Incomplete Images: A Different Perspective on Forced Migration

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Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos

The past two years have seen an unprecedented wave of forced migration, with conflict, instability and authoritarianism in north Africa, the Middle East and other regions forcing millions to flee their homes and seek safety overseas. This humanitarian crisis has coincided with, and in some cases contributed to, a resurgence of the political right in Europe and north America. This, alongside the continused evisceration of the media produces a climate where simplistic narratives about refugees flourish, and where depiction of the crisis often lack any reflection of the experiences of those who are most directly affected by it. The exhibition Incomplete Images, which I have co-curated with Monica Alcazar-Duarte, opens today and attempts to respond to this imbalance, by exhibiting work by a series of artists who are themselves refugees, or who have worked in close collaboration with them. The aim of this show is clearly modest and one small show is not going to redress the rise of right wing populism or years of imbalanced media coverage, but we hope it will have an influence, however small, and to that end some of the works on display will also be for sale with all proceeds going to the artist.

In terms of the artists and photographers in the show, Aram Karim’s Smugglers series depicts his journey across the border between Iraq and Iran, where men smuggle fuel, alcohol and other supplies in vast quantities, making multiple trips a day through mud, snow and across active minefields for a few dollars. Aram is a musican and photographer originally from Iraq but currently living near Marseilles, France while he awaits a decision on his refugee status. Damon Amb’s practice involves digitally reworking photographs taken in his native Iran and during his subsequent travels to express his inner world. Damon writes that ‘my art doesn’t communicate the things that have happened to me or what could happen to me if I go back to Iran. I’m a criminal in my country because I’m an artist’. Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos’s video piece Greetings from Greece addresses the recent war in Syria and the thousands of refugees that it created through the portrait of a young man that has settled in Greece. The film also incorporates portraits which are the result of a collaboration with a refugee photo studio in Athens. These images are meticulously constructed from stock imagery, and were delivered to us for printing in various stages of completion. Next, Iranian Kurdish photographer Rahman Hassami’s series compares and contrasts the scenery of his native Kurdistan with the countryside of Yorkshire in the north of England, a quintessential English landscape, drawing out differences and similarities between his former and adoptive home. Finally, on a table in the center of the gallery is a display of images taken from an Instagram account purportedly belonging to a young migrant named Abdou Diouf. This account was in fact a hoax created by a marketing company to advertise a photography festival, and was first unmasked here on Disphotic in the summer of 2015. It’s inclusion in this exhibition highlights the way that even the perspective of refugees is open to problematic appropriation.

The exhibition is open for one week from 21st to 27th November, 12 – 5pm each day at Light Eye Mind gallery, 176 Blackstock Road, London N5 1HA

Highlights and Trends: Paris Photo 2016

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Archive Pierre Molinier, Maison Européenne de la Photographie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Monsanto: An Interview with Mathieu Asselin

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It’s really, really rare that a photobook speaks to you in a way which feels important beyond the narrow realm of photography, and even does so in a way which feels desperately urgent. This was the precise experience I had the first time I came across Mathieu Asselin’s Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation when it was on display as part of the dummy book table at Bristol Photobook Festival, and again when I saw it at the Rencontres d’Arles Festival this summer. The title of Asselin’s book needs little elaboration, the work scrutinizes the activities of this multinational agrochemical company, considering the lasting impact of it’s activities overseas and in it’s home country of the United States.

Through a series of chapters Asselin photographically interrogates these different areas, ranging from Monsanto’s role during the Vietnam war as one of the two major producers of the highly toxic defoliant Agent Orange, through to it’s contemporary diversification into genetically modified crops, plants which are designed as much to support a corporate business model as to be plentiful producers of food. This investigation is remarkably wide ranging and reflects the complexities of modern corporate activity. As Asselin writes ‘Monsanto® maintains strong ties with the US- government, and especially with the FDA (United States Food and Drugs Administration). It is a bed-fellow with many other economical and political power houses around the world. The company engages in campaigns of misinformation, the persecution of institutions and individuals, including scientists, farmers and activists that dare to disclose their crimes.’

Mathieu, perhaps first you could say a little about why the first wanted to produce a project about a company like Monsanto, was there a particular encounter or discovery which set you off down this route?

