Photographing Corners

There’s something about a photograph of a corner that intrinsically relates to the essence of photography. Although I don’t pretend to know what that essence is, it’s clear to me that it somehow has to do with how we, as subjects, come to understand ourselves as beings. In that sense, it relates to memory and, particularly, to the dynamics of a narrative we construct for ourselves.

Thinking about photographs of corners immediately reminds me of one of Eggleston’s iconic images (reproduced below), but also Tillmans’. While I was doing some reading on the subject(s), I found an article by writer Eira Rojas in which she addresses not only corners, but also the same Eggleston I mentioned before. Although Rojas’ focus is on banality and the apparent superficiality of mundane things (on this topic, I don’t know of anything better to read than Michael Fried’s understanding of Jeff Wall’s staged photographs), my interest has more to do with aesthetic qualities and not with discursive ones. It’s not like they’re two very different things, but the rhetoric of authenticity (which is what’s beneath the eulogy of the amateur photography) verges on insincerity, because it’s goal is to replicate, to reproduce, to attain…

© William Eggleston, ‘Untitled (Greenwood, Mississippi)’, 1980.

I can’t photograph corners, so I’m fascinated by those who can. In fact, the only way I can see myself photographing corners was if and when blindfolded. Photography has this magic quality of being the expression of the self, meaning that she presents herself as the medium of the visible, of those who know how to look and understand what they’re seeing, when in fact it is the medium of the invisible. And she’s unforgivable: whenever the photographer lies, she lies. In that sense, she is a very singular medium of expression and, I feel, a beautiful photograph of a corner is particularly related to a certain dynamics in the way the author approaches life and the creative field.

In regards to Eggleston’s photograph, Rojas states it aims at a “snapshot aesthetic”, to which she adds:

Color is obviously the most striking formal aspect of this photo, and color informs it’s content as well, but this picture is remarkable as well for its harmonious composition and visual wit. The photo’s almost monolithic redness is broken into symmetrical portions […] It’s deep symmetry is not just radial, but also horizontal and vertical. The white V shape of the cables on the ceiling, and darker form of the light bulb hanging from its point, echo its negative in the dark cove molding and subtly lighter definition of the corner. 

Corners seem to assure that a tension between negative and positive spaces participates in the composition and maybe that sort of dynamics is what guarantees a given photograph an after life. I don’t like corners in real life, so it’s only fair they’re excluded from my compositions. But, of course, the subject cannot be reduce to a particular situation, for corners have universal value in a narrative. In my personal life, I understand drama awaits behind a corner: not only am I clumsy by nature and have had my share of corner happenings, but also I walk dogs, so one needs to be particularly aware of what awaits after a corner. But the list of problems continues: I also hate doors and am a little claustrophobic, so usually a corner in an enclosed space is a sign of distress.

Having said this, this link between corners and suspense is universal. I imagine a lot of people share these feelings, for usually photographs of corners are precisely that: an indication of anguish, of what’s been unsaid, unrealized or unseen. Just think about any action movie and you’ll see corners everywhere. Whether they’re massive and grey or shinny and blue, their part in the story is not of minor importance; they’re like comas, anticipating the next sigh.

Jordan Gale: ‘I was lucky’

I came across Jordan Gale‘s project It is what it is @ Lenscratch. At first, it was a darkness that grabbed my attention, but then something else triggered a different engagement with his work. In what seems like a statement about It is was it is, Gale mentions that the project “acts as a form of therapy” and then that “[he] was lucky”. Because I immediately empathize with this sort of processes, some personal memories came to mind. But, first, let us glimpse at Gale’s project:

© Jordan Gale, ‘Lynne’, from the series ‘It is what it is’.
© Jordan Gale, ‘Joe’, from the series ‘It is what it is’.
© Jordan Gale, ‘Chuck’, from the series ‘It is what it is’.
© Jordan Gale, ‘Tyler’, from the series ‘It is what it is’.
© Jordan Gale, ‘Anna’, from the series ‘It is what it is’.
© Jordan Gale, ‘Ben’, from the series ‘It is what it is’.
© Jordan Gale, ‘Homecoming’, from the series ‘It is what it is’.

First and foremost, I think it’s fair to say it’s an unpretentious work: in its effort to become a series (or project) Gale seemed to have resisted the beginners’s temptation to give in to a too linear construction, overly subdued to the narrative premises. On the other hand, some images lack autonomy and dynamics, as if they don’t know where they belong; sometimes because he’s too close to his subject, sometimes because the composition just fails to appear as ‘natural’ (meaning not staged) as it wants to be.

When one mentions the idea of photo-therapy, it’s difficult not to consider sincerity as the higher quality, aesthetic and ethical (if there is even a difference). Because in the aforementioned statement, found @ Lenscratch, Gale addresses the issues that drove him to do this series, I can only assume that maybe it’s the honesty of that drive that translates into the true darkness that I recognize in some photographs. Having said that, the series seems incomplete, as if the healing is yet to occur. 

When Gale mentions that [he] was lucky, I’m reminded of my own circumstances, although mine are fundamentally different from his. Last week, while visiting my mother, she ventured into memory lane and said something like “I always knew you’d be OK; the moral principles were all there”, to which I answered: “I was lucky”. What I meant was that I was lucky to have survived, which is precisely the same Gale implied with the same expression. Apparently, we both recognize chance played a major part in the path we took, at a given moment.

‘The dark hole’ was a recurrent ‘theme’ during my therapy sessions. I’m sure although it has a particular meaning, it’s also universally understood, so no need for further explanations. Anyway, what I want to emphasize here is that when in ‘a dark hole’, one looses sight and that void poses a very surreal set of challenges that go beyond moral values or principles (or whatever you want to call them). In my opinion, how one crawls out of ‘a dark hole’ is highly dependent on chance and sometimes a constellation of random events

But what part does photography in this plot?

Does anyone still doubt photography can be a potentially liberating therapeutic tool?  

The devil in Terje Abusdal’s pictures: how I once dreamt I ate my family

Before today, I didn’t know Terje Abusdal’s work and I confess I fell for it. I’m not exceptionally good at anything, except at falling in love at first sight and that’s what happened here. Sometimes, when I first encounter an author’s work, things look pretty clear. Specifically, what an author excels at seems to becomes obvious. And, then, regarding the work at hand, I guess the author’s style and originality finally invade and dominate the dynamics of the aesthetic experience.

© Terje Abusdal, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Hope Blinds Reason’.
© Terje Abusdal, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Hope Blinds Reason’.
© Terje Abusdal, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Hope Blinds Reason’.

In Hope Blinds Reason, Terje’s work that really stroke me, it’s like darkness is the premise guiding the plot. Darkness, evil, shadows, monsters, whatever lives in our nightmares, our repressed memories, our collective unconscious, the magical nature of our pictorial imaginary… it all seems to come alive in Terje’s work. I suppose this darkness I project is just partially triggered by his images: the parts we don’t see, the failed movements, the ritualistic circles, the animal presence, the blue ice cold images, the scientific nature of the infrared images, the sheets, the immensity of the water where we once drowned, the vultures, the horns, the never-ending holes in the ground, the inverted silhouettes, the unaccomplished connections, the pig, the butterflies, the monkeys, the chains, the snakes, the sex… 

As for the other part, it’s both played out by my cultural heritage – the tons of horror movies I watched with my brother, the Lynchian universe, etc. – and this magical universe that inhabits our dreams and, consequently, my recurrent nightmares.

© Terje Abusdal, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Hope Blinds Reason’.
© Terje Abusdal, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Hope Blinds Reason’.

I once dreamt I ate my family in a very vivid cannibalistic ritual, but that doesn’t say much, when it comes to nightmares. What I find particularly original and penetrating in Terje’s stories is how he masters these non linear, non figurative images, that are part of our immaterial culture, into a photographic narrative.

More about Terje’s work can be seen in his website and a short text about another project, namely Slash & Burnhere

© Terje Abusdal, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Hope Blinds Reason’.
© Terje Abusdal, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Hope Blinds Reason’.
© Terje Abusdal, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Hope Blinds Reason’.

Soham Gupta’s pictures haunt us

Soham Gupta‘s statement:

Angst is my reaction to the trials through which some people must pass in our society.
This work has its roots in my childhood riddled with severe asthma attacks and in my troubled growing-up years spent trying to come to terms with the world’s expectations. Deep within Angst runs my anger, my frustrations, my hatred for a world in which there is no place for the weak, where weaklings are left to rot.
Nourished by this anger, this hatred, this cynicism, this body of work has grown into a hopeless tale of a fictive nighttime hellhole, whose nooks and crannies are inhabited by decaying souls.
Ultimately, I want Angst to stand as testimony to the requiem of countless dreams, even as it is a record of my angst-ridden youth.

© Soham Gupta, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Angst’ (2013-2016).
© Soham Gupta, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Angst’ (2013-2016).
© Soham Gupta, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Angst’ (2013-2016).
© Soham Gupta, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Angst’ (2013-2016).
© Soham Gupta, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Angst’ (2013-2016).
© Soham Gupta, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Angst’ (2013-2016).
© Soham Gupta, ‘Untitled’, from the project ‘Angst’ (2013-2016).

