The Shadows of Doubt: Art, Distance and Truth

Spectrum analysis of Cuban intelligence radio broadcast
From Shadows of the State

Journalism has traditionally rested on certain core truths which are often taken to be self-evident and beyond question. The Hungarian photojournalist Robert Capa’s often quoted dictum that ‘if your photographs are not good enough, you aren’t close enough’[1] would seem to encapsulate a particularly important one, the axiom of proximity. This idea that a journalist should seek a certain closeness to the story, that is to say a spatial rather than emotional closeness, has long been regarded as one of the most important routes to insight and revelation, as well as being central to the journalist’s role as witness to vitally important events. The implication of Capa’s aphorism might have been true when he first spoke it in the early part of the last century, but his world was a strikingly different one from the one we occupy today. Profound and ongoing changes in every arena call his words, and journalism’s emphasis on proximity, into ever greater question.

In a present marked by unchecked environmental collapse, by undeclared wars fought with increasingly autonomous aircraft, by aggressive multinational corporations, and massive data surveillance, spatial proximity to the story in the traditional sense implied by Capa is often simply no longer an option for many journalists. The news of today occupies spaces which are often too remote, too dangerous, too abstract, or where the machinery of public relations are too effective to permit any sort of useful access. Even where such physical proximity to the issue remains possible is it any longer a guarantee of journalistic insight, because even where such topics can be ‘seen’ such sight often offers little comprehension of the systems and processes which make them possible. The playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, a contemporary of Capa, had already observed this truth in the 1930s when he perceptively argued that ‘… less  than  ever  does  the  mere  reflection  of  reality  reveal  anything  about  reality.  A photograph of the Krupp [armament] works or the AEG [general electricity company] tells us next to nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification  of  human  relations—the  factory,  say—means  that  they  are  no  longer  explicit.  So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, posed’[2]

The equivalent today of Brecht’s armaments factory might be one of the high tech facilities where the subsystems of military drones are manufactured prior to integration, packaging and delivery to the battlespace. It might, still more abstractly, be a server farm humming with exabytes of data, a resource now as important to our world as Krupp’s steel was to Brecht and Capa’s. Whichever the more appropriate modern analogue, witnessing or photographing these places in any traditional sense of these words tells us as little and perhaps even less than Brecht’s factory photographs, so abstracted have the relations that underlie them become. The work of the artists Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, who have extensively photographed the infrastructure of high frequency stock market trades, reveal this difficulty[3]. Their photographs, which are the product of lengthy and difficult negotiations for access, depict the workstations where the algorithms that execute these transactions are monitored by their human retainers. Geissler and Sann have managed to reach the center of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by these new technologies, but at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur, and nor even its human thralls, instead only a series of uncompromisingly blank screens. What their photographs are unable to directly reveal are the relations, and specifically the networks which make such deals possible, nor can they fully reveal the relations that they create.

Ours is a world defined less and less by the power and significance of specific, discrete geographical sites, but increasingly instead by the collective power of these sites, as nodes in networks made possible by the communications superhighways of the 21st century. The use of drones as part of ever more network dependent wars[4] is an apt example of this, an activity conducted in a highly-distributed manner with hundreds of sites across dozens of countries joined together in real time via undersea fiber optic cables and communications satellites in order to ‘find, fix and finish’[5] those who are its targets. In finding ways to report, document or respond to such a war, witnessing the existence and even the activities of individual nodes is less revealing than the documentation of the relationships between them, and the relationships which make these activities possible. The military contracting, the political lobbying, the legal wrangling, and the international alliances and agreements without which one human being in a cabin in Nevada would not be able to release a missile on another human being on a mountain side half a world away. This is a networked war in an informatics sense, but it is networked also in the sense that in a globalized world everything is inescapably linked to everything else. Conflict, social inequality, unbridled capitalism, environmental degradation, man-made disasters are, if I may be momentarily unemotional, nodes in a network which sync, reverberate, and feed back into one another. But as has often been observed the network only recognizes what it is taught to recognize, and we, as nodes ourselves, have been taught to ignore what is right in front of us.

In the context of the changing form of global problems new hybrid practices have emerged to offer us ways to report and understand these things. One, which we could call network centric journalism lies closer to traditional journalistic practices. Another, perhaps the binary of this new journalism, is the practice often called documentary art. This is also a hybrid or Chimera, combining the real world concerns and methodologies of documentary and journalism with the visual, conceptual and disseminative strategies of art. Such an approach is not entirely new, and Brecht himself was an innovator in this field. His most remarkable effort, the 1955 book Kriegsfibel, combined appropriated press photography with poetry in an attempt to reveal the truths which he believed lay hidden within these photographs, and in doing this the truth of the Second World War. This book includes the very same image of a Krupp armaments factory which he had before decried for its muteness. Brecht’s compatriot Hans Haacke is a more contemporary example, an artist who has often used journalistic research blended with conceptual display strategies to ask uncomfortable questions, not least of the art world in which his work circulates. His 1971 installation Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, sought to reveal the activities of a notorious New York slum landlord and was withdrawn from exhibition amid speculation that it suggested connections between Shapolsky and members of the Guggenheim Museum’s board of trustees.[6]

