The Empire of the Drone: Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

The trailer for Dinh Q. Lê’s The Colony

I feel a pressure to always write in the moment, certainly with reviewing to talk about something while it’s still happening, still accessible, as if to give people a chance to test my the sum of my words out for themselves. Real life frequently often gets in the way and that’s not always to the bad. The slower burn can be rewarding, spending a few weeks mulling something over, pulling it this way and that in the confines of my own head, in the end resulting in a reading which is perhaps less literal, indeed perhaps rather oblique, but at least it is mine, unpressured by the expectation to respond. So it was after seeing the Vietnamese artist  Dinh Q. Lê’s remarkable drone filmed, three screen video installation The Colony which was on display in Peckham over a month ago. Housed in the remarkable derelict space of one of London’s earliest cinemas, the installation has since closed and the work is now on display at Site Gallery in Sheffield. The intervening time since seeing and writing have I hope not been spent entirely idly, as ideas have circulated and other influences have intervened.

Lê’s practice to date has largely photographic and almost exclusively focused on the legacy of the Vietnam War, particularly the way it’s memories are incorporated variously as trauma and fantasy. Superficially then The Colony then is a great departure from his work to date, but there is also a clear continuance, a concern with ideas about imperial ambitions and power, and more visibily with the marks these things leave on the present, and perhaps also on a future yet to arrive. The Colony examines the Chincha islands, three remote outcrops of rock off the coast of Peru, and home to enormous seabird colonies which have over centuries layered the islands with their droppings. In the nineteenth century, before the advent of chemically manufactured fertilisers, this guano was a valuable commodity, a means to boost yields of vital cash crops like Tobacco. As a result, and to the loss of the native Chincha people, the islands were colonised and contested by regional powers. Spain and its former colony Peru fought over the islands in the 1860’s, with what began as an attempt by a once extensive empire to reassert its waning influence rapidly escalating into a regional conflict involving Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. As time passed the stockpiles of guano on the islands were depleted and the value of the product declined particularly as methods were developed to synthesise nitrogen based fertilisers on an industrial scale. The islands today remain dotted with relics of their former owners and while the practice of digging on the islands continues it does so on a far smaller scale than in the past.

With such subject matter, it was perhaps inevitable that many of the reviews of Lê’s installation fixated overly on the obvious, (Adrian Searle for the Guardian was one of the worst offenders in this regard with a joke about shit in the first line, someone take the man’s crayons away). What these reviews miss with their scatological puns is that the guano in Lê’s film is really only a very minor element, a foil to the much bigger themes he seems to be interested in. A much more prominent interest is clearly indicated by the title, it is the motivations for imperialism, and its ultimate leavings, the ruins both physical and psychical that great empires leave in their wake. The roving drove mounted cameras of Lê’s film crew explore the decaying derelicts of the island, hovering above abandoned buildings and even roving inside, moving cautiously through the corridors of abandoned buildings, their rotors mixing up the dust and bird feathers that line the corridors, pausing periodically to inspect a relic or negotiate a tricky obstacle. The Colony is a work about the battlegrounds that are fought over, exploited and then subsequently abandoned when they no longer prove worthwhile then, but it is also about the people who enter the frame at that point to take over the remaining crumbs which empire has deigned to exploit itself. Part of what makes The Colony remarkable is the depiction of the guano mining operations that continue on the island today, which seem like something out of an entirely different era. On these exposed, isolated rocks teams of men dig with crude tools to fill sacks of the dusty brown tuff, which are then physically hauled and slid to the water’s edge, to be pilled in huge, neat ziggurats awaiting offloading on to cargo ships. It’s hard to tell if this hellish existence owes more to the old empires of the nineteenth century, or of the new Empire of twenty first century globalisation. It’s probably a bit of both.

In this sense and in others The Colony bears some comparison to Richard Mosse’s The Enclave, a similar multi-screen video installation filmed using a now obsolete military infra-red film originally developed for military reconnaissance purposes. The chemistry of this film reacts to a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum to normal film or our eyes, meaning natural greens which absorb large amounts of infra-red light are rendered as a bizarre pink. Using this Mosse photographed and filmed in the war torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The footage shot by cinematographer Trevor Tweeten is particularly compelling, as the steady cam glides through an alien landscape to a soundtrack of faux radio chatter. The Enclave, like The Colony, is partly fixated on both old and new ideas about empire, but Mosse, unlike Lê, is just a little too beguiled with his image making technology, and the The Enclave becomes just a little bit too much about the process and the technology, not the subject matter it is pointed at. This really brings me to the core of what I think is interesting about The Colony. I would suggest though that the real stars of the film though are neither the guano covered outcrops with their anonymous workers, nor the descendant imperial ambitions that these places represent. The real stars are the drones that record it all.

Before I explain this I have to take issue with drone videography as an artistic medium. In itself it is simply a process for making a work, and the results of course are variable and contingent on what is being filmed and how. I often think that an over emphasis on process in art is a bad sign, regardless of how fantastically byzantine or exotic the steps undertaken, it’s the end result or effect on a viewer that matters, and unless that exotic process really does something to a viewer then I find myself asking ‘so what?’ Perhaps because drones are new and exciting in themselves drone film makers often seem to get caught up in the novelty of their technology without really reflecting on what it means to use it. I recently attended a talk by researcher Bradley Garrett who showed a sequence of drone film made on a Scottish island at a point where an undersea internet cable comes ashore. Garrett is an academic but the film is undeniably artistic, not only it’s clear aesthetic concerns but also in the sense that the video actually provides very little information about its suggested subject (this is not exactly a criticism, it’s more or less inevitable given the subject matter). More interestingly all hints of both drone and operator have been excluded from the frame, and Garrett acknowledged in response to an audience question that he had been hiding behind a small structure during the sequence, guiding the drone unseen. This to me is representative of a certain aesthetic in drone films, that fantasise the drone and it’s operator as not really being there at all. It is a roving, god’s eye view, and this pretended disappearance of the technology that makes this viewpoint possible also makes it in some way also easier to avoid difficult questions about the technology itself. Amongst the varyingly interesting ideas Garrett discussed in his talk it was noticeable that there was no conversation about what it meant as a researcher to employ a technology like a drone which has a very specific lineage. That is a line of descendent that even in civilian dronesleads backthrough a history of militarism and imperialism, and this seems a particularly important observation in relation to Lê’s previous focus on the conflict in his native Vietnam, a laboratory for some of the earliest millitary drones.

