‘We Clean History’: Thoughts on Another Crimea

KOY201407070021

Russian officers run to the Nakhimov square to take part in a rehearsal for the May 9th Victory Day parade in Sevastopol. May 6th 2014. Yuri Kozyrev/Another Crimea

I recently reread Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty, a commanding account of the role of war correspondents from the 1854 Crimean War through until the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The book brilliantly charts the successes of correspondents in revealing some of the worst excesses of war, but also is acute in arguing that at least as often correspondents have willingly or unwittingly been co-opted into sustaining, legitimising or smoke screening indefensible events. Finishing the book, it occurred to me how well it could do with updating to include some of the conflicts since 2003, including the secretive drone wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and perhaps coming full circle back to Crimea with it’s annexation by Russian forces in 2013. This thought drew me back to something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time, Another Crimea, an ‘unprecedented documentary art project’ which expansively offers to show viewers ‘the dawn of the peninsula and its people’s new old chapter beyond all political and ideological barriers’. Jorg Colberg first flagged Another Crimea back in June in the context of a discussion about manipulation and verification, and I want to pick up where he left off and discuss it in more depth.

Another Crimea brings together six photographers from the prominent photographic agencies Noor, VII and Magnum. The photographers (Christopher Morris, Francesco Zizola, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Olivia Arthur, Pep Bonet and Yuri Kozyrev) each produced a documentary photo series, or in one case a film, in the region over ten days in summer 2014, and these are featured on Another Crimea’s website alongside a behind-the-scenes video for each photographer with a narration and explanation of their project. For a sampling of the projects, Francesco Zizola’s contribution consists of rephotographs of Crimean war photographs, ranging from Fenton’s The Valley of the Shadow of Death to less well known historic images by Russian photographers. Olivia Arthur’s project follows three families, one Russian, one Ukrainian and one Tatar, reflecting on the diverse makeup of the peninsula. Pep Bonet’s film reflects on the region’s history, in particular the legacy of the Second World War Siege of Sebastopol. ‘We are cleaners, we clean the history, we make it shining’ says Alexander, a historian who identifies war graves, and one of the people interviewed by Bonet. The individual photography projects are competently executed, but in the way they are framed by the broader project and it’s copious avoidance of key questions about Crimea’s annexation by Russian in 2013 it is hard not to feel even after a superficial look that what one is viewing is problematic.

The deeper one gets into the Another Crimea website the more the sense grows that this is not just a pro-Russian take on Crimea but might be even more problematic, indeed that it might be directly aligned to support Kremlin policy. Certainly that seems to be the view of many of the photographers interviewed for one piece about the project, one calling the photographers involved in the project ‘useful idiots’ and suggesting they have been dragged into participating in the continuing propaganda war over the future of Crimea. Some basic research dosen’t do much to counter this. Russian Reporter the magazine behind the project routinely selects Putin and his favourites for it’s annual ‘person of the year’ award and has been accused of misrepresenting the Wikileaks cables in a way designed to support Russian foreign policy objectives, while not reporting cables which paint Russian leaders or their allies in a negative light. The magazine is owned by the Ekspert Publishing House, which is in turn owned by oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who despite having had something of a rocky ride with the Kremlin in the past is today often described as a close ally of Putin’s. It took me perhaps ten minutes to research this information, which makes me wonder whether the agencies and photographers did the same when first presented with this project, and if they found what I found, then why they decided to participate in it anyway. While it’s hardly damning evidence, it does suggest that the publishers behind the project might not be exactly neutral, which given the sensitivities of the peninsula casts a shadow over Another Crimea as a documentary project.

The Russian state’s use of the media has been much discussed in our own press, and it is often described as a core part of the Kremlin’s overall strategy for projecting power and influence around the globe in the post-Cold War era. Thinking back to the annexation of Crimea itself, Russia appeared to employ a range of media strategies as part of the campaign including an online disinformation campaign, the employment of soldiers without identifying insignia, and to some extent also capitalised on spontaneous events like the selfies taken by some Crimean residents with the soldiers. The ensuing conflict in the east of Ukraine has equally been marked by a furious information war, particularly around key events like the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014. There is also much to be written about the use of government funded broadcasters like Russia Today to sow disinformation, counter-narratives and outright conspiracy theories. So close indeed is the connection between the Kremlin’s employment of hard and soft power that the approach has increasingly been dubbed ‘hybrid warfare’ for the way it blends traditional military force with black operations, cyber attacks, and propaganda. Whether you adopt this catchy buzz phrase (after all hasn’t war always involved these things to some degree?) or not, events of the last few years suggest it has been an effective strategy both for smoke screening overt military actions, and for generating a sense of inertia and confusion in the countries that might otherwise try to counteract Russian actions.

