Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Chinese Torture

Thanks to the invite or Urs Stahel, I'm looking forward to talking at Platform at Paris Photo this year. I have 10 minutes to talk about something, anything and the ideas are brewing in my head.

It will be a rich and heady mix. But I don't know if whatever it is I will talk about will have the effect I intend it to have. Sometimes things just come out and get a life of their own.

That happens with writing and it happens with photography. I think that's possibly happened a bit with this website (h/t Alex at IC Visual Labs and Visualising China).

The website is called Turandot: Chinese Torture/Supplices Chinois and ostensibly the introduction sums up its purpose.

« Chinese torture » is a cliché. That is the visual representation of a prejudice according to which the Chinese singularize by a particular cruelty. Backed by testimonies and photographs, this representation proliferated in literature, art, theater, cinema, etc. The myth for long survived to the facts it was inspired by, and it goes on distorting our perception of Chinese reality.
To seize this polymorphic representation under all aspects, we constituted an international and interdisciplinary team, including specialists in Chinese history, comparative literature, Western and Chinese iconography, photography, etc. This multilingual data basis is a tool for crossing or approaches, and bridge the gap between our fields. This is a way to diffuse our research works, and provide access to our resources for our colleagues. Materials come with a critical apparatus easing their use for research; hyperlinks allow confrontations between resources of diverse kinds, to find out thei references, to link them according to this or that interpretative hypothesis.

So the site details tortures/cruelties and punishments (with incredible photographs reproduced with awful digital quality) as they existed in the 19th and early 20th century, with the cangue and lingchi particularly notable. Lingchi was a kind of death by dismemberment, similar to hanging, drawing and quartering we had in Europe in various forms.

I'm not sure why the quality of the images is so bad - perhaps it's because even though it has the above brief highlighted above, the people behind the website are also aware exactly how these images will be seen and used.

And of course we could look at these pictures then, and still look at them now and wonder at how cruel and uncivilised and alien the Chinese, Iraqi, Congolese, Israelis, Uzbekis or IS are - which justifies our colonisation and dropping of bombs and dehumanisation.

But it can work both ways and it does work both ways. So just as I can read the news and wonder at the cruelties inflicted on others by a variety of global evil-doers, I can also wonder what the websites are that detail the horrors that our bullets and bombs inflict on others.

These portrayals always tend to be in national or sectarian terms; this is what the Chinese do/did, this is what the Americans do/did, this is what the 'Extremists' (that's what the BBC calls Islamic Doo-Dah) do.

I'm not sure why these cruelties are always classified in these terms. Why not cut to the chase. This is what powerful males with weapons do? That might address the problem. Remove their power and stop giving them weapons. Then we might stop making excuses for the psychopathology of our leaders. And maybe we would have a better world. But that would be too simple wouldn't it.

Read more about Visualising China and the use of torture and punishments in images here. 

And read about the strength and determination of the Chinese here.

Monday, 29 September 2014

No Religious People

I had Battersea Dogs Home come knocking on my door last week. "Do you  like dogs," the two guys in yellow hi-visibility vests asked.

Excuse but fuck off! Battersea is in London and I'm sure it has stacks of cash. I live 100 miles away from Battersea in Bath. Bath has a Cats and Dogs Home. It also has stacks of cash.

But I'm polite so I didn't say fuck off! I kind of scowled and that worked instead. But wouldn't it be nice not to have my day ruined by these kind of people.

But what would work? Darned if I knew. Then we went for a walk with my sister visiting from Ann Arbor yesterday. We went up Solsbury Hill, to Bathampton Weir and a pint at the pub and then back home via the Tin Church on Bailbrook Lane.

And that's where we saw the sign. Perfect.

Friday, 26 September 2014

David Goldblatt and an Early Upskirt

David Goldblatt. 'Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg' 1975

I went to see David Goldblatt in conversation with Martin Parr at IC Visual Labs in Bristol last night.

( See more IC Visual Lab events here, and check out  the Propaganda Event at Photobook Bristol here).

It was a fantastic talk, a mix of incredible images, the stories behind them, with some up-skirty shots of women's legs thrown in for good measure. Goldblatt talked about text, image (how do they work together? We're still figuring that one out), his work in the UK for Multistory and paying for images. He didn't pay 20c for the picture above. "Can I photograph your hands?" he asked.  He did photograph her, er, hands, but he didn't pay the the 20c. He didn't take up the woman's offer of a weekend away in Swaziland either. But now he will pay 80 Rand for a portrait; times change and in modern South Africa, payment legitimises photography and provides access.

I really enjoyed that. It made me rethink Goldblatt's work and take it beyond the iconic into something more human, three-dimensional and thoroughly modern. Especially the legs. But (and I'm adding this after the fact), the legs are a digression - his photography of the body goes way, way beyond my lascivious take on the legs pictures. And we saw that in all his other pictures, especially his portrait of Zanele Muholi and her partner. But I like the fact that an icon of anti-apartheid photography can go beyond the saint-photographer discourse. It makes him a better man and a better photographer. And much more interesting.

