Cha Cha, Bang Bang

I’ve been meaning to watch this for some time, but was lacking the courage, until today. I knew I would be troubled and conflicted about the project, so I was struggling to decide whether I should even see it, to begin with. A friend’s description of the movie was what made me sit still, for 2 hours, and finally watch it. 

The project in question is The Act of Killing, by Joshua Oppenheimer and a crew that, in part, needs to stay anonymous, for safety reasons. Legends like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris were part of the producers’ crew. I knew little about Indonesia’s history and, in that sense, this movie was very successful in helping me connect the dots between some of the most violent acts done by men in the 20th century, where the presence of capitalism, and the USA’s standards of entertainment and consumerism, in particular, have been highly influential. Alex Woodson’s review of The Act of Killing manages to give us a clear portrait of the historical context that paved the way for what we now see as contemporary Indonesia. A brief resumes follows:

The Indonesian anti-communist purge of 1965-1966 is perhaps the least-studied and talked-about political genocide of the 20th century. The killings began after a failed left-wing coup in 1965, when members of the so-called 30 September Movement assassinated six Indonesian army generals and announced that they had taken President Sukarno “under their protection.” The army quickly suppressed the coup and launched a killing spree of alleged communists, whom they blamed for the coup (…) The army outsourced the work to local gangs and militias, including the massive and still-active Pancasila Youth paramilitary organization, and within a year, at least 500,000 people (with some estimates placing the number up to 3 million) had been murdered and more than 1 million more were imprisoned.

To tell the stories of the death squads, the director had the executioners and their younger sidekicks reenact some of their murders in whatever way they wanted. As the gangsters are big fans of American movies (they were actually called “movie theater gangsters” in the 1960s and ran a business scalping tickets to American films), the stories were told using Western, mafia, and horror movie motifs—each set more ridiculous than the next. (…)

Anwar Congo, the main storyteller of The Act of Killing, not only reenacts some of his killings, he also analyses some of the footage that Oppenheimer shows him, then commenting on what he thinks should be done to make the movie “more realistic”. At some point, Congo says that as a young man he was very influenced by american cinema, by a particular kind of gruesome gender and that when committing the murders they tried to be even more cruel. When reading about the movie, I’ve often come across reviews that describe Congo as a sympathetic character, that feels guilt and repents, but I can’t really support that. We, as spectators, have the responsibility to help the movie go on to do what it is supposed to do. We’re not passive, neither should we think of Congo as a character, because he is not. Is he sincere when he acknowledges the guilt? Isn’t that but a word? Can we really discern between the man and the character? What we know as a fact is that he is a mass murderer, who has been able to distance himself from his doings to a point that he now talks about the killings as if they were just another scene in a plot where he plays the main character. Does this mean Oppenheimer shouldn’t have done the movie? Not in my view.

I think is when Congo criticizes his performance as an actor that we have a glimpse of a conscious. When he says things like “My acting has to be violent” or “I shouldn’t be laughing” I’m reminded of another scene, from Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Human, where we hear a former american soldier named Peter say that killing is addictive. In his own words:

One of the most impactful things that will occur, after being in combat, is the feeling of killing another human being. Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll see that it’s not like anything else that you’ve experienced before. And unfortunately, that feeling, your body will want to experience again. (…) I yearn or desire for someone to try to hurt me or to break in or to give me an excuse to use that violence against somebody else again.

Humanists would likely describe this sort of doing as “lacking humanity”, but is that the only way to understand this? Couldn’t that choice be reproducing the same exact failures that we identify in those who kill? Maybe humans like Congo “lack humanity” because when they go on to take their neighbor’s life they are rejecting some of the qualities that make them human: namely conscious and reason. But could we really say they lack reason and conscious if they still make choices and decide who to kill and who not to kill, if they discuss what is fair and what’s right? Doesn’t Peter, apart from his willing to kill again, still waits for “a reason”? Congo describes the time when he did the killings as a time when he was free, so maybe freedom for him is about acting on his instincts and denying responsibility for the consequences his actions have on others. In that sense, could the consequences of being haunted by his past be imprisonment enough?

Talking with Christopher Campbell, director Joshua Oppenheimer tells about some of the ethical dilemmas that challenged the making of this movie:

My biggest dilemma, in fact, was ensuring that Anwar does not look like a lone psychopath. Such that he would be scapegoated and become a vessel for the much bigger regime. In so far as I couldn’t go into the details of how the United States was complicit with all of this, because fundamentally to do would involve having experts and countering people’s denials and turn the film overall into a historical film as opposed to an expose about the present, which is what it is.

Somehow it was really important therefore to ensure that America and consumerism and the global capitalism of which this is the underbelly — this isn’t a distant reality separate from us — this shows the violence and fear and impunity underneath everything we buy and produce, every article of clothing we’re wearing. Given that I couldn’t get into the role of the United States in all of this I had to make globalization, consumerism, alienation, the transforming of everybody, even our human relationships, into objects to be consumed — you see it in the way they treat the women, the paramilitary leader treats women — that that would be a kind of haunting the whole film.

Still about Congo, Oppenheimer also states:

Anwar was the 41st killer I met. Every perpetrator I found, everyone I met was boasting about what they had done and offering to take me to the places where they killed, whereupon they would launch into these spontaneous demonstrations of who they killed. So what I was saying is, look you have participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, your whole society is based on it, your lives are shaped by it, you want to show me what you’ve done, I want to understand what it means to you, what it means to your society, how you want it to be seen, how you see it, how you really see yourself, so show me what you’ve done, in whatever way you wish, whatever process, and I’ll film the reenactments and make a film out of that.

Therein lies the paradox of the whole film in a way; what appears to be a sign of lack of remorse — boasting, the celebration of killing seems to be a sign of lack of remorse, at least in the beginning — is not necessarily so. In fact it can be the opposite. It can be a desperate effort to reassure yourself and to insist to the whole society that what you did was right.

(…) 

Of course, that’s what Anwar and all the men are desperate to avoid doing, admitting that what they’ve done is wrong. And in that sense every reenactment is a kind of insistence that what they’ve done is right. To reenact, to make a scene about the killings is to deny the moral meaning of it being in bad taste, and it is an outrage. I film it as a symptom of impunity. But every reenactment therefore is a sort of insistence on that denial, that this is not what it was. This is not what it means. It’s only a movie. It’s not so bad. It was justified. The method was to shoot a scene, show Anwar the scene, he would respond, shoot the next scene.

It’s not to say that Oppenheimer’s statement makes all my doubts go away. It doesn’t, but I do understand his point and I don’t see any ethical reason why this shouldn’t exist. On the other hand, aesthetically, I find this absurd. I’m not a fan of parody, of typifying cultural genres, nor do I particularly enjoy carnivalesque non-sense and exuberant staging. Having said this, I do recognize the power of exposing absurdity, through repetition. I understand truth can arise from there. Still, I didn’t watch 90% of the reenactment scenes, for this type of blending of entertainment with historical facts really disgusts me and I also feel there’s no denying that while watching that scenes we, as spectators, are in some sense allowing them to fulfill their dreams to be stars and actors. 

Fortunately, the movie has some jaw dropping dialogues (if you’re a sucker for ethical discussions, like me). When we’re already a third into the movie, a decisive figure enters the plot: Adi Zulkdry, another executioner. When we reach the middle of the movie, Adi has a conversation with Anonymoys (I imagine that voice is his) in the car that I think pretty much resumes the big quest of the movie: a quest for justice, on the part of Oppenheimer, and a quest for stardom, for the killers. 

Anonymous: I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but I have to ask… By telling yourself it was ‘war’, you’re not haunted like Anwar. But the Geneva Conventions define what you did as ‘war crimes’.

Adi: I don’t necessarily agree with those international laws. When Bush was in power Guantanamo was right. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That was right according to Bush, but now it’s wrong. The Geneva Conventions may be 

Anonymous: But for millions of victims’ families if the truth comes out, it’s good.

Adi: Fine, but start with the first murder Cain and Abel. Why focus on killing the communists? Americans killed the Indians. Has anybody been punished for that? Punish them! For me, re-opening this case is a provocation to fight. I’m ready! If the world wants continuous war, I’m ready if you wanna make  us fight, I’m ready!

Anonymous: What if you were brought to the international court in the Hague?

Adi: Now?

Anonymous: Yes.

Adi: I’d go! I don’t feel guilty so why would I go? Because I’d be famous. I’m ready! Please, get me called to the Hague!

It’s undeniable: the movie had consequences; Oppenheimer’s choices had very real consequences. Apparently, The Act of Killing managed to expose some of the fallacies of the regime and, at the same time, tell youths a different story, give them the power to come into their own critical conscious. Mette Bjerregaard screened the movie at a university in Yogyakarta and recounts how the film provoked anger and frustration among the audience:

Their feelings were not only directed towards the Indonesian power structure, but also at the spectacle on screen. The killers – fans of film noir gangster movies and Hollywood musicals – choose to re-enact their crimes by juxtaposing killing and cruelty with dancing and bright colours. The film becomes ludicrous as well as scary. It could be described as amusing, albeit with a macabre undertone. Indeed some moviegoers outside Indonesia have laughed at the sheer absurdity – a markedly different reaction to that of the Indonesian audience.

Photography and Feminism (here we go again)

If there’s one thing different kinds of feminism can agree upon is their will to “empower women”. But, that’s it; once we get started on the meaning of that “empowerment” the apparent cohesion starts to fall apart.

Some co-called feminists think about themselves in such a way because they applaud and promote women’s confidence towards their body. Maybe these so-called feminists go so far as to actively participate in helping certain women feel good “in their own skin”. I can see the importance of this, of course. No man will ever understand what it is to grow up surrounded by beauty stereotypes and how much it can impact your self-esteem – it’s the models in the magazines, the actresses on film, the pop stars and the barbie look, the tv hostesses, the female porn actresses and their big breasts. It’s overwhelming. Some people will consider that empowering women by helping them feel beautiful and sexy is to be a feminist. And, yes, I disagree 100%. I guess what makes this question so problematic is that one easily looses sight of what the feminist struggle is about and although it can be a lot of different things, what it must definitely is not is an individualist struggle that promotes cliches about the importance of owning one’s own sexuality. Feminism is always about the collective. It really can’t be any different. We fight for equality and my victories and losses will have a direct impact on other women and vice-versa.

