The Empire of the Drone: Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

The trailer for Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

I feel a pressure to always write in the moment, certainly with reviewing to talk about something while it’s still happening, still accessible, as if to give people a chance to test my the sum of my words out for themselves. Real life frequently often gets in the way and that’s not always to the bad. The slower burn can be rewarding, spending a few weeks mulling something over, pulling it this way and that in the confines of my own head, in the end resulting in a reading which is perhaps less literal, indeed perhaps rather oblique, but at least it is mine, unpressured by the expectation to respond. So it was after seeing the Vietnamese artist  Dinh Q. Lê’s remarkable drone filmed, three screen video installation The Colony which was on display in Peckham over a month ago. Housed in the remarkable derelict space of one of London’s earliest cinemas, the installation has since closed and the work is now on display at Site Gallery in Sheffield. The intervening time since seeing and writing have I hope not been spent entirely idly, as ideas have circulated and other influences have intervened.

Lê’s practice to date has largely photographic and almost exclusively focused on the legacy of the Vietnam War, particularly the way it’s memories are incorporated variously as trauma and fantasy. Superficially then The Colony then is a great departure from his work to date, but there is also a clear continuance, a concern with ideas about imperial ambitions and power, and more visibily with the marks these things leave on the present, and perhaps also on a future yet to arrive. The Colony examines the Chincha islands, three remote outcrops of rock off the coast of Peru, and home to enormous seabird colonies which have over centuries layered the islands with their droppings. In the nineteenth century, before the advent of chemically manufactured fertilisers, this guano was a valuable commodity, a means to boost yields of vital cash crops like Tobacco. As a result, and to the loss of the native Chincha people, the islands were colonised and contested by regional powers. Spain and its former colony Peru fought over the islands in the 1860’s, with what began as an attempt by a once extensive empire to reassert its waning influence rapidly escalating into a regional conflict involving Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. As time passed the stockpiles of guano on the islands were depleted and the value of the product declined particularly as methods were developed to synthesise nitrogen based fertilisers on an industrial scale. The islands today remain dotted with relics of their former owners and while the practice of digging on the islands continues it does so on a far smaller scale than in the past.

With such subject matter, it was perhaps inevitable that many of the reviews of Lê’s installation fixated overly on the obvious, (Adrian Searle for the Guardian was one of the worst offenders in this regard with a joke about shit in the first line, someone take the man’s crayons away). What these reviews miss with their scatological puns is that the guano in Lê’s film is really only a very minor element, a foil to the much bigger themes he seems to be interested in. A much more prominent interest is clearly indicated by the title, it is the motivations for imperialism, and its ultimate leavings, the ruins both physical and psychical that great empires leave in their wake. The roving drove mounted cameras of Lê’s film crew explore the decaying derelicts of the island, hovering above abandoned buildings and even roving inside, moving cautiously through the corridors of abandoned buildings, their rotors mixing up the dust and bird feathers that line the corridors, pausing periodically to inspect a relic or negotiate a tricky obstacle. The Colony is a work about the battlegrounds that are fought over, exploited and then subsequently abandoned when they no longer prove worthwhile then, but it is also about the people who enter the frame at that point to take over the remaining crumbs which empire has deigned to exploit itself. Part of what makes The Colony remarkable is the depiction of the guano mining operations that continue on the island today, which seem like something out of an entirely different era. On these exposed, isolated rocks teams of men dig with crude tools to fill sacks of the dusty brown tuff, which are then physically hauled and slid to the water’s edge, to be pilled in huge, neat ziggurats awaiting offloading on to cargo ships. It’s hard to tell if this hellish existence owes more to the old empires of the nineteenth century, or of the new Empire of twenty first century globalisation. It’s probably a bit of both.

In this sense and in others The Colony bears some comparison to Richard Mosse’s The Enclave, a similar multi-screen video installation filmed using a now obsolete military infra-red film originally developed for military reconnaissance purposes. The chemistry of this film reacts to a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum to normal film or our eyes, meaning natural greens which absorb large amounts of infra-red light are rendered as a bizarre pink. Using this Mosse photographed and filmed in the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The footage shot by cinematographer Trevor Tweeten is particularly compelling, as the steady cam glides through an alien landscape to a soundtrack of faux radio chatter. The Enclave, like The Colony, is partly fixated on both old and new ideas about empire, but Mosse, unlike Lê, is just a little too beguiled with his image making technology, and the The Enclave becomes just a little bit too much about the process and the technology, not the subject matter it is pointed at. This really brings me to the core of what I think is interesting about The Colony. I would suggest though that the real stars of the film though are neither the guano covered outcrops with their anonymous workers, nor the descendant imperial ambitions that these places represent. The real stars are the drones that record it all.

