Five More Years to Fight

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‘Mother Frackers’ (2015)
Digital photomontage

A few months ago I posted a piece asking why there is so little photography of austerity? The last five years have seen the widespread closure of public services, the scapegoating of the weak, and the wholesale promotion of a degenerate, hypocritical set of values that have spread beyond individual parties and which seem to permeate almost the entire political establishment. And yet beyond a few heavily repeated topics, photographers have done relatively little to document (let alone protest) the current direction of British politics.

When I first wrote that piece I have to admit that in the back of my mind was the thought that it was hopelessly overdue. I knew that a general election was in the offing and like many I suspected (or perhaps just hoped) it would result in a victory that would reverse many of the regressions we have seen taking place over the last five years. Now that election has been and gone, and we know now that the longed for reversal will not materialise. Indeed depressingly the champions of an ‘age of austerity’ are now in an even more powerful position from which to pursue their destructive agenda.

Little good can be said about this state of affairs. The only thing that I can draw from it at the moment is the knowledge that there will be plenty of new regressions coming in the next few years that will need to be highlighted, challenged and resisted. Different people will do this in different ways, but for me this remains in large part the purpose of what I do with photography, writing and other media. Loathe as I am to admit it, my sense of what art is and how it should be used has been in great part a product of spending almost all my formative years under a succession of governments I profoundly disagreed with, from the neo-Thatcherism of Blair to the austerity of Cameron. Once again I think we need to call for an ‘art of austerity’ to counter this ‘age of austerity’.

I know as well as anyone that it can sound deeply naïve to talk about photography and art as a force for change, and in and of themselves they very rarely are. With odd exceptions the only thing the arts can be said to really change are people’s thoughts, but this cognitive change is the essential first step which leads to those affected by it to agitate for real change. To be a dour realist again, I also know that most arts and photography projects reach only small audiences and preach largely to the converted, this is partly the result of complacency on the part of those in the arts, and we need to look for ways to change this.

Whatever else happens over the next five years I hope other photographers and artists will recognise and embrace the power they possess, however slight it might be, to draw attention to injustices and challenge official narratives. Drop all this artistic self-referentialism, this pathetic pandering to ingrowing cliques of curators and critics. This stuff is beyond irrelevant. Speak to the people who have a power to shape more than just your career. Art is a voice, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, but it should always be raging.

Magna Errata: Call for Submissions

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© Len William, used under a creative commons licence.

2015 marks eight centuries since the signing of the Magna Carta Libertatum or the Great Charter of the Liberties. This document, agreed on 15 June 1215, was intended to end conflict between King John and a coalition of rebel barons opposed to his rule. In practice Magna Carta proved a failure and was quickly annulled, but like many historical events the perceived precedent proved far more significant than the practical results.

The signing of Magna Carta has become a key moment in the United Kingdoms history. It is seen as an important stage in curbing the absolute powers of the monarchy, as an important stepping stone on the path to parliamentary democracy, the establishment of the rule of law, and as the foundation of modern civil liberties. This single event has come to encapsulate many of the rights and values we believe are fundamental to western (and particularly English) society and democracy.

As a country we are celebrating this anniversary for precisely these reasons, and yet the sancrosanct rights that we imagine were imparted to us by Magna Carta are today routinely suspend and eroded. The last decade has witnessed the criminalisation of protest, detention without charge, closed courts, house arrest, mass surveillance programs and a growing gamut of ambiguous laws that threaten to curtail all manner of other freedoms.. The truimphant celebration of this anniversary is nothing more than a smoke screen for political reality, a fig leaf for the very real encroachment on sancrosanct rights.

To highlight this anniversary then I intend to curate an online exhibition titled Magna Errata or ‘Great Errors’ which will highlight the ways civil liberties and human rights have been erroded. I am currently seeking submissions of creative work to be included. Whether photography, video, writing or fine art, if you have a project that sounds suitable please e-mail info [at] disphotic.com or get in contact with me here with a few lines about the proposed work and a link to any appropriate sample images, and please circulate this open call to anyone else who might be interested. Deadline for submissions is May 17th 2015.

Review – The Deutsche Börse Prize 2015 at The Photographers Gallery

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Nikolai Bakharev
Untitled #70, from the series Relation, 1991-1993

While in the past I might have slightly criticised some competitions for being too rigidly certain about the type of photographs they want to shortlist, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is a competition with something of an identity crisis, an uncertainty about what it is really about. According to the sponsor’s own site it is a prize intended to reward a photographer ‘who has made the most significant contribution … to the medium of photography in Europe in the previous year’ but walking through the galleries and looking at this year’s short-list there seemed to be little that really met (my interpretation of) this vague remit. This isn’t to say the work on show was bad, far from it, but I challenge anyone who has seen this exhibition to say they found their sense of the landscape of photography particularly altered by it.

