The Market: An Interview with Mark Curran

11_CURRAN_Financial_Surrealism_WTC_2015

Financial Surrrealism (World Trade Center II)
Zuidas Financial District, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2015, from THE MARKET

It’s a paradox that one of the great strengths of photojournalism and documentary photography can also be one of its great handicaps. That is the tendency to employ a laser like focus, conducting photographic micro-studies which encompass a very small field in great detail. It’s the approach many of us learn from the start, being advised (with good reason) as students not to overextend ourselves and to restrict our focus. But it’s also an approach many of us continue to use even as we mature as photographers and become capable of so much more. This micro approach certainly has advantages, and in certain contexts, particularly in exploring very human topics, it can work very well. But in exploring some of the bigger themes and forces that shape all of our lives it often falls short, unable to expose the importance of abstract relationships, networks, and flows that take place between the disparate elements which often make up the greater whole of an issue.

How for example can one speak about environmental decay without also discussing capitalism, and how can one discuss capitalism without discussing the cultures and societies that participate in and tolerate it? A few, very few, photographers and photographic artists are ambitious enough to set aside the micro for the macro in this way. One of them I think is Mark Curran, an artist researcher and educator who lives and works in Berlin and Dublin. His long term research projects combine photography, multimedia and installation to highlight the flows of global capital and predatory acts and contexts that result from them. They have been shown at galleries, festivals and universities globally and future exhibitions are planned for the UK in France in 2017 alongside a full publication of THE MARKET. Mark holds a practice-led PhD, lectures on the BA (Hons) Photography programme, Institute of Art, Design & Technology (IADT), Dublin and is Visiting Professor on the MA in Visual & Media Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin. (Full biography on Mark’s website). Recently we discussed his work and some of the wider questions that it raises.

Mark, perhaps you could start by telling me a little about how you first became interested in making work about the financial system?

Although now living and working between Berlin and Dublin, with hindsight, centrally all began with my experience first as a migrant from, and then as a returning migrant to, Ireland in 1992 (from western Canada, where my family emigrated in 1984 when I was 19). Having studied in Calgary, I was then working as a Social Worker and while away, one holds romantic notions of where one is from and ideas of ‘Home’. On my return, I was faced with the contradictions and hypocrisies of both the country of my birth and my own position. This was exemplified how on the second day of my return, a very close friend brought me to see Ireland’s first shopping mall and having seemingly left the landscape of suburbia and such spaces in Calgary, this was, a significant defining and revelatory moment. Then in 1995, I decided to take a career break (became a career change), bought a camera and went on an extended trip to SE Asia. This transformed everything. On my return, I lived in an area of Dublin that, as we would now understand, was experiencing the initial stages of gentrification, and what was the beginning and evolution of the so called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy where the Republic of Ireland basically underwent it’s Industrial Revolution.

I had a conversation with my elderly neighbour, Kathleen, and she described how, her daughter, the first in five generations could not afford to live in the area. So, I began then to photograph in this area, named Stoneybatter. It is one of the oldest parts (and Irish speaking parts) of Dublin. When the Vikings arrived and came up the river Liffey, to make way, the locals moved from one side of the river to the other and this site was Stoneybatter. In 1998, having applied and been accepted to art college to study photography (IADT where I now lecture), over the month of August, I began photographing young children at dusk and always with cranes in the background. A somewhat naïve, impulsive way of using photographs, in light of that conversation with Kathleen, to ask questions of economic futures and for whom. Of course, I didn’t realise then that this was really the beginning of a cycle of projects, thematically, that continues to the present.

Since that time, I have undertaken four long-term research projects, completed over the last 18 years, addressing the predatory impact resulting from the flows and migrations of global capital. Two have been completed in Ireland, one in the former East Germany and my current ongoing transnational project titled, THE MARKET*, which focuses on the functioning and condition of the global markets with increasing focus on the rogue, Financial Capital.

The first of these SOUTHERN CROSS (1999-2001) (recipient of the first Artist Award from the Gallery of Photography in Dublin) critically surveyed the so-called, ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy of the Irish republic, through portraits and landscape, mapping the spaces of Development and Global Finance. The title alludes to being sited in the south of Ireland and the new religion of capital. At the time of the first exhibition, we also published a catalogue (Gallery of Photography/Cornerhouse, 2002). This included and essay by Dr. Justin Carville and the poet and writer, Philip Casey. More recently, the writer, Colin Graham observed:

‘evidence of the rasping, clawing deformation of the landscape, the visceral human individual in the midst of burgeoning idea of progress-as- building, propped up by finance-as-economics…it stands as an extraordinary warning of the future that was then yet to come (2012: 15)’

3_CURRAN_Stephen

Stephen from Dublin
(IFSC, Phase I, Dublin, 2001) from the series prospect (SOUTHERN CROSS)

This was followed by, The Breathing Factory (Belfast Exposed/Edition Braus 2006), completed between 2003-2005 and was the central research of my practice-led PhD, one of the first of its kind in the Republic of Ireland. Sited at the Hewlett-Packard Industrial & Research Complex outside Dublin, which followed over 9 months of negotiation regarding access, the project critically addressed the role and representation of globalised labour and industrial space and global labour practices. Completed over a sustained two year period, central is an understanding of the condition of precarity and vulnerability as core to the functioning of those practices and seeing the factory complex as an allegory for the nation-state itself, in terms of responding to the needs and demands of the global market (the title references such an economic model, as defined by former Volkswagen CEO, Peter Hartz, who, on invitation of Francois Hollande, is presently reforming the state social welfare system in France). This was exhibited at FORMAT Festival in 2013 and a video of this installation can be seen here.

Extracts from EDEN/Ausschnitte aus EDEN (Arts Council 2011) was undertaken between 2003-2008 in a declining industrial and mining region of the former East Germany. A central premise of the project was seeking a future of capital, at time in Ireland were citizens were being told the ‘Celtic Tiger’ would last forever, The prophetic experiences of this region, and East Germany as whole, contradicted this narrative and evidenced the devastating unevenness inherent in globalisation. The intention, similar to the HP complex, was to also see the Opencast mine (‘Tagebau’) at the heart of the Lausitz as an allegory again for globalisation, being both unsustainable and finite. The project also alludes to how capital has no national identity. The installation is all projection-based underlining the precarity of this community and limitations of audio-visual practice to describe.