Feminism is about inclusion, about gaining back women’s parity (yes, in the so called primitive era things were different, and not everything was worst). For that and many other reasons, in its core to be a feminist is to be anti-capitalist, for, in itself, capitalism promotes an economic treatment of everything and everyone and we know how women rank in that economy… (my) Feminism starts by questioning the dynamics of a society that is built upon a patriarchy. Classes, in such a society, will only survive if women continue to agree to be part of a specific sexual dynamic, namely a monogamist one, in which the man is usually the owner (of land and so forth). It’s understandable that these so-called feminist movements who empower women by helping them feel sexy forget that the very idea of what constitutes “sexy” is the doing of men: men who are stylists, men who work in advertisement, men who are writers, men who are directors, men who are photographers, etc. For many years these men have been responsible for objectifying women’s bodies, to a point that women now fail to understand what that objectification is like. One argument is recurrent in this discussion, namely that if women are in control of their body, one shouldn’t speak about objectification, but empowerment. I’m surprised how we still fall for such a false debate, for the question is definitely more complicated. How can one judge other’s information, knowledge, awareness or conscious in order to decide whether they are or are not in control of their bodies? And how do we then deal with sexual abuse if the “victim” is under-aged and willingly goes to her abuser? Recently, in Portugal, I came across a story in the newspaper about a 13 year old girl who went missing from her family for a week and was then found in a house with a sexual offender. They apparently met online, he seduced her and she went to him. He had done that before, meaning he has already abused young women. What is chocking in this story is that  99% of the online trolls were saying that this man had committed no crime, for she went to him of “her own free will”, because young girls “are not as naive as we think”, because “they know what they’re doing”. See the problem?

We could talk about Hollywood, how Scorsese has a lifetime of denigrating women on screen and still everyone loves him; or how the entertainment community legitimates sexual harassment, but what I think could help shine a light on this dilemma is if we consider the roles some women have been playing on screen and how off screen they consider themselves to be feminists, in the context of that very same idea of empowerment we were talking about – because they’re independent, they’re successful, they’re comfortable in their bodies and in control of their sexuality so on. If a female actress spends her years giving life to characters who are treated as objects in a men’s world, could we really consider such actress to be a feminist in her off-screen life? It’s not a tricky question, the answer is a clear no. The promotion of such dynamics between men and women not only legitimate the sort of abusive relations that describe this era of capitalism, but they also infect visual culture in a very profound way. In fact, one shouldn’t be surprised if a younger generation who only watches american entertainment (be it movies or tv series) had a completely distorted notion about what sex is like. For americans, apparently, it’s about 1 minute in bed and the man reaching an orgasm. The consequences of such a misogynist representation of sexual intimacy is unimaginable. Hopefully they’re still watching some “good porn”.

Often, when one discusses “the empowerment of women” one also comes across expressions such as “strong” and/or “fearless“. What these adjectives hide is that in the process of becoming “strong” and “fearless” one usually compromises one’s own femininity, in order to “be more like a man”, but with a skirt and preferably wearing high heels. There’s even a page on facebook called “Project strong Woman”. As expected, it is about empowering women to become their better selves and then go out and celebrate.

To avoid becoming any more cynical, here’s a photographic approach that challenges the very idea of “the male gaze”.

© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.
© Petra Collins, from the project ‘The Teenage Gaze’, 2010-2015.

I once wished I was a man

Yesterday was a special date for all women out there. It’s not a day to celebrate, but to remember where our ancestors once were and how we still need to be active and assume our daily battles in a men’s world. In very different measures, but a bit all over the world, women have to fight their way through life. Whether it’s because we want to have a voice, as citizens, or if we want to be treated fairly, in our work places, we have it much harder than men. There’s a lot one can do in our daily lives that has an impact on a bigger level, namely a public and political one: how we respond to an authoritarian father, for example; how we deal with our male colleagues and bosses at work; how we split tasks with our partners (in case we’re talking about heterosexual patterns), etc. There’s a lot women can do, but they need to keep at it every day of the year and, sometimes, it’s exhausting. 

There are some days one shouldn’t leave the house. I’m sure you all know the feeling. The 8th of March is becoming one of those days for me. Everywhere one goes there’s someone denigrating the meaning of the feminist struggle: either offering you roses, giving you coupons to buy make-up or perfumes, “celebrating” women. It just makes me crazy angry. I can’t see the news, for the same is happening everywhere: the media just puts on the cassette to celebrate historical female figures. Should we not discuss their importance? Of course we should, every day. Should we not discuss our struggles? Of course we should, all the time. But as we all know, when the day is over people go back to their abusive dynamics.

On the 8th of March the crust of this male chauvinist society cracks open and that’s not solely the doing of men. Women continue to be partly responsible for our lack of parity (yesterday I heard a woman say it’s mushy to celebrate women, as if we add equal rights!). Women keep struggling to find their independence, at work, and their autonomy, in their intimate space. In part, it’s a cultural problem: women tend to replicate the way men relate to them in the way they go on to relate to other women.

I once wished I was a man. I once wished I didn’t have breasts, for I hate to be looked at. Do men suffer from this sort of invasion? Although that is now over, what keeps triggering that feeling is the sexual abuse we’re subjected to in our daily lives. It’s everywhere, as if we’re just tits and ass. It’s everywhere, all the time, that’s why I struggle with the sort of feminism that tries to empower women by showing off their bodies. I understand it, I do, but it’s just not my kind of feminism…

An artist at work: here’s what no hypocrisy looks like

Sometimes we have to criticize with no solution in sight. Sometimes we have to promote change because the contrary just doesn’t fit our ethical frame. It’s not an easy thing to do when, in a social context, an artist’s work is expected to promote change, have “real” impact. In Renzo Martens‘ documentary Episode III. Enjoy Poverty (2008) the author sets out to explore the idea of poverty as a natural resource and as a possible commodity. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In an article entitled Porn Poverty: The Emancipatory Power of Enjoy Poverty, author Sofia Gallarate describes the artwork as a critic of “the western mass media’s obsession with images of poverty and the misery of so called ‘Third World’ countries, exploring how that precise system of production creates economic and social inequality.” As I see it, Martens essay is a brilliant work: sharp, committed, sometimes chaotic, sometimes difficult to watch, but never does Martens forget he is very much part of the system he questions; never does he try to make it easier on him or on us. There’s no way out of this structure, meaning: there’s no way we aren’t all compromised, guilty, hurt by this never ending violence. 

The documentary raises particularly relevant questions towards the responsibility of the photographic medium in the relations between power structures. On that note, it succeeds in giving us some of the most complex examples for an ethical debate. For instances, one of the episodes showed in the first 20 minutes of the film depicts viewers in an exhibition in Kinshasa regarding black and white photographs or plantation workers. When Martens starts to interview the public, we rapidly see how things are going to unfold, because the paradox is right in front of us: although the photographs represent the struggle of the poor men who worked in the plantations, the public connects to the images in a romantic way, almost nostalgic. They are contemplating. They say: they’re beautiful! But are they? When Martens asks a woman if she thinks the people in the photographs are rich or poor, she pauses, then she realizes what he is trying to imply and answers with an heavy conscious: “poor”.

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As Gallarate writes, “[a]ccording to Martens, documentary and photographs do not only work as a medium that exploits poverty to create profit, they can also transform it into a possible artistic and fetishized subject which comes from the saturation of those images within the western media.” As every Nihilsentimentalgia follower knows by now, this hypocrisy and exploitation of the other’s differences through photography is something that interests me a lot. I think this dilemma highlights two major things: 1) that human nature is profoundly complex (see for example how Martens is able to relate and empathize to the people he interviews, but at the same time he never ceases to distance himself from his role as a producer of content; 2) that image workers (photographers, film-makers, etc) cannot avoid beautifying everything, thus flattening that complexity. 

But here too Martens does it differently, for the way he exploits the camera’s relation to suffering is so inherently critical (I remembered Lars Von Trier‘s The five obstructions), that one sees precisely how superficial photographies can be. In an interview with Joe Penney, published on Africa is a Country, Martens explains the phenomena: 

“(…)Episode III, doesn’t critique by showing something that is bad, it critiques by duplicating what may be bad. On the one hand it gives some critique within the film, oh, media might be bad, it exploits you, take possession of the means of production; on the other hand I, the guy in the film, does exactly the same thing, or maybe not exactly but pretty much exactly the same thing and in the end then just leaves. So the critique of the film is not so much in the action that the guy Renzo undertakes in the film, the critique of the film is the film as a whole, it’s the duplication, it’s the copy in a way of existing power relationships. And I think, this is on the one hand an artistic strategy that is well rehearsed in many other art pieces over the last century. You know in the old days a painting of a swimming pool would represent a swimming pool, it would represent an outside phenomena. Now, since a long time, a painting of a swimming pool deals with the fact that it is a painting of a swimming pool. It is more a painting of a swimming pool than just a swimming pool. And I think this film works like that. Most documentary films critique, or reveal or show some outside phenomena, like oh this is bad, or this is good, or this is tragic or what have you. In this film, it is not the subject that is tragic, like poverty in Africa, it is the very way that the film deals with the subject that is as tragic. So that’s why it’s a piece of art, because it deals with its own presence, it deals with its own terms and conditions, it’s not a referential piece. Its autoreferential.

