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 )https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/a-visual-glossary/ (accessed 19th June 2016)
[6] Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 http://collection.whitney.org/object/29487 (accessed 19th June 2016)
[7] The Elephant In The Room: New report on UK media ownership http://www.mediareform.org.uk/media-ownership/the-elephant-in-the-room (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 http://www.businessinsider.com/how-many-docs-did-snowden-take-2013-12?IR=T (accessed 22nd June 2016)

Post-Truth Documentary: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation

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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

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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.

Highlights and Trends: Unseen Photo Fair 2016

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Hoopla 2016
Clare-Strand / LhGWR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Women’s Work: A Dialogue with Max Houghton

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 Dickey Chapelle taking photos on the shores of Lake Michigan during a U.S. Marines operation in 1959. (from Flickr)

Photographers seem ever more aware of the representational responsibilities which comes with their craft, but the question of who is actually doing this representing remains just as important as who is being represented and how. In a field like documentary photography this question becomes particularly essential, if only because it’s unrealistic to expect an adequate reflection of the world in all its messy complexity, when privileged, white, western men remain so often the ones taking the photographs and defining the terms of representation, dissemination, and so many other things. The gender gap in photography has come into ever greater focus in recent years, with some great initiatives launched to address it. At the same time these modes of address, for example gender specific exhibitions, themselves invite scrutiny, and need to meet with a discussion about the extent to which they do actually help to resolve the issues they intend to address, and or whether they sometimes inadvertently create different problems. Being that I am pretty much the definition of a privileged, white, western man, these are topics which I don’t feel entirely comfortable holding forth on in the usual monologue that typifies pieces on this site. Because of that and also because one of my ongoing aims is to involve other voices in this blog, I thought it would be interesting to address some of these concerns in the form of a dialogue with someone interested in many of the same questions. Enter Max Houghton, writer, senior lecturer on MA photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication and (transparency) a colleague of mine.

Max, it might seem like an obvious question but perhaps you could start by saying a little about how this topic first became of importance to you, was there a particular moment of awakening or just an ongoing sense of photography as a field marked by a gender divide?

I used to edit 8 magazine, a photography biannual, with Lauren Heinz. It’s fair to say that after we went to Perpignan for the first time – in the mid-2000s – we could be in no doubt that certain parts of le monde photographique were indisputably male. I thought it was inevitable and quite funny. At first. We didn’t positively discriminate in terms of subsequent magazine content thereafter – we never considered it – but we did get excited when we found people like Rena Effendi, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Dana Popa, Newsha Tavakolian and Lourdes Basoli, for example, and featured them in the magazine or at Host gallery. Vanessa Winship, Susan Meiselas and Jane Hilton were always on our radar, and greatly admired. Interestingly, when I interviewed them, they were all incredibly low-key about their contributions to photography. They talked profoundly about their work and the people they photographed, about ethics, about mystery, but not about themselves.

Fiona Rogers, who worked across the road at Magnum, set up Firecracker, as a platform for female photographers, which seemed like such an obvious and incredibly important thing to do. I went to an earlyish debate on the subject of Women in Photography in Brighton and noticed a divide between ‘celebrating’ women and ‘fighting for’ women – it was predominantly a difference of tone. I realised I believed in both things. When Fiona asked me to curate a month for Firecracker, I set myself a brief to find work that only a woman could make. This was not Firecracker’s remit but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Why else would I select work based on gender only? I chose work by a former student of mine, Samar Hazboun (a graduate of MA Photojournalism at the University of Westminster). Samar had gained access to a women’s shelter in her native Palestine, which offered some respite for women who had suffered gender-based violence. Despite the refuge offered, the shelter itself was run within the confines of a deeply patriarchal society, so the women living there were to all intents and purposes imprisoned, and treated as shameful beings.

Choosing this work seems fundamental now to why I think it is important to discuss women in photography. It’s not really because of how women are treated within the – vast and unwieldy – industry, which encompasses the media, the art world, the photo studio, fashion etc etc, but how women are treated in the world. Of course one is not separate from the other. And while women in the UK alone are being murdered at the rate of two per week by their intimate partners (source: refuge.org), it’s necessary to look at how women are treated by men, and what kind of a society permits that. Photography is a very powerful tool of communication. That doesn’t mean I only champion work about the very worst -case scenarios (though actually, I would be most interested to see more work on subjects such as intimate partner violence, rape, low-self esteem). I think it’s a question of balance. I want all these essential subjects to be made visible but at the same time, I want to look at ways in which women do resist the patriarchy in all its forms, often with such wit. Virginia Woolf’s use of photographs in her anti-war book Three Guineas is a good place to start. I was going to apologise for the long answer, but I deleted it because I know this is something women (generalisation alert) are prone to doing.

