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

KOY201407070021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images of Power and the Power of Images

494A8795

Images of Power on display at Seen Fifteen (Lewis Bush)

In an image saturated world it is fashionable to deny the power of photography. It is so common to hear even reasoned commentators argue that photographs have no impact on those that view them, and that as a result photography is incapable of achieving what so many of its users hope, that is to make some change the world. It interests me that many of those who claim that photographs are unable to alter the viewpoints of their audiences would at the same time demand the prohibition of certain types of imagery, for example images of an extreme sexual or violent nature, on the grounds that such photographs have the capacity to harm or corrupt those who view them. Photographs, mere lines of code or pieces of paper, might not in themselves change the world, but clearly do have an enormous power to influence opinion, change behaviours, and perceptions. Yet at the same time as I believe that photographs do have the capacity to alter us, as any external stimulus does, I also recognise that our expectations about the capacity of images to create change are often unrealistic, even naive. Photographs do not produce change on demand, and they often do not produce it in the ways that we expect it to. Photographs are as capable of changing the world for the worse, as they are able to shape it for the better.

Images of Power, a new exhibition at Seen Fifteen Gallery which I have curated with Mark Duffy, looks at one facet of the power of images, specifically the way that politicians and their subordinates carefully curate and broadcast a public image of themselves, and the way that artists appropriate and subvert these images. These politicians do so of course in the knowledge that such images significantly shape the electorate’s opinion of them, winning or losing voters, and playing a role in their election which can be every bit as important as their actual political policies. For their part the four photographers and artists in the exhibition’ Mark Duffy, Hans Poel, Christopher Anderson, and Daniel Mayritt, all recognise the way the power of these images can be wrested away from their subjects and creators, and how they can be twisted towards new forms which say very different things from their original intention. Their works, all exhibited for the first time in London, and in the case of Anderson and Poel for the first time in the United Kingdom, attest to the fact that the same image can be powerful in different contexts and in different ways.

Mark Duffy’s series Vote No.1 consists of rephotographed vignettes of the political billboards which litter the Irish landscape at election time. In the process of being installed and later during their subjection to the elements, these billboard accumulate strange imperfections which Duffy captures. Foreheads are penetrated by bolts, faces are scattered with grass trimmings, and a fly climbs down a politicians face. Hans Poel’s series Petting Politics also consists of vignettes, this time zeroing in on the cynical photo opportunities that politicians often employ in an attempt to appeal to their voters, appearing alongside cute animals and children in an attempt to show voters their humane side. Cropping the original image away only to the child or animal, they become a sort of bizarre proxy for the politician.

Christopher Anderson’s series Stump consists of merciless photographs of politicians and their supporters, taken during the 2012 presidential campaign. Here Anderson subverts the careful stage managing of these events such as was seen at the recent national conventions using a combination of photographic technique and unconventional editing to produce a series of brilliant ruthlessness. Finally, in the case of Daniel Mayrit’s You Haven’t Seen Their Faces, which profiles the one hundred most influential figures in the City of London, a different strategy is at play. It is one not so much of twisting the images which power projects, but of revealing the powers that sometimes intentionally elude visibility, and which also in the process sometimes seek to evade public oversight and accountability. In its choice of subject and in it’s echoes of Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, Mayrit’s work acknowledges both documentary photography’s preponderate over emphasis on the victims rather than perpetrators of crime and wrongdoing, while also reflecting the fact that in hyperimaged modern era invisibility is as much of a power and a luxury as the ability to cultivate and shape one’s image as so many politicians do.

Images of Power runs at Seen Fifteen Gallery, London until September 11th 2016.

The Trump of the Will: Reading the Republican National Convention

578547270

Donald Trump speaks to the Republican National Convention
Paul David Morris/Bloomberg (see end for full caption)

Politics might have famously been described as ‘show business for ugly people’ but it has also always been ripe ground for photographers (think of Winogrand’s brilliance at the 1960 democrat convention or more recently Chris Anderson’s images from the 2008 presidential campaign). It remains so even in an era of ever more astute media control by politicians and their campaign teams, and despite nominee front runner Donald Trump’s worryingly firm grasp on the press the photographs coming out of the recent Republican National Convention have been really pretty remarkable. Reading The Pictures have done some great close reading of images of the wider conference, but besides some fantastically strange images of delegates and candidates, the centrepiece images are those  of Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for president. There are so many images of this slightly over an hour long performance and so many of them are begging to be taken apart. The image I’ve picked out above by Paul David Morris is there not because it is the most striking, but because it combines quite a few significant elements where others tend to focus on just one. Getty have a great wider selection of other images from the speech here.