Before I explain this I have to take issue with drone videography as an artistic medium. In itself it is simply a process for making a work, and the results of course are variable and contingent on what is being filmed and how. I often think that an over emphasis on process in art is a bad sign, regardless of how fantastically byzantine or exotic the steps undertaken, it’s the end result or effect on a viewer that matters, and unless that exotic process really does something to a viewer then I find myself asking ‘so what?’ Perhaps because drones are new and exciting in themselves drone film makers often seem to get caught up in the novelty of their technology without really reflecting on what it means to use it. I recently attended a talk by researcher Bradley Garrett who showed a sequence of drone film made on a Scottish island at a point where an undersea internet cable comes ashore. Garrett is an academic but the film is undeniably artistic, not only it’s clear aesthetic concerns but also in the sense that the video actually provides very little information about its suggested subject (this is not exactly a criticism, it’s more or less inevitable given the subject matter). More interestingly all hints of both drone and operator have been excluded from the frame, and Garrett acknowledged in response to an audience question that he had been hiding behind a small structure during the sequence, guiding the drone unseen. This to me is representative of a certain aesthetic in drone films, that fantasise the drone and it’s operator as not really being there at all. It is a roving, god’s eye view, and this pretended disappearance of the technology that makes this viewpoint possible also makes it in some way also easier to avoid difficult questions about the technology itself. Amongst the varyingly interesting ideas Garrett discussed in his talk it was noticeable that there was no conversation about what it meant as a researcher to employ a technology like a drone which has a very specific lineage. That is a line of descendent that even in civilian dronesleads backthrough a history of militarism and imperialism, and this seems a particularly important observation in relation to Lê’s previous focus on the conflict in his native Vietnam, a laboratory for some of the earliest millitary drones.

Lê on the other hand seems highly aware of these issues. In The Colony, the two drones produce staggering aerial imagery of thousands of bird nests, of jagged cliffs and greyed decaying structures. But beautiful as these are they would be little more than eye candy without the frequent appearance of the drones themselves in each other’s footage and in static shots filmed from the ground. It says much of the aesthetic of drone cinematography that these insertions feel like continuity errors the first few times they occur in The Colony, but over the course of watching the three separate projections that make up the installation one has a mounting sense of a transformation of the drones into key characters themselves. At moments, this sense of personification is inescapable, particularly in sequences where the drones appear to enter into strange aerial ballet routines, and during several sequences where they follow each other, at one stage into the corridors of a dilapidated barracks building. As one drone pauses to inspect a faded piece of pornography pasted to the wall besides a crude bunk bed while it’s companion looks on, one has the overwhelming sense of watching as the vanguard of some unknown high tech power, tentatively scouting out the ruins of its predecessor. In that sense The Colony feels less like rumination on old empire, even though it certainly is also that, and far more a meditation on the rise of something new and very different. A new power far less concrete than the competing empires of the nineteenth century, perhaps even less tangible than the diffuse global empire of post-cold war capitalism. Lê seems to be hinting at an empire yet to arise, an imperium hard and soft wired into the circuit boards of the supposedly neutral technologies with which we surround ourselves.

Incomplete Images: A Different Perspective on Forced Migration

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Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos

The past two years have seen an unprecedented wave of forced migration, with conflict, instability and authoritarianism in north Africa, the Middle East and other regions forcing millions to flee their homes and seek safety overseas. This humanitarian crisis has coincided with, and in some cases contributed to, a resurgence of the political right in Europe and north America. This, alongside the continused evisceration of the media produces a climate where simplistic narratives about refugees flourish, and where depiction of the crisis often lack any reflection of the experiences of those who are most directly affected by it. The exhibition Incomplete Images, which I have co-curated with Monica Alcazar-Duarte, opens today and attempts to respond to this imbalance, by exhibiting work by a series of artists who are themselves refugees, or who have worked in close collaboration with them. The aim of this show is clearly modest and one small show is not going to redress the rise of right wing populism or years of imbalanced media coverage, but we hope it will have an influence, however small, and to that end some of the works on display will also be for sale with all proceeds going to the artist.

