Review – Burden of Proof at The Photographer’s Gallery


Face-skull superimposition of Josef Mengele.
Richard Helmer

Recent years have seen the evidential limitations of photography thoroughly investigated, indeed almost to the point of exhaustion. I don’t mean that in the sense that we have run out of examples of apparently evidential photography which might under inspection reveal themselves to be highly suspect, there are still plenty of these. Rather I mean that as a photography consuming culture I think we are increasingly tired of hearing from a succession of experts that this thing we all have vested so much belief in is, in reality, something of a sham. Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence which has just opened at The Photographers Gallery offers a wonderfully balanced assessment of the complications of using photographs as evidence. It reveals that while photographic evidence might be highly constructed, ambiguous, selective and often far from incontrovertible (what evidence isn’t?), the evidential roles that photography fulfills in our society remain for the most part too important for us to reject them outright..

The first gallery consists primarily of archival imagery from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, starting with the remarkable ‘God’s eye view’ photographs made using a system developed by the 19th century criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. In these images the camera appears to hover almost unsupported directly above the bodies of the deceased, the wide angle lens causing the wider crime scene in the periphery of the frames to curve away and disappear into a soft blur. Despite these images showing bodies which have been ravaged by violence and decomposition they are still irresistibly beautiful in a way it is hard to imagine anyone finding the starkly functional forensic photography of today. Other works in this gallery include the first photographs of the Turin Shroud (the ‘first forensic photograph’ later revealed as a medieval fake) and photographs taken of victims of Stalinist purges before their execution, an intriguing example of how a piece evidence produced for one purpose can later be turned around and reformed as evidence against it’s maker.

The second gallery opens with archive footage filmed at liberated German concentration camps by Allied cameramen who were issued highly specific instructions about how they were to film the unimaginable scenes they encountered (perhaps not unlike those guidelines by which police forensic investigators work today). Strangely though these guidelines were drawn up by the director John Ford, an auteur now most synonymous with the western, a genre of fantasy which are so often taken as fact. Such was the perceived importance of this footage to the Nuremburg trials that the court room was reconstructed around the cinema screen which took the position normally afforded to the judge, and neon lighting was reported to cast a ghoulish light across the faces of the accused. Hardly an objective arrangement.

Several of the works in this gallery are presented as part of research by Eyal Weizman who directs Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture Centre. In one piece a series of mid-century British aerial photographs of what is now Israel are probed for evidence of ancient cemeteries which would lend legitimacy to the claims of nomads who were forced from their lands in the wake of the 1947 partition. Given the limited resolution of the film used and the height that these photographs were taken at, these tiny graves lie at what Weizman terms the threshold of detectability, and are perceptible only as single grains of silver in the photographic emulsion. This level of detail proved too precise or contestable for the Israeli state which rejected the claim of the nomads.

The works in Burden of Proof are all taken from real world investigations, and refreshingly there is hardly an ‘artist’ in sight with the exception of Susan Meiselas who helped to photograph the excavation of a mass grave from the anti-Kurdish Anfal campaign. In spite of this many of the works on display still manage to have an artistic patina about them, partly I suppose a result of the rather lavish production of the exhibition, partly a result of the way consciously non-artistic aesthetics have permeated into contemporary art practice, but also mostly just because of the curious ability of photography to remould itself to the different circumstances in which it is seen.

Another contribution from Weizman highlights this pretty well. It examines the forensic investigation to determine whether a body found in Brazil was that of Josef Mengele, the Todesengel or Angel of Death who presided over exterminations and human experimentation at Auschwitz. As part of this investigation pioneering new techniques were developed which allowed superimposition of an archive image of the deceased over a video feed of the exhumed skull. In the resulting images Mengele’s leering face emerges out of and dissolves back into his skull in a way with far more emotional resonance than a forensic science experiment might be expected to permit. Even with this compelling visual evidence, the identity of the skull remained contested until it was later possible to undertake DNA testing, which confirmed that it was indeed Mengele’s.

