Why Teach Photography?

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Colored school at Anthoston, Kentucky
Lewis Hine, 1916

These days about half my working week is occupied with teaching and with its accompanying activities; preparation, marking, tutorials, admin, standing in line for coffee. The amount of time I’ve spent occupied with this, and the fact I’ll be undertaking a post-graduate teaching qualification this year, has led me to think more and more about what it actually means to teach. Having been surrounded by teachers for much of my life, at home, at school, at university and then in college, it has always seemed such an everyday activity that it didn’t seem to warrant consideration. Teaching seemed entirely natural, like talking. Since I have started to teach I’ve gradually begun to think about it for the first time as a practice in the same sense that I think of photography or writing, as something which is cultivated and developed over time, which grows and evolves and solidifies, rather than being something that one just rather mechanically does.

This shift in perspective has opened up a multitude of questions for me, about what my ethos as a teacher is, about what constitutes good teaching, about how teaching can be sustainable and can not only function alongside other areas of my practice but in direct harmony with them. I have gradually started to synthesise some of the resulting thoughts into writing. I do this in the knowledge that these conclusions are likely to change over the following years as I think and learn more about teaching (and also as I do much more of it) but that’s rather part of the point. The ability to look back at my thoughts about things has always been part of the purpose of this blog, ossifying ideas so that later I can return, cutting through the strata of years of intervening contemplation, to arrive back at the bedrock, the foundations of it all. It is interesting in doing this to find that writing which seemed so essential and fresh at the time of putting pen to paper, now appears on rereading years later to be composed of nothing but ill shaped thoughts and vestigal ideas.

My approach to teaching has always been based on my own experiences as a student and of my relationships with those teachers who I remember years later, whether for better or for worse. I have always felt that one can learn as much from the bad as from the good, and like most people I have in my time had to contend with indifferent, bored, and even downright aggressive teachers and lecturers. I have been taught by people who made little effort to disguise their contempt for their students or mask the sense that teaching was a burdensome thing distracting them from their true calling in life, whether that was performing in a pub rock band or researching an obscure period of history. I’ve also been taught by people who actually seemed to rather hate their subject. These people have in a strange way become a minor guiding light of mine. They are a reminder to always strive to never become like any of them, and a reminder that whatever difficulties and frustrations are occurring elsewhere in my life I need to be mindful not to carry them into the classroom with me.

The many positive learning experiences I have had over the years as a student have been far more of an inspiration for my own teaching than the negative ones. I’ve had teachers who brought subjects to life and to light, who went to great lengths to make sure I understood, but who also did more than the bare bones of just decanting knowledge and making sure it stuck. I’ve had teachers who took time and expended effort to engage and know each student as far as they could, and in the process, they helped us know ourselves. These experiences all inform the class room environment I hope to create, one where students feel understood, that their tutors are interested both in their work on the course but also more broadly in what motivates and interests them. I hope an environment like this will in turn foster a sense that a diversity of experiences, interests, backgrounds, orientations and goals are all equally welcome, where students feel able to push and explore ideas about the wider world and about their own identities and aims. I don’t want to simply define photojournalism and documentary photography to my students, I want them to define it for themselves, in relation to their own experiences. Learning has been and continues to be a profoundly empowering process for me, a shy child who was always more interested in the constructions of his own inner world than the arbitrary reality outside of it. I want my students to have a similarly empowering experience, even while I recognise that the knowledge that matters to them and ways they might be empowered by it are likely to be very different.

At the same time as feeling empowered by education I want students to feel positively challenged in classes, intellectually and practically. This aim sometimes competes with the intentions outlined in the previous paragraph, particularly where a student group encompasses a broad spectrum of abilities and personalities, some of whom might require more or different challenge than others. A famous declaration by Finley Peter Dunne comes to mind when I think of teaching, his suggestion that the purpose of a newspaper was ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ would seem to have some relevance in the classroom. One aims for fairness and equality in treatment, while at the same recognising that different students need different guidance. Some students come with little confidence and need to be fortified simply in order to get them to make work, others come with an excess of confidence in their own abilities and need this to be questioned so that they can see the work they make with different eyes and in doing so make it better.

The Dunne quote I referenced above is also instructive in that it reminds me to constantly ask what the social function of teaching is, and to scrutinise where one stands as a teacher in the structures of society. Judging from my own experiences there is no fixed answer here, teachers can be activist, transgressive and speak truth to power (E.P Thompson’s searing expose Warwick University Limited comes to mind as an example from my alma mater). They can also  be conservative and defensive of ingrained inequalities and vested interests, a fact that seems particularly worth remembering in the context of the photography world, with it’s massive and largely unacknowledged inequalities, myriad gatekeepers and special interests. The idea of education as a force for social change, as articulated by Paolo Freire is one I find compelling, even if the promises of his ideas might be more modest in 21st century Britain than in the context in which he originated them. With the education sector increasingly seen as a business and students as customers, Freire’s ideas about how education can be a source of liberation or a means of entrenching inequality and his calls for solidarity and a blurring of the boundaries between teacher and taught seem highly relevant today. Likewise his idea of consciousness building seems pertinent to a field like documentary photography, where such a large part of the work is a process of disentangling the complex issues and systems one hopes to explore.

