Europe’s Vicarious Victimhood: World Press Photo 2015

auvdllistpcc4naen4pm

A Syrian man carries the body of a child, killed in an air strike by government forces in Douma, Syria
© Abd Doumany

It takes time to change old edifices, whether that change be a restoration to a former glory or a gradual crumbling to dust. World Press Photo currently seems to currently be undergoing something of a transformation, but it is yet unclear how far this change will go, and to what extent it will either rejuvenate or reduce the organisation’s relevance to photojournalism. Many of the old problems which have tended to rear their heads each year seem to being gradually dealt with, but others remain, including I would say the very obvious issue of the prize’s Eurocentrism. Coverage of the refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe featured prominently this year, a fact which is not surprising in itself since there is a tendency with all such prizes and competitions to reward work which feels timely, and which engages with a topic resting heavy on the minds of both audiences and jurors. This year however it has occurred on a scale I’m not sure I have seen previously in the (short) time I have been engaged with photojournalism. Beyond Warren Richardson’s winning photograph already discussed here in depth, other photographers focusing on the crisis rewarded with recognition included Sergey Ponomarev, General News, first prize stories, Paul Hansen, General News, second prize singles, Matic Zorman, People, first prize singles, Bulent Kilic, Spot News, third prize stories, Francesco Zizola, Contemporary Issues, second prize stories and Dario Mitidieri, People, third prize singles.

Yet what seemed noticeably absent among the winners were photographs of the conflict in Syria, which is often articulated (rightly or not) as the driving force behind these current waves of forced migration. As far as I could tell there were only two exceptions, Abd Doumany’s photograph of a man carrying a child’s body from the remains of a building after a government airstrike on the city of Douma, which won General News, second prize stories, and Mauricio Lima’s photograph of a badly wounded ISIS fighter being treated by a doctor at a Kurdish hospital in northern Syria, which won General News, first prize singles. (You well also might argue that Dario Mitidieri’s photograph, taken in a Lebanese refugee camp, is the real exception amongst all of these in being from the limbo between Europe and Syria). In a brief exchange we had on Facebook, photographer Robert Stothard pointed out that the emphasis on certain aspects of a crisis and not on others is problematic, and I am want to agree. He wrote that ‘in a year where the big stories have been taking place on the doorstep of those with editorial power isn’t it a tad sad that the winner is a photograph of an unidentified family (no name let alone nationality) shot by a white bloke. Photojournalists working on the issue of immigration to Europe have a great opportunity to work towards preventing the othering of their subjects.’

In photographing the refugee crisis there are many questions to be negotiated and considered, not least about what ‘side’ we photograph from, in both senses of that word. As I noted in my original analysis of Richardson’s winning image, there is a subtext of voyeurism which is hard to escape, partly created by the compromised aesthetics of the photograph which brings to mind the smartphone photographs of the bystander or eyewitness, but also to a significant degree by the framing of the photograph from the far side of the razor wire from its subject. Aesthetic decisions are always in fact political decisions, whether the photographer intends them to be or not, because they always have the potential to be read as such. A similar issues of aesthetics and in particular perspective might be levied at many of the other photographs on the refugee crisis featured in World Press Photo, and something which is notable in many is the way they often seem to take the position of a European insider or witness, watching the arrival or transit of these people, viewing them through barriers, and so on. In relatively few is there a sense of the photographer’s perspective being the same as that of the refugees, a distinction which might seem subtle but which I think is enormously important. In photography perspectival angles help to define journalistic angles, and again these choices are almost always readable as ideological ones, whether the photographer intends them to be or not. Mid-way through last year this blog was amongst several publications which unmasked a widely reported Instagram account, which apparently belonged to a Senegalese migrant named Abou Diouf, as a fake. Whatever the many problems represented by the that account, the way those photographs gave us very much the same perspective as ‘Diouf’ was nothing if not powerful.

I used the objectionable phrase ‘engulfing Europe’ in the introduction to this piece quite intentionally, because many of the descriptions and narratives focused on the people seeking safety in Europe characterises them in a way which very clearly serves to other, and to alienate us from them. To speak only of oceanic adjectives, refugees are often described as a tide, wave or flood of humanity which is relentless and sea like, with the efforts of European governments to stem the flow as vain as King Canute’s attempts to turn back the incoming tide. In the context of this sort of language it is very easy to unintentionally dehumanise, or equally problematically to misplace victim-hood, with even sympathetic Europeans sometimes starting to talk in terms which seem to suggest that we are the true victims of a disaster, and the disaster is actually constituted in the flood of refugees themselves (a use of language which I think ties in interesting ways into our current fears about climate change). The Syrian Civil War is of course the true cataclysm, and one which European states have had no small part in fostering, whether that be in the longue durée sense of our collusion with and support of middle eastern strong men like the al-Assad’s, or in the more recent sense of our dysfunctional entry and exit from Iraq. The fallout from these misadventures are so complex and confusing even to its primary actors that we have now reached the bizarre stage of witnessing the United States effectively fight a proxy war against itself in Syria, as groups backed variously by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon face off against each other across these most indistinct of front lines.

