Women’s Work: A Dialogue with Max Houghton

womens work dickey chapelle
 Dickey Chapelle taking photos on the shores of Lake Michigan during a U.S. Marines operation in 1959. (from Flickr)

Photographers seem ever more aware of the representational responsibilities which comes with their craft, but the question of who is actually doing this representing remains just as important as who is being represented and how. In a field like documentary photography this question becomes particularly essential, if only because it’s unrealistic to expect an adequate reflection of the world in all its messy complexity, when privileged, white, western men remain so often the ones taking the photographs and defining the terms of representation, dissemination, and so many other things. The gender gap in photography has come into ever greater focus in recent years, with some great initiatives launched to address it. At the same time these modes of address, for example gender specific exhibitions, themselves invite scrutiny, and need to meet with a discussion about the extent to which they do actually help to resolve the issues they intend to address, and or whether they sometimes inadvertently create different problems. Being that I am pretty much the definition of a privileged, white, western man, these are topics which I don’t feel entirely comfortable holding forth on in the usual monologue that typifies pieces on this site. Because of that and also because one of my ongoing aims is to involve other voices in this blog, I thought it would be interesting to address some of these concerns in the form of a dialogue with someone interested in many of the same questions. Enter Max Houghton, writer, senior lecturer on MA photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication and (transparency) a colleague of mine.

Max, it might seem like an obvious question but perhaps you could start by saying a little about how this topic first became of importance to you, was there a particular moment of awakening or just an ongoing sense of photography as a field marked by a gender divide?

I used to edit 8 magazine, a photography biannual, with Lauren Heinz. It’s fair to say that after we went to Perpignan for the first time – in the mid-2000s – we could be in no doubt that certain parts of le monde photographique were indisputably male. I thought it was inevitable and quite funny. At first. We didn’t positively discriminate in terms of subsequent magazine content thereafter – we never considered it – but we did get excited when we found people like Rena Effendi, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Dana Popa, Newsha Tavakolian and Lourdes Basoli, for example, and featured them in the magazine or at Host gallery. Vanessa Winship, Susan Meiselas and Jane Hilton were always on our radar, and greatly admired. Interestingly, when I interviewed them, they were all incredibly low-key about their contributions to photography. They talked profoundly about their work and the people they photographed, about ethics, about mystery, but not about themselves.

Fiona Rogers, who worked across the road at Magnum, set up Firecracker, as a platform for female photographers, which seemed like such an obvious and incredibly important thing to do. I went to an earlyish debate on the subject of Women in Photography in Brighton and noticed a divide between ‘celebrating’ women and ‘fighting for’ women – it was predominantly a difference of tone. I realised I believed in both things. When Fiona asked me to curate a month for Firecracker, I set myself a brief to find work that only a woman could make. This was not Firecracker’s remit but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Why else would I select work based on gender only? I chose work by a former student of mine, Samar Hazboun (a graduate of MA Photojournalism at the University of Westminster). Samar had gained access to a women’s shelter in her native Palestine, which offered some respite for women who had suffered gender-based violence. Despite the refuge offered, the shelter itself was run within the confines of a deeply patriarchal society, so the women living there were to all intents and purposes imprisoned, and treated as shameful beings.

Choosing this work seems fundamental now to why I think it is important to discuss women in photography. It’s not really because of how women are treated within the – vast and unwieldy – industry, which encompasses the media, the art world, the photo studio, fashion etc etc, but how women are treated in the world. Of course one is not separate from the other. And while women in the UK alone are being murdered at the rate of two per week by their intimate partners (source: refuge.org), it’s necessary to look at how women are treated by men, and what kind of a society permits that. Photography is a very powerful tool of communication. That doesn’t mean I only champion work about the very worst -case scenarios (though actually, I would be most interested to see more work on subjects such as intimate partner violence, rape, low-self esteem). I think it’s a question of balance. I want all these essential subjects to be made visible but at the same time, I want to look at ways in which women do resist the patriarchy in all its forms, often with such wit. Virginia Woolf’s use of photographs in her anti-war book Three Guineas is a good place to start. I was going to apologise for the long answer, but I deleted it because I know this is something women (generalisation alert) are prone to doing.

Whenever the question of gender in photography comes up I often hear (invariably male) photographers argue that yes photography is in some respects still very male dominated, but women are actually well represented in the industry in terms of roles like curators, editors, and so forth. This might be true, but there is another issue here in that these roles often seem to be seen by people as potentially powerful but actually not particularly creative and essentially subsidiary to the ‘real’ job of going out into the world and taking photographs. I wonder whether you see a similar delineation of work in the industry between ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ and if you do whether that is in some respects that is tied to a sense of the status of these roles, or perhaps something else?

I agree up to a point. We have a set up a wonderful service industry around male artists; there are lots of models that show this: the gallery, the magazine, the museum. Women are extremely well represented within the industry in the roles you mention, and also in academia. And yes, I guess there’s a certain amount of power, or, at least, cachet, or, at the very least, respect for such roles. But they are admin heavy. They involve doing lots of things for other people and with other people; a form of midwifery, perhaps. At the heart of these roles is caring very deeply about someone else’s work and wanting to find a way to make other people care about it too. Editing and curating are very rewarding and creative – and collaborative – practices. However, I find men feel more entitled to make their own work, and also are freer to make it, both domestically and financially. They are free to roam alone, in all sorts of ways. Women seem to find more success within institutions, where their roles are clearly delineated. The role of a photographer following stories, or ideas, seems a huge privilege and one that very often demands being out of the home. This disrupts patterns, which, even for those of us who reject them, structure society. As de Beauvoir tells us, it’s not that the woman is naturally secondary, but that society has made her so. And women, unlike other oppressed groups, are not a minority; nor are we a minority within photography. But the opportunities are different. It’s absolutely essential that we make way for female photographers and visual artists; otherwise, we keep seeing repeated male visions of the world, and come to believe it as a truth. Imagine if war had only ever been photographed by women.

I think we both recognize a gender imbalance in photography then, my next question would be how to answer it. Women only exhibitions seem to be a popular strategy at the moment, but I must admit it’s a response I have misgivings about. I feel split in that on one level I think it is worth championing and celebrating any identity, simply for the sake of it, but on the other hand I also feel these exhibitions sometimes serve more to marginalise the work on show as a sort of special interest or charity case, mere ‘women’s work’ as you said when we first discussed this, rather than validating the work as legitimate and interesting beyond the gender of its creator. I felt the 2013 exhibition Home Truths at the Photographer’s Gallery was a good example of another approach. Being about motherhood, female photographers and perspectives were dominant in the show, (if I recall correctly there were two male photographers, which I think was a nice reversal of the ‘token woman syndrome’ we often see on photography panels). Gender wasn’t directly advertised as part of the rationale for the show, even though it was clearly a major part of what was being discussed. To me this approach seems to work more effectively, but I wonder what your feelings are on this?

