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…

© Ren Hang
© Ren Hang
© 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.

© 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…

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.


How authenticity came to be mistaken for spontaneity

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t understand why these foreigners take photographs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Isn’t she lovely? Isn’t she wonderfull? Isn’t she precious?

passport photograph, private collection, UK.
passport photograph, private collection, UK.
© Claude Cahun
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1920.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1920.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1919.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1919.
© Claude Cahun, Untitled, 1938.
© Claude Cahun, Untitled, 1938.
© Claude Cahun
© Claude Cahun
© Claude Cahun
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait with Masks on Cloak, 1928.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait in flowers, 1939.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait in flowers, 1939.
© Claude Cahun, Que me veux-te?, 1928.
© Claude Cahun, Que me veux-te?, 1928.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1914.
© Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1914.

excerpt from CLAUDE CAHUN: The Extreme Point of the Needle in: Michael Löwy’s MORNING STAR: surrealism, marxism, anarchism, situationism, utopia

During 1936, Claude Cahun took an active part in Surrealist activities: she was present at the Surrealist exhibitions in Paris and London and signed the collective appeal “No Freedom for the Enemies of Freedom” (written by Henri Pastoureau and Leo Malet), which denounced the Fascist coup in Spain and the passive atti-tude of the French Popular Front government. However, in July 1937 she and her companion, Suzanne Malherbe, decided to leave Paris and live on the Channel Island of Jersey. She did not sever her connections with the Surrealist group, and in 1938 she joined the International Federation for an Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI). In June 1939 she signed the last declaration of the
FIARI, “A bas les lettres de cachet! A bas la terreur grise!,” which was also the last collective manifestation of the Surrealists before the war and the dispersal of the group. In 1940, with the beginning of World War II and the occupation of the Channel Islands by the Th ird Reich, a new chapter in Claude Cahun’s political and intellectual life began, perhaps the most astonishing and impressive of all: anti-Fascist Resistance.

When the German troops arrived, Cahun’s first impulse was to shoot the Kommandant; she took a small revolver and went to the woods to do target practice. However, she was too inexperienced, and Suzanne convinced her that she would miss her target. They decided to start a subversive activity addressed to German soldiers to incite them to insubordination.

From 1941 to 1944, for four years, they issued, mainly in German (Suzanne translated), thousands of anti-Fascist leaflets, posters, and fliers aimed at sowing trouble and demoralization among the occupiers. Claude Cahun also produced photomontages using images cut from the Nazi magazine Signal and sometimes took her inspiration from John Hartzfeld’s well-known anti-Fascist works, which had been exhibited in Paris in 1935. Humor, play, allegory, nostalgia, absurdity, the marvelous, and irony were their main weapons in this unequal struggle against the most powerful war machine of Europe.

Their fliers contained anti-Nazi and antimilitarist slogans, such as “Liebknecht-Frieden-Freiheit,” uncensored information, songs, manifestoes, theatrical dialogues, images, and wordplay and were usually signed the “Nameless Soldier.” One of their fliers, which enraged the occupying authorities, directly called on the soldiers to rebel and to desert and advised them that if their officers at-tempted to stop them, to shoot their officers. Some of the material was handwritten on cardboard cigarette paper wrappers. They also wrote “Down with War” on French money. Usually, however, Cahun made twelve carbon copies of each fl ier with her Underwood typewriter and illustrated them with images made of typewriter letters and graphic signs. Th en they attached the fliers to walls, doors, barbed wire, and parked cars or hid them inside newspapers and magazines on the newsstands or left them in mailboxes, churches, and houses used by the Nazis.

Their daring behavior, right under the noses of the Gestapo and the occupying forces, can best be described by the Yiddish word chutzpa, insolence. Summarizing the spirit of her struggle, she wrote after the war, “I committed myself to revolutionary defeatism, trying to convince the German soldiers to turn against their officers. We fought for a rainbow of values stretching from the ultraromantic black to the flaming red. We fought for the Germans against Nazi Germany. We fought as Surrealist writers with weapons of chance.”

And in a letter from 1950 she explains that what stimulated her to resist was her leftist, pacifist, Surrealist, and even “Communist (historical materialism)” ideas as well as the need to defend particular values, “such as freedom of expression and sexual freedom [liberté des moeurs] that were of personal concern to me.” During those four years the angry, frustrated Gestapo agents searched in vain for the dangerous “Nameless Soldier,” who sabotaged the morale of the troops and preached rebellion in every corner of the small island.

Finally, someone, probably the shopkeeper who sold them the cigarette papers, denounced the two women, and on July 25, 1944, they were arrested. Trying to save her friend, Claude Cahun told the Gestapo officers, “I’m the only one responsible. I did the photomontages and wrote the fliers. Moreover, I’m Jewish on my father’s side.” As soon as they were jailed, both women tried to commit suicide by swallowing Gardenal pills they kept with them for just such an eventuality. Th e attempt failed, but they were seriously ill for some time, and this probably saved them from being deported to Germany.

At fi rst, the Nazi secret police could not believe these two kind, middle-aged ladies were the fi rebrands responsible for all the subversive agitation and thought they were agents of some “foreign” power. When they at last became convinced, after searching their house and finding all the materials, they convened a military court. The German prosecutor, Major Sarmser, argued that they were illegal partisan fighters, using spiritual weapons that were more dangerous than guns. He also insisted that their flier calling on the German soldiers to rid themselves of their officers was “incitement to murder.”

The military court predictably sentenced them both to death. The two women were to be sent to Germany to be beheaded with an axe, the Third Reich’s treatment for dangerous anti-Fascist enemies whose death they intended to serve as an example. However, due to the liberation of France in the summer of 1944 the Channel Islands were cut off from Germany, and the deportation could not take place.

Seeing that the war was lost, the local commanders were afraid of reprisals and did not want to take the responsibility for an odious execution on the island itself. They told the two women that if they wrote to the German authorities asking to be pardoned, they could save their heads, thanks to the merciful policy of the Third Reich. To their dismay and surprise, Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe obstinately refused to sign an appeal for pardon: they considered it dishonorable to ask favors of the Third Reich! The embarrassed local commanders were then forced to sign the appeal themselves, and the two proud anti-Fascist resisters were “pardoned” and sentenced to life imprisonment. During their time in the military prison they discovered that many German soldiers were jailed for trying to desert or for insubordination, a situation they attributed, at least in part, to their antiwar propaganda. Finally, on the last day of the war, May 8, 1945, they were liberated, in poor health but alive.

Barthes and my dearest aunt

My dearest aunt passed away last week. Her name is Maria, but she was always nameless to me. She was always the aunt. She was one of my grandmother’s two sisters. But I never met my grandmother, Francelina, and the aunt sort of occupied that place: the place of mother, for my mother, and the place of grandmother, for me (and I would suppose my brother as well).

All my life she lived on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada. She, her sister Maria and their husbands emigrated long ago and built their families there. But they visited every year, often more than once. So even the seeds of that emotional proximity were always shortened by the temporal and physical distance.

Her death is uncanny, in many ways, the distance being the trigger of these strangely familiar feelings. My difficulty in experiencing her disappearance got me thinking about her portraits and the very few photographs I took of her, for they have become the only way to conceptualize her death.

She fell ill very suddenly and her death followed quickly. After it happened, her daughter and granddaughters posted portraits of her on facebook and it started to happen: every time I looked at her portrait I failed to realize her disappearance. That failure was more or less dramatic, depending on the photograph in question.

As was expected, a portrait taken by me would prove to be the most complicated photograph to look at (this is the only portrait I found of her, can’t even find the original negatives).

portrait aunt
© Sofia Silva, “the aunt”, n.d.

Photography is always about death, whether because it kills the reality it chooses to immortalize or because it simply kills the subjects’ existence. This takes me immediately back to Barthes and La Chambre Claire. Every portrait can be, as he explains, an authentication of a person’s existence. However, that person’s existence, which the photograph apprehends, is not the sum of the contours of her/his body and face, but the “expression of truthfulness”, her/his aura.

I recognize my aunt’s aura in this portrait only because this photograph (every photograph) is the sum of several projections: how she wanted me to see her; how she thought she would look best, how I thought she felt about me, how I thought she would look best, etc, etc. In the end, the aura of the subject in the photograph is not hers, but mine, for when she surrenders herself to the photograph, she immediately ceases to be the subject in the photograph and transforms herself in the object of my affections.

