Goodbye Disphotic

SMS Bayern sinking after being scuttled by her crew
Scapa Flow, 21 June 1919

The time has come for me to order full stop to Disphotic’s engines and leave it to drift down into the internet’s abyssal depths, to rest with the countless other abandoned hulks. In plainer speak, I’m giving up regularly writing this blog, and there are three main reasons why.

Disphotic called for a very particular type of writing, a sort of didactic, short form which isn’t the only type of I prose want to explore and experiment with, and writing has always for me been something of an experiment, however evidenced that might be in the rather stymied final form of what was published here. Writing was once far more of a balancing act for me, a perilous tightrope walk along a line of thinking or argument. As this analogy implies it was something of a game, and having set the rules and now got rather too used to them I now find myself wanting other scenarios and the challenges they might bring. Increasingly when I sit down to write I find my thoughts meandering over more and more pages and subjects, regularly breaking the once inviolable word length barriers and topic areas I had set for myself when writing for Disphotic. Put simply I feel dissatisfied and constrained with this blog and I want to do other things. I can only hope that this dissatisfaction perhaps reflects a maturation and a growing interest in ideas that cannot be easily expressed in one thousand words or less, not simply self-indulgence and engorgement on my part (in case you plan to answer that, no need). I will continue to write in other forms and places in the future, as well as working on a proposal for doctoral study. Disphotic’s index will also continue to be updated with new pieces of writing as they appear elsewhere, and I will also be sporadically blogging on educational matters here. So, the end of Disphotic is not the end of my writing, rather the start of a different direction for it.

The decision to stop writing this blog however is also about much more than style. This site has taken an enormous amount of time and energy to produce, not only to write the posts and maintain the blog, but also to formulate the ideas, to read and look, and follow intellectual rabbit holes downwards through sometimes labyrinthine routes to their termination (more often than not at dead ends). To say that Disphotic required a great deal of energy is not at all to say that I lay any great claim to the originality or insight of what I have posted here, just that what it demanded of me were resources I can increasingly see being better put to use elsewhere. I want to focus more of my energies on my own practice for example, which after all was the very reason I started to write Disphotic, as a way to tease out questions and illuminate dark spots in my own work. As my projects become bigger and more complex, particularly in terms of the research that underlies them, I feel I need more and more of my resources reserved for these. Equally teaching is an ever-bigger part of my life, and in contrast to writing here I enjoy the fact those conversations are not so one directional and didactic, and that the results of them are much quicker and clearer to see.

This leads on to the third reason and the most significant, that my quitting Disphotic is also the result of a mounting frustration with the photography world which this blog grew to become an engagement with. That frustration takes many forms. For one I am frustrated by the narrow, inward looking horizons of our field. Photography has its limits as a medium, technically and intellectually, but even those meagre boundaries rarely seem to be pushed very hard against by those within it (more often indeed the challengers seem to come from without). I have, through this blog, come to know a great many writers, photographers, and curators who are not so complacent, who feel for and test these edges, but they are still too few, and the field as a whole remains tediously self-satisfied and provincial. To some extent this is reflected in another frustration of mine. While being utterly areligious I’ve always tried with this blog to live up to the Quaker credo of speaking truth to power, by highlighting whenever I can what I see as the problems and inadequacies with our field, and those who benefit from them. There are a great many things which obstruct photography’s ability to live up to the tenets that are often parroted by those within it. For all the grand talk of photography’s democracy, equality and possibility, our field is one which in reality is conditioned by systemic inequality, nepotism, corporate influence, prejudice, opportunism, protectionism, codes of silence, dirty money, and sometimes outright exploitation.

Trying to draw attention to some of these things over the years has had some detectable professional implications for me as a photographer (a price I pay without much regret) but it has met with little tangible response in return. Again through my writing I have come to know others who, having learnt the inner rules of our profession, refuse to play the games that are expected of them. Sadly they are few. I have often wondered that this inability to galvanise some change reflects a failure of my own writing, it’s inability to invoke the sort of action I had hoped to see in response to these things. Perhaps though I just have allowed myself to do what I have so often been critical of photographers for doing; that is grossly over-estimating the power of pictures, or words, to motivate change. Perhaps I need to continue to grapple with these problems but find wholly different ways of doing it. Responsibility must also lie ultimately however with the photography community at large. The French diplomat Joseph de Maistre, in most respects an eminently dislikeable figure, was possibly on to something when he observed that people get the government they deserve. Perhaps that observation goes for professionals also. While they might condemn some of these things in private most photography professionals it seems are quite happy to remain silent in public, to ignore what they know is wrong presumably in the hope that if they keep quiet some small crumbs scattered from these wrongdoings will eventually trickle down to benefit them.

