Why Teach Photography?

lewis_hine_colored_school_at_anthoston_kentucky_1916

Colored school at Anthoston, Kentucky
Lewis Hine, 1916

These days about half my working week is occupied with teaching and with its accompanying activities; preparation, marking, tutorials, admin, standing in line for coffee. The amount of time I’ve spent occupied with this, and the fact I’ll be undertaking a post-graduate teaching qualification this year, has led me to think more and more about what it actually means to teach. Having been surrounded by teachers for much of my life, at home, at school, at university and then in college, it has always seemed such an everyday activity that it didn’t seem to warrant consideration. Teaching seemed entirely natural, like talking. Since I have started to teach I’ve gradually begun to think about it for the first time as a practice in the same sense that I think of photography or writing, as something which is cultivated and developed over time, which grows and evolves and solidifies, rather than being something that one just rather mechanically does.

This shift in perspective has opened up a multitude of questions for me, about what my ethos as a teacher is, about what constitutes good teaching, about how teaching can be sustainable and can not only function alongside other areas of my practice but in direct harmony with them. I have gradually started to synthesise some of the resulting thoughts into writing. I do this in the knowledge that these conclusions are likely to change over the following years as I think and learn more about teaching (and also as I do much more of it) but that’s rather part of the point. The ability to look back at my thoughts about things has always been part of the purpose of this blog, ossifying ideas so that later I can return, cutting through the strata of years of intervening contemplation, to arrive back at the bedrock, the foundations of it all. It is interesting in doing this to find that writing which seemed so essential and fresh at the time of putting pen to paper, now appears on rereading years later to be composed of nothing but ill shaped thoughts and vestigal ideas.

My approach to teaching has always been based on my own experiences as a student and of my relationships with those teachers who I remember years later, whether for better or for worse. I have always felt that one can learn as much from the bad as from the good, and like most people I have in my time had to contend with indifferent, bored, and even downright aggressive teachers and lecturers. I have been taught by people who made little effort to disguise their contempt for their students or mask the sense that teaching was a burdensome thing distracting them from their true calling in life, whether that was performing in a pub rock band or researching an obscure period of history. I’ve also been taught by people who actually seemed to rather hate their subject. These people have in a strange way become a minor guiding light of mine. They are a reminder to always strive to never become like any of them, and a reminder that whatever difficulties and frustrations are occurring elsewhere in my life I need to be mindful not to carry them into the classroom with me.

The many positive learning experiences I have had over the years as a student have been far more of an inspiration for my own teaching than the negative ones. I’ve had teachers who brought subjects to life and to light, who went to great lengths to make sure I understood, but who also did more than the bare bones of just decanting knowledge and making sure it stuck. I’ve had teachers who took time and expended effort to engage and know each student as far as they could, and in the process, they helped us know ourselves. These experiences all inform the class room environment I hope to create, one where students feel understood, that their tutors are interested both in their work on the course but also more broadly in what motivates and interests them. I hope an environment like this will in turn foster a sense that a diversity of experiences, interests, backgrounds, orientations and goals are all equally welcome, where students feel able to push and explore ideas about the wider world and about their own identities and aims. I don’t want to simply define photojournalism and documentary photography to my students, I want them to define it for themselves, in relation to their own experiences. Learning has been and continues to be a profoundly empowering process for me, a shy child who was always more interested in the constructions of his own inner world than the arbitrary reality outside of it. I want my students to have a similarly empowering experience, even while I recognise that the knowledge that matters to them and ways they might be empowered by it are likely to be very different.

At the same time as feeling empowered by education I want students to feel positively challenged in classes, intellectually and practically. This aim sometimes competes with the intentions outlined in the previous paragraph, particularly where a student group encompasses a broad spectrum of abilities and personalities, some of whom might require more or different challenge than others. A famous declaration by Finley Peter Dunne comes to mind when I think of teaching, his suggestion that the purpose of a newspaper was ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ would seem to have some relevance in the classroom. One aims for fairness and equality in treatment, while at the same recognising that different students need different guidance. Some students come with little confidence and need to be fortified simply in order to get them to make work, others come with an excess of confidence in their own abilities and need this to be questioned so that they can see the work they make with different eyes and in doing so make it better.

