Beyond The Panopticon


Plan of Millbank Prison,
Constructed 1812, on land originally purchased by Bentham for the construction of his Panopticon.

In a series of letters written in 1787 Jeremy Bentham outlined his concept of the Panopticon or ‘inspection house’. It was to be a structure designed to create the illusion in the minds of its inmates of continual observation by an invisible warden. Bentham considered it ideal for prisons, factories, hospitals, insane asylums, and ‘any sort of establishment in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection’.

Two centuries later his ideas have been only sporadically implemented, but the Pantopticon has become a central model and metaphor for many of our darker conceptions of what it means to look and survey in an ever more intensely imaged world. In large part due to it’s reinterpretation but Michel Foucault, the Panopticon remains one of the most frequently cited models for explaining how our behaviour is shaped and moderated by practices of looking, and the sensation of being observed.

The façade of the Panopticon looms particularly large in media theory, where it continues to inform conversations about the way photography (particularly state and institutionally operated forms of photography) shape our behaviour. That a more or less unrealised architectural technology, envisaged before the era of daguerreotype continues to be deployed to explain our behaviour in the era of the near ubiquitous digital camera seems to me to be very strange.

A number of writers have argued that Bentham’s model no longer makes sense, with varying degrees of convincingness and in the field of surveillance studies there have been attempts to move beyond the model of the Panopticon, giving rise to a number of ‘post-Panopticon’ models of surveillance. These arguments and alternatives have ranged from pointing out changes in the way control is exerted, to arguments that the original model has proved itself to be fundamentally flawed and ineffective. Others have pointed to the way we increasingly auto-surveil or expose ourselves to collective surveillance, for example by publishing every more intimate information about ourselves in the public domain.

I have a slightly different feeling, tied to some of my recent writings on surveillance and image aware algorithms. I sense that the Panopticon is still yet to attain the logical end form which Bentham’s ideas demand, but which would have been impossible to envisage in his time, or even in Foucault’s. What the Panopticon always depended on was the availability of a guard or watcher, present at least some of the time to detect transgressions and punish wrongdoers. In effect what this meant was that Panopticon’s name was a misnomer. Bentham’s conception of Panopticon was not ‘all seeing’ at all, it merely hinged on the idea that at any moment one might be observed.

A true Panopticon would demand an equal number of guards to inmates, each guard constantly observing. The impossibility of that is also the weakness of the system, that provided an inmate can control the sense of doubt the Panopticon is designed to cultivate, they can assume that most of the time they are in fact not being observed, and can get away with things they might be prohibited from doing. Any transgressions which go unpunished progressively weaken the observed person’s belief that they are subject to a near omnipotent gaze. This maybe in part explains the ineffectiveness of many cited examples of the media Panopticon, for example the United Kingdom’s vast number of CCTV cameras. We know from experience that most are unmonitored, and many don’t even work.

What I think we’re approaching now is a time when the human element of the Panopticon can be more or less dispensed with. The result is a system which no longer rests on the possibility that someone might be watching us at any given time, but by the more disturbing certainty that something definitely is. A combination of the massive proliferation of networked cameras into almost every arena of life, alongside the growing capacity of governments and other organisations to automatically harvest, store and process vast amounts of information in near real time suggests frightening possibilities for future surveillance. The growing sophistication of software designed to detect subtle behaviours completes a terrifying trinity.

A huge networked panopticon, algorithmically detecting or perhaps even pre-empting transgressive or subversive behaviour sounds like dystopian science fiction, but the pieces that could make it reality seem to be falling into place. Given a choice, would people agree to being monitored by such a disturbing system? The National Security Agency surveillance revelations reveal the problem of assuming that our assent would even be sought. More troublingly though, these revelations have perhaps laid the groundwork for the collective psychological change needed to accept the idea of a truly omnipotent form of surveillance. For all the outrage we might feel we more or less now accept that we live in a state of pervasive surveillance.

We understand information in fundamentally different ways to previous generations, as a commodity which we generate like heat, with almost with every movement, every keystroke. The NSA revelations have established as fact the previously radical idea that very few of our communications are safe from interception. The virtual world increasingly mirrors the real, physical world, and as we accept the idea that one of these worlds is prone to such all seeing surveillance, that reality is sure to follow in the other.

A New Vision


Still from concept video for the Visual Media Reasoning (VMR) software package,
currently under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Photography is changing, but some of the most significant changes remain like an undeveloped picture, latent and unseen. Paul Virillio once suggested that in a world of ubiquitous cameras and photographs, we will no longer dream of images, but instead will dream of being blind. It’s an aphorism I’ve repeated many times here because it remains for me a very profound one, and it’s one that seems closer than ever to being made true.

Photography is no longer the physical medium of old. Gone are the dark slides, polaroids, roll films. A minority of people still use these things, but they are akin to the living historians who spend their weekends dressing up as German soldiers. It might be eye catching, but they have still lost the fight, and every time they don their uniforms they replay an old defeat. The photograph of today is something immaterial and innately non-visual. The photograph is now a document of text, numbers and symbols which must be conjured into a visual form each time we want to view it. This transformation has implications far beyond an imagined death of photographic artistry or skill that it is often seen to represent. It has consequences for the very definition of photography, consequences which most who discuss the medium appear to still be waking up to.