The first piece of work I encountered was probably the most hyped. Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s mammoth six year investigation of Ponte City, Johannesburg. Built as a luxury tower block during the era of white South Africa rule Ponte City later became the continent’s tallest slum. Subotzky and Waterhouse have systematically documented the building and the gallery display includes three dramatic floor to ceiling light boxes showing hundreds of photographs of doors, windows and television sets in the building. To offset the rather distant, typological nature of the light boxes there are also a series of found documents and photographs rescued from the tower block on display on the walls. These certainly humanised the inhabitants but also made for uncomfortable viewing, and perhaps not for the reasons intended. Here are intimate moments and personal information, left or lost for who knows what reason, scooped up and re-purposed for a gallery wall in an affluent city half a world away. Amongst the documents is an application for asylum in Canada, the author describing the murder of his father, the raping of his mother and sister. It’s one of the few moments in this display that a voice other than that of the two artists seems to emerge, and that muteness stands in stark contrast to voices of the subjects in some similarly exhaustive documentary works, like that of The Sochi Project.

Viviane Sassen’s Umbra was next, billed as a journey into a Jungian inner world. Continuing the artist’s interest in obscure astronomical titles (see my review of Analemma here) I found this work rather more interesting than her previous fashion focused outing at the gallery. Some of the photographs submerge you in this inner world more effectively than others, and particularly (if predictably) potent were the apparently everyday images which somehow manage to impart an unspeakable feeling, like an image of a yawning black hole dug in vivid red soil. At times though it felt as if Sassen was distracted by the opportunity to display photographs were just rather beautiful. An entire wall of nearly abstract photographs are an example of this, they look stunning but seemed out of place, and also somehow overly familiar. Sassen’s display is also accompanied by two video pieces. One is an inverted video of two arms signing the words to a poem composed by Maria Baramas which didn’t hold my attention for long. The other shows a rolling stream of Sassen’s photographs on a monitor which has been forced into the corner of a room. On the perpendicular wall is a mirror which reflects the stream of photographs, causing them to mirror and morph as they change like some sort of dynamic klecksograph or ink blot, a method of probing the unconscious mind which was inspired by (if not entirely embraced) by Jung. It demonstrates Sassen’s strong sense of how to use an exhibition space, which was also probably the highlight of Analemma.

Next was Nikolai Bakharev’s aptly named Relation series. Working as mechanic in the Soviet Union, Bakharev began to supplement his income by taking commissioned portraits and on display are a small selection of images taken between 1988 and 1993 at public beaches near Novokuznetsk, as the Soviet Union was unravelling. Bakharev’s deceptively simple photographs show families, children, friends and lovers, skilfully posed against backdrops of flourishing nature. They have a poignantly romantic air about them much more akin to the photographs of Piotr Vedenisov and other pre-revolution Russian photographers than any figure of the Soviet era, though in some ways these make a compelling mirror image to the much darker work of Boris Mikhailov, particularly his work made during this same post-Soviet transitional period. Again these photographs are not formally or conceptually ground breaking and probably won’t change how you think about photography, but in light of their social significance and their indirect relationship to what is currently going on in Russia perhaps they deserve some recognition for that alone. As I noted of Chris Killip in 2012, sometimes the gesture of selecting the most outwardly traditional photographer would in itself send ripples in an art world that often favours pointless innovations for their own sake.

Finally I got to the work of Zanele Muholi, a visual activist who has been documenting the LGBTI community in South Africa for many years. Despite the country’s self-declared status as the ‘rainbow nation’ and the fact that it has some of the most permissive laws on sexuality in the entire continent, LGBTI South African’s still face discrimination, harassment and violence. Muholi’s display consists of an entire wall of portraits, simple but beautiful, direct frontal shots of an assortment of men and women with only the most minimal of contextual information provided. The lack of information works pretty effectively, at first you rather inevitably try to guess the orientation of the people you’re looking at, but pretty quickly you have to give this up. In the end the work very effectively reminds you that they’re just people. To the left of this portrait grid is a massive white sheet on to which an assortment of messages and accounts have been handwritten. Some are gruelling descriptions of attacks and murders, others are simpler statements, ‘we all [heart] womyn’ is the one that lingers in my head. More accounts and narratives are readable in the four copies of Muholi’s book Faces and Phases which are on display in the gallery. Beyond the topicality of the subject matter (remember a photograph of a gay Russian couple won the World Press this year) the significance of Muholi’s work for me is that voices of her subjects are so present, almost to the extent of being more visible than the photography itself. This enormously important for reasons I don’t have space to fully explore here, and stands in stark contrast to the general absence I found in Subotzky and Waterhouse’s work.

Perhaps the identity crisis in The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize’s choice of shortlisted work stems at least partly from the fact this is, like any big sponsored prize, is an exercise in corporate self-promotion. It was a funny coincidence that the morning I was due to go and have a look at the exhibition I was listening to a series of very interesting talks at the Royal Institute of Anthropology on culture of the finance sector, which included some very innovative and timely photographic work focused on the global financial crisis (the sort of work which will never appear in this sort of prize). I think it’s useful to see any competition not so much as an objective judgement on what is good photography, but rather a series of filters through which submitted work passes, and in the case of corporate prizes one of these filters is of course the sponsors own interests. As photographers or people who want to look at photography we obviously benefit from this relationship, but as I’ve often suggested before there might have to come a point where we ask if what we lose through it is really worth the few pieces of silver we gain.

