A War of Poverty: J.A. Mortram’s Small Town Inertia

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“My life, now, pretty shit, to be honest. I was born with a hair lip, cleft lip, got brought up without a dad, my mum was my rock, my soul mate, my father, my mother all in one. Loads of blokes coming in and out which I didn’t like as I was the man of the house then, so I just rebelled. Been locked up a few times in police cells, went to prison for various offenses, driving offenses, fighting, a lot. I went to jail for about six months but was let out after 3 for good behavior.” – From Small Town Inertia.

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In the seventies and eighties a generation of British photographers documented life at the sharp end of the Conservative Thatcher government’s drive towards de-industrialisation. This process, which was the consequence of policies aimed at liberalising the economy for the benefit of a minority, turned parts of the country upside down. Long standing sources of employment disappeared almost overnight, dropping entire towns into unemployment. The fabric of communities, which had once been woven closely around these industries, began to rapidly fray apart. These events are now history, but many are still living with the consequences.

Now, three decades on, a new generation of photographers are recording the detrimental economic campaign of yet another Conservative government. Forget the shallow neologism of ‘compassionate conservatism’, this new campaign is not so much a war on poverty, but a war of poverty. It is an onslaught, directed against the poor, the ill, and the weak, and intended either to push them into a narrowly proscribed form of ‘useful’ employment or else to make their already difficult circumstances nothing short of unbearable. It is a campaign waged through the proxy of a welfare system created in order to help those most in need, but which has been cynically re-engineered to eliminate its capacity to care.

J.A. Mortram must be amongst the most visible and vocal of the photographers documenting the consequences of this campaign against the most vulnerable in our society. Small Town Inertia, Mortram’s dispatches from the Norfolk town of Dereham, comprises a series of narratives that take us inside the homes, lives and memories of people he has come to know in the town. For one reason or another these people have all been relegated to the fringes of the community, by illness, accident, misfortune. Things which could befall any of us, at any time.

Like many of the best photographers, Mortram’s chosen subject is one he has first-hand experience of, as he juggles his commitment to tell these stories with his own responsibilities as a carer in his family home. Heavy though the logistical and emotional burden of these dual responsibilities must be, it means Mortram can bring to bear an empathy and understanding of the difficulties his subjects face which is rare to see in the often patronisingly paternalistic genre of ‘socially concerned’ documentary photography. It also has practical benefits for some of his subjects, with Mortram sometimes helping them navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of the modern welfare state.

Mortram’s beautiful photographs and accompanying interviews communicate the complex pasts and painfully difficult presents of his subjects. One of the most affecting series follows on David, a local man rendered blind by a bicycle accident and now isolated following the death of his mother. Mortram’s interviews with David scrupulously avoid turning him into the embodiment of a medical condition, as other photographers would. Instead David appears to us a rounded person, with complex thoughts and feelings about his predicament. In a beautiful, meandering monologue he muses on loss in its many forms, the nature of sight and the strange behaviour of memory.

Mortram sometimes holds off photographing for months or years. Getting to know people through repeated contact, they are in many cases much more his friends than his photographic subjects. In the process of forming these relationships he has a knack for teasing something out the enormous potential in people, something which is easy to dismiss, or miss entirely. In another series Mortram focuses on Tilney1, a man living with schizotypal and obsessive compulsive disorders. But what is also revealed is that Tilney1 is an avid poet and artist who uses his artwork as a way to explore and document his condition, producing large diagrams mixing image and text in idiosyncratic ways.

Despite recording the precise events of individual lives, Mortram’s tight vignettes seem to stand for something far bigger. For all its specificity, Small Town Inertia’s dispatches could be coming to us from almost anywhere in the country. It should be a stark reminder to us all that the state sanctioned inertia which holds lives in limbo isn’t just limited to this small market town, but to every region, every city, and every walk of life. The same lives are being led in our own communities, the same suffering is taking place, and there are the same stories to tell. Except these are not just stories, they are statements, accounts, and one day they will be histories also. Testimonies of what happens when a state turns its back on its citizens.

(Critical transparency: Mortram approached me about writing a piece about his work and this essay was originally published in The New British, December 2014)

Review – Anima and On The Widest Prairies by Charlotte Dumas at The Photographers Gallery

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Charlotte Dumas, Untitled, from the series Anima, 2012
© Charlotte Dumas, Courtesy of the artist

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Sometimes you see an exhibition and initially feel there isn’t much to say about it, but after leaving the gallery the thoughts planted by the work start to grow and intermingle, and you find yourself drawn back to write about it. So it was with Anima and On The Wildest Prairies, the first UK solo show of Dutch artist Charlotte Dumas, which has just opened at the Photographer’s Gallery.