Years ago, talking to my father, a French activist by heart, spirit and actions, and a true world citizen, the subject of Monsanto came up. This got my attention and inspired me to start an in depth research on Monsanto, little by little I realized that it has a much deeper and darker history. I was facing over 100 years of “successful failures”. This means that Monsanto success is built on a long series of social, ecological, economical and health disasters all around the world. This is no news for a large number of people fighting Monsanto but for the majority of people, including myself at that time, this was a shocking discovery. At that time the persecution of farmers wrongly accused of patent infringements (The use of Monsanto GMO seed without signing a contract) was featuring in many news outlets. I don’t remember exactly when, what I do remember is that I was very shocked by the 2008 Vanity Fair story Monsanto Harvest of Fear as well by Marie-Monique Robin’s The World According to Monsanto documentary.  At that point the story was already on my mind, the problem was how to photograph it.

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Many photographers attempting to document corporate activity might have just looked at one location or issue, for example the current consequences of herbicides like Roundup, or the lingering effects of Agent Orange use in Vietnam. What makes your work stand apart for me is the way you connect the disparate activities of Monsanto, from chemicals to seeds. What brought you to employ this multi-faceted way of investigation?

It is that multifaceted story that makes it a universal one. Monsanto’s dark story is a complex one and it cannot be understood if we just talk about genetically modified seeds, Agent Orange or PCBs separately. Monsanto is a 115 years old corporation (established in 1901) and its activities are as diverse as its social and ecological crimes. Everything is connected, one thing takes you to another is like a chain reaction, and the deeper you dig the more you find, in that sense is like an endless pit. The main challenge of this project wasn’t what to photograph but what not to. This was for me the hardest part. I focus on Monsanto’s milestones, places and events that have mark and shape their history as a corporation. It is a timeline to understand where Monsanto comes from, on what foundations it was built. This approach can help us understand its present and have a better idea of what the future maybe.

But is important to say that I didn’t discovered anything new, all this well documented information is public, before me many people have paved the road to make it easier for the rest of us, you just need to dig a bit. The interesting part was that as far as I know, nobody had put together photographically speaking that many pieces of the Monsanto story together I think that this was an important point to invest myself on the project. But I need to say that Olga Yatskevich was a great help in putting this together, she was like a translator for a language that was in my mind and that at that time only I understood. You know photography is never completely self-made. We are the products of our parents, our experiences our friend and people close to us, the important thing is to know how to combine all these experiences in a coherent voice that is your own.

Another facet to the book is the extensive use of Monsanto’s own advertising and marketing material, in particular The Monsanto House of the Future, an attraction created in the fifties for Disneyland but which in your book becomes a sort of metaphor for corporate indifference to the future and the people who have to live in it. Could you explain why you felt it was important to include examples of the ways Monsanto has represented itself alongside your photographic representations?

It is fascinating, isn’t it? That is why. I’ve never contacted Monsanto to have their point of view, I think that no statement from them can justify the crimes against humanity and the planet. With time you realize that this is not about Monsanto, this is about the people and environment affected by them. In the past five years I’ve bought a large collection of Monsanto paraphernalia. It was amazing to see how the propaganda machine works, but at that time didn’t know how I can incorporate it in the project. With time all this objects, the advertising and marketing got a wider meaning and became my way of letting Monsanto introduce itself. I was interested in the irony of the perfect world that they portrait.

Ricardo Baez, the designer of the book was very fond of the idea and suggested to place the ads at the beginning of the book. These materials help me to open a new window story wise, not limiting myself to what I can or can’t photograph to tell the story. All these “external” items, in one way or another, give an extra dimension to my project making it more interesting for the viewer and especially for me to build it. I think that with time I realize that the story needs to be told, this is the goal, and the more resources you have to play with, the better you can build it.

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Looking at your book I felt a very strong resonance with Phillip Jones Griffith’s seminal work Vietnam Inc. There is an obvious thematic connection in terms of Monsanto’s role in the production of Agent Orange for use in this conflict, but actually I think the similarity stems from a sort of quiet anger which underpins both books, and which I see in much great investigative journalism. Do you feel that’s accurate?

Ah! Mr. Griffiths what a great photographer, I wish I can compare my work with his. I don’t have that book, but I do have Agent Orange: Collateral Damage in Viet Nam which I got before traveling to Vietnam, to see if I can finally learn something about photography. Mr. Griffith’s books is a very extensive investigation on the Vietnam war but the most important part of his work is that it really helped to change the view of the public on the war.  My work still young and I hope it can have some repercussion on the issue am pointing at.

I think it is more outrage than anger, you can’t detach yourself from the subject and you can’t detach the subject from your feelings either, at least that is the way I work.  At the same time it is important not to fall on to an easy narrative. Anger can lead to that, contrary to outrage. It is important to find a certain poeticism in the work, a flow that makes a longer lasting mark than anger alone would be able to. Fighting this type craziness with anger is not a good tactic. More important than anger is to be outraged because it is related to empathy, as the French philosopher Stephane Hessel said it “is time for outrage” and it is this time for outrage that gives you the strength and the empathy to say “Fuck it, I won’t take it anymore and I won’t let others to take it either”. I am sure Mr. Griffiths dealt a lot with this in his own work.