This blend of art and journalism then has an impressive lineage, and it continues to gain in traction and acceptance, both within the context of galleries which might have regarded such unambiguously worldly and political concerns as vulgar and uncouth, but also in magazines and newspapers which once might have been suspicious of using experimental strategies to talk about contemporary matters. The latest manifestations of documentary art frequently raise and discuss issues which elude traditional strategies of investigation, and often indeed also reflecting on the muteness, and indeed sometimes complicity, of traditional media in the face of these problems. This is the case for example in Edmund Clark’s investigations of the consequences of the global War on Terror and in particular in Body Politic, a video piece produced in collaboration with Max Houghton, which juxtaposes the realities of state secrecy and redaction with the false narratives of the press conference. Likewise in the work of Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips, or KennardPhillips, juxtaposition plays an even more direct role, placing vastly different realities side by side in the same frame in order to reveal the falsity and opportunism of populist press reporting of the recent refugee crisis. It is precisely this type of layering and building up that Brecht had argued was required to penetrate the reified reality of the armaments factory.

The work of KennardPhillips also reveals part of the great attraction of this borderland between art and journalism, that it is not bound by the same codified rules as journalism, the same ethical constraints, and the same burdens of truth. Documentary art labours under none of the diktats about staging images or later manipulating them, there no thresholds for the proof of a claim, and the risk of libel action while certainly not absent is generally regarded as far less present in this field than in traditional journalism. This is of course to say nothing of the reality that many traditional journalistic organs are owned by private owners who may exercise an editorial control in line with their own political priorities.[7] Liberation from these restrictions can be advantageous in reporting certain subjects, and indeed it is telling that a significant number of people who previously trained and operated as traditional journalists have made the migration to this border land, including Laura el-Tantawy whose installation In The Shadow of the Pyramids offers a deeply personal and impressionistic look at the Egyptian revolution of 2011. From one shadow to another, in my own project Shadows of the State I reveal the communication networks established by the world’s intelligence agencies during the Cold War, and which in some cases continue to broadcast to this day. Locating these sites has relied on comparisons of large quantities of public information, some of it highly questionable, and throughout I have been aware that much of this information would likely not pass the conventional journalistic thresholds for reliability. That in a sense is what the work is about, about traversing a landscape of ambiguities, where nothing can be taken at face value.

This in turn poses as yet unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions. In particular when artists make work about important contemporary issues one must ask what burden of truth lies upon them, and whether it is ever acceptable for an artist to ‘not let the truth get in the way of a good story?’ [8] While most journalists adhere to the notion of an objective truth, the possibility and indeed desirability of such a truth remains far less clear in art, where it is often tacitly recognized that the artist is, in Plato’s words an imitator or ‘manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.[9] Imitation can of course reveal truth, as for example in Jeremy Deller’s The Battle Of Orgreave which recreates the events of a notorious 1984 confrontation between striking miners and the police in a form which hovers somewhere between theatre, living history and crime scence re-enactment. Further important questions which demand discussion are how this hybrid of art and journalism fits with the art world’s proclivity for self-aggrandizement, and the old fashioned expectation that artists position themselves as visionaries, in the process often eschewing and downplay collaborations and the many others who play a part in the creation of their works. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Ruth Berlau, Brecht’s collaborator on his Kriegsfibel, has been often written out of the subsequent history of that work.[10] Journalism is perhaps more than ever a collective enterprise. All the more so in the era of investigations involving vast data leaks which sometimes require networks comprising hundreds of journalists across the globe to work cooperatively to marshal the facts and break stories. The journalism that surrounded Edward Snowden’s revelations into the activities of the American National Security Agency would have been inconceivable as a solitary effort involving as it did the review of as many as 1.7 million documents.[11]

It is intentionally provocative of me to suggest that journalism’s emphasis on proximity is now completely irrelevant. Many of the works discussed in this essay clearly reveal that spatial closeness still has an important part to play even in the reporting of even the most abstract of modern issues. Equally alongside these new terrors of drone and algorithm our world is still afflicted by many of the same problems that troubled Capa and Brecht, and in the reporting of these things proximity to the story, and in particular to the human subjects of the story, remains an essential part of journalism’s function. Alongside this though perhaps what is also required is a different form of distance, a view which takes in and which can critically make visible and understandable the macro as well as the micro. Without this wide view, the sense of how a humanitarian crisis, environmental collapse and corporate malpractice might all be connected, journalism will always be chasing the effects and affects of it’s subjects rather than the causes and the culprits. The two practices of art and journalism are still in a state of fusing, and they still have much they can learn from each other. It is less a case of an either-or scenario, or a replacement of journalism’s functions by these new approaches, than it is a case of two different practices which share fundamentally the same concerns and have an enormous capacity to support each other in important ways. In a world racked by a problems which seem to grow more abstract by the day it is not enough however to continue as it has always been done. The reified power relations which make our world what is must be drawn out of the shadows, and exposed to public scrutiny even if to do so requires, in Brecht’s own words, that something must be built up, and something artificial posed.

This essay is an adapted version of one originally written to accomplish Very Now, an exhibition exploring the intersections of art and journalism, held at London College of Communication in August 2016.

