So much has been said about Leif Sandberg‘s project Endingthat words fail me. Still, the quality of his work and the importance it has for those, like me, who embrace photography both as a means of artistic expression, but also as a therapeutic tool, brought me here.
At Lenscratch, Aline chooses to stick to Leif Sandberg’s description of his project, and, for starters, so will I:
The Ending project is my first major photo project, with its roots in panic anxiety and the fear of growing old. After surgery for possible pancreas cancer 2007, followed by a year’s convalescence, I was faced with the inevitable question of what to do with the rest of my life. A second chance. An interest in art and photography has followed me since my teens, although that was not my choice in life. Until now.
Death becomes palpable when it approaches, and the pictures contain questions of fear and uncertainty, but simultaneously the joy of aging together with a life partner. The pictures have grown over a five-year period. Often a photo session with an original idea inspired new pictures created in the moment and the plan had to give way for intuition and guts feeling. Possibly a way to get close to who you and exploring your inner self. – Leif Sandberg 2017-03-01
Leif Sandberg’s “Ending” arrived in the mail with no mention preceding its arrival. Upon opening the package a feather and an anvil fell onto my groin. I have carried them since like a pebble in my shoe that I refuse to set aside or extract. The cover of the book is a stark and compliant set of suture stiches from a surgical embrace that I had gathered would be the nexus for my introduction within. And within the pages things would expand. Throughout the book, death and near death lay prostrate as illustrated by photographs of Leif and presumably his wife in various invocations between the slippage of time and the way in which light illuminates its half-steps of failure to recognize a insoluble self. Leif lies prone on cold wooded Swedish forests. Dirt covers his back, but his limbs refuse to stop their dancing. Saint Vitus speaks highly of Leif looking over the edge of a looming finitude. There is a rage within. A rage for a near miss, the brush with death like that pebble in the shoe that Leif retaliates against. The images are not grim, they are opposing. They oppose the inevitable. They express what it means to understand the value of life and its continuance. Leif has cheated the boney grip and is celebrating the severed tentacles wishing to charge him with a sentence of entropy’s gain.
Ending is all that I love in photography. It’s authentic, it’s dark, dynamic and sincere. It’s a part of the author’s life and energy that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It’s not like this life wouldn’t have been materialized if not for these photographs. It wouldn’t exist in the first place, for art happens in its making and another I (the only I that is an author) appears in the process. It’ refreshing to see. Although I do recognize some of the influences, I feel like I’m also offered an unique dimension, maybe that of Leif Sanberg’s passion for art and life. Thank you Leif!
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”.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
Warning: most of the links have extremely violent imagery.
I gave myself a task: to look at photographs of violent events for a period of more or less a month and to chose a photograph per day (which wasn’t manageable after all). I realized from this experience that I haven’t really been looking at photographs of violence for quite some time, so it was chocking, at the point of making me very sick and vomit. I also realized that not only the violent imagery I was acquainted to was too mediated (to the point of being censured), but also that the most gruesome events don’t even get exposure, as if that sort of violence was too much for us. And it is, sites such as http://warisacrime.org/uncensored, or http://www.genocideinsyria.org easily prove it.
But do we conscientiously chose to forget these events? I guess so, otherwise capitalism would go down, because the only way we can live with the knowledge of such violent acts is to develop our critical thought about the world, which has inevitable consequences on the choices we make, what and how we consume.
Because I am involved in the education of visual culture, photography in particular, I try to reflect upon these issues with my students. However, I realized I have been going about it the wrong way, for when it comes to photographs of current events, I only have been looking at the work of professional photojournalists, who I now consider not to be succeeding at their jobs. It’s not necessarily their fault, but the media enterprises, who apply censorship on a daily basis. I know this has to be debated in a more serious and profound manner, but for now I’ll just add a few bullet-points:
I don’t consider photojournalism an art, as I don’t consider most of the so called artistic expressions to be examples of art. I’m not using the term “art” here as a qualification. The point is that art, as I see it, is not about communication or the illustration of an idea, but rather about an expression that escapes linguistic discourses and aims at an internal “reception” of it – experience, abstraction, imagination, etc, etc, etc.
Having said this, the aesthetic parameters should not be the most important thing in photojournalism. As I see it, an ethical approach to the documenting of events should.
As it happens, professional photographers seam to be unable to fulfill this task. “Professional hazard” one might say, for they cannot avoid to “beautify reality” (as Sontag would put it). Apparently, citizens everywhere are stepping into their shoes and giving us proofs of the violence happening all around the world.