Lê on the other hand seems highly aware of these issues. In The Colony, the two drones produce staggering aerial imagery of thousands of bird nests, of jagged cliffs and greyed decaying structures. But beautiful as these are they would be little more than eye candy without the frequent appearance of the drones themselves in each other’s footage and in static shots filmed from the ground. It says much of the aesthetic of drone cinematography that these insertions feel like continuity errors the first few times they occur in The Colony, but over the course of watching the three separate projections that make up the installation one has a mounting sense of a transformation of the drones into key characters themselves. At moments, this sense of personification is inescapable, particularly in sequences where the drones appear to enter into strange aerial ballet routines, and during several sequences where they follow each other, at one stage into the corridors of a dilapidated barracks building. As one drone pauses to inspect a faded piece of pornography pasted to the wall besides a crude bunk bed while it’s companion looks on, one has the overwhelming sense of watching as the vanguard of some unknown high tech power, tentatively scouting out the ruins of its predecessor. In that sense The Colony feels less like rumination on old empire, even though it certainly is also that, and far more a meditation on the rise of something new and very different. A new power far less concrete than the competing empires of the nineteenth century, perhaps even less tangible than the diffuse global empire of post-cold war capitalism. Lê seems to be hinting at an empire yet to arise, an imperium hard and soft wired into the circuit boards of the supposedly neutral technologies with which we surround ourselves.

Incomplete Images: A Different Perspective on Forced Migration

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Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos

The past two years have seen an unprecedented wave of forced migration, with conflict, instability and authoritarianism in north Africa, the Middle East and other regions forcing millions to flee their homes and seek safety overseas. This humanitarian crisis has coincided with, and in some cases contributed to, a resurgence of the political right in Europe and north America. This, alongside the continused evisceration of the media produces a climate where simplistic narratives about refugees flourish, and where depiction of the crisis often lack any reflection of the experiences of those who are most directly affected by it. The exhibition Incomplete Images, which I have co-curated with Monica Alcazar-Duarte, opens today and attempts to respond to this imbalance, by exhibiting work by a series of artists who are themselves refugees, or who have worked in close collaboration with them. The aim of this show is clearly modest and one small show is not going to redress the rise of right wing populism or years of imbalanced media coverage, but we hope it will have an influence, however small, and to that end some of the works on display will also be for sale with all proceeds going to the artist.

In terms of the artists and photographers in the show, Aram Karim’s Smugglers series depicts his journey across the border between Iraq and Iran, where men smuggle fuel, alcohol and other supplies in vast quantities, making multiple trips a day through mud, snow and across active minefields for a few dollars. Aram is a musican and photographer originally from Iraq but currently living near Marseilles, France while he awaits a decision on his refugee status. Damon Amb’s practice involves digitally reworking photographs taken in his native Iran and during his subsequent travels to express his inner world. Damon writes that ‘my art doesn’t communicate the things that have happened to me or what could happen to me if I go back to Iran. I’m a criminal in my country because I’m an artist’. Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos’s video piece Greetings from Greece addresses the recent war in Syria and the thousands of refugees that it created through the portrait of a young man that has settled in Greece. The film also incorporates portraits which are the result of a collaboration with a refugee photo studio in Athens. These images are meticulously constructed from stock imagery, and were delivered to us for printing in various stages of completion. Next, Iranian Kurdish photographer Rahman Hassami’s series compares and contrasts the scenery of his native Kurdistan with the countryside of Yorkshire in the north of England, a quintessential English landscape, drawing out differences and similarities between his former and adoptive home. Finally, on a table in the center of the gallery is a display of images taken from an Instagram account purportedly belonging to a young migrant named Abdou Diouf. This account was in fact a hoax created by a marketing company to advertise a photography festival, and was first unmasked here on Disphotic in the summer of 2015. It’s inclusion in this exhibition highlights the way that even the perspective of refugees is open to problematic appropriation.

The exhibition is open for one week from 21st to 27th November, 12 – 5pm each day at Light Eye Mind gallery, 176 Blackstock Road, London N5 1HA

The Space is the Thing (and White Cubes are Nothing)

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Viewing through a home made camera obsucra.
From the Camera Obscured (2012)

One of the very few opinions I share in common with the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones is a dislike of white cube galleries, spaces which he rightly describes as having ‘have all the joy of a cenotaph’. Like Jones I can see the purpose of them in the context of art’s evolution, it’s rejection of past orthodoxies, but like him I also distrust the way one convention seems to has been replaced by another which has come in time to be treated just as unquestioningly, and is now just as in need of breaking down. Jones describes the white space of a gallery as a sanctifying force, the equivalent of a frame on an oil painting designed to convey authority and value. I’d go further back in to the history of art, to it’s use as an object of religious veneration. If Kazimir Malevich’s ultra-abstract suprematist compositions like his 1915 painting Black Square are sometimes compared to Russian orthodox icons, the minimalist space of the modern art gallery maybe makes a fitting place of worship in which to commune with them. That’s precisely what these spaces often become, sick shrines, although it’s a matter of debate what exactly is being worshipped and I’m not unsympathetic with Jones for suggesting it’s often actually money, not art which is on the high altar. There have been some other fine critiques and contestations over the white cube, including the experimental website Whitecu.be, which was ultimately shut down by lawyers acting on behalf of Jay Jopling, founder of the London gallery of the same name. This case also says much about the interactions and unease that exist between the art world and the internet.

One might say the pristine emptiness of a high end white cube gallery demonstrates a necessary level of respect for art, that it allows it be regarded in it’s wholeness, uninfluenced by external distractions. I would suggest it often demonstrates the opposite, it suggests work which needs to be imbued with an aura by the space because it lacks it in it’s own right, and has an effect which is so weak and pallid that it requires all other distractions to be closed off in order for it to effective. Indeed I often sense that some works actually suffer by being housed in such bland surrounds, precisely because the sort of cross pollination that white cubes seem designed specifically to avoid is often what activates art and makes it interesting in surprising ways unanticipated by the artist. That becomes particularly true when it comes to photography, because while fine art is a rarefied exception, photography is a mass medium. And when does photography really behave like this in the real world? Whether you view them in a book amongst the jostle of a train journey or the birdsong and breeze of a summer afternoon, or view on them on a website where they compete with text and adverts, the idea of the photograph displayed entirely on its own is an increasingly odd one. This all before one even considers the question of audience, and the reality that the space where work is shown necessarily prescribes who is able to see it.

