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ashgilbertson

Prison Photography (PP): You use Twitter.

Ashley Gilbertson (AG): I initially got on Twitter because I found Facebook pretty boring. It was turning into people’s family photo albums, which is fine, but …

Twitter was a place that I was getting breaking news from. Not always correct but sources on the ground. That for me was very effective in terms of looking at primary sources and things as they developed. I still go to a few news sites, but I am getting my breaking news from Twitter. It sounds ridiculous, but I do.

I use Twitter for conversations and ideas too. I come across stories. Somebody can tweet something that sets the wheels turning in my head that can turn into a story idea. If I don’t want to cover it then I’ll retweet it and say this is potentially a good story idea. I try to share in this creative process.

PP: You use Instagram.

AG: I joined Instagram because VII started an account and I thought I’d be a team player. I keep trying but it’s not really my thing. My digital photographs suck and so therefore my iPhone photographs are freaking terrible.

I took a picture of a dead rat I came across on the street, posted it and suggested I might do a series on roadkill and make a book. I’m trying to take the piss a little bit but no-one really gets it. Someone contacted me and said, “I hate to tell you Ash, but someone has already done that.”

I present certain photographs to the world that are very carefully edited and all of a sudden I’m making photographs on the fly and they’re bad! That’s got to hurt my reputation!

I love taking pictures of my wife and son but they are for me.

PP: I don’t want to know about your heroes, I want to know about how you think is making good work right now.

AG: I think Seamus Murphy is doing some really great stuff with multimedia – he takes unusual approaches that I thoroughly enjoy.

I love Peter van Agtmael. Peter’s a thinker. His work is very emotional, really textural, really beautiful and I think Peter is turning into one of the best photographs that we have out there working today. I have a lot of respect for his approach.

Todd Heisler. Reading the New York Times, his pictures just stand on their own. I like being able to look at a paper and know who the photographer is – “It’s Todd. He nailed it again.”

I like Mishka Henner‘s approach to the medium, I like his execution of ideas, and I like his defense of the work. That to me is the complete package. I’ve argued about Henner’s work without him in the room. One person was calling him a photographer, I was calling him a curator, and we realized it didn’t matter. Call him what you fucking want. Henner’s just interesting. Period.

I like people who are pushing the medium. While I have a hell of a lot of respect for traditional photography, I don’t see the need for ten photographers to all shoot the same scene in this reportage manner. I’d rather see three photographers, say  from the New York Times, LA Times and Wall Street Journal [do straight shooting] and see the other seven trying to connect with an audience in a different manner.

PP: Cell phones?

The iPhone debate has legs. Cell phone photography is not that boring. It’s the first time photojournalists have ever let themselves go, stylistically. We’re not confined to having to reproduce colours in exactly the way that we see them or not add certain elements of light, sun-flares or whatever it is.

The problem with the conversation [about style and filters] is that it is so often talked about in a defensive manner.

PP: People start by defending the ethics of cell phone photography?

AG: Yes. And, of course it’s totally ethical. Rather they should start with, “Obviously, it is very different to how I shoot on a Canon 5D; it’s a totally different approach with a totally different understanding.”

It doesn’t bother me that photojournalism is loosening up.

PP: For the longest time, a mythos has surrounded anointed photojournalists. They’ve been treated as gods, if you like. But, with the rise Instagram – which is, paradoxically, considered a platform for navel gazing narcissism – famous photojournalists have become more familiar, less godlike.

AG: We’re from a new generation. The photographers I knew growing up were either dead or very mysterious. I remember picking through magazines and trying to find little scraps of information about Ron Haviv or James Nachtwey and these giants in the industry. They were so mysterious it was almost part of the allure. They’re not the story; they’re behind the camera and they are not there to talk about themselves, they were there to talk about their subjects and that to me was very effective.

But now, I realize that to reach the widest possible audience you often have to engage yourself in the production of the story. I need to explain how it was meeting hundreds of families who had lost a son or a daughter to the war. I think that adds to the story and to people’s compassion for the subject. But, it doesn’t sit well with me. It might look like it does because I am so open to it, but still I wonder if I should shut my mouth, close down all my social media, and just get on with photography.

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Image by Ash Gilbertson, from his Instagram feed, a rat I think, sometime in late Summer, somewhere, accompanied by the caption, ‘Tyre Tracks!’

Photobloggers have come out in force to deliver their tributes to photographers doing significant work. These sprawling congrats are congealing into a tasty list of practitioners who exhibit cunning, skill, bravado and novelty in their approach and product.

Colin Pantall began all these shenanigans fresh from a summer of non-blogging and sipping fines teas. He says these photographers are leading us toward “a brave new world.”

