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Friday, 28 February 2014

My German Family Album













So it goes with the German family album, which is where these pictures are from - my German family album. Everything changes when it's Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. The arms change, the landscapes change, the factories change. More of this later.

The seaside pictures are from Baltrum in the Friesian Islands and the top picture is from a small village in northern Germany.

The Good, the Bad and the Pervy: Nazis then and Now





From East Germany back to the Second World War and Nein Onkel, the Archive of Modern Conflict's collection of images of German soldiers from 1938-1945. It was published in 2007, but what the heck, it all connects so I'll write about it now.

These pictures go in a sunrise to sunset formation, and feature German soldiers (Luftwaffe, Panzer troops, Afrika Corps and Flak regiments all figure) having fun most of the time.

These are not conflict photographs then. When we see them riding a donkey or standing in a field full of flowers, it's more Dad's Army or the Sound of Music than Come and See or Saving Private Ryan. Except for the guy who's pictured passed out with a bowl full of spew in front of him. Captain Von Trapp it is not.

The stereotype of Germans in films has often been analysed (and no better than here). There's the Man of Culture German (he's not really a Nazi), the Shouty German (Definitely a Nazi), the Pervy German (definitely a Nazi - also see Herr Lipp) and the organised German (can go both ways).

Nein Onkel adds a couple more categories to this list - the Fun Guy, the Family Man and the Farming German are three additions you could have. And even though there a few Swastikas in there, the Nazi side of things is underplayed - there are, quite deliberately I would guess, no SS or Gestapo because, even if they did run sack races or get dressed in ladies' frocks, there's really no getting away from the fact that they did terrible things. We've all seen too many films to know that is not the case.

Which of course ties into the postwar division of Germans into the Evil Nazis and the Germans who Didn't Know Anything soldiers. The idea was unlikely but promoted so that things could be swept under the carpet and Germany be allowed to flourish safe in the knowledge that it was only a few people who were responsible for the atrocities.

Well of course that wasn't the case, but by showing these Germans doing things we (or I, here in the UK) are more accustomed to seeing British or American soldiers doing, the book raises the question that if the Germans look like the Americans or Brits and we know that beneath that sack-racing veneer the Germans did terrible things, what terrible things did our side do?

Buy the book here.

Read another review of the book here. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

An East German Photobook Adventure: Tractors, Photofits and Textiles



I visited Rudi Thoemmes in Bristol yesterday. Rudi is organising the Bristol Photobook Festival that is happening in June. He also runs a photobook dealership RRB Photobooks and has a massive collection of books from the DDR, East Germany.

These are books that are virtually unknown outside Germany. They reveal a history that connects to the unified Germany of the Second World War and before, as well as to the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So they are not just photographic documents, they also reflect ideas, ideologies and world events - sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. They also reflect a sensibility that runs counter to what we take for granted, a sensibility that can be authoritarian, utilitarian and brutally direct.




The books fell into several distinct categories. One group consisted of anniversary books, books that celebrated 20years of the existence of the DDR, or (below) the 4 year anniversary of the foundation of Greater Berlin Municipal Authority.






There are albums; police albums (see the photofit picture above), army albums, school albums and factory albums. Boxed portfolio sets showed idealised housing estates or construction projects and there are fancy design additions such as this yellow acetate in this offering from the Dederon Textile Company.







 And fitting into this category are some of the best known East German photobooks that looked at the construction of Berlin's Stalin Strasse Apartment block, the coup in Chile or the conflict in the Congo.









Other offerings include travel photobooks (and these sold in huge numbers - 50,000 copies was common), photobooks celebrating international friendship. The picture below is from Addis Ababa and shows the locals being obliged to take their sunday off out to watch a DDR tractor display. What could be better than that in the noonday Ethiopian sun.



More tractors come in this children's book - it's a kind of Tractor Tom but even more animal friendly.



There were also more political books, such as Dirk Alvermann's books on West Germany and Algeria, the latter of which is especially notable (and is, along with the autobahn book, in the 1st Photobook History).



And then there are the worker's books. I particularly enjoyed the Postwomen book.



