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Following its 66th AGM earlier this week, Magnum Photo Agency announced that Olivia Arthur and Peter van Agtmael are its newest members.

Good choices. Peter’s a nice guy and was kind enough to offer up images and his first hand account of a story we weren’t even sure was a story. I have not met Olivia Arthur. She is a photographer I’ve admired for a long time. I am amazed (and a little embarrassed) that I’ve not mentioned her photography before here on the blog.

Jeddah Diary is one of the standout photography projects of recent years. Now is a good time to feature some images and publicly applaud Arthur’s tenaciously delicate observations of Saudi women.

In 2009 , the British Council invited Arthur to conduct a two week photography workshop with women in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Jeddah Diary does not feature the photographs made by Arthur’s students; the products of the workshops largely remain a mystery. Instead, Jeddah Diary is comprised of Arthur’s own fragmentary observations and photographic concessions that emerged as she tried to make sense of depicting a veiled subject.

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The cultural and religious traditions of Saudi Arabia restrict the opportunities to photograph many women who are not wearing the abaya. As I understand, both Arthur and the women did make images of each other unveiled, but the images could not seen or distributed; conceived of, but not shared.

Arthur says that her first impression of the city of Jeddah was that public spaces were empty. Perhaps the important (human) interactions went on behind closed doors? The abaya is only one form of cover in Saudi society. The fabric of architectures, court yards and corridors bend and shape relationships.

Saudi society thwarts many of the visual relationships — photographer/subject and photographer/audience — that are taken for granted in secular countries and in less traditional regions of the Arab world. As such, Jeddah Diary is a collection of work-arounds and solutions; rephotographed portraits, limbs and parts of people, plays with spotlight and night shadow to obscure identities.

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The parameters of negotiation between Arthur and the women about what could be shown trod, at times, strange ground. After using flash to anonymise her subject (above photo), Arthur showed it to the women and they responded, “That’s great, but can’t you show a bit more of her eyes so people can see how beautiful she is?” asked some of the women.

These unique discussions led to photographer and subjects becoming close friends. Arthur says:

“On my first trip to Saudi I worked in medium format but this photo was taken on my second trip, using a little Panasonic Lumix. Because this was the sort of camera the women themselves used, when I used it they started to stop seeing me as a photographer and saw me instead as a friend. At the beginning I’d been clear with them that – as professional photographer – I wanted to show these pictures, but the funny thing was that when I switched cameras they relaxed and I ended up taking pictures that afterwards they didn’t want me to use.”

For me, the most compelling images are those of women veiled and in everyday moments; sitting on a kitchen counter, in a restaurant; fooling around while sharing tea. These are intimate events and the challenge to depict a hidden subject can be solved the moment one abandons a battle against restraints. Arthur’s interactions and discoveries are central to the book Jeddah Diary.

“I just thought, let’s take people on the journey that I went on, and show how confusing and contradictory it can be rather than trying to explain it; that’s the point when it finally made sense to me.”

And because of Arthur’s efforts, it starts to make sense for us. As Antone Dolezal remarks in his review of the book, “Jeddah Diary tells a story that could only be informed from a female perspective … a story both hidden from the world of men and only privately discussed in the world of women.”

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Jeddah Diary, by it’s nature cannot make full sense to us. Or rather, if we adopt our usual insistence to see idenifiable faces, and know names, and have place and date stamps attached to each image, we’ll be sorely disappointed. Arthur’s primary consideration was to protect her friend-subjects. As Sarah Bradley notes in her review of the book:

“It’s hard to tell who we are looking at in the images — some girls are named, but we see few faces, and in a small postscript Arthur makes it clear that in no way should one infer that the girls attending illegal parties are the same girls depicted elsewhere in the book. Her thank-yous show that many chose not to be named.”

Jeddah Diary is a moment of slippage. It is a document of the undocumentable. In that regard it is also a moment of reflection — and, for me, a cause of sadness — on the fact that Saudi women have limited choices in how they operate in society and interact with the world. Fashion is a flip topic, but clothing is not. It’s a simple point to make, but the abaya limits self-expression. I wouldn’t want to state the degree to which self-expression is limited or even what the results (positive and negative) emerge from a single, designated type of garb for one gender in a society.