[1] Robert Capa, Slightly Out of Focus, xi.
[2] Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography, p.24
[3] Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, Volatile Smile, 2011
[4] Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garska, Network Centric Warfare: It’s Origins and Future, 1998
[5] The Intercept, The Drone Papers: A Visual Glossary (Oct 15, 2015 )https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/a-visual-glossary/ (accessed 19th June 2016)
[6] Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 http://collection.whitney.org/object/29487 (accessed 19th June 2016)
[7] The Elephant In The Room: New report on UK media ownership http://www.mediareform.org.uk/media-ownership/the-elephant-in-the-room (accessed 22nd June 2016)
[8] Usually attributed to Mark Twain, it seems apt that there is much doubt whether he indeed ever said this.
[9] Plato, The Republic X, 27
[10] Berlau edited Kriegsfibel, wrote the preface to the original publication , and may have contributed some of the core ideas behind the work. Yet reference to her is notably absent from much subsequent writing about the book.
[11] NSA: Snowden Stole 1.7 Millionn Classified Documents And Still Has Access To Most Of Them http://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-docs-did-snowden-take-2013-12?IR=T (accessed 22nd June 2016)

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 Transparent Jury and the Opaque Prize

henri_gervex_-_a_session_of_the_painting_jury_-_google_art_project

A Session of the Painting Jury
Henri Gerve, 1885 (source)

Over the weekend I tweeted about finding the same name in both the jury and shortlist for the recently announced Aperture Paris Photobook awards shortlist. The artist, writer and curator David Campany was both a selector for the initial shortlist, and the author one of the five books shortlisted for the Photography Catalogue of the Year award. What was most glaring about this for me was the lack of acknowledgment or explanation of this alongside the announcement, and Aperture’s lacklustre response to my Tweets requesting clarification about what safeguards they had in place. Dissatisfied by their response I thought I’d use the opportunity to discuss some of the problematic issues I see as inherent in most photography prizes, both in their structure as organisations, and more abstractly in their role as supposed arbiters of photographic quality. For a photographer to win or be shortlisted for a prize is regarded as a sign of their ability and credibility, and yet the processes and criteria by which these things are determined are seldom on view to those who submit to this judgement, much less the wider audiences who consume the results as exhibitions and books. Nor do we often ask exactly whose interests prizes best serve.

First of all I should say that I really admire Campany’s practice for its diverse approaches and critical nature, which I see as a much more developed version of what I am trying to do in my own work (and while his role on the jury might be the genesis for this conversation it is not really about him or Aperture). A practice structured in this way can be enormously stimulating, but working across several areas which are traditionally seen as self-contained, standalone careers is also an effective way of complicating your life if you are also mindful of your critical and creative independence and of conflicts of interest. I doubt I need to point out the reasons that working as a critic is challenging if you are also a photographer, often reliant on those you are tasked to critique in one role for your advancement in another. For obvious reasons it also never looks particularly good to sit in judgement over your own work, or even to sit in proximity to such judgment. When I first sat down to write about this my mind was set to how an industry aware of these issues could develop mechanisms which would make it possible for someone to judge and at the same time have their book considered for the same prize. The more I thought about it though the more I found this question highlighting the basic problems with prizes and the methods of their judgement. That a jury system is problematic for appraising the worth of art, that the judging processes themselves often byzantine and secretive, and prizes by their nature self-selective.

The simplest method of avoiding such a conflict of interest in a pre-existing jury is an individual withdrawal from the process of judging by the person for whom a conflict of interest has been identified. This, according to Aperture’s eventual response, was their solution. It would be wrong however to think that a temporary withdrawal of a member of the jury resolves the problem in these situations. A pre-existing jury from which one member briefly exempts themselves briefly might feel a lingering sense of loyalty to one of their own, or just as possible depending on the individual dynamics, a sense of antagonism. How can a jury knowingly judge something closely connected to one of their own and treat it in the same way as the work of a normal contributor? The only workable solution at this stage would seem to be full discharge from the process of judging or the complete withdrawal of the work to be judged, but really it shouldn’t come to this stage at all, these problems ought to be screened in the process of recruiting a jury. When I was a child breakfast cereal packets often had competitions on the back, always prefaced with the warning that anyone connected with the competition or related to someone connected with it would be excluded from entry. Simple enough that I understood these rules as an eight year old, and this was for competitions where the stakes were far lower than the average photography prize, so why do we often seem to lack such basic safeguards in photography competitions, where people often sit in judgement over the work of their friends, protégés, and favourites?

These observations in turn raise the issue of how basically inappropriate a jury system can be for the judging of something as subjective and dependent on individual feeling as art. Anyone who has been on a jury or involved in a similar small group decision making process will know the capacity of some individuals to wield disproportionate influence over others. Juries are rarely composed of true equals, and there is always the danger that opinions might be swayed by the more eloquent, vocal or domineering of a group. This not to mention the extent to which a small jury system in an industry like photography often favours the judged who come with developed networks and influence, while working to the disadvantage of new arrivals in the field and those without such cultural capital (is it a coincidence that as I come to know more people in the field I find myself more frequently nominated for things? I think not).

