Sunday, 19 March 2017

Simply Brilliant: Incoming by Mosse, Frost and Tweeten

Richard Mosse's  Incoming is showing at The Barbican in London. It's an installation made in collaboration with composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and it really is special, a spectacular piece that combines thermographic imaging, extreme long lenses with straightforward documentary practice and a huge element of story telling that works on an emotional level to tell the story of the refugees who have been coming to Europe from war-battered countries in Asia and Africa..

If you live anywhere London and you're interested in anything, go and see it. It's fantastic.

The installation starts with a grid of moving images. This is a camp somewhere (in Lesbos maybe) - and it's filmed with the thermographic camera. The images shiver and shift and flash before our eyes  - we see the mountains, the sea, the roads and the forests. And then we're into the camp and lines of tents mix with barbed wire and people. This is a controlled landscape, one bounded by the failures of our imaginations and the physical manifestations of those failures. It's an enclosed, surveilled landscape and we're all a part of it, a reminder that what we are beginning to see, what we are about to see more of, is not just an isolated problem but part of our deeper seated failure to inhabit the world, the land we are all part of. But here we're not part of it. We are artificially separated from it by all those lines and barriers and fences and grids that inhibit and constrain our human existence.  

Move forward and there are a couple of still photographs. These are spectacular and huge, inviting you in to look at the lives led in these places of confinement, of limbo between one state of being and another. In the small text at the entrance to the exhibition, Brueghel is mentioned. But it's not really Brueghel-lesque, it's too literal for that. It's more Lowry-esque with the layering of huts against sea against containers where children, bicycles and impromptu games of football or volleyball are played out.

It's already impressive. And then you're into the next room and 150 people are spread out on chairs, on the floor, against the wall, watching 3 cinema-sized screens of Ben Frost's thermographic footage from Syria, Libya, Greece, Calais and other places that we are left to guess at.

It's immense and it's a spectacle but as soon as you enter there is a collective sense of emotional intensity in the room. And so you sit down and you join it.

The films are on a loop so there's not really a start or a finish. Or there are multiple starts and finishes; the sun rising, the moon growing, the man praying. The man praying does it.

We see him in close-up, washing his face. The thermographic element makes the water look like milk. There's a cleansing. He stands and he's exhausted. It's as if he turns away from prayer but then he goes back to it. The focus here is on his face, a face that is filmed from a distance with a 500mm lense, a 1000mm lens, who knows, it's very long.

The film continues (and the order is not necessarily as it is shown, but is as I remember it.) and we see people on overloaded trucks starting journeys across desert-like landscapes. We might be in Senegal, or Mali or Libya somewhere else I don't know. What is clear is the desperation on the faces of the people, a desperation accentuated by the thermographic camera and the three-screen format; sometimes it's three screens of a stretched out image, sometimes it's detail opening up to wider shot, sometimes focus moves to one screen). This is something biblical we're witnessing and it shows in faces worn by the wind, the heat, the dust that are marked by the photographic technique. Mosse is dealing in the big themes here and there is none bigger than the lost tribe wandering in the wilderness.

So there's a journey, there's a quest, there's classic storytelling. There's death, there's sacrifice, there's salvation, there's heaven and there is the burning of hell.There are also faces. From the faces on the truck, the open-mouthed denizens of this nether-world of half-escape/half-salvation, the faces of the soldiers we see loading missiles onto a plane on a US aircraft carrier.

These are different faces, these are the soldiers of Mosse's hell, and throughout there's a focus on uniform, on military might, on the shields of the CRS to the helmets of the French fire crews. This is not a kindly world.

There's a focus on the militarisation that has led to this exodus, one that is played out throughout the film. Militirisation begins at home it seems. But there is also some kind of hope. We see it in the people plucked from the sea somewhere in the Meditterranean, the children handed up from lifeboat to solid deck, we see it in the people landing on the shores of Lesbos, some kind of safety at hand at last.

