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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cha Cha, Bang Bang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still about Congo, Oppenheimer also states:

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

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

(…) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adi: Now?

Anonymous: Yes.

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

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

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

Who’s your favourite photographer? they ask

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Max Pinckers’ quest for style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One photographic register of violence a day… (warning: extremely graphic imagery)

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 the news of a young Nigerian woman who had her heart removed by “ritualists in the area”?

One conclusion that chocked me while trying for this task is the frequency with which news/articles/posts are illustrated with photographs that reference another event. Apparently it doesn’t matter. If the news is about a Kurdish woman being killed at a wedding by the man to whom she was promised (her cousin) apparently any chocking photograph of a dead woman in a pool of blood serves the purpose. If the news if about the finding of a mass grave of Shiite Muslims in Nigeria, why can’t it be illustrated by the photograph of another mass grave with victims from the Boko Haram that was also found in Nigeria? If the news is about civilians being burnt to death in Fallujah in April 2016, why can’t the posts be illustrated with pictures of similar events that happened the year before? And what’s so wrong with mistaking anti-fascist protesters with fascist protesters, after all don’t they dress alike?

I know, it shouldn’t surprise me, for how often do people confuse the purpose of photography with the illustration of an idea? (Here’s another example with no great consequences: while covering the news of the hijack of an Egyptair flight, some sites were accompanying the news with photographs of an anti-hijacking exercise held in China in 2009).

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?

On the 28th of March, in Angola, a group of 17 activists that were imprisoned after getting together to discuss the reading of From Dictatorship to Democracry: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, by Gene Sharp, were sentenced to prison. No violent protests erupted after that, even though they are illegally detained as political prisoners. As I see it, that absence of violence is a sign of their lack of liberty (if ‘to use or not use violence’ is a question, here’s a good article (in english) and a great one (in portuguese).

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

get_img
© António Lacerda. ‘Petistas’ (suporters of the PT party) attack a man who supported Dilma’s impeachment. This was published.
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© Fernando Frazão. A member from the Workers’ Union is attacked by a member of the opposite side (defending Dilma’s impeachment). This was not.

February, 25th, 2016

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© Philippe Huguen. An anti-riot policeman throws a tear gas grenade during the dismantling of the refugee camp in Calais.

February, 27th, 2016

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© Eric Hood. Stab victim being treated at a Ku Klux Klan Rally and Counter-Protest in Anaheim, USA.

March, 12th, 2016

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Author not identified. Bodies of Houthi terrorist outside the city, liquidated by the Yemeni Army. Taiz residents and the Popular Resistance Forces rejoicing the triumph.

March, 13th, 2016

costa do marfim
Author not identified. Photograph of two death bodies at Grand-Bassam (Côte d’Ivoire), consequence of an attack by the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on a touristic resourt. March, 13th, 2016.

March, 16th, 2016

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© Konstantinos Tsakalidis. Refugees attempt perilous Greece-Macedonia crossing and plea with police to let them continue their march.

March, 22nd, 2016

Injured people are seen at the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels

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.

March, 24th, 2016

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© Hazem Bader. Israeli soldiers, including a combat medic now under investigation for murder, stood near the body of a Palestinian suspect that one of them shot in the head on Thursday in Hebron.

March, 25th, 2016

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Screenshot from new propaganda video. The nine-minute video titled “The Exile of Islam and Brussels Attacks” was released by the Al-Battar Media Foundation and shows Trump’s photo in flames while playing his interview clips about the attack in Brussels.

March, 26th, 2016

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© Glauco Araújo. Protesters setting a Dilma puppet on fire during the Easter-time ritual of the burning of Judas.

March, 27th, 2016

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© AFP/Getty. An injured Pakistani child victim of a suicide blast rests in a hospital in Lahore after a suicide bomber attacked a park thronging with families celebrating Easter killed at least 72 people.

March, 31st, 2016

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© Thomas Samson. French riot police clash with union members and students demonstrating against labour law reforms (El Khomri) close to the Gare de Lyon train station in the French capital Paris on March 31, 2016.

April, 1st, 2016

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Author not identified. Iraqi Army executes ISIS member after asking the users on Instagram whether they should kill him or not.

April, 2nd, 2016

police arrest protestors at the Bourse Memorial as they protest against the calls for a far right-wing demonstration cancelled by Mayor before taking place in Molenbeek Brussels Belgium April 2 2016 EPA OL
© Olivier Hoslet, Belgium policemen arrest protestors at the Bourse Memorial for victims of the terrorist attack, as they protest against the calls for a far right-wing demonstration that was cancelled by Brussels Mayor before taking place in Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium, 02 April 2016. At lease 20 people were arrested at the Bourse Memorial include President of Belgium Human right watch movement amnesty international Lawyer Alexis Deswaef.

April, 5th, 2016

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Author not identified. Armenian Soldiers Killed by Azerbaijan Forces -Nagorno-Karabakh War.

April, 6th, 2016

A Pakistani migrant threatens to hang himself from a utility pole during a demonstration inside the Moria registration centre on the Greek island of Lesbos
© Giorgos Moutafis.A Pakistani migrant threatens to hang himself from a utility pole during a demonstration inside the Moria registration centre on the Greek island of Lesbos.

April, 8th, 2016

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Author not identified. Iraqi Sunnis children killed by Iraqi army airstrikes on popular market in Fallujah.

April, 10th, 2016

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© STR. Indian bystanders carry an injured man after a fireworks explosion and fire at The Puttingal Devi Temple in Paravur.

 

Have you seen this?

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The poster for The Wolfpack documentary © The Sundance Institute.

I confess: as soon as I heard about this project I was sold. The history is so special, so out of the ordinary, that it would be impossible for whatever projects that went in contact with it not to acquire some of that originality, depth and playfulness.

The Wolfpack, i.e., the Crystal Moselle‘s documentary, follows the lives of six brothers who spent 14 years locked away from society in a Lower East Side housing project. Their paranoid father forbade them, along with their mother and sister, from leaving the apartment. Movies provided their only window to the outside world: they learned almost everything they knew from obsessively watching films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and The Dark Knight, and they spent their days reenacting scenes and violent, movie-inspired fantasies.

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Family archive (the parents: Oscar and Susanne) © Susanne Reisenbichler.
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Family archive (the brothers) © Susanne Reisenbichler.

The photographic project (Wolves Like Us),  by Dan Martensen, follows the Angulo‘s brothers as they come in contact with the outside world. Martensen started photographing them in 2010. The photographs and the movie are quite different approaches to the same reality. In Moselle‘s documentary we see the ambiance of fear in which the brothers lived for a big part of their lives and the resentment towards their father becomes almost a forth dimension. In Martensen‘s photographs we see the brother’s potential, their creativity, their joy, their will to live out their lives in the outside world, in the midst of nature and other human beings.

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© Dan Martensen’s, Wolves Like Us.
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© Dan Martensen’s, Wolves Like Us.
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© Dan Martensen’s, Wolves Like Us.
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© Dan Martensen’s, Wolves Like Us.

At one point in Moselle‘s documentary, the mother explains how they (she and her husband) feel about interacting with other people and she comments that her socialization in school was not very positive, so they decided to keep their distance. The story is much more complex and Moselle‘s documentary gives us an insight into how dangerous it is to make such a decision, i.e., to keep your kids imprisoned in a house for reasons that have to do with your own fear of the world. No doubt this story would have had a tragic end if the kids hadn’t started to rebel against their father. In the brothers’ discourse hanger is almost at the point of turning into hate.

