The Market: An Interview with Mark Curran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monsanto: An Interview with Mathieu Asselin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review – Spirit is a Bone by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

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The Arbitrator
from Spirit is a Bone by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

One of my aims for this year is to drastically reduce the number of reviews I publish here. For a brief period this way of engaging with work was good for me, and I felt a vague sense of satisfaction when people described me as a critic. Increasingly though I dislike the word with it’s implication of being an all knowing arbiter or judge of what is good and bad in photography. I would much rather use this platform to share thoughts which more generally reflect on the shape and direction of the medium, rather than as a way to pronounce judgement. It seems a little suitable to draw my reviewing phase towards a close by returning to a new title by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, a duo who’s work I have often written about in the past, sometimes quite savagely. In spite of the commonly held belief that I have some sort of vendetta against the pair, I think that of all the work made in recent years on the fault line between art and documentary practices, theirs is amongst the most interesting. War Primer 2, for all my criticisms of it, was also quite brilliant, as a photographic strategy and as a critique of contemporary events. In general it’s always been a policy of mine not to write about work I really hate, because what after all is the point of expanding energy on something which you consider to beyond hope?

Broomberg and Chanarin’s new book Spirit is a Bone does what I would say the duo do best, which is to collide quite different photographic sources and influences into something very interesting and maybe just a little messy. The best resolved and polished projects are sometimes the least interesting, the ones with frayed edges often the most thought provoking and the most open to intriguing readings, and I think that is particularly true of their work. In this case they are colliding the structure of August Sander’s seminal documentary project Face of our Time with a contemporary surveillance technology. Sander’s work is so well known as to hardly require introduction. It consisted of a huge and somewhat idiosyncratic attempt to document the make-up of early twentieth century German society through an extended series of portraits. Documenting people by profession, vocation, politics and other esoteric markers, Sander produced hundreds of portraits between 1911 and 1929 when the book was published, quickly becoming a key work of Neue Sachlichkeit. The work was overshadowed by the rise of German Nazism, both because the Nazi party reacted badly to Sander’s vision of what Germany was, but also perhaps because in the longer term the use of systems of racial and political categorisation in Nazi repression has cast Sander’s own methods in a light which can seem awkward to contemporary viewers.

The surveillance technology which Broomberg and Chanarin employ is a form of facial recognition software system developed in Russia from ANPR. This new system creates a three dimensional model of a subject’s face by compositing viewpoints from multiple CCTV cameras as they move about a city like Moscow. The result is what the developers call a ‘non-collaborative portrait’ in reality a point cloud but rendered as a three dimensional photograph imperfectly mapped with skin and other details for the benefit of human viewers (a good reminder that what we think of as facial recognition vision is never what the machine sees). Using this technology Broomberg and Chanarin have photographed a series of contemporary Russians whose occupations or identities correlate with the categories used by Sander to title his portraits of early twentieth century Germans. Facial recognition technology has evolved since its earliest days in a cat and mouse game between it’s developers and those who are conscious of it and seek to evade it. As each side innovates the other must respond. What this technology takes account of it that while clothing, hairstyles, expressions and other features might be changed to fox cruder automated recognition, the shape of the face, and the underlying skull, are unique and permanent. In this sense this technology then has a resonance with the discredited practice of phrenology, the determination of character through measurements of the skull, something very much in vogue in Sander’s time, and in which photography had an awkward complicity.

The 3D images (I hesitate to say photographs, but perhaps that’s exactly what they are) that result from this contemporary surveillance technology are compelling and strange, disembodied faces which at times disintegrate into seams and glitches. The duo have compared them to digital death masks, but this comparison, while undoubtedly making for a catchy headline is less apt I think than describing them as digital life masks. The life mask has been overshadowed in contemporary knowledge by its rather more morbid sibling, but for a time enjoyed a similar vogue and there was particularly a market for life masks of the celebrities of the day. In the era before photography, the life mask was something with some comparable traits, an object which bore a direct and very tangible physical relationship to the person it represented. The process of making one was long winded and in some respects quite coercive, also not unlike early forms of photography. Reportedly when Beethoven sat to have his made in 1812 he panicked mid-way through the process, overwhelmed by the intense feeling of being smothered by the heavy plaster mould, and in the panic the mask was destroyed and had to later be recast.