And lastly, I often find myself mulling questions of sustainability in a variety of senses. In some ways I find it remarkable how little technology has so far disrupted the teaching profession in contrast to other fields. I can’t see this lasting, and the smart teachers and institutions will be the ones anticipating how technology will change the demand, nature and delivery of education. An area I’m interested in specialising in is the use of online teaching platforms, technologies which bring with them their own peculiar dynamics, challenges and possibilities which are quite different to those of the physical classroom. With much current discussion of the precarity of the teaching profession I also find myself thinking about how teaching can be made professionally sustainable over the long term, both by working within traditional institutions of learning and outside of them. I often find myself wondering how teaching can work in harmony with the other things I want to spend my time on, and to some extent articulating these ideas here is a first tentative step into this area. The prevalent view of university arts teaching almost as a sort of subsidy for a small number of creative people to make their own work, research, or sometimes simply rest on their laurels, seems deeply unviable in the face of impending technological change, not to mention undesirable in the effect it sometimes has on those teacher’s attitudes towards teaching. So, these are the reasons I teach, because like so many things the challenges, promises, and the constant questions it presents are fascinating to me. In the end I teach, quite simply, because I want to learn.

New Exhibitions – Very Now and City of Dust

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I have two exhibitions opening in London today.

Very Now opens today at London College of Communication with a private view on Tuesday 12th July. Curated with my colleague Max Houghton to coincide with the college’s Festival of Art and Journalism, Very Now draws together pieces by a series of artist and photographers working at the intersections of art and journalism. From Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, which reenacts a key clash in the 1984 miners strike, to Laura El-Tantawy’s In The Shadow of the Pyramids, a highly personal account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, these works illustrate and reflect on the exciting possibilities of hybrid practices. Alongside these works are displayed a series of reactive projects produced by groups of UAL students, working with disparate ideas and approaches, from reworking the documents of the Courage Foundation’s Edward Snowden Archive, to using mapping and public data to consider the changing face of the local area where the college is situated.  More information is available on the college website, and Very Now continues until 12th August.

City of Dust opens at Westminster Reference Library today with a private view on Wednesday 13th July. An interim exhibition of a project which I have been working on gradually over the past four years, City of Dust looks at London as if it were a living memory palace, an imagined space scattered with symbolic objects each resonant of a different aspect of the city’s past. In the proccess the work ruminates on the relationships between walking, memory and urban space. Like my previous book Metropole, City of Dust offers a commentary on the pace of change in the city, the destruction of the past and the gradual transformation of London into an amnesiac metropolis. Alongside the exhibition a newspaper based on the show will be available free for visitors to take away and there will be a reading table of books from the library’s collection. More information is available in the press release, and City of Dust continues until 23rd July. It would be great to see some faces, familiar or otherwise, at both of these events so please do come on down to either.

For more information on either of these you can contact me through my website.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #2: Looking Beyond the Edge and Nothing But Blue Skies.

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Reeve Schumacher, #1, from the Nothing but Blue Skies series, 2016. 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. Yesterday I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Today I’m focusing on two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and the group show Nothing but Blue Skies.

Looking Beyond the Edge curated by Tate’s Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian is a sizeable show of work by veteran war photographer Don McCullin, however what makes it a little different is the way that it studiously avoids the imagery of war, famine and disaster that he is best known for. Instead the exhibition brings together series made before and between the overseas assignments which made McCullin’s name. It opens with photographs taken in his native north London, a decayed and battered place when seen through the photographer’s viewfinder. Despite the similarity in time, place and subject to other photographers, say Roger Mayne, there is none of the same lightness. Indeed viewing these smoggy streets and lost looking people it’s immediately striking how McCullin’s photographs have a knack for making everything look like a war, and this is an idea which repeatedly emerges with almost every set of images in this show. The closest we get to actual conflict are photographs taken in 1961 as the Berlin Wall began to be constructed. In these images armed soldiers faced each other across this most unnatural of borders but the real focus is on the ordinary Berliners who look on with a mixture of quiet curiosity and mounting concern.

The majority of remaining photographs are from the United Kingdom. McCullin’s photographs of the north of England, covering cities like Bradford and regions like Northumberland, seem to depict a society which is in the process of tearing itself apart. In this sense they are strongly reminiscent of work by contemporaries like Chris Killip, indeed at times their subject matter perfectly converges, and one wonders if the two photographers ever passed one another on the same half abandoned street. Also on display are photographs of homeless Londoners taken in Whitechapel in the 1980’s, which call to mind Moyra Peralta’s photographs taken in the same period. One thing that’s immediately obvious though in this comparison is the distance in McCullin’s work, these are very much the photographs of a photojournalist, taken at a respectful range while Peralta’s photographs put you right up with the subjects, as if they were sitting alongside you. Because of this and more I find her photographs moving while McCullin’s often actually feel more uncomfortably distant, even when a face fills the frame. Lastly and maybe most out of place are McCullin’s landscape photographs, many taken in Somerset where he now lives. Lacking captions or titles, these images feel out of place next to the more issue based work, especially since like all his other works they have the foreboding tone of place where a war or similar cataclysm might have just passed by, or perhaps is just about to arrive. In all Looking Beyond the Edge is an interesting show, a different look at a familiar name and altogether a more convincing coherent use of this space by the two curators than the show of Japanese work which appeared here last year.

