Ukraine: One Year On

 

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Part of an analysis of purported satellite imagery of a fighter jet attack on Flight MH17,
Original image from Russian state TV, analysis by Bellingcat.

The violence in Ukraine has now been continuing in various forms for over a year, in which time its events and actors have both courted and eluded visibility. In turn, journalists and image makers seeking to reveal the conflict’s complexities, or to reduce it to simplicities, have employed a full gamut of visual strategies. For the next few weeks on the blog I’ll be focusing on a number of projects and topics related to Ukraine and Russia. From a return look at The Sochi Project’s epic An Atlas of War and Tourism to a rumination on the fascination in the west with the ruins left behind by the Soviet era. By way of introduction to these pieces here is an incomplete recap, a partial anatomy of the war of images in Ukraine.

For many of us on the outside the protests in Kyiv seemed like the opening overture to the conflict, even if to some in the country the causes and effects of events in the Maidan were less clear. Press coverage was intense, but as Donald Weber and others have noted, that coverage often tended towards reduction, towards extravagant scenes of almost medieval battle, or to the fetishisation of the fighters and their weapons. Less often photographers focused the quieter moments, rarer still those away from the centre of Kyiv, although there were some photographing these things. Chris Nunn, whose work will feature in an interview next week, continued to work in the west Ukrainian town of Kalush throughout the events in Kyiv, resisting the draw it exerted on so many other photographers.

If Maidan was the overture, the annexation of Crimea was perhaps the opening act, and one caught from the outset in photographs, particularly non-professional images circulated on the image sharing site Instagram. Widely reproduced were the photographs of Crimeans posing with the unidentified soldiers, the so-called ‘Little Green Men’ who were widely believed to have been Russian Special Forces. These images were quickly dubbed selfskies’ by a largely disapproving global media, perhaps at least in part disapproving because they had been caught so off guard by the annexation, and their own visual response to it proved to be so limited.

Again the tendency was towards simplistic interpretations of these Instagram images, and few noted their ambiguity. The expressions of more than a few of civilians suggested ambivalence, a desire to record a pivotal event, even if the subject was maybe unsure whether that event would turn out to be for good or bad. Others, admittedly a minority, displayed expressions that seemed at times to verge on defiance, even hostility, and captioned their photographs accordingly with phrases like ‘here they come’. There was also a strange ambiguity in the behaviour of the armed men themselves. Even as they were apparently happy to pose for photographs that would span the globe, they had stripped themselves of all identifying markers, an intriguing example of how modern war can negotiate an image hungry world, whilst at the same time still keeping it at arm’s length.

The takeover in Crimea was relatively peaceful, but events in Eastern Ukraine since have been anything but, as an escalating conflict has emerged between the Ukrainian armed forces and a separatist opposition whose precise make-up remains a matter of dispute. Media coverage has been varied, some photographers covering battles that evoke the devastation of the eastern front in the Second World War. More than a few have drawn comparisons between the ruins of Donetsk airport and those cities like Stalingrad. The implications of this comparison seem problematic in the context of a dispute where groups are often labelled fascists or neo-Nazis by their opponents. Other journalists have employed drones and similarly contemporary means to create sweepingly cinematic images and video, which likewise have their own visual power, and bring with them their own problems.

Amongst the melee of war some more specific flashpoints have emerged, where physical military struggles have entwined with visual and evidential ones. The Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 disaster quickly became a debate about visual evidence as both sides in the conflict, and the wider international community which had been affected by the disaster, sought to locate responsibility. On the pro-European, pro-Kyiv side of the divide, grainy images appeared to show a BUK anti-aircraft missile system in the area near the crash, and images were released of wreckage to indicate the correlation of damage with a BUK attack. In response Russian state TV released satellite imagery claimed to show a Ukrainian fighter shooting down the airliner, images later debunked as fakes and then widely parodied by internet users.

