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PREAMBLE: PHOTOGRAPHING FROM WITHIN

One of the most interesting street photographers in America right now is Gabe Angemi. He shoots daily and prolifically. He makes pictures with an iPhone, mostly, but on other cameras too. Angemi is a firefighter in Camden, New Jersey. His profession allows him to get close.

Elevated angles of passing moments in some of Angemi’s photos are reminiscent of images in the many curated Google Street View (GSV) projects. GSV projects tend to divide people. You love them or you hate them. Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture was one of the earliest, one of the best promoted and most divisive of the GSV projects. Why am I mentioning this? Well, Rickard got some flak because he drove-by shot America’s poorest neighbourhoods from behind his computer screen.He didn’t hit the streets himself, but drifted past scenes from the up-high vantage point of a 15-eyed Google car camera rig.

In his look at inequality in America, Rickard *travelled* the streets of Camden. Some of Angemi’s images may look similar but the intent and engagement is vastly different. I’m somehow reassured to know that Angemi is getting down of his rig, chatting with locals, watching the ebb and flow of energies, and shaping the city. He’s also responding to emergencies, securing vacants and putting out fires.

Angemi’s diaristic portrait of the city is raw. But it reflects a place in which 40+% of the population live below the poverty line; a city hall from which three past mayors have been convicted of corruption; a city which can’t support its own schools; and a city in which police misconduct was so rife that law enforcement was placed in the receivership of state forces.

Camden has one of the highest crime rates in the U.S. and is often described as the most violent city in America. In 2012, Camden had 2,566 violent crimes per 100,000 people which is five times the national average. Camden is a rough town, but it is more than its poverty. Angemi consistently puts the hardships and everyday events into a wider context.

Whereas Rickard simply restated that poverty exists in America, and in Camden in particular, Angemi is seeing and sharing it daily. He’s mapping change in Camden and he’s also trying to make it a safer place. That makes him one of the most interesting street photographers in the country.

Angemi pushes his stuff out on a popular but private Instagram account, @ANGE_261.

Scroll down for our Q&A

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Q&A

Prison Photography (PP): Are you always using an iPhone? Are you always shooting on the job? Or do you use other cameras and venture out other times?

Gabe Angemi (GA): Not always. But the iPhone is just always there you know? It’s super easy. Occasionally though, it sucks. I also use a 35mm Olympus camera I got from Clint Woodside at Dead Beat Club, and a couple of Polaroid cameras. I’ve been using a Fuji X100 mostly as of late.

Recently, I gave Bruce Gilden and some friends from Magnum a tour of Camden, for a few hours on back-to-back days. I can’t shoot like that; the big cameras and the assistant will never suite me. I love that it’s out there and artists like Bruce are killing it, but I’ll keep making it work with what I got. I suppose that points to why the iPhone works so well for me, it’s just easiest. My photography is more timing, perspective and place than anything else. I suppose I just never had the money to buy a camera that’s *serious*. One day I’ll get a legit one I suppose.

PP: How long have you been a Camden firefighter?

GA: I’ll have been on the job in CMD for 16 years come December. I was recently promoted out of the Rescue Company to Engine Co. 11 in the city’s Cramer Hill section.

PP: How do you take pictures while you’re on call?

GA: I take my job very seriously. Being Johnny on the spot at a fire scene doesn’t jive well with making good photos. I’ve started making photos more and more off duty. The access though — it was invaluable to get me where I could be making interesting photos.

When I was shooting at work years ago, I needed quick and easy so it never interfered with my duty or performance. Hence, the iPhone. Clearly, I can’t have a big ass camera around my neck while I’m fighting fire!

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GA: I rarely shoot on the job these days, it is illegal per department policy now. If I take a photo on duty it is with the intent of using it for a training presentation or a PowerPoint.

PP: Because you train other firefighters in fire abatement, right?

GA: Right. And nothing but harmless stuff goes on my social media. Ethical considerations are a big factor. Problems are to be avoided. I had to talk to an attorney about it extensively a few years back.

PP: When did you decide to start shooting in the city?

GA: I started shooting the day I was hired, using an old film camera. Maybe even before that, when I’d stop in a firehouse to see my dad.

Initially, I was just shooting and documenting “us.” Somewhere along the line, I turned the camera towards the city, the issues, the people, the good, the bad. It all seems so normal now but its surely not. Camden’s a fascinating place. I like to be involved in friction, and trying to solve it. I shoot the friction in places that used to be what America was all about, and still is, but for entirely different reasons.