While doing this exercise I came across some hardcore sites dedicated to showcasing gruesome photographs, most of which I won’t even mention here. But one is worth mentioning: Best Gore, whose statement goes like this:
Why This Website Is Important
Best Gore is a reality news website which reports on real life events which are of the interest to the public. Best Gore was founded on the fundamental principle that freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right of the public to be informed are fundamental and necessary conditions for the realization of the principles of transparency and accountability that are, in turn, essential for the promotion and protection of all human rights in a democratic society.
History demonstrates that censorship is mostly used by those who detest freedom and progress, simply to stop truths or ideas emerging. This is inexcusable.
Harm to freedom of expression caused by censorship of content just because some may deem it blasphemous, obscene or morals-corrupting would be devastating and should be of utmost concern to all people of conscience.
Supporters of censorship and human rights violations need to be exposed for petty tyrants that they are, and dealt with accordingly. And this is where Best Gore steps in as the website has played a pivotal role in exposing lies which were declared as official truths by the mainstream media, exposed countless cases of police brutality, governments sanctioned terrorism, war profiteering, fear mongering and other unsavory activities which enslave the people in injustice.
Why It Is Important to Communicate Uncensored Information Published on Best Gore to the Public
By self censoring yourself to the content on Best Gore, you are censoring your self to the truth. In any situation, if you feel like you can’t, won’t, shouldn’t or are not allowed to look at something, you open the door to allowing someone else to tell you what happened.
By not seeing things for yourself, you are opening the door to being lied to and persuaded in one direction or the other. No matter how brutal, hard, sad, offensive, immoral, obscene or [fill in the blank] something is to look at, only by seeing it with your own eyes can you make up your own opinion on the matter and see truth.
When you bring yourself to look at the real violence in the world, it kicks your ass into realty because referring back to what I said earlier, everything I just said could be a lie.
Although the imagery displayed in their site is unbearable to watch, I do agree with the statement. The problems start when news get mixed up with gossip. Although most of us would agree with the importance of knowing about the gruesome attacks of Boko Haram (for example) and some of us think it is important to be visually exposed to such violence, car crashes and similar accidents add absolutely nothing to our awareness and conscious perspective about the world. So why should one level the importance of a motorcycle crash with thenews of a young Nigerian woman who had her heart removed by “ritualists in the area”?
The free press is a cornerstone of democratic regimes precisely because it supposedly makes it possible for people to have their own opinion about things. Some of the most important events in the world today are not even being photographed or, if they are, what reaches us is politically approved imagery. We see the pictures from the mass grave found in Palmyra in March, containing 42 bodies of mostly children, women and old men, but where are the graves from the killings of the Russian and US bombings? Where are the graves sponsored by the so-called western world?
One could say that violence only generates violence, and that those who defend themselves through violence tend to act as inhumanly as those who initially perpetrated the violence (the destruction of ISIS is just a recent example), but what about our right to resist the undercover violence that is everywhere, before it gets bloodier? When in a democratic regime, should we just abide by the rules, in the name of the institutionalized normalcy? For me the answer is a clear no.
The violence perpetrated by the so-called democratic regimes is still hard to document. For example, since the beginning of the year, everywhere in Europe there have been neo-nazi demonstrations and counter-demonstrations (anti-fascism, anti-racism, anti-Islamophobia, you name it) but the photographic registers fail to document the violence that is perpetrated by the police forces, who too often protect the nationalist parades and imprison those who get in their way. Photographs of police beating and arresting civilians don’t really portrait the violence of such an act.
Fact is that I am also contributing to the hypocrisy of the seemingly peaceful environment in which our governments try to make us believe. All the extremely violent imagery that I saw during this task was left out of the post. It’s just too gruesome and hard to watch. I believe most people won’t be able to keep their eyes open while facing such reality.
What I concluded was that no professional photographer is publishing the extreme violence that is happening all around the world. And why is that? Because it is unimaginable? Simply because it is impossible to be there to witness it? Are the killers documenting their acts with their cameras and cellphones? Are they publishing those images in social media and we just don’t want to share it? Is the non recognition of an image of a thing the same thins as the non admittance of such an event? If we erase the proves, can we forget that moment? If we share the proofs of those violent acts are we endorsing and promoting it?
This “exercise” made me think about my choices. For instances, before this I had never looked at ISIS propaganda. I even rejected writing down their name, as if naming it was a validation that I didn’t want to commit to. But why did I chose to do it? After this, I have no doubt that the answer is related with my denial of that reality. I also thought I couldn’t handle watching a decapitation, and feared once I did, another step towards the relativization of evil could be taken.