In my practice I’ve found it far more interesting, challenging, and ultimately productive, to display work in spaces which bears a close relation to the subject matter. That’s included exhibiting my series on history and the European recession at the European Union’s permanent representation in London, which led to a series of fascinating conversations with workers at the representation including its head about the direction the European Union was heading in. Another example was showing my series on gentrification and redevelopment at an art school due to be demolished to make way for luxury flats. We printed the images in the architecture department on the large format plotters normally used to produce architectural plans, and this led to a series of really interesting conversations with architecture students about the new buildings of London and how they saw their profession. It was a relief to find many shared my feelings, and saw their practice as one which desperately needed to be more socially engaged.

I’m currently showing my 2012 series The Camera Obscured in one of the cells of a former police station in Deptford as part of the Urban Photo Fest exhibition [Taking] Control. The series examines the prohibitions on photography in certain areas of the City of London, by employing a series of rather ridiculous home-made camera obscuras. Using these I produced detailed drawings of sensitive locations, the intention being to entice police officers and security guards intent on stopping me into a discussion about the technical and philosophical dividing lines that separate a photograph taken with a modern digital camera from a painting by an artist like Canaletto, himself an avid employer of camerae obscurae. The space of the cell is apt (not least because I spent much of the project fearing I might end up in one) because it’s form is in effect the same as a simple camera obscura, it’s not for nothing that Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the panopticon and Michel Focault’s subsequent reimaginging of it have both been influential on photography studies. The space is also an interesting one to work in because it is so deeply uncompromising, with none of the usual methods used for hanging a show possible in an environment of concrete and tile walls and austere lighting. [Taking] Control is open each day from 10 am to 6pm and continues until November 8th at The Old Police Station. 114 Amersham Vale, London, SE14 6LG.

The Corrupting Image: Pornography and Propaganda

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Glitched Islamic State propaganda (Lewis Bush)

Can a photograph change the world? It seems like such a simple question, composed of only five words, and yet the tracts and discussions produced in the search for answer would fill shelf upon shelf. Such reams of paper and hours of debate over these few words stem from the knowledge that any conclusive answer would have radical implications for many of the ways we understand and use photography. To speak only of the two loose fields I am primarily concerned with, for photojournalists, documentarians and anyone who views their photography as a form of activism or advocacy, a conclusion to the negative would effectively pull out the foundations on which these practices are based. The intentions and understandings of photographers going back to Jacob Riis and earlier still would be rendered essentially flawed, their efforts and assumed achievements null. For artists and others who might position themselves as being above such lofty positivist aspirations as social change, the conclusion that photography really has no influence on the world it exists within would pose difficult questions as to why we employ it for anything at all. This is to say nothing for the implications for those who employ photography for a host of other practices, from commercial advertising to medical imaging.

I see the lines of battle over this question drawn more or less between three camps. For what might be called the positivist, or dare I say, traditionalist camp, the right photograph appearing at the right time can be decisive in changing the course of lives, ending wars, driving a humanitarian response to a crisis and much more. The second camp consists of those like myself who find themselves in no-man’s land of this question, believing that while photographs don’t themselves affect change in any profound or direct sense, they do have a capacity to work subtly on those who view them, causing slippages and disconnections in what we think we know. This in turn leads sometimes (but not always) to reassessments, reconsiderations and ultimately to us changing our stances. This occurs in ways which might be so subtle as to be almost imperceptible, or which might be more drastic, even conscious. For the third and final camp, who might be described as the post-positivist camp, photographs have no such power to create change. They act at best as momentary distractions, brief detours in the paths of thought that we follow which in the end do not change our final destination.

Yet as I have suggested before here, many of those who criticise the inability of photography make a real impact in the world would also readily accept that certain images should be banned or proscribed because they are perceived to have some power to pervert or damage those who view them. This is I think an interesting contradiction, rarely broken down and analysed, between the claim that photographs hold no power to do good, and the recognition that images can be a force for damage, a corrupting influence on those who view them. The influence of such images is a matter of significant public discussion, far more so than the question of whether journalistic photographs are able to influence for the good, a question mostly only concerns specialists and practioners of the medium. The press often erupt in discussion over the role of images of violence, in particular terrorist propaganda and extreme pornography, debating the extent to which it is their responsibility to show the former, and the extent to which access to the latter should be curtailed by state or corporate monitoring and intervention. These are not new conversations but urgency has certainly been added to them by the advent of the internet and the ready availability of both types of images, which can be called up in a moment by anyone, almost anywhere. Both of these ‘genres’ also clearly encompass a multitude of other media beyond photography, but in both cases photography is a significant and central means of their transmission.

Judging by the literature there seems to be little question that these types of extreme imagery do have an influence on those who view them. Studies of the effects of pornography have been particularly intensive, perhaps indicating the contemporary moral panic which often sees feature films with brief and mild sexual content given far more stringent ratings than those containing graphic violence throughout. The findings of these studies however are by no means consistent or uncontested, and research of the papers themselves suggests many come loaded with a definite prior agenda to prove or disprove the thesis the pornographic imagery is harmful. To pick out a few experiments. In 1986 Neil Malamuth conducted a study to determine the relationship between pornography and male violence towards women. His conclusion was that pornography had the capacity to exacerbate existing tendencies towards violence, but that it was not directly a cause. Ethical issues with exposing people to potentially harmful images make such experiments harder to conduct today, and as the piece above outlines much contemporary research into the effects of pornography rely on correlating a person’s self-reported use of such material with their view of relationships and the opposite sex, an approach which makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions or to identify other factors in a person’s makeup which could contribute both to a predisposition for viewing pornography and to difficulties relating to others. And yet there is also the question of whether the two issues we are discussing remain for some people largely separate worlds. Michel Foucault, who was active in San Francisco’s gay sado-maschism community, always resisted suggestions that these activities bore any relation to his philosophical writings on sexuality, power, and control. Whether this was a rare moment of naievity on his part, or whether sex can be ring fenced from a person’s intellectual life in the way seemed to suggest to his interviewers, is another question in itself.

Studies of violent propaganda imagery are harder to come by, with most instead focusing on the impact of direct exposure to violence at key stages in person’s life, rather than violence mediated through photographs. In 1961 Albert Bandura experimented with the effects of witnessing violence by exposing children to the sight of an adult punching a doll. When left alone with the doll many of the children repeated the same behaviour. His contested conclusion was that when confronted by violent behaviour we are more likely to copy it than to find it cathartic. Many of the attempts to engage specifically with the effects of violent photographic imagery have been philosophical rather than scientific, the topic a cornerstone of contemporary photographic theory from Susan Sontag’s much discussed 1977 book On Photography to more contemporary examples like Susie Linfield’s measured 2010 study The Cruel Radiance. There are exceptions to this trend though. A controversial study published in 2015 suggested that social media users could develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from the images of suffering, much of it violent propaganda, which regular circulates on these channels. This ‘vicarious trauma’ might not be as severe as trauma acquired from direct experience, but it suggests a powerful capacity for images to impact on those who view them, effects which might last long after exposure. Other studies have suggested it might not always be the default to identify with the victim of violence captured in a photograph, and that some people naturally identify far more readily with the aggressor.