The majority of the gallery space is taken up with photographs from The Widest Prairies, a series made near Dayton, Nevada where Dumas tracked wild horses, the descendants of horses ridden in the territory in nineteenth century. These superficially straightforward photographs show beautiful if rather scraggy horses in a rugged, quintessentially American landscape. Quintessential perhaps but certainly not idealised, the background and sometimes foreground of these images are scattered with human detritus and construction; piles of rubbish, half built houses and mobile homes. Likewise the horses, beautiful as they often are, are not exactly romanticised symbols of freedom. They rather obviously live in close proximity to people and in some cases have more of the the air of urban foxes rather than free roaming mustangs.

Dumas states that she’s interested in exploring the relationship between viewer and subject, person and animal. For me though the real interest in The Widest Prairies are the mixed metaphors and symbolism. Horses are emblematic of the United States, and particularly the American west, ‘living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit’ is how they are described by an act of Congress. This is something of an irony since horses are neither by most measures ‘American’, nor particularly convincing symbols of freedom. They are imports, brought by the first settlers and explorers to help in the pacification of one of the last wild continents, a wildness typified by regions like the one which would become the present day state of Nevada, now adulterated by urban sprawl. Horses were in effect pathfinders for the railway, and then later the freeway, the industrial tendrils which would follow in the hoof prints of those early pioneers, gradually encircling and constricting a continent.

There’s also an obvious symbolic dissonance in the idea of horses as symbols of freedom, in that they are more often potent examples of nature subdued, tamed and bent to man’s will. As if to echo these thoughts several of the images focus on a program at the Northern Nevada Correctional Facility, where inmates are encouraged to tame and train wild horses as part of their rehabilitation. A strange example of man doing unto animal what been done unto man.

Interesting as the photographs were, for me the undoubted highlight of the show is Dumas’s first foray into video, a piece called Anima which for me far better achieves her stated aim of probing the viewer’s emotional connection to an animal. Anima consists of a series of clips of caisson burial horses of Arlington National Cemetery in the United States at night in their stables, gently drifting in and out of sleep and wakefulness. Here in the half dark of the projection space, these enormous animals twitch into and out of waking in a way which is profoundly moving, and encourages association with them as fellow living creatures. In the ambiguous place between sleeping and waking their characteristics are most powerfully heightened, and the contrast of gentle curiosity and raw power is overwhelming.

On The Wildest Prairies is on at The Photographers Gallery from 6th February 2015 to 6th April 2015.

Review – Human Rights, Human Wrongs at The Photographers Gallery

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Robert Lebeck
Leopoldville [Young man steals the sword of King Baudouin I, during procession with newly appointed
President Kasavubu], Leopoldville, Republic of the Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), June 30 1960
Gelatin silver print, RIC.2012.0111 Collection of the Ryerson Image Centre

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‘…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. So starts the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps the defining document of the post-Second World War era, and an artefact central to Human Rights, Human Wrongs, a new exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery curated by Mark Sealy. Using photographs from the far reaching Black Star press agency archive, Sealy seeks to show how inhumanity functions in the context of press photography, how appalling acts are recorded, selected and circulated, and ultimately whether the resulting photographs work for or against a better world.

The exhibition constitutes an overwhelming number of photographs, of a huge range of events occuring across the middle part of the twentieth century. Mounted in small black frames, the archive prints flow across the walls of the gallery in an ongoing stream of images which echo the stream of abuses they record. Moving around the gallery is like leaping in a disorientating way across time and space, from Biafra, to Vietnam, apartheid South Africa to segregated America. One could speculate about the real life analogue this arrangement is designed to act as metaphor for. Perhaps the ongoing flow of history, the torrent of news images which we are more keenly aware of now than ever, or even simply the idiosyncratic organisation of archives. Which is correct is less important than the effect, which is overwhelming.

The majority of the photographs are presented as single, solitary moments within larger events; wars, murders, tortures, famines. However also dispersed amongst these single pictures are some sets comprising multiple images of the same event, producing an ongoing narrative of a short sequence which often flows out of and back into the more disjointed single pictures. The photograph above, Young man steals the sword of King Baudouin I, is an example of this. We see the event broken down into small fragments, from the martial procession just before its disruption, to the final moment when the young man is bundled uncomfortable on to the floor of a military jeep and driven away, to what fate we can only guess.

These larger sets of connected image give an altogether stronger sense of the generation and selection of these images in a news context, but what is notably missing is their final use of these images in print. There are some photographs of LIFE magazine in a vitrine showing photo essays from concentration camps like Nordhausen and Belsen, but they refer to events prior to the photographs on show and act more as a reminder of a continuum that the Universal Declaration was supposed to put an end to. Instead looking at this exhibition it feels rather as if the events of the Second World War were not the impetus to put an end to human rights abuses, but more the opening of a Pandora’s box of violence and cruelty, which has corrupted practically every country on earth.

