The Shadows of Doubt: Art, Distance and Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trailer for Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We Clean History’: Thoughts on Another Crimea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing the Drone War Home

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

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

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

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

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

Schmaltz and Secrecy: The Obama Legacy

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Detail from Situation Room showing classified documents in front of Hillary Clinton.
Pete Souza 2011 (wikipedia)

It’s the most inward form of photography writing to critique another writer’s thoughts, but reading a recent piece by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on the work of White House photographer Pete Souza was a reminder that this sort of writing is sometime badly needed. It’s needed in this case less because Jones is a useful or thoughtful critic worthy of consideration but more because The Guardian gives him a platform with such authority that someone, anyone, needs to periodically take him to task over his writing, which vacillates between acerbic hatchet jobs and simpering fan pieces (although it must be said that ever so occasionally he does get it right). In his latest piece Jones fawns over the photographs produced by Souza during Obama’s two terms in office, swallowing the narrative these photographs are intended to transmit without even a moment’s reflection on the circumstances of their production. Even as he praises Souza as a photographer, Jones seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of looking at photographs, which is to always remember the photographer’s role in their creation.

Photographs are not portals on the world which appear unbidden, they are not utterances are given voice without someone articulating them. They are considered constructions, whether constructed in the moment of their shooting (and before) or in their selection, arrangement, contextualisation, and dissemination out into the world. Jones, who is normally so ultra critical of photography (indeed once calling the medium ‘flat, soulless and stupid’ in the context of fine art) manifestly fails in the role of a critic to ask even the most basic questions of the Souza’s images. Souza is very proficient photographer, and it’s not my intention to denigrate him on that front, but his photographs are unavoidably the product of an extremely effective press machine, one which exists to stage manage and represent the presidency in a very particular light which has absolutely nothing to do with creating an objective ‘chronicle’. It’s not for nothing that the visual analysis blog Reading the Pictures often analyses White House photographs critically (ironically Jones even links to an article on the site, presumably without having read much further). These photographs might speak the language of documentary, but in any traditional sense they are not, and Obama’s presidental career and his legacy are far more complicated than these photographs suggest.

In the United States Obama might perhaps be remembered less for what he did during his time in office than for the way his election itself seemed to push America closer to realising its founding creed of equality (even if some of the major markers for racial equality show widening gaps). While that narrative might appeal to American citizens keen to believe that their nation is realising it’s long held aspirations, it might have much less resonance in some parts of the world where the fallout of Obama’s two terms are likely to be remembered quite differently. These photographs speak little if at all of the revelations of absolutely massive US surveillance programs, the prosecution of more whistle-blowers than any previous president, and the escalation of illegal drone wars which have killed thousands of innocent people in states with which the United States is not even at war. This is to say nothing of the failure to shut the prison at Guantanamo bay, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and Obama’s general record on secrecy, for example his administrations unwillingness to reveal the extent of the CIA’s torture program. Of course you can argue that mahy of these wrong doings were inherited, that Obama was just cleaning up his predecessors mess, or towing the presidential line, but to me doing so is a little like arguing about whether a photographer is responsible for a lab technician manipulating his photographs or not. These things happened (or in some cases didn’t) on Obama’s watch, and like it or not that makes these things as much a part of his legacy as Obamacare or his reset of relations with Cuba.

Souza’s photographs chronicle very few of these important things (in some respects it would be unrealistic to expect them to do otherwise) and where they occasionally do, as for example in the case of the now iconic photograph Situation Room, they do so in a way which is meticulously designed to send the ‘right’ message. In the case of Situation Room the calculated message is of a president taking his responsibilities incredibly seriously, indeed overburdened by them, surrounded by the wisdom of his accumulated advisors, and so on. The few truly informative details of this photograph is also the most overlooked; the blank laptop screens, a pixelated document on the laptop in front of Hillary Clinton and a binder on her lap marked TOP SECRET/CODE WORD/NOFORN (that last one the intelligence abbreviation for ‘no disclosure to foreign nationals’). These small items are to me the closest Souza comes to hinting at the true legacy of the last eight years, and indeed the last sixteen, which are a profound secrecy and the rigorous control of information. These are things which Souza as White House photographer is arguably a part of, and there have been regular criticisms from photographers and press organisations about the way the White House prioritises its own photography while restricting access for photojournalists. In 2013 Santiago Lyon, the Associated Press’s head of photography, went so far as to write a piece for the New York Times in which he accused the White House of exercising an Orwellian control over the presidents image with the intention of producing ‘a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.’