In a similar way to the war in Syria, the conflict in Ukraine has also seen the sophisticated use of visual data by activists seeking to apportion responsibility for attacks on populated areas and civilian targets. Coupled with on the ground stills and video of the moment and aftermath of such attacks, damning evidence of crimes by both sides is mounting. Groups like the Bellingcat investigative journalism group have used similar methods in an attempt to demonstrate Russian involvement in the conflict, employing a mixture of direction finding and satellite imagery to locate the launch sites of rocket and artillery attacks inside Russia.

And as this example suggests, there has been the gradual permeation of the conflict across the border into Russia, where official attempts to deny involvement have become increasingly unconvincing. The mothers of missing Russian soldiers clutching portraits of their sons, the photographs of Russians captured in Ukraine, and more recently the images of the wounded tanker, Dhorzhi Batomunkuev and his remarkable account of travelling from the far east of Russia to the front lines of Donetsk, all have undermined this narrative, and have all been heavily evidenced with photographs. With the unrest in Ukraine showing little sign of abating there is no doubt that events there will continue to generate images which set out to disturb or excite, simplify or complicate, evidence or obscure.

Review – Hyenas of the Battlefield by Lisa Barnard

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Following last week’s piece on new photographic horizons now seems like an apt time to take a look at Lisa Barnard’s recent book Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden. The book examines the increasingly strange turns that modern warfare is taking, evolving from an event for so long defined by physicality and proximity, but which now appears to be dematerialising, becoming ever more remote and abstract, at least for the antagonist if not the victim. Hyenas of the Battlefield looks specifically at the rise of virtual reality and simulated war systems and the growing use of remote weapons like drones. Barnard employs a scattered approach, looking with varying depth at a range of inter-related topics, and employing an enormous range of visual devices in the process, from traditional photographic documentation, to interviews, to appropriation and collage.

The first section of the book, Virtual Iraq, focuses primarily on an immersive simulation of an Iraqi city designed to aid soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by slowly, safely reintroducing them to the source of that trauma. This is aided by a mixture of virtual and physical simulated environments, props and even bottled smells of garbage and burning tires. The level of detail gone to recreate these environments is exhaustive, and yet at the same time the whole simulation seems somehow shallow and disappointing, more reminiscent of a gameshow set than a warzone.

Also featured in this section are two virtual people developed by the US military. One named Seargent Starr is a recruitment tool for the US Army programmed to answer military careers questions with a series of evasive and inane answers, punctuated by regular ‘Hooahs’. The other simulated person ‘Raed Mutaaz’ is an Iraqi, who can be set to a range of levels of hostility and is designed to culturally acclimatise soldiers preparing to deploy in the country. The strange and rather depressing thought one is left with is the question of how far the simulation is constructed to reflect reality, or how far the user of the simulation comes to view reality as a shadow of that simulation, or an event which must conform to the dynamic created in the virtual reality. It’s not hard to imagine a soldier, having trained with Mutaaz, coming to view all Iraqis as innately hostile.

The second, larger section of the book, Whiplash Transition, looks at tele-warfare and particularly the use of drones, a practice which has become increasingly instrumental in the foreign policy of the United States over the past few decades. Remote warfare was clearly attractive because it seemed to offer the best of both worlds, the ability for technologically advanced nations to continue to project their power around the globe, without the danger of interventions disintegrating into politically unpalatable bloodbaths. Enemies could be tracked, ‘fixed’, and despatched at the push of a button. War it seemed, could become almost without consequence. The reality has proved rather different, and we are increasingly aware that soldiers can suffer trauma even when the act of killing is profoundly distant, performed by semi-autonamous machines, and mediated by computer screens.

This section starts with a relatively conventional series of still life photographs of shards from the Hellfire missiles which drones typically launch against their targets (sometimes quickly followed by a second missile intended to kill those who go to help the victims of the first). These shards are the most literal consequences of these remote foreign policy decisions, proof as it were that these near virtual war still have a real life counter-part. Also in this section is an interview with a drone operator, and as in Omer Fast’s film 5000 Feet is the Best, the operator’s words are a strange mixture of defensiveness, conciliation and pride in his work. The interview text is surrounded by pages of bleak, blue aerial views of mountainous Waziristan, the border territory of Pakistan now indelibly linked with drones.