Whenever the question of gender in photography comes up I often hear (invariably male) photographers argue that yes photography is in some respects still very male dominated, but women are actually well represented in the industry in terms of roles like curators, editors, and so forth. This might be true, but there is another issue here in that these roles often seem to be seen by people as potentially powerful but actually not particularly creative and essentially subsidiary to the ‘real’ job of going out into the world and taking photographs. I wonder whether you see a similar delineation of work in the industry between ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ and if you do whether that is in some respects that is tied to a sense of the status of these roles, or perhaps something else?

I agree up to a point. We have a set up a wonderful service industry around male artists; there are lots of models that show this: the gallery, the magazine, the museum. Women are extremely well represented within the industry in the roles you mention, and also in academia. And yes, I guess there’s a certain amount of power, or, at least, cachet, or, at the very least, respect for such roles. But they are admin heavy. They involve doing lots of things for other people and with other people; a form of midwifery, perhaps. At the heart of these roles is caring very deeply about someone else’s work and wanting to find a way to make other people care about it too. Editing and curating are very rewarding and creative – and collaborative – practices. However, I find men feel more entitled to make their own work, and also are freer to make it, both domestically and financially. They are free to roam alone, in all sorts of ways. Women seem to find more success within institutions, where their roles are clearly delineated. The role of a photographer following stories, or ideas, seems a huge privilege and one that very often demands being out of the home. This disrupts patterns, which, even for those of us who reject them, structure society. As de Beauvoir tells us, it’s not that the woman is naturally secondary, but that society has made her so. And women, unlike other oppressed groups, are not a minority; nor are we a minority within photography. But the opportunities are different. It’s absolutely essential that we make way for female photographers and visual artists; otherwise, we keep seeing repeated male visions of the world, and come to believe it as a truth. Imagine if war had only ever been photographed by women.

I think we both recognize a gender imbalance in photography then, my next question would be how to answer it. Women only exhibitions seem to be a popular strategy at the moment, but I must admit it’s a response I have misgivings about. I feel split in that on one level I think it is worth championing and celebrating any identity, simply for the sake of it, but on the other hand I also feel these exhibitions sometimes serve more to marginalise the work on show as a sort of special interest or charity case, mere ‘women’s work’ as you said when we first discussed this, rather than validating the work as legitimate and interesting beyond the gender of its creator. I felt the 2013 exhibition Home Truths at the Photographer’s Gallery was a good example of another approach. Being about motherhood, female photographers and perspectives were dominant in the show, (if I recall correctly there were two male photographers, which I think was a nice reversal of the ‘token woman syndrome’ we often see on photography panels). Gender wasn’t directly advertised as part of the rationale for the show, even though it was clearly a major part of what was being discussed. To me this approach seems to work more effectively, but I wonder what your feelings are on this?

Yes, I agree, it was a very smart curation by Susan Bright and an important show for The Photographers’ Gallery to host too. I have to be careful what I say here, as I am co-writing, with Fiona Rogers, a book on contemporary female photographers, which I hope will put a very bright spotlight on a large number of women all at once, and it will be very obvious they are force to be reckoned with. It’s a way of ensuring women are part of the future history of photography. I would certainly like to see an exhibition that featured only female photographers because they had represented the theme of the show in the most exciting and innovative ways, and, ideally, that theme would not be one specific to women (though it could be). Positive discrimination is a method that is used in the workplace to redress imbalances – as far as I understand it, it means in practice that if two candidates offer similar skills, the one that has been historically disadvantaged would be given the job. That makes sense.

I think the way in which male photographers seem to be able to build their reputations – in part by having more self-confidence, and the subtle ways in which traditional male discourse is self-affirming – makes it more likely that opportunities come their way. This is of course self-perpetuating. I am very interested in the fact that more and more people are identifying as gender-fluid, not least because these millennia-old binaries are having to be rethought. I really like that the lack of gender certainty in my chosen name means I am probably read more often as a male voice than a female one.