Conclusions remain far easy to draw, but while the research often suggests different interpretations there is a common thread of acknowledgment that photographs do have an altering effect on those who look at them. This effect which in turn would often seem to alter their course and conduct through the world, whether in shaping a person’s relationships with others, or in the way they respond to subsequent violent imagery. It is interesting to note that far more intellectual energy has been dedicated to testing the destructive consequences of viewing imagery than considering the possibly galvanising effects, but it would seem to follow logically that this is a binary in which one consequence must exist alongside the other. It might also be worth noting that the two categories are not necessarily so exclusive as they at first seem, a fact hinted at by the conclusions of researchers who suggested that some people will identify with victims, and others with perpetrators. With this in mind these two categories start to collapse, and imagery which when viewed by some viewers in certain contexts is traumatic, violent and unpleasant, might in a different place, to a different viewer, be animating, even inspiring. The disparate responses to ISIS execution videos would seem to be an example of this, and it goes without saying that in terms of pornography what one person finds arousing another will find bizzare or even repulsive. With this in mind how can one begin to proscribe imagery on the basis of protecting a viewer, when the effect on the viewer is unpredictable until the moment of exposure? The banning of certain types of imagery in the belief that doing so protects the public, might be a modern day iconoclasm, a practice ISIS might teach us a thing or two, if our own history didn’t suggest we are already well versed in it.

The GIF of Life: Vestigial File Formats as Documentary

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GIF spoofing Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 Human and Animal Locomotion

Computer file types come and go. It’s unlikely you’ve recently opened a .PCX for example, a type of image file now so redundant as to virtually be regarded as jurassic. That redundancy came less because it was a particularly specialized format, at least by the standards of today, but because it had it’s moment in the early stages of widespread computer use, served its purpose and was superseded by the advance of technology and newer file types which did a similar job better. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of comparable examples of these digital fossils, but then there are also the freakish exceptions, the vestigial survivors which remain either because they simply do their job so well that there isn’t a need to come up with an alternative, or which end up remaining in use more out of fluke than anything else.

One example of the latter is the Graphic Interchangeable Files better known as the GIF. GIFs are a joke, or at least in many of the diverse cultures of the internet they are the universal shorthand for one. GIFs might have once enjoyed a useful role following their introduction in 1987 in the era before fast internet connections and streamable video, but today the format’s purpose is today largely consigned to that of conveying the Internet’s numerous memes in moving form. The web is awash with animated GIFs of funny things, from clips of cats going berserk at the sight of a surprise cucumber to Monty Pythonesque animations based on renaissance paintings. Entire online conversation are conducted through the exchange of humorous GIFs and sites like Giphy exist purely to fulfill the need for them in the context of these conversations. A famous and rather neo-Fordist sounding trademark of the Apple corporation was that whatever you need ‘there’s an app for that’. In humour terms one might say similar for GIFs. Whatever joke you want to make, whether tasteless or witty, rooted high culture or deep in the gutter, there’s probably a GIF for it, and if there isn’t? Make one. Predictably the GIF’s resurgent popularity has seen those outside the internet’s anarchic communities attempt to cash in on it. A range of companies have run GIF based marketing campaigns with varying success. In 2015 the British Channel 4 news program introduced Newswall, a slightly awkward website displaying the news of the moment in GIFS, a project which ran for about eight months before it was shut down. While often quite funny Newswall also made very clear the difficulty of using GIFs to discuss controversial or troubling issues without appearing to make light of them. In 2016 Coca Cola introduced a new slogan and promoted with a GIF maker which allowed internet users to add their own slogans to short video clips from Coca Cola adverts. Predictably it was quickly trolled by internet users and had to be taken down.

The GIF’s currency as digital shorthand for humour would seem to lie in a few of its unique characteristics. It has always been comparatively shareable, making low demands on bandwidth and storage compared to streaming video, although this is less an issue today. By popular demand social networks like Twitter and Facebook are gradually reintroducing support for them but in an example of how unnecessary the GIF’s low bandwith demands now are the GIFS displayed on Twitter are actually resampled and displayed as MP4 video files. A more important element which is perhaps often overlooked are the aesthetics of GIFs. In their humorously disjointed looping, their silence and their fractured visual quality they call to mind early cinema, particularly the jerky slapstick of Chaplin or Keaton, and certainly these early films feel in a strange way most at home in the format of a GIF. It felt particularly apt while researching this piece to stumble across the animation above, a homage to Edweard Muybridge, who in his experiments with high speed sequential photography laid the groundworks for the developments of later pioneers like the Lumière brothers. Perhaps the association also goes beyond the aesthetic. I sense that for a certain generation which grew up during the early stages of the internet, the GIF has a certain nostalgia value perhaps akin to the nostalgia that the aesthetic of the cinema or television screen was to previous generations generations. Rooted in our earliest memories and experiences of the interne,t we have a bond to them which the advance of technology has struggled to break.

Beyond the history and mainstream use of GIFs I’ve recently been thinking about whether and how the format can be used for other purposes, like art, or journalism. GIF art is most definitely a practice (there’s even a GIF art collective) an activity with it’s roots in the early internet but which continues in diverse forms today, and which spans people experimenting with and highlighting the unique specificities of GIFs to others who view the format simply as a useful medium for other ideas they are keen to discuss. Much of this art references the popular use of GIFs as a medium of humour, escalating cheap cracks and meme’s into more sophisticated commentaries on art and culture. An example of this might be Zack Dougherty, who under the name of Hateplow creates GIFS that reference and rework classical sculpture and archaeology, combining the two to offer a commentary on the present. For another example more towards the photographic side of things, Swedish artist Martin Brink has experimented with a range of web based mediums in his work, including producing GIF based images which change with varying drama as the viewer watches them.