In the final section Barnard travels to and photographs The Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International, an arms trade show in Las Vegas. While this seems likely to offer the blandest source material in the book, it actually turns out to be one of the most interesting parts. Barnard photographs the trade show stands replete with sleek black killing machines, their storage crates, and includes plans of the vast show and it’s huge list of corporate exhibitors. As soldiers need to be shielded from war, so too it seems do salesmen and accountants, and particularly intriguing are the exercises in psychic deflection, the simulation and the nomenclature which spare the participants in these trade shows from having to actually discuss or consider the horror they make possible. This is what Julian Stallabrass in his introductory essay describes perfectly as the ‘armoured glacis of corporate bullshit’.

These people are the profiteers of modern war, the ‘hyenas of the battlefield’ as Bertolt Brecht called them in Mother Courage. They ought to remember another adage from the same play, that he who sups with the devil had better use a long spoon. As Fast indirectly suggested in his film, for now remote drones, guided missile strikes and long distance killing are relatively exotic ideas. A small number of countries more or less monopolise these things, and monopolise the right to execute their terrible power on other people with impunity. That imbalance won’t last forever, the machines won’t remain in the garden.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

Review – Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern

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Toshio Fukada
The Mushroom Cloud – Less than twenty minutes after the explosion (1) 1945
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Tokyo, Japan)

An unlikely approach to a troubling, yet familiar subject is often the most effective in resetting our way of viewing it. Kurt Vonnegut must have had a sense of this when he wrote Slaughterhouse 5, his remarkable anti-war novel in which time implodes and a traumatised veteran telescopes between his present, past and a future where he has been kidnapped by psychic aliens who resemble green drain plungers. Drawing inspiration from this novel and its spasmodic narrative is Tate Modern’s Conflict, Time, Photography, a major new show of war photographs. What makes this exhibition notably different from the many others that have been staged about conflict photography is the way that it abandons the typical curatorial rationales. Rather than dividing and arranging its constituent photographs by themes, eras or regions, Conflict, Time, Photography instead structures itself around the amount of time that elapsed between the conflict depicted in each photograph and the release of the actual camera shutter.

This chronology means that on first entering the gallery you are confronted by a puff of smoke, a photograph by Luc Delahaye showing the moment after an American airstrike on an Afghan Taliban position in 2001. In the same room are four remarkable photographs by Toshio Fukada of the Nagasaki atomic bomb mushroom cloud, billowing above the city about twenty minutes after its total destruction in 1945. Again, because the emphasis is on the elapsed time between event and photograph, images of conflicts from very different regions and time frames come to inhabit similar spaces simply because they were made with similar speed or slowness. As well as the chronological relationship there is some thematic closeness between the works in many of the rooms, but you sometimes have to search quite hard to find it.

Moving through the gallery the duration between image and event becomes longer, growing into weeks, months, years and eventually decades. Half-way through the exhibition an entire room is dedicated to works about the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, all of them (like Kikuji Kawada’s landmark 1965 book The Map) made some twenty or thirty years after the end of the war. Coming to the end of the exhibition the time elapsed between event and image is now nearing a century. The final photographs on show are from Chloe Dewe Mathews series Shot at Dawn, which records locations where First World War soldiers accused of cowardice or desertion were executed.

In the second to last room a corridor leads off to a hidden chamber housing an assortment of fascinating objects drawn from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in a display which takes an irreverent look at war and the selective memory and amnesia involved in its reporting and commemoration. From fragments of sunken battleships, to a cabinet of military horseshoes, the selection is bizarre and something of a relief from the sometimes rather worthy art photographs in the main show. However, great as the AMC display is, it’s inclusion here also seems rather strange because it doesn’t obviously fit with the theme of the main show and has more than enough interest to stand alone as an independent mini-exhibition.