Part of the problem is that a jury system is too attractive to entirely dispose of because it brings certain privileges and associations with it from its judicial origins which we find hard to shed even when this model is put to use in the context of art judging. One is that for the jurors this system offers a certain collective safety and responsibility, that no one person can be held individually responsible for a decision, however blatantly crass, lazy or self-serving. Another, more significant for the purpose of this conversation, is the sense that juries are above reproach or questioning, and that the machinations which lead to their decisions are sacrosanct and above public scrutiny. A third is the perception of the jury as an important check on the power of the state, or the context of art perhaps a check on the interests of the powerful organisations who often fund prizes and competitions. The reality of all three of these is troublesome, particularly the third. Rather than acting as a check or balance juries can as easily be a fig leaf for the organisations behind such competitions. It is telling I think that all the major sponsored competitions (The Taylor Wessing prize, the Deutsche Börse prize, The Syngenta Photography Award, Prix Pictet, etc) invariably include a representative or close associate of the sponsoring company on the jury. Not quite an artistic trial by one’s peers.

To me these problems suggest the need for a different model of jurying, of individual judges of whatever number judging in isolation from each other (whether in the same building or on different continents). They might perhaps have some capacity for communication and discourse about the work but would be basically unaware of who their co-jurors are, and a decision would ultimately be made based on an aggregate of opinions of the work put before them. Such a system would also allow for far larger juries than are usually employed. In Ancient Greece the citizen juries of the Dikasteria could be vast, ranging over a thousand people, a safeguard intended to protect against bribery. In the context of photography a large distributed jury also safeguards against jurors with a penchant for promoting their own interests by at least watering down the effects and avoids the tendency that the same predictable names appear on juries again and again (in some respects Prix Pictet’s initial nomination process with it’s representation of every global region seems like a good model for this). Except of course such a mass jury system, while perhaps fairer, would also deglorify the role of the juror as elite industry expert, and prospect of judging a prize remotely would remove the reason that many jurors take part at all, the prospect of a paid trip somewhere nice.

Like an inverted Russian doll each problem in this conversation seems to open up to reveal a bigger one, and in the final instance the biggest of them all is the simple problem of prizes themselves. Photographers seldom stop to question either the byzantine, opaque nature of most photography prizes and competitions, nor do we often ask whether the effect they have on our industry is positive, and if it is, for whom? To tackle the first issue, while photographers submit their works to judging (and often pay for the pleasure) they often have little idea what process of appraisal their works will be submitted to, nor the extent to which judges will have to actually justify their decisions to the artists, audiences or organisers. Despite presenting themselves as arbiters of good photography, prizes are almost never transparent about the processes by which they reach such decisions or the ways that jurors and nominators are selected, processes which ultimately have everything to do with which works are finally selected. Fee charging prizes, of which the Aperture Photobook Prize is one, are also rarely transparent about the purpose of the money they raise, a tendency which is doubly problematic where a prize also raises income beyond entry fees, for example from ticket sales and corporate sponsorship (here again the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize is a prime example). No prize that charges a fee can really claim to represent the best in the field of photography on which it focuses, only the best work that could afford to pay.

Finally what is most rarely asked is what purpose prizes actually serve, and whether their influence on our industry is broadly positive or negative? This is a huge question which really deserves an entire post of it’s own, but to offer a brief answer I think that that prizes are primarily about generating a useful illusion of success in a field where actual success is inherently difficult or even impossible to measure. This sense of success is useful for all involved. For the artist since it offers an easy shortcut to evidencing their achievement without being side-tracked into obscure conversations about creative or social worth. For the organisations which frequently are behind competitions it benefits their own activities to be seen to be aligned with ‘successful’ artists, even if that success is very much of their own making. And of course for the sponsors, who benefit from the public good will that derives from their patronage of the arts, and who are into the bargain able to subtly steer the sense of what art is successful away from art which challenges their activities (and if you don’t believe that happens I recommend reading this).

Over the years I’ve spent enough time blogging into the void to know that just writing about this will make no difference. There are too many vested interests for the industry to adopt alternative models or even enter into a debate about the role and purposes of prizes without major pressure. As with any number of other problems any real response needs to come from below, but the difficulty with competitions is that many photographers still seem them as something essentially to their benefit, and struggle to recognise the ways they work against them. Like playing the lottery, the hope is always there that next week it might be you, so why bite the hand that might one day feed? What I am really asking is that photographers and artists simply approach competitions and prizes with more questions and scepticism. By entering without question you validate the organisation that runs it, and make it easier for them to ignore the problems I’ve outlined above. So in future look carefully, think twice and if in doubt ask these difficult questions of organisers, and of your peers and colleagues who play a vital role in these competitions as judges, juries, and occasional executioners.

(Update: Aperture have since tweeted me that the conflict was mentioned during the announcement of the shortlist, which is 14 minutes into the video here. This is good, but it dosen’t explain why the same issue wasn’t highlighted on their site where one presumes many more people would learn about the shortlist, or deal with any of the points above about the inefficacy of a judge leaving the room for five minutes while their work is debated).

‘We Clean History’: Thoughts on Another Crimea

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Russian officers run to the Nakhimov square to take part in a rehearsal for the May 9th Victory Day parade in Sevastopol. May 6th 2014. Yuri Kozyrev/Another Crimea

I recently reread Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty, a commanding account of the role of war correspondents from the 1854 Crimean War through until the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The book brilliantly charts the successes of correspondents in revealing some of the worst excesses of war, but also is acute in arguing that at least as often correspondents have willingly or unwittingly been co-opted into sustaining, legitimising or smoke screening indefensible events. Finishing the book, it occurred to me how well it could do with updating to include some of the conflicts since 2003, including the secretive drone wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and perhaps coming full circle back to Crimea with it’s annexation by Russian forces in 2013. This thought drew me back to something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time, Another Crimea, an ‘unprecedented documentary art project’ which expansively offers to show viewers ‘the dawn of the peninsula and its people’s new old chapter beyond all political and ideological barriers’. Jorg Colberg first flagged Another Crimea back in June in the context of a discussion about manipulation and verification, and I want to pick up where he left off and discuss it in more depth.