To end the week here is a quote from Georges Sand (via Laurent Binet and HHhH). It fits Goldblatt's work and it seems to fit the UK right now

'Poor workers or sick people, you must always struggle against those who tell you : "Work hard to live badly"'

The woman worked in a shop in Soweto, 1972.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Cake, Cake and More Cake

In the UK we have a TV programme called The Great British Bake Off. It's presented by Mary Berry (imagine Margaret Thatcher crossed with The Terminator but nice) and Paul Hollywood (housewives favourite, if you're the kind of housewife who likes them not so nice). There are two comedians who run around to no good effect.

And then there are the people who do the baking. They're lovely. And the stuff they make is, on the whole lovely. Last night they did extreme dough; so they made doughnuts and fruit breads. The basic upshot is that you come out of it desperate to bake cakes (or bread or doughnuts). It makes you hungry. And even when the cakes don't turn out right, then you can play one-upmanship and say well I could do better than that. Last night they made a Croatian version of potica, which is something my wife makes for Christmas every year. But hers is far better and truer and all the rest of it than any of the chocolate infested dreck they had on last night.

So you win both ways.

Which brings me to my last family themed book of the week, Lots of Cake by Laura Curran. This is a modest book which looks at her mother and the way she celebrates every festival possible. I like that idea.

So we see snippets from birthdays, Christmases, Halloweens and various fancy dress parties. The pictures are rough, but it has a touch of the KayLynn Deveney's about it with its emphasis on the small details and the contrast of warm interiors with the dreich exteriors.

There are arts and crafts, the painting of banners and the hanging up of bunting. There's dressing up; for Halloween and for other events. There's one where Curran's mother (I think) and two guests stand in leopard skin blouses and shirts. I've always wanted a leopard skin jacket (a gold lame jacket too) so that gave me a twinge of envy.

We see the baking, the recipes and we see the cakes. My favourite is definitely the one with RIP printed on it - is this a Wake Cake (does such a thing exist) or a Halloween Cake. It's a quiet book so though you see the cakes they are part of a broader household celebration, the events that are created by Curran's mother, the events that add so much to the lives of everybody around her.

Buy the Book Here

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Morning Suns and Poetic Pregnancies


Morning Sun by Matej Sitar continues the fatherhood and book theme. But where Reluctant Father and Father Figure used text to take you into personal and cultural corners of fatherhood, Morning Sun takes a more poetic line; it's a love letter from Sitar to his pregnant wife.

There are no words in the book itself, but these are the words on Sitar's website. They set the scene

'What does it mean to become a father for the first time? How will everything change, what will the days look like and what will be the new routine? Well, I can’t tell the answers to any of those questions, at least not now anyhow. 

The intriguing part before going through all of this is the relationship with the partner. The appreciation of her, every point of her body that is constantly changing, but also sta ying the same. Something familiar that is developing. There is also the fear of the un- known. 

I like the changes. I like the look and the feel of it. And the constant reminder that it is her who is important. 

Maja, my love.

So the book begins with a picture of a basketball hoop set against a wooden barn door (which has a cat flap!) and quickly moves on to Maja in the snow, autumn leaves in the golden sun and the shadow of Maja's pregnant belly on the living room wall.


There is forest and rocks and jellyfish washed up on the beach. The words are pretty but there is still that sense of something organic and uncontrolled coming into the picture. Sometimes it's part of nature and a wonder to behold, sometimes it doesn't quite feel that way.


Morning Sun is not a pregnancy timeline but a book that flows with the seasons, the early morning and golden theme heading towards its inevitable end. Maja appears light, heavy and not always delighted with what is happening to her (or possibly the fact that Sitar is taking so many pictures. If I remember right, that doesn't always go down well). Which is what makes the book interesting.


It's that drudgery thing again. Whenever I think of being a father, a mother, or being pregnant, it's the drudgery. I've never been pregnant in my life (duh!) but when I see somebody carrying a baby around in their belly it astounds me. It looks so heavy, such a weight, a load, a sacrifice. And that I guess is what Morning Sun is ultimately about - but put in more poetic terms.

Buy the book here.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Reluctant Father and the Drudgery of Parenthood

Keeping on the father theme, here is The Reluctant Father by Philip Toledano.

The Reluctant Father is a book about reluctant fatherhood. It starts out with Toledano's baby daughter being born. Toledano is both bewildered and resentful. It's not so much that he's gained a child as lost a wife.

The baby, LouLou, screams. That's her emotion of choice, so Toledano gets a picture of the screaming Loulou printed on a plate. When people ask to see a picture of the baby, that's what he shows. Fantastic.

Toledano calls LouLou a 'sea-sponge' and resents the cultural expectation of being constantly delighted by being a father. He doesn't connect.