But then there's more limbo.The limbo of camps. Here the sound comes into play, giving a sense of the underlying tension, tragedy and dysfunction that exists in these places. Because the myth of salvation goes only so far, because all that has happened is you've shifted from one circle of hell to a more outer circle of hell. And the stasis is still there, and the memories and learned behaviour of being an adult, or even worse being a child in these places of violence that have been escaped from.  A sequence from a child's fight shows this. You're in Europe and everything is not OK. It never was and perhaps it never will be.

We hear death (a drowned child who is not resuscitated), we see death (the cutting for analysis of a dead child's femur) and we see war (Syrian warplanes strafing enemy positions near the Turkish border). It's a documentary then, not as complete as Vietnam Inc. or House of Bondage, but one that attempts to tie in the different elements of the 'refugee crisis' and one that does assign blame. It does point the finger at the military interests that caused this crisis. Not many projects on the refugee crisis do that.

Most of all, however, it's an emotional piece. That's the level it works on through the faces, through the vignettes, through the human drama that is captured on camera. The long lens and the thermographic imaging changing scale and focus in quite surprising ways. This is not a gimmick but is rather a response. Regular film and photography of the refugee crisis has largely been used to dehumanise and distance the human elements of the crisis, often very deliberately, but mostly due to a lack of visual sophistication. So if regular photography dehumanises... then thermographic will humanise. That's the kind of logic that somehow works here.  And even though it's a big somehow,  it does work, because we don't see these people as refugees, we see them as people with real emotions (that you see even more clearly), who sweat and bleed and wet themselves and die in the water.

It's quite brilliant.

For a different view on the print sales which is a whole different story, go here. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

Marc Wilson's Wounded Landscape

Here's a bargain. Help fund Marc Wilson's moving, ambitious and beautiful Wounded Landscape project by buying part of his working archive for £105. 

Wounded Landscape: The project
The landscape of much of Europe and the former Soviet republics, is marked with the tragedy of the Holocaust. There are nearly forty thousand sites, in Germany and in countries that the Germans occupied in the Second World War, where the Nazis and their collaborators systematically murdered nearly six million Jews and a huge number of people from other groups which they considered racially inferior, or for ideological and political reasons. These included Roma, homosexuals, the mentally disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, and also more than three million Soviet prisoners of war.
Throughout these countries today, these sites persist. Destroyed communities and ghettos; internment camps, transit camps, labour camps, sub camps, concentration camps, extermination camps and displacement camps; the journeys to and from them and the landscapes that surround them. Sites where individual killings and slaughter on a mass scale took place. The numbers involved are almost beyond understanding. Sites where life or death were decided; but also sites where positive actions took place and sites of hope, survival and memory.
The complete work will create a large archive of imagery. Made up of responses to these locations, visual documents of these locations, portraits of some of those involved, stories and histories. Beyond the archive will be a photography book complete with text and also exhibitions of the work.

Murder in the Lucky Holiday Hotel

If you're interested in China, then listen to this.

Murder in the Lucky Holiday Hotel

How the murder of British businessman and fixer Neil Heywood changed China. Concluding the true-life tale of sex, death and politics, told by the BBC's China Editor Carrie Gracie. As we hear, however, the story isn't over - as one thing you can't predict in China is the past.

And read about the case here.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

La storia delle montagne di Reggio Emilia/The story of the mountains of Regio Emilia

Questa settimana ho scritto un recensione del libro Where does the white go? da Piergiorgio Casotti e progettato da Fiorenza Pinna.

Il libro racconta la storia delle montagne di Reggio Emilia e ci sono quattro parti; primo, ci sono gli imagini delle montagne, secondo ci sono gli imagini delle case, terzo ci sono gli imagini delle strade nelle montagne, e quarto ci sono gli imagini delle persone chi vivono nelle montagne.

Pero ci sono le storie delle persone anche! Perché le persone sono le montagne e le storie ci racconta. Per esempio, la ultima storia ci dice sul uomo chi ha cento anno. Tutte le persone nel suo villagio hanno andata. Viva nel villagio solo e conosce il morte viene presto. Perciò, il uomo vecchio ha fatto una sedia del fiene nel fienile di villagio perché non vuole il morte nel suo letto.