Yes, I agree, it was a very smart curation by Susan Bright and an important show for The Photographers’ Gallery to host too. I have to be careful what I say here, as I am co-writing, with Fiona Rogers, a book on contemporary female photographers, which I hope will put a very bright spotlight on a large number of women all at once, and it will be very obvious they are force to be reckoned with. It’s a way of ensuring women are part of the future history of photography. I would certainly like to see an exhibition that featured only female photographers because they had represented the theme of the show in the most exciting and innovative ways, and, ideally, that theme would not be one specific to women (though it could be). Positive discrimination is a method that is used in the workplace to redress imbalances – as far as I understand it, it means in practice that if two candidates offer similar skills, the one that has been historically disadvantaged would be given the job. That makes sense.

I think the way in which male photographers seem to be able to build their reputations – in part by having more self-confidence, and the subtle ways in which traditional male discourse is self-affirming – makes it more likely that opportunities come their way. This is of course self-perpetuating. I am very interested in the fact that more and more people are identifying as gender-fluid, not least because these millennia-old binaries are having to be rethought. I really like that the lack of gender certainty in my chosen name means I am probably read more often as a male voice than a female one.

I am more interested in the eye that makes the photograph, and what it has seen, than the body that hosts that eye – the mind’s eye is something different altogether. It’s not men or male photographers who are a problem, but a masculine and patriarchal discourse that goes unquestioned and dominates. I’m happy for shows, books, and whole festivals – like the nation-wide Signals festival, curated by Val Williams in 1994 – to be for women only, but at heart, it’s about a way of seeing. It’s essential for men to see that seeing too.

Embracing gender fluidity or ambiguity is an interesting answer to these problems. Like you it’s something I have a little experience of as for a long time I went by my middle name which is Kay, originally a Victorian boy’s name but now almost always assumed to be a girl’s name. People’s reactions were always interesting to say the least. I rather like the idea of a group of people disrupting the rather binary gender roles of the photography world with their ambiguous names! But I think your last point touches on an important, related issue, the wider male awkwardness about associating with feminism or self-describing as feminist. I think to end I should ask whether there are things you think photographers themselves can, or should do to address the problems we’ve been discussing?

Very much like the name Kay. It’s pretty hard to keep your gender quiet in the age of the picture byline, but I agree, there is some fun to be had.  I think men can put their awkwardness aside if they behave as people committed to equality. They don’t need to wear t-shirts – hello Benedict Cumberbatch, Nick Clegg – but make sure that any any power they wield – some of which originates from their gender alone – is fairly (re)distributed, acknowledges the largely relational role of women in society, and actively tries to find ways to champion what we can term women’s work. That needs to happen in so many ways – especially in relation to childcare, ‘domestic’ violence, pornography and women in prison, for starters – and also in relation to how we as a society define what can be considered art. If anyone is unsure what the answer is to ‘Are you a feminist?’, it’s ‘Of course, it’s a political necessity.’ And if a man can’t say that and mean it, then I hope he does feel awkward.

I have found a couple of examples of female expression exceptionally moving recently – one is Beyonce’s nuanced articulation of love, jealousy, infidelity and pain on her visual album Lemonade. If you listen carefully, she is exposing herself as vulnerable and strong, which I find much more affecting than an astonishing display of girl-power. The other is Kim Cattrall on Woman’s Hour, ostensibly talking about insomnia, but making such perceptive points about (among other things) being a woman ‘without a husband’. We don’t usually hear such candid voices, which, for me anyway, articulate in different ways the experience of being female, in a society set up to venerate its men, and in which women – black women, older women, gay women, single women – women – are marginalised, automatically.

But I am straying from the question … perhaps. What can photographers do? To state the obvious, how people are pictured plays an enormous role in how they are seen. So photographers who photograph women need to think about that, and not just how they are seen, but if they are seen, and where they are seen, and by whom (these further questions are necessarily addressed to editors and curators too). I think we should all think twice about giving the same people the big prizes and ever bigger shows; we must challenge the status quo. Photographic educators can question the canon, and add to it, when they find it wanting. We can champion the work of contemporary female photographers, so their work becomes part of future history. Freud is often criticised for not being able to answer his question ‘What does a Women Want?’ but at least he asked, and at least he spent much of his career trying to find out. I think the whole industry can listen better to what is being said by women, or what is not being said but should be. The whole Women in Photography movement is in full swing at the moment – it’s lively, it’s witty and it’s inclusive – feminist never meant separatist, though it has been perceived as such. It’s the best party in town and everyone’s invited.

Welcome to Panoptica

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table
at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Photographs are just abstract marks, distortions of tone and colour. But our ability to recognise things in these patterns is remarkable, as is the ability these recognitions have to mould and shape the ways we think about certain things, and act on them. I’ve never been fully convinced by the idea of image fatigue or the dearth of compassion which is sometimes said to result from such images. I remain unconvinced by the popular claim that exposure to photographs can’t change us, and in process perhaps also change the world in however slight a way. In the context of Europe’s recent refugee crisis it seems that regardless of how many thousands of images I see I still find these events distressing, exhaustingly so, but not yet to the extent of fatigue, and not yet to the point that these images instead of fueling my sense of anger instead extinguish it. Something always gets me, there always remains that capacity for some small detail to penetrate whatever emotional or intellectual armour I might have constructed, and manages to stop me dead. When that happens the moment and source is always unexpected as it was last week when I saw the photography above by Muhammed Muheisen from a wider series which can be seen here.

Muheisen’s photograph shows an asylum seeker named Reda Ehsan recumbent on a table in the middle of a cavernous space. His pose is one I’ve seen a thousand times before in western paintings, where it most often used with a nude female subject to transmits an air of exotic passivity and it seems apt that Ehsan is from Iran, source of many an orientalist fantasy. The tone here is quite a different one though, although related. Muheisen’s photograph has an air of exhausted lethargy, of inertia and uncertanity, the same feelings conveyed in many of the massive number of press photographs taken of the recent European refugee crisis. An air of profound exhaustion is evident for example in this year’s World Press Photo winning image by Warren Richardson even at the same time as being a dramatically dynamic image. The repetition of this set of emotional tropes in the context of the crisis and whether it is intended to speak to the physical exhaustion of refugees or the alleged psychic exhaustion of European audiences could be the subject of an article in its own right, but that is not my focus here (and I think it is important to note that other images in Muheisen’s series do not play to these tendencies). No, what hit me about this particular image though was less the subject and his pose and the messages those things are calculated to send but rather the distinctive space that Ehsan occupies. The tiered walkways and identical doorways behind him makes clear this is an institution, specifically a prison and by no means a modern one. The photograph it transpires is part of a series on asylum seekers housed in prisons which thanks to Holland’s falling crime rate are no longer needed for their original purpose. Twelve institutions in the country have reportedly been turned to this purpose, and according to the article which accompanies the photographs they are ‘so transformed that they are barely recognizable as former places of involuntary detention’.

