Friday, November 28, 2008

Some More on Truth, and Belonging

It's funny how things in your life suddenly jump into focus seemingly from nowhere, and the wider  world connects with you in thought. It's surely just a matter of coincidence ....or is it? Maybe it's an awakening in you, and now that you are paying attention, you can see. I have experienced this quite strongly this week, since writing about the issue of truth in photography, and the sense of belonging in my past two posts. As a result I thought I'd pass on some information to you.

Firstly, it was very interesting to hear 'Morning Edition' this week, interview three different writers who have emigrated from various countries to America and write about the immigrant experience, on what it means to become American. One of the writers just happened to be Jhumpa Lahiri. You can hear all three interviews online at, where you can also find links to their readings etc.

Whilst I was waiting for my prints to dry on Wednesday I popped across the street to the ICP Museum. They currently have four different exhibitions; Cornell Capa: Concerned Photographer; Susan Meiselas: In History; America and the Tintype; and Living with the Dead: W.Eugene Smith and World War II.

 I was impressed by all four exhibitions but two particularly struck me with their need to portray the truth of conflict and atrocity to the wider world and seem particularly pertinent to my ramblings last week.

Cornell Capa (brother of Robert Capa, the photographer who took those famous shots of the Normandy beach landings during WWII) worked for Life Magazine from 1946 to 1967 and the Magnum Agency from 1954 onwards. He coined the phrase 'Concerned Photographer' feeling it was his humanitarian duty to educate and change the world through his pictures. He covered the collapse of Peron's regime in Argentina in 1955 and the struggles in Nicaragua after the assasination  of Anastasio Somoza in 1956. In 1974 he founded ICP.

Political Dissidents arrested after the assassination
of Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, Managua, 1956

Susan Meiselas's work is incredible but not for the faint of heart. She is known for her images of the Nicaraguan Uprising in the 1970s, but has a large body of work about Kurdistan, and Saddam Hussein's massacre of the Kurds in the 1990's. You are compelled to look, even though what you are staring at are stark images of death, violence and destruction. You feel the sorrows of these people, and are outraged and incredulous that a human being could do such things to a fellow human being. I spent a long time with these images. The interesting thing about Meiselas is that she doesn't feel the photograph is the end of the story. She includes a great deal of other documentary evidence to tell the story and will often use text, writing, and interviews together with her own imagery citing photographs as key to memory and history. There is a lot of information about her work on the ICP website as well as her own site which I have included links to. 

Photographs of 20-year-old Kamaran Adullah Sabar are held by his family at Saiwan Hill Cemetery.
He was killed in July 1991 during a student demonstration against Saddam Hussein, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq

Arbil Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of mass execution, 
shows his wound, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq 1991

All four exhibitions run until 4th January if you want to see the work for yourself.

And finally, for anyone who may be interested, ICP is holding a seminar on 12 & 13th December, entitled "What is Real:Documentary Photography and the Politics of Truth".

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Land and Home

While I still have Pat Barker's book in my mind, I thought I would elucidate a little on another thread of visual imagery her writing inspired in me. There are certain British writers who are able to capture the essence of English life to the tea......I don't mean the twee cream teas and scones, Miss Marple vision of England, more that through their descriptions, and dialogue they give the reader (at least this particular reader) a real sense of almost being there yourself. I can smell the quality of air, feel it wrap about me, feel the dampness or the clarity of the day as a character steps forward through woodland lanes, or takes a day trip to the coast on a cold blustery day.  I am not able to explain it really, except to say that it all seems to be about the evocation of the unique atmosphere a country has. When I read these writings, my heart longs to be there, a strong response that is emotional and physical, revealing an unseverable connection to my homeland. It conjures memories, and wistful longing.

There are a couple of British photographers who came to mind immediately as I read certain passages: Fay Godwin, who died in 2005 aged 74, photographed the British landscape, capturing quintissential Britishness, both in the land and the characters who lived and worked on it. They are beautiful and mysterious, illustrating the sometimes bleak and barren topography of the UK. 

Beadnell Bay, Northumberland 1991

Path and Reservoir, Lumbutts, Yorkshire, 1977

Top Withens, Calder Valley, 1977

Social Security Office, Yorkshire, 1971

Between 1993 & 1996, Magnum photographer, Mark Power set out to make a series of images based on the locations of the Shipping Forecast, broadcast for seafaring folk four times daily on BBC Radio 4. The names of these remote lands, such as Viking, Cromerty, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, create imaginings of enigmatic and romantic landscapes. The Shipping Forecast suits the notions of an Island Nation. Although many of these places aren't located off the coast of the UK, but other European nations like France, Germany and Iceland, in the images below of the northeast English coast, Mark Power has managed to capture that atmosphere I have been attempting to explain. 

Sunday 25th July 1993
West or southwest 3 0r 4 increasing 5 or 6. Showers. Good.

Sunday 25th July 1993
West or southwest 3 or 4 increasing 5 or 6. Showers. Good.