After Empire II: The American Ruin

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The White House in Ruins
From Whiskey Foxtrot in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Last week I wrote about our fixation on the ruins of the Soviet Empire, and our continuing search for meaning in the ashes of an empire which seemed to extinguish itself without confrontation. I was curious about the gulf of unfulfilled expectation this might have created for us, a sense of unfufillment which now finds some placation in the photographs of abandoned Soviet infrastructure and military bases that are produced in great quantity by amateur and professional photographers alike. This week I want to explore a somewhat similar trope which is forward, rather than backward looking. That is the ubiquitous trope of the American ruin in popular culture.

Empires invariably cast themselves in relation to others which have preceded them. Whether as spiritual inheritors of their antecedents or opponents of their values, new empires almost always take on something of that which has come before, in the western world most often tracing a lineage back to ancient Greece or Rome. The German Holy Roman Empire, Napoleonic France, Fascist Italy, all demonstrated such tendencies. Controversial though it might still be to speak of an ‘American empire’ the United States is no exception to this weakness for imperial over-shoulder glancing.

The iconography and architecture of state is rich with appropriations from the old empires of Europe, themselves invariably loaned in turn from the far history of ancient Rome and Greece. Lincoln’s memorial statue rests its hands on two bundles of sticks or fasces, a roman symbol of state power backed by the will of the people, and later a symbol of the new Italian fascist empire of Mussolini. It is a strange, although not entirely unfitting contradiction, that American notions of democracy and self-determination are bound up in a lineage of empire building which has involved the depriving countless people of these things.

The United States’ short existence as a unified country seems to exacerbate this imperial awareness of empire’s past and present. Something which has often fascinated me is the subject of ruination in American art, which seems not entirely disconnected. Thomas Cole’s series of paintings ‘The Course of Empire’ is as easily readable as a cautionary tale for the young America as it is a generic, idealised account of an ancient civilisations rise and fall. Flitting to a more recent media, video games such as the Call of Duty franchise, and blockbuster movies such as White House Down (2013) are laden with images of America under attack, its iconic government buildings in ruin.

Like all great human constructions, empires at their most massive and apparently indomitable almost always presage or anticipate their eventual, inevitable decline. Whether they do this simply in the minds of those who gaze on them, or whether they do it more intentionally, can vary. Albert Speer’s theory of ruin value, which I’ve written about before here, intended that the grand ruins of the buildings of a German National Socialist Reich would one day impress and inspire those explorers who discovered them, decayed and destroyed. In many cases his theories were put to the test far sooner than he perhaps anticipated.

It is clear to note from history that as the pace of technology and all other things is subject to increasing velocity, so too are empires subjected to ever shorter spans of existence. Egypt, if we may stretch the definition of an empire, lasted millennia. Rome lasted five centuries, the British Empire perhaps two hundred years. The United States could already be in decline after a period of global dominance lasting not much more than half a century. As wars today are increasingly fought and won in a matter of days (even if their reverberations last decades) it is tempting to wonder if we will one day see an empire rise and fall like a mayfly, growing exponentially to span the globe, only to die out in the course of just a few years, months, or days.

 

After Empire I: The Soviet Ruin

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The cupola of a Soviet missile silo at Plokštinė, Lithuania
From Wikimedia

Anyone who spends considerable time looking at photographs will know that certain tired topics appear again and again, often with the photographer’s blissful ignorance, or indifference. While it’s tempting just to complain about these tropes and vainly hope that some of those who are tempted to repeat them will take notice, I think it’s also interesting to try to understand the allure of these things, to ask what magnetism it is that they possess which is able to cause people to return to them again and again.

Ruins are a particular strong example of this, a truism for art more generally as well as photography individually and something I’ve mulled before on this blog. Within photography though one ruin type holds a particularly strong grip on our imagination, and these are the ruins of the Soviet Union. The abandoned or decayed industrial, political and military structures of the USSR, an empire which once covered twenty million square kilometres of the earth’s surface. From the desolate automated lighthouses strung along the Arctic coast to the radioactive ruins of Ukraine’s Chernobyl or Kazakhstan’s Polygon. Photographers, both amateur and professional, return again and again to these places, and we as viewers in turn look again and again at these photographs, as if the next set will somehow explain something more of these enigmas than did the last.

Leaving aside the specific qualities of ruins that many people find attractive, as picturesque visions, or temporal paradoxes, I have lately been wondering what is the specific allure of these Soviet remains, as opposed to those of any other demised civilisation or polity. In a very obvious sense I suppose it is that these ruins give us a frightening yardstick by which to see how quickly our own efforts as a civilisation might come to merge with the earth and eventually disappear. A ruin of a great temple or an ancient castle might be a memnto mori that gives us some sense of the awful briefness of the things we make in this world, but our temporal closeness to the remains of the Soviet Union gives them an altogether more overwhelming sense of our own demise.