On that note, one of the stranger inclusions from the archive is a cluster of Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Jimmy Carter, Yasser Arafat, Anwar Sadat, and in another part of the gallery, of Ho Chi Min, who won but declined the prize. These portraits of Nobel laureates (some more unlikely than others) are a reminder that the question of human rights is not always an area of moral binaries or clearly delineated figures of good and evil. Many people, organisations and nations which are seen as upholders of human rights in one domain are sometimes simultaneously guilty of terrible abuses in others. Equally one gets a powerful sense from this show our strange tendency to see human rights almost as a finite resource, and the common assumption that one person’s gain in this sphere comes at another’s loss, would seem to underpin a great deal of man’s continuing inhumanity to man.

Human Rights, Human Wrongs is at The Photographers Gallery from February 6th 2015 until April 6th 2015.

Review – Make Life Worth Living at Media Space

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“Make Life Worth Living”, terrace of back-to-back houses, Leeds, West Yorkshire, July 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

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‘HAROLD WILSON TRAITOR TO THE UNION FAT PIG RAT’ is scrawled on a door in Toxteth, Liverpool. It’s 1968 and Nick Hedges has been commissioned by the housing charity Shelter to travel through the United Kingdom recording the plight of people housed in substandard accommodation, ignored by councils and exploited by landlords. Over the next four years he finds no shortage of subjects. Some of the resulting images were used and published by Shelter, but this is first time in forty years that the entire set have been exhibited together, an embargo intended to protect the anonymity of those who spoke to the photographer during his travels through London, Manchester, Liverpool and other cities and communities across the country.

Forty years later what Hedges saw and photographed still defies belief. Houses (many of which barely even deserve that description) with bare brick walls, cracked ceilings, pools of standing water and sewage, surrounded by partially destroyed streets that better resemble war zones than the suburbs of major cities. In one of a number of short extracts from Hedge’s notes which are scattered around the exhibition, he recalls how in one case he had to bring light-bulbs with him in order to shoot, since the family he was visiting didn’t have any in the light sockets of the tenement they occupied. In another he notes how a family were woken one morning by the sound of a demolition crew starting to knock down their row of houses, with them still inside.

These grim anecdotes aside (and there are plenty more in this show) Hedge’s brings a photographic brilliance which makes these more than just depressing records of poverty and misery. Part of that is technical, the interior photographs are beautiful contrasts of light and dark, often composed in a chaotic way which chimes with the disorder of the rooms themselves, which are invariably stacked with broken furniture and with washing hung from the ceilings. Part of it is also procedural, particularly the way Hedges roves beyond the immediate remit of his commission, photographing his subjects at work or play for example. In one picture a woman anonymised by Hedges as ‘Mrs E’ carries out the Byzantine task of sticking broken glass to the tops of walls to ward off trespassers, in order to supplement her family’s meagre income. A profession as strange and medieval as that of Chris Killip’s nearly contemporary photographs of the Seacoal diggers. Other photographs, for example of kids at play in the streets, are reminiscent of Roger Mayne and Helen Levitt.

Despite being a series about shelter, Hedge’s exterior photographs are in many ways as atmospheric and telling as his interiors. In one picture from which the show takes it’s name, a deserted tenement street in Leeds is shown, the end of a row of houses daubed with a disintegrating sign which reads ‘BEECHAM’S PILLS, MAKE LIFE WORTH LIVING’. In the foreground three children run past holding enormous toy guns. Hedge’s photographs illustrate that the quest for decent housing isn’t just a matter of making life worth living, but that in fact for many people, and particularly children, decent housing can be a matter of life and death. As in photographs by the likes of Mayne, the children in Hedge’s photographs often look more like small adults, their faces already worn and creased by the strain of life. It’s a depressing evidence of the toll of poverty. One image which lingers particularly long on the mind is a portrait of a beautiful young girl, her face marked by a vicious skin infection from living in close proximity to raw sewage. In another we see the aftermath of a child’s funeral.

It would be easy to label what these photographs show as Dickensian and leave it at that, but really what is on display here is far beyond the awfulness of anything I’ve ready in Dickens. These pictures record things I find hard to imagine in his era, let alone a century after his death. And yet the really eerie thing about this exhibition stems from the sense of its timing, that forty years after Hedges took these photographs we should again be living through a crisis of housing, where huge numbers of individuals and families are dumped in the limbo of substandard temporary accommodation for years at a time, and others are forced onto the street. These photographs are remarkable, distressing, beautiful, pertinent, and angerful.

Make Life Worth Living continues at the Science Museum, London until 1st March 2014 and is free.

The Cultural Debt of Corporate Sponsorship

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Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971

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I often work in museums and galleries and so I know full well that corporate sponsorship is a fact of life for the arts in the UK. With government arts budgets slashed, big institutions have to look wherever they can to make up the shortfall. The National Portrait Gallery today announced that the international law firm Taylor Wessing would continue to sponsor the museum’s prestigious portrait prize through until 2018. It’s difficult to get a particularly detailed sense of what Taylor Wessing do. According to the firm’s site they have a presence in a vast array of legal proficiencies including banking and finance, capital markets, commercial agreements, competition, corporate, and so on. They also apparently have a large (but inevitably confidential) private client list, ‘offer a unique and integrated service for the ultra-wealthy’ and advise amongst other things on ‘the protection of wealth from taxation’.