I am more interested in the eye that makes the photograph, and what it has seen, than the body that hosts that eye – the mind’s eye is something different altogether. It’s not men or male photographers who are a problem, but a masculine and patriarchal discourse that goes unquestioned and dominates. I’m happy for shows, books, and whole festivals – like the nation-wide Signals festival, curated by Val Williams in 1994 – to be for women only, but at heart, it’s about a way of seeing. It’s essential for men to see that seeing too.

Embracing gender fluidity or ambiguity is an interesting answer to these problems. Like you it’s something I have a little experience of as for a long time I went by my middle name which is Kay, originally a Victorian boy’s name but now almost always assumed to be a girl’s name. People’s reactions were always interesting to say the least. I rather like the idea of a group of people disrupting the rather binary gender roles of the photography world with their ambiguous names! But I think your last point touches on an important, related issue, the wider male awkwardness about associating with feminism or self-describing as feminist. I think to end I should ask whether there are things you think photographers themselves can, or should do to address the problems we’ve been discussing?

Very much like the name Kay. It’s pretty hard to keep your gender quiet in the age of the picture byline, but I agree, there is some fun to be had.  I think men can put their awkwardness aside if they behave as people committed to equality. They don’t need to wear t-shirts – hello Benedict Cumberbatch, Nick Clegg – but make sure that any any power they wield – some of which originates from their gender alone – is fairly (re)distributed, acknowledges the largely relational role of women in society, and actively tries to find ways to champion what we can term women’s work. That needs to happen in so many ways – especially in relation to childcare, ‘domestic’ violence, pornography and women in prison, for starters – and also in relation to how we as a society define what can be considered art. If anyone is unsure what the answer is to ‘Are you a feminist?’, it’s ‘Of course, it’s a political necessity.’ And if a man can’t say that and mean it, then I hope he does feel awkward.

I have found a couple of examples of female expression exceptionally moving recently – one is Beyonce’s nuanced articulation of love, jealousy, infidelity and pain on her visual album Lemonade. If you listen carefully, she is exposing herself as vulnerable and strong, which I find much more affecting than an astonishing display of girl-power. The other is Kim Cattrall on Woman’s Hour, ostensibly talking about insomnia, but making such perceptive points about (among other things) being a woman ‘without a husband’. We don’t usually hear such candid voices, which, for me anyway, articulate in different ways the experience of being female, in a society set up to venerate its men, and in which women – black women, older women, gay women, single women – women – are marginalised, automatically.

But I am straying from the question … perhaps. What can photographers do? To state the obvious, how people are pictured plays an enormous role in how they are seen. So photographers who photograph women need to think about that, and not just how they are seen, but if they are seen, and where they are seen, and by whom (these further questions are necessarily addressed to editors and curators too). I think we should all think twice about giving the same people the big prizes and ever bigger shows; we must challenge the status quo. Photographic educators can question the canon, and add to it, when they find it wanting. We can champion the work of contemporary female photographers, so their work becomes part of future history. Freud is often criticised for not being able to answer his question ‘What does a Women Want?’ but at least he asked, and at least he spent much of his career trying to find out. I think the whole industry can listen better to what is being said by women, or what is not being said but should be. The whole Women in Photography movement is in full swing at the moment – it’s lively, it’s witty and it’s inclusive – feminist never meant separatist, though it has been perceived as such. It’s the best party in town and everyone’s invited.

Welcome to Panoptica

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

In this Friday, May 6, 2016 photo, Iranian migrant Reda Ehsan, 25, lies on a table
at the former prison of De Koepel in Haarlem, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Photographs are just abstract marks, distortions of tone and colour. But our ability to recognise things in these patterns is remarkable, as is the ability these recognitions have to mould and shape the ways we think about certain things, and act on them. I’ve never been fully convinced by the idea of image fatigue or the dearth of compassion which is sometimes said to result from such images. I remain unconvinced by the popular claim that exposure to photographs can’t change us, and in process perhaps also change the world in however slight a way. In the context of Europe’s recent refugee crisis it seems that regardless of how many thousands of images I see I still find these events distressing, exhaustingly so, but not yet to the extent of fatigue, and not yet to the point that these images instead of fueling my sense of anger instead extinguish it. Something always gets me, there always remains that capacity for some small detail to penetrate whatever emotional or intellectual armour I might have constructed, and manages to stop me dead. When that happens the moment and source is always unexpected as it was last week when I saw the photography above by Muhammed Muheisen from a wider series which can be seen here.