The realms of the truth and the false seduce me, but I’m aware of how difficult it is to trace and walk the bridge between the two. In fact, I feel obliged to even think of a passage, from one stage to the other, and only because the art of lying and deceiving has fallen in the realm of the mundane and the ordinary.

Anyway, “the “expression of truthfulness” mentioned by Barthes is an expression of what is true for me, albeit that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the qualities of that expression. Qualities that before having an aesthetic dimension have an ethical, a philosophical and a psychological one, for we’re talking about being. A photograph is its forms, its colors, its lines… but what is represented in a photograph is the being of the photographer and the affective relation he/she establishes with the symbolic universes he/she chooses to render photographable.

In the aunt’s photograph I recognize her. Our togetherness is materialized. Because she will live on in that memory I fail to realize she is no longer photographable…

What’s wrong with photography competitions?

Everything’s wrong with this sort of competitions, yet they’re necessary to keep the art market alive. There are very few art prizes in Portugal and they tend to promote the most conceptual approach to contemporary art practices, one of the reasons the results are always controversial.

This week (or the week before, it’s fuzzy) Fnac announced the winners of their Photography competition. They named the prize “Novos Talentos Fnac Fotografia”, (Emerging talents Fnac Photography), and for the past years they’ve been promoting the work of people who are taking their first steps in the artistic field of photography. That is not the case this year and the problems start there. Is it dramatic? I guess not, but it is serious and needs to be addressed.

I need to make a brief declaration of interests and mention that I know this year’s winner, João, so I hesitated before writing this, for I know his intentions are on the right track.

João is not an emerging talent and it is my opinion that the jury* should justify his choice in relation to that point. Him not being an emerging talent has nothing to do with his age (emerging doesn’t equal youngster), but with the fact that he has been active in the artistic field of photography for quite some years. In 2009 we were both considered emerging talents in the biggest festival of Photography in Portugal (Encontros da Imagem), so why is he still considered a newcomer?

In the social networks, this year’s results have given us a lot to read, although very little has been said. However, people are not addressing the fact that he is not an emerging talent, but the quality of the work and the statement that João chose to give to promote the work, so let’s talk about School Affairs:

© João Henriques, from the series “School Affairs”.
© João Henriques, from the series “School Affairs”.
© João Henriques, from the series “School Affairs”.
© João Henriques, from the series “School Affairs”.

School Affairs is a collection of photographs from the time João spent in Tomar, doing a Master in Photography. João chose to promote these photographs as the result of a middle age crisis which led him back to school. That statement, which I find quite cynical, guides the narrative of this group of images: the skin, the breasts, the shoulder, the invisibility, the gaze… Yet the author’s statement functions as a walking stick: it’s white noise.

School Affairs promotes the so called authenticity of spontaneity, of the snapshot, of the tension that exists between the photographer (as predator) and the object of his desire (the prey), and it would be quite successful if it was a “true doing”. The problem is that I can see the effort, can identify and immediately get stuck in the semicolons that interrupt the work.

School Affairs reflects the impact of the academic milieu, in several dimensions. As the photographs started to circulate, a lot of vicious comments hit the streets of facebook. A photographer and colleague of ours wrote, in João’s defense, that “João Henriques achieved what is expected of a photographer worthy of such a name, namely to promote a dialogue, a narrative and question the observers, to the point they get angry and rebel!

As expected, I contest this interpretation of what a photographer “worthy of such a name” needs to achieve. Is art about communication? Does it have to be about an intellectual understanding of things? As far as I see it, the answer is no. If that was the case, it wouldn’t matter what the so called artist actually produces. It is my opinion that what has the potential to be transformative and permanent needs to be about the qualities of the work, qualities that are a clear extension of the way the artist creates, and “that way” is existential, psychological ethical, metaphysical and so on.

So, to wrap up this argument, the reason I don’t think of School Affairs as a successful work is precisely because I find no other way in except to conceptualize it, because it lacks originality, for the photographs don’t attain the self-sufficiency and aesthetic qualities that would “come to them” if they weren’t chosen to abide by a too conceptual premise.

Interestingly enough, the controversy keeps on escalating. João’s most commercially appealing photograph (of course this is debatable) in School Affairs is the photograph of a public outdoor depicting one portuguese actress. The original photograph is by another portuguese photographer. I think for most of us who live immersed in the visual arts field, we don’t even think of this as an issue, but rather as something that came to be part of our visual language: to appropriate public discourses, public strategies of seduction and consumption appeal.

But as we are often remembered, a big part of the observers don’t feel the same way and think of reproduction as appropriation and then equate appropriation with theft. It’s easy to call out these observers for their lack of knowledge of cultural discourses, but where does it lead us? Isn’t it more fruitful to actually reflect upon this huge gap?

The actress called out João’s work on facebook, saying he “had won the prize […] with a photograph of [her] person, taken by photographer André Brito in 2013”. Most of the comments that followed are pure gems. People insult the photographer, the jury, revealing the fussiness that exists between the commercial and the artistic world of photography. The language is the same, scaffolded on semiotics, but the aim is very different. Commercial photography is only successful if its finality is achieved, and once that is done, the photograph consumes itself, it dies. On the other hand, artistic photography need to rely on its aesthetic qualities and on its power to trigger the viewer’s imagination. Does João’s photographs do the former, the latter or both?

I rest my case for now. Hopefully the controversial will pass on and he will go on to address the photographic specificities that interest us.

* This year’s jury comprised the following personalities:
Margarida Medeiros, author and lecturer; Augusto Brázio
, photographer; Mário Teixeira da Silva, owner at Módulo; Sérgio B. Gomes, jornalist and editor for the blog Arte Photographica.
João’s work can be seen here.

≡ Are you sure Jimmy Nelson’s photographs are ‘cool’? ≡

post ignantprintscreen from iGNANT’s FB

There are several photographers traveling to “remote places” with the aim to capture “human nature”, at its wildest form. One of these so-called explorers is British photographer Jimmy Nelson (b. 1967). Having spent his childhood in Africa and his teen years in England, Nelson started working as a photojournalist at the age of 19. Before they pass away (2009-2012) was the name chosen for the project that, he claims, captures “the beauty of over 30 remote tribes“, immortalized in the form of a book with over 400 photographs, the great majority of them staged and inspired by American photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952).

On October 2013, Time‘s journalist Andrew Katz published an article entitled Portraits of the Authentics and one year later, editor John Vidal, from The Guardian, gave voice to the amount of criticism that was raining down on Nelson’s work. The big difference between the one point of view and the other seems to be the fact that the first believed in the discourse of authenticity that supports the project and the other didn’t. Before they pass away is built on two premisses: 1) there are tribal communities that live isolated in remote places and whose culture hasn’t been contaminated by the Westerner; 2) those communities are about to pass away and we need to testify and document their passage in this world, before it happens. Both premisses are wrong. Nelson and his team know it, but the label of urgency adds credibility to the marketing of the project.

From the perspective of “the authentics”, Katz describes Nelson’s work, highlighting his courage and humility, explaining that “each tribe [was] selected for its authenticity, rather than its anthropologic vulnerability”, and that the photographs were the result of a two weeks works, approximately: After a guide or translator made an initial introduction, Nelson would step in to begin forming a bond and eventually get people to pose—in the jungle, on a mountaintop, in a river. In his 2013 Ted Talk, Nelson describes his intentions to photograph these “dying cultures” “as art, as icons” and tells the audience how the project gave him more than photographs. Nelson explains it gave him life lessons which he went on to prescribe: 1) one should see the world beyond one’s prejudices; 2) one should always believe there is a choice and one can choose to be happy; 3) if one is vulnerable and humble one can connect with anyone. He then finishes by asking people to wake up to these cultures, by documenting them and adds: “As soon as they disappear, we will loose something which is very, very, very important to us. It’s our authenticity, it’s where we came from. It’s our origins.”