The book looks very complete and I believe is due to be published soon, but given the scale of this topic and the nature of this type of rather investigative work there is often the sense that there is more to be done. Will your work on this topic continue or do you feel it has reached its limit?

At the moment I am in contact with a few publishers that are interested in printing the book, and whose work I like and respect. I think the transition from dummy to the final book will happen soon, fingers crossed! It is rewarding to finally have a dummy it is the physical proof of many years of work but the most important thing is to reach the people, without that the rest doesn’t matter much. No doubt the project can keep growing. I didn’t include many other communities affected by Monsanto: Argentina, India, Mexico, etc. I didn’t include these stories not because they are less important, but because it was a big challenge to figure out how such an important and complex subject can be put together in a book, so I decided to focus on the United States and Vietnam (because it has direct ties with the USA) knowing that this can be a well contained example of what is and can happen anywhere else. When you see the disasters Monsanto left in their own country and the horrors of Vietnam, it gives you a very good idea of what is going on or what can happen in the rest of the world. Monsanto is expanding it’s business to countries with weak regulations and law and this allows them to basically do “whatever they want”, with very few barriers or responsibilities.  Argentina is a good example of that.

Right now I would like to focus on others projects. I’ve spent five years on this story (I am a slow photographer) and after a while is important for me as a photographer to find new subjects and advance in my learning curve. I just hope that the work I did can help people who are fighting Monsanto everyday by establishing a dialogue about the subject with a larger population. My biggest hope is that it can help to change people’s vision about Monsanto so they can make better choices. For now my work photographically speaking is done and a different part of the project needs to be put in gear, the one of putting it out there for the public, so no matter what, I think I will be crossing paths with Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation for some time.

Thank you for giving me the chance to speak about my project.

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The Trump of the Will: Reading the Republican National Convention

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Donald Trump speaks to the Republican National Convention
Paul David Morris/Bloomberg (see end for full caption)

Politics might have famously been described as ‘show business for ugly people’ but it has also always been ripe ground for photographers (think of Winogrand’s brilliance at the 1960 democrat convention or more recently Chris Anderson’s images from the 2008 presidential campaign). It remains so even in an era of ever more astute media control by politicians and their campaign teams, and despite nominee front runner Donald Trump’s worryingly firm grasp on the press the photographs coming out of the recent Republican National Convention have been really pretty remarkable. Reading The Pictures have done some great close reading of images of the wider conference, but besides some fantastically strange images of delegates and candidates, the centrepiece images are those  of Trump’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for president. There are so many images of this slightly over an hour long performance and so many of them are begging to be taken apart. The image I’ve picked out above by Paul David Morris is there not because it is the most striking, but because it combines quite a few significant elements where others tend to focus on just one. Getty have a great wider selection of other images from the speech here.

The speech’s staging could not be more bizarre, and certainly it has the pomposity of fascist propaganda films like Leni Riefenstahl’s genre defining Triumph of the Will, from the enormous ‘TRUMP’ banner on the video screen overhead, the ranks of flags behind him, down to the ring of black clad heavies who ring the stage like an honour guard for hire. At the same time the staging also feels like a homage to fictional parodies of fascism and authoritarianism, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to George Orwell’s 1984. In terms of that latter example Trump’s hour recalls the book’s Two Minutes Hate, mass meetings where citizens sit in front of giant screens and are bombarded with images of the enemy before the soothing face of Big Brother appears to calm them, a spectacle so overwhelming that even the book’s deeply cynical narrator finds himself caught up in it. The bombast of Trump’s acceptance speech is hard to overstate and it’s fully worth a watch to get a sense of why so many people are so insistently comparing him to demagogues like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. While I can imagine that Trump’s rehearals might look something like Heinrich Hoffman’s photographs of Hitler preparing his speeches, I’ve got to admit that it’s a comparison I find hard to swallow. Emulating the rhetoric of fascism doesn’t in itself make you a fascist (if it did Trump would only be the latest in a rather long line of democratic politicians to stand guilty of this) although I have always felt that political pomp and overblown charisma should almost always be regarded as a warning sign, a mask or veil over something else. As the premiership of Tony Blair very effectively demonstrated to the United Kingdom, a politician with some charisma, or even just the illusion of it, can be a very dangerous thing. In Blair’s case it masked a zealot, in Trump’s case it barely hides an ambitious opportunist, who unlike many of the authoritarians to whom he is being compared probably really believes in very little at all.