The intention was always to enter the site/sphere that has framed and defined all these other projects. Hence, in 2010, I began working with the curator and very much collaborator, Helen Carey (now Director of Fire Station Artists’ Studios, Dublin) on THE MARKET. Helen has been instrumental in securing project funding and in the evolution of the project, which now incorporates five sites, Dublin, London, Frankfurt, Addis Abeba and Amsterdam. All were selected for specific reasons – Dublin, where the project started, London as the global centre for financial capital, Frankfurt, at the heart of Europe, the Euro, however, for the project became about the mediatised version of this structure and inaccessibility, Addis Abeba as site of the youngest exchange in the world (opening in 2008) and Amsterdam, although site of the oldest exchange in the world, the focus for me was the Netherlands central role in the global Shadow-Banking system and High-Frequency Trading (HFT). Ultimately, each site offers description regarding this globalised sphere.

Your work on this topic has been long term to say the least. Is that the way you naturally work or do you think that sort of long term involvement is simply demanded by a subject of this complexity?

Having started working directly with this theme in 1998 through what would be defined as documentary photography, my practice evolved to an expanded multi-media practice, in response to and informed by ethnography and the then burgeoning field of Visual & Media Anthropology. This is for a number of reasons. First, in the context of ethics and representation and photography’s historical role in the construction of identity. As someone who centrally incorporates the portrait and representing people, this was and remains a central consideration. Ethnography puts the human subject at the centre and in a way that demands time, is immersive and thereby brings understanding and insight – a critically reflexive approach. This evolved into formulating an expanded practice and ‘montage/multivocality’ as critical representational strategy in the context of the politics of representation. Therefore, in addition to photography, the projects incorporate, audio-digital video, artefactual and archival material and sound and centrally, text/verbal testimony – the person/citizen as witness.

In addition, time is significant in the role of securing access, as I understand these projects as a study of power. THE MARKET, in particular, has been informed by the anthropologist, Laura Nader and her advocacy in 1973 for Studying Up – to study the structures of power and the culture that substantiates them:

What if, in reinventing anthropology, anthropologists were to study the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless, the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty? Principally studying the most powerful strata of urban society…and instead of asking why some people are poor, we would ask why other peope are so affluent

(Nader, L. (1972: 289) from ‘Up the Anthropologist – Perspectives Gained from Studying Up’ in Hynes, D. (ed.) Reinventing Anthropology, Pantheon, New York, 284–311).

This requires time explicitly as she states, ‘how the powerful do not want to be studied’. So perseverance becomes critical to provide cultural description to theses spheres, these structures that centrally define us. So for example, with this project, it has taken on average, 1.5 – 2 years to access sites and/or individuals. So perseverance becomes critical to enable cultural description of theses spheres and structures that centrally define us, and how we are expected to live as citizens. In addition, where access was not given as with the Deutsche Börse in Frankfurt, the project documents that process in terms of what that lack of access describes, the paper trail and indeed the mediatised version of the market as evidenced by the ‘TV studio’ as the Börse itself describes the actual exchange in Frankfurt. So the projects are inherently political in terms of a study of power, and therefore this frames a positioning of artist researcher and activism. This has also been informed by Nicholas Mirzoeff’s idea of #VisualActivism, which he describes as the ‘interaction of pixels and action to make change’.

I would just like to acknowledge that there is much discussion of ‘post-representation’. However, in the context of contemporary financial capital whose key function is abstraction (this is witnessed in the impact of algorithmic technology/machinery, which financial capital has been, and is, the central innovator), and evolving how Marx stated, Capitalism seeks everything to be recreated in its image, I would observe that Financial Capital seeks everything to be recreated in its image – therefore, to embrace such a position opens the possibility of practices which, intentionally or not, align themselves, ideologically with the functioning of financial capital.

8_CURRAN_Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Trader (negotiation 1.5 years) Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX)
Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, September 2012, from THE MARKET

I’m glad you raise the spectre of technology, it’s relationship to capitalism and the question of its abstraction. I’ve often written here about the issue of representation in a time when more and more of the key machinery of our world is becoming impossible to directly visualise in the ways that journalists, artists and particularly photographers would traditionally have done, the increasing use of algorithms being a very clear example of that. I think the work of Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann makes an interesting example of this in that they apply these traditional approaches rooted in the axiom of proximity to a topic which cannot really be revealed by such closeness. By contrast, I think you find very interesting ways around this problem and I wonder if you could talk a little about how you think about visualising topics, which are essentially avisual?

A central function of capital is abstraction. This is so critically important to understand as through my research and speaking with those working in this sphere, I became aware of the central role of technology, specifically what we may define as algorithmic machinery, which has been innovated and pioneered by financial capital. At present almost 85% of trading is undertaken through such technology. Indeed, a 2012 UK government Office of Science (Foresight) report forecasts that within a decade there will be no human traders having been largely replaced by these systems. It is again important to understand and stress that the application of algorithmic technology was innovated by the markets beginning in the 1980s. Too often this relationship is overlooked and indeed under-represented in discussion around such themes as ‘Big Data’. And this is where it can become rather dystopian.

Focusing on the thesis of how the markets, and more specifically, financial capital, seeks everything to be recreated in its image. In such a scenerio, where, in addition to the role of tax avoidance systems/Havens and Shadow Banking systems with as much as half the money circulating the planet flowing through these networks daily remaining largely unregulated, creates a large degree of Stateless-ness, there is an argument of a future about significant peopleless-ness. So, as an artist researcher, how to represent such structures, to give these processes cultural description.

Therefore, a critical element of the project and the installation of THE MARKET is the soundscape, which is immersive in scale. Algorithms emit pulses as they travel through fibre-optic cables (although presently shifting to light) and function 24 hours a day so they are ever present beyond the visual and aural realm of human beings so how to represent something we, as citizens, cannot see or hear. My brother, Ken (Curran), is a programmer and composer. So, through the application of an algorithm, which Ken coded, to identify the words “market” and/or “markets” in public speeches given by relevant national Ministers of Finance, the data was then transformed to create the installation soundscape. To date, ‘localised’ algorithmic translations of speeches by Michael Noonan (Ireland), George Osborne (United Kingdom), Pierre Moscovici (France) and Jeroen Dijsselbloem (Netherlands & Eurozone Group President) have been included in exhibitions in those countries. The intention conceptually is to represent the functioning of contemporary financial capital through the conduit of the financialised nation-state. In turn, to create a tension between the material objects of the installation – photographs, artefacts, transcripts – and the possibility of their abstraction through the processes that the soundscape represents.