Ours is a stressful, difficult profession to get along in and I understand the reasons that many are unwilling to speak out. But I am also tired of being, along with a relatively small group of others, a self-appointed lightning rod. It has been an interesting journey developing my thoughts on photography and many other things besides in an increasingly public forum, and it has been amazing thing to see the audience for a blog which was always intended to be very personal grow several thousand regular readers. I need to draw an end to this now before the sense of having had too much of a good thing becomes too strong and I come to resent and regret something which up until now fills me mostly with positive feelings. For conversations, commissions, commiserations, etc I can as ever be contacted here and new projects will be announced here. But without further ado, let us set the charges, man the lifeboats, and abandon ship.

How to be a Thorn in Photography’s Side

Some of the notebooks I’ve filled over four years of writing.

Ok, this is a bit little weird. I am for the first time publishing a retroactive post, one coming hot on the heels of a piece where I declare an end to writing this blog. I hope the reasons for doing this will soon become clear if they have not already from the title, and allow me to reassure you that this will indeed be the last. In the wake of my decision to stop writing Disphotic last week quite a few people commented on the blog’s demise by remarking how urgently the photography world needs critical voices. I fully agree, but those voices need to belong to someone, and I feel I have more than said my bit. While I didn’t mention it in my piece last week another reason for abandoning Disphotic was the fear that in time that it too would become part of the detestable canon of voices on photography. Other writers, younger and older, with different ideas and experiences, need to take up the baton which I’ve dropped. Disphotic’s end can be seen, in a way, as a making room for them.

To that end, what I’ve assembled here is a very brief guide on how to be a photography writer. By that I do not mean someone who writes technical reviews about the latest camera, or rehashes the official line on the latest book or exhibition, these are technicians and hacks. What I mean by a writer is someone who through the medium of words sets out to be a thorn in the side of everything and everyone that is wrong with contemporary photography, and in doing so to illuminate and explore it with and for other people. On the off chance that someone reading this might desire to do this, here are a few suggestions for going about it:

Just start – Right now. Seriously, what better things are you going to do today? Put pen to paper, fingers to keys, and say something about something, whether for yourself or for others.

Write, write, write – Some wordsmiths might disagree, but for me writing is unnatural and the only way to do it and do it well was to do it as constantly as I could manage. Carry a notebook or equivalent everywhere with you and write anytime you have time to kill or an idea emerges into your brain. This writing needn’t be about photography, just practise articulating something. Write about the look of a room, the feeling of something experienced, or an unexpected thought. I can only speak for myself when I say that writing is like a deep course of water, where the great majority of the effort and energy remains down deep, unseen and unreachable but still completely necessary for the pleasant shallows we bask in.

Have an opinion – This is easy, and it is also hard. When you go to a show, look at a book, or hear someone talk, you’ll have an instinctive reaction to it. Tune in to that, listen to what your heart says about something. Criticism, for me, is taking that instinctive response to something and spending some time with it, trying to articulate and figure out where it comes from, then deciding whether you also agree with it intellectually. The hardest things to write are where the head and the heart disagree, but those are sometimes also the best. (Also it’s fine to feel the same way as everyone else about something and critics needn’t always be contrary, but those feelings always need to be double or triple questioned.)

Read everything – Some writers claim literary influence kills innate style. For those of us who had no style to start with it also helps us to manufacture something which passes for it. Read everything you can get your hands on, from fact and theory to fiction and poetry. An idea, a reference, an archaic term or a turn of phrase; all are fodder for your future attempts to figure out what a photographer or artist is trying to do (whether they know it themselves or not) and then articulate that to other people.