I have also been sporadically experimenting with GIFs as a medium for work of a more documentary nature. Recently I became interested in the question of whether the refugee crisis that continues to unfold across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, is leaving traces behind that are detectable from space. Using satellite imagery, I have been attempting to locate markers in the landscape left behind by various actors and agents in the crisis and to show the changes in these markers over time as the crisis also mutates and transforms, as new routes are opened and closed, and new sites appear and disappear. The expansion and contraction of the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle is an obvious example, but others are more nebulous. The construction of the Hungarian border fence for example or the appearance and disappearance of seasonal camps used by refugees working as temporary farm workers in Turkey. Others, like the pathways beaten through the countryside by refugees seeking passage across borders might be barely detectable or may not even register at all on the intentionally degraded imagery available to public view. By imaging the same sites multiple times over several years and then compositing these images into animated GIFs I am trying to suggest the expansion and contraction of the crisis and it’s causes in different parts of the world at different times. In other instances, the locations imaged suggest not change, but inertia. The European parliament in Brussels for example appears in virtual stasis as the crisis unfolds over several years.

As I start to collect more of these I hope that these images will start to form a web of locations, which will in turn be mapped across the affected regions in order to give viewers a sense of how one flows into another. I have published some of these images on my website under the working title Borderlands and I am also releasing these and others as I create them on to GIF file sharing services. The hope being that when seen alongside jerky animations of a sneezing panda or a morose dog, a looping satellite image of a refugee camp blossoming out across the Jordanian desert might, in the jarring moment of an unexpected encounter, give someone pause for thought.

Highlights and Trends: Unseen Photo Fair 2016

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Hoopla 2016
Clare-Strand / LhGWR

Photography fairs are not my natural environment, but I’ve often heard good things about Amsterdam’s Unseen Fair and decided to visit this year. It may just have been the late September sun sparkling on the canals or perhaps a post-Brexit longing for Europe but the experience was probably the most positive I’ve ever had at an art fair, with a strong range of work, decent events and above all a nice atmosphere without the air of frenzied selling I expected. As I traveled home across the Dutch landscape I thought I would sum up a few thoughts and observations about the fair and the photographs I saw there. Firstly I should admit that, holding the views that I do about the photography art market, I went prepared for a bit of a battle. I’ve written before about what I see as one of the most glaring contradictions of this world, the employment of limited editions of photographic prints as a means of artificially rarefying a medium which is by it’s nature is just not rare or limited, and which year by year is only becoming less so and that contradiction all the more glaring. Chatting to quite a few gallerists about this at the fair, I’m still not won over and won’t be editioning my own photographs anytime, but I’m more ready to accept the practice as a necessary evil where it helps make sales and support artists in the making of new work. The artists and gallerists that I spoke to seem to be well aware of this contradictions themselves and not always comfortable with them. With that in mind it was very interesting to see how many of the works on display employed material strategies which had the effect of turning their photographs into more legitimately limited edition items.

A few of the evident trends were polaroids, artists working directly with the surface of their prints and artists morphing their photograph into objects verging on sculpture. About polaroids perhaps the less said the better, but I did see what felt like a disproportionate number of them presumably because the unique nature of the process makes them attractive fodder for collectors rightly wary of editions of more conventional digital or chemical photographs. The polaroids on show ranged from Miles Aldridge’s indifferent test shots of his well known photographs (talk about flogging a dead horse) through to more interesting inclusions like Clare Harvey’s blending of polaroids with drawing. In terms of artists using direct manipulations to the surface of their prints to create unique objects there were numerous examples, including Elmar Vestner who works directly on the surface his photographs using abrasive materials and Maurizio Anseri who embroiders his images. As a technique embroidery is certainly not a new one (Julie Cockburn et al come to mind) but way that Anseri wraps his thread around objects in the frame to create angular forms and a sense of three dimensional space within the very two dimensional image is intriguing.

Very evident was a trend towards dramatically complex image-sculptures, for example the work of Christianne Feser, where the shapes of her already almost abstract photographs merge with cuts and folds in the print’s surface to create an image which functions almost like an optical illusion. In his own write up of Unseen, Francis Hodgson suggests that this jump away from flat photographs is now defining separation between photographic artists and the mere camera operators producing purely factual images. What Hodgson dosen’t acknowledge is that these types of works also serve the interests of collectors and gallerists, and that such work probably features so heavily at the fair precisely because it short circuits one of photography’s very problematic features for the art world, its reproducibility. The artistic worth of these images is by the by, some are very interesting, some are shallow and process led. Lastly I’m not sure whether to dub it sculpture, performance, or something else entirely, but I before moving on I also have to mention Clare Strand’s Hoopla installation which was located just outside the fair. Here a game of skill has been repurposed and recreated as a both a very funny commentary on the art market and a chance to get yourself one of Strand’s own prints at a bargain price. For a few Euros visitors are given some wooden rings which they have to throw over a print a distance away in order to win it. I had a go and didn’t do very well, but the gambling here at least involves smaller figures than that going on inside the fair (Strand wasn’t easily drawn on which of the outlets for her photographs was proving more lucrative).

Besides what was on display it is also worth discussing is what wasn’t in evidence. Documentary and photojournalistic photography was largely absent but that is little surprise. What was more notable was the lack of an engagement with photography’s present form as an almost exclusively digital medium. Artists are engaging with this and the myriad issues it raises in their droves, but for the most part you wouldn’t guess it from Unseen. I expect this just reflects the general angst about the digital that extends beyond the art world and into the photography using public at large and the instinct of most people (particularly those with a stake in the old ways) to bury their heads in the analogue sand. Some works made an attempt to reference this digital world, Jan Rosseel’s series On the Aesthetics of Violence for example includes images consisting of a grids of bold coloured blocks which reference the layout of Google Image search result page with hints of the original image to which the title refers, usually an image of war, atrocity or destruction. It’s interesting work but but feels strange to see a platform and product so ephemeral as an image search rendered permanent as a physical print. I often confront this same problem of the dissonance of representing the digital physically in my own work and I still haven’t reached either a practical or intellectual solution, but the problem is there and needs drawing out. There was also sometimes a sense of frustration to find photographers who have engaged with these topics quite effectively in the past not pushing further. Michael Wolf for example has it seems not pursued the avenues opened by his 2010 works using Google Street View, instead exhibiting a series this year where he returns to the streets of Hong Kong to document detritus grandly described in the accompanying text as ‘vernacular sculptures’.

