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.

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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

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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?)

Media & Myth: Mass Media and the Vietnam War at FORMAT

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I’m excited to announce that Media & Myth: Mass Media and the Vietnam War, a show I curated alongside Monica Alcazar-Duarte, is now on display at FORMAT Photography Festival, Derby.

Originally staged in London in October of last year, the show has been completely reconceived for the festival. Media & Myth consists of works by participants in London College of Communication’s NAM project, which explores the role of the media in conflict, with a particular emphasis on the Vietnam War. The outputs from this research project have included photography, video pieces, graphic design, and research essays, and the works included in the show touch on topics as diverse as soldier’s personal photography and underground magazine production. Media & Myth also includes material drawn from the Stanley Kubrick archive, which is housed at the London College of Communication and formed an important resource and reference point for many of the participants in the project. After spending several days at the archive looking through material we selected a number of fascinating images produced during the pre-production of Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket.

Monica and I were both drawn to annotated photographs that formed part of the extensive visual research that was undertaken by Kubrick’s team to facilitate their transformation of Becton Gas Works in east-London into something resembling the destroyed Vietnamese city of Hue. As part of the process of transforming Becton, the art department would photocopy location photographs of the site, blowing them up to A3 sizes, and would then draw directly on to the photocopies in order to show what changes they might make to the buildings at the site to make them look more battle scarred or to make them look more like Vietnamese or French colonial architecture. We’re very pleased to have been given permission to reproduce some of these original photocopies and these are on display in the gallery. You can read a little more about our motivations for staging the original show here.

Sharing the same space as Media & Myth is another related exhibition, The Forensic Turn curated by Paul Lowe, which looks at how photographers have turned towards still life and a more forensic approach to document the aftermath of war and atrocity, while avoiding the traditional ethical pitfalls associated with this type of photography. The Forensic Turn features photographs by Simon Norfolk, Zijah Gafic, Edmund Clark, Ashley Gilbertson, and Fred Ramos.

Media & Myth is on display at FORMAT Festival, Derby from 13th March through to 13th April 2015. The exhibition is at 1 Corn Exchange, Albert Street, Derby and is marker number ‘21’ on the festival map available here. Monica and I will also be presenting a talk about the exhibition, the NAM project and about collaboration and curation as part of the ‘Reporting on War and Terror’ day of talks on Saturday 21st March. Tickets available here.

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Cut Off: On the Demise of IdeasTap

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The First Cut,
Lewis Bush 2011

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Having used Disphotic’s last few posts to focus on the role of the creative arts in the context of recession and austerity it seems darkly ironic that right now should come news that the creative charity IdeasTap is to close its doors. Established in 2009 by Peter de Haan, part of the dynasty behind Saga, IdeasTap was intended to help young artists, photographers, film makers, musicians and actors weather the storm of the global recession. It has done just that, but it has now itself fallen victim to the current dearth of arts funding in the UK.

Cynical though I frequently am about the relationship between business and the arts, IdeasTap appeared to be an example of how well that relationship can sometimes work. The interests of each seemed clearly separated, and while I can only speak for my own experience there never seemed to be any sense that the commercial interests of de Haan or his companies intruded into the activities of the charity. As a resident editorial artist at IdeasMag in 2014 I produced a weekly photomontage that could be as acerbic and political as I wanted, and there was never a hint of editorial control or censorship of my choice of topics or way of approaching them (in marked contrast to more than a few editorial outlets which had turned similar images down for being ‘too political’).

As an organisation IdeasTap punched above its weight and brought a great deal to the arts in this country. It offered young artists a safe harbour, somewhere to tentatively test the waters of practices like grant writing and project management. It offered employment of various forms, indirectly through its advertising of creative sector jobs, and directly by commissioning its members to teach workshops, write articles and organise events. It formed partnerships with influential organisations like Magnum Photos and offered young people a chance to interact with these authoritative groups directly, starting on the road to establishing networks of their own. It offered financial backing for many, many projects that would have struggled to find money through other means, giving the small injections of capital that can be so key to early career projects, indeed to early careers themselves.

Above all IdeasTap created a network, a way for like-minded creative people across the country and across diverse disciplines to come together, share ideas and meet one another, something no more in evidence than in the outcry that has followed news of it’s demise. I have met many collaborators and made many friends through my involvement with IdeasTap, friends I suspect I will keep for the rest of my life. The fact that for all of this good work, IdeasTap has been unable to secure funding to keep its doors open would seem to speak volumes about the state of arts funding in the United Kingdom. It speaks to regional marginalisation, as the narrowing arts budgets continue to be disproportionately levied on the south east, a region where fewer and fewer young artists can afford to live. It speaks to growing inaccessibility, as the arts become a playground for the sons and daughters of the rich, who can afford to trade their craft for plaudits alone. It speaks to the way the arts have been divested of their teeth, guided and guiled into a sort of corporate adornment, all too often an ashtray for the cigars of plutocrats.