Gli imagini sono molti bueni, con uno ritmo musico quale viaggia sulle montagne tra le nuvole. Una problema. Non puoi vedere la qualità del libro sul Internet  perché  il selezione degli imagini non racconta la storia completamente! Questo libro ha il sentimento silenzioso pero pieno di anima della campagna.

Mi lo piace molto!

Compra il libro qui.

E con Google Translate per i pigri Inglesi!

And with Google Translate for lazy Englishmen!

This week I wrote a review of the book Where does the white go? by Piergiorgio Casotti and designed by Fiorenza Pinna.

The book tells the story of the mountains of Regio Emilia and there are four parties; First, there are the images of the mountains, there are the images of second homes, third, there are the images of the roads in the mountains, and fourth there are the images of the people who live in the mountains.

But there are the stories of the people too! Because people are the mountains and the stories he tells us. For example, the last story tells us the man who has one hundred years. All the people in his village have gone. Living in the village and only knows death comes soon. Therefore, the old man made a chair of Fiene in the village barn because it does not want the death in his bed.

The images are many bueni, with a rhythm musician who travels the mountains in the clouds. A problem. You can see the quality of the book on the Internet because the selection of images does not tell the story completely! This book has the silent sentiment but full of blood of the campaign.

I really like it!

Buy the book here.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Telling kids they're not Danish: Even meaner than Jill Greenberg

Oh no, this is so mean. It makes Jill Greenberg's crying kids look like they've been visited by the fairy godmother. All Greenberg did was take away their lollipops. The makers of this film took away their nationality!

But it's affecting as well. I don't know. The kids are real too, one is the child of the director - and the parents were present during filming.

This is the story of the film... (go to youtube to see more on the film and the making of).

'The rightwing politicians in Denmark who are in power have made it very clear, that children that born in Denmark, to immigrant parents (even if only 1 of the parents are foreign) are no longer considered Danish. This is not a legal issue as they will remain citizens, but a cultural one, as they become demoted to being second class citizens. Since our politicians lack the courage to look our children in their eyes and tell them the news, we decided to, and to share their honest reaction as a powerful reminder to those in power to remember that the choices they make, the words they use, and the hate they spread effects everyone, especially our children. Children all over the world are not deaf, dumb, nor blind. They hear the radio, they watch TV, they have access to the internet, and social media, they have phones, tablets, and computers. They are also affected by the hate that is spread, bigotry, Xenophobia, and racism that seems to have become the norm.'

(Thanks to my documentary photography students and Patrick Wassman for showing me this.)

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

OJ: Made in America - where photography is a matter of life and death

     image from Reuters

One of the many interesting things about OJ: Made in America is the way in which photography is present throughout the documentary. It is absolutely everywhere in the documentary and it is vital to everything about the case; from the history of race in the USA, to Simpson's construction of a non-raced identity, to the defence team's use of photography to stage a re-racing of Simpson's racial identity, from Nicole Brown Simpson's use of polaroids to record how Simpson beat her, to the film-makers' use of crime scene photography to create a moral grounding to the case. Or the way in which Simpson performed for the camera to show the murderer's gloves 'didn't fit'.

And that's without even mentioning the video of the beating of Rodney King where photography is used as evidence and was a trigger for both the Los Angeles riots of 1993 and, it is argued,  the eventual acquittal of OJ Simpson - it was a revenge acquittal in other words (though it is visually hinted that there are other things stretching further back that it was also revenge for)

Photography is vital in other words. It is central to our lives. It is a matter of life and death and it determines who goes free and who doesn't. And it's emotional. It's not rational or considered or logical. It doesn't work that way. But despite all that, we believe it none the less. Because we're not rational or logical. We don't work that way.

Simpson's defence team understood the emotional power of photography, of the image, and the way that it worked and they used it to get Simpson off. The defence team, one feels, didn't and were completely blindsided. That, at least, is what the documentary seems to show.