The Dunne quote I referenced above is also instructive in that it reminds me to constantly ask what the social function of teaching is, and to scrutinise where one stands as a teacher in the structures of society. Judging from my own experiences there is no fixed answer here, teachers can be activist, transgressive and speak truth to power (E.P Thompson’s searing expose Warwick University Limited comes to mind as an example from my alma mater). They can also  be conservative and defensive of ingrained inequalities and vested interests, a fact that seems particularly worth remembering in the context of the photography world, with it’s massive and largely unacknowledged inequalities, myriad gatekeepers and special interests. The idea of education as a force for social change, as articulated by Paolo Freire is one I find compelling, even if the promises of his ideas might be more modest in 21st century Britain than in the context in which he originated them. With the education sector increasingly seen as a business and students as customers, Freire’s ideas about how education can be a source of liberation or a means of entrenching inequality and his calls for solidarity and a blurring of the boundaries between teacher and taught seem highly relevant today. Likewise his idea of consciousness building seems pertinent to a field like documentary photography, where such a large part of the work is a process of disentangling the complex issues and systems one hopes to explore.

And lastly, I often find myself mulling questions of sustainability in a variety of senses. In some ways I find it remarkable how little technology has so far disrupted the teaching profession in contrast to other fields. I can’t see this lasting, and the smart teachers and institutions will be the ones anticipating how technology will change the demand, nature and delivery of education. An area I’m interested in specialising in is the use of online teaching platforms, technologies which bring with them their own peculiar dynamics, challenges and possibilities which are quite different to those of the physical classroom. With much current discussion of the precarity of the teaching profession I also find myself thinking about how teaching can be made professionally sustainable over the long term, both by working within traditional institutions of learning and outside of them. I often find myself wondering how teaching can work in harmony with the other things I want to spend my time on, and to some extent articulating these ideas here is a first tentative step into this area. The prevalent view of university arts teaching almost as a sort of subsidy for a small number of creative people to make their own work, research, or sometimes simply rest on their laurels, seems deeply unviable in the face of impending technological change, not to mention undesirable in the effect it sometimes has on those teacher’s attitudes towards teaching. So, these are the reasons I teach, because like so many things the challenges, promises, and the constant questions it presents are fascinating to me. In the end I teach, quite simply, because I want to learn.

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.

The GIF of Life: Vestigial File Formats as Documentary

giphy

GIF spoofing Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 Human and Animal Locomotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

The Market: An Interview with Mark Curran

11_CURRAN_Financial_Surrealism_WTC_2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3_CURRAN_Stephen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8_CURRAN_Bethlehem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6_CURRAN_Steilmann_EDEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13_curran_teoa_lcga_2015

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

‘We Clean History’: Thoughts on Another Crimea

KOY201407070021

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

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_007

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

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

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

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

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_046

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

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

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

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

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

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

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M-A-I_Mathieu_Asselin_030

Arles 2016 Dispatch #1: Methods of Loci and Syrcas

maude-sulter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beat Goes On: Photobook Bristol 2016

pulp-fiction-dancing-scene

Still from Pulp Fiction (1994)

I’ve just returned from a weekend at Photobook Bristol, an informal congregation of photobook makers, publishers, designers and enthusiasts who gather in the city each year to hear talks, see books, share ideas, inspiration and woes, and to generally just party (it’s a great opportunity to see how photography’s finest perform on the dance floor, it turns out that Danish legend Krass Clements has some serious moves on him). It’s also a great place to catch up with far flung friends, see what they are working on, what get a sense of what work might be next to explode into the photography world. Despite my mounting misgivings about the pseudo-revolutionary hype around them, photobooks clearly remain a capable and relevant platform for disseminating exciting work, and this was really evidenced by the number of important names in photography who were speaking at the event, ranging from Susan Meiselas to Laura el-Tantawy. It is needless to say a rather questionable activity to attempt to judge a huge and international field of publishing based on one festival since all such events have their predilections and prejudices, but I feel I ought to at least attempt to summarise a few of the trends in what was discussed.

