The Shadows of Doubt: Art, Distance and Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We Clean History’: Thoughts on Another Crimea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moral Codes of Photojournalism

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Moses smashing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments
Gustave Dore, 1865

During busy times when it’s a real effort to carve out the time to sit down and write, one of the things that keeps me going are the discussions and commentaries which often follow a new post. As ever it was very interesting reading the many responses to my recent piece on Steve McCurry in which I attempted to argue as I often have done before that manipulation in the post-processing of photography is much less the problem with photojournalism than is inadequate transparency about every stage of the practice. Also problematic I believe is the rigid adherence to largely outdated ideas about what photojournalism is able to do in the face of profound changes in the social and material organisation of the world, changes which are rendering some of the tenets that were once core axioms of the practice less and less viable. Above all I sought to argue as I have before that binary views of complex things are rarely useful, and that for photojournalism to remain relevant it needs to be more willing to look into the grey zone that lies between the modernist ideas of absolute objectivity from which it sprang, and the strand of post-modern thinking which can sometimes seem intended to negate all values as equally worthless and subjective. Since that post accusations that McCurry also staged many of his images have also emerged in a post by Khitij Nagar (Teju Cole also suggested this might be the case but did so without evidence to support it.) These accusation I think can still be framed in much the same way as the issue with McCurry’s manipulation. Staging is less a problem than how apparent it is that this is taking place. Portraits are always staged, and often appear in photojournalistic contexts, but few would take issue with their ability to provide interesting and useful journalistic insights and most would recognise that a form of contract of understanding exists between viewers and photographers that these images are constructed.

The responses to my original piece on McCurry were broadly positive, although of course quite a few of the positive responses were less about the points I was trying to make than perhaps about people with an axe to grind with McCurry jumping on an excuse which allowed them to do so. That particular ‘scandal’ continues, with sites like Petapixel doing their best to fuel it often without providing the analysis which I would say is needed far more than examples of supposed wrongdoing (but then, they do have GIFs). There were inevitably also quite a few negative responses to my arguments, but these were in their own way interesting, useful and sometimes revealing. Some were nuanced and well argued, but others were shot through with uncritical, oft repeated assumptions, and adherence to the type of black and white moral attitudes which I think is a big part of the problem I was discussing. While much debate and discussion rightly centres on the question of manipulations, I want to take a step back here and examine in a far broader sense what underlines much of what I was arguing before. That is what I see as the problem with photojournalists adhering to strict and pre-fabricated moral codes.

Ask its proponents, let alone practitioners, and it becomes clear that photojournalism is widely conceived of as a basically moral enterprise, which is to say a practice driven at some level by a moral agenda. Its origins and subsequent evolution I would say reflect this, lying partly in the social reform and campaigning photography of late nineteenth and early twentieth century activist photographers like Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, and Alice Seeley-Harris. As I discussed last week, what is often called the golden age of photojournalism occurred at the same time as massive ideological conflicts between democratic states, which considered themselves often to be highly moral and socialist and fascist ones, which either had a very different sense of morality or in some cases regarded it as something to be discarded altogether. Photojournalism perhaps naturally flourished in the former environment, where its role could be as something of a social and moral conscience, and where it was largely unrestricted by the type of authoritarian censorship which regards even compliant photography as a potentially unpredictable challenge. It is perhaps wholly unsurprising that the photo essay was pioneered in the highly permissive media climate of Weimar Germany, and Susie Linfield draws interesting contrasts between the Spanish Civil War photography of Robert Capa and the images of photographers working on the pro-Franco side which also illustrates some of these points.

Despite the growing cynicism towards many of the ideas on which it has been founded, photojournalism is still often seen as possessing a basically moral character, its purpose still believed to be to reveal the world, contribute to public discourse, and in doing so perhaps also contribute to the mitigation or resolution of some of humanity’s problems. To accompany that moral agenda, photojournalism has evolved sets of moral codes, which in some contexts have been more or less informal, at other times more very strictly codified. One such set of moral guidelines which frequently come up for discussion in my writing and in the industry more generally are photojournalistic views on manipulation. These rules or guidelines are many and vary from one organisation to another, but across the industry they more or less correlate with general agreement on most key points. It is a code which stipulates that certain behaviours are inherently unacceptable and that others are broadly acceptable, in other words a moral framework rooted in practical photographic concerns. Digital ‘cloning’ of the type that Steve McCurry was accused of engaging in is widely considered to be unacceptable under any circumstances, whereas post-factum conversion of a colour image to black and white is broadly considered to be an acceptable act, in spite of the dramatic effect this can potentially have on the reading of an image. While in most arenas I would never argue that ends justify means, photographic technique might be an exception.