Another strategy I have employed is drawing on research by Eric Scott Hunsader (Owner of Nanex, online platform which documents daily global trading), who looked at one stock for one second in 2012. He noted that in one second, 14,000 positions were taken globally on that one stock. He stated how if you were to print out that amount of data, it would equate to a 6 feet high stack of A4 paper. So, I have recreated this (titled Normalising Deviance II) as part of several installations further in the context of the soundscape. It is figurative in scale and in addition on each page is a quote from a telephone conversation I had with a senior trader working in London, who stated:

…what people don’t understand… is that what happens in the market is pivotal to their lives… not on the periphery…but slap, bang, in the middle…

More recently, a further elaboration on the soundscape and critique of the popular graphic representation of the markets, I worked with a friend and colleague, Damien Byrne, who designed a 3D visualization/virtualisation of the algorithmically-generated soundscape. So again as a key contemporary operating strategy is the virtualisation of structures including the nation-state (as outlined by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi), I would argue through this appropriation, it further represents contemporary financial capital functioning through the conduit of the financialised nation state. It is important to note that in the installation is that a one point the 3D graph disappears, evaporates so alluding to how we, as an audience, as citizens can reject the narrative that supporting/saving such structures is the only possibility available. Remembering that presently, it is the actions of global central and state banks that is maintaining the appearance of globalised economic well-being through quantitative-easing resulting in austerity and a scale of inequality, which according to the World Economic Forum, the world has ever experienced. And again, this has occurred since, the crash in 2007/2008.

6_CURRAN_Steilmann_EDEN

Empty Workstation (Steilmann Textile Factory (one week before closure) – last textile factory in East Germany relocating to Romania and 6 months later Moldova)
Cottbus, Lausitz, Eastern Germany, April 2006
(Glass slides, multiple, looped projection) from Auschnitte aus EDEN/Extracts from EDEN

You neatly pre-empt my final question. The economic turmoil of the last decade seems to have revealed even to people not that interested in economics how shaky and impermanent these systems can be. This is naturally frightening in some respects but also exciting, a hint that edifices which have come to be regarded as normal, permanent and indispensable could disappear and be replaced by something different. The turmoil of the recession offers glimpses of alternatives to the current financial system, and has helped perhaps more than anything to dispel the once prevalent sense that there is no alternative. At the risk of asking for an impossible forecast where do you see The Market and the wider market which it explores going next in the coming years?

In terms of the project, the intention is to make a complete publication, critically, as a document, but also as an artefact of a sphere that may ultimately abstract itself through the means of its own innovation. The aspiration would be, in parallel, to create an e-book and/or App version, which, ideally, will be freely available. The intention is to distribute the cultural understanding regarding this sphere, as widely as possible. So at present, I am seeking a publisher and Nicholas Mirzoeff has already kindly agreed to contribute an essay to the publication. Beyond this, there are forthcoming conferences/symposia in the US and UK. Some of the work will form part of a major group exhibition organised in the Autumn, by the Blackwood Gallery in Toronto titled ‘I Stood Before The Source’, which sounds really dynamic. The complete projects will encompass several locations extending to off-site and/or public spaces and there is a full programme of events planned under a theme with a large focus on representing contemporary financial capital. In November, I will also give a public talk in Newcastle, organised by NEPN (the research centre at the University of Sunderland, who in cooperation with Noorderlicht Festival (Netherlands) commissioned project work undertaken in Amsterdam last summer), who are also planning an installation for next year. In addition in 2017, there will be an exhibition at Galerie Bleu du Ciel in Lyon working with Gilles Verneret ho also previously showed both Southern Cross and The Breathing Factory. The intention then would be to begin the next project of the cycle, which would be to engage with, and map those central to the technology & innovation of globalised finance and more closely, the shadow structures.

In answer to the second part of your question, it is understood how structurally and regarding the culture of that structure, nothing has fundamentally changed since 2007/2008 and that the system is being artificially maintained by debt undertaken by the world’s central and state banks through Quantitative Easing (QE). For example, since 2015, the European Central Bank has been buying debt to the total of 80 Billion Euros per month (both bank and corporate) and this is set to continue (and watch what the Bank of England is planning later in August and this year). To subvent and subsidise this system, policies of austerity are imposed, resulting in the harrowing conditions of inequality, that we witness, globally. I am reminded of the words of one senior trader:

‘You have no money in your education system, that’s us (‘the markets’), you have no money in your health system, that’s us…you have no money for culture, that’s us…it’s everything’

(recorded notes with Senior Trader, Cafe, The City, London, March 2013)

Combine this with the technological evolution of algorithmic machinery innovated by financial capital and the process of abstraction, while always remembering that this sphere creates crisis and simultaneously, the means for its survival. Therefore, it truly seems unsustainable.

There is consensus and awareness that the previously understood cyclical nature has evolved into something structural. In addition, the apparent disconnect between this sphere and the real economy – hence in the project, titles directly reference ‘the Economy of Appearances’, ‘Systemic Risk’ and ‘Financial Surrealism’. Many observers, including bankers, traders, analysts, economists and CEOs I have encountered, are alert to how a massive globalised bubble has been constructed through the intervention of QE and the functioning of this system that could make the aforementioned financial crash seem minor in comparison unless, a radical overhaul occurs… But critically, this all points to the end of a system of capital as we understand and simultaneously opportunities as it is clear that resources are there to re-enable inclusive citizenship, the social contract and to invoke Martin Luther King, Socialist Democracy. Unless this is addressed and I would further argue that from Trump to Brexit, not to mention climate change, terrorism and war, all symptomatic of this dreadful malaise, that such conditions will only become more volatile and unstable. This is why it is urgent we understand the central role of this sphere, the culture it presently embodies of normalising deviance and its relationship to technology, as part of a process, which it is important to acknowledge, is happening, to avoid such calamity and towards the re-imagining and reclaiming of other futures.