Perhaps one of the most notable things, and one which underpins many of the other discussions had over the weekend is that the conflict between form and function remains alive and well. It seems that the photobook remains closely aligned with the exquisite artist’s book much more so than more mass produced forms of trade or consumer book, and that continues to create tensions between the aspirations often held for a book and the reality of what it is able to do. It was interesting to hear discussions taking in different generations of photobook makers (notably a discussion between Susan Miselas and Oliva Arthur chaired by David Solo) where there were noticeable similarities over time but also changes print run, design, form and more, trends towards smaller runs and more complex design. Another interesting talk came from Yumi Goto of Reminders Project where she discussed a series of books published by the organization and some of the approaches and techniques used. Interestingly she referred to the number of copies published of each book not as an edition of say, 45 books, but as 45 editions, a linguistic subtlety which seemed to nicely reflect the fact that photobooks are still often rather unique objects which can incorporate some quite handmade, unique elements even when they reach larger print runs. I saw relatively few books over the weekend which really eschewed a fussy form (whatever happened to print on demand?) and it seems in this ever more competitive world that is less and less an option. On this topic a breath of fresh air came in a talk from designer Ania Nalecka who cautioned photographers against over design or complex design divorced from the meaning of their work.

Another issue often discussed was the question of the photobook’s relevancy and accessibility to wider audiences. There was much discussion of how the book can push beyond the niche of devotees and those wealthy enough to buy what remains essentially a luxury item. This is clearly related to the previous point in some respects, since design remains closely connected to the issue of cost, with more complex designs invariably demanding costlier production processes. There are of course exceptions, Craig Atikinson’s Café Royal Books being the most obvious representative of the alternative model, and Craig marked reaching the landmark of 300+ publications with a talk at the festival. Another interesting talk came from Julian Germain, discussing amongst other things the free citizen produced newspaper the Ashington District Star which he helps to organise and edit. The issue of relevancy and availability is also linked to other issues, for example distribution (a word my spellchecker perhaps rather aptly wanted to change to ‘devotion’). The fantasy of photobooks appearing for sale in supermarkets which I recall being aired at the previous year’s festival remains out of reach, but it remains a worthy aspiration. At the same time there were some interesting talks from a number of people who are comparatively new to photobooks, including an interesting collaboration between Mark Power, poet Daniel Cockrill and designer Dominic Brookman to produce a hybrid book aimed at poetry and photography enthusiasts. It was also a thrill to hear from the veteran Ghanian photographer James Barnor, who has published the first book of his work at the sprightly age of 87. He modestly prefigured his talk by saying he wanted to speak little and leave plenty of time for questions, because if a dinosaur came back to life then he imagined people would have plenty of things they might want to ask it.

Connected to the above, the issue of making out of prints books available in alternative and more accessible formats was also something I often found came up in the conversations between talks. It’s something I’ve always been keen on and have done with a few of my publications which are no longer in print. During the weekend I chatted with a few people about this including with Andrea Copetti of Tipi Bookshop about this and we had an interesting dialogue weighing up the pros and cons of making PDFs of unavailable books available versus offering high resolution videos of the physical books. I came down more on the side of the former, he on the latter, but clearly both have advantages and disadvantages and both succeed and fail at representing the nature of a physical book in different ways. The thing that I think most of the people I discussed this with agreed on was that small, closed editions and artificially unattainable books only really benefit collectors and perhaps sometimes publishers, not photographers and audiences. Solutions are much needed and having better opportunities to see and understand the seminal books which have come before can only benefit the vibrancy of photobook making. Certainly as a teacher there is a list of books both contemporary and classic which I would love to be able to show my students and which I think they would learn much from, but which are unfortunately impossibly rare. To some extent I sense that many of the issues that remain troubling with regards to the photobook stem from that prefix ‘photo’ and some of the most exciting books I saw and heard about over the weekend were those where the photographic element is almost secondary to the book fulfilling some other function, whether as strange documentation, journalistic investigation or something else entirely. I’ll be picking up on some of these titles in more detail on Disphotic very soon. In short the photobook remains alive and well but by no means completely resolved. There remain plenty of rather existential questions about the book that it’s more reflective adherents need to continue to discuss and address.