Perhaps Syria prompts us in Europe to think of our own failings and inertia, and perhaps that, alongside the increasingly dangerous situation there for journalists, explains part of why we prefer not to be reminded of it. The attacks committed by Islamic State in Paris last autumn seemed to me to represent a brief but enormously significant moment when the war in Syria spilled out very directly into the streets of Europe. Yet rather than resulting in a wider feeling amongst Europeans that ‘Je suis Suryien’ (which of course we are not) it far more evidently led instead to a new suspicion of refugees as potential ISIS fifth columnists, another reason to deny them entry alongside the old long standing fears of migrants as cultural saboteurs and economic parasites. These fears were renewed again in the wake of the attacks on women in Cologne on New Years Eve 2015, attributed to men of North Africa or Middle Eastern descent, an event which has been not doubt hastened the gradual souring of German attitudes towards refugees, whcih was hitherto remarkably open (and still remains so, certainly compared to many other countries). The same narrative is now also rearing its ugly head in the context of the debate over a British withdrawal from the European Union where refugees and migration in general are being presented as a direct physical threat to the state, as well as an existential one. Viewpoint then shapes standpoint, and aesthetics are politics. In the context of European fragmentation, closing borders, and souring attitudes towards refugees the responsibilities and burdens of representation weigh more heavily than ever on journalists and in particular visual journalists. This is not to say that it is a prerequisite for journalists to approve of immigration or demand the protection of refugees, while many do feel this way clearly some don’t share these views. But it is to say that for those for whom this does matter, the narratives of the refugee crisis need to be rethought, and the question of where we stand and what we stand for needs to be most carefully considered.

(Critical transparency: The title of this post is adapted with permission from that of a work by Josephine Sun.)

Mute Witnesses: Pentagon Releases Detainee Abuse Photographs

Photos_previously_certified_under_the_Protected_National_Security_Documents_Act_of_2009_Redacted_Page_124

Photos_previously_certified_under_the_Protected_National_Security_Documents_Act_of_2009_Redacted_Page_124.jpg

After over a decade of legal wrangling the United States Department of Defense has finally released a tranche of nearly 200 photographs documenting the abuse of detainees during the Bush administration’s war on terror (see here for the whole set). The American Civil Liberties Union who have fought for this release since 2003 continue to push for the publication of another 1,800 images which are still being withheld. The released photographs are reported to document abuse which took place at a number of sites around Iraq and Afghanistan, and may also include photographs from locations in other countries. But what’s most noticeable about these photographs is the mute banality of so many of them. They feel very much as if they’ve been selected for how little they show and say. In many cases there is little or no visible trace of the injury that is apparently being documented, in others it looks as if there is no injury being recorded at all, and what has been released are in fact grab shots taken at other stages of the detainment process, for example on initial arrest. Almost all of the photographs are rescans of bad print outs, and have been copied or reproduced so many times that there is little information which can be gleaned from them.

The actual muteness of photographs positioned as being of great relevatory value is certainly not a new issue in photography and it’s something I often talk to students about in some depth because it has particular implications for a practice like documentary photography, which hinges so much on showing things which the camera is often actually very poorly equipped to reveal. We place expectations on photographs which we have been primed to view as evidence, expectations which often cause us to extrapolate and imagine (apt word) things that the image itself is sometimes not really able to show, or which in some circumstances it’s creator is unwilling to really reveal. Photographs are mute without some form of external context and explanation, which are noticeable in this collection of photographs for their total absence. Very few of the photographs include anything by way of explanation, and even those that do are often noticeable for their obscure and non-specific language. As a result these photographs offer frustratingly little sense of the cause of injuries, chronologies, locations, or other information which might actually shed light on the opaque system of detainment and torture which there release was intended to push further into view. In this sense I would say this release of imagery has been masterfully curated, to meet the demands of the courts, without really giving much of anything away.

The release instead only seems to shed a little light on the systems of image creation and management that operate (formally or not) within governments and their constituent agencies like militaries and intelligence organisations. They are examples of the state seeing for the state, and the way that this seeing is adjusted, filtered and censored when the time comes that we ask to see what the state has been seeing (and more importantly doing) on our behalf. They are examples of how the selection and exclusion of certain types of imagery can create meaning even in a set of images as mute as these. The visual language of the released images predominantly use the codes and conventions of crime scene investigation, the inevitable implication of this being that while bad things might have happened, photography has been used here to investigate it, the authorities are on the case, and no further disclosure is required. In this sense these images bare comparison to two less carefully managed precedents for the release of torture imagery. Self-evidently to the release of amateur photographs taken of abuse at Abu Gharib prison in 2003, photographs which have unintentionally gone to become as symbolic of the war on terror as grainy stills of attacks on 9/11, and which offer a sort of coda to that opening salvo of this most unconventional of conflicts. Perhaps less obviously though I also find myself thinking of the photographs leaked by Caesar, the Syrian military photographer who documented the deceased victims of the Syrian government’s torture program as records intended to confirm that those who had been killed were indeed dead. This is not to bluntly equate these different programs of torture and abuse, or the governments that sanctioned them, but only to note the similarities and differences in the closed circulation of imagery, and the importance of the circumstances by which they enter our view and the context they come with for the way we ultimately derive meaning from them about the things they purport to reveal.