As Knightley repeatedly demonstrates in his book, there is always the possibility of a journalist subverting a managed opportunity in order to create a result which is quite different from what those in charge want to produce. We’ve seen this done with varying degrees of success in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to the military practice of embedding. Tim Hetherington’s series Infidel remains for me one of the most effective examples of this, even if it also at the same time demonstrates very clearly the inherent limitations on even the most conscientious photographer working within these confines. It’s also worth of course stating that documentary photography has often been co-opted as a medium of propaganda in the past, and depending on how far you stretch that term some of the most celebrated documentary projects of the last century would meet the definition. In the case of Another Crimea I sensed the six projects were well intentioned but suffered from similar issues, an uncritical one sidedness masquerading as documentary distance and objectivity. Arthur’s work is maybe the one that comes closest to offering a counter-narrative to Another Crimea‘s own counter-narrative, and I feel it’s also worth noting that she appears to be the only one of the six photographers who actually features the work the resulted from the project on her own photography site. She also does so with an introduction which unambiguously frames the work in terms of the Russian annexation of the Crimea (in a way which the series isn’t framed on the main Another Crimea site).

So to end, what does this potential co-option mean for documentary photography? I would flag three things. Firstly, it suggests that a hitherto unexpected consequence of shrinking economy for this type of documentary photography is that when offers of work do come along perhaps photographers are less inclined to look closely at who is paying for them. The lesson here is clear, we need to be as or even more questioning of who is commissioning us in financially meager times as we might be in more bountiful seasons. Secondly I think it is worth noting that in the context of documentary as propaganda what is attractive to commissioners might no longer be the photography at all. Perhaps conscious of the negative light that broadcasters like Russia Today are seen in the west, commissioning unrelated external organisations with a reputation for independence established over many uears could be a very effective way for governments to launder propaganda into what appears to be documentary or news, and at the same time offers a ready-made audience into the bargain. Again the lesson is that these organisations run the risk of losing this credibility very quickly if they fail to vet who they take commissions from. Thirdly and finally, that if like Knightley you see journalism and by association documentary photography as ‘the first draft of history’ then it’s co-option and manipulation as a tool of governmental persuasion and policy promotion is something we all need to be very worried about. If documentary photography is to retain its currency and purpose in what (to use a Putinesque turn of phrase) is often described as a ‘post-truth’ world then it to remain above all else highly critical, and fiercely independent.

Disorder belies Construction: The Selection of Prix Pictet

prix pictet nominators disphotic

A scan of the list of international selectors
for Prix Pictet’s Disorder, recently on show at Somerset house

My slide into teaching has thrown other areas of my practice out of their usual order and at the moment I find myself often only making it to an exhibition in the closing weeks or days of its run. This is not much good for reviewing, but then I did say at the start of the year I was going to do less of that anyway. So this piece should proceed with the caveat that it is not a review of an exhibition exactly, but more of a deconstruction of one from a very particular angle. The exhibition in question is the recent Prix Pictet shortlist at Somerset House, a collection of works by twelve photographers, brought together under the theme of ‘Disorder’. These have been selected from a long-list of over 700, nominated by an international pool of selectors, before the final selection was made by an ‘independent jury’ (although seeing as it includes a former managing partner of the Pictet bank, that independence is a matter for debate). What I want to discuss here is the way that this prize, like any other, is about selections, selections within selections and selections by selections, all more or less consciously directed to achieving a specific end which is only partially about photography. While I cite Prix Pictet as my exemplar, I think similar tendencies are noticeable in every major sponsored prize, and I charge you to look for them the time you go to an exhibition of say, the Deustche Borse or Taylor Wessing Prize, and see if you can’t detect similar things at work.