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PP: Camden is a tough town. Lots of surveillance, lots of blocks where tensions between citizens and cops are high. How do you and your uniform and your camera fit into that?

GA: I think that collectively, the fire department is looked upon endearingly. The residents have family and friends on the job. The locals know we are not there to break their balls or be indignant. We’re just there to help.

It’s funny how most of the outsiders are the ones who confuse us with the police while were on the street. I mean, I get it, it’s a dark blue uniform, but we are clearly not the police; we do not carry weapons.

Anyone who sees us — from the corner boys to the politicians — should know we don’t judge, assume or push buttons that aggravate anything. We mind our own business, we just want to help.

I’m not dumb though, I’m not always going to fit in, and clearly I’m not going to try to fit me and my camera into a spot that isn’t going to work out. ‘Round pegs, round holes,’ as one of our Deputy Chiefs always said. It carries over from my career to my art.

Tensions are indeed high, and yes, the city is heavily surveilled. The municipality and county had acquired some state of the art detection and monitoring equipment by way of federal grants. The whole city sometimes feels like a prison. Cameras are everywhere, and there’s now a shot detection system that can pinpoint gunfire down to a city block.

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GA: Tensions aren’t necessarily a consistent thing, but more like an ebb and flow depending on what’s going on in a particular part of town. Some spots are always hot, others rise and fall. I’m no authority mind you, and I won’t claim to be an aficionado on the vibe on the street between citizens and the law. I pay close attention, but I’m not in any position to really know anything about the police and their plight. It’s not my job. All I really know about them is they have a tough job, and it’s damn dangerous. So is ours.

PP: What’s the reactions of the locals?

GA: My camera gets me smiles, waves, fun poses, friends, conversations and past barriers or preconceived notions. It also gets me dirty looks, threats and projectiles. Obviously, I prefer the former, but just like my job, I take the good with the bad.

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PP: What’s your approach?

GA: I ask sometimes to shoot, sometimes I don’t. I build relationships with people I meet on the street when I’m working and try to create a bond or trust so that I can go to their space and photograph them. Sometimes it takes time, other times it can go down right away. Personalities abound; it’s very cool.

PP: Is Camden been talked about, written about, and/or depicted in the right ways?

GA: No.

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PP: You’ve a professional experience of the poverty, disrepair, vacancy and the destruction/burning of houses. Can you describe what you’ve witnessed in your work and how you’ve secured and watched properties burn never to be replaced? It seems your job — in real time — has tracked the decline of Camden.

GA: Many of the buildings I was shooting initially for teaching purposes are no longer standing. Anyone that does what I do for any length of time should start to inadvertently become aware of the developing issues and predict whats coming or whats soon to happen. I’ve watched the city disappear over the last 16 years. When you drive around and see vacant lots, you become aware that it was once a thriving community, with street lights and brick and mortar row homes lining the sidewalk. People lived here.

Now, whole stretches of fenced in empty lots do not even have the fences anymore, they have been torn out and cashed in at one of the many local scrap yards. You can hear huge sections of fence being dragged through the street — day or night. The sound of hammers and improvised hacksaws emanate from behind rows of boarded up windows, working to remove any type of metal with a high price per pound. One can often smell gas leaking from stolen basement pipes in vacant buildings, thieves are disinterested in even turning the gas petcock off. Used tires are everywhere, lining the streets like weeds. Plastic bags from the bodegas blow like urban tumbleweeds.

PP: Extreme poverty.

GA: At work, When we are out preplanning vacant row homes, we see needles, used condoms, the insides of ball point pens, lighters, baggies, piles of clothes, stacked mattresses, tinfoil “sculptures,” shit buckets, piles of feces in corners, the carcasses of what would have been a pet in the suburbs … I could go on with this list for a half hour.

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We speak to the neighbors, the mail man, the utility provider, squatters, prostitutes, everyone. We just assume the time is coming, you can just sense when a particular spot is going to burn. Then you’d catch the house, or the block, or the building, you turn the corner in the rig at 3am and the street is lit up like your on the surface of the sun.

Its always astonishes me, how it works. Not all of my peers are as tuned in I suppose, or they just prefer to ignore it. That would go for fireman working in any socioeconomically challenged urban city…

But, I think my artistic tendencies and growing up on a skateboard led me to observe closer. I can sorta relate a bit better, growing up in counter-culture mindset. I used to skate, bike, walk or drive around Philadelphia looking at everything from a skateboarding perspective. How could I creatively use the landscape to have fun on my skateboard? Now, I do the exact same thing, but in terms of forcing my way in and out of structures, in terms of understanding who or how many people might be living in a building that is supposed to have no one living in it. I’m constantly training myself to get a better understanding of how poverty affects people out here.