The speech’s staging could not be more bizarre, and certainly it has the pomposity of fascist propaganda films like Leni Riefenstahl’s genre defining Triumph of the Will, from the enormous ‘TRUMP’ banner on the video screen overhead, the ranks of flags behind him, down to the ring of black clad heavies who ring the stage like an honour guard for hire. At the same time the staging also feels like a homage to fictional parodies of fascism and authoritarianism, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to George Orwell’s 1984. In terms of that latter example Trump’s hour recalls the book’s Two Minutes Hate, mass meetings where citizens sit in front of giant screens and are bombarded with images of the enemy before the soothing face of Big Brother appears to calm them, a spectacle so overwhelming that even the book’s deeply cynical narrator finds himself caught up in it. The bombast of Trump’s acceptance speech is hard to overstate and it’s fully worth a watch to get a sense of why so many people are so insistently comparing him to demagogues like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. While I can imagine that Trump’s rehearals might look something like Heinrich Hoffman’s photographs of Hitler preparing his speeches, I’ve got to admit that it’s a comparison I find hard to swallow. Emulating the rhetoric of fascism doesn’t in itself make you a fascist (if it did Trump would only be the latest in a rather long line of democratic politicians to stand guilty of this) although I have always felt that political pomp and overblown charisma should almost always be regarded as a warning sign, a mask or veil over something else. As the premiership of Tony Blair very effectively demonstrated to the United Kingdom, a politician with some charisma, or even just the illusion of it, can be a very dangerous thing. In Blair’s case it masked a zealot, in Trump’s case it barely hides an ambitious opportunist, who unlike many of the authoritarians to whom he is being compared probably really believes in very little at all.

Beyond the rhetorical flourishes and ridiculous staging, there is something undeniably dark here, that is the profoundly bleak image that Trump paints of a United States on the verge of implosion, and the equally bleak promises he makes about how he will solve this. Following the UK’s recent vote to leave the European Union it was astutely remarked that England, the country which had once colonised half the world, had now fallen prey to the fantasy that it was now itself being colonised by those it had previously subjugated. Something similar might be said of the United States today, a country seemingly fascinated by the vision of its destruction, which lacking a genuine existential threat from without its borders now appears to be doing everything possible to realise that fantasy from within. Trump’s speech felt like the Two Minutes Hate in protracted form, a reeling out of a succession of enemies, from Mexican immigrants preying on all American girls to the Islamic State plotting to destroy the United States from the other side of the planet, all climaxing in Trump’s soothingly ambiguous promises of safety.

Perhaps partly because of these fictional as well as factual references it might be difficult for anyone who recognises these cultural markers to take Trump and the party that now supports him at all seriously. The whole convention feels as if it’s been organised for as an exercise in cultural reference spotting, right down to photographs of delegates who uncannily resemble grown up versions of Diane Arbus’s 1967 photograph of a young pro-Vietnam war demonstrator with his straw boater and ‘bomb Hanoi’ pin badge. Is this a fiction, or just another example of history repeating itself in a country which so often seems to pride itself on it’s supposed lack of history? Quite a few left leaning Americans seem to already be writing Trump off as not having what it takes to reach the White House. Thats exactly what we told ourselves in the United Kingdom about those who wanted to leave the European Union, that those leading the campaign were liars, inconsistent, and unsubstantial and that their supporters were uneducated, bigots and idiots. Some of that what we believed was true, but we let our own bigotry obscure the fact that in many cases these were also possible who over the past several decades had profoundly lost out while we gained. The fact that Trump’s support base forms a rough analogue to the support base of the UK’s leave campaign is well worth dwelling on and you might consider this post a warning to the American left not to underestimate the will of these people, or to make the same mistake we did.

Whatever happens in the autumn, Trump’s campaign marks a political watershed as much as the referendum did for the United Kingdom. A moment of empowerment not just for the traditional right, but the far darker ideologies at its fringes. Between 1936 and 1944 the German writer Friedrich Reck kept a remarkable diary of life under Nazism, describing with the astute observation and invective that only a truly savage cultural critic could muster how the country was ground into the dirt by Nazism. Reck describes encountering Hitler at several points during his rise to power and marvels at the fact that this entirely sordid figure, indeed to repurpose Graydon Carter’s description of Trump, this ‘short fingered vulgarian’, could hold the German people so completely under his spell. The book makes for instructive reading today, not least because Reck recognised in his diary that the politics of Nazism and the experience of living under it meant there was simply no way to return to the Germany that had existed before Hitler, an observation which in a drastically watered down form might well stand for post-referendum Britain, or a the United States after Trump. Shortly before Reck was arrested and sent to the concentration camp where he would die he wrote a poignant address to the liberators he foresaw arriving from outside Germany.