Beyond the rhetorical flourishes and ridiculous staging, there is something undeniably dark here, that is the profoundly bleak image that Trump paints of a United States on the verge of implosion, and the equally bleak promises he makes about how he will solve this. Following the UK’s recent vote to leave the European Union it was astutely remarked that England, the country which had once colonised half the world, had now fallen prey to the fantasy that it was now itself being colonised by those it had previously subjugated. Something similar might be said of the United States today, a country seemingly fascinated by the vision of its destruction, which lacking a genuine existential threat from without its borders now appears to be doing everything possible to realise that fantasy from within. Trump’s speech felt like the Two Minutes Hate in protracted form, a reeling out of a succession of enemies, from Mexican immigrants preying on all American girls to the Islamic State plotting to destroy the United States from the other side of the planet, all climaxing in Trump’s soothingly ambiguous promises of safety.

Perhaps partly because of these fictional as well as factual references it might be difficult for anyone who recognises these cultural markers to take Trump and the party that now supports him at all seriously. The whole convention feels as if it’s been organised for as an exercise in cultural reference spotting, right down to photographs of delegates who uncannily resemble grown up versions of Diane Arbus’s 1967 photograph of a young pro-Vietnam war demonstrator with his straw boater and ‘bomb Hanoi’ pin badge. Is this a fiction, or just another example of history repeating itself in a country which so often seems to pride itself on it’s supposed lack of history? Quite a few left leaning Americans seem to already be writing Trump off as not having what it takes to reach the White House. Thats exactly what we told ourselves in the United Kingdom about those who wanted to leave the European Union, that those leading the campaign were liars, inconsistent, and unsubstantial and that their supporters were uneducated, bigots and idiots. Some of that what we believed was true, but we let our own bigotry obscure the fact that in many cases these were also possible who over the past several decades had profoundly lost out while we gained. The fact that Trump’s support base forms a rough analogue to the support base of the UK’s leave campaign is well worth dwelling on and you might consider this post a warning to the American left not to underestimate the will of these people, or to make the same mistake we did.

Whatever happens in the autumn, Trump’s campaign marks a political watershed as much as the referendum did for the United Kingdom. A moment of empowerment not just for the traditional right, but the far darker ideologies at its fringes. Between 1936 and 1944 the German writer Friedrich Reck kept a remarkable diary of life under Nazism, describing with the astute observation and invective that only a truly savage cultural critic could muster how the country was ground into the dirt by Nazism. Reck describes encountering Hitler at several points during his rise to power and marvels at the fact that this entirely sordid figure, indeed to repurpose Graydon Carter’s description of Trump, this ‘short fingered vulgarian’, could hold the German people so completely under his spell. The book makes for instructive reading today, not least because Reck recognised in his diary that the politics of Nazism and the experience of living under it meant there was simply no way to return to the Germany that had existed before Hitler, an observation which in a drastically watered down form might well stand for post-referendum Britain, or a the United States after Trump. Shortly before Reck was arrested and sent to the concentration camp where he would die he wrote a poignant address to the liberators he foresaw arriving from outside Germany.

‘…we cannot go back to the life we shared with you yesterday, a life which you will spread before us so temptingly when you return. We have suffered too much to believe any more that the way to what we see as the Absolute can go in any other direction than on through the deep valley of sorrow.’

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.

No Justice, No Peace, Only History

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Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

If you were considering doing some visual analysis this week then there would be one overwhelmingly obvious candidate for it. A photograph by Reuter’s photographer Jonathan Bachman which shows protester Iesha L. Evans about to be arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana has gone viral, and is already being hailed as a ‘legendary’ image destined for the history books. In the photograph, a young black woman stands in an empty street, as two armour clad, white police officers move in to grab her. Her uprightness and poise is remarkable, and by comparison the two officers are frozen in a moment of motion which make them look as if they might actually be being repelled away from her by the magnetic force of her sheer will. To the left behind the officers, a long row of riot police look on, to the right behind the protester a row of bystanders and protesters watch from the far distance. It is a potent image, and like many great ones it is ripe for reading and counter-reading. It is a remarkable example of what the camera can do so well, an episode which by the accounts of bystanders lasted less than half a minute has been made permanent and indelible by the camera’s mechanism. It is also though an example of what the camera does so badly, in this image is only a sliver of time, shorn of context, which explains little of the wider cause or aims of these protests. It can easily be read as a simplistic binary of an overpowered, anonymous, authoritarian, white, male American state using disproportionate force against an unarmed, black, female citizen, which is certainly a truth, part of the truth, but not perhaps the whole truth.