All this talk of my homeland has had me thinking about what it means to shift your roots from one country to another.  More than ever before, people are on the move, either by choice or necessity. Does your birthplace define you, in some way, and if that is the case, then does the nature of who you are change when you no longer live there?  It's an interesting thought, and one that I return to every now and again as I live my life away from my birth place, and my family, in a country full of immigrants. Jhumpa Lahiri, in my opinion a brilliant American author of Bengali descent, delves deeply into this subject in all three of her books, the most famous one being 'The Namesake', but 'Unaccustomed Earth' is well worth a read too. Her characters have usually emmigrated from India to America. This essentially seems to make for a melancholy life attempting to embrace American Culture as their own, and most often in the case of their children, who are commonly born in the USA, the struggle to connect with their Indian heritage and find their rightful place in America. Ultimately they can never disconnect with their roots, begging the question, where do you belong? There is a sense of neither here or there perhaps. I am fascinated my these ideas, and it has inspired the desire to explore further in visual terms this notion of belonging. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"One cannot look at this. I saw it. This is the truth"

Prison Interior 1810-14 - Francisco de Goya

The Third of May 1808

Last night I finished 'Double Vision' by British writer Pat Barker (who also wrote 'The Regeneration Trilogy' ). It took me all of two days.....the book entranced me and has left me pondering on things photographic. Set in post 9/11 times, in a country village close to Newcastle, England, the story centers around two men, a writer and a photographer (now dead), both journalists who cover war zones, and tells of their relationship with each other and with those close to them. At the heart of the story is the ethical question of veracity and vision, of how the written word does not necessarily invoke total truth, but yet a photographic image tends to solidify the event, making it unquestionably truthful. This is what really happened. The main protagonist is writing a book about the ways wars are represented. In the following conversation with the widow of his friend, he describes why he felt compelled to write this particular book.

'  'I can even tell you what started it. Jules Naudet, the guy who was following a rookie fireman round New York on 9/11 and just found himself filming the attack on the towers? Well, something he said haunted me. At one point he turned his camera off - he wouldn't film people burning - and he said, "Nobody should have to see this" And immediately I thought of Goya.'

' "One cannot look at this"?'

Yes - but then "I saw it." "This is the truth." Its the argument he's having with himself, all the time, between the ethical problems of showing the atrocities and yet the need to say "Look, this is what's happening".....and I thought, My God, we're still facing exactly the same problem. There's always this tension between wanting to show the truth, and yet being sceptical about what the effects of showing it are going to be.' '

This is a moral dilemma, but the visual image is a mainstay in recounting the news of  the day and a necessity particularly when it comes to something as horrific as war or poverty. Until we can actually see the reality of war, it is somewhere over there, not here in our everyday reality, it can be rationalized or forgotten, it cannot touch us emotionally. The visual image before our eyes forces us to look, and reminds us of the responsibility we bear that stems from this newfound knowledge. 

Difficult as they may be to look at, I am thankful for the work of photographers such as James Nachtwey, who is the subject of an incredible film 'War Photographer', Marcus Bleasdale, and Alexandra Boulat, all members of  VII Photo Agency. Their work reflects entirely the scope of what it means to be human, to the darkest depths of humanity and back again towards hope, for there always has to some glimmer of's the essence of life.

James Nachtwey. Chechnya, 1996  
James Nachtwey. Kosovo, 1999

Alexandra Boulet. Kosovo, 1999
"you can show war without showing a gun, and that's interesting, in just one photograph"

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A landslide victory

Well, it's been one week since our vote rocked this country, and pushed it onto a new and hopeful path to change. Although I was not able to vote (alas, I am not a US citizen), I insisted on going to the polling station with my husband to watch American Democracy in action, and was stirred by such a feeling of excitement that I was present, and witness to, the most important election of our times. The small village firehouse in Warwick, a rather non-descript place was a scurry of activity, with members of our community out in force, helping the day run smoothly (as far as I know there were no voting fiasco's to be had). There was a definite air of this being a momentous day, that history was about to be made. The voting machines in Warwick appear to have been in use for many many decades, huge hulking things surrounded by curtains that open and close on the command of a enormous lever that the voter pulls right then left, marking the beginning and end of the ritual. There appeared to be no electronics or any paper involved in the process, just the matter of pushing a couple of markers down depending on your preference and hoping that that was enough for your vote to be registered. 

The only other time I have experienced an election day was 1st May 1997 in Sheffield, England. I was studying for my final year of a Fine Art degree, and I remember it as a hot and very busy spring as I prepared for my final degree show. This was the first time I was eligible to vote, and I remember quite an excitement about it, but still it didn't seem to have the grandeur, mystique,and general hallaballoo of a US election.  There just wasn't the buzz! The polling station was the village primary school. There were no machines, just a few private booth with pencils and the paper ballot to be ticked off as you wished. Simple! As it turned out, that general election was to be rather historical too, because on that day, a young Tony Blair was elected into government, winning in a landslide victory against the Conservative Party who'd been in power for decades. 

Early evening, after having avoided the television and radio news all day, we sat down together to watch the results start coming in, nervous now after feeling such certainty that Barrack Obama, our man, wouldn't get it, and in those very early stages, it was all looking slightly worrying. And then one by one, starting with the entire northeast, states on the TV maps of the country turned blue. With each one we whooped with joy, hopeful now that the country had spoken loud and clear, and finally at 11 o'clock we shed a few tears of joy when it was confirmed that our next president was going to be intelligent, compassionate, wise, and have integrity for a change....and black. Change we need, and a momentous day indeed!

(Incidently, and somewhat ironically, I found out a few days later that the town of Warwick voted for John McCain, and more of the's hard to fathom, as I didn't know anyone who didn't want change.......still, there's no accountin' for folks).