Joerg has listed the names put forward so far:

Blake Andrews: Philip Perkis

Stan Banos: Aaron Huey, Taryn Simon, Eva Leitolf, Matt Black, Brenda Ann Keneally, James Baalog, Edward Burtynsky, Bruce Haley, Daniel Shea

Harvey Benge: Paul Graham, Jason Evans, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Jens Sundheim & Bernhard Reuss, Collier Schorr, Antoine d’Agata, Martha Rosler

Peter Evans: Obara Kazuma

Bryan Formhals: Asger Carlsen, Jessica Eaton, Kate Steciw, Alec Soth, Paul Kwiatkowski, Vivian Maier

Julie Grahame: Michael Massaia

Tom Griggs: Bryan Graf, Amy Elkins, Paul Graham, Abelardo Morell, Jessica Eaton

Stella Kramer: Sophia Wallace

Mark Page: Mishka Henner, Philippe Spigolon, Craig Atkinson, Stuart Griffiths, TomRS

Colin Pantall: Mishka Henner, Lauren Simonutti, Stephen Gill, Tony Fouhse, Paul Graham, Claus Stolz, Olivier Jobard and others

Christopher Paquette: Zoe Strauss, Alec Soth

Andrew Phelps: Peter Miller

Heidi Romano: Taryn Simon, Myoung Ho Lee

Joerg Colberg: Thomas Ruff, Katy Grannan, Erik Kessels, Geert van Kesteren, Christian Patterson

Some superb photographer and photomanipulators. I wholeheartedly agree with choices Broomberg & Chanarin and Geert van Kesteren who have cleverly worked with archives and cell phone wartime images respectively.

I’ve got six on my list.

1.

I’ll be another to name Mishka Henner. I think his time has come. Bound to wind a few folk up, he at least steps forward to defend his use of satellite, GSV and Google Earth images. He’s forcing everyone past the unnecessary reverence we have for images as single art objects and imaginatively pointing out the visual cultures all around us.

Henner does not lazily appropriate and his next series (which I’ve seen snippets of on his iPhone) is a robust political critique of humans’ abuse of the environment. And then there is Photographers, a 10 minute montage looking at photographers on the silver screen. Surprising, fun, entertaining.

2.

It might seem strange to add a well established photographer like Jim Goldberg to this list but I’m interested in his reissue of Rich and Poor with TBW Books in Oakland, CA.

I also saw Rich and Poor at Pier24 recently and was left angered and energised; the best possible reaction to art.

Jim talked about his reasons for revisiting old work including the legendary Raised By Wolves with TIME’s Lightbox this week:

“The children in Raised by Wolves were living hard lives—lives that were leading to nowhere. So now, when I reheard a recording that Brandon the intern had found in some box, and I heard the voice of, lets say, Tweeky Dave, well that added something that would extend to the viewers experience of the project.”

It’s pretty ballsy to hand over the reigns to the intern! But great product.

3.

Alyse Emdur‘s name on the list reflects my interest in prisons, but I was impressed by her Photograph A Recruiter before she got neck deep in the visual culture of incarceration. Emdur’s correspondence with hundreds of prisoners and their donated prints reveal a specific, a widespread, but a little seen genre of vernacular American photography.

Her book is just around the corner! My interview with Alyse.

4.

Alixandra Fazzina is one of the least self-promoting documentary photographers I know. Her work about Somali refugees A Million Shillings – Escape From Somalia is one of the best pieces of social reportage from Africa in this century and the last. And the book is beautiful.

5.

The Instagramer. I’m being contrary with the inclusion of Peter DiCampo on this list, but he is young, using Instagram, and less well known than other famous photographers such as Kashi, Stanmeyer and Pinkhassov making images with their phones.

No need to argue anymore; cell phones allow us to share images instantly and there is an inherent worth to that. Peter DiCampo represents that seismic shift we’ve yet to get to grips with. See his Everyday Africa project.

A woman hangs laundry in Takira, Uganda on May 29, 2012. © Peter DiCampo.

6.

Another recent discovery, Tomoko Sawada is a self portrait specialist. I spent ten minutes in front of Recruit/Grey knowing that they were all images of her but still unwilling to accept it. She’s a grand manipulator in the quietest way; a refreshing tonic to Cindy Sherman.

Last year, in the article Photographing the Prostitutes of Italy’s Backroads: Google Street View vs. Boots on the Ground, I compared the work of artists Mishka Henner and Paolo Patrizi both of whom were making images of prostitution on the back roads of Spain and Italy.