There is an apt metaphor buried in here I think for our relationship with technology and the way that surveillance is less a subset, category or consequence of technology. Rather it is starting to feel like something which is inherent to almost all the technologies we own and use, from smart-phones to smart-kettles, and even technologies which were never intended for surveillance now seem to be routinely retro-programmed to fulfil this task. We live within a web of devices in public and private which survey and monitor and which we only occasionally and briefly feel the burdensome weight of as they cast their sensors across us. In the rapidly progressing field of automated visual surveillance, the technology featured in Spirit is a Bone is now relatively out of date, an acknowledgement which inevitably makes one wonder what new nightmares are currently being developed and deployed. In an interview included in the book, Professor Eyal Weizman of Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture Centre draws the conversation towards the algorithmic anticipation of behaviour, a practice with evident resonances of phrenology, and another growth area of surveillance, often justified by it’s proponents by reference to the imperviousness of terrorist cells to traditional forms of infiltration and observation. To think these technologies and their ramifications are simply limited to the presumed future-guilty is a mistake, they judge us all, and make potential criminals of us all. At what point I finally wonder will the weight of these technologies induce more than mild curiosity or slight alarm. When will begin to feel the smothered by our digital life masks.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself, also NB in case you didn’t read the first paragraph closely I have some form with the work of Broomberg and Chanarin)

Interview: Alice Myers, Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun

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Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun, Alice Myers

While I recognise that Disphotic’s focus on thinking and talking about photography is a niche interest (and that’s putting it mildly), I think it’s important that these rather specialist discussions are guided by bigger issues in the world. Hence the recent focus over the last six months on the role of photography in Europe’s immigration and refugee crisis, from exposing a fake Instagram account masquerading as that of a Senegalese migrant, to examining Norbert Baska’s questionable refugee themed fashion photographs. From Kiki Streitberger’s still life portraits of the personal possessions of Syrian refugees, to Phil le Gal’s epic New Continent project. Today I turn to Alice Myers’ Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun, which focuses on Calais’s informal settlements and refugee inhabitants in a way which is marked by quite a different approach and length of engagement. Recently I met up with Alice to discuss photography, politics and books and the interview that follows is the result.

Hi Alice, could you start by telling me about how you first became interested in making work in Calais and around the topic of refugees, was it during a similar surge of public and media awareness of the issue or did something else first start you thinking about it?

I had been thinking a lot about the narratives that people attach to landscape. I had been working in Ireland with a group of people who had been combating the installation of a gas pipeline, and then I went to Arizona and spent some time on the border with Mexico photographing the trails people use to walk through the desert. So with Calais I was interested in the idea that there could be an invisible border in the sea, and in where in fact that border lay, and in the way borders permeate so that the walls of a truck can become a frontier.

But throughout all these projects the more interesting questions were around finding ways to use photography in politically fraught situations that felt open and respectful (or that I felt I could at least live with), while acknowledging the complexities of the power dynamics created by arriving as an outsider and pulling out a camera. While working in Calais I became more aware of this thread and these questions became a much more visible part of the work.

That question of the power dynamic is interesting, I think if you are the type of photographer who is conscious of these problems there is often the hope of finding a way of working that takes them into account and perhaps neutralises them to some extent. There’s a very noticeable participatory element to the project, certainly compared to much of the recent work I’ve seen on refugees and migration, but when we chatted before you mentioned that one of the difficulties of that was getting the participants to understand what you wanted to do and why, could you explain more?

The word ‘participatory’ can be used for so many different things. While I opened up the project to input from others, and responded to what people were interested in doing, I’d hesitate to call this participatory because I was in full creative control of the output. When we spoke before I think I mentioned what a complex thing consent is, and as in any project I had to be really careful to make sure people fully understood how the pictures and interviews were for. It was also important to leave space for them to change their minds.