Where are they at? What are they willing to do or endure. I feel that everyone [in precarious or vacant houses] are my responsibility regardless of their job, tax bracket, or societal position. So I pay real fucking close attention and decide what I can and can’t do to make a difference. It’s best to see things up close so you know what you can safely do in the dead of night, maybe half asleep, when you need to be up on your game. We don’t get to warm up. We go full throttle, from a stand still-ice cold position.

The work kills our bodies. We might as well be the buildings were in and out of, becoming more and more structurally unsound over time. I mean fuck, I want to see my girls the next day too, so theres always this friction. I’m not sure exactly how to articulate what I see there, but its fascinating. Its also predictable and above anything else, a travesty. Sitting back is bullshit.

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GA: I always say that Camden should have been Philadelphia. A lot of things and people have conspired both consciously and subconsciously over time, both with premeditation and without, to make this place what it is today. There’s so many issues its overwhelming.

I talk to the folks next door or nearby to where we are operating. It’s heartbreaking. Hearing a woman tell me she’s got kids in her house three doors down from where we just put a fire out. They knew it was coming, they saw squatters in and out, they saw addicts using the houses to get high and shelter themselves. They have perpetual anxiety about not if but when [their place might burn down].

There’s a documentary film called Burn, and one of the featured guys in it has a great quote, “I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen during 30 years of firefighting in Detroit.” That poor bastard has seen some terrible things. I wish I could say I, or any of the guys I work with, were any different. This job can mess your life up, I watched it do it to friends, both mentally and physically. It’s a battle for sanity. We’re getting kicked from all angles, BUT I owe everything I have to the City of Camden Fire Department, and I try to earn that shit every time I go to work, and every time I take, or teach a class. We work hard for what we get, we do a great job, and I’m proud of the work we do.

Camden civilians see more fires than most fire departments.

PP: Fire is a symptom of poverty, right?

GA: I believe so. Our workload is indicative of that. It’s the same in other depressed communities — Detroit; Gary, IN; Flint, MI; Jackson, MS; Stockton, CA; East St. Louis; Bluefield, WV; Baltimore; as well as sections of Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, New Orleans. There are so many places dealing with poverty. It would be hard to argue that fire isn’t tied into a cycle of poverty.

PP: What do you colleagues think of your photography?

GA: I’m not really sure! I struggle to keep it separate, and I struggle to combine it. I have a lot of support from guys I spent years of my life with — they support me and it, even if they don’t get it. I’m sure there are guys who don’t know me too well who are not feeling it or very receptive. Some guys have talked to me about it and now understand. All I can do is keep on being me. I’m not looking to hurt, upset, take advantage or manipulate anyone. I want to throw-up when some one says I’m exploiting people. I’m far more invested in this town and its people.

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PP: What’s next?

GA: I’d like to make a book, Pete. One of these days, I hope to put together a book dummy.

I would also like to do shooting elsewhere. I’d love to find a grant that would allow me to do what I do in Camden, in other cities. I could go hook up with friends in other fire departments and make photos.

But honestly, I’m trying to adjust to a new role in my job. And be a father to my young daughter. My wife is soon to give birth to a second daughter, so time and energy are harder and harder to come by!

Hopefully next year, I’m going to find myself sitting on the co-op board for Camden FireWorks, a great South Camden artistic endeavor. Those involved hope to start some revitalization on South Broadway out of the old CFD Engine Co. 3 fire house. Heart of Camden acquired it and put a ton of time, energy and grant money into refurbishing it into artist studio spaces, gallery and printing press with a program of lectures and classes.

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PP: Anything else you want to add?

GA: I hope that no one ever interprets my opinions, intentions or photography as negative toward Camden. I’m invested here. My father was a CMD fireman for 33 years and busted his ass through two riots and decades of a fire-load that would make most of today’s firefighters quit. I feel that the city looks like it does now by some twisted and fateful design. I give back in my own ways, and try to make Camden a better place.

I can’t get by with out my family, they are the best ever! Thanks Nicole, Maria, Lillian, and Lucia. You allow me to make art, make photos and constantly deal with my obsessive nature and all that comes with it.