Saying all of this is not to underplay the historic significance of Obama’s election and presidency, nor is it to question his remarkable charisma and what in a different time might have been termed his ‘common touch’ which is certainly demonstrated in many of Souza’s photographs. It is however to question the extent to which these things become a dense smokescreen around the figure of the president and his administration, and the way that issues which are arguably of far greater importance than Obama playing games with small children or dancing tenderly with an elderly woman get shifted into the background as a result. It’s worth looking at Souza’s very similar photographs of Ronald Reagan, who I suspect many Obama advocates would harbour far less positive feelings about, to see how these moments feel when the subject is someone whose policies you don’t agree with. Souza’s earlier photographs say nothing of Reagan’s divisive economic agenda, his escalation of the Cold War, the Iran Contra affair, the Invasion of Grenada, his retrograde views on HIV/AIDS, or any number of other things which we might now consider to be indelible parts of his legacy. As it was with Regan, so it is now with Obama. If Jones wants a true picture of these last two terms then by all means he is welcome to include some of Souza’s official schmaltz, but if he wants that chronicle to have a grain of truth in it Jones will need to look beyond the photographs on Whitehouse’s Instagram feed. He’ll need to look for photographs which for the most part are still waiting to be taken, or daresay I say it, constructed. Photographs which wait to be given voice in the cells of Fort Leavenworth, amongst the server racks of the NSA’s massive data centers, and in the remote mountains of Waziristan.

History in the Making: Palmyra’s World Tour

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The reconstruction of the arch nears completion in Trafalgar Square.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A replica of Palymra’s Arch of Triumph has just been unveiled in London. The original was constructed by the Roman Empire and was believed to be over two millennia old by the time it was dynamited by Islamic State in late 2015. The group were later driven out of the site by Syrian government forces. The replica arch which now stands in London’s Trafalgar Square was engineered by the Institute of Digital Archaeology who created a digital model from photographs of the original, before having a replica made in Italy, where it was machine tooled from Egyptian marble by a robotic cutting arm. This new arch will soon go on to tour to other cities including Dubai and New York. “Antiquities like this belong to all mankind and it is imperative that we all strive to safeguard our common heritage,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson as he unveiled the recreation, apparently oblivious to the distinction between a genuine relic and its copy.

Photography is evidently mixed up in this recreation in very practical ways, as the means by which the arch has been so meticulously reconstructed. But photography also offers a model for the way we think about the relationship between original things and their copies. A photograph is not a window on another world, as some people like to think, nor increasingly even is it a trace of the thing it depicts. Photography is a pattern of tones and colours, and whether it be an analog print or a digital upload to Instagram the image lives far less in the medium itself than in our minds. The same one might say is true of history and it’s traces. In Phillip K Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, the plot revolves in part around an inflated market for icons of Americana, driven by the rapacious collecting of the Japanese soldiers who have occupied the country. In response an industry of fakes has arisen, with artisans producing items like wild west style pistols, carefully aged, but completely inauthentic. Everyone knows that these items are fake, including the collectors who pay huge sums for them, but no one has the will to speak this truth out loud. I feel something similar here.