I guess no matter how carefully I explained the project, some people weren’t familiar with the kind of book I was making, and they were very surprised by the photographs I chose to include. While I gave people prints of the photographs I took, they weren’t really the audience I was making the work for. This question of audience is really interesting, and I’d like to take it forward into future projects.

Can you flesh out your working process when you were in Calais, did you have a certain approach in what you were looking for or was it more a matter of seeing what was there and what happened and who you met and reacting to things as they occurred?

I was very aware of the role photography plays in the policing of borders, of the dominance of imagery that presents migrants and refugees as either victims or criminals, but also of the importance of photography for migrants trying to keep track of their lives. I think we all probably take photographs partly to remind ourselves that we exist, but that becomes more of an urgent project if you are legally non-existent.

So I was trying to enter into this fraught situation in a way that felt respectful and open, using the camera as a starting point for interaction. But I was also constantly questioning my role as photographer, and also as a gatherer of material. I’d worked on the US/Mexico border before and it took a lot of work to get to the point where it felt OK to even begin to use a camera. My approach was to make these questions present in the work, so that the tensions and negotiations are visibly being worked out in a way that I hope is more interesting.

So my process was really just finding a way to be in that space with a camera. This involved a lot of photographing people and giving them prints afterwards (none of these images are part of my edit), or filming something in a space and waiting for people to approach me and get involved. I had a project explanation in English, Arabic and Pashtu, which said I was not a journalist, I was doing a project and people could get involved in whatever way suited them or not at all. I suggested they might want to write something, draw something, record an interview, share the photographs on their phones with me or work with me to make a portrait which did not disclose their identity. Some people had lots of ideas for my project and I worked with them over the longer term, each time I went back. With others it was a more fleeting interaction.

I work in a very slow way, which I tell myself is about being responsive to what I find but may also be about a reluctance to pin things down. So I gathered masses and masses of material, and then spent a couple years narrowing it down, figuring out what it was about. There are hours of recording and videos that I decided not to use.

I find that resistance to pinning things down interesting point because I think the refugee crisis has been marked both by a mass of reporting, almost to the extent that it’s hard to know where to start, and also by reporting which is often really lacking in nuance, which is often very much about making black or white distinctions. It’s interesting that you included the fact you aren’t a journalist in your explanation of the project. Did you feel that distinction made a difference to your participants, and also did you encounter many journalists and if so what was there reaction like to the idea of someone producing art about a topic like this?

I completely agree with your first point, though I feel like ‘refugee crisis’ should always be in inverted commas, as the crisis is more about the failure of our European governments. The other reason to not pin things down is that a concrete, bulletproof and logical story is what is required of refugees to justify their presence here. I didn’t want to reproduce that demand.

I’m not sure [saying I wasn’t a journalist] made that much of a difference to participants, I think they mostly just assumed I was a journalist anyway. And then a few people probably thought I was a spy of some sort. Though I think some people were really interested in the long-term and collaborative aspects of the project (they had lots of ideas for photographs or text to include). The thing that might have made more difference was stating that I wasn’t interested in photographing them directly. That I didn’t want to photograph their faces. I think for some people just being handed something to read in Arabic made a difference.

I’m not anti-journalist, but the distinction about not being one maybe made more difference with the activists I worked with. Many activists who work in border situations are understandably suspicious of photojournalists, mostly because of one or two really bad experiences they’ve had with individuals being exploitative or disrespectful. Although I didn’t work formally with activists, I spent a lot of time in squats that they had helped to set up and was friends with several people who might not have called themselves activists, who continuously housed 5-15 people. I think they saw and appreciated that the project was slightly different.

So the result of this process is a book, perhaps to end you could say a little about why this felt like the right format for the work?

I’ve tried a number of different formats for this work and I’m really content to have arrived at the book. Because the project is a collection of fragments, the book leads people through the material, but gives them space to take their own time with it. It also allows the text to be central to the project, without forcing associations between specific images and pieces of text. I guess I also wanted to give a sense of Calais as this in-between space where logic doesn’t apply, and the book format allows you to create an immersive environment.