In terms of the artists and photographers in the show, Aram Karim’s Smugglers series depicts his journey across the border between Iraq and Iran, where men smuggle fuel, alcohol and other supplies in vast quantities, making multiple trips a day through mud, snow and across active minefields for a few dollars. Aram is a musican and photographer originally from Iraq but currently living near Marseilles, France while he awaits a decision on his refugee status. Damon Amb’s practice involves digitally reworking photographs taken in his native Iran and during his subsequent travels to express his inner world. Damon writes that ‘my art doesn’t communicate the things that have happened to me or what could happen to me if I go back to Iran. I’m a criminal in my country because I’m an artist’. Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos’s video piece Greetings from Greece addresses the recent war in Syria and the thousands of refugees that it created through the portrait of a young man that has settled in Greece. The film also incorporates portraits which are the result of a collaboration with a refugee photo studio in Athens. These images are meticulously constructed from stock imagery, and were delivered to us for printing in various stages of completion. Next, Iranian Kurdish photographer Rahman Hassami’s series compares and contrasts the scenery of his native Kurdistan with the countryside of Yorkshire in the north of England, a quintessential English landscape, drawing out differences and similarities between his former and adoptive home. Finally, on a table in the center of the gallery is a display of images taken from an Instagram account purportedly belonging to a young migrant named Abdou Diouf. This account was in fact a hoax created by a marketing company to advertise a photography festival, and was first unmasked here on Disphotic in the summer of 2015. It’s inclusion in this exhibition highlights the way that even the perspective of refugees is open to problematic appropriation.

The exhibition is open for one week from 21st to 27th November, 12 – 5pm each day at Light Eye Mind gallery, 176 Blackstock Road, London N5 1HA

The GIF of Life: Vestigial File Formats as Documentary

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GIF spoofing Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 Human and Animal Locomotion

Computer file types come and go. It’s unlikely you’ve recently opened a .PCX for example, a type of image file now so redundant as to virtually be regarded as jurassic. That redundancy came less because it was a particularly specialized format, at least by the standards of today, but because it had it’s moment in the early stages of widespread computer use, served its purpose and was superseded by the advance of technology and newer file types which did a similar job better. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of comparable examples of these digital fossils, but then there are also the freakish exceptions, the vestigial survivors which remain either because they simply do their job so well that there isn’t a need to come up with an alternative, or which end up remaining in use more out of fluke than anything else.

One example of the latter is the Graphic Interchangeable Files better known as the GIF. GIFs are a joke, or at least in many of the diverse cultures of the internet they are the universal shorthand for one. GIFs might have once enjoyed a useful role following their introduction in 1987 in the era before fast internet connections and streamable video, but today the format’s purpose is today largely consigned to that of conveying the Internet’s numerous memes in moving form. The web is awash with animated GIFs of funny things, from clips of cats going berserk at the sight of a surprise cucumber to Monty Pythonesque animations based on renaissance paintings. Entire online conversation are conducted through the exchange of humorous GIFs and sites like Giphy exist purely to fulfill the need for them in the context of these conversations. A famous and rather neo-Fordist sounding trademark of the Apple corporation was that whatever you need ‘there’s an app for that’. In humour terms one might say similar for GIFs. Whatever joke you want to make, whether tasteless or witty, rooted high culture or deep in the gutter, there’s probably a GIF for it, and if there isn’t? Make one. Predictably the GIF’s resurgent popularity has seen those outside the internet’s anarchic communities attempt to cash in on it. A range of companies have run GIF based marketing campaigns with varying success. In 2015 the British Channel 4 news program introduced Newswall, a slightly awkward website displaying the news of the moment in GIFS, a project which ran for about eight months before it was shut down. While often quite funny Newswall also made very clear the difficulty of using GIFs to discuss controversial or troubling issues without appearing to make light of them. In 2016 Coca Cola introduced a new slogan and promoted with a GIF maker which allowed internet users to add their own slogans to short video clips from Coca Cola adverts. Predictably it was quickly trolled by internet users and had to be taken down.

The GIF’s currency as digital shorthand for humour would seem to lie in a few of its unique characteristics. It has always been comparatively shareable, making low demands on bandwidth and storage compared to streaming video, although this is less an issue today. By popular demand social networks like Twitter and Facebook are gradually reintroducing support for them but in an example of how unnecessary the GIF’s low bandwith demands now are the GIFS displayed on Twitter are actually resampled and displayed as MP4 video files. A more important element which is perhaps often overlooked are the aesthetics of GIFs. In their humorously disjointed looping, their silence and their fractured visual quality they call to mind early cinema, particularly the jerky slapstick of Chaplin or Keaton, and certainly these early films feel in a strange way most at home in the format of a GIF. It felt particularly apt while researching this piece to stumble across the animation above, a homage to Edweard Muybridge, who in his experiments with high speed sequential photography laid the groundworks for the developments of later pioneers like the Lumière brothers. Perhaps the association also goes beyond the aesthetic. I sense that for a certain generation which grew up during the early stages of the internet, the GIF has a certain nostalgia value perhaps akin to the nostalgia that the aesthetic of the cinema or television screen was to previous generations generations. Rooted in our earliest memories and experiences of the interne,t we have a bond to them which the advance of technology has struggled to break.