But this is not just any prison. For anyone even moderately versed in the architecture of incarceration or theories of surveillance the gently curving walls behind Ehsan’s recumbent form speak deafeningly of an architectural technology which continues to loom large, two centuries after it’s rather stuttering entry into the world. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon or ‘Inspection House’ was a concieved as a radical new model of control, a building constructed with total surveillance in mind, and which employed the unique sensation of being surveiled to modify behaviour in ways which only violence and physical restraint had previously seemed able to. The Pantopticon didn’t see realisation in the English philosopher’s lifetime despite Bentham’s considerable efforts, and no true Panopticon was ever built in Britain, but in the two centuries since his death Bentham’s notion of an architectural technology which permits total observation of it’s occupants has come (usefully and not) to inform almost all conversations about surveillance and control. The prison pictured in Muheisen’s photographs is Koepel in Harlem, designed by the prison architect WC Metzelaar and constructed from 1899 to 1901, it was the final of three such Koepelgevangenis or ‘dome prisons’ built in Holland during the period and was clearly inspired by some of Bentham’s ideas. Today the prison is no longer a true Panopticon, if indeed it ever was by Bentham’s quite specific definition of the term. The inspection tower shown in early photographs standing in the centre of the space is gone, although the red inner circle of the sports court directly above Ehsan’s recumbent form mark the spot where it might well have stood, an unintended architectural fingerprint lingering in the present. In any case, and as many post-Panopticonism have argued, the moderating sight of the inspection tower is no longer needed by many of us in the societies and spaces for which it was originally conceived. It has been internalised and replaced as it has been by persistent and pervasive forms of social and electronic surveillance, forms of observation which far better meet Bentham’s original description of the Panopticon as way ‘of obtaining power of mind over mind’.

The act of housing asylum seekers in a disused Panopticon is undoubtedly a pragmatic one by the Dutch government, with different accommodations reportedly being made for anyone who might find it traumatic to have escaped one set of cells in their homeland only to find themselves housed in another set in Europe. But the unintended, unspoken message of employing such a building for such a purpose also seems inescapable, as much a gesture of European feeling towards refugees as the sight of Germans cheering their arrival. In so much recent discourse Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, and in some cases Muslim communities as a whole, are described in terms which characterise them as potential fifth columns of extremist ideology and violence. Even moderate commentators across the continent are buying into these troublesome notions of guilt by association, with the logic that however innocent most in these communities might be, hidden amongst their number might lurk infiltrators from ISIS or other groups, intent on carrying out attacks like those in Paris and Brussels (it is perhaps here worth reminding ourselves that both attacks were perpetrated in the most by EU citizens and long term residents of the continent, not newly arrived refugees). One of the many arguments in the British debate about whether to leave the EU stems from whether European rules on immigration make us vulnerable to such attacks, and in recent months the British government has also ramped up it’s ridiculous Prevent program, which asks teachers and others to report on students they suspect of harbouring radical sympathies in what which some academics have compared to the enforced collaborations between East German university lecturers and the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi. Housing asylum seekers in a structure like this seems to me like a form of atmospheric acclimatisation or adjustment for these new arrivals, a setting of the tone for things to come. The message it seems so perfectly to send is that we think we know what you are, or what you might be. Know that you are suspected, that you are being watched, and should we allow you to stay here, and however well you integrate, so it will remain. Welcome to free Europe, welcome to Panoptica.

Not All’s Fair: Photo London 2016

photo london new york paris peckham art trade
Trotters Independent Trading co. van,
from Only Fools and Horses (Flickr)

At the risk of being outspoken (hah) it’s my belief that the only useful purpose that the commercial art trade has is as something which inadvertently creates spaces where normal people can look at artworks, effectively subsidised by those few who are rich enough to actually buy and own them. I have absolutely no problem with artists selling and living by their work, my problem rather lies with the speculation, inflation, obfuscation, hype, exclusivity and all those other things which invariably seem to come with the professionalisation of this activity. These are things which art doesn’t need, and which in some cases actively harm art, but which by dint of this trade have come to be seen by the majority of normal people as being at the core of it is about. Even so, while I might not like galleries, fairs and their ilk, I can tolerate them as long as they provide at least the shadow of a socially useful function. When on the other hand these places restrict the audiences who can view the work they tout, I completely run out of interest in them. Photo London which launched last night plays host to eighty photography galleries who presumably pay a fee to exhibit, and is sponsored by the Swiss private bank Pictet. But it also asks punters to cough up £27 for a day ticket, which as photographer Jim Mortram pointed out on Twitter is roughly half the weekly allowance for a carer like him.

Historically fairs were places where a relatively broad swathe of society mixed in the pursuit of trade, entertainment, and more. Matthew of Paris recounts that in 1248 Henry III banned all traffic in London ‘in order that by these means the Westminster fair might be more attended by people’. Such human heterogeneity seems unwelcome at the art fairs of today, where one imagines ticket price plays as much of an important function in defining and filtering the type of visitors who attend as it does actually fulfill any need to generate additional income. Whether this bothers you or not probably depends very much on your view of who art is actually for, and what purpose you believe it ought to serve. If you view it merely as chintz for the ultra-wealthy to pad out their obnoxious homes, then get yourself to Photo London and enjoy yourself. If it’s anything like last year you’ll see some enjoyable if usually rather predictable photography, often unfortunately handicapped by its display in forms better suited to sales than to contemplative viewing or contextualisation. You’ll also likely get to snap a selfie with the row of Bentleys parked up outside and if you’re feeling cruel then do ask some of gallerists to tell you the prices of the pieces they are showing, that question usually seems to make them a little nervous in a city where more than a quarter of the population live in poverty.