I owe a ton more to too many of my friends and influences to write here but they know who they are. ARTNOWNY and the Philadelphia art scene are awesome.

Oh, and firefighters rule! We are here for you.

PP: Cheers, Gabe.

GA: Thank you, Pete.

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steacy

Today, the Philly Mag published a leaked document about the devastating decline in newspapers. It was created by Interstate General Media, owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It showed massive slumps nationwide but particular downturns in the fortunes of Philadelphia’s newspapers.

The slump has been rumbling on for over a decade now but the details in the leaked document make Will Steacy‘s project Deadline even more timely. Steacy is currently raising money to make a photobook and here’s why I think it deserves your support.

DEADLINE, by WILL STEACY

I was once Skyping with an artist on a residency in Europe. During the call, in the background, Will Steacy‘s head popped round the open door. Given the time difference, it was early morning for my friend, and for Steacy.

Pre-coffee, Steacy took the time to say hello. I noticed under Steacy’s arm a stack of the newspapers. Printed news from print newsrooms across the globe. Steacy told me it was his daily ritual to read, for hours, the news stories printed on actual paper. It shouldn’t have seemed so surprising, but in this era of digital information Steacy’s insistence on printed news was, in my mind, unusual. And comforting.

It makes sense that Steacy would not only notice — but also feel attachment — to the dying news daily in his once-hometown of Philadelphia. His photographs document an atrophying Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom. The number of staffers decrease, the presses go silent, the buzz of a breaking news scoop vibrates a little less.

The series is called Deadline, and Steacy is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter to create a photobook version.

I tweeted last week that Steacy was “photographer, labor guy and workaholic” and deserving of your support. He’s worked on the series for 5 years. His father was an editor with the Philadelphia Inquirer for over 20 years before he was laid off in a round of cutbacks in 2011, and his family has been in the news industry for generations. Steacy talks of the newspaper as a form and as a bastion of an institution holding politicians, corporations and the like accountable to society as a whole. Steacy also believes the decline of the newsroom is a labour issue and more than just profits should dictate the operations of free press outlets.

Under corporate ownership every Inquirer asset is on the table in the strategy to stay alive. Ask any local, and they’ll tell you the Philadelphia Inquirer ain’t what it used to be. The focus on local coverage to secure it’s regional readership hails a goodbye to the days when the Inquirer racked up Pulitzers for fun.

The Philadelphia Inquirer still lives but it’s downsized from 700 to 200 staff, sold and moved out of its iconic headquarters, The Inquirer Building. This move, as documented by Steacy, is arguably one of the best visuals we have to grasp the size of the changes occuring now in news publishing.

While Deadline is specific to the Inquirer, the story is all too common. Large papers such as the Rocky Mountain News have shuttered completely in recent years. This devastating shift in news publishing was reflected in Philly Inquirer’s Hard Years Are Microcosm of Newspapers’ Long Goodbye, an article by my Raw File WIRED colleague Jakob Schiller, last year.

Deadline combines great images, great research, local and national narratives and a personal connection. The Kickstarter rewards are imaginative too: newsroom pencils and pin badges, and a limited edition artwork printed on the same presses that rolled out the Inquirer for decades.

Get over to Kickstarter and fund it!

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Kickstarter reward at the $25-level. Poster: “A MIRROR OF GREATNESS, BLURRED” (Edition of 50, hand numbered, signed by artist, 20″ x 24″)

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Over the course of an evening I am watching his face. He smiles, he relaxes, he shows disgust quickly, then laughs. There are so many things to keep track of. The next day I attempt to recall and I did not, as I had wished, see amalgams but instead discreet moments. There appears to be no use for the amalgamated image in recall. Perhaps this is the reason I am making the amalgamated portrait. It is an image that does not exist for me internally.

— Notes taken by Kristan Horton during production.

Ever flailed your head back-and-forth in front of the camera to catch a blurry selfie? Of course you have. We’ve all captured head-shots of seemingly maddened selves. Kristan Horton’s self-portraits are high-end versions of the blurred selfie … peppered with existential inquiry.

For his series One For Yourself, Horton faces the troubled relationship time and photography head on. Horton says a single photo is too hard to trust, so his animalistic portraits are made by combining multiple images.

“The document is never enough,” says Horton who’s discontent borders paranoia. “I need multiple perspectives to lessen an inner feeling of distrust. I think that’s why I get involved with duration.”

How can a single frame suffice? What about everything outside of the frame? What about the moment just before? Or just after? Horton prints out hundreds of images and as he flicks through the stack, configurations and blobs catch his eye.

