed wards and dying patients - and nobody's showing that for some reason.

On friday already, some shops were social distancing. There were spaces between customers at the butchers as people flocked in to buy the meat that was sold out at the supermarket. The local veg store had a three customer policy, and in town, by saturday, the wholefood store had a customer limit, had separated the serve-yourself area and made everything contact-free. It was social distancing in action.

There's still loads of food about, the only problem is if you want to eat cheaply. Cheap carbs, proteins and vegetables all sell out quite quickly (and that's down to not trusting a word the government says - as well as selfishness), and it's the more expensive (and more local) options are still available. If you can afford to eat well, you will eat like a king or queen. The deli was well stocked, the Fine Cheese Company was still doing good Mother's Day business, and you can fill up on your home cooked chateaubriand, rack of lamb and venison pie to your heart's content. I think there's quite a few people who will eat and drink really well during the coronavirus season. Think Christmas but without the family round.

But there is a real problem if you don't have money, which is only going to intensify, especially if you are freelance or on any kind of zero hour contract. The money is running out. A clip was put on Facebook complaining about the stupidity of people shopping on Ridley Road market in London. it was quite crowded but not stupidly so (by normal standards), filled with people who were looking for food, much of which had sold out in supermarkets. What I wonder were they supposed to do? How quick exactly is your mind supposed to be able to move?

By Saturday all the pubs and cafes were closed. There was still an ice cream parlour open in town so after going to shops, we bought a socially distanced ice cream and sat down in Abbey Square listening to the busker play melancholic lounge music with a tv-theme tune playlist. But Hill Street Blues on a stand up organ in a Bath tourist hotspot will never grow old. Again, it felt like the last time we'd have an ice cream in the wild for a while.

And so we went home and went to our allotment. We live near our allotments. Walk up the hill behind our house and you're basically in the countryside. We're lucky that way. It was a beautiful yesterday. It's a beautiful day today. It was beautiful on Sunday, and Sunday was mother's day (the flowers in the supermarket remained unsold) and people were out - but at a distance from each other because that's the luxury of open space.

Some friends went out to the Black mountains in Wales. On the motorway there were signs saying stay at home. It's not a matter of going out wherever you like, it's the idea that if you crash your car, if you break your leg, there won't be a place for you to get treated. You're taking your life, and the lives of others, into your own hands.

Reports came out on the news from London - the long lenses were used to compress people to make places seem more crowded than they are. And the criticism flooded out. Yet even this morning, tube services were still running, people were still trying to get to work (in hospitals, in food supply services?) and they were packed. None of it makes any sense.

Every little inequality in this country is emerging complete with the hidden costs. Got a second home? Well don't go there because you will be a burden on the community that live there permanently. Live in a multi-occupancy one bed flat, well never leave because you'll be a burden on the rest of us. Live in the city, the difficulty of localised food shortages in a coronavirus hotspot become very quickly apparent, live in the country and there are multiple other problems.

It's a divisive disease in which the luxuries of food, of space, of transport (I had one rural friend who drove 30 miles to get to her nearest supermarket only to find it emptied - and had to drive another 40 miles to get to the next one - so £10 in petrol before she'd even started), of public transport, of food availability, of access to health services, or disease clusters.

I have family who have evacuated from southeast England to the Northumberland boondocks because of being vulnerable ( basically they get it = they die ) and sharing a house with their doctor son who is working in critical care unit without adequate protective equipment - you will get coronavirus they were told a couple of weeks ago.

And now the lockdown has begun. So the shops I mentioned earlier all have instore customer limits in place. The allotments are packed with people doing the only outdoor thing that is allowed, and a general air of being on the beach as the sea goes out during high tide holds us all in a state of unpleasant anticipation.

I wonder how this will develop. My Italian friend in Venice tell me that the restrictions will get tighter and tighter as the deaths rise, as the intensive care units fill, as the coffins overflow. They also tell me  how the old are still going outside, the trip to the shop their only outlet from the confines of their flats. And that makes me wonder about the intersection of  covid-19, class, morality and the privilege of space will all conspire against the poorest and most vulnerable. And how they will be blamed for their misfortune (they already are). And how money can buy you space or find you space, and keep you fed and make life possibly quite pleasant during what is a very difficult time - unless of course it stops being pleasant, then, well then.