‘…we cannot go back to the life we shared with you yesterday, a life which you will spread before us so temptingly when you return. We have suffered too much to believe any more that the way to what we see as the Absolute can go in any other direction than on through the deep valley of sorrow.’

Arles 2016 Dispatch #5: Overall Impressions

2016-CWY-cat06

Girl from Contact Sheet 2 (Darkroom Manuals), 2013.
Courtesy of the artist, Foxy Production, New York, and Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto.

This week I’ve been in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ve been posting a series of rapid fire posts summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which examine ideas about European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. For the next post I focused on two more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western. For my penultimate post I looked some of the ten photographers shortlisted for the the annual Discovery Award, and for this final piece I thought I would sum up my general feelings about the festival this year and mention a few final exhibitions I didn’t have time to discuss in previous posts.

In summing up the 2015 festival my chief complaint about Recontres Les Arles was that it’s exhibitions and displays all concieved of photography in a very traditional way and gave little space for new ways of thinking about the value of photography or the ways in which it might be manipulated and displaued. Despite the new director Sam Stourdzé’s proclamation that the festival is not a museum, there was little in 2015 that challenged prevailing thought about what photography is, thought which remains rooted in the idea of it as something which exists in isolation as a discrete object, which be held, bought, sold. While this conception of photography might be comforting for photographers and artists, it is far from the reality of photography as it is experience by the majority of people in the world, for whom the medium become something binary, networked, both ever owned and ownable, and constantly prone to being mutated or changed. That absence was perhaps was understandable last year since it was a moment of transition for the festival, so the 2016 festival is maybe a better opportunity to test the extent to which the festival and it’s new director are loyal to the present as well as the past of photography. Certainly new practices were noticeable in the numerous exhibitions of the 2016 festival, whether in the anarchic multiple projections of Christian Marclay’s Pub Crawl, in the distorted scans of Sara Cwynar (pictured above), in the fragmented pixel and Photoshop art of Nothing but Blue Skies, or in the 3d meshes of Hito Steryl’s computer generated video The Tower, part of the Systematically Open exhibition which has inaugurated the new La Mecanique Generale building in Parc des Ateliers. These types of works were though were still relatively few and far between, and where it occurred the focus was invariably on experimental work by relatively safe, collectible, name artists rather than younger or earlier career photographers.

One thing which was very noticeable this year was the sheer number of exhibitions, and their scale and opulence. Looming over Parc des Atelier this year was the LUMA foundation’s new premises, a twisting tower block, ten stories of concrete and steel which looks unforgivably out of place on the very traditional skyline of Arles with it’s red roofs and innumerable church spires. The tower seems like an apt symbol for the problem with many of the exhibitions I saw, which were overlarge and sometimes staged in ways which felt unsympathetic to the work. This was the case of Yann Gross’s The Jungle Show, installed in a darkened space on a series of massive stacked light boxes, the installation was superficially compelling but did the work no favours. In other cases, it was simply a matter of scale, with many exhibitions which would have been utterly engrossing if they been half the size, but which scaled as they were instead only encouraged fatigue in a viewer. Sincerely Queer, a potentially fascinating exhibition of historic photographs of transvestites would be an example of this, with twenty fairly similar photographs often used to illustrate each of the curator’s ideas, when five carefully selected images would have done the same job and given a viewer the breathing room to really study each image. Similar issues abounded in more contemporary issues like Yan Morvan’s Battlefields, which was an interesting if conventional documentary work on battlefields around the world, but was again just too big to properly enjoy or to engage with the extensive and detailed wall texts. I could list quite a few other exhibitions this year which in photographic terms felt like an all you can eat buffet, when what I and many I spoke to at the festival felt a hunger for was more like nouveau cuisine. In terms of complex staging, Eamon Doyle’s End was one of the few that I felt justified it’s elaborateness, with a cleverly thought out use of large wall vinyls combining with a freestanding Family of Man style grid of images in the center of the space which caused wall and grid to align with each other in intriguing and unexpected ways as a viewer moves through the space.