If on the other hand you see art as something which ought to be economically accessible to as wide an audience as possible then I suggest you give the main events at Somerset House a wide berth. There are some great fringe events going on over the next few days which are completely free. For example you might cross the river to Tate Modern (freshly liberated from its long corporate sponsorship by BP) for Offprint where you can see some of the best that photobook publishing has to offer. Could it be that the explosion in interest in the photo book has come partly from the realisation amongst so many young artists and photographers that the type of galleries participating in Photo London actually have very little to offer them? Nearby to Tate is Fix Photo with some great work including images from Ed Thompson’s The Unseen Project (in interests of critical transparency, Ed is a friend of mine) and Robert Clayton’s Estate series. Alternatively jump on a 171 bus from outside Somerset House and get yourself down to Peckham 24, where a range of interesting photographers including Ciaran og Arnold, Ryan Moule, and Tom Lovelace are showing work, along with three promising young Irish artists exhibiting as part of the Belfast Exposed Futures program. There will be a series of talks running on Saturday, including a panel chaired by Rodrigo Orranta with Jo Dennis and Carlos Alba and one by yours truly (advertorial alert). I’ll be in conversation with Mark Duffy and Peter Mann to discuss humour and appropriation in a world of images. It’s free and open to all, you can sample the delights of Peckham, and if watching too many episodes of Only Fools and Horses has left you worried about a visit down south then take it from someone who grew up nearby that the area isn’t what it used to be. For one weekend at least the wheelers and dealers will be in another part of town.

Steve McCurry and Photojournalism’s Burden of Truth


Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl
On the cover of a National Geographic publication.

The intellectual milieu that gives rise to a technology or a practice leaves fingerprints on that thing which last for a long time, indeed which sometimes might even be impossible to completely remove from it. The technology of photography was born in a century fixated on empiricism and on the belief that witnessing was the path to knowledge. New technologies like the various permutations of the camera offered the means for better witnessing, untainted by the shortcomings of human physiology or bias, and led therefore to knowledge which was more objective, and closer to the ‘truth’. In its turn the practice of photojournalism developed and reached maturity in a century defined by enormous ideological battles, populist conflicts between socialisms, democracies and fascisms which sought to settle essential questions about the nature of man, and his future direction. While aspects of photojournalism were appropriated by all sides in these conflicts, photojournalism in its truest sense tended to come down on the side of democracy, humanism and a sort of universalized view of human experience. This was a view exemplified in certain cultural products, National Geographic magazine being one, Edward Steichen’s seminal 1955 exhibition Family of Man being another. ‘There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men’ wrote the poet Carl Sandburg in the commentary which accompanied the exhibition on it’s subsequent eight year global tour.

I refer back to these points in the history of photography and photojournalism because I think they are interesting and important for the way we continue to think about these things today. In photojournalism notions of objective truth and universal human experience remain very popular ones. They have perhaps been tempered by the growing number of voices who see these ideas as problematic, or at times even quite dangerous, but they continue to lurk, waiting to be released from their dormant state by the right circumstances and events, like fingerprints at a crime scene waiting to be illuminated by exposure to the right combination of chemicals and an investigators ultra-violet lamp. This I would say is what happened briefly when it was recently revealed that photographs by veteran photojournalist Steve McCurry had been photomanipulated to remove extraneous details. The discovery was initially made by Paolo Viglione, an Italian photographer who noted evidence of cloning in a McCurry prints at an exhibition in Italy. In the image in question the base of a street sign appears to have been accidentally cloned across the leg of a man passing in front of it. Subsequent analysis of other McCurry images available online revealed a number of other images had been subject to manipulation, including some much more clearly intentional removals of large parts of photographs, and one where parts might even have been added. Petapixel and other sites quickly picked up the story, and McCurry issued a statement blaming the mistake on an overzealous technician (blaming the retoucher seems to be becoming an ever more common strategy employed by those who instruct them).

Revelations of photomanipulation always draws the ire of photojournalists, despite the evident irony that this is only one of the many forms of manipulation which occur in photojournalism. The same people who rabidly condemn someone like McCurry are often the ones who fail to recognize the extent to which every other part of their own process is a form of manipulation. From early interactions with subjects through choices made in shooting and image selection, to the final editing tweaks made to maximize visual effect. Even the pre-eminent final form of photojournalism, the photo essay, is itself a form of manipulation, an entirely artificial narrative device design to produce certain effects which have little to do with the way events unfold in the real world or the ways we experience them as bystanders. The photo essay instead has everything to do with a particular conception of how stories are told, how time flows, and how these things can be twisted into a form convenient for the reproductional technology of the early twentieth century (which, lest we forget, is stone age compared to the possibilities of today). Every stage of the photojournalistic process then is a manipulation, each one capable of manipulating reality in a direction which facilitates the telling of stories in ways which are sometimes accurate and illuminating (even dare I say it, truthful?) but which can just as easily be regressive, misleading and unhelpful. What matters far less than the fact of whether manipulation takes place or not, is the extent to which the photographer is transparent about it, and the manipulation is made clear. The examples of photographers who have done just that are few, such are the severe strictures against breaking these sacred codes, but they do exist. From Frank Hurley’s exceptional composite images of First World War battles, to W. Eugene Smith’s numerous genre defining projects, the latter famously responded to questions about his use of unconventional techniques with the remark that ‘I didn’t write the rules, why should I follow them?’

The real problem with McCurry’s photography isn’t down to the use of the clone tool to create them, it’s a problem embedded even more profoundly in his way of making photographs, and goes right back to those latent fingerprints. McCurry is engaged in a type of photography born in the ideological battles of the Cold War and which seems to have barely evolved since. A universalized world view which often appears to be attempting to simplify the complex and sometimes uncomfortable differences between people and places rather than fully acknowledging those differences or the things that create them. It’s an approach to photography and to the world it depicts which is reductive and unreflective, not least on the process that gives rise to the images themselves. In the words of Teju Cole, it’s astonishingly boring photography, and in Paroma Mukherjee’s words just well marketed visual imperialism (I recommend reading both of these pieces for more on what’s wrong with this type of photography in general). I suspect the reason that people really object to the discovery that McCurry or someone close to him has been manipulating his photographs is mostly just that it calls into question the sacred notion of empirical photographic truth to which so many hold dear, and reveals once again that absolute rules rarely hold strong. In that sense at least perhaps we should actually thank McCurry for allowing himself his own ‘unguarded moment’ and in doing so revealing the artifice not only of his photographs but also the framework of beliefs that lie behind them.

From where I stand unquestioning faith in the idea of truth as something absolute and human experience as something universal and self-evident have become a terrible burden on photojournalism, and perhaps these rigid conventions partly explain why so many are deserting the practice and instead aligning themselves with disciplines like documentary and art. It is a burden of truth which rather than enabling important work often seems often to paralyze photojournalism’s most zealous adherents, leaving them unable to respond to many of the major problems which face the world today. As I wrote recently about the World Press Photo, journalists can no longer believe in the idea of objective photographic vision in an age when so many things that they need to reveal are constructed exactly to exploit or defy exactly such ways of thinking and seeing. Instead they need to embrace alternative forms of seeing and storytelling, ones where the potential for revelation lies in partly a readiness to embrace difference, subjectivity and in a rejection of simple ethical binaries and moral black and whites.