It's fascinating both for what it shows and what it doesn't show (there are no Stasi books for example), and for the scale of photographic culture that existed in the DDR, a scale that shows how deep-seated photographic culture can be, far deeper than the very narrow photographic culture that we generally talk or read about. And that's interesting! And worth examining.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Photographs and Emotional Memories


Even though my dad was a convinced pacifist, traumatised by his experience as a boy in World War II — or maybe because of that — I was obsessed with toy guns and forming imaginary armies. Now, looking at this picture taken in our backyard, it becomes clear to me that not all of my friends shared my fanaticism.
Jan Adriaans, romka #8


Another example of somebody using the archive in a smart way is Joscha Bruckert at Romka Magazine. The latest issue is a sharpened up version where people submit pictures and the also write the story behind them. It's more focussed on how the image connects to emotional experience. So it's vernacular photography but with 3 dimensions.

A lot of the pictures are to do with family and relationships, with people who the writer has lost touch with, who they have quarrelled with, who they have lost or then found. Some provide a background to the image to explain where that seascape, that graffitied wall, that motorbike fit into people's lives.

The memories are emotional and so provide a deeper narrative link into the pictures. And because they reflect particular emotions through the picture and text combination, so they open up in our minds particular images. And because the images are recognisable and familiar, we do respond to them in kind. It's an interesting effect to see different ideas of emotion, memory and recollection interact.

This connects to the idea that when we are happy we are more likely to store happy thoughts in our memory and when we are unhappy we are more likely to store unhappy thoughts in our memory. Likewise for recalling; when we are miserable, we enter miserable memory land, when delighted we enter delighted memory land.

And so it goes for pictures. Most of our reading is very unconscious and connects to a falsification of memory and emotion.This is one of the basic ways pictures work on us, getting beneath our skin and shaping our viewing experience without us even knowing it. I think Romka is tapping into that. I think all the sophisticated archival and vernacular experiments are tapping into that. I don't think anyone exactly knows how it's tapping in, because it's not an easy thing to tap into and itt takes a certain kind of picture. But it's happening.

So it's all about how non-rational we are, how emotional we are, how false photographs can be. In one sense, I suppose it is. But I like to take the opposite track and regard that emotion, those lizard brain twitches to visual stimuli as evidence of how truthful photographs essentially are. They only become non-truthful when we put them under the control of our rational brain. All photographs express a truth; but that truth is often a lie.

Romka is made in Leipzig's Institut für Buchkunst which is also a happening place in book arts or it could just be that I'm feeling all DDR today.

The images below are from the Yesterday's Pictures series but also have a look at Jens KIein's wonderful four book set from the Stasi archive, Hundewege. Index eines konspirativen Alltags, a cold pack of surveillance images that comes with all edges attached.



Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Photographic Caste System



In the previous post, Barbara de Genevieve cut through the rhetoric of ethics and identity politics to make a non-puritanical claim for the scope of photographic representation. I think her main goal was really to strip away the power of a particular way of thinking - a way of thinking that idealises marginal or minority groups through language and then marginalises them some more through arbitrary rules that place the rule makers at the top of a hierarchy and the subjects of those rules some way below.

That's a good thing to break into little pieces. It's the idea that the photographer (and the world of which he or much less often she - 86% of World Press submitting Photographers were men, 14% were women - is part) is somehow all-seeing, all-knowing, the only one aware of the power of photography and the way in which it can objectify and humiliate. The photographer is investing too much of the old magic stuff in the power of the image. We pretend we are rational but really believe that the photograph captures souls in some way.

There are questions of how they various groups should be represented, how they can be represented but all too often these get lost in a miasma of auto-response phraseology. This phraseology and way of thinking is more about continuing some strange representational Caste System in which the poor and afflicted are - guess what - the poor and afflicted. They're bottom of the caste system. They are the visually untouchable.

And tied in to that untouchability are all kinds of neuroses, especially those that involve a hatred for the body and its functions in all its organic forms. So de Genevieve is really questioning some of those neuroses  and wondering whether the theoretical body-hating part of photography isn't really more to do with simple body-hating. It's disgust dressed up as ideas. But I might be projecting there.

So let's say de Genevieve is shaking all that way of thinking up.

Possibly in the same way, that's the idea behind The Archive of Modern Conflict. Certainly if you watch this video of Timothy Prus (he runs the archive), you will hear him talk about how the archive is about redefining what photography is or can be. In other words, it's changing the history of photography.