But there is something more, in some sense I suspect in the west we find these images particularly fascinating because they reveal the inner workings of something which was once opaque, and reveal the decrepitude of an empire which was once so greatly feared. Some of my German friends have remarked to me on the strangeness of the British obsession with watching Second World War films, an endless fixture on television channels at all times of the year and even during seasons that would seem to be antithetical to conflict, like Christmas. Our fascination, I have suggested to them in return, perhaps stems from the fact it was a relatively morally unambiguous war against a dark and oppressive power, but maybe more importantly a war which we still can’t quite believe we won. We want to relive our victory again and again because in some very fundamental way that victory perplexes and eludes us.

In some senses I think something similar is at work here, we cannot fully grasp that we would have won out against a Soviet Empire which seemed to powerful, so monolithic, and above all so dark and opaque. This confusion is not least compounded by the fact the long anticipated violent reckoning between the two sides in the Cold War never came. Poring over these ruins as we do again and again is like a fruitless post-mortem which we have continued for the best quarter of a century without satisfactory conclusion. It is an aimless anatomy lesson which we maybe hope will posthumously reveal our enemy’s Achilles heel and lead to some final insight into our victory. If recent events in Russia and Ukraine indicate anything thought it is that perhaps this demise was a feint and the corpse is not as cold as it once seemed. The fingers appear to be twitching, and these ruins may yet return to life.

Review – An Atlas of War and Tourism by The Sochi Project

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An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus by The Sochi Project, aka Rob Hornstra and Arnold Van Bruggen

The photobook world often generates terrible bandwagon jumping, with the  pressure to buy or review a new book as soon as possible after it comes out or else risk being left behind in the proverbial dust. Contrary to that impulse I sometimes like to stand still and let the dust settle around me, to take my time before I encounter a book for the first time and approach it perhaps with a little more distance as a result. With this in mind and knowing I was planning to write a few pieces about Russia and Ukraine, now seemed like a good time to pick up The Sochi Project’s epic An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus.

Of course Sochi is not Ukraine, but given that the backdrop to An Atlas of War and Tourism is the military and political instability in the region, and the broader history and legacy of the Russian empire it seemed like a project that might shed a little light on events that have happened since the book’s publication in late 2013, before the Sochi Winter Olympics had taken place. It’s also worth remembering that the subsequent games were enormously overshadowed by events in Kyiv’s Independence Square, and by the apparent Russian invasion of Crimea which occurred a matter of days after the closing ceremony, and lies only a few hundred miles along the Black Sea coast from the Olympic venues.

For anyone who doesn’t know (and you should, since in my view it’s one of the more important documentary collaborations of recent years) The Sochi Project consists of documentary photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/film maker Arnold van Bruggen. Since 2007 they have been traveling regularly to Sochi and the surrounding areas, recording stories peripheral to the games and which differ enormously from the official narratives of a successful, reinvented Russia. Instead these individual accounts reveal a part of the country riven by uncertainty, violence,  corruption, and still burdened by (and yet in many ways dependent on) the leavings of the Soviet era. The Sochi Olympics become in effect the Potempkin village of a new Tsar, something intended to draw attention away from these problems, a vanity project to be completed at almost any cost.

Hornstra and van Bruggen have produced a succession of publications based on these stories alongside an excellent website, and An Atlas of War and Tourism is in effect a compendium that brings together many of these stories into a vast, beautiful and intelligent work of documentary work. An Atlas of War and Tourism opens with a map overview of the region, before focusing in on Sochi itself. Hornstra’s photographs capture the city’s unique character, from the crumbling Soviet sanatoria like the Metallurg (built for Soviet steel workers) and their ageing homo sovieticus guests, to the cavernous hotels like the Zhemchuzhina and the strange characters that call the city home, if only for a few weeks of each year.

Expanding the focus the book takes in the neighbouring region of Abkhazia, a break away from nearby Georgia and explores the legacy of the war between the two territories and the lingering violence and tension. Finally the book roams even wider, into South Ossestia, Dagestan, Chechyna, Ingushetia, regions against riven by instability, conflict and corruption. Territories haunted by militant groups and shadowy security forces who abduct, torture and kill with apparent impunity. Each encounter reveals new narratives, and new insights into this complex part of the world. As Van Bruggen notes in one of his accompanying texts, this is a region ‘where every front door hides another story.’ Gradually Sochi re-emerges in the narrative, at first juxtaposed against these shocking stories from the wider region, before Dagesta, Abkhazia and the others dissolve away and we finally return fully to the incomplete construction sites of the Olympic city itself.

Beyond a complex narrative about Russia and the region, An Atlas of War and Tourism is also just a great case study of slow journalism and documentary done very well. It demonstrates the enormous value of collaboration and shows how effectively photographs and text can accompany each other (something most photographers still have real difficulty accepting). At a time when more and more documentary photographers are shifting their practice towards an art footing, and often producing work which many audiences find rather mute as a result, there is something enormously reassuring about a work like this which is unashamedly journalistic, wide roaming, and rooted in the real world.

