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All Quiet on the Home Front Launches on November 11th

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

How to Live in a World we Don't Understand



This feature on novelist Nadeem Aslam struck me; he combines intensity, with dedication, humanism and his heritage without resorting to the prejudice of those who are lesser than him.

Read the whole feature here.

The Blind Man's Garden, his fourth novel, published by Faber on 7 February, opens soon after September 11, almost where The Wasted Vigil left off. But while the previous novel had no Pakistani characters, this one traces the spilling over of the Afghan war into its neighbour. People forget, Aslam says, that "Pakistan has paid a huge price for the war in Afghanistan". Since 2001, "upwards of 30,000 people have died in terrorist, jihadi violence. That's one 9/11 every year." Of the CIA drone attacks since 2004 on northern Pakistan, "only one in 50 'surgical strikes' is killing a militant. So they're taking out husbands, wives, children as 'collateral damage'."


His raw material is in "about a hundred" notebooks, over 25 years. An American soldier in The Blind Man's Garden has a tattoo that reads "Infidel" in Arabic, as though a boast. The shocking image came from a magazine photo of a real soldier that Aslam duly taped into his notebook


He barely pauses between books. "I've more or less realised my writing has cost me almost everything," he says. "Sometimes friendship, love – because there's not enough time to be with people, and never enough money. Work can take so much out of you, with 12- or 13-hour days. A study is a laboratory first – then a factory."


Once, he recalls, on his way to visit his mother, who was ill, "I opened the paper to find Martin Amis's 'thought experiment': that Muslims should be stopped from travelling. I broke into a sweat. They would stop me from getting on a train to see my sick mother because someone who looks like me has carried bombs." He appears stricken. "When I criticise Islam, it isn't in that tenor."

Monday, 25 February 2013

Gaza, Pepper Spray, Bosnia and the Holocaust.... and back again




picture by Paul Hansen


There was lots of discussion last week (and this week) about the World Press Photo winner and post-production ( the picture kind of reminded me of the terrible pictures they used to promote the Sopranos a few years back). I didn't think too much about/of the post-production because for me the staged nature of the picture and the dysfunction of an all male society it represented was far more interesting.


For all the heartbreak and tragedy of the picture, it didn't touch me whatsoever. It felt to me that the failure to discuss this kind of stagedness (the alley, the outrage, the players) is an example of a kind of normalisation within photography both of social and political dysfunction and the theatre of photojournalism and the conventions that frame what we see and the way that we see it.

That idea of normalisation led me to George Galloway's refusal to debate with an Israeli student because he doesnt recognise Israel. He also talked about normalisation -the acceptance of the unpalatable, unjust and downright cruel over the passing of time, in particular with reference to the politics of Israel. Galloway is anti-normalisation - in regards to Israel at least.

lt seems that the acceptance of this kind of all male representation of Palestinian society and our ailure to comment on that is an example of something that has been normalised.  We are seeing a brutalised society, one condemned by both itself and the trauma of the injustices inflicted upon it. So it's normalisation v normalisation, two houses plagued by their pasts.

Anyway, the picture from the Middle East that really said something about the cynicism, cruelty and spite of the region was this one by Ammar Awad below; four border police with one really into it, one not really into it but thinking he should be, one looking in another direction and another actively not looking. A real intersection of gazes!



That took me to The Holocaust and my Father: Six Million and One, a documentary about  the sons and daughter visiting the concentration camp where their father had been imprisoned - it's a story where degrees of forgetting, remembering (and 'not remembering' ) and moving forward all combine.

The way that trauma had been passed down from the parents to the children reminded me of  what the Somai writer Nuruddin Farah said in this article

 He once challenged fellow Somalis to "study the structure of the Somali family and you will find mini-dictators imposing their will … We become replicas of the tyrant whom we hate. When you rid yourself of a monster, you become a monster."

 He was once attacked online for insisting the "Afghan-type body tent is not culturally Somali. I said: 'My mother never wore a veil, nor my sisters.' They said my mother was not a Muslim." In the diaspora, he argues, "the majority could not articulate their Somali culture. The less you know about Islam, the more conservative people become."