Saying that, I don’t like binaries or black and white arguments, for the obvious reason that they rarely take account for the complexities of the world, rarely illuminate the things to which they refer, and can often indeed complicate what they intended to make simple. Rigid moral codes are problematic for similar reasons, and can often end up handicapping the very people they are intended to empower. The problem of so strictly adhering to pre-set moral frameworks is they essentially prevent those who adhere to them from making their own decisions about the circumstances they face, resorting instead to a set of rules defined by other people who have not necessarily been faced by the same circumstances and moral quandaries. Mandating strict adherence to preformed moral codes in effect produces a caste of moral juveniles, who can’t trust their own judgement but must look to the approval of a higher power, whether spiritual or professional. It is equally true that rigid moral codes intended to be moral and ethical, can under certain circumstances become the very opposite of this, and can harm the very people they are intended to protect. As Ben Chesterton pointed out in an exchange on Twitter, there are circumstances where you might well argue that for a journalist not to manipulate a photograph would be far more unethical than if they left the image unchanged, for example in a situation where an identity might be revealed and in doing so a subject or source might be exposed to harm.

When I talk to students about ethical standards in documentary photography, I try to make it very clear what these moral codes are from the perspective of industry organisations like World Press Photo, or commercial entities like Reuters, how they have come to exist, and what the consequences can be for flouting them. But what I try to also make clear is that relying on someone else’s code without scrutinising it is a bad idea, and that we all instead need to develop our own sense of what is ethically acceptable and not, our red lines across which we will not pass. These industry codes and frameworks can be a good starting point, but they can’t be an end point because for all the attempts to update them they remain cumbersome and rooted in notions about photography which appear stone aged compared to the way the technology and industry operates today. As many have rightly said before, what use is it characterising ethical post-processing practices in terms of traditional darkroom techniques, when ever more of today’s photojournalists have never even set foot in a darkroom? That these guidelines must be constantly updated goes without saying, but on top of that photographers must adapt them into their own moral codes. Doing this does not mean that a photojournalist will not come up against circumstances where those codes do not function, or where they advise behaviour which is clearly not right. The difference I would say is that where these codes are a photojournalists own they are perhaps in a better position to adjust them, evolving them to function better in responses to experiences in the world. This I would say is far more of an essential part of being a good journalist, and just a good person, than is adhering slavishly, if passionately, to someone else’s preset sense of what is right, and what is not.

Women’s Work: A Dialogue with Max Houghton

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 Dickey Chapelle taking photos on the shores of Lake Michigan during a U.S. Marines operation in 1959. (from Flickr)

Photographers seem ever more aware of the representational responsibilities which comes with their craft, but the question of who is actually doing this representing remains just as important as who is being represented and how. In a field like documentary photography this question becomes particularly essential, if only because it’s unrealistic to expect an adequate reflection of the world in all its messy complexity, when privileged, white, western men remain so often the ones taking the photographs and defining the terms of representation, dissemination, and so many other things. The gender gap in photography has come into ever greater focus in recent years, with some great initiatives launched to address it. At the same time these modes of address, for example gender specific exhibitions, themselves invite scrutiny, and need to meet with a discussion about the extent to which they do actually help to resolve the issues they intend to address, and or whether they sometimes inadvertently create different problems. Being that I am pretty much the definition of a privileged, white, western man, these are topics which I don’t feel entirely comfortable holding forth on in the usual monologue that typifies pieces on this site. Because of that and also because one of my ongoing aims is to involve other voices in this blog, I thought it would be interesting to address some of these concerns in the form of a dialogue with someone interested in many of the same questions. Enter Max Houghton, writer, senior lecturer on MA photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication and (transparency) a colleague of mine.

Max, it might seem like an obvious question but perhaps you could start by saying a little about how this topic first became of importance to you, was there a particular moment of awakening or just an ongoing sense of photography as a field marked by a gender divide?

I used to edit 8 magazine, a photography biannual, with Lauren Heinz. It’s fair to say that after we went to Perpignan for the first time – in the mid-2000s – we could be in no doubt that certain parts of le monde photographique were indisputably male. I thought it was inevitable and quite funny. At first. We didn’t positively discriminate in terms of subsequent magazine content thereafter – we never considered it – but we did get excited when we found people like Rena Effendi, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Dana Popa, Newsha Tavakolian and Lourdes Basoli, for example, and featured them in the magazine or at Host gallery. Vanessa Winship, Susan Meiselas and Jane Hilton were always on our radar, and greatly admired. Interestingly, when I interviewed them, they were all incredibly low-key about their contributions to photography. They talked profoundly about their work and the people they photographed, about ethics, about mystery, but not about themselves.

Fiona Rogers, who worked across the road at Magnum, set up Firecracker, as a platform for female photographers, which seemed like such an obvious and incredibly important thing to do. I went to an earlyish debate on the subject of Women in Photography in Brighton and noticed a divide between ‘celebrating’ women and ‘fighting for’ women – it was predominantly a difference of tone. I realised I believed in both things. When Fiona asked me to curate a month for Firecracker, I set myself a brief to find work that only a woman could make. This was not Firecracker’s remit but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Why else would I select work based on gender only? I chose work by a former student of mine, Samar Hazboun (a graduate of MA Photojournalism at the University of Westminster). Samar had gained access to a women’s shelter in her native Palestine, which offered some respite for women who had suffered gender-based violence. Despite the refuge offered, the shelter itself was run within the confines of a deeply patriarchal society, so the women living there were to all intents and purposes imprisoned, and treated as shameful beings.