Nelson talks about his upbringing and how the project came along…

Nelson’s discourse is plain and clear regarding his intentions and goals. In a Q&A for Roads & Kingdoms, Nelson explains that although he works as a photographer he also sees himself as a messenger playing an active part on the preservation of the History of Mankind and the promotion of “individuality”. As we see him, Nelson is first and foremost a tourist of authenticity, someone who believes the photographic register of these cultures will keep them alive, when in reality it can do exactly the opposite: besides accentuating the prejudiced notion of the Other – in this case, the “noble savage” and the “westerner” -, planting in the “civilized Man” the seed of the exploring-tourist, urging him to “go and see”. The marketing strategy and its repetition end up vulgarizing the same portraits Nelson considers to be iconic and romantic. Instead of being Nelson’s encounters with different cultures, they are a portrait of Nelson’s cultural reality and a collection of scenarios where he projects such a reality. These are photography editor Zachary Rosen‘s words for Africa is a Country:

The rhetoric Nelson uses to describe his images strongly characterizes the Western fantasy of the noble savage, whose ancient culture, unchanged for thousands of years, has been passed over by evolution. This is achieved by linking the romantic traditional aesthetic captured in the images with repetition, in his interviews and promo materials, of phrases designed to emphasize supposed authenticity such as “flawless human beauty”, “original human art” and “purity of Mankind”.

On October 2014, Nelson’s not-so-nice version comes out as Vidal compiles arguments to explain why his photographs are “wrong”. Vidal quotes Survival International director Stephen Corry saying Nelson’s tribal portraits are just a photographer’s fantasy, bearing little relationship either to how these people appear now, or how they’ve ever appeared. Nelson’s mistakes go far beyond his poor aesthetic options: the way the portraits are constructed, as well as descriptions often made, are often adverse to the history of the cultures in question. Here’s some examples from Vidal’s article:

Indigenous leaders this week weighed in to the debate, saying that Nelson’s pictures reflected neither political nor historical reality.“I saw the photos and I didn’t like them,” said Brazilian Yanomami spiritual leader Davi Kopenawa, who was recently in London. “This man only wants to force his own ideas on the photos, to publish them in books and to show them to everyone so that people will think he’s a great photographer. He does whatever he wants with indigenous peoples. It is not true that indigenous peoples are about to die out. We will be around for a long time, fighting for our land, living in this world and continuing to create our children.”


Papuan tribal leader Benny Wenda, now based in Oxford, said: “What Jimmy Nelson says about us is not true. My people, the Dani people, were never headhunters, it was never our tradition. The real headhunters are the Indonesian military who have been killing my people. My people are still strong and we fight for our freedom. We are not ‘passing away’, we are being killed by the brutal Indonesian soldiers. That is the truth.”

Nelson’s rhetoric of authenticity is built on the premise that the Westerner is anthropologically ignorant. Deprived of critical sense, the “Civilized Man” would easily be convinced by the “iconic nature” of these images. When confronted with the claim that his photographs are out of context, Nelson defends himself by saying they were meant to be celebratory, “aesthetic, and not factual”. Truth be told, Nelson’s attitude is not so different from the average western tourist. They both search for authenticity and they’re both looking for a reality that matches their expectations. Both construct their photographic realities and both seem to believe they’ve witnessed something unique, exclusive, rare and of huge value, which they end up by naming authenticity. Nonetheless, the tourist of authenticity is always under scrutiny, while Nelson is acclaimed by the grand jury. Intellectuals and academics tend to condemn the tourists’ predatory, misinformed and superficial attitude, while the public seems to be blinded by the dramatic beauty of Nelson’s photographs, not wanting to understand the symbolic value of his representations. Once again, Zach Rosen:

“[w]hy is a critical eye not applied by many viewers of Nelson’s work? What is this strange admiration of authenticity that romantic “tribal” images readily tap into? Do they make us feel more advanced? Do we need to counter the perceived boredom of our “modern” lives with something exotic and different? The answer is not entirely clear.

MAORI_waterfalls_new© Jimmy Nelson, Maori, from the project Before they pass away.

Dassanech© Jimmy Nelson, Dassanech, from the project Before they pass away.

≡ ‘Normcore’: it’s all about adaptability ≡

YOUTH_Page_08page from the K-Hole report.

The end of authenticity is near. Apparently, the post-authenticity movement is coming and it seems to have found its motto: embrace the fake. To quit the rhetoric of authenticity, a discourse that argues for the importance of being different and unique, and to embrace this new attitude would presuppose the understanding of the following rules: 1) all reality is constructed by the individual understanding of cultural signs; 2) copies are what values originals, i.e., the bigger the number of multiples the higher the value of the #1; 3) the promotion of a given tendency is what kills it, though it also triggers the birth of a new one

In an article about Hipsters, fashion editor Morwenna Ferrier mentions a new term, Normcore, created by K-Hole, a trend forecasting group based in New York. Released in their 2013 report called Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom, normcore would then stand for the sort of youngster who is no longer motivated by the idea that being cool is about being different, and being different is being authentic, and now is motivated by an idea of sameness. But the idea of coolness is a fragile one and as often happens “the more commonplace a trend – in one instance, beards – the less attractive they are perceived to be.” (Ferrier, 2014)

YOUTH_Page_17page from the K-Hole report.

In the aforementioned report, other trends are identified, as “The Death of Age” and “The Youth Mode”, but is the Normcore definition that grabs my attention. Normcore is defined as situational, adaptable, non-deterministic, unconcerned with authenticity, and post-aspirational:

“Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. Today people are born individuals and have to find their communities. (…) It’s about adaptability, not exclusivity. (…) Normcore doesn’t want the freedom to become someone. Normcore wants the freedom to be with anyone. (…) Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness.” (pp. 27-8)

YOUTH_Page_30 copypages from the K-Hole report.

Although normcore is promoting itself as an innovative trend, and the report in itself creatively addresses questions related to identity in adolescence, this so-called trend for adaptability is passé. It reveals both a tendency for revitalization and a tendency to conform to things, both being a retraction from the “empire of authenticity”. The normcore discourse exposes the wear of the search for an identity, a wear that associated that effort with loneliness. It is a disclaimer on the values of youth: individuality and coolness. Given the tragidy, K-Hole suggests we look for “the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity” and the feeling of liberation, understood as relief, that comes from “being nothing special”, one amongst the crowd. By the end they claim: “Normcore is a path to a more peaceful life.” (p. 36)

The rhetoric of authenticity in the context of media culture tends to be reduced to the exploitation of the hazards of public figures who struggle to keep “faithful to themselves” when faced with the violence of the industry that forces dreams and promises of happiness upon them. On the other hand, the rhetoric of post-authenticity exploits precisely the artificiality and the relevance of aesthetic choices, taking advantage of the youngsters’ sense of urgency.

YOUTH_Page_37page from the K-Hole report.

Alison Hillhouse, vice-president of the MTV trends research team that helps shape MTV programming, has been interested in the phenomenon of authenticity amidst young people. Hillhouse suggests that we think of post-authenticity in the context of a generation that, faced with the huge impact of an out-of-control circulation of imagery, and faced with the impossible task to chose an identity for her/himself, quits the idea of being original and sincere, and opts for the fake, the staged and the artificial, as part of the search for difference. She concludes:

“Some of the most heated conversations we see around social media involve teens complaining about who is “trying too hard” to seem like they are not trying. For example, the “no-makeup selfie” phenomenon was once respected, now teens question whether there is something inauthentic about trying too hard to be authentic.” (2014, s.p.)

≡ Yes, I Know, it’s a post about Oprah… ≡

84901594_jamesfrey_137709bJames Frey photographed in 1994, shortly after coming out of rehab.

In an article by Anna Iatsenko published in Paradoxes of Authenticity (2012), the author speaks about what came to be known as The James Frey Controversy, a situation involving the writer and the TV tycoon Oprah Winfrey. The story concerns Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces, which he promoted as an autobiography about his outlaw period with alcohol, drugs and crime. Back in 2005, in one of her monthly Book Club reviews, Oprah decided to recommend, gift and promote Frey’s so-called autobiography, emphasizing the huge impact it had on her, her family and her crew.

Because Oprah is an alpha-consumer (the concept goes back to Charles Lindholm‘s Culture and Authenticity, 2008), after the book appeared on air, the audience flew to the bookstores, eager to share Oprah’s emotional experience. The events took place in the following order: 26th October 2005, Oprah invites Frey to her show, to speak about his book; sales go up the roof, hitting close to 2 million; 8th January 2006, The Smoking Gun exposes Frey’s story with an article entitled The Man Who Conned Oprah; 11th January 2006 Frey goes on Larry King‘s show and starts to answer some questions; Oprah calls by the end of the program and reassures her support on Frey’s work; 26th January 2006, Frey returns to Oprah’s stage, who by the time had reviewed her position on the entire situation and goes on to confront him and accuse him of lying; five years later, both on the 16th and 17th May 2011, in the last season of her show, Oprah airs a two part conversation with Frey, apologizing for her lack of compassion and so on.

