The Market: An Interview with Mark Curran

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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)’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Gazing into the Algorithmic Abyss: On Microsoft’s Tay AI

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‘Tay’

Algorithmic automation is becoming an ever greater part of advanced socieities, and barring a return to the dark ages these technologies will continue to make their presence felt in more and more fields, from finance to healthcare, to imaging and journalism. The conversation between the camps that promote and oppose this ‘algorithmitisation’ of our societies generally seem to figure these technologies as being essentially neutral, and more likely to be dangerous because of dumb machine stupidity than anything else, much in the same way that acar left on a hill with the handbrake off is dangerous. This feels like a natural extension of the ‘gun’s don’t kill people, people kill people’ argument which has often typified our attempts to understand complex and controversial new technologies. This was always rather a fatuous argument though at least in the sense that guns are explicitly designed to kill, that function is embedded in the technology in a way which can’t be extracted, (and it becomes an irrelevant argument the closer algorithms and AI get to self-awareness). To a greater or less extent I would say something similar occurs in all other technologies, the context of their creation always being inescapable from their later use, however they are retooled. One can’t, or at least shouldn’t, think about the rockets which are used to put men or satellites into space without also thinking of their technological ancestors, the V2 rockets which were explicitly designed to destroy cities. This being the case there is an important but it seems largely unheld discussion to be had about the extent to which algorithms and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligences might carry similarly vestigal and troublesome motivations in their code.

Microsoft’s Tay AI offers an insight into this idea in several ways. Tay was a twitter bot developed by Microsoft, designed to behave like a teenage girl but also crucially to learn from it’s interactions with other users. Within a day of her launch Tay had just done that and as a result of her interactions had become a misogynistic, Hitler praising, conspiracy theorist, who advocated voting for Donald Trump, until an embarrassed Microsoft pulled the plug on her. Twitter is no lab, it’s full of people who like to troll and disrupt experiments like this, but this is precisely what’s important about this example. When algorithms which have been developed to operate in closed systems and controlled environments are released in an unpredictable and perhaps even hostile world the results are very hard to anticipate. A similar example perhaps was the pricing war which took place between two Amazon algorithms, and which led to a relatively obscure book on fly biology rapidly increasing in price until it peaked at $23,698,655.93. This was the result of two algorithms set to monitor and adjust prices, but which didn’t take account of the way their combined actions would create a sort of algorithmic feedback loop, leading them to constantly ramp up their prices until the error was spotted. Algorithms don’t just have to anticipate their encounters with people now, as the world becomes ever more crowded with lots of them doing different tasks, the possibilities of their encountering each other, and the possibility of those encounters having unforseen consequences becomes ever more likely. This was a war over pricing, but the word war is instructive here. Could we one day see the algorithmic equivalent of the Petrov incident?

If the Amazon example shows what happens when algorithms encounter each other unexpectedly in the wild, what we see in the example of Tay is an extreme parodic example of the danger of technologies which are designed to monitor and learn not from each other, but from us. Learning implies a trust that what is being taught is useful, safe and correct. As anyone who has ever had a sociopathic teacher will attest, learning is not always like that, and a vital part of learning is the student’s own discrimination about what information is useful and when indeed their teacher might be leading them astray. In Tay’s case, her ability to learn but her inability to distinguish and make judgements about the course of her learning on anything but a rather basic level was her undoing. This time it offered us all a bit of a laugh at Microsoft’s expense but it’s not hard to imagine something occurring where a learning system controlling an important asset might do something similarly unanticipated, for all the Three Laws style safeguards that might be built into any such system, as Asimov’s novel I, Robot indicates it’s very hard to safeguard against what hasn’t been anticipated. This becomes more true the more complex these technologies become, when they learn for themselves, and inevitably when algorithms start creating other algorithms. In the 1973 movie Westworld, a robotic theme park becomes a bloody murderfest as the robots break down and turn violently against their operators. Puzzling over a disabled robot, one scientist makes the remark that no one really knows how they work, since these machines are so complex they have been designed by other machines. Science fiction can be instructive, but in reality I’m not really talking about machines-taking-over-the-world stuff here. I think what we might need to be more concerned about are changes and adjustments that these technologies might make to our lives which we may not even be really aware of taking place, but which might still be highly undesirable to us, certainly that has often been the consequence of new technologies in the past.