One of the issues with corporate sponsorship is its insidious nature, people get used to it, don’t criticise it or even fail to recognise how deep it runs into our cultural institutions. I know someone who once believed that ‘Taylor Wessing’ was the name of a noted portrait photographer, after all why on earth would a portrait photography competition be named after a law firm? Obviously because the relationship between arts institutions and corporations is about more than art and good deeds, it also acts as a form of cultural whitewashing or laundering. Companies trade their money for the good name of the sponsored institutions, and the generally positive public relations karma of philanthropy. Perhaps sometimes that’s a price worth paying to keep the arts relatively free and well funded, but we need scrutinise these relationships in order to make that determination.

The benefits of this relationship can be much more tangible for the donors than just good will, and likewise the cost to us, as consumers of art, can be more than just a rather unseemly association. As Hans Haacke has pointed out these sorts of donations are usually tax deductible for the donating company. This again perhaps isn’t a bad thing in itself if it encourages philanthropy, but when the donation is towards an exhibition which the public have to pay to see (like the NPG’s portrait prize) then in effect the public are subsiding an event which is a tax write off for the sponsoring company. Since photographers also pay a fee to enter their photographs to the prize, that point might be extended to their entry fee as well. When everyone is paying for something it also of course raises the question of where it’s all going.

Haacke remains one of the relatively few artists to consistently draw attention to the awkward relationship between artists, institutions and donors. His seminal work Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 brilliantly revealed the shady real estate dealings of one of New York’s biggest real estate groups, which predominantly rented substandard slum properties to ethnic minorities. There was much speculation at the time that the Shapolsky group were connected to the trustee board of the Guggenheim Museum, who resented the work and cancelled a forthcoming solo show of Haacke’s work in response. When the curator of the show defended the work he was fired.

Critiquing these relationships is dangerous, and as Haacke’s example demonstrates, these corporate relationships can profoundly shape the type of work that is seen and promoted, and the public discourse that work helps to make possible. I think it’s worth noting that a representative from Taylor Wessing usually participates in the judging of the submitted work for the portrait prize, and the same is the case for other major prizes sponsored by private firms. Assuming that the job of artists is to act as the critical conscience of the societies they operate in, corporate sponsorship of the arts is at it’s very best an uneasy and unnatural partnership, and at worse one which threatens one of art’s most vital functions. Sponsorship and patronage might be a long-standing fact of artistic life, and it might at the present time be particularly necessary, but artists and institutions should never see it as anything more than a deal with the devil. It’s a cultural debt in many sense of the phrase, and in time it will need to be paid back.

Towards a Photography of Austerity

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Farm Security Administration logo.
The FSA photographic unit’s depiction of the Great Depression was highly influential.

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More than six years on from the start of recession, Britain remains mired in what feels like a state of perpetual austerity. Cuts to essential state services like healthcare and welfare are rampant and ongoing, and the poor, sick, elderly, and ‘other’ are routinely wheeled out as scapegoats for problems they have little to do with causing or exacerbating. Whether austerity in Britain is in any sense economically necessary is still a matter of considerable debate (there are have been some compelling arguments that many of the relatively small welfare savings made through it just generate greater costs elsewhere, for example in the prison system). Many, myself included, would argue that it’s motivated at least as much by politics and ideology, particularly the incumbent conservative government’s traditional hostility to statism, and their generally rather Victorian ideas about work, welfare and morality.

Several interlinked questions have been weighing on my mind since an interesting exchange on this topic at the end of last year. Given that this campaign of austerity is one of the biggest single issues to affect this country and its people in a decade or more, and considering that it’s effect are likely to be very long lasting, what is being done right now to record it? Can we speak of a photography of austerity? What form might such a photography take, and what might it achieve?

First, there are certainly photographers out there recording the effects of austerity. I think for example of Jim Mortram’s Small Town Inertia, with it’s focus on the people who have been directly impacted by cuts to services, or by a social environment which seems to be increasingly hostile to people who are unable to work. The same goes for Hannah Mornement’s Food Bank Britain, a project on what is surely the great unofficial emergency service of twenty-first century Britain. Likewise works like Ed Thompson’s Occupy record the public reaction to austerity. These are all important projects. They bring attention to subjects which need it, and hopefully provoke change at some level. At the very least they will stand as historical records, a lingering J’accuse of the economic and social savagery of a government towards its own people. But the thing that they have in common also hints to me at the larger problem with attempts to record austerity, which is the overwhelming emphasis on the visible consequences of it.