Critics can’t have friends – Many critics, even the big shots, write about their friends, or people they want to influence or catch the eye of. It’s nice to be wanted, to get invited to stuff and all the rest, but if you are lonely just get a dog, it will be simpler in the long run and probably more thought provoking as well. Blogging is influence and influence is power, take that seriously and use it right. People will ask you to write about them, only do it when you actually like the work, and if there are conflicts of interest declare them to your readers. It’s that simple. Call out writers who don’t do this, they drag the rest of us and what we do down with them. From time to time stop and check you are not becoming one of them.

Give yourself parameters – Take it from me, you can’t take them all on however much you want to. Give yourself a focus and a target for how much to publish and when. Write about a particular branch of photography, or a particular practice, do it in a particular way. Look at what other people are writing about, emulate those you admire or better still pick a niche all of your own.

Tear up the press release – If all you plan to do is rephrase the press releases that get sent to you, please don’t bother blogging. There are enough people already doing this, including people who are actually getting paid for it. On a practical note, set up a fake e-mail account and politely request all galleries and artists that they use this for their mailings rather than your actual account. It will extend the life of your delete key.

Think about for whom you write – At the start that may just be yourself, as it was for me. As an audience grows you should take the time observe it. It will have demands on you, often these will be confusing, contradictory ones. Consider how far you adjust what you to do those, or just continue in your own rut. Both approaches have things to commend and condemn them.

Go looking for trouble – Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Do your research and then do it again, brush up on libel law, and speak truth to power.

Good luck.

The Shadows of Doubt: Art, Distance and Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Robert Capa, Slightly Out of Focus, xi.
[2] Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography, p.24
[3] Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, Volatile Smile, 2011
[4] Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garska, Network Centric Warfare: It’s Origins and Future, 1998
[5] The Intercept, The Drone Papers: A Visual Glossary (Oct 15, 2015 ) (accessed 19th June 2016)
[6] Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (accessed 19th June 2016)
[7] The Elephant In The Room: New report on UK media ownership (accessed 22nd June 2016)
[8] Usually attributed to Mark Twain, it seems apt that there is much doubt whether he indeed ever said this.
[9] Plato, The Republic X, 27
[10] Berlau edited Kriegsfibel, wrote the preface to the original publication , and may have contributed some of the core ideas behind the work. Yet reference to her is notably absent from much subsequent writing about the book.
[11] NSA: Snowden Stole 1.7 Millionn Classified Documents And Still Has Access To Most Of Them (accessed 22nd June 2016)

Why Teach Photography?


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.

Research and a New Photography


What is photographic research? A seemingly straightforward question begs a straightforward answer, but so often begets instead many more, less straightforward inquiries. How does one begin to answer a question which rests with such apparent ease on such unresolved terms? What is photographic research when the question of what photography has become (is becoming, will be) still seems so unclear. Not just unclear, but uncomfortable, a question which might have answers waiting in the wings, but answers which many are unwilling to call upon for fear that these understudies might upstage those they replace. Survey the fields of creative photography, from art to documentary, and you will observe many unwilling even to consider the proposition that photography has become something profoundly different, alien, to what it has been for the previous one and half centuries. Turning away from it’s new physical immateriality, technical subjectivities, it’s now truly infinite reproducibility, it’s increasingly networked and automated state, many people prefer to continue to invest themselves in an idea of the medium which feels as anachronistic as the telegraph. Analogue film, luscious prints and beautiful books of photographs are on the rise again, a trend often explained as being the result of a renewed interest in research and process, but which I often suspect in fact belies a deep conservatism, a regression less than a revolution. These things were photography once, but they are manifestly not photography now.

This problem of an unwillingness to engage with, let alone embrace, photography’s changes might seem to be a purely an academic, theoretical one, but this question of what photography has become is bound up in the far larger question of what photography is for. That, at least in the fields with which I am concerned, is the purpose of illuminating, explaining, or provoking the critical issues or our day. Ours is a world full of known unknowns, and unknowable knowns, where so many of the things that urgently need to be rought into the light are constructed (by accident or intent) to elude what we would traditionally think of as the sight of the camera and the explanatory power of a photograph. Make no mistake, photographs can change the world, but their capacity to do so is unpredictable, limited by their ability to reveal or suggest, and this ability for change always has as much potential to be regressive as it does positive.

