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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Ren Hang
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© Ren Hang
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© Ren Hang

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

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

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

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

About the particular case of Red Hang, Syfret resumes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Ren Hang

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

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

A different kind of moonlight

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

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

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

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

Regarding The Urban Millennium Project, Losekoot explains his approach:   

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

WPP 2017 (our best)

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

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

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

2nd prize stories Nature.

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

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

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

2nd prize stories Spot News.

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

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

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Who’s your favourite photographer? they ask

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Max Pinckers’ quest for style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, photography as a therapeutic tool

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

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

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

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

All the photographs that follow are © Mafalda Rakos.

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

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

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J., Vienna, 2015.
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Representing mental illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new pair of eyes

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

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

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

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

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

© Ricardo Stuckert.
© Ricardo Stuckert, 2016.

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

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

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

New blood (part II)

Benjamin Freedman

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

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

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Jordanna Kalman

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

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Anna Snyder

Statement about the project: ‘Symbiosis’ .

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

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Mara Gajic

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

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Rachelle Bussières

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

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