Terrordrome: Islamic State and the Savage New Times

fullwidth.0b70575c

Videodrome

In the cult 1983 film Videodrome, Max Renn, a sleazy cable TV executive, stumbles across a mysterious signal apparently transmitting from the Far East. The station it carries consists of a video stream from a single room, where a series of people in orange smocks are tortured and murdered by black garbed executioners. As the film continues it starts to appear that Videodrome is something rather more than depraved snuff TV, it is the public representation of a mysterious group’s frightening ideology. Unperturbed, Renn sets out to track the makers of Videodrome down so he can broadcast it on his station, ironically named Civic TV. As he remarks to another executive, ‘better on TV than on the streets’. Rewatching the film recently I couldn’t help but wonder if someone on the media team for Islamic State might have been influenced by it. A flippant thought but not impossible given the film’s age and the international composition of the group. It may have just been that I was at the tail end of a long day but for a moment the parallels between the world portrayed in the film and the propaganda disseminated by Islamic State seemed irresistibly intriguing. As often happens one thought soon dissolved into another and I began to think that perhaps Videodrome is an interesting touchstone through which to think about the contemporary intersection between media technology and the extreme levels of violence employed on both sides in what the new (or perhaps really not so new) conflict between western states and so-called ‘so-called’ Islamic State.

At one point in the film a character pointedly asks Renn ‘Why would anyone watch a scum show like Videodrome?’ Why indeed. Videodrome is a chamber of horrors, a place where revulsion becomes compulsion, and compulsion becomes a deviant pleasure. Such a description will probably sound familiar to anyone who has been exposed to the ultraviolent political media of today, whether the visceral brutality of a beheading video or the flight of a guided missile as it curves gently on to a distant house or car. These things are nauseating and repel us, but they also often paradoxically draw us in and compel us to repeated viewings, as if repeated exposure to them will resolve their incomprehensibility into some meaning. This mixed inclination to watch or turn away, to view or to turn off, is in itself is nothing new. Sights of horror have always been tinged with a certain desperate fascination, the only change perhaps being in how technology allows us to view, and review these events, perhaps in the process coming closer to reaching some understanding or meaning, but I often think not.

In the pre-internet media landscape of Videodrome, the scene of violence is a discreet place, a geographically specific red walled room of torture and murder, and perhaps most tellingly it is also a cable TV studio with all the rigidity that space and technology implies. You go to the Videodrome to die, not the other way around. By contrast the Videodrome of today has started to feel rather as if it is all around us. As Europe experiences periodic attacks and conspiracies on its street, it has begun to seem as if any space might at a moment’s notice transform itself into a set piece of violence in the service of ideology. Consequently the possibility of finding oneself suddenly caught in this chamber of horrors seems in some ways more real than ever, even if for the great majority of us the likelihood of death by terrorism or war pales in significance next to so many other threats to which we pay little thought. Today’s Videodrome, or at least the sense of it’s wing-beats at your back, seems potentially ever present.

Part of the psychic preponderance of terror attacks in comparison to other threats  stems from their unpredictability and inexplicability, but also from the way these attacks are constructed in ways which lend themselves to being recorded and by passersby, who then distribute them on behalf of the perpetrators. This also is not exactly anything new, terrorism with it’s inherent asymmetry has often been about inflicting visual or psychic, not material or strategic damage. The change again perhaps lies in a change of technology, which allows even a relatively minor attack to achieve major airtime, and leads to such a state of terror that actual terrorist acts need not even occur to further perpetuate it. This is perhaps most clearly seen when new reports on even clearly unrelated crimes and disorders are often sub headed with the reassuring note that ‘the police are not treating this incident as terrorism related’ as if this diminishes the terror of someone being shot, blown up or stabbed. This pervasive sense of the potential for violence runs both ways, and in the aerial campaigns that western nations increasingly wage overseas a similar uncertainty reigns, that at any moment, any place could become a scene of a sudden destruction which is almost divine in it’s inexplicable and unanswerable quality. The aural similarity between drome, meaning a course or place for running, and drone, an informal term for the unmanned aerial vehicles known for their endurance and omnipotence, seems more than a little apt. The significant distinction is that while terror seeks visibility to magnify its effects, our violence does the opposite, more often eluding visibility.

Returning to the Videodrome, and without wanting to spoil the plot, what later emerges in the film is that the signal is is not originating from abroad at all. It is transmitting from the United States where the station has been created by a right-wing government cabal intent on hardening America for future conflict, presumably with the Soviet Union, by cleansing it of people that they believe are moral degenerates. Anyone who watches Videodrome develops a fatal brain tumour which distorts their perception of reality before eventually killing them. In this distorted reality it becomes impossible to determine what is real and what is not, the banality or absurdity of an event no longer offering any guarantee of its truth or integrity. By the end of the film Renn believes he has begun to physically transform, a VCR port has opened in his chest and his hand has fused to a gun which he uses to first kill his fellow TV executives and then the government conspirators. As Islamic State’s destabilising influence transmits ever more violently beyond the Middle East and into Europe, I would say we are being changed also, hardened by exposure to their violence and also to our own, whether we see it mediated on the screen or in Renn’s word’s ‘out on the street’. In spite of the political rhetoric, I think it’s hard to argue that terrorism isn’t changing us, or perhaps more accurately that we aren’t changing ourselves in response to it. As we become hardened, habituated to our own Videodrome signal, it seems that we collectively find it harder and harder to perceive what of this is real, and what is hallucination.