In a piece on American Suburb X Brad Feurhelm hyperbolically declares Bachman’s image a ‘complete failure’ for rather different reasons, including because it repeats the tropes of a previous protest image, Marc Riboud’s photograph of Jan Rose Kasmir holding a flower up to the sheathed bayonets of a row of soldiers during the 1967 March on the Pentagon. The formal similarity and the looming presence of Riboud’s photograph in recent popular culture might account in turn for some of the success of Bachman’s photograph, but I’d argue that this similarity is far from a source of failure, far from evidence of a visual culture rendered so lazy by mass image consumption that it seeks familiar tropes by which to reduce all present events to familiar antecedents. Bachman’s photograph is important precisely because it sets present events in terms of the political struggles of the 1960’s, both the anti-war movement of which Riboud’s photograph was a direct document and the wider political milieu of that era, including of course the civil rights movement. The anti-war movement is a significant reference point because at least part of the reason that people are today dying on the streets of American cities is because of the way police forces have been progressively militarised with surplus hardware from conflicts in the Middle East (something which becomes clear from the armed man in fatigues in the final image of Bachman’s complete sequence of the event). These protests then are at least in a very small way protests against conflict, militarism and their inevitable impact on the home front, ideas I will be writing on more next week.

In turn, the civil rights movement is clearly an important reference for these current protests because Black Lives Matter in so many ways feels like a spiritual successor to that movement. It seems historically apt that an image like Bachman’s should come from a protest in Baton Rogue, where the first civil rights bus boycott took place in 1953 and thinking in terms of this history Bachman’s photograph actually has a far greater similarity for me to a 1963 photograph taken by Bill Hudson in during protests in Birmingham, Alabama. In the image, a 17 year old black protester named Walter Gadsden is being savaged by a police dog, but as in Bachman’s photograph what strikes the viewer is the remarkable poise he seems to show. Far from running from the snarling dog (which even the nearby police officer seems to have lost control over) the young man appears to be walking willingly and with total resolve into its snarling maw, while his hand grips the police officer’s wrist as if it to say ‘it’s ok, let go’. Onlookers behind look back perhaps in curiosity, surprise, and as with Bachman’s photograph it is an image which seems to say much, but which also tells little outside the fraction of a second when it was taken.

Is Bachman’s photograph a ‘complete failure’ then for echoing this history and these photographs? I would argue not at all, in fact it is that echo which is precisely what makes it important. This is not a case of an image of protest or war stylised like the works of a past work of art to which it bears no relation, or worse which casts the new image in terms of a moral or cultural framework to which it bears no relation. Think of the often inappropriate religious readings of Eugene Smith’s Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath or Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl and the subtext such readings have for the supposed value of what is basically meaningless suffering (if I were to offer an art history reading of mine it would go rather further back, Evan’s pose reminding me of classical renditions of Clio, the muse of history) In its resonance with images of a much more recent past, Bachman’s photograph is one which demands that viewers remember that the question of civil rights in the United States is profoundly unresolved, and it is powerful precisely because in its historical reverberations it carries with it a sense of what the Black Lives Matters movement might need to be in order to have a chance of creating the change it’s supporters desire. While it is too soon to tell what impact this image will have, it is one, I would say, which does much to cast the movement as one which is as morally irresistible as its opponents are morally indefensible.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #2: Looking Beyond the Edge and Nothing But Blue Skies.

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Reeve Schumacher, #1, from the Nothing but Blue Skies series, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. Yesterday I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Today I’m focusing on two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and the group show Nothing but Blue Skies.

Looking Beyond the Edge curated by Tate’s Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian is a sizeable show of work by veteran war photographer Don McCullin, however what makes it a little different is the way that it studiously avoids the imagery of war, famine and disaster that he is best known for. Instead the exhibition brings together series made before and between the overseas assignments which made McCullin’s name. It opens with photographs taken in his native north London, a decayed and battered place when seen through the photographer’s viewfinder. Despite the similarity in time, place and subject to other photographers, say Roger Mayne, there is none of the same lightness. Indeed viewing these smoggy streets and lost looking people it’s immediately striking how McCullin’s photographs have a knack for making everything look like a war, and this is an idea which repeatedly emerges with almost every set of images in this show. The closest we get to actual conflict are photographs taken in 1961 as the Berlin Wall began to be constructed. In these images armed soldiers faced each other across this most unnatural of borders but the real focus is on the ordinary Berliners who look on with a mixture of quiet curiosity and mounting concern.