Curation and context is another question worth discussing. Unseen is an art fair, not a gallery or museum show, but the stalls where the works have been carefully selected to really play off against each other and have a even a small amount of contextual information about the series or the artist really stand out. East Wing Dubai’s display easily wins the prize on this front, offering visitors a well thought out and contextualized mini-exhibition (especially considering the limited space) of artists considering the impact of human kind on the planet. These include Yan Mingard’s Seven Sunsets, which jarringly contrasts details of the sky from 18th century paintings with internet appropriated images of polluted Chinese skies, and Mandy Barker’s work on ocean borne plastics. Of course curation (or the lack of) can also sometimes raise readings which might be less desired. There was a strange moment for me at another gallery’s stall in encountering a series of Zahele Muholi self-portraits highlighting black stereotypes facing a series of photographs by Vivianne Sassen. It was a contrast which brought to mind questions about representation and ownership which have been raised on Disphotic before and also discussed far more articulately by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa in his essay The Lives of Others.

There is also an interesting but not entirely resolved conversation going on between the Unseen Fair and the Unseen Festival, the latter a smattering of exhibitions held across the district just north of the main fair and also at some of the larger galleries and museums across the wider city. The exhibitions range from relatively large scale and complex to small and informal. In the former camp there was Anton Corbijn’s Touched (a little awkwardly billed as ‘Touched by Anton Corbijn’ on a few advertising posters I saw) which focuses on the trend towards artists making drastic interventions on their print, rather as if to validate the trends in the main fair. I’m really not keen on over focusing on process, nor shows largely advertised on the basis of their curator, but the exhibition was interesting and employed a good range of artists from Miroslav Tichy’s beautiful if predative photographs of unaware women to Anthony Cairns frozen e-ink screens. The smaller displays were often the standouts, in part for the way they were often integrated into the local community in a way which pushed visitors to engage with the area rather than just pass through as normal. The Art of Making Selfies at De Bogt-Westerbeer nursing home was my favourite and a good example of this. A collaboration between the residents, a Dutch youth group and photographer Willem Popelier, the exhibition features young and old recreating famous selfies, from Robert Cornelius to Kim Kardashian. Exhibited in the communal areas of the home itself, visitors mingle with the staff and residents and even now as I travel home my most delightful memory of the trip remains that visit, flat photographs and all.

The Moral Codes of Photojournalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Paglen wins Deutsche Börse Prize 2016

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Open Hangar, Cactus Flats, NV, Distance ~ 18 miles, 10:04 a.m
From Limit Telephotography, Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen has won the 2016 Deutsche Börse Photography prize, for his exhibition The Octopus, which explores contemporary surveillance and was held in Frankfurt, Germany in 2015. This annual prize rewards a photographer for an exhibition or publication which has significantly contributed to photography in Europe during the preceding year. Each iteration of the shortlist varies greatly, some years which offer a fascinating cross section of diverse directions in photography, to others where it can be quite hard to detect how any of the shortlistees were considered to have met the prize’s admittedly ambitious rationale. Previous incarnations have featured the likes of Walid Raad, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, John Stezaker, Sophie Ristelhuber, Richard Mosse, Paul Graham, Mikhael Subotzky, and Zanele Muholi. This year the shortlisted works ranged from Erik Kessel’s ambitious installation of his moving project Unfinished Father, to Tobias Zielony’s The Citzen, a collaborative project with refugee activists based in Berlin. For me though Laura el Tantawy’s In The Shadow of the Pyramids, a self-published photobook on the Egyptian revolution, and Trevor Paglen’s exhibition were always the front runners. My heart hoped that Tantawy’s work would be recognized for its raw power, narrative skill, and continued resonance, my (somewhat cynical) brain on the other hand felt that Paglen would likely be the one to win. Viewing Paglen’s work is a mixed experience for me. His chosen area of investigation, the activities that states get up to when they think their citizens are not looking, are ones which I find important enough to spend a sizeable part of my own time researching them (and many of the issues I am about to discuss are ones I have myself struggled with). What bothers me is that the modes that Paglen chooses to address these worlds seem more often about producing beautiful images than about really explaining or challenging these activities.

Paglen’s work feels like a rather straight form of art documentary, perhaps even indeed it might be considered good old fashioned documentary, an apparent revealing of something which demands to be seen in the age old tradition spanning back to Hine and Riis. In his Limit Telephotography series for example Paglen uses very long lenses to photograph sensitive sites which cannot be more directly approached, sometimes recording subjects which lie a dozen miles or more away, through layers of dust, heat haze and so on. In another series The Other Night Sky he uses long exposure astrophotography to record classified satellites as they pass over head. The resulting photographs in both cases are very beautiful, at times verging on the abstract, and like an abstract image they show almost nothing recognisable at all. We must take his word for it that we are viewing a spy satellite amongst a thousand star trails, and not simply another star, an innocuous civilian satellite or a tumbling piece of space junk. In this respect, and also in his penchant for arcane technical names in his image titles, Paglen’s photographs often remind me of Joan Fontcuberta’s photographic projects. Fontcuberta’s works often take the form of visual practical jokes which drag you in one direction before disclosing that what you are looking at is actually something rather different. In his world what appears at first to be a constellation of stars in a distant reach of space is a moment later revealed to be a cluster of dead insects on his windscreen, as in the series Mu Draconis. I’m not sure how much of a sense of humour Paglen has, but of course this sort of temporal telescoping can be a clever strategy even when the subject is far more serious, and it can be employed to some very thoughtful ends. I think specifically of Sophie Ristelhuber’s Fait, a work which challenges an audience to question what we are being shown, and what exactly the camera is supposed to be revealing in the abstract desert battle spaces of the First Gulf War, where the meaning of scale and distance are obliterated by the cameras lens, whether it is held in the photographer’s hands or mounted in the nose of a guided missile.

Paglen’s photographs are also rather performative, by which I mean the process of making them often feels more interesting than the resulting image or the information they impart. In viewing the Limit Telephotography series for example I find myself wondering of the value (beyond the value of the performance itself) of lugging heavy camera equipment to the top of remote hills when high resolution satellite imagery of these same sites are available to view anytime, anywhere (here for example is Toonpah Test Range Airport, likely the site featured in the photograph above). This of course is not to believe that existing forms of imagery are any more neutral, or necessarily more useful than Paglen’s, and as I know from experience, these types of performances can sometimes be quite effective ways to counter authorities who often fear exactly these types of public spectacle. I suppose what I want is still to have the image before me reveal something I did not know. Part of the problem with that is even if one could reveal these classified sites undistorted by heat haze, or clearly capture a spy satellite as it passes overhead, as has been done by some observers, a photograph tells us little about these things and the world that they belong to. Photographs, particularly single photographs but even sets and series, are incredibly bad at showing the structures, networks, histories, agreements, and more which underlie their subjects. Photographs by dint of their self-contained, enclosed nature, have an unfortunate tendency to appear complete, as if the world depicted within them were as self-contained, self-explanatory, and frankly simple, as the four sides of the photo frame.