Except that in the end he does, when she begins to smile (so when she's four weeks old or thereabouts) and do things other than scream. So they all live happily ever after!

I know you're supposed to go warm and soggy when you get the emotional payoff, but I was kind of disappointed when this happened. I wanted the confusion to continue, if not to its natural conclusion, then to something a bit more familiar. It's almost too polarised, the idea that the connection ends the drudgery of being a parent. That's when the drudgery begins.

I have always been a very present father but hold little nostalgia for the relentlessness of having a 3-year-old or six-year-old or 9-year-old in the house. The early mornings, the constant 'playing' and the bedtime reading had their moments but reading and reading again and again and again books such as The Flower Fairy series is a fate that I would happily wish on my worst enemies. Or the playing that is more like performing, or the half mile walk that takes two hours because you have to stop (my mistake, there was no had to about it) to look at every dog, horse, duck and train along the way. Yes, lovely but its time is past thank goodness. For Toledano, that time is just beginning.

Buy the book here.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Zun Lee's Father Figure

In the introduction to his new book, Father Figure, Zun Lee says:

'When I began my project in 2011, I knew that I wanted to explore a different take on the usually negative representation of Black fathers.'

As soon as he began photographing, Lee began having doubts, the question pile was getting higher and the answer pile lower:

'What qualifies someone as a “good” Black father? How much of the deadbeat-dad narrative do we tend to accept as fact? Do statistics confirm or disprove popular stereotypes? Can empirical evidence and actual lived experience  reveal another reality behind the numbers? The more I dealt with these questions, the more I realized that the path to my answers lay in finding redemption to my own past.'

That front door involved a biological black father who disappeared before he was born, it involved an emotionally and physically father and it had involved Lee seeking and finding solace in other families on the military bases where he mostly grew up.

As he photographed, Lee's attempt to understand American Black Fatherhood (and it's really important to stress that it is American) became a struggle to understand his own upbringing, his own father and to let go of the imaginary childhood that he didn't have. (read more about this here)

So a book that started as a counter-propaganda exercise (Lee says that he was originally looking for the right kinds of fathers) became something altogether more interesting - a three-dimensional portrayal of fathers that embraces far broader aspects of black fatherhood than the stereotypes allow,

And Lee's pictures show us how thin those stereotypes are. He shows us a black father lying exhausted on a sofa, two kids by his side. He's probably not as exhausted as the mother who's cooking in the kitchen, but he's still exhausted.

Or there's the dad standing on the street corner with a baby in a sling, his mates gathered round, looking all skinny and street in a dad kind of way. I've never seen that before in a photograph, movie or TV programme.

There are dads playing with their kids in the street, changing babies' nappies and going on days out to the aquarium or park. And all the time there are quotes, really obvious quotes

'My first few months as a father were so overwhelming. Sure, you prepare as much as you can but you quickly realize you don’t really know how things will shake out, and despite all the advice from family and friends, you’re still just winging it. You kind of learn as you go, and over time, your confidence grows.'


'It seems basic or obvious, but spending quality time with your kids – being present really comes down to that for me. For me, that’s not just being in the same room, but actively engaging with the kids.'


'Fatherhood at its core means that there is someone else on the planet that is more important to you and that it humbles you to realize that there are more unknown elements than known. It means that I have to be open to learning more and experiencing life through another. It is wildly satisfying.'

It's obvious but it's also essential. These are pretty much universal feelings that all fathers (and mothers for that matter) go through. But it's that obviousness that makes these sentiments so essential, because (from a distance - I'm not black and I live in the UK) they are so rarely expressed in such a direct manner.

I remember reading an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who is Nigerian). She wrote that until she came to America, she didn't realise she was black. This sentiment is echoed in a quote by one Domican-born father who, said:

'I got into a lot of trouble as a teenager. As part of my rehabilitation process, I spent time in Kentucky with the Job Corps Program. Living there you realize very quickly that no matter how you see yourself, America reminds you that you are Black.'

Father Figure is very Family of Man; it says that black men are people too, that they love their children, they feel pride and sorrow and long for what is good for their families. But it also recognises that not all fathers are great, that there is a spectrum of fatherhood that ranges from the good to the bad - and that must be recognised and addressed.

I think Lee begins to do that with this book. I spend a lot of time talking to people about how all photographs are fiction and nobody believes in images anymore. And I kind of sympathise with that.

But at the same time, we do believe in images more than ever before. There is a reality principle behind images that is greater than ever before. That's why so many people believe in simplistic stereotypes of all kinds. Because however much we may say we don't believe in what we see, everything's manipulated - we still believe it in our hearts. It still works! We still believe in it. But most of the time it's in a bad way.

'I provide for my son as best I can, but as a single father, it’s hard to provide for him emotionally at times. I give him enough affection as a dad. But sometimes he needs the input of a mother in his life.'