I’ve often spoken and written on this blog about what I consider to be the uncomfortable relationship between corporate interests and the arts. In particular I’ve tried to persuade that the sponsorship deals between large companies and major photography prizes, particularly prizes with a documentary component, deserve much more scrutiny than they usually get. In particular they require consideration of the ways that this relationship might impact our understanding of what type of issues, and what kind of photographic handling of those issues, are deserving of our attention and thought. When I visited the Prix Pictet on the final day of it’s run at Somerset House these questions of selection resurfaced in the content, form and even the very structure of the exhibition. The most obvious example of this is simply the type of work which makes up the shortlist. The Prix Pictet as in other sponsored prizes studiously avoids projects which engage on any level with the sponsor’s area of activities. Despite the theme of ‘Disorder’ there is no work here which even comes close to engaging with the recent financial crisis, surely the great global disorder of the last decade. This of course isn’t that much of a surprise, while I’ve said before that it would be great to see work like Mark Curran’s or Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s featured in the shortlist for a prize sponsored by a private bank, I am a realist.

More interesting than the obvious exclusion of these sorts of explicitly critical works is how this avoidance of these kinds of topics runs down to quite a subtle level. I found it interesting for example that Maxim Dondyuk’s series Culture of the Confrontation on the Euromaidan protests was shortlisted and not say, Donald Weber and Arthur Bondar’s Barricades works on the same topic. Could that perhaps be because a portion of the latter work focuses on the corruption and disorder of the government of former president Viktor Yanukovych, and might shed uncomfortable light on allegations of his systematic siphoning of state funds into private bank accounts in Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein? It’s possible. What is interesting and somewhat impenetrable are the reasons for these absences and omissions, whether a form of passive self-censorship by nominators and jury, or something more overt and organised. Without seeing the process from the inside all one can really do is to speculate.

In any case, and as I suggested at the start of this piece, the inclusion, or non-inclusion of particular works and topics is important because the implication of any artistic shortlist or selection is that what is here is the best, the most interesting, the most significant on a theme. By so carefully avoiding work which engages (whether overtly or not) with the issue of capitalism and it’s attendant inequalities, this shortlist manages to transmit the subtext that the dysfunction of capitalism and it’s institutions is not really worth considering as a form of disorder, and is perhaps not even really worth considering at all. The implication instead for a viewer is that here what you see brought together are the essential disorders of our age, the problems that really deserve our attention and energy. And yet our world is a profoundly interconnected one, and very few of it’s major problems exist in total isolation. What links photographs of riots in Ukraine, car bomb craters in Iraq, floods in Africa and the global decimation of bee populations? Without seeking to be controversial for the sake of it I would say that these are all more or less directly the products of the chronic disorder that is unbridled capitalism, and it dosen’t seem to me that it would take a particularly critical viewer to see that link when considering these twelve projects in rapid succession.

Which leads me on to the arrangement and description of the work in the gallery space, which seems almost to take account of the potential for a viewer accidentally drawing this connection from the work by doing the opposite of what one might think to be the normal aim of curation. Rather than weaving together the connections in twelve disparate works to show how they relate to a central theme, the exhibition feels rather as if it is constructed to make the works in it feel isolated and disconnected from each other. Each artist’s work is very much treated on its own, separated from the others in part because of the rather labyrinthine spatial character of the East Wing galleries of Somerset House which requires different rooms to be dedicated to each series, but also by the way each work is isolated from its neighbors intellectual, for example in the inconsistent texts that introduce and describe each work rather as if it existed in a vacuum, rather than as part of a themed exhibition. The result is a strange show where the only consistency is the elephant in the room of this unspoken connecting theme.

I know what I’ve done here is to make this all sounds rather conspiratorial, as if everything from the selection of nominators through to the rather dysfunctional curation of this show have been planned from the off to deliver a particular and rather malign effect. I imagine this process is probably more passive and unintentional than I’ve made it sound, although perhaps lit by moments of more intentional design. Whatever the case, I hope this short piece has given some cause for thought about the way many prizes are linked to outside interests, and has also caused some consideration of the way that these sorts of events don’t simply objectively reflect the type of issues that matter in the world, nor the photographs that are necessarily the most brilliant encapsulations or critiques of those issues. Rather I hope you will see such prizes and exhibitions are very much constructed selections, from the final exhibition perhaps right back as far as the initial selection of nominators, and I would say all linked back to priority that underpins pretty much all corporate sponsorship of the arts. Public image and an atmosphere conducive to profit.