If Looking Beyond the Edge studiously avoids images of conflict, then Nothing but Blue Skies might be seen as a consideration of the opening salvo in an entirely new type of conflict, one where the role of photographers like Don McCullin remains hugely uncertain. Curated by Mélanie Bellue and festival director Sam Stourdzé, the exhibition draws together artists who have looked in very different ways at the impact of the attacks of September 11th 2001. The show opens with a room consisting of dozens of newspaper front pages collected by Hans-Peter Feldmann and spread across all four walls. This simple but powerful display underlines both the heterogeneity of media responses to the attack, ranging from the hyperbolic to the measured, and also hinting at the complex role that the media played in perpetuating the shock of these events through their reporting of them. Headlines scream of a ‘World under attack’, an ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘40,000 dead’. The media’s ambiguous role in this event is picked up in a short text by Jean Paul Curnier, one of several that sit in the space alongside the works and which each briefly examine pertinent issues around the visualization of the attacks. The prescience of these texts in the gallery seems to me like a tacit acknowledgment by the curators that to allow images like these to ‘speak for themselves’ is inherently fraught, and that even after mediation by artists they still require further context and explanation.

Proceeding further into the show the works become more meditative and more about the aftermath and memory of the attacks. Cotton Under my Feet by Waalid Raad charts his fraught attempts to recall the colour of the sky on the day of the attacks. In order to do so the artist starts to collect images of the New York skyline which he then proceeds to digitally cut away at, removing everything in the image but the sky itself. The cuts are jagged, violent and the white patches left behind where areas have been removed are both resonant of absence, but also suggestive in their outlines, hinting in many cases at the shape of the World Trade Centre, in one case the outline of an airliner impossibly similar to the one which was immortalized by countless cameras as it curved gracefully into the second tower. The works in this show also rove far wider than photography. Save Manhattan 2 by Mounir Fatmi is a model cityscape roughly similar to Manhattan, but constructed out of VHS cassettes. The magnetic guts of these tapes spills out onto the floor around the sculpture like the cloud of dust which settled over the island after the collapse of the towers. Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski is the final piece of the show and in many respects the one which left the greatest impression. In it, video clips extracted from Hollywood movies are montaged together into a narrative reassembling the chronology of the attacks. The effect is strangely powerful, as disparate clips extracted from American Psycho, Wall Street, Die Hard, Independence Day, Marathon Man and many others combine with the viewer’s memory of that day to create an account which recalls documentary films like 102 Minutes That Changed America but hovers uncomfortably between fact and fiction. Lurking behind the work is a commentary on the United State’s dark fascination with images of it’s own destruction and the subtext that before the day which ‘changed everything’ these same images had already been rehearsed on the silver screen a thousand times.

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

The Beat Goes On: Photobook Bristol 2016

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Still from Pulp Fiction (1994)

I’ve just returned from a weekend at Photobook Bristol, an informal congregation of photobook makers, publishers, designers and enthusiasts who gather in the city each year to hear talks, see books, share ideas, inspiration and woes, and to generally just party (it’s a great opportunity to see how photography’s finest perform on the dance floor, it turns out that Danish legend Krass Clements has some serious moves on him). It’s also a great place to catch up with far flung friends, see what they are working on, what get a sense of what work might be next to explode into the photography world. Despite my mounting misgivings about the pseudo-revolutionary hype around them, photobooks clearly remain a capable and relevant platform for disseminating exciting work, and this was really evidenced by the number of important names in photography who were speaking at the event, ranging from Susan Meiselas to Laura el-Tantawy. It is needless to say a rather questionable activity to attempt to judge a huge and international field of publishing based on one festival since all such events have their predilections and prejudices, but I feel I ought to at least attempt to summarise a few of the trends in what was discussed.

Perhaps one of the most notable things, and one which underpins many of the other discussions had over the weekend is that the conflict between form and function remains alive and well. It seems that the photobook remains closely aligned with the exquisite artist’s book much more so than more mass produced forms of trade or consumer book, and that continues to create tensions between the aspirations often held for a book and the reality of what it is able to do. It was interesting to hear discussions taking in different generations of photobook makers (notably a discussion between Susan Miselas and Oliva Arthur chaired by David Solo) where there were noticeable similarities over time but also changes print run, design, form and more, trends towards smaller runs and more complex design. Another interesting talk came from Yumi Goto of Reminders Project where she discussed a series of books published by the organization and some of the approaches and techniques used. Interestingly she referred to the number of copies published of each book not as an edition of say, 45 books, but as 45 editions, a linguistic subtlety which seemed to nicely reflect the fact that photobooks are still often rather unique objects which can incorporate some quite handmade, unique elements even when they reach larger print runs. I saw relatively few books over the weekend which really eschewed a fussy form (whatever happened to print on demand?) and it seems in this ever more competitive world that is less and less an option. On this topic a breath of fresh air came in a talk from designer Ania Nalecka who cautioned photographers against over design or complex design divorced from the meaning of their work.