The Blind Eye and the Vision Machine

b4

The Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, North Dakota, USA.
Became operational September 1975, deactivated eight months later.

This text is based on a talk given at a symposium the London College of Communication on January 14th 2016 to mark the opening of The Forest of Things. This talk and draws together a few different ideas I’ve been thinking about over the last year around the status and place of the photograph today, and expands on some of the darker implications of algorithms and photography which I first speculated about in An All Seeing Eye. In The Forest of Things, the graduating show of the the 2015 masters degree in Photojournalism and documentary photography is at London College of Communication until January 22nd.

Empiricism, the belief that knowledge comes from direct experience, has been at the heart of western understanding for several centuries, and in turn the human eye has been at the heart of empiricism, sight valued above all other senses. The camera was conceived of as a sort of mechanical extension of that sight, which replaced some of the demands on the living eye to be physically present at an event, and which opened up knowledge which was beyond what the human eye could perceive unaided. But the camera still ultimately depended on the living eye to interpret and understand the images it produced. What I would like to somewhat provocatively suggest is not only is this is now changing towards an ever greater emphasis on the computational analysis of imagery, but that we are perhaps unwittingly also preparing the groundwork for us to be permanently locked out of the role of seeing and interpreting, whether we want this future or not.

Soon after its invention photography was readily integrated into a range of authoritarian structures. The camera satisfied the expansionist desire to know all and control all, by apparently offering us the possibility of unlimited seeing all through it’s photographs. With more time the camera of course also became part of a broader, more democratic culture, as a tool of reflection and expression. It seems a very contemporary angst that this democracy of the camera has given rise to a world where there are too many images, but it is not a new one. The Weimar cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer decried what he called the blizzard of images, and the way that this storm challenged photography’s ability to bestow meaning. Kracauer’s world was very different one from our own, a world where I would say technology and technological progress still seemed to offer the possibility of an almost omnipotent vision, an all seeing eye encapsulated in the blind stare of high technologies like the Cold War radar system featured above. Today we live in quite a different world, one which is so inundated with imagery as to make Kracauer’s blizzard of images seem like a light frost. But the fact of photography’s abundance, so often quoted, so often fretted over, is I think not nearly as interesting as the form those images take.

In Kracauer’s time the image was a material object, significant in that the image could truly be said to be a trace of the thing it recorded. Because of this materiality it was also something which was inherently visual, the photograph could be held and viewed in the hand. Today neither of these things can be said to be the case, digital technology has democratised photography and made possible an explosion in quantity, but it has also led to a more profound change in that the massive bulk of images are no longer really physical nor visual, they are alphanumeric data, pure information, inherently not visual things. I think this fact is significant insofar as it is increasingly causing photography to intersect with one of the other technologies which is defining our age, the algorithm. Photography had tended to be difficult fare for algorithms, partly because of it’s material form, no longer an issue in the digital age, but perhaps also because of it’s complexity and subjectivity. In the 1980’s, thinkers like the French philosopher Paul Virilio began to anticipate the coming of vision machines, essentially algorithms which could not only see but also understand images. Facial recognition was an early example of this, but the efforts involved were often huge and the results often crude. Today we are seeing algorithms that are ever more capable when it comes to sorting, sifting and understanding visual material, and have that material readily available in massive quantities to practice on. Up until now many of these algorithms have only been demonstrators, and appear rather like parlour tricks, more often amusingly inept than threatening. As they reach the real world their roles are for now are mostly supplementary, so far supporting people rather than supplanting them.

But even in this role these technologies pose interesting questions about the extent to which they are not only guiding and advising us, but also shaping us. As much as we feedback into and refine the algorithms we create, perhaps they are starting to do some similar to us. When man gazes into the machine, the machine gazes into man. It has been suggested that the result of algorithms playing such a prominent role in social platforms is that they are increasingly serving to shape interpersonal interactions which they have no business being involved with. In the case of dating websites it has been said that computers are now breeding people. These ideas have particularly strong implications in photography’s old stomping ground, the repressive realms of policing, intelligence gathering and warfare, major growth areas for automated technologies that reduce the intensive manpower needs of these fields, and offer to remove the personnel of the security services from harms way. Given the huge advances and investment in these areas it seems to be only a matter of time before technologies which are able to search, fix and kill without human intervention features of a battlefield somewhere. Indeed I suspect that one day we might look back at the era of piloted drones with the same sense that we now regard the early pilots of the First World War, as something which is quaintly romantic in it’s crudeness and it’s dirty violence, in contrast to the cold, distant killing of today, or tomorrow.

To return to Paul Virilio, in an interview given the same year as the publication of The Vision Machine, he spoke of reading a science fiction novel about a world where cameras had become so ubiquitous that they were now even being inseminated into flakes of snow, which were released on the world, seeing everything there was to see, and leaving no blind spots. When asked what he believed we would dream of in a world so saturated with imagery and the machines that produce them he responded that we will likely dream of being blind. What I would like to suggest to you is that perhaps we are starting to reach that point, where images dominate our world and confound our understanding so much that the thought of blindness might even start to feel like a relief. But we have also perhaps begun to move past it, and perhaps we are responding to that overwhelming feeling by starting to relinquish the task of to interpret and understand, and passing this burden on to the machines. We are allowing these algorithms a part some of the most important, powerful roles our societies have, and I’d suggest we are also starting the process of locking ourselves out, as machine vision develops in forms which are beyond our perception, as machines are built to see with technologies designed primarily for the understanding of other machines, not human eyes. Vision is no longer just mediated through technology as with traditional photography, technology is now overtaking and replacing our vision, with our partial our assent. So what I’d like to leave you with is the idea that we maybe now face a choice, between on the one hand the desire to shut down our senses to this incomprehensible storm of imagery, to delegate the role of interpretation and judgement, and on the other hand the need, the responsibility, and the burden, to see.