Choosing this work seems fundamental now to why I think it is important to discuss women in photography. It’s not really because of how women are treated within the – vast and unwieldy – industry, which encompasses the media, the art world, the photo studio, fashion etc etc, but how women are treated in the world. Of course one is not separate from the other. And while women in the UK alone are being murdered at the rate of two per week by their intimate partners (source: refuge.org), it’s necessary to look at how women are treated by men, and what kind of a society permits that. Photography is a very powerful tool of communication. That doesn’t mean I only champion work about the very worst -case scenarios (though actually, I would be most interested to see more work on subjects such as intimate partner violence, rape, low-self esteem). I think it’s a question of balance. I want all these essential subjects to be made visible but at the same time, I want to look at ways in which women do resist the patriarchy in all its forms, often with such wit. Virginia Woolf’s use of photographs in her anti-war book Three Guineas is a good place to start. I was going to apologise for the long answer, but I deleted it because I know this is something women (generalisation alert) are prone to doing.

Whenever the question of gender in photography comes up I often hear (invariably male) photographers argue that yes photography is in some respects still very male dominated, but women are actually well represented in the industry in terms of roles like curators, editors, and so forth. This might be true, but there is another issue here in that these roles often seem to be seen by people as potentially powerful but actually not particularly creative and essentially subsidiary to the ‘real’ job of going out into the world and taking photographs. I wonder whether you see a similar delineation of work in the industry between ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ and if you do whether that is in some respects that is tied to a sense of the status of these roles, or perhaps something else?

I agree up to a point. We have a set up a wonderful service industry around male artists; there are lots of models that show this: the gallery, the magazine, the museum. Women are extremely well represented within the industry in the roles you mention, and also in academia. And yes, I guess there’s a certain amount of power, or, at least, cachet, or, at the very least, respect for such roles. But they are admin heavy. They involve doing lots of things for other people and with other people; a form of midwifery, perhaps. At the heart of these roles is caring very deeply about someone else’s work and wanting to find a way to make other people care about it too. Editing and curating are very rewarding and creative – and collaborative – practices. However, I find men feel more entitled to make their own work, and also are freer to make it, both domestically and financially. They are free to roam alone, in all sorts of ways. Women seem to find more success within institutions, where their roles are clearly delineated. The role of a photographer following stories, or ideas, seems a huge privilege and one that very often demands being out of the home. This disrupts patterns, which, even for those of us who reject them, structure society. As de Beauvoir tells us, it’s not that the woman is naturally secondary, but that society has made her so. And women, unlike other oppressed groups, are not a minority; nor are we a minority within photography. But the opportunities are different. It’s absolutely essential that we make way for female photographers and visual artists; otherwise, we keep seeing repeated male visions of the world, and come to believe it as a truth. Imagine if war had only ever been photographed by women.

I think we both recognize a gender imbalance in photography then, my next question would be how to answer it. Women only exhibitions seem to be a popular strategy at the moment, but I must admit it’s a response I have misgivings about. I feel split in that on one level I think it is worth championing and celebrating any identity, simply for the sake of it, but on the other hand I also feel these exhibitions sometimes serve more to marginalise the work on show as a sort of special interest or charity case, mere ‘women’s work’ as you said when we first discussed this, rather than validating the work as legitimate and interesting beyond the gender of its creator. I felt the 2013 exhibition Home Truths at the Photographer’s Gallery was a good example of another approach. Being about motherhood, female photographers and perspectives were dominant in the show, (if I recall correctly there were two male photographers, which I think was a nice reversal of the ‘token woman syndrome’ we often see on photography panels). Gender wasn’t directly advertised as part of the rationale for the show, even though it was clearly a major part of what was being discussed. To me this approach seems to work more effectively, but I wonder what your feelings are on this?

Yes, I agree, it was a very smart curation by Susan Bright and an important show for The Photographers’ Gallery to host too. I have to be careful what I say here, as I am co-writing, with Fiona Rogers, a book on contemporary female photographers, which I hope will put a very bright spotlight on a large number of women all at once, and it will be very obvious they are force to be reckoned with. It’s a way of ensuring women are part of the future history of photography. I would certainly like to see an exhibition that featured only female photographers because they had represented the theme of the show in the most exciting and innovative ways, and, ideally, that theme would not be one specific to women (though it could be). Positive discrimination is a method that is used in the workplace to redress imbalances – as far as I understand it, it means in practice that if two candidates offer similar skills, the one that has been historically disadvantaged would be given the job. That makes sense.

I think the way in which male photographers seem to be able to build their reputations – in part by having more self-confidence, and the subtle ways in which traditional male discourse is self-affirming – makes it more likely that opportunities come their way. This is of course self-perpetuating. I am very interested in the fact that more and more people are identifying as gender-fluid, not least because these millennia-old binaries are having to be rethought. I really like that the lack of gender certainty in my chosen name means I am probably read more often as a male voice than a female one.

I am more interested in the eye that makes the photograph, and what it has seen, than the body that hosts that eye – the mind’s eye is something different altogether. It’s not men or male photographers who are a problem, but a masculine and patriarchal discourse that goes unquestioned and dominates. I’m happy for shows, books, and whole festivals – like the nation-wide Signals festival, curated by Val Williams in 1994 – to be for women only, but at heart, it’s about a way of seeing. It’s essential for men to see that seeing too.