(Critical transparency: There are so many potential conflicts of interest here – ranging from the fact I’ve at spoken at previous incarnations of Photobook Bristol, to my having written an essay for Cafe Royal Books – that I would hardly know where to start with listing them. Suffice to say that if you that think I’m irredeemably corrupt as a critic then these attempts at disclaimers probably don’t help much, but at least I make an attempt at them.) Also My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Trevor Paglen wins Deutsche Börse Prize 2016

trevor paglen limit telephotography

Open Hangar, Cactus Flats, NV, Distance ~ 18 miles, 10:04 a.m
From Limit Telephotography, Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen has won the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography prize, for his exhibition The Octopus, which explores contemporary surveillance and was held in Frankfurt, Germany in 2015. This annual prize rewards a photographer for an exhibition or publication which has significantly contributed to photography in Europe during the preceding year. Each iteration of the shortlist varies greatly, some years which offer a fascinating cross section of diverse directions in photography, to others where it can be quite hard to detect how any of the shortlistees were considered to have met the prize’s admittedly ambitious rationale. Previous incarnations have featured the likes of Walid Raad, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, John Stezaker, Sophie Ristelhuber, Richard Mosse, Paul Graham, Mikhael Subotzky, and Zanele Muholi. This year the shortlisted works ranged from Erik Kessel’s ambitious installation of his moving project Unfinished Father, to Tobias Zielony’s The Citzen, a collaborative project with refugee activists based in Berlin. For me though Laura el Tantawy’s In The Shadow of the Pyramids, a self-published photobook on the Egyptian revolution, and Trevor Paglen’s exhibition were always the front runners. My heart hoped that Tantawy’s work would be recognized for its raw power, narrative skill, and continued resonance, my (somewhat cynical) brain on the other hand felt that Paglen would likely be the one to win. Viewing Paglen’s work is a mixed experience for me. His chosen area of investigation, the activities that states get up to when they think their citizens are not looking, are ones which I find important enough to spend a sizeable part of my own time researching them (and many of the issues I am about to discuss are ones I have myself struggled with). What bothers me is that the modes that Paglen chooses to address these worlds seem more often about producing beautiful images than about really explaining or challenging these activities.

Paglen’s work feels like a rather straight form of art documentary, perhaps even indeed it might be considered good old fashioned documentary, an apparent revealing of something which demands to be seen in the age old tradition spanning back to Hine and Riis. In his Limit Telephotography series for example Paglen uses very long lenses to photograph sensitive sites which cannot be more directly approached, sometimes recording subjects which lie a dozen miles or more away, through layers of dust, heat haze and so on. In another series The Other Night Sky he uses long exposure astrophotography to record classified satellites as they pass over head. The resulting photographs in both cases are very beautiful, at times verging on the abstract, and like an abstract image they show almost nothing recognisable at all. We must take his word for it that we are viewing a spy satellite amongst a thousand star trails, and not simply another star, an innocuous civilian satellite or a tumbling piece of space junk. In this respect, and also in his penchant for arcane technical names in his image titles, Paglen’s photographs often remind me of Joan Fontcuberta’s photographic projects. Fontcuberta’s works often take the form of visual practical jokes which drag you in one direction before disclosing that what you are looking at is actually something rather different. In his world what appears at first to be a constellation of stars in a distant reach of space is a moment later revealed to be a cluster of dead insects on his windscreen, as in the series Mu Draconis. I’m not sure how much of a sense of humour Paglen has, but of course this sort of temporal telescoping can be a clever strategy even when the subject is far more serious, and it can be employed to some very thoughtful ends. I think specifically of Sophie Ristelhuber’s Fait, a work which challenges an audience to question what we are being shown, and what exactly the camera is supposed to be revealing in the abstract desert battle spaces of the First Gulf War, where the meaning of scale and distance are obliterated by the cameras lens, whether it is held in the photographer’s hands or mounted in the nose of a guided missile.