Picking up the Pieces

CTsS7NrU8AA87t5.png large
Map purportedly showing site of US/UK drone strike on Mohammed Emwazi.
From @Raqqa_SL

As the somewhat disjointed nature of this post will indicate, it’s been hard to process the events that took place in Paris this weekend. That in spite of the fact that such things happen with depressing regularity in cities all around the world, as they did just a day before in Beirut. The Paris attacks have hit home with many I suppose because the city is so known, so at the heart of Europe, but also for me because they coincided with the Paris Photography Festival, and so countless friends, colleagues, teachers and students were in the city at the time. Miraculously it seems at the time of writing that no one from this photography community was caught up in the violence, although that makes little difference to what remains a huge loss of life, and particularly in an age when all of us are photographers of a sort.

The maxim that if you have a hammer you’ll see everything as a nail rings true for me in the wake of these events. As a photographer my response to too many problems tends to be to ask if by photographing or otherwise visualising it I can do anything useful about it. In this case, and in spite of my belief that photographs can be a powerful force for change, the answer is a resounding no. What the attacks in Paris have reminded me of, alongside the fragility of the ordered societies we in the west take for granted, and the preciousness of human life, is how very limp the type of photography I do is. This type of  authored photography that so many had converged on the festival to see, discuss and buy feels in a moment like this to be so irrelevant, so unable to react to events as they occur, only able to pick through them long afterwards, if even that.

At the same time though the aftermath of these attacks is also already demonstrating in another sense how very important and powerful photography is, and also how dangerous it can be. Not the authored photography of artists, or even journalists, but the forms of photography which are often overlooked or looked down on by many of these people. Imagery produced by a panopoly of what are often regarded as naïve, artless or automatic sources, from bystanders on the street, forensic investigators, satellites overhead. It’s too early to know if photography played a part in the planning of these attacks, but it will certainly play its part in the analysis of the aftermath, where the scenes of the crime will be meticulously recorded using conventional and unconventional forms of photography. I expect vernacular photography also will play a part in the reconstruction of the timelines of the attacks, perhaps as it did following the Boston Marathon attacks, as the mass of imagery and video produced by bystanders is pieced back together to give a fuller image of events than the forensic still-life of a crime scene photograph can.

Photography will play a critical part in casting the perpetrators, as more images of those suspected of plotting and executing the attacks inevitably emerge. However broad or fine the net that is thrown, Muslims, Arabs, Refugees, Syrians, or young men from the deprived Parisian suburbs, the imagery that is published of those involved will play a part in shaping the way people process what has happened, integrate these events into their experience and outlook on the world, and decide which groups are henceforth to be feared, suspected, watched and, inevitably, photographed. This process of revealing the perpetrators and the choice of how to represent them is problematic for many reasons (consider how a man killed in error by the counter-terrorist police was visually treated). It’s not least problematic in that, as the photographs that have been published of British extremist Mohammed Emwazi show, one person can have many guises for the camera.

Lastly I suspect photography will play a part in the promised ‘merciless’ retribution, likely the same type of retribution already visited on Emwazi by British and American drones, which ‘evaporated’ him in a joint attack a few days before the attacks in Paris. As much as a means of understanding what feels like an increasingly frightening and confusing world, photography also helps to make that world what it is. The camera is a part of the extreme asymmetry of modern conflict, where one side blow themselves up in spectacular attacks staged partly for the media, while the other side builds the camera into the very spear tip of it’s weapons systems, into remotely operated aircraft or the nose cones of guided missiles. Photography picks up the piece, but it also plays a part in the destruction.

Review – Burden of Proof at The Photographer’s Gallery

6

Face-skull superimposition of Josef Mengele.
Richard Helmer

Recent years have seen the evidential limitations of photography thoroughly investigated, indeed almost to the point of exhaustion. I don’t mean that in the sense that we have run out of examples of apparently evidential photography which might under inspection reveal themselves to be highly suspect, there are still plenty of these. Rather I mean that as a photography consuming culture I think we are increasingly tired of hearing from a succession of experts that this thing we all have vested so much belief in is, in reality, something of a sham. Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence which has just opened at The Photographers Gallery offers a wonderfully balanced assessment of the complications of using photographs as evidence. It reveals that while photographic evidence might be highly constructed, ambiguous, selective and often far from incontrovertible (what evidence isn’t?), the evidential roles that photography fulfills in our society remain for the most part too important for us to reject them outright..