Travelling Light: What Refugees Couldn’t Leave Behind

Iman+textKiki Streitberger, Travelling Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blurred Borders: On Mixing Conflict and Fiction

IMG_20150102_231209

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Marketing, Worse Journalism: A Follow Up on the ‘Instagram Migrant’

215104-ca086fe93b5d480d9f4d02f52d2ab727

‘Containment’

Now the dust has somewhat settled since this blog revealed a widely shared Instagram account purporting to belong to a Sengalese migrant was faked, I thought it would be good to return and extract some more salient points from the whole affair. I think this is important because those news outlets that have reported this story so far have done only that, they have reported the same set of facts (and some incorrect ones) but have not taken the time to dig deeper and question the problems this story highlights, or examine their own complicity in these problems.

First to flesh out what we have learnt since I published my original piece. We now know the rationale behind the fake account, it was createdto promote a Spanish photography festival which this year has the theme of travel. The festival hired a Spanish production company called Volga and a Barcelona based studio to create a mixture of stills and videos that would act as an advert for the festival and promote some debate about the role of photography in contemporary society.

On the one hand, mission accomplished for the marketers, this was a good example of (nearly) viral advertising which might have spread much further than it did if it hadn’t been debunked when it was. I had several discussions with my collaborator Amin Musa about how long to wait before publishing about it, but in the end decided to publish sooner rather than later in part because I thought it was a good idea to try and check the spread of the account before too many people saw and believed it. So yeah, good marketing, but in my view also irresponsible, exploitative and cynical marketing, which as I discussed in my original piece potentially undermines future attempts to highlight the plight of people travelling the dangerous route to Europe.

Those behind the account have already moved into what might be seen as a damage limitation stance in their interviews with major media. ‘”We were shocked to see it published,” Oriol Caba of Volga told Time. Although evidently not so shocked that the company thought twice about featuring a news report which treats the account as genuine on the landing page of their website. Tomas Pena, who took the photographs in and around Barcelona told the Huffington Post’s correction follow-up article that the project was about changing perceptions of migrants. Meanwhile Hagi Toure the Spanish handball player who posed as the migrant in the photographs has changed his Instagram account to private. Perhaps someone at least has learnt something from this.

So what are the important points to take from this affair? First of all that on some level African-European migration and the humanitarian and economic problems which cause it have become a way to advertise stuff, because that was at least part of the aim of this campaign. Perhaps it was also partly to raise awareness, but that opens up another issue in turn because what is as important as drawing public attention to a crisis is the way you do it. The fallout of a particularly strategy can easily do an amount of harm that outweighs whatever good you might claim came from the added focus. It’s difficult to quantify this in any subject, and I’m not arguing that’s what has happened here because it’s simply too early to tell how this will or won’t alter attitudes towards genuine migrants.

This whole saga was interesting to me from the start because for six months in 2014 I worked on a very similar photographic project which looked at the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It used Instagram to peddle a fictional narrative which was intended to draw attention to the basic commonalities between Russians and Ukrainians and to highlight the troublesome role of the media in perpetuating the conflict and some of myths that surround it. This work never saw the light of day because although I thought the point it had to make was an important one I couldn’t find a way to publish it which I felt was responsible and limited the many potentially dangerous of fictionalising a narrative around a current and contested event.

For me another salient point is that this affair makes journalism look pretty sick. Either laziness or overwork means journalists sometimes don’t interrogate sources or check facts as carefully as they should when it comes to sensitive issues, they publish and be damned with an eye more on the clock than on the accuracy, sensitivity or utility of articles. The need for click-bait headlines that will pull in viewers and generate revenue all too often over-rides the need for subtlety or caution in dealing with important topics. I see this first hand sometimes when I submit articles as a freelancer, as a carefully worded title gets rephrased into something designed to better appeal to online grazers, even if that title barely resembles the thrust of the piece beneath. The fact that some journalists are so desperate for cheap and easy click generating content in part explains how a fake campaign like this could even have garnered such attention in the first place.

The author of the original Huffington Post piece defended her article to me pointing out that they ‘didn’t take the photos at face value but rather reported that they were there’ but to me the lack of doubt in the article’s headline says it all. Likewise the follow up pieces by other sites screamed with hyperbolic words like fake, hoax, and but offered little analysis of what this means, sometimes resembling not much more than a cut, paste and reword of existing articles (including the erroneous claim that El Pais broke the story, which they did, but four hours after Disphotic). Amin and I both felt there was a desperate sense in many of these articles (and even in Huffington Post’s follow up article) to claim the scoop as their own, and to bury or not at all reference the original source of the debunking, us. For us it wasn’t so much about the credit, as about what this again says about the rush to publish first and process later, if at all.