Some commentators made the point that particularly in terms of her new found misogyny and apparent self-loathing, Tay was an apt reflection of the industry which spawned her, given that the technology and IT industries remains predominantly male and prone to poorly judged manifestations of this (if not out and out sexism). This raises the further important question, which I hinted at earlier, of the extent to which algorithms also reflect the tendencies of their makers in very unintended ways. If code is effectively the DNA of an algorithm, it’s going to become increasingly important to consider whether a developer’s own biases and prejudices might be embedded in various ways into the code they write and algorithm which is the result. In spheres like policing, defence and surveillance where the use of algorithms and in particular computer vision is making dramatic advances, the implications of this question are potentially enormous. If powerful institutions start to increasingly develop and deploy their own algorithms, we need as a public to question the extent to which institutional politics (for example institutionalised racism) could become incalculated into these technologies in the process. While recognising the huge benefits these technologies may bring we need to carefully consider and perhaps start to counter the narratives which regard algorithms and AI as essentially neutral and lacking the prejudices of the humans they are starting to replace. What I think we need to start asking with more and more urgency is if man gazes into the algorithm, what happens when the algorithm gazes back into man?

Journalism at the Limits of Visibility: World Press Photo 2015

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Exposure, Kazuma Obara

It has been observed that some photography critics seem to actually rather dislike the medium, but it might equally be said that many of those who work directly with photography are prone to operating almost totally without criticism of it. One group is perceived to search for weaknesses, where sometimes there are no weaknesses to be found, and the other often seems to prop an ailing medium up, and often refuses to recognise that it has some quite glaring shortcomings. There is a gulf which is often evident between what photography is, and what people want photography to be. It is a gulf evidenced in words and deeds, and a gulf which I myself endlessly fascinated by. Much of my own work has focused on the role of photographs in what might be called systems of power, that is to say the role of photography in generating, supporting, reflecting and hiding the unequal distribution of martial, political, and economic authority in our world. I appreciate that this is a description which is in some ways both overly precise and ridiculously broad, but after several years of trying to trace the thread that ties what I do together this seems to be one explanation which I find consistently remains when all the others have been brushed away. In making this sort of work I have found that photography’s weaknesses can sometimes be as interesting as its strengths, not least in the way that these might under certain circumstances be embraced and twisted into powerful tools.

At the same time though I am increasingly conscious of what sometimes feel like the insurmountable limitations of photography in helping to bring to light and discuss some of the things in the world which seem most vital and urgent. This became particularly apparent to me in working on a recent project which investigates the very different but deeply linked intelligence gathering practices of covert shortwave radio broadcasts and optical reconnaissance satellites. These two practices are inherently non-visual, partly by nature but also to a far greater degree by construction. To turn the camera towards them and find a way to make them visible was an interesting intellectual challenge, but I have also been acutely aware that it is also very tokenistic, and the act of revelation in itself means very little to either my audiences or to the subjects of my photography. This is a problem I have noted in the work of other photographers who focus on nebulous worlds that by intent or accident defy straightforward visualisation. I think for example of the work of Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s photographs of tax havens, or Trevor Paglen’s work on intelligence gathering. One might ask what purpose is served by a series like Paglen’s Limit Telephotography, which uses extremely long lenses to photograph restricted areas like Groom Lake, when high resolution imagery of these sites is readily available on Google Maps. This isn’t to underplay the importance of these works, or to overplay the impartiality of a platform like Google Maps, but rather to suggest that investigating these types of issues with photography is sometimes rather like trying to hammer a nail with a banana, it’s briefly dramatic, eye catching and bizarre, but that’s about it.