The first gallery consists primarily of archival imagery from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, starting with the remarkable ‘God’s eye view’ photographs made using a system developed by the 19th century criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. In these images the camera appears to hover almost unsupported directly above the bodies of the deceased, the wide angle lens causing the wider crime scene in the periphery of the frames to curve away and disappear into a soft blur. Despite these images showing bodies which have been ravaged by violence and decomposition they are still irresistibly beautiful in a way it is hard to imagine anyone finding the starkly functional forensic photography of today. Other works in this gallery include the first photographs of the Turin Shroud (the ‘first forensic photograph’ later revealed as a medieval fake) and photographs taken of victims of Stalinist purges before their execution, an intriguing example of how a piece evidence produced for one purpose can later be turned around and reformed as evidence against it’s maker.

The second gallery opens with archive footage filmed at liberated German concentration camps by Allied cameramen who were issued highly specific instructions about how they were to film the unimaginable scenes they encountered (perhaps not unlike those guidelines by which police forensic investigators work today). Strangely though these guidelines were drawn up by the director John Ford, an auteur now most synonymous with the western, a genre of fantasy which are so often taken as fact. Such was the perceived importance of this footage to the Nuremburg trials that the court room was reconstructed around the cinema screen which took the position normally afforded to the judge, and neon lighting was reported to cast a ghoulish light across the faces of the accused. Hardly an objective arrangement.

Several of the works in this gallery are presented as part of research by Eyal Weizman who directs Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture Centre. In one piece a series of mid-century British aerial photographs of what is now Israel are probed for evidence of ancient cemeteries which would lend legitimacy to the claims of nomads who were forced from their lands in the wake of the 1947 partition. Given the limited resolution of the film used and the height that these photographs were taken at, these tiny graves lie at what Weizman terms the threshold of detectability, and are perceptible only as single grains of silver in the photographic emulsion. This level of detail proved too precise or contestable for the Israeli state which rejected the claim of the nomads.

The works in Burden of Proof are all taken from real world investigations, and refreshingly there is hardly an ‘artist’ in sight with the exception of Susan Meiselas who helped to photograph the excavation of a mass grave from the anti-Kurdish Anfal campaign. In spite of this many of the works on display still manage to have an artistic patina about them, partly I suppose a result of the rather lavish production of the exhibition, partly a result of the way consciously non-artistic aesthetics have permeated into contemporary art practice, but also mostly just because of the curious ability of photography to remould itself to the different circumstances in which it is seen.

Another contribution from Weizman highlights this pretty well. It examines the forensic investigation to determine whether a body found in Brazil was that of Josef Mengele, the Todesengel or Angel of Death who presided over exterminations and human experimentation at Auschwitz. As part of this investigation pioneering new techniques were developed which allowed superimposition of an archive image of the deceased over a video feed of the exhumed skull. In the resulting images Mengele’s leering face emerges out of and dissolves back into his skull in a way with far more emotional resonance than a forensic science experiment might be expected to permit. Even with this compelling visual evidence, the identity of the skull remained contested until it was later possible to undertake DNA testing, which confirmed that it was indeed Mengele’s.

I think it’s worth noting that the Burden of Proof underwent a name change in it’s transition from Le Bal in Paris where it was first staged under titled Images of Conviction, to it’s new form at the Photographers Gallery. I find the new title highly suggestive, as the original one is although perhaps in different ways than it might have been to it’s French audiences. The burden in this case is the burden of knowing all too well about photography’s limitations, its biases and selectivities, and of using it anyway. The burden falls on us as viewer, to equip ourselves with the knowledge to understand what a photograph is and how it works and how it dosen’t. The burden is one of faith as much as evidence, and the onus is on us to question our convictions and perhaps most difficult of all, to determine the threshold of our own belief in photography.

Travelling Light: What Refugees Couldn’t Leave Behind

Iman+textKiki Streitberger, Travelling Light

Last year saw still life come very much to the fore as a documentary method, as it featured prominently in the coverage of many of the major events of the year. We saw it used by a number of photographers in Ukraine to document the vicious weapons brought to bear by both sides fighting in Kiev’s Independence Square, and later also to record the opulent possessions of the deposed president Yanukovych. In Nigeria we saw it very effectively used to stand in for the abducted Chibok school girls, their meagre possessions appearing to speak volumes about their absent owners.

With European attention firmly focused on the migrants and refugees seeking to travel here it was perhaps only a matter of time before a project emerged that used a similar technique to discuss this issue. Kiki Streitberger’s Travelling Light does so, and does so very powerfully. The series which has recently been on show as part of the University of Westminister’s MA degree show was the result of a chance meeting with a Syrian man in a German village. This led Streitberger to ask a series of Syrian refugees to show her the objects that they had either considered too important to leave behind, or which they had acquired and kept with them during the lengthy and dangerous journey to Europe.

Certainly there are other projects which done similar things, for example Brian Sokol’s project The Most Important Things, but I think there are a few significant elements that distinguish Streitberger’s project. For one thing it’s visually purely about the objects, their owners are not physically present. However Streitberger also interviews each person and includes a short text explaining the significance of their selected objects, a text which is incorporated directly in to the image rather than included as a caption (a not insignificant choice given the way images about topics like migration are prone to being stripped of their captions and context before being circulated in potentially harmful ways).

By interviewing but not photographing her subjects, Travelling Light avoids what I think is often a pitfall of photography about humanitarian crises, which is the tendency to reduce real people to mute, two dimensional representations of a problem. It gives Streitberger’s subjects their anonymity (an important thing which photographers all too often entice subjects to give up), while not curtailing their ability to speak more or less directly to the audience. This strategy also avoids one of the key issues for me with some still life documentary photography, which is that the objects photographed are often left unexplained and completely open for us to project our own interpretations on to, to ascribe an almost relic like significance to things which might actually have actually mattered very little to their owners.