The majority of remaining photographs are from the United Kingdom. McCullin’s photographs of the north of England, covering cities like Bradford and regions like Northumberland, seem to depict a society which is in the process of tearing itself apart. In this sense they are strongly reminiscent of work by contemporaries like Chris Killip, indeed at times their subject matter perfectly converges, and one wonders if the two photographers ever passed one another on the same half abandoned street. Also on display are photographs of homeless Londoners taken in Whitechapel in the 1980’s, which call to mind Moyra Peralta’s photographs taken in the same period. One thing that’s immediately obvious though in this comparison is the distance in McCullin’s work, these are very much the photographs of a photojournalist, taken at a respectful range while Peralta’s photographs put you right up with the subjects, as if they were sitting alongside you. Because of this and more I find her photographs moving while McCullin’s often actually feel more uncomfortably distant, even when a face fills the frame. Lastly and maybe most out of place are McCullin’s landscape photographs, many taken in Somerset where he now lives. Lacking captions or titles, these images feel out of place next to the more issue based work, especially since like all his other works they have the foreboding tone of place where a war or similar cataclysm might have just passed by, or perhaps is just about to arrive. In all Looking Beyond the Edge is an interesting show, a different look at a familiar name and altogether a more convincing coherent use of this space by the two curators than the show of Japanese work which appeared here last year.

If Looking Beyond the Edge studiously avoids images of conflict, then Nothing but Blue Skies might be seen as a consideration of the opening salvo in an entirely new type of conflict, one where the role of photographers like Don McCullin remains hugely uncertain. Curated by Mélanie Bellue and festival director Sam Stourdzé, the exhibition draws together artists who have looked in very different ways at the impact of the attacks of September 11th 2001. The show opens with a room consisting of dozens of newspaper front pages collected by Hans-Peter Feldmann and spread across all four walls. This simple but powerful display underlines both the heterogeneity of media responses to the attack, ranging from the hyperbolic to the measured, and also hinting at the complex role that the media played in perpetuating the shock of these events through their reporting of them. Headlines scream of a ‘World under attack’, an ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘40,000 dead’. The media’s ambiguous role in this event is picked up in a short text by Jean Paul Curnier, one of several that sit in the space alongside the works and which each briefly examine pertinent issues around the visualization of the attacks. The prescience of these texts in the gallery seems to me like a tacit acknowledgment by the curators that to allow images like these to ‘speak for themselves’ is inherently fraught, and that even after mediation by artists they still require further context and explanation.

Proceeding further into the show the works become more meditative and more about the aftermath and memory of the attacks. Cotton Under my Feet by Waalid Raad charts his fraught attempts to recall the colour of the sky on the day of the attacks. In order to do so the artist starts to collect images of the New York skyline which he then proceeds to digitally cut away at, removing everything in the image but the sky itself. The cuts are jagged, violent and the white patches left behind where areas have been removed are both resonant of absence, but also suggestive in their outlines, hinting in many cases at the shape of the World Trade Centre, in one case the outline of an airliner impossibly similar to the one which was immortalized by countless cameras as it curved gracefully into the second tower. The works in this show also rove far wider than photography. Save Manhattan 2 by Mounir Fatmi is a model cityscape roughly similar to Manhattan, but constructed out of VHS cassettes. The magnetic guts of these tapes spills out onto the floor around the sculpture like the cloud of dust which settled over the island after the collapse of the towers. Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski is the final piece of the show and in many respects the one which left the greatest impression. In it, video clips extracted from Hollywood movies are montaged together into a narrative reassembling the chronology of the attacks. The effect is strangely powerful, as disparate clips extracted from American Psycho, Wall Street, Die Hard, Independence Day, Marathon Man and many others combine with the viewer’s memory of that day to create an account which recalls documentary films like 102 Minutes That Changed America but hovers uncomfortably between fact and fiction. Lurking behind the work is a commentary on the United State’s dark fascination with images of it’s own destruction and the subtext that before the day which ‘changed everything’ these same images had already been rehearsed on the silver screen a thousand times.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Schmaltz and Secrecy: The Obama Legacy

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Detail from Situation Room showing classified documents in front of Hillary Clinton.
Pete Souza 2011 (wikipedia)

It’s the most inward form of photography writing to critique another writer’s thoughts, but reading a recent piece by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on the work of White House photographer Pete Souza was a reminder that this sort of writing is sometime badly needed. It’s needed in this case less because Jones is a useful or thoughtful critic worthy of consideration but more because The Guardian gives him a platform with such authority that someone, anyone, needs to periodically take him to task over his writing, which vacillates between acerbic hatchet jobs and simpering fan pieces (although it must be said that ever so occasionally he does get it right). In his latest piece Jones fawns over the photographs produced by Souza during Obama’s two terms in office, swallowing the narrative these photographs are intended to transmit without even a moment’s reflection on the circumstances of their production. Even as he praises Souza as a photographer, Jones seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of looking at photographs, which is to always remember the photographer’s role in their creation.