“I’m trying to find the parts that match up and I combine them producing a neocubist portrait,” says Horton. “It was important to arrive at a result that was definitive. I keep using the word ‘solid’ [to describe the portraits]. These are heavily worked over — there’s evidence of long hours of careful collage, and yet they appear as very spontaneous things.”

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Old Master Heads

Octavius

Marty and Klaus

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Photographs are often mistaken as some sort of mirror to truth. Yet, they are static and we’re interminably moving away from every photograph ever taken; photographs don’t come close to describing the physical reality of our world. Horton’s amalgamation of image files tears each photo from its single moment in time. He uses image files as indistinguishable part of a larger artistic statement that collapses, attacks and interrogates time.

If you think of the work as navel-gazing, it’s probably because it is informed in some way by Horton’s fascination with the immediate and the everyday.

In 2010, Horton won the Grange Prize for his composite images of stacked materials in his studio. Then, I applauded the award. Horton has habitually sought to work with what is close.

“Since I’m usually living in the studio, it’s often the material of daily life,” says Horton. “Through these materials my observation and my preoccupations leak.”

The approach came undone, however, when Horton was an artist in residence in the remote west of Ireland.

“The studio was empty and at first this was disconcerting,” explains Horton. “Finally, I thought ‘If there’s nothing to work with then that’s the work.’ That’s when I grabbed the camera and took a shot of myself in this zero condition. In a sense, my reflexes kicked in and I designated myself as the raw material.”

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Chatter

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From the solitary studio, Horton went on to make work on the subway in Berlin, in a backyard in Ireland, a kitchen in Canada. Wherever. Whenever. He makes portraits of others too.

The ease with which Horton fired off a hundred shots contrasts to the hard slog in post-production. The relationship of parts is not unlike cells used in drawn animation says Horton.

“A stack of clear sheets with parts of the character on each sheet,” he describes. “Looking at it from the top you just see the character together. I’m looking through the stack and trying to find where moments in time fit together.”

Fascinated by Kurt Vonnegut’s characters the Tralfamadorians who exist outside of time and by the early science fiction stories of Ray Cummings, Horton is wondering what it is to get beyond, outside of, or on top of time. He knows it’s a fruitless charge but the effort and discovery involved in pushing photography toward an impossible premise is reward enough.

“The combinations of images are without an end. To feel any kind of satisfaction under this condition I have to at least engage, and to engage until exhaustion.” he says. “Not exhausting the subject, but exhausting yourself; an exhaustive attempt to stay in step with the complexity.”

The tortured results bare resemblance to Francis Bacon paintings. A comparison Horton is quite happy with.

“Bacon once said, ‘Technique is always dissolving. The technique of recording has to all the time be remade. It’s like a continuous invention to record a fact.’ I feel the same way,” explains Horton. “I was just trying to satisfy thoughts about a state, and the result ended up looking like something out of Bacon’s oeuvre. It didn’t upset me to arrive at that.”

And the title, One For Yourself? How did he arrive at that. Sat at a Berlin Hotel Bar, Horton explained to a fellow drinker that he was working on a project that dealt with time and the self. The companion responded, ‘One for yourself, then.’

As a title, “it seemed sympathetic to the altered state of these portraits,” asserts Horton.

One For Yourself is about Horton, and of Horton, but the way it vies with the prevalence of single-shot selfies, it might just have technique for us to borrow in the description of our own time … and  our own states.

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BIOGRAPHY

Kristan Horton was born in Niagara Falls in 1971. He lives and works in Toronto. Horton uses a variety of media — including but not limited to photography — to elaborate on the ways in which movement is represented, and the ways in which things are generated and regenerated. Horton studied at Ontario College of Art and Design and the University of Guelph, where he received his MFA in 2007. Preoccupations since the 1990s include the consumption of texts and mass media, the representation of simultaneous and rotated scenes, and the visualization of power generation. Horton is well known for his photographic series Dr. Strangelove Dr. Strangelove (2003–2006), for which he recreated scenes of a Kubrick film using items from his studio. Recent photography is in a neo-cubist vein; for his 2009 series Orbits, Horton presented photos that layered multiple, rotated views of scenes from his studio. In 2010, Horton won the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Grange Prize for contemporary photography and was included in the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian Biennial.