The people who participated in Travelling Light are also a diverse group, which in itself bucks the common media depiction of migrants and refugees as aggressive young men seeking wealth at Europe’s expense (as if one person’s gain must inevitably mean that somewhere, someone else is losing out). Shahed is 5 years old and her possessions consist solely of a pink doll called Aia and a tube of sun cream. Ahmad, 22 is a stonemason, and his possessions include a shirt bought from a store of the Spanish fashion chain Zara in Libya, both effective reminders that the differences between Europe and these unstable states are not always so massive as we like to tell ourselves.

One thing that I find particularly pertinent about the work is the way it plays on but simultaneously sidesteps the essentially forensic feel of so much still life photography. Seeing these possessions laid out against a clean white background inevitably conjures images of crime scene photography, like the disinterred possessions of Bosnian atrocity victims photographed by Zijah Gafic, or the last outfits of El Salvadorian victims of criminal violence as photographed by Fred Ramos. By contrast though the owners of the possessions in Streitberger’s photographs are obviously very much alive. This dissonance had the effect, at least for me, of displacing my thoughts instead to the ones who didn’t make it to Europe, the thousands estimated to have drowned this year alone during the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, whose scant possessions are perhaps still floating in the currents. Knowing how man made detritus often floats on the seas for years or decades, it’s hard not to imagine these intimate items one day washing up on the same beaches that their owners were so desperate to reach.

 

New Project – War Primer 3: Revised Edition

War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (16)

To mark sixty years since the original publication of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel I have drastically revised and updated my 2013 book War Primer 3, and republished it as a new e-edition.

War Primer 3 is a reworking of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2 itself a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel. In this unique examination of war and photography first published in 1955, Brecht sought to extract the hidden meanings behind images of conflict through a series of short poems modeled on the funerial epigrams of the ancient world.

Broomberg and Chanarin in turn updated Brecht’s book by introducing images from the War on Terror, each intended to resonate with Brecht’s original text. While in some respects brilliant, in other ways Broomberg and Chanarin’s follow up was also deeply problematic. I felt particularly uncomfortable with the book’s existence as an expensive, editioned art object, and the use of uncredited, unpaid workers in its production, things which seemed difficult to reconcile with Brecht’s politics.

In response to these concerns, and in the spirit of Brecht’s playful invocation not to ‘start with the good old things but the bad new ones’ I reworked Broomberg and Chanarin’s book into a work primer, a meditation on inequality, labour and capital. By restructuring the book around the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Reads History, and adding new images and text, I sought to produce a small tribute to the unacknowledged workers who keep the engines of the world turning.

Producing this new revised edition has involved completely re-photographing a copy of War Primer 2 and using these images to build up a new, high resolution version of War Primer 3. Many of the spreads have been redesigned in the process, with different images used in order to explore the subject of inequality in more depth, and with more nuance. The e-book also includes a comparative section showing the evolution of War Primer across its three versions, and also a selection of essays on the project.

You can now download the e-book of War Primer 3 here.

You can also download a press release about War Primer 3 here.

  War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (18) War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (20)War Primer 3 book by Lewis Bush (17)

Blurred Borders: On Mixing Conflict and Fiction

IMG_20150102_231209

Instagram photograph purporting to show the firing of a BM-21 Grad
multiple rocket launcher by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, from VV.

My recent writing on Instagram and the potential power of photography as advocacy has led me to revisit a particularly unresolved project of mine. The work, named VV, has never seen the light of day simply because I couldn’t find a way to publish the work that seemed responsible. Disphotic’s recent exposure of an Instagram account which purported to be the work of a Senegalese migrant (but which was in fact a marketing campaign) led me to subsequently argue that the value of advocacy or attention raising for a topic like migration is partly linked to the means by which you try to raise that attention. An irresponsible campaign like the fake migrant account, I argued, might do enough damage to undo any benefit that might have been derived from it, and this was much the same problem that I faced with my project VV.

Another things that brought me back to VV was recently being asked to write about Karl Burke’s work Harvest of Death 2.0 for the British Journal of Photography. For this work Burke takes screen-shots of deaths in a video game, and then re-photographs these screen-shots using the collodion wet plate process, producing images reminiscent of the early battlefield photography produced by the likes of Roger Fenton and Alexander Gardner during the Crimean War and American Civil War. Burke cleverly manages to sidestep some of the ethical dilemmas of such an approach through his use of a historic process, which means that even if these photographs were to be taken at face value, the vintage of the events they appear to depict defuses some of the more dangerous confusion that could potentially result.

Like Burke I have been interested for some time in the way the mass media, and particularly entertainment media, shape public attitudes towards violence, and in particular inter-state violence. Because conflict between states is invariably carried out through the proxy of their citizens, in democracies these conflicts require a relatively high level of public support. How this is manufactured is of great interest to me. In 2012 I explored this in a project by juxtaposing fetishistic ‘official’ photographs of Vietnam era weaponry with photographs of the violent wounds caused by those very same weapons. These were two sets of photographs, produced by the same institution, but given very different public exposure for obvious reasons. Combining them seemed to me to reunite two sides of a coin. This project became part of an exhibition I co-curated with Monica Alcazar-Duarte and which explored the wider role of media in the Vietnam War.