A large part of what made the 9/11 exhibition Nothing but a Clear Blue Sky stand out for me was that rather than filling a massive space with a vast number of images on a loosely connected theme, this show essentially asked visitors to engage with just one image, that of the burning twin towers, but to do so repeatedly and in way which was cumulative across the breadth of the show. While there were certainly things I didn’t like about this exhibition, this key difference felt hugely refreshing and it is one of the reasons this is one of my top exhibitions of the festival. Similarly the small display of Maude Sulter’s Syrcas series was engaging in part because with so few pieces on display it felt manageable to really spend time with each one and study the subtlety and thought that went into their making. This same problem of scale was also really evident with the book awards. Last year a relatively small number were on display and it was feasible to look through each one, and to look through some of them in depth. This year not only has the number of prizes expanded to include a new Photo Text award, but also the system of displaying shortlisted works has gone out of the window and there were such a quantity of books on show (shortlisted and not) that it would probably take most of the week to look through them, hence why I have not attempted a best of the books post as I did last time. Amongst such scale there were also some appalling mistakes, including some books installed cover down to the reading tables. As I wandered through the vast space of the Grand Halle of the Parc du Ateliers I did start to wonder whether the problem with the penchant for art exhibitions in such mammoth disused industrial spaces is that the curators feel the irresistible need to fill every inch of them.

In conclusion, Recontres Les Arles continues to stage consistently strong exhibitions, which are generally well curated and which are almost always executed to the high standards of display you would expect from a permanent, professional gallery. Photography is well represented both in terms of historically significant art works, archival and vernacular photography, and in certain forms of contemporary photography, but I feel the festival needs to run faster to keep up with the way photographers and artists are employing digital forms of image making, and even moving beyond these into employing technologies and methodologies which might be a hard sell to describe as photography. The money and venues keep coming, but what the festival needs far is more thought about what it means to show the work that it does in that way that it does, and also a careful consideration about the experience it wants visitors to have. The problem is with such a considerable amount of money clearly flowing in from sources like the LUMA Foundation these questions may be difficult ones to ask, let alone answer, and with all those massive spaces to fill it may continue to be overwhelmingly tempting to commission shows which are oversized and initially eye catching, but which was in curatorial terms weaker than they might have been. Above all what is really worth pondering is what happens to the festival if that flow of money on which it seems now to depend should ever comes to an end.

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

Arles 2016 Dispatch #3: Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western

2016-PAR-cat02

Kent Rogowski, Love = Love. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which consider European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. Today I want to look at two slightly more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western.

Fabulous Failures, which has been curated by Erik Kessels, bills itself as a celebration of experiments gone wrong but which in a way have also right and revealed something odd, funny or thought provoking. I love the idea and was hoping for an exhibition of photography which is unintentionally mistake ridden, but instead this is generally more a case of photographers turning their lenses on other people’s mistakes or manufacturing them artificially, rather than acknowledging their own unintentional ones. An example is Thomas Mailaender’s Toilet Fail, a book of photographs of badly thought out arrangements of toilets (awkwardly facing each other, barely accessible behind the stall door, and so on). Likewise Joan Fontcuberta’s Constellations series is, like much of his work, an intentional misleading of the audience, less his mistake than ours. Jochamin Schmind’s Purple was for me one of the highlights of the show, a series of images taken with a digital camera in it’s death throes, the photographs are all cast in a purple hue and distorted by extreme artefacts.

Other artists rework existing material into things which look like mistakes. Kent Rogowski’s Love = Love mixes jigsaw puzzles together to create images where two different subjects merge together into a fragmented form. Despite the very analogue, physical means of creating these images they have a strangely digital, pixelated look. Another nice inclusion is Ruth van Beek’s series The Levitators a series of vintage postcards of dogs which have been cleverly folded on themselves to make it appears as if each animal is levitating. In many cases this means they also lose many distinguishing features; legs, eyes, mouths, and the result is a typology of strange mop like bundles of fur hovering a foot off the ground. If I had a criticism it would be that the individual works in Fabulous Failures are sometimes overshadowed by the staging which plays on the idea of failure to a slightly ridiculous degree. Anyone allergic to the recent trend for objects to be propped up against the gallery wall as if their installers had forgotten to finish the job is advised to stay away from this. In the case of Rogowski’s series it actually looks a little as if part the installation has collapsed into a pile on the floor and no one has bothered to pick it up. The layout is amusing for a while but sometimes gets in the way of just enjoying what’s on show, something exacerbated by the confusion amongst some of the visitors about how to transit the chaotic arrangements.

While Fabulous Failures is unashamedly quirky in content and form, Camarguais Western tells a strange story in a straight way. This exhibition curated by Estelle Rouquette and Sam Stourdzé, looks at how the Camargue region of France became an unlikely backdrop for a series of western style films, made from the birth of cinema through until the 1960’s. Initially the Camargue acted as a double for the wild west, passing for genuine American locations in films like Drame Mexacain (1904) and the brilliantly named Le Railway De Mort (1912). With it’s rugged and inhospitable landscape it makes a convincing replacement, even if the architecture of the frontier town sets and many of the actors appear unmistakably European. Camargue in this period remained very much a frontier even within France, its inhospitable terrain, bulls, and numerous mosquitoes (which, trust me, remain numerous today) making life difficult for this interpreid film makers who resorted to guzzling quantities pastis to ward off illness. The stills on display, both publicity images and behind the scenes photographs are wonderful and are supported by some brilliant posters and clips from the featured films.