So maybe the Archive of Modern Conflict is moving what photography is about away from the gatekeepers in academia, in the media, in the advertising industry? So perhaps the taste for all things archival is a kind of reshaping of photographic identity, a reordering of our visual priorities.

Or perhaps not. There's a point in the film where (if I remember rightly and there's a good chance that I don't) Prus tells us that his uncle was the Minister of Windmills in Poland and that he has 17 books of his uncle opening Polish windmills. Which I'm sure is true, and I hope it is true, but there's a small part inside of me that says no that isn't true in any sense whatsoever.

I'm not sure that it matters in any case. Photography of all kinds is about stories and the idea that there is such a thing as a Minister of Windmills is quite delightful and makes a welcome change from the more conventional and sinister Ministers of Information, Security and Education.

So this idea is a loosening up, it's the idea that there's more than one perspective and that more than one type of image has value. It's also connected to the slightly impractical idea of photography as something aloof from economic necessity. So it's not about serious news photographers pimping themself out to the press, or art photographers pimping themselves out to the art world or fashion photographers pimping themselves out to misogynist frock designers or social photographers trying to make a living making beautiful images of couples on their wedding day.

It's about more than that. It's about how we make, use and see photography on a daily basis. And that is something that is still ignored and by ignoring it we have devalued sophisticated photography. Photography is given away for free, it's used to idealise and mythologise, to elevate and uphold entire industries. Music and fashion and news are powered by images, they couldn't really exist without photography yet what really do they give back? How do they pay for it? The little bits that we here so much about, but most of it they get for free.

I think by examining how the visual mythologies of the world are created and upheld, a more rounded view of photographic history will help explore exactly how photography works. And that will create a larger demand for more sophisticated and powerful photography. And there are people who are very obviously and clearly doing this already. What the comeuppance of a more sophisticated photography is is another question. And the answer to that question might not be good.

But then again, it might be very good. Here's a video Letizia Battaglia and her work on the mafia among other things. Thanks Simone for the link.

And here is her show at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, on until 4th May.


Monday, 24 February 2014

Paying for Pictures: Prostitutes and the Homeless





picture above by Philip-Lorca diCorcia

It's always good to see Philip-Lorca diCorcia's Hustlers and now that there is a book of the pictures out, we can read about it some more too. This is what Joerg Colberg says about the pictures, the central element of which is a transaction where diCorcia pays male prostitutes a fee (normally paid for sexual services) to take their picture.

"That’s what makes Hustlers such a powerful body of photography, such an indictment of the larger culture that spawned it. It’s all about the sex and the money and the violence. It’s all right there, sex and money in obvious ways, and the violence in the form of the larger sphere that creates the boundary conditions within which for some people there is only one way to survive."

Colberg also points out that diCorcia '...spent money given to him by the US government, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, to pay these hustlers, sticking it to Congress and their “general standards of decency.”'

The "general standards of decency" being that you don't make work that involves giving money to prostitutes. And that is exactly what diCorcia's project is about.

Another artist who paid people to pose is Barbara de Genevieve. She was also villified (along with Andres Serrano and Merry Alpern) for using National Endowment of the Arts funding to produce work that was interesting.

In her Panhandler project, De Genevieve paid homeless people to pose naked. This project arose when a student of de Genevieve was making work on the homeless and de Genevieve started listening to herself talk about how you should make work on the homeless, the language you should use about the homeless, how you should protect the homeless etc, etc. And she saw how basically she was making the homeless became this homogenised "them" where all gradations and subtlety of being are lost to

'...the politically correct situation where we have to protect "them" even though there is no collective "them" and even though the idea of protection is in itself a remnant of a rather odious colonizing attitude. I was responding in the typical, liberal, hyper-sensitive, white, academically correct mode that had been established over the past 30 years in parallel with the politically correct language of feminism and identity politics.'

With this in mind, de Genevieve worked out that

'Most problematic is the assumption made by many cultural and photographic theorists that this segment of the population is incapable of giving informed consent about the use of their image. It has become routine to denounce such images as exploitive and objectifying, based on the predictable and unexamined illusion the art world and PC liberals like to entertain - that homeless and marginalized people everywhere are a protected class of victims. I don't believe academia is really interested in providing anything but the faulty logic of protectionist rhetoric that further marginalizes already marginalized people.'