Another Crimea brings together six photographers from the prominent photographic agencies Noor, VII and Magnum. The photographers (Christopher Morris, Francesco Zizola, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Olivia Arthur, Pep Bonet and Yuri Kozyrev) each produced a documentary photo series, or in one case a film, in the region over ten days in summer 2014, and these are featured on Another Crimea’s website alongside a behind-the-scenes video for each photographer with a narration and explanation of their project. For a sampling of the projects, Francesco Zizola’s contribution consists of rephotographs of Crimean war photographs, ranging from Fenton’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death to less well known historic images by Russian photographers. Olivia Arthur’s project follows three families, one Russian, one Ukrainian and one Tatar, reflecting on the diverse makeup of the peninsula. Pep Bonet’s film reflects on the region’s history, in particular the legacy of the Second World War Siege of Sebastopol. ‘We are cleaners, we clean the history, we make it shining’ says Alexander, a historian who identifies war graves, and one of the people interviewed by Bonet. The individual photography projects are competently executed, but in the way they are framed by the broader project and it’s copious avoidance of key questions about Crimea’s annexation by Russian in 2013 it is hard not to feel even after a superficial look that what one is viewing is problematic.

The deeper one gets into the Another Crimea website the more the sense grows that this is not just a pro-Russian take on Crimea but might be even more problematic, indeed that it might be directly aligned to support Kremlin policy. Certainly that seems to be the view of many of the photographers interviewed for one piece about the project, one calling the photographers involved in the project ‘useful idiots’ and suggesting they have been dragged into participating in the continuing propaganda war over the future of Crimea. Some basic research dosen’t do much to counter this. Russian Reporter the magazine behind the project routinely selects Putin and his favourites for it’s annual ‘person of the year’ award and has been accused of misrepresenting the Wikileaks cables in a way designed to support Russian foreign policy objectives, while not reporting cables which paint Russian leaders or their allies in a negative light. The magazine is owned by the Ekspert Publishing House, which is in turn owned by oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who despite having had something of a rocky ride with the Kremlin in the past is today often described as a close ally of Putin’s. It took me perhaps ten minutes to research this information, which makes me wonder whether the agencies and photographers did the same when first presented with this project, and if they found what I found, then why they decided to participate in it anyway. While it’s hardly damning evidence, it does suggest that the publishers behind the project might not be exactly neutral, which given the sensitivities of the peninsula casts a shadow over Another Crimea as a documentary project.

The Russian state’s use of the media has been much discussed in our own press, and it is often described as a core part of the Kremlin’s overall strategy for projecting power and influence around the globe in the post-Cold War era. Thinking back to the annexation of Crimea itself, Russia appeared to employ a range of media strategies as part of the campaign including an online disinformation campaign, the employment of soldiers without identifying insignia, and to some extent also capitalised on spontaneous events like the selfies taken by some Crimean residents with the soldiers. The ensuing conflict in the east of Ukraine has equally been marked by a furious information war, particularly around key events like the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014. There is also much to be written about the use of government funded broadcasters like Russia Today to sow disinformation, counter-narratives and outright conspiracy theories. So close indeed is the connection between the Kremlin’s employment of hard and soft power that the approach has increasingly been dubbed ‘hybrid warfare’ for the way it blends traditional military force with black operations, cyber attacks, and propaganda. Whether you adopt this catchy buzz phrase (after all hasn’t war always involved these things to some degree?) or not, events of the last few years suggest it has been an effective strategy both for smoke screening overt military actions, and for generating a sense of inertia and confusion in the countries that might otherwise try to counteract Russian actions.

As Knightley repeatedly demonstrates in his book, there is always the possibility of a journalist subverting a managed opportunity in order to create a result which is quite different from what those in charge want to produce. We’ve seen this done with varying degrees of success in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to the military practice of embedding. Tim Hetherington’s series Infidel remains for me one of the most effective examples of this, even if it also at the same time demonstrates very clearly the inherent limitations on even the most conscientious photographer working within these confines. It’s also worth of course stating that documentary photography has often been co-opted as a medium of propaganda in the past, and depending on how far you stretch that term some of the most celebrated documentary projects of the last century would meet the definition. In the case of Another Crimea I sensed the six projects were well intentioned but suffered from similar issues, an uncritical one sidedness masquerading as documentary distance and objectivity. Arthur’s work is maybe the one that comes closest to offering a counter-narrative to Another Crimea‘s own counter-narrative, and I feel it’s also worth noting that she appears to be the only one of the six photographers who actually features the work the resulted from the project on her own photography site. She also does so with an introduction which unambiguously frames the work in terms of the Russian annexation of the Crimea (in a way which the series isn’t framed on the main Another Crimea site).