Conversely ours is a world where issues rarely exist in isolation, but come in concert and find themselves interwoven, interdependent and networked, more so than ever before. We must speak urgently of environmental collapse, but how can we do that without thinking also of globalised capitalism, and how in turn can we understand that without analysing the politics and culture of the societies that allow it. The old photography is spatially, temporally and conceptually micro, but more than ever before we face problems that are manifestly macro, that reach beyond the horizons of individual perception or comprehension. Systems that are massive, complex, and interlinked defy explanation within the four sides of a print on a wall. In the face of this world and it’s challenges, even had photography not mutated as it has over the last three decades we might have found before long that we needed to change it ourselves to meet these new problems. As it is the changing world has in turn changed photography, but it has not yet it seems sufficiently changed us.

In this context then what is photography research? It becomes both a way to answer some of these questions, and in the absence of a convincing new definition of photography also a surrogate which in many ways more important than the resulting image. The photograph becomes more than ever a sort of token or gesture, a visible marker concealing the mass of ideas and information that loom beneath it like the inverted abyssal mass of an iceberg. To make one final metaphorical mix in a text plagued with them, let us leap from ice to fire, of a sort. The mystical priest-philosopher-poet of photography is best remembered for one essay, (attached to university reading lists across the land by lecturers who often appear to have never seriously read it). By contrast his most interesting work, itself a monument to unfinished research, moulders in its incompleteness. An attempt to potential reinvent history, within its pages was written that ‘knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.’ Photographic research is maybe something like this in the reverse. It is the thunder rolling long, drawing back slow or fast until it comes to coalesce in the lightning flash of an image, and perhaps, eventually, in a new photography.

This is an expanded version of a very short essay written for A Photography Research reader, published in conjunction with the UAL staff research exhibition. The exhibition continues at Camberwell Space untill December 16th.


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.

Highlights and Trends: Paris Photo 2016


Archive Pierre Molinier, Maison Européenne de la Photographie

Like all contemporary art fairs, Paris Photo is a photography business and be in no doubt about the proper order of those two words. It was notable that even outside the event one had to run a gauntlet of ticket touts offering illict entrance to the fair. It wasn’t vastly different inside, where there are certainly some touts active only wearing suits and displaying more discrimination about their clientele. It was interesting to arrive in Paris just a few days after a session with my MA students discussing the transition of documentary to the gallery. One of the questions we discussed was that old sticking point of what makes something art, something we failed to reach a conclusion to but which led to some interesting observations, including that something (perhaps anything) can be art if someone says it is, but whether it’s good or bad art is another matter entirely.

Paris Photo evidences the truth of this, with an enormous amount of photography desperate to assert its artistic value in the most obvious of ways, through process, size and other ostentatious displays. As I noted last week art is often encouraged to exist in the artificial vacuum of the white cube gallery, but the reality is that it’s meaning is often defined in the most interesting ways by what surrounds it. Amongst the ocular and aural noise of the huge Grand Palais, the photographs that were content to sit on the wall quietly, sometimes neglected in the dingiest corner of a gallery’s booth (I saw a print by surrealist Maurice Tabard hung on a cupboard door) were often the most pleasurable discoveries when you stumbled across them. The typology, the calling card of art photography, appears alive and well, with a staggering variety from Ursula Schultz-Dornburg’s Becher-esque photographs of bus stops to Luis Molina-Pantin’s series of Mexican door intercoms. Often it’s the ones that feel more casual, the latter in this case, that work. Ditto photographic abstraction which is abundant and almost to a man dull. For the most part contemporary journalism and documentary are absent which perhaps says much about it’s percieved worth. One encounters weird anomalies of course, for example James Hill’s photographs of Afghanistan circa 2001. In one image an elderly man prays against the backdrop of a sky filled with the white loops of contrails left by American bombers. Then there was Daniel Blau selling the purest documentary in the form of vintage NASA prints of stars and military shots of atom bomb detonations, showing that anything can be repurposed as art if the price is right.