All this has added pertinence because what I was originally going to publish yesterday (and which is now going to be published next Monday) was a piece on how algorithms are going to replace print journalists, particularly online. Writing this piece I had half a sense that this was far-fetched, that even if the technology was able to do this perhaps the need for such a change didn’t exist. But this affair has provided me with pretty much all the evidence I need to reason that journalism as we widely know it suffering a rot, and is due a great renewal.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #5: Best of the Books

original-30453-1398715904-26

Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. In my last post I looked at two small but wonderfully formed exhibitions, Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality. For my penultimate post I turn to some of the photobooks I encountered at the festival.

To start off with the Luma Book Award, there was a host of interesting books on show. Daniel Mayrit’s You Haven’t Seen Their Faces immediately stands out from the crowded tables, both for it’s simple materials and bold cover, and for the way it wears it’s politics clearly on it’s sleeve. Emulating the grainy CCTV photographs released by the Metropolitan police of looters in the wake of the 2011 London Riots, Mayrit employs the same strategy for the one hundred most powerful political and economic leaders in the City of London. Many of these images are then scrawled with hand written notes revealing the subjects complicity in dodgy dealings and criminal cases. It’s a nice example of the broader trend of great books emerging from Spain at the moment, many with an unashamedly political slant which stands in contrast to the photobook scenes in other countries.

Aptly Mayrit’s book is located right next to Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report which corresponds to the festival exhibition of the same name. Where I felt the exhibition sometimes fell short on revealing the links between tax havens and the world’s problems, the added space and possibilities of the book goes helps to ameliorate this and slightly better reflects the vast complexity of this topic. I still feel that slightly more abstract visual strategies might have been better suited to a topic which is so abstract, but still I would definitely recommend checking this book out.

A diminutive book which caught my eye was Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words, and it’s title and form called to mind Zdnek Tmej’s bleak and brilliant Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness. Like many other photographers, Romanaova travelled to Kyiv from her native Russia during the Euromaidan protests to make portraits, but her approach differed in that she asked each of her subjects to think of an object with the same name in Russian and Ukranian, before photographing them with that thing. The resulting book is open to multiple interpretations, whether viewed as a reminder that Russians and Ukranians have more in common than in difference, or perhaps more problematically as a suggestion that Ukranians are underneath it all basically just Russians. The book itself is beautifully fragile, composed of tissue paper and delicate inserts, hardly a thing one can imagine being born in the smoke and fire of Independence Square.

From the Luma Dummy Book Award (disclaimer: I had a book in the shortlist) a few titles caught my eye. First of all the winner, The Jungle Book by Yann Gross is a competently photographed and constructed documentary work which explores the contemporary Amazon. Although I think not ground breaking in topic or execution it’s not hard to see why it won because it’s well made in every respect. Two former students of mine also had work in the shortlist and although I’m clearly biased I recommend checking them both out. Carl Bigmore’s Between Two Mysteries is a great dive into an almost absurd Lynchian vision of America where everything hovers between reality and fiction, while Miriam Stanke’s And the Mountain said to Munzur: You, River of my Tears is a powerful account of the remote and trouble fraught Turkish region of Dersim.

For reasons I’ve sometimes discussed here, I’m generally not keen on books that are overly complex in form or design, but Alma Haser’s Cosmic Surgery has to be mentioned as a remarkable piece of book construction. Featuring a series of complex paper pop-ups, the portraits within burst off the page in ever more surprising ways. Lastly Mark Duffy’s Vote No.1 is almost the opposite of Cosmic Surgery in that the book construction is ridiculously austere but perfectly suited to the subject matter. Consisting of rephotographs of politician’s portraits as they appear on their campaign posters (complete with unplanned additions like flies and staple holes), the book is a funny jab at the unjustified self-importance and fleeting lifespans of politicians and political hopefuls.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #3: Dark Tourism and The Heavens

AR1MSC2249

Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award and the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People. In this post I’m looking at two bodies of work I found very interesting, but which didn’t seem to quite do what they suggested they might. They are Ambroise Tézenas’s I was There: Dark Tourism and Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report.