Maybe there’s not much one should say about Gupta’s project Angst, but I can’t help but comment that Gupta seems to venture into a weirdly original place: as he approaches the most “exhausted” genre in photography – the portrait – he also seems to touch a dimension of the unseen. As he mastered angst? Is that what lingers in our minds? Which images are we really seeing? Are thee portraits about the human condition?

Typifying: is this scientific approach revealing?

I once wrote a brief post about the effects of the Düsseldorf school, following Grant Scott‘s article Has the Düsseldorf school killed photography? (which I can no longer find available online).

At the time, I hadn’t given much thought to the scientific nature of photography, because I tend to deviate from that approach. However, as I’m accompanying a friend’s PhD about the archival nature of photography, I ended up having a lot of discussions about typifying, cataloging, archiving, stereotyping, etc. In a couple of weeks (or months), I’ll be able to write about his work, properly. For now, just some very brief considerations that came to mind while observing author Yorgos Efthymiadis‘ project Domesticated.

© Yorgos Efthymiadis, ‘untitled’, from the series ‘Domesticated’.

I came across one of Yorgos’ photographs from Domesticated @ Lenscratch and a strangely familiar feeling was immediately awaken: I wanted to curse the photographer’s temptation to typify!. Maybe what happens is that 1) there’s an idea – in this case how guns can be embellished to reveal only (or mainly) their function as decorative objects or ornaments; 2) the author may think that the repetition of a given formula (composition, etc) will be able to highlight the “true nature” of the project and accentuate its idiosyncrasies; 3) as the observer gets accustomed to the author’s style, he/she legitimates his/her doing.

I want to suggest that behind this process lies one of the paradigms of photography – that her nature is to kill, not to reveal. In that sense, maybe what really happens is that 1) there’s an idea – the idea is not good enough for a project (there’s nothing fundamentally original about it), but still the author insists; 2) as the formula repeats itself, instead of helping reveal the “true nature” of the object – the gun -, that repetition destroys the aesthetic dynamics of the singular image; 3) while the author intent may be to level, to particularize the object and universalize the subject, what happens is that the leveling and the repetition exposes the fragility of the initial idea

printscreen from Yorgos’ website.

Aline Smithson comments that Yorgos project is about exploring “the charged subject of gun ownership” and in order to do that, he photographs the “collector’s prized possession in juxtaposition to a woven backdrop from the collector’s home”. Apparently, what this strategy amounts to is to reveal how guns, apart from their destructive nature, can be “just beautiful objects”, full of history. However, does this strategy of erasing the ethical nature of the process of creating art can help reveal a scientific true? Or, instead, is this just not about art?

No singular observer, after Marie-José Mondzain’s ‘Can images Kill?’

Knowing about my fixation with the ethics of photography, particularly when it comes to documentary images, a friend suggested I might be interested in a portuguese edition of Marie-José Mondzain‘s ‘Can images Kill’. As I went searching online, I came across an article, with the same title, that she had published back in 2009, @ Critical Inquiry. As I started to read, it took me a while to understand where she was going. She takes her time. She speaks about the crisis of the visible and traces links between capitalism and the passive role we, as consumers, assume, when we enter the sphere of visual language (in our daily narratives and in the fictional arena). Mondzain also evokes the importance of religious icons, in order for us to better understand what she means about the gaze being the agent that gives visibility to an image, in the sense that the gaze “has” the desire and the passion that empowers images to come into their own. Let me quote from her:

…today there is an additional strange anxiety: the power of images consists in pushing us to imitate them, and the narrative content of images could commit direct violence by pushing us to enact it. Images were once accused of making visible; now they are accused of making us do things. 

However, as she astutely notes, the existence of violence implies the existence of subjects. Without these, there is nothing to gain/nothing to lose. Then when she finally formulates THE question, what I understand is that what puzzles her is who is the agent in an image? Are images subjects or objects? Are they autonomous? Do they act on their own? Who is responsible for what happens when they get to the observer: the maker, the photograph or the viewer? Can images kill? Do images make us killers? she finally asks…

As an object without body, hand, or will, can it [an image] act as a magical influence?” It’s a tricky question, as we all know. I’d say it’s difficult to define the autonomy of an image, what it can go on to do, and in that sense an image has an ethics; an image is not only a mechanism of representation, so what does it manage to create that is beyond the realm of the visibly known?; on the other hand, can its maker be responsible for its path? It’s no easy answer… To try and resolve this problem, Mondzain suggests we look at the dynamics of the images, and not at their “referential content”. In other worlds, Mondzain wants to address the power of images, not particularly in terms of the semiotic language, but in terms of their “magical” power, i.e., that which transforms them into “substitutive objects”. It’s here that I find one of her most interesting ideas: referencing the myth of Medusa and Narcissus, Mondzain states that the potential violence of images derives from identification, meaning:

The violence of the image explodes when it permits the identification of the unrepresentable within the visible; this is the same as saying that the image is only sustained through a dissimiliarity, in the space between the visible and the seeing subject.

And then comes the recipe: “Becoming one with what we see is fatal, and what can save us is the production of a liberating difference.” As I understand it, for Mondzain that critical liberation is only possible when an image incarnates, i.e., not to imitate, not to replicate, not to incorporate, not to simulate, but instead to give flesh:

To incarnate is to give flesh and not to give body. It is to act in the absence of things. The image gives flesh, that is, carnal visibility to an absence in an irreducible distance from its model […] in the incarnated image three indissociable authorities are formed: the visible, the invisible, and the gaze that establishes their relation. The image belongs to a strange logic of the included third.

[…]

The manifestation of truth entails the incarnation of the world in the flesh of images. The image becomes a human construction, and what gives value to this construction is not to be found outside of the visible but rather within it. The invisible in the image is the word itself. The image produces neither evidence nor truth and can only show what is produced by the gaze. The image awaits its visibility, which emerges from the relation established between those who produce it and those who look at it. As an image, it shows nothing. If it consciously shows something, it communicates and no longer shows its real nature, that is, the expectation of a gaze. This is why, rather than invisible, it is better to speak of an unseen, of what.

 

My allergy to any lexicon that addresses The Church has brought me some misfortunes in my academic life. It will one day be overcome, but not today. Mondzain’s constant references to the iconic power of images in a religious context keep taking away my enthusiasm for her arguments. I feel she’s on to something new, but then the references to Christ keep taking me back to a place where the gaze is fundamentally different from that of a spectator’s who’s role, in the “spectacle of visibilities” has a more immediate impact. Mondzain states that “[V]iolence within the visible concerns neither images of violence nor the violence of images as such but rather the violence committed against thought and speech in the spectacle of visibilities.

The question of responsibility is a difficult one. How can we decide if one is absolutely responsible for the images one makes for him/herself? How can we become alert and conscious about everything that constitutes that “spectacle of visibilities”? How can we control the violent actions of our gaze? Can we really choose what and how we give meaning to images? At one point, Mondzain addresses what she calls “objects that resist the murderous erosion of idolatrous appropriations” that she describes poetically with the following words:

These works are all the more authoritative because nothing can exhaust them, as if they invariably escape all fixed and definite meaning. They fully assume a kind of atopia that gives their mortality a semblance of eternity. They operate as incarnations of a dubious and endless freedom. They are real, although they are identifiable not in how they appear, nor in the program they fulfill, nor in the circumstances of their commission. They are real, but free of all conditions. Fictions, semblances, and immaterial shapes have a real goal: to satisfy desire by keeping it unsatisfied.

It’s almost cruel to resume Mondzain’s arguments (I don’t even mention her reflection about ‘the screen’ and I recommend reading the article, of course), but as I understand it, her conclusion regarding violence and responsibility indicates that context is the key and, in that sense, an inclusive and collective effort to address images and meaning as something that is constantly being transformed by the way we relate to them, might be an answer. That’s not to say a singular observer is no longer responsible for not having a critical eye, but, instead, that one’s lack of responsibility in this communal space of images is always our responsibility. In her own words:

Every image signifies a dangerous storm, where we must know how to govern.Weare all responsible for the visibilities that we make available and want to share. In a politics of the visible it is not a question of counting voices but of giving each voice a place where it can be heard and of giving each spectator a place where he or she can respond and be heard. The violence of the visible is no more than the disappearance of such a place and thereby the annihilation of the voice.

Marco Breuer: brightness can fool you

© Marco Breuer, ‘Early Light/Radiant AG-1B (C-902)’.