I argued that the photographs by Patrizi, due to their physical and emotional proximity had more relevance. Patrizi actually went to the roadside locations whereas Henner, making use of Google Street View, had not.

Around the same time, Joerg Colberg posted some thoughts about Henner’s No Man’s Land.

Shortly thereafter, Mishka Henner emailed me and mounted an impassioned defense of his work. Henner felt he had been “thrown to the cyber-lions.” Not wanting to see anyone with his or her nose bent, I offered Henner a platform on Prison Photography for right of reply.

CONVERSATION

PB: What was your issue with the commentary on No Man’s Land?

MH: There’s a section of the photo community judging No Man’s Land according to a pretty narrow set of criteria. So narrow they’re avoiding one of the elephants in the room, which is what role is left for the street photographer in the age of Google Street View? Comparing No Man’s Land to other projects on sex workers could be interesting but the way it’s done here is resulting in a pretty narrow discussion about whether it’s valid, ethical or just sensationalistic. I don’t see how that helps move documentary forwards. All the projects you mention, including mine, assert themselves as documents of a social reality. But in your discussion, this is secondary to how they make you feel and Colberg even argues Patrizi’s approach makes you care. My motivation isn’t to make you feel or to care – it’s to make you think.

MH: No Man’s Land uses existing cameras, online interest groups, and one of the subjects interwoven in the history of photography. And I think the ability to combine these elements says something about the cultural and technological age we live in. In some photographic circles, that’s the way it’s being discussed and I’m surprised Colberg and yourself have dismissed it in favour of more reactionary arguments that seem to hark back to what I see as a conservative and nostalgic view of the medium.

PB: Well, if preference for boots on the ground and a suspicion of a GSV project is reactionary, then okay. Why did you use GSV for No Man’s Land? Are you opposed to documentary work?

MH: This is documentary work, how can it not be? And what’s this suspicion of GSV? Would you have been suspicious of Eugene Atget walking the streets with his camera? I’m sure many were at the time but that suspicion seems ridiculous now. And your response is reactionary because it validates and dismisses work according to quite spurious and nebulous criteria. What does it matter if I released the shutter or not? A social reality has been captured by a remote device taking billions of pictures no one else ever looked at or collected in this way before. You’re only seeing this record because I’ve put it together. The project is about the scale of a social issue, not about trying to convince a viewer that they should have pity for individual subjects. Yet in these circles, the latter uncritically dwarfs the former as though it’s the only valid approach.

MH: Paolo Patrizi’s Migration is evidently an accomplished visual body of work, as is Txema SalvansThe Waiting Game but to argue they offer a deeper insight into the plight of sex workers is, I think, generous to say the least.

MH: The assumption underlying much of the critiques of No Man’s Land (in particular Alan Chin’s) is that there’s no research and it’s a lazy, sensationalistic account of something fabricated. But what if I told you it was researched and took months to produce; what basis would there be then for dismissing it? Doesn’t research inform 90% of every documentary photographer’s work (it did mine, maybe I wasn’t doing it right)? What’s left unsaid in these critiques is that No Man’s Land doesn’t fit a rather narrow and conservative view of what one community believes photography should be. The fact we’re drowning in images and that new visions of photography are coming to light are a scary prospect to that community, hence the reactionary and defensive responses. But there’s more to these responses than simply validating boots on the ground. You’re prioritizing a particular way of seeing and rejecting another that happens to be absolutely contemporary.

PB: I think we can agree Patrizi is accomplished. I was deliberately lyrical in my description of his work and I meant it when I was personally moved by Patrizi’s work. That is a personal response.

MH: That’s fine, but what does Patrizi tell us that is missing from No Man’s Land? Is the isolation and loneliness of a feral roadside existence and the domestication of liminal spaces really that much more evident in one body of work than the other? Surprisingly – given your sympathy for Patrizi’s’ approach – even the women’s anonymity is matched in each project. No captions, no locations, no names, and no personal stories. Just a well-researched introductory text that refers in general terms to the women’s experiences. I think you’re viewing the work through rose-tinted spectacles.

PB: I can’t argue with your point about anonymity. There may be an element of gravitating toward [Patrizi’s] familiar methods. This might be because reading the images resultant of those methods is safe for the audience; they find it more easily accessible, possibly even instructive in how they should react?

MH: Working in documentary for many years, I can’t deny I aimed for these lofty aspirations. But I now consider the burden of sympathy expected from a narrow language of documentary to be a distracting filter in the expression of much more complex realities. Pity has a long and well-established aesthetic and I just don’t buy it anymore. In themselves the facts are terrible and I don’t need a sublime image to be convinced of that. In the context of representing street prostitution, striving for the sublime seems a far more perverse goal to me than using Street View and much more difficult to defend.