This is hardly unique to our attempts to document austerity. It goes without saying that photographers are drawn to the most visible subjects, and it is always far harder and less attractive to attempt to visualise what is beyond being seen. But if we want to talk about a broader photography of austerity then I don’t think this is enough. Any photography of austerity which focuses principally on the consequences will always be incomplete. Beyond picturing the effects, we need to also visualise the causes of the crisis and the negotiations and machinations that lead it to manifest in the way it has, as a campaign against the poorest in society. Of course these things are notoriously difficult to capture in images, and indeed some of them are probably near impossible to record using traditional documentary approaches. None the less some photographers are trying, Mark Curran’s The Market, a long term work on global financial markets, is a relatively rare example of someone aiming to give visibility to the nebulous global forces which rule our lives. Similarly Simon Robert’s Let This Be a Sign attempts to bridge the divide between financial cause and effect and examine the two in one body of work, but these projects are certainly exceptions from the norm.

For my part a big part of the reason I turn to techniques like photomontage and the juxtaposition of images is again the intangibility of many of the things I want to draw attention to. The complicities between politicians and unaccountable corporations, the rank hypocrisies that cadge cuts in terms of a moral responsibility, and so on. As I noted in a recent piece on photomontage, when so many of the conversations and mechanisms that determine the course of our lives operate behind closed doors it becomes vital that we look beyond traditional ideas and forms of documentation in order to draw attention to these things. That can mean using techniques more often associated with art practice or propaganda than documentary, approaches which many photographers (rightly and wrongly) still have misgivings about. But if recording these important topics means making work which is seen as subjective or politically loaded, then perhaps that is part of the price we need to consider paying. Recently I’ve spent much time looking at the work of Trevor Paglen, who very effectively deals with similar problems in his attempts to make visible the invisible apparatus of the American security state.

Moving beyond the method, part of the problem also seems to me to be the enormous scale of this issue. Something raised in the original conversation was the absence of collective action or organisation by photographers and artists. There are national groups like the Artists’ Assembly Against Austerity, but these kinds of organisations seems to much more about showing a united front against austierty than deploying the specific skills of members to change opinions.

With events like the recent Scottish independence referendum we saw the role of groups like Document Scotland in generating interesting work and dialogue about often rather disparate questions of national identity and self-determination. The individual projects that emerged out of this collective effort were interesting, but infinitely more interesting were the invisible strands one could start to detect emerging between the quite disparate subjects that each dealt with. This is part of the great strength of collective action, that the produced effect is very often greater than the sum of its parts, and that it can unite scattered subjects and places in a way a single photographer would struggle to. Above all in this context, such a collective would offer the possibility of starting to draw connecting threads between events happening on the streets of Britain, and decisions being made in closed boardrooms and government offices. There could be a strong case for a similar collective approach to documenting the recession, one which incorporates a diverse range of subjects using a varied approaches.

Although it’s early days, the recent election of Syriza in Greece on an anti-austerity platform demonstrates that people can decide to reject austerity in favour of something else (and it’s interesting to note that Greece has a far better developed photographic response to the crisis, for example the Depression Era collective). A precursor to that rejection has to involve showing people that the policies of austerity are the products of particular political decisions, not the demands of some abstract market deity which must now be appeased at any cost. As Marco Bohr pointed out yesterday, photographers have a very real power, and a very great part to play in making this happen.

Review – Staging Disorder at London College of Communication

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Sarah Pickering, Public Order

 

Architecture is never apolitical. Rather it is, in the words of Robert Hughes, the ‘carapace of political fantasy’, the thing that simultaneously represents and contains our supreme collective ambitions, and our worst communal nightmares. A new exhibition which has just opened at London College of Communication brings together work by seven photographers who have documented a particularly potent form of this fantasy, specifically the constructed spaces which are used by militaries and emergency services around the world to train in readiness for war, catastrophe, or civil strife.

The precise focus of the show, the small number of projects and the tight selection of the work makes for an interesting and well curated exhibition. Sarah Pickering’s Public Order is one highlight, a series of understated photographs of towns including ‘Denton’, constructed by British police services in order to train for euphemistically named public order incidents, better known as protests or riots. ‘Denton’ is an entire town complete with a tube station, a night club and a job centre, however the town’s buildings are nothing but hollow façades, and an occasional open house door gives way to the green of a field behind it like a surreal illusion. The real action occurs not in the non-existent interiors of these houses but in the streets which are barricaded with shopping trolleys and truck tires, the tarmac and bases of buildings burnt black by improvised incendiaries.

The show includes some artistic heavy hitters including work by three former Deustche Borse prize winners. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Chicago documents a mock-up of an Arab town constructed by the Israeli Defence Force to train for urban combat. In their own words, ‘everything that happened, happened here first in rehearsal’ a summary which perhaps rather overstates the ability of such training grounds to anticipate the course of events in the real world, but which is still an engaging idea. In a rather different vein, Richard Mosse’s series Airside records the aircraft shaped metal hulks that are installed at major airports and which are periodically set ablaze in order to train emergency personnel to deal with a crash or a similar aeronautical disaster. If, as I have, you ever happen to land at an airport while such a training is in progress, the effect is deeply unsettling, not so much because of the threat of fire but because of the uncanny and grotesque look of these structures. The sight is less one of people battling to save a plane, and more one of them trying to slay a terrible monster. It’s maybe unsurprising that so many of the photographers in this show practice a form of photography which borders on or borrows from traditions and practices associated with conceptual art. What are these structures after all but conceptions of imagined places, anticipated events, and grotesque fears, all made material.