The AMC room also highlights one of the main issues with Conflict, Time, Photography, which is one that afflicts many of the headline Tate Modern exhibitions. It’s just far too big, and the selection of work often feels flabby and indiscriminate, with multiple works from the same artists when one would have illustrated the same point perfectly. Two very similar pieces on bloodlines by Taryn Simon are a case in point, as is a huge wall of not particularly remarkable photographs of Ukrainian holocaust survivors by Stephen Shore. There is also often a sense that one is viewing works which are less concerned with commenting on the disaster that is war and which are more focused on vying to outdo the competition in aesthetic loveliness and conceptual complexity. To slightly misquote Vonnegut; ‘everything was beautiful and nothing hurt’ and amongst so much self-consciously artistic photography it’s actually the very few truly raw images (like Don McCullin’s Shellshocked Marine) that really stand out and linger on in the mind.

The selection of events featured is a little strange as well, with some occurring excessively, like the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In contrast there is much less focus on other wars and regions. I only recall four works about the Middle East for example, though they were for most part very good and included Walid Raad’s brilliant and bizarre pseudo-documentary record of Lebanese car bombings, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s remarkable series Fait. This is a startling collection of photographs about the desert battlescapes of the First Gulf War, which beautifully and spookily anticipate the breakdown in scale and distance inherent in the drone and satellite tele-wars of today.

The chronological structure of the main show is very interesting and does quite an effective job of reminding you how long the traces of war last on the physical surface of places, and the bodies and minds of the people exposed to it. The downside of it is that as you progress through the gallery and find yourself drawn further and further away in time from the events depicted in the art works and it becomes harder to engage with and particularly care about the conflicts they deal with (something somewhat exacerbated by the sheer volume of photographs). Dogged by this sense of image fatigue, I found myself wondering if a reversed chronology might have been more powerful, with visitors entering the exhibition instead starting with photographs showing events that occurred a century ago, and then drawing closer and closer to the actual act of conflict as they moved on through the gallery. Finally, turning a corner into the last room, one would find oneself confronted by Fukada’s terrifying and accusatory quadtych of mushroom clouds.

Conflict, Time, Photography is at Tate Modern from 26 November 2014 until 15 March 2015.

Review – Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power at The Imperial War Museum

Northern Ireland, 2006. South-east view of Golf 40, a British Army surveillanceDonovan Wylie

“Alongside the ‘war machine’ there has always existed an ocular ‘watching machine'” argued the theorist Paul Virillio in his 1984 text War and Cinema. With the development of technologies that can deliver a missile thousands of miles with an accuracy of a few meters this watching becomes particularly significant. As Virillio goes on to argue, in modern war seeing and destroying become increasingly closely bound, to the point indeed that what can be perceived is already lost. Surveillance and observation, actual and perceived, have become even more important in the intervening thirty years since this book was written, and these form the subject of Donovan Wylie’s new show, Vision as Power at the Imperial War Museum.

Bringing together five bodies of work shot in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq and Canada’s arctic north, Vision as Power documents an array of examples of what might be termed the architecture of military vision. Starting in Wylie’s native Northern Ireland, the first photographs show part of the vast network of British military observation posts constructed at the height of the troubles, with the purpose of turning Northern Ireland into what one resident described as a vast prison. These hill top towers form a strange mix of contrasting messages, at once camouflaged but also highly visible, secure but also isolated and exposed.

Following this, Wiley photographed the notorious Maze Prison, before and during it’s deconstruction following the Northern Ireland peace process. Photographed with a detachment reminiscent of the Bechers, the pictures included in this exhibition show the prison’s ‘sterile zone’, an empty space akin to a death strip between two high perimeter walls, overlooked by guard towers. Despite its name, the sterile zone appears increasingly populated with weeds and wild plants. Again what makes these images absorbing are the multiple contradictory layers at work in the architecture of this prison, which has to contain inmates, keep them separated and protected from each other, and protect itself from the possibility of attack from a hostile local population.