Breuer has been making abstract photographs since the early 1990s. However, in contrast to Aaron Siskind, whose black-and-white photographs of walls were linked to the gestural paintings of the Abstract Expressionists, particularly those of his friend Franz Kline, Breuer works with sheets of chromogenic paper, which, as the label for “Untitled (C-1773)” (2016) informs us, has been “exposed/ embossed/ scraped.” Ordinarily when it comes to photographs, we tend to look at the image and ignore the surface. […] Conventional photographs might be able to halt time and preserve a particular moment, but Breuer is having no part of it. His photographs are — as Rosenberg would say — the aftermath of an event. 

excerpt from: After the Storm, and Before, by John Yau @ Hyperallergic

© Marco Breuer, Untitled (C-1379), 2013
Chromogenic Paper, burned/scraped
20″ × 16″ (50.8 × 40.6 cm)
Unique
© Marco Breuer, “Untitled (C-1178)” (2012)
chromogenic paper, burned
31 3/4 x 25 1/2 inches. Unique.
© Marco Breuer, Untitled (Fuse), 1995
Gelatin Silver Paper, burned
18″ × 14″ (45.7 × 35.6 cm)
Unique

excerpts from a conversation  between Vanessa Kauffman and Marco Breuer, from 2016. More @ www.artjournal.collegeart.org

Kauffman: Your work is full of gesture, which removes it from any specific place but also gives it intimacy. The marks in your images could represent any moment, any place.
Breuer: The work has become gestural over time. I used to work with self-recording phenomena, photograms, and that was tied to objects. In these current projects, the work is much more about line and color. When you’re starting out after school, you’re trying to claim some space for yourself, and you’re trying to define who you are as an artist. If you have a contrarian personality, like I do, you do it by deciding who you’re not. But that’s not a sustainable mode—you can’t work in opposition for thirty years. Eventually you realize it doesn’t matter what other people do—what matters is what you do and the choices you make—and you have to own those choices. For me, that meant moving away from more automatic or chance-driven work to making concrete decisions: to put a certain type of line in a certain place because that’s what I want to do.

[…]

Kauffman: You’ve talked a lot about collaborations with writers. Is language an important aspect of your work, or an entry point into it, for you?
Breuer: As an artist, you write about your work on a regular basis, and you work on press releases and other texts, so language is a necessary crutch. But it’s certainly not how I get into the work. I do have a complicated relationship with language because English is not my first language. Halfway through my life I switched from German to English, which has changed things. There are different cultural concepts that can be expressed in certain languages, and you quickly become aware of them when you start speaking another language. At this point, I can barely talk about my work in German anymore because I don’t have the conceptual vocabulary — I developed it in English. I speak German, just not that particular slice of it.

Kauffman: The experience of the work can too easily become about the words and the description of it. Your work has a visual vernacular, but that vernacular is elusive in a delightful way—you see the impulses of a language, but there is not a particular semiotics.
Breuer: Every time you do attach words to artwork, you limit it. Obviously when visual work is written about, everyone’s looking for a hook—one sentence that describes what the work is about. I’ve always thought that’s a problem. If you can describe someone’s work in one sentence, there’s not enough happening. I try to point this out when I talk about the work. I make it clear that the verbal discussion is a secondary stage, and what we should be doing is looking at the work. When reproductions are involved—whether they are projections, slides, or reproductions in a book—there is loss in that translation too. I try to play this up, rather than pretend it’s not
there. The ideal scenario is somebody encountering your work without preconceived notions in the original piece, seeing all the surface violations and the actual marks on the paper. The reality is that much of the work is consumed online, encountered either in some dematerialized form, or described in words, and none of these ways are ideal.
I gave a lecture at California College of the Arts on April 21, 2016, and the question of language is a big question I consider every time I speak. My work is not based in language, but I prepare to talk about my work for an hour. Lectures are also an opportunity to think about different aspects of your. I built this lecture in five different loops. The reason that I chose the loop is that I don’t believe in linear progression—I always return to things I’ve done before, or some variation of them. There’s a circular element in the forward motion of everything.

© Marco Breuer, Untitled (C-659), 2006
Chromogenic Paper, exposed/embossed/scratched
14 11/16″ × 11 3/8″ (37.3 × 28.9 cm)
Unique
© Marco Breuer, Untitled (Clean), 1999
Gelatin Silver Paper, exposed
10 3/8″ × 6 5/8″ (26.4 × 16.8 cm)
Unique
© Marco Breuer, Untitled (E-87), 2005
Gum Bichromate on Fabriano Paper (640 gsm), abraded
17 11/16″ × 13 5/8″ (44.9 × 34.6 cm)
Unique
© Mrco Breuer, Untitled (C-1469), 2014
Chromogenic Paper, exposed/embossed/folded/burned/scraped
20 1/8″ × 14 1/8″ (51.1 × 35.9 cm) . Unique.

‘Pictures of atrocity’ and ‘Pornographic imagery’, a conversation with Alfredo Jaar

Still regarding the fires in Portugal and the choices made by the media, a well known Portuguese historian, Pacheco Pereira, said overall the journalists had entered into a sort of “pain masturbation”. In cases of tragedy, where human drama in incommensurable, is not unusual to use or hear expressions that relate to sex or to the pornographic industry. But what is it that connects these two arenas? That was one of the questions we wanted to explore in Propeller‘s first edition, dedicated to ‘the pornographic’. To discuss it, we invited the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, who was kind enough to venture into this field with us and raise questions.

Here’s the conversation (click image for further reading). For more on Alfredo Jaar, please visit www.alfredojaar.net. For more on Propeller, please go to www.propeller.pt.

© Propeller #0, pp. 117-119. A conversation with Alfredo Jaar.

Photojournalism under fire

I don’t doubt the need for photojournalism and I’m aware that what I’m about to do is, in a lot of senses, offensive, particularly to the experiences photojournalists go through in order to document situations that are horrible, unimaginable, experiences one really has to go thorough in order to understand what they’re about. 

Having said that, that personal experience should not justify what a photojournalist then goes on to do and the sort of imagery he/she creates. Maybe the ethics that rule a person’s actions are not the same that rule the making of a body of images. I said maybe, but I firmly believe this. Photography is a very complicated machine. It is imprisoned in several codes and a photojournalist knows that. In the aftermath of the fires that have been eating up our forest, since last Saturday, I came across two different works, from two very different photographers and I want to try and look through them and discuss the questions they arise.

Again, I’m aware this is not the smartest thing to do, but both these body of images have stuck with me for the last few days, so I’ll try and lay a couple of arguments. One the one hand there’s Adriano Miranda‘s photographs, for Público; on the other hand there’s Ricardo Graça‘s photographs for Jornal de Leiria. Adriano is a well-known photojournalist. He has done is all and he works for one of the biggest newspapers in Portugal. The quality of his work has been recognized by his peers and this particular gallery of images has been praised by many. Ricardo’s work is new to me. He is a lot younger and works for a regional newspaper. Below are their two galleries, which I saw in the respective newspapers:

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I want to try and stick to what the images tell me and, for starters, I would say that Ricardo is closer to that reality than Adriano. Maybe he knows the region well, maybe not, but although both keep their distance, Ricardo seems to know his way into the small villages and his portraits are closer (the images above are just a selection from a larger body of work). On the other hand, it’s pretty evident that Adriano has a lot more experience and one sees his perspective, his subjectivity. His photography has matured and the references are all there. Adriano’s images also have a coherence, that Ricardo’s lack. While the dark, bluish, lynchian tone that is present in Adriano’s photographs gives us a sense of narrative, of a continuity that sort of legitimates his role as a participant, Ricardo’s style seems a bit all over the place and yet to mature.

In Ricardo’s images I see an empathy for the living thing; in Adriano’s I do not. In fact, I see a pit between him and that living thing. It’s harsh of me to say this, I know, but Adriano’s pictures of the burnt cow and the death deer are just gruesome, shot from above (I’ve mentioned this already, so am not going into it again). While talking to a friend about Adriano’s images, he mentioned they were beautiful and they reminded him of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs. Isn’t this indicative of the problem? Should one feel, while looking at this sort of images, where one should find informative value, that they aim at beautifying the reality they document? Or is it that beauty, that magnitude, that succeeds in giving us an idea of how overwhelming this tragedy is?

I crossed paths with Ricardo’s work because one of this photographs depicts my sister-in-law, on the roof of her house. Because I listened to her account of the events, among many others that have surfaced for the past few days, I feel Ricardo’s images are a more truthful document of what happened, how people had to organized, escape, fight the fire, wait for a road to reach their loved ones or get away. On the other hand, when I look at Adriano’s images, what I think is that he can go on to win an award with this. See the difference? I understand their value, they’re cinematographic, they aim at the sublime, but they sort of loose their referent, as if they could be a document of any other fire, in another part of the world. In fact, the way they’re composed and the references they evoke, immediately give me a sense of an american reality, in between Lynch, Crewdson and Gus van Sant. Is this what makes a good photojournalism, meaning that he/she has to be able to construct a fiction with the events he/she is forced to document? 

Pitch-black

It’s a dark day in Portugal. A huge fire hit a central region of the country and the worst happened. Because a part of my family was caught in the fire, my objectivity to talk about this situation is absolutely compromised. They are all alive, and that is what matters today. 