Werewolf

 

 

drone

Anyone doing work about drone and drone policy that I’ve spoken to has, as some point in their research, relied on the information put out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). When I wrote my piece Here’s What Drone Attacks in America Would Look Like for WIRED, BIJ was an invaluable resource, especially in providing solid figures for the numbers of drone strikes, deaths from those strikes, and specifically civilian deaths from those strikes.

BIJ’s good work continues, as it played host to the Forensic Architecture (Goldsmiths University, London) and SITU Research to produce an online interactive WHERE THE DRONES STRIKE.

With WHERE THE DRONES STRIKE which we can examine drone target types (vehicles; religious; other; domestic; unclear target). Was that an insurgent training camp that was annihilated or was it a marriage celebration full of women and children?

Due to secrecy at the Pentagon (and previously at the CIA, when it controlled the drone program), reliable information on drone attacks is very difficult to come by.

“The CIA has been bombing Pakistan’s tribal agencies with drones since June 2004. In the early years, strikes were rare. But from mid-2008 onward the frequency of strikes increased, peaking in 2010. That year, 128 strikes killed at least 751 people – of whom 84 were civilians. There were 23 strikes in September 2010 alone – the most intense month yet recorded by the Bureau,” say the BIJ.

BIJ routinely collects info on drone strikes through thousands of reports, witness testimonies and on-the-ground data from Pakistan, but this is the first time this data has been put rendered as an interactive to propel human rights and accountability.

“The map demonstrates how the frequency of strikes – and the overall reported casualties – has changed over time. It also shows how the targets of the strikes have changed,” explains BIJ. “Domestic buildings have been the most frequently hit target type in each year of the drone war. Attacks on vehicles have become gradually more frequent, and in 2011 almost as many vehicles were hit per strike, on average, as buildings. But this dropped from a peak that year and in 2013 drones targeted vehicles just three times. Attacks on vehicles tend to kill fewer people than attacks on domestic buildings, and fewer civilians. The highest death tolls of all are in the comparatively rare attacks on madrassas and mosques.”

The U.S. dropped it’s first bomb from a drone in late 2002, on Yemen. The Obama Administration only formally acknowledged it was flying killer robots over foreign lands in 2012.

Go to www.WHERETHEDRONESSTRIKE.com

For a wild editorial break down of the data (and more graphs!) read the BIJ’s report Most US Drone Strikes In Pakistan Attack Houses which accompanied last week’s release of WHERE THE DRONES STRIKE.

For regular updates on drones at home and abroad, may I recommend following the Drone Weekly Roundup and signing up for the Newsletter (scroll down) put out by the Center For The Study Of The Drone at Bard.

Update 05.11.2014: The Eventbrite registration page has been closed after 80 sign-ups. But, there’s space for walk-ins and allcomers. We don’t want to turn anyone away!

Email info@asocialpractice.com to extend your interest. Thanks.

A BIG PUBLIC CHAT

Next Friday, May 16th, as part of the Open Engagement conference, I’ll be part of a conversation about photography based art and social practice.

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The Photo-Based Social Practice panel and group brainstorming is at the Aperture Gallery in New York, 10am – 12 noon.

Moderator Eliza Gregory along with panelists Gemma-Rose Turnbull, Mark Strandquist, Wendy Ewald and I will be discussing socially engaged, transdisciplinary, and expanded practices in contemporary photography.

Highfalutin, huh? Not really. The language is big, but the query is simple. Can photography build community and empower subjects? How can photography be nice?

It’s free, but preregistration is required. Do that HERE (6th option on the list).

We’re only going to do the briefest of introductions to our work before breaking into groups to tackle a host of questions that deal with audience, relevance and good design. It only makes sense that we collaborate to tackle answers to these issues.

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We hope that the panel will follow nicely on from December’s Collaboration: Revisiting the History of Photography event that crowdsourced a new timeline of photo-history by focusing on projects with communities and groups as creators. I love the ideas involved in that.

While the Collaboration: Revisiting the History of Photography event gave new recognition to old projects and while it presented a new timeline and framework, it didn’t tackle best practices. From the projects it unearthed we can surmise the nature of some socially responsible projects, methodologies and motivations. In our discussion next week we hope to extend the conversation further and start to define common language, and potentially best practices, for socially engaged photography projects.

Please join us and help us along!

LOCATION, DATE, TIME

Aperture Gallery and Bookstore
547 West 27th Street, New York
10:00 am – 12:00 pm, Friday, May 16th.
FREE WITH REGISTRATION

NEW VENTURE! ‘PHOTOGRAPHY AS A SOCIAL PRACTICE’

Now is a good time to mention a joint venture recently started by my fellow panelists, Eliza Gregory, Gemma-Rose Turnbull and Mark Strandquist.