The exhibition also incorporates several sound installations produced by members of CRiSAP, a sound arts research group based at the college. These include Sounds from Dangerous Places, a series of recordings from the Chernobyl exclusion zone made by Peter Cusack. These blend audio cues now inextricably linked with nuclear disaster (like the scratchy clicking of a Geiger counter) with the evocative sounds of the exclusion zone’s now resurgent nature, and the people who have gradually returned to live there. Another piece, one of my favourites, is Cathy Lane’s Preparations for an Imaginary Conflict, which responds to the way political rhetoric is often used to prepare and condition populations for war. The listener is confronted by a semicircle of speakers, which gradually crackle into life with voices from Winston Churchill to David Cameron. The voices rise and fall, blending into and over one another, creating an orchestrated medley of rhetorical fear mongering.

Returning to the photographs, I think its notable that while some of these environments are stark places of poured concrete and undecorated chipboard, most by contrast feature details that go well beyond what is needed to simply train people to fight an enemy or suppress a riot. A case in point is Claudio Hill’s fascinating series Red Land Blue Land, which focuses on a model of an Irish town built in Germany for use by the British Army in training soldiers preparing to deploy to Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. The town includes many seemingly unnecessary details including painted ‘for rent’ signs in shop windows, and mannequins inside phone boxes. As I noted in a review earlier this week, there is a question, which is ever present in this exhibition, about the point at which a simulation and the reality it depicts collide with one another. It is irresistible to ask how those who train in these deeply artificial environments find their expectations about the real world shaped and conditioned by them, and how they respond when those expectations are, or are not met by the real world.

As Dr Jennifer Good writes in one of the accompanying catalogue essays, these are fundamentally spaces where ‘form follows fear not function’ and the devil of this is very much in their detail. Seen that way, the anti-American graffiti in An-My Lê’s 29 Palms, or the nightclub and job centre signs of Pickering’s Public Order take on new meaning, as symbols of the often quite specific groups of people that these spaces are very definitely constructed against. It is impossible to know, but seductive to ask, how far these training simulations actually serve to ease the fears that they represent, or how far they in fact entrench and even exacerbate them. How in each new drill the political prejudices of these hollow streets and empty rooms are engrained on the trained. Fears heightened, intolerances nourished, and the sense of disorder’s inevitably cemented.

Staging Disorder is on at London College of Communication from Monday 26 January until Thursday 12 March.

(Critical transparency: I studied at LCC in 2012 and now work there periodically as a visiting tutor, however I do not know the curators or any of the artists involved in this show).

Review – Hyenas of the Battlefield by Lisa Barnard

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Following last week’s piece on new photographic horizons now seems like an apt time to take a look at Lisa Barnard’s recent book Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden. The book examines the increasingly strange turns that modern warfare is taking, evolving from an event for so long defined by physicality and proximity, but which now appears to be dematerialising, becoming ever more remote and abstract, at least for the antagonist if not the victim. Hyenas of the Battlefield looks specifically at the rise of virtual reality and simulated war systems and the growing use of remote weapons like drones. Barnard employs a scattered approach, looking with varying depth at a range of inter-related topics, and employing an enormous range of visual devices in the process, from traditional photographic documentation, to interviews, to appropriation and collage.

The first section of the book, Virtual Iraq, focuses primarily on an immersive simulation of an Iraqi city designed to aid soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by slowly, safely reintroducing them to the source of that trauma. This is aided by a mixture of virtual and physical simulated environments, props and even bottled smells of garbage and burning tires. The level of detail gone to recreate these environments is exhaustive, and yet at the same time the whole simulation seems somehow shallow and disappointing, more reminiscent of a gameshow set than a warzone.

Also featured in this section are two virtual people developed by the US military. One named Seargent Starr is a recruitment tool for the US Army programmed to answer military careers questions with a series of evasive and inane answers, punctuated by regular ‘Hooahs’. The other simulated person ‘Raed Mutaaz’ is an Iraqi, who can be set to a range of levels of hostility and is designed to culturally acclimatise soldiers preparing to deploy in the country. The strange and rather depressing thought one is left with is the question of how far the simulation is constructed to reflect reality, or how far the user of the simulation comes to view reality as a shadow of that simulation, or an event which must conform to the dynamic created in the virtual reality. It’s not hard to imagine a soldier, having trained with Mutaaz, coming to view all Iraqis as innately hostile.