This is a blog about photography and that’s what I want to focus on here. It also helps pass the time, as the fire is far from being over and people are still trying to escape this hell hole, with so many roads blocked. Yesterday, while it was all happening, the media was giving little information about the real tragedy of the situation and what could be done. At one point during the night, while my young nieces and nephew were hidden in a mill, protected by my sister-in-law, the three Portuguese news channel were talking about football. That is unacceptable! When there’s an attack in France, in England, in Belgium, they can’t talk about anything else, so why did they take so long to start doing their jobs yesterday, when the fire started in the beginning of the afternoon?

But today is the aftermath and all the news channel and newspapers are now flooded with videos, photographs and comments. Last week, when all those lives were lost in the Grenfell Tower fire, I was once again shocked by the way the media was dealing with the event. I was particularly shocked by the way a certain photograph of the burning tower was being showed. As I see it, this is the spectacularization of death. Behind those orange glass-less windows there are lives being lost. That smoke is not only the sign of a burnt out building…

© Evening Standard/eyevine

The same is now happening in Portugal. The media keeps showing the same image of a road filled with burnt cars, where more than 20 lives were lost, while people were trying to escape the fire. Inside those carcasses, lives were lost, burnt to death. The tragedy of that reality seems to me to be, again, made pointless, when one shows and repeats this sort of imagery. The reporters, not satisfied with showing the outside of the cars, try to picture inside, to show the car seats, the remains. What is the point of this, I wonder? They create slogans, they call it the “estrada da morte” (death road) as if this summary made things more abstract and more bearable. 

The following photographs are from a well-known Portuguese photographer, Adriano Miranda, for a newspaper, Público. As I can understand them, today, they are a good example of this pointless “need” to give a visual dimension to something that should not be reduce to “an image”. This tragedy, as so many others all over the world, doesn’t fit into a series of images. Why this recurrent “need” to do this, I can understand… I particularly reject these images of the burnt animal bodies. Is as if he’s photographing them from above, because he can’t do the same to human victims. Is as if they’re objects, occupying the place of something else (those human victims). It’s so obscene… There’s no informative value in them. If you write that lives were lost, and do not illustrate that news with the images of the cadavers, why do that with animals. Have words been deprived of their informative value?

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As I’m writing this, I’m once again forced to cut this short. The fire is rekindling and lives are once again at risk. In one of the news channel, I hear a sign of hope as one young journalist states that the worst account they’ve heard so far, of this tragedy, was not recorded in images, as a sign of respect for the lives that were lost… 

Pornography in a month

I noticed it’s been almost a month since my last publication. During that period I attempted three different posts and none made it to the end, the reason being Propeller, a project I was invited (by Hélice) to collaborate with. Propeller is a magazine dedicated to photographic expression. Until Propeller‘s number zero is out, I guess I won’t be able to structure my thoughts around anything but its central theme: pornography. So, for now, here are a few images and excerpts that take a peek at what’s been happening backstage:

 

In recent years, the sex industry has worked alongside the media to completely decontextualize the system of prostitution. This neoliberal approach is part of an ongoing effort to defang movements that challenge systems of power: If we are all simply individuals, working toward our own personal empowerment and therefore solely responsible for our own “successes” and “failures,” then there is no need for collective organizing. When Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, only individuals who must look after themselves first and foremost, this is what she meant.
[…]
The campaign to frame the pro-prostitution lobby as a grass-roots effort to help marginalized women has been very successful. By ignoring the inherent power dynamic at hand when a man pays a woman for sexual acts, and instead forcing the conversation to be one about women’s choice, those who might consider themselves feminist are pushed into a corner: “Do I support women’s right to choose?” The obvious answer is yes. But that question is a misleading one. The real question is: “Do I support poor and marginalized women’s right to a better life than that offered to them by exploitative men?”
While manipulative language designed to appeal to the liberal masses is a huge part of advocacy to decriminalize pimps and johns, another key component is the smearing of feminists who challenge this discourse.

From: The Sex Industry’s Attack on Feminists, by Meghan Murphy on Truthdig

© Zanele Muholi, from the project Zava, 2013.

 

Poverty is not an aphrodisiac. Those who sell their bodies for sex do so out of desperation. They often end up physically injured, with a variety of diseases and medical conditions, and suffering from severe emotional trauma. The left is made morally bankrupt by its failure to grasp that legal prostitution is another face of neoliberalism. Selling your body for sex is not a choice. It is not about freedom. It is an act of economic slavery.

From: The Whoredom of the Left, by Chris Hedges on Truthdig

© Larry Sultan, West Valley Studio #3, from the series The Valley. 1998.
© Kohei Yoshiyuki, ‘Untitled’, 1971, from the series “The Park”.

The end result of this liberal approach that says anything goes so long as there is “consent” is particularly visible online. Feminists who see the existence of the sex industry as wholly enmeshed with colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy are shouted down with slurs, called “moralistic prudes” and “whorephobes” for daring to question men’s right to use and abuse women at will, so long as they can pay. Women who argue that we, as a society, can offer more to marginalised women than the fetishised racism that is ubiquitous in prostitution and pornography, are labeled “white feminists,” despite the fact that women of colour have been invested in the movement towards their own liberation for as long as anyone. Young women on social media are too afraid even to question whether or not posting sexy selfies really amounts to a political act lest they be told to “sit down and shut up” and kicked out of “cool girl feminism”.

From: Defining the f word: why we need to be radical with feminism, by Meghan Murphy

© Elin Magnusson, still from the short ‘Skin‘ , a part of the Dirty Diaries collection.

Maybe the idea of an ethical pornography is a contradiction, that’s why there are no answers; and that’s why each attempt to make feminist pornography is doomed from the beginning, and boycotts itself. Because the basic feature of pornography is objectification, of anyone – it might be a woman, or a child, or a man, or an animal, it might be a plant (or whatever is pleasing the spectator). But I think that the human being has this dimension, maybe a bit unethical, of objectifying other people, other living creatures. Even in our food chain, we objectify animals, that’s why we eat them. I don’t know if it’s possible to separate the human condition from the fact that we are horrible beings, so maybe that is where the fascination for pornography comes from, because pornography allows us to enter that sphere (also discussed by Batailleviii), the basal sphere, the more primary issues that weren’t socially domesticated. Socialization is a part of the human being as important as the basal one, or even more important. But we have that abject, horrible, uncontrolled component, so maybe the things we condemn in pornography are at the same time those that fascinate us. That’s why the idea of an ethical pornography might be contradictory.

From: Round-table about pornography, aesthetics, ethics and feminism, in Propeller #0, by Ana Matilde Sousa.

© Alaina Varrone, Ski Mask, 2015. Embroidery work.

Regarding the documentary Hot Girls Wanted, by Netflix: In an interview with Rolling Stone, producers Rashida Jones, Jill Bauer, and Ronna Gradus explained their approach to the porn industry. They “wanted to show where there was dark, there was also light.” In particular, Jones said that she was interested in “self-empowerment versus self-objectification.” In contemporary feminism, she feels, the rhetoric of self-empowerment encourages young women to think, “You decided you wanted to be in porn, you decided you like it, and therefore you are empowered by it, and in theory that is great.” But for teenaged performers, she sees regret ahead.
Meanwhile, “There is an entire industry that depends on these women empowering themselves because they want these women to be in their films, and they want to make money off of them. So, what does it mean to actually feel empowered by sexuality?”
[…]
In their rush to “humanize” adult performers and explore the concept of “empowerment,” the producers enact precisely the kind of objectification and dehumanization that they aim to critique. Legal though it may be to show the face of somebody who signed a release and then said no, and legal though it may be to introduce an adult Periscope scene to a mainstream audience, the documentary displays a lack of interest in its subjects’ consent that should alarm viewers interested in journalistic ethics, women’s safety, or both.

From: How Netflix’s Hot Girls Wanted Demeans the Women it Wants to Empower, by JOSEPHINE LIVINGSTONE @ New Republic.

© Sara Koppel, animation still from ‘Little Vulvah’.

When is a picture of atrocity “needed”?

This past March, a painting by white american author Dana Schutz triggered an interesting discussion that ultimately lead to a debate about freedom of expression. The painting in question (featured below) is titled Open Casket and was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, sparking protests (in front of the artwork) and a particular letter, who a particular black artist, named Hannah Black addressed to the curators of the Biennial (and co-signed by other artists), in which she stated the following:

I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
[…]
In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.

© Dana Schutz, ‘Open Casket’, 2016. Oil on canvas.
Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s ‘Open Casket’. © Scott W. H. Young (@HEISCOTT)/VIA TWITTER

Dana’s painting, in her tarnished geometric style, evokes Emmett Till‘s disfigured face in his coffin. I won’t pretend to know Emmett’s story, but it was the original photograph of his mutilated body and the story of his mother’s insistence on having an open casket – “she wanted the world to see what those men had done to her son” -, that brought me to this post. Emmett was fourteen-years-old when he was tortured and murdered by white Mississippi racists, back in 1955. But that’s not the full story, for Emmett was lynched because of a white woman’s lies (years latter she admitted that her claims about he sexually assaulting her were false). For what I understood, Emmett’s killers were never punished.