Beyond the history and mainstream use of GIFs I’ve recently been thinking about whether and how the format can be used for other purposes, like art, or journalism. GIF art is most definitely a practice (there’s even a GIF art collective) an activity with it’s roots in the early internet but which continues in diverse forms today, and which spans people experimenting with and highlighting the unique specificities of GIFs to others who view the format simply as a useful medium for other ideas they are keen to discuss. Much of this art references the popular use of GIFs as a medium of humour, escalating cheap cracks and meme’s into more sophisticated commentaries on art and culture. An example of this might be Zack Dougherty, who under the name of Hateplow creates GIFS that reference and rework classical sculpture and archaeology, combining the two to offer a commentary on the present. For another example more towards the photographic side of things, Swedish artist Martin Brink has experimented with a range of web based mediums in his work, including producing GIF based images which change with varying drama as the viewer watches them.

I have also been sporadically experimenting with GIFs as a medium for work of a more documentary nature. Recently I became interested in the question of whether the refugee crisis that continues to unfold across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, is leaving traces behind that are detectable from space. Using satellite imagery, I have been attempting to locate markers in the landscape left behind by various actors and agents in the crisis and to show the changes in these markers over time as the crisis also mutates and transforms, as new routes are opened and closed, and new sites appear and disappear. The expansion and contraction of the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle is an obvious example, but others are more nebulous. The construction of the Hungarian border fence for example or the appearance and disappearance of seasonal camps used by refugees working as temporary farm workers in Turkey. Others, like the pathways beaten through the countryside by refugees seeking passage across borders might be barely detectable or may not even register at all on the intentionally degraded imagery available to public view. By imaging the same sites multiple times over several years and then compositing these images into animated GIFs I am trying to suggest the expansion and contraction of the crisis and it’s causes in different parts of the world at different times. In other instances, the locations imaged suggest not change, but inertia. The European parliament in Brussels for example appears in virtual stasis as the crisis unfolds over several years.

As I start to collect more of these I hope that these images will start to form a web of locations, which will in turn be mapped across the affected regions in order to give viewers a sense of how one flows into another. I have published some of these images on my website under the working title Borderlands and I am also releasing these and others as I create them on to GIF file sharing services. The hope being that when seen alongside jerky animations of a sneezing panda or a morose dog, a looping satellite image of a refugee camp blossoming out across the Jordanian desert might, in the jarring moment of an unexpected encounter, give someone pause for thought.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #1: Methods of Loci and Syrcas

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Alas The Heroine: Madame Laura Is at Home, 1993, from the Syrcas series.
Courtesy of The Maud Sulter Estate and Autograph ABP.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. First up are Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in very differnt but strangely complementary ways.

Methods of Loci by French photographer Stephanie Solinas was one of the first exhibitions I visited, partly because it is housed in one of my favourite of the town’s venues, the former cloisters of St-Trophime in the centre of Arles. The work’s title refers to a mnemonic technique, also known as the memory palace, which originated in ancient Greece to aid orators in the memorization of complex speeches (by coincidence I have an exhibition on exactly the same theme opening in London next week). The methods of loci technique exploits the power of spatial memory in order to improve a person’s ability to remember much more abstract information, the sort of thing we normally struggle to recall. In Solinas’s work this method becomes a strange sort of metaphor for her examination of the Lustucru Hall, a monumental industrial derelict on the edge of Arles. Originally constructed by the Eiffel Company for a colonial exhibition held in 1905 in Marseille, this grand building was dismantled at the end of the exhibition, relocated to Arles and served as a rice warehouse with periodic uses for other purposes including as a barracks for the French, German and American armies during the Second World War. In 2003 it was flooded, it’s use as warehouse ended and today it faces an uncertain future.

Solinas’s work investigates the space of this structure and in doing so also it’s history, both it’s specific, local history and also it’s place as part of a much broader world history. She employs a diverse set of strategies to probe the space, examining it through archive imagery, through interviews with those who have worked in or studied it, through an exploration of it’s natural history and even through sound. As these examinations are layered upon one another a building which at first glance appears to be a relatively neutral one is revealed in fact to be a complex symbol of successive and interlinked economic and political eras, of ninteenth century colonialism, twentieth century capitalism and finally twenty-first century globalisation. The ambitious, complex layout of the work in the space creates a strangely compelling spatial and thematic loop around a dense island of images. Visitors start with original imagery from the Detaille Fund Archive which show the building under construction (the prints buckled and warped by water damaged caused by a flood in 1938), they then loop around the display as it covers the buildin’s uses over the following century, before concluding with objects from the 2003 flood which put an end to the buildings use.