Which led me right back to the film Six million and One and  the son who says ( of his father's suffering and witnessing of the most unimaginable horrors ) this didn't happen to us but we do have to remember it - there was a distancing effect in other words.

And that took me to those people who do more than remember that suffering and instead  almost resurrect it  by tattooing the concentration camp numbers of elderly relatives on their arms.

And they I was reading the paper on Saturday and read this feature on Bosnian-American writer, Aleksandar Hemon.  

Hemon wrote about two of his novels, the question of 'moral continuity' and the problems associated with ethical change.

"...the novel circles the idea of memory and morality. What happens, it asks, when certain memories recede from American life, and how can a nation have any moral continuity if its culture is amnesiac?"

and

 "One of Pronek's problems is that he seeks a kind of moral continuity," Hemon says. "If I change suddenly and decide not to be who I am right now what happens to all the other people that I'm connected with, and how do I sustain some kind of moral continuity."

And I think that takes me right back to the start and I'm wondering why we stick so firmly to our expectations of what photography in a particular should be, why we huddle into that one little corner of the visual space that this photography inhabits.

But then I think that  it's still a great picture and I'm off somewhere else again...








Friday, 22 February 2013

The Holocaust and my Father: Six Million and One



Six million and one is a documentary about the journey taken by the children of a Jewish holocaust survivor to the place where their father had been imprisoned. I saw it last night and it was quite amazing.

It wasn't the statistics or the horror that shone through  but the easy, cathartic way that the past reasserted itself in so many different ways, in the land, in the housing, in the relationships between the brothers and sisters who remembered what their father had been through and how he had survived, or how his soul survived, in a place where the life expectancy of prisoners was a week - Joseph Fisher, the father, lasted 10 months and wrote about his experience in a memoir that his children discovered after his death.

Fishers sons and daughter go to Austria and visit the concentration camp where he had been imprisoned. It was a small camp and now there is housing built on its land - pictures were overlaid (it reminded me of Shimon Atlie's holocaust projections) onto the contemporary film, and residents talked about how it felt to live there  - and have visitors make audio tours around their neighbourhood.

Family, beauty, winter and depth all combined as did the regrets about what their father had experienced and how this had effected the children and their respective relationships both to their father and each other. How the memory lived on in them also featured in their conversations (it was a very conversational film, which could be a bad thing in less emotionally literate and light-hearted - if that's the right phrase to use - people), so history and trauma was made personal. We saw how the horrors of the past can be passed down from generation and how they can traumatise individuals, families and ultimately nations.

See the movie here if you are in the UK.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The absurdity of the Zambian Space Programme


I used to love Horrible Histories ( a series of books and  BBC programme that is for children, but is also a kind of People's History of the UK). The writer, Terry Deary, said that he wrote it to make history interesting and relevant to all people, with a focus on the social and cultural history of the underdog. Fabulous.

Then he has to go and spoil it by attacking Britain's public libraries (which are already under attack from a philistine government) and that“no one has an entitlement to read a book for free, at the expense of the author, the publisher and the council tax payer. This is not the Victorian age when libraries were created to allow the impoverished to have access to literature.”

In my mind, Deary 's reputation has  taken a nosedive, and by extension, so has Horrible Histories.  It's a bit fickle and rather unfair, but that is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that I work with. I'm trying to compensate for my fickleness and like Horrible Histories again, but it still comes with a bitter taste, the idea that such a great programme should be made by such a big fool! How can that be!

By the same token, the same thing happens in reverse. So Julia Donaldson, who I always loved anyway, lifts my spirits with this article, and goes up a notch in my estimation. She says,  "I think it's brilliant that libraries are free. Not only do library users also buy books, but if some users genuinely are too poor to buy books, then it's great that we've got libraries for those people … [And] If libraries have any bearing on bookshops, it's the other way – libraries are creating readers," said Donaldson, who has "never met" a bookseller who believes libraries are putting them out of business.

 We make allowances and  over-compensate for those that we like. I do it all the time, and being aware of it doesn't really make it any better. It happens all the time with photography. Somebody's pleasant and kind and we like their work better. Someone's an asshole it goes the other way.