Bringing the camera to bear on such issues might expand awareness of their existence, but photography (and I use that term both in terms of the technology and a wider industry) is very bad at exploring or explaining the precise circumstances of this existence, or the circumstances that give rise to them. I wrote most of this post several weeks before the announcement of the 2015 World Press Photo awards, but given some of the issues represented by Warren Richardson’s winning photograph, the timing of this post might feel more intentional than it is. On Saturday I examined Richardson’s photograph in some depth , and in particular complained that the image represented one of the huge problems with traditional journalistic photography, and with photography more broadly. That same inability of the medium to do much more than show the consequences of things, its inability to get the heart of things, and in the process not only missing the point, but also helping to obscure it. To quote Bertolt Brecht writing in AIZ a good eighty years ago, perhaps ‘photography… has become a terrible weapon against the truth’ one which while frequently intending to do good in the world all too often obscures the guilty behind images of their victims. I don’t mean this in the literal sense that photographers should routinely target those responsible for the world’s problems rather than those suffering from them, but I do mean that the informational trail that photography creates should not end at the victims.

What all this increasingly begs me to ask is what part can photography play in a world where a growing number of the problems and processes that define it are either becoming accidentally abstract and anti-visual, or are being intentionally designed out of visibility for reasons that suit the people who make and control them. The arrival of an information age means the world is changing more dramatically than it has in at least two centuries, and yet visual journalism has innovated relatively little. Are we approaching a point where photography is going to really start seeming as inadequate for responding to the essential issues of our day as painting seemed inappropriate for attempting to represent the fast moving new technologies of the industrial revolution in anything but an utterly individual and expressionistic way? As photography reaches more and more of its terminal velocities, i.e. as it reaches the boundaries imposed by the technical and physical nature of it’s processes, will it more and more obviously struggle to still make a useful contribution? In a datafied world perhaps the medium will be relieved of the burden of objectivity and literal revelation by the ‘new photography’ of data, algorithm, and network visualisations and analysis, leaving the ‘old photography’ free to celebrate it’s potential for quirks and individualism. This is an approach perhaps encapsulated in Exposure, Kazuma Obara’s WPP prize winning series on Chernobyl an unconventional and welcome winner in a prize which has always tended to treat so-called ‘conceptual’ photography with concern and caution. Perhaps as early nineteenth century artists like J.M.W. Turner began the process of reinvigorating painting with the tentative first steps towards what would later be recognised as impressionism, a similar approach and a growing acceptance of ‘conceptual’ photography in the fields of journalism will reinvigorate photography as a tool for helping us to understand the world’s problems with the nuance that they so desperately need.

(Critical transparency: Kazuma Obara is a former student of mine.)

The Blind Eye and the Vision Machine

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The Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, North Dakota, USA.
Became operational September 1975, deactivated eight months later.

This text is based on a talk given at a symposium the London College of Communication on January 14th 2016 to mark the opening of The Forest of Things. This talk and draws together a few different ideas I’ve been thinking about over the last year around the status and place of the photograph today, and expands on some of the darker implications of algorithms and photography which I first speculated about in An All Seeing Eye. In The Forest of Things, the graduating show of the the 2015 masters degree in Photojournalism and documentary photography is at London College of Communication until January 22nd.

Empiricism, the belief that knowledge comes from direct experience, has been at the heart of western understanding for several centuries, and in turn the human eye has been at the heart of empiricism, sight valued above all other senses. The camera was conceived of as a sort of mechanical extension of that sight, which replaced some of the demands on the living eye to be physically present at an event, and which opened up knowledge which was beyond what the human eye could perceive unaided. But the camera still ultimately depended on the living eye to interpret and understand the images it produced. What I would like to somewhat provocatively suggest is not only is this is now changing towards an ever greater emphasis on the computational analysis of imagery, but that we are perhaps unwittingly also preparing the groundwork for us to be permanently locked out of the role of seeing and interpreting, whether we want this future or not.

Soon after its invention photography was readily integrated into a range of authoritarian structures. The camera satisfied the expansionist desire to know all and control all, by apparently offering us the possibility of unlimited seeing all through it’s photographs. With more time the camera of course also became part of a broader, more democratic culture, as a tool of reflection and expression. It seems a very contemporary angst that this democracy of the camera has given rise to a world where there are too many images, but it is not a new one. The Weimar cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer decried what he called the blizzard of images, and the way that this storm challenged photography’s ability to bestow meaning. Kracauer’s world was very different one from our own, a world where I would say technology and technological progress still seemed to offer the possibility of an almost omnipotent vision, an all seeing eye encapsulated in the blind stare of high technologies like the Cold War radar system featured above. Today we live in quite a different world, one which is so inundated with imagery as to make Kracauer’s blizzard of images seem like a light frost. But the fact of photography’s abundance, so often quoted, so often fretted over, is I think not nearly as interesting as the form those images take.