Being from a country that has a complex colonial history and, consequently, an endemic problem in addressing that very same question, I can understand Martens’ perspective too well, particularly when he says that it is impossible for him to be an agent of change. How can we forget where we came from? How can we forget our inheritance? As Martens says: “(…) I’m also defined by the education I have, by the racism and the feeling of agency that I’ve grown up with […] I am a representative of a world which allows people to die of hunger on one hand and allows other people to be terribly rich.” 

vlcsnap-2017-03-03-19h05m28s875 vlcsnap-2017-03-03-19h05m18s862

As is expected, both Penney and Gallarate bring Sontag to the debate and evoke the idea of the aesthetization of suffering. We’ve talk about it often here: the idea of inauthentic beauty, of making something neat, harmonious, pleasurable, from something that is profoundly violent an unethical. There’s another crucial moment right in the middle of the film, when Martens asks one of the European photojournalist he is accompanying (and just after we see them photographing dead bodies): “Who is the owner of these pictures?” The following dialogue unfolds:

Photographer: I am the owner. I can use them if I want to make a vernissage, or a book. Not with any money … how do you say?
Martens: You don’t have to pay for that. Yes. And the people that are on the pictures. The people you have photographed … are they the owners of the pictures, too, or not?
P: No.
M: You are the owner. And the people on the pictures they own nothing?
P: No, because I took the pictures…
M: You took the pictures…
P: So I’m the photographer, the author of the picture.
M: But they organized everything that is on the picture. You just came and made the picture. They have organize everything.
P: What do you mean “organized?”?
M: Well the situation that you made the picture of, they made the situation.
P: But not due to me …
M: No, not because of you…
P: No, yeah, sure. But, it’s me that made of that situation a picture…
M: Right.
P: There is thousands of situations here. But it’s me. I choose the one that I think will make a good picture. And that makes that picture mine.
M: OK.

As Gallarate concludes, evoking Benjamin‘s The Author as Producer, “Renzo Martens acts more as a producer of a political discourse rather than as a defender of the Congolese people.” But is his production unethical? I think the clear answer is “NO“. Although it may be difficult for the viewer to sit and watch Martens convincing Congolese photographers (who work on photographing celebrations such as weddings) how to photograph extreme suffering, exploiting the kids’ exposed ribs, truth is the image of a poor African child “starving to death” has long been a commodity – don’t we all remember Kevin Carter’s controversial image of the vulture and the little Sudanese girl that wan him the Pulitzer Prize in 1994? Martens argues that the Congolese should take advantage of their situation and instead of letting outsiders come and photograph their really, take the matter in their own hands and put a price on that poverty. Chocking? Of course it is, but a conversation between him and an MSF doctor reveals how tricky the subject is. Gallarte resumes the situation: 

“The scene develops and the artist walks with the two photographers to a Médecins sans Frontier temporary hospital, where they plan to talk with the director and ask for the permission to let the two young men photograph their patients. It is precisely here that the provocation, as well as the controversy of Martens’ work reaches its peak; the MSF’s doctor refuses his proposal, stating that the idea of permitting photography for commercial purposes is legitimately unacceptable.”

The doctor also says that the difference between these photographers going into the hospital and taking pictures and letting a western photojournalist do the same is that the latter has the purpose to produce news, not “to exhibit suffering”. And this is the central argument of Martens’ film: does the media agents have such good intentions or are they actually exploiting their pain?

On Ren Hang’s suicide: “Pain is pain, no matter how pretty”

A lot has been said about the value of Ren Hang‘s artwork following his recent death, at the age of 29. Hang committed suicide. From what I can understand, he jumped from a building in Berlin, last Friday. Author Wendy Syfret took the opportunity to talk about the myth that connects genius and madness (the title of this post is the sentence that finishes her article). Her premise was to “challenge ourselves to interrogate the way we weave mental health narratives into the stories of artists”.

So far, so good. Syfret claims that “[t]he image of the tortured artist is resilient, and all too often, romantic”, and she goes on to argue that pain and suffering should not be promoted as the source of the creative genius, even though there is scientific proof that links mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) to a greater creativity

On the other hand, I find it a little problematic to reduce mental illnesses to a conversation about the pain and suffering they entail (and that we tend to romanticize). I couldn’t agree more with Syfret when she says that “the persistent idea that one must be unhappy to truly be open to absorbing and translating the human condition is both artificial and dangerous”, but a schizophrenic or a bipolar is not necessarily an unhappy person (one documentary by Stephen Fry is very enlightening regarding this, for he asks all the people interviewed whether they’d rather live without that condition). Should we really be stigmatized as happy or unhappy people? If so, I’m clearly an unhappy person and I’ve suffered from depression before. I’m also in the creative field. What does that make me? A ticking time bomb? Oh, the problem with over simplifying…

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© Ren Hang
ren-hang9
© Ren Hang
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© Ren Hang

Yes, there is obviously a lot of suffering involved in mental illnesses, but part of that suffering is definitely generated because of the clash between what is understood as normal and what is then labelled as abnormal. And, in that sense, any of us can easily end up in a situation of being marginalized, depending on the cultural context we’re in. What I want to say is that what the art market romanticizes is difference. Whether the artist is schizophrenic, alcoholic, an orphan or a dwarf, what is exploited is the concept of difference.  

Making art while going through deep and profound struggles is actually impossible. No one actually creates anything when suffocating in a deep black hole. More often than not, the making of the art happens in between stages. When one is in suffering, there’s no energy, but I think everyone can understand that when a person comes out of such a stage there’s a vitality, an energy that is singular and potentially very creative. As I’ve written here, in a recent article, to look for signs of mental distress in an artwork is not really the way to go about an artist individual history (unless we’re talking about cases such as that of Nebreda). Usually an artwork, if it succeeds in having a soul, also has dynamic and vitality. Isn’t the energy behind a good work of art not always an affirmative one? Doesn’t it trigger imagination, feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc.? How could it be something else? Might we be confusing suffering and pain with the anguish that is vital to the making of something truthful? Anguish is transformative; neurotic anguish, on the other hand, is toxic. Anyway, the point is that we shouldn’t replicate these dichotomies without questioning them.  

© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang

By romanticizing the link between suffering and art, Syfret fears one might be ignoring the real drama of depression. Couldn’t agree more. But things are not that simple. Even though the rhetoric around such a subject is potentially very dangerous (as all rhetoric is, right?) by now the linkage between mental illness and creativity is well attested. In my eyes, the discussion worth having is one that would consider artists having, in fact, a different frame of mind. Otherwise, how could he/she be original, create a singular language, find a style?

About the particular case of Red Hang, Syfret resumes:

“We don’t know if Ren Hang’s friends knew about his mental health struggles. Considering his work was a love letter to their lives and bodies, a celebration of their beauty presented as a balm to his own pain, one assumes they loved and supported him completely. But for many other creatives the signs of mental distress are too often ignored, or worse expected, by those around them. Their struggles become obscured by our own assumption over what is and isn’t normal and acceptable; and the collective impact of such reasoning is an under examination of endemic mental health and welfare issues within the arts in general.”

Although I empathize with her arguments, I fail to understand what is her point regarding Hang’s particular case of suffering and creativity. Should we deduce that those who where closer to him neglected his depressions because they might have considered it to be the fuel to his art-making and, in that sense, they might have given primacy to the art, instead of Hang’s health? Isn’t that a huge deduction? Isn’t it judgmental? I can say this with a certain amount of confidence: usually those who are closer are the ones who tend to be more paralyzed when confronted with the immanence of death. They see one wake up, eat, smile, read, talk, so they tend to consider basic functioning as a success. It’s actually even more complicated, for usually they also enter a sort of denial as if anticipating the complications of taking action and feeling the consequent guilt.

Hang’s suicide, tough, couldn’t have been a surprise. He had often written about the will to end his life. If we listen to what he had to say about depression we can imagine he would agree with Syfret, that we should obviously help people, choose humanity over art. Easier said than done, for that’s obviously not the dilemma. We just neglect and neglect and neglect. We choose life, over death and in that process we sort of erase all the mud in our path. We all do: fail to see, fail to act, fail to touch, fail to love…

In Hang’s words: “People suffering from depression may not exhibit any obvious symptoms, but if you find a friend down with depression, you need to spend more time with them and make the effort to call them more frequently, because you never know when it will strike.”

In American Suburb X, author Zoetica Ebb writes “[i]n the fine art environment [Red Hang’s] resistance to pretense could be considered a form of madness”. Yes, it’s true, not playing the game of the commercial circuit is not the norm, but that has little to do with the making of the art, per se.

© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang

The point I want to try to make here is that there’s a connecting between this abyss of presence and disappearance (where apparently Hang lived) and the way he photographed nudity. I don’t ignore his political context, but that’s certainly not the aesthetic core of his photographs. In the above video, for instances, Hang tells that in the context of an exhibition if an image is considered “porn” and censored from the show, he just exhibits the frame. That’s clearly a political statement, for it questions what is considered morally acceptable. 

Another author, namely Owen Campbell, writes that “[o]ften, in images with multiple subjects the bodies flow into each other but not like two people having sex, rather they exist as one holistic, non-normative unit.” It’s a beautiful statement, I find, it doesn’t ignore the fact that what is provocative in Hang’s images has little to do with pornography, per se. What is chocking is something as natural as nudity. But nudity is a hard subject and the delicate white bodies that invade Hang’s photographs can attest to that.

It’s risky to say that I understand the weight the clothes have in Hang’s world. Clothes are not only there to protect our bodies, it’s like they separate the world from reaching us, like they prevent relationships, love, sex, life. Their weight is not that of their fibers, instead, although absent from the photographs, they represent the heavy weight of social and cultural repression.

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© Ren Hang

By addressing a sort of mythological narrative, we end up finding the principle of the idealization of madness, which itself admits a concept of normality. In such a context, madness is something that liberates the individual from the pre-established contract with the agents of corruption (civilization itself). Such an idealization tends to equate normality with falsification and the betrayal of the individual. On the other hand, when one romanticizes mental illnesses one thing that can be suggested is that somehow the maniac states guarantee a sort of supra-sensitive lucidity that act like a shield to everything inauthentic.

We live in a society that manages to ostracize and romanticize all at once. In fact, maybe what we, as a society, do, when we create fables, is to try and circumscribe our fear of the monster, being that the monster is whatever is morally considered different. Foucault once said that madness is trapped in a punitive system where the mad is undermine and madness is originally linked to error…

A different kind of moonlight

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I’m just another lover of the art of moving pictures, so the Oscars, being about the movie industry, are usually not a place to look for references. Yet, I’m always aware, and I end up finding one or two things worth watching (usually the documentaries). This year, things couldn’t be weirder. Not only is Moonlight an originally brave movie, but I also find the rest of the movies in the competition particularly poor. Because of Moonlight’s director Barry Jenkins‘ choices the movie exists in a very singular dynamic, tense yet comfortable, with characters that survive the stigma of their racial and social condition and gain their own presence, their own sensibility, their own space inside the frame. The colors, the light, the way the camera follows this man’s growth, it’s poetical and yes, Hollywood  doesn’t usually go for that. I guess this year they did and for once the industry awarded truth and originality over spectacle.