At the Gates of Photography


A U.S. Army soldier hangs up a Liberty Bond poster on a sentry box
during the Occupation of the Rhineland, c. 1919 (NY Times archive)

It’s notoriously difficult to ever speak of a ‘photography industry’ because when we do so we are lumping together so many disparate professions and practices within that broad phrase. Even breaking it down to the many industries within an industry, when we speak of a practice like photojournalism we are still talking about a very distributed, diffused and international activity, in the very opposite of many other professions which even today remain top down in organisation and much more clearly regulated by specific bodies like unions and guilds. Instead photography has a much more nodal, networked structure, with a great number of different organisations all presiding over their own fiefdoms, sometimes intersecting like venn diagrams, butwith the interactions between them often disjointed and scattered.

A diffused industry has some clear benefits, this plurality is a large part of what makes photography an exciting and diverse field, but it also has some very significant disadvantages. In photojournalism for example talk of ‘industry standards’ with respect to issues like ethics or photo manipulation is hollow precisely because there is no single body which defines what these standards might be and which can speak with any authority for the entire industry. Part of the mounting frustration aimed at World Press Photo prior to it’s recent rule changes stemmed I suspect from the feeling that the organisation was starting to look like exactly that sort of industry arbiter, and photographers didn’t much like it (even as much as many of the same photographers dislike the wide ranging inconsistencies over manipulation and the disputes which can result). At the same time recent scandals over sexual harassment in photography highlight the fact that without any overarching body which moderates and speaks for photographers and photography professionals it is difficult to adequately judge or bring action against people suspected of breaking rules or laws, informal or otherwise. Once the online storm dies down they potentially remain free to practice and in such a large and disconnected industry I fear there will always remain corners where they can continue to exploit their profile and ply their trade to people who might be unaware of their past transgressions.

The latter example is important because I believe this diffusion of power throughout the photography industry contributes to an environment where people can more readily abuse their power and get away with it, whether in ways which are subtle or extreme. In contrast to a traditional hierarchical industry where those who hold power are very clearly defined and often subject to codified rules and systems whereby that power can be moderated, censured or removed, the highly networked and distributed nature of the photography industry leads to a diffuse and informal distribution of power without oversight. The result is a system dotted with a great many gatekeepers who are often unmoderated and self-appointed. The maddening thing is that many of these gatekeepers refuse or fail to recognise their own power or to acknowledge the influence they can bring to bear on their corner of the industry. I sometimes wonder if this is a product of wishful thinking as much as anything. By and large the photography world tends to be left leaning, and the natural inclination of those in it is often to associate with those they see as being at the bottom of the heap rather than those at the top. That may partly explain the lack of willingness by many of the industry’s gatekeepers to acknowledge the power they hold because to do so involves recognising that they are part of the same groups that they might have spent much of their career imagining themselves arrayed against. I can say from my own experience that this dissonance is a challenging one to process.

A related issue which I identified in a recent piece on anti-intellectual undercurrents in photography, is the reality that not all gatekeepers are the same. They come in all shapes and sizes, as do the gates they guard and the rewards which await on the other side for those granted passage. While writing, it occurred to me that while I am still very much a new arrival in this field, I have already come to stand guard over numerous gates, whether as a writer about photography deciding which work to discuss and promote (or savage) next, or as someone selecting prospective students for any one of the courses I teach on. Hence why as I have become more and more involved in photography the more important it has become for me to find my own mechanisms for being accountable, whether those be the small critical disclaimers I often include at the end of reviews on this blog to reveal any connections I might have with work I am writing about, or in declining or donating payment for participating in things like portfolio reviews which I have serious professional objections to. From what I’ve seen these minor mechanisms of mine are fairly novel in the industry and to my knowledge are rarely employed by peers at the same level as me or higher. I’d like to see them instead become the norm.

I’ve argued before that privilege and power are less of a problem than what you choose to do with these things, and I would say much the same is true here. Gatekeepers are a problem but they are also a reality of a diffuse ‘industry’ like photography, and I think that in practice few of us would prefer the alternative of an industry which is highly hierarchical and has more formalised power brokers. At the same time, I really believe it is important to find ways to moderate and scrutinise gatekeepers of whatever size, and to my mind the most effective way to do this is to call on them very directly to self-moderate and practice accountability and transparency in their actions. Many of course will decline, but that should tell you plenty about these people. The role of the press has been said to be to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and I think we could do with practicing some of that within our industry, calling these gatekeepers out when they engage in dubious practices or when they refuse to be transparent about their motivations for promoting or demoting work they encounter. This has long been the role of the informal photography press, primarily blogs and websites including this one, but photographers themselves need to actively participate in this process if the voices that call these figures to account are to have any real weight and are to really push for greater openess.

The Art of the State: Leibovitz’s Elizabeth II


Annie Leibovitz

It’s been said that prostitution is the oldest profession, and espionage the second oldest. Public relations might well be the third, and certainly for as long as we have had formal rulers, their artistic depiction has played an important role in creating a sense of their status amongst the public. This has particularly been the case in Britain, where paintings of Kings and Queens have always tended to be tightly controlled, the right to produce such images sometimes licensed to a single court appointed artist and subject to a high degree of vetting. In other words the public relations gauntlet which must be negotiated in the process of photographing the political rulers of the present is nothing new, nor are image makers willing to do exactly as they are bid by these figures and their attendants.

Historically royal paintings were potently political and highly constructed, laden with symbolism which was designed to carefully hint at the character and role of the Monarch depicted. Carefully choosen imagery helped to broadcast a sense of the times in which that person lived, and their role as leader of the nation within those times, whether as warrior, peacemaker, or something else entirely. Few monarchs took such care with their depiction as Elizabeth I who was painted with remarkable frequency during her life and reign. Paintings of Elizabeth overflow with allegorical objects and characters, all intended to broadcast a certain vision of her in the minds of those who stood before these images. In early examples items like pearls and moons alluded to her virginity and purity, she sometimes held a book to suggest studiousness and religiosity, while a red rose would symbolise her loyalty to the house of Tudor.