In Kracauer’s time the image was a material object, significant in that the image could truly be said to be a trace of the thing it recorded. Because of this materiality it was also something which was inherently visual, the photograph could be held and viewed in the hand. Today neither of these things can be said to be the case, digital technology has democratised photography and made possible an explosion in quantity, but it has also led to a more profound change in that the massive bulk of images are no longer really physical nor visual, they are alphanumeric data, pure information, inherently not visual things. I think this fact is significant insofar as it is increasingly causing photography to intersect with one of the other technologies which is defining our age, the algorithm. Photography had tended to be difficult fare for algorithms, partly because of it’s material form, no longer an issue in the digital age, but perhaps also because of it’s complexity and subjectivity. In the 1980’s, thinkers like the French philosopher Paul Virilio began to anticipate the coming of vision machines, essentially algorithms which could not only see but also understand images. Facial recognition was an early example of this, but the efforts involved were often huge and the results often crude. Today we are seeing algorithms that are ever more capable when it comes to sorting, sifting and understanding visual material, and have that material readily available in massive quantities to practice on. Up until now many of these algorithms have only been demonstrators, and appear rather like parlour tricks, more often amusingly inept than threatening. As they reach the real world their roles are for now are mostly supplementary, so far supporting people rather than supplanting them.

But even in this role these technologies pose interesting questions about the extent to which they are not only guiding and advising us, but also shaping us. As much as we feedback into and refine the algorithms we create, perhaps they are starting to do some similar to us. When man gazes into the machine, the machine gazes into man. It has been suggested that the result of algorithms playing such a prominent role in social platforms is that they are increasingly serving to shape interpersonal interactions which they have no business being involved with. In the case of dating websites it has been said that computers are now breeding people. These ideas have particularly strong implications in photography’s old stomping ground, the repressive realms of policing, intelligence gathering and warfare, major growth areas for automated technologies that reduce the intensive manpower needs of these fields, and offer to remove the personnel of the security services from harms way. Given the huge advances and investment in these areas it seems to be only a matter of time before technologies which are able to search, fix and kill without human intervention features of a battlefield somewhere. Indeed I suspect that one day we might look back at the era of piloted drones with the same sense that we now regard the early pilots of the First World War, as something which is quaintly romantic in it’s crudeness and it’s dirty violence, in contrast to the cold, distant killing of today, or tomorrow.

To return to Paul Virilio, in an interview given the same year as the publication of The Vision Machine, he spoke of reading a science fiction novel about a world where cameras had become so ubiquitous that they were now even being inseminated into flakes of snow, which were released on the world, seeing everything there was to see, and leaving no blind spots. When asked what he believed we would dream of in a world so saturated with imagery and the machines that produce them he responded that we will likely dream of being blind. What I would like to suggest to you is that perhaps we are starting to reach that point, where images dominate our world and confound our understanding so much that the thought of blindness might even start to feel like a relief. But we have also perhaps begun to move past it, and perhaps we are responding to that overwhelming feeling by starting to relinquish the task of to interpret and understand, and passing this burden on to the machines. We are allowing these algorithms a part some of the most important, powerful roles our societies have, and I’d suggest we are also starting the process of locking ourselves out, as machine vision develops in forms which are beyond our perception, as machines are built to see with technologies designed primarily for the understanding of other machines, not human eyes. Vision is no longer just mediated through technology as with traditional photography, technology is now overtaking and replacing our vision, with our partial our assent. So what I’d like to leave you with is the idea that we maybe now face a choice, between on the one hand the desire to shut down our senses to this incomprehensible storm of imagery, to delegate the role of interpretation and judgement, and on the other hand the need, the responsibility, and the burden, to see.

Algorithms, Data and the Endangered Photojournalist

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Newsroom of the New York Times, 1942

Last week I outlined some of the interesting things that are going on in journalism with the increasing use of algorithms to mine data, detect interesting trends and even to write entire articles. At the moment there isn’t much discussion or anxiety about this trend, perhaps partly because the technology is so new to our field and past examples suggests it’ll take a while to make itself really felt. It took the best part of two decades for algorithmic trading to really take off in finance, one of the few areas to date where these technologies have really transformed working practices, but now the industry has been completely changed by it. As I noted last week journalism might be next, but what about photojournalism?