See more of Alice’s work at www.alicemyers.net

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.

Interview – Christopher Nunn

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Jewish Cemetery, Kalush, February 2014

Christopher Nunn is a British documentary photography who since early 2013 has been photographing regularly in Ukraine. This period has coincided with popular protests in Kiev leading to the overthrow of the pro-Moscow government, the Russian military annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and hostilities in the east of the country between the Ukranian army and armed separatist groups. For me what marks Nunn apart from many of the photographers making work about Ukraine is that his focus is invariably away from the front-lines, looking instead at the everyday lives of people living (sometimes very distantly) with the country’s unrest. As a result Nunn’s photographs seem to reveal much more about how Ukraine has got where it is, and where it might be going, than many of the projects which linger on the spectacular events effecting the country. We recently had a short chat about the background to his work and some of his motivations and interests in making it.

To start off, I think you’re based in Huddersfield in Yorkshire, something of a far cry from Ukraine. Could you explain how you came to be photographing there?

I’d been interested in Ukraine for a while. I first went there in 2006, and then again in 2007 after travelling across Russia. I also went back for a short trip in 2010. All these trips were with my girlfriend at the time, who had a Ukrainian granddad. My grandmother was born in Kalush, which was part of Poland then, but left when she was around 15 years old. When I decided to travel back to Ukraine at the end of 2012 my grandma was very ill from a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and I was getting more interested in her history which we actually knew very little about. It was also quite a difficult time for me because I’d just come out of a 6 year relationship and I felt like I needed to do something. Looking back I guess I was learning how to be on my own again, so starting off in Ukraine alone seemed to make sense. I had no idea what I would find in Kalush, but after walking around for a while I realised that I actually ‘felt’ something for this place, and that was important for me, and that’s why I continued to make work there.

It’s sad but seems a little fitting that your grandmothers struggle with Alzheimer’s would lead you back to Ukraine. My brief experience of the country was of one with an awkward relationship with it’s own past. It felt to me as if there was uncertainty in many places about which parts of the past to celebrate, and which to turn away from. I see hints of this in some of your photographs from Kalush, but I wonder if you noticed or thought about this much yourself?

Absolutely, and this is something that I thought about more over time. For a start, my grandmother’s ethnic status was always in dispute. She said she was Polish, but her childhood friend who came from the same village and left for England at the same time swore she was Ukrainian. She never seemed sure about whether she missed her ‘motherland’ and had fond memories of it, or whether she hated it. She changed her mind all the time, and seemed to struggle with her own past. This is something I found interesting, and I’ve always been fascinated with memory anyway. This is something I was thinking about, especially early on.

With regards to Ukraine’s awkward relationship with it’s own past, manifestations of this became more apparent as the crisis escalated. I was in the east and west at various times, so I saw protests for closer integration with the EU, and the opposite in the east, with a rejection of this and calls for unity with Russia. These ideas about the future of Ukraine say a lot of people’s opinions about its history I think.

There are different heroes of history in different parts of Ukraine, Bandera and Lenin being a few of the obvious ones in light of recent events. An example of this would be something I saw recently in Slavyansk, which was the epicentre of the insurgency at one point, and is now under the control of the Ukrainian army. The big Lenin statue in the main square now has a yellow and blue scarf around his neck. There are many notes, pictures, political messages and poems on the pedestal, written after the liberation of Slavyansk. Someone had written “You cannot destroy Lenin. It is our history” and underneath it, written by someone else “Lenin is our tragedy.”  I’m very interested in this conflict of beliefs and ideas, which are all related to people’s perception of the current situation in Ukraine, as well as their understanding of it’s history.

You mention the crisis in Ukraine. This manifested initially and perhaps most visibly in the protests around the Maidan or independence square in Kiev. It’s interesting to me that while so many photographers flew in just to focus on events in the Maidan, you were already there in the country and yet chose to stay away from Kiev. Was there any particular reason for this?