I think it’s worth noting that the Burden of Proof underwent a name change in it’s transition from Le Bal in Paris where it was first staged under titled Images of Conviction, to it’s new form at the Photographers Gallery. I find the new title highly suggestive, as the original one is although perhaps in different ways than it might have been to it’s French audiences. The burden in this case is the burden of knowing all too well about photography’s limitations, its biases and selectivities, and of using it anyway. The burden falls on us as viewer, to equip ourselves with the knowledge to understand what a photograph is and how it works and how it dosen’t. The burden is one of faith as much as evidence, and the onus is on us to question our convictions and perhaps most difficult of all, to determine the threshold of our own belief in photography.

Travelling Light: What Refugees Couldn’t Leave Behind

Iman+textKiki Streitberger, Travelling Light

Last year saw still life come very much to the fore as a documentary method, as it featured prominently in the coverage of many of the major events of the year. We saw it used by a number of photographers in Ukraine to document the vicious weapons brought to bear by both sides fighting in Kiev’s Independence Square, and later also to record the opulent possessions of the deposed president Yanukovych. In Nigeria we saw it very effectively used to stand in for the abducted Chibok school girls, their meagre possessions appearing to speak volumes about their absent owners.

With European attention firmly focused on the migrants and refugees seeking to travel here it was perhaps only a matter of time before a project emerged that used a similar technique to discuss this issue. Kiki Streitberger’s Travelling Light does so, and does so very powerfully. A chance meeting with a Syrian man in a German village led Streitberger to ask a series of Syrian refugees to show her the objects that they had either considered too important to leave behind, or which they had acquired and kept with them during the lengthy and dangerous journey to Europe.

Certainly there are other projects which done similar things, for example Brian Sokol’s project The Most Important Things, but I think there are a few significant elements that distinguish Streitberger’s project. For one thing it’s visually purely about the objects, their owners are not physically present. However Streitberger also interviews each person and includes a short text explaining the significance of their selected objects, a text which is incorporated directly in to the image rather than included as a caption (a not insignificant choice given the way images about topics like migration are prone to being stripped of their captions and context before being circulated in potentially harmful ways).

By interviewing but not photographing her subjects, Travelling Light avoids what I think is often a pitfall of photography about humanitarian crises, which is the tendency to reduce real people to mute, two dimensional representations of a problem. It gives Streitberger’s subjects their anonymity (an important thing which photographers all too often entice subjects to give up), while not curtailing their ability to speak more or less directly to the audience. This strategy also avoids one of the key issues for me with some still life documentary photography, which is that the objects photographed are often left unexplained and completely open for us to project our own interpretations on to, to ascribe an almost relic like significance to things which might actually have actually mattered very little to their owners.

The people who participated in Travelling Light are also a diverse group, which in itself bucks the common media depiction of migrants and refugees as aggressive young men seeking wealth at Europe’s expense (as if one person’s gain must inevitably mean that somewhere, someone else is losing out). Shahed is 5 years old and her possessions consist solely of a pink doll called Aia and a tube of sun cream. Ahmad, 22 is a stonemason, and his possessions include a shirt bought from a store of the Spanish fashion chain Zara in Libya, both effective reminders that the differences between Europe and these unstable states are not always so massive as we like to tell ourselves.

One thing that I find particularly pertinent about the work is the way it plays on but simultaneously sidesteps the essentially forensic feel of so much still life photography. Seeing these possessions laid out against a clean white background inevitably conjures images of crime scene photography, like the disinterred possessions of Bosnian atrocity victims photographed by Zijah Gafic, or the last outfits of El Salvadorian victims of criminal violence as photographed by Fred Ramos. By contrast though the owners of the possessions in Streitberger’s photographs are obviously very much alive. This dissonance had the effect, at least for me, of displacing my thoughts instead to the ones who didn’t make it to Europe, the thousands estimated to have drowned this year alone during the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, whose scant possessions are perhaps still floating in the currents. Knowing how man made detritus often floats on the seas for years or decades, it’s hard not to imagine these intimate items one day washing up on the same beaches that their owners were so desperate to reach.


Time Enough: Atrocity, Photography, and Entertainment

arkan act of aggression disphotic

Screengrab from Act of Aggression with overlaid comparison of original image.

Guilty secret, I like playing video games. Actually that’s not really that much of a secret, nor a particularly guilty one. I even reviewed a video game here once and made a defense of the genre at the same time, arguing that they can sometimes be as intelligent and insightful as media which are more traditionally used to talk about serious, current topics. That said while games can be thought provoking, like any other genre the great majority are pretty crass, including one I happened to play this weekend called Act of Aggression.

Still, even things you don’t much like can lead to interesting thoughts and discoveries, and that was what happened with this. The briefings in this game take the form of videos that cut together actual news footage with in game video footage into fake newscasts about events happening around the world. These are then often followed by a military briefing. My next mission’s objective was to capture a mercenary leader named Dragan Vesnic from his camp in Serbia. An oddly familiar name when used in conjunction with that location I thought. Then several ‘photographs’ of the leader appeared, only for a couple of seconds each, but one of which jumped off the screen at me.

The reason it caught my eye was that it was a badly photoshopped version of Ron Haviv’s photograph of Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan, and his Serb Volunteer Guard (also known as Arkan’s Tigers), a paramilitary unit active during the Yugoslav wars and associated with a series of war crimes. The in game photograph had been edited to remove Arkan’s face, the tiger cub he was clutching and to more or less render the Serbian flag in the background unrecognisable. I don’t know if Haviv gave permission for the image to be used or whether it was lifted off the web, for the benefit of this discussion it dosen’t matter that much [Update: it seems from his comments on Twitter that he didn’t know about it]. Someone somewhere made the decision to use that image, and judging by the in-game Serbian connection that person knew something of the history it represented.

This brief, chance encounter with a familiar photograph in a bad video game threw up a few thoughts for me. The main one being whether there is a point where the events of the past and the imagery made of those events regress far enough from the present that it becomes acceptable to use them as vechiles for crass, unthinking entertainment. I think most people would agree that if the Yugoslav Wars were still ongoing, or had only recently ended, it would be pretty unthinkable to find this image in a video game in the same way I don’t expect many video game makers today are repurposing photographs of Bashar al Assad or Mohammed Emwazi in their new releases. Given time and distance though these figures might well appear in the video games or movies of the future, as for example Bin Laden already has, albeit mostly in rather fringe titles.

The question I’m left pondering is at what point does that change in status occur, and is it the same for all events, or does it depend on their character and magnitude? As a history undergraduate I was once told by a lecturer that ‘history’ was anything which occurred twenty years or more ago, a margin which even at the time seemed to me remarkably arbitrary. Some allegedly ‘historic’ events disappear into the collective memory very quickly, while others linger like a scar for far longer, sometimes for as long as people with direct experience of them survive, and in rare cases perhaps even beyond.

Open Call: London


City of Dust, Lewis Bush 2012

I’m currently developing a proposal for an exhibition next year about London and would welcome submissions and suggestions of photographic work to info [at]

I’m particularly interested in projects which look at a narrow slice of the city, or which think about a narrow notion of what London is, rather than works which attempt to totalise, generalise, or in other ways broadly represent the city. Your work might look at a particular group of people in the city, a particular set of spaces, a specific era in the metropolis’s history or a specific idea about what London has been, is now, or is becoming. The type of photography, whether journalistic, documentary, or artistic in nature, is unimportant at this stage.

If you have a body of work which fits this rather broad outline I’d love to see it. Please send 5-10 images and an outline of 250 words maximum to info [at] via Wetransfer, Dropbox, or a similar file sharing service. Equally if you know of a body of work by another photographer that you think I should look at, please drop me a line with suggestions.

[Update: people asking if there is a deadline for this, the simple anwser is not really, but I hope to have a shortlist of work by mid-October, so consider the deadline for submissions to be Thursday 15th October]

Better Welfare for the Cash Cow of Photography

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev strokes a cow. 1959
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Last week I published my free grants and competitions list and to launch it I wrote what was basically a rant masquerading as a legitimate post on the issue of fee charging and money making in the photography industry. I criticised the way charging for things like portfolio reviews and competitions has become the norm, and the lack of transparency about where this money goes. The online response to this post was pretty incredible, which shows that I’m not the only one concerned by this issue.

That said, while it’s all very easy for me to sit here and criticise fee charging, it doesn’t do much to address the problem which often underlies it. As long as funding remains as difficult as it presently is there will always be pressure on organisations to charge photographers for competitions, portfolio reviews and other activities. Because of that I’ve been thinking about a middle ground and here I’ve put together a few suggestions for ways to make fee charging activities more transparent or, if you like, ethical. It’s important for all of us to know how the financial food chain works, because where money comes from and what it gets spent on has a direct and powerful bearing on the landscape of the arts. I hope these ideas will be a way for photography organisations to ask for money to support their activities without losing credibility in the eyes of those who fund them.

Be Transparent. If you’re asking for money be transparent about how it is being used. Speaking of ‘administration’ and other generalities as so many fee chargers do is just not good enough, particularly when the fee being requested is often so far above what administering a prize could be expected to reasonably cost. If, as I suspect is often the case, proceeds from fees go towards running other areas of your organisation’s activities then you need to be open about it and explain why. If the reason is good enough I doubt many photographers will grudge it. If you already publish submission figures then you’re already halfway there, since even someone with basic arithmetic can then figure out what you’re making from an open call. Go all the way, be accountable, clear and open about what you raise from fees and how you use it.

Fee Waivers. Probably the single thing that makes me angriest about fees is when they are excused with inane justifications like that they help to keep the submitted work to a high standard. There is no correlation between a photographer’s ability to pay and the quality of their work. All that fees help to do is to entrench inequalities that this field could badly do without, inequalities which stifle great work and great voices. If you must charge a fee to support your activities then offer a parallel waiver system for those who say they are unable to afford it. Subsidise this with some of the proceeds from the fees of those who can afford to pay.

Give Something Back. If you’re charging fees then consider donating a percentage of the proceeds to a charitable cause. Whether you direct them to an external charity carrying out work in a relevant field, or you pool them into an internal activity like a fee waiver or a scholarship system, give people a reason to think their fees aren’t just going on a swanky prosecco laden private view for the competition’s winner and it’s organisers.

Don’t Bullshit Us. Be honest about what you are offering photographers and what you want in return. Don’t dress things up as something they are not. For a photographer having their work seen by industry supremoes is not an amazing opportunity, it is part of the job that those people have decided to do. Equally don’t hide away information about fees at the bottom of your application process, be clear and open about the exchange which is taking place. (And please don’t extend your open call because you haven’t raised enough money yet, it’s painfully obvious what you’re doing).

Lastly, one for the Photographers. Something I should have said in the last piece is that as much as you might resent those who charge fees for competitions and portfolio reviews, you should be just as cautious about those organisations offering fabulous prizes or activities at no cost. Always ask yourself what they are getting in return, and what is written in the fine print and between the lines. So-called opportunities can just as easily turn out to be rights grabs or cultural white washing exercises, things you probably want to avoid just as vigorously as the organisations who just want to stick their hand in your wallet.

The Taylor Wessing Prize 2015 Shortlist


Amira and her Children by Ivor Prickett © Ivor Prickett/UNHCR/Panos Pictures

Traditionally I’ve always done a write up of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize after the announcement of the winner and after I’ve attended the press preview. As an experiment I thought I’d do things differently this year, and consider the four photographs in the shortlist ahead of both of these events. The main reason is that while I have often criticised the Taylor Wessing prize for being very conservative (not to mention a corporate PR wheeze), I always do it in retrospect and with the asset of hindsight. For a change I thought it would be interesting to put my claims about the prize’s predictability to the test by laying them out my predictions long before the result has been announced. I’m also keen to do this because it offers an opportunity to consider the shortlisted photographs in more detail, and to consider some of the longlisted photographs separately once they go on public show in November.

First amongst the shortlisted portraits is Five Girls 2014 by David Stewart which shows the photographer’s daughter and four friends, and perfectly mirrors a photograph he took of the group seven years earlier shortly before they began studying for their GCSE’s. In the new photograph the girls sit at a table and each gazes in a different direction (some more self-consciously than others). It’s a nice example of the individuality and confidence that develops as you come of age, offset against the lingering importance of childhood friendship groups. The photograph makes the most sense though seen in relation to its predecessor, a comparison in which details like the girl’s choice of clothing, their posing and even the discarded sushi and salad containers on the table all gather some new meaning and significance.

Next, Anoush Abrar’s Hector depicts a nude child reclining against a black background, appearing almost to hover in mid-air. Abrar’s photograph was reportedly inspired by Carvaggio’s 1608 painting Sleeping Cupid, an ambiguous image to say the least, where cupid appears almost as if dead and surrounded by the damaged and broken tools of his trade. In Abrar’s photograph the child is awake and looking at the camera, which is probably just as well considering the sleeping cupid motif is often taken to darkly imply a dearth of love. Rather than the playful youthfulness of a cherub the child has an uncannily knowing expression reminiscent of the look rendered into the figure of the child Jesus in some artistic traditions, resulting in a child which appears more like a strange miniature adult. All in all I found it an oddly unsettling photograph, and it is difficult to untangle how much of that is by intent.

Nyaueth by Peter Zelewski is certainly the least conventional portrait in the shortlist, perhaps a concession to those who agitate for the prize to show a little more imagination in its selections, but which might equally just be an attempt to appeal to those interested in faddish Humans of New York style projects. The photograph was taken as part of a project called Beautiful Strangers, a series of street portraits of people who have caught Zelewski’s eye. The subject’s face is framed by her black hair which cascades down and out of the frame giving her face a powerful symmetry, albeit one which competes somewhat awkwardly with a wall on the left hand of the frame. This, the low angle, soft focus and indirect downward lighting all give the photograph a powerful intensity, but it remains like many other strong portraits taken as part of similar projects, basically just a picture of an interesting looking stranger in the street. In other words, I want to leave the photograph with something more to think about.

The final portrait in the shortlist is by Ivor Prickett and is titled Amira and her Children. In shows a Middle Eastern woman, sitting with her son and daughter in what appears to be a tent. Her headscarf is pulled back to reveal her hair, dark roots emerging from lighter, bleached looking hair, perhaps a hint at a rather more carefree life which has been left behind. She looks directly at the camera in a way which is tired, but in almost equal measure determined and steadfast. Amira’s daughter sits on her mother’s knee, her eyes downcast to her brother, on whose curly hair her hands play. Her brother’s head rests across his mother’s laps and his wide eyes are trained on the camera in a way which suggests a tired resignation to what is happening. The mother’s black dress and the military styling and epaulets on the children’s clothing offers an indirect hint at their origins; they are refugees from Mosul in northern Iraq, now in the hands of the Islamic State. The fate of the children’s father is unclear.

It is this photograph that I expect will win this year. In part because it resonates with many of the visual tropes and tendencies shared by the prize’s past winners but also because Prickett’s photograph resonates so powerfully with many of the terrible realities of the present. With the refugee influx into Europe and the seemingly inexorable spread of Islamic State high in the news and in people’s thoughts, it seems likely that the way this image subtlety touches on both themes will be rewarded. It’s a great portrait and would be a worthy winner from amongst the shortlist, although in respects still a somewhat disappointing one. Last year I rather optimistically predicted  that the prize was attempting to shed many of its old tendencies and recognise some of the ways that photographic portraiture has evolved beyond the pictorialism of the 1880’s and and the new objectivity of the 1930’s. However in terms of the shortlist at least it seems that the judges this year have held true to old tendencies and once again selected a series of technically skillful, but compositionally and conceptually conservative photographs of women, taken almost exclusively by men. Those of us who are waiting for the Taylor Wessing Prize to enter new photographic territory will, it seems, have to keep waiting.

The Cash Cow of Photography


Jida Choura, The Syrian Memorial
Photo: Lewis Bush

I’ve been working for a while on compiling a list of photography grants, competitions and festivals that don’t charge or only charge small amounts for submissions. This is an ongoing and far from complete project and one which will rely to some extent on submissions and updates coming from the people who use it, so feel free to get in touch with anything you think should or should not be on there.

I’ve had the desire to create this list for some time, and the feeling has mounted almost every time I’ve submitted work for something. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve made my way through a lengthy online form to find, usually hidden away at the bottom or at the final stage, a request for an exorbitant ‘administration fee’ in order to complete my application. At this point the exasperation of half an hour of wasted on form filling and image resizing is almost enough to get me to cough up the requested money, despite an invariable lack of transparency, and a strong sense that the last thing this money is probably going to be spent on is administration (how many paperclips can you buy for $70?).

I’ve also come to question more and more those situations where photographers are essentially expected to pay for access, or to pay someone to do their job. Portfolio reviews seem to me the most obvious and troubling example of this, a situation where we pay to jump the queue and go and see an editor or a curator who might be able to help us with work. In participating in this we are, in effect, paying a premium just to talk to a person whose job it already is to look at photography. The perceived competition and difficulty of a career in photography drives us to pay for a service which is completely artificial. To me that makes no sense and this and a range of other experiences have left me with the mounting feeling that to some organisations photographers are not much more than cash cows to be milked for profit.

It’s funny, because I hear so often that there is no money in photography, no budgets to pay for articles, or exhibitions, or jobs. And yet at the same time I see vast sums being spent on photography all around me, by collectors buying photographs, by hobbyists buying silly equipment, and by cash strapped professionals trying to give their work a leg up in a desperately competitive market, hoping that it will pay off down the line. Do the maths on most fee charging competitions and the take can seem pretty enormous. In 2014 there were reportedly 4,193 submissions entered by 1,793 photographers to the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. At a current fee of £27 per photograph that would suggest the prize raises something in the region of £113,000 even before you tote up the ticket price to visitors and whatever opaque figure is gifted by Taylor Wessing LLP as part of their sponsorship arrangements. Of course there is money in photography, but as in every field the real issues are who has it, and more precisely what did they do to get it?

I work a great deal in museums and galleries and so I know well that organisations need to find ways to raise money to fund their activities, something which has undoubtedly become more difficult in recent years with dwindling funding for the arts in the UK. But to my mind any organisation that is overly reliant on artists and photographers to raise money for it relies on a questionable (and perhaps unsustainable) model. Equally the tired excuses that charging fees helps to filter out weaker work and keep standards high simply don’t really hold water, instead all these practices filter are those with money from those who don’t, and all they do is to exacerbate what has always been a problem with photography, that it is an expensive activity which is closed to those without the material or cultural resources to commit to it.

From a technological perspective the problem of photography’s capital intensive nature is at least starting to break down, as cameras and the means to disseminate images become ever cheaper, and people come to own them almost by accident through their ownership of products like phones and tablets. But culturally that break down seems to be inspiring a closing of ranks and a desire to make photography as an industry more exclusive through arbitrary financial means. This is something I just can’t stand. Nor can I abide the professional sneakiness that seems endemic in professional photography, the way people keep their cards and contacts close to their chest and avoid sharing information with friends and colleagues for fear that someone else’s success might somehow come at their own expense. If you have any belief or confidence in your own work then it makes no difference who is in the stall next door.

So if these things bother you as they do me, take a stand against these things. Shun those competitions which ask for an unreasonable return. Use this list, share it, and contribute back to it.


New Project – War Primer 3: Revised Edition

War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (16)

To mark sixty years since the original publication of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel I have drastically revised and updated my 2013 book War Primer 3, and republished it as a new e-edition.

War Primer 3 is a reworking of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2 itself a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel. In this unique examination of war and photography first published in 1955, Brecht sought to extract the hidden meanings behind images of conflict through a series of short poems modeled on the funerial epigrams of the ancient world.

Broomberg and Chanarin in turn updated Brecht’s book by introducing images from the War on Terror, each intended to resonate with Brecht’s original text. While in some respects brilliant, in other ways Broomberg and Chanarin’s follow up was also deeply problematic. I felt particularly uncomfortable with the book’s existence as an expensive, editioned art object, and the use of uncredited, unpaid workers in its production, things which seemed difficult to reconcile with Brecht’s politics.

In response to these concerns, and in the spirit of Brecht’s playful invocation not to ‘start with the good old things but the bad new ones’ I reworked Broomberg and Chanarin’s book into a work primer, a meditation on inequality, labour and capital. By restructuring the book around the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Reads History, and adding new images and text, I sought to produce a small tribute to the unacknowledged workers who keep the engines of the world turning.

Producing this new revised edition has involved completely re-photographing a copy of War Primer 2 and using these images to build up a new, high resolution version of War Primer 3. Many of the spreads have been redesigned in the process, with different images used in order to explore the subject of inequality in more depth, and with more nuance. The e-book also includes a comparative section showing the evolution of War Primer across its three versions, and also a selection of essays on the project.

You can now download the e-book of War Primer 3 here.

You can also download a press release about War Primer 3 here.

  War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (18) War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (20)War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (17)

Photographs Won’t Change the World


‘The Blue Marble’, NASA, 1972

The power of images to change the world is often claimed, less often proven. Great achievements have been piled around the totem of photography, from the early pangs of environmental awareness to the final course and conclusions of armed conflicts. And yet photographs are just bits of paper, or today more likely abstract lines of code. These things can’t change the world, but they can change people, and people can change the world.

Photographs are not, as we once believed, a sort of window on the world. But in however an incomplete and fragmented a way they do expose us to the idea of other places, people and things. This is not about some false equivalence between seeing and experiencing. This is not to say that seeing a photograph of a drowned child on a beach is the same as standing on that beach over that small body. But it is about knowing that somewhere a child drowned, and that his death is the consequence of other things which might be more within our power to change. Photographs present the idea that things are happening, or exist, or are possible.

Photographs don’t change people drastically, few people are transformed into ardent campaigners by an encounter with a single image. Nor do photographs even necessarily change people for the better. They are just as capable of influencing for the worse, of reinforcing negative attitudes and unrealistic expectations about the world. But if pictures really have no effect on us, if they don’t change us in some way, and in turn change the ways we see and understand the world and want to act in it, then one has to wonder what the point of them is, and why we keep returning to them.

The difficulty in substantiating the claim that photographs can (however indirectly) change the world also seems to lie in the fact that the essential link between a photograph and action resides in the unreachable recesses of the human mind. Anecdotal, highly individual examples of how a particular photograph impacted someone, and subsequently changed the way they interacted with the world are all that can be offered, and these examples take no account for the ways photographs can act on us in ways we are not even aware of. To extrapolate these things to the level of a society, let alone a planet, and to do it in a way that will satisfy those who want photography’s power demonstrated empirically, is an impossible task.

Photography is not some god from the machine, which will resolve the world’s problems simply by the act of bringing them to light. To claim that photographs, and by association the act of photographing, will in themselves change the world is disingenuous, a case of letting ourselves off the hook. The real impetus is on us to respond to the things we feel when we view certain photographs and to decide to make things change. To buy into the alternative idea that pictures accomplish nothing, and to accept the implication that the things that photographs make us think and feel are meaningless and will soon dissolve into apathy, is infinitely more regressive. To believe that photographs can’t drive us to change the world is to believe in a futile, solitary, and self-fulfilling prophecy.


_IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg


Spread from _IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg by Mishka Henner

Since it’s invention, photography’s status has been contested, it’s precise nature unclear. Never before though have we been able to legitimately feel so unsure about what we mean when we talk about a photograph. This uncertainty in part forms the basis for a new series of books by the artist Mishka Henner. To call these ‘photobooks’ would be apparently inaccurate, but is in fact quite apt. Each book presents the raw data of a historic photograph as text, turning what might be a familiar, apparently straightforward image into reams of alpha-numeric data. The first volume, memorably titled _IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg is a paperback about the thickness of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, each of its near eight hundred pages filled with code, a typical syntax of which reads ‘t¶×Wsæëhe.‡¶Í®ö:Û?IüÇó^¥¿’.