* Supported by the Arts Council of Ireland, Department of Foreign Affairs, Government of Ireland and partnered by Belfast Exposed Photography, Gallery of Photography, Dublin, CCA Derry-Londonderry, NEPN, Noorderlicht and curated by Helen Carey, Director, Firestation Artists’ Studios (Dublin), the transnational multi-sited project, THE MARKET, was also part of a series of visual art events marking the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, a pivotal moment in Irish labour history.

13_curran_teoa_lcga_2015

Installation (Limerick City Gallery of Art, 2015) includes The Economy of Appearances 2015
3D Data Visualisation of the algorithmically-generated soundscape identifying the application of the words market and/or markets in the public speeches by Irish Minister of Finance, Micheal Noonan.(Single channel projection, sound) Algorithm Design & Sound Composition by Ken Curran, Data Visualisation by Damien Byrne

Monsanto: An Interview with Mathieu Asselin

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_007

It’s really, really rare that a photobook speaks to you in a way which feels important beyond the narrow realm of photography, and even does so in a way which feels desperately urgent. This was the precise experience I had the first time I came across Mathieu Asselin’s Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation when it was on display as part of the dummy book table at Bristol Photobook Festival, and again when I saw it at the Rencontres d’Arles Festival this summer. The title of Asselin’s book needs little elaboration, the work scrutinizes the activities of this multinational agrochemical company, considering the lasting impact of it’s activities overseas and in it’s home country of the United States.

Through a series of chapters Asselin photographically interrogates these different areas, ranging from Monsanto’s role during the Vietnam war as one of the two major producers of the highly toxic defoliant Agent Orange, through to it’s contemporary diversification into genetically modified crops, plants which are designed as much to support a corporate business model as to be plentiful producers of food. This investigation is remarkably wide ranging and reflects the complexities of modern corporate activity. As Asselin writes ‘Monsanto® maintains strong ties with the US- government, and especially with the FDA (United States Food and Drugs Administration). It is a bed-fellow with many other economical and political power houses around the world. The company engages in campaigns of misinformation, the persecution of institutions and individuals, including scientists, farmers and activists that dare to disclose their crimes.’

Mathieu, perhaps first you could say a little about why the first wanted to produce a project about a company like Monsanto, was there a particular encounter or discovery which set you off down this route?

Years ago, talking to my father, a French activist by heart, spirit and actions, and a true world citizen, the subject of Monsanto came up. This got my attention and inspired me to start an in depth research on Monsanto, little by little I realized that it has a much deeper and darker history. I was facing over 100 years of “successful failures”. This means that Monsanto success is built on a long series of social, ecological, economical and health disasters all around the world. This is no news for a large number of people fighting Monsanto but for the majority of people, including myself at that time, this was a shocking discovery. At that time the persecution of farmers wrongly accused of patent infringements (The use of Monsanto GMO seed without signing a contract) was featuring in many news outlets. I don’t remember exactly when, what I do remember is that I was very shocked by the 2008 Vanity Fair story Monsanto Harvest of Fear as well by Marie-Monique Robin’s The World According to Monsanto documentary.  At that point the story was already on my mind, the problem was how to photograph it.

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_046

Many photographers attempting to document corporate activity might have just looked at one location or issue, for example the current consequences of herbicides like Roundup, or the lingering effects of Agent Orange use in Vietnam. What makes your work stand apart for me is the way you connect the disparate activities of Monsanto, from chemicals to seeds. What brought you to employ this multi-faceted way of investigation?

It is that multifaceted story that makes it a universal one. Monsanto’s dark story is a complex one and it cannot be understood if we just talk about genetically modified seeds, Agent Orange or PCBs separately. Monsanto is a 115 years old corporation (established in 1901) and its activities are as diverse as its social and ecological crimes. Everything is connected, one thing takes you to another is like a chain reaction, and the deeper you dig the more you find, in that sense is like an endless pit. The main challenge of this project wasn’t what to photograph but what not to. This was for me the hardest part. I focus on Monsanto’s milestones, places and events that have mark and shape their history as a corporation. It is a timeline to understand where Monsanto comes from, on what foundations it was built. This approach can help us understand its present and have a better idea of what the future maybe.

But is important to say that I didn’t discovered anything new, all this well documented information is public, before me many people have paved the road to make it easier for the rest of us, you just need to dig a bit. The interesting part was that as far as I know, nobody had put together photographically speaking that many pieces of the Monsanto story together I think that this was an important point to invest myself on the project. But I need to say that Olga Yatskevich was a great help in putting this together, she was like a translator for a language that was in my mind and that at that time only I understood. You know photography is never completely self-made. We are the products of our parents, our experiences our friend and people close to us, the important thing is to know how to combine all these experiences in a coherent voice that is your own.

Another facet to the book is the extensive use of Monsanto’s own advertising and marketing material, in particular The Monsanto House of the Future, an attraction created in the fifties for Disneyland but which in your book becomes a sort of metaphor for corporate indifference to the future and the people who have to live in it. Could you explain why you felt it was important to include examples of the ways Monsanto has represented itself alongside your photographic representations?

It is fascinating, isn’t it? That is why. I’ve never contacted Monsanto to have their point of view, I think that no statement from them can justify the crimes against humanity and the planet. With time you realize that this is not about Monsanto, this is about the people and environment affected by them. In the past five years I’ve bought a large collection of Monsanto paraphernalia. It was amazing to see how the propaganda machine works, but at that time didn’t know how I can incorporate it in the project. With time all this objects, the advertising and marketing got a wider meaning and became my way of letting Monsanto introduce itself. I was interested in the irony of the perfect world that they portrait.

Ricardo Baez, the designer of the book was very fond of the idea and suggested to place the ads at the beginning of the book. These materials help me to open a new window story wise, not limiting myself to what I can or can’t photograph to tell the story. All these “external” items, in one way or another, give an extra dimension to my project making it more interesting for the viewer and especially for me to build it. I think that with time I realize that the story needs to be told, this is the goal, and the more resources you have to play with, the better you can build it.

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_012

Looking at your book I felt a very strong resonance with Phillip Jones Griffith’s seminal work Vietnam Inc. There is an obvious thematic connection in terms of Monsanto’s role in the production of Agent Orange for use in this conflict, but actually I think the similarity stems from a sort of quiet anger which underpins both books, and which I see in much great investigative journalism. Do you feel that’s accurate?