So to end, what does this potential co-option mean for documentary photography? I would flag three things. Firstly, it suggests that a hitherto unexpected consequence of shrinking economy for this type of documentary photography is that when offers of work do come along perhaps photographers are less inclined to look closely at who is paying for them. The lesson here is clear, we need to be as or even more questioning of who is commissioning us in financially meager times as we might be in more bountiful seasons. Secondly I think it is worth noting that in the context of documentary as propaganda what is attractive to commissioners might no longer be the photography at all. Perhaps conscious of the negative light that broadcasters like Russia Today are seen in the west, commissioning unrelated external organisations with a reputation for independence established over many uears could be a very effective way for governments to launder propaganda into what appears to be documentary or news, and at the same time offers a ready-made audience into the bargain. Again the lesson is that these organisations run the risk of losing this credibility very quickly if they fail to vet who they take commissions from. Thirdly and finally, that if like Knightley you see journalism and by association documentary photography as ‘the first draft of history’ then it’s co-option and manipulation as a tool of governmental persuasion and policy promotion is something we all need to be very worried about. If documentary photography is to retain its currency and purpose in what (to use a Putinesque turn of phrase) is often described as a ‘post-truth’ world then it to remain above all else highly critical, and fiercely independent.

Monsanto: An Interview with Mathieu Asselin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bringing the Drone War Home

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A camera mounted on a drone which belongs to ISIS, shot down by Iraqi security forces outside Fallujah AP (source)

In a globalised world nothing exists in isolation, and it has often been observed that whenever a country engages in an overseas conflict, something of the nature of that conflict often returns with the men and women who have fought there. In his book on the Soviet-Afghan war, the journalist Artyom Borovik described how Russian soldiers returned to the Soviet Union not only laden with contraband and psychological disorders, but he argued they also carried something far more insidious. Pondering the consequences of the war, Borovik wrote that ‘it’s difficult to determine exactly what we managed to teach Afghanistan. It is relatively easy however to assess Afghanistan’s effect on the Soviet people who worked and fought there. With a mere wave of [Soviet premier] Brezhnev’s elderly hand, they were thrown into a country where bribery, corruption, profiteering, and drugs were no less common than the long lines in Soviet stores.’ When the Afghan war began the Soviet Union was already a dying project, a body politic in the image of it’s ailing and elderly leadership. However the influence of Afghanistan, Borovik argued, was like a secondary infection in an already terminal patient.

The idea that the war returns in unexpected ways with the people who fight it is probably no less true of today’s conflicts, even if in some respects these wars are very different. As I wrote last week, the military hardware and tactics which are being brought to bear on the streets of US cities in response to protests like Black Lives Matter will all call to mind images of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq for which many of these technologies were originally developed and manufactured. Under the Excess Property or 1033 Program, the US government routinely dispenses surplus military equipment around the country for use by police forces, with materiel worth $449 million reallocated under this program in 2013 alone. There is much to suggest that the availability of something makes its use appealing in order to justify the fact that it has been made available in the first place, the explosion in the deployment of SWAT teams since the 1980’s would seem like an apt example. It is harder of course to argue the case that these conflicts have influenced a mind-set which produces police brutality, but there is certainly an observed tendency towards former soldiers entering law enforcement. Convincingly evidenced (much less empirical) estimates are hard to find, I’ve read anecdotal claims which suggest between a quarter and a half of US police officers have a recent military background. Whether those experiences contribute towards a higher propensity towards violence is also hard to say, one piece I read claimed that 75% of former soldiers applying to police forces are rejected in part because of issues with attitude.

Aside from the high powered sniper rifles and mine resistant vehicles deployed in US cities (both of which would likely have been familiar to Borovik during his time in Afghanistan) many of today’s conflicts are typified by a new type of weapon, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones. The United States wasn’t by any means the originator of this technology but it has been one of its most enthusiastic proponents, successive governments recognising in drones an opportunity to avoid politically toxic military casualties. What I’ve often thought is interesting about the US drone program is less its, for now, rather exceptional scale and scope but rather the likelihood that it will serve (indeed already is serving) as a model on which other countries and armed groups develop their own drone programs. The fact that groups like ISIS are deploying crude homemade drones like the one pictured above for purposes like reconnaissance and artillery spotting in locations like Iraq is not coincidence. This extends beyond pure technology and into the legal and moral consequences of drone use. With the United State’s drone programs making such extensive use of legal loopholes, and so devoid of accountability, this sets a precedent for other countries and organisations who might follow suite.

Finally, beyond the influence of US drones on overseas battlefields, what interests me is the possibility with this technology that there exists something of the same capacity to ‘bring the war back home’ that one might expect in a conventional conflict. Last week Micah Xavier Johnson, who was suspected of having shot and killed five Dallas police officers, was himself killed by an explosive device attached to the manipulator arm of a police bomb disposal robot. Citing the danger of tackling the suspect conventionally, the police instead employed a robot conventionally used for disarming explosives, in other words intend to save and preserve life, in order to kill someone. There are precedents for this in Iraq, with soldiers anecdotally using a multipurpose remote controlled robot known as a MARCbot mounted with an anti-personnel mine to investigate suspected ambush locations and sometimes even to kill. The leap from employing this tactic in an active conflict to a law enforcement situation is huge, and while the domestic arming of a bomb disposal robot is for now an isolated, improvised incident, so too have been many such precedents which later become the norm, including of course the military drone program itself. When more and more of the US fleet of armed and unarmed drones start to reach retirement or battlefield obsolescence, it will be interesting to see in what new roles they might start to find back on the home front.