I wonder how people will cope with this lockdown in a multi-occupancy flat - or room. How will you manage for 3 months if you're living in a single room? Which you can't afford to pay the rent for? Or with four kids and a shitty husband whose only saving grace is he's away at work most of the day. it's quite beyond me. And the weather's good now. What happens when it starts pissing it down with rain again. Will that make it better or worse.

I have no idea. All I do know is I'm not really in control of my thoughts right now, I don't think anyone is. I feel like I'm being blustered along like a rogue tumbleweed on a gust of coronavirus madness, a series of stone cold certainties mixed with inconsistent messages and a sense of nearing mortalities. I wonder what I'll be thinking  in one week, in two weeks, in three weeks... as the claustrophobia overwhelms, as bodies start to pile and the hunger starts to bite.


Monday, 23 March 2020

Madmen Wallpaper

We'll be spending a lot of time looking at walls for the next few weeks so here's a wallpaper post. I don't think I've done one before - a Siskind, Twombly overlap might be nice - but I've looked at a lot of photobooks where wallpaper is a key element, maybe too much of one sometimes. And  Ioana Marinca has her brilliant Yellow Wallpaper project developing.

My wallpaper obsession is the one you see above. I keep on seeing it everywhere and it gets me so excited. The first time I saw this wallpaper was in the Winding House Museum with Jesse Alexander.

But then I saw it again and again, most recently in Madmen the other day (I came late to the series). I saw it and went 'fucking hell, they copied that from the Winding House. !' Which they didn't because the Madmen version probably came first in 2012, but who knows.

It gives me a strange thrill every time I see it whether it's in a museum, in a newspaper, at a student exhibiton, or on TV. It is shorthand in the UK for the 1970s, but in Madmen it's the late 1960s.

So there's a mining museum (Winding House), there's Brian Clough (football manager in drama from the mid-1970s), there's Nigella Lawson (cook), there's Len Goodman (Strictly Come Dancing), and there's a Bristol sofa warehouse - which is using it as a statement block in direct reference to Madmen and so is culturally on the button.

Did anyone ever have this wallpaper in real life? Does anyone have it now? Who designed it? Such are the questions I ask myself as we start the descent into  coronavirus lockdown.

And there we go - it's Trippy Wallpaper, designed by Graham and Brown in the UK (which is why it's in all those places) and it used to cost around £50 a roll but doesn't seem to be available.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

If there's a photographer there, the MPs will get confused and vote the wrong way.

                           Mark Duffy cover pages - copyright Mark Duffy

For a break from Coronavirus, here is the absolutely fascinating case of Mark Duffy. Duffy was the House of Commons photographer during the height of the Brexit negotiations (happening a year ago this month - what happy days they were). You'll have seen his images across social media, and spread across the front pages of newspapers around the world.

He was an in-house photographer who also had an arts practice, one that linked in to Brexit. It was a practice that, together with the publicity his in-house images brought, led to him being subjected to gagging orders, disciplinary proceedings, dismissal for bringing the house into disrepute, and a morning raid by black-clad police officers.

                                      The image that saw Duffy accused of bringing the Houses of Parliament into disrepute

His photographs capture parliament during an unprecedented period of discord. They reveal both the chaos of the time, but also the low regard to which photography as a tool of historic record is held in the UK. His time in parliament also reveals the suspicion which photography is held and the rationalisations that can be made to block its use.

     The image that resulted in Duffy receiving a gagging order

The case of Mark Duffy and what it says about British attitudes to photography,and the way in which responsibility for parliamentary failures was laid at Duffy's door boggles my mind in a way no other photographic story has in the last year.

Read the whole story here. 

    The exhibition that resulted in a morning police raid

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

I know nothing about Coronavirus

    all pictures copyright colin pantall except the one that isn't

 I said to my wife the other yesterday.

Me: 'I'm finding the corona virus boring'

Katherine: 'What do you mean it's boring. It's like the start of a movie. The school's are shutting down, the markets crashing, people are panic buying, half of Europe's under lockdown, and we're all going to die.'

Which is all true, but I'm still finding it boring. It doesn't mean it's not a disaster, or tragic, or awful. I've been affected by it, my friends have been affected by it, it's cost me economically and creatively, and socially already in multiple ways, but it's been going on for months and, it's just that the images are repetitive and boring, the news is boring. Health warnings, face masks, and empty shelves. And now empty streets. There's a spate of graphics, statistics, and diagrams, some designed solely to show that somebody is doing something, even though they are not. It's information is often 100% factual and to be trusted, but the next minute you see something that is so partial that it is to be laughed at - a graphic equivalent of a president using a sharpie to change the mapping of a state. The only respite is the street singing from Italy and Spain. Oh, and the memes.