MH: Alan Chin’s comments surprised me because I wouldn’t expect such a knee-jerk reaction from an apparently concerned photographer. But his work is a type of documentary that I’m reacting against; a kind of parachute voyeurism soaked in a language of pity that reduces complex international and domestic scenarios into pornographic scenes of destruction and drama. It’s the very oxygen the dumb hegemonic narrative of terror thrives on and I reject it. Why you would pick his critique of my work is beyond me – we’re ships passing in the night.

PB: I quoted Chin because he and I were already been in discussion with others about the many photo-GSV projects. He represented a particularly strong opposition to all the GSV projects including No Man’s Land.

MHNo Man’s Land is disturbing, I agree. And it troubles and inspires me in equal measure that I can even make a body of work like it today. But it isn’t just about these women, it’s also about the visual technologies at our disposal and how by combining them with certain data sets (in this case, geographic locations logged and shared by men all around the world), an alternative form of documentary can emerge that makes use of all this new material to represent a current situation. It appeals to me because it doesn’t evoke what I think of as the tired devices of pity and the sublime to get its point across.

PB: It’s not that I don’t like No Man’s Land, but I prefer Patrizi’s Migration; it is close(r) and it is technically very competent work. There’s plenty of art/documentary photography that doesn’t impress me as much as Patrizi’s does. A clumsy photographer could’ve dealt with the topics of migration and the sex industry poorly. I don’t think Patrizi did.

MH: I don’t know what you mean by clumsy. If by clumsy you mean a photographer who shows us what they see as opposed to what they think others want to see then bring it on, I’d love to see more of that. No Man’s Land might seem cold and distant, it might even appear to be easy (it isn’t), but it’s rooted in an absolutely present condition. What you consider to be its weakness – its inability to get close to the photographic subject, its struggle to evoke pity – is what I consider to be its strength.

PB: The detachment is the problem for all concerned. People may be using your work as a scapegoat. This would be an accusation that I could, partly, aim at myself. Does your work reference the frustration of isolation and deadened imagination in a networked world?

MH: At first, I reacted strongly to your description of my work as anemic but now I think it’s a pretty good description of the work. And it’s an accurate word for describing what I think of as the technological experience today, our dependence on it and its consequences.

PB: Consequences?

MH: I know, like most working photographers, that for all the fantasies of a life spent outdoors, much of a photographer’s workload happens online. And if you’re a freelancer, the industry demands that you’re glued to the web. It’s not the way I’d like it to be; it just happens to be the world I’m living in. And anyone reading this online on your blog is likely to share that reality. So it seems natural and honest that as an artist, I have to explore that reality rather than deny its existence.

PB: For audiences to grasp that you’re dealing – with equal gravity – two very different concerns of photography (the subject and then also contemporary technologies) opens up a space for confusion. Not your problem necessarily, but possibly the root of the backlash among the audience.

MH: Well, it’s surprising to me that few critics have actually discussed the work in relation to the context in which it was produced, i.e. as a photo-book. If even the critics are judging photo-books and photographs by their appearance on their computer screens, then I rest my case.

PB: What difference does the book format make to your expected reactions to the body of work?

MH: For one thing the book takes the work away from the online realm and demands a different reading. That in itself transforms it and turns it into a permanent record. Otherwise I’d just leave the work on-screen. I recently produced a second volume and intend to release a third and then a fourth, continuing for as long as the material exists.

PB: On some levels, people’s reactions to your work seem strange. If people are so affronted, they should want to change society and not your images?

MH: Too often, I find that beautifully crafted images of tragedy and trauma have become the safe comfort zones to which our consciences retreat. It’s something people have come to expect and it doesn’t sit easily with me. When I think of No Man’s Land, I keep returning to Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray:

No artist has ethical sympathies.
An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.

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No Man’s Land will be on showfrom May 3rd until 27th – at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, OR 97209. Tuesday – Sunday, 12-5 pm.

Last night, a rogue bunch of characters descended on the Cornerhouse, in fair Manchester, to confirm that they were really people and more than just the phenomenal pixels they’d previously transmitted to the world.

Before the third beer, discussion had included environmental destruction in China, the rise of the newsprint for photo self-pubs, Polish Liverpool fans, Google Earth, Roma and Romania, photobooks, the power of Duckrabbit, why U.S. prisons are so bad, Sikhism, M.A. distinctions, hierarchies of needs, hierarchies of power within the photoworld, and freeing yourself of all of it.

Here’s the line up.