I’m still in denial when it comes to videos showcasing violence. I never watch them. Are the photographs less competent in “telling the truth”? I think not at all! For instances, the still of a decapitation or the beheaded bodies are horrific, chocking, and they make you vomit, but how could they not? Such imagery surely doesn’t provoke the sort of crocodile tears that Salgado’s photographs do, because we are not talking about art, or the making of the beautiful, but about the significance of violence and how its visual documentation is important in the leveling of humanity.
February, 24th, 2016
February, 25th, 2016
February, 27th, 2016
March, 12th, 2016
March, 13th, 2016
March, 16th, 2016
March, 22nd, 2016
Handout for Reuters. Injured people are seen at the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the two bomb attacks in Brussels that killed dozens of people, a news agency affiliated with the group said.
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).
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…
Bernardo Sassetti is a very gifted pianist and composer, but apart from that he is also very passionate about photography and was currently working on publishing a book. He passed away today, at 41, after falling from a cliff, while photographing. Portugal keeps paving the way for a greek tragedy… His music, his gift
can’t help but wonder: at the same time, I was photographing in another cliff
It’s one of those rare, and thus special occasions, when I find a body of work I completely connect to in a rational, emotional, intellectual and intuitive level. Here’s a first post about his work and I foresee making more about it once I have the time to take the plunge.
“Vincent Cordebard steals other peoples photographs and reworks them with ink, fountain pen, and water. He makes dark blotches; his faces-blind and mute, corroded and obstructed-reveal the pain of bruised interiority, the place where humanity’s nocturnal attributes make their brutal appearance-the dark side where, according to Georges Bataille, transgression, eroticism, and death occur. Outside of accepted morality, these mutilated photos present themselves to the viewer as if they were meditations on inhumanity, on the theoretical and ethical scandal of beauty that emerges from horror. This is what the profanation of the face and the human values it symbolizes reveals to us. This expressivities, which cannot be apprehended except as a paradoxical form of thwarted integrity, and the human features through which it is revealed, are the subject of the intense questioning which Cordebard’s strange and difficult faces bring to light, a questioning undertaken with such intensity that the spectator’s vision is challenged by the violence of which he is the willing witness. Is this a kind of voyeurism, a fascination with an obscure, inhuman, yet twin dimension, which human relationships hide under the familiarity of the everyday, like the obverse of the reverse side of the medal? If, as Levinas wrote, the face “rends apart what is sensitive1”, what do we see when the wound becomes the face and, inversely, the face becomes the wound?
The child is thus twice deprived of life: as agisant which death has emptied of its individuality, he is also, in the symbolic order, divested of his face, which no longer exists except as a fragile skin carefully sewn onto meat. Yet, although it is no longer capable of representing its humanity, this abused face does not become a thing among other things. Annihilated subject and impossible object, the face of this dead child’s still, by its very structure, the paradoxical and fleeting place of a desperate cry of protest, the cry of an abolished individuality whose features dehumanize it, of a person who has become his, her own negation. Thus, in a final reversal, the face’s refusal to become an object continues to bear witness, within the very process that seeks to destroy it, to the tenuous but incomes-table presence of a humanity which can only express itself as resistance. A negative medium, surely, but all the more forceful, like the naked and desperate violence in Auschwitz which Hannah Arendt describes7 as an affirmation of an ultimate revolt, a testimony given by a person in extremis when all other means of expression have been taken away. “I reveal faces, ” affirms Cordebard, even as he mutilates them. The epiphanic structure of a face is reversed one last time. The positive revelation of the humanas person, then of the inhuman as destruction, finally brings these two aspects to a paroxysm which is all the more tragic for its lack of catharsis. We are given a vision that is nearly unbearable to contemplate, but which is never-the less “unpardonably beautiful”… This is why, finally, the picture’s context is ethical and its request, imperious: whether beauty can redeem the scandal which gave it life, and whether, measured by the compassion and respect a human face deserves, the act of cruelty which attempts to destroy it merits any justification besides the aesthetic. An acutely painful question, doomed to remain unanswered, and which it is to Cordebard’s credit to have dared to ask.”
“Identity is untenable: it is death, since it fails to inscribe its own death. Such is the case with closed, or metastable, or functional, or cybernetic systems, which are all eventually waylaid by laughter, instantaneous subversion (and not by a long dialectical labor), because all the inertia of these systems works against them.
Ambivalence lies in wait for the most accomplished systems, those that have succeeded in construing their own functional principles, like the binary God of Leibniz. The fascination that they exercise because they are constructed on such profound denials, as in the case of fetishism, can be reversed in an instant. Their fragility arises from this, and grows in proportion to their ideal coherence.
These systems, even when they are based on a radical indeterminism (the loss of meaning), become once more the prey of meaning. They fall under the weight of their own monstrosity, like the dinosaurs, and decompose immediately.”