In Oprah’s words, this has been the biggest controversy that had ever hit the show in 25 years. I’m interested in the way questions of authorship reflect on the issue of biographical authenticity but, overall, what really intrigues me is the degree of expectation created in the context of a promise of authenticity. In conversation with King, Frey claims he had written a memoir but then the publisher decided to promote it as an autobiography. At a given point King says:

“People reading a memoir expect it to be a true story, whether it’s Alan Alda doing a memoir of his life or James Frey doing a memoir of his, that the facts written down as they happened or their perception of their happening.”

To what Frey responds:

“It’s an individual’s perception of what happened in their own life. This is my recollection of my life. A lot of the events I was writing about took place between 15 and 25 years ago. A lot of the events took place while I was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I still stand by my book. I still stand by the fact that it’s my story. It’s a truthful retelling of the story.”

In the article That is Real, Iatsenko highlights some moments in the controversy, namely Frey mentioning to King the importance of an “essential truth”. arguing that in spite of the falsity of the stories described in the book, the experience still had “emotional truth”:

“In the memoir genre, the writer generally takes liberties. You know, you take liberties with time because you’re compressing time a lot. You take liberties with events and sequence of events. The important aspect of a memoir is to get at the essential truth of it.”

Oprah’s first comment since the beginning of the controversy was in the form of a phone-call to Larry King Live. Though the audience was expecting Imaculate-Oprah to condemn Fraud-Frey, she reinforced her support for the book, saying:

“And I feel about “A Million Little Pieces” that although some of the facts have been questioned — and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book”

Two weeks after King’s program, Frey and his publisher Nan Talese, are invited back to Oprah’s to discuss the following question: Can you promise people the truth and then not deliver it? Frey is then subjected to an exhausting questioning of the facts he wrote about, the same facts that weeks before Oprah had qualified as “irrelevant”. (Larry King Live) Oprah tells him how she feels “really duped” and how he “betrayed millions of readers”.

Althoug Frey has sold over 4 million copies of A Million Little Pieces, the battle with Oprah left its marks and the scandal forced Frey to move to France with his family. But despite the personal injuries and the amount of lawsuits for damages caused by the book, these attempts to punish someone of inauthenticity forever changed the lexicon of authenticity.

≡ The authentic artificiality of cultural appropriation: it’s no nonsense ≡



Author Busisiwe Deyi writes about Cultural Appropriation in Africa is a Country, in the context of the SPUR restaurant chain. Although the text is about this specific brand, the arguments go for other situations.

What the fuck is happening in the fashion world these days that everyone wants to be Native American?

Or do they?

Of course they don’t.

Whenever a brand is promoting something what they’re selling is a promise of authenticity and that promise is usually associated with experiences and emotions.

So the question is: what ideas are associated with the notion of a Native American individual?

I’ll suggest a few for starters: genuineness, uniqueness, purity, integrity, simplicity, honour and so on.


Before properly addressing Deyi’s artcile, I’d like to quote from the master. In Rhetoric of the Image, from 1964, Barthes wrote:

“Linguistics is not alone in doubting the linguistic nature of the image; public opinion as well vaguely regards the image as a site of resistance to meaning, in the name of a certain mythical notion of Life: the image is re-presentation, i.e, ultimately resurrection and we know that the intelligible is reputed antipathetic to the experiential.”


Back to Deyi’s artcile, she writes:

“The idea being to give you an authentic Native American experience through its menu that consists of spicy beef strips, calamari, nachos Mexicana, cheesy chicken quesadillas. (…) nothing about SPUR is Native North American except for its use of a Native American chief-like figure on its logo and Native American-esque names and themes. In truth, rather than Native American experience or culture, the imagery used by SPUR is that of the frontier US West and Southwest. Spurs are what cowboys wore and it was the conquest of Native American land, the making them subaltern, which is subsumed in the image of the Native American warrior image in the brand (a brand also largely of Hollywood’s making).


The erasure of black and other minorities through the removal of cultural meaning and rendering of cultural symbols into one dimensional products or dumbification through commercialization is a staple of the corporate world. However, this racist cultural appropriation by corporations in their advertising is something we rarely explore in South Africa. By erasure I don’t mean absence, I mean symbolic annihilation. Symbolic annihilation is the process of erasure under or misrepresentation of some group of people in the media, this is usually based on race, socio-economic status or religion. A particularly egregious form is erasure through the portrayal of harmful stereotypes and/or invisibilisation through the reduction of history and culture into products or commodities that are then used for profit. This form of erasure is astoundingly offensive as it minimises entire histories and cultures rich with meaning and legacy, rendering them one-dimensional caricatures. This is by no means incidental but part of a system which is inherently racist and which maintains inequality through locating and concentrating privilege in whiteness. Wealth enables those at the top of the hierarchy to continue this system of racial inequality by recreating and perpetuating images of minorities that confirm ideas justifying oppression.

This makes sense of course, if an oppressor can maintain the idea that those they oppress are deserving of their oppression then it becomes difficult for the oppressed to mobilise against them. It reallocates the blame onto the oppressed and allows the oppressor to take comfort in the idea that their privilege is deserved. A collorary is that it allows the oppressor to engender a seraphic image of themselves in the imagination of the oppressed. Centring only them as capable of expressing complexity – a central aspect of being human. The act of dehumanization needs a parallel act of humanization in order to root its legitimacy.



Racism is disconnected from the body. Complicity then is about the pleasures of consumption, some purported equality in the marketplace. Previously racist-capitalism was focused directly on the black body and mind as the primary sites of violence and/or exploited labour now that that avenue is unavailable it has morphed.  Racist cultural appropriation has slipped into the daily routines of normalcy and sediment into our cultural psych. The normalcy of racist mis/appropriation has made us complicit in our continued oppression. It is important we are constantly critical of the things we consume and patronise in South Africa.

Of course SPUR is not the only one to do this, OUTsurance did it with Ashley Taylor, who can forget “All Zee flavours Mochachos” offers and retailer Woolworths has a TV advert, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, with blacks singing ‘Asimbonanga.’ BTW, I love when black people sing; I have enjoyed church songs even though I am a reluctant atheist but the imagery of black workers singing whilst an appreciative white audience enjoys specticalized blackness makes me very uncomfortable. Within the capitalist-racist context of South Africa these images continue to reinforce the ideas which sustain systematic racial inequality. When you do not reflect alternative narratives of a people you often justify their continued oppression. Anyone who buys from Spur is – even if unwittingly – complicit in this.”

Complete article here



≡ A letter to Siri Hustvedt ≡

Dear Siri,

I read What I Loved while riding the train to work and listening to Bowerbirds, 16 Horsepower and Eddie Vedder. Needless to say, the experience had a great impact and I still dream about Matt’s and Bill’s artworks, wanting to see them come to life. I don’t think it had ever happened to me before, having this uncanny feeling about a work of fiction. I know they are imaginary characters, but on some level I doubt if there was a retrospective exhibition of Bill’s work in 2002 and if the Self-portrait with Violet and the taxi exists. Never had I felt this way about fictional characters.

Before What I Loved I had only cried once while reading a book and it’s an odd reference. It happened while reading Marina Abramovic’s book on her work The House With the Ocean View, particularly while reading a spectator’s account of how she felt when standing in Sean Kelly Gallery. It all seemed so intense. I felt sad for never having felt that strong about an art work. I longed for such an aesthetic experience and so I cried.

When you killed your little artist I wept a very nervous cry. I realize that millions have probably done the same. It’s abrupt and pungent, difficult to resist. Like I said, I was on the train to work and in front of me there was a very young mother with a baby on her lap. Her phone rang, she answered it and then started to cry. She cried a silent cry and I dried my tears behind the sunglasses.

Because of the songs I was listening to, M&M were given very vivid ambiances. Now Mark lives in the middle of the Bowerbirds’ album Hymns for a Dark Horse and Matt is deep into Vedder’s songs for Into the Wild. I think I associated the music mainly with these two characters because they were fragile. Hooves, written by singer and guitarist Phil Moore and his girlfriend Beth Tacular has the following short poem:

Back to when I was born on a full moon,
I nearly split my mama in two,
While she held me proud I had the thought:
Well, there’s no one more beautiful than you.
Ahhhhh ahhhhhhh
And you’re the kindlin’ still that burns below my heart,
And you’re the hooves that lead me through the forest.
Ahhhhh ahhhhhhh
And you’re the kindlin’ still that burns below my heart,
You’re the memory now that lives across the world,
While the wind howls low and tries to steal my hours,
You’re the hooves that lead me through the forest.