The women in Jeddah Diary were, based on Arthur’s report, ambivalent about the project. And, I feel, probably reluctant to think of images as agents for social change.

“I was surprised how few of them had any major feedback. When I was there and tried to ask them how they felt about their situation, they’d say, “You know what – we’re okay” so I’d leave it. They were happy to be in the photographs but they’re not bothered about the comment I’m making on their society.”

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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!’

A Corrections Officer forcibly restrains an unruly prisoner who was screaming and claiming abuse by the officer, Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois. April, 2011.

CONTEXT

In April 2011, Peter van Agtmael was assigned by Newsweek to photograph Tom Dart, the Sheriff of Cook County, Chicago, Illinois. The coverage involved one day’s access to Cook County Jail and day of access to the ride-alongs with the PD. With a daily average of 11,000 inmates, Cook County Jail is the largest facility of detention in the U.S.

During his time in the jail, van Agtmael witnessed an altercation and heard allegations of abuse.

“The possibility of one more day of access to the jail was floated, but then didn’t come through.”

It is uncertain as to whether van Agtmael’s photographs of the contact between prisoner and deputy affected the decision to cancel the next day’s proposed visit. Van Agtmael isn’t even sure if it was Newsweek or the Sheriff’s department’s decision to cancel.

Newsweek consequently killed the story.

“I don’t know why the story was killed,” says van Agtmael. “No reason was given. Tony Dokoupil, the reporter, briefly referenced the trip in a May 29, 2011 article, Mad As Hell.”

Van Agtmael explains the background to the story, “Dart had became notorious in 2008 for halting evictions tied to foreclosure. He became something of a populist hero, and a deal made with the courts gave homeowners and tenants more leeway to contest their evictions.”

TESTIMONY

Van Agtmael recounts, “Sheriff Dart was giving Tony Dokoupil and I a tour of the jail system, and I heard screams and dull thuds coming from down a corridor. I ran towards the sounds and began photographing a cop pushing the young man against a wall. I began photographing the scene. The young man was screaming that the officer had been beating him, and the officer was yelling at me to stop photographing as he pushed the man further down the hallway. I followed and continued to photograph.”

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A Corrections Officer forcibly restrains an unruly prisoner who was screaming and claiming abuse by the officer.

“The officer kept yelling at me to stop, and seemed to be trying to simultaneously restrain me as well as the man, but I kept out of arm’s length and explained that I was a guest of Sheriff Dart and had been promised open access to the jail. A moment later, Dart appeared and upon his arrival the situation calmed considerably. He asked the man to explain what had happened to him, wrote a few things down, and then the police officer pushed the young man into an elevator.

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“A few minutes later we came across the bald man who asked me to take his picture and whispered to me that the cops had punched him repeatedly in the face, resulting in the bruising in the portrait. I had no way of independently verifying the statement,” says van Agtmael.

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A Corrections Officer leads a prisoner – who had tried to escape – to a holding cell.  The man was cut and bruised and claimed he had been beaten by officers after he tried to escape.

“Honestly, it’s very hard for me to make an informed commentary based on a day spent in the jail system. I saw a lot of desperation, and heard stories of alleged abuse, but the context and time limitations would compromise any superficial interpretation. I’ll let the pictures represent my experiences,” van Agtmael concludes.

Inmate of Cook County Jail who is cut and bruised. He claimed he had been beaten by officers after he tried to escape.

THOUGHTS

This ambiguous series of photographs goes right to the heart of the efforts I make on Prison Photography to decipher prisons and jails, which for the most part are invisible worlds. Immediately, their meaning and interpretations are up for discussion; they are contested.

Maybe, Newsweek wanted a fuller picture of the Cook County Jail system? Maybe, the relevance of the planned story passed? For me, the fact the story was killed is a sad turn of events.

Getting involved in meta-analysis of journalism can be dangerous but in van Agtmael’s photographs are the kernels of a larger story. It’s not that the stories of these two inