The Trump of the Will: Reading the Republican National Convention

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Donald Trump speaks to the Republican National Convention
Paul David Morris/Bloomberg (see end for full caption)

Politics might have famously been described as ‘show business for ugly people’ but it has also always been ripe ground for photographers (think of Winogrand’s brilliance at the 1960 democrat convention or more recently Chris Anderson’s images from the 2008 presidential campaign). It remains so even in an era of ever more astute media control by politicians and their campaign teams, and despite nominee front runner Donald Trump’s worryingly firm grasp on the press the photographs coming out of the recent Republican National Convention have been really pretty remarkable. Reading The Pictures have done some great close reading of images of the wider conference, but besides some fantastically strange images of delegates and candidates, the centrepiece images are those  of Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for president. There are so many images of this slightly over an hour long performance and so many of them are begging to be taken apart. The image I’ve picked out above by Paul David Morris is there not because it is the most striking, but because it combines quite a few significant elements where others tend to focus on just one. Getty have a great wider selection of other images from the speech here.

The speech’s staging could not be more bizarre, and certainly it has the pomposity of fascist propaganda films like Leni Riefenstahl’s genre defining Triumph of the Will, from the enormous ‘TRUMP’ banner on the video screen overhead, the ranks of flags behind him, down to the ring of black clad heavies who ring the stage like an honour guard for hire. At the same time the staging also feels like a homage to fictional parodies of fascism and authoritarianism, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to George Orwell’s 1984. In terms of that latter example Trump’s hour recalls the book’s Two Minutes Hate, mass meetings where citizens sit in front of giant screens and are bombarded with images of the enemy before the soothing face of Big Brother appears to calm them, a spectacle so overwhelming that even the book’s deeply cynical narrator finds himself caught up in it. The bombast of Trump’s acceptance speech is hard to overstate and it’s fully worth a watch to get a sense of why so many people are so insistently comparing him to demagogues like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. While I can imagine that Trump’s rehearals might look something like Heinrich Hoffman’s photographs of Hitler preparing his speeches, I’ve got to admit that it’s a comparison I find hard to swallow. Emulating the rhetoric of fascism doesn’t in itself make you a fascist (if it did Trump would only be the latest in a rather long line of democratic politicians to stand guilty of this) although I have always felt that political pomp and overblown charisma should almost always be regarded as a warning sign, a mask or veil over something else. As the premiership of Tony Blair very effectively demonstrated to the United Kingdom, a politician with some charisma, or even just the illusion of it, can be a very dangerous thing. In Blair’s case it masked a zealot, in Trump’s case it barely hides an ambitious opportunist, who unlike many of the authoritarians to whom he is being compared probably really believes in very little at all.

Beyond the rhetorical flourishes and ridiculous staging, there is something undeniably dark here, that is the profoundly bleak image that Trump paints of a United States on the verge of implosion, and the equally bleak promises he makes about how he will solve this. Following the UK’s recent vote to leave the European Union it was astutely remarked that England, the country which had once colonised half the world, had now fallen prey to the fantasy that it was now itself being colonised by those it had previously subjugated. Something similar might be said of the United States today, a country seemingly fascinated by the vision of its destruction, which lacking a genuine existential threat from without its borders now appears to be doing everything possible to realise that fantasy from within. Trump’s speech felt like the Two Minutes Hate in protracted form, a reeling out of a succession of enemies, from Mexican immigrants preying on all American girls to the Islamic State plotting to destroy the United States from the other side of the planet, all climaxing in Trump’s soothingly ambiguous promises of safety.

Perhaps partly because of these fictional as well as factual references it might be difficult for anyone who recognises these cultural markers to take Trump and the party that now supports him at all seriously. The whole convention feels as if it’s been organised for as an exercise in cultural reference spotting, right down to photographs of delegates who uncannily resemble grown up versions of Diane Arbus’s 1967 photograph of a young pro-Vietnam war demonstrator with his straw boater and ‘bomb Hanoi’ pin badge. Is this a fiction, or just another example of history repeating itself in a country which so often seems to pride itself on it’s supposed lack of history? Quite a few left leaning Americans seem to already be writing Trump off as not having what it takes to reach the White House. Thats exactly what we told ourselves in the United Kingdom about those who wanted to leave the European Union, that those leading the campaign were liars, inconsistent, and unsubstantial and that their supporters were uneducated, bigots and idiots. Some of that what we believed was true, but we let our own bigotry obscure the fact that in many cases these were also possible who over the past several decades had profoundly lost out while we gained. The fact that Trump’s support base forms a rough analogue to the support base of the UK’s leave campaign is well worth dwelling on and you might consider this post a warning to the American left not to underestimate the will of these people, or to make the same mistake we did.

Whatever happens in the autumn, Trump’s campaign marks a political watershed as much as the referendum did for the United Kingdom. A moment of empowerment not just for the traditional right, but the far darker ideologies at its fringes. Between 1936 and 1944 the German writer Friedrich Reck kept a remarkable diary of life under Nazism, describing with the astute observation and invective that only a truly savage cultural critic could muster how the country was ground into the dirt by Nazism. Reck describes encountering Hitler at several points during his rise to power and marvels at the fact that this entirely sordid figure, indeed to repurpose Graydon Carter’s description of Trump, this ‘short fingered vulgarian’, could hold the German people so completely under his spell. The book makes for instructive reading today, not least because Reck recognised in his diary that the politics of Nazism and the experience of living under it meant there was simply no way to return to the Germany that had existed before Hitler, an observation which in a drastically watered down form might well stand for post-referendum Britain, or a the United States after Trump. Shortly before Reck was arrested and sent to the concentration camp where he would die he wrote a poignant address to the liberators he foresaw arriving from outside Germany.

‘…we cannot go back to the life we shared with you yesterday, a life which you will spread before us so temptingly when you return. We have suffered too much to believe any more that the way to what we see as the Absolute can go in any other direction than on through the deep valley of sorrow.’

No Justice, No Peace, Only History

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Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

If you were considering doing some visual analysis this week then there would be one overwhelmingly obvious candidate for it. A photograph by Reuter’s photographer Jonathan Bachman which shows protester Iesha L. Evans about to be arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana has gone viral, and is already being hailed as a ‘legendary’ image destined for the history books. In the photograph, a young black woman stands in an empty street, as two armour clad, white police officers move in to grab her. Her uprightness and poise is remarkable, and by comparison the two officers are frozen in a moment of motion which make them look as if they might actually be being repelled away from her by the magnetic force of her sheer will. To the left behind the officers, a long row of riot police look on, to the right behind the protester a row of bystanders and protesters watch from the far distance. It is a potent image, and like many great ones it is ripe for reading and counter-reading. It is a remarkable example of what the camera can do so well, an episode which by the accounts of bystanders lasted less than half a minute has been made permanent and indelible by the camera’s mechanism. It is also though an example of what the camera does so badly, in this image is only a sliver of time, shorn of context, which explains little of the wider cause or aims of these protests. It can easily be read as a simplistic binary of an overpowered, anonymous, authoritarian, white, male American state using disproportionate force against an unarmed, black, female citizen, which is certainly a truth, part of the truth, but not perhaps the whole truth.

In a piece on American Suburb X Brad Feurhelm hyperbolically declares Bachman’s image a ‘complete failure’ for rather different reasons, including because it repeats the tropes of a previous protest image, Marc Riboud’s photograph of Jan Rose Kasmir holding a flower up to the sheathed bayonets of a row of soldiers during the 1967 March on the Pentagon. The formal similarity and the looming presence of Riboud’s photograph in recent popular culture might account in turn for some of the success of Bachman’s photograph, but I’d argue that this similarity is far from a source of failure, far from evidence of a visual culture rendered so lazy by mass image consumption that it seeks familiar tropes by which to reduce all present events to familiar antecedents. Bachman’s photograph is important precisely because it sets present events in terms of the political struggles of the 1960’s, both the anti-war movement of which Riboud’s photograph was a direct document and the wider political milieu of that era, including of course the civil rights movement. The anti-war movement is a significant reference point because at least part of the reason that people are today dying on the streets of American cities is because of the way police forces have been progressively militarised with surplus hardware from conflicts in the Middle East (something which becomes clear from the armed man in fatigues in the final image of Bachman’s complete sequence of the event). These protests then are at least in a very small way protests against conflict, militarism and their inevitable impact on the home front, ideas I will be writing on more next week.

In turn, the civil rights movement is clearly an important reference for these current protests because Black Lives Matter in so many ways feels like a spiritual successor to that movement. It seems historically apt that an image like Bachman’s should come from a protest in Baton Rogue, where the first civil rights bus boycott took place in 1953 and thinking in terms of this history Bachman’s photograph actually has a far greater similarity for me to a 1963 photograph taken by Bill Hudson in during protests in Birmingham, Alabama. In the image, a 17 year old black protester named Walter Gadsden is being savaged by a police dog, but as in Bachman’s photograph what strikes the viewer is the remarkable poise he seems to show. Far from running from the snarling dog (which even the nearby police officer seems to have lost control over) the young man appears to be walking willingly and with total resolve into its snarling maw, while his hand grips the police officer’s wrist as if it to say ‘it’s ok, let go’. Onlookers behind look back perhaps in curiosity, surprise, and as with Bachman’s photograph it is an image which seems to say much, but which also tells little outside the fraction of a second when it was taken.

Is Bachman’s photograph a ‘complete failure’ then for echoing this history and these photographs? I would argue not at all, in fact it is that echo which is precisely what makes it important. This is not a case of an image of protest or war stylised like the works of a past work of art to which it bears no relation, or worse which casts the new image in terms of a moral or cultural framework to which it bears no relation. Think of the often inappropriate religious readings of Eugene Smith’s Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath or Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl and the subtext such readings have for the supposed value of what is basically meaningless suffering (if I were to offer an art history reading of mine it would go rather further back, Evan’s pose reminding me of classical renditions of Clio, the muse of history) In its resonance with images of a much more recent past, Bachman’s photograph is one which demands that viewers remember that the question of civil rights in the United States is profoundly unresolved, and it is powerful precisely because in its historical reverberations it carries with it a sense of what the Black Lives Matters movement might need to be in order to have a chance of creating the change it’s supporters desire. While it is too soon to tell what impact this image will have, it is one, I would say, which does much to cast the movement as one which is as morally irresistible as its opponents are morally indefensible.

Schmaltz and Secrecy: The Obama Legacy

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Detail from Situation Room showing classified documents in front of Hillary Clinton.
Pete Souza 2011 (wikipedia)

It’s the most inward form of photography writing to critique another writer’s thoughts, but reading a recent piece by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on the work of White House photographer Pete Souza was a reminder that this sort of writing is sometime badly needed. It’s needed in this case less because Jones is a useful or thoughtful critic worthy of consideration but more because The Guardian gives him a platform with such authority that someone, anyone, needs to periodically take him to task over his writing, which vacillates between acerbic hatchet jobs and simpering fan pieces (although it must be said that ever so occasionally he does get it right). In his latest piece Jones fawns over the photographs produced by Souza during Obama’s two terms in office, swallowing the narrative these photographs are intended to transmit without even a moment’s reflection on the circumstances of their production. Even as he praises Souza as a photographer, Jones seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of looking at photographs, which is to always remember the photographer’s role in their creation.

Photographs are not portals on the world which appear unbidden, they are not utterances are given voice without someone articulating them. They are considered constructions, whether constructed in the moment of their shooting (and before) or in their selection, arrangement, contextualisation, and dissemination out into the world. Jones, who is normally so ultra critical of photography (indeed once calling the medium ‘flat, soulless and stupid’ in the context of fine art) manifestly fails in the role of a critic to ask even the most basic questions of the Souza’s images. Souza is very proficient photographer, and it’s not my intention to denigrate him on that front, but his photographs are unavoidably the product of an extremely effective press machine, one which exists to stage manage and represent the presidency in a very particular light which has absolutely nothing to do with creating an objective ‘chronicle’. It’s not for nothing that the visual analysis blog Reading the Pictures often analyses White House photographs critically (ironically Jones even links to an article on the site, presumably without having read much further). These photographs might speak the language of documentary, but in any traditional sense they are not, and Obama’s presidental career and his legacy are far more complicated than these photographs suggest.

In the United States Obama might perhaps be remembered less for what he did during his time in office than for the way his election itself seemed to push America closer to realising its founding creed of equality (even if some of the major markers for racial equality show widening gaps). While that narrative might appeal to American citizens keen to believe that their nation is realising it’s long held aspirations, it might have much less resonance in some parts of the world where the fallout of Obama’s two terms are likely to be remembered quite differently. These photographs speak little if at all of the revelations of absolutely massive US surveillance programs, the prosecution of more whistle-blowers than any previous president, and the escalation of illegal drone wars which have killed thousands of innocent people in states with which the United States is not even at war. This is to say nothing of the failure to shut the prison at Guantanamo bay, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and Obama’s general record on secrecy, for example his administrations unwillingness to reveal the extent of the CIA’s torture program. Of course you can argue that mahy of these wrong doings were inherited, that Obama was just cleaning up his predecessors mess, or towing the presidential line, but to me doing so is a little like arguing about whether a photographer is responsible for a lab technician manipulating his photographs or not. These things happened (or in some cases didn’t) on Obama’s watch, and like it or not that makes these things as much a part of his legacy as Obamacare or his reset of relations with Cuba.

Souza’s photographs chronicle very few of these important things (in some respects it would be unrealistic to expect them to do otherwise) and where they occasionally do, as for example in the case of the now iconic photograph Situation Room, they do so in a way which is meticulously designed to send the ‘right’ message. In the case of Situation Room the calculated message is of a president taking his responsibilities incredibly seriously, indeed overburdened by them, surrounded by the wisdom of his accumulated advisors, and so on. The few truly informative details of this photograph is also the most overlooked; the blank laptop screens, a pixelated document on the laptop in front of Hillary Clinton and a binder on her lap marked TOP SECRET/CODE WORD/NOFORN (that last one the intelligence abbreviation for ‘no disclosure to foreign nationals’). These small items are to me the closest Souza comes to hinting at the true legacy of the last eight years, and indeed the last sixteen, which are a profound secrecy and the rigorous control of information. These are things which Souza as White House photographer is arguably a part of, and there have been regular criticisms from photographers and press organisations about the way the White House prioritises its own photography while restricting access for photojournalists. In 2013 Santiago Lyon, the Associated Press’s head of photography, went so far as to write a piece for the New York Times in which he accused the White House of exercising an Orwellian control over the presidents image with the intention of producing ‘a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.’

Saying all of this is not to underplay the historic significance of Obama’s election and presidency, nor is it to question his remarkable charisma and what in a different time might have been termed his ‘common touch’ which is certainly demonstrated in many of Souza’s photographs. It is however to question the extent to which these things become a dense smokescreen around the figure of the president and his administration, and the way that issues which are arguably of far greater importance than Obama playing games with small children or dancing tenderly with an elderly woman get shifted into the background as a result. It’s worth looking at Souza’s very similar photographs of Ronald Reagan, who I suspect many Obama advocates would harbour far less positive feelings about, to see how these moments feel when the subject is someone whose policies you don’t agree with. Souza’s earlier photographs say nothing of Reagan’s divisive economic agenda, his escalation of the Cold War, the Iran Contra affair, the Invasion of Grenada, his retrograde views on HIV/AIDS, or any number of other things which we might now consider to be indelible parts of his legacy. As it was with Regan, so it is now with Obama. If Jones wants a true picture of these last two terms then by all means he is welcome to include some of Souza’s official schmaltz, but if he wants that chronicle to have a grain of truth in it Jones will need to look beyond the photographs on Whitehouse’s Instagram feed. He’ll need to look for photographs which for the most part are still waiting to be taken, or daresay I say it, constructed. Photographs which wait to be given voice in the cells of Fort Leavenworth, amongst the server racks of the NSA’s massive data centers, and in the remote mountains of Waziristan.

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.

The Art of the State: Leibovitz’s Elizabeth II

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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

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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.’

Sorry is the Hardest Word: Terrorism and Refugees

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Fedja Grulovic / Reuters

Roland Barthes wrote of the punctum, that thing in the stadium of the photograph that pricks you, and makes the image personal. In a time when such massive numbers of images are produced of the mundane and day to day (to say nothing of exceptional events) his idea perhaps needs refiguring. At the risk of mauling a beautiful conception of the proccess of reading photographs, one might also think beyond individual images, and speak also of a stadium of all the images produced in response to an event, the galleries, tweets, statuses, and more encountered in the moments and hours after an attack and the cumulative effect they have, might be thought of in contrast to the single image amongst those many, the image which pricks, stops you in your tracks, and lingers on your mind.

With the terror attacks in Brussels photographs with the same sadly familiar tropes emerged, in the vast quantity we have come to expect in a time of mass camera ownership. Images of bloodied victims and shattered buildings, smoke rising in the sky, heavily armed soldiers examining the damage with detachment of one professional inspecting the work of another. Not surprisingly many of these images were reminiscent of previous attacks in other cities, stills and video showing people fleeing through the tunnels from the Maalbeek Station attack calling to mind very similar images from the London terror attacks in 2007. Other images had a local twist to them, not least the staggering multi-culturalism of Brussels on show in many of the photographs, a reminder that even in an age of globalized terror, mass communication and cultural homogenisation, small national differences still have the potential to momentarily jar.

Amongst all these photographs for me the one which really pricked was one taken over a thousand miles away from the bombings. The image above by Fedja Grulovic was taken in the Greek village of idomeni. This border settlement of 150 permanent residents has become a holding point for refugees waiting to cross the closed border into Macedonia, in effect becoming a new Calais for a new Continent as the consequences of the closure of borders across the continent ripple closer and closer to the edges of Europe. The culmination of that ripple will probably be the deal currently being threshed out between the EU and the Turkish government to end migration into Europe completely, an agreement being made despite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s effective abandonment of many of the democratic tenets the EU is supposed to pride itself on. Estimates for the number of refugees waiting at Idomeni range as high as 12,000, the camp has been compared to a modern Dachau, and yesterday two of the refugees self-immolated in protest at conditions there, although unsurprisingly given the timing and subject matter that event made few headlines.

Grulovic’s photograph, taken at a refugee protest against the closed border, shows a young boy holding a sign which reads ‘sorry for Brussels’ with the last word dripping with childishly drawn blood. The idea of this boy expressing this sentiment over an event occuring thousands of miles away in a city which is the seat of the European Union is made all the more painful by the background behind him. On show is the biblical chaos one would expect in a Hollywood recreation of a refugee camp or transit point, with a great number of exhausted faces looking up from the ground. They are towered over by a man with a megaphone, who may be leading the refugee’s protest but in the context of this image acts instead as a visual shorthand for the ineffective disaster management that has typified the humanitarian crisis on Europe’s borders and within them. On the boy’s arm is a bandage with a bloom of red that echoes the blood on the sign, although it is unclear if this is a real wound, or a sort of black armband worn in tribute. In a sense of course it could and perhaps should be read as both.

‘Sorry’ is a difficult word, a context specific one even by the standards of a confusing language like English. I say sorry when I hear that a friend of yours I didn’t know has recently passed away, I express sympathy. Being English I say sorry when someone has done something to irritate me, I express annoyance, I am sorry I have had this encounter. I also of course say sorry to express regret at my actions, I apologise for my conduct. In the west we sometimes ask Muslims to say sorry for the actions of their violent co-religionists, which seems reasonable only so long as the rest of us are willing to apologise for the conduct of these people as our co-human beings. The boy’s sign is of course most likely intended as an expression of sympathy, tinged by the knowledge that these attacks will likely lead to a hardening and harshening of European attitudes towards refugees. It might also be read though as an expression of regret, of apology. ISIS attacks in Europe are understood at least to be partially intended to stem the flow of refugees from their territories, who are feared as fifth columnists, cuckoos, enemies within. And so increasingly we shun them. We often tell ourselves that while terror is incapable of a millitary victory against democratic nation states, and that the only possibility of true defeat is would be if in the face of this threat we abandon the essential tenets that define us. Humanitarianism, democracy, diversity, empathy. In the context of ISIS, and other threats like a resurgent Russia seemingly intent on bringing the EU to it’s knees, and seeking to do so in part by undermining the continents unity and sense of self, remaining true to these ideas remains more essential than ever, and yet as the deal being made with Turkey indicates, we are selling out wholesale. Reading that boy’s sign, and looking at the chaos behind him, it’s really hard not to feel that we are the ones who might owe him an apology.

Unforeseen Consequences

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Cover photograph by Lynsey Addario for Time Magazine

Writing about photography, and in particular writing in detail about individual photographs, it’s sometimes easy to feel that you might be over reading an image, and perhaps reading things into it which few others will recognise or feel. And yet the more time I spend involved with photography the more I think that only real difference between an avowed semiotician and a casual viewer is that the former is just more actively aware of the ways that images work on them. Without believing that the meaning of photographs is in any sense universal, or that images constitute a universal language (they do not) they do act on many of us in broadly similar ways. In recent posts I’ve also been going on about the idea that visual angles are deeply related to the ideological angles of the images they create. Where you choose to stand when you photograph something or someone, and how you position that subject or allow them to position themselves are completely tied in to the way the resulting image will be read and understood, whether that understanding is conscious or not. This matters, because whether you work in an interventionist, staged sort of way with subjects or whether you simply snap photographs when you see the world converging in ways which you find aesthetically pleasing, those arrangements will always be searched and read for the meanings that they are perceived to carry.

I think both ideas are relevant in discussing an online backlash directed against a cover for Time Magazine photographed by Lynsey Addario. The cover features Ayak, a Sudanese woman nine months pregnant as a result of rape during the conflict, and illustrates an article about the same subject. A number of people have argued the image is exploitative of the subject, overly sexualising and plays to some of the orientalist tendencies well known to anyone who has studied traditions of western art and photography in the context and service of colonialism. Others have made the point that the subject would have likely got a much more nuanced treatment if the focus hadn’t been on rape in Africa. To me the cover image is a strange mixture of rather mixed messages, on the one hand showing a woman who appears poised and defiant despite the trauma that has been inflicted on her, but on the other hand showing a subject who is subjected to a western gaze in a way which lacks the sense of parity (even in the simple sense of gazing back) which one might more and more expect to see in contemporary documentary or journalistic photography. In a text accompanying the story Addario tells how she explained what she wanted to do with Ayak, involving her in the process of constructing the image. ‘I went over the guidelines with Ayak – in terms of how she felt about being photographed, given that her image would be seen by thousands around the world’. Addario further writes that ‘I contemplated possible additional photographs in my head as I fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning, I knew I wanted Ayak’s photograph to speak to the consequences of rape as a weapon of war. The most natural way for me to do this was to focus on her belly.’

The involvement of a subject in the process of creating a portrait is an important check on the photographer’s immense power, particularly in situations where gender, economics, geography, or any number of other things create an even more imbalanced power relationship between photographer and subject. Clearly though this way of working is only effective in so far as the subject feels able to challenge the photographer over things that they do not like. It is also complicated again by the assumption that photographs mean the same to all people, and that what a subject recognises and reads in an image is the same messages that an audience thousands of miles away in a different culture will take away from it. For me, Addario’s mention of falling asleep while thinking of ‘additional photographs’ is interesting as a reminder that a final photograph is always one of many other possibilities. Of the photographs that were taken as part of the same assignment there are others which I would say speak to the same issue of the use of rape as a weapon of war but do it in a way which is perhaps less sensational and sexualised (perhaps partly why those images didn’t make it to the cover). This photograph for example, is in some respects extremely similar but with some subtle differences which I would say defuse some of the tensions created by the cover image, most notably that Ayak is wearing a bra, whereas she isn’t in the cover image. It’s a difference which might seem utterly minor, but which to me seems unavoidably significant for the way most people will read the image. It’s interesting for a minute to think about what the bra, as a product of a particular moment in western history, might symbolise when transplanted to an African context, or more specifically when it is removed from that context, what that absence might symbolise in light of historical depictions of African and ‘oriental’ women.

The other sense in which Addario thinking about ‘additional photographs’ is important is because it also begs a viewer to think about the other ways that this scene might have been photographed, in other words encouraging the viewer to transplant themselves into the position of the photographer, something which is more and more feasible in an age when ‘we are all photographers’. If you do a quick google search for ‘pregnant woman’ (as opposed to ‘pregnancy’ which mostly returns very anonymised imagery) it is quite interesting to see how the results contrast with Addario’s photograph in some of the ways I have already outlined. As a professional doing a job I’m sure Addario wanted to create something more memorable than a stock pregnancy photograph, but herein also lies a tension I often see between the need of the photographer to perform and demonstrate their abilities, versus the subject’s ideas and desires about how they are represented. To raise and discuss these issues is not to necessarily second guess or judge Addario, rather to use her case as an example of some pertinent points. In my brief experience as a teacher it’s already been notable how often she is referenced as an influence by young (particularly female) photographers. This is homage which is well deserved, but which needless to say also brings with it great responsibility. The great challenge of taking photographs of important things and putting them out into the world is that as well as being responsible for the photographs we consciously create and the readings and messages we design these images to transmit, we are also bear an almost impossible responsibility for the readings of our images which we have not anticipated, and which may bring with them consequences which are as unintended and unwanted, as they are unforeseen.

Europe’s Vicarious Victimhood: World Press Photo 2015

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A Syrian man carries the body of a child, killed in an air strike by government forces in Douma, Syria
© Abd Doumany

It takes time to change old edifices, whether that change be a restoration to a former glory or a gradual crumbling to dust. World Press Photo currently seems to currently be undergoing something of a transformation, but it is yet unclear how far this change will go, and to what extent it will either rejuvenate or reduce the organisation’s relevance to photojournalism. Many of the old problems which have tended to rear their heads each year seem to being gradually dealt with, but others remain, including I would say the very obvious issue of the prize’s Eurocentrism. Coverage of the refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe featured prominently this year, a fact which is not surprising in itself since there is a tendency with all such prizes and competitions to reward work which feels timely, and which engages with a topic resting heavy on the minds of both audiences and jurors. This year however it has occurred on a scale I’m not sure I have seen previously in the (short) time I have been engaged with photojournalism. Beyond Warren Richardson’s winning photograph already discussed here in depth, other photographers focusing on the crisis rewarded with recognition included Sergey Ponomarev, General News, first prize stories, Paul Hansen, General News, second prize singles, Matic Zorman, People, first prize singles, Bulent Kilic, Spot News, third prize stories, Francesco Zizola, Contemporary Issues, second prize stories and Dario Mitidieri, People, third prize singles.

Yet what seemed noticeably absent among the winners were photographs of the conflict in Syria, which is often articulated (rightly or not) as the driving force behind these current waves of forced migration. As far as I could tell there were only two exceptions, Abd Doumany’s photograph of a man carrying a child’s body from the remains of a building after a government airstrike on the city of Douma, which won General News, second prize stories, and Mauricio Lima’s photograph of a badly wounded ISIS fighter being treated by a doctor at a Kurdish hospital in northern Syria, which won General News, first prize singles. (You well also might argue that Dario Mitidieri’s photograph, taken in a Lebanese refugee camp, is the real exception amongst all of these in being from the limbo between Europe and Syria). In a brief exchange we had on Facebook, photographer Robert Stothard pointed out that the emphasis on certain aspects of a crisis and not on others is problematic, and I am want to agree. He wrote that ‘in a year where the big stories have been taking place on the doorstep of those with editorial power isn’t it a tad sad that the winner is a photograph of an unidentified family (no name let alone nationality) shot by a white bloke. Photojournalists working on the issue of immigration to Europe have a great opportunity to work towards preventing the othering of their subjects.’

In photographing the refugee crisis there are many questions to be negotiated and considered, not least about what ‘side’ we photograph from, in both senses of that word. As I noted in my original analysis of Richardson’s winning image, there is a subtext of voyeurism which is hard to escape, partly created by the compromised aesthetics of the photograph which brings to mind the smartphone photographs of the bystander or eyewitness, but also to a significant degree by the framing of the photograph from the far side of the razor wire from its subject. Aesthetic decisions are always in fact political decisions, whether the photographer intends them to be or not, because they always have the potential to be read as such. A similar issues of aesthetics and in particular perspective might be levied at many of the other photographs on the refugee crisis featured in World Press Photo, and something which is notable in many is the way they often seem to take the position of a European insider or witness, watching the arrival or transit of these people, viewing them through barriers, and so on. In relatively few is there a sense of the photographer’s perspective being the same as that of the refugees, a distinction which might seem subtle but which I think is enormously important. In photography perspectival angles help to define journalistic angles, and again these choices are almost always readable as ideological ones, whether the photographer intends them to be or not. Mid-way through last year this blog was amongst several publications which unmasked a widely reported Instagram account, which apparently belonged to a Senegalese migrant named Abou Diouf, as a fake. Whatever the many problems represented by the that account, the way those photographs gave us very much the same perspective as ‘Diouf’ was nothing if not powerful.

I used the objectionable phrase ‘engulfing Europe’ in the introduction to this piece quite intentionally, because many of the descriptions and narratives focused on the people seeking safety in Europe characterises them in a way which very clearly serves to other, and to alienate us from them. To speak only of oceanic adjectives, refugees are often described as a tide, wave or flood of humanity which is relentless and sea like, with the efforts of European governments to stem the flow as vain as King Canute’s attempts to turn back the incoming tide. In the context of this sort of language it is very easy to unintentionally dehumanise, or equally problematically to misplace victim-hood, with even sympathetic Europeans sometimes starting to talk in terms which seem to suggest that we are the true victims of a disaster, and the disaster is actually constituted in the flood of refugees themselves (a use of language which I think ties in interesting ways into our current fears about climate change). The Syrian Civil War is of course the true cataclysm, and one which European states have had no small part in fostering, whether that be in the longue durée sense of our collusion with and support of middle eastern strong men like the al-Assad’s, or in the more recent sense of our dysfunctional entry and exit from Iraq. The fallout from these misadventures are so complex and confusing even to its primary actors that we have now reached the bizarre stage of witnessing the United States effectively fight a proxy war against itself in Syria, as groups backed variously by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon face off against each other across these most indistinct of front lines.

Perhaps Syria prompts us in Europe to think of our own failings and inertia, and perhaps that, alongside the increasingly dangerous situation there for journalists, explains part of why we prefer not to be reminded of it. The attacks committed by Islamic State in Paris last autumn seemed to me to represent a brief but enormously significant moment when the war in Syria spilled out very directly into the streets of Europe. Yet rather than resulting in a wider feeling amongst Europeans that ‘Je suis Suryien’ (which of course we are not) it far more evidently led instead to a new suspicion of refugees as potential ISIS fifth columnists, another reason to deny them entry alongside the old long standing fears of migrants as cultural saboteurs and economic parasites. These fears were renewed again in the wake of the attacks on women in Cologne on New Years Eve 2015, attributed to men of North Africa or Middle Eastern descent, an event which has been not doubt hastened the gradual souring of German attitudes towards refugees, whcih was hitherto remarkably open (and still remains so, certainly compared to many other countries). The same narrative is now also rearing its ugly head in the context of the debate over a British withdrawal from the European Union where refugees and migration in general are being presented as a direct physical threat to the state, as well as an existential one. Viewpoint then shapes standpoint, and aesthetics are politics. In the context of European fragmentation, closing borders, and souring attitudes towards refugees the responsibilities and burdens of representation weigh more heavily than ever on journalists and in particular visual journalists. This is not to say that it is a prerequisite for journalists to approve of immigration or demand the protection of refugees, while many do feel this way clearly some don’t share these views. But it is to say that for those for whom this does matter, the narratives of the refugee crisis need to be rethought, and the question of where we stand and what we stand for needs to be most carefully considered.

(Critical transparency: The title of this post is adapted with permission from that of a work by Josephine Sun.)

Crystallisation or Simplification: World Press Photo 2015

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A man passes a baby through the fence at the Hungarian-Serbian border
in Röszke, Hungary, 28 August 2015. © Warren Richardson, Australia

Warren Richardson has won the World Press Photo of the year for his photograph depicting refugees crossing a razor wire border fence as they travel deeper into Europe. This grainy, blurred image shows a man, his face drawn from apparent exhaustion, passing an equally limp child under a stretch of razor wire to hands outstretched from the gloom beyond. Describing the making of photograph Richardson writes that: ‘They sent women and children, then fathers and elderly men first. I must have been with this crew for about five hours and we played cat and mouse with the police the whole night. I was exhausted by the time I took the picture. It was around three o’clock in the morning and you can’t use a flash while the police are trying to find these people, because I would just give them away. So I had to use the moonlight alone.’

Immediately noticeable is the blurring and camera noise evident in the photograph, which to sideline as being simply the consequences of a technical restrictions created by the environment is to overlook it’s significance in shaping how this image might be read (particularly in the light of recent World Press rule changes). The technical ‘imperfection’ of this image brings with it the idea that it’s selection might be an intentional rupture with the past, a contrast to previous winners which have often stood accused of being over polished, even the extent of willful and dishonest manipulation. Richardson’s picture is shown warts and all, with the high ISO camera noise imprinted on to every part of the photograph like a digital fingerprint. Of course that’s not to preclude the potential for manipulation even in this sort of photograph, only to observe that the technical nature of this image brings with it the subtext that nothing here is hidden or contrived. To paraphrase and adapt Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, within the grain is imprinted the messagethat photographic beauty has been sacrificed in the name of veracity.

As soon as I saw Richardson’s winning image it strongly called to mind two other photographs. Most immediately it reminded me of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press winning photo of an exhausted soldier at a US army outpost in Afghanistan. Part of that similarity is again in the compromised aesthetics of both images (I used the word compromised loosely here since blur and grain have an aesthetic beauty of their own which isn’t often enough acknowledged). It’s also the pose and expressions of the two men in these two photographs. Both are caught in a moment of thought numbing exhaustion, and both also caught in the fine but irresistible strands that link us as individuals to the geopolitics which shape our world, processes beyond what an individual might hope to understand, let alone influence. The exhaustion they exhibit might just as easily be read an exhaustion with the implacability of the huge events that shape our lives, as much as simple physical exhaustion.

There is a weird sense of circularity between the two images for me, a powerful sense of the way news events are far more connected than is often acknowledged (a sentiment which also appears in the Broomberg and Chanarin essay referenced earlier). It speaks to me of how the misadventures of one war far away in Afghanistan might be connected to wider regional instability and the flight of thousands of people across European borders lined with razor wire. This interconnectedness is something which feels increasingly vital to bring to the fore in the way we discuss any important issue in the world today. However it is also one that traditional news reporting, and photojournalism in particularly, feels to me to be ever more ill equipped to probe and explain. Apart from those rare and brilliant projects (I think for example of Allan Sekula’s still unrivalled Fish Story) how often can photography be said to think so globally?

The second photograph that Richardson’s image made me think of is Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi, the toddler drowned and washed ashore on a Turkish beach while fleeing with his family from the conflict in Syria. Part of the resonance is obviously in the shared focus on the humanitarian disaster breaking on the shores of Europe, and which European governments seem unwilling to respond to in a way which is either coherent or which reflects the supposedly shared values of the continent. The similarity also lies to an extent the pose again of the man in Richardson’s photograph as he carries the limp body of a child. But above all the resonance for me lies in a recognition that there is an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism in both images, something heightened in the case of the Kurdi photograph by the unspeakable awfulness of what is being seen, and in Richardson’s photograph I would say by the aesthetics of the photograph. His viewpoint on the other side of the wire, and particularly the grain and blur which might once have spoken much more to the idea of compromised visuals in the quest for truth, now speaks to me much more of the voyeuristic public production of photographs.

This might be a photograph from a bystander’s smartphone, a comment which is somewhat obvious and prosaic at a time when in fact that’s exactly what so many news photographs are. But in the process of us all becoming photographers or potential photojournalists I wonder if we’ve also bought into the photojournalist’s mistake of believing that witnessing is resolving, and that photographing these events is anything more than a form voyeurism if it isn’t followed up by a proactive use of those photographs to drive some sort of meaningful response. The possibility of publishing images and getting them seen is open to more people than ever before, but the act of publishing a photograph which offers to reveal the world’s misfortunes seems less able than ever to catalyse change. To be clear this isn’t intended as a judgment of Richardson, but a thought about professional and amateur image production more broadly, nor is it to accept the tired argument that photographs are incapable of changing the world, as the Alan Kurdi photograph shows, they still do.

Lastly, and at the risk of sounding cold after a discussion of child drownings and mass exodus, it does seem odd to me to be talking about awarding the photograph of the year in the age of image overload. Does the superabundance of photography that we face today make singling out specific images an ever more important activity or one which is increasingly anachronistic? Do these massive events like the refugee crisis tangibly benefit from this sort of reduction to single images, or does it make them feel understandable, and perhaps therefore manageable in a way which is unhelpfully reassuring, which defuses our responsibility as citizens to get angry that our governments are allowing people to drown in their thousands in our seas. With ever more urgency I think we need to consider careful when this sort of photography is crystallisation, and when it is just simplification.

(Critical transparency: In 2015 I participated in a focus group on revisions to the WPP rules.)