No Justice, No Peace, Only History

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Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

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

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

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

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

Arles 2016 Dispatch #5: Overall Impressions

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Girl from Contact Sheet 2 (Darkroom Manuals), 2013.
Courtesy of the artist, Foxy Production, New York, and Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto.

This week I’ve been in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ve been posting a series of rapid fire posts summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which examine ideas about European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. For the next post I focused on two more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western. For my penultimate post I looked some of the ten photographers shortlisted for the the annual Discovery Award, and for this final piece I thought I would sum up my general feelings about the festival this year and mention a few final exhibitions I didn’t have time to discuss in previous posts.

In summing up the 2015 festival my chief complaint about Recontres Les Arles was that it’s exhibitions and displays all concieved of photography in a very traditional way and gave little space for new ways of thinking about the value of photography or the ways in which it might be manipulated and displaued. Despite the new director Sam Stourdzé’s proclamation that the festival is not a museum, there was little in 2015 that challenged prevailing thought about what photography is, thought which remains rooted in the idea of it as something which exists in isolation as a discrete object, which be held, bought, sold. While this conception of photography might be comforting for photographers and artists, it is far from the reality of photography as it is experience by the majority of people in the world, for whom the medium become something binary, networked, both ever owned and ownable, and constantly prone to being mutated or changed. That absence was perhaps was understandable last year since it was a moment of transition for the festival, so the 2016 festival is maybe a better opportunity to test the extent to which the festival and it’s new director are loyal to the present as well as the past of photography. Certainly new practices were noticeable in the numerous exhibitions of the 2016 festival, whether in the anarchic multiple projections of Christian Marclay’s Pub Crawl, in the distorted scans of Sara Cwynar (pictured above), in the fragmented pixel and Photoshop art of Nothing but Blue Skies, or in the 3d meshes of Hito Steryl’s computer generated video The Tower, part of the Systematically Open exhibition which has inaugurated the new La Mecanique Generale building in Parc des Ateliers. These types of works were though were still relatively few and far between, and where it occurred the focus was invariably on experimental work by relatively safe, collectible, name artists rather than younger or earlier career photographers.

One thing which was very noticeable this year was the sheer number of exhibitions, and their scale and opulence. Looming over Parc des Atelier this year was the LUMA foundation’s new premises, a twisting tower block, ten stories of concrete and steel which looks unforgivably out of place on the very traditional skyline of Arles with it’s red roofs and innumerable church spires. The tower seems like an apt symbol for the problem with many of the exhibitions I saw, which were overlarge and sometimes staged in ways which felt unsympathetic to the work. This was the case of Yann Gross’s The Jungle Show, installed in a darkened space on a series of massive stacked light boxes, the installation was superficially compelling but did the work no favours. In other cases, it was simply a matter of scale, with many exhibitions which would have been utterly engrossing if they been half the size, but which scaled as they were instead only encouraged fatigue in a viewer. Sincerely Queer, a potentially fascinating exhibition of historic photographs of transvestites would be an example of this, with twenty fairly similar photographs often used to illustrate each of the curator’s ideas, when five carefully selected images would have done the same job and given a viewer the breathing room to really study each image. Similar issues abounded in more contemporary issues like Yan Morvan’s Battlefields, which was an interesting if conventional documentary work on battlefields around the world, but was again just too big to properly enjoy or to engage with the extensive and detailed wall texts. I could list quite a few other exhibitions this year which in photographic terms felt like an all you can eat buffet, when what I and many I spoke to at the festival felt a hunger for was more like nouveau cuisine. In terms of complex staging, Eamon Doyle’s End was one of the few that I felt justified it’s elaborateness, with a cleverly thought out use of large wall vinyls combining with a freestanding Family of Man style grid of images in the center of the space which caused wall and grid to align with each other in intriguing and unexpected ways as a viewer moves through the space.

A large part of what made the 9/11 exhibition Nothing but a Clear Blue Sky stand out for me was that rather than filling a massive space with a vast number of images on a loosely connected theme, this show essentially asked visitors to engage with just one image, that of the burning twin towers, but to do so repeatedly and in way which was cumulative across the breadth of the show. While there were certainly things I didn’t like about this exhibition, this key difference felt hugely refreshing and it is one of the reasons this is one of my top exhibitions of the festival. Similarly the small display of Maude Sulter’s Syrcas series was engaging in part because with so few pieces on display it felt manageable to really spend time with each one and study the subtlety and thought that went into their making. This same problem of scale was also really evident with the book awards. Last year a relatively small number were on display and it was feasible to look through each one, and to look through some of them in depth. This year not only has the number of prizes expanded to include a new Photo Text award, but also the system of displaying shortlisted works has gone out of the window and there were such a quantity of books on show (shortlisted and not) that it would probably take most of the week to look through them, hence why I have not attempted a best of the books post as I did last time. Amongst such scale there were also some appalling mistakes, including some books installed cover down to the reading tables. As I wandered through the vast space of the Grand Halle of the Parc du Ateliers I did start to wonder whether the problem with the penchant for art exhibitions in such mammoth disused industrial spaces is that the curators feel the irresistible need to fill every inch of them.