Photographs are not portals on the world which appear unbidden, they are not utterances are given voice without someone articulating them. They are considered constructions, whether constructed in the moment of their shooting (and before) or in their selection, arrangement, contextualisation, and dissemination out into the world. Jones, who is normally so ultra critical of photography (indeed once calling the medium ‘flat, soulless and stupid’ in the context of fine art) manifestly fails in the role of a critic to ask even the most basic questions of the Souza’s images. Souza is very proficient photographer, and it’s not my intention to denigrate him on that front, but his photographs are unavoidably the product of an extremely effective press machine, one which exists to stage manage and represent the presidency in a very particular light which has absolutely nothing to do with creating an objective ‘chronicle’. It’s not for nothing that the visual analysis blog Reading the Pictures often analyses White House photographs critically (ironically Jones even links to an article on the site, presumably without having read much further). These photographs might speak the language of documentary, but in any traditional sense they are not, and Obama’s presidental career and his legacy are far more complicated than these photographs suggest.

In the United States Obama might perhaps be remembered less for what he did during his time in office than for the way his election itself seemed to push America closer to realising its founding creed of equality (even if some of the major markers for racial equality show widening gaps). While that narrative might appeal to American citizens keen to believe that their nation is realising it’s long held aspirations, it might have much less resonance in some parts of the world where the fallout of Obama’s two terms are likely to be remembered quite differently. These photographs speak little if at all of the revelations of absolutely massive US surveillance programs, the prosecution of more whistle-blowers than any previous president, and the escalation of illegal drone wars which have killed thousands of innocent people in states with which the United States is not even at war. This is to say nothing of the failure to shut the prison at Guantanamo bay, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and Obama’s general record on secrecy, for example his administrations unwillingness to reveal the extent of the CIA’s torture program. Of course you can argue that mahy of these wrong doings were inherited, that Obama was just cleaning up his predecessors mess, or towing the presidential line, but to me doing so is a little like arguing about whether a photographer is responsible for a lab technician manipulating his photographs or not. These things happened (or in some cases didn’t) on Obama’s watch, and like it or not that makes these things as much a part of his legacy as Obamacare or his reset of relations with Cuba.

Souza’s photographs chronicle very few of these important things (in some respects it would be unrealistic to expect them to do otherwise) and where they occasionally do, as for example in the case of the now iconic photograph Situation Room, they do so in a way which is meticulously designed to send the ‘right’ message. In the case of Situation Room the calculated message is of a president taking his responsibilities incredibly seriously, indeed overburdened by them, surrounded by the wisdom of his accumulated advisors, and so on. The few truly informative details of this photograph is also the most overlooked; the blank laptop screens, a pixelated document on the laptop in front of Hillary Clinton and a binder on her lap marked TOP SECRET/CODE WORD/NOFORN (that last one the intelligence abbreviation for ‘no disclosure to foreign nationals’). These small items are to me the closest Souza comes to hinting at the true legacy of the last eight years, and indeed the last sixteen, which are a profound secrecy and the rigorous control of information. These are things which Souza as White House photographer is arguably a part of, and there have been regular criticisms from photographers and press organisations about the way the White House prioritises its own photography while restricting access for photojournalists. In 2013 Santiago Lyon, the Associated Press’s head of photography, went so far as to write a piece for the New York Times in which he accused the White House of exercising an Orwellian control over the presidents image with the intention of producing ‘a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.’