Included as a separate print in the back of the book is a reproduction of the photograph to which this mass of code refers. In it five soldiers, trudging wearily along a diagonal of duckboards, look towards the camera. They are crossing a large pool of muddy water, in which are reflected the surrounding tree trunks, the shattered remains of a forest. The men are likely to have been posed or have at least been asked to pause for a moment on the march towards their distant rest, however the last man in the group hasn’t followed the instruction and has shimmered into an indistinct blur. The location is Chateau Wood, Belgium and the date is 29th October 1917, in the midst of the third battle of Ypres.

Henner’s choice of this particular photograph is not injudicious. Its photographer, Frank Hurley, was something of a controversial figure in his own day, one who like Henner was not averse to taking photographs to pieces in order to see how they work, and how they work on us. Marooned with Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition at the start of the First World War, Hurley joined the Australian Imperial Force on his return in 1917 and arrived in France in August of that year. Commissioned as a honourary captain and charged with photographing the conflict for the official Australian war record, he quickly found himself frustrated by the inability of the then rudimentary photographic technology to show the true nature of this immeasurably destructive war. In his journal Hurley complained that ‘everything is on such a vast scale. The figures are scattered, the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke, shells will not burst where required. It might as well be a rehearsal in a paddock’.

Hurley’s answer to this problem was to stage shots and even to create composites, sometimes blending several negatives into a single larger photograph. What resulted was a series of remarkable images, sweeping panoramas reminiscent of nineteenth century paintings, which arguably did a far better job of capturing the verisimilitude of a war fought for the first time on every spatial plane, from the cold air above, to the thick mud of the trenches, and the tunnels below. Hurley’s practices however quickly brought him into conflict with Charles Bean, the head of the Australian photography unit, a traditionalist and an empiricist, who believed in the importance of an unmanipulated record of the war. For Bean, Hurley’s photographs were dangerous fakes which threatened to undermine the documentary efforts of his unit. Frustrated by Bean’s interventions, Hurley left France and the Western Front for the Middle East about a month after the Chateau Wood photograph was taken

Hurely’s Chateau Wood was not a composite, but the history that surrounds it reveals that in 1917 many of the same dilemmas troubled the users of photography that continue to trouble them today. Questions about the relationship between surface appearances and deeper truths, about how we mediate or alter experiences when we record them in photographs, and about how photographs come to shape our understanding of the world. These questions are however now far more complex. In 1917, whatever its other ambiguities, the photograph could at least be said to be a physical trace of something, the cumbersome glass plates bearing the direct touch of the same waves of light which had first touched on Hurley’s subjects, before radiating back towards his camera lens.

By contrast, physicality is not the native state of the digital photograph of the present, nor even is visibility. The natural state of the digital image is in fact the reams of code contained in the many pages of Henner’s book, and in this sense it is more than apt to describe this textual volume as a photobook. The digital image is something latent which must be brought into existence each and every time we wish to view it by the natives of an electronic ecosystem which we have constructed but are unable to navigate. At our demand these algorithms or image engines speed read through these huge books of code, translating them for a moment into something we can understand, and recognise as a photograph, before dematerialising again when we click and close the window. Like any process of translation, this one can be subjective, and different translators are want to word passages and phrases differently.

_IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg is about photography then, and what a photograph now exactly is, but Henner’s book is also more basically about knowledge and information, and the states in which information resides. What was once a privileged commodity which offered to provide answers to many of the world’s problems is today something which we all generate in quantities which are difficult to comprehend. Technologies like photography, which once offered to reveal the inner workings and complexities of the universe, now do as much as to obscure these things behind cataracts of useless information, torrents which seem to become more severe with every passing year. In our search for truth we have created a system of entropy masquerading as knowledge, where every action, even those aimed at making sense of this confusion, seems just to add irresistibly to it