The reconstruction of the arch has been questioned by some as a rather hollow act, a Disneyland attempt at history, and certainly for me the recreation of the arch calls to mind the underwhelming Stonehenge used as a stageset by the fictional rockband Spinal Tap. Others have criticised it as downright unethical. Martin Makinson from the Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology rightly highlights the politically contested nature of these sites and points to the way that the reoccupation of sites like Palmyra has become a way for the Assad government to reclaim a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of some in the west, even as it continues to torture and kill its own citizens. Any attempt to willfully recreate history says as much as an attempt to willfully destroy it and so the recreation is undeniably political, and attempt to pretend otherwise is disindigenous. The understated photograph above by Stefan Rousseau hints at this in the way it uses a section of the arch to frame Nelson’s Column, a victory monument in it’s own right, and in the distance the looming clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. One might say the same of attempts to occupy or colonise certain sections of the past, whether that occupation is undertaken by the descendants of the people who built what is being colonised, or it is done by foreigners acting in the name of humanity at large.

In this sense one might say that we are doing something not entirely dissimilar to what the Assad regime has done in making the rescue of Palmyra from Islamic State a military objective. In erecting and celebrating this arch in London, we are asserting our cultural credentials in an attempt to show that we are doing something tangible in response to this terrible and protracted war. The destruction of cultural artifacts is something most in the west can comfortably express outrage over, even if doing so just rather awkwardly reveals the gulf between our horror at the destruction of these irreplaceable ancient monuments, and an enduring indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people, every one of those people is just as irreplaceable. A particularly memorable chapter in Vassily Grossman’s Second World War epic Life and Fate consists of Grossman describing at length the absolute impossibility of constructing a computer which could think and feel as even the most average human being is able to. He then imagines the excitement that such a machine would engender among the techno-fetishistic German armies then ploughing their way across the Soviet Union. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the unbearable irony these people who would hail as miraculous a machine which could muster even a poor imitation of a human mind were actively exterminating millions of people.

Raising this arch of triumph also reflects a certain inability to remember recent history of our own, for example when our tanks rolled over ancient archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the American military set up a base on the site of what had been the ancient city of Bablylon damaging it enormously in the process. For me this amnesia rather poses the question of whether either of the two are worse; people who willfully destroy ancient monuments and culture because of an overdeveloped sense of what those objects represent, or those who destroy them because of the opposite, out of a sheer ignorance of their importance. There is needless to say also a certain irony in erecting this arch in London, one of the prime marketplaces for looted antiquities smuggled out of conflict zones like Syria, and a city with so many museums containing artifacts that are much more directly the spoils of state aggression and imperialism. Touring the arch to the art superpowers of Dubai and New York would seem to only underline this.

In contrast to the rhetoric of ‘great men’, true history isn’t something which can be made. History is something which accretes, congeals, weathers, falls apart and gets blown up, and which almost always has on it the traces of those who lived it, a deficit all the more apparent in the case of this copy because it has not been even been sculpted by contemporary human hands but by a machine. History is also a finite and naturally accruing resource, not something which can be synthesized or manufactured, and imagining that one can simply replace the past when it can no longer be put back together represents a terrible misunderstanding of what history is and how it relates to the present. It’s a misunderstanding not so unrelated to the conception of the present that imagines that things like drone bombing campaigns can recorrect our past foreign police mistakes, and which refuses to consider that these new innovations are in Marx’s famous words an example of history repeating itself (as tragedy in the case of the drone campaigns, perhaps as farce in the case of London’s paltry Arch of Triumph).

One wonders what future arcs of triumph will mark the War on Terror and the wider misadventures of the past two decades. In pondering this, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the Roman historian Tacitus. In writing his epic Agricola around the same time that Palmyra’s original arch was constructed Tacitus referenced the Scottish chieftain Calgacus and attributed to him one of the most remarkable speeches against Rome or any empire, one made all the astonishing because these bitter words were in fact almost certainly not those of the soon to be defeated Celt, but rather those of Tacitus himself, a Roman citizen. ‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.’