(Critical transparency: review copy was a gift from someone unconnected with the book)

Review – Barricade by Donald Weber and Arthur Bondar

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About eighteen months ago I was standing in Kyiv’s Independence Square eating an ice cream, it was all very normal, even rather dull. Six months after that I was watching live streams on the internet of what looked like a war in the heart of the same city. Battalions of riot police faced off against a diverse coalition of protesters, from pro-Europe activists to Afghan war veterans and members of the Ukrainian far right in in what was touted as a battle for the nation’s future. The scenes were dramatic, the stakes high, and the price paid terrible.

As the protests went on I lost count of how many times I saw photographs depicting medieval scenes of charging protesters with dirtied faces, against a sky black with the smoke of tire fires. But as I heard from friends in Kyiv there was much more to the protests than this. Some told me they were a deeply fragmented affair, with tension also between protest groups wanting different outcomes, others explained that beyond a relatively small part of the city life carried on more or less normally. As the metaphoric and literal dust settled projects started to appear which took a longer and slightly more sophisticated view of the crisis, it’s causes and it’s reverberations (some of these, like the work of Chris Nunn which will was published here last week, are still ongoing).

Barricade is a collaboration between Donald Weber, a photographer whose work has long centred on Ukraine and Russia (probably best known is his acclaimed 2012 book Interrogations) and Arthur Bondar, a Ukrainian photographer and VII mentoree. The book employs a broad mix of visual strategies to record different elements of the events in the Maidan, but they largely veer away from the dramatic clichés outlined above. The first series of images for example records different sections of the improvised barricades that surrounded the square and helped to keep the hated Burkut riot police at bay, a series of images which belie Weber’s original training as an architect. Following this a series of still lives record some of the objects found in deposed president Yanukovych’s sprawling residence near Mezhygirya, on the outskirts of Kyiv. These include chintzy decorations, underpants and Yanukovych’s personal bible, an odd possession for a man who reputedly spent eight million Euro of embezzled money on a chandelier.

These images segue straight into another set of still lives taken back in the Maidan, including a series of studio style photos of Molotov cocktails and other pieces of improvised and increasingly barbaric weaponry deployed by both sides in the fighting. In comparison the rather over dramatised images of weapons made by other photographers (for example Tom Jamieson’s pictures of DIY weapons) these are clinical and unpleasant in an entirely different way, one which just about avoids the problem of over-fetishing this brutal hardware. Saying that these weapons still hold the same strange power that arms always have, what Sebastian Junger described in the introduction to Infidel as the aura possessed of ‘the actual tools that implemented what millions of people … were arguing about’.

A series of portraits of some of the fighters follows, where the photographs are rather less interesting than the texts that accompany them. Apart from small differences, the rag-tag uniforms of the fighters are really rather similar to one another, particularly as in the book they’re arrange into loose visual typologies. What is far more interesting to me are the different motivations for their being there, something far harder to reveal in a photograph. What this section really reminded me of is the weakness of photography in some circumstances, and the contrasting power of other approaches. Indeed knowing that many Afghan war veterans were involved in events in Kyiv I couldn’t help but think here of Zinky Boys, Svetlana Alexievich’s phenemonal oral history of the Soviet-Afghan War.

The final section of the book consists of spreads from Ukraine’s penal code, most of it redacted in black but for small sections which refer to actions of vandalism, trespass, treason and other events related to the uprising. On the facing pages are black and white images from the square cropped to circles which roughly reference the text. For me this was the most out of place in the book, something more in the vein of the self-consciously arty work of documentary artists like Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin than the rather quieter and less contrived work I normally associate with Weber.

These misgivings aside I generally thought that Barricades was a very interesting approach to the complexity of the crisis, and I liked the design particularly. Part of Schilt’s ‘Grey Matters’ series, the emphasis of the book’s design and construction is on extreme simplicity, but without skimping where it matters. The cover is a plain grey cardboard, but the design and printing and contents of the book are all very well done. I have more misgivings about the special edition of the book (now sold out) which is advertised as coming in a ‘genuine Kiev barricade sandbag’. For me there’s something here that again veers on the wrong side of fetishising the crisis. All in all though an interesting book and part of what looks like a nice series from the book’s publisher, a series which does that relatively rare thing in photobook publishing and puts the emphasis on the content, not the package.

(Critical transparency: review copy provided by publisher)

Interview – Christopher Nunn

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Jewish Cemetery, Kalush, February 2014

Christopher Nunn is a British documentary photography who since early 2013 has been photographing regularly in Ukraine. This period has coincided with popular protests in Kiev leading to the overthrow of the pro-Moscow government, the Russian military annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and hostilities in the east of the country between the Ukranian army and armed separatist groups. For me what marks Nunn apart from many of the photographers making work about Ukraine is that his focus is invariably away from the front-lines, looking instead at the everyday lives of people living (sometimes very distantly) with the country’s unrest. As a result Nunn’s photographs seem to reveal much more about how Ukraine has got where it is, and where it might be going, than many of the projects which linger on the spectacular events effecting the country. We recently had a short chat about the background to his work and some of his motivations and interests in making it.

To start off, I think you’re based in Huddersfield in Yorkshire, something of a far cry from Ukraine. Could you explain how you came to be photographing there?