As is noted in the exhibition, surveillance in Northern Ireland was in some respects a large scale rehearsal for the way vision has been used in subsequent conflicts. Indeed following deconstruction of the army watchtowers many were shipped off to be reused in the new conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is where Wiley went next. The following room contains photographs of Baghdad’s ‘green zone’ showing the ancient looking concrete constructions of watchtowers, blast walls and other architecture intended to variously (and sometimes simultaneously) allow and restrict the vision of allies and potentially enemies. From these very solid, imposing structures Wiley then embedded with the Canadian Army in Afghanistan to document remote military fortifications that are quite the opposite. Often improvised with comparatively basic materials, the short term nature of these outposts is offset against the timeless mountain landscapes that surround them.

The final room consist of a series of photographs of LAB 1, a solitary unmanned radar installation in the Canadian arctic circle. These almost colourless photographs are the most peculiar in the show. They reveal a solitary cold war sentinel perched on an increasingly eroded ice ledge, waiting for an enemy that may never come, or indeed may no longer even exist (although the exhibition text is at pains to stress the growing possibility of conflict over resources in the arctic). LAB 1 also to some extent stands in place in this exhibition for the future of military vision. A future not so much of laboriously manned outposts, but of drones, spy satellites and other automated surveillance technologies. A future of military seeing which both allows vision on a new scale, and makes increasingly difficult any meaningful attempts at the type of counter-surveillance that Wylie is executing by making  these photographs.

And seeing these photographs as an act of counter-surveillance, I’d love to know more about the negotiations and machinations that must have gone on behind the scenes to make them possible. As is becoming evident in the unfolding NSA/PRISM saga, government agencies are often happy to intrude into the privacy of citizens (their own or someone elses), but less happy to find themselves on the receiving end of similar intrusions. As a different perspective on these current debates over surveillance then, but also as an inverted follow up to the Imperial War Museums brilliant 2011 exhibition on the art of camouflage, this show is highly recommended. Donovan Wylie: Vision as Power is on at the Imperial War Museum London untill Monday 21st April 2014.

When Documentary Becomes Art II

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Hilla and Bernd Becker

This is part II of a write up of an introductory talk I gave earlier in the summer on the relationship between art and documentary photography, how the two sometimes blur together and what the consequences are when this happens.

(Part I)

The sixties saw what is often termed as a ‘documentary turn’ in art practice. Various ideas exist to try and explain this ‘turn’ (a nasty phrase which almost suggests a type of nausea or illness), some of these theories pointing to factors external to the art world and others arguing it was a result of internal trends. In terms of external influences, perhaps following the end of the Second World War there was a lack of desire to see the world reflected in art. People didn’t want to be reminded of the destruction, the holocaust, and the drab, difficult conditions of the post-war years, they wanted to be distracted from it. by the start of the 1960’s the world, and particularly Europe, had recovered sufficiently that people had retained the desire for art which acted as a mirror on the world. This return to looking also obviously coincided the social and cultural foment of a decade that saw major events across the planet and beyond, from civil rights and the war in Vietnam to the lunar landings.

Within the art world the emergence of Pop Art in the fifties and sixties seems to have been significant. With a focus on mass media and particularly photography, and its tendency to relocate familiar objects into unfamiliar settings, it seems hard not to believe that this movement and its offshoots might have played a part in setting photography and art, fact and fiction, on to a collision course. Another argument is that this documentary turn reflected a growing sense of disillusionment with the prevailing abstract expressionism of artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Both had been heavily promoted in the post-war era by the American government (indeed even by the CIA) as part of the cultural cold war against Soviet socialist realist art, and to a lesser extent socially engaged European art movements like Cubism. The documentary turn was perhaps a backlash against this.

In terms of art photography Hilla and Bernd Becher’s photographs are a profoundly influential example of this documentary turn. Trained as artists, in 1959 the couple set out to document overlooked German industrial buildings in the Ruhr valley. They photographed these structures with a consistent, almost scientific approach before arranging their photographs into thematic grids or typologies, intended to reveal the structural similarities between buildings which had, like Karl Blossfeldt’s plants, evolved in isolation from one another. The approach and philosophy of the Bechers indeed owed more than a little to the inter-war New Objectivity Movement of which Blossfeldt, Sander and a number of other artists I mentioned in part i were closely associated.