Still processing this complex work I moved across the road to a small exhibition of work by the Scottish-Ghanian artist and writer Maud Sulter which has been curated by Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP where this series was recently on display. In her photomontage series Syrcas, Sulter examines the murder of Europeans of African descent during the holocaust, an episode which has attracted relatively little scholarly or public interest relative to other victims of Nazi intolerance. To do this she uses collage to juxtapose photographs of Africa sculpture and imagery against European art, ranging from kitsch landscape paintings of alpine mountains mixed with African masks, to a photographic portrait of Alexander Dumas overlayed with the morose face of an African elephant. The resulting images are uneasily surreal, calling to mind some of the collages of the feminist artist Martha Rosler, and also more directly echoing Hannah Hoch’s 1930 series An Ethnographic Museum. What unites three artists is an interest in the imagery of ideals, and how those who do not fit with these images are often systematically persecuted, excluded from history, and sometimes ultimately excluded from exsistence.

Alongside this work is a recording of Sulter reading the text of her 1993 poem Blood Money. The poem was inspired by the German photographer August Sander’s photograph Circus Workers (1926-32) which is notable amongst Sander’s oeuvre for including a black subject, non-whites being otherwise noticeably absent from his epic project to document the inhabitants of early twentieth century Germany. This image offers a starting point for Sulter to imagine the experience of black Germans in this period as the Nazi party became increasingly influential and racial discrimination became not only the norm, but a legally constituted fact of life in Germany. If there could be any doubt about the message in Sulter’s collages, this poem removes it with it’s sadly poignant words. It is strange to view something so dark in the bright sunshine of Arles, but it is right that there are no good feelings or resolved narratives to be found in this work. As Sulter muses towards the close in her thick Glaswegian accent; ‘There is no way I can make this poem rhyme.’

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

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.)

Disorder belies Construction: The Selection of Prix Pictet

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A scan of the list of international selectors
for Prix Pictet’s Disorder, recently on show at Somerset house

My slide into teaching has thrown other areas of my practice out of their usual order and at the moment I find myself often only making it to an exhibition in the closing weeks or days of its run. This is not much good for reviewing, but then I did say at the start of the year I was going to do less of that anyway. So this piece should proceed with the caveat that it is not a review of an exhibition exactly, but more of a deconstruction of one from a very particular angle. The exhibition in question is the recent Prix Pictet shortlist at Somerset House, a collection of works by twelve photographers, brought together under the theme of ‘Disorder’. These have been selected from a long-list of over 700, nominated by an international pool of selectors, before the final selection was made by an ‘independent jury’ (although seeing as it includes a former managing partner of the Pictet bank, that independence is a matter for debate). What I want to discuss here is the way that this prize, like any other, is about selections, selections within selections and selections by selections, all more or less consciously directed to achieving a specific end which is only partially about photography. While I cite Prix Pictet as my exemplar, I think similar tendencies are noticeable in every major sponsored prize, and I charge you to look for them the time you go to an exhibition of say, the Deustche Borse or Taylor Wessing Prize, and see if you can’t detect similar things at work.

I’ve often spoken and written on this blog about what I consider to be the uncomfortable relationship between corporate interests and the arts. In particular I’ve tried to persuade that the sponsorship deals between large companies and major photography prizes, particularly prizes with a documentary component, deserve much more scrutiny than they usually get. In particular they require consideration of the ways that this relationship might impact our understanding of what type of issues, and what kind of photographic handling of those issues, are deserving of our attention and thought. When I visited the Prix Pictet on the final day of it’s run at Somerset House these questions of selection resurfaced in the content, form and even the very structure of the exhibition. The most obvious example of this is simply the type of work which makes up the shortlist. The Prix Pictet as in other sponsored prizes studiously avoids projects which engage on any level with the sponsor’s area of activities. Despite the theme of ‘Disorder’ there is no work here which even comes close to engaging with the recent financial crisis, surely the great global disorder of the last decade. This of course isn’t that much of a surprise, while I’ve said before that it would be great to see work like Mark Curran’s or Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s featured in the shortlist for a prize sponsored by a private bank, I am a realist.

More interesting than the obvious exclusion of these sorts of explicitly critical works is how this avoidance of these kinds of topics runs down to quite a subtle level. I found it interesting for example that Maxim Dondyuk’s series Culture of the Confrontation on the Euromaidan protests was shortlisted and not say, Donald Weber and Arthur Bondar’s Barricades works on the same topic. Could that perhaps be because a portion of the latter work focuses on the corruption and disorder of the government of former president Viktor Yanukovych, and might shed uncomfortable light on allegations of his systematic siphoning of state funds into private bank accounts in Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein? It’s possible. What is interesting and somewhat impenetrable are the reasons for these absences and omissions, whether a form of passive self-censorship by nominators and jury, or something more overt and organised. Without seeing the process from the inside all one can really do is to speculate.