Saying all of this is not to underplay the historic significance of Obama’s election and presidency, nor is it to question his remarkable charisma and what in a different time might have been termed his ‘common touch’ which is certainly demonstrated in many of Souza’s photographs. It is however to question the extent to which these things become a dense smokescreen around the figure of the president and his administration, and the way that issues which are arguably of far greater importance than Obama playing games with small children or dancing tenderly with an elderly woman get shifted into the background as a result. It’s worth looking at Souza’s very similar photographs of Ronald Reagan, who I suspect many Obama advocates would harbour far less positive feelings about, to see how these moments feel when the subject is someone whose policies you don’t agree with. Souza’s earlier photographs say nothing of Reagan’s divisive economic agenda, his escalation of the Cold War, the Iran Contra affair, the Invasion of Grenada, his retrograde views on HIV/AIDS, or any number of other things which we might now consider to be indelible parts of his legacy. As it was with Regan, so it is now with Obama. If Jones wants a true picture of these last two terms then by all means he is welcome to include some of Souza’s official schmaltz, but if he wants that chronicle to have a grain of truth in it Jones will need to look beyond the photographs on Whitehouse’s Instagram feed. He’ll need to look for photographs which for the most part are still waiting to be taken, or daresay I say it, constructed. Photographs which wait to be given voice in the cells of Fort Leavenworth, amongst the server racks of the NSA’s massive data centers, and in the remote mountains of Waziristan.

Volatile Smile by Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

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High-frequency trading workspace, #14, 2010.
Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann

Like all technologies, photography emerged from a very particular milieu, and in certain ways all its subsequent applications and adaptations will reflect the concerns of that moment. In the context of photojournalism and documentary photography what often feels awkwardly evident and yet rarely spoken of is that while the world has changed enormously since 1839, moving by most consensuses into a new age (whether the age of information, the anthropocence, (post-)post-modernity or something else) photography for the most part hasn’t. Digital imaging is in some respects a dramatic leap forward, but beyond the end of photography’s physical existence in some ways it just represents an electronic emulation of the type of photography pioneered by Niépce, Talbot et al, and not such a dramatic step forwards as is often suggested. Their world was one grappling to visualise and understand things just beyond the vanishing point of human physiology, things like the craters of the moon like the movement of a galloping horses legs. Today we grapple with many issues which are perceptually speaking in different orders of magnitude. When the camera’s exposure is measured in seconds what does it mean to try to use this technology to speak about processes which occur in a thousandth or less of that, who’s major actors are composed of lines of code, and who’s actions leave few tangible traces beyond evaporating energy? Can the camera and the ways that it encourages us to think about and see the world be retooled to meet these new challenges? These are constant and at times crushing questions for me.

Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann are an artistic duo based in the United States using photography to examine a range of subjects, but I think of particular interest for this discussion is their 2014 book Volatile Smile which examines financial markets, looking at them through a series of visual studies of trading spaces and apparatuses, and ending with a series of images of american homes repossessed as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. Marx famously wrote that what capitalism desired above all else was the annihilation of space and time, a potent metaphor which remains useful in thinking about capitalism and technology today. Innovations like hyper-fast algorithmic trading make that latter objective seem ever more real and the consequences of it ever more troubling. Probably the most widely seen part of Volatile Smile are a series of photographs of algorithmic trading stations in the Willis Tower, Chicago, a city which lies on one of the fibre optic laylines that make high frequency trades possible. These workstations are where human overseers monitor the programs which make and lose fortunes in a fraction of a blink of an eye. Rather than usual single or dual monitor of most modern offices (dual monitors already speaking to a sense of information overload), these desks abut entire walls of  blacked out monitors, with other empty supports waiting for new ones to be plugged in to them like some sort of alien life support systems awaiting new dependents. Close ups of the work surfaces reveal little in the way of personalisation one might expect in even the most corporate workspace, the one reoccurring hint of human presence are a series of images of hand sanitizer products, images which I find hard to read except with the implication of a workforce desperately trying to wash themselves clean of something.

Sahn and Geissler are artists, not journalists, but I think their work sheds light on some of the difficulties of contemporary visual journalism. Like those photography projects which seek to reveal the essence of the internet by presenting us with images of shining server rooms, photographs of algorithmic trading desks tell us comparatively little about the context and consequences of these practices, and reveal that the axiom on which photojournalism has long been built is often no longer relevant. Robert Capa famously declared that if a photograph wasn’t good enough it was because the photographer had not been close enough, in other words that good photojournalism was about proximity to the story (a declaration which of course didn’t stop Capa from occasionally reinventing the story and his proximity to it as circumstances required). This traditional approach is part of the angle pursued in Volatile Smile, the photographers have come right to the heart of the labyrinthine financial empires being made possible by high frequency trading algorithms, and at the heart of the labyrinth they have found no Minotaur but instead a series of blank black screens, devices intended for imparting information but which instead remain uncompromisingly blank. In the new era of nebulous and elusive topics, spatial proximity has ceased to be a guarantor of journalistic revelation or insight. In capitalism’s war on space and time and in particular in terms of the way that conflict is represented by journalists and artists, it sometimes feels as if it has almost succeeded in annihilating space, and is well on the way to rendering time as we think of it, an archaic irrelevance.