Prints exhibiting texture and sculpture were less in evidence than at Unseen Photo Fair earlier in the summer but still represented especially amongst younger artists. Some of these managed to make something unique without appearing to try too hard. Tom Lovelace’s cinema pinboard (transformed by the sun into a natural photogram suggestive of a Mark Rothko) is a neat example, although displayed without explanation I expect the idea is lost on most. Another nice twist on this came in Timm Rautert’s framed boxes of darkroom paper, each box containing an unseeable photographic print. The boxes are themselves rather beautiful objects carrying a timely commentary on analog fetishism, and almost don’t need the added conceptual twist of containing the photographic equivalent of Schrodinger’s cat. A few artists even riff on what you might call the textural turn, for example Ben Cauchi’s photographs, which from a distance appear to be crumpled prints representing exactly this type of sculptural photography, until you get close and realize they are just normal photographs cleverly lit. As I said in my write up of Unseen, the sculptural trend isn’t inherently interesting but it definitely serves a purpose in the context of the photographic art market’s inherently contradictory need to limit a medium which in reproductive terms is entirely unlimited. And how glaring that contradiction is in the Grand Palais. You might feel that a vintage Edward Weston for €230,000 is sort of understandable, it’s all about the history I guess and for institutions and perhaps some collectors owning an object with lineage is worth that sort of price. But I feel that prices even a small fraction of this hard to rationalize when you come to contemporary works, irrespective of who the photographer is. It makes you realize how much art can be like trading currency or junk bonds, a game which perhaps will get most interesting when the wheels finally start to fall off and someone with some influence abandons the ridiculous game of treating photographs like paintings.

Perhaps hedging their bets because of the pressure to recoup their costs (I heard speak of around €20,000 for a booth) many of galleries opted to show a little of everything, with clusters of old and new, photojournalism and art, but this approach usually felt dysfunctional and rather as if they were showing nothing very much at all. In contrast to this tendency the ones that made something of a stand by offering a coherent display really stood out. East Wing Dubai got a tip of the hat for this at Unseen, and they did the same again although perhaps not quite as compellingly. In a similar way the Paris-Beijing booth was turned over to a display of Thomas Sauvin’s Beijing Silvermine, a wonderful collection of Chinese vernacular photography rescued from the city’s municipal dumps. These degraded and distorted the images are a fitting metaphor for historical adjustment and technological change. A nice touch was a light box table in the middle of the booth piled high with the original negatives which visitors were encouraged to inspect with a loup, in contrast to the hands-in-pockets-and-don’t-get-too-close-to-the-merchandise vibe in some of the other parts of the fair. For me the highlight of the more ‘curated’ displays was the whole of James Danzinger’s booth turned over to Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train. A series shot from the locomotive that carried the younger Kennedy’s coffin to burial in 1968, Fuso captures Americans coming out to pay their final respects, holding signs, smiling, saluting and shedding tears. In each image the subject is isolated in a bubble of sharpness, their surroundings blurred out by the movement of the speeding train. Both as an important moment in time and for its resonance with the current divisions in the United States the series is beyond moving. I’ve got to admit I was almost tempted to ask for the price, but the old truism that ‘if you need to ask then you can’t afford it’ came to mind.

Predictably many of the memorable bits were away from the main event. Le Bal’s Provoke exhibition was one, and while part of me would have preferred something I’d not seen so many times before the curation of the show was so excellent that it made this familiar material feel fresh and exciting anew. A particularly nice touch were deconstructed facsimiles of the original issues of the radical photography magazine pinned to the walls, allowing visitors to study them in detail. ‘Unlike today we thought of the camera as a weapon’ Nobuyoshi Araki says in one of the wall texts, and it is the political agenda of the work that is partly what excites along with the iconoclastic attitude towards photography. The abandonment of the idea of the camera as a weapon (however flawed an idea it is) explains much about why so much in the Grand Palais is dull beyond belief. Provoke and it’s contributors had an ethos, and that made them dangerous, but were it around today it would also probably make it deeply unfashionable. At the Maison Européenne de la Photographie the Andres Serrano show was worth a look, particularly for America his series of vast portraits made in the wake of the 9/11 attacks which echo August Sander’s similar documentation of Weimar Germans. A photograph of president elect Donald Trump is one of the first you see, aptly flanked by a child beauty queen on one side and a crack cocaine addict and model on the other. Serrano’s massive prints are partly engaging for the way they reveal the small imperfections in even the most superficially perfect people, but doing so without suggesting these imperfections are shortcomings, more part of what makes us who we are. The really uncanny thing about Trump is noticing the way he lacks even the smallest blemish or scar, even the child beauty queen showing more sign of this very human imperfection.