GEMMA THORPE

SEBA KURTIS

SEAN GALLAGHER

CIARA LEEMING

PERCY DEAN

MISHKA HENNER

© Paolo Patrizi, from the series Migration

This week, I wrote two pieces for Raw File on Google Street View.

The first was a gallery of the various projects spawned by GSV, and the second was a piece about authorship and the repetition of nine scenes in two of the most well known GSV projects (Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes and Michael Wolf’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and FY.)

Anecdotally, the photo-thinkers out there are converging on Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture as the most robust work. A close contender though is the relatively new No Man’s Land by Mishka Henner.

© Mishka Henner

No Man’s Land (more images here) is a disturbingly large selection of GSV screen-grabs of (presumably) prostitutes awaiting customers on the back roads of Italy. Henner says:

I came across communities using Street View to trade information on where to find sex workers. I thought that was the subject to work with. Much of my work is really about photography and this subject tapped into so many aspects of it; The fact the women’s faces are blurred by the software, that they look at the car with the same curiosity that we have when looking at them, and finally, that the liminal spaces they occupy are in the countryside or on the edge of our cities – it all has such great symbolism for our time. And that’s aside from the fact these women have occupied a central place in the history of documentary photography.

But for traditionalists, No Man’s Land is a long way from the spirit of documentary photography. Of Henner’s work and of all GSV series generally, the ever-outspoken Alan Chin says:

“Google Street Views is a navigational tool, an educational resource, and sure, it can reveal a lot about a place and a scene at a given moment in time. But if you, the artist, are really so interested, then go there and take some pictures yourself. This is about as interesting as cutting out adverts from magazines that have some connection and then presenting your edit as a work of art. Post-modern post-structuralist post-whatever denizens of of the art world and academia love this shit. Which is well and good for the university-press industry. But it has little to do with actual reporting and actual documentary work in the field.”

Well, just last week, I came across Paolo Patrizi documentary photographer that actually took himself to those byways.

For Migration, Patrizi has keenly researched where these women have come from and where, if anywhere, they may be going. From the project statement:

“The phenomenon of foreign women, who line the roadsides of Italy, has become a notorious fact of Italian life. These women work in sub-human conditions; they are sent out without any hope of regularizing their legal status and can be easily transferred into criminal networks. [...] For nearly twenty years the women of Benin City, a town in the state of Edo in the south-central part of Nigeria, have been going to Italy to work in the sex trade and every year successful ones have been recruiting younger girls to follow them. [...] Most migrant women, including those who end up in the sex industry, have made a clear decision to leave home and take their chances overseas. [...] Working abroad is therefore often seen as the best strategy for escaping poverty. The success of many Italos, as these women are called, is evident in Edo. For many girls prostitution in Italy has become an entirely acceptable trade and the legend of their success makes the fight against sex traffickers all the more difficult.”

Patrizi is interviewed on the Dead Porcupine blog and talks about the unchanging situation, the pain experienced by the women, their reactions to him, and the destruction of woodland by authorities in attempts to literally expose the illicit encounters. It’s a must read.

The images in Migrations are inescapably bleak; therein lies their power.

© Paolo Patrizi

© Paolo Patrizi

© Paolo Patrizi

© Paolo Patrizi

Patrizi’s Migration induces a visceral shock; images of the littered make-shift sex-camps turn the stomach. When human fluids are dumped, it is not usual that humans continue to function in and around them. These workstead pits of dirt, tarps and abuse are shrines to the shortcomings of globalisation and the social safety net.

By contrast, Henner’s work allows us to keep a safe distance. He even saves us the trouble of finding these scenes on our own computer screens; we’re detached one step beyond. We are cheap consumers.

Patrizi’s photography with its clear evidence of his boots on the ground don’t allow us to share Henner and Google’s amoral and disinterested eye.

On Henner’s virtual tour, we cruise, at 50mph. We don’t stop, we don’t get out the car and we don’t get too close. We might as well be in another country … which of course we are. Patrizi’s work walks us by hand to the edge of the soiled mattresses and piles of discarded condoms.

Patrizi’s images counter the washed out colours, the flattening effect of wide-angle lenses, and the perpendicular viewpoint of GSV. Instead, they involve texture, depth, legitimate colour, details and different focal points along different sight-lines. In other words, Patrizi’s Migration engages the senses and the basics of human experience. Patrizi’s photographs return us to the shocking fact that that these women are human and not just bit-parts in the difficult social narratives of contemporary society. Works full of threat, fear, flesh and blood.

By comparison, Henner’s screen-grabs are anaemic.

Via del Ponte Pisano, Rome, Italy. © Mishka Henner

© Mishka Henner

Carretera de Gand­a, Oliva, Spain. © Mishka Henner

© Mishka Henner

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