Terrordrome: Islamic State and the Savage New Times

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Videodrome

In the cult 1983 film Videodrome, Max Renn, a sleazy cable TV executive, stumbles across a mysterious signal apparently transmitting from the Far East. The station it carries consists of a video stream from a single room, where a series of people in orange smocks are tortured and murdered by black garbed executioners. As the film continues it starts to appear that Videodrome is something rather more than depraved snuff TV, it is the public representation of a mysterious group’s frightening ideology. Unperturbed, Renn sets out to track the makers of Videodrome down so he can broadcast it on his station, ironically named Civic TV. As he remarks to another executive, ‘better on TV than on the streets’. Rewatching the film recently I couldn’t help but wonder if someone on the media team for Islamic State might have been influenced by it. A flippant thought but not impossible given the film’s age and the international composition of the group. It may have just been that I was at the tail end of a long day but for a moment the parallels between the world portrayed in the film and the propaganda disseminated by Islamic State seemed irresistibly intriguing. As often happens one thought soon dissolved into another and I began to think that perhaps Videodrome is an interesting touchstone through which to think about the contemporary intersection between media technology and the extreme levels of violence employed on both sides in what the new (or perhaps really not so new) conflict between western states and so-called ‘so-called’ Islamic State.

At one point in the film a character pointedly asks Renn ‘Why would anyone watch a scum show like Videodrome?’ Why indeed. Videodrome is a chamber of horrors, a place where revulsion becomes compulsion, and compulsion becomes a deviant pleasure. Such a description will probably sound familiar to anyone who has been exposed to the ultraviolent political media of today, whether the visceral brutality of a beheading video or the flight of a guided missile as it curves gently on to a distant house or car. These things are nauseating and repel us, but they also often paradoxically draw us in and compel us to repeated viewings, as if repeated exposure to them will resolve their incomprehensibility into some meaning. This mixed inclination to watch or turn away, to view or to turn off, is in itself is nothing new. Sights of horror have always been tinged with a certain desperate fascination, the only change perhaps being in how technology allows us to view, and review these events, perhaps in the process coming closer to reaching some understanding or meaning, but I often think not.

In the pre-internet media landscape of Videodrome, the scene of violence is a discreet place, a geographically specific red walled room of torture and murder, and perhaps most tellingly it is also a cable TV studio with all the rigidity that space and technology implies. You go to the Videodrome to die, not the other way around. By contrast the Videodrome of today has started to feel rather as if it is all around us. As Europe experiences periodic attacks and conspiracies on its street, it has begun to seem as if any space might at a moment’s notice transform itself into a set piece of violence in the service of ideology. Consequently the possibility of finding oneself suddenly caught in this chamber of horrors seems in some ways more real than ever, even if for the great majority of us the likelihood of death by terrorism or war pales in significance next to so many other threats to which we pay little thought. Today’s Videodrome, or at least the sense of it’s wing-beats at your back, seems potentially ever present.

Part of the psychic preponderance of terror attacks in comparison to other threats  stems from their unpredictability and inexplicability, but also from the way these attacks are constructed in ways which lend themselves to being recorded and by passersby, who then distribute them on behalf of the perpetrators. This also is not exactly anything new, terrorism with it’s inherent asymmetry has often been about inflicting visual or psychic, not material or strategic damage. The change again perhaps lies in a change of technology, which allows even a relatively minor attack to achieve major airtime, and leads to such a state of terror that actual terrorist acts need not even occur to further perpetuate it. This is perhaps most clearly seen when new reports on even clearly unrelated crimes and disorders are often sub headed with the reassuring note that ‘the police are not treating this incident as terrorism related’ as if this diminishes the terror of someone being shot, blown up or stabbed. This pervasive sense of the potential for violence runs both ways, and in the aerial campaigns that western nations increasingly wage overseas a similar uncertainty reigns, that at any moment, any place could become a scene of a sudden destruction which is almost divine in it’s inexplicable and unanswerable quality. The aural similarity between drome, meaning a course or place for running, and drone, an informal term for the unmanned aerial vehicles known for their endurance and omnipotence, seems more than a little apt. The significant distinction is that while terror seeks visibility to magnify its effects, our violence does the opposite, more often eluding visibility.