I’d been interested in Ukraine for a while. I first went there in 2006, and then again in 2007 after travelling across Russia. I also went back for a short trip in 2010. All these trips were with my girlfriend at the time, who had a Ukrainian granddad. My grandmother was born in Kalush, which was part of Poland then, but left when she was around 15 years old. When I decided to travel back to Ukraine at the end of 2012 my grandma was very ill from a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and I was getting more interested in her history which we actually knew very little about. It was also quite a difficult time for me because I’d just come out of a 6 year relationship and I felt like I needed to do something. Looking back I guess I was learning how to be on my own again, so starting off in Ukraine alone seemed to make sense. I had no idea what I would find in Kalush, but after walking around for a while I realised that I actually ‘felt’ something for this place, and that was important for me, and that’s why I continued to make work there.

It’s sad but seems a little fitting that your grandmothers struggle with Alzheimer’s would lead you back to Ukraine. My brief experience of the country was of one with an awkward relationship with it’s own past. It felt to me as if there was uncertainty in many places about which parts of the past to celebrate, and which to turn away from. I see hints of this in some of your photographs from Kalush, but I wonder if you noticed or thought about this much yourself?

Absolutely, and this is something that I thought about more over time. For a start, my grandmother’s ethnic status was always in dispute. She said she was Polish, but her childhood friend who came from the same village and left for England at the same time swore she was Ukrainian. She never seemed sure about whether she missed her ‘motherland’ and had fond memories of it, or whether she hated it. She changed her mind all the time, and seemed to struggle with her own past. This is something I found interesting, and I’ve always been fascinated with memory anyway. This is something I was thinking about, especially early on.

With regards to Ukraine’s awkward relationship with it’s own past, manifestations of this became more apparent as the crisis escalated. I was in the east and west at various times, so I saw protests for closer integration with the EU, and the opposite in the east, with a rejection of this and calls for unity with Russia. These ideas about the future of Ukraine say a lot of people’s opinions about its history I think.

There are different heroes of history in different parts of Ukraine, Bandera and Lenin being a few of the obvious ones in light of recent events. An example of this would be something I saw recently in Slavyansk, which was the epicentre of the insurgency at one point, and is now under the control of the Ukrainian army. The big Lenin statue in the main square now has a yellow and blue scarf around his neck. There are many notes, pictures, political messages and poems on the pedestal, written after the liberation of Slavyansk. Someone had written “You cannot destroy Lenin. It is our history” and underneath it, written by someone else “Lenin is our tragedy.”  I’m very interested in this conflict of beliefs and ideas, which are all related to people’s perception of the current situation in Ukraine, as well as their understanding of it’s history.

You mention the crisis in Ukraine. This manifested initially and perhaps most visibly in the protests around the Maidan or independence square in Kiev. It’s interesting to me that while so many photographers flew in just to focus on events in the Maidan, you were already there in the country and yet chose to stay away from Kiev. Was there any particular reason for this?

Well I was actually in Kalush in November 2013 when Yanukovych refused to sign the association agreement with the EU, which is what kick-started the Euromaidan movement.  A lot of people were talking about this at that time. I returned to Ukraine in January 2014, first to Donetsk and then to Kalush. I had no plans to cover anything political really, but by the time I arrived in Kalush in February I could see that the growing political tensions were beginning to manifest themselves there. There were small barricades in front of the police headquarters to stop more riot police going to Maidan, and local people were guarding them around the clock.

I spent some time with them, and one night got talking to a young man who was probably the first person I’d met in Kalush who could speak English. He worked in the local UDAR office (Vitally Klitschko’s political party) and we talked about politics and what was happening in Kyiv. By this time I really wanted to go to Maidan, but it was being so heavily covered and there were so many photographers and all the big agencies already there that I decided to stay.

I’d always been interested in small stories that are part of a bigger picture, and because I’d already been making work in Kalush for a year and had a personal connection to it, thought it made more sense to stay there. At the end of February I went back to Donetsk when the so called ‘Russia Spring’ (the east’s rejection of the Euromaidan movement) was starting to happen, and there were a lot of protests and government buildings being stormed by protestors.

You’ve remained photographing in Ukraine as events in the east have unfolded (that again seems to make you something of a rarity as so many others left once the dramatic events in the Maidan ended). You’ve since photographed Ukrainian army conscripts and the lives of ordinary people in the east, amongst other things. I can see your strategy of focusing on smaller parts of the bigger pictures makes sense as a way to respond to the vastness of this conflict, but how do you decide which parts are important?

Well since I’d already been photographing in Ukraine for almost a year before Euromaidan it was just natural to continue after the events in Kyiv came to an end and the crisis deepened across the county. With regards to focusing on smaller stories, most of it came naturally just from being there and exploring. It’s not so much about me deciding what’s important as such, but more often than not it’s moments that are not directly related to the conflict that seem to stick. My path naturally developed into trips between east and west at various important points along the timeline of events and during a period of massive transformation, so in some ways the work is a reflection of that time. I spent time with a huge mix of people, from patriots in the west, to ethnic Russians and supporters of DNR in the east, as well as pro-Ukrainians in Donetsk region. I met people who love Ukraine and hate Ukraine, or who don’t care either way. I began to understand how complicated the situation was, and I felt it was different to what was in the news or on social media.