Muheisen’s photograph shows an asylum seeker named Reda Ehsan recumbent on a table in the middle of a cavernous space. His pose is one I’ve seen a thousand times before in western paintings, where it most often used with a nude female subject to transmits an air of exotic passivity and it seems apt that Ehsan is from Iran, source of many an orientalist fantasy. The tone here is quite a different one though, although related. Muheisen’s photograph has an air of exhausted lethargy, of inertia and uncertanity, the same feelings conveyed in many of the massive number of press photographs taken of the recent European refugee crisis. An air of profound exhaustion is evident for example in this year’s World Press Photo winning image by Warren Richardson even at the same time as being a dramatically dynamic image. The repetition of this set of emotional tropes in the context of the crisis and whether it is intended to speak to the physical exhaustion of refugees or the alleged psychic exhaustion of European audiences could be the subject of an article in its own right, but that is not my focus here (and I think it is important to note that other images in Muheisen’s series do not play to these tendencies). No, what hit me about this particular image though was less the subject and his pose and the messages those things are calculated to send but rather the distinctive space that Ehsan occupies. The tiered walkways and identical doorways behind him makes clear this is an institution, specifically a prison and by no means a modern one. The photograph it transpires is part of a series on asylum seekers housed in prisons which thanks to Holland’s falling crime rate are no longer needed for their original purpose. Twelve institutions in the country have reportedly been turned to this purpose, and according to the article which accompanies the photographs they are ‘so transformed that they are barely recognizable as former places of involuntary detention’.

But this is not just any prison. For anyone even moderately versed in the architecture of incarceration or theories of surveillance the gently curving walls behind Ehsan’s recumbent form speak deafeningly of an architectural technology which continues to loom large, two centuries after it’s rather stuttering entry into the world. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon or ‘Inspection House’ was a concieved as a radical new model of control, a building constructed with total surveillance in mind, and which employed the unique sensation of being surveiled to modify behaviour in ways which only violence and physical restraint had previously seemed able to. The Pantopticon didn’t see realisation in the English philosopher’s lifetime despite Bentham’s considerable efforts, and no true Panopticon was ever built in Britain, but in the two centuries since his death Bentham’s notion of an architectural technology which permits total observation of it’s occupants has come (usefully and not) to inform almost all conversations about surveillance and control. The prison pictured in Muheisen’s photographs is Koepel in Harlem, designed by the prison architect WC Metzelaar and constructed from 1899 to 1901, it was the final of three such Koepelgevangenis or ‘dome prisons’ built in Holland during the period and was clearly inspired by some of Bentham’s ideas. Today the prison is no longer a true Panopticon, if indeed it ever was by Bentham’s quite specific definition of the term. The inspection tower shown in early photographs standing in the centre of the space is gone, although the red inner circle of the sports court directly above Ehsan’s recumbent form mark the spot where it might well have stood, an unintended architectural fingerprint lingering in the present. In any case, and as many post-Panopticonism have argued, the moderating sight of the inspection tower is no longer needed by many of us in the societies and spaces for which it was originally conceived. It has been internalised and replaced as it has been by persistent and pervasive forms of social and electronic surveillance, forms of observation which far better meet Bentham’s original description of the Panopticon as way ‘of obtaining power of mind over mind’.