Simpson used photography to show that race didn't matter to him, that his stardom and his personality rendered him outside the racial system of America in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. The wall of his home was decorated with pictures showing this - pictures of Simpson with his white friends, friends who shared his economic, social or fame status. He didn't care for civil rights or social concerns. Not when he was an aspiring American football star, not when he made the move into movies, not in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed the acquittal of the police who had beaten him in full view of all the world (thanks to photography).

One of the most cynical things about the documentary was the venality of the defence team and nowhere was this venality demonstrated better than in their restructuring of Simpson's racial identity; they took down the gallery of pictures in Simpson's house showing Simpson with his parade of white people - and replaced it with a gallery of pictures showing Simpson with a parade of black people. He needed to become a black man so that his trial could become the trial of a black man - and so linked to the history of race in America, from Rodney King all the way back through a litany of injustice to the lynching of Shipp and Smith which was shown in the programme.

In other words, the defence team effectively curated an 'exhibition'  the walls of Simpson's Brentwood house (one of the most important 'exhibitions' in the history of America if you take the view that it influenced the outcome of the trial). They made him blacker than he wanted to be.

Which strangely enough is exactly what Time did to him in their infamous Time Cover.

So photographically OJ Simpson he was made black in defence (through visual association) and made black in attack (through retouching). Such are the functions of photography in real life. Amazing!

Amidst all the anger, injustice and brutality of the case, and the way it links to class, to wealth, to power, to status and to the brutality of American racism it is easy to forget who the real victim in the story is.

But there are the pictures of the body of Nicole Smith and Ron Goldman to remind us; we are shown her body repeatedly. It's battered, it's bloodied. We see streaks of blood, we see where the throat has been cut.

These pictures ground the story (in the same way that the images of the beaten body of Emmett Till ground the story). They tell us who was killed and we know who did it. And because we know who did it, it reveals the dysfunctionality, the hypocrisy and the hierarchies of all sections of American society.

It also tells us how imporant photography is. And how functional photography is. But it's not necessarily the photography that we write about or we study. It's not photography that has been distanced and stripped of its emotional power. It's not conceptual work where layers of performance, reflexivity and staging create a barrier between the images and the audience. Here basic evidential news reporting,  personal photography, trophy photography, family photography, crime scene photography and photography used for personal evidence are what matters. And not just to photography or art nerds, but to everybody.

In OJ: Made in America, photography is literally a matter of life and death.

Watch OJ: Made in America on iplayer (if you're in the UK)

Monday, 6 March 2017

The history of photojournalism in one room. In Bath!

All images from the Incite Collection: Main image by Philip Jones Griffiths....

I'm not sure that I've seen the history of photojournalism summed up quite as well as in this exhibition in Bath. Of all places.

Think of an iconic image from the history of photojournalism and it is probably in there - in real life material form. Not everything is in there and there are great big global and historical gaps but I guess those will be filled as time goes by. The sequence of images also serves as a history of how photojournalism has been made, produced and disseminated so there is a lot happening under the surface.

All the images are from the Incite collection. It really is quite something to see them all in the flesh. This is the first time the collection (which you can read about here) has been exhibited.

You get the feeling this is just the beginning as there are so many supporting materials, ideas and philosophies that could be in there.

It's not the most interesting element of the show, but given the debate concerning the recent World Press Photo Winner, the photographic representation of death is one of those elements. Burhan Ozbilici's winning image would be a centrepiece of this exhibition. It could sit right opposite the massive Falling Man image, which of course is another aestheticised image. 

And round the corner would be the napalm girl (it didn't end a war), the Vietcong man being shot (the real victim is the man being shot, not the man doing the shooting), the burning monk (one of many burning monks), one shot president, one shot presidential candidate, a dead child on the beach, someone pretending to die, a few people rubbed out of pictures, and countless other pictures of pain and anguish, put together into great sequences. 

It's a great show, and at the heart of it is the fact that it's all these pictures of war, death and suffering. That should be troubling but it's a version of history. 

The show is on at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath. 

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