Another issue often discussed was the question of the photobook’s relevancy and accessibility to wider audiences. There was much discussion of how the book can push beyond the niche of devotees and those wealthy enough to buy what remains essentially a luxury item. This is clearly related to the previous point in some respects, since design remains closely connected to the issue of cost, with more complex designs invariably demanding costlier production processes. There are of course exceptions, Craig Atikinson’s Café Royal Books being the most obvious representative of the alternative model, and Craig marked reaching the landmark of 300+ publications with a talk at the festival. Another interesting talk came from Julian Germain, discussing amongst other things the free citizen produced newspaper the Ashington District Star which he helps to organise and edit. The issue of relevancy and availability is also linked to other issues, for example distribution (a word my spellchecker perhaps rather aptly wanted to change to ‘devotion’). The fantasy of photobooks appearing for sale in supermarkets which I recall being aired at the previous year’s festival remains out of reach, but it remains a worthy aspiration. At the same time there were some interesting talks from a number of people who are comparatively new to photobooks, including an interesting collaboration between Mark Power, poet Daniel Cockrill and designer Dominic Brookman to produce a hybrid book aimed at poetry and photography enthusiasts. It was also a thrill to hear from the veteran Ghanian photographer James Barnor, who has published the first book of his work at the sprightly age of 87. He modestly prefigured his talk by saying he wanted to speak little and leave plenty of time for questions, because if a dinosaur came back to life then he imagined people would have plenty of things they might want to ask it.

Connected to the above, the issue of making out of prints books available in alternative and more accessible formats was also something I often found came up in the conversations between talks. It’s something I’ve always been keen on and have done with a few of my publications which are no longer in print. During the weekend I chatted with a few people about this including with Andrea Copetti of Tipi Bookshop about this and we had an interesting dialogue weighing up the pros and cons of making PDFs of unavailable books available versus offering high resolution videos of the physical books. I came down more on the side of the former, he on the latter, but clearly both have advantages and disadvantages and both succeed and fail at representing the nature of a physical book in different ways. The thing that I think most of the people I discussed this with agreed on was that small, closed editions and artificially unattainable books only really benefit collectors and perhaps sometimes publishers, not photographers and audiences. Solutions are much needed and having better opportunities to see and understand the seminal books which have come before can only benefit the vibrancy of photobook making. Certainly as a teacher there is a list of books both contemporary and classic which I would love to be able to show my students and which I think they would learn much from, but which are unfortunately impossibly rare. To some extent I sense that many of the issues that remain troubling with regards to the photobook stem from that prefix ‘photo’ and some of the most exciting books I saw and heard about over the weekend were those where the photographic element is almost secondary to the book fulfilling some other function, whether as strange documentation, journalistic investigation or something else entirely. I’ll be picking up on some of these titles in more detail on Disphotic very soon. In short the photobook remains alive and well but by no means completely resolved. There remain plenty of rather existential questions about the book that it’s more reflective adherents need to continue to discuss and address.

(Critical transparency: There are so many potential conflicts of interest here – ranging from the fact I’ve at spoken at previous incarnations of Photobook Bristol, to my having written an essay for Cafe Royal Books – that I would hardly know where to start with listing them. Suffice to say that if you that think I’m irredeemably corrupt as a critic then these attempts at disclaimers probably don’t help much, but at least I make an attempt at them.) Also My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

What is Documentary Photography II

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People watching the solar eclipse of 1912, Eugène Atget

Words are exacting things, and however similar a synonym might sound, one phrase swapped for another will never mean precisely the same thing. This fact matters for a writer in much the same way that it matters for a photographer to know what a difference it will make shooting a subject close up with a wide lens rather than from a distance with a telephoto. Superficially, the content and meaning might seem the same, but the implcation of the image can be dramatically transformed by such a change. Definitions matter then, which makes it problematic for me when something is widely used but also unclearly defined. An example of that which I find myself confronted by on a regular basis, is the vague definition of documentary photography, the practice that has come in various ways to take up an inordinate part of my time. In particular, as I have come to teach the subject more and more that question becomes more constant, and the answers I attempt to offer seem by comparison shakey and uncertain. I’m hardly alone in this, and searching the web for the question ‘what is documentary photography’ reveals a host of malformed and differing responses, including an old one of my own.

I have attempted to define documentary photography here before, and to say that I feel the need to clarify further is not exactly to confess that the previous answer was hopelessly flawed. Each time you try to solve a question without a binary answer that solution reflects the depth of knowledge you had at the time about that subject, and perhaps the particular needs you had of that answer. As knowledge and experience grows, and most importantly is processed through the filter of thought and reflection, the answer that was given before starts to seem increasingly two-dimensional. Therefore, to return to a previously answered question is not exactly to admit the original answer was inadequate, but that it served a particular purpose at a particular time and place. I daresay this answer will also seem in time to be equally insubstantial, and I think that is just something that has to be accepted as part of the process of writing or thinking about anything.

Previously when I discussed the definition of documentary photography I took a very literal approach to the question, exploring the etymological root of the word documentary, with its connotations of learning and evidence, (however problematic such a literal definition might be in light of what we know about photography’s often-questionable role as witness and evidence). This definition I attempted to align these with a certain type of practice related to photojournalism and occasionally overlapping with it, but perhaps also more visually sophisticated, experimental and less canonical. This first attempt at definition is still a useful one for me, but it could do with some further augmentation. One issue I didn’t really discuss before is the self-initiated and personal nature of much documentary work, and I think that while this is by no means a universal or a prerequisite to regarding work as ‘documentary’ in nature, it is a fairly consistent attribute especially in the 21st century. This idea snuck in accidentally last time when I drew attention to Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph The Steerage as a prototypical documentary photography, an image which (as far as we know) was very much made in response to something Stieglitz saw and felt rather than in response to a commission or response. In the long run this poses the big question of exactly what aduience documentary photography is for. My previous attempt at definition, and others which are available online, suggest that the audience is often partly an abstract and unknowable future, that documentary photography is in part a practice of archive and record making for posterity or history, an idea I’d like to revisit in more depth another time.