Photography As A Social Practice is a website for reference tools, teaching tools, and conversation about the intersection of social practice and photography. I’ll be contributing every so often and chatting on the phone about content. You can suggest resources by emailing info[at]asocialpractice[dot]com

SPONSORS

The panel is offered in conjunction with the Magnum Foundation and the Aperture Foundation who combined to publish Documentary, Expanded, the Spring Issue (#214) of Aperture Magazine as part of the Photography, Expanded initiative. Support also comes from the Open Society Documentary Photography ProjectThe School of Journalism and Communication (University of Queensland) and Portland State University‘s Art and Social Practice Program.

OPEN ENGAGEMENT, 2014

The Photo-Based Social Practice panel is part of Open Engagement, an international conference that sets out to explore various perspectives on art and social practice, and expand the dialogue around socially engaged art-making. This year, the conference addresses the theme of Life/Work. It is 2 days of programming (Sat, May 17 – Sun, May 18) at the Queens Museum, plus 1 day of pre-conference events on Fri 16th at different locations around the New York boroughs.

Miley Twerk

I never expected to make comment on the career of Miley Cyrus here on the blog, but then again, I never expected to come across the greatest sketch of Miley Cyrus ever made.

The drawing, titled Miley Twerking, was made by my friend Christian Nagler. It originally appeared in the Fall 2013 Issue of Actually People Quarterly (APQ), an indie print publication based in San Francisco. APQ and Nagler kindly provided permission to share the picture.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see a thumbnail image of Miley Cyrus in the sidebar of some website. Collections of Cyrus-resembling pixels are ubiquitous. In terms of describing Miley-Cyrus-the-person, a photograph is almost meaningless. In terms of describing Miley Cyrus-the-product, a photograph is the perfect hype-spinning money-making tool.

The reason I like Nagler’s sketch so much is that skewers the ridiculous theatre of her MTV Awards twerking AND undermines the grotesque image-driven publicity machine that surrounds her. It lays bare what she is and discards the useless debate of who she is.

Cyrus is, as with all celebrities, almost unknowable. She is not a person, but a product. She is no longer a who, but a what. Photography when it encounters celebrity elevates and promotes the what. Photography may purport to depict the who, but it does not.

This is my reading and not necessarily Nagler’s intent. I think he is genuinely interested in Cyrus; perplexed by the who, the what, and the gap between.

“The reason I think Christian’s picture is amazing is because it leaves space left open,” says APQ founder and editor, Sarah Fontaine. “It doesn’t totally proscribe an opinion on her. There’s a level of investment. A drawing takes time but a photo takes an instant.”

If I could even know Cyrus, I don’t think I’d dislike her. Everyone wants to have an opinion about Cyrus’ conduct. Some think her various states of undress hinder the movement of our culture toward one of gender equality. Often Cyrus is the focus of vitriol and frustration, but perhaps we should be looking at society as a whole? I’ll defer to Gloria Steinem and suggest we hate the game, not the player.

“I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists,” said Steinem.

Photography upholds, forwards and fortifies the game. Nagler’s sketch respectfully questions the game. My thoughts on photographing Miley Cyrus? Don’t.

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Kansas, MO and Brooklyn, NY based artist Jaimie Warren is the recipient of the 2014 Baum Award for an Emerging American Photographer. This is a curious selection for many reasons — all of them good.

Firstly, I wasn’t aware of Warren’s practice; even though she has a Wikipedia page and a long history with VICE, I had not come across Warren’s work before. I am glad I did.

Secondly, her work is wacky. The meanings of her images are elusive and you’ve got work hard with them. As many photographic artists do, Warren plays with ideas of fantasy, fun, performance and artifice, but she does so in much more aggressive, brazen way. These are not the cool, clinical images of studio assemblages we see from many young (MFA-bearing) image-makers.

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I really, really enjoy Warren’s disfigured portraits and tableaus. They’re pop, they’re a bit grotesque, they cinch perfectly into the shock-visuals of audiences habituated to the  Tumblr-driven flow of images. Warren’s work is Peewee Herman meets Carnivale meets that bonkers Halloween party you went to in 1997.

Thirdly, it is great to see an award go to a photographer who isn’t just a photographer. For all the intelligent image detournement in her work, Warren is not operating from a fine art ivory tower. Quite the opposite. Central to Warren’s work is constant collaboration with communities. Her main vehicle for making art is the non-profit community arts initiative Whoop Dee Doo.