And Vedder’s work for the Sean Penn’s movie is sort of a protest letter about the social contract we fall into without understanding the rules, something I associate with the freedom you gave to Mark. You know, I see him as an archetype of authenticity, like Camus’ Meursault was, though in completely different levels.

Let me contextualize: I’m finishing my phd thesis on the subject of authenticity in art and my tutor was the one that recommended you shortly after we met each other, I think because of The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves. I now realize how he understood me right away, how he understood the importance of crossing subjects, even though I’m writing about arts.

I’m considering bringing the example of Mark into the thesis because of his lack of ethics. Though the way we’re considering authenticity in arts joins author and artwork in a single prerogative, and in that context ethics is one possible way to evaluate the sincerity of the “expressive urges”, there’s an unanswered question that belongs to the order of chaos, like much of the chaos that goes into the second part of your book. I question if authenticity isn’t only possible if one fails to recognize the moral pattern ruling our ethics. I mean, I question if authenticity isn’t a predicate of the outsiders and the criminals who clash with society. Arno Gruen spoke of an ego split, something the majority would associate with failing to meet normality, but that he described as making the difficult choice to chose the self over the others.

Dear Siri, I have to go back to work, but I will buy The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves this weekend and will write to you again soon.

Best wishes,


≡ Beltracchi: turning the art world upside down ≡

beltracchi doc

Trailer for Arne Birkenstock‘s documentary Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery about Wolfgang Beltracchi’s work and how he managed to fool the art world.

Excerpts from the CBS interview with Bob Simon

Bob Simon: Could you do a Rembrandt?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: Yeah, sure.

Bob Simon: Could you do a Leonardo?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: Yeah, yeah, sure.

Bob Simon: Who couldn’t you do?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: Maybe Bellini. Bellini’s really difficult.

He has sold his forgeries. Of course, but says he can still see some of them because they’re on public display.

Bob Simon: Have you seen your paintings, your forgeries hanging in museums?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: Yeah. Yeah, all the museums, you know. I think I am one of the most exhibited painters in museums of the world.

Bob Simon: You are one of the most exhibited painters in the world?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: Yeah, yeah.

Bob Simon: That’s quite an accomplishment

Wolfgang Beltracchi: Yeah.


Bob Simon: You have, in fact, you’ve really upset the art world, haven’t you?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: Yeah sure, they all hate me, these experts now–

Bob Simon: Do you think the experts are just incompetent or that they are also frauds, that they pretend to know more than they know?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: No, no nearly all the experts we have met, we met, they were serious, really serious. Their only problem was that I was too good for them. Yes, that was their problem, that’s all.


Bob Simon: Did you ever think you would wind up in prison?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: No.

Bob Simon: At what point did you realize, uh-oh, I’m in trouble, this is over?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: When I was in prison.

Bob Simon: Not before then.

Wolfgang Beltracchi: Not really, no.

Bob Simon: Do you think you did anything wrong?

Wolfgang Beltracchi: Yes, I use the wrong titanium white, yeah.

art collectorpart of The Art Collector‘s article about The Beltracchi Affair.

≡ ‘My work is about this, that and the other.’ Well, if you say so… ≡

It’s a given than when writing a statement about your work, you should explain what the process entailed and what you were trying to achieve. But should the artist explain to us what the project is really about? Isn’t that pretentious?

7.11.11© Jamie Diamond, 7.11.11, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.

e© Jamie Diamond, 5.29.11, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.

k© Jamie Diamond, 4.24.12, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.

q© Jamie Diamond, 2.18.11, from the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother.

I don’t often write cynically about works I dislike or authors that have no interest to me, and this is no exception, for although the author here in question – Jamie Diamond – has both an approach and a style that alienates me, I can’t resist being interested in her motivations.

I saw Jamie’s work for the first time very recently, due to an article in Hyperallergic entitled An Outsider Art Born of Fantasy. It grabbed my attention because I study matters related to notions of ‘outsider art’, but once I started reading I realized it had nothing to do with ‘art brut’. The article deals with Diamond’s project Mother Love. The story is: while she was looking for a fake baby for the series I Promise To Be a Good Mother, she stumbled upon reborn dolls. Her statement on the aforementioned series goes like this

“In this series, I assume the role of subject and photographer and put on the mask of motherhood, dressing up in my mother’s clothes and interacting with Annabelle, a reborn doll. The project was inspired by and named after a diary I kept as a girl that documented the relationship with my own mother, written as a kind of rule sheet for later life. I started staging specific memories from my childhood, acting out recalled events and behaviors. Eventually the performance evolved into an exploration of the complexities surrounding the paradox of the mother/child relationship, investigating both its vernacular and art historical depictions, while mimicking and ignoring the traditional visual signifiers of motherhood. I’m interested in the fantasy of motherhood, the social structure of the relationship between mother and child, and the performance of inherited social and gender roles. Working in a variety of locations, both interiors and landscapes, I play out these scenarios with Annabelle for the camera, isolating specific idyllic and contradictory moments.”

In the article she explains that when she found reborn dolls, she also found herself fascinated by the community. Reborn Dolls are dolls that look a lot like real babies, which people buy and create in order to nurture them as if they were their own living child. It’s out of the ordinary, that’s for sure. And yes, it probably is a defense mechanism in response to some traumatic event, but how each one chooses to deal with such profound feelings is not for us to judge.

Ping 002© Jamie Diamond, Mother Ping, from the series Mother Love.

Kyal_16x20© Jamie Diamond, Mother Kyla, from the series Mother Love.

So Diamond then decided to make a new series about the Reborn Babies. She explains that “the only way I could fully understand this community and the art making that went into it, was to become a Reborner myself, and I did”. In her statement for this series – Mother Love:

“In this series, I am interested in blurring the distinctions between real and unreal and the living and the in-animate. I collaborated with an outsider art making community called the Reborners, a group of self-taught female artists who hand-make, collect and interact with hyper-realistic dolls. (…) The photographs engage with the tradition of portraiture, evoking classical sculptural busts that are at once familiar and strange. Working with the Reborn community has allowed me to explore the grey area between reality and artifice where relationships are constructed with inanimate objects, between human and doll, artist and artwork, uncanny and real. I have been engaged with this community now for four years and while working and learning from these women, I’ve become fascinated by the fiction and performance at the core of their practice and the art making that supports their fantasy.”

This apparent clash between the real and the fake, the genuine and the artificial, is mentioned in all of her work. Yes, she definitely has a clear drive and her own style, but the question is if she is being successful, as an artist, in conveying such complex dilemma of photographic authenticity. Are the images about that clash? Do the images trigger any sort of reflection about the way people are and the way they pretend to be? Could it be that the dominant theatricality of the photographs is destroying any potential for magic? Can the driving force of art – the secret -, survive such artificial, mediated and direct approach to people?

The series that interested me the most was Constructed Family Portraits, which refers to a traditional way of portraying familial relations and can remind us of Struth’s Family Portraits, that is, as photographic objects. Diamond’s statement goes as follows:

“In the Constructed Family Portrait series, I found strangers on the Internet and in public and invited them to meet me in rented hotel rooms and pose as artificial families for the camera. (…) The portraits are of normal people performing as themselves in an entirely new context; they intuitively follow the rules of the genre, and the group they form for the camera ascribes them an identity. The work explores the public image of family, themes of photographic truth, gender, class, culture and identity. As indicated by the titles of each work, each family is given the name of the hotel where the photograph was taken.”

The-Latham-Family-copy© Jamie Diamond, The Lathams, from the series Constructed Family Portraits.

The-Hilton-Family© Jamie Diamond, The Hiltons, from the series Constructed Family Portraits.

The-Seasons-Family© Jamie Diamond, The Seasons, from the series Constructed Family Portraits.

At first, what made an impression was the fact that she mentioned that the photographs represented such an array of complex themes: ‘public image of family’, ‘photographic truth’, ‘gender’, ‘class’, ‘culture and identity’. I guess if you tried to find more relevant subjects to contemporary photography in western societies, you couldn’t. These are all part of the drama of representation, be it photographic or not. Can they really fit into one series about constructed representations of families?