Photographs have to be used in clever ways to avoid this tendency, and to remind viewers that is being seen is a small part of a complex set of processes and networks which make up our globalised world. Unfortunately these forms of treatment are often anathema to the sort of laboured, precious presentation that galleries tend to demand that photographs are given (and which may well be an important factor in Deutsche Börse’s collecting rationale, I think an important aspect of this prize and one which is seldom discussed). A useful photograph is not a precious physical object, it is a raw aggregate of data, something waiting to be rendered out in many senses of that phrase. It is phrase in a sentence, a node in a network, a marker on a map. When I view Paglen’s work I see raw material, waiting to have clever things done with it which will say far more about the organisations that interest him than the photographs alone are able to (to some extent this starts to happen in his series on undersea cables, but for me it is only a start). Reworked and deployed in this sort of way I think the work, as well as starting to explain it’s subject much better, would also start to pose a far more direct challenge to these entities. Of course Paglen might not feel that’s his job to do this, which is fair enough, but I consider this to be an essential part of this type of work. Such a challenge is not by any means easy to make, and as I said before I critique Paglen’s work here from a point of common interest since these problems are exactly the same ones which have troubled me about my own work on intelligence gathering. His failings (if you want to call them that) are also my failings, and the failings of a great many other photographers and visual artists working in this area who often remain more heavily weighted towards the role of being an artist than of being a researcher or activist (more thoughts on this soon).

The exception to most of what I’ve said here and by dint of it I think by far the most interesting part of Paglen’s work to date is a completely non-photographic part, indeed it’s a piece which verges on conceptualism for it’s artistic effect. It’s the Autonomy Cube, a Perspex box housing a custom motherboard developed by Jacob Applebaum (until recently a core member of Tor), which acts as an entry point to, and a relay for, the Tor network. Tor acts as a series of relays through which internet connections can be bounced, making it far harder (although by some accounts not impossible) to track the browsing habits and other information of people who use it. Like the wider use of electronic encryption, it has become part of an intriguing reputational battle in the aftermath of the Snowden document leaks, often depicted as an unholy gateway into the dark web and the preferred the tool of child pornographers and criminal hackers seeking to elude the authorities, Tor can just as readily be the means of journalists seeking to avoid surveillance, or ordinary citizens who don’t see why their browsing habits should become corporate property or be collected by dubious government information gathering programs. Intelligence agencies also often deploy the spurious logic that increased use of networks like Tor will require them to use ever more invasive means of information gathering, failing to recognise that it was precisely their development of invasive programs like Prism and Tempora which have led to a growing number of people to employ these technologies. The more relays Tor can call on the stronger the system is, and so by installing this router in a gallery Paglen does finally do something which poses a tangible challenge to the activities of intelligence gathering organizations like the United State’s NSA or Britain’s GCHQ, and even more gloriously he implicates the notoriously apolitical art world in the process at the same time (each time I see the autonomy cube installed, as it also is at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, I wonder with glee what gallery wrangles might have taken place before it was agreed to). By the additional step of inviting gallery visitors to connect to the router and exploit its offer of anonymity, Paglen exposes visitors to what previously might have seem mysterious or even taboo, and implicates them in a deeply modern analogue to older forms of civil disobedience. In the digital age, taking hold of our own data, and enforcing our privacy even against our own governments might be considered one of the final truly subversive, and genuinely challenging acts.

Schmaltz and Secrecy: The Obama Legacy

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Detail from Situation Room showing classified documents in front of Hillary Clinton.
Pete Souza 2011 (wikipedia)

It’s the most inward form of photography writing to critique another writer’s thoughts, but reading a recent piece by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on the work of White House photographer Pete Souza was a reminder that this sort of writing is sometime badly needed. It’s needed in this case less because Jones is a useful or thoughtful critic worthy of consideration but more because The Guardian gives him a platform with such authority that someone, anyone, needs to periodically take him to task over his writing, which vacillates between acerbic hatchet jobs and simpering fan pieces (although it must be said that ever so occasionally he does get it right). In his latest piece Jones fawns over the photographs produced by Souza during Obama’s two terms in office, swallowing the narrative these photographs are intended to transmit without even a moment’s reflection on the circumstances of their production. Even as he praises Souza as a photographer, Jones seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of looking at photographs, which is to always remember the photographer’s role in their creation.

Photographs are not portals on the world which appear unbidden, they are not utterances are given voice without someone articulating them. They are considered constructions, whether constructed in the moment of their shooting (and before) or in their selection, arrangement, contextualisation, and dissemination out into the world. Jones, who is normally so ultra critical of photography (indeed once calling the medium ‘flat, soulless and stupid’ in the context of fine art) manifestly fails in the role of a critic to ask even the most basic questions of the Souza’s images. Souza is very proficient photographer, and it’s not my intention to denigrate him on that front, but his photographs are unavoidably the product of an extremely effective press machine, one which exists to stage manage and represent the presidency in a very particular light which has absolutely nothing to do with creating an objective ‘chronicle’. It’s not for nothing that the visual analysis blog Reading the Pictures often analyses White House photographs critically (ironically Jones even links to an article on the site, presumably without having read much further). These photographs might speak the language of documentary, but in any traditional sense they are not, and Obama’s presidental career and his legacy are far more complicated than these photographs suggest.

In the United States Obama might perhaps be remembered less for what he did during his time in office than for the way his election itself seemed to push America closer to realising its founding creed of equality (even if some of the major markers for racial equality show widening gaps). While that narrative might appeal to American citizens keen to believe that their nation is realising it’s long held aspirations, it might have much less resonance in some parts of the world where the fallout of Obama’s two terms are likely to be remembered quite differently. These photographs speak little if at all of the revelations of absolutely massive US surveillance programs, the prosecution of more whistle-blowers than any previous president, and the escalation of illegal drone wars which have killed thousands of innocent people in states with which the United States is not even at war. This is to say nothing of the failure to shut the prison at Guantanamo bay, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and Obama’s general record on secrecy, for example his administrations unwillingness to reveal the extent of the CIA’s torture program. Of course you can argue that mahy of these wrong doings were inherited, that Obama was just cleaning up his predecessors mess, or towing the presidential line, but to me doing so is a little like arguing about whether a photographer is responsible for a lab technician manipulating his photographs or not. These things happened (or in some cases didn’t) on Obama’s watch, and like it or not that makes these things as much a part of his legacy as Obamacare or his reset of relations with Cuba.