Ambroise Tézenas’s Dark Tourism was on display in the Grand Halle at the sprawling Parc du Atelier on the edge of Arles, along with a half a dozen or so other shows and the Discovery Award. For me its promise to investigate the macabre tourist practice of visiting sites of disaster and destruction made it instantly stand out from the other shows. One of my strongest memories of visiting the Auschwitz-Birkeanu concentration camp several years ago was seeing people smiling, giving thumbs ups and taking selfies in front of prison blocks and gas chambers, and to this day I’ve still wondered why people would react to a site like this in that way. Was it ghoulishness, or embarrassment? I hoped Dark Tourism was shine a light on this and other rather more crass examples of the way the past is commoditised and experienced as a site of tourism..

While Dark Tourism did do this a little, I was mostly disappointed. About a quarter of the photographs on display do focus directly on aspects of dark tourism, featuring for example a former Soviet era military prison in Latvia where guests can stay the night as prisoners. Mostly though Tézenas seemed to turn his lens on the sites themselves, producing beautiful if generic images of blood stained sites in Rwanda, China, Ukraine and other countries. This seemed to turn a potentially very interesting investigation into more or less an extension of the very thing it set out at the start to critique. Also I couldn’t help but feel the subtext of Dark Tourism was rather unsubtle, and failed to acknowledge the myriad reasons beyond simple macabre fascination that might lead people to these sites. These issues aside it was still an interesting exhibition and a recommended one amongst those in the Grand Halle.

Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report  sets out to investigate the pertinent topic of the global tax havens where billions in untaxed money are sequestered away by large companies. The introductory blurb to the exhibition promises to shatter the traditional image of tax havens as tropical island paradises, a promise which is somewhat fulfilled. It opens very effectively with a darkened room, the walls ringed with photographs of familiar products and brands, all of which made use of a single Swiss banking scheme to reduce their tax liability. This is a very real demonstration of how tax dodging permeates into all our lives, simply in the products we surround ourselves with. Following this the other rooms contain more conventional documentary photographs of locations and people who play a significant part in the international network. From massive company mailbox centres in the Cayman Islands, to secure vaults built in a legal no-mans land underneath Singapore’s airport. Woods and Galimberti seek to show how tax evasion engenders other problems, for example often generating inequality in the parts of the world where these activities take place. One of the more powerful photographs shows a man in his tiny ‘cage home’ a type of micro-dwelling in Hong Kong, the product of an overheated housing market and growing inequality between rich and poor.

The photographs and their range is pretty great, the only major weakness was the difficult of concretely demonstrating the relationships between the disparate things that these images show. Global tax evasion is defined by its networked state, its complexity, and the essential invisibility of it’s relationships, and to bring to light this murky world would seem to require a rather different strategy to the conventional photographic one employed here (the Hans Haacke work featured in this post is, I think, a nice example of an alternative). This exhibition felt like a constellation of dots on a scatter graph, where someone was yet to draw the line that connects them all. I also slightly amused to  see the exhibition sponsored by Olympus, given their questionable finance arrangements, outed by the company’s own CEO back in 2011. Perhaps by throwing weight behind this exhibition Olympus is looking to join the relatively small band of companies who are taking a stand against these sorts of shady financial dealings. In short, The Heavens, Annual Report is another very well photographed and well-constructed exhibition, a timely argument against tax havens, even if I rather felt it suffered in the end from the difficulties photographs find in showing the sometimes quite abstract relationship between one thing and another.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #1: Discovery Award

image

The Shilo Group/Vlad Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vadym Trykoz

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some the festivals highlights. To kick off, The Discovery Award is something I’ve heard people rave about in past years and so it was an obvious early point on my itinerary. The award tasks five curators with choosing two artists each who they believe deserve more recognition for their work. Here I pick out five of them that I think are particularly worth a look.

I’ve already written at length about Lisa Barnard’s book Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden, and it was nice to see it included in this award. I rate the work for a number of reasons, partly because of the politics that lie behind it and also because of the visual strategies Barnard uses to try and make those visible. Perhaps mostly I like it though because of all the artists making work about drones, Barnard is one of the few who’s work goes beyond purely mechanical observations about the technology. Given the complexity of the book the display for the discovery award packs an enormous amount into a relatively small space.

Robert Zhao Renhui’s A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World was another nice inclusion. Renhui’s project blurs the line between fine art photography, scientific research and perhaps also advocacy, by creating an extensive account of species which have been altered by mankind. This ranges from fish purposefully bred or coloured to give pleasing appearances, to bees which have spontaneously developed an addiction to soda. Viewed together these examples make for a rather damning indictment of man’s effect on the planet and it’s other inhabitants. Perhaps inevitably given the subject and appraoch photography is very controlled, even rather cold, which for me rather limited the amount of time I wanted to spend with it.