Work on these early films were stalled by the coming of the First World War but following it’s end French directors began to assert a new confidence. During the interwar periods the location for these epics was increasingly acknowledged to be Carmague as in films like Roi de Camargue (1934) and the brilliant Mirelle (1933). Inspired by a Frédéric Mistral poem, this film depicts a landscape and people every bit as wild as that of the Far West. In one particularly brilliant scene the antagonist cowhand Ourrias wrestles a bull to the floor with his bare hands in a display of compelling brute force made all the more incredible by the abscence of stuntment or special effects. What’s also interesting is the way some of the more complex and questionable politics of Westerns were replicated in their French equivalents, for example in the way Roma characters often took the equivalent role to Native Americans. Later films including the campy D’où viens-tu Johnny (1963) which stars Johhny Halliday as a Parisian forced to flee to the south after dumping a case of someone else’s cocaine in the Seine. Cue some brilliantly naff musical numbers and great behind the scenes stills photography by Claude Schwartz. While the popularity of the Carmague as France’s wild frontier waned in this period, the show ends with a small display showing it’s continued influence in the form of several bizarre images of modern leaders emulating the cowboy lifestyle. Perhaps the most brilliant is a photograph by Dominique Faget of former French president Sarkozy riding a placid horse down a road while pursued by a tractor pulling a trailer full of journalists It’s an piece of media every bit as surreal as those early silent films of cowboys roving across the South of France.

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

The Moral Codes of Photojournalism

moses01

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.

Steve McCurry and Photojournalism’s Burden of Truth

national-geographic-100-best-pictures-cover

Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl
On the cover of a National Geographic publication.

The intellectual milieu that gives rise to a technology or a practice leaves fingerprints on that thing which last for a long time, indeed which sometimes might even be impossible to completely remove from it. The technology of photography was born in a century fixated on empiricism and on the belief that witnessing was the path to knowledge. New technologies like the various permutations of the camera offered the means for better witnessing, untainted by the shortcomings of human physiology or bias, and led therefore to knowledge which was more objective, and closer to the ‘truth’. In its turn the practice of photojournalism developed and reached maturity in a century defined by enormous ideological battles, populist conflicts between socialisms, democracies and fascisms which sought to settle essential questions about the nature of man, and his future direction. While aspects of photojournalism were appropriated by all sides in these conflicts, photojournalism in its truest sense tended to come down on the side of democracy, humanism and a sort of universalized view of human experience. This was a view exemplified in certain cultural products, National Geographic magazine being one, Edward Steichen’s seminal 1955 exhibition Family of Man being another. ‘There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men’ wrote the poet Carl Sandburg in the commentary which accompanied the exhibition on it’s subsequent eight year global tour.

I refer back to these points in the history of photography and photojournalism because I think they are interesting and important for the way we continue to think about these things today. In photojournalism notions of objective truth and universal human experience remain very popular ones. They have perhaps been tempered by the growing number of voices who see these ideas as problematic, or at times even quite dangerous, but they continue to lurk, waiting to be released from their dormant state by the right circumstances and events, like fingerprints at a crime scene waiting to be illuminated by exposure to the right combination of chemicals and an investigators ultra-violet lamp. This I would say is what happened briefly when it was recently revealed that photographs by veteran photojournalist Steve McCurry had been photomanipulated to remove extraneous details. The discovery was initially made by Paolo Viglione, an Italian photographer who noted evidence of cloning in a McCurry prints at an exhibition in Italy. In the image in question the base of a street sign appears to have been accidentally cloned across the leg of a man passing in front of it. Subsequent analysis of other McCurry images available online revealed a number of other images had been subject to manipulation, including some much more clearly intentional removals of large parts of photographs, and one where parts might even have been added. Petapixel and other sites quickly picked up the story, and McCurry issued a statement blaming the mistake on an overzealous technician (blaming the retoucher seems to be becoming an ever more common strategy employed by those who instruct them).