The second, larger section of the book, Whiplash Transition, looks at tele-warfare and particularly the use of drones, a practice which has become increasingly instrumental in the foreign policy of the United States over the past few decades. Remote warfare was clearly attractive because it seemed to offer the best of both worlds, the ability for technologically advanced nations to continue to project their power around the globe, without the danger of interventions disintegrating into politically unpalatable bloodbaths. Enemies could be tracked, ‘fixed’, and despatched at the push of a button. War it seemed, could become almost without consequence. The reality has proved rather different, and we are increasingly aware that soldiers can suffer trauma even when the act of killing is profoundly distant, performed by semi-autonamous machines, and mediated by computer screens.

This section starts with a relatively conventional series of still life photographs of shards from the Hellfire missiles which drones typically launch against their targets (sometimes quickly followed by a second missile intended to kill those who go to help the victims of the first). These shards are the most literal consequences of these remote foreign policy decisions, proof as it were that these near virtual war still have a real life counter-part. Also in this section is an interview with a drone operator, and as in Omer Fast’s film 5000 Feet is the Best, the operator’s words are a strange mixture of defensiveness, conciliation and pride in his work. The interview text is surrounded by pages of bleak, blue aerial views of mountainous Waziristan, the border territory of Pakistan now indelibly linked with drones.

In the final section Barnard travels to and photographs The Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International, an arms trade show in Las Vegas. While this seems likely to offer the blandest source material in the book, it actually turns out to be one of the most interesting parts. Barnard photographs the trade show stands replete with sleek black killing machines, their storage crates, and includes plans of the vast show and it’s huge list of corporate exhibitors. As soldiers need to be shielded from war, so too it seems do salesmen and accountants, and particularly intriguing are the exercises in psychic deflection, the simulation and the nomenclature which spare the participants in these trade shows from having to actually discuss or consider the horror they make possible. This is what Julian Stallabrass in his introductory essay describes perfectly as the ‘armoured glacis of corporate bullshit’.

These people are the profiteers of modern war, the ‘hyenas of the battlefield’ as Bertolt Brecht called them in Mother Courage. They ought to remember another adage from the same play, that he who sups with the devil had better use a long spoon. As Fast indirectly suggested in his film, for now remote drones, guided missile strikes and long distance killing are relatively exotic ideas. A small number of countries more or less monopolise these things, and monopolise the right to execute their terrible power on other people with impunity. That imbalance won’t last forever, the machines won’t remain in the garden.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

Analysis – Civis Sinæ Sum

Chinese workers await evacuation from Baghdad, Iraq.

Chinese workers who fled from Samarra, Iraq, wait for buses to begin their journey home as they sit at a hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 28, 2014. China’s official Xinhua news agency said that more than 1,200 Chinese workers who had been trapped in the embattled northern Iraqi city of Samarra have been evacuated safely to Baghdad, with the Iraqi military providing security.
(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

 

The global trade in Chinese indentured labourers, or coolies, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century casts a long shadow. The depiction of these workers in popular culture and historical records continues to colour thoughts of China and it’s people’s role in the world today. It remains common for the Chinese to be depicted in ways which suggest they are part of a whole, and that individually they are passive, featureless and expendable.

While China might be a country developing enormous hard military power (take note of recent American fears of a Chinese initiated ‘pearl harbour in space’) it’s easy to overlook the other ways that Chinese influence is spreading across the globe. A significant example is the large and growing number of overseas projects, from dams in South America to an opera house in Algeria, initiated by the Chinese government, and invariably planned, manned and managed by Chinese workers. Iraq is no exception, with the state-owned China Machinery Engineering Corporation involved in the construction of a US$1.2 billion power plant in Samarra.

In this photo seven workers from that project pause in a hotel lobby. They are waiting to be evacuated as the ISIS rampage across Iraq continues and the security situation becomes increasingly dangerous, but there is nothing to hint at this instability apart from the soldier in the far right, his Iraqi flag badge also giving the only indication of location. Apart from a mural in the top left the lobby has the boring corporate neutrality of most hotels, and the location could be practically anywhere in the world. This photograph could just record the end of a normal, if rather tiresome, trip.

In front of the soldier the three men on the sofa seem aware of the photographer, but their responses differ considerably. The one on the furthest left seems most assured, relaxed, his demeanour and receding hairline are resonant of Ge Xiaoguang’s portrait of Mao Zedong on the Tiananmen gate. The man on the far right is hard to read, hidden as he is beyond his aviator sunglasses, which give him the air of a guard or sentinel. Like the men to his left (one playing on a mobile, another in a branded t-shirt) the glasses are a hint at the individualism, affluence and perhaps aspiration of this group. While they might be waiting passively for evacuation, it seems it would be a mistake to see these workers as anything like the coolies of the last century. As the Band of Brothers shirt hints, they are much more like the pathfinders or forward element of a new empire, and the diversity of this group reflect many of that empire’s contrasts and contradictions.