Embracing gender fluidity or ambiguity is an interesting answer to these problems. Like you it’s something I have a little experience of as for a long time I went by my middle name which is Kay, originally a Victorian boy’s name but now almost always assumed to be a girl’s name. People’s reactions were always interesting to say the least. I rather like the idea of a group of people disrupting the rather binary gender roles of the photography world with their ambiguous names! But I think your last point touches on an important, related issue, the wider male awkwardness about associating with feminism or self-describing as feminist. I think to end I should ask whether there are things you think photographers themselves can, or should do to address the problems we’ve been discussing?

Very much like the name Kay. It’s pretty hard to keep your gender quiet in the age of the picture byline, but I agree, there is some fun to be had.  I think men can put their awkwardness aside if they behave as people committed to equality. They don’t need to wear t-shirts – hello Benedict Cumberbatch, Nick Clegg – but make sure that any any power they wield – some of which originates from their gender alone – is fairly (re)distributed, acknowledges the largely relational role of women in society, and actively tries to find ways to champion what we can term women’s work. That needs to happen in so many ways – especially in relation to childcare, ‘domestic’ violence, pornography and women in prison, for starters – and also in relation to how we as a society define what can be considered art. If anyone is unsure what the answer is to ‘Are you a feminist?’, it’s ‘Of course, it’s a political necessity.’ And if a man can’t say that and mean it, then I hope he does feel awkward.

I have found a couple of examples of female expression exceptionally moving recently – one is Beyonce’s nuanced articulation of love, jealousy, infidelity and pain on her visual album Lemonade. If you listen carefully, she is exposing herself as vulnerable and strong, which I find much more affecting than an astonishing display of girl-power. The other is Kim Cattrall on Woman’s Hour, ostensibly talking about insomnia, but making such perceptive points about (among other things) being a woman ‘without a husband’. We don’t usually hear such candid voices, which, for me anyway, articulate in different ways the experience of being female, in a society set up to venerate its men, and in which women – black women, older women, gay women, single women – women – are marginalised, automatically.

But I am straying from the question … perhaps. What can photographers do? To state the obvious, how people are pictured plays an enormous role in how they are seen. So photographers who photograph women need to think about that, and not just how they are seen, but if they are seen, and where they are seen, and by whom (these further questions are necessarily addressed to editors and curators too). I think we should all think twice about giving the same people the big prizes and ever bigger shows; we must challenge the status quo. Photographic educators can question the canon, and add to it, when they find it wanting. We can champion the work of contemporary female photographers, so their work becomes part of future history. Freud is often criticised for not being able to answer his question ‘What does a Women Want?’ but at least he asked, and at least he spent much of his career trying to find out. I think the whole industry can listen better to what is being said by women, or what is not being said but should be. The whole Women in Photography movement is in full swing at the moment – it’s lively, it’s witty and it’s inclusive – feminist never meant separatist, though it has been perceived as such. It’s the best party in town and everyone’s invited.

Photography and Anti-Intellectualism

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 I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, John Baldessari, 1971

In a recent post on his blog Grant Scott argues that photography is a democratic global language and takes aim at the ‘powerful cabal’ of practitioner-educators who try to protect photography as something special, failing to equip students with the skills to survive, and punishing those who refuse to fall into line with their view of what good photography is. I agree with the ethos here and there is nothing productive about courses geared to churn out identikit students without the skills to make a living or the intellectual independence to make their own work and continue their creative development after their studies end. But there are also quite a few issues in this piece which need discussing in more depth, and which in some cases need challenging.

Major ones are the two assumptions in the title of the post, which I don’t really want to dwell on in great depth because I’ve already written about them both in past posts and may well do so again in the future. The ideas that photography is a language and democratic are both laudable aspirations, but repeatedly saying these things doesn’t make them true. Photography is not a global language, at best it is many languages understood by the many different groups who use photography in very different ways. The idea of photography as a global language takes no account of the complexities of what different images and symbols mean in different cultures and to say nothing of the need to simultaneously understand the customs and conventions that take place behind the creation of images in order to be truly ‘literate’ of photography. Likewise in terms of the democracy of photography, while the medium has certainly long had democratic potential I would argue that potential is still on it’s way to being fufilled and it remains primarily a tool of elite individuals, groups, and societies. Photography’s history to date has in fact often been the very opposite of democratic. It’s been oppressive, totalitarian and hegemonic.

What I really want to address though here is Scott’s concern with a particular sort of photography education. Again this is an area well worth scrutinising, and from my perspective photography education has its share of problems which need to be addressed through open discussion among teachers, students and the photography industry at large. It’s absolutely a problem when teachers take the approach of trying to shoehorn their students into making the same work as their own, and photography education at its best ought to be a space where students are free to be taught, learn and experiment in whatever direction they want within a framework aimed to steer them towards an independent career. But in connecting these problems with educators who make work which is ‘obtuse and deconstructed, supported by and clothed in a thick cloak of verbose socio-political language’ what Scott seems to be trying to do is to rather awkwardly lay these issues at the door of those who are interested in the intellectual side of photography, without acknowledging that there are bad photography educators of all bents, including those who are dogmatically interested only in the commercial and technical aspects of photography.