I'm not sure what you can photograph. When the Wuhan outbreak was happening you got some pictures of packed wards - you get the feeling the old double standard of showing sick people far away but not close to home will kick in, is already kicking in. The BBC showed a Spanish woman on the news with the disease (her husband had just died) but that was the first European case of corona virus I cn think of that I had seen on television in the UK (which has a heavily mediated release of images). I'm sure it's different in Italy or Spain. And I'm sure that's had an effect on public opinion there - I don't know if that's right, correct me if I'm wrong on this.

What is most interesting for me, from this clinical distance is that, yes, transmission rates are rocketing, but even more astonishing than the transmission rate is the rate at which opinion changes. Here in the UK a week ago Liverpool were losing to Atletico Madrid and the Cheltenham races were filled with elderly people in tweed with heart, lung and liver conditions spreading spittle around packed low-ceiling bars. It seems like madness now. It seemed like madness to a lot of people then to be fair.

    Spelt is still available, produce of Italy

On social media, people are telling us with absolute certainty that the only, the only, solution is to stay indoors for the next few months, never mind the consequences. They are probably right. I don't know.

        January, February, and March screengrabs of the Guardian online

The Guardian newspaper, which last month was telling us that markets were booming as the virus was beaten, now tell us how many people are going to die (hundreds of thousands), how many are going to be hospitalised.

That belief is echoed by doctors. My nephew who works in critical care and is expecting battlefield conditions (due to continuing government neglect of the health service) has been told he will get coronavirus. He lives with his dad who has pre-existing conditions and has been evacuated, second world war style, to a house near the grouse moors of Northumberland to ride out the coming storm.

It's a world of absolutes in other words, where freedom of movement, enforced confinement, and the crippling of people's everyday lives are all set to devastate our social and political landscape. I've found myself becoming part of that world of absolutes even though I like the idea of a middle way.

And that's what gets me wondering. There is absolute certainty where there is absolute uncertainty. It is almost a matter of faith (mixed with some hard science) and it is transmitted. One wakes up one morning moving from a state of this belief to one of that belief. It's mass psychosis, but it's there for a reason.

    The government plan

Amidst this sea of certainty and uncertainty, the question becomes what will the news be in one month's time - given how it's changed over the last week, month, two months. What will the new horrors of coronavirus be? Or will it be the horrors of the lockdown, or the economic meltdown. Or  an unforeseen consequence of all three.

I hope it's not the landscape of death that is being envisioned, and I kind of think it won't be. But then I think it might. Because \I simply haven't got a clue.  There's the idea that there is some kind of hidden truth behind coronavirus, that there's something we're not being told. I feel that, but then I see Boris Johnson, or Donald Trump on the news. I see another doctor from Wuhan remains disappeared, and I hear somebody recommending bananas or prayer as a cure. Then I realise there is no hidden truth apart from the very evident truths that are to do with food production, intensive farming, destruction of natural habitats - all of which are well documented from other animal-related viral outbreaks.

And that reminds me that we're run by idiots. Perhaps the mass psychosis we are all a part of at present is a reaction to the venality, stupidity, incompetence and disgusting greed of our leaders - I'm talking from a UK perspective here remember - and maybe that is the good that will come out of this mess. In the coming weeks we're going to see the different measures different countries take to protect their population medically, economically, psychologically. We're seeing that already. Once you get beyond the rhetoric of socialism or capitalism, and the harsh reality that a government's or leader's actions has led to suffering and death, perhaps that will crystallise certain things. What does happen with coronavirus in a country that has no functional public health care system, no testing regime, and no help from its government.

So perhaps the taking care, the confinement, the suspension of all human activity is a good thing. There's a hashtag in the UK that goes by the way of #torygenocide. It's the idea that the tories are actively seeking to wipe out half a million people, most of them poor. They're not. They don't need to. All you need to do that is the neglect, stupidity, and incompetence they have shown to date - the latest news today is that our prime-minister, Boris Johnson, joked that the hunt for ventilators should be called Operation Last Gasp.

Let's hope so. Let's hope it's the last gasp of this age of stupidity and casual cruelty. That is not in the least bit boring. But I have my doubts.