Well I was actually in Kalush in November 2013 when Yanukovych refused to sign the association agreement with the EU, which is what kick-started the Euromaidan movement.  A lot of people were talking about this at that time. I returned to Ukraine in January 2014, first to Donetsk and then to Kalush. I had no plans to cover anything political really, but by the time I arrived in Kalush in February I could see that the growing political tensions were beginning to manifest themselves there. There were small barricades in front of the police headquarters to stop more riot police going to Maidan, and local people were guarding them around the clock.

I spent some time with them, and one night got talking to a young man who was probably the first person I’d met in Kalush who could speak English. He worked in the local UDAR office (Vitally Klitschko’s political party) and we talked about politics and what was happening in Kyiv. By this time I really wanted to go to Maidan, but it was being so heavily covered and there were so many photographers and all the big agencies already there that I decided to stay.

I’d always been interested in small stories that are part of a bigger picture, and because I’d already been making work in Kalush for a year and had a personal connection to it, thought it made more sense to stay there. At the end of February I went back to Donetsk when the so called ‘Russia Spring’ (the east’s rejection of the Euromaidan movement) was starting to happen, and there were a lot of protests and government buildings being stormed by protestors.

You’ve remained photographing in Ukraine as events in the east have unfolded (that again seems to make you something of a rarity as so many others left once the dramatic events in the Maidan ended). You’ve since photographed Ukrainian army conscripts and the lives of ordinary people in the east, amongst other things. I can see your strategy of focusing on smaller parts of the bigger pictures makes sense as a way to respond to the vastness of this conflict, but how do you decide which parts are important?

Well since I’d already been photographing in Ukraine for almost a year before Euromaidan it was just natural to continue after the events in Kyiv came to an end and the crisis deepened across the county. With regards to focusing on smaller stories, most of it came naturally just from being there and exploring. It’s not so much about me deciding what’s important as such, but more often than not it’s moments that are not directly related to the conflict that seem to stick. My path naturally developed into trips between east and west at various important points along the timeline of events and during a period of massive transformation, so in some ways the work is a reflection of that time. I spent time with a huge mix of people, from patriots in the west, to ethnic Russians and supporters of DNR in the east, as well as pro-Ukrainians in Donetsk region. I met people who love Ukraine and hate Ukraine, or who don’t care either way. I began to understand how complicated the situation was, and I felt it was different to what was in the news or on social media.

I was seeing hints of war and political tension everywhere, often in very mundane ways, and it directly touched a lot of the people who I knew before the crisis began.  My photos are a response to everything I was seeing, thinking about and doing at the time. From the start, I felt like I was experiencing all these little glimpses of people’s lives and situations that were connected somehow to Ukraine’s recent history and current state. During later trips I worked with journalists and visited destroyed towns and soldiers in battalions and things like that, but it’s the situations and meetings that happen naturally, when I work alone, that are most important to me.

As final questions go it’s rather an obvious one but what’s next? Do you see these different stories ultimately coming together as one body of work at some point in the future or will they remain as separate fragments of the current state of Ukraine?

I’ll keep doing what I’m doing until I feel satisfied. I think there will be one main piece of work made during the last few years, and continuing for the next year or so, and maybe a few smaller projects. Perhaps they will be separate chapters that branch off from the main body of work. I have a few ideas that I am trying to arrange.

See more of Chris’s work on his website.

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 – Analemma by Vivian Sassen at The Photographers Gallery

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Viviane Sassen, Biotope, Purple Fashion, Spring/Summer 2004
© Viviane Sassen, Courtesy of the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery

While I’m interested in the cultural role of fashion photography, I have to admit that on an aesthetic (or, dare I say it, artistic) level it’s a genre I often struggle to get excited about. Despite this I was pleasantly surprised by Analemma, a new installation by the Dutch fashion photographer Vivian Sassen at The Photographers Gallery. I found the images in Analemma to be far from conventional examples of fashion photography, and to be a source of lots of interesting ideas about the genre and the industry it supports.