Ah! Mr. Griffiths what a great photographer, I wish I can compare my work with his. I don’t have that book, but I do have Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Viet Nam which I got before traveling to Vietnam, to see if I can finally learn something about photography. Mr. Griffith’s books is a very extensive investigation on the Vietnam war but the most important part of his work is that it really helped to change the view of the public on the war.  My work still young and I hope it can have some repercussion on the issue am pointing at.

I think it is more outrage than anger, you can’t detach yourself from the subject and you can’t detach the subject from your feelings either, at least that is the way I work.  At the same time it is important not to fall on to an easy narrative. Anger can lead to that, contrary to outrage. It is important to find a certain poeticism in the work, a flow that makes a longer lasting mark than anger alone would be able to. Fighting this type craziness with anger is not a good tactic. More important than anger is to be outraged because it is related to empathy, as the French philosopher Stephane Hessel said it “is time for outrage” and it is this time for outrage that gives you the strength and the empathy to say “Fuck it, I won’t take it anymore and I won’t let others to take it either”. I am sure Mr. Griffiths dealt a lot with this in his own work.

The book looks very complete and I believe is due to be published soon, but given the scale of this topic and the nature of this type of rather investigative work there is often the sense that there is more to be done. Will your work on this topic continue or do you feel it has reached its limit?

At the moment I am in contact with a few publishers that are interested in printing the book, and whose work I like and respect. I think the transition from dummy to the final book will happen soon, fingers crossed! It is rewarding to finally have a dummy it is the physical proof of many years of work but the most important thing is to reach the people, without that the rest doesn’t matter much. No doubt the project can keep growing. I didn’t include many other communities affected by Monsanto: Argentina, India, Mexico, etc. I didn’t include these stories not because they are less important, but because it was a big challenge to figure out how such an important and complex subject can be put together in a book, so I decided to focus on the United States and Vietnam (because it has direct ties with the USA) knowing that this can be a well contained example of what is and can happen anywhere else. When you see the disasters Monsanto left in their own country and the horrors of Vietnam, it gives you a very good idea of what is going on or what can happen in the rest of the world. Monsanto is expanding it’s business to countries with weak regulations and law and this allows them to basically do “whatever they want”, with very few barriers or responsibilities.  Argentina is a good example of that.

Right now I would like to focus on others projects. I’ve spent five years on this story (I am a slow photographer) and after a while is important for me as a photographer to find new subjects and advance in my learning curve. I just hope that the work I did can help people who are fighting Monsanto everyday by establishing a dialogue about the subject with a larger population. My biggest hope is that it can help to change people’s vision about Monsanto so they can make better choices. For now my work photographically speaking is done and a different part of the project needs to be put in gear, the one of putting it out there for the public, so no matter what, I think I will be crossing paths with Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation for some time.

Thank you for giving me the chance to speak about my project.

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_030

Women’s Work: A Dialogue with Max Houghton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview: Alice Myers, Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun

book111

Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun, Alice Myers

While I recognise that Disphotic’s focus on thinking and talking about photography is a niche interest (and that’s putting it mildly), I think it’s important that these rather specialist discussions are guided by bigger issues in the world. Hence the recent focus over the last six months on the role of photography in Europe’s immigration and refugee crisis, from exposing a fake Instagram account masquerading as that of a Senegalese migrant, to examining Norbert Baska’s questionable refugee themed fashion photographs. From Kiki Streitberger’s still life portraits of the personal possessions of Syrian refugees, to Phil le Gal’s epic New Continent project. Today I turn to Alice Myers’ Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun, which focuses on Calais’s informal settlements and refugee inhabitants in a way which is marked by quite a different approach and length of engagement. Recently I met up with Alice to discuss photography, politics and books and the interview that follows is the result.

Hi Alice, could you start by telling me about how you first became interested in making work in Calais and around the topic of refugees, was it during a similar surge of public and media awareness of the issue or did something else first start you thinking about it?

I had been thinking a lot about the narratives that people attach to landscape. I had been working in Ireland with a group of people who had been combating the installation of a gas pipeline, and then I went to Arizona and spent some time on the border with Mexico photographing the trails people use to walk through the desert. So with Calais I was interested in the idea that there could be an invisible border in the sea, and in where in fact that border lay, and in the way borders permeate so that the walls of a truck can become a frontier.

But throughout all these projects the more interesting questions were around finding ways to use photography in politically fraught situations that felt open and respectful (or that I felt I could at least live with), while acknowledging the complexities of the power dynamics created by arriving as an outsider and pulling out a camera. While working in Calais I became more aware of this thread and these questions became a much more visible part of the work.

That question of the power dynamic is interesting, I think if you are the type of photographer who is conscious of these problems there is often the hope of finding a way of working that takes them into account and perhaps neutralises them to some extent. There’s a very noticeable participatory element to the project, certainly compared to much of the recent work I’ve seen on refugees and migration, but when we chatted before you mentioned that one of the difficulties of that was getting the participants to understand what you wanted to do and why, could you explain more?

The word ‘participatory’ can be used for so many different things. While I opened up the project to input from others, and responded to what people were interested in doing, I’d hesitate to call this participatory because I was in full creative control of the output. When we spoke before I think I mentioned what a complex thing consent is, and as in any project I had to be really careful to make sure people fully understood how the pictures and interviews were for. It was also important to leave space for them to change their minds.

I guess no matter how carefully I explained the project, some people weren’t familiar with the kind of book I was making, and they were very surprised by the photographs I chose to include. While I gave people prints of the photographs I took, they weren’t really the audience I was making the work for. This question of audience is really interesting, and I’d like to take it forward into future projects.

Can you flesh out your working process when you were in Calais, did you have a certain approach in what you were looking for or was it more a matter of seeing what was there and what happened and who you met and reacting to things as they occurred?

I was very aware of the role photography plays in the policing of borders, of the dominance of imagery that presents migrants and refugees as either victims or criminals, but also of the importance of photography for migrants trying to keep track of their lives. I think we all probably take photographs partly to remind ourselves that we exist, but that becomes more of an urgent project if you are legally non-existent.

So I was trying to enter into this fraught situation in a way that felt respectful and open, using the camera as a starting point for interaction. But I was also constantly questioning my role as photographer, and also as a gatherer of material. I’d worked on the US/Mexico border before and it took a lot of work to get to the point where it felt OK to even begin to use a camera. My approach was to make these questions present in the work, so that the tensions and negotiations are visibly being worked out in a way that I hope is more interesting.