In any case, and as I suggested at the start of this piece, the inclusion, or non-inclusion of particular works and topics is important because the implication of any artistic shortlist or selection is that what is here is the best, the most interesting, the most significant on a theme. By so carefully avoiding work which engages (whether overtly or not) with the issue of capitalism and it’s attendant inequalities, this shortlist manages to transmit the subtext that the dysfunction of capitalism and it’s institutions is not really worth considering as a form of disorder, and is perhaps not even really worth considering at all. The implication instead for a viewer is that here what you see brought together are the essential disorders of our age, the problems that really deserve our attention and energy. And yet our world is a profoundly interconnected one, and very few of it’s major problems exist in total isolation. What links photographs of riots in Ukraine, car bomb craters in Iraq, floods in Africa and the global decimation of bee populations? Without seeking to be controversial for the sake of it I would say that these are all more or less directly the products of the chronic disorder that is unbridled capitalism, and it dosen’t seem to me that it would take a particularly critical viewer to see that link when considering these twelve projects in rapid succession.

Which leads me on to the arrangement and description of the work in the gallery space, which seems almost to take account of the potential for a viewer accidentally drawing this connection from the work by doing the opposite of what one might think to be the normal aim of curation. Rather than weaving together the connections in twelve disparate works to show how they relate to a central theme, the exhibition feels rather as if it is constructed to make the works in it feel isolated and disconnected from each other. Each artist’s work is very much treated on its own, separated from the others in part because of the rather labyrinthine spatial character of the East Wing galleries of Somerset House which requires different rooms to be dedicated to each series, but also by the way each work is isolated from its neighbors intellectual, for example in the inconsistent texts that introduce and describe each work rather as if it existed in a vacuum, rather than as part of a themed exhibition. The result is a strange show where the only consistency is the elephant in the room of this unspoken connecting theme.

I know what I’ve done here is to make this all sounds rather conspiratorial, as if everything from the selection of nominators through to the rather dysfunctional curation of this show have been planned from the off to deliver a particular and rather malign effect. I imagine this process is probably more passive and unintentional than I’ve made it sound, although perhaps lit by moments of more intentional design. Whatever the case, I hope this short piece has given some cause for thought about the way many prizes are linked to outside interests, and has also caused some consideration of the way that these sorts of events don’t simply objectively reflect the type of issues that matter in the world, nor the photographs that are necessarily the most brilliant encapsulations or critiques of those issues. Rather I hope you will see such prizes and exhibitions are very much constructed selections, from the final exhibition perhaps right back as far as the initial selection of nominators, and I would say all linked back to priority that underpins pretty much all corporate sponsorship of the arts. Public image and an atmosphere conducive to profit.

The New Continent: The Refugee Nightmare and the European Dream

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Portrait of Erich Honecker, president of DDR/GDR, inside an interrogation room at the former Iron Curtain crossing Marienborn memorial site.
From The New Continent, Phil le Gal

The dream of a united Europe and the free travel it allowed was in no small part born of the continent’s long history of intolerance and division. It came from the destruction and division of the Second World War, six years when human rights in Europe were trampled underfoot, and the continent was made anew as Fortress Europe, a continent ringed by the concrete and barbed wire of the Atlantic wall. It came also from the division between communist East and capitalist West that followed the end of the war, again was symbolised most pertinently by a physical border of concrete and steel. Not a wall built to keep people out of the East, but one uniquely designed to keep people trapped within it. Schengen was signed in 1985 even as the Berlin wall still stood, but it was a gesture of hope, a foreshadowing of the wall’s destruction four years later, and the treaty’s implementation in 1995 at last saw the creation at last of a single space within the borders of a long disunited continent. Flash forward, past the collapse of the Soviet system and through the fires of German reunification, and division is returning to Europe. This time though what Europeans fear are not massing foreign armies or an aggressive ideology, but ordinary people, forced into exodus by extraordinary circumstances like wars, and revolutions – some of them indeed catalysed by ill considered European interventions in distant lands – or sometimes just by the hope of a better life.