The act of housing asylum seekers in a disused Panopticon is undoubtedly a pragmatic one by the Dutch government, with different accommodations reportedly being made for anyone who might find it traumatic to have escaped one set of cells in their homeland only to find themselves housed in another set in Europe. But the unintended, unspoken message of employing such a building for such a purpose also seems inescapable, as much a gesture of European feeling towards refugees as the sight of Germans cheering their arrival. In so much recent discourse Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, and in some cases Muslim communities as a whole, are described in terms which characterise them as potential fifth columns of extremist ideology and violence. Even moderate commentators across the continent are buying into these troublesome notions of guilt by association, with the logic that however innocent most in these communities might be, hidden amongst their number might lurk infiltrators from ISIS or other groups, intent on carrying out attacks like those in Paris and Brussels (it is perhaps here worth reminding ourselves that both attacks were perpetrated in the most by EU citizens and long term residents of the continent, not newly arrived refugees). One of the many arguments in the British debate about whether to leave the EU stems from whether European rules on immigration make us vulnerable to such attacks, and in recent months the British government has also ramped up it’s ridiculous Prevent program, which asks teachers and others to report on students they suspect of harbouring radical sympathies in what which some academics have compared to the enforced collaborations between East German university lecturers and the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi. Housing asylum seekers in a structure like this seems to me like a form of atmospheric acclimatisation or adjustment for these new arrivals, a setting of the tone for things to come. The message it seems so perfectly to send is that we think we know what you are, or what you might be. Know that you are suspected, that you are being watched, and should we allow you to stay here, and however well you integrate, so it will remain. Welcome to free Europe, welcome to Panoptica.

History in the Making: Palmyra’s World Tour

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The reconstruction of the arch nears completion in Trafalgar Square.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A replica of Palymra’s Arch of Triumph has just been unveiled in London. The original was constructed by the Roman Empire and was believed to be over two millennia old by the time it was dynamited by Islamic State in late 2015. The group were later driven out of the site by Syrian government forces. The replica arch which now stands in London’s Trafalgar Square was engineered by the Institute of Digital Archaeology who created a digital model from photographs of the original, before having a replica made in Italy, where it was machine tooled from Egyptian marble by a robotic cutting arm. This new arch will soon go on to tour to other cities including Dubai and New York. “Antiquities like this belong to all mankind and it is imperative that we all strive to safeguard our common heritage,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson as he unveiled the recreation, apparently oblivious to the distinction between a genuine relic and its copy.

Photography is evidently mixed up in this recreation in very practical ways, as the means by which the arch has been so meticulously reconstructed. But photography also offers a model for the way we think about the relationship between original things and their copies. A photograph is not a window on another world, as some people like to think, nor increasingly even is it a trace of the thing it depicts. Photography is a pattern of tones and colours, and whether it be an analog print or a digital upload to Instagram the image lives far less in the medium itself than in our minds. The same one might say is true of history and it’s traces. In Phillip K Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, the plot revolves in part around an inflated market for icons of Americana, driven by the rapacious collecting of the Japanese soldiers who have occupied the country. In response an industry of fakes has arisen, with artisans producing items like wild west style pistols, carefully aged, but completely inauthentic. Everyone knows that these items are fake, including the collectors who pay huge sums for them, but no one has the will to speak this truth out loud. I feel something similar here.

The reconstruction of the arch has been questioned by some as a rather hollow act, a Disneyland attempt at history, and certainly for me the recreation of the arch calls to mind the underwhelming Stonehenge used as a stageset by the fictional rockband Spinal Tap. Others have criticised it as downright unethical. Martin Makinson from the Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology rightly highlights the politically contested nature of these sites and points to the way that the reoccupation of sites like Palmyra has become a way for the Assad government to reclaim a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of some in the west, even as it continues to torture and kill its own citizens. Any attempt to willfully recreate history says as much as an attempt to willfully destroy it and so the recreation is undeniably political, and attempt to pretend otherwise is disindigenous. The understated photograph above by Stefan Rousseau hints at this in the way it uses a section of the arch to frame Nelson’s Column, a victory monument in it’s own right, and in the distance the looming clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. One might say the same of attempts to occupy or colonise certain sections of the past, whether that occupation is undertaken by the descendants of the people who built what is being colonised, or it is done by foreigners acting in the name of humanity at large.

In this sense one might say that we are doing something not entirely dissimilar to what the Assad regime has done in making the rescue of Palmyra from Islamic State a military objective. In erecting and celebrating this arch in London, we are asserting our cultural credentials in an attempt to show that we are doing something tangible in response to this terrible and protracted war. The destruction of cultural artifacts is something most in the west can comfortably express outrage over, even if doing so just rather awkwardly reveals the gulf between our horror at the destruction of these irreplaceable ancient monuments, and an enduring indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people, every one of those people is just as irreplaceable. A particularly memorable chapter in Vassily Grossman’s Second World War epic Life and Fate consists of Grossman describing at length the absolute impossibility of constructing a computer which could think and feel as even the most average human being is able to. He then imagines the excitement that such a machine would engender among the techno-fetishistic German armies then ploughing their way across the Soviet Union. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the unbearable irony these people who would hail as miraculous a machine which could muster even a poor imitation of a human mind were actively exterminating millions of people.