The New Yorker‘s Calvin Tomkins wrote a long article profiling Dana Schutz, where he shares some conversations he had with the artist regarding this particular artwork. According to him, Dana had been interested in Emmett Till’s story for quite some time and she kept questioning herself:

“How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”

Calvin Tomkins describes the painting, after his first contact with it:

Measuring thirty-nine by fifty-three inches, it is smaller than most of her recent paintings, and more abstract. The buildup of paint on the face is a couple of inches thick in the area where Till’s mouth would be. Although there are no recognizable features, a deep trough carved into the heavy impasto conveys a sense of savage disfigurement, which is heightened by the whiteness of the boy’s smoothly ironed dress shirt. His head rests on an ochre-yellow fabric, and deftly brushed colors at the top suggest banked flowers.

to which he added:

Emmett Till’s murder was implacably real. Trying to deal with this atrocity in visual terms had seemed almost beyond imagining, and “Open Casket” is a very dark picture—but it’s not grotesque. The horror is conveyed in painterly ways that, to me, make it seem more tragic than the photograph, because the viewer is drawn in, not repelled. “There was so much uncertainty with this painting,” Schutz said, quietly. “You think maybe it’s off limits, and then extra off limits. But I really feel any subject is O.K., it’s just how it’s done. You never know how something is going to be until it’s done.”

Two things interest me in this case: 1) the absolutist moral stance taken by sooooooo many artists, who wanted ‘Open Casket’ to be destroyed or burnt (a very distressful idea); 2) and the original event of the death of this young boy (who I knew little about) and that lead to a magazine publishing very violent photographs of his mutilated face. This event and the reproduction of these images fueled the Civil Rights Movement, so there is no doubt that if there was a “purpose” for the publication of the images of this atrocity, namely to let the world know what had been done to Emmett Till, such a decision was able to create its own legacy.

Edition of ‘Jet magazine’, which featured photographs of the murdered Emmett Till.

This is such a difficult subject… but is there anything more important than ethics? Is there ever a moment when pictures of atrocity are “needed”? I would say yes, and I would say the original publishing of Emmett Till’s photographs of his open casket fit that category. My thinking, regarding those, is that their exposure was made with the intentions to expose racism (that was his mother’s intention in exposing the body of her mutilated son, wasn’t it?). But, on the other hand, are we exploiting his existence when we turn this into an icon? Is there ever a ‘need’ for that? Maybe so. Because racism and whitewashing are still a reality, these photographs seem to still carry their powerful message and that’s why I show them here. Still, I have my reserves.

Regarding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket the story is very different. Is there a “need” for her to address the issue in that manner? Maybe not. Is she exploiting Emmett Till’s tragic story for her profit? I don’t think that’s the case. Is her artwork a ‘picture of atrocity’? I wouldn’t say so. So why were so many artists outraged about this? Performance artist Coco Fusco, @ Hyperallergic, addressed the issue, condemning that sort of censorship:

On many occasions I have had to contend with self-righteous people — of all of ethnic backgrounds — who have declared with conviction that this or that can’t be art or shouldn’t be seen. There is a deeply puritanical and anti-intellectual strain in American culture that expresses itself by putting moral judgment before aesthetic understanding.  […] I find it alarming and entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it. As artists and as human beings, we may encounter works we do not like and find offensive. We may understand artworks to be indicators of racial, gender, and class privilege — I do, often. But presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path. Hannah Black and company are placing themselves on the wrong side of history, together with Phalangists who burned books, authoritarian regimes that censor culture and imprison artists, and religious fundamentalists who ban artworks in the name of their god.

One thing that is clear for me is that in our representation of other people’s suffering we often presume to understand what that pain feels like and that may be problematic, for we might end up giving the wrong message: either telling the viewer that looking at a given image equates with empathizing with the events depicted; either because this sort of exposure may well potentiate people’s passiveness towards the harm we do to each other, for often when people look at ‘pictures of atrocity’ they are addressing their own guilt and they may get the sense that by looking at the events they “know about them” and then “knowing about something” is easily equated with “acting on it”.

Fusco keeps addressing the outrage against Schultz artwork and he makes excellent points, so I’ll finish with his own words:

[Hannah] Black makes claims that are not based in fact; she relies on problematic notions of cultural property and imputes malicious intent in a totalizing manner to cultural producers and consumers on the basis of race. She presumes an ability to speak for all black people that smacks of a cultural nationalism that has rarely served black women, and that once upon a time was levied to keep black British artists out of conversations about black culture in America. Her argument is laced with an economically reductionist view of artistic practice and completely avoids consideration of the visual strategies employed by Schutz. Some of her supporters assert (without explanation) that abstraction in and of itself is illegitimate for representing a traumatic figure, a claim that ignores key 20th-century aesthetic debates about the problems with realistic depictions of extreme violence.

[…]

In citing these examples, I do not mean to suggest that all artistic representations of black oppression by white artists and all curatorial efforts to address race are well intentioned, or that they are all good. However, the argument that any attempt by a white cultural producer to engage with racism via the expression of black pain is inherently unacceptable forecloses the effort to achieve interracial cooperation, mutual understanding, or universal anti-racist consciousness. There are better ways to arrive at cultural equity than policing art production and resorting to moralistic pieties in order to intimidate individuals into silence.

How Souvid Datta’s unethical behavior is exposing photojournalism’s lack of ethics

For me, it all started last Monday, when I came across a post, by BENJAMIN CHESTERTON, entitled LENSCULTURE AND THE COMMODIFICATION OF RAPE, in which the author addressed a photo-contest created by Magnum Photos and LensCulture. The core of the problem was, as the title put forward, the photograph chosen to promote that competition. After shit hit the fan (we’ll get there in a moment), LensCulture published an apology in which they state that 1) Magnum Photos had nothing to do with the choice of that image (although they promoted the author in their page and had previously awarded him); 2) They claim it was clearly inappropriate and thoughtless on [their] part

The photograph in question was taken by Souvid Datta (b. India 1990) and depicts a “trafficked child sex slave being raped”, as Chesterton puts it. Chesterton chose not to publish the photograph and I’ll follow his steps, for I think that’s the only ethical take on this. To sum it up, the photograph shows a view above a bed, where we see the back of the rapist on top of the child, who is looking away. So not only is the girl being exploited in real life, now she’s also exploited through the photographer’s gaze and, as a consequence, through everyone else’s gaze. It’s Chesterton’s opinion that if it weren’t for “human rights activist (formerly of Amnesty) Rob Godden [who] pointed out how indecent the use of the image was, it would still be being shared on Facebook”. And then again, Chesterton resumes:

This is a horrific case where one abuse, one exploitation has been heaped on another. Where a real human, with a real story, real children and real feelings is reduced to clickbait for a shitty competition in which you can trade your soul for exposure.All for $60.

Although, initially, LensCulture issued an apology in which they were still justifying the photographer’s approach, stating they believed the work of the photographer to have been carried out with great ethical care and in close collaboration with the subject portrayed, they then reviewed their position (under a lot of pressure, of course) and editor-in-chief Jim Casper wrote the following:

LensCulture staff are reviewing international guidelines for ethical reporting and photojournalism, and we will be applying a much more rigorous editorial review process before publishing material of this nature in the future.
We are sorry for our several errors in this matter, and we apologize.

But then, what looked like a common ethical problemhow often do we see victims being objectified by photojournalists? – turned into an even bigger scandal. In the National Press Photographers Association‘s website, Melissa Lyttle wrote about the following events regarding Souvid Datta’s work. Let me try and sum it up:

1. Following the LensCulture/Magnum Photos usage of Datta’s image, Shreya Bhat, a social worker who once worked with the same sex workers Datta claims to have photographed, exposed his plagiarism of a Mary Ellen Mark photograph, sharing her story with Chesterton and PetaPixel, by email. Now, when I look at this particular image, I can’t help but wonder about the attention it got, when it first started to circulate and enter competitions in the context of a series entitled “In the Shadows of Kolkata”. Wasn’t it obvious? Doesn’t the figure on the back look like a spectrum?

2. Because that photograph was part of a series that had earned Datta an award of excellence in the College Photographer of the Year (CPOY) Documentary category in 2013, it triggered a bigger wave of indignation and consequently the CPOY published a statement justifying the rescission of that award. There, the CPOY calls for younger generations to be more responsible, stating that: Now, more than ever, the integrity of our profession demands adherence to journalistic ethics. CPOY calls on you, as student photographers, to put ethics at the core of your being and your work. What CPOY does not explain is how they failed to notice this very poor manipulation and this raises subsequent questions, namely: How carefully do these judges look at photographs? As MICHAEL ZHANG, from PetaPixel, concludes: “Over the past several years, Datta has collected a number of prestigious awards and grants in photography. They include the PDN 30 in 2017, the Pulitzer Centre Grant in 2016, the Getty Grant for Editorial Photography in 2015, PDN Annual in 2015, and Magnum Photos 30 Under 30 Award in 2015. He’s also one of the 12 contestants on this year’s “Masters of Photography” reality TV show, by Sky Arts.” 