And so she went out and photographed homeless men naked. She paid them money for a hotel for the night, bought them meals and photographed them. I really like this idea. I find it strangely liberating because it doesn't employ those hierarchical ethical debates in which the photographer /artist is placed on some upper plane as part of an all-seeing, all-knowing judge and jury. And I like it because it's physical and it shows black, male nudes but this is underplayed and incidental while also being completely central.

There are lots of ways to read a picture, lots of different perspectives that play out in how we see it, how we understand it. Let's do a cake analogy because cakes are good. A picture is like a good cake, with many ingredients - where the cake has the flour, eggs, butter, sugar ingredients, a picture has how the subject sees it, how the photographer sees it, how the subject wants to be seen, how the world sees it.

Go online and find an American recipe for a cake. The cake will be great but you have to cut the sugar in half or you end up with something that is sickly-sweet. Similarly for pictures. Follow the American/Angloid recipe for pictures and you end up placing too much emphasis on how a very small section of non-picture making critics see the picture. You end up with too much superiority, bitterness and constraint. You lose the earthiness, physicality and uncertainty.

All de Genevieve is doing is taking one or two of those perspectives down a shift and returning things to a more egalitarian and organic balance. See her pictures and watch the videos of them being made here and  and read her project statement here.

There's an interview here.



Barbara de Genevieve Panhandler Project



Friday, 21 February 2014

Saudi Arabia, Somalia and a Bristol Schoolgirl



The most important and very simple thing about Wadjda and Single Saudi Women  is the visibility it presents of a world that most people never see.

I have seen news on the TV about Saudi Arabia. But those stories have always been about men, and most of the time they are obsessive or neurotic men. So it's a not a positive picture.

I have read books about Saudi, but again, they are man books about man things like oil, religion and war. So  it's a man picture again -  and it's not a positive one.

I have come across Saudi influence all over the place. I have visited mosques built with Saudi money and met men who work or worship in those mosques. I don't need to tell you what kind of a picture it is. Money changes everything!

I used to live in a house which had been a kind of holding station for people on their way to Saudi. And I've met and spoken to lots of people who have worked in Saudi. No matter what their religion, gender or nationality, I have felt only hostility bordering on hatred. Never love.

So Wadjda presents a completely different perspective to Saudi Arabia, a woman's perspective , a perspective that changes everything and brings it into 3 dimensions that go beyond oil, religion and war. There are women there and they have feelings. Who'd have guessed.

And as soon as you get that happening, then outlandish things like this story on women only being allowed to visit hospitals with a male guardian present become much more real. The outrage comes to the surface, the voice and the visibility become three dimensional rather than an amorphous shape shrouded in a black abaya.

This creates a model to act against a conformity that is not just in men's way of thinking, but also in women too. Women will also maintain the status quo by saying that this kind of dress is necessary, that the man is always right, that she needs to be protected against the immorality of her male world by her male guardian. It's a denial of freedom in which the woman gains status through conforming to a patriarchal power structure that belittles women.

And that's not just in Saudi. That's everywhere. Here in the UK, women collude in a patriarchal disgust of the female body (it's evident on the magazine racks of every supermarket), in the belittling of physicality, sexuality, desire and individuality. It's a denial of freedom where the woman gains status through conforming to a patriarchal power structure. The body isn't dirty or disgusting!

But of course it's not just individual or communal. It's also institutional. And in the UK, institutions play a part in this denial of freedom. Educational institutions are a fine example. I used to work in a college in Bristol which had a huge number of students from Somali, Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani backgrounds . Female Genital Mutilation, Forced Marriage and Domestic Violence were concrete realities for many of our students.

Yet there was no coherent policy or training on how to deal with these issues when they arose. And because of that, the problems rarely arose - because if you a student, what's the point of putting your head above the parapet when you are going to be met with ineffectual hand-wringing at best.

But you always had girls (and boys) who spoke up against the status quo and they always had an influence on the way others thought, dressed, spoke and behaved. So it was heartening to see girls and boys flourishing and opening up to the possibilities beyond the constraints that some had imposed upon them.