Later paintings increasingly drew parallels between Elizabeth and classical mythology, part of the process of raising her to an almost god like status. They also emphaisised her military leanings, and in some her dress is exaggerated in a way which starts to suggest plate armour, an important allusion for a female Monarch ruling in a time of instability and the lingering threat of invasion from Catholic Europe. Perhaps most fascinatingly the emphasis on symbolism in these paintings went so far as to completely compromise their realism. Despite renaissance innovations in the use of light and shade to create more dramatic and realistic depictions of shape, techniques exemplified by her father’s court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, Elizabeth reputedly disdained shadows in her portraits, viewing them as contradicting the image of purity and youth she had so carefully cultivated. The result of this Royal intervention into aesthetics was a distinctive style of court portraiture which remained remarkably flat in contrast to the ever greater verisimilitude of court paintings in other parts of Europe. Elizabeth was obsessed in short with the power of symbolism and allegory, the enormous power of applying them properly, and the equally grave damage they could cause when they were not properly prescribed.

This genre of portraiture persists to some extent today albeit in photographic form, with three portraits recently ‘released’ by Kensington Palace to mark the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. Taken by court appointed celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz, these are perhaps not such careful cultivations of subject and symbolism as their Elizabethan forebears, but they still might be read for similar meanings and insight. I feel it is irresistible to read them for answers to the essential question of the role of a taxpayer funded hereditary monarch is in a 21st century democracy, not least a democracy struggling to pay for essential services like disability benefits and healthcare, and a society beholden to neoliberial ideas about work and earning. In such a society the images of the inherited wealth and power which the current Queen’s Tudor namesake so consistently broadcast to her subjects are hardly welcome ones. Perhaps reflecting that we don’t find Elizabeth II depicted in regal dress as she was the last time she found herself in front of Leibovitz’s lens, a session which took place back at the very start of the global economic recession).

Instead we see a monarch taking on a much more normal guise in a series of almost informal settings, surrounded variously by grandchildren, with her daughter, and her dogs. The subtext one feels they’ve aimed for, as if it needed spelling out, is that the monarch isn’t the all-powerful god figure or magisterial head of state she might once have been presented to us as. Instead she is a sort of fuzzy and benign babysitter, responsible for overlooking her brood of grandchildren, standing in here perhaps for the succession of short timer politicians who periodically shuffle into serving as her prime minister for a few years (she’s seen 12 of them to date) before presumably shuffling off again to a nice job as a corporate advisor. It’s inevitably tempting to connect specific prime ministers to particular children in this group portrait, in which case the girl to the left of the Queen clutching a handbag almost as large as she is would undoubtedly be the late Margaret Thatcher. I’d peg current PM David Cameron to the small boy in shorts on the right who looks on the verge of tears and like he just wants the whole thing to be over.

This attempt to normalise the Queen falls flat mostly because of the glaring opulence of the surroundings. ‘I didn’t realise they had so much Ikea furniture’ quipped one person in my Twitter feed. However any sense of this as a naturalistic family grouping is also shattered by the awful crapness of the photograph, in particular the way the subjects are so over lit and over-processed that they appear to leap off the background behind them. The lack of relationship between sitters and their surroundings callsto mind a photograph of Judge Dredd as a baby which appears in the original rather fascist 1995 movie adaptation. In-plot forensic examination of this photograph later reveals is a composite fake constructed to hide the grim reality of a child secretly reared in a government lab as part of a genetic experiment. With the exception of the baby on the Queen’s lap, the children look as if they have been photographed in isolation and inserted like Judge Dredd on to a backdrop to which they bear no spatial (or emotional) relationship. The more I look at this image the less sure I feel that it’s a single exposure, which needn’t matter (since, lest we forget, this is not journalism) except in the sense that it reveals the extent of utter construction that still takes place in the making of a monarch’s state portrait, and of course, the complicity of the one who makes it. For all that’s undoubtedly changed since the time of the Tudors, it would seem that the shadows (or the lack thereof) still have it.

History in the Making: Palmyra’s World Tour

The reconstruction of the arch nears completion in Trafalgar Square.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A replica of Palymra’s Arch of Triumph has just been unveiled in London. The original was constructed by the Roman Empire and was believed to be over two millennia old by the time it was dynamited by Islamic State in late 2015. The group were later driven out of the site by Syrian government forces. The replica arch which now stands in London’s Trafalgar Square was engineered by the Institute of Digital Archaeology who created a digital model from photographs of the original, before having a replica made in Italy, where it was machine tooled from Egyptian marble by a robotic cutting arm. This new arch will soon go on to tour to other cities including Dubai and New York. “Antiquities like this belong to all mankind and it is imperative that we all strive to safeguard our common heritage,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson as he unveiled the recreation, apparently oblivious to the distinction between a genuine relic and its copy.

Photography is evidently mixed up in this recreation in very practical ways, as the means by which the arch has been so meticulously reconstructed. But photography also offers a model for the way we think about the relationship between original things and their copies. A photograph is not a window on another world, as some people like to think, nor increasingly even is it a trace of the thing it depicts. Photography is a pattern of tones and colours, and whether it be an analog print or a digital upload to Instagram the image lives far less in the medium itself than in our minds. The same one might say is true of history and it’s traces. In Phillip K Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, the plot revolves in part around an inflated market for icons of Americana, driven by the rapacious collecting of the Japanese soldiers who have occupied the country. In response an industry of fakes has arisen, with artisans producing items like wild west style pistols, carefully aged, but completely inauthentic. Everyone knows that these items are fake, including the collectors who pay huge sums for them, but no one has the will to speak this truth out loud. I feel something similar here.

The reconstruction of the arch has been questioned by some as a rather hollow act, a Disneyland attempt at history, and certainly for me the recreation of the arch calls to mind the underwhelming Stonehenge used as a stageset by the fictional rockband Spinal Tap. Others have criticised it as downright unethical. Martin Makinson from the Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology rightly highlights the politically contested nature of these sites and points to the way that the reoccupation of sites like Palmyra has become a way for the Assad government to reclaim a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of some in the west, even as it continues to torture and kill its own citizens. Any attempt to willfully recreate history says as much as an attempt to willfully destroy it and so the recreation is undeniably political, and attempt to pretend otherwise is disindigenous. The understated photograph above by Stefan Rousseau hints at this in the way it uses a section of the arch to frame Nelson’s Column, a victory monument in it’s own right, and in the distance the looming clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. One might say the same of attempts to occupy or colonise certain sections of the past, whether that occupation is undertaken by the descendants of the people who built what is being colonised, or it is done by foreigners acting in the name of humanity at large.