Perhaps another rather more contemporary marker of documentary photography is its flexibility when it comes to dissemination and display. Photojournalism might be increasingly willing to appear in the art gallery, and art photography might make ever more forays into mass media and printed matter. However a characteristic which I think is defining for documentary photography in the 21st century is its ability and willingness to shape shift and adapt for different forms of dissemination, from newspaper and magazine to gallery wall via photobook, multimedia and dedicated website (and a great deal of other modes in between). For me what this hints more at is the idea that as far as one can talk about documentary photography as a coherent and stable practice, it is also one which readily overlaps with many other areas, most prominently photojournalism and art photography. While advocates of these two categories often seem keen to assert the integrity and separateness of what they do from other forms of photography, my experience of documentary photographers is they will readily and openly cannabilise ideas from other fields which appear useful to them (and that certainly can cause problems of it’s own). Thinking back to the discussion about professional names which I posted here a while back, I’ve noticed that documentary photography peers often hardly use the term themselves, typically describing themselves just as photographers. I’m not exactly sure whether that speaks to a readiness of documentary photographers to borrow from other fields and not to pin themselves down by definitions, or whether it just reveals the falsity of bothering to even talk about ‘documentary photography’ but there it is. Perhaps in spite of it’s roots in a very specific period of artistic and photographic modernism, a period which still exerts a very strong hold over photojournalism, documentary photography is now increasingly defined by the post-modernity of much of it’s practice, even if perhaps beneath that, it’s core beliefs remain rooted in much the same age.

Review – Deadline by Will Steacy

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I’m conscious that I’ve reviewed relatively few books on the blog this year. If I’m honest I find reviews less and less satisfying to write, since the experience can often feel rather like banging your head against a wall. Sometimes I feel the urge to review again when I come across a particularly intriguing or brilliant body of work, but even when this happens I often feel I don’t have the time that a decent review really demands I commit. Sometimes you have to make time though, and having published a couple of posts recently on the ways that I think narrative and design contribute to a really interesting book project I thought it would be good to follow that up a real example.

If you’re being pedantic Will Steacy’s Deadline isn’t exactly a photobook, it’s a newsprint publication but this actually makes what he has done with it all the more impressive. Plenty of people are snobby about newsprint I suppose because it’s innately ephemeral, hard to preserve, and can’t compete for photographic print quality with other formats. Many photographers complain about these issues and avoid the medium because of them, the smart photographers though turn these characteristics into strengths which complement their work and this is exactly what Steacy has done here. Deadline charts the decline of the Philladelphia Inquirer newspaper over a five year period. Photographing the newsroom and printing plant of this nearly two hundred year old newspaper, Steacy’s project is a fascinating microcosm of things taking place across an industry struggling to deal with rapid technological and cultural change, and facing gradual erosion.

Steacy photographically explores the news room inch by inch and from end to end, hoovering up a mixture of candid and posed photographs of the staff, and a large number of still life photographs. The portraits are competent and fairly engaging but as is often the case the devil is in the detail and still lives are really where the story takes shape. Stacks of paperwork, stamps, notes, newspaper clippings, a Pulitzer prize, scrawled notes, motivational (and demotivational) signs, used coffee cups, and cartoons. For anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom these details will be richly evocative, brilliant reflections of the paradox that a newsroom can be both an intellectually stimulating and equally banal, bureaucratic place to work.

Steacy revisits the same locations from the same vantage points over the course of five years, showing the gradual changes in the newsroom until it is finally left empty and abandoned by the downsizing newspaper. A series of photographs of the ridiculously overloaded desk of Don Sapatkin, the Inquirer’s Deputy Science and Medicine editor, is an nice example of this, with Sapatkin’s desk overflowing with papers in the first photograph, and in the final photograph all that is left is a stained mark on the carpet. It has to be said the choice of newsprint means that some photographs don’t have quite the punch printed in black and white than they do when seen in colour. These photographs charting the growth and dispersal of Sapatkin’s paperwork were what made me really fall in love with the project when I first came across them online. They lose something of their potency in newsprint but are still fantastic.

The decision to publish Deadline as a newsprint publication rather than a traditional book is a brave one for some of the reasons listed above, but it’s a choice which really makes this project work. Newsprint makes perfect sense for the subject and the added knowledge that the project has been printed on the Philladelphia Inquirer’s own presses somehow makes the work all the more pertinent. The final act of asking journalists from the paper to contribute stories to the newspaper and styling it accordingly round Deadline off perfectly. The contributed stories both chart the broader rise and virtual fall of the Inquirer, and recount individual journalist’s experiences, a nice reminder of the tensions between news titles as monothlic brands, and the individualism and ambition of the journalists that staff them.