To me this criticism of what you might call ‘thinking photography’ is resonant of a barely latent anti-intellectualism in many sections of the photography world, an often quite inarticulate rage directed at people who want to talk about the ideas on which photographs rest, as well as actually making images. Abbas Attar (a photographer who I’ve long admired) once said that ‘young photographers think too much. If I did all that thinking, I would never go out and shoot anything’ which rather sums up this attitude for me. Referencing a famous quote from Magnum founder Robert Capa, photographer and educator Tod Papageorge offered a nice if unintentional rejoinder to Attar’s comment when he wrote that ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t reading enough’ [this quote was attributed to Papageorge by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Papageorge maintains he never said it. A tip of the hat to Adam Bell for that information]. Ideas certainly are sometimes poorly articulated, even by the people whose job it is to do just that, but some ideas are also just bloody hard to express. Their being so does not mean there is some sort of conspiracy to over intellectualise, to create privileged territories for academics and their favourites. To suggest otherwise and to imply that these sorts of discussions are irrelevant is I’d argue just a total abdication, a failure on the part of the accuser to engage with ideas which are hard.

Among certain sections of the photography community it’s fairly routine for terms like ‘artist’ and ‘academic’ to be used as terms of insult intended to suggest the target is hopelessly lost in their own esoteric field of inquiry, regardless of whether anyone else is concerned by it or not. Whatever you feel about artists and academics, the one thing you have to acknowledge about even the tallest ivory tower is that occasionally something drops out of it and falls to earth with a resounding crash. Academia might be a domain of people fixated on niches, but those niches widen out into things which later have enormous benefits for the rest of us. Scott’s piece is confusing in this regard because at one turn he seems to praise the mass of non-professional photographers for producing images without concern for ‘peer review’ (except what is an Instagram or Facebook ‘like’ but a mechanism of peer review?) while in the next breath criticising practitioners who are unconcerned that their work isn’t relevant to the great bulk of these normal people but only focused on institutional rewards and funding (i.e. their peers).

And now for the tough test, should we make the work that matters to us, or should we make work we think audiences will respond well to? The answer of course depends entirely on circumstances. If I do a job for a client, as I was before I wrote this piece, listening to my audience becomes pretty essential if I want to get more work. If I want to make photographs for myself, to see what I can do or where I can push my ideas, then broad audience response is much lower down the list of priorities. Throughout history not worrying exclusively about mass appeal has often been what has made for provocative, beautiful art work. As I said at the start of this piece, I agree with the Scott’s basic point that there is nothing useful about courses geared to churning out identikit students without the technical and intellectual skills to satisfy clients and themselves, but nor is there any value to being anti-intellectual for the sake of it, however easy the target and however fashionable it might be to do so. The fact is there are many gatekeepers in photography, and a career in the field often unfortunately ends up being to a lesser or greater extent dependent on these people. However not all gatekeepers are the same, the gates they keep are not all the same size, nor do they all lead to the same rewards for those allowed passage through them. Depending on where you stand Scott is a gatekeeper, and loathe though I am to admit it I have to acknowledge that I am one as well. That’s a fact something we both need to be conscious of, working actively to counter it in our deeds and words, and opening the gates we ward to as many people as people. Unfortunately this sort of reverse snobbery and anti-intellectualism is as bad at doing this as is the worst academic obfuscation.

Volatile Smile by Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

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High-frequency trading workspace, #14, 2010.
Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

Like all technologies, photography emerged from a very particular milieu, and in certain ways all its subsequent applications and adaptations will reflect the concerns of that moment. In the context of photojournalism and documentary photography what often feels awkwardly evident and yet rarely spoken of is that while the world has changed enormously since 1839, moving by most consensuses into a new age (whether the age of information, the anthropocence, (post-)post-modernity or something else) photography for the most part hasn’t. Digital imaging is in some respects a dramatic leap forward, but beyond the end of photography’s physical existence in some ways it just represents an electronic emulation of the type of photography pioneered by Niépce, Talbot et al, and not such a dramatic step forwards as is often suggested. Their world was one grappling to visualise and understand things just beyond the vanishing point of human physiology, things like the craters of the moon like the movement of a galloping horses legs. Today we grapple with many issues which are perceptually speaking in different orders of magnitude. When the camera’s exposure is measured in seconds what does it mean to try to use this technology to speak about processes which occur in a thousandth or less of that, who’s major actors are composed of lines of code, and who’s actions leave few tangible traces beyond evaporating energy? Can the camera and the ways that it encourages us to think about and see the world be retooled to meet these new challenges? These are constant and at times crushing questions for me.

Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann are an artistic duo based in the United States using photography to examine a range of subjects, but I think of particular interest for this discussion is their 2014 book Volatile Smile which examines financial markets, looking at them through a series of visual studies of trading spaces and apparatuses, and ending with a series of images of american homes repossessed as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. Marx famously wrote that what capitalism desired above all else was the annihilation of space and time, a potent metaphor which remains useful in thinking about capitalism and technology today. Innovations like hyper-fast algorithmic trading make that latter objective seem ever more real and the consequences of it ever more troubling. Probably the most widely seen part of Volatile Smile are a series of photographs of algorithmic trading stations in the Willis Tower, Chicago, a city which lies on one of the fibre optic laylines that make high frequency trades possible. These workstations are where human overseers monitor the programs which make and lose fortunes in a fraction of a blink of an eye. Rather than usual single or dual monitor of most modern offices (dual monitors already speaking to a sense of information overload), these desks abut entire walls of  blacked out monitors, with other empty supports waiting for new ones to be plugged in to them like some sort of alien life support systems awaiting new dependents. Close ups of the work surfaces reveal little in the way of personalisation one might expect in even the most corporate workspace, the one reoccurring hint of human presence are a series of images of hand sanitizer products, images which I find hard to read except with the implication of a workforce desperately trying to wash themselves clean of something.

Sahn and Geissler are artists, not journalists, but I think their work sheds light on some of the difficulties of contemporary visual journalism. Like those photography projects which seek to reveal the essence of the internet by presenting us with images of shining server rooms, photographs of algorithmic trading desks tell us comparatively little about the context and consequences of these practices, and reveal that the axiom on which photojournalism has long been built is often no longer relevant. Robert Capa famously declared that if a photograph wasn’t good enough it was because the photographer had not been close enough, in other words that good photojournalism was about proximity to the story (a declaration which of course didn’t stop Capa from occasionally reinventing the story and his proximity to it as circumstances required). This traditional approach is part of the angle pursued in Volatile Smile, the photographers have come right to the heart of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by high frequency trading algorithms, and at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur but instead a series of blank black screens, devices intended for imparting information but which instead remain uncompromisingly blank. In the new era of nebulous and elusive topics, spatial proximity has ceased to be a guarantor of journalistic revelation or insight. In capitalism’s war on space and time and in particular in terms of the way that conflict is represented by journalists and artists, it sometimes feels as if it has almost succeeded in annihilating space, and is well on the way to rendering time as we think of it, an archaic irrelevance.

Cut Off: On the Demise of IdeasTap

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The First Cut,
Lewis Bush 2011

Having used Disphotic’s last few posts to focus on the role of the creative arts in the context of recession and austerity it seems darkly ironic that right now should come news that the creative charity IdeasTap is to close its doors. Established in 2009 by Peter de Haan, part of the dynasty behind Saga, IdeasTap was intended to help young artists, photographers, film makers, musicians and actors weather the storm of the global recession. It has done just that, but it has now itself fallen victim to the current dearth of arts funding in the UK.

Cynical though I frequently am about the relationship between business and the arts, IdeasTap appeared to be an example of how well that relationship can sometimes work. The interests of each seemed clearly separated, and while I can only speak for my own experience there never seemed to be any sense that the commercial interests of de Haan or his companies intruded into the activities of the charity. As a resident editorial artist at IdeasMag in 2014 I produced a weekly photomontage that could be as acerbic and political as I wanted, and there was never a hint of editorial control or censorship of my choice of topics or way of approaching them (in marked contrast to more than a few editorial outlets which had turned similar images down for being ‘too political’).

As an organisation IdeasTap punched above its weight and brought a great deal to the arts in this country. It offered young artists a safe harbour, somewhere to tentatively test the waters of practices like grant writing and project management. It offered employment of various forms, indirectly through its advertising of creative sector jobs, and directly by commissioning its members to teach workshops, write articles and organise events. It formed partnerships with influential organisations like Magnum Photos and offered young people a chance to interact with these authoritative groups directly, starting on the road to establishing networks of their own. It offered financial backing for many, many projects that would have struggled to find money through other means, giving the small injections of capital that can be so key to early career projects, indeed to early careers themselves.

Above all IdeasTap created a network, a way for like-minded creative people across the country and across diverse disciplines to come together, share ideas and meet one another, something no more in evidence than in the outcry that has followed news of it’s demise. I have met many collaborators and made many friends through my involvement with IdeasTap, friends I suspect I will keep for the rest of my life. The fact that for all of this good work, IdeasTap has been unable to secure funding to keep its doors open would seem to speak volumes about the state of arts funding in the United Kingdom. It speaks to regional marginalisation, as the narrowing arts budgets continue to be disproportionately levied on the south east, a region where fewer and fewer young artists can afford to live. It speaks to growing inaccessibility, as the arts become a playground for the sons and daughters of the rich, who can afford to trade their craft for plaudits alone. It speaks to the way the arts have been divested of their teeth, guided and guiled into a sort of corporate adornment, all too often an ashtray for the cigars of plutocrats.

At a time like this, after six years of recession, six years of cuts, and six years of demoralisation, we don’t need one less charity like IdeasTap, we need ten more.