At a time like this, after six years of recession, six years of cuts, and six years of demoralisation, we don’t need one less charity like IdeasTap, we need ten more.

 

New Project – Metropole

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‘Elephant I’, from Metropole

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In a recent piece I suggested that at least part of the reason for the lack of documentary work about the ongoing effects of recession and austerity are the difficulties of representing issues which are often so intangible and abstract. My latest photographic project, which is now available to buy, is partly a response to these difficulties.

Metropole is the result of dozens of walks taken through London, recording new construction sites and high rises which have arisen throughout the city in recent years. These structures typify the influx of capital and the development boom which has transformed the metropolis, in the process making it ever more unequal, unaffordable, and unfamiliar to it’s long term residents. As the book progresses the initially calm and dream-like photographs become increasingly confusing and nightmarish, warping into complex and aggressive overlapping patterns, reminiscent of the abstractions of Vorticist paintings. Finally the images return to normal, coming to rest on the financial centre of the city, the dark heart driving this change.

Historically the ‘Metropole’ was a term used to describe London in its relationship with the British Empire, a relationship deeply hierarchical and profoundly unequal, with power radiating out from the metropolitan centre, and the resources of the dominions radiating back in return. Today the old empire is gone, but in its stead a new world power, that of international finance, has installed itself here, on this axis mundi of global trade.

From tomorrow an image from Metropole will be on display on the London Arts Board, at the corner of Peckham Road and Vestry Road, near South London Gallery and Camberwell College of Arts. The London Arts Board itself resides on land destined for future redevelopment, making it a more than fitting venue for the work. The Metropole book is available in limited numbers as a black and white publication, and also as a special edition, oversized version. A small run of silk screen prints based on the series and printed by yours truly are also available to buy. All of these things can be viewed and purchased from my online shop and more information about the project is available on my site. I’ll also be signing copies of the book on March 15th 2015, from 6pm at The Bear Free House, 296 Camberwell New Road, London, SE5

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Metropole London city architecture book Lewis Bush (4)

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Metropole London city architecture book Lewis Bush (11)

Review – Seacoal by Chris Killip

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In 1976 the photographer Chris Killip, who had relocated from London to the north of England, first came across the beach near Lynemouth, on the Northumberland coast. He later wrote that he ‘recognised the industry above it but nothing else … the place confounded time; here the middle ages and the twentieth century intertwined’. Below on the beach, men, women and children worked to dredge coal from the stormy waters of the North Sea, selling it by the bag load and in the process eeking out a living in this most transitional and unstable of places.

After a literally and proverbially rocky start (many of the seacoalers suspected Killip of being a benefits office informer and he was run off the beach several times) he eventually spent more than a year living with and photographing the community on the beach. The resulting images formed an important part of his seminal 1988 book In Flagrante, on the deindustrialisation of the north of east, and in 2011 a book of the Seacoal photographs was published by Steidl. As part of Disphotic’s focus this month on austerity and recession, I thought now would be an interesting time to revisit it.

The lore of the beach held that the coal came from an underwater seam but according to Killip it more likely washed from the spoil of Ellington Colliery, several miles along the coast, which mined coal from deep under the North Sea. Throughout his photographs of the beach, the horizon is marked by chimneys, perhaps belonging to the colliery or the nearby Lynmouth power station. They loom in the distance, belching black smoke like a constant reminder of the ultimate fate of the coal, and the Sisyphean endlessness of the seacoaler’s labour.

A single man owned the rights to the coal, but the sheer labour involved in it’s collection meant he needed the seacoalers, and what Killip described as an uneasy but pragmatic relationship had formed between them Many of the seacoalers were former miners, others from travelling families, like Trevor Critchlow, the man who was Killip’s entry into the community, and is a reoccurring presence in his photographs. One gets a particularly strong sense of a community, pushed together by necessity and held in check by the influence of powerful figures like Critchlow, but still riven by the rivalries and tensions that creep through any group of people.

Given Killip’s way of working with a cumbersome large format camera, the spontaneity and movement of his photographs is remarkable. At the same time the frenetic action of the beach often gives way to moments of quietness. One series of images is inside the dark of one of the caravans that formed an informal settlement at the top of the beach, the light cresting off the tired figures inside. As ever the detail and tone of Killip’s photographs is beautiful and the printing does a good job of showing this off. Seeing the Seacoal photographs in print is also a reminder that what many would really like to see is a republishing of In Flagrante, a book now so rare that even the Errata editions reprint released several years ago can be prohibitively expensive.

I noted in a recent review of an exhibition that seeing Killip’s work in chronological sequence, Seacoal feels like the post-apocalyptic future of a deindustrialised Britain, where men, women and children are forced to eke out a living from backbreaking labour. As I’ve said before in writing about other projects which are now easily dismissed as historical, the reality is this work continues, in the same form, and in other formulas. The deindustrialisation of Britain which Killip so pointedly documented might have reached it’s zenith, but the consequences linger on for huge numbers of people, and reach their nadir at times, like the present, of recession and austerity.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

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.