‘Never become part of the news’ were the watchwords of more than a few journalists I’ve known, and Deadline is a great look inwards at what happens when an industry is so busy reporting on the outside world that it forgets to scrutinise its own practices and becomes in effect, old news. Deadline is a wonderfully conceived and executed project, right down to the smell of ink and the smudge of newsprint it leaves on your fingers after a viewing. There is a constant tension in the work between knowing that this is a sort of historical document or record, and knowing that the newsprint it is published on will inevitably yellow and fall to pieces in time.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

Notes on the Media, Photography and Nationalism

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Chinese playing cards decorated with photographs of Vladimir Putin.

‘The Emperor was an old man. He was the oldest emperor in the world. All around him, Death was drawing his circles, mowing and mowing. Already the whole field was bare, and only the Emperor, like a forgotten silver stalk, still stood and waited…At home he walked around with short pattering little steps. But as soon as he set foot on the street outside, he tried to make his thighs sinewy, his knees supple, his feet light, his back straight. He filled his eyes with an unnatural goodness, and with the true quality of imperial eyes: that of appearing to look at anyone who looked at the Emperor’
Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Coincidences are often just that, unlikely parallel moments with no deeper meaning. Sometimes though they are something more, a reflection of shared causation, entwined origins. It’s always interested me that my first specialism, history, began to emerge as an academic discipline in the same period that nationalism was becoming an important ideology. Something which I at first assumed was a chance similarity became more and more clearly connected as I read and began to understand how the two had emerged from similar world views and had evolved together into a form of symbiosis. Nation states needed historical narratives to argue for their legitimacy, and academic history was given recognition and relevancy by providing these narratives.

Another coincidence I’ve often wondered about is the conception and invention of photography around the same time. To muse on this is not to imply that photography was necessarily a response to a national-historical agenda, even if there are detectable traces of cross-pollination. Rather the question that has intrigued me is what part photography might have played in supporting the national projects of the time, and how it might have continued to shape national identity since. This question has been back on my mind since writing about nationalism and Crimea last week, so I thought I’d dip into my (rather hazy) undergraduate memories and put down a few thoughts on the subject.

Broadly speaking a nation is a community of people united by a share culture, language, ancestry, history, or some variation of the same. Sometimes they inhabit a defined territory with a unified government; (the ‘nation state’). Often they don’t, subsumed within other nations, or existing as part of multinational entity, for example the Habspburg Empire. For primordialist theorists the nation is ancient and unchanging, only our recognition of it is modern. By contrast for modernists the nation is a recent and largely political invention, an ‘imagined community’ to use Benedict Anderson’s celebrated phrase.

The modernist view is the one I tend to cling to, in part I suppose because my own political biases and familial history push me away from the idea of the nation as immutable, but also because this view opens up the obviously interesting question of how nations are formed. Here the ‘imagined’ element becomes important, because as Anderson argues the size of most nations make it impossible to conceive of them as any other type of community. Even in the smallest state, with a population of say a few thousand people, it’s improbable that every person could have direct contact with or knowledge of every other member of that community. For that reason the sense of the nation as a community instead has to live in the imagination, sustained by various substitutes or proxies for direct experience. For example historical narratives, and the mass media, including of course visual media like photography.

The importance of the mass media lies in bringing together people across a wide area with the same experience of key events, their actors and agents. Knowledge of the news means an event like a national ceremony, perhaps only directly experienced by a small number of members of the nation, becomes something that almost everyone can discuss with almost everyone else. These events become a source of collective communion, even where the people involved had no experience of them. The names of some early newspapers almost allude to this role in transmuting great distances and unifying disparate peoples, for example The Telegraph, The Daily Post, or even The Nation.

Illustrations began to appear regularly in newspaper from the start of the nineteenth century, for example the first recorded illustration in The Times was of Nelson’s funeral in 1806 (an event of enormous national significance). From here on illustrations become increasingly common, culminating with the publication of the first weekly illustrated paper The London Illustrated News in 1842. In 1880 the halftone process finally made it possible to reproduced photographs, where before they had been only used as references for drawings or engravings. Illustrations, photographic or otherwise, had the obvious advantage that they were more or less understandable to everyone, even the illiterate, who around 1800 made up around 40% of the English population. From the perspective of extending this sense of national communion to as many people as possible the value of such images must be clear.

The role of images is also important in creating a canon of recognisable national iconography. The repetition of these icons raises them to an almost mythic status, a position of which makes highly charged and difficult to reproach. This becomes particularly apparent in a year like 2014, the anniversary of the start of the first world war, when familiar national icons are brought out to act as a sort of unifying visual shorthand for the conflict. The Cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, are recognised as significant even by those who know little of their history or symbolic underpinnings, and even by those who have never seen these objects in the flesh. As evidence of their status it’s interesting to note how physical attacks on them (politically motivated or otherwise) are often sternly punished, and claims of ignorance about the significance of these sites met with incredulity.

Photographs can be used to transmute temporal as well as spatial distance. As important national events fade into the past, and direct experience of them is lost, photographs act as a highly effective substitute for personal memory. Written accounts of an event like the First World War can easily seem abstract and impersonal, but photographs of mud filled trenches and shell shocked soldiers can act as powerful surrogates for memory, instilling a much more instinctive sense of the horror of these events than a written historical account. Given the centrality of photography in both the perpetration and memorial of the holocaust I think it will be interesting to see how the media maybe becomes more important for a the national memory of states like Israel as the number of survivors becomes fewer.