Raising this arch of triumph also reflects a certain inability to remember recent history of our own, for example when our tanks rolled over ancient archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the American military set up a base on the site of what had been the ancient city of Bablylon damaging it enormously in the process. For me this amnesia rather poses the question of whether either of the two are worse; people who willfully destroy ancient monuments and culture because of an overdeveloped sense of what those objects represent, or those who destroy them because of the opposite, out of a sheer ignorance of their importance. There is needless to say also a certain irony in erecting this arch in London, one of the prime marketplaces for looted antiquities smuggled out of conflict zones like Syria, and a city with so many museums containing artifacts that are much more directly the spoils of state aggression and imperialism. Touring the arch to the art superpowers of Dubai and New York would seem to only underline this.

In contrast to the rhetoric of ‘great men’, true history isn’t something which can be made. History is something which accretes, congeals, weathers, falls apart and gets blown up, and which almost always has on it the traces of those who lived it, a deficit all the more apparent in the case of this copy because it has not been even been sculpted by contemporary human hands but by a machine. History is also a finite and naturally accruing resource, not something which can be synthesized or manufactured, and imagining that one can simply replace the past when it can no longer be put back together represents a terrible misunderstanding of what history is and how it relates to the present. It’s a misunderstanding not so unrelated to the conception of the present that imagines that things like drone bombing campaigns can recorrect our past foreign police mistakes, and which refuses to consider that these new innovations are in Marx’s famous words an example of history repeating itself (as tragedy in the case of the drone campaigns, perhaps as farce in the case of London’s paltry Arch of Triumph).

One wonders what future arcs of triumph will mark the War on Terror and the wider misadventures of the past two decades. In pondering this, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the Roman historian Tacitus. In writing his epic Agricola around the same time that Palmyra’s original arch was constructed Tacitus referenced the Scottish chieftain Calgacus and attributed to him one of the most remarkable speeches against Rome or any empire, one made all the astonishing because these bitter words were in fact almost certainly not those of the soon to be defeated Celt, but rather those of Tacitus himself, a Roman citizen. ‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.’

Spiking the War Primer

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War Primer 3

This piece is an adapted version of a talk I gave at Helsinki Photomedia 2016 on the theme of materialities, and in my talk looking specifically thinking about how elements like material form contribute to the reading and meaning of photographic projects published as books. Over time I’ve become more and more interested in the politics of images, and I’ve found it’s often useful to think about photographs in terms of their having something of a metaphorical genetic code which might be mapped like an organisms genome and then sort of read for insights which can guide the way those images are treated and used. In the real world a genetic code is something we are all born with, but exposure to the environment causes that code to periodically change and mutate, in ways which might become a beneficial evolution or which might prove to be a fatal cancer. I’m interested in the way that different stages in the life of an image might do something similar, mutating the image’s base genetic code in ways which accent or even completely change the genetic code of the image. I’m speaking in metaphor here, but with digital imagery the idea of a photograph having a genetic code clearly becomes much more concrete.

One example of these mutational changes maybe is the context of your encounter with image, the situation you first see an image in (whether gallery, book, magazine, etc.) and the material qualities of the image in that encounter, whether it is printed, projected on a screen, or something else. You might take the example of how the presentation of forensic images in an exhibition like The Burden of Proof already prefigures how you understand these photographs, before any further context is provided for them. A second example is what the photograph actually shows, and perhaps just importantly how it shows that thing. Thirdly, going right going back to even before the ‘birth’ of the image, the technology that creates it is important to it’s politics if you feel as I do that the circumstances of any technologies creation become an irreducible part of it. For an example, the fact that contemporary civllian mapping satelites are the direct descendents of optical surveillance satelites is not something which can be separated from the images they produce, nor is the fact that the rockets that launch them are the direct descendents of rockets intended to flatten cities. These things all impart important elements of the genetic code of any image which results from them.