Not unlike the Lorenzo Vitturi show which appeared previously in the same space, Analemma is one of those rare shows where the installation deserves almost as much discussion as the photographs themselves, indeed the two are  inseparable in this case. There isn’t a single physical photograph on display in the gallery, instead a rolling stream of projected images are bounced off mirrors and cast across the floor and walls at strange angles, cropping and distorting the photographs in the process. For all the disorientation it causes you as a viewer (and the frustration it causes for writers trying to identify single images to talk about) it’s a surprising and rather refreshing way for a photographer to treat their work.

More importantly it’s all in the cause of making a point about the frenetic pace of fashion and photography, the constant demand and turnover of ideas and images, and the essential disposability of it all. Viewing the projection is initially an elating experience because of the speed and glitz of it, but over a longer curve of time it starts to become rather deflating and tiring as image washes over image and the eye is overloaded. Whether this is intentional or not isn’t quite clear, but even if not it seems like a rather apt effect, as I imagine this feeling isn’t far off the experience had by many who are embedded in the fashion world itself.

Turning to the images themselves then. Sassen has built up an enormous reputation and a price tag to match for her photographs, which combine a number of motifs to strong effect, and I just want to quickly examine three of these here. The first motif or trope is the way she uses and frames the bodies of her models. Sassen’s images tend make use of unconventional, and frankly often uncomfortable looking contortions and poses, which result in many little visual riddles for the viewer to unpick. I enjoyed these very much, the array of tricks she employs is incredibly wide and there’s little repetition of the same ideas, a tough thing to achieve in any area but particularly so with something so extensively photographed as the human body.

Another trope in her photographs is the tendency to mask any sign of her models as individuals, for example by physically covering or photographically distorting their faces. This approach is pitched rather as a conscious strategy on Sassen’s part, intended to remove the potentially dangerous cult of celebrity from the fashion genre. She’s maybe successful in that regard, but the resulting images take the popular view of fashion models as little more than ‘human clothes hangars’ to a new level of truth. The models are literally that, models, not people, and there’s a level of depersonalisation here which at times verges on the fetishistic. I imagine this is part of the success of the images in a fashion context, but it is a little more complex in the setting the photographs now find themselves in, and a rather deeper examination of this than I have space for is demanded.

The final motif in Sassen’s images is the use of bright colours and shapes which she traces back to her upbringing in Kenya, somewhere she recalled in an interview as a place of ‘vivid colours and strong contrasts of light and dark’. It’s easy to see this visual influence in her use of shape and colour, but the influence of Africa runs deeper in her work than this, and there are traces of it evident in things like the selection of models and sets, and the way that these are dressed and lit (the photograph I’ve used to illustrate this piece was picked with that point in mind).

Sassen’s style of photography is enormously influential, so much so that some high street chains have attempted to copy her signature style, albeit rather less effectively. With this in mind I think it’s irresistibly tempting then to ask why it’s taken a Dutch photographer to popularise this sort of ‘African’ imagery in the fashion world when one imagines there are indigenous African photographers working with similar visual references. This question seems particularly pertinent given Sassen’s Dutch nationality, a country with quite some colonial history in Africa, and beyond. Viewing her work and mulling over these thoughts I couldn’t help but see something of a parallel with Vlisco fabric, a product which seems quintessentially ‘African’ but which is produced in Holland for lucrative export back to the continent (the thought of it was particularly strong because Vlisco was a key motif in the Lorenzo Vitturi show I mentioned earlier).

There’s something at work in these photographs, something which I think reflects the much larger practices of the fashion industry, and in capitalist consumerism more generally. That is the tendency to appropriate, homogenise and repackage aspects of a culture which are for whatever reason perceived as appealing, often with little respect for the culture itself or it’s custodians, but with a singular view to making money. Making this point this isn’t exactly to accuse Sassen herself of a sort of cultural appropriation, I think the connection she feels to Africa is most likely genuine, but I think it may be at least a small part of her success in this industry. Sassen’s work is very interesting, and this show comes highly recommended, but it also I think rather inadvertently highlights some of the difficulties of transplanting photographs primarily produced in the service of profit, and viewing them instead in the context of art.