James Kotecki of Automated Insights suggests that those nervous about an algorithmic future should ‘get a job they can’t automate’. Given the nature of our work as photographers we might think that we’re in a pretty good position in that regard, and certainly for now we are probably the furthest from being impacted by these sorts of technologies. Algorithms are best suited to making use of certain types of data, and photographs (and video) are still notoriously difficult things for algorithms to deal with and extract useful insights from. Google’s attempts to teach algorithms to caption photographs demonstrates this. What they’ve achieved is pretty remarkable, but it’s still far from what a human can do. Still, the precedent is there so perhaps photo editors if no one else should beware.

As photographers we also might feel pretty safe knowing that in the end our job involves physical as well as mental work, it involves going out into the world, encountering and interacting with people, telling stories, all things that it’s hard to imagine an algorithm taking away from us. All true, and all reassuring, but also rooted in an old model of what photojournalism is, and this might be the major thing we’re overlooking.

What so-called disruptive technologies like algorithms do so effectively is to destroy those old ways of working and thinking and something, and usher in new ones. Algorithms might struggle to take over many of the tasks performed by photojournalists right now, but as I noted last week there growing use might see a change in the very notion of journalism, a shift which might in turn better suit the algorithms and might put human journalists at a greater professional disadvantage. Realistically such a profound shift, if it occurs, is probably still a fair distance off, and honestly I don’t think the impact is going to be so negative, but I think it’s an interesting thought that this sort of technology might change the nature of our work even more profoundly than the advent of technologies like digital imaging and the internet.

Another possibility which is perhaps more likely is that we might be more likely to see is the rise of algorithmic journalism exacerbating existing trends which are already seen as undermining traditional photojournalism. Citizen journalism for example, and particularly citizen produced images and video of news events, might become far more appealing to mainstream news outlets if it were possible to set an algorithm to the task of sifting through the available images for the best examples, and even cross checking those images with other sources to confirm their veracity (an important task given the Instagram debacle highlighted here a few weeks ago). The ability to quickly mine high quality, accurate non-professional images might thereby further erode the appeal of, and market for, professional photojournalism.

The idea of algorithms checking sources sounds far-fetched but there are companies like Newzulu who already make it their business to offer similar services, only for now using people to do the hard work of verifying material before it is sold on to a news organisations. Given the right advances and the right impetus it isn’t so hard to see algorithms taking on this sort of role, and again the possible increases in speed, accuracy and efficiency would make them hard to resist. I’ve mentioned before the Visual Media Reasoning software package under the development by DARPA to perform similar functions in a military context, and such technologies have a way of eventually make it to the open market (including most obviously the technology that’s allowing you to read this post). Add the rather more achievable goals of an algorithm being able to automatically caption, edit and upload photographs, and it seems likely algorithms are going to take over at least some of the workload. Whether these advances when they come prove positive and free people up for more creative, interesting tasks (as proponents suggest they will) or whether they put people out of work (as detractors fear) will remain to be seen.

Thinking in the longer term we might be looking at a major shift in what we think of as journalism, and photojournalism. For a while now the trend in photojournalism has seemed to be away from simply producing good photographs, which after all is something that so many people can do now. Increasingly the thing that seems to set the best apart from the rest is the ability to think creatively and bring sophisticated and appropriate visual and conceptual strategies to their topics. Returning to the idea of ‘getting a job they can’t automate’, perhaps this really creative side of photojournalism will become increasingly important as the less creative arenas fall to algorithms. We’re already seeing this to some extent in written journalism). To make an even more extreme prediction, perhaps as photographs, video and the cameras that produce them become ever more ubiquitous, the need to send a photojournalist to location to document a subject might start to seem ever more archaic and cost ineffective.