It was a similar case in Bristol schools. Lip service was paid to addressing the needs of students from the communities mentioned above but the schools simply didn't have the energy or resources necessary. If you put a thirteen-year-old boy or girl who has not had a primary education into a secondary school and expect them to flourish, it's not going to happen.

Inclusion doesn't happen overnight because you will it to happen. And it especially doesn't happen if your funding is being cut, if voluntary sector services for parents are being cut, if outreach programmes are being cut, if everything that is designed to enculturate and allow people to grow in a new society has been cut.

That's why it was so heartening to read about Fahma Mohammed and her petition to tell schools to teach the risks of genital mutilation before the summer. She is:

A Bristol teenager has been chosen to lead a national campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM).
Fahma Mohamed, 17, is one of nine daughters in a Muslim Somali family who came to Britain when she was seven.
She has seen at firsthand among her friends and family the devastation that FGM can cause and, along with her classmates, has been campaigning for her school in Bristol to do more.
Along with Fahma, a broad coalition of charities and campaigners have joined the Guardian newspaper to ask the Education Secretary Michael Gove to write to head teachers of all primary and secondary schools, urging them to flag up the dangers of FGM before the summer holidays, when girls are at the greatest risk.

I

As with Wadjda, Fahma Mohammed is making herself visible, she is being a named and public precedent, she's somebody saying that no, this isn't some cultural nicety that can be swept under the carpet because of cultural sensitivities - sensitivities that are used as an excuse by men and women of all ethnicities, an excuse that often masks laziness, neglect or violence. This is abuse and has to be recognised as such.

The poet, Warsan Shire is also part of this visibility, and is involved in the  campaign to get FGM recognized in schools. This is something so fundamental that it is hard to believe it doesn't exist already.

"I write poems on FGM because I have been raised and loved by a community where many people I know have undergone this procedure. To work towards the eradication of this practice, their voices need to be heard."

One of her earlier poems, The Things We Lost in the Summer was inspired by the experiences of people she knew who were to be cut when they were on the cusp of puberty.

And how is all this connected to photography. Because by being three dimensional, by providing a voice that has dynamism and passion and life, we can make things visible. That's what Haifaa al Mansour did with Wadjda, that's what Wasma Mansour did with Saudi Interiors and that is what Fahma Mohammed and Warshan Shire are doing with their FGM campaign. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

People see Saudis as "non-human"






The previous post looked at the Wadjda, the first Saudi film. It is a film where the main character, Wadjda, negotiates her way through different social spaces to get herself the object of her dreams - a bicycle. It's a bicycle that represents the physical freedom to roam, the bodily freedom to express itself, the freedom of equality and the sexual freedom of becoming a woman. 

It's all about body then. But it is also about the different spaces a woman can inhabit - from the anonymous half-built spaces of Riyadh to the spaces of the street, the institutional spaces of the school and the private and shared spaces of the home.



This use of space, the humour of the main character, the physical expression through clothes and gesture gave the film three dimensions. I've met a few Saudis before, had coffee with them and chatted with them, I've read a few books about the country, but this added something that I had never seen before, especially because it was making Saudi women visible. As Ahd Kamel, the actress who plays the main character says in this video on the film, "People look at Saudi in a very black and white way... They see Saudis as non-humans."

When I saw Wadjda, I thought of Wasma Mansour's work on  single Saudi women interiors. I thought of her even more when she told me her best friend, Ahd (who's mentioned above) played the evil headmistress, Miss Hussa, a women with a face that is bile and vinegar in human form. 

Ahd is not only an actor but also a movie director. See her film Sanctity hereAnd see her talking about the film and her role in Wadjda here

So I thought I would ask Wasma a few questions. And she very kindly answered. 







How do interiors express a Saudi woman’s identity?
The interiors can  be considered as windows into the participants lives. My photography in a sense explored traces of the participants’ activities, rituals and habits, carried out in the privacy of their homes. They also highlighted important, sometimes symbolic, items that evoked memories of family and home life in Saudi Arabia.