My highlight of the entire trip however was the exhibition upstairs Archive Pierre Molinier. A house painter turned artist, cross dresser, and hedonist loosely aligned with surrealism, Molinier produced a series of erotic self-portraits blending photography, drawing, and collage to bizarrely brilliant effect. It’s hard to know what to compare his images to, the thought that came to my mind was that had Otto Dix employed photography and had a penchant for transvestitism, sodomy and mixing colour pigments with his sperm (as Molinier did) he might have produced a series of images a little like these. Mollinier’s photographs and photomontages vary between the funny, the smutty and the downright creepy, but the overall effect of the exhibition is powerfully moving. Despite André Bréton championing his art, Mollinier lived a marginalized life and killed himself in 1976, which in the context of Paris Photo would seem to make it worth quoting the critic Frédéric Beigbeder. Writing an essay to accompany an auction sale of Molinier’s work last year, a text which might normally be a congratulatory piece aimed at the soon to be owners of the artist’s work, Beigbeder instead offers this apt truth: ‘true artists die in suffering, poverty and anonymity, while decades later the high classes pay tribute to them as they eat their truffle risottos’.

My visit to Paris was brief and so I didn’t look at as many books as I might have normally, skipping Offprint entirely to save on time (and also because such large book fairs also often have a strangely depressive effect one me). The Aperture Photo Book prize had a few interesting titles in the long list but there was also quite a bit that was bland and the knowledge that is a paying prize is hard to escape when noticing this. As I wrote recently of the prize, when you charge entrants for a competition you can’t expect it to reflect the best, only the best of what can afford to pay. The winner, Gregory Halpern’s ZZYZX is a competent book, beautifully photographed and printed. I appreciate what Halpern is doing but at the same time in its intellectual abstractness it’s a league away from the photographic terrain that I like to spend my time traversing. I found the offerings at the boat-borne book fair at Polycopies more rewarding. Some highlights included Marco Tiberio and Maria Ghetti‘s Immo Refugee Camp, a typology of the Calais jungle’s informal structures which in it’s published form masquerades as an estate agent’s brochure and Dear Clark, Sara-Lena Maierhofer’s compelling investigation into identity via a non-receptive con man (the book also appears in Aperture’s shortlist). For the photo history buffs Javier Viver’s Révélations. Iconographie de La Salpêtrière is a wonderful catalogue of the hospital’s pioneering medical photography including the profound and troublesome work of Freud’s mentor Jean-Martin Charcot and his collaboration with pioneering chrono-photographer Albert Londe. At all these places there was such lavish overdesign on show (inserts, French folds, etc), which rather like the gallery penchant for cleverly manipulated and distorted prints really needs to be taken to be analysed, and taken to task.

So there were of course some wonderful gems to be found at Paris Photo, but rather like Sauvin’s trawling of rubbish dumps it took time and a strong stomach to find them. I calculated that I found one image actually worth spending time over for every thirty minutes I spent exploring the main fair, whether that is a good ratio and how it compares to previous years of Paris Photo, I dare not determine.

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


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, 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.

Post-Truth Documentary: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation


Still from the trailer for Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation (2016)

It’s increasingly popular to speak of our world as ‘post-truth’ an idea lent credence by politicians from Vladimir Putin to Boris Johnson who seem able to be able to spin fantastic lies and almost entirely get away with it. History tells us that leaders have always told lies, indeed that it is an almost inseparable part of the job, but there seems to be a sense that this occurs to an unprecedented extent today, and that no one is immune from it, with even the apparently unimpeachable Jeremy Corbyn standing accused of it during the fracas dubbed ‘Traingate’. The accessibility of information today makes it easier than ever to call liars out for what they are, and it is a staggering thing to watch a political candidate like Donald Trump deny doing something that you can simultaneously watch happening in an adjacent browser window. This is not entirely positive however, for two reasons. Firstly because the ease of identifying lies ironically contributes to the malaise of apathy towards politicians, because it is now so easy to know the extent to which they spin, manipulate, and mislead, that it creates a sense that they are all irredeemably corrupt. Secondly, because politicians seem to respond more and more to this public capacity for fact checking not with greater truthfulness, but with barrages of information which seem intended to confound verification or render its conclusions moot. By making constant swerves in ideology, policy and rhetoric, politicians evade the consequences of being caught out. What I told you yesterday might have been a lie, but what does it matter, because today I am saying something quite different, and by the time you realise this too is a lie I will be somewhere else entirely.