So my process was really just finding a way to be in that space with a camera. This involved a lot of photographing people and giving them prints afterwards (none of these images are part of my edit), or filming something in a space and waiting for people to approach me and get involved. I had a project explanation in English, Arabic and Pashtu, which said I was not a journalist, I was doing a project and people could get involved in whatever way suited them or not at all. I suggested they might want to write something, draw something, record an interview, share the photographs on their phones with me or work with me to make a portrait which did not disclose their identity. Some people had lots of ideas for my project and I worked with them over the longer term, each time I went back. With others it was a more fleeting interaction.

I work in a very slow way, which I tell myself is about being responsive to what I find but may also be about a reluctance to pin things down. So I gathered masses and masses of material, and then spent a couple years narrowing it down, figuring out what it was about. There are hours of recording and videos that I decided not to use.

I find that resistance to pinning things down interesting point because I think the refugee crisis has been marked both by a mass of reporting, almost to the extent that it’s hard to know where to start, and also by reporting which is often really lacking in nuance, which is often very much about making black or white distinctions. It’s interesting that you included the fact you aren’t a journalist in your explanation of the project. Did you feel that distinction made a difference to your participants, and also did you encounter many journalists and if so what was there reaction like to the idea of someone producing art about a topic like this?

I completely agree with your first point, though I feel like ‘refugee crisis’ should always be in inverted commas, as the crisis is more about the failure of our European governments. The other reason to not pin things down is that a concrete, bulletproof and logical story is what is required of refugees to justify their presence here. I didn’t want to reproduce that demand.

I’m not sure [saying I wasn’t a journalist] made that much of a difference to participants, I think they mostly just assumed I was a journalist anyway. And then a few people probably thought I was a spy of some sort. Though I think some people were really interested in the long-term and collaborative aspects of the project (they had lots of ideas for photographs or text to include). The thing that might have made more difference was stating that I wasn’t interested in photographing them directly. That I didn’t want to photograph their faces. I think for some people just being handed something to read in Arabic made a difference.

I’m not anti-journalist, but the distinction about not being one maybe made more difference with the activists I worked with. Many activists who work in border situations are understandably suspicious of photojournalists, mostly because of one or two really bad experiences they’ve had with individuals being exploitative or disrespectful. Although I didn’t work formally with activists, I spent a lot of time in squats that they had helped to set up and was friends with several people who might not have called themselves activists, who continuously housed 5-15 people. I think they saw and appreciated that the project was slightly different.

So the result of this process is a book, perhaps to end you could say a little about why this felt like the right format for the work?

I’ve tried a number of different formats for this work and I’m really content to have arrived at the book. Because the project is a collection of fragments, the book leads people through the material, but gives them space to take their own time with it. It also allows the text to be central to the project, without forcing associations between specific images and pieces of text. I guess I also wanted to give a sense of Calais as this in-between space where logic doesn’t apply, and the book format allows you to create an immersive environment.

See more of Alice’s work at www.alicemyers.net

Interview – Christopher Nunn

chris nunn
Jewish Cemetery, Kalush, February 2014

Christopher Nunn is a British documentary photography who since early 2013 has been photographing regularly in Ukraine. This period has coincided with popular protests in Kiev leading to the overthrow of the pro-Moscow government, the Russian military annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and hostilities in the east of the country between the Ukranian army and armed separatist groups. For me what marks Nunn apart from many of the photographers making work about Ukraine is that his focus is invariably away from the front-lines, looking instead at the everyday lives of people living (sometimes very distantly) with the country’s unrest. As a result Nunn’s photographs seem to reveal much more about how Ukraine has got where it is, and where it might be going, than many of the projects which linger on the spectacular events effecting the country. We recently had a short chat about the background to his work and some of his motivations and interests in making it.

To start off, I think you’re based in Huddersfield in Yorkshire, something of a far cry from Ukraine. Could you explain how you came to be photographing there?

I’d been interested in Ukraine for a while. I first went there in 2006, and then again in 2007 after travelling across Russia. I also went back for a short trip in 2010. All these trips were with my girlfriend at the time, who had a Ukrainian granddad. My grandmother was born in Kalush, which was part of Poland then, but left when she was around 15 years old. When I decided to travel back to Ukraine at the end of 2012 my grandma was very ill from a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and I was getting more interested in her history which we actually knew very little about. It was also quite a difficult time for me because I’d just come out of a 6 year relationship and I felt like I needed to do something. Looking back I guess I was learning how to be on my own again, so starting off in Ukraine alone seemed to make sense. I had no idea what I would find in Kalush, but after walking around for a while I realised that I actually ‘felt’ something for this place, and that was important for me, and that’s why I continued to make work there.

It’s sad but seems a little fitting that your grandmothers struggle with Alzheimer’s would lead you back to Ukraine. My brief experience of the country was of one with an awkward relationship with it’s own past. It felt to me as if there was uncertainty in many places about which parts of the past to celebrate, and which to turn away from. I see hints of this in some of your photographs from Kalush, but I wonder if you noticed or thought about this much yourself?

Absolutely, and this is something that I thought about more over time. For a start, my grandmother’s ethnic status was always in dispute. She said she was Polish, but her childhood friend who came from the same village and left for England at the same time swore she was Ukrainian. She never seemed sure about whether she missed her ‘motherland’ and had fond memories of it, or whether she hated it. She changed her mind all the time, and seemed to struggle with her own past. This is something I found interesting, and I’ve always been fascinated with memory anyway. This is something I was thinking about, especially early on.

With regards to Ukraine’s awkward relationship with it’s own past, manifestations of this became more apparent as the crisis escalated. I was in the east and west at various times, so I saw protests for closer integration with the EU, and the opposite in the east, with a rejection of this and calls for unity with Russia. These ideas about the future of Ukraine say a lot of people’s opinions about its history I think.

There are different heroes of history in different parts of Ukraine, Bandera and Lenin being a few of the obvious ones in light of recent events. An example of this would be something I saw recently in Slavyansk, which was the epicentre of the insurgency at one point, and is now under the control of the Ukrainian army. The big Lenin statue in the main square now has a yellow and blue scarf around his neck. There are many notes, pictures, political messages and poems on the pedestal, written after the liberation of Slavyansk. Someone had written “You cannot destroy Lenin. It is our history” and underneath it, written by someone else “Lenin is our tragedy.”  I’m very interested in this conflict of beliefs and ideas, which are all related to people’s perception of the current situation in Ukraine, as well as their understanding of it’s history.