At the same time there is a vast and growing deluge of imagery in the world, a source of angst even for those who simultaneously herald the realisation of photography’s supposed democratic potential. What we forget in our anxiety about this flood of photographs is that not all photographs are created equal. Much of this deluge is unseen, and what amongst it we notice and wring our hands over is a small proportion, and a very particular type of image. Many more people despair, and many more column inches deplore, the plethora of inane selfie taking than do, say, the huge mass of satellite mapping reconnaissance imagery generated each day. If we agree that we need to talk about the production of imagery in our world, it would seem that to date we have mostly been talking about the wrong producers.

Part of what causes us to fear, or even turn away from this mass of imagery is maybe that it’s quantity short-circuits the thing that photography is supposed to be about. It becomes painful to look when we can never do more than scratch the surface of these petabytes of pixels. But the gradual rise of sophisticated algorithms able to really understand photographs suggests that the onus may soon shift from humans looking at these images, to machines doing it for us. From there, the further application of new or ‘big’ data principles to imagery might mean it becomes possible to analyse vast numbers of photographs in real time. Something of a primer for this idea can be found in a recent piece An All Seeing Eye. In the future the individual iconic photograph of the burning monk or the terrorist attack will perhaps become far less important than the aggregated data of countless citizen produced images of the same event.

Already mass spectacles like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombings are recorded by countless photographic eyewitnesses, and those images are later used to forensically reassemble the events. But this is manual, and in the future it may be automatic. As computer vision becomes more sophisticated the photographs we rely on to diagnose, judge, and perform a host of other functions may come to never even be viewed by human eyes. All of this is heralding a world where machines are not used as portals through which people might view, but as viewers in their own right, no longer providing us with imagery, but with ready prepared insights into those images and what they mean. Exactly what this new vision might mean for us is something I will be exploring more in forthcoming posts.


Magna Errata at The Alternative Magna Carta Festival

Lewis Bush (1)

GCHQ Bude listening post, Cornwall

At the start of last month I made a call for submissions of work dealing with human rights and civil liberties in the United Kingdom. The response has been really interesting and as a result of it work by seven photographers including will be on display next weekend at the Alternative Magna Carta Festival in Clerkenwell. The concept of the exhibition was to curate something which ran counter to the conventional celebrations of Magna Carta as a source of modern liberties, and which instead would draw attention to the ways that those liberties have been eroded or sidetracked, particularly in the wake of the War on Terror, and the start of what has been termed the ‘Age of Austerity’.

Magna Errata (or ‘Great Errors’) features projects dealing with a diverse array of rights and civil liberties in contemporary Britain. From detention without trial, to mass surveillance. From food insecurity to curtailments of the right to protest. For my contribution I’ve produced a small project which is a direct follow on from my current work about covert intelligence radio stations. This new work uses satellite imaging to map the physical infrastructure of the British surveillance state. From the golf ball-like domes of Menwith Hill’s massive eavesdropping base to the underground bunker where submarine data cables are tapped for data, these sites are the frontline of the erosion of privacy in the UK.

More information about the festival can be found through it’s website.

Lets Talk About Money

Metropole book Lewis Bush (1)
Lets Talk About Money (or: What is the Point of Photobook Publishing?)

The photo world abounds with articles, essays and titles on photo book publishing, covering seemingly every topic from the abstract philosophy of designing books through to the essential practicalities of marketing and distributing them. What is seldom discussed are the rather grim economic realities of book publishing. Photographers often plow their savings into new publications or spend month’s crowdsourcing or grant seeking in order to pay for them. Many books remain mouldering unsold, in closets, attics or under the bed for years, and even successful titles sometimes do not recoup their considerable shooting and production costs.

As part of the photo book extravaganza that is Photobook Bristol I’ll be chairing a panel discussion on Sunday June 14th exploring this little discussed area of photo book publishing. Joining me will be Emma Chetcuti of Multistory, Craig Atkinson of Café Royal Books and photographer Mark Power, who all have distinct insights into the topic. The subject of money is little discussed perhaps in part because the economic realities of photo book publishing can seem quite depressing. Who pays for books, why they do it, and what we can expect out of it as photographers are all questions that most of us would prefer not to ask because these questions both shine a light both on our motivations for putting work out into the world, and also cause us to reconsider our assumptions about what we get back in return.

A few of the questions we will be discussing include the quandary of who pays for photo books? Should publishers foot the bill, or is it right to expect photographers to cover the costs of their projects. With so many photographers making books, supply often seems to outstrip demand. Do we need to be more realistic about the market for photo books or look for ways to broaden that market, whether by changing the topics we focus on or the type of books we produce? Should the trade in photography books be dependent on the invisible hand of the market (particularly a market imbalanced by powerhouses like Amazon), or is there an argument for public funding of book projects which lack broad public appeal but have an important creative, cultural or political contribution to make?

If photo book publishing is not financially viable, and even sometimes unviable for the publisher, then why do we keep doing it? What do we expect to gain from publishing our works if it is not financial remuneration? Do the benefits of exposure and career advancement outweigh the financial costs and investment in time that go into producing a book project? Can we say photo book publishing is basically a vanity project, and if so for who? For the publisher, or for the artists, or for both? If they each have different agendas is this important? Should the burden to fund fall on the one who stands to gain?

We will be discussing these questions and many more, so come on down to the Southbank Club in Bristol for a weekend of great talks, books and entertainment.

Five More Years to Fight

Mother Frackers A3

‘Mother Frackers’ (2015)
Digital photomontage

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

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

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

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

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

Magna Errata: Call for Submissions

disphotic magna eratta

© Len William, used under a creative commons licence.

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

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

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

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

Review – The Deutsche Börse Prize 2015 at The Photographers Gallery


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Empire II: The American Ruin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After Empire I: The Soviet Ruin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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