The way each country responds to outsiders is different, a product of its unique culture and history. Slovakia for example announced it would only take in Christians wishing to settle in the country. Meanwhile in Germany one group has attempted to recall the broadly positive perception of those who fled East Germany, with campaigns calling on Germans to pick up refugees at the roadside and help them cross the border. It says much about Germany’s history that many of it’s people and politicians can are able to understand migration as a humanitarian or political act, not simply an economic one. By contrast, and in spite of the reputation of the British as a nation that offers safe haven, and of the British as a people who believe in fairness and playing by the rules, we have consistently refused to be fair with the people seeking to travel here. Rather than allowing them to reach the United Kingdom and seek asylum through the proper processes, our response to those who seek safety here is an ever more complex panoply of fences, barriers and security, intended to keep them languishing indefinitely on the outskirts of Calais. The United Kingdom, once a country regarded for its openness to foreigners, has systematically remade itself as Fortress Britain. In defence of these arrangements the Prime Minister David Cameron has argued that we must at all costs stop these ‘swarms’ of people intent on illegally breaking into the United Kingdom. Given the security arrangements in place, those people desperately wanting to settle in the United Kingdom have little other choice.

Those few who make it across the channel face two grim realities: Either a lifetime of living in the shadows of the United Kingdom’s black economy, vulnerable to human slavery, trafficking and exploitation. Or else a future of indefinite detention without trial in one of the country’s network of detention facilities, prisons in all but name. Places like the deceptively named Yarl’s Wood, operated for profit by the private security company Serco, and recently condemned by the chief inspector of prisons. What we need is not to seal refugees and migrants away behind barriers and fences, to ignore them and hope they give up and go away. Faced with few alternatives, not many will, and in the meantime many more will come. What we need is a more mature discourse about migration and the people forced to undertake it. We need to hear the stories and experiences of these people themselves, stories which are notably absent in the press. Those traveling from Africa, the Middle East and beyond need to be humanised and visualised as a matter of urgency, their stories and experiences used to combat uninformed prejudices and ignorance. The recent appearance of an Instagram account which appeared to belong to a young Senegalese man making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, and the surge of public interest paid to it before it was unmasked as fake, shows that people are genuinely interested in hearing these stories.

To tell these stories is part of the purpose of Phil le Gal’s The New Continent, a project featuring people caught on either side of Europe’s borders and offering a platform for them to describe their experiences, hopes and fears. People like Sadik from Sudan, a medical student who fleeing conflict was interned for months in Libya before making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Or Ahmed and Ikbal, two teenagers who became friends during their journey from Afghanistan and now look out for each other in The Jungle, the sprawling informal settlement on the outskirts of Calais. These are not ‘swarms’ or ‘marauders’, not abstract embodiments of a political or economic problem. They are human beings, people, in the position they are now because of the lottery of birth and the game of geopolitics. Fortifying our country and our continent only exacerbates their plight, by pushing a burden that we are in a rare position to shoulder on to other states in Europe less able to do so, and who lie closer to the key entry points into the continent. These states perhaps understandably follow our pathetic example, avoiding the burden of supporting those fleeing war and turmoil by trying to prevent them from crossing borders at all, or else funneling them as rapidly as possible into neighboring countries. The result is that Europe is witnessing an arms race of fence building and a militarisation of borders as states across the continent respond to the crisis not by increasing provision for displaced people, but by spending vast amounts to ensure that they cannot access provision at all.

These fences and barriers are spreading across Europe, from one country to another like a regressive ripple, a new iron curtain of steel chainlink and razor wire. France has reinstated its border controls with Italy in an attempt to curb migration, and Hungary has recently completed the construction of a new $35 million fence along its border with Serbia. Reflecting the strange nature of these solutions, this fence is reported to end suddenly in the middle of a field, at the tri-point where the Hungarian, Serbian and Romanian borders meet. Other countries seem likely to follow the example, Macedonian police have struggled to prevent large numbers of Syrian refugees from crossing into the country from Greece, employing batons and stun grenades, while Bulgaria has mobilised military units near the Macedonian border and is extending its border fence with Turkey. In counterpoint to the dream, Europe is degenerating into something which increasingly resembles the darkest days of it’s history. It is becoming a contradictory land of fences and gates, armed guards and checkpoints, a union in name but a patchwork in practice. A place where by a twist of birth some are left free to travel without care, while others languish for months in the hinterlands of port cities and border zones, waiting for a chance to slip through.

Travelling Light: What Refugees Couldn’t Leave Behind

Iman+textKiki Streitberger, Travelling Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Publish and be Insta-damned: On the ‘Instagram Migrant’

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The widespread ownership of camera equipped mobile phones and the rise of social media platforms like Instagram can seem to offer us a direct window into lives very far from our own. Through these portals we can peer into the private world of a celebrity, a president, or even a migrant making the dangerous journey from West Africa to Europe. Yesterday evening saw a burst of online interest in an account apparently belonging to a Senegalese migrant named Abdou Diouf, who had documented his dangerous journey first on foot through the North African Desert and then across the Mediterranean by rowing boat to Spain. However these photographs are very far from what they seem, and all that Abdou Diouf’s account really reveals are the perils of taking social media accounts at face value, as some news outlets like the Huffington Post did.