In some nation states, typically authoritarian ones with strong leadership cults, this iconographic canon can also extend to living people. The leader becomes a sort of paternal figure, guiding the nation, and their individual exploits may similarly become reflections of the nation’s own self-image and aspirations. In Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, the portraits of the Emperor Franz Joseph that appear across the multi-national (and yet still in some respects mono-national) Hapsburg Empire are implied to be all that really holds it together, even moreso than the elderly emperor himself. Russia is a relevant contemporary example, where Vladmir Putin’s personality cult often seems closely entwined with Russian national self-image. Putin’s action man persona is often reinforced through staged photographs which show him engaged in activities ranging from shooting tigers and swimming in Siberian rivers, to making pottery and feeding goats.

It’s worth noting that much of the theory around nationalism and mass media, like Anderson’s key text Imagined Communities, is getting quite long in the tooth, either predating the internet or at least predating the current complexities of social media and online image use. There is probably a new case to be made for the way these new technologies and behaviours have impacted the use of photographs as part of the national project (perhaps someone has already made it and I’m just not aware). For example the internet offers a good environment for subverting certain forms of national imagery, as evidenced by irony laden sites like Putin Taming The World. Equally it can be a means to promote alternative historical narratives which have often sidelined by officially sanctioned national histories, for example that of the Armenian Genocide.

The internet can of course be a breeding ground for the most extreme nationalist views, but perhaps in time it could foster a more anti-national, or transnational world, with the geographic boundaries of nations  overcome by it in the same way that newspapers once overcame the geographic distances within those same states. The fact that online imagery allows us to witness events in Crimea in near real times seems to give us a sense of community and solidarity with people there that is hard to imagine existing across such great distances in the past. If we recognise and accept Anderson’s notion of an imagined community, and concede it can only be realised through the intermediaries like the mass media, perhaps there is a possibility that in time the same intermediaries might foster the sense that we are all part of a single, global, imagined community.

Blind Spots: On Miss-Seeing and Not Seeing

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Supposed UK newspaper headlines published in the weeks after immigration law changed. In reality most were published over the course of the preceding year.

With the availability of photographs showing practically everything we could wish to see (or not see) it is easy to feel that everything is visible to us, that in Paul Virillio’s words, ‘there are no blind spots left’. But even if we wanted to see everything we are not physically capable of it and this wealth of visual material demands we be selective about what we give our time to, what we consider in depth, and what we offer give our approval to, for example by sharing, retweeting, etc. From this need to select I notice the trend emerging of people often using photographs on the one hand to confirm and reinforce their preconceptions, and on the other hand ignoring photographs which are contradictory or inconvenient to these beliefs.

Recently a photograph was published showing a video screen in central Beijing with a sunset on it, the caption underneath explained that the authorities were ‘televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog’. After being widely shared (including I must sheepishly admit by me) a writer debunked the story, revealing that it was a very short clip from a longer video advertising internal tourism, not a continuous video of the sun. The article revealing the deception was aptly titled ‘Westerners are so convinced China is a dystopian hell scape they’ll share anything that confirms it’.

For another example shortly after the change in the law around emigration to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria, an image was doing the rounds on Twitter of UK newspaper front covers with anti-immigration headlines which were implied to have been published over the two weeks since the law had changed. A quick search of some of the headlines revealed many were a year or more old. Whether it represents a wider truth (that right wing papers like the Daily Mail are rabidly anti-immigration) is another issue, what the photograph purported to show was a fiction. An odd irony is that the Daily Mail was the original source of the made up China sun video story.

Things have come to a head this week with the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics. So much is riding on Sochi, for the Russian government the games are an enormous prestige project, while for critics they are an opportunity to highlight corruption, mismanagement and human rights abuses. Twitter has been in a state of frenzy as journalists and others post and retweet photographs and reports of #sochiproblems, which consist of everything from non-existent hotel rooms to seemingly bizarre lavatory arrangements. The real problem is that more than a few of them are turning out to be completely untrue, as this website reveals. One journalist who took a photograph of a broken pavement in Vienna and passed it off as a scene in Sochi as a joke found it retweeted hundreds of time in earnest.

Even for people for whom the political importance of Sochi is marginal, part of the reason these these photographs strike a chord is that they reinforce the ingrained image of Russia as a profoundly backward place, a preconception which goes back at least as far as the start of the twentieth century, and probably much further. Look at the representation of Russia by the western media in the Soviet era and compare it against contemporary representations and the trend is pretty evident. We love consuming these images of serf like Russian peasants and soot blackened proletariat contrasted against corrupt fur clad members of the Nomenklatura in their Zil limos. Perhaps now the latter have evolved into oligarchs in BMW’s, but the tendency to relapse into the same modes of representation remains.

Again, the things that these photographs purportedly represent (that Sochi is an expensive, mismanaged Potemkin village, that the Daily Mail is a rabble rousing racist rag of a newspaper) might all be true, but you can’t evidence this with photographs that show nothing of the sort. You might argue that using a misleading photograph to highlight a truth is an acceptable means to an end. However it’s also a slippery slope, as this appalling case of a group of young Dutch men misattributed as asylum seekers reveals. There might well be people in Holland (Geert Wilders perhaps) who would argue that the implication of that photo in its misused contexts still represents a truth about immigrants, but the photograph doesn’t substantiate those implications, far from it, and he (or for that matter we) can’t claim otherwise just because it’s briefly convenient.