I was seeing hints of war and political tension everywhere, often in very mundane ways, and it directly touched a lot of the people who I knew before the crisis began.  My photos are a response to everything I was seeing, thinking about and doing at the time. From the start, I felt like I was experiencing all these little glimpses of people’s lives and situations that were connected somehow to Ukraine’s recent history and current state. During later trips I worked with journalists and visited destroyed towns and soldiers in battalions and things like that, but it’s the situations and meetings that happen naturally, when I work alone, that are most important to me.

As final questions go it’s rather an obvious one but what’s next? Do you see these different stories ultimately coming together as one body of work at some point in the future or will they remain as separate fragments of the current state of Ukraine?

I’ll keep doing what I’m doing until I feel satisfied. I think there will be one main piece of work made during the last few years, and continuing for the next year or so, and maybe a few smaller projects. Perhaps they will be separate chapters that branch off from the main body of work. I have a few ideas that I am trying to arrange.

See more of Chris’s work on his website.

Ukraine: One Year On

 

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Part of an analysis of purported satellite imagery of a fighter jet attack on Flight MH17,
Original image from Russian state TV, analysis by Bellingcat.

The violence in Ukraine has now been continuing in various forms for over a year, in which time its events and actors have both courted and eluded visibility. In turn, journalists and image makers seeking to reveal the conflict’s complexities, or to reduce it to simplicities, have employed a full gamut of visual strategies. For the next few weeks on the blog I’ll be focusing on a number of projects and topics related to Ukraine and Russia. From a return look at The Sochi Project’s epic An Atlas of War and Tourism to a rumination on the fascination in the west with the ruins left behind by the Soviet era. By way of introduction to these pieces here is an incomplete recap, a partial anatomy of the war of images in Ukraine.

For many of us on the outside the protests in Kyiv seemed like the opening overture to the conflict, even if to some in the country the causes and effects of events in the Maidan were less clear. Press coverage was intense, but as Donald Weber and others have noted, that coverage often tended towards reduction, towards extravagant scenes of almost medieval battle, or to the fetishisation of the fighters and their weapons. Less often photographers focused the quieter moments, rarer still those away from the centre of Kyiv, although there were some photographing these things. Chris Nunn, whose work will feature in an interview next week, continued to work in the west Ukrainian town of Kalush throughout the events in Kyiv, resisting the draw it exerted on so many other photographers.

If Maidan was the overture, the annexation of Crimea was perhaps the opening act, and one caught from the outset in photographs, particularly non-professional images circulated on the image sharing site Instagram. Widely reproduced were the photographs of Crimeans posing with the unidentified soldiers, the so-called ‘Little Green Men’ who were widely believed to have been Russian Special Forces. These images were quickly dubbed selfskies’ by a largely disapproving global media, perhaps at least in part disapproving because they had been caught so off guard by the annexation, and their own visual response to it proved to be so limited.

Again the tendency was towards simplistic interpretations of these Instagram images, and few noted their ambiguity. The expressions of more than a few of civilians suggested ambivalence, a desire to record a pivotal event, even if the subject was maybe unsure whether that event would turn out to be for good or bad. Others, admittedly a minority, displayed expressions that seemed at times to verge on defiance, even hostility, and captioned their photographs accordingly with phrases like ‘here they come’. There was also a strange ambiguity in the behaviour of the armed men themselves. Even as they were apparently happy to pose for photographs that would span the globe, they had stripped themselves of all identifying markers, an intriguing example of how modern war can negotiate an image hungry world, whilst at the same time still keeping it at arm’s length.

The takeover in Crimea was relatively peaceful, but events in Eastern Ukraine since have been anything but, as an escalating conflict has emerged between the Ukrainian armed forces and a separatist opposition whose precise make-up remains a matter of dispute. Media coverage has been varied, some photographers covering battles that evoke the devastation of the eastern front in the Second World War. More than a few have drawn comparisons between the ruins of Donetsk airport and those cities like Stalingrad. The implications of this comparison seem problematic in the context of a dispute where groups are often labelled fascists or neo-Nazis by their opponents. Other journalists have employed drones and similarly contemporary means to create sweepingly cinematic images and video, which likewise have their own visual power, and bring with them their own problems.

Amongst the melee of war some more specific flashpoints have emerged, where physical military struggles have entwined with visual and evidential ones. The Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 disaster quickly became a debate about visual evidence as both sides in the conflict, and the wider international community which had been affected by the disaster, sought to locate responsibility. On the pro-European, pro-Kyiv side of the divide, grainy images appeared to show a BUK anti-aircraft missile system in the area near the crash, and images were released of wreckage to indicate the correlation of damage with a BUK attack. In response Russian state TV released satellite imagery claimed to show a Ukrainian fighter shooting down the airliner, images later debunked as fakes and then widely parodied by internet users.