This background is pertinent to Adam Curtis’s new film HyperNormalisation which assembles a complexly woven conspiratorial narrative from the cultural and political wreckage of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Using esoteric stock footage sewn together with his own narration and a dub soundtrack Curtis leads us from Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik, via Syria and Iran, the growing power of the financial sector, suicide bombing, the demise of ideology, the rise of computer networks, the Arab Spring, and the rise of right wing populism in Europe and America (if some of the things on that list seems a little contradictory, well yes, they are). From this Curtis draws the conclusion that we live in a world which we all seem to know is deeply problem fraught and artificial but which we are hardly able to penetrate the unreal surface of, much less do anything to change. Seen through Curtis’s eyes reality and truth have become empty terms, readily twisted and manipulated by politicians and other powerful figures to support ever shifting agendas which have more to do with holding power than with any definable ideology. Buried in here are some interesting, deeply important ideas, not least about the role that networks and algorithms increasingly play in creating our own personal ideological echo chambers. The trouble with HyperNormalisation is that in its frantic rush to cover huge amounts of ground it simplifies and generalises to the point that it nearly becomes post-truth in it’s own right.

First it’s worth noting how the form and length of Curtis’s films have changed over the years, from the three single hour episodes of The Politics of Fear, to the two hours of Bitter Lake, and now the near 3 unbroken hours of HyperNormalisation. The shift to continuous films rather than episodes and this increasingly length hasn’t led as you might expect to deeper analysis, instead his more recent films seem to expand even further the grand narratives that he has always sought to create (even as he often seems to be trying to dismiss grand narratives in general) causing them to balloon even further, incorporating more and more widely flung causes, actors and consequences. For my money the older series format served Curtis’s work far better and allowed a closer focus on particular topic areas while still constructing a large overarching argument. Considering the enormous length of HyperNormalisation it’s interesting what doesn’t figure in the narrative, the refugee crisis is virtually absent from his brief discussion of the rise of populism, despite being a significant contributor to the rise of the right, and being the consequence of many of the events in the Middle East which he also discusses. Although one of his core arguments seems to be the loss of faith in alternatives and our inability to respond to the challenges of a late capitalist world Curtis gives only a fleeting analysis of movements like Occupy which intended to do exactly this, and never really reflects on the fact that groups like ISIS are hardly the nihilists we often try to paint them as, but in their own twisted way have an alternative vision of the world that they might imagine to be every bit as utopian as that of Occupy.

It’s been said that watching a Curtis documentary feels a bit like listening to a man in the middle of a Wikipedia binge, although I’d counter it’s more like someone getting their information from Uncyclopedia, the anarchic and irreverent spoof of Wikipedia. HyperNormalisation repeats some dubious claims, and frequently explains complicated ideas in staggering brevity. I don’t want to turn this piece into an extensive fact checking of this film, but a couple of things that stood out for me because I’ve looked into them before include the claim that the Iranian regime used zealous children to clear minefields with their own bodies as part of ‘human wave’ attacks during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The evidence for this is at best unclear, with very few primary sources to support it and some evidence that this idea was originally propagated as anti-Iranian war propaganda. Curtis trots it out however as if it were undisputed fact. Even as he often appears to criticise other thinkers and figures for promoting simplistic grand narratives which serve their own ends, it’s notable how little space there is in his own narrative for shades of grey, ambiguity, or self-reflection. Normally one would hardly expect footnotes in a documentary film, but in HyperNormalisation and the director’s other films they start to feel rather vital, and the lack of them problematic. Given that Curtis maintains a blog on the BBC site he has the perfect platform to expand on these omissions and provide sources for his claims, if he so wished.