You mention the crisis in Ukraine. This manifested initially and perhaps most visibly in the protests around the Maidan or independence square in Kiev. It’s interesting to me that while so many photographers flew in just to focus on events in the Maidan, you were already there in the country and yet chose to stay away from Kiev. Was there any particular reason for this?

Well I was actually in Kalush in November 2013 when Yanukovych refused to sign the association agreement with the EU, which is what kick-started the Euromaidan movement.  A lot of people were talking about this at that time. I returned to Ukraine in January 2014, first to Donetsk and then to Kalush. I had no plans to cover anything political really, but by the time I arrived in Kalush in February I could see that the growing political tensions were beginning to manifest themselves there. There were small barricades in front of the police headquarters to stop more riot police going to Maidan, and local people were guarding them around the clock.

I spent some time with them, and one night got talking to a young man who was probably the first person I’d met in Kalush who could speak English. He worked in the local UDAR office (Vitally Klitschko’s political party) and we talked about politics and what was happening in Kyiv. By this time I really wanted to go to Maidan, but it was being so heavily covered and there were so many photographers and all the big agencies already there that I decided to stay.

I’d always been interested in small stories that are part of a bigger picture, and because I’d already been making work in Kalush for a year and had a personal connection to it, thought it made more sense to stay there. At the end of February I went back to Donetsk when the so called ‘Russia Spring’ (the east’s rejection of the Euromaidan movement) was starting to happen, and there were a lot of protests and government buildings being stormed by protestors.

You’ve remained photographing in Ukraine as events in the east have unfolded (that again seems to make you something of a rarity as so many others left once the dramatic events in the Maidan ended). You’ve since photographed Ukrainian army conscripts and the lives of ordinary people in the east, amongst other things. I can see your strategy of focusing on smaller parts of the bigger pictures makes sense as a way to respond to the vastness of this conflict, but how do you decide which parts are important?

Well since I’d already been photographing in Ukraine for almost a year before Euromaidan it was just natural to continue after the events in Kyiv came to an end and the crisis deepened across the county. With regards to focusing on smaller stories, most of it came naturally just from being there and exploring. It’s not so much about me deciding what’s important as such, but more often than not it’s moments that are not directly related to the conflict that seem to stick. My path naturally developed into trips between east and west at various important points along the timeline of events and during a period of massive transformation, so in some ways the work is a reflection of that time. I spent time with a huge mix of people, from patriots in the west, to ethnic Russians and supporters of DNR in the east, as well as pro-Ukrainians in Donetsk region. I met people who love Ukraine and hate Ukraine, or who don’t care either way. I began to understand how complicated the situation was, and I felt it was different to what was in the news or on social media.

I was seeing hints of war and political tension everywhere, often in very mundane ways, and it directly touched a lot of the people who I knew before the crisis began.  My photos are a response to everything I was seeing, thinking about and doing at the time. From the start, I felt like I was experiencing all these little glimpses of people’s lives and situations that were connected somehow to Ukraine’s recent history and current state. During later trips I worked with journalists and visited destroyed towns and soldiers in battalions and things like that, but it’s the situations and meetings that happen naturally, when I work alone, that are most important to me.

As final questions go it’s rather an obvious one but what’s next? Do you see these different stories ultimately coming together as one body of work at some point in the future or will they remain as separate fragments of the current state of Ukraine?

I’ll keep doing what I’m doing until I feel satisfied. I think there will be one main piece of work made during the last few years, and continuing for the next year or so, and maybe a few smaller projects. Perhaps they will be separate chapters that branch off from the main body of work. I have a few ideas that I am trying to arrange.

See more of Chris’s work on his website.

Interview: Anders Birger

anders-birger-syria-05
This Damn Weather

A new feature on the blog this year will be occasional interviews with photographers and people working with photography. The first of these is with Anders Birger, a Danish documentary photographer based in London. A graduate of the documentary photography master’s program at London College of Communication, his degree project This Damn Weather examined the state of paranoia in Damascus in the early days of the Syria uprising. Since then he has returned to Syria several times to explore the conflict further and in different ways, looking for example at the experience of refugees in Life on the Syrian Border and making a series of more meditative photographs in Places of Conflict.

LB – For me it’s interesting to look back at This Damn Weather because when you made the work the conflict in Syria was just getting started. It wasn’t at anything like the level of violence or destruction it is now, it really reminds you how far things have degenerated over the last two years. How do you feel looking back at that work?

AB – I feel its probably still the most important work I’ve done, even though the war is so much more escalated now especially in Damascus. I saw some work by a photographer who has been photographing in Damascus a month or two ago and it was actually the same pictures, shot in a more traditional style maybe but you know it was a hotel guy putting up an umbrella by the pool and so on. I think this idea that life goes on in a war zone is important. We tend to forget the reality of living in a situation like that, not that I know, I have no idea really. But it almost seems like when we go to photograph or when we go to write, we always focus on what we know, we always re-report all the facts that we know about how it looks in a war or how it looks in a refugee camp, how things are playing out. It’s the same stories, the characters are different, the names are different, the skin colour is different, but it’s the same stories.

LB – We’ve talked in the past about this idea of photographing the ‘quiet’ side of conflicts, focusing in on small details, looking at the apparently uneventful moments rather than the big dramatic ones, was this part of the same thinking?

AB – People will hate me for saying this, but if you go and do war photography in the old style, as we’ve been taught to do war photography, you have to ask why? What’s the actual point of it? what life will you change by doing that? If we want to change something we need to understand it better, and we don’t understand things better by looking at the same photographs again and again. I find people who work with photography as a way to explore something for themselves really interesting, it’s like if I can understand something I can make other people understand it and that seems much more important.

LB – We hear a lot about the dangers facing journalists working in Syria, perhaps as much or more than we hear about the dangers facing Syrians. You were working with an armed group and they obviously had a different agenda to you, you were there as a guest almost, what was your experience of that like?

AB – I experienced a lot of boredom to be honest, because suddenly when you’re in a situation like that a lot of the time nothing is going on and you can’t just go off and do something because you’re not in control of your life any more. Sometimes it was really dangerous and you could always hear the bombs in the background, that was just the sound tapestry, and sometimes there would be a big battle a few kilometers away, so it was definitely dangerous, but it wasn’t more or less dangerous for me as a journalist than it was for the people I was with. We were in the same danger zone.