 

Review – Open for Business at The Science Museum

UK. Derby. Bombardier. Train production. (From 'Open for Business') March 2013.
Bombardier. Derby. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Mark Power, Magnum Photos

I’ve always been a big advocate of photographers making work in their own backyards. Apart from in a few special cases the old model of the dashing photojournalist flying off to distant climes seems archaic and increasingly redundant. So it’s nice to see nine (mostly British) members of the Magnum collective taking a close look at the UK in their latest group project. Open For Business brings together images photographed across the country, highlighting British industry in the widest sense, from small family run firms to multi-national corporations, and from nano technology to the construction of super-carriers. The exhibition is now touring around the country and London’s Science Museum is the latest venue.

Each photographer has a cluster of images on display from their selected region, a fraction I’m told of the total number made for the project (different sets of images will be on display at different touring locations). Each clusters typically focuses on several different companies in a related sector. Mark Power for example looked at the Nissan and Bombardier factories, which produce cars and trains respectively, but are visually pretty similar. Starting off with a visit to the archive of the National Railway Museum in York, Power drew inspiration from some of the epic photographs in the archive recording the height of British heavy industry. Rather than try to replicate this scale the photographs he produced do the opposite, focusing in on details within the cavernous spaces of the factories. They’re a little like Chris Killip’s wonderful earlier photographs of Pirelli tyre factory workers, but are generally less loaded with judgement.

For another example of a very consistent display, Jonas Bendiksen focused on the wool trade in Bradford, something which has become increasingly high tech in recent years. His photographs are well executed examples of the people at work genre, with little stand out moments, like a muscled arm reminded us quite how physically demanding many industries remain, despite advances in technology and automation. It’s easy to forget (until you have to do something like carry a pile of bricks a short distance) how much even the developed world still depends on manual labour. The best thing about Bendiksen’s display is the inclusion of video playing in three LCD monitors which look exactly like the black picture frames that house his stills. I’ve seen this done many times before but it works particularly well here, these small snatches of video are beautifully shot and integrate rather seamlessly into the larger display of photographs.

In other cases though the contrast between the companies a photographer has looked at is enormous. Martin Parr photographed Aardman Animation, best known for producing the Wallace and Gromit films (a very English topic which Parr would seem well suited to documenting). However next to these are photographs he took at multi-national arms firms like BAE Systems. This contrast has the potential to make some interesting comments about the direction of British industry, and could have raised the important question of the cost that profit sometimes comes at. It’s a baton which is more or less picked up by one or two of the photographers (for example I think it’s present in Peter Marlow’s photographs, which again hint at the physical demands of industry), but isn’t really taken up by the exhibition as a whole. Instead this variety in some of the displays becomes probably the only really notable weakness of the show, because it can feel inconsistent.

I have to say that if I’d wandered in to this exhibition without reading any of the information on the wall I probably wouldn’t have guessed it was a show by members of Magnum. That’s not to say the work on show is particularly innovative or difficult to grasp, but it is certainly more interesting than what I’m used to seeing from the collective. If you want evidence of that, Bruce Gilden’s photographs from the Tate and Lyle factory are, brace yourselves, actually in colour. Besides being a showcase of British industry then the show also serves to demonstrate Magnum’s members trying different things. This is good news for the cooperative, because although it might be have been a trailblazer of the now rather ubiquitous photography collective model, the organisation today has something of a fight on its hands to convince the current generation of young photographers that it remains a relevant voice.

Open for Business is at The Science Museum until 2 November 2014.

Review – Infidel by Tim Hetherington at Photofusion

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Untitled, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan,
2008 © Tim Hetherington, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York and Magnum.

The plaudits for Tim Hetherington have been many since his death three years ago while covering the uprising in Libya. It seems tragically apt that a new exhibition of his work should open at London’s Photofusion right now, only a few days after another American photojournalist, James Foley, lost his life covering the Arab Spring (a spring which for many has started to feel more like a winter). This new exhibition mainly consists of photographs made while Hetherington was embedded with United States troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a series of images which would become the celebrated book Infidel. In it, Hetherington took the inherently limited reporting opportunities created by the American practice of embedding journalists with frontline units, and used it as a way to examine the men fighting the war and their relationships with each other.

Hetherington’s dexterity as a journalist was remarkable, and he showed more talent as a writer, photographer and film maker than do many people who specialise in just one of these areas, not to speak of his humanitarian credentials. His portraits are particularly vivid and mesmerising, and they shine in a project like this which is so dependent on the personalities of the soldiers for it’s effect. One striking photograph is ‘Specialist Donohoe’ (viewable as the bottom left hand photograph in my earlier review of the Infidel book). The soldier’s blue-yellow eyes are all the more striking for the mud and dirt on his face, and it is strongly resonant of McCurry’s portrait of Sharbat Gula, the ‘Afghan Girl’. Except of course the differences are total, Donohoe is a male American soldier, and his look to the camera is boyish and charming where Gula’s is understandably harsh and almost defensive.