And this is where things get really complicated, because can the same industry that promotes a certain kind of photographic approach now behave like this is a scandal, only because manipulation and appropriation are clearly recognized as ethical transgressions? Besides all that, why were his works worth awarding and promoting in the first place? What is his originality? What is it that we need to see about the violent abuses of sex workers in Kolkata that Datta had managed to expose? Take, as another example, Datta’s project China: The Human Price of Pollution, which was chosen by Magnum Photos for their 30 under 30 award: what is it about this project that is truthful, original and worth seeing?

3. Daniele Volpe, a photographer based in Guatemala, wrote a Facebook post exposing Datta’s appropriation of some of his photographs. Nothing is simple in this story, for Daniele, himself, acknowledged he had known about this since last November and had failed to act accordingly. How can this be? Why did the photographer hesitated to expose this appropriation? Would it be an error to assume that this relativism, this individualism, is also part of the problem. Why do people forget that when it comes to human rights (and labor related issues, for that matter), one person’s action is always consequent?

4. Datta agreed to talk to Olivier Laurent, from Time, and there he confessed:

The first thing I want to do is take responsibility. In 2013-15, [when I was] aged 22-24, I foolishly doctored images, inexcusably lied about others’ work being my own and then buried these wrongdoings in the years that followed. Now these images are resurfacing, they threaten to undermine any work I have legitimately pursued since and, crucially, all the trust that the people in my photos, my collaborators and supporting institutions placed in me. I am so profusely sorry for this. I hope to begin making amends…

But what I find most surprising about this interview is why Olivier Laurent chooses to pose the following question: “Can we still trust that work?” Is it really something the author should answer? Doesn’t this question expose something else that is corrupting the idea of truth in photojournalism? Let me try and explain. In answering that questions, Datta says the following:

From here on, I do not know what will happen to me or the stories I have followed. I fear above all that they may remain untold. My credibility has been fundamentally challenged, and I understand the serious implications of that in an industry where credibility counts for everything.

I want to suggest that maybe Laurent and Datta are missing one point, that is: 1) we don’t need to see the face of the victims exploited in a photograph to know about sex-trafficking; if a photographer goes on to do that, then he better level with the victims and show us the place he occupies in that framing. If there is truth, I have little doubts it is “in” the author’s approach and no ethics is more important than his. The credibility will derive from there, from that truth. Unfortunately, the photojournalism industry has allowed the nominal value to become a bigger value than it should be. If photojournalism wants to be ruled by ethics and truth, it can’t really abide by the art market’s rules at the same time. They are not compatible, as everyone in either field knows. 

And we’ll go back to the beginning and to Chesterton’s words. In a conversation with Diane Smyth, from British Journal of Photography, Chesterton argues against “the need” to see the sort of imagery Datta was first and foremost, doing and, secondly, being awarded for:

There’s this idea you should be able to photograph anything, but this photography doesn’t threaten people who work in [and control] this industry, there’s no argument for people who want to make a difference… These pictures don’t do anything, how can I do anything for this child to make her better off? There are people work in these slums, wonderful people [who try to help victims of sex trafficking]. Give agency to them.

On a final note, I should say that, again following Chesterton’s note, I hope this doesn’t turn out to be another tragic story, like that of Kevin Carter’s (both were awarded Pultizer’s, Carter in 1994 and Datta in 2016). Datta needs to change profession, I think that is pretty clear, and then forgive himself, maybe go on to do some therapy and carry on a different and better life.

On another note, this should be enough to open the industry’s eyes to the need to follow their own code of ethics. But, then again, it’s never enough. The problem seams to be an overall lack of seriousness. They set a code of ethics and some guidelines to help them highlight some authors and photographs, in detriment of others, but they end up just glimpsing at the images, not taking into account their own rules. 

Between performance and theater

Vito Acconci passed away last Friday, the 28th, at 77. Acconci’s performances were partly responsible for my interest in staged photography, which then developed into an interest in durational performance, again inspired by Acconci, Tehching Hsieh and Marina & Ulay’s performances. When I heard the news about Acconci’s death I remembered something he once said about Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at Moma. According to Acconci, most of what was happening during that exhibition was not performance, instead he thought they were theatrical pieces. Because I tend to agree with him (though not regarding the performance The Artist is Present), I often think about what separates performance from theater and, in that process, I also question whether these characteristics are merely descriptive or if they entail an evaluative measure.

For me, the question that always triggers this discussion concerns the temporal aspect of the performance: What is its duration? Is it unique or is it a repetition? But these questions tend to follow the million dollar question regarding performance (or whatever art form, for that matter), that is: What defines a performance? or What is its most distinctive quality?

I haven’t been doing any reading on the subject, it’s just something that I think about, now and then, particularly when a performance hits the stage for the second or third time. And yes, I immediately become a little frustrated when that happens, as if something sacred had just been profaned. But it’s not performance, itself, that is violated or corrupted when repetition takes over. Instead, the word “performance” is and I question the necessity of attaching such a label to something that has as such an important historical value. What I mean is: performance or, as some like to call it, the art of action, is, in its nature, anti-systemic. Its ephemeral nature defies the art market, the nominal structure, the value systems, the necessity of the white cube and, above all, it revolutionizes the place of the spectator and his/her importance to the making of an artwork. I understand everything evolves, and so do art genres. That’s the way it is and I don’t think we should fight evolution per se. But should we keep using the term performance to describe something that has none of its most important characteristics, namely: being anti-systemic and being ephemeral?

When Acconci addressed Abramovic’s The Artist is Present he said the following: “She turned herself into a sculpture, into an act of endurance: the repetition, the constancy, turned her action into habit: the constant presence of an audience turned her so-called performance into theater.” Although I think durational performance is about a sort of change that, undeniably, has to do with repetition, I also think that this repetition is very different from the repetition at play when someone re-stages a performance, as was the case in Marina’s retrospective of some of her former works. The question is: is a performance still true if it is performed by someone other than the original performer? Can a performance be interpreted? I think the answer is quite clear: it can’t. Both its anti-systemic and its ephemeral nature will be lost in that process, so why insisting on re-staging it and call it a performance? Is the art world that greedy? Are the artists that vain?   

Let’s try for another example. Last month, in Portugal, a performance made a fuss in Lisbon: Héctor Zamora‘s (b. Mexico, 1974) Ordem e Progresso (‘Order and Progress’). The performance opened on the re-inauguration of one of the latest “museums” in Lisbon (not worth going into that), called MAAT. Although the performance lasted for only one night, it was then turned into an installation that occupied the space for an entire month. The “performance” consists in a group of men destroying seven vessels. The installation consisted on the wreckage of such vessels plus the sound of the happening itself. 

This is ‘Order and Progress’ third restitution. It first happened in Lima, Peru. On that occasion, the statement of the author starts with the following paragraph:

El emplazamiento en el extremo norte del Paseo de los Héroes Navales de un barco pesquero que será desmembrado poco a poco durante el periodo de exhibición funciona como una alegoría del desmantelamiento del universo simbólico y aspiraciones que la navegación encarna. El barco es fundamentalmente un símbolo de la aventura y el descubrimiento; pero también representa la esperanza del refugio o la posibilidad de sobrevivir en un ambiente hostil, es vehículo de viajes místicos y deidades, encarnación del poderío militar y comercial, de la conquista y la dominación. En el caso de esta embarcación particular, se trata de un recordatorio del papel fundamental que la pesca ha tenido en el desarrollo del litoral peruano a lo largo de más de cinco mil años, y del enfrentamiento económico y cultural de la pesca artesanal frente a la industrial. También subraya la importancia estratégica de los puertos de Lima –de ahí la razón de su ubicación crítica en el paseo de los héroes navales– tanto como base de intercambio cultural y escenario de conflictos militares. 

On its second happening, ‘Ordre et Progrès’ went indoors, inside the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, France. On that occasion, Zamora’s statement kept the same, yet in his site there’s a quote from someone else (not credited) that reads: 

De la performance de Héctor Zamora le soir du 2 mai 2016, ne subsistent que des débris de bois et de métal. Ils sont la trace des mouvements répétitifs et destructeurs d’une équipe de performeurs venue désassembler cinq navires de pêche en tenue de travail et casque de chantier. Un protocole simple, exécuté de façon aveugle, qui suffit à transformer l’espace d’exposition en un cimetière de bateaux.
Des embarcations de départ – des ready-mades grand format – aux squelettes d’arrivée, l’œuvre joue sur le rapport évolutif des formes à l’espace. Son aspect sculptural réside aussi dans le geste démolisseur. A travers lui, Héctor Zamora « dissout les promesses de l’imaginaire dont ces bateaux sont porteurs ». Une dissolution à coups de hache qui traduit la brutalité de la transformation du secteur de la pêche, la violence des bouleversements socio-économiques mondiaux. L’artiste court-circuite ainsi la vision de l’histoire pensée comme un progrès perpétuel d’Auguste Comte (1798-1857), philosophe français à qui le titre « Ordre et Progrès » est emprunté. Héctor Zamora prend ici la doctrine positiviste à rebrousse-poil : le progrès peut-il naître du désordre ?