Souza’s photographs chronicle very few of these important things (in some respects it would be unrealistic to expect them to do otherwise) and where they occasionally do, as for example in the case of the now iconic photograph Situation Room, they do so in a way which is meticulously designed to send the ‘right’ message. In the case of Situation Room the calculated message is of a president taking his responsibilities incredibly seriously, indeed overburdened by them, surrounded by the wisdom of his accumulated advisors, and so on. The few truly informative details of this photograph is also the most overlooked; the blank laptop screens, a pixelated document on the laptop in front of Hillary Clinton and a binder on her lap marked TOP SECRET/CODE WORD/NOFORN (that last one the intelligence abbreviation for ‘no disclosure to foreign nationals’). These small items are to me the closest Souza comes to hinting at the true legacy of the last eight years, and indeed the last sixteen, which are a profound secrecy and the rigorous control of information. These are things which Souza as White House photographer is arguably a part of, and there have been regular criticisms from photographers and press organisations about the way the White House prioritises its own photography while restricting access for photojournalists. In 2013 Santiago Lyon, the Associated Press’s head of photography, went so far as to write a piece for the New York Times in which he accused the White House of exercising an Orwellian control over the presidents image with the intention of producing ‘a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.’

Saying all of this is not to underplay the historic significance of Obama’s election and presidency, nor is it to question his remarkable charisma and what in a different time might have been termed his ‘common touch’ which is certainly demonstrated in many of Souza’s photographs. It is however to question the extent to which these things become a dense smokescreen around the figure of the president and his administration, and the way that issues which are arguably of far greater importance than Obama playing games with small children or dancing tenderly with an elderly woman get shifted into the background as a result. It’s worth looking at Souza’s very similar photographs of Ronald Reagan, who I suspect many Obama advocates would harbour far less positive feelings about, to see how these moments feel when the subject is someone whose policies you don’t agree with. Souza’s earlier photographs say nothing of Reagan’s divisive economic agenda, his escalation of the Cold War, the Iran Contra affair, the Invasion of Grenada, his retrograde views on HIV/AIDS, or any number of other things which we might now consider to be indelible parts of his legacy. As it was with Regan, so it is now with Obama. If Jones wants a true picture of these last two terms then by all means he is welcome to include some of Souza’s official schmaltz, but if he wants that chronicle to have a grain of truth in it Jones will need to look beyond the photographs on Whitehouse’s Instagram feed. He’ll need to look for photographs which for the most part are still waiting to be taken, or daresay I say it, constructed. Photographs which wait to be given voice in the cells of Fort Leavenworth, amongst the server racks of the NSA’s massive data centers, and in the remote mountains of Waziristan.

Not All’s Fair: Photo London 2016

photo london new york paris peckham art trade
Trotters Independent Trading co. van,
from Only Fools and Horses (Flickr)

At the risk of being outspoken (hah) it’s my belief that the only useful purpose that the commercial art trade has is as something which inadvertently creates spaces where normal people can look at artworks, effectively subsidised by those few who are rich enough to actually buy and own them. I have absolutely no problem with artists selling and living by their work, my problem rather lies with the speculation, inflation, obfuscation, hype, exclusivity and all those other things which invariably seem to come with the professionalisation of this activity. These are things which art doesn’t need, and which in some cases actively harm art, but which by dint of this trade have come to be seen by the majority of normal people as being at the core of it is about. Even so, while I might not like galleries, fairs and their ilk, I can tolerate them as long as they provide at least the shadow of a socially useful function. When on the other hand these places restrict the audiences who can view the work they tout, I completely run out of interest in them. Photo London which launched last night plays host to eighty photography galleries who presumably pay a fee to exhibit, and is sponsored by the Swiss private bank Pictet. But it also asks punters to cough up £27 for a day ticket, which as photographer Jim Mortram pointed out on Twitter is roughly half the weekly allowance for a carer like him.

Historically fairs were places where a relatively broad swathe of society mixed in the pursuit of trade, entertainment, and more. Matthew of Paris recounts that in 1248 Henry III banned all traffic in London ‘in order that by these means the Westminster fair might be more attended by people’. Such human heterogeneity seems unwelcome at the art fairs of today, where one imagines ticket price plays as much of an important function in defining and filtering the type of visitors who attend as it does actually fulfill any need to generate additional income. Whether this bothers you or not probably depends very much on your view of who art is actually for, and what purpose you believe it ought to serve. If you view it merely as chintz for the ultra-wealthy to pad out their obnoxious homes, then get yourself to Photo London and enjoy yourself. If it’s anything like last year you’ll see some enjoyable if usually rather predictable photography, often unfortunately handicapped by its display in forms better suited to sales than to contemplative viewing or contextualisation. You’ll also likely get to snap a selfie with the row of Bentleys parked up outside and if you’re feeling cruel then do ask some of gallerists to tell you the prices of the pieces they are showing, that question usually seems to make them a little nervous in a city where more than a quarter of the population live in poverty.

If on the other hand you see art as something which ought to be economically accessible to as wide an audience as possible then I suggest you give the main events at Somerset House a wide berth. There are some great fringe events going on over the next few days which are completely free. For example you might cross the river to Tate Modern (freshly liberated from its long corporate sponsorship by BP) for Offprint where you can see some of the best that photobook publishing has to offer. Could it be that the explosion in interest in the photo book has come partly from the realisation amongst so many young artists and photographers that the type of galleries participating in Photo London actually have very little to offer them? Nearby to Tate is Fix Photo with some great work including images from Ed Thompson’s The Unseen Project (in interests of critical transparency, Ed is a friend of mine) and Robert Clayton’s Estate series. Alternatively jump on a 171 bus from outside Somerset House and get yourself down to Peckham 24, where a range of interesting photographers including Ciaran og Arnold, Ryan Moule, and Tom Lovelace are showing work, along with three promising young Irish artists exhibiting as part of the Belfast Exposed Futures program. There will be a series of talks running on Saturday, including a panel chaired by Rodrigo Orranta with Jo Dennis and Carlos Alba and one by yours truly (advertorial alert). I’ll be in conversation with Mark Duffy and Peter Mann to discuss humour and appropriation in a world of images. It’s free and open to all, you can sample the delights of Peckham, and if watching too many episodes of Only Fools and Horses has left you worried about a visit down south then take it from someone who grew up nearby that the area isn’t what it used to be. For one weekend at least the wheelers and dealers will be in another part of town.