This will all probably seem very obvious to some people reading this, and in many ways it is obvious, but I think it’s those obvious things you can easily forget to include in the equation. Engaging with the politics of how images are made and disseminated is valuable because if you work in appropriative way as I sometimes do, or in a way which is commenting on the production and circulation of images, as I also try to do, this offers a way to identify how powerful images might be, at the risk of horribly mixing my metaphors, defused or ‘spiked’. For the uninitiated spiking is a method of sabotage once used to disable heavy cannons in wartime. It involves simply hammering a small pin into the channel which is used to light the main charge, thereby rendering a huge cannon is as good as useless with a piece of metal not more substantial than a nail. I’m drawn to the grace of this image of sabotage and this is more or less what I have sometimes attempted to do in my work as a photographer, to take a perhaps rather dangerous form of imagery developed, created or employed by powerful interests and to try to find a way to twist or subvert that visually in a way which turns that power back against the original owners and creators. I wouldn’t say I’ve always done it successfully, but that’s one of the consistent aims I have when I make work.

And so an example of where I’ve attempted to do this is with my book War Primer 3. This is an appropriation of an appropriation of an appropriation, where each level of appropriation mutates the physical form of the book to say and do quite different things. The first iteration of this was Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, the name given to the 1998 English edition of his 1955 book Kriegsfibel. This is a fascinating, creative and at times very moving analysis of the deceptive qualities of press imagery particularly in the context of war and politics. In essence it’s also a way of slipping semiotics in through the back door, and teaching people that press photographs can’t be trusted as objective information. The teaching element is also evident in the name primer, which implies a children’s textbook, and the physical form of the original version of the book very much plays to that. It is a mass produced, affordable and essential work. From a photography perspective what I think is really interesting about War Primer is that Brecht is sort of employing similar strategies to those that make his plays so compelling, primarily the idea of alienating an audience, showing them the cracks in the narrative and the medium sued to create that narrative, and in the proccess hinting at the arbritariness of reality, and the idea that reality is not a fixed thing but something we shape by our actions as individuals and societies.

The second iteration of the book is Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2. Again a fascinating work, the duo build on Brecht’s book by adding new photographs over his originals. This new images are intended to resonate with Brecht’s original poems and critically they all relate (more or less) to the global war on terror. In effect the duo thereby make the argument that many of the issues of censorship, propaganda and manipulation that frustrated Brecht remain present today, albeit by making a somewhat dubious equation between the Second World War and the War on Terror. More problematically for me, the method of production involved in the book turns it in to an unattainable art object. Even more problematic was the use of interns to produce the work. As with Brecht’s original I think there is a form of alienation taking place here, but it is less the alienation of Brecht’s epic theatre and more the alienation of Marx’s critique of capitalism, i.e the alienation of a workforce from control, profit or credit of their labour. I should say at this point I’m not a Marxist, my relationship with theory is much more that if something as resonances for what is happening in the world it is useful, and I think that’s the case here.

And so finally we come to my version, War Primer 3, which in turn appropriates Broomberg and Chanarin’s book and updates it into a piece about the global economic conflict that is capitalism, and which highlights various examples of the fallout from that. It does this by combining images of economic inequality and disaster with the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Readers History, which is very much a eulogy to the forgotten workers, soldiers and slaves of his history. One imagines interns might have featured in it as well. But besides these interventions a very important part of reworking the book was to return it to a material form closer to Brecht’s original intentions to make a book which was mass produced and everyday, like a child’s school book. Given the material resources available to me the only logical solution seemed to be to disseminate the work online as a PDF, so that’s the form it took. A physical book of War Primer 3 exists which served as the base for making the PDF, but the physical book is not the book, the PDF is. And I think an unintended but quite pleasing consequence of that is that when you search for War Primer or War Primer 2, my book appears scattered about the results. So while I haven’t perhaps nullified all of the things in it’s predecessor which I perceive as problematic, and while War Primer 3 also undoubtedly introduces problems of it’s own, it has for me been one of the better successes for me in terms of appraising the politics of images and then using that knowledge and a material form to try and spike them.

Sorry is the Hardest Word: Terrorism and Refugees

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Fedja Grulovic / Reuters

Roland Barthes wrote of the punctum, that thing in the stadium of the photograph that pricks you, and makes the image personal. In a time when such massive numbers of images are produced of the mundane and day to day (to say nothing of exceptional events) his idea perhaps needs refiguring. At the risk of mauling a beautiful conception of the proccess of reading photographs, one might also think beyond individual images, and speak also of a stadium of all the images produced in response to an event, the galleries, tweets, statuses, and more encountered in the moments and hours after an attack and the cumulative effect they have, might be thought of in contrast to the single image amongst those many, the image which pricks, stops you in your tracks, and lingers on your mind.