In this sense one might say that we are doing something not entirely dissimilar to what the Assad regime has done in making the rescue of Palmyra from Islamic State a military objective. In erecting and celebrating this arch in London, we are asserting our cultural credentials in an attempt to show that we are doing something tangible in response to this terrible and protracted war. The destruction of cultural artifacts is something most in the west can comfortably express outrage over, even if doing so just rather awkwardly reveals the gulf between our horror at the destruction of these irreplaceable ancient monuments, and an enduring indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people, every one of those people is just as irreplaceable. A particularly memorable chapter in Vassily Grossman’s Second World War epic Life and Fate consists of Grossman describing at length the absolute impossibility of constructing a computer which could think and feel as even the most average human being is able to. He then imagines the excitement that such a machine would engender among the techno-fetishistic German armies then ploughing their way across the Soviet Union. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the unbearable irony these people who would hail as miraculous a machine which could muster even a poor imitation of a human mind were actively exterminating millions of people.

Raising this arch of triumph also reflects a certain inability to remember recent history of our own, for example when our tanks rolled over ancient archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the American military set up a base on the site of what had been the ancient city of Bablylon damaging it enormously in the process. For me this amnesia rather poses the question of whether either of the two are worse; people who willfully destroy ancient monuments and culture because of an overdeveloped sense of what those objects represent, or those who destroy them because of the opposite, out of a sheer ignorance of their importance. There is needless to say also a certain irony in erecting this arch in London, one of the prime marketplaces for looted antiquities smuggled out of conflict zones like Syria, and a city with so many museums containing artifacts that are much more directly the spoils of state aggression and imperialism. Touring the arch to the art superpowers of Dubai and New York would seem to only underline this.

In contrast to the rhetoric of ‘great men’, true history isn’t something which can be made. History is something which accretes, congeals, weathers, falls apart and gets blown up, and which almost always has on it the traces of those who lived it, a deficit all the more apparent in the case of this copy because it has not been even been sculpted by contemporary human hands but by a machine. History is also a finite and naturally accruing resource, not something which can be synthesized or manufactured, and imagining that one can simply replace the past when it can no longer be put back together represents a terrible misunderstanding of what history is and how it relates to the present. It’s a misunderstanding not so unrelated to the conception of the present that imagines that things like drone bombing campaigns can recorrect our past foreign police mistakes, and which refuses to consider that these new innovations are in Marx’s famous words an example of history repeating itself (as tragedy in the case of the drone campaigns, perhaps as farce in the case of London’s paltry Arch of Triumph).

One wonders what future arcs of triumph will mark the War on Terror and the wider misadventures of the past two decades. In pondering this, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the Roman historian Tacitus. In writing his epic Agricola around the same time that Palmyra’s original arch was constructed Tacitus referenced the Scottish chieftain Calgacus and attributed to him one of the most remarkable speeches against Rome or any empire, one made all the astonishing because these bitter words were in fact almost certainly not those of the soon to be defeated Celt, but rather those of Tacitus himself, a Roman citizen. ‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.’

New Project – A Model Continent

10 Italy, Venice

Venice, Italy. From A Model Continent

I’d like to introduce a small project which I have recently published. A Model Continent documents a theme park in Belgium where European national landmarks are reproduced as scale models. Part funded by the European Union, the park showcases an idealised continent where once divided nations co-exist in peaceful harmony.

The requirements of a tourist attraction however creates unintended juxtapositions between these models and their surroundings. The model crowds at momentous historical events are noticeably small, roads and bridges end abruptly in mid air, and the branding of corporate sponsors are incongruously inserted into the scenery. Even the selection of which monuments are included in the park reflects a very loaded sense of which parts of Europe’s history matter, and which do not. These awkward contrasts seem to speak of the difficulties of the real continent to which this park refers. Rather than an exemplar of harmony, Europe is an increasingly a divided union, wracked by financial, political, and humanitarian upheavals, and where the lessons of history are often forgotten in the search for comforting but simplistic narratives.

I first encountered the park during my travels around the continent in 2012 documenting the difficulties being caused by the financial recession and Euro crisis. Even then I found the park fascinating and planned to return to it. Three years later I finally have, and it says something about the present state of the continent that many of the same issues remain pertinent, and if anything have been added weight by the refugee crisis and news of an impending British referendum on the country’s future membership of the EU. The series is published as a small postcard book which can be kept intact or disassembled and the individual cards posted or displayed and is available now from my online store.

8 Latvia - Freedom monument

9 Great Britain, White Cliffs of Dover

9 Spain, Palace of the Escorial

Photography and Anti-Intellectualism


 I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, John Baldessari, 1971

In a recent post on his blog Grant Scott argues that photography is a democratic global language and takes aim at the ‘powerful cabal’ of practitioner-educators who try to protect photography as something special, failing to equip students with the skills to survive, and punishing those who refuse to fall into line with their view of what good photography is. I agree with the ethos here and there is nothing productive about courses geared to churn out identikit students without the skills to make a living or the intellectual independence to make their own work and continue their creative development after their studies end. But there are also quite a few issues in this piece which need discussing in more depth, and which in some cases need challenging.

Major ones are the two assumptions in the title of the post, which I don’t really want to dwell on in great depth because I’ve already written about them both in past posts and may well do so again in the future. The ideas that photography is a language and democratic are both laudable aspirations, but repeatedly saying these things doesn’t make them true. Photography is not a global language, at best it is many languages understood by the many different groups who use photography in very different ways. The idea of photography as a global language takes no account of the complexities of what different images and symbols mean in different cultures and to say nothing of the need to simultaneously understand the customs and conventions that take place behind the creation of images in order to be truly ‘literate’ of photography. Likewise in terms of the democracy of photography, while the medium has certainly long had democratic potential I would argue that potential is still on it’s way to being fufilled and it remains primarily a tool of elite individuals, groups, and societies. Photography’s history to date has in fact often been the very opposite of democratic. It’s been oppressive, totalitarian and hegemonic.

What I really want to address though here is Scott’s concern with a particular sort of photography education. Again this is an area well worth scrutinising, and from my perspective photography education has its share of problems which need to be addressed through open discussion among teachers, students and the photography industry at large. It’s absolutely a problem when teachers take the approach of trying to shoehorn their students into making the same work as their own, and photography education at its best ought to be a space where students are free to be taught, learn and experiment in whatever direction they want within a framework aimed to steer them towards an independent career. But in connecting these problems with educators who make work which is ‘obtuse and deconstructed, supported by and clothed in a thick cloak of verbose socio-political language’ what Scott seems to be trying to do is to rather awkwardly lay these issues at the door of those who are interested in the intellectual side of photography, without acknowledging that there are bad photography educators of all bents, including those who are dogmatically interested only in the commercial and technical aspects of photography.