© Bas Losekoot, from the project Christoforus (Christofers boarding school).
© Bas Losekoot, from the project Christoforus (Christofers boarding school).
© Bas Losekoot, from the project Christoforus (Christofers boarding school).
© Bas Losekoot, from the project Christoforus (Christofers boarding school).
© Bas Losekoot, from the project Christoforus (Christofers boarding school).
© Bas Losekoot, from the project Christoforus (Christofers boarding school).
© Bas Losekoot, from the project Christoforus (Christofers boarding school).
© Bas Losekoot, from the project Christoforus (Christofers boarding school).

Coming across Bas Losekoot‘s project Christoforus I couldn’t help remember the way Jenkins chose to tell the story of that boy, Chiron.

© Bas Losekoot, from the project The Urban Millennium Project: New York.
© Bas Losekoot, from the project The Urban Millennium Project: New York.
© Bas Losekoot, from the project The Urban Millennium Project: New York.
© Bas Losekoot, from the project The Urban Millennium Project: New York.

Regarding The Urban Millennium Project, Losekoot explains his approach:   

As a photographer I was initially trained in the studio. It was only later on that I got interested in urban photography, and I started to combine these genres and bring the lights to the streets. I began to imagine the city as a big studio and it citizens as actors. By approaching the street as a stage, it made me wonder if we might perform our lives. I started to read about performativity theory, for example by the sociologist Erving Goffman – about the presentation of self in everyday life. It seems, in daily life, we are performing social roles and we wear the appropriate mask for that. While commuting the city, we drop this mask and replace it for another one, the mask of ‘self-protection’. I am interested in this mask, because I believe it provides us a lot of information of the self and the construction of identity.

I have a background in cinema where I learned some lighting techniques. I consider my work to be documentary photography combined with cinematic light. I position my flashlights on the street, creating a designated zone where the protagonists are walking into my range of focus and exposure. The lights empower the capacity of photography to really freeze movement. The images suggest off-screen events since they are more about what is outside than inside the frame. They make you wander what just happened or is going to happen next. They are frozen moments that feel unreal – or ‘hyper-real’ as I like to consider them.

Next to the light I am drawn to the working of fast shutter speeds; the unique quality of photography to arrest movement. I try to capture offbeat moments that remain unseen at the everyday speed of life. Working with this apparatus I like the images to appear as film stills out of a non-linear urban continuum. I intend to slow people down and make them dwell on the meaning of inhabiting the new reality of fast growing cities.

to continue reading Losekoot’s great interview by Life Framer, click here.

 

WPP 2017 (our worst or Ozbilici’s iconic photograph)

© Burhan Özbilici, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş shouts after shooting Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, at an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey.
© Burhan Özbilici, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş shouts after shooting Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, at an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey.

Most of us will agree on one thing: this year’s WWP winning photograph is not their typical choice. But that’s it! The consequences of this choice are as multilayered as the photograph itself.

One of the first persons to speak openly about why this photograph “should not have won such a prize” was the chairman of the judging panel: Stuart Franklin. In an opinion article, published by The Guardian, Franklin describes the event that is depicted in Burhan Özbilici‘s winning photograph as a murderous spectacle. Franklin adds that this is only the third time a register of an assassination wins the prize. For Franklin, awarding the photograph of a murder poses a moral problem. Sorry, that’s not really what he says. In fact, his words are: It’s a photograph of a murder, the killer and the slain, both seen in the same picture, and morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beheading.

I don’t like to give in to cynicism, so I’ll hold back my worst self and just say that I smiled when I first heard this. Sorry, Franklin, but the idea that a competition such as WWP should not beautify and promote our worst selves is ludicrous. The only reason why some photographs have traveled the world with the WWP exhibition is because they were made famous at the expense of the dead bodies represented in them. And those lifeless bodies were only seen, contemplated and appreciated because they had an aesthetic dimension, they were beautified and through that transformation evil was made redundant. That, as I see it, poses a moral problem, because it compromises the dignity of the people in them. But Franklin means what he says. Not only does he disagree with the photograph of an assassination being the winner of the year, he also opposes the message it sends out to the world: Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.

I confess his honesty and ingenuity surprise me. And I understand where he comes from. In Franklin’s perspective, the winning photograph should testify to a less visible reality and it should expose, be a call for action, inspire change, so he says.

But let’s go back to that day: 19/12/2016. Özbilici, a Turkish photographer, is attending a press conference by Russian ambassador that was happening in a gallery in Ankara. One should stress that being a photographer in Turkey is to be part of the resistance, for that country’s liberty is long gone. What happened next is history: while the ambassador, Andreï Karlov, was speaking, Mevlüt Mert Altintas, a 22 years old off duty police officer working security for the event, shot him. He shot him 9 times and claimed to be punishing Russia for its intervention in Syria.

Being there, Burhan Özbilici made the decision to photograph and his shots immediately traveled the world. I saw the winning photograph the following day and I remember it clearly. I was extremely surprised, I showed it to my partner and we had a wee chat about it. At the time, what surprised me had nothing to do with the event itself. What astonished me was the contradictions at place, how different forces and dynamics had made it into one picture. Still, to this day, what I think makes this photograph so great is that it is iconic. And being iconic means we’re talking about its aesthetic value. It’s almost as if this photograph should not be understood as photojournalism, for it has too many hidden layers, too many subtleties. Basically, it’s too brilliant to be reduced to its role as proof.

I also remembered wondering how cold blooded the photographer had to have been to compose this image. It’s inevitable, it looks like a performance. It’s the effect of the White Cube: you put something inside a gallery and it becomes art. The reality is quite different. Ozbilici tells us that he felt he just had to do his job. Back in December, on Hyperallergic, Robert Archambeau published an excellent article entitled Aesthetic Interference where he pretty much says it all, so I’ll quote:

I think a large part of my inability to fully process the images from Turkey has to do with a kind of category error. They should, I tell myself, be documents of an atrocity, the kind of images we’re bombarded with all the time, and to which most of us have, perhaps at some cost to our humanity, developed antibodies. We see mediated atrocity every day. We tell ourselves we care, and perhaps we do. But generally we look at the wreckage, the carnage, the suffering faces, and we move on. This time, though, I’m having a hard time moving on, because I don’t just see the images as documents of atrocity. I also see them as aesthetic, and that doesn’t sit easily with the other way of seeing them. Indeed, it feels immoral. It feels wrong.

[…]

In the strange combination of urgent action and an uncanny suspension of motion, they are reminiscent of some of Jeff Wall’s photographs (1984’s “Milk,” for example, or “Dead Troops Talk,” from 1994). Perhaps it is the dramatic nature of the poses — combined with the fact that they’re set against the stark, white background that instantly declares itself an art space — that makes the figures almost seem like an art installation. Perhaps an installation by Maurizio Cattelan, in line with his 2002 wax dummies of police officers, “Frank and Jamie.” If you begin to let yourself see the photos as works by Jeff Wall, they seem to show the calm at the heart of violence. If you begin to look at them as photos of an imaginary Cattelan installation, you start to think of them as meditations on the nature of exhibitions. But if you do either — and I have done both — you might find yourself uncomfortable to the point of queasiness with your own slip into aestheticizing. The atrocity is real. The violence is real. The death is real. And the photos? They’re so good, they almost don’t let you see that. They’re so good they make you feel bad to have shifted your attention from the moral urgency of bloodshed to the composition itself. They’re so good they make you wonder about the cruel indifference of beauty. They’re so beautiful that they lift you from the real to the aesthetic, so true they send you plummeting right back.

There’s nothing we can do about our visual culture and backgrounds, so it’s inevitable that for those familiar with references such as the ones mentioned by Robert Archambeau, this photograph jumps between categories and tends to reject the most obvious one: that which gave it the WWP prize. Where I differ from Archambeau is that I don’t have any remorse. And why is that? It’s complicated, of course, but as I’ve mentioned many times before, I think contemporary photojournalism is condemn to fail. It hasn’t always been like this. Before the wars were televised, before cellphones had cameras, photography held that status of “authentic proof”. Now, the most authentic imagery seems to come from the perpetrators themselves. They photograph their victims as trophies and those images are also good examples of the hatred that rules this era. But they are not conscious photographs, only digital images. In most of the cases, there is no author behind them; that maker is so morally compromised that one could not recognize him authorship. What this era might well do to photography, as an autonomous expression, may actually be what we’ve been waiting for. And maybe Özbilici’s photograph could trigger that debate, because photography is not an automatism, it is not a machine, and there’s always an aesthetic dimension to every image. Maybe if we don’t potentiate that dimension we will just keep talking about realism and objectivity, where instead we should be speaking about fiction and subjectivity.

WPP 2017 (our best)

These are clearly not the most extraordinary photographs from the competition, yet in my opinion they stand out because instead of portraying the worst about humanity (our profound hatred of the Other, our fear of change, our disrespect for nature, the war, the war, the war, the killing, the killing, the killing), they show our best: how we can be extremely good, loving, courageous and creative when we set out to help others. 

Note: being that the WPP is not only a photojournalism competition, but also a display of our darkest moments, it is always controversial. More on that on the following post.

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© Ami Vitale, from the project Pandas Gone Wild (commissioned by National Geographic).

2nd prize stories Nature.

October 2015. As conservation icons go, nothing quite beats the giant panda. Instantly recognizable worldwide and adored by billions, the giant panda is a virtual brand whose resemblance to anything wild is as tenuous as it is rare. Like many endangered species, giant pandas have declined as a growing human population has seized wild lands for human uses.

The Chinese have spent the past quarter of a century perfecting breeding methods, building a captive population and protecting habitat. The giant panda was recently taken off the world endangered species list—a minor miracle, due to the unique efforts of Chinese zoologists and conservationists.

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© Ameer Alhalbi, from the project Rescued From the Rubble.

2nd prize stories Spot News.

April, 2016: A Syrian man evacuates an area following a reported airstrike in the rebel-held neighborhood of Hayy Aqyul in Aleppo. Air strikes on rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo killed at least 14 civilians and wounded more than a dozen others, according to the local civil defense. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime warplanes carried out the airstrikes and gave a toll of 10 dead.