LB – You didn’t feel at any point they might be a danger to you?

AB – Not those individuals but I had one experience which was very interesting. One night we were sitting in a safe house out in the middle of the countryside, an old farmhouse that was turned into a small base for a group of fighters we spent a lot of time with. There were probably 18 or 20 of them and I think the oldest was probably 21 and down to 14 or 15 years old. And so we were sitting there it was January so it was very cold and pitch black, and suddenly we heard a car pull up and people became very quiet and the door opens and in comes this tiny figure in a big parka coat with a hood up so I couldn’t see his face and he comes in with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder and a grenade in his hand. And it turned out he was a priest or cleric from Saudi Arabia, sent there to teach these young people how to fight, what to do, how to act in certain situations.

They had a lot of respect for him, he sat down and I kind of huddled back thinking ‘I’m the only white guy’ so I was feeling very self-conscious. And so he started praying with these people, talking about Islam reading from the Quran, he had a very beautiful voice and many of these young kids started crying, it was very emotional. And he finished and he looked down at me and said ‘who’s that guy?’ and suddenly I started to feel nervous. Here I was in no man’s land, no one knew where I was, with all these people surrounding me with a lot of weapons, being a westerner, a Dane even what with the Muhammad drawings. So I was called up and I sat down with him and we started talking and he started trying to convince me of why Islam was better than Christianity. I’m not a Christian, I’m a cultural Christian, but I’m not religious in any way and I explained this but he wouldn’t give up because he had this big audience.

So we started talking and had this long discussion back and forth and it was going quite well, I could fend for myself and we had some good discussions, and I could ask him some questions about things. And everyone came up close to listen in, and my friend was sitting translating for me suddenly my friend looks at me and said ‘Anders how can it be that everyone in the west thinks we are terrorists?’ and I said, ‘it’s a very good question but it might not be so hard to answer when you’re sitting with a hand grenade’, because while he had been translating he had picked up and started playing with the cleric’s hand grenade! And so he translated this for everyone and they all started laughing. I promised the cleric to spend five minutes a day kneeling looking towards mecca and to have a good think about Islam, we embraced and he left. It was an amazing experience and it really showed me that our fears are often really just preconceptions.

LB – One thing we’ve discussed before is that the Syrian conflict is in many ways a media conflict, the groups involved are very concious of this, and in many cases are using media to publicise their activities in ways that maybe make foreign journalists of less use to them. How do you think this effects your position as a professional journalist?

AB –My main argument against us going as traditional photographers is that all those pictures we can take, there’s not much need for them because the photographs are already being taken by people there. The pictures we see in newspapers, the videos we see on al Jazeera or the BBC, they’re mostly being made by rebel groups and sometimes by Assad’s forces. This is the true democratisation of photography and journalism, because the people involved in the events are recording them. And of course these photographs are coloured one way or another…

LB – but at least we know they are coloured, that they have a bias.

AB – Exactly, at least we have an idea that we can’t trust them as independent journalism. Anyway there isn’t really such a thing as independent journalism when we go into these situations. I can’t move around as I want to, so how can I say my work is more independent than what they are taking. So I think there is less reason for us to go and make these news images. So I see our role more as going in to interpret what others see, try and understand it and try to convey a story much more than trying to convey news.

LB – This leads quite nicely to your new work, a series of polaroid photographs taken in Syria. In each case you’ve not opened the polaroid, instead you’ve asked a bystander to write something on it, for example describing what was happening at the time. For me this work says interesting things about our reliance on journalists to interpret events for us, to translate almost.

AB – It was funny because when I started doing this work I had one idea but as often happens it really expanded as I was shooting. Now it’s also about how we conceive and consume photography in the west especially, it’s playing into the idea of us using photography to understand things, but also it’s about looking at photography in a way that judges one photo as good and one as bad. I think there’s a tendency to look at photographs not in terms of what is in the picture but in terms of things like the framing, the capabilities of the photographer in other words. Equally this debate around photo manipulation, it’s the wrong focus. Is this photograph beautiful enough to win a prize? It should be a focus on the content. Studying my MA I realised there are no rules, you set the rules. With photojournalism there is a sense that there are all these man made rules about what you can and cannot do. For me it limits my ability to convey what I’m trying to say, and that’s what I find so liberating about documentary photography, it should be about how do you convey a story or open people’s eyes, or understand whatever it is you’re trying to understand.

LB – At the same time a lot of rather more traditional photographers criticise this approach as being too abstract, too much about medium, not enough about the subject. What’s the response been to your work?

AB – It hasn’t been out there that long but so far mostly positive response. I’m sure if it had a larger audience there would be people that would be out to get me for it, which I completely understand because it was difficult for me to take the step to making this work. Sometimes I feel a little ashamed about putting it out there because it’s so far removed from what I’ve always been taught, but not from what I’ve been feeling. Every time I talk to people about it, it seems they are thinking more about Syria looking at my work than at a more traditional piece of photo-journalistic work. I’m not saying my work is better I’m just saying it makes people think about it in different ways, and I think this must be the most important thing, not how we tell the story but telling it in a way that makes people interested and interact with it. People aren’t interested in these 5-8 picture stories because we see them all the time.

I think we’re maybe only just realising that photography has to evolve, it has to go out in all these different directions, and some of these will die out, but others will continue to evolve. If people don’t like it fine, do whatever you like to do, but if I think it’s reasonable to do something like this about something as serious as Syria and I still want to put it out there for people to see then it must be because I believe in it. I’m not doing this for fun, I’m not doing it to provoke, because this is much too serious for any of these things.

LB – What are you working on now?

AB – I’ve started looking into the history of Syria and found that in 1767 an expedition was sent out by the Danish king to go to Arabia which in Danish was called ‘Arabia Felix’ which translates as ‘Happy Arabia’. They were sent to Yemen with this list of questions, some serious, some quite ridiculous, basically with the aim of finding out why it was happy. And they brought scientists and cartographers with them. That for me is extremely interesting, now we look the Middle East and ask the opposite question ‘why are they so unhappy’. Two hundred and fifty years later it’s the same story, we’re just as dumb.

Ander’s WebsiteAnder’s Twitter