I’m reminded of a session of Family Therapy in which the therapist asked us to get up and position ourselves in the way we thought would best represent how we related to each other. It was terrible, on the spot there’s only room for false gestures and the only thing that ‘picture’ can say is: we know what families are supposed to look like; we know how this ‘picture’ is supposed to be’; and we are unable to relate to each other in the way you want us to. In the end, the only thing this therapeutic approach manages to do is make us feel like outsiders, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Back to Diamond’s Constructed Family Portraits I struggle to find an interesting way in, unlike the majority of critics. Take, for example, this Phaidon article about the series I Promise to Be a Good Mother, in which the author (not signed) compares some of her photographs to Jeff Wall’s: “In places, the series evokes the photographs of Jeff Wall, with its formal composition of figures in landscape.” Really? You think? Diamond and Wall are opposites and it’s not because of any small aspect but because Wall’s quest is the absorptive mode and Diamond’s is the theatrical mode,* meaning the first is excited for a sort of representation where figures are immersed in their virtual world, not aware of the viewer or their relation to their image; the second is excited by the performative aspect of the medium and not the level of veracity of the events depicted.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview for Dummy Magazine, by Oliver Gehrs:

OG: Aren’t those families anachronistic?

JD: I’m examining photographic rhetoric concentrating specifically on the family portrait and the work is in conversation with the history of portraiture, both commercial and classical. It’s not just about the family portrait either; it’s about our relationship to photography and the role it plays in our lives. I’m interested in the language of portraiture, in the performance, and in our innate fluency in its codes and gestures. Each stranger knew how to perform so convincingly yet none of these people had anything to do with each other. They were playing themselves in this unfamiliar context. Also the scale is very important, I want you to be confronted by this portrait, that’s why they are printed life size. Family portraits are never on this scale; they are usually of a very specific size. I wanted to take this moment out of the vernacular context that it’s usually part of.


OG: Why do we see family-relations in your work, where no relations are?

JD: I think it has something to do with our relationship to photography and our photographic conditioning. We know what to expect when we see a family portrait and aren’t prepared to be deceived. Even after you know that these are all strangers I still love the associations you make when looking at these portraits. I’m interested in how we receive images and our belief in photographic truth. I believe we are presenting ourselves one way, but the camera reveals something else, I love that.

* More on the subject in Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, (2008).

≡ The problem is the photograph not what the photograph shows ≡


Susan Sontag died in 2004 and that was a tough year for photography. One difficult to forget. In 2004, the images of Abu Ghraib got out and with them started a revolution in photojournalism. From then on, authenticity, a ‘quality’ so dear to documentary photography, changed hands. Legitimacy and believability were no longer available to the professionals but to civilians who shot everything that moved – from the men paraded around on leashes in Abu Ghraib to the occasional fuck on campus. Soldiers and victims are now the ones holding the power of truth, or so it seems.

On May 23rd 2004, the New York Times published an article by Sontag entitled Regarding the Torture of Others, a reflection on the impact of the Abu Ghraib photos and the role of photograph the so called states-of-exception.

Four years later, in 2008, Errol Morris’ documentary Standard Operating Procedure came out. The documentary revolves around the ‘procedures’ in Abu Ghraib and features soldiers directly involved in the photographs as well as others who portray themselves as passive observers (if there can be such a thing in this situation). Lynndie England, one of the women involved in the tortures and humiliations depicted in the famous Abu Ghraib shots tells us how she used to spend her time, both on and off duty, and we quickly find the why that complements the tale: those actions where made out of boredom and with an entertainment goal, even if she arguments that she was just following the examples given (“that was what we saw”, she says). Ultimately, she justifies her actions saying “I was blinded by being in love with a man”. What an irony.

abuse3 harmansab1

Another female military photographer is featured telling us how she made a photograph of a ‘detainee’ (yes, ‘prisoners’ have rights; ‘detainees’ don’t) that looked like Jesus Christ. In other words, she knows her icons. Apparently, she soon realized what the photographs depicted was wrong and allegedly started to document the tortures not for fun but to show what the USA military where doing, how serious it was.

As we know now, the photographs became the problem, not the events depicted in them, which keep happening in one form or another. Sontag quotes secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld to whom the problem is that soldiers are behaving like tourists «”running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise.”» The Photographs act as proofs and because of their permanence they hold the power to question moral superiority, a power that serves to legitimize words. If words used to be enough to account for our own lives, build our narratives, tell our stories, now “to live is to be photographed”, says Sontag. Visual language is what sticks, particularly in the form of photographs and it seems that the further one is from the event represented the easier it is for reality to be replaced by an image of that reality. When I think of Abu Ghraib what immediately comes to mind is the photograph of that hooded man, standing on a box with his arms open. That’s how iconic that image is.


«Yes, President Bush said in Washington on May 6, standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan, he was “sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families.” But, he went on, he was “equally sorry that people seeing these pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.”» (Sontag, 2004)

Roman Krol, another military featured in Morris documentary, describes what is depicted in some of the photographs or, how I see it, how the society of the spectacle justifies his actions. In his own words: “The yelling was just [pause] it was just for show I believe. To show, the spectators, this would be done to anybody who breaks the rules.” Krol goes on to explain how he thinks the photographs were stupid, there was even a sign saying they weren’t allowed (!), how he never saw a flash, otherwise he would have…

new-toture4 dogs2

Again, the torture isn’t the problem. The existence of the document is. Going back to Sontag’s article, she quotes republican senator Inhofe as saying he was not the only one «”more outraged by the outrage” over the photographs than by what the photographs show.» For Inhofe, the media were responsible for american lives, for they were responsible for spreading the photographs of the events. Sontag kills the argument in an heartbeat:

«There is an answer to this charge, of course. Americans are dying not because of the photographs but because of what the photographs reveal to be happening, happening with the complicity of a chain of command — so Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba implied, and Pfc. Lynndie England said, and (among others) Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, suggested, after he saw the Pentagon’s full range of images on May 12. “Some of it has an elaborate nature to it that makes me very suspicious of whether or not others were directing or encouraging,” Senator Graham said. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said that viewing an uncropped version of one photo showing a stack of naked men in a hallway — a version that revealed how many other soldiers were at the scene, some not even paying attention — contradicted the Pentagon’s assertion that only rogue soldiers were involved. “Somewhere along the line,” Senator Nelson said of the torturers, “they were either told or winked at.” An attorney for Specialist Charles Graner Jr., who is in the picture, has had his client identify the men in the uncropped version; according to The Wall Street Journal, Graner said that four of the men were military intelligence and one a civilian contractor working with military intelligence.»

≡ ‘Photography Threatens Fantasy’, she says ≡

In the lecture showed above (TED, 2009) photographer Taryn Simon talks about the quest for hidden truths. She starts by explaining how the majority of her work “is, in fact, not photographic. It involves a campaign of letter writing, research and phone calls to access my subjects”. She then goes on to explain how, unexpectedly, the weirder rejection letter came from Walt Disney World. From that particular letter, she highlights the following sentence before claiming that photography threatens fantasy: “Especially during these violent times, I personally believe that the magical spell cast upon guests who visit our theme parks is particularly important to protect and helps to provide them with an important fantasy they can escape to.”

SIMON_2011ALMDDChapterXI-InstallationSIMON_2011ALMDDALivingMan...ChapterXI-Detail© Taryn Simon, Chapter XI (plus detail), from the project A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII, 2008-11.

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII was produced over a four-year period (2008-11), during which the artist, Taryn Simon, travelled around the world researching and recording bloodlines and their related stories. The subjects Simon documents include victims of genocide in Bosnia, test rabbits infected with a lethal disease in Australia, the first woman to hijack an aircraft, and the living dead in India. Her collection is at once cohesive and arbitrary, mapping the relationships among chance, blood, and other components of fate.

Each work in A Living Man Declared Dead is comprised of three segments. On the left of each chapter are one or more large portrait panels systematically ordering a number of individuals directly related by blood. The sequence of portraits is structured to include the living ascendants and descendants of a single individual. The portraits are followed by a central text panel in which the artist constructs narratives and collects details. On the right are Simon’s ‘footnote images’ representing fragmented pieces of the established narratives and providing photographic evidence.

The empty portraits represent living members of a bloodline who could not be photographed. The reasons for these absences are included in the text panels and include imprisonment, military service, dengue fever and women not granted permission to be photographed for religious and social reasons.