Revelations of photomanipulation always draws the ire of photojournalists, despite the evident irony that this is only one of the many forms of manipulation which occur in photojournalism. The same people who rabidly condemn someone like McCurry are often the ones who fail to recognize the extent to which every other part of their own process is a form of manipulation. From early interactions with subjects through choices made in shooting and image selection, to the final editing tweaks made to maximize visual effect. Even the pre-eminent final form of photojournalism, the photo essay, is itself a form of manipulation, an entirely artificial narrative device design to produce certain effects which have little to do with the way events unfold in the real world or the ways we experience them as bystanders. The photo essay instead has everything to do with a particular conception of how stories are told, how time flows, and how these things can be twisted into a form convenient for the reproductional technology of the early twentieth century (which, lest we forget, is stone age compared to the possibilities of today). Every stage of the photojournalistic process then is a manipulation, each one capable of manipulating reality in a direction which facilitates the telling of stories in ways which are sometimes accurate and illuminating (even dare I say it, truthful?) but which can just as easily be regressive, misleading and unhelpful. What matters far less than the fact of whether manipulation takes place or not, is the extent to which the photographer is transparent about it, and the manipulation is made clear. The examples of photographers who have done just that are few, such are the severe strictures against breaking these sacred codes, but they do exist. From Frank Hurley’s exceptional composite images of First World War battles, to W. Eugene Smith’s numerous genre defining projects, the latter famously responded to questions about his use of unconventional techniques with the remark that ‘I didn’t write the rules, why should I follow them?’

The real problem with McCurry’s photography isn’t down to the use of the clone tool to create them, it’s a problem embedded even more profoundly in his way of making photographs, and goes right back to those latent fingerprints. McCurry is engaged in a type of photography born in the ideological battles of the Cold War and which seems to have barely evolved since. A universalized world view which often appears to be attempting to simplify the complex and sometimes uncomfortable differences between people and places rather than fully acknowledging those differences or the things that create them. It’s an approach to photography and to the world it depicts which is reductive and unreflective, not least on the process that gives rise to the images themselves. In the words of Teju Cole, it’s astonishingly boring photography, and in Paroma Mukherjee’s words just well marketed visual imperialism (I recommend reading both of these pieces for more on what’s wrong with this type of photography in general). I suspect the reason that people really object to the discovery that McCurry or someone close to him has been manipulating his photographs is mostly just that it calls into question the sacred notion of empirical photographic truth to which so many hold dear, and reveals once again that absolute rules rarely hold strong. In that sense at least perhaps we should actually thank McCurry for allowing himself his own ‘unguarded moment’ and in doing so revealing the artifice not only of his photographs but also the framework of beliefs that lie behind them.

From where I stand unquestioning faith in the idea of truth as something absolute and human experience as something universal and self-evident have become a terrible burden on photojournalism, and perhaps these rigid conventions partly explain why so many are deserting the practice and instead aligning themselves with disciplines like documentary and art. It is a burden of truth which rather than enabling important work often seems often to paralyze photojournalism’s most zealous adherents, leaving them unable to respond to many of the major problems which face the world today. As I wrote recently about the World Press Photo, journalists can no longer believe in the idea of objective photographic vision in an age when so many things that they need to reveal are constructed exactly to exploit or defy exactly such ways of thinking and seeing. Instead they need to embrace alternative forms of seeing and storytelling, ones where the potential for revelation lies in partly a readiness to embrace difference, subjectivity and in a rejection of simple ethical binaries and moral black and whites.

At the Gates of Photography

Liberty_Bond,_World_War_One,_New_York_Times

A U.S. Army soldier hangs up a Liberty Bond poster on a sentry box
during the Occupation of the Rhineland, c. 1919 (NY Times archive)

It’s notoriously difficult to ever speak of a ‘photography industry’ because when we do so we are lumping together so many disparate professions and practices within that broad phrase. Even breaking it down to the many industries within an industry, when we speak of a practice like photojournalism we are still talking about a very distributed, diffused and international activity, in the very opposite of many other professions which even today remain top down in organisation and much more clearly regulated by specific bodies like unions and guilds. Instead photography has a much more nodal, networked structure, with a great number of different organisations all presiding over their own fiefdoms, sometimes intersecting like venn diagrams, butwith the interactions between them often disjointed and scattered.

A diffused industry has some clear benefits, this plurality is a large part of what makes photography an exciting and diverse field, but it also has some very significant disadvantages. In photojournalism for example talk of ‘industry standards’ with respect to issues like ethics or photo manipulation is hollow precisely because there is no single body which defines what these standards might be and which can speak with any authority for the entire industry. Part of the mounting frustration aimed at World Press Photo prior to it’s recent rule changes stemmed I suspect from the feeling that the organisation was starting to look like exactly that sort of industry arbiter, and photographers didn’t much like it (even as much as many of the same photographers dislike the wide ranging inconsistencies over manipulation and the disputes which can result). At the same time recent scandals over sexual harassment in photography highlight the fact that without any overarching body which moderates and speaks for photographers and photography professionals it is difficult to adequately judge or bring action against people suspected of breaking rules or laws, informal or otherwise. Once the online storm dies down they potentially remain free to practice and in such a large and disconnected industry I fear there will always remain corners where they can continue to exploit their profile and ply their trade to people who might be unaware of their past transgressions.