These were ideas I wanted to explore further, and development of VV actually began in the autumn of 2013, before the start of the conflict in Ukraine. However the invasion of Crimea seemed to me to give the project additional purpose. I was intrigued by the way this opening episode of the conflict had been so extensively recorded on Instagram. Many Crimean residents took photographs of themselves with the invading Russian soldiers, and these photographs were widely republished in the media. Few of those republishing these images picked up in the ambiguities that many of them held, just tending to assume that they demonstrated that the Crimean people were quite happy to be occupied, when some of these photographs suggested very much otherwise.

VV was meant to blend some of these disparate ideas. Ideas about the subjectivities of the photography, the assumptions we make about images based on the context we find them in, and the prejudices and expectations we harbour about particular subjects. I used Instagram to photograph a fictionalised narrative set in the context of the war in Ukraine. The series of photographs I created recounted in fragmented form the life and death of a fighter on the pro-Russian side, showing the war from his perspective first as a civilian surrounded by escalating violence, then as a new recruit to the conflict, through a battle and finally to his implied death.

One key detail though was that these images were arguably not really photographs at all. Like Burke would later and quite independently do, I had been photographing a computer screen as I played my way through a video game. Years earlier I had come across a prominent case where a British television channel had accidental aired video filmed in a computer game, treating it as genuine film footage of an IRA attack on a British helicopter (viewable here, with the video game footage starting at 0.36). Given how far computer graphics had improved in the intervening years (and assuming tolerance for accepting bad quality photography as evidence had increased as well) I was interested to see if such a thing could be repeated on purpose.

The pixelation and interpolation introduced by a mid-range camera phone proved perfect at covering the details that might give a video game scene away as such, and the added effects of Instagram completed the effect when occasionally needed. The final photographs fooled most people I showed them to (including a class of my students, several editors and an experienced war photographer). I quickly realised that people were generally willing to accept what I showed them at face value, and that relatively few questioned the contents or the images or how I had come across this remarkable account. Those few photographs people expressed misgivings about were easily discarded, leaving a set of photographs so blurred, grainy, pixelated and saturated that it was hard to find enough clues in them to make the judgement that they were fake.

At the same time I tried to make sure my subterfuge was laden with clues that would give away what was taking place to anyone who really cared to check. My protagonist shared his name with a prominent Russian folk hero renowned for his treacherous behaviour in the service of the Russian state. With the help of a Russian speaking friend I replaced place names and other nouns in the narrative with incongruous Russian words intended to hint at the idea of trickery, manipulation, media, imagery and propaganda. Even the Russian name of the project implied a double meaning, suggesting both a war of nebulous enemies, and a war of uncertain and untrustworthy images.

VV did everything I wanted it to, but to just release the work and see what happened seemed dangerous at a time when there was so much misinformation around the conflict. It was all too easy to imagine an image like the one above being seized on by either side in the conflict as evidence of the other’s indiscriminate conduct. This problem only became more acute after the downing of flight MH17, and the ensuing battle to apportion blame, one waged in part with photographs. After more than a year of searching for an anwser I just couldn’t find a solution to this problem and so I shelved the project. David Campbell made the interesting point that being a journalist is not so much about where you draw your salary from, but also from the set of ethics and practices you ascribe to, and what you will and won’t do. As the discussion around the Instagram migrant reveals, we all live by a different code of ethics and for some jobbing journalists (and marketeers) this ethical benchmark falls much lower than for others who sometimes don’t even carry a press card.

I desperately wanted to produce a project that would have the same reach as the Instagram Migrant account has had. I wanted to show people how dangerous and deceptive the photographs they encountered online could be, and I wanted to equip people with a set of basic critical tools they could employ when approaching images (a project I’m still working on, and which at least might still see the light of day). But I could find no way to publish this work in a way that I could live with. And so the answer was simple, I simply didn’t.

Magna Errata at The Alternative Magna Carta Festival

Lewis Bush (1)

GCHQ Bude listening post, Cornwall

At the start of last month I made a call for submissions of work dealing with human rights and civil liberties in the United Kingdom. The response has been really interesting and as a result of it work by seven photographers including will be on display next weekend at the Alternative Magna Carta Festival in Clerkenwell. The concept of the exhibition was to curate something which ran counter to the conventional celebrations of Magna Carta as a source of modern liberties, and which instead would draw attention to the ways that those liberties have been eroded or sidetracked, particularly in the wake of the War on Terror, and the start of what has been termed the ‘Age of Austerity’.

Magna Errata (or ‘Great Errors’) features projects dealing with a diverse array of rights and civil liberties in contemporary Britain. From detention without trial, to mass surveillance. From food insecurity to curtailments of the right to protest. For my contribution I’ve produced a small project which is a direct follow on from my current work about covert intelligence radio stations. This new work uses satellite imaging to map the physical infrastructure of the British surveillance state. From the golf ball-like domes of Menwith Hill’s massive eavesdropping base to the underground bunker where submarine data cables are tapped for data, these sites are the frontline of the erosion of privacy in the UK.

More information about the festival can be found through it’s website.