Foggy as the future might be what’s been demonstrated time and time again is that what people can do, an algorithms can often do just as well. When you look at the way industries like finance have changed, from rooms of yelling brokers to a few server racks, the way is pretty clear. The brokers didn’t believe their jobs could be replaced by algorithms, because they thought they were a special type of professional. Creative, specialist, intuitive. They were also wrong. Anyone who thinks photojournalism is particularly different, should maybe start to think again.

Algorithms, Data and the Endangered Journalist

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Trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, 1963

Since writing a piece back in March about the possible intersections of photography and big data practices, the topic of ever smarter algorithms and their potential impact on our lives has remained constantly in my mind. It’s easy to see this topic as very abstract one without much practical grounding, but almost everywhere I look I see clues about how important this is going to become in the coming years for all of us, almost regardless of our occupations. Lately I’ve been thinking in particular about how the automation of data and image production and interpretation might come to further affect the field of journalism, for better and for worse.

I say ‘further affect’ because despite the commonly held belief that creative industries like journalism are immune from what Keynes termed ‘technological unemployment’ there is plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise. There is no doubt that algorithms already are making substantial inroads into journalism. Unsurprisingly this has mostly occurred in the most statistic and data heavy areas of journalism, and in those where writing is arguably least creative. The best known example is probably Quakebot, developed in 2012 to write generic stories based on recent earthquakes for the LA Times, using data gleaned directly from the US Geological Survey.

These quake articles are hardly exciting reads, but algorithms producing prosaic articles for public consumption are clearly a stepping stones to algorithms producing much more complex, engaging writing. Increasingly business and sports articles are being generated by algorithms, which again show no great flair for journalistic creativity but do show a step up in sophistication from generic reports about recent quakes. Meanwhile companies like Automated Insights are developing algorithms which have a much more sophisticated grasp of narrative and how to turn piles of raw data into a report a human might actually want to take some time over reading.

The increasing sophistication of algorithms is giving rise to some fascinating debates about the extent to which an algorithm can be said to display creativity, or whether this is a category which is exclusive to the human brain. Some of these debates are demonstrating just how subjective the idea of ‘creativity’ can be, and how dependent it can be on perception. People played an algorithmically composed symphony have sometimes been held rapt or reduced to tears by the genius of it, but some of the same people then react dismissively to that same piece on discovering it wasn’t composed by a human but by a string of code. It’s all sounds a bit sci-fi but this opens up interesting question about how prejudices might shape our relationship with algorithmically generated material.

Moving back to journalism, what many people seem to be asking is are these journalistic algorithms a blip, or are they the future? I can see plenty of arguments for the latter answer and not many for the former. As in other fields that have been enormously disrupted by the advent of algorithms, their increasing suitability to journalism seems inevitable if only because of the economics  of the industry. Falling revenues, shrinking budgets and margins and corners cut or shaved where-ever possible are the reality of much modern journalism. In such an environment why would you hire a human journalism or an editor if an algorithm could do the same job?

That’s particularly true when talking about time critical assignments, where an algorithm might be able to produce a finished story in the time it takes a journalist just to sit down. Quakebot for example is reportedly able to have an article finished about a tremor almost at the time that the earthquake itself is ending , and similarly provided a steady flow of real time stats some sports algorithms are able to file a finished story on a game as the final whistle blows. In an industry where employers place more and more emphasis on efficiency, and audiences expect news to be ever more timely, the shift towards greater use of algorithms to write articles seems inevitable.

It’s not all doom though, and I think it’s possible to detect great benefits resulting from the advent of algorithms, even for journalists (at least those that survive). With growth of data journalism and the common reliance on crowd-sourcing in order to filter and interpret the massive data sets that news outlets are increasingly turning to as part of their investigative works, an increase in automation is obviously appealing. Some even argue that algorithms would be an advantage because the lack the inherent biases of journalists, maybe a slightly unconvincing claim that understates the extent to which algorithms can inherit the biases of their programmers, and the extent to which certain biases are appealing to some news outlets (which in turn opens up the slightly scary idea that journalistic algorithms might one day be programmed to reflect the biases of their readership).