Returning to the Videodrome, and without wanting to spoil the plot, what later emerges in the film is that the signal is is not originating from abroad at all. It is transmitting from the United States where the station has been created by a right-wing government cabal intent on hardening America for future conflict, presumably with the Soviet Union, by cleansing it of people that they believe are moral degenerates. Anyone who watches Videodrome develops a fatal brain tumour which distorts their perception of reality before eventually killing them. In this distorted reality it becomes impossible to determine what is real and what is not, the banality or absurdity of an event no longer offering any guarantee of its truth or integrity. By the end of the film Renn believes he has begun to physically transform, a VCR port has opened in his chest and his hand has fused to a gun which he uses to first kill his fellow TV executives and then the government conspirators. As Islamic State’s destabilising influence transmits ever more violently beyond the Middle East and into Europe, I would say we are being changed also, hardened by exposure to their violence and also to our own, whether we see it mediated on the screen or in Renn’s word’s ‘out on the street’. In spite of the political rhetoric, I think it’s hard to argue that terrorism isn’t changing us, or perhaps more accurately that we aren’t changing ourselves in response to it. As we become hardened, habituated to our own Videodrome signal, it seems that we collectively find it harder and harder to perceive what of this is real, and what is hallucination.

The Blind Eye and the Vision Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking up the Pieces

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Map purportedly showing site of US/UK drone strike on Mohammed Emwazi.
From @Raqqa_SL

As the somewhat disjointed nature of this post will indicate, it’s been hard to process the events that took place in Paris this weekend. That in spite of the fact that such things happen with depressing regularity in cities all around the world, as they did just a day before in Beirut. The Paris attacks have hit home with many I suppose because the city is so known, so at the heart of Europe, but also for me because they coincided with the Paris Photography Festival, and so countless friends, colleagues, teachers and students were in the city at the time. Miraculously it seems at the time of writing that no one from this photography community was caught up in the violence, although that makes little difference to what remains a huge loss of life, and particularly in an age when all of us are photographers of a sort.

The maxim that if you have a hammer you’ll see everything as a nail rings true for me in the wake of these events. As a photographer my response to too many problems tends to be to ask if by photographing or otherwise visualising it I can do anything useful about it. In this case, and in spite of my belief that photographs can be a powerful force for change, the answer is a resounding no. What the attacks in Paris have reminded me of, alongside the fragility of the ordered societies we in the west take for granted, and the preciousness of human life, is how very limp the type of photography I do is. This type of  authored photography that so many had converged on the festival to see, discuss and buy feels in a moment like this to be so irrelevant, so unable to react to events as they occur, only able to pick through them long afterwards, if even that.

At the same time though the aftermath of these attacks is also already demonstrating in another sense how very important and powerful photography is, and also how dangerous it can be. Not the authored photography of artists, or even journalists, but the forms of photography which are often overlooked or looked down on by many of these people. Imagery produced by a panopoly of what are often regarded as naïve, artless or automatic sources, from bystanders on the street, forensic investigators, satellites overhead. It’s too early to know if photography played a part in the planning of these attacks, but it will certainly play its part in the analysis of the aftermath, where the scenes of the crime will be meticulously recorded using conventional and unconventional forms of photography. I expect vernacular photography also will play a part in the reconstruction of the timelines of the attacks, perhaps as it did following the Boston Marathon attacks, as the mass of imagery and video produced by bystanders is pieced back together to give a fuller image of events than the forensic still-life of a crime scene photograph can.

Photography will play a critical part in casting the perpetrators, as more images of those suspected of plotting and executing the attacks inevitably emerge. However broad or fine the net that is thrown, Muslims, Arabs, Refugees, Syrians, or young men from the deprived Parisian suburbs, the imagery that is published of those involved will play a part in shaping the way people process what has happened, integrate these events into their experience and outlook on the world, and decide which groups are henceforth to be feared, suspected, watched and, inevitably, photographed. This process of revealing the perpetrators and the choice of how to represent them is problematic for many reasons (consider how a man killed in error by the counter-terrorist police was visually treated). It’s not least problematic in that, as the photographs that have been published of British extremist Mohammed Emwazi show, one person can have many guises for the camera.