Switching to my other concern, while it amazes me that on the one hand we can grasp hold of a photograph which really tell us very little as ‘evidence’ of something which we believe to be true, it seems in many ways more remarkable that we can also do the exact opposite. A particularly alarming example of this came in the recent release of a report which seemed to confirm the veracity of a huge tranche of 55,000 photographs showing the corpses of alleged victims of the Syrian detention system. These grueling photographs smuggled out of Syria by a military police photographer were taken as a bureaucratic precaution to confirm the deaths of people interned by the security forces, and show evidence of systematic torture, starvation and execution.

What’s incredible to me is how briefly these photographs registered, garnering just a couple of days of news coverage. Think back by contrast to the still and moving images that emerged last year in the wake of the regime’s chemical weapons attack, how long those images took to subside, and how they almost provoked world leaders to military intervention. These new photographs are no less horrific, they depict many more deaths (a current estimate is around 11,000) and must certainly be equal to the chemical weapons attacks in terms of the human suffering they bear witness to. But for some reason people don’t want to see them. Those people I’ve talked to about these photographs often confess to finding the thought of these images too grueling, and the implications too depressing to engage with.

Perhaps it reflects the timing as much as anything, as Fred Ritchin noted in his recent piece on photography and atrocity. The release of these photographs just days before the Geneva II peace conference was probably significant, as this proximity made it possible for people to simply ‘relegate the imagery to no more than another volley in the attempt to claim the higher ground’. Or perhaps considering the huge toll the Syrian conflict has taken maybe there was an unwillingness even by opponents of the regime to make more of a discovery which might have put already tenuous peace talks in further jeopardy. They are apparently truthful photographs, but they might also be troublesome in more senses than the most obvious ones.

I feel like I’m driving at the same things that I always rather tediously go on about in these posts. Firstly the hope that people will spend more time over apparently important photographs, and subject them to more careful scrutiny. Even something as simple as a reverse Google image search can reveal so much about a photograph, not only in terms of confirming what it appears to shows and where it was originally used, but also by revealing the many ways it might have been reused (or misused) since. Secondly that we learn to more readily engage with, share and discuss photographs which don’t give us pleasure, which don’t represent things we want to see or think about, but rather show things which are important. Overall as viewers I think we need to be smarter and more forensic in our relationship with images, a very tough demand to make at a time when it often feels as if we are utterly inundated with visual information, but a vital one if we want to continue to rely on photographs to do more than just illustrate and titillate.

Review: Detritus by David O’Mara

Love a nicely made book as I do I often find myself frustrated by what can only be described as the superficial fetishism of certain sections of the self-publishing world. Too many times I’ve picked up a beautiful looking book only to open it and find it full of sub-par photographs, lacking concept or coherence. As they say, never judge a book by it’s cover, but judge it mercilessly by what’s inside. Partly for this reason I’m a bit of a fan of newspaper format publications, which by nature of their production values usually have to work harder on the content front to grab and hold a viewer’s attention.

Recently I got hold of the first four copies of Detritus, a self-published paper by London based photographer and artist David O’Mara. Each issue features a different project by O’Mara, each focusing appropriately on various forms of detritus, the transient material leavings of other people. Although I had four issues of Detritus to go through I just want to highlight issues two and three here as they were the ones which particularly resonated with me.

Issue two, relates to the Heygate Estate in Elephant Castle, an imposing brutalist housing complex built in the 1970’s and which has been on the architectural equivalent of death row for over a decade, as the local council and developers quibble about its demolition. In the meantime it’s become something of an urban playground attracting a strange mixture of people. Amongst them photographers, for whom it’s a sort of easily accessed Pripiyat, a deserted ghost town in the heart of the city, and also as O’Mara notes, quite a number of movie crews who use it ‘to play out their apocalyptic fantasies’.

O’Mara juxtaposes a series of fairly typical photographs of Heygate’s derelict and vandalised blocks against a series of degraded family photographs found on the estate to great effect. The rescued photographs, many deteriorated almost to the point of incomprehensibility, are a reminder of what I’ve often complained photographers forget, the people and the lives lived in Heygate. The mixing colours of the disintegrating photographs are quite beautiful, matching the garish colours of the graffiti daubed across the estate, and a fitting testimony to the disintegration of the area’s community – now ‘decanted’ to new housing stock –  and its diminishing collective memory.

Issue three consists of a series of photographs taken during O’Mara’s day job as a decorator, often working in houses several centuries old. Here he notes how despite the tendency to describe his work as restoration it actually more often involved ‘the stripping away of physical features…which are witness to earlier generations of inhabitants…the evidence of previous lives, all to be erased’. It’s something I’ve observed is often a pressing concern in the museums where I sometimes work. Conservation always runs the risk that in protecting or restoring one period of the past it might necessarily result in the complete destruction of another.

O’Mara expands this idea to his own relationship with work, the way a day sometimes condenses into just a few remembered moments, obliterating any real sense of the passage of time. This project and the act of photographing as he works are both an attempt to claw some of this back for himself. As a series Detritus works nicely, because while there are definite themes running through each project, their separation into their own publications gives them room to work rather better than if they were forced together into a single volume. You can see more of O’Mara’s work and order copies of Detritus from his website, here.