Since 2012, Syria’s northern city of Aleppo has been divided between rebel and regime-held districts, but a devastating regime offensive launched in mid-October saw the rebels ousted from their iconic former stronghold. The army’s victory in Aleppo was marked by heavy shelling which destroyed all established hospitals in the area and much of the city was reduced to a wasteland by air and artillery attacks.

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Who’s your favourite photographer? they ask

It’s a question students often ask: who’s your favourite photographer? I don’t have one, nor do I have a favourite director, a favourite musician, a favourite writer and so on. It varies. Having said that, what students usually want when posing that question is to understand what kind of photographs I like, so I usually show them the work of a couple of authors I particularly respond to. For the past couple of years, Robert Zhao Renhui‘s work has been on the top of that list.

Sanne de Wilde, born in Antwerp in 1987, is an author’s who’s work I’ve also been following and her latest project is what brings me to this post. The Island of the Colorblind is a project that brings together the author’s style with the content’s uniqueness. As a result, we get an original aesthetic approach to this universe, being that “this universe” is both the dimension of the achromats as well as the dimension of the photographic language. They are both potentiated through de Wilde’s way of making: her choices regarding color, first and foremost, but mainly the way the “idea of color” contaminates the entire project.

Here’s an excerpt of de Wilde’s statement about The Island of the Colorblind:

In the late eighteenth century a catastrophic typhoon swept over Pingelap, a tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean. One of the sole survivors, the king, carried the rare achromatopsia-gen that causes complete colorblindness. The king went on to have many children and as time passed by, the hereditary condition affected the isolated community and most islanders started seeing the world in black and white.

[…]

I tried to see the island through their eyes. Daylight is too bright to bear, moonlight turns night into day, colors dance around in shades we cannot imagine. Imagine flames lighting up in black and white, trees turning pink, waves of grey. A rainbow revisited. The islanders often refer to green as their favourite color, growing up in a lush environment, living in the jungle. But green is also the color that the most common kind of colorblindness (deutaranomaly, five out of 100 males) can’t distinguish. I learned that the color the islanders say to ‘see’ most is red. I photographed with a camera converted to infrared, programmed to read the light and the colors different. Nowadays a lot of the Pingelapese have migrated to Pohnpei, the nearest , bigger of the Micronesians island.

In a few months, The Island of the Colorblind will be published and we’ll be able to see it, contemplate it and discuss it properly. I’ll be back with more on the subject once it’s out. For now, a teaser:

© Sanne de Wilde, from the project 'The Island of the Colorblind'.
© Sanne de Wilde, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind’.
© Sanne de Wilde, from the project 'The Island of the Colorblind'.
© Sanne de Wilde, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind’.

Max Pinckers’ quest for style

Somehow Max Pinckerswork has never excited me much. I though it was too neat, too contrived, too pretty, too arranged, too controlled… After coming across a feature of Magnum Photos Now about Finding Your Documentary Photography Style and reading the words he chose to describe his approach to documentary photography, I went back to some of his projects. I see now what I had missed before: mainly, that the way he resorts to staging is a strategy to expose the contamination between what is ordinarily understood as facts and fiction.

In that article, author Laura Havlin writes that Pincksers’ thinking began to develop around questions of authenticity and goes on to quote his words: I’ve always been questioning, as a maker or as a photographer, the relationship with the subject matter and the images produced, and how far can they actually convey a form of truth.

Pinckers’ project Lotus, created in collaboration with visual artist Quinten De Bruyn, comes up as the example of how he questions the creation of a style in the context of documentary photography. Lotus is a project about Thailand’s transgender community, but it is also a vehicle to explore the very medium of photojournalism itself, so Havlin says.

What we were really interested in, says Pinckers, was the kind of thought behind why certain aesthetics are applied in documentary photography or photojournalism. What are the motivations behind making certain aesthetic choices when you’re actually there to report on a certain subject matter? Why do documentary images need to be pretty or beautiful or nice to look at? Even if the subject matter might be completely in conflict with this aesthetic? We chose Thailand’s Ladyboys because they have also gone through some kind of transformation; they have plastic surgery and turn from looking like a man to looking like a woman. You walk through the streets and sometimes you’re not quite sure if you are looking at a man or a woman. This is interesting because that’s exactly what we wanted to convey with our images as well: the viewer questions the authenticity of what they are looking at.

When Pickers goes on to describe how he and Bruyn worked on Lotus, at some point he says that the photographs depict spontaneous moments in the middle of very worked out sceneries, once again mistaking spontaneity for authenticity. His exact words are: All of a sudden, they started chatting to each other or would get up to go to the bathroom and then we would take the picture right at the moment when something spontaneous happened. We wanted to to achieve this very stylized, theatrical photographic aesthetic but at the same time capture something that we might not be able to direct or stage.

Although I obviously question his theoretical approach on authenticity, I wouldn’t dare doubt his choices, his approach, his quest for his originality, his own language, for he has managed to achieve a style. On the other hand, I miss a soul. It’s as if the photographs were imprisoned in their conditioned of being a photograph, not being able to take the plunge into an autonomous aesthetic dimension. I see the effort to trigger less controlled moments amidst the staging, as if the spontaneity of those untamed gestures could bring about some authenticity. But authenticity in what sense? Truth about the people and the environment they are photographing? You think?

What follows is a selection of photographs from the project Lotus.

Photogrphas appear as they are in Pinckers’ site, without subtitles.

38_miss-marina
38_painting
38_chan-legs
38_vee-makeup
38_aums-roof
38_friend-elevator
38_jin-with-her-future-husband
38_nong-tits
38_jojo
38_songkran
38_beach-portrait
38_lulu-garden
38_plant
38_lb027
38_nana-st

Yes, photography as a therapeutic tool

Some people have a hard time accepting that photography can also be a therapeutic tool, given the right context. To a certain point, it’s understandable: photography is so many different things, that at some point we all struggle with its identity.

I never doubted photography could do great things: not only could it testify and expose, but it could also promote change and bring about real transformation. In many cases, photography works like a gigantic mirror where everything is reflected in a surprising manner, as if we had an easier time accepting what a self-portrait tells us than we do when we look at ourselves in the mirror. Somehow photography, although real, has a different size and it is less threatening that a reflection in the mirror, so it invites us in and it let’s us engage with our image in our own terms.

For a taste of what photo-therapy can look like, here’s Mafalda Rakos‘ project I want to disappear – Approaching Eating Disorders.

Rakos met most of her protagonists— she does not call them “subjects”— through a self-help group for those in the midst of or in recovery from eating disorders. Some were friends before the book project even started. Everyone included had a say on how much or how little she wanted to participate; if someone wanted to stay anonymous, the photographer abided by her wishes. “I tried to be as sensitive and respectful as I could,” Rakos explains, “A ‘No’ could not be turned into a ‘Yes,’ no matter how much I would have liked them to dig deeper.” For the most part, the women were eager to share this part of their lives with the photographer. The mainstream media, Rakos says, represents eating disorders in ways that aren’t always fair or accurate, and the women in I want to disappear were thankful for the chance to be honest about what they endured. It’s not just about “being thin,” the photographer stresses. Eating disorders, like addictions, are the result of complicated events, traumas, and chance occurrences. “It comes from what happens in your mind,” Rakos suggests, “not really in your body.” When asked about the most powerful memory she’s carried over the course of making the work, the photographer mentions a picture that never made it into the book. There was one woman who made drawings and sculptures, and in her artwork, there was always a mysterious shadowy figure in the back. She told Rakos that the figure represented her “her own self-disgust.” The two of them eventually staged a photograph in which the woman confronted the figure, played by a man dressed in black clothes. The project was painful and emotionally taxing at times, and Rakos admits she might have allowed herself to give up if not for a grant given to her by Documentary Project Fund. But it wasn’t just that sense of responsibility that motivated her to continue. “There was also something else,” the artist says. Rakos felt in her core that this was a story that needed to be told, and in the end, she believes speaking out might well have helped the women in the book to repair some of what’s been lost. On the part of both the photographer and her protagonists, the book became “an attempt to point out that something is not okay at all.”. Taken from Feature Shoot.

All the photographs that follow are © Mafalda Rakos.

Note: because on her site Mafalda Rakos chose to present the photographs without subtitles, here they remain the same.

For more on this project (soon to become a book) check the FB page.

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J., Vienna, 2015.
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Representing mental illness

Note: if you don’t want to get personal, just don’t read this.

Mental health issues are always difficult to approach, be it in sociological or artistic terms. Both as a student and as a teacher, not a year goes by without crossing paths with photographic narratives that aim at questioning the stigma befalling the mental health issues. It’s true, they usually fail at it. Usually a student claims to know about depression and wants to represent it or someone in the family has a mental illness and they want to document its impact on their relationships. Why do they usually fail? Although I don’t have an answer for it, I think there’s always some truth in such failures. Maybe the problem has to do with representational schemes and how our artistic immaturity sometimes leads us to approach photography as if it were an illustration device. But maybe the core of the problem lies somewhere else: in our general disregard for things we cannot see?

Ten years ago I spent a month in a mental hospital. Every time I say that out loud one of two things happen: either a silence follows or “the issue” is avoid. As I see it, these are good indications of how we, as a society, keep ignoring our mental struggles. Let’s face it: there’s a huge stigma around it because mental illness (for the majority of people) equals weakness. In that sense, men have it even worse, because they used to be seen as the providers. It’s the same with alcoholism: most people address it as a failure, a weakness, not as a disease (I remember a particular debate in Britain that got a lot of attention back in 2012; there’s also this brilliant post by Pete Brook).

People who claim to have “a scientific mind” tend to be the first to cast unfortunate judgments upon those who suffer from such problems. Yes, I know this too well. Families also struggle with everything, being that this “everything” can be summed up in the way they deny language altogether: not saying the name of the illness; not saying words like “mental hospital”, etc, etc. The stigma also underestimates the impact of mental illnesses, but what it is most likely to do is ignore the problem all together. It’s as if the suffering, the anguish, the hallucinations, etc., weren’t proof enough of the existence of something like an illness. It’s as if people were expecting to see physical traces of it: some blood, some swelling, some skirmishes, who knows? For instances, when I entered the hospital I was already incontinent, had lost too much weight and had mobility problems. Do they count as symptoms? They do, of course, but still “the scientific minds” like to relate them to specific deficits (vitamins, for example), managing to ignore the core of the problem, once again.