One last example of this comes even in the film’s title, adapted from writing by a ‘soviet writer’ (apparently Alexei Yurchak, for some reason unnamed by Curtis in the film, perhaps because that description of him seems again rather disingenuous). Yurchak emigrated to the United States in 1990 as a graduate student and later wrote that the late Soviet experience was one of an uncanny or hyper normal reality, where everything was clearly going wrong, but where this was hidden under the guise of a functioning state. Yurchak’s argument is again a little more complicated than this, and still by no means the definitive account of life in the late Soviet Union. By coincidence I’m currently mid-way through reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time, an epic oral history of the period from a Russian perspective, which makes it clear how generalised Curtis’s claims about the views and feelings of Soviet Union’s people often are. Generalisation feels like the order of the day however, and HyperNormalisation frequently declares that entire groups of people felt the same way, invariably confused, disillusioned, frightened, etc. This jars most noticeably when you realise the groups he’s referring to include you, the viewer, and you know that you felt nothing of what he is describing. These examples might seem like small things, but when a near three hour film is built so heavily on these sorts of claims, it starts to make you wonder how far the entire edifice of HyperNormalisation is built on misconstrued information. Much like contemporary politics however the narrative moves on so quickly, bombarding you with new imagery, names, and ideas before you have time to think that what you’ve just seen is perhaps less straightforward and interconnected than the film wants to suggest.

Curtis’s raiding of the BBC archives for intriguing footage is one of the things that makes his films distinctive, a strategy resulting in visually compelling collage documentary style which juxtaposes the fascinating, strange and disturbing. It’s can be a source of frustration though for anyone trying to pay close attention, as this footage often has little to do with what’s being discussed and can feel more intended to paper over the numerous argumentative leaps in HyperNormalisation (for an interesting experiment just listen to the film’s narrative while ignoring the images and see how compelling you find it). Sometimes the juxtapositions are funny, occasionally clever, but often just a bit crass. A blending of grainy video recordings of the execution of the Ceausescus with clips from a Jane Fonda workout video in order to illustrate the death of collective faith in ideology and the rise of a superficial individualism is a little of all of these things. I also can’t help but think Curtis’s inability to resist a good bit of footage also somewhat accounts for the film’s flabby length. Chris Applegate’s Adam Curtis Bingo gives you a good of what to expect, all the familiar tropes are here, from moody aerial footage of massive cities, to footage of people dancing, to more pointless raiding of Andrei Tarkovsky’s back catalogue. In terms of the latter Curtis does the same thing he did in his previous film Bitter Lake, exploiting a clip of a key plot twist towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker for the benefit of his own film, in the process basically gutting Stalker of one of its most powerful moments, ruining it anyone who hasn’t seen it. He also pushes a reading of the film which fits the HyperNormalisation narrative to a tee, but which anyone who knows Tarkovsky’s films and writing will probably find jarringly mechanistic.

Curtis’s films are often hit and miss when it comes to endings, which partly accounts for his (frankly unforgivable) use of the climax of Tarkovsky’s Solaris to end Bitter Lake. Unlike a traditional documentary, which you might expect to mount towards some sort of concluding argument, HyperNormalisation just seems to end, much like one of Curtis’s jarring mid-sequence cuts. The film peters out with a mixture of typically weird footage, including the prom sequence from Carrie and a clip of three young girls dancing badly in a backyard. It feels a bit like Curtis has run out steam and browser tabs, realised that it’s 3am and that he has to be up early for work in the morning. Like his other films HyperNormalisation is a strange, even contradictory beast, on the one hand speaking the language of a sort of concerned left wing radicalism at the same time that its tone and conclusions are oddly nihilistic. On the one hand employing some very traditional aspects of documentary, while at the same time being a sort of oddly anti-documentary documentary. In these ways and more they are fitting works for a post-truth era, because in a way they are themselves prone to the same tendencies of simplification, obfuscation or in some cases I suspect outright inaccuracy. Curtis’s desire to connect together the complex networks that define our world is a valid and extremely interesting ambition, but it feels as if he’s all too ready to water down these ideas in order to build what can start to feel like the left wing equivalent of Loose Change, a massive, compelling pseudo-conspiracy which on closer inspection is not so tightly argued or evidenced as it first seems. Curtis’s defenders will argue that his valid points justify his sometimes invalid means, but that argument is itself so post-truth I find it incredible to hear intelligent people suggest it. Can’t one precisely imagine someone like Trump or Putin saying something similar? I know my cause is just, so what does it matter what means I employ to achieve it? As HyperNormalisation reveals, the means matter entirely as much as the end, because ultimately the choice of any particular means can entirely shift the nature of the end.

The Corrupting Image: Pornography and Propaganda


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.