The size of the prints in the exhibition reveals a lot more detail than is visible in the original Infidel book. The brand names of food and cosmetics are visible, the strange mixing of domestic and military is all the more obvious in each scene. In the bigger prints this scale also leads to some very noticeable pixelation but this dosen’t bother me as much as it might have in other work, or another exhibition. I suppose in part this is because, old fashioned as it might be, I still find photographs of war masquerading as beautiful art works rather difficult, and this loss of fidelity, whether accidential or not, allays that sensation. Perhaps though it’s also because this sort of compromised image quality has become so familiar in contemporary amateur representations of war that it hardly even registers to see it in the work of a professional. Some will probably make more fuss of it, but I suspect their attention is focused in the wrong place.

More of an issue than image quality, I found that the same main problem I had with the book is even more noticeably present here. Specifically that is the total absence of the enemy in any of the pictures, an absence which becomes more glaringly obvious when looking at them printed so large. Hetherington qualified this absence by arguing his book was about brotherhood between soldiers, not about the war itself, but the war and the enemy seem to me to be a key part of that. It’s also problematic, because as I’ve said before the lack of any trace of an enemy gives you the feeling this could all be a sterile simulation, except in the book that sensation is at least shattered late on when a soldier is killed and reality comes crashing back. There is no moment like that in the exhibition, I suppose because the public nature of the space makes the required shocking image a difficult one to include.

The inclusion of Hetherington’s video piece Diary (viewable here) is maybe the closest I got to experiencing that crashing feeling. Diary is a brilliant inter-cutting of video from the front-lines of conflicts in countries like Liberia and Afghanistan with scenes of mundane ordinariness in western cities. A see-sawing between war and peace, third and first worlds, actors and observers, which is beautiful and unsettling. I’ve never experienced post-traumatic stress, but from what I’ve read and heard about it I imagine this video at least touches on the sensation of suddenly and unexpectedly being dropped back into an unpleasant experience. For me it’s one of the strongest pieces Hetherington made, and its inclusion here is a reminder of the immense talent that has been lost.

Infidel by Tim Hetherington is at Photofusion, 22 August – 17 September and then continuing: 1-31 October 2014.

Review: The Mexican Suitcase

Having just reviewed a small London show of Robert Capa photographs it seemed like a good moment for me to see The Mexican Suitcase, a 2011 film directed by Trisha Ziff. The film narrates the rediscovery of the titular suitcase, a cache of negatives taken by Capa, Gerda Taro and David ‘Chim’ Seymor during the Spanish Civil War. Presumed lost, the suitcase was remarkably rediscovered in Mexico nearly seventy years after it was entrusted by Capa’s darkroom manager to Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez, the Mexican representative to Vichy France.

The story of the case of negatives and it’s journey through France, across the Atlantic, and to Mexico is complex and forms only part of the film’s narrative, which really uses the suitcase more as a convenient lead in to discovering and discussing Spain’s coming to terms with the past (or rather it’s precise lack of coming to terms). The story of unearthing the suitcase is unfolded in parallel with the stories of other similar rediscoveries. For example a dig at the site of a Civil War era mass grave, and the reminiscences of a series of people who directly experienced the conflict, as fighters, civillians, refugees and exiles.

For me the interviews with these direct witnesses to the conflict are by far the most interesting aspect of the film. Having suggested in my earlier review of the Capa exhibition that it might still be too soon for his photographs to sell in galleries for thousands of pounds I found it quite moving to hear the accounts of people who lived through the events of the war. People for whom the past was clearly not just an abstract historical event or even a dormant memory, but something still experienced intrusively on a daily basis, even seventy years after the Republic was defeated.

Also interviewed are a series of academics, photographers and other professionals who are connected to the suitcase or the civil war, and who explore the continuing relevancy of Capa’s work, and the contextualisation made possible by the rediscovery of these missing negatives, many of which cover the latter stages of the war. The rediscovery of the negatives was clearly important, not just as a piece of photo-historical material, but because they visually demonstrated the scale, the barbarity and the human toll that came with the end of the conflict. Particularly interesting are Capa’s photograph of the exiles in France, dumped by the thousands into desolate concentration camps and Chim’s documenting of the passage of luckier Republican exiles to Mexico.

My main problem with the film is the lack of alternative views on either Capa or the Civil War, The Mexican Suitcase has it’s own clear historical bias in both regards. There are no interviews with anyone involved in the conflict on the Nationalist side, and regarding Capa many of the experts are attached to the International Centre of Photography, which clearly has an interest in perpetuating the Robert Capa myth. A few criticisms creep in, for example Capa’s overshadowing of Taro and Seymour, and even the places and events he photographed. Another interesting criticism comes from the Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer, who quite convincingly argues that the suitcase has become as much a part of Mexico’s history as Spain or Capa’s, and criticises that the continued looting of artefacts from countries like Mexico for museums in Europe and North America.

Although made in 2011 this isn’t by any means a bad time to return to The Mexican Suitcase, with the process of de-Francoisation stalling and the question of which narratives of the past are sanctioned and which remain hidden back on the agenda in recession hit Spain. Equally although I generally find comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and the current conflict in Syria vacuous in the extreme, it’s hard to hear the story of the young Chim, Taro and Capa photographing their way to fame in the remains of Madrid and Cordoba, and resist the desire to draw parallels with the young, inexperienced freelancers heading off today to try and make their names in the ruins of Allepo and Homs.