Pauline Fargue’s No Day is another display worth mentioning (and since writing Fargue has won the Discovery Award). The display consists of a series of a number of Fargue’s notebooks, produced over a span of twelve years and which function as places for her experiment with images and text. Within these books she cuts and pastes photographs, blending them with text and drawing and in the proccess producing a beautiful and inspiring body of work, modest in scale but and epic in scope. The work touches on no epic issue of the day, and the method employed is very simple, but as a meditation on photography and writing in one of it’s most intimate forms the work is very powerful. ‘Let no day pass without a line’ wrote Walter Benjamin but, he concluded, ‘there will be weeks’.

The Shilo Group (Vlad Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vadym Trykoz) are a Ukranian collective who’s work responds to the current state of their country and their display consists of three bodies of more or less inter-related work. Negatives are Stored consists of a series of crudely overpainted old photographs ‘restored’ as the collective put it, through the addition of surreal drawings some of which are varyingly touching, funny and entirely crass. The second project, Euromaidan, was published as a book last year and might be the group’s best known work. It documents the protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square in grainy black and white photographs, reminiscent of the photographs of 1970’s Japanese protest photography. Lastly ATO does similar with the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and is for me the most problematic of the groups work given it’s allusions to photography of the Second World War’s eastern front.

The final space is occupied by A Kind of Display by The Cool Couple (comprising Niccolo Benetton and Simone Santilli) and deserves recognition if only for the performative side of it. Their work, which focuses on the political, cultural and historical dimensions of the beard, includes a barbers chair and live barber offering visitors free shaves in the exhibition space. Aside from this their display consists of a series of beard photographs printed on barber’s smocks and three 3D printed heads of historic beard wearers. A little disappointingly the display itself rather fails to live up to it’s promise and doesn’t penetrate very far into what could be a very interesting (if masculine) topic.

After Empire I: The Soviet Ruin

PENTAX Image
The cupola of a Soviet missile silo at Plokštinė, Lithuania
From Wikimedia

Anyone who spends considerable time looking at photographs will know that certain tired topics appear again and again, often with the photographer’s blissful ignorance, or indifference. While it’s tempting just to complain about these tropes and vainly hope that some of those who are tempted to repeat them will take notice, I think it’s also interesting to try to understand the allure of these things, to ask what magnetism it is that they possess which is able to cause people to return to them again and again.

Ruins are a particular strong example of this, a truism for art more generally as well as photography individually and something I’ve mulled before on this blog. Within photography though one ruin type holds a particularly strong grip on our imagination, and these are the ruins of the Soviet Union. The abandoned or decayed industrial, political and military structures of the USSR, an empire which once covered twenty million square kilometres of the earth’s surface. From the desolate automated lighthouses strung along the Arctic coast to the radioactive ruins of Ukraine’s Chernobyl or Kazakhstan’s Polygon. Photographers, both amateur and professional, return again and again to these places, and we as viewers in turn look again and again at these photographs, as if the next set will somehow explain something more of these enigmas than did the last.

Leaving aside the specific qualities of ruins that many people find attractive, as picturesque visions, or temporal paradoxes, I have lately been wondering what is the specific allure of these Soviet remains, as opposed to those of any other demised civilisation or polity. In a very obvious sense I suppose it is that these ruins give us a frightening yardstick by which to see how quickly our own efforts as a civilisation might come to merge with the earth and eventually disappear. A ruin of a great temple or an ancient castle might be a memnto mori that gives us some sense of the awful briefness of the things we make in this world, but our temporal closeness to the remains of the Soviet Union gives them an altogether more overwhelming sense of our own demise.

But there is something more, in some sense I suspect in the west we find these images particularly fascinating because they reveal the inner workings of something which was once opaque, and reveal the decrepitude of an empire which was once so greatly feared. Some of my German friends have remarked to me on the strangeness of the British obsession with watching Second World War films, an endless fixture on television channels at all times of the year and even during seasons that would seem to be antithetical to conflict, like Christmas. Our fascination, I have suggested to them in return, perhaps stems from the fact it was a relatively morally unambiguous war against a dark and oppressive power, but maybe more importantly a war which we still can’t quite believe we won. We want to relive our victory again and again because in some very fundamental way that victory perplexes and eludes us.