I wonder if that isn't what happened with Cristina de Middel's Afronauts. She is such an engaging speaker and livewire of a personality that we believe what we want to believe in her work because she's worth it. I think it's a great fun project, and an exercise in making things happen and improvising, but I don't think it has a depth to it. It's part of a long, long line of science fiction projects that connect to space and Africa
and it is entertaining for all that - that has value in itself. Political, a commentary on African development or our perceptions of the continent - not really. It's more of a depoliticisation than anything..

Not everyone agrees: this is what the inestimable John Edwin Mason said about the Afronauts. 

Cristina said that she was signifying?  Well, not precisely.  But darned close.  She told Pete that 


The Afronauts, in other words, is about us -- we non-Africans -- and the stereotypes and prejudices about Africa that we carry around in our heads.  It's about challenging those stereotypes and beliefs, on the sly, with humor, and with a sleight of hand.

'''''''''''''''''''''''
 
It seems to me that this is Cristina's strategy as well.  She takes what seems to be a playful look at the silly idea that Africans can build rockets and lures her readers into wondering why the idea seems so absurd.


I don't know but I think the whole premise of the Zambian Space Programme was absurd (and it was always the brainchild of an individual rather than a national programme). An article in the . the Lusaka Times reproduces this article from Discovery, which details how the Programme chief, Edward Nkoloso, unilaterally declared his eccentric ideas to the press.

In a newspaper editorial,  Nkoloso claimed to have studied Mars for some time from telescopes at his “secret headquarters” outside Lusaka, and announced that the planet was populated by primitive natives. (He graciously added that his missionaries would not force the native Martians to convert to Christianity.) In fact, he said, he could have achieved the conquest of Mars a mere few days after Zambia’s independence had UNESCO come through with the funding. Oh, he also called for the detention of Russian and American spies trying to steal his “space secrets” — and his cats.
 
It’s hard not to like Nkoloso, based on what little we know of him today. Here’s a grade school science teacher setting up his own national space program with a small group of trainees who had to roll downhill in a 44-gallon oil drum as part of Nkoloso’s plan to simulate the sensation of rushing through space. Zero gravity? He simulated that by having them swing from the end of a long rope, cutting the rope when they reached the highest point so they went into freefall. He also taught them how to walk on their hands, “the only way humans could walk on the moon.”

Naive? Ignorant? Sure. Especially in light of his less than dedicated volunteers: “They won’t concentrate on space flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon,” he complained. Indeed, the much-touted girl astronaut, Matha, became pregnant and her parents brought her back to their village.

You can read more of Nkoloso's proposal in the article. Is it absurd? Well, yes it is, clearly and obviously, to everybody involved in the case. We don't just have absurd people in Europe and America, there are absurd people in Africa as well and Nkoloso, as all Africans of sane mind would and do recognise, was top-grade absurd, as nutty as a fruitcake, as fruity as a nutcake.
 


Friday, 15 February 2013

World Press Photo Again!


 Picture by Micah Albert: Pausing in the rain, a woman working as a trash picker at the 30-acre dump, which literally spills into households of one million people living in nearby slums, wishes she had more time to look at the books she comes across. She even likes the industrial parts catalogs. “It gives me something else to do in the day besides picking [trash],” she said.
 The World Press Photo winners are up and well, what can I say that hasn't been said before, with knobs on and sprinkles on top. The world is a pretty small, unsophisticated, reactionary place, where the men shoot first and the women become crack addicts, prostitutes and get acid attacked.
There are some amazing pictures and stories up there - the pepper spraying of a protestor in Jerusalem is just so direct and spiteful. It's strange how that youthful spite carries so much more weight (for me at least) than the bodies lined up in the awards. 
But overall, I do feel that this is a kind of failed year, that the balance is wrong, that I don't understand the world better because of what I see, that if one made a world map based on this year's WPP winners, the Middle East would be way too big and other places way too small. It puts me off photography, in its lumpen misery with no respite - not that the misery doesn't need to be shown, but a less reactionary, knee-jerk visualisation of the world would be good. Here we mostly see just the pawns going about their depressing business and getting killed and tortured for their efforts. It would be good to go beyond the pawns to see how the world operates, to get the venality, spitefulness and deceit of the people and events that make these things happen.
.
 Anyway, I'll probably change my mind on that, because this is an off-the-cuff reactionary little blog. But my favourite picture so far is this one by Micah Albert. Here's the story.