Finally (or maybe not), ‘Ordem e Progresso’ happened in Lisbon, last March, also indoors. Portuguese MAAT curator Inês Grosso wrote about the performance/installation, trying to contextualize its appearance in Portuguese grounds: 

Of different kinds and with different features, the boats represent the traditional vessels of Portuguese fishing villages and cities, such as Sesimbra, Ericeira, Nazaré, Aveiro, and Figueira da Foz. The boats, autentic examples of Portuguese artisanal fishing, were selected because of their advanced state of degradation. They were all built between the late 1960s and the early 2000s. Some display national symbols that invoke the period of the Portuguese Discoveries; and others were baptized with names that refer to the traditions and mysticism of the fishing communities, or to the local culture and folklore.

to which she adds that

Zamora uses the configuration of the gallery to create a spatial boundary that separates the audience from the stage. The visitor is limited to the role of a passive spectator, watching as the fishing vessels are destroyed by a group of workers. Using manual tools such as mallets, hammers and axes, these actors/performers will turn these ships into pieces, as if they had been destroyed in a shipwreck or naval battle. Most of them immigrants themselves awaiting the opportunity of a job, the workers were hired through a Portuguese recruitment company. This particular detail is a pertinent and timely criticism of inequality in our contemporary world, of the inextricable relationship between the imperialist policies of the most powerful nations and the refugee crisis, but also of the way migration can be used as a tool and device for social transformation. In this perspective, there is a clear (and curious) parallel between these workers and the combatants in the original naumachias, who were mostly war prisoners, Christians, or slaves—the victims or Roman imperialism.
In Ordem e Progresso, body and action are politicized in an immersive performance, charged with theatricality and dramatism, and with a special focus on the poetics of the gesture. The presentation of this piece invites us to reflect upon the role of images, upon violence and upon the numbness of our contemporary society towards it. Much like in the games of the Roman world, this piece transforms the spectator into an abstract, passive, and contemplative subject, fascinated by the violent action of the destruction of the ships. […]

A series of question immediately arise from the curator’s statement, namely: Is it appropriate to say that Zamora uses the gallery space, in this context, when the performance originally happened in the streets of Lima, Peru? What is the purpose of calling the workers (who she then describes as migrants hired through a recruitment company) actors/performers? Does this mean that if I play a part in a play I immediately become an actress? If I show a piece in a gallery do I immediately become an artist? What adds value to the work, is it the institution?

Truth be said, this “performance” really annoys me, for I can’t see how the political and social dynamics become its content. If they were, shouldn’t it have a transformative power other than a conceptual one. Can we really say that body and action are politicized if what is “regenerated” is only the idea that progress arises from destruction? How does politics affect the workers (the black workers, one should add) after the piece is over? Are they only playing a role? So isn’t this just theater? How much were they paid? 

Instead, I think this functions just as another critic to the art world, but it is hypocritical, being that it is a repetition (no original value, besides the symbols evoked), it is happening inside a gallery space, in a museum that is financed by a huge corporation, it objectifies the worker’s body as strength value, and it ridicules the viewer. Where is the seriousness in all this? And the content? And how legitimate is that we keep making art jokes around the passiveness of the spectator?

Photo-catharsis by Leif Sandberg

So much has been said about Leif Sandberg‘s project Ending that words fail me. Still, the quality of his work and the importance it has for those, like me, who embrace photography both as a means of artistic expression, but also as a therapeutic tool, brought me here. 

© Leif Sandberg, cover of the book ‘Ending’.
© Leif Sandberg, from the project ‘Ending’.
© Leif Sandberg, from the project ‘Ending’.

At Lenscratch, Aline chooses to stick to Leif Sandberg’s description of his project, and, for starters, so will I:

 

The Ending project is my first major photo project, with its roots in panic anxiety and the fear of growing old. After surgery for possible pancreas cancer 2007, followed by a year’s convalescence, I was faced with the inevitable question of what to do with the rest of my life. A second chance. An interest in art and photography has followed me since my teens, although that was not my choice in life. Until now.

Death becomes palpable when it approaches, and the pictures contain questions of fear and uncertainty, but simultaneously the joy of aging together with a life partner. The pictures have grown over a five-year period. Often a photo session with an original idea inspired new pictures created in the moment and the plan had to give way for intuition and guts feeling. Possibly a way to get close to who you and exploring your inner self. – Leif Sandberg 2017-03-01

© Leif Sandberg, from the project ‘Ending’.
© Leif Sandberg, from the project ‘Ending’.

On American Suburb X, Brad Feuerhelm dares a more poetic approach:

 

Leif Sandberg’s “Ending” arrived in the mail with no mention preceding its arrival. Upon opening the package a feather and an anvil fell onto my groin. I have carried them since like a pebble in my shoe that I refuse to set aside or extract. The cover of the book is a stark and compliant set of suture stiches from a surgical embrace that I had gathered would be the nexus for my introduction within. And within the pages things would expand. Throughout the book, death and near death lay prostrate as illustrated by photographs of Leif and presumably his wife in various invocations between the slippage of time and the way in which light illuminates its half-steps of failure to recognize a insoluble self. Leif lies prone on cold wooded Swedish forests. Dirt covers his back, but his limbs refuse to stop their dancing. Saint Vitus speaks highly of Leif looking over the edge of a looming finitude. There is a rage within. A rage for a near miss, the brush with death like that pebble in the shoe that Leif retaliates against. The images are not grim, they are opposing. They oppose the inevitable. They express what it means to understand the value of life and its continuance. Leif has cheated the boney grip and is celebrating the severed tentacles wishing to charge him with a sentence of entropy’s gain.

Ending is all that I love in photography. It’s authentic, it’s dark, dynamic and sincere. It’s a part of the author’s life and energy that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It’s not like this life wouldn’t have been materialized if not for these photographs. It wouldn’t exist in the first place, for art happens in its making and another I (the only I that is an author) appears in the process. It’ refreshing to see. Although I do recognize some of the influences, I feel like I’m also offered an unique dimension, maybe that of Leif Sanberg’s passion for art and life. Thank you Leif!

Love as muscle

In an interview conducted by Heather Davis & Paige Sarlin and published on No More Potlucks, Michael Hardt invokes Spinoza to explain love. There, he states: When I get confused about love, or other things in the world, thinking about Spinozian definitions often helps me because of their clarity. Spinoza defines love as the increase of our joy, that is, the increase of our power to act and think, with the recognition of an external cause. You can see why Spinoza says self-love is a nonsense term, since it involves no external cause. Love is thus necessarily collective and expansive in the sense that it increases our power and hence our joy. Here’s one way of thinking about the transformative character of love: we always lose ourselves in love, but we lose ourselves in love in the way that has a duration, and is not simply rupture. To use a limited metaphor, if you think about love as muscles, they require a kind of training and increase with use. Love as a social muscle has to involve a kind of askesis, a kind of training in order to increase its power, but this has to be done in cooperation with many.

Sometimes, when coming across certain works of art, I get a glimpse of that transformative power of love, which (some) art can bring about. In general, works that deal with corporeality and femininity not only grab my attention but awaken my senses and faculties. The same happens with certain uses of color; it’s like there’s fireworks inside my body. Usually, women’s work resonate in a deeper  manner, but from time to time that strange and unsettling feeling arises from seeing a man’s work. That was the case when I came across Ulay‘s polaroids online, in the context of his recent exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, entitled Ulay: life-sized.

© Ulay.

More often that not, the promotional texts that accompany the exhibitions tend to deviate me from the work, instead of informing or enticing another level of interest. Take this for example: “Through the friendship with Jürgen Klauke he discovered separately the problem of identity and invented so called performative photography”; this features in the short introductory text from the exhibition’s online page and it’s the kind of sentence that really gets on my nerves, because I find that it deviates from the dimension of the artwork, towards that of the nominal authority. Is there really a need to make this sort of statement? Did Ulay invented performative photography? Really? What other value, besides historical (in an extremely subjective way), does this add to Ulay’s artwork? In the press release someone states about Ulay that he “has used the medium of photography to document and assimilate the process of his sometimes more feminine, at other times rather masculine appearance and identity”. Why don’t we let the art do the work?

© Ulay, ‘SHE’, 1974.






SHE and ‘the nude’

Being a teacher is an everyday learning experience. We’re challenged in very different ways: either because we need to learn how to teach, either because we need to find ways to potentiate their vision. They trust us and that’s a huge responsibility. When I started at it, 6 years ago, I struggled to find my place, but students helped me figure out how I could be most helpful and since then I’ve tried to push them (I’m aware sometimes in a harsh manner), to help bring to light what seems to be, at the time, most truthful to them. Of course this happens only with a few: those I’m able to understand. I think when we fail to understand our students, we also fail at teaching. Although I try my best to help them articulate their voices, at the end of the day I still fail to understand some of them.