Paglen’s photographs are also rather performative, by which I mean the process of making them often feels more interesting than the resulting image or the information they impart. In viewing the Limit Telephotography series for example I find myself wondering of the value (beyond the value of the performance itself) of lugging heavy camera equipment to the top of remote hills when high resolution satellite imagery of these same sites are available to view anytime, anywhere (here for example is Toonpah Test Range Airport, likely the site featured in the photograph above). This of course is not to believe that existing forms of imagery are any more neutral, or necessarily more useful than Paglen’s, and as I know from experience, these types of performances can sometimes be quite effective ways to counter authorities who often fear exactly these types of public spectacle. I suppose what I want is still to have the image before me reveal something I did not know. Part of the problem with that is even if one could reveal these classified sites undistorted by heat haze, or clearly capture a spy satellite as it passes overhead, as has been done by some observers, a photograph tells us little about these things and the world that they belong to. Photographs, particularly single photographs but even sets and series, are incredibly bad at showing the structures, networks, histories, agreements, and more which underlie their subjects. Photographs by dint of their self-contained, enclosed nature, have an unfortunate tendency to appear complete, as if the world depicted within them were as self-contained, self-explanatory, and frankly simple, as the four sides of the photo frame.

Photographs have to be used in clever ways to avoid this tendency, and to remind viewers that is being seen is a small part of a complex set of processes and networks which make up our globalised world. Unfortunately these forms of treatment are often anathema to the sort of laboured, precious presentation that galleries tend to demand that photographs are given (and which may well be an important factor in Deutsche Börse’s collecting rationale, I think an important aspect of this prize and one which is seldom discussed). A useful photograph is not a precious physical object, it is a raw aggregate of data, something waiting to be rendered out in many senses of that phrase. It is phrase in a sentence, a node in a network, a marker on a map. When I view Paglen’s work I see raw material, waiting to have clever things done with it which will say far more about the organisations that interest him than the photographs alone are able to (to some extent this starts to happen in his series on undersea cables, but for me it is only a start). Reworked and deployed in this sort of way I think the work, as well as starting to explain it’s subject much better, would also start to pose a far more direct challenge to these entities. Of course Paglen might not feel that’s his job to do this, which is fair enough, but I consider this to be an essential part of this type of work. Such a challenge is not by any means easy to make, and as I said before I critique Paglen’s work here from a point of common interest since these problems are exactly the same ones which have troubled me about my own work on intelligence gathering. His failings (if you want to call them that) are also my failings, and the failings of a great many other photographers and visual artists working in this area who often remain more heavily weighted towards the role of being an artist than of being a researcher or activist (more thoughts on this soon).

The exception to most of what I’ve said here and by dint of it I think by far the most interesting part of Paglen’s work to date is a completely non-photographic part, indeed it’s a piece which verges on conceptualism for it’s artistic effect. It’s the Autonomy Cube, a Perspex box housing a custom motherboard developed by Jacob Applebaum (until recently a core member of Tor), which acts as an entry point to, and a relay for, the Tor network. Tor acts as a series of relays through which internet connections can be bounced, making it far harder (although by some accounts not impossible) to track the browsing habits and other information of people who use it. Like the wider use of electronic encryption, it has become part of an intriguing reputational battle in the aftermath of the Snowden document leaks, often depicted as an unholy gateway into the dark web and the preferred the tool of child pornographers and criminal hackers seeking to elude the authorities, Tor can just as readily be the means of journalists seeking to avoid surveillance, or ordinary citizens who don’t see why their browsing habits should become corporate property or be collected by dubious government information gathering programs. Intelligence agencies also often deploy the spurious logic that increased use of networks like Tor will require them to use ever more invasive means of information gathering, failing to recognise that it was precisely their development of invasive programs like Prism and Tempora which have led to a growing number of people to employ these technologies. The more relays Tor can call on the stronger the system is, and so by installing this router in a gallery Paglen does finally do something which poses a tangible challenge to the activities of intelligence gathering organizations like the United State’s NSA or Britain’s GCHQ, and even more gloriously he implicates the notoriously apolitical art world in the process at the same time (each time I see the autonomy cube installed, as it also is at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, I wonder with glee what gallery wrangles might have taken place before it was agreed to). By the additional step of inviting gallery visitors to connect to the router and exploit its offer of anonymity, Paglen exposes visitors to what previously might have seem mysterious or even taboo, and implicates them in a deeply modern analogue to older forms of civil disobedience. In the digital age, taking hold of our own data, and enforcing our privacy even against our own governments might be considered one of the final truly subversive, and genuinely challenging acts.