In a similar way to the war in Syria, the conflict in Ukraine has also seen the sophisticated use of visual data by activists seeking to apportion responsibility for attacks on populated areas and civilian targets. Coupled with on the ground stills and video of the moment and aftermath of such attacks, damning evidence of crimes by both sides is mounting. Groups like the Bellingcat investigative journalism group have used similar methods in an attempt to demonstrate Russian involvement in the conflict, employing a mixture of direction finding and satellite imagery to locate the launch sites of rocket and artillery attacks inside Russia.

And as this example suggests, there has been the gradual permeation of the conflict across the border into Russia, where official attempts to deny involvement have become increasingly unconvincing. The mothers of missing Russian soldiers clutching portraits of their sons, the photographs of Russians captured in Ukraine, and more recently the images of the wounded tanker, Dhorzhi Batomunkuev and his remarkable account of travelling from the far east of Russia to the front lines of Donetsk, all have undermined this narrative, and have all been heavily evidenced with photographs. With the unrest in Ukraine showing little sign of abating there is no doubt that events there will continue to generate images which set out to disturb or excite, simplify or complicate, evidence or obscure.

FORMAT Festival ’15 Highlights

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Tom Stayte #Selfie, FORMAT Festival
Photograph by Lewis Bush

Last weekend saw the opening of the FORMAT Festival in Derby. Marking ten years of the festival, the theme for the 2015 festival was ‘Evidence’ and with a topic tied in so many ways to our present existential angst about photography there were inevitably some great responses to it on show. I was wearing several hats simultaneously in Derby, primarily as co-curator of an exhibition that was part of the festival but also as a photographer in my own right. Even so I found time to put on my critic’s hat for a while and wander around some of the many shows, and thought I would write up some of the ones I particularly enjoyed. I didn’t get to see everything so this is hardly an exhaustive list of the best of the festival, but they were the highlights of what I saw.

The centrepiece of the festival was the main show at Quad, Beyond Evidence curated by Lars Willumeit and Louise Clements. Taking Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s influential Evidence series as a starting point, the show brought together a great array of recent projects. These ranged from familiar works like Mishka Henner’s Dutch Landscapes and Simon Menner’s Top Secret: Photographs from the Stasi Archive, through to projects I hadn’t come across before like Lukas Einsele’s Zenon‘s Arrow Retraced which reveals the life of an M85 cluster munition through a plethora of publicly available documentation, advertising material and the like. As the few names mentioned here suggests, appropriation and reuse was a predominant theme in Beyond Evidence although there was also a strong smaller showing of photographers working with more traditional approaches.

50 Contemporary Photobooks from China: 2009 – 2014 curated by Yining He was another display I enjoyed. Right before heading to Derby I was in New York where I saw Martin Parr’s exhibition on the same topic at Aperture. But whereas the Aperture display was very much a history and focused heavily on the Mao era and it’s aftermath (with a relatively brief focus on contemporary chinese photobooks), this display was entirely current. What’s more you’re encouraged to handle the books which is fantastic since it pains me a little to see books in glass cases, however rare or valuable they might be. Also, although in general I’m not a big one for getting excited about the design of photo books, there were a couple of examples here that were so ingenious it was hard not to admire them.

Art and Antiques by Sarah Pickering at Derby Art Museum and Gallery was another strong show. Taking the notorious art forger Shaun Greenhalgh as inspiration, Pickering mixes photographs, objects and archival material to tell Greenhalgh’s story, but the evidence in this case is of dubious provenance. Some is legitimate but other pieces are props or ‘forgeries’ made for exhibitions and documentaries about Greenhalgh’s career. It was also a nice example of a show which responded to it’s location, both in the sense of the theme but also in the way the display was constructed. A particularly nice touch was a display of paintings in the space taken from the museum’s own collection, a mixture of genuine Joseph Wright paintings and others which have at different times been wrongly attributed to the artist.

Housed on the top floor of the beautiful Pickford House (which is more than worth a visit in it’s own right) The Photograph is Proof curated by by Anusha Yadav is a small but neatly formed exhibition which examines the use of photography as a tool in the criminal justice system of India. In particular it focuses on the period when India was under British imperial rule, and the sometimes competing and contradictory expectations placed on photography. The displays, which each focus around a major crime, event or figure, are text heavy but don’t suffer for it because the histories they tell are fascinating. It opened up interesting thoughts for me of the possibility of an effective photo exhibition where the photographs themselves might actually play a very small part.

Lastly #Selfie by Tom Stayte more than deserves a mention for its currency, effective staging and engagement, and it’s also again worth a visit for it’s fantastic location in a disused school. Using a shop receipt printer hooked up to a computer running custom code, #Selfie monitors the image sharing site Instagram for photographs tagged ‘selfie’ before automatically downloading and printing a copy of each one it finds. The result is a continuous stream of fragile, disposable photographs which pop out of the printer and flutter down onto the floor, forming a massing pile which spreads across the ground around the exhibit. Visitors are encouraged to wade through these pictures, investigate and discard them. Being invited to walk carelessly across a mass of photographs taken by complete strangers seems to say more to me about the current state of photography than anything else I’ve seen in a while.

(Critical transparency: I also curated a show at FORMAT this year, but then I already said that didn’t I?)