The latter example is important because I believe this diffusion of power throughout the photography industry contributes to an environment where people can more readily abuse their power and get away with it, whether in ways which are subtle or extreme. In contrast to a traditional hierarchical industry where those who hold power are very clearly defined and often subject to codified rules and systems whereby that power can be moderated, censured or removed, the highly networked and distributed nature of the photography industry leads to a diffuse and informal distribution of power without oversight. The result is a system dotted with a great many gatekeepers who are often unmoderated and self-appointed. The maddening thing is that many of these gatekeepers refuse or fail to recognise their own power or to acknowledge the influence they can bring to bear on their corner of the industry. I sometimes wonder if this is a product of wishful thinking as much as anything. By and large the photography world tends to be left leaning, and the natural inclination of those in it is often to associate with those they see as being at the bottom of the heap rather than those at the top. That may partly explain the lack of willingness by many of the industry’s gatekeepers to acknowledge the power they hold because to do so involves recognising that they are part of the same groups that they might have spent much of their career imagining themselves arrayed against. I can say from my own experience that this dissonance is a challenging one to process.

A related issue which I identified in a recent piece on anti-intellectual undercurrents in photography, is the reality that not all gatekeepers are the same. They come in all shapes and sizes, as do the gates they guard and the rewards which await on the other side for those granted passage. While writing, it occurred to me that while I am still very much a new arrival in this field, I have already come to stand guard over numerous gates, whether as a writer about photography deciding which work to discuss and promote (or savage) next, or as someone selecting prospective students for any one of the courses I teach on. Hence why as I have become more and more involved in photography the more important it has become for me to find my own mechanisms for being accountable, whether those be the small critical disclaimers I often include at the end of reviews on this blog to reveal any connections I might have with work I am writing about, or in declining or donating payment for participating in things like portfolio reviews which I have serious professional objections to. From what I’ve seen these minor mechanisms of mine are fairly novel in the industry and to my knowledge are rarely employed by peers at the same level as me or higher. I’d like to see them instead become the norm.

I’ve argued before that privilege and power are less of a problem than what you choose to do with these things, and I would say much the same is true here. Gatekeepers are a problem but they are also a reality of a diffuse ‘industry’ like photography, and I think that in practice few of us would prefer the alternative of an industry which is highly hierarchical and has more formalised power brokers. At the same time, I really believe it is important to find ways to moderate and scrutinise gatekeepers of whatever size, and to my mind the most effective way to do this is to call on them very directly to self-moderate and practice accountability and transparency in their actions. Many of course will decline, but that should tell you plenty about these people. The role of the press has been said to be to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and I think we could do with practicing some of that within our industry, calling these gatekeepers out when they engage in dubious practices or when they refuse to be transparent about their motivations for promoting or demoting work they encounter. This has long been the role of the informal photography press, primarily blogs and websites including this one, but photographers themselves need to actively participate in this process if the voices that call these figures to account are to have any real weight and are to really push for greater openess.

Spiking the War Primer

war primer 3 spiking the war primer

War Primer 3

This piece is an adapted version of a talk I gave at Helsinki Photomedia 2016 on the theme of materialities, and in my talk looking specifically thinking about how elements like material form contribute to the reading and meaning of photographic projects published as books. Over time I’ve become more and more interested in the politics of images, and I’ve found it’s often useful to think about photographs in terms of their having something of a metaphorical genetic code which might be mapped like an organisms genome and then sort of read for insights which can guide the way those images are treated and used. In the real world a genetic code is something we are all born with, but exposure to the environment causes that code to periodically change and mutate, in ways which might become a beneficial evolution or which might prove to be a fatal cancer. I’m interested in the way that different stages in the life of an image might do something similar, mutating the image’s base genetic code in ways which accent or even completely change the genetic code of the image. I’m speaking in metaphor here, but with digital imagery the idea of a photograph having a genetic code clearly becomes much more concrete.