Being that I was studying photography at the time, over the years that followed that summer I often thought about how to represent that experience, meaning: how to represent the profound struggle with myself and others that had led me to that hospital. I know now I was asking the wrong question, for that struggle is not representable and what can be transferred to the aesthetic dimension is something of a different order; it is transient, abstract, it’s about shape and color, not semiotic language.

David Nebreda, Après huit séances d’incisions sur la poitrine et les épaules, il atteint à une certaine tranquillité, l´hommage et le tribut étant alors accomplish, 29-7-1989.
© David Nebreda, Après huit séances d’incisions sur la poitrine et les épaules, il atteint à une certaine tranquillité, l´hommage et le tribut étant alors accomplish, 29-7-1989.

For example, we could consider the above photograph by David Nebreda (yes, I know, him again) as an illustration of how mental illness impacts the human body and how one could represent that. I know a lot of people already think Nebreda’s work is about his schizophrenia, but I couldn’t disagree more. It’s not about HIS mental illness, HIS schizophrenia, but about something that is universally understood as suffering, particularly about the space between disappearance and presence, about the struggle to exist, in all its plenitude: exist! It is about vitality, originality, presence, dynamics. As I see it, what makes his way of doing authentic is its truth, and this truth (of an ethical nature) is present as an aesthetic quality. 

© Sofia Silva, 'Three Entrances', from the project 'The Orchestra', 2011
© Sofia Silva, Three Entrances, from the project The Orchestra, 2011.

When I was asking the wrong question I did the photograph above. Although I see some truth in it, I recognize it fails as an expression of the state of transformation I was trying to allude to. I think for an artist (or an image-maker) finding a language of his/her own is the most difficult of things. And that language, that style, that expression needs only follow one star: truth. I’m not talking about “being true to oneself” or about “truthfulness” in a pure ethical way but, instead, truth as an aesthetic dimension. I guess that sums up my definition of authenticity: truth as as aesthetic quality…

A new pair of eyes

Extreme fatigue can change your perspective on things, but so can euphoria and melancholia. I guess our perception on what is or is not part of our conceptualized reality is heavily influenced by our biological and psychological conditions. Having said that, most of the so called altered states of perception tend to be transient, not defining the way we go about life.

As 2017 approached, I found myself experiencing a sort of change that may well be of a different kind. After spending nearly three months in a state of extreme tiredness, I’m now ready for a new chapter and what is most surprising about finally taking a break and spending some days away from work is that my perspective on reality is going through a deep change. It’s as though a new sense of pleasure is changing the way things look, smell and feel. For example a bird, the sort of animal I’ve never used to pay much attention before, is now a source of delight. 

Now back at work and seeing the daily news, everything seems too distant, as if my concept of reality got reduced to a very small circle that comprises only those who are near to me, as well as my beliefs, dreams and responsibilities. This is obviously troubling in many different aspects: 1) for once, the events happening all around the world seem to be reallocated to a fictional dimension. Such a feeling is unsettling, not only because it questions my social identity, but also because it makes it hard to think about the historical, political, economic and social dimensions that tend to define one’s place in the world. Trump’s existence, per se, seems improbable – see the problem?; 2) but this also brings a new light on my nearest environment, highlighting different spaces of affirmative action, as if suddenly a new giant field of possibilities has just opened.

Writing a thesis is a crazy lonely process that I wouldn’t want to repeat. Although it is rewarding in many different aspects, it can also bring about a way of thinking about things that is (too) disconnected from others’ reality and a clash may well settle in once that scheme of logic starts to lose its ground. Now coming back to social media and going through some general discussions about photography and the visual field, I struggle to adapt to this “new pair of eyes”.

Take for example this news from The Guardian about a photographer who captured images of unknown Amazonian tribe. Do people think it is acceptable that curiosity drives our decision making process? On The Guardian, one journalist says that Brazilian photographer Ricardo Stuckert had “a moment of luck” when his flight took a detour and he spotted this tribe. The same news also quotes the author saying “I thought, ‘You have to photograph this, it has to be preserved’.” But what exactly does this sort of imagery help preserve? Really, how does this approach contributes to an antropological study about “their way of being”?

© Ricardo Stuckert.
© Ricardo Stuckert, 2016.

In another article, a multimedia journalist named Dan Collyns calls Struckert’s photographs remarkable and then goes one to recount his own experience with indigenous people, letting us know how Peru’s official policy of “no contact” has been able to protect and cushion tribes like the one shown in Stuckert’s photographs. But can we, on the one hand, promote this “no contact”/”no invasion” policy and, on the other hand, promote this sort of imagery? How is Stuckert’s decision to make these photos public not an act of exploitation?

When I read on the news that the photographer accidentally stumblled on these photographs I can’t help but laugh and remember the sort of excuses lovers often give one another to avoid confrontation. He may have spotted the event by chance, but everything else after that is product of his conscious choices, not randomness. Did he have to show the images? Do we need to see them? Should we promote the idea that young photographs should go out and photograph people in their private lives?

But besides me having a difficulty in understanding why no one questions the need to make these photographs public, what this new pair of eyes struggle most is with the hundreds of journalists calling the photographs spectacular, as if there was something absolutely new in the photographs, as if the world had just waken up to another way of living…

New blood (part II)

Benjamin Freedman

Statement about the project: In November 2014 I began a two month residency in northern Iceland where I became interested in the countries unique topographic features. Its low mountains and fascinating geological specimens inspired this sci-fi photo book that is meant to playfully illustrate a fictional story about a lunar phenomenon taking place in a sleepy little town. As a medium that boasts power and authority, photography remains a complex tool that inherently elicits the truth while simultaneously hinting at the possibility of fiction. These images, constructed using rocks found from the surrounding landscape, are playfully rearranged and photographed within the context of a scientifically ambiguous narrative. Like images mined from forgotten archives, the photographs borrow reoccurring elements from space and forensic photography. Collectively, the work creates a mosaic that re-presents situations from a research project performed in a remote town. Weaving together photographs of possible lunar samples, scientific machinery and cosmic landscapes, the book forms an eclectic visual journal of a man and his relationship with the cosmos.

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© Benjamin Freedman, selected works from the project OFORT(Observation of Foreign Objects in a Remote town) More can be seen here.

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Jordanna Kalman

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© Jordanna Kalman, selected works from the project The Hole Sea. More can be seen here.

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Anna Snyder

Statement about the project: ‘Symbiosis’ .

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© Anna Synder, selected works from the projects 1000 Islands (first three photographs) and The Gatherer (last three photographs). More can be seen here.

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Mara Gajic

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© Mara Gajic, selected works from the different projects. More can be seen here.

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Rachelle Bussières

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© Rachelle Bussières, selected works from different years. All unique gelatin silver prints. More can be seen here.

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How authenticity came to be mistaken for spontaneity

One Paula Riebschläger writes about photographer Arnaud Ele‘s work:

Far away from orchestrated photo shoots, Ele’s pictures are filled with authenticity expressed in pictures of dreamy landscapes and intimate portraits. He graduated from film school in Geneva and was recently commissioned by Urban Outfitters to create an ad campaign. Although, Ele is already a successful photographer, he keeps steadily reinventing his work. Through the process of taking pictures, he captures special moments and keeps them from being forgotten.

As I see it, Riebschläger’s words about Ele’s photographs are a good example of how the term authenticity is now commonly used as a mere synonym of sincerity, genuineness or spontaneity. So usually when one reads about the “authentic character” of a given work of art, what the writer means is that certain qualities of the work evoke a sense of truthfulness that has been somehow lost. I think this sense of having lost something incredibly important to the way we understand and relate ourselves as human beings, is transversal to every generation. Although “what’s lost” changes, it always seems to allude to some ethical standard that “used to” guaranteed a certain harmony and stability.

In the case of Ele’s photographs, what Riebschläger apparently recognizes as authentic is the intimacy, which she contrasts with the “orchestrated photo shoots”. Yes, consumers don’t like to acknowledge they’re consuming, so these new wave of urban street fashion shoots are there to let the viewer feel more comfortable, because it feels truer, more spontaneous, real, unpretentious, honest, etc. In fact, most of theses productions are just as orchestrated as they “used to be”, they just have different aims and different functions.

So how does this market of spontaneity translate into a photographic style? Precisely by evoking something that “has been lost”, namely the rawer qualities of the analogue: the grainy structure of the silver crystals, the less vivid colors, the lack of sharpness, the blur and so on an so on. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t see any problem in Ele’s photographs (more can be seen here). They highlight every day moments and they all have a certain vitality to them. The problem seems to be the rhetoric that grows around them, a rhetoric that tends to turn them into something they are not: namely authentic and highly out-of-the-box original creative works of art.

© Arnaud Ele.
© Arnaud Ele.
© Arnaud Ele.
© Arnaud Ele.

Art without art (or art without its aesthetic dimension)

It’s a recurrent discussion that makes a bundle out of art issues: why are art critics avoiding aesthetic criticism and, instead, doing critic of the art system, the nominal dimension and the historical value of the artworks, apparently neglecting the thing that makes an artwork what it is – the art aspect of it. Has conceptualism robbed art of a substantial dimension, to a point that now people just care about the concept, the social impact and so on? And why do artists insist on exhibiting their works in places that tend to go against the essential elements in their works?

This post could take several recent examples from the artworld (namely the case with one portuguese art critic who called a Miró collection of works “shit” without having seen them), but let’s talk about Antoine d’Agata, again.  I adore d’Agata’s work, if and when I have the opportunity of encountering it in my own terms. When I heard his works were going to be exhibited in Lisbon, in a gallery dedicated to photographic art, I had mixed feelings: first, I got excited with the chance to see the works first hand, then I immediately thought that just might ruin d’Agata’s work for me. After that a friend told me the invitation he had received for the vernissage had a red mark (yes, like when the tv screans horror movies), suggesting the revelation of some forbidden dimension and I got even more reticent.