Monday, 11 February 2013

Sylvia Plath Book Covers



It's the fifty-year anniversary of The Bell Jar, and the Guardian had an interesting array of author reactions to their first encounter with the book.


There has also been controversy over the cover of the anniversary issue of the book - the Bell Jar is about limited life chances, suffocation, depression and suicide, but the cover reflects something different. Jezebel had this to say:

If Sylvia Plath hadn't already killed herself, she probably would've if she saw the new cover of her only novel The Bell Jar. For a book all about a woman's clinical depression that's exacerbated by the suffocating gender stereotypes of which she's expected to adhere and the limited life choices she has as a woman, it's pretty fucking stupid to feature a low-rent retro wannabe pinup applying makeup. (Also, it's ugly and the colors suck.) But redesigning feminist staples and classic literary ladies to be more appealing to the larger and more lucrative chick lit audience is apparently a common practice (see the Twilight-branded cover of Wuthering Heights below).




John Dugdale says that there is hierarchy of portrayals of women on the covers of books by female authors from different eras. It breaks down into something like this

Contemporary authors: no women on the cover (silhouettes/shadows/backs/shoes or body parts are prominent instead).

Pre-20th century authors:A woman (in period dress) on the cover

Some exceptions: Women on the cover for crime/chicklit/biography


The idea is that having women on the cover means the book won't sell (unless the woman is Keira Knightley or Katie Price or Lisbeth Salander...).

It's a bit like those movies where women are supposed to be the main protagonist but their actions are reflected through a prism of male permission/inspiration - so the women become secondary players in their own movie. Made in Dagenham or Chak de India (or any Hindi film) are the two best examples I can think off from the top of my head.

And in (Documentary?) photography, how are women portrayed - are they reflected through a prism of male definition/permission/dominance? It's a huge question and ridiculously broad, but it just popped into my head as I was writing this, so...







Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Jim Naughten's Hereros







I was taken by Jim Naughten's portraits of Hereros in the latest edition of the BJP, partly because I went to South West Africa (as it then was) to learn German when I was 11 years old and remember seeing the big dresses worn by Herero women.

They are also just so striking. I don't know why, but there seems to be something odd about the portraits, the way in which the dress overwhelms the person who is being photographed. I can't for the life of me remember what the people in the portraits look like, I wouldn't be able to pick them out in an identity parade even 5 minutes after looking at the pictures. I don't think I could even remember what the people are wearing. So the pictures aren't memorable, the people aren't memorable, the clothes aren't memorable, the poses are jagged and awkward and the pictures are just that little bit off - everything about them is off. 

I do remember the shoes the boy in the bottom is wearing, and the cardboard cummerbund thing though - the imperfections shine through.

But despite the lack of memorability, the pictures are striking, and they look great on the printed page. This is what Naughten has to say about the clothes. 
  

In the European scramble to colonise Africa, Kaiser Wilhelm’s
Germany claimed one of the least populated and most hostile
environments on the planet. It became Deutsche Sudewest-
afrika. Though sparsely populated, it was already home to the
San, Nama and Herero people. Rhenish missionaries set about
converting and clothing them after European fashion. Over
time, this became a Herero tradition, and continuing to dress
in this manner was a great source of pride to the wearer.
Gradually, regional variations in the silhouette emerged; for
example, the addition of 'cow horns' to headdresses reflects
the great importance with which they regard their cattle.

War broke out between German colonizers and the local tribes
in 1904. The Herero tribe was devastated, having lost almost
eighty percent of its population. Garments became an important
expression of identity during these fragile times. Upon killing
a German soldier, a Herero warrior would remove the uniform
and adopt it to his personal dress as a symbol of his prowess in
battle. Paradoxically, as with the Victorian dresses, the wearing
of German uniforms became a tradition that is continued to
this day by Namibian men who honour their warrior ancestors
during ceremonies, festivals and funerals.