One example of these mutational changes maybe is the context of your encounter with image, the situation you first see an image in (whether gallery, book, magazine, etc.) and the material qualities of the image in that encounter, whether it is printed, projected on a screen, or something else. You might take the example of how the presentation of forensic images in an exhibition like The Burden of Proof already prefigures how you understand these photographs, before any further context is provided for them. A second example is what the photograph actually shows, and perhaps just importantly how it shows that thing. Thirdly, going right going back to even before the ‘birth’ of the image, the technology that creates it is important to it’s politics if you feel as I do that the circumstances of any technologies creation become an irreducible part of it. For an example, the fact that contemporary civllian mapping satelites are the direct descendents of optical surveillance satelites is not something which can be separated from the images they produce, nor is the fact that the rockets that launch them are the direct descendents of rockets intended to flatten cities. These things all impart important elements of the genetic code of any image which results from them.

This will all probably seem very obvious to some people reading this, and in many ways it is obvious, but I think it’s those obvious things you can easily forget to include in the equation. Engaging with the politics of how images are made and disseminated is valuable because if you work in appropriative way as I sometimes do, or in a way which is commenting on the production and circulation of images, as I also try to do, this offers a way to identify how powerful images might be, at the risk of horribly mixing my metaphors, defused or ‘spiked’. For the uninitiated spiking is a method of sabotage once used to disable heavy cannons in wartime. It involves simply hammering a small pin into the channel which is used to light the main charge, thereby rendering a huge cannon is as good as useless with a piece of metal not more substantial than a nail. I’m drawn to the grace of this image of sabotage and this is more or less what I have sometimes attempted to do in my work as a photographer, to take a perhaps rather dangerous form of imagery developed, created or employed by powerful interests and to try to find a way to twist or subvert that visually in a way which turns that power back against the original owners and creators. I wouldn’t say I’ve always done it successfully, but that’s one of the consistent aims I have when I make work.

And so an example of where I’ve attempted to do this is with my book War Primer 3. This is an appropriation of an appropriation of an appropriation, where each level of appropriation mutates the physical form of the book to say and do quite different things. The first iteration of this was Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, the name given to the 1998 English edition of his 1955 book Kriegsfibel. This is a fascinating, creative and at times very moving analysis of the deceptive qualities of press imagery particularly in the context of war and politics. In essence it’s also a way of slipping semiotics in through the back door, and teaching people that press photographs can’t be trusted as objective information. The teaching element is also evident in the name primer, which implies a children’s textbook, and the physical form of the original version of the book very much plays to that. It is a mass produced, affordable and essential work. From a photography perspective what I think is really interesting about War Primer is that Brecht is sort of employing similar strategies to those that make his plays so compelling, primarily the idea of alienating an audience, showing them the cracks in the narrative and the medium sued to create that narrative, and in the proccess hinting at the arbritariness of reality, and the idea that reality is not a fixed thing but something we shape by our actions as individuals and societies.

The second iteration of the book is Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2. Again a fascinating work, the duo build on Brecht’s book by adding new photographs over his originals. This new images are intended to resonate with Brecht’s original poems and critically they all relate (more or less) to the global war on terror. In effect the duo thereby make the argument that many of the issues of censorship, propaganda and manipulation that frustrated Brecht remain present today, albeit by making a somewhat dubious equation between the Second World War and the War on Terror. More problematically for me, the method of production involved in the book turns it in to an unattainable art object. Even more problematic was the use of interns to produce the work. As with Brecht’s original I think there is a form of alienation taking place here, but it is less the alienation of Brecht’s epic theatre and more the alienation of Marx’s critique of capitalism, i.e the alienation of a workforce from control, profit or credit of their labour. I should say at this point I’m not a Marxist, my relationship with theory is much more that if something as resonances for what is happening in the world it is useful, and I think that’s the case here.

And so finally we come to my version, War Primer 3, which in turn appropriates Broomberg and Chanarin’s book and updates it into a piece about the global economic conflict that is capitalism, and which highlights various examples of the fallout from that. It does this by combining images of economic inequality and disaster with the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Readers History, which is very much a eulogy to the forgotten workers, soldiers and slaves of his history. One imagines interns might have featured in it as well. But besides these interventions a very important part of reworking the book was to return it to a material form closer to Brecht’s original intentions to make a book which was mass produced and everyday, like a child’s school book. Given the material resources available to me the only logical solution seemed to be to disseminate the work online as a PDF, so that’s the form it took. A physical book of War Primer 3 exists which served as the base for making the PDF, but the physical book is not the book, the PDF is. And I think an unintended but quite pleasing consequence of that is that when you search for War Primer or War Primer 2, my book appears scattered about the results. So while I haven’t perhaps nullified all of the things in it’s predecessor which I perceive as problematic, and while War Primer 3 also undoubtedly introduces problems of it’s own, it has for me been one of the better successes for me in terms of appraising the politics of images and then using that knowledge and a material form to try and spike them.