Any competition between human and algorithmic journalists would also pose another interesting question. For now algorithms are being constructed to match existing human modes and practices of journalism, but there is the possibility that as they become more widespread our notion of what journalism is might change accordingly. We might see a divergence of journalism, as human writers are increasingly corralled into the more creative corners of writing and algorithms take on the majority of the day to day, relatively uncreative reporting. Or there might be a blending of the two, with algorithms assisting the choices journalists make, for example guiding editorial priorities based on reader responses, or helping a writer to generate those perfect click-bait headline that even reputable news organisations seem to increasingly chase.

In short I think all the clues suggest a profound and fascinating change is coming to the industry. Journalists can either do what many brokers did and try to ignore what is looming, or they can recognise it now and start to think about these change can be made to work for, and alongside them. In the follow up this piece to be published next week I’m going to take a closer look at photojournalism, a practice which for now might think itself almost completely immune from many of these innovations, but which I think will find in the coming years that it is as prone to disruptive technological change as any other.

A New Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review – Open for Business at The Science Museum

UK. Derby. Bombardier. Train production. (From 'Open for Business') March 2013.
Bombardier. Derby. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Mark Power, Magnum Photos

I’ve always been a big advocate of photographers making work in their own backyards. Apart from in a few special cases the old model of the dashing photojournalist flying off to distant climes seems archaic and increasingly redundant. So it’s nice to see nine (mostly British) members of the Magnum collective taking a close look at the UK in their latest group project. Open For Business brings together images photographed across the country, highlighting British industry in the widest sense, from small family run firms to multi-national corporations, and from nano technology to the construction of super-carriers. The exhibition is now touring around the country and London’s Science Museum is the latest venue.

Each photographer has a cluster of images on display from their selected region, a fraction I’m told of the total number made for the project (different sets of images will be on display at different touring locations). Each clusters typically focuses on several different companies in a related sector. Mark Power for example looked at the Nissan and Bombardier factories, which produce cars and trains respectively, but are visually pretty similar. Starting off with a visit to the archive of the National Railway Museum in York, Power drew inspiration from some of the epic photographs in the archive recording the height of British heavy industry. Rather than try to replicate this scale the photographs he produced do the opposite, focusing in on details within the cavernous spaces of the factories. They’re a little like Chris Killip’s wonderful earlier photographs of Pirelli tyre factory workers, but are generally less loaded with judgement.

For another example of a very consistent display, Jonas Bendiksen focused on the wool trade in Bradford, something which has become increasingly high tech in recent years. His photographs are well executed examples of the people at work genre, with little stand out moments, like a muscled arm reminded us quite how physically demanding many industries remain, despite advances in technology and automation. It’s easy to forget (until you have to do something like carry a pile of bricks a short distance) how much even the developed world still depends on manual labour. The best thing about Bendiksen’s display is the inclusion of video playing in three LCD monitors which look exactly like the black picture frames that house his stills. I’ve seen this done many times before but it works particularly well here, these small snatches of video are beautifully shot and integrate rather seamlessly into the larger display of photographs.

In other cases though the contrast between the companies a photographer has looked at is enormous. Martin Parr photographed Aardman Animation, best known for producing the Wallace and Gromit films (a very English topic which Parr would seem well suited to documenting). However next to these are photographs he took at multi-national arms firms like BAE Systems. This contrast has the potential to make some interesting comments about the direction of British industry, and could have raised the important question of the cost that profit sometimes comes at. It’s a baton which is more or less picked up by one or two of the photographers (for example I think it’s present in Peter Marlow’s photographs, which again hint at the physical demands of industry), but isn’t really taken up by the exhibition as a whole. Instead this variety in some of the displays becomes probably the only really notable weakness of the show, because it can feel inconsistent.

I have to say that if I’d wandered in to this exhibition without reading any of the information on the wall I probably wouldn’t have guessed it was a show by members of Magnum. That’s not to say the work on show is particularly innovative or difficult to grasp, but it is certainly more interesting than what I’m used to seeing from the collective. If you want evidence of that, Bruce Gilden’s photographs from the Tate and Lyle factory are, brace yourselves, actually in colour. Besides being a showcase of British industry then the show also serves to demonstrate Magnum’s members trying different things. This is good news for the cooperative, because although it might be have been a trailblazer of the now rather ubiquitous photography collective model, the organisation today has something of a fight on its hands to convince the current generation of young photographers that it remains a relevant voice.

Open for Business is at The Science Museum until 2 November 2014.