The fact they are in the process of being evacuated greatly speaks to that value. In the ancient world the phrase ‘civis romanus sum’ – or ‘I am a Roman Citizen’ – was meant to offer the speaker a measure of protection, reflecting the far reaching power of his state. It was an idea the British Empire took on at the height of its power in the nineteenth century, at times intervening militarily on behalf of its citizens around the world and using the same credo to justify its actions. This great military power also gave rise to what euphemistically referred to as the Pax Britannica (or British peace), a period of relative calm on a continent torn apart over the previous centuries by rival empires and coalitions.

A time when China has the clout and confidence to project power and protect its far flung citizens in this way seems to be drawing closer and closer, assuming that as this photograph suggests it’s not already here. With America’s commitment to it’s role as world policeman seeming to falter in the moral vacuum of the post-9/11 world (and the world’s willing to acquiesce to that power equally absent) it’s not hard to imagine a new global watchdog might be on the rise, with ‘civis sinæ sum’ a part of it’s new lexicon.

(this post was originally written in June 2014 at the start of the ISIS offensive in Iraq but not published until early 2015 due to scheduling constraints)

The Potential of Privilege

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Jerome Liebling, Outside Claridge’s Hotel, Mayfair (1967), London, UK

 

I felt like penning a quick follow up to Colin Pantall’s piece ‘Don’t be a Crybaby because you are Rich’ published yesterday. It’s a good read on a topic I often find myself thinking about in relation to photography. The medium remains painfully exclusive as a profession, dominated particularly at its higher echelons by the relatively privileged. To be sure the proliferation of cheaper cameras and new methods of dissemination have changed things somewhat, but not nearly so much as the ‘photography is inherently democratic’ crowd like to claim. There is much more to any notion of democratic photography than everyone owning a camera.

Photography has the potential to be democratic, at all levels, and we should consider it a key goal to find ways to make it realise this potential, so that it better reflects the make-up of the world that photographs circulate in. This is particularly important for practices like documentary photography, where the subjects covered and the subtlety with which they are explored often hinges so critically on the photographers own background. Lots of rich white men documenting society inevitably has consequences for the images produced, and the information they impart.

From the perspective of understanding a work of art, I think the artist’s background does matter. Pantall cites Dianne Arbus as an example of someone who made great work, and whose background isn’t relevant. It might not be critical, or even hugely important, but it is relevant, since what we know about Arbus (that she was a woman, Jewish, married, and from a wealthy family) can all help to shape how we understand her motivations for photographing, the dynamic between her and her subjects, and the ideas she was seeking to express in her photographs. We might still draw different conclusions from her images than she intended us to, but this information is part of the process of reading her photographs, and lacking it means the reading is incomplete.

The trouble of course with decrying privilege or attacking a privileged group is that it’s a deeply relative term. I am privileged, if only in the sense that I was born in a wealthy country, to loving and supportive parents, although we didn’t have that much money when I was a kid I didn’t want for anything (apart perhaps from some toys that weren’t home-made). I grew up in a house full of books and art, and generally had a pretty nice childhood. That is a form of privilege, and one to which know I owe a great deal in getting where I am now. I think Pantall’s key point is that a big problem with privilege is when those that have it often fail to recognise it for what it is. We too easily believe in the seductive myth of our own individualism and hard work.

It’s easy to laugh at the idea of the likes of James Blunt decrying the handicap of an upper class accent (and to some extent we should laugh, when there are so many more important things to complain about in Britain today). We have to recognise though that Britain remains a deeply class riven society, despite what we might like to tell ourselves about equality and egalitarianism. In the last century one might have been able to guess a huge amount about a person’s class from their dress. Something noticeable in photographs of the early twentieth century are the ‘class uniforms’ that working men invariably wore. The bowler hat and flat cap being particularly strong markers.

Today it’s much hard to make these sorts of visual judgements, but that dosen’t mean the divisions have dissolved. Instead accents are perhaps the most important marker of status, and whether we recognise it not we make all sorts of distinctions and calculations based on perceived class, privilege and geography as soon as we someone opens their mouth. This cuts both ways, the ‘privileged’ and ‘under-privileged’ having the upper hand in different scenarios. Aware of these prejudices and how they shape how others see us, many of us take on different aural personas depending on the people we find ourselves talking to, often without even recognising it. It always amuses me that my sister, who normally talks with a fairly thick London-Essex drawl switches to a fine impression of received pronunciation whenever she speaks to our elderly grandmother.

I’ve long felt that denigrating people because they were born rich or privileged is counter-productive. My attitude towards all things is there is no point being prejudiced against people for things they didn’t choose and have had no power to change. What really matters isn’t where you come from, or what assets you have on your side, but what you ultimately do with these things. I am a white, middle class man. I can’t change this, but I can be aware of it, and I can use the assets that this privilege has given me to try to use it to call out and undermine the systems and attitudes that makes these things useful in the first place. I can only hope that others aim to do the same.