Why are these interiors important?
In my project, the home emerges as a dynamic space which elucidates how the participants are grapple with their past and present realities. The domestic sphere is important primarily because the women have a considerable control, and often full control over how they choose to exist within them (and outside them) in the UK. Since most of the participants lived with their families back in Saudi Arabia, their past living experience I would say was managed or overseen by their guardians (domestically) or the religious police as state apparatus which is given the licence to regulate people’s comportment and appearance in the public domain. This is limiting for the participants in many ways.

How private are they?
By they, I am assuming that you mean the participants. I think the majority of the participants value privacy in that most of them requested to conceal their faces from being visible in the portraits I took of them. 

Do these interiors conceal as well as reveal?
Interesting question.  When I explained my work to the participants, particularly the part about photographing their private spaces, I gave them the full licence to, in a sense, curate their space for the camera.  

What are the negotiations that Saudi women must negotiate?
There are issues that don’t allow much room for negotiation in Saudi, such those related to faith and tradition for example. With regards to religion, there are main principles that one should follow and subscribe to, and any infraction would incur serious repercussions. There are more room for manoeuvrability within the cultural norms and tradition though, as these often evolve with time and political and socioeconomic transformations, not to mention that the rapid development with communication and technology, exposure to other value systems around the world makes people revise some old traditions.  An example of this can be seen in the ways that the veil has transformed in Saudi Arabia.  The premise of the veil is to conceal the woman’s body in the public domain, and yet at the moment, many Saudi fashion designers have subverted this and have turned the ‘abayah’ (veil cloak) to a fashion statement.

Are there any negotiations that can’t be mentioned?
I think the negotiations that are risky to reveal, even to me, are the ones that concern religion.  Of course even some traditions feel almost impossible to change, especially amongst the tribal segments of Saudi society, because for these groups of people, the collective identity is the priority, and the individual must not compromise them in any way.




Monday, 17 February 2014

Escape from the Taliban and the World Press Photo





Another new arrival last week was the first Amc2 journal. It's basically a collection of different kinds of vernacular photography with the emphasis on visual pleasure and looking great.

There are pictures from the Book of Bread ("Not the book of bread!"), collections of cigarette cards, a Rock Hudson cut-out and dress kit and a series of Bollywood posters.




There is a text on what it was like to follow Bruce Gilden when he made his Middlesex series (more of which later) but overall there is minimal writing. The pictures take you one way and then kind of leave you there. They point the way in a certain direction but don't dictate what you should think when you get there.

The emphasis is on looking, on touching and taking pleasure in photography and I wonder if this is not part of a shift in photography into something a little more pleasurable than some of the hairshirt attitudes alive and kicking in photography.

Sometimes you get the feeling that a lot of people involved in photography don't really like photography or even looking at pictures (Susie Linfield wrote a book on this). To make a cooking analogy, it would be as if a food critic was only interested in the nutritional values or the source of the ingredients and was not at all interested in the taste, the smell or the texture of the food.

But photography is opening up and the mysterious Archive of Modern Conflict with its strange archives and eclectic range of publications is part of that. Last week the World Press Photo results were published and people got excited by the usual things - conflicts of interest and the question of whether the winning picture didn't resemble a mobile phone ad too much.

There was also the question of how relevant the World Press Photo awards are with the central industry of the press transforming so radically. I still buy and read a newspaper 6 days a week and get information and news that the internet simply doesn't provide. I also listen to the radio, but the idea that something like the radio can provide anything remotely comparable to the printed media is simply laughable. I do listen to Radio 4 and it has some great programmes on but for news! The Today programme in particular is a soapbox for corporate goons and Public Relations cyborgs. You have people on there who are responsible for poverty, pollution and misery across the globe yet the person who has had the biggest grilling on the programme this year was a guy who took food that was past its sell-by-date out of a supermarket bin. "But it's stealing," said the reporter. Corporate guests can make the most outlandish of claims and get off Scott free - it was Europe and its its failed experiment in multiculturalism this morning, the week before it was the apocalyptic scenario of bankers fleeing British shores if taxes for the wealthy were increased by five per cent and a month ago it was energy pimps saying why electricity prices would have to increase every year over the next twenty years if we didn't want all power to end of this moment.