My friend and colleague Amin Musa encountered Abdou Diouf’s account last week and sensing something wasn’t quite right with the photographs Amin started to dig deeper into them. We later came together to discuss them and we both began to identify a range of inconsistences, from the backgrounds in some of the photographs to the events they purported to depict. Some of these inconsistencies even feel a little like they were left there to be found. ‘Abdou Diouf’ for example is the name of one of Senegal’s better known presidents. Digging through Diouf’s contact list, Amin identified the actual name of the man in the photographs as Hagi Toure, who has his own Instagram page here (a close comparison of this photograph from Toure’s account and this one from Diouf’s offers fairly convincing evidence that they are one and the same).

Many questions emerge out of this account, but two in particular stand out strongly for me. The first is about the motivations of Toure and his collaborators, and the implications of setting up this account at a time when migration into Europe is such a current, controversial, and tragic topic. It’s easy to feel that the intention of this account are basically benign. It seems constructed to engender sympathy for the plight of migrants, putting us into their shoes through a platform we are all familiar with. The recognisable medium and language of Instagram (grain, blur, selfies, et al) makes ‘Abdou Diouf’ feel less like a faceless embodiment of a nebulous crisis, and more like someone we might know, someone who we might follow, someone whose photographs we might even ‘like’. He could be one of our friends, it could even one of us taking that shaky photograph on a raft half way across the pitch black Med.

But does the fact we might sympathise with the motivations behind these photographs make the deception taking place any less problematic? I think not. Because those discovering that the account isn’t genuine may find it contaminates the way they view the topic of migration as a whole, and particularly the way they view those arguing that Europeans need to show greater humanity towards people seeking to travel here. If an account like this is fake, where does that leave other bits of evidence of the hardships and dangers migrants face at home and during their odysseys to Europe? When the subject at hand is as important as this even well intentioned deceptions can be as damaging as the most malign campaigns of disinformation, something I’ve discussed here before.

The second question this account brings to mind is about our readiness to believe the things that what we (and I pointedly include journalists in this) encounter on social media, to accept them at face value and without prolonged scrutiny or consideration. This seems particularly common where what we encounter appears to confirm much of what we already believe, or is something we want to see. The journey depicted here fits has all the hallmarks of the type of stories reported daily in the press, of arduous journeys across deserts, of corrupt people smugglers, of treacherous sea crossings only to be confronted by indifferent police officers and internment. I had for a while been wondering if we would ever see photographs from a migrants perspective, and when I first encountered ‘Abdou Diouf’ I was fascinated. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who looks for news and stories on social media, a reminder to keep in mind the old adage that if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.

There is also a much wider issue of the lack of engagement with visual sources online, an unwillingness to submit photographs to even the most cursory examinations. Many people, even those who work regularly with photography, still readily resort to lazy assumptions about what the visual language of photography means without further interrogation (much as many people resort to lazy shorthand ‘facts’ about issues like migration). The belief for example that images of compromised quality like those often shared on Instagram must hold some higher truth value than the consciously constructed images of photojournalists seems strikingly common. Those people and organisations who systematically set aside these assumptions in order to examine photographs without prejudice are precious few, and faced as we are with a glut of imagery it becomes an ever harder act for the rest of us to emulate.

Whether Toure and the others behind these photographs intended to provoke discussion of the plight of migrants, or simply wanted to bask in the glow of an online click storm remains to be seen. ‘Abdou Diouf’ for his part might only be a fiction, but there will be people out there now whose lived experiences echo his story. So much is at stake for these people, and so great is the controversy and division in Europe over their future that we can’t allow viewpoints and decisions about migration to be shaped by works of imagination. Whether as consumers or producers of news we need to look online with an ever more questioning eye, to remember that just as often as photographs can be compelling windows on a world that actually exists, they can all too easily be mirrors of fiction that we each desperately want to believe in.

Update #1 16.30 GMT, August 3rd 2015 – The Huffington Post have just published an update revealing that these photographs were not what they claimed to be, but rather part of a promotional campaign for a photography exhibition with ‘travel’ as it’s theme. ‘…the account was actually set up by a Spanish advertising agency for a photography exhibition, and Toure – an aspiring handball player who lives in Spain – posed for the photos as an actor. Tomás Peña, one of the directors of the project, shot all the photos in and around Barcelona with his iPhone in a single day. He spoke to HuffPost UK and explained he wanted to “change perceptions”.’ To me this poses as many new questions as it answers existing ones, questions which I will write on in the coming days.

Update #2 10.30 GMT, August 4th 2015 – I’ve published a follow up piece here which adds some new information about the reasons for creating the account and questions both the practices of the marketeers involved in making it and the response of many of the journalists who reported it.