The Becher’s success and subsequent tenure as teachers at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf produced a generation of photographers who employed a similar synthesis of art and documentary. Notable example include Thomas Struth and Candida Hofer. It’s a measure of the continuing influence of the Dusseldorf school (for better or worse, and many would say worse) that the most expensive auction price to date is for a photograph by another of its acolytes, Andreas Gursky.

In counterpoint to this ‘documentary turn’ the last ten or twenty years appears to have seen something of an ‘artistic turn’ in documentary practice. This has manifested in documentary photographers, and indeed some photojournalists, adopting the strategies of fine art in both the production and dissemination of their work. For example forgoing traditional narratives in favor of more unconventional ones, or in some cases abandoning narrative altogether and employing complex conceptual approaches to investigate subjects. Similarly documentary photographers are increasingly employing the economic and curatorial strategies of the fine art world , selling expensive limited edition prints in galleries and employing the byzantine language of fine art in statements about their work.

A good example of this new turn are Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Their practice has evolved  from something which far more obviously resembles traditional documentary photography (see for example their 2003 book Ghetto) to something more anchored in traditions of art photography and conceptualism (for example 2011’s War Primer 2, which employs techniques like appropriation and collage). This is often controversial, as with the duo’s 2008 piece The Day Nobody Died, a response to the Afghan War, embedding and censorship. Strangely many photographers were far more vocal in their criticism of the work for it’s use of such a conceptual strategy to talk about a ‘journalistic’ subject, than they were of the issues of embedding and press censorship which the work was actually commenting on.

The reasons for this ‘artistic turn’ in documentary practice are again difficult to precisely pinpoint, I can think of two fairly obvious explanations. It may be the inevitable response to a world in which almost everything seems to have been documented, and certainly the most visually arresting subjects have been photographed to excess. In such a world photographers are increasingly turning to subjects which require complex approaches to depict them in a compelling way, or even to depict them at all. How for example is a traditional photojournalist to effectively document drone warfare or cyber-terrorism?

Also I wonder if financial motives are also part of it. With traditional editorial markets evaporating, even established photojournalists are increasingly looking to a relatively buoyant art market to fill the gaps left in their income and this inevitably requires that the work they produce speak a particular conceptual and aesthetic language. When I interviewed Magnum’s Alex Webb recently he told me how print sales had increasingly replaced editorial work as the basis of his income. If this is the case for an established and well respected name, what hope is there for the rest of us?

As was established in part one of this short history, the mixing of art and documentary isn’t a new thing, even if it remains controversial in some circles. One has to question the value of these distinctions as anything but a form of photographic tribalism. All photography is on a very literal level documentary, since all photographs document something. Inversely even documentary photography in the most rigorously, intentionally unartistic sense still nessecarily includes characteristics that are inherited from art practice because this is where photography springs from, technologically and philosophically. Equally, however we might feel about it, today anything and everything is at risk of being appropriated as art, regardless of it’s original purpose or intent.

Review: 5,000 Feet is the Best at Imperial War Museum

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Still from ‘5,000 Feet is the Best’

Currently in the middle of a huge renovation project, London’s Imperial War Museum is running a skeleton display of exhibitions which includes a series of special displays and commissions under the banner of Imperial War Museum Contemporary. The first of these commissions is Omer Fast’s 5,000 Feet is the Best a thirty minute film about drone warfare and specifically about the pilots who operate these nightmarish machines from their bases thousands of miles away.

The story behind the making of the film is quite interesting in itself because it reveals the extent of the secrecy which still shrouds the drone program (they are after all routinely deployed in countries like Pakistan with whom the US is not even at war). Fast advertised online for drone operators, and had most of his adverts shut down by the FBI. Finally however he was able to arrange to meet a former pilot. This filmed interview, with the pilot’s face heavily blurred, forms the first of three narrative strands that make up the film.