Analemma: Fashion Photography 1992 – 2012 is on at The Photographers Gallery from 31 October 2014 – 18 January 2015

‘Use Photographs as Weapons’ On the Value of Photomontage

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Branch of Peace
Lewis Bush for IdeasTap

This is my final week as resident editorial artist for the creative charity IdeasTap. Over the past nine weeks I’ve produced a photomontage each week in response to events in the news. It’s been a great experience and I’ve had a lot of fun rediscovering a technique which was one of my entry routes into photography, but which I had entirely neglected in recent years. To mark the end of my residency I thought I’d put down a few thoughts about the medium, and argue that despite existing since the birth of photography, the true potential of photomontage is only being realised now, with the advent of digital imaging and mass engagement with photography.

Political photomontage is a medium with a huge amount of power, but it’s also one which comes with masses of baggage, and this I find is the biggest challenge to its use today. For older generations it sometimes remains a medium marred by its use as a propaganda tool by totalitarian regimes. For younger generations it’s often rightly seen an inherently political technique (a big claim, one perhaps to explore in depth another time), and the problem I’ve found with that is that this sometimes jars with the deep unfashionability of politics, and of generally holding strong views about anything.

This unfashionability has permeated into the art world at large and as the veteran monteur Peter Kennard has noted, it is very easy as someone who works with photomontage to be accused of naivety for expressing strong opinions about complex subjects. Yet artists have always been involved in, and forthright about, the politics of their time. Part of the reason we sometimes fail to detect this in the art of the past is because we stand outside the political context in which the work was originally made, as a result we struggle to read the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle commentaries or criticisms that the work implies. As a result it’s easy to suspect that art has always been apolitical, when it is the opposite. It is only in recent years that in Kennard’s words, art has allowed itself to be ‘abstracted out of the real world’.

The overtly political character of photomontage therefore makes it a continuation of, rather than a deviation from, the art of the past, but what is it’s relevance today? As Dawn Ades has noted photomontage belonged from the very beginning to ‘the technological world, the world of mass communication and photo-mechanical reproduction’. Nearly two centuries on from photography’s invention we live in a world which is more saturated with images than ever, and one where our emphasis on speed makes textual communication less and less appealing. Photographs instead stand in more and more for verbal communication, for example on platforms like Twitter and Snapchart, which emphasise brevity, ephemerality and the visual. To put it another way, we are primed to read photographs and ready to accept them as a form of free standing communication in a way we perhaps have never been before.

So given this readiness to embrace and read images, why use photomontage instead of, or as well, as traditional photography? Because despite the shared raw material, these two mediums are both capable of drastically different things. As I noted in an interview with IdeasTap, there are some things we simply cannot photograph. Many of the world’s most pressing concerns are ephemeral, invisible or unreachable, whether by accident or intent. Photographing the machinations of global finance or the casual relationship between human activity and climate change is a tall order at the best of times, but add to that the fact that companies and governments are ever more cautious of allowing press access to their activities and it becomes harder still. Photomontage acts on one very simple level as a way to visualise the things we can’t see or photograph.

But beyond its ability to penetrate the shady corners in which global power resides, photomontage has an ability to disrupt the images that these authorities use to represent themselves to us, appropriating the symbols that companies for example use to represent their undertakings, and displacing these into situations that hint at the true nature of their activities. As John Berger notes, the true power of photomontages lies in the way it disrupts these symbols, by extracting them from their familiar surroundings we can see that ‘the natural continuities within which they normally exist have been broken, and … they have now been arranged to transmit an unexpected message’. In this way photomontage has another power which straight photography invariably lacks, an ability to penetrate the surface of things and reveal the mechanisms underneath. This I think is the power of photomontage at it’s rare best, when, to paraphrase Berger, the appearance of things themselves reveal how they deceive us

View my photomontages for IdeasTap.

View more of my photomontages on my site.