In conclusion, Recontres Les Arles continues to stage consistently strong exhibitions, which are generally well curated and which are almost always executed to the high standards of display you would expect from a permanent, professional gallery. Photography is well represented both in terms of historically significant art works, archival and vernacular photography, and in certain forms of contemporary photography, but I feel the festival needs to run faster to keep up with the way photographers and artists are employing digital forms of image making, and even moving beyond these into employing technologies and methodologies which might be a hard sell to describe as photography. The money and venues keep coming, but what the festival needs far is more thought about what it means to show the work that it does in that way that it does, and also a careful consideration about the experience it wants visitors to have. The problem is with such a considerable amount of money clearly flowing in from sources like the LUMA Foundation these questions may be difficult ones to ask, let alone answer, and with all those massive spaces to fill it may continue to be overwhelmingly tempting to commission shows which are oversized and initially eye catching, but which was in curatorial terms weaker than they might have been. Above all what is really worth pondering is what happens to the festival if that flow of money on which it seems now to depend should ever comes to an end.

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

Arles 2016 Dispatch #4: The Discovery Award

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Seeking to Belong, Stranger in Familiar Land series, Kibera, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

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 I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed on two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. The day before yesterday I focused on two more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western. For my penultimate post I want to look at some of the ten photographers nominated by five international selectors for the the annual Discovery Award shortlist, a €25,000 prize for photographers who ‘have recently been discovered, or deserve to be’.

First up, Florian Ebner head of the Photographic Collection at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, has selected Stephanie Kiwitt and Frank Berger as his nominees. The latter’s series Weissenfels responds to the oft repeated observation by Bertolt Brecht that a photograph of an armaments factory reveals little about the relations that take place inside it. Berger’s answer to this problem is instead to rephotograph the same locations outside a German slaughterhouse repeatedly over an extended period of time, which are then shown as a multi-screen projection. While these images certainly tell us a little more than a single image (if only in that we can see the passage of livestock in one direction and lorries of schnitzel heading in the other) they don’t really offer a solution to the problem Brecht identified, nor do they at all critically examine what his idea actually means when applied the best part of a century later to a world already awash with repetitive images.

Independent curator Mouna Mekouar has selected Basma Alsharif and Daisuke Yokota as her nominated artists. As someone often on the lips of curators and critics at the moment my money would be on Yokota to win the prize. His use of space is certainly the most ambitious and engaging in this year’s awards, with long rolls of half developed photographic paper coiling down from a ceiling gantry (still reeking of developer), and walls padded with spiky acoustic foam. Unfortunately, the descriptive text on the wall which describes photographing at night and relying on senses other than sight to identify subject matter seems to bear little relation to what is presented in the space and I felt rather disengaged with the work despite it’s scale. I sometimes wonder if it is Yokota’s adherence to comfortingly old fashioned analogue processes in an age of digital uncertainty and dematerialisation which appeal to his adherents as much, or perhaps more, than the actual ideas his work claims to explore.

Critic, curator and director Stéphanie Moisdon has choosen Marie Angeletti and Christodoulos Panayiotou for her selection. Panayiotou’s work which explores ideas about power, capitalism and globalisation manages to be engaging and subtle without being overly oblique, thanks in part to some short but useful wall texts for each piece (notably absent in some of the other displays which are desperately needed them). Three improvised water sculptures create a calming aural backdrop but also have a serious point to make about the value added by clever arrangements of objects or proccessing of natural materials. The perception of power is also another central idea in Panayiotou’s photographs of underwater piping systems constructed to feed the fountains of the French palace of Versaille, a potent image of the monarch’s power and one which reputedly consumed as much water each day as the city of Paris. The last of the three pieces in his display is a photograph of artificial flowers in Hong Kong, taken as part of what the photographer describes as a sort of reverse pilgrimage to the sites of globalised power.

Aida Muluneh founder of Ethiopia’s Addis Foto Fest has shortlisted Nader Adem and Sarah Waiswa as her two nominees. Adem’s series Life as a Disabled Person is a surprise amongst a shortlist of photography which, as last year, is very much more on the conceptual rather than descriptive side of things. By contrast Adem’s work is traditional documentary, black and white photographs of Ethiopians living with an array of physical disabilities. In the context of a prize like this one it might be seen as rather brave to nominate a work which many in the contemporary photography world might see as quaintly naive. Probably my favourite of the Discovery award was Muluneh’s other nomination, Sarah Waiswa, and her series Strange in a Familiar Land, a series of portraits of an Albino woman in Nairobi’s Kiberia slum. Alongside a print each frame contains a pertinent object, in the most touching case a tear stained letter in which the author speaks desperately of wanting to belong and to be considered beautiful. In many of the photographs the jeers and goads of passersby are palpable in the background, although it is unclear if they are aimed at the subject or the photographer.

Finally Stefano Stoll, the director of the Swiss Festival Images, has selected Beni Bischof and Sara Cwynar as his two artists. Bischof’s display is an anarchic assemblage of defaced and reworked images from mass culture. His appropriated images are burnt, daubed with chewing gum, and Photoshopped into monstrous pastiches of their original purpose. Garish signs scattered around the space invoke audience members ‘Detox your thoughts’ and ‘Disturb reality’. Despite the complexity of the display and Stoll and Bischof’s attempts to talk up the work it is remarkably underwhelming, like a weak update of the First International Dada Fair held in 1920 in Berlin, but with little new added in the interim and no real challenge posed to the audience, an assessment which might stand for quite a few of the other works in this year’s shortlist.

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