The second strand is a series of repetitious excerpts from this interview, this time dramatised by actors. These take place in a strange and rather unpleasant hotel, where there is no daylight, and with long claustrophobic corridors that disappear off seemingly into infinity, perhaps intending to echo the inside of an aircraft, or the control pods where the drone pilots work. The final strand of is a series of pieces of aerial footage of locations in the United States, sometimes tracking in slowly on a building, at other times following a child riding a bike down a suburban road. The film flits between these strands, creating a disconcertingly disjointed narrative that attempts perhaps to emulate the pilot’s experience of fighting in a foreign war from the very heart of the US.

The most interesting part of the film are the insights offered by the interview with the pilot. In much mainstream media drone warfare is characterised in terms of computer games, a cliché the accuracy of which is both confirmed and dismissed. For example the pilot explains how some of the operators go home at the end of the day and play computer games before bed, a bizarre image. At the same time he contradicts the image of drone pilots as spotty nerds disconnected from the brutality and mayhem they unleash on strangers thousands of miles away.

For example he talks lucidly about the challenges of trying to avoid killing innocent people, and how he rationalises it by telling himself if he wasn’t doing it someone else would be, someone less skilled, and more likely to kill the innocent. He also discusses his experience of post-trumatic stress, still strangely a risk of the job despite the fact he is never directly in harm’s way. He also reveals that like much modern military activity the job is often profoundly boring, for example one assignment required him to keep watch on the same house for ten hours a day for a month.

While this interview is fascinating, If I’m honest the other bits of the film feel rather clumsy and awkward, as if Fast didn’t really get enough footage of the interview and is rather desperately trying to fill the gaps. At one point, in an attempt I suppose to really bring home the awfulness of drone warfare, the narrative moves to following a nice American family transplanted into an alternative reality America which is occupied by a foreign power (China judging by the characters and uniforms). Needless to say they end up being killed by a Chinese drone when it attacks three American insurgents who are burying an IED on a remote road. It’s shocking, but in a ‘Game over, restart level’ sort of way. 5,000 Feet is the Best is screening at the Imperial War Museum until 29th September 2013.

Copyright and the Right to Copy

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Once again thoughts that have been swimming around my head for a while have been given a kick up the backside by reading someone else’s writing. This time it was Ben Robert’s recent post on his experiences of having a set of photographs go viral, and the mixed blessing of heightened exposure, versus the fact few of the sites that reused his images asked him, let alone offered to pay him for them.

With Royal Assent just recently given to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act it seems like a pertinent time to add a few comments of my own. This piece of legislation basically legitimises the use of orphan photographs (images that lack metadata identifying their owner) by more or less anyone who wants to provided they make a very perfunctory effort to track down the actual copyright holder. Of course the problem with this is that maybe the majority of photographs online are orphans, and for those that aren’t it’s a simple process to strip the copyright holder’s metadata out and behave as if they were always lacking that information. A pretty vile piece of legislation.

I’ve had similar experiences to Ben although on a much reduced scale and it is annoying, and potentially commercially damaging. But I’ve also got to admit I’ve done the same thing to other people. I’ve used hundreds of images on my blog without making any effort to contact the copyright holder. A number of my past and present projects have repurposed imagery from a wide range of sources, some of it public domain material, some of it stuff that was lifted electronically or physically out of magazines, newspapers, advertising. And I’ve made dozens of photomontages that made use of other people’s photographs, again images in the public and private domain (for example the image above, inspired by the recent news of Reaper drones operating from UK air bases)

So I’m in the odd position of having had my own copyright flouted, and having routinely flouted that of others. Coming this perspective I often wonder if it’s realistic to talk about copyright in this sense in an age of such image abundance and availability, in an age where photographs are so often described in terms that suggest they are valueless just because they are photographs, almost irrespective of what they actually show.

I also wonder if we can find any acceptable grey zones for image appropriation. In collage or photomontage for example, is it acceptable to ‘steal’ three images to make a new one if the meaning or effect of that new image is radically different and original? And if not does that mean these techniques are always morally wrong? In the case of collage which almost always relies on appropriation that would surely mean the extinction of an entire genre. What is at stake when a photograph is made or appropriated? Is it what can be visually perceived, by which I mean the substance or content of the image. Is it the idea contained in the image. Or both?