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.

Why Teach Photography?

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Colored school at Anthoston, Kentucky
Lewis Hine, 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Exhibition and Book Making Resource

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Machine shop in the Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
c. 1909 – 1932

It might seem to rather fly in the face of what image making is now, but more often than not photography still ends up finally as a physical thing, whether as a book, an exhibition or something else. When this happens the extent to which the idea in a photographers head is realised in physical form is heavily dependent on the quality and variety of the firms that provide the paper, print the pages, bind the books, make the prints, mount them, and so forth. Both because I want to help support the companies that make it possible for us to do these things, and because I want to make life easier for photographers searching for the right firm to make their ideas into reality, I’ve been compiling a list of companies that might be useful for photographers. These range from paper merchants, to binderies, to fine art and business card printers, to film processors and camera repair firms. Alongside these I’ve also been updating my existing list of fee free grants, competitions and residencies and reproducing both as a rather more convenient embedded spreadsheet.

Originally I envisaged this new list as a resource for my BA and MA students, who often experience a mad flurry in the last stages of their studies to find firms able to produce the projects they’ve been labouring on over the previous months or years. Each year the teaching staff suggest this or that place as and when students come to us with requests or ideas, but I’ve long felt there ought to be a better way of doing this. Although the original idea was as an educational resource ass I’ve gradually worked on this list and shared it with incrementally larger groups of people, it’s also become clear to me that it would be a useful thing to many more established photographers. The list itself also benefits from this wider sharing since it very much depends on public contributions, you can see how for now, it has a very British bias and also tends towards the conventionally photographic (I would like add more firms offering esoteric services). So consider it a form of karmic contract. If you use this list, if you benefit from it, suggest a few additions in return.

On a more general note, as I’ve shown this to more people the response I’ve increasingly had is ‘how generous of you to compile this’. While it’s obviously nice to hear this I don’t see this project as particularly generous as all, this resource benefits me in my own work as much as it does anyone else. What I think that exclamation is more indicative of it how generally ungenerous and stingy the photography community can be, the way we often hold our knowledge close to our chests and can be really mean about sharing it with one another. The old idea that where one person benefits another most suffer some sort of deficit seems to remain a dearly held one in the photography world. So as much as being a useful resource I also hope this list is an example to resist this sort of meanness, and to embrace that idea that in helping others in the industry you more often than not end up benefiting yourself.

View the exhibition and book resource here.

View the competition and grant list here.

 

The Corrupting Image: Pornography and Propaganda

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Glitched Islamic State propaganda (Lewis Bush)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing the Drone War Home

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A camera mounted on a drone which belongs to ISIS, shot down by Iraqi security forces outside Fallujah AP (source)

In a globalised world nothing exists in isolation, and it has often been observed that whenever a country engages in an overseas conflict, something of the nature of that conflict often returns with the men and women who have fought there. In his book on the Soviet-Afghan war, the journalist Artyom Borovik described how Russian soldiers returned to the Soviet Union not only laden with contraband and psychological disorders, but he argued they also carried something far more insidious. Pondering the consequences of the war, Borovik wrote that ‘it’s difficult to determine exactly what we managed to teach Afghanistan. It is relatively easy however to assess Afghanistan’s effect on the Soviet people who worked and fought there. With a mere wave of [Soviet premier] Brezhnev’s elderly hand, they were thrown into a country where bribery, corruption, profiteering, and drugs were no less common than the long lines in Soviet stores.’ When the Afghan war began the Soviet Union was already a dying project, a body politic in the image of it’s ailing and elderly leadership. However the influence of Afghanistan, Borovik argued, was like a secondary infection in an already terminal patient.

The idea that the war returns in unexpected ways with the people who fight it is probably no less true of today’s conflicts, even if in some respects these wars are very different. As I wrote last week, the military hardware and tactics which are being brought to bear on the streets of US cities in response to protests like Black Lives Matter will all call to mind images of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq for which many of these technologies were originally developed and manufactured. Under the Excess Property or 1033 Program, the US government routinely dispenses surplus military equipment around the country for use by police forces, with materiel worth $449 million reallocated under this program in 2013 alone. There is much to suggest that the availability of something makes its use appealing in order to justify the fact that it has been made available in the first place, the explosion in the deployment of SWAT teams since the 1980’s would seem like an apt example. It is harder of course to argue the case that these conflicts have influenced a mind-set which produces police brutality, but there is certainly an observed tendency towards former soldiers entering law enforcement. Convincingly evidenced (much less empirical) estimates are hard to find, I’ve read anecdotal claims which suggest between a quarter and a half of US police officers have a recent military background. Whether those experiences contribute towards a higher propensity towards violence is also hard to say, one piece I read claimed that 75% of former soldiers applying to police forces are rejected in part because of issues with attitude.

Aside from the high powered sniper rifles and mine resistant vehicles deployed in US cities (both of which would likely have been familiar to Borovik during his time in Afghanistan) many of today’s conflicts are typified by a new type of weapon, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones. The United States wasn’t by any means the originator of this technology but it has been one of its most enthusiastic proponents, successive governments recognising in drones an opportunity to avoid politically toxic military casualties. What I’ve often thought is interesting about the US drone program is less its, for now, rather exceptional scale and scope but rather the likelihood that it will serve (indeed already is serving) as a model on which other countries and armed groups develop their own drone programs. The fact that groups like ISIS are deploying crude homemade drones like the one pictured above for purposes like reconnaissance and artillery spotting in locations like Iraq is not coincidence. This extends beyond pure technology and into the legal and moral consequences of drone use. With the United State’s drone programs making such extensive use of legal loopholes, and so devoid of accountability, this sets a precedent for other countries and organisations who might follow suite.

Finally, beyond the influence of US drones on overseas battlefields, what interests me is the possibility with this technology that there exists something of the same capacity to ‘bring the war back home’ that one might expect in a conventional conflict. Last week Micah Xavier Johnson, who was suspected of having shot and killed five Dallas police officers, was himself killed by an explosive device attached to the manipulator arm of a police bomb disposal robot. Citing the danger of tackling the suspect conventionally, the police instead employed a robot conventionally used for disarming explosives, in other words intend to save and preserve life, in order to kill someone. There are precedents for this in Iraq, with soldiers anecdotally using a multipurpose remote controlled robot known as a MARCbot mounted with an anti-personnel mine to investigate suspected ambush locations and sometimes even to kill. The leap from employing this tactic in an active conflict to a law enforcement situation is huge, and while the domestic arming of a bomb disposal robot is for now an isolated, improvised incident, so too have been many such precedents which later become the norm, including of course the military drone program itself. When more and more of the US fleet of armed and unarmed drones start to reach retirement or battlefield obsolescence, it will be interesting to see in what new roles they might start to find back on the home front.