I’ll try to explain: I usually hate galleries and rarely see exhibitions in such a context. A lot of what happens inside a gallery prevents me from receiving/experiencing/encountering the artworks with the required openness, so my very rare visits to galleries are usually uncomfortable moments and none aesthetic experience comes out of it. Of course I realize that’s a condition of mine, one that is open to criticism and that may be recognized to function as a sort of freudian mechanism of defense. But, for now, I suggest we look at the example of d’Agata’s exhibition in Lisbon, starting from two articles (critics?) published in portuguese newspapers.

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photo taken from here: http://thismorningonmyipod.tumblr.com/post/150468432164/antoine-dagata-barbado-galery
photo taken from here: http://thismorningonmyipod.tumblr.com/post/150468432164/antoine-dagata-barbado-galery

In one of the articles, the author, Alexandra Carita, begins with the following choice of words: “Obsessive, sick, demented, d’Agata, a member of the Magnum Agency, is or has been it all – a sort of maldito photographer, marginal and marginalized.” Further along the article she continues: ” A trump, as the dogs he incessantly photographs, he challenges addictions and goes beyond his limits” and, just to make my point, she adds “chocking, irreverent, controversial, polemic”. Throughout the entire article all that is said is about the author, not the artwork, as if what’s truly impressive about d’Agata is the man himself, as if hearing or reading about his life story would have the same effect. To my knowledge, the only words Carita uses that actually account for the aesthetic dimension of the artwork is when she mentions that his exercise (?) is at the same time violent and magnificent. Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Maybe my understanding that the author and the work don’t follow the same rules (and ethics) is wrong.

Either way, I just don’t get it. It’s like there’s absolutely no appreciation of the work – the originality, the truth, the autonomy, the colors, the dimensions, the dynamics, the play, the technic, and so on – as if art critic has now surrender to the description of an aesthetic experience that resonates from an idea constructed around the nominal dimension and not the artistic value of the works. It almost like we’re entering the realm of art brut, where it has always been more or less clear that what gets the market going is the authors identity and the crazier their biographies the more they sell. On the other hand, and although is no news that the nominal dimension is of great importance to the art world, there’s always been the ability to recognize new aesthetic values, so how has it come to this?

For those of you who follow this blog, it’s not surprising to hear me say these things. I study and teach photography, but what interests me is art and a LOT of what is promoted as photographic art is completely irrelevant as a work of art: it has no authenticity, no originality, no truth, mainly because it serves an exterior purpose, whatever that is. As I see it, what makes a difference in d’Agata’s photographic work is the way he does it and I recognize it can be fascinating. I guess the difference is that I think such artistic ethic is only present in the work, not through the author’s (human) and everyday actions. So we should be focusing on the work. What do d’Agata’s photographs tell us about a truthful way of doing art? 

When I started showing d’Agata’s work in classes I remember thinking the reactions were unexpected. I guess I thought students would show some repulse, but most of them were very interested in seeing and discussing more, and not in a voyeuristic sense. I’m aware that my enthusiasm, as a teacher, can be the difference here, but the fact is that I consider his work to be a great example of how photography is a technic that one should use to express oneself, so I often present his work to address aesthetic qualities. What is implied here is an affirmation of the importance of the technical specificities of the medium. I think only once one recognizes, learns and experiments with such technical characteristics, will one be able to fully understand the potential of the photographic medium. In my opinion, d’Agata does just that. We uses the camera as an autonomous tool. Through the use of monochromatics, long exposures and the proximity of the lens, we enter the abyss of the lives he portraits.

In another article, one Teresa Melo identifies what she thinks makes d’Agata’s work exceptional: the fact that he is involved in the world he documents, with which he establishes an intimate relationship; the fact that he can attest to the reality he documents: “he’s seen it, he’s been through it”. But isn’t that the paradoxical nature of photography? How does that translate in aesthetic terms? What aesthetic elements would invite the author, Teresa Melo, to call the orgasms represented in d’Agata’s pictures superficial? I find it almost offensive to call something (whether the orgasms or the drug consuming) superficial in his work. But I don’t doubt her point of view, what irritate me is that nothing is explained, there’s no argument.

Let me be clear: I didn’t made it to the exhibition. After two failed attempts (bumping on signs saying we’re sorry, we’re closed) I gave up. No disappointment, I have to confess. What I could see from the sidewalk was difficult to comprehend: how could d’Agata’s work be put on display inviting people to call him (as the critics so rapidly have) polemic, without even acknowledging that after calling him “polemic Antoine d’Agata” they should go on to explain why they find him (and/or his work) polemic. Because he uses drugs? Because we looks for the darkest side of life? Because he addresses sex in a manner you find unethical

David Nebreda is one author I think we can all agree to call polemic. And why is that? Because his photographs sometime beautify death and suffering; because he photographs his own pain. So what did his editor do? L. Scheer, instead of promoting Nebreda as a schizoid artist (which he is), protected him an his work from the vultures of the art world. But the following question goes back to d’Agata’s exhibition: how does that sort of display help SHOW a work like d’Agata’s? Meaning: how does hanging a bunch of photographs in a linear way, at 1,5m, against a dark grey wall help experience the aesthetic dimension of The Long Night? I’m sure for some people this opportunity was their way into d’Agata’s work and that is always a good thing, but I question whether the dynamics of his work can survive that sort of display. Can the dense quality of each of his photographs survive the comparison (against one another and the grey wall)? Can the uniqueness of his work survive the repetition syndrome that rules the gallery space? I don’t think so and this is also truth for Nebreda’s work. Would I go and see it if it were to be shown in such a way? I don’t think so, not only because I don’t see how it might add to the intimate relationship I’ve establish with his books, but also because I also find that such a disposition is disrespectful to his ethics an the content of the works.  

The art of being subversive (after J. Colberg)

Jörg Colberg, from Conscientious Mag, wrote an essay on the need for subversive photography that can be found on Hyperallergic. As Colberg reflects on what subversion “looks like”, he starts by comparing two photographs: Time´s cover portrait of Trump, by Nadav Kander (2016), and Jill Greenberg’s cover portrait of John McCain, for the Atlantic (2008). For Colberg, comparing these approaches by such different authors makes clear that Trump’s portrait by Kander is not subversive AT ALL (Time’s placement of the lettering is a different question). I couldn’t agree more. If one looks at Greenberg’s complementary photographs from that session with McCain there’s no doubt that she’s committed to being transgressive and original. Can an author be subversive if he/she insists on not committing to anything deemed political?

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Regarding Greenberg’s photographs, Colberg emphasis falls on her use of the back lightning and how that shadow has symbolic meanings (the horror movies to start with), for she chosed to highlight how menacing McCain is. To sum up the history of how Greenberg got these photographs, she tricked the Republican presidential nominee into standing over an unflattering strobe light, then posted the worst shots and Photoshops to her personal site. The magazine then said the author had disgraced herself. Curiously enough, Colberg had a different opinion back in 2008, when the manipulated photos of McCain by Greenberg came out, calling Greenberg’s actions […] simply incredibly disgraceful and unacceptable. I guess the problem is that we need subversive art, but then it apparently fails to comprise with our moral standards. But a subversive action is never to be received without some uneasiness, some rejection. Otherwise, if it din’t question what we take as granted – be it our values, rights or beliefs – how and why would it be considered subversive?

© Jill Greenberg, 2008.
© Jill Greenberg, 2008.
© Jill Greenberg, 2008.
© Jill Greenberg, 2008.

I find it refreshing when people change their minds, as seems to be the case in this Colberg vs Greenberg episode. These were his words back then: Frankly, I’m still baffled how Jill Greenberg could even think that her actions were in any sense a meaningful political statement that would be taken seriously. It’s mind-blowing. It degrades political discourse to levels that even the worst cases of political mud throwing thankfully only rarely reach. As I see it, what Colberg failed to understand back in 2008 is that Greenberg isn’t bound by the same rules that apply to politics and journalism and her biggest compromise is to her work, not the magazine or its readers. She took the opportunity to make subversive imagery that apparently offended people’s ethical standards, but she suffered the consequences. 9 years later, here’s what Colberg has to say about the McCain portraits: Say whatever you want about the pictures Greenberg produced; whether you like them or not, aren’t they subversive? Isn’t lighting a politician from below, to make him look menacing — and not at all palatable to a magazine’s readership — subversive?

Resistance is one thing, but being subversive is something entirely different. I guess the times we’re living are so challenging that now the act of resistance is radical enough, polemical enough. Just see the discussions around the way some people decided to protest agains Milos Yiannopoulos conference at Berkeley. Apparently, in light of free speech banner we should all simply stay put while white supremacists promote their way of thinking. Don’t the people who protested, “those 150 masked agitators” (as reported), have the same rights than the guest whose ideals they vehemently oppose. I’m aware their methods is what shocks people, but would it be that different if the conference had been cancelled because of a pacific protest? Maybe trowing Molotov cocktails and smashing windows is by some considered a subversive attitude, because if defies the law and the way most people resort to protest, but it lacks originality and doesn’t have a transformative goal in mind, so how can we consider it a political act? 

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Consider the latest Der Spiegel conver, an illustration by Edel Rodriguez depicting Trump beheading the statue of liberty. We can all agree it is controversial, but is it subversive? And, whatever we may call it, is it because the illustration is shown in the cover of a magazine or is it the artwork controversial in itself? According to Hal Foster (in RECODINGS: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, 1985) some political art entail the sort of compromise that is merely presentational, failing to give expression to the critical stance that is inherent to political art. In Foster’s view, this critical character should have two type of manifestation: one that is transgressive and aims to transform; another that resists aims to question the normative systems of production. If political art fails to do either, than it also fails its critical function, instead promoting the same mechanisms of production that it should be question and/or transforming. As Foster concludes: 

“Presentational political art, then, remains problematic. And this is so, above all, because such art tends to represent social practices as a matter of iconic ideals. However general the social practices of the industrial worker are, as soon as they are represented as universal or even uniform, such representations become ahistorical and thus ideological. It is here that the rhetoricity of presentational political art is exposed: for when such art seeks most directly to engage the real, it most clearly entertains rhetorical figures for it. In the west today there can be no simple representation of reality, history, politics, society: they can only be constituted textually; otherwise one merely reiterates ideological representations of them. Generic political art often falls into this fallacy of a true or positive image, and from there it is but a short step to an axiological mode of political art in which naming and judging become one. Politics is thus reduced to ethics — to idolatry or iconoclasm — and art to ideology pure and simple, not its critique.” (p. 155)

Some called Rodriguez’s illustration “tasteless”, others said it “devalues journalism”, but what we all acknowledge is exactly what the author was putting forward: the idea that the the values promoted by ISIS and by Trump’s administration are not that different, both have zero respect for human lives, both promote hate and both are willing to do whatever is necessary to attain their goals. Is that a subversive statement? I don’t think so, those comparisons are not only obvious but they promote the sort of rhetoric that devalue the history that brought us to this point. If something is controversial here is the fact that it is featured in the cover of a well known magazine, but is that enough to make it a transgressive political work of art?