In some senses I think something similar is at work here, we cannot fully grasp that we would have won out against a Soviet Empire which seemed to powerful, so monolithic, and above all so dark and opaque. This confusion is not least compounded by the fact the long anticipated violent reckoning between the two sides in the Cold War never came. Poring over these ruins as we do again and again is like a fruitless post-mortem which we have continued for the best quarter of a century without satisfactory conclusion. It is an aimless anatomy lesson which we maybe hope will posthumously reveal our enemy’s Achilles heel and lead to some final insight into our victory. If recent events in Russia and Ukraine indicate anything thought it is that perhaps this demise was a feint and the corpse is not as cold as it once seemed. The fingers appear to be twitching, and these ruins may yet return to life.

Review – An Atlas of War and Tourism by The Sochi Project

494A1111

An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus by The Sochi Project, aka Rob Hornstra and Arnold Van Bruggen

The photobook world often generates terrible bandwagon jumping, with the  pressure to buy or review a new book as soon as possible after it comes out or else risk being left behind in the proverbial dust. Contrary to that impulse I sometimes like to stand still and let the dust settle around me, to take my time before I encounter a book for the first time and approach it perhaps with a little more distance as a result. With this in mind and knowing I was planning to write a few pieces about Russia and Ukraine, now seemed like a good time to pick up The Sochi Project’s epic An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus.

Of course Sochi is not Ukraine, but given that the backdrop to An Atlas of War and Tourism is the military and political instability in the region, and the broader history and legacy of the Russian empire it seemed like a project that might shed a little light on events that have happened since the book’s publication in late 2013, before the Sochi Winter Olympics had taken place. It’s also worth remembering that the subsequent games were enormously overshadowed by events in Kyiv’s Independence Square, and by the apparent Russian invasion of Crimea which occurred a matter of days after the closing ceremony, and lies only a few hundred miles along the Black Sea coast from the Olympic venues.

For anyone who doesn’t know (and you should, since in my view it’s one of the more important documentary collaborations of recent years) The Sochi Project consists of documentary photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/film maker Arnold van Bruggen. Since 2007 they have been traveling regularly to Sochi and the surrounding areas, recording stories peripheral to the games and which differ enormously from the official narratives of a successful, reinvented Russia. Instead these individual accounts reveal a part of the country riven by uncertainty, violence,  corruption, and still burdened by (and yet in many ways dependent on) the leavings of the Soviet era. The Sochi Olympics become in effect the Potempkin village of a new Tsar, something intended to draw attention away from these problems, a vanity project to be completed at almost any cost.

Hornstra and van Bruggen have produced a succession of publications based on these stories alongside an excellent website, and An Atlas of War and Tourism is in effect a compendium that brings together many of these stories into a vast, beautiful and intelligent work of documentary work. An Atlas of War and Tourism opens with a map overview of the region, before focusing in on Sochi itself. Hornstra’s photographs capture the city’s unique character, from the crumbling Soviet sanatoria like the Metallurg (built for Soviet steel workers) and their ageing homo sovieticus guests, to the cavernous hotels like the Zhemchuzhina and the strange characters that call the city home, if only for a few weeks of each year.

Expanding the focus the book takes in the neighbouring region of Abkhazia, a break away from nearby Georgia and explores the legacy of the war between the two territories and the lingering violence and tension. Finally the book roams even wider, into South Ossestia, Dagestan, Chechyna, Ingushetia, regions against riven by instability, conflict and corruption. Territories haunted by militant groups and shadowy security forces who abduct, torture and kill with apparent impunity. Each encounter reveals new narratives, and new insights into this complex part of the world. As Van Bruggen notes in one of his accompanying texts, this is a region ‘where every front door hides another story.’ Gradually Sochi re-emerges in the narrative, at first juxtaposed against these shocking stories from the wider region, before Dagesta, Abkhazia and the others dissolve away and we finally return fully to the incomplete construction sites of the Olympic city itself.

Beyond a complex narrative about Russia and the region, An Atlas of War and Tourism is also just a great case study of slow journalism and documentary done very well. It demonstrates the enormous value of collaboration and shows how effectively photographs and text can accompany each other (something most photographers still have real difficulty accepting). At a time when more and more documentary photographers are shifting their practice towards an art footing, and often producing work which many audiences find rather mute as a result, there is something enormously reassuring about a work like this which is unashamedly journalistic, wide roaming, and rooted in the real world.

(Critical transparency: review copy was a gift from someone unconnected with the book)