Whoop Dee Doo works with communities “to create unique and memorable events that challenge the everyday art venue or community event.” Everything from concept to end product is intended to fit the needs of host communities, and all acts are “truly inclusive endeavors that celebrate differences and unabashed self-expression.”

Probably the best and quickest way to get a handle on the art and performances is to view the Whoop Dee Doo Vimeo Channel.

Whoop Dee Doo has worked with youth programs including Caldera Arts (Portland/Sisters, OR), Operation Breakthrough (Kansas City), the Boys & Girls Club (Kansas City), Big Brother/Big Sister (Kansas City), Girls, Inc. (Omaha, NE), Experimental Station’s Blackstone Bicycle youth Program (Chicago, IL), Urgent, Inc. and the Rites of Passage Program (Miami, FL), Muse 360 and 901 arts (Baltimore, MD), as well as college interns at the University of Central Missouri, Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Kansas City Art Institute, the University of Chicago, Maryland Institute College of Art, Rockhurst University, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Impressive.

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Jaimie Warren, Self-portrait as Bulls fan in La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau/Michael Jordan basketball painting by dosysod of the Independents, 2012.

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Jaimie Warren, Self-portrait as Nun with some of my Mother’s Favorite Famous People in the Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs of the Fiesole San Domenico Altarpiece by Fra Angelic, 2014.

From looking over the portfolios, I reckon the folky-rainbow-eclecticism of Warren and her collaborators’ work reflects something close to common feeling. What else could there by except fun, wild variance and complexity when the hands of dozens go into making something?

Breaking down stereotypes and barriers between age, gender, culture and sub-culture is one of Whoop Dee Doo‘s main objectives. The group is open to designing performances and workshops “between unlikely pairings of community members that ultimately blossom into exceptional and meaningful interactions.”

A lot of the time, the use and outcomes of awards can be hard to pin down, but I can’t imagine it’ll be too long before Warren is putting the $10,000 to use making more happenings with communities. Because she always has. Let the merriment continue.

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BAUM AWARD

The Baum Award for An Emerging American Photographer is a project established out of the conviction that photography is a powerfully influential medium with the capacity to emotionally connect with audiences in ways that words cannot. This ability to reach people on a visceral level can transform awareness to understanding and lead interest into action – fundamental aspects of a healthy and vital society.

Click here to see previous Baum Award winners.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Andres Serrano has just released Sign Of The Times a new body of work for which he bought signs from the homeless in New York at $20 a pop. Over 200 signs in total.

I’m not sure about the sound track to the video, but Serrano’s words are worth a read on the Creative Time Reports website. He doesn’t breaking any new rhetorical ground but he does make a good case for this work being a timely statement to coincide with the end of Bloomberg’s stint as city mayor. New York has a problem with homelessness.

Just once, Serrano’s words veer dangerously close to over-analysis and sentimentality:

“What struck me about the people who sold me their signs was their willingness to let go of them. It was as if they had little attachment to them even though some signs had been with them for a long time. Of course, they needed the money. Many people would tell me they had made nothing that day. But I also think that those who possess little have less attachment to material things. They know what it’s like to live with less.” [My bolding.]

But, ultimately, he grounds the work where it should be — in an it-is-what-it-is conclusion about art, and in an it-is-an-outrage statement about society:

“Although the homeless are at the bottom of the economic ladder, many Americans are not far from it. They may not be homeless, but they’re poor. Fifty million or more Americans live at or below the poverty line.”

You’ll recognise the name. Serrano brought us the *controversial* Piss Christ and in doing so exposed the small-minded vitriol of the culture wars in eighties America, that set the tone for the rightwing unthink so common today.

Despite their wildly different methodologies, Piss Christ and Sign Of The Times have a lot in common. The former magnifies the cultural differences and the latter magnifies our economic differences. Cultural and economic capital are related. Both works ask audiences about how far they, we, are willing to go to manage perspective and to get out of ones own head. Both artworks create, very efficiently, the parameters to those urgent discussions.

Sign Of The Times is a very simple project. It’s not a subversion of capitalism; in fact barter-and-trade might be one of capitalism’s purest forms!? Regardless, Serrano made small but significant one-off contributions to the lives of hundreds of homeless during the making of the work. Hopefully, the presentation of Sign Of The Times will shape public and political opinion to improve the lot for many more homeless folk?

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