Simon’s presentation explores the struggle to determine codes and patterns embedded in the narratives she documents, making them recognizable as variations (versions, renderings, adaptations) of archetypal episodes from the present, past, and future. In contrast to the methodical ordering of a bloodline, the central elements of the stories – violence, resilience, corruption, and survival – disorient the highly structured appearance of the work. A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters highlights the space between text and image, absence and presence, and order and disorder.” official statement about A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII.

SIMON2012_PictureCollection.Folder(FinancialPanics)© Taryn Simon, Financial Panics, from The Picture Collection, 2013

SIMON_2007.AIHUNuclearWasteEncapsulationandStorageFacility© Taryn SimonNuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility Cherenkov Radiation, Hanford Site, U.S. Department of Energy Southeastern Washington State, from  An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.

SIMON_2010(ed.4)Contraband.OCA(PROHIBITED)_FINAL-Detail© Taryn Simon, Oxalis tuberosa, Peru (7CFR) (prohibited), from Contraband.

SIMON_2010(ed.4)Contraband.ANIMALCORPSES(PROHIBITED)_FINAL-Detail© Taryn SimonBird corpse, labeled as home décor, Indonesia to Miami, Florida (prohibited), from  Contraband.

≡ The problem with expectations in the context of documentary photography (Part II) ≡

qiermpo7kpxgttqwphvm© Giovanni Troilo, J. keeps his gun hidden in a box in the woods of Bois du Cazier. This is more secure than keeping them at home since he regularly gets visits from the police., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

fpudamunvpv5hxejln5y© Giovanni Troilo, Gas supply tubes run along the houses built near the steel factories of Charleroi. Before the electric upgrade of the blast furnace, these tubes used to provide the energy needed for this operation., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

It’s the discussion everyone is having in the photography community since the 2015 World Press Photo awards were announced: Giovanni Troilo won the contemporary issues category with a visual essay about the town of Charleroi, in Belgium, entitled “The Dark Heart of Europe“. In the official site, one can read the following description “Charleroi, a town near Brussels, has experienced the collapse of industrial manufacturing, rising unemployment, increasing immigration and outbreak of micro-criminality. The roads, once fresh and neat, appear today desolated and abandoned, industries are closing down, and vegetation grows in the old industrial districts.”

So far so good, but the controversy started once claims arose about the performative nature of the photographs. Apparently, italian photographer Giovanni Troilo staged some of the photos in order to better convey a feeling of decadence of Europe. Having seen the photos, Charleroi’s mayor Paul Magnette sent a letter to  World Press Photo claiming that the award be removed on grounds of the essay not constituting a documentary portrait of Charleroi. Excerpts of such letter are all over the web. At one point Magnette writes:

“He [Giovanni] claims to be doing investigative journalism; a photo essay reflecting a simple reality. But this is far from being the case: the falsified and misleading captions, the travesty of reality, the construction of striking images staged by the photographer are all profoundly dishonest and fail to respect the codes of journalistic ethics. In our opinion, this work does not comply with the objective of the competition.”

cn5i37clib1qzwvnchpk© Giovanni Troilo, Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons, from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

This particular image above is accompanied by a caption saying “Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons”, however the author explains that the photograph was staged with a friend’s car and his cousin inside. His approach is not only questionable because of its theatricality, but mainly because it is dishonest: the captions do not correspond to the reality of the singular and individual daily life in Charleroi, instead they are used in order to apply to a virtual (and apparently universal) idea of what the darkness in Europe looks like.

ygasyk3sx6ajpvklf7rv© Giovanni Troilo, Locals know of parking lots popular for couples seeking sexual liaisons, from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

This image shows  Philippe Genion as an obese and decadent man. The caption reads: “Philippe lives in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the town.” Not that we needed to read mayor Magnette’s response to understand the inauthenticity of such an image, for it is obviously overstaged and sensationalist, but he adds to the confusion by saying:

“Mr. G. is a prominent figure, earthy and very attached to his region. Far from the image given him by photographer who seems to have wanted to build his image by referring to the ‘neurotic obesity’ mentioned in the introductory text of Giovanni Troilo.”

Journalist Caroline Lallemand (for Le Vif) interviewed belgian photographer Thomas Van Den Driessche about the controversy and at one point he says (my translation):

“Let’s take the example of corpulent man posing in his interior space. The dramatic lighting of the scene and the caption of the photo suggest that this person is a recluse inside his own home to escape violence in his neighborhood. This is actually Philippe Genion, a well-known personality in Charleroi who loves posing topless. He lives in a popular neighborhood, but relatively peaceful. His house is also a wine bar. So we are far from the image referring to the “neurotic obesity” conveyed by the photographer. Philippe Genion has also given several specific details about Troilo’s team mise-en-scène on its Facebook page. He specified that the photographer had clearly told him that he “was not doing a documentary, but a photography project”. For me, it’s another serious deontological mistake to have presented his work in such a way.”

The issue is far from over. Troilo is yet to respond to mayor Magnette’s letter and the World Press Photo jury is expected to explain their position regarding the story at hands. But what is really expected? That photography be a document of reality when we know it to be always subjective? That near-documentary photographs be discredited by their theatricality even though they often present a better visual understanding of a particular social reality? That manipulation be 100% excluded from photojournalist practice, even if the barriers between documentary and photojournalism keep being blurred? Or may it be that our problem concerns not the photographer, not the images, but the man who comes forth as an author? May it be that the core of the problem deals with the overall authority of a man’s words and his authenticity?

evtm9oyflksjfrgnbyje© Giovanni Troilo, The newest and tallest building in Charleroi is the 75-meter-high police station., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

kg75csiwtze5hdgyo25h© Giovanni Troilo, Vadim, a painter who uses live models, creates a work inspired by an existing painting., from the series The Dark Heart of Europe, 2014.

≡ It’s never too late to see the world through Antoine’s eyes ≡

MEXICO. Nuevo Laredo. 2000.© Antoine D’Agata, Mexico, Nuevo Laredo, 2000.

For different reasons, I see quite a lot of photographs and bodies of work on a daily basis. What rarely happens, is being surprised by the work of an established photographer, whom I didn’t know. Today was one of those days. While reading about the voyeur and in between several works by emerging photographers, I came across the visual world of Antoine D’Agata. And what a surprise! All I can do now is share, both at home as well as at work.

As far as I can tell, Antoine is sort of a nomadic photographer. Born in Marseille, France, in 1961, he has lived in New York and travelled everywhere and in 2004 became a Magnum member. What follows are excerpts of an interview conducted by Manik Katyal, in 2012. Full interview here. More of Antoine’s work here.

USA, NEW YORK city.© Antoine D’Agata, USA, New York City.

Untitled, 2007© Antoine D’Agata, 2007.

TURKEY. Istanbul. 1999.© Antoine D’Agata, Turkey, Istanbul, 1999.

Manik: So there is no specific thing you have in mind when you’re documenting but basically your personal experiences?

Antoine: Yes because I think photography is being misused for the last century. It is being used mostly as a documenting way which of course is a wonderful, very specific way of technique to document reality. But unlike the other art forms, to be a photographer you have to get out of your studio and get to go to experiment the world. And this is what most people forget to do. You know they use photography as illustration of some social sociological ideal in a beautiful way. But they forget that to use photography to its most powerful level you have to use it in the position inside the world not outside.

Manik: Be part of it..?

Antoine: Firstly, I don’t care. I mean I can discuss it, but I don’t care. It doesn’t touch me, I mean I read sometimes something or hear something but it doesn’t affect me. I’m putting enough energy in the work that I’m doing and I don’t need people’s approval. Second, I always like to see how much people critique my work for moral reasons while on the other side they make so many moral compromises in real life even with their fears, even in a passive way we all become part of some exploitative system. It makes me smile to see people who live so well in comfort and forgetness and ridicule someone who is…

Mortality, France, 2011© Antoine D’Agata, France, 2011.

FRANCE. Paris. 2009.© Antoine D’Agata, Paris, 2009.

CANARIES. Playa del Ingles_2© Antoine D’Agata, Canaries, Playa del Ingles.

Manik: … working hard?