But then you need to ask whether news or the press should be the main focal point for photography. I certainly don't buy newspapers for looking at photography (though I used to). I do buy books and magazines though and that's where people like Amc kick in; they are part of a shift away from a didactic, informational photography towards a broader photography that examines how images are made and consumed in broader culture; it's part of a move to question how we see images and the effect they have on us. And that question is becoming broader than ever before.

In that respect, it might be a move away from that painful documentary tradition, the discourse of sobriety ( as Bill Nichols said regarding documentary film, "The credo that a good documentary is one that draws attention to an issue and not itself follows from the documentary's epistephilic foundations. Engagement is the aim more than pleasure."). This is the discourse where pleasure in looking, in seeing, in understanding are denied, where the only things that matter are - well, go ahead, you've all read Susan Sontag - are the message.

Bill Nichols' said that if documentary is the discourse of sobriety, then film is the discourse of entertainment. So the hope is to bring that pleasure from film into the press, into documentary, into serious photography. I think that is why there is such a flourishing of photobooks, because it brings both visual and conceptual pleasure into the photobook.

It's the same in film. Pleasure in viewing, in the characters, in the narrative drive add depth to the ideas expressed and bring a story alive, even when that story is profound and deeply moving.

At the weekend I watched two films. The first was Escape from the Taliban, which is based on a true story of a Hindu woman who got married to an Afghan man and... well, you can pretty much guess the rest. I fell asleep after the first shouting man with beards/cowering women with veils scene. But my wife watched it to the end. So I asked

Me: 'Was it any good?'

K: 'Well there were more scenes of shouty men with beards and cowering women hiding behind their veils and the main character tried to escape lots of times but failed. But then in the end she picked up a machine gun and killed all the men with beards and got away.'

Me: 'So is it worth watching?'

K: 'No.'

Me: 'Even just for the highlights.'

K: 'No.'

Me: 'Even for the ending?'

K: 'No.'

So it's bad Bollywood and does a disservice to the experiences it is supposedly depicting. And that is shameful.

The other film I saw at the weekend was Wadjda, which was amazing. It is about a young Saudi girl who enters a Koran-reciting competition so that she can buy a bicycle. The film is  irrevent, witty and dynamic but is also about what it is like to live in a regime where if you are a woman, your body, your appearance, your language is controlled. The film examines how control comes both from male society, but also from within, through women who have internalised messages of conformity, shame, modesty and silence.



Wadjda is the first film made in Saudi Arabia and directed by a woman,Haifaa al Mansour. Which is a major thing. But what really makes the film great is the main character, played by Waad Mohammed. She is wonderful. See a fuller review here.

Character and narrative drive come first in this film and the issues are secondary. So rather than being a worthy but rather tedious lecture on women's lack of rights in Saudi Arabia, we see those ideas come through the wonderful characters - characters like the hawk-faced school principal who tells Wadjda "I used to be like you" but has a 'handsome thief' who comes to visit in the night.

So it's the discourse of entertainment first with the sobriety embedded within it, something I find far more engaging than being preached at by hairshirted presbyterians who believe that if it isn't good for you if it doesn't hurt you.






Sunday, 16 February 2014

It's a pleasure to look at, it's a pleasure to hold.







I gave a talk at PB Labs last week, that's the Bristol Photobook group that has sprung up in the last few years and is doing great things - including being involved in the Bristol Photobook Festival this coming June.

The talk I gave was on the mechanics of the photobook, on how page design can integrate with the design of a book and was for a really lovely and knowledgeable audience. A few examples I brought in were Macquenoise by Pierre Liebaert, The Altogether by Chris Coekin and the Miss Titus Becomes a Regular Army Mac by Melinda Gibson.

I didn't show Amc2 journal issue 8,  the latest publication from the Archive of Modern Conflict because I only got it on Saturday. But it would have fitted right in - it's gorgeous as an object in its own right, feels lovely in the hand and the design is not at all conceited. It ties in with the pictures that are contained in the charcoal black fan - studio images from China (collected by Thomas Sauvin) that encapsulate the last 70 years or so of Chinese dress and it comes in fan form, all encased in a toxic yellow perspex box.

It's gorgeous and it's supposed to be gorgeous. There's a point there. It's enjoyable to look at and it's enjoyable to hold. I feel like I'm on the verge of going all Swiss Toni here so I'd better stop... but you get the point.