About the moment when they started to leave the house, their mother comments that it was their way into “normalcy”. It’s complex. Their mother, Susanne Reisenbichler, it’s a central figure in all of this. Apparently, she fell in love for Oscar‘s open spirit, but latter realized it was all but free and that they had to live by his rules (the Angulos’ parents met when hippie Susanne was on the Machu Picchu trail, in Peru, where she met Oscar, a Hare Krishna follower. They gave their children ancient Indian names. How come the pair settled in New York? “They didn’t mean to stay there,” says Govinda, “but because Dad didn’t believe in working for a living, our options were limited.”) She cries, she laments their upbringing and we are left wondering what really went on behind those walls. When we hear Oscar, the father, stating that “[his] power is influencing everybody” I shiver. No doubt, a lot is left in the dark. What do these kids mean when they say that “sometimes there are things that you just…you just don’t for… you just don’t get over, you just don’t forgive”?

When Moselle‘s documentary won the Sundance Grand Prize Jury Award the brothers’ story was put on display. So much so that it was appropriated by the art market, as an example of was a mix between ‘pop art’ and ‘primitivism’. Of course this is the critical perspective, not theirs. No doubt their intentions are honest, to share their creative view of the world, to help change their lives, etc, etc, but what will this amount to? Apparently, they are all doing great.

The Wolfpack Show is an exhibition hosted by Jeffrey Deitch, showcasing the elaborate homemade movie props, costumes, and scripts created by Mukunda, Govinda, Narayana, Jagadisa, Bhagavan, and Krisna for their recreations of blockbuster films.

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The Wolfpack Show invitation.
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Installation view © Daniel Maurer.
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Installation view © Daniel Maurer.

open carefully; this image might shock you

Note: I chose to give the warning I missed to find when I came across the image that I’ll be referring to later on this post: a poor resolution image of the inside of the Bataclan after the tragedy that came to be known as the Paris attacks.

The tragedy took place on a Friday night, the 13th of November. It was a heavy weekend. I couldn’t manage to have an ordinary conversation without feeling I was offending the lives of those who had just been killed, by not addressing the issue. I had a class on Monday morning, teaching Visual Language to 1st year undergraduate students, so I decided to prepare something about the subject to discuss with them.

Going thru the usual news and photo agencies, all the photographs appeared to go around the subject, contrasting to what usually circulates when similar tragedies occur on “far away grounds”: no death bodies, only traces of the violence that had befallen the streets of Paris.

Even in a Portuguese newspaper (Público) a similar phenomenon occurred. It was the Photo Paris weekend, so a lot of photographers were visiting the capital. Público took the opportunity and commissioned Daniel Blaufuks a photographic essay on the events. The result, entitled Paris Toujours, takes the form of an unpretentious diary, filled with nostalgia and melancholy. Blaufuks chooses to address the everydayness, as if that was the mark of what is most authentic about Paris. As if the violence couldn’t penetrate the aesthetic grounds of his photographic language.

Magnum had several photographers on the streets. In different manners, they chose to construct a narrative around the traces of such violence. We see the suffering, the despair, the anguish, but not the violence. Once again, as if the violence was unphotographable. I used to agree with this approach. I used to think most photographs of violence were pornographic and unnecessary. But I changed my mind after the Paris attacks.

An article by Emmanuel Taïeb guided me on such a reflection. I teach students that in photography it is often more important what the photograph doesn’t show. What lives on in our imagination is usually more transformative. So, for instances, if one photograph shows the impact of a bullet instead on the bullet hitting the target, it is more successful, for we are left wondering about the event, what happened before and after, etc.

FRANCE. Paris. 2015.Day after terrorist attack.
© Alex Majoli. FRANCE. Paris. November 14, 2015. The day after the terror attacks. Bullet holes.
FRANCE, Paris, 14112015 The day after the 1311 terror attacks.
© Thomas Dowrzak. FRANCE, Paris, 14/11/2015 The day after the 13/11 terror attacks. Restaurants “Le Petit Cambodge” and “Le Carillon”.

Magnum photographers such as Alex Majoli and Thomas Dworzak did exactly that and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with such approach. The question is: do photographers behave the same way when photographing “at a distance”? Do we discriminate between the death of an European and the death of a non-European? Of course we do. But, once again, there’s nothing tremendously wrong with that, for human beings empathize with what’s more familiar to them. However, we are talking about news agencies, not about a bunch of friends discussion the issue at the neighborhood Cafe.

In the press, whether televised or printed, when a bomb hits the streets of Afghanistan or Iraq we’re immediately showed bodies on the ground, lots of them. Some have cloths over their faces, some don’t. Most reporters don’t care to go around violence, looking for its traces. We saw that just one day before the Paris attacks, with the suicide bombing in Beirut.

As I was preparing for Monday class, I stumbled upon a discussion set around a photograph from inside the Bataclan and the need for such an image to be showed or reserved (here’s the link for the image; not publishing it here, for I’d rather give the option to the viewer – to see or not to see). I found the image profoundly disturbing, though I mistakenly showed it in class and the reaction was close to zero. Knowing how they reacted to it now, I would have chosen to show it, with no reserves. The discussion that followed confirms the arguments I was starting to build to justify the need to share that image.

We all know it, images of violence have attained such a circulation that they are now “part of the landscape”. Not only the photographs have become ordinary, but also the reality they represent. Are we dehumanized for not reacting to such representations? As far as I see it, we are. Photography hasn’t lost the status of proof, of testimony. We are now well aware of the manipulation it often entails, but that doesn’t deny the fact that photojournalists work on documenting reality. So why don’t we care about the bodies covered in blood inside the Bataclan? Do we not care about the photograph and care about the bodies? Thinking about what my students explained to me, for I had to ask them to take me trough their reactions, they don’t really get the concept of the existence of their being a true moment behind the photograph, as if it was all fiction. Not staged or faked, but merely fictional.

So why the need to share such violent imagery? And I go back to Sontag’s idea of “inauthentic beauty”: the need may not exist, but there’s still a reason for it; one shares the image of the Bataclan to avoid beautifying the violence that hit Paris and to be fair in the treatment of events…

≡ Refugee chic? Oh, my! Here we go again… ≡

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Inspired by the echos of the migrant crisis in his home country, hungarian photographer Norbert Baska has made a fashion shoot called “Der Migrant” with models in luxurious clothes posing as refugees in fake camp set-ups with barbed wire. ‘Lovely‘, some say. ‘What’s the problem‘, others ask. But the majority of us will immediately recognize it as being essentially wrong. So why?

NYT: As Nathalie Hof observed in the online journal OAI13, the images that attracted the most attention showed the model, Monika Jablonczky, pausing to “take a selfie, leaning against the border fence, in her designer clothes, with a phone which bears the distinct logo of Chanel.” That the model’s shirt is half open drew particular ire, given the cultural and faith backgrounds of many of those fleeing wars in the Middle East.

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Baska’s response to the (apparently surprising) critic reaction of his colleagues:

I hoped people would realize that the situation is very complex and see that they are taking stands based on partial or biased information. I do not understand how people can take a clear stand (pro or con) while we are flooded with contradictory information through the media, so no one has extensive knowledge of the situation as a whole. This is exactly what we wanted to picture: you see a suffering woman, who is also beautiful and despite her situation, has some high quality pieces of outfit and a smartphone.

The shooting is not intended to glamourize this clearly bad situation, but rather… to draw the attention to the problem and make people think about it…

Why shouldn’t Baska glamourize such reality? If for some the answer is very clear, as a photography teacher I frequently testify to its complexity. For very different reasons, this generation has a very particular sense of ethics and not much respect for human values; they struggle to identify what’s wrong with “the Baska approach”. I’d rather not go back to Sontag’s idea of ‘inauthentic beauty’, which she used to describe Salgado’s work, but the truth is that the concept immediately came to my mind.

Baska’s statement that he didn’t want to glamourize, rather wanted to dignify, has no truth to it. Either he was aware that he was taking advantage of a harsh reality to move the spotlight on him, or he has just ignorant. Either way, it was a bad call. In general, there’s nothing wrong with choosing current events as themes for commercial work, but if you want to create fictions that are so closely related to reality, you’ll have to play by social reality rules and so, if you want to talk about a situation that involves the death of people fleeing the war, it’s not a good idea to make a composition that puts together in the same image this sort of symbols: Chanel, barbed wire, eastern looking model, luxurious clothes and cellphones.

It’s disrespectful in so many ways. 1) the migrant crisis has created several situations that deal with our collective unconscious, and the barbed wire being used in Hungary plays a big part on it. Women, men and children concentrated in one place, asking for help with barbed wire on the horizon will always arise the memory of World War II;

2) Chanel cellphones are products of a society that is ruled by capitalism, precisely the same society that is more concerned with the markets than with building a more just and equal way of living for us all. When you put a girl leaning on barbed wire taking a selfie with a Chanel cellphone, what it the subtitle? Syrian girl takes selfie à la mode des westerners to see if she can fit in their society???;

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3) And what about the joke with the sandwich? How can one understand such nonsense? Is it: Look at me, I’m hungry but still I’m not really going to eat it all because I want to keep my figure so that you can all love my body? Or: Look at me, I’m a refugee and I’m hungry but still I’m a sex bomb and I’ll let you take a peek under my skirt?

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After a lot of controversy, here’s Baska’s team official notice: We have experienced a lot of negative feedback since the publication of our photo series Der Migrant, although more and more people recognize the true message behind the pictures and agree with it […] Considering the heated emotions and because, despite our intentions, many unfortunately consider the pictures offending, we have decided to remove the series from our website.

≡ 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.

≡ The way collectors ‘gift’ us with ‘the lynching photographs’ (or should they ever) ≡

On January 28th 2011 I attended a lecture by Anthony d’Offay, held at the Glasgow School of Art. d’Offay is an art dealer, collector and curator who is famous not only for the huge monetary funding of Joseph Beuys’ work (the thing for which I remembered him the most), but for the huge impact in the promotion of arts, in particular conceptual art. 

After the new millennium d’Offay made it into the headlines for two big events: 1) for the decision to close down all his galleries when they were at their heights; 2) for having sold his £125m art collection to the National Galleries of Scotland and to the Tate for a knockdown £26m. Follow the link if you’re interested in understanding why this is the act of an art dealer and not of a philanthropist.

Today his signature is probably better seen at the Artist Rooms. In the official site, the project is described as a gift:

“ARTIST ROOMS is a collection of international modern and contemporary art, established through one of the largest and most imaginative gifts of art ever made to museums in Britain. It is owned on behalf of the United Kingdom by the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate who together care for the Collection and arrange for its presentation across the country.”

Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t care less about his trading skills and I recognize his collection is amazing and very much worth seeing. The problem is that I attended that lecture in 2011 and since then I can’t retain anything else about him except for what was showed and the discussion that followed. I’ll explain: Anthony d’Offay’s lecture at the GSA was not only focused on his collection but on a particular aspect of it: a collection of 20th century photographs and documents (roughly from 1900 to 1971) about the struggle of black Americans for freedom, entitled Without Sanctuary, and showed in the form of a 30m film.

As I now try to track the origins of such a collection at first I get very confused. d’Offay’s online video has no mention other than “Without Sanctuary: Black Struggle in America”, and there is a website with the same name that presents a collection (by James Allen) of photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs at lynchings throughout America. Anyway, d’Offay’s video is not quite as I remember it (I’ll refer to him as the author since there is no mention of an editor or video artist). For starters, a couple of photographs from the black community in the Cotton Fields, then photographs documenting segregation, and finally the set I remember well: the photographs of lynchings by Ku Klux Klan, echoing to the voice of Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit, echoing!!… during 3 minutes (from 06:00 to 09:00; at the time it felt like it lasted for the entire film)). As Nina Simone cries through the poem, comparing rotten fruit to dead (black) bodies, images of lynchings fade in and fade out, zoom in and out of burnt (black) bodies, hanged (black) bodies, human (white) smiles and (white) jubilation.

These are followed by representations of white power and the civil rights fight from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Power that last the following 21 minutes! At the lecture, once the film was over, the discomfort was evident and it didn’t take long for a voice to erupt from the crowd criticizing the option of making a film such as this and showing such brutal imagery in melancholic way. The discussion was fierce. I remember leaving before it ended, because I felt sick, both because of the images as well as because of some arguments used by people defending the film.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag mentions the 68 gruesome lynching photographs collected by James Allen, exhibited in New York in 2000 and published under the name “Without Sanctuary”. She also asks the right questions:

«The lynching pictures tell us about human wickedness. About inhumanity. They force us to think about the extent of the evil unleashed specifically by racism. Intrinsic to the perpetration of this evil is the shamelessness of photographing it. The pictures were taken as souvenirs and made, some of them, into postcards; more than a few show grinning spectators, good churchgoing citizens as most of them had to be, posing for a camera with the backdrop of a naked, charred, mutilated body hanging from a tree. The display of these pictures makes us spectators, too.

What is the point of exhibiting these pictures? To awaken indignation? To make us feel “bad”; that is, to appall and sadden? To help us mourn? Is looking at such pictures really necessary, given that these horrors lie in a past remote enough to be beyond punishment? Are we the better for seeing these images? Do they actually teach us anything? Don’t they rather just confirm what we already know (or want to know)?» (2003, pp.72-73)

I see a point in preserving memory of human history no matter how far long the events report to, but there is obviously no risk human kind forgets how inhuman it has always been. As Sontag also notes (somewhere): peace is the exception, not the rule. So why show us such violent images in an embellished way and under the tone of Nina Simone? I see absolutely no reason for that other than being distasteful and sensationalist. We know of the lynchings and what the black community has had to endure at the hands of the white supremacy. It’s still present tense, as Americans know well. We do not need to see it in the form of a photograph for the events to be believable. In fact, those photographs, over which the author chose to apply film effects, are tossed away into a distant dimension just because they are presented like that, as artifacts, as an object so contained in itself alienates the spectator.

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

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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.

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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.

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«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…

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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.»

≡ Salgado, Nachtwey and Sontag: to shoot AND not to shoot, is that the question? ≡

Yesterday, after watching the documentary about the work of Sebastião Salgado I found myself trying to give an answer to the question then asked: does it matter if we cry?

I think it does, the same way I think that actions need to be taken even when consequences are unknown, the same way I think chaos is bound to potentate new meanings. The question then is not if our empathy or agape can generate any good, but if photographs contribute to the sort of empathic feeling that triggers action. When thinking about Salgado’s photographs, I honestly don’t think they do any justice to the idea of the socially engaged photographer. Are his photographs humanistic? Yes, I guess they are, for there is no doubt about the author’s commitment to the work and about his empathy towards his subjects. But does the work account for the lives depicted? For the particular stories? For the social environments? Or does it instead paint such realities in an impressionistic way, blurred and beautified?

ma-31747994-WEB© Sebastião Salgado, Blind Tuareg Human, Mali, 1985.

Caption: With dead eyes worn out by sand storms and chronic infections, this woman from the region of Gondan has arrived at the end of her voyage.

Sontag’s words in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003, Picador) are still, to this day, echoing in my mind when ethics in photography is the question. In chapter V, she criticizes the way the ugly is made beautiful and how pithiness is not what documentary photography should be aiming for: “Pity can entail a moral judgment if, as Aristotle maintains, pity is considered to be the emotion that we owe only to those enduring undeserved misfortune.” (p. 59) There is a sort of perversity in making beautiful pictures out of the disgrace of others, not only because they transform reality into art and thus alienate us from the real human dramas, but also because they can make the viewer feel guilty and ashamed just for thinking the photograph is beautiful. There is guilt, pity and shame involved and guess where this trilogy leads us…

“Photographer-witnesses may think it more correct morally to make the spectacular not spectacular. But the spectacular is very much part of the religious narratives by which suffering, throughout most of Western history, has been understood.” (Sontag, 2003, p. 63)

Sontag is also very clear about the role of photography as a document:

“Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document. The photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!” (p. 61)

In an article regarding James Nachtwey’s Photographs of Tuberculosis Crisis in Siberian Prison Colonies, Pete Brook compares Nachtwey to Salgado, describing both as ‘super-photographers’ who “make the ugly beautiful”. But even if Brook acknowledges their work as being able to force itself “into the conscience of millions”, he adds: “For some his [Nachtwey] work is an inspiration for social justice; but for others his work is a sub-conscious default to guilt, despondency and powerlessness to help others less fortunate.

slide1© James Nachtwey, Rwanda, part of Inferno.

Sontag cynically names a new category for ‘super-photographers’ such as Nachtwey and Salgado: “a photographer who specializes in world misery” (p. 61) and then goes on to discuss the ‘inauthenticity of the beautiful’. But let’s go back to the genocide in Rwanda for a while. Both Nachtwey and Salgado have documented the tragedy. In a review of Nachtwey’s book Inferno, he speaks about his willing to be absent as an author, to be a messenger and although that’s just coming from a photojournalist, it’s really naïf. Nachtwey has a style and of course he knows it. Further ahead interviewer

DC: You see yourself primarily as a photojournalist, rather than as an artist. You don’t necessarily want people to think, Oh that’s a beautiful composition, when they see your work.

N: That’s right.

DC: Yet in going through the book, every now and then I’d be startled to find an image beautiful. And then I’d quickly realize I was looking at a nightmare. For example, there’s a photo you took in Rwanda. The first thing I noticed were the big heart-shaped, veined leaves. It’s a nature photo; it could be by Wynn Bullock or Edward Weston or Eliot Porter — that was my first impression. But then I saw a corpse lying face down in the grass under those beautiful big leaves.

N: I don’t think tragic situations are necessarily devoid of beauty. That’s one of the paradoxes of life, and one of the themes of art and literature. And it’s perhaps a way in which images become accessible to people. I try to record moments of beauty between people. I think that you’ll see, running throughout this book, images where people are reaching out to each other, where they’re caressing each other, or making contact in a tender way — expressing human beauty in the midst of suffering. This is what I think gives “Inferno” its underlying hope. I find it uplifting to see people transcending their own agony to reach out to others, and I see it continuously in these situations.

james-nachtwey© James Nachtwey, The massacre at Nyarabuye took place in the grounds of a Catholic Church and school. Hundreds of Tutsis, including many children, were slaughtered at close range, Rwanda, 1994.

Nachtwey’s answer is very unsatisfying for me. In fact, I don’t think he answers the question at all and instead of talking about photographing death he speaks of photographs of love and hope. For those who haven’t seen such tragedies it is important to understand the moment witnessed by the photographer, how he felt death and not how an amount of nameless bodies fits into one picture. There’s a risk of turning people into points and lines inside a frame, instead of naming them. Sontag addresses the issue in the context of Salgado«s work. She says:

the problem is in the pictures themselves, not how and where they are exhibited: in their focus on the powerless, reduced to their powerlessness. It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertendy in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights.” (p. 62)

[ to be continued … ]

≡ Sebastião Salgado by Wim Winders: does it matter if we cry? ≡

ff445202-c619-45cd-9960-34b01f2e2dec© Sebastião Salgado, part of Mondrel Media press kit.

ff445202-c619-45cd-996t0-34b01f2e2dec© Sebastião Salgado, part of Mondrel Media press kit.

The Salt of the Earth (‘Le sel de la terre’/’O sal da terra’) is a documentary by WIM WENDERS and JULIANO RIBEIRO SALGADO about the brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Sebastião’s work for the past 40 years or so has shined a light on human condition, as he traveled all over the world witnessing dramatic events, such as global warming, devastation, starvation, war, working conditions and exodus.

In the documentary, in the role of the narrator, Wenders tells how filming a photographer is not like portraying anyone else:

“I learned one thing: having a photographer in front of your camera is very different from filming anybody else. He will not just be there and act like himself, so to speak. No. By profession, he reacts and responds using his weapon of choice, his photo-camera. And then shoots back.”

In the Mongrel Media press kit both directors are interviewed and Juliano, Salgado’s oldest son, is confronted with the alleged ‘inauthentic beauty’ of his father’s work:

Interviewer: Susan Sontag spoke of the “inauthenticity of the beautiful” in Salgado’s work. How do you respond to that?

Juliano: There are two aspects to Sontag’s reproach: the supposed fascination with poverty – or death, in fact – that the photographer felt, and the fact that the subjects are not identified, unlike the photographer, who is revered at their expense. In her critique, Sontag also denounces the cynicism of the media that commission and publish these photographs. I think it’s very unfair to associate Salgado with all that. He would spend several weeks, even several months in countries that were often torn apart, which he was drawn to by his urge to bear testimony. He needs to create a relationship with the person he’s going to photograph, and says that it is the subject who ends up “giving” him the photo. The emotion, the empathy guide him. I think that comes across very well in the film.

87b70cc1-e55d-436b-a91b-c62974884b95© Sebastião Salgado, part of Mondrel Media press kit.

5f3a1cca-7745-4873-a22a-0c5617124564© Sebastião Salgado, part of Mondrel Media press kit.

Curiously enough, the documentary accentuates the status of Salgado as author, rather than as witness. I see the beauty, not the brutality, nor even the grotesque aspect of that beauty. He has such an accentuated style that it takes over the subjects. The people, the animals, the nature and the events depicted in his photographs aren’t brought to life in film, which could help understand them as part of OUR reality and not only as part of Salgado’s two-dimensional universe. I can understand that the way these pictures got to be known is not entirely his responsibility. Nevertheless, the aspect I always disliked the most is: the prints, namely their tone, contrast and hyper-silver-like quality (even if he is not behind the enlarger or the printer). In the press kit already mentioned, the interviewer also asks Wenders about the beautification of tragedy in Salgado’s work. Wenders’s answer couldn’t be any clearer:

Interviewer: Did you encourage him to comment on his photographs by taking him back to the time and place where they were taken? A Brazilian gold mine, famine in the Sahel, the genocide in Rwanda, and so on. They are, for the most part, tragic images. Did you ever find them “too beautiful”, as some have reproached him?

Wenders: In the “dark room”, we ran through Sebastião’s entire photographic oeuvre, more or less in chronological order, for a good week. It was very difficult for him – and for us too behind the camera – because some of the accounts and journeys are deeply disturbing, and a few are genuinely chilling. Sebastião felt as if he was returning to these places, and for us, these internal journeys «to the heart of darkness» were also overwhelming. Sometimes we’d stop and I had to go out for a walk to get a bit of distance on what I’d just seen and heard. As for the question of whether his photographs are too beautiful, or too aestheticized, I totally disagree with those criticisms. When you photograph poverty and suffering, you have to give a certain dignity to your subject, and avoid slipping into voyeurism. It’s not easy. It can only be achieved on condition that you develop a good rapport with the people in front of the lens, and you really get inside their lives and their situation. Very few photographers manage this.

The majority of them arrive somewhere, fire off a few photographs, and get out. Sebastião doesn’t work like that. He spends time with the people he photographs to understand their situation, he lives with them, he sympathizes with them, and he shares their lives as far as possible. And he feels empathy for them. He does this job for the people, in order to give them a voice. Pictures snapped on the hoof and photographed in a “documentary” style cannot convey the same things. The more you find the right way to convey a situation in a convincing way, the closer you come to a language which corresponds to what you’re illustrating and to the subject in front of you, the more you make a real effort to obtain a “good photo”, and the more you give nobility to your subject and make it stand out. I think that Sebastião offered real dignity to all those people who found themselves in front of his lens. His photographs aren’t about him, but about all those people!

sebastiao salgado-caceria© Sebastião Salgado, Tutsis, Ruanda, 1994/5.

Roughly one hour through the documentary and regarding the Exodus project (1993-1999), we see how Salgado has a special relation to Africa. In 1994 he goes to Ruanda to document the genocide – the massive killing of Tutsis. The image above grabbed my attention. While it stays on screen, Salgado speaks about the enormous amount of death people found along the roads and he claims (my translation): “There and then I understood the magnitude of the catastrophe I was living in. A genocide was underway in that country.

If I cry hearing Saldago’s description of the tragedies he witnessed in Ruanda is not because of his photographs but because he is living proof of such events and our humanity. That is what I admire about Salgado: having a nomadic, adventurous and activist spirit. His photographs can’t account for the conflicts in Ruanda, Mali or Congo. They’re too dynamic, too alive, they don’t fit into photographs without corrupting the nature of the events depicted. I’ll give him that. I may cry, as I often do when I hear about other world events, but how far can this empathic feeling go?

≡ Let’s see what the birds see ≡

mass_bird_graves© Zhao Renhui, #243, after 321 days, from the project A heartwarming feeling – From Japan to the Arctic Circle, Elephant Island, 2008-10.

A bird that was carrying a small pin-hole camera (1.21cm x 0.7cm) made by Tomimaru Okuni tied to its feet while the bird was in Japan. The bird and the camera were later retrieved from the Arctic Circle after 321 days. Journey from Japan to the Arctic Circle.

* * *

Zhao’s work is so extensive and amazing that editing a post about him has proven to be a difficult task. Not giving up, I chose to feature a single project, even if EVERYTHING proved to be worth the time. Here is a link to his virtual home @ The Institute of Critical Zoologists with special emphasis on the following projects:

An expedition to Pulau Pejantan;

The whiteness of a whale, by Zhao Renhui & Satoshi Kataoka;

A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the world.

and…

a good profile artist @ Art Asia Pacific

a good conversation @ The Artist and His Model

* * *

Zhao Renhui’s statement, October 2010, Yamanshina:

Climate change has significant impact on birds. It can alter distribution, abundance and behavior. It can also affect events like bird migration.

Migration times are shifting and birds which are slow to change fail to migrate altogether.
We still know very little of how birds navigate and migrate over long distances. A recent phenomenon in the Arctic Circle is the emergence of mass bird graves. It seems as if different species of migrating birds due for the south has been flying the opposite direction, in an apparent act of suicide. Very little research has been done on this phenomenon.
Scientists argue that global warming might be a cause of this but has yet to show evidence of how this might be linked. One popular theory says that the melting of the ice caps might have affected the earth’s magnetic field, something which the birds might have been using for navigation. Many critics dispute this claim and scientists are still looking for an explanation for this phenomenon.

On January 2008, I collaborated with the Yamshina Institute for Ornithology (a regional expert in bird banding) in an attempt to document this phenomenon during an artist residency. A group of a few thousand migratory birds were banded by the Institute over the course of two months. Besides banding the birds with a metal band on their legs, I included a small pin-hole camera near each band. Inside each camera was a very small sheet of positive photographic paper of extremely low sensitivity. The pin-hole exposed the image directly onto the paper, and allows for a positive image to be formed as long as there was light going through the pin-hole. The thousands of little pin-hole cameras were made with the help of a group of local school children.

On June 2010, 50 of the birds were dead found in the Arctic Circle. 30 of the birds still had their cameras intact and 12 of the cameras actually created an image of the bird’s rather confused migratory journey to the Arctic.
What I found intriguing when I enlarged the images was that much of the bird’s journey might have been captured (recorded while it was flying, never long enough to register a still) in all the blurry colourful hues we see in the images. Parts of the mountainous Arctic landscape, however, registered quite clearly. The only way that these landscapes could have formed on the paper was when the bird came to a final rest and laid on the ice, because that would give the pin-hole camera enough time to form a clear and still image – which is probably the last view of the bird before it died.”

02© Zhao Renhui, #243, after 321 days, from the project A heartwarming feeling – From Japan to the Arctic Circle, Elephant Island, 2008-10. 

03© Zhao Renhui, #471, after 710 days, from the project A heartwarming feeling – From Japan to the Arctic Circle, Elephant Island, 2008-10.

07© Zhao Renhui, #645, after 641 days, from the project A heartwarming feeling – From Japan to the Arctic Circle, Elephant Island, 2008-10.

06© Zhao Renhui, #1321, after 231 days, from the project A heartwarming feeling – From Japan to the Arctic Circle, Elephant Island, 2008-10.

05© Zhao Renhui, #1420, after 678 days, from the project A heartwarming feeling – From Japan to the Arctic Circle, Elephant Island, 2008-10.

≡ ‘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.

≡ Thick as air ≡

lauchingping_01© Lau Ching Ping, Secret Police at Queen’s pier, from Last Glimpse of Hong Kong series, 2012.

130457538135930000_Lau-Ching-Ping-3© Lau Ching Ping, Schoolmate on Park Island, from Last Glimpse of Hong Kong series, 2012.

“To 2013, If you are reading this exhibition epilogue, that means you had survived 2012 safe and sound.

People of Hong Kong that live in this era would still be writing something about world ends thing, no matter what is the reason behind, is a laughable matter. After all, we are being intimidated by this world ends thing from the day when we were born. Not so long ago, in the eighties, our relatives, friends flee for foreign land, fight for British nationality selection scheme. Those who did not plan to leave or did not have the ability to leave, left themselves a hole in their hearts. The return of sovereign right to China in 1997, Mr. Tung’s, mother tongue tutoring, Asian financial crisis. 911 New York, principal officials accountability system, SARS pandemic, 1st July rally, Lehman brothers, financial tsunami, HSBC share subscribe, bird flu contagion. We are so used to this ‘centennial level’ of incidents, so called crisis, for what history taught us is to let those fatal disease, bankruptcy and catastrophe be awaited, for tomorrow is another day !

Hong Kong people are already immune to this world ends syndrome, we have it inherited in our genes, despite that, we still get numb, get annoyed. We pardon those who do not have this kind of experience as we did, it’s just not the kind of experience that an average earthling should have. ‘2012’ is a bland subject for us, way beyond compared with Valentine’s Day or Christmas commercially. Stella and me are typical Hong Kong people. We committed ourselves monthly to discuss tedious matters of our exhibition, there’s no other kind of impractical behavior to make us feel more like : we have been there before.

When I employed myself in this series of photography, while imagining in every corner, every constant, the drained people of Hong Kong leave marks in their city, traces of their civilization. Of course, who will stay until the end ? Who’s the audience ? If you are alive, that would be you !

When I took the photographs of the new government buildings, I imagine the chief executive looking at the Victoria Harbour coastline, photographing the last glimpse of his vision of Hong Kong. Is he looking at the West Kowloon across the harbour? Or the new government buildings that are haunted by the soul of the veterans? Imagine the bus drivers when they drive pass Tai Po road, encounter the high voltage electric wire that symbolises civilization, or the professionals in the water treatment plant, the football fans in grass sports ground, the housewives in public housing or luxurious mansions, the lonely salesman at Star ferry pier, the tour guide outside Ocean Park, the wedding photographer underneath the Tsing Ma bridge, the school kids on the beach waiting the sun rays to flow. I set my tripod up, open the lens, seeing the inverted image through the ground glass, the glass surface review another reflection from behind. With naked eyes, I use the magnify glass head on with ground glass for viewing and focus; in relation to drawing, when you set up the easel, pen holding far reach for an arm length, narrow your eyes to view the perspective of world, the proportion, the structure and form in front of us. This narrowing of our eyes when we draw, the white and blur scenery coincide with the action when the world ends, the great explosion force our eyes to narrow down again so as not to pierce by its radiant light.

Layers and layers of images could easily arouse sensuality, on the other hand, metaphysical sense overlaps with reality. The creative dialogues repetitively bring abstract thinking back to our living self, or the spaceship for universe exploration never ever had a successful launch, she took off and then to be found fallen on the ground again. The reason behind the story never falls from the polluted city, education and culture. To the people of Hong Kong, we are forced into indifference, take it for granted already.

lauchingping_04© Lau Ching Ping, Wedding photographer underneath the Tsing Ma bridge, from Last Glimpse of Hong Kong series, 2012.

130457537747648750_Lau-Ching-Ping-2© Lau Ching Ping, Primary student in Ocean Park, from Last Glimpse of Hong Kong series, 2012.

The time has come. Adieu, traditional Chinese characters and Cantonese, Hong Kong movies, television shows, the last two Cantonese lyricists, beds in hospitals, infant milk powder, food safety, Dongjiang water supply, the last China White dolphin. The replacement would be the political poll survey, politician and their propaganda, Home Affair Bureau thinks that recreation is top cultural priority. Academic freedom and university campus security were brought to an unprecedented level, the core value of publishing only rests on consumerism and marketing.

Live and be prosperous. The process is more important than the result. As people of Hong Kong, what we have is an undated goodbye, doomsday without timeline. Make every day the last day of your life, tomorrow is another no better day. I do not know, whenever there is a doomsday, how many people could survive. At this very moment, I sincerely thank the brave Stella for sharing with me this creative experience that has no past.

The dust from the scans of film negative shown on the monitor is the larger and brighter than the star Sirius hanging outside my window. Imagine to travel sixteen light years back from Sirius to earth, the conscience priority of the dust that rest on the monitor would be so minute as if it ceases to exist. When the thyself of 2013 look back to this very moment of your present self, you might as well forget it completely already.”

Ping’s text. Full work can be seen here.

lauchingping_03© Lau Ching Ping, Water treatment technician at Shatin, from Last Glimpse of Hong Kong series, 2012.

lauchingping_10© Lau Ching Ping, Gardener in Zoological and Botanical Gardens, from Last Glimpse of Hong Kong series, 2012.

≡ 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.

≡ ‘Has the Düsseldorf School killed photography?’, he asks ≡

I

83d91fab-d6f2-4e10-adf3-0761bc9ea80c

Professional Photographer editor Grant Scott popped the question and it stayed with me, not only because it is a very catchy headline for an article, as the author notes, but because his reflection resonated with me.

As I understand it, Scott’s main issue with the Düsseldorf School relates to its heritage not its conquests. The Bechers’ pupils, namely Thomas Stuth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Laurenz Berges and Andreas Gursky (to name only a few) all gave (and still give!) original and groundbreaking contributions to expand the range of languages one could apply to photography. Struth’s family portraits were innovative in the way he managed to portrait, with a non-theatrical approach, the dynamics between the group, while having them stare at the camera; Ruff’s portraits set the tone for contemporary portraiture and highlighted how the surface of things and the particularities of a person’s face, can grab one’s attention and “hurt” us in many ways; Höfer’s majestic interiors changed the field of architectural photography and highlight her singular approach to natural light as a way to comment on the atmosphere and emotional landscape of each location; Gursky’s large scale depictions of human consumerism and megalomaniac mentality are impressive not only for their appearance but also because of the process and commitment they entail; Sasse’s relationship to color is one-of-a-kind and his photographs of public and private spaces should be taught in every photography classroom.

It’s true that while some of them kept their original perspective and reflection upon the medium, some just kept applying the formula, but what Scott means by the alleged murder is that they “offered” an easy way out to any photography-student-wannabe-conceptual-artist who chooses to lean on the formula of the ‘project-as-serial-work’. This way the task gets simplified: one chooses the subject and the location and then repeats the framing with a distant and seemingly objective eye.

Although I agree with this immediate analysis, for I recognize that this is a problem both in the amateur as in the professional milieu, with major influence on the way photography students approach their subjects, what resonates less with me is Scott’s cynical tone:

I wander off and create an image that I shall call Shopping trolley in supermarket car park on a grey day, or Einkaufswagen im Supermarkt Parkplatz an einem Grauen Tag. It’s not quite as snappy as New Objectivity but it is observationally descriptive and has the all-important element of transformation to verify it. It may just be the Asda car park, but when translated into German it becomes one of a series of images which combine to become a personal exploration of environmental documentation. There we have it: a picture easy and cheap to take, some words to support why I took it and a German title. I am now a disciple of Becher and if my work is criticised I will quote the Bechers’ teaching and their followers’ success.I am now a New Objectivity photographer. I am in a comfort zone.

Scott says he’s fed up with all the supposed neutrality and emotionless conceptual approach, from portraits to deserted landscapes, as I am too, but overall what one misses is originality, and that has always been a problem in every art discipline. So the issue might be that the stage for the so-called ‘artistic photography’ these days is huge, and it’s expected that we have to go through a pile of unoriginal and uncreative work before we find something worth looking at.

Full article HERE.

II

portraits_88_22portraits_88_15portraits_88_16all images © Thomas Ruff, from the series Portraits, circa 1988.

III

The Lingwood & Hamlyn family, London, UK, 2001© Thomas Struth, The Lingwood & Hamlyn family, London, UK, from the series Family Portraits, 2001.

TS-3© Thomas Struth, The Falletti Family, Florence, from the series Family Portraits, 2005.

The Felsenfeld, Gold Families, Philadelphia, 2007© Thomas Struth, The Felsenfeld, Gold Families, Philadelphia, from the series Family Portraits, 2007.

IV

Wiblingen-Abbey, Germany© Candida Höfer, Wiblingen-Abbey, Germany.

Casa Musica Porto V, 2006© Candida Höfer, Casa da Música, Porto, 2006.

IB_S_BASIC_COPYRIGHT =© Candida Höfer, Cuvillés Theater, München, 2009.

V

Paris, Montparnasse 1993© Andreas Gursky, Paris, Montparnasse, 1993.

Chicago, Board of Trade II 1999 by Andreas Gursky born 1955© Andreas Gursky, Chicago, Board of Trade II, 1999.

Kamiokande, 2007© Andreas Gursky, Kamiokande, 2007.

VI

P-91-02-02, Düsseldorf 1991© Jörg Sasse, P-91-02-02, Düsseldorf, from the series Public Spaces, 1991.

W-93-07-01, Marburg 1993© Jörg Sasse, W-93-07-01, Marburg, from the series Private Spaces, 1993.

W-92-06-01, Pelm 1992© Jörg Sasse, W-92-06-01, Pelm, from the series Private Spaces, 1992.

VII

HUETTE 033-A© Axel Hütte, Mandalay 1, Las Vegas, USA, 2003.

Portrait #26, Germany from the series Water Reflections, 2007© Axel Hütte, Portrait #26, Germany from the series Water Reflections, 2007.

Passo Sella, Italy from the series New Mountains, 2012© Axel Hütte, Passo Sella, Italy from the series New Mountains, 2012.

VIII

Erevan - Artashat© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Erevan – Artashat, from the series Bus Stops, Armenia., 1997-2011.

Erevan, Yegnward© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Erevan, Yegnward, from the series Bus Stops, Armenia., 1997-2011.

Gymri, Spitak, 2002© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Gymri, Spitak, from the series Bus Stops, Armenia., 1997-2011.

IX

Altenburg, 1992© Laurenz Berges, Altenburg, 1992.

Wünsdorf II, 1994© Laurenz Berges, Wünsdorf II, 1994.

Hannover, 2005 (# 2282)© Laurenz Berges, Hannover, 2005.

≡ This Sunday, while cleaning up my bookmarks ≡

I

Vasantha_Yogananthan_01PiŽmansonVasantha_Yogananthan_16all images © Vasantha Yogananthan, from the series Piémanson.

For Piémanson, photographer Vasantha Yogananthan documents the last free beach in France, capturing the vibrant community that emerges on its shores each summer. Every May, the idyllic beach, located the Camargue Regional Nature Reserve, opens its ten kilometer expanse to campers, who build temporary lodgings out of tents, recreational vehicles, wood, and plastic sheeting.
[…]
From 2009-2013, Yogananthan became a regular at the Piémanson, living, eating, and sleeping with its diverse group of residents for two weeks at a time. Inspired by the uncertain future of the beach, which will likely be shut down by the French government in the coming years, Piémanson preserves the memories of the three generations of Europeans who have traveled to its shores since the start of the camping tradition in the 1970s.”excerpt from FEATURESHOOT article Magical Photos of Families Camping on Piémanson Beach in the South of France by Ellyn Kail.

II

Santiago Sierra, 133 Persons Paid to Have their Hair Dyed Blond, 2001.

III

New-York-Times-Moment-in-TimeA Moment in Time: Earth covered by stacks of virtual photographs corresponding in location to where they were taken by Lens readers [New York Times] at one “Moment in Time”, 2010.

IV

Jean-François-Lecourt-Shot-into-the-camera-1987-©-Jean-François-Lecourt-Image-courtesy-of-The-Photographers-GalleryLecourt-Image2all images © Jean François Lecourt, from Le tir dans l’appareil photographique, 1980-2010.

The artist wields his camera as a gun and a gun as a camera, all targeted at his own nude body in an act of simultaneous destruction and creation.

Lecourt was inspired by old fairground games that still occasionally pop up around mainland Europe. In the game the participant is given a rifle and must shoot at a target mounted in the fairground stand, if they hit the bullseye, a camera automatically shoots a picture of them shooting the target.

Lecourt created a large, lightproof box to house a sheet of photosensitive paper, a kind of pinhole camera without the pinhole. He then stripped naked and fired a shot at his home made camera, simultaneously piercing the camera and the paper behind.” excerpt from the article I Quite Like Art Photography by Thomas O’Shea.

V

self-taught-perfectly-timed-street-photography-china-tao-liu-3self-taught-perfectly-timed-street-photography-china-tao-liu-32self-taught-perfectly-timed-street-photography-china-tao-liu-33all images by Tao Liu.

Just a few months ago, Tao Liu was another face in the crowd, a man reading water meters for a living with his camera usually somewhere nearby. Today, Liu is known for so much more after some of his pictures went viral and caused quite a surprise in China.

VI

a selection of work from the Finalists of Grand Prix Fotofestiwal 2015.

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all images by Ksenia Yurkova, from the series Love Demands Reality.

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all images by Delphine Schacher, from the series La mécanique céleste.

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all images by Cyril Costilhes, from the series Grand Circle Diego. Complete series HERE.

“Buried beneath its wild undergrowth and savage natural beauty, the Madagascan town of Diego Suarez hides many secrets. In 2003, whilst riding his motorbike home from Le Grand Circle Diego casino one evening, Cyril Costilhes’ father was involved in an accident that left him crippled with front lobe dementia. As a result, just over 10 years later, Costilhes has returned to shoot the mysteries of the land that snared his father’s sanity. The French photographer recorded his findings in his new book the Grand Circle Diego – and the results are dark, twisted and startling. Opening with an ominous quote from Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, it reveals a nightmarish new side to an otherwise idyllic town. Obscured and captionless images of discarded bones and facial deformities flicker to torn flesh and blood pools as Costilhes battles with his demons and revisits his father’s old home. We spoke to him about his inspirations, his discoveries and the difficulties he faced in the process.”excerpt from DAZED article Shooting a cursed town, by Dominique Sisley.

⁞ Cliff Andrade’s ‘profound internalisation of longing’ ⁞

cliff1all images © Cliff Andrade, from the project Saudade.

Although I enjoy landscape photography very much, I often get bored by the way some photographers build their documentary projects around it, as if the mountain and its goats spoke the same language. They don’t. On this note, Cliff Andrade’s project Saudade (about Madeira) was a good surprise, not because I think the work is outstanding, but because it is filled with discrepancies that got me thinking: there are images, like the one above and others below, which really add something to the core of the project, and then there is a series of portraits which completely miss the mark, that are distant and cold and aesthetically disjointed from the rest of the project.

I usually find statements about projects redundant and unnecessary but in Cliff’s case (and it’s not a short text), his words are enlightening and sincere, so I’ll be posting the entire text here.

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“My childhood memories of the homeland of my parents are of a land very much other worldly. In those years, the early years following Portugal’s accession to the E.U. (then the E.C.), Madeira was, in most respects, still the same island my parents had known as children and young adults. An ochre earthed, tree covered volcanic mountain poking out of the ocean. Fresh air full of the scent of pine trees. Early mornings greeted by the cockerel’s sonorous cock-a-doodle. This was a world apart from the inner cities of Europe’s largest metropolises where most of our parents had ended up, and as a young child I revelled in it. I revelled in the nature. I revelled in the eternal sunshine. I revelled in the difference between that world, untainted by the obligation of school, and the drab grey world in which we existed for the years between summer visits.

Even if at times this difference meant frustration. Frustration at the availability of only one television channel. Frustration at the fear you felt sitting in the makeshift wooden outhouse as the family pigs ran around beneath you. Frustration at the lack of recognisable brands in the locally run shops. Supermarkets and chain stores did not exist here. For this was a land yet to be reached by mass-market consumer capitalism. I revelled in this difference and I revelled in feeling part of an extended family, re-united, a feeling all too rare for us filhos de emigrados, ‘sons of emigrants’, dispersed around the globe. And I revelled in my parents’ visible joy at being reconnected to their homeland.

The experiences of a child are buffered from the harsher realities of the world, and as such the reality of life in Madeira at this time should not be romanticised. It was a poor place, the majority of the population agricultural peasants. Basic infrastructure was lacking. Alcoholism a major problem. A day to day existence as mundane as any small rural community anywhere. But it was also a place full of laughter. Full of community. All this I was to come to realise years later through my mother’s stories. For all its faults, it was a place for which my parents would always feel that most Portuguese of emotions – a place for which they would always have saudade.

Saudade. How does one explain a concept that goes to the very core of the Portuguese national character? No direct translation exists into the English language. Tenho saudades tuas (lit. I have saudades for you) is often translated as ‘I miss you’, but this is misleading. It fails to communicate the profound depth of longing present with saudade. To miss is to feel the absence of something. To have saudade is to bear the additional sorrow of knowing that that absent something may never return. Others have described it as a deep emotional state of melancholic longing; but longing stares outward, to the horizon. Saudade is a profound internalisation of longing, drawing it deep into the soul. And there is a profound paradox at the heart of saudade – the melancholy is accompanied by joy; joy at the memory of having experienced that for which you now pine.

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Despite those handful of visits as a child, as my adult years progressed I became increasingly aware that Madeira was a place I hardly knew. And it knew even less of me. Why did I, then, a ‘second generationer’ from a foreign land across the vast ocean, also feel saudade for that land? Was it saudade I felt, or merely a nostalgia for fond childhood memories?

There is a saudade felt by the offspring of all those who left their home for a new land. A saudade that comes not from an absence for a place once known, but from a need to fill a gap within that has always existed. For to not know the home of our parents is to not know a place to which we are inextricably linked. That land formed them, in turn leaving its imprint upon us. To never know it is to never know a part of ourselves. Its water flows in our blood.

What is this human compulsion to know the past? Logic tells us there is no point in looking back. Time moves only forward. The future lies that way. But saudade knows nothing of logic. It yearns only for what is missing, fuelled by the human desire to know where we come from in the hope we can better understand who we are and where we are going. Perhaps by knowing the land of our parents, we hope in turn to know them better. Maybe out there amongst the pines and laurisilva, between levada and ribeira, serra and calhau, I will find some of the reasons for their joy, their sorrow, their insecurities and their strength.

In my personal case the need to know has become all the more pertinent in recent years. While they survive, our parents exist as the link to such a key part of our identity. What happens when that link is severed, as is its inescapable fate? Then we return to the land of our fathers increasingly as an outsider. As time passes our disconnection deepens. We are viewed with the benevolent and pitying looks reserved for tourists. For, in truth, we know nothing of that place and its people. Our families are ever more comprised of strangers. Things that were once held dear immediately begin to be forgotten, the guardians of that knowledge no longer present to preserve its memory. And what will be the effect on the grandchildren who never knew their avôs, their grandparents? How will they react when they receive that quizzical look that accompanies the question ‘Whereabouts are your parents from?’. For them, will the answer ‘my grandparents on my dad’s side were Portuguese but I never knew them’ suffice?

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During two visits spread over the end of 2013 and early 2014, I returned to the land of my parents for the first time in my adult life in an attempt to heal the disconnection I felt with it. In the build up to my trip, my thoughts often turned to the first Portuguese to arrive on the island. What must they have thought at the first sight of that vast tree covered rock, rising two thousand metres straight up out of the Atlantic Ocean, as if to sneak a peek over the horizon at its neighbour Africa? They arrived there in 1419. So awed were they by the dense forest that covered every centimetre of its surface that they called it simply Madeira, ‘wood’. What I discovered on my own personal voyage of (re)discovery was a place drastically altered from the one I had known through the stories of my parents.

Shortly after my childhood visits ceased, a massive influx of money began to arrive in Madeira from the E.U. as part of a European periphery development programme. The aim was to close the gap in development between Portugal and the leading Western European nations which had opened up over years of underdevelopment during Portugal’s authoritarian Salazar regime. It seems the autonomous Madeiran government decided this was best achieved through mass construction projects, specifically targeting road infrastructure. The network of old roads, painfully following the mountainside, snaking in and out of the island’s sheer sided valleys, were left frozen in time as they were replaced at lightning speed by a vast high speed dual carriageway network, blazing a straight path through the landscape, over bridges and through tunnels. Modern engineering showing all its might. Development in fast forward.

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In an attempt to know the island as my parents would have known it, I decided to travel along these old main roads. Due to the island’s topography, both old and new roads follow a similar route, and I often found the old road taking me under or up and over its modern successor.

What I discovered as I journeyed through the landscape was a land very much at odds with itself about the development of the last 20 years. Family homes sit abandoned under huge stilted flyovers, waiting silently in the vain hope of their owners return. But their occupants have long since gone, forced to move to make way for progress. Those who refused to move find themselves living on a traffic island, a domestic oasis in a concrete and tarmac desert.

The new roads were accompanied by other large scale construction projects. Shopping centres in every town centre. Marinas. Small towns graced with olympic sized swimming pools. Whilst times were good few worried about the wider implications of what was being done, but Madeira was hit particularly hard by 2008’s economic collapse, known there simply as a crise, ‘the crisis’. Now critical voices are ubiquitous.

No ones disagrees that the island was in dire need of development. What they ask is whether this development was pursued in the best way? And who really stood to gain from it – where did all the money go (and into whose pockets)? Was the desire for huge construction projects so all consuming that there was no time to stop and ask whether this was actually the best way to achieve progress? And was all this construction absolutely necessary? As one young man I spoke to along the way told me: ‘What we needed was balanced investment to create a sustainable economy based on our traditions and heritage. What we got was concrete’.

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Shopping centres sit empty. Seafront developments sit disused, sentinels for the yawning blue mouths of empty swimming pools. Sections of old roads rot as no money survives for their upkeep. The irony. The coastline, restructured to accommodate this break neck development, gives way under the force of altered erosion patterns. A new leisure port built in the shadow of the new road sits destroyed. A reminder of the consequences of failing to respect the power of water.

Turn towards the interior. Leave the populated coast and wander up into the lush and misty hills. Here the pace of development has been slower, but is visible nonetheless. Ancient rock, loosened by explosives carelessly used to blow holes in the basalt for road tunnels, cascades down the mountainside. Earth loosened by the mass removal of trees comes cascading with it, blocking roads. Disconnecting.

Up here, Madeira’s winters are wet. In February 2010 Madeira experienced its worst flood damage in living memory. Without the tree coverage to keep the soil together, torrents rushed down the mountainside and down the ribeiras, the steep sided river valleys, taking earth, rock, home and life with it. Four years later, reconstruction is still ongoing. A lonely broken pylon stands isolated in the middle of what were once houses, like a ghost from the past. A reminder of the consequences of failing to respect the power of water.

In the present day recession, when jobs and money are scarce, the myopia of the recent past looks even worse. Back in 2008 when the E.U. money stopped flowing almost overnight, the failure to create a sustainable economy, to enable the island to stand on its own two feet, was immediately cruelly exposed. All wonder whether history is set to repeat itself. Will another generation of young Madeirans be forced to disconnect from their homeland as they have no choice but to look abroad for brighter prospects?

As the European Union project seeks to expand itself ever eastwards, forging into other lands in need of development and unaccustomed to commercial capitalism, there may be a valuable lesson to be taken from Madeira’s experience. Change needs to be managed with careful consideration. Simply providing money is simply not enough.

There is hope. Madeira is endowed with an extremely beautiful and varied landscape and a vibrant and unique culture, full of potential. By western European standards, the level of crime is low. The sense of community high. One huge positive result of the development of the last twenty years is that the young are better educated and more internationally mobile than ever before. Hopefully, they will learn from the mistakes of the previous generations and build a sustainable future, reconnecting the island to itself and its heritage in the process.

Small moves in this direction can already be seen. The economic problems have forced many to return to the land through hardship – but in the process they have had the chance to re-evaluate the path they were taking towards progress. The poios, sloped terraced farm plots, abandoned in the rush to modernise, live again with fresh produce and activity. Small businesses have sprung up as those made redundant in the city return to their villages to pursue alternative ways of making a go of things. There are sparks of regeneration. Like a forest after a fire, charred trunks are soon surrounded by a carpet of new life.

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In the densely wooded mountain ranges, the serra, there hides another secret network of connections. Long before even the old roads were constructed, an intricate network of levadas, ‘water takers’, and veredas, ‘paths’, linked the island’s numerous agricultural settlements. Even in my parents’ time, these were the main form of communication. The sealed road to their village did not arrive until after they had already departed. It would have made little difference. No one owned a car.

First constructed in the 16th century to bring water from the wet north to the drier but more farmable south, levadas are small water canals about a foot across and a foot deep, accompanied on one side by an earth path. Often carved straight out of the mountainside, they were the engineering marvels of their day, bringing life, livelihood and connection.

In the same way that the new roads usurped the old roads in the 21st century, the old roads had usurped the levadas and veredas in the 20th. The more practical veredas survive, used mainly as access to homes and farms. The more picturesque have been appropriated as routes for tourists and extreme sports enthusiasts. Some levadas still fulfil their irrigation purposes. But many of these old routes are slowly fading into history, gradually being reclaimed by the laurisilva.

During my return to Madeira, I traversed the width of the the island along these ancient paths and waterways; a route that took me from coast to coast, south to north, over the island’s mountainous central spine in the process. Through this literal act of following in my ancestors centuries-old footsteps, I hoped that a physical discovery of the land would in turn lead me to an emotional reconnection with it, and a better understanding of the lives that had trodden those paths before me.

I had one more personal motivation in my pursuit of reconnection with my parents’ homeland. When I was still too young to know my father with anything other than a child’s mind, he ‘went with God’, as the Portuguese say. My links to his Madeira, always fragile, were all but severed. When my children ask about their avô, what will I say? Of their avó I can tell them much. I can tell them of a rural childhood. Of bare feet on red earth steps. Of leaving school aged eleven to work weaving wicker baskets. Of emigration, naturalisation and anglicisation. Of hard work, starched aprons and shy smiles.

But of him, only blurred memories. A big laugh. Plates piled with over-salted chouriço macaroni. Asleep on the sofa. I knew none of the members of his side of the family. As I crossed Madeira’s terrain in order to know it better, I decided to at the same time tackle the unknown terrain of my father’s family. Seeking them out before it was too late. And in doing so I hoped to know him better. After all, we leave vestiges, traces of ourselves, in everyone we know and have met. I hoped in them I would find traces of the man.”

Cliff, May, 2014