Imagine you’re a tree

'Platan', from the project 'Temporary Trees'. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d)
‘Platan’, from the project ‘Temporary Trees’. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).
'Cherry Tree' from the project 'Temporary Trees'. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).
‘Cherry Tree’ from the project ‘Temporary Trees’. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).
Weeping WillowLight box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d)
‘Weeping Willow’ from the project ‘Temporary Trees’. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).
'Weeping Willow' from the project 'Temporary Trees'. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).
‘Pollard Willow’ from the project ‘Temporary Trees’. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).
'Weeping Willow' from the project 'Temporary Trees'. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).
‘Oak Tree’ from the project ‘Temporary Trees’. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).
'Weeping Willow' from the project 'Temporary Trees'. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).
‘Poplar’ from the project ‘Temporary Trees’. Light box – Oak wood, acrylic, lambda-trans, 128,5 x 87 x 20 cm (h x w x d).

Temporary Trees is a collaboration between Make a Forest (founded by Joanna van der Zanden and Anne van der Zwaag), Raw Color (design studio by Daniera ter Haar and Christoph Brach) and Maarten Kolk & Guus Kusters‘ studio.

This series was presented during Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven in 2011.

More about Temporary Trees and Raw Color here.

New blood (part I)

Richard Gosnold

Statement about the project: ‘Voices’ conveys a tale of traumatic events, questioning how the perception of reality, for a mentally ill person, is influenced by past experiences. Based on the theory that we invent reality to suit our emotional state, I have considered how photographs may be viewed, re-contextualized and reconstructed, to fit within a personal narrative. Photographs made during my youth act as a metaphor for the fragility of memories from adolescence, which continue to influence how we perceive reality in adulthood. Found images signify how events, witnessed outside our immediate sphere, find their way into our memories, as if they actually happened to us. These images, contrasted with photographs made recently, suggest that earlier life experiences influence our understanding of the world.

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© Richard Gosnold, selected works from the project Voices. More can be seen here.

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Benedetta Casagrande

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© Benedetta Casagrande, selected works from the project Wet Dream. More can be seen here.

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Samuel Kaye

Statement about the project: ‘Symbiosis’ is an exploration of the relationship between bacteria and the human body. Though invisible to the naked eye these microorganisms make up about 90% of the cells in our body. Bacteria carries out many vital takes without which we would find it much harder to function, from digesting food to protecting our skin. Every image is the result of allowing each subjects own bacteria to grow on, and chemically interact with, their portrait.

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© Samuel Kaye, selected works from the project Symbiosis. More can be seen here.

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Matt Glover

Statement: This body of work explores the space between maturity and immaturity. It is an ongoing documentation of the current situation of a group of teenagers/young adults living in the UK today.

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© Matt Glover, selected works from the project.

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Singto Gauvain

Statement: The Thai phrase for ‘I don’t understand’, is ไม่เข้าใจ (pronounced: mai kao jai). When fragmented into individual words, the phrase literally translates to ‘doesn’t go into heart.’ ‘Doesn’t Go Into Heart’ is a book of photographs compiled from an ever expanding archive by Singto Gauvain. The images range from everyday snapshots to meticulously staged homages. The arrangement of the photographs uses signs and symbols ambiguously. The consequence of Gauvain’s frustration in attempting to accurately communicate concepts has resulted in this body of work. This body of work bases itself on two conditions of contemporary photographic practice (As discussed by Charlotte Cotton and Bjarne Bare in Objectiv #10, ‘Post-Photography’): the culture of dissemination and the failure of information in the field..

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© Singto Gauvain, selected works from the project mai kao jai. More can be seen here.

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We don’t understand why these foreigners take photographs

In Culture and Authenticity (2008), discussing the semiotics of tourism and authenticity, Charles Lindholm talks about the sexual tourist who ventures “seeking out forbidden pleasures in foreign locales”, hoping to “discover his or her own natural uncivilized being” (p. 42). As Lindholm suggests, that sexual tourists who goes to Thailand, for instances, looking to have sex with minors, is not that different from a tourist who, choosing the same destiny, opts to venture through nature. For Lindholm, they are both looking for a regressive experience, an experience that is so raw and unmediated that, in a sense, hurts, awakening the child within, i.e., a part of our being that is mostly repressed throughout our lives.

Alluding to “the whole adrenaline thing” that drives such a big part of the tourism market, Lindholm notes the importance of the “powerful bodily sensations” for a strategy that sells the transgression of bodily limits as a fast lane to reach an interior truth (p. 48). But what really interests us is to question the way in which that sense of freedom and communion is promoted in areas of tourism that explore what is obscene, i.e., what is considered morally repugnant. For instances, why is dark tourism promoting the idea of “authentic experience” if what it sells is, in fact, journeys to places where one can find traces of death or the macabre? In what sense is the rhetoric of authenticity related to death?

Amrboise Tezenas 7© Ambroise Tézenas, Old Hanwang Zhen, an industry town where 3,000 people were killed in the earthquake, from the series I was here / Tourisme de le Désolation, 2008-2014. More of Ambroise’s work here.

Amrboise Tezenas 5© Ambroise Tézenas, The fairground in Oradour-sur-Glane, the martyr village, from the series I was here / Tourisme de le Désolation, 2008-2014. More of Ambroise’s work here.

Amrboise Tezenas 1© Ambroise Tézenas, On May 12, 2008, a large earthquake hit Wenchuan, Sichuan Province. Houses were destroyed, and many people were killed. There are tours here now, which offer a look at the aftermath of the tremendous earthquake, from the series I was here / Tourisme de le Désolation, 2008-2014. More of Ambroise’s work here.

Amrboise Tezenas 3© Ambroise Tézenas, Rwanda Murambi Genocide memorial site, from the series I was here / Tourisme de le Désolation, 2008-2014. More of Ambroise’s work here.

In one of South Africa’s biggest cities, Bloemfontein, there’s a luxury hotel called Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa, that promises the client the experience of a lifetime: to be able to recreate a shanty town, so that the client could, for a couple of nights, experience living like the poor. Funny enough, when I first heard about this, back in 2013, the site was promoting the experience like we’re telling it here, like a chance to step on the shoes of the desperately poor, but now it looks like the shanty town has been transformed into African Village Chalets. It seems like reality and good sense have caught up with them.

A night in the shanty town costed about 70$ per night. The all experienced alluded to the concept of “reality tourism” but, in fact, it was “a fake slum for luxury tourists who don’t want to see real poverty“, for the clients had heated floors and access to wireless.

untitled-1-copyA woman’s review of the time spent at shanty town, in Tripadvisor. Notice the one star rating, but how the description suggest the time of their lives.

But what are these tourists looking for? What do they hope to gain when they decide to trade a luxury bed for a fake slum one? As I see it, although I’m sure these tourists are looking for a good story, they might also be looking for recognition, because, in a sense, trading high comfort for a rawer experience can be considered a sacrificial act and the rhetoric of sacrifice legitimates, validates, authenticates

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In an amazing documentary entitled Cannibal Tours (1998), Dennis O’Rourke portrays the relation between the Papua New Guinean and the tourists who began visiting the country, after the process of decolonization started, in 1975. During the documentary, O’Rourke takes us inside a touristic cruise traveling through the Sepik river, registering some discussions between Italians, Americans, Germans and the natives, who throughout the years have learned to take advantage of these tourists, letting them take photographs and, in return, receiving money which they can use to buy clothes and some other basic (and not so basic) things, as one native explains.

At one point, inside the cruise, three Italians discuss their points of view regarding what they consider to be a “primitive way of living”. While one expresses his opinion, stating that they are not really living, only vegetating in their environment, another points out the apparent happiness with which they do their daily tasks and asks if it is possible that their way of living is better than ours, as if the capitalist contract which guarantees the boat’s journey wasn’t in fact conditioning the encounter between “them” and “I”. The river that separates those shores – of the “they” and the “ours” – dries fast and the two shores are then reunited through the magic of simulation: the natives exhibited (and sell) what “the others” consider to be the most exotic side of their culture – rituals, dances, crafts, body painting, etc. -, while the foreigners, fulfilling their role as outsiders, watch (and buy).

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On their way back home, one American tourist, accounting for her passion about “primitive art” and her long time interest for Papua New Guinea, reveals her satisfaction for “being able to find what she was looking for”, alluding to the idea that she could still buy the “authentic stuff” and that it would be “too bad” if the natives would deviate from their way of doing and started to “work for tourism as such”, as if that wasn’t exactly the situation she was in.

While O’Rourke keeps portraying the tourists on their journey inside the boat, we wonder about the exchanges at work. At one point, an Italian man, with a pious countenance, states that although there is little one can do for “these people”, “we must try to help them advance in the world”, bring “them” some “values and convictions” and, like missionaries, “teach them something” and “stimulate them to behave differently”. There’s nothing surprising about this neo-colonizer discourse, but while the Papua New Guinean exhibit their embellished bodies and dance, the tourists keep hiding behind their cameras.  It’s the confrontation with the Other, either European or Guinean, that legitimates the construction of the Other. Ones are authentically primitive, other are authentically civilized. Or are they?

When asked about the way he lives, one Guinean responds: With regard to the way we live… I think the tourists read about us in books, and come… ‘Do we still live like our forefathers?’; ‘Are we civilized or not?’ They come to find out. That’s what I think. And what do they find? Behind me is the spirit-house of our ancestors. The spirit-house which we use. Is this what they come for? I cannot understand. I’m confused.