As I’ve mentioned here before, some themes are recurrent amidst visual art students and the nude is one of those. Often we start to see some nudity when students are asked to create self-portraits. It’s not gender specific, both boys and girls seem to equate nudity with what they consider to be “most authentic” about them. Having said that, it’s more common to see that kind of nudity in female self portraits. Talking to a friend and colleague, a couple of days ago, we were precisely acknowledging how much we, as women, are taking a step backwards in our understanding of how the notion of empowerment relates to the promotion of our nude selves. If we have a quick look at facebook profile imagery, we’ll quickly realize how nudity plays a decisive role in it. 

In general, I’m very empathetic with the self-portrait of the nude, for I was one of those students – for years obsessed with the idea that portraying the nude was somehow a way to a more universal representation of me, as a young female struggling to find her place; mainly because clothes have the particularity of situating us in a more deterministic dimension. Clothes have the power of giving us a cultural identity as if, somehow, without them, we were suddenly undressed of (part of) that cultural burden.

Although I’ve stopped showcasing photographs of the nude, I never stopped photographing my undressed body and I still feel, when looking at those portraits, that they are the most genuine representations of how that corporeal matter relates to who I am. But this is just one side of the relation with the nude, meaning: the relation of the author with the representation of his/her own body.

© Sofia Silva, Land of branches, from The Orchestra, 2011.

In one of the schools where I teach, students are given an assignment (by another tutor) to photograph a stranger, nude, in a studio setting. They often end up showing me what they do and not once was their approach anything but unoriginal and, sometimes, awkward. Could it be any different? Maybe, considering that particular setting, the answer would have to be ‘no’, but in a different school, a student has proven that photographing the nude can be done in a very different way.

Bárbara is a fragile figure, with her long face and hair hovering over her tinny body. Last year she showed us a series of photographs she had made with her mother and grandmother (four of those photographs are reproduced bellow) and it was one of those challenging moments, for we were forced to consider HER, in all seriousness, maybe for the first time. Who was her? How could that girl express herself with such honesty? How could she relate to those familiar bodies in such a truthful way? What was she able to see that the majority of us don’t? We ended up helping her transform those photographs into very dark and dense platinum & palladium prints, wish we feel highlighted some of the darker qualities that are characteristic to her approach to the nude.

What surprised me (us) in these photographs is how soulful this tension is and how fragile it becomes in the darker images. How dramatic, yet simple. And yes, I feel they sort of replicate an idea of fading. Not death, per se, but an idea that something is on the verge of being lost or decaying. As far as I see it, whether these bodies are fading into shadow or into light, they all fade into blue.

This year, Bárbara came back with a different project about the nude. This time she decided to address the objectification of the male body, mainly in advertisement. She felt disgusted by those artificial shapes and so she decided to photograph the male nude, to challenge her perspective and see what she could see. What is featured below is just a very small glimpse into that work, but enough to showcase her approach. To sum it up, in a way Bárbara ended up projecting female forms into the male body (the framing, the color cast, etc.) and that posed another set of questions about the various dimensions that are contained in the representation of the nude.

Although this is not disruptive work, in respect to the specificities of the medium itself, I’ll try to argue why her perspective challenges our notions about the photographic representation of the nude. 

In the West, most of us live in a phallocentric society, where cultural myths associate man with life and woman with death. Eroticism is a dimension that we also associate with vitality, whether it tends to promote desire, to act as a subversive social critic or if it is intended to disrupt political concepts. Whether we’re talking about female or male bodies, in the sphere of the public eye, that gaze is almost always a male one. It’s not our fault, though that doesn’t mean we’re not responsible for it. When I mean it’ not our fault is because both genres grew up seeing women’s bodies objectified, though the consequences for men and women are quite different. For women it creates pressure. For some women, who fall victim of that stereotype and who aren’t given the opportunity to have a critical approach to their existence, it also sets their place in society, in a submissive position to the male gaze. For men, on the other hand, growing up in a culture that promotes the objectification of women legitimates their dominant position towards them (of course, a critical make existence will be emancipated as well).

In an article by Griselda Pollock, entitled Photographing Atrocity: Becoming Iconic?, the author evokes Freud, Aby Warburg and Didi-Huberman to argue that some of the most iconic photographic registers of atrocity are “bearable” because they equate death with the feminine. Reflecting on the imagery that survived the concentration camps, Pollock questions the “erotic connotations” that seam to make a photograph of naked women about to die, a “bearable tragedy” (instead of “an unbearable horror”, as she puts it). At some point, calling to mind Kevin Carter’s famous Pulitzer image of the vulture and the famine Sudanese girl, Pollock suggests that the phallocentric myth that is encrusted in our society is also present in the “gender relations” that are usually depicted in Photographs of suffering and/or atrocity. 

It may seem that I’m deviating from the subject – the subject being the nude and, in particular, Bárbara‘s take on it -, but I’ll soon make my point. Throughout the (yet) brief history of photographic expression, the portrait of the nude has served different ends, but rarely does one come across a representation whose dynamics aren’t based on the idea of desire, being that the dynamics of such desire are mainly masculine. Even if we think about the cliché of the maternal portrait or the pregnant woman, I think it’s fair to say that the subjective eye usually falls on the male gaze. I also think it’s fair to say that the portrait of the nude has been tinted by an invisible problematic, that of nude bodies being objects that “belong” to someone. Let’s try and look at two examples: 1) Alfons Walde‘s portraits of naked women, c. 1940; 2) Jodi Bieber‘s project Real Beauty, c. 2008.

In an article by Rebekka Reuter about Walde’s photographs of the female body (You’d have to dance first), Reuter states that he used the camera “not only to interpret, but to stage, indeed to a certain extent to penetrate”. The author goes on to contextualize Walde’s approach to his subjects (his wives and lovers), stating that in his Agfacolor portraits we can see the artist’s critical take on “monogamous, strictly bourgeois conventions” but, as she then adds, “awareness of this comes more with knowledge of Walde’s relationship to women than in what is depicted itself, which, for all its eccentricity, is characterized by a peculiarly cranky conservativeness”. What Reuter calls “conservativeness” is precisely the phallocentric symbolism that is all over his photographs. In her own words:

The appearances of these women, their anticipation of the image in putting their bodies on show, can be taken as classic examples of the gender-specific differentiation of the gaze, of the dichotomy of gazing male subject on the one hand, and of observed female subject on the other.

So what can one find in Walde’s photographs that could exist beyond that dimension of the male gaze? What aesthetic qualities make these portraits original besides the novelty of the color? Are they “authentic” works of art or should we see them as artifacts that serve a specific finality, namely his erotic desire?

Jodi Bieber‘s project Real Beauty proposes a reflection around the stereotypes that tend to dictate how women “should look like”. She sets on to do a collection of portraits of women of different ages, ethnicity and body shapes. But what does she accomplish? Is the intention to make the viewer think that they all look alike, that “all woman” have “the right to feel sexy, that mature human can be beautiful in very different manners? But what about those poses and that lingerie, what stereotypes are those choices intended to question? And why are they trapped in a domestic environment, against wardrobes, over their couches and beds or lying on the ground? Doesn’t this construction replicate the male voyeur? Isn’t the distance between the photographer and the subject just too ordinary? Shouldn’t the framing of these bodies matter and be a statement?

To cut this short, my perspective is that Bárbara is able to do something that for her is “just natural” (it really is) and for the majority of us proves to be quite difficult: she is able to live outside the phallocentric dimension. In doing that, not only does SHE reject (in an unconscious level) the capitalization of the nude and the power relationships that derive from that, but SHE also manages not to project a feminist take that could easily provoke a need to emphasize the female body and its sexuality. On that note, something that is also very clear in Bárbara‘s photographs is that they live beyond the erotic, their soul and truth may be potentiated by the nude, but it’s almost as if the nude was not its subject. It’s about mutation, transformation, tension to arise and to fall, but it’s not about a sexual energy, albeit the dynamics are sometimes the same.

I grew up in a very masculine environment and today I’m very much aware of how that impacted my relationship to other women. My father was and still is a well-intentioned man but with very low emotional intelligence. I have a brother and most of my friends were men. My brother’s friends, with whom I spent a considerable amount of time, were and still are mostly men. I was part of two all-men bands. At some point during my teenage years I became more comfortable dressing like a man, smoking like a man, drinking like a man. I used to enjoy this connections to the male universe, as if that was proof that I wasn’t interested in girl’s issues (now  I understand the meaning of all-girls schools). What I see now is that being around boys all the time brought me to internalize the male gaze and how sexual desire is such a big part of it. That gaze goes between us women. Well, some of us.

Bárbara, being from a different generation, context, etc., seems to live beyond this male gaze. It’s as if she escaped the realm of male desire. One doesn’t need to be an object of that desire to make sense of it. It’s everywhere in our society, but somehow SHE escaped that realm. What stance is she in then? We don’t know, but we’re hoping SHE continues to challenge our perspective on the nude.

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…