Antoine: Yes. My life is what it is and of course I’ve been different in my choices but I don’t do it out of pleasure or pathology, I do it because I think it’s my duty as a human being. I live in this world, I want to know what’s going on, I want to be with the people I think I’m like. In meaningful and painful situations, I want to be where I think it’s important to be; where things are at stake. If others are experimenting with the economic balance, I want to be there. So this is my way. I’m not photographing pleasure but my relationship with these girls who are prostitutes or drug addicts or delinquents is a very conscious choice. My relationship with them is based on the knowledge of the conditions we live in and ambiguities and difficulties about how to establish a relationship in this scenario. And we deal with this. Of course violence can be part of it. Some good violence, some bad violence but it is the way. I always question the way I photograph it. Brutality of course, a large part of the picture but I think violence is part of life. It’s part of the beauty of life and part of the ugliness of life. And this violence I don’t show it very distinctly. At times I try to provoke it but it’s never aimed at people I’m photographing and the violence you see in most pictures is not violence against people it is violence which comes out of a situation, usually very physical situations leading to drugs or sex or narcotic sex and so it is a good violence.


Manik: What have the effects of your lifestyle been on your body?

Antoine: I don’t have an exotic lifestyle. I go deep down in my own life and that of my subjects. I see most of the photographic practice in the world as exoticism, with people going to exciting places, exciting ideas. For many years I’ve had a strong constitution, like a physical way and for many years was able to avoid physical effects of abuse and to my brain. And I think with age, at 50 now, I’m reaching a point where I have to deal with it. I hate the idea but this for me is one of the reasons why physically and mentally, the drug abuse made it hard for me to function over the past few years as a human being and even less as a photographer. So I’m at a stage where I have to find new ways to survive mentally, physically and I’ve to find new ways to look at the world.

Cambodja, Dernier Voyage, 2008© Antoine D’Agata, Cambodja, Dernier Voyage, 2008.

Cambodja, 2011© Antoine D’Agata, Cambodja, 2011.

BRESIL, 2006© Antoine D’Agata, Bresil, 2006.

≡ ‘confession and honest talking-about-oneself’ ≡

Aleksandr Sokurov, Confession. From the Commander’s Diary, 1998

«The confession is for us, therefore, besides “theory,” the most important form in which the truth is said. From Augustine to Francois Villon, from Rousseau to Freud, from Heine to current autobiographical literature, we hear decisive truths in the form of admission and confession. Moreover, those narrative communities that ultimately develop out of all depth-psychological practices constitute, in essence, confessional communities that have been morally neutralized through therapy. In motley reality, all talking about oneself necessarily ends up in the vicinity of a blackguard’s confession or a criminal’s testament, a sick report or a story of suffering, a witness’s statement or a confession. That is the condition of authenticity in a situation of the unavoidable ethical overtaxing of oneself. Only bastards always have one more excuse, one more white vest to change into, one more spine, and one more good conscience. Those who really say what they are and what they have done always and unavoidably, nolens volens, provide a rogue’s novel, a certification of poverty, a story of a young scamp, an image of a fool a book of twists and turns.

What Erich Fromm calls his “ethics of being,” if one views it properly, aims ultimately at such an upright bearing regarding one’s own life, thinking, planning and failure. Without doubt, all that also belongs to “being,” of which, according to certain value systems, we would have to be ashamed. An “ethics of being,” therefore, if it (and because it) should be a conscious bearing, must lead to a point at which, for the sake of uprightness, all shame also has an end and at which we confess to everything we “are,” right or wrong. The ethics of being seeks the truth in authenticity. It therefore demands and encourages confession and honest talking-about-oneself as the cardinal virtue per se. Before this ethics all other morals are suspended, even if the various sectoral ethics do not already contradict each other. Those who want the truth cannot simply build “theories” and see through masks; they must also create relations among people in which every confession becomes possible. Only when we have understanding for everything, give everything its due, place everything beyond good and evil, and, in the end, view everything in such a way that nothing human is foreign to us-only then will this ethics of being become possible because it puts an end to the hostility toward other ways of being. Being as such knows nothing and is nothing of which it would have to be ashamed, apart from conscious crookedness, dishonesty, and self-deceptions. Everything can be “forgiven,” not merely what tradition calls “sins against the Holy Spirit” and what we today call a lack of authenticity (genuineness, honesty). That consciousness is inauthentic that consciously does not go “into itself because it still banks strategically on the advantage gained through lying.»

excerpt from Peter Sloterdijk‘s Critique of Cynical Reason, in Minima Amoralia: Confession, Joke, Crime.

⁞ ‘Real Life is Elsewhere’ ⁞

white mirror didactic© Sam Durant, White Mirrors, from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. Inkjet print, 42 x 36 inches.

9_pilgrim39© Sam Durant, Natural History Part II, from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2007. Mixed media; Dimensions vary; Photo credit: Scott Massey.


May 1968 and France on the verge of anarchy… An atmosphere of martial law in Paris and hundreds of factories occupied… one hundred and forty American cities in flames after the killing of Martin Luther King… German and English universities occupied… Hippie ghettos directly clashing with the police state… The sudden exhilarating sense of how many people felt the same way… The new world corning into focus… The riots a great dance in the streets…

Today – nothing. The Utopian image has faded from the streets. Just the endless traffic, the blank eyes that pass you by, the nightmarish junk we’re all dying for. Everyone seems to have retreated into themselves, into closed occult groups. The revolutionary excitement that fired the sixties is dead, the ‘counter-culture’ a bad joke. No more aggression, no more laughter, no more dreams. “To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man.”

Yet there were thousands and thousands of people there. What has happened to us all?

The Paris May Days were the end for the SI. On the one hand, the police state pressure on the French left after May made any overt action virtually suicidal. […]

The presence of the SI never made itself properly felt in either England or America. The English and what could well have become the American sections of the SI were excluded just before Christmas 1967. Both groups felt that the perfection and publicising of a theoretical critique was not sufficient: they wanted political subversion and individual ‘therapy’ to converge in an uninterrupted everyday activity. […]

Henceforward the dissemination of situationist ideas in both countries was dissociated from the real organisation that alone could have dynamised them. 0n the one hand this led to obscure post-grad groups sitting over their pile of gestetnered situationist pamphlets, happy as Larry in their totally prefabricated identity. On the other, the more sincere simply went straight up the wall: The Angry Brigade, very heavily influenced by situationist ideas (translate Les Enrages into English … ), destroying themselves at the same time as they took the critique of the spectacle to its most blood-curdlingly spectacular extreme. […]

9_pilgrim18© Sam Durant, Male Colonist (cornstalk), from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 60 x 48 inches.

9_pilgrim16© Sam Durant, Female Indian, Male Colonist, from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 48 x 60 inches.

What then remains of the SI? What is still relevant? Above all, I think, its iconoclasm, its destructiveness. What the SI did was to redefine the nature of exploitation and poverty. Ten years ago people were still demonstrating against the state of affairs in Vietnam – while remaining completely oblivious of the terrible state they were in themselves. The SI showed exactly how loneliness and anxiety and aimlessness have replaced the nineteenth century struggle for material survival, though they are still generated by the same class society. They focused on immediate experience – everyday life as the area people most desperately wanted to transform.

Rediscovering poverty cannot be separated from rediscovering what wealth really means. The SI rediscovered the vast importance of visionary politics, of the Utopian tradition – and included art, in all its positive aspects, in this tradition. […]

What was basically wrong with the SI was that it focused exclusively on an intellectual critique of society. There was no concern whatsoever with either the emotions or the body. The SI thought that you just had to show how the nightmare worked and everyone would wake up. Their quest was for the perfect formula, the magic charm that would disperse the evil spell. This pursuit of the perfect intellectual formula meant inevitably that situationist groups were based on a hierarchy of intellectual ability – and thus on disciples and followers, on fears and exhibitionism, the whole political horror trip. After their initial period, creativity, apart from its intellectual forms, was denied expression and in this lies the basic instability and sterility of their own organisations. […]

Look, after so many, many pages, let’s try and be honest, just for a moment. I feel very fucked up myself, and I know it’s my responsibility. Yet whenever I go out on the streets my being somehow reels back appalled: these terrible faces, these machines, they are me too, I know; yet somehow that’s not my fault. Everyone’s life is a switch between changing oneself and changing the world. Surely they must somehow be the same thing and a dynamic balance is possible. I think the SI had this for a while, and later they lost it. I want to find it again – that quickening in oneself and in others, that sudden happiness and beauty. It could connect, could come together. Psychoanalysis and Trotskyists are both silly old men to the child. Real life is elsewhere.

9_pilgrim34© Sam Durant, Still Life (speaker, bowls, bread), from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 40 x 50 inches.

9_pilgrim32© Sam Durant, Still Life (head, jug, electric parts), from the project Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments, 2006. C-print, 40 x 50 inches.