With the terror attacks in Brussels photographs with the same sadly familiar tropes emerged, in the vast quantity we have come to expect in a time of mass camera ownership. Images of bloodied victims and shattered buildings, smoke rising in the sky, heavily armed soldiers examining the damage with detachment of one professional inspecting the work of another. Not surprisingly many of these images were reminiscent of previous attacks in other cities, stills and video showing people fleeing through the tunnels from the Maalbeek Station attack calling to mind very similar images from the London terror attacks in 2007. Other images had a local twist to them, not least the staggering multi-culturalism of Brussels on show in many of the photographs, a reminder that even in an age of globalized terror, mass communication and cultural homogenisation, small national differences still have the potential to momentarily jar.

Amongst all these photographs for me the one which really pricked was one taken over a thousand miles away from the bombings. The image above by Fedja Grulovic was taken in the Greek village of idomeni. This border settlement of 150 permanent residents has become a holding point for refugees waiting to cross the closed border into Macedonia, in effect becoming a new Calais for a new Continent as the consequences of the closure of borders across the continent ripple closer and closer to the edges of Europe. The culmination of that ripple will probably be the deal currently being threshed out between the EU and the Turkish government to end migration into Europe completely, an agreement being made despite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s effective abandonment of many of the democratic tenets the EU is supposed to pride itself on. Estimates for the number of refugees waiting at Idomeni range as high as 12,000, the camp has been compared to a modern Dachau, and yesterday two of the refugees self-immolated in protest at conditions there, although unsurprisingly given the timing and subject matter that event made few headlines.

Grulovic’s photograph, taken at a refugee protest against the closed border, shows a young boy holding a sign which reads ‘sorry for Brussels’ with the last word dripping with childishly drawn blood. The idea of this boy expressing this sentiment over an event occuring thousands of miles away in a city which is the seat of the European Union is made all the more painful by the background behind him. On show is the biblical chaos one would expect in a Hollywood recreation of a refugee camp or transit point, with a great number of exhausted faces looking up from the ground. They are towered over by a man with a megaphone, who may be leading the refugee’s protest but in the context of this image acts instead as a visual shorthand for the ineffective disaster management that has typified the humanitarian crisis on Europe’s borders and within them. On the boy’s arm is a bandage with a bloom of red that echoes the blood on the sign, although it is unclear if this is a real wound, or a sort of black armband worn in tribute. In a sense of course it could and perhaps should be read as both.

‘Sorry’ is a difficult word, a context specific one even by the standards of a confusing language like English. I say sorry when I hear that a friend of yours I didn’t know has recently passed away, I express sympathy. Being English I say sorry when someone has done something to irritate me, I express annoyance, I am sorry I have had this encounter. I also of course say sorry to express regret at my actions, I apologise for my conduct. In the west we sometimes ask Muslims to say sorry for the actions of their violent co-religionists, which seems reasonable only so long as the rest of us are willing to apologise for the conduct of these people as our co-human beings. The boy’s sign is of course most likely intended as an expression of sympathy, tinged by the knowledge that these attacks will likely lead to a hardening and harshening of European attitudes towards refugees. It might also be read though as an expression of regret, of apology. ISIS attacks in Europe are understood at least to be partially intended to stem the flow of refugees from their territories, who are feared as fifth columnists, cuckoos, enemies within. And so increasingly we shun them. We often tell ourselves that while terror is incapable of a millitary victory against democratic nation states, and that the only possibility of true defeat is would be if in the face of this threat we abandon the essential tenets that define us. Humanitarianism, democracy, diversity, empathy. In the context of ISIS, and other threats like a resurgent Russia seemingly intent on bringing the EU to it’s knees, and seeking to do so in part by undermining the continents unity and sense of self, remaining true to these ideas remains more essential than ever, and yet as the deal being made with Turkey indicates, we are selling out wholesale. Reading that boy’s sign, and looking at the chaos behind him, it’s really hard not to feel that we are the ones who might owe him an apology.