To me this criticism of what you might call ‘thinking photography’ is resonant of a barely latent anti-intellectualism in many sections of the photography world, an often quite inarticulate rage directed at people who want to talk about the ideas on which photographs rest, as well as actually making images. Abbas Attar (a photographer who I’ve long admired) once said that ‘young photographers think too much. If I did all that thinking, I would never go out and shoot anything’ which rather sums up this attitude for me. Referencing a famous quote from Magnum founder Robert Capa, photographer and educator Tod Papageorge offered a nice if unintentional rejoinder to Attar’s comment when he wrote that ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough’ [this quote was attributed to Papageorge by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Papageorge maintains he never said it. A tip of the hat to Adam Bell for that information]. Ideas certainly are sometimes poorly articulated, even by the people whose job it is to do just that, but some ideas are also just bloody hard to express. Their being so does not mean there is some sort of conspiracy to over intellectualise, to create privileged territories for academics and their favourites. To suggest otherwise and to imply that these sorts of discussions are irrelevant is I’d argue just a total abdication, a failure on the part of the accuser to engage with ideas which are hard.

Among certain sections of the photography community it’s fairly routine for terms like ‘artist’ and ‘academic’ to be used as terms of insult intended to suggest the target is hopelessly lost in their own esoteric field of inquiry, regardless of whether anyone else is concerned by it or not. Whatever you feel about artists and academics, the one thing you have to acknowledge about even the tallest ivory tower is that occasionally something drops out of it and falls to earth with a resounding crash. Academia might be a domain of people fixated on niches, but those niches widen out into things which later have enormous benefits for the rest of us. Scott’s piece is confusing in this regard because at one turn he seems to praise the mass of non-professional photographers for producing images without concern for ‘peer review’ (except what is an Instagram or Facebook ‘like’ but a mechanism of peer review?) while in the next breath criticising practitioners who are unconcerned that their work isn’t relevant to the great bulk of these normal people but only focused on institutional rewards and funding (i.e. their peers).

And now for the tough test, should we make the work that matters to us, or should we make work we think audiences will respond well to? The answer of course depends entirely on circumstances. If I do a job for a client, as I was before I wrote this piece, listening to my audience becomes pretty essential if I want to get more work. If I want to make photographs for myself, to see what I can do or where I can push my ideas, then broad audience response is much lower down the list of priorities. Throughout history not worrying exclusively about mass appeal has often been what has made for provocative, beautiful art work. As I said at the start of this piece, I agree with the Scott’s basic point that there is nothing useful about courses geared to churning out identikit students without the technical and intellectual skills to satisfy clients and themselves, but nor is there any value to being anti-intellectual for the sake of it, however easy the target and however fashionable it might be to do so. The fact is there are many gatekeepers in photography, and a career in the field often unfortunately ends up being to a lesser or greater extent dependent on these people. However not all gatekeepers are the same, the gates they keep are not all the same size, nor do they all lead to the same rewards for those allowed passage through them. Depending on where you stand Scott is a gatekeeper, and loathe though I am to admit it I have to acknowledge that I am one as well. That’s a fact something we both need to be conscious of, working actively to counter it in our deeds and words, and opening the gates we ward to as many people as people. Unfortunately this sort of reverse snobbery and anti-intellectualism is as bad at doing this as is the worst academic obfuscation.

Volatile Smile by Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann


High-frequency trading workspace, #14, 2010.
Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

Like all technologies, photography emerged from a very particular milieu, and in certain ways all its subsequent applications and adaptations will reflect the concerns of that moment. In the context of photojournalism and documentary photography what often feels awkwardly evident and yet rarely spoken of is that while the world has changed enormously since 1839, moving by most consensuses into a new age (whether the age of information, the anthropocence, (post-)post-modernity or something else) photography for the most part hasn’t. Digital imaging is in some respects a dramatic leap forward, but beyond the end of photography’s physical existence in some ways it just represents an electronic emulation of the type of photography pioneered by Niépce, Talbot et al, and not such a dramatic step forwards as is often suggested. Their world was one grappling to visualise and understand things just beyond the vanishing point of human physiology, things like the craters of the moon like the movement of a galloping horses legs. Today we grapple with many issues which are perceptually speaking in different orders of magnitude. When the camera’s exposure is measured in seconds what does it mean to try to use this technology to speak about processes which occur in a thousandth or less of that, who’s major actors are composed of lines of code, and who’s actions leave few tangible traces beyond evaporating energy? Can the camera and the ways that it encourages us to think about and see the world be retooled to meet these new challenges? These are constant and at times crushing questions for me.

Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann are an artistic duo based in the United States using photography to examine a range of subjects, but I think of particular interest for this discussion is their 2014 book Volatile Smile which examines financial markets, looking at them through a series of visual studies of trading spaces and apparatuses, and ending with a series of images of american homes repossessed as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. Marx famously wrote that what capitalism desired above all else was the annihilation of space and time, a potent metaphor which remains useful in thinking about capitalism and technology today. Innovations like hyper-fast algorithmic trading make that latter objective seem ever more real and the consequences of it ever more troubling. Probably the most widely seen part of Volatile Smile are a series of photographs of algorithmic trading stations in the Willis Tower, Chicago, a city which lies on one of the fibre optic laylines that make high frequency trades possible. These workstations are where human overseers monitor the programs which make and lose fortunes in a fraction of a blink of an eye. Rather than usual single or dual monitor of most modern offices (dual monitors already speaking to a sense of information overload), these desks abut entire walls of  blacked out monitors, with other empty supports waiting for new ones to be plugged in to them like some sort of alien life support systems awaiting new dependents. Close ups of the work surfaces reveal little in the way of personalisation one might expect in even the most corporate workspace, the one reoccurring hint of human presence are a series of images of hand sanitizer products, images which I find hard to read except with the implication of a workforce desperately trying to wash themselves clean of something.

Sahn and Geissler are artists, not journalists, but I think their work sheds light on some of the difficulties of contemporary visual journalism. Like those photography projects which seek to reveal the essence of the internet by presenting us with images of shining server rooms, photographs of algorithmic trading desks tell us comparatively little about the context and consequences of these practices, and reveal that the axiom on which photojournalism has long been built is often no longer relevant. Robert Capa famously declared that if a photograph wasn’t good enough it was because the photographer had not been close enough, in other words that good photojournalism was about proximity to the story (a declaration which of course didn’t stop Capa from occasionally reinventing the story and his proximity to it as circumstances required). This traditional approach is part of the angle pursued in Volatile Smile, the photographers have come right to the heart of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by high frequency trading algorithms, and at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur but instead a series of blank black screens, devices intended for imparting information but which instead remain uncompromisingly blank. In the new era of nebulous and elusive topics, spatial proximity has ceased to be a guarantor of journalistic revelation or insight. In capitalism’s war on space and time and in particular in terms of the way that conflict is represented by journalists and artists, it sometimes feels as if it has almost succeeded in annihilating space, and is well on the way to rendering time as we think of it, an archaic irrelevance.