Lastly I suspect photography will play a part in the promised ‘merciless’ retribution, likely the same type of retribution already visited on Emwazi by British and American drones, which ‘evaporated’ him in a joint attack a few days before the attacks in Paris. As much as a means of understanding what feels like an increasingly frightening and confusing world, photography also helps to make that world what it is. The camera is a part of the extreme asymmetry of modern conflict, where one side blow themselves up in spectacular attacks staged partly for the media, while the other side builds the camera into the very spear tip of it’s weapons systems, into remotely operated aircraft or the nose cones of guided missiles. Photography picks up the piece, but it also plays a part in the destruction.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #1: Discovery Award

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The Shilo Group/Vlad Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vadym Trykoz

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some the festivals highlights. To kick off, The Discovery Award is something I’ve heard people rave about in past years and so it was an obvious early point on my itinerary. The award tasks five curators with choosing two artists each who they believe deserve more recognition for their work. Here I pick out five of them that I think are particularly worth a look.

I’ve already written at length about Lisa Barnard’s book Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden, and it was nice to see it included in this award. I rate the work for a number of reasons, partly because of the politics that lie behind it and also because of the visual strategies Barnard uses to try and make those visible. Perhaps mostly I like it though because of all the artists making work about drones, Barnard is one of the few who’s work goes beyond purely mechanical observations about the technology. Given the complexity of the book the display for the discovery award packs an enormous amount into a relatively small space.

Robert Zhao Renhui’s A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World was another nice inclusion. Renhui’s project blurs the line between fine art photography, scientific research and perhaps also advocacy, by creating an extensive account of species which have been altered by mankind. This ranges from fish purposefully bred or coloured to give pleasing appearances, to bees which have spontaneously developed an addiction to soda. Viewed together these examples make for a rather damning indictment of man’s effect on the planet and it’s other inhabitants. Perhaps inevitably given the subject and appraoch photography is very controlled, even rather cold, which for me rather limited the amount of time I wanted to spend with it.

Pauline Fargue’s No Day is another display worth mentioning (and since writing Fargue has won the Discovery Award). The display consists of a series of a number of Fargue’s notebooks, produced over a span of twelve years and which function as places for her experiment with images and text. Within these books she cuts and pastes photographs, blending them with text and drawing and in the proccess producing a beautiful and inspiring body of work, modest in scale but and epic in scope. The work touches on no epic issue of the day, and the method employed is very simple, but as a meditation on photography and writing in one of it’s most intimate forms the work is very powerful. ‘Let no day pass without a line’ wrote Walter Benjamin but, he concluded, ‘there will be weeks’.

The Shilo Group (Vlad Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vadym Trykoz) are a Ukranian collective who’s work responds to the current state of their country and their display consists of three bodies of more or less inter-related work. Negatives are Stored consists of a series of crudely overpainted old photographs ‘restored’ as the collective put it, through the addition of surreal drawings some of which are varyingly touching, funny and entirely crass. The second project, Euromaidan, was published as a book last year and might be the group’s best known work. It documents the protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square in grainy black and white photographs, reminiscent of the photographs of 1970’s Japanese protest photography. Lastly ATO does similar with the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and is for me the most problematic of the groups work given it’s allusions to photography of the Second World War’s eastern front.

The final space is occupied by A Kind of Display by The Cool Couple (comprising Niccolo Benetton and Simone Santilli) and deserves recognition if only for the performative side of it. Their work, which focuses on the political, cultural and historical dimensions of the beard, includes a barbers chair and live barber offering visitors free shaves in the exhibition space. Aside from this their display consists of a series of beard photographs printed on barber’s smocks and three 3D printed heads of historic beard wearers. A little disappointingly the display itself rather fails to live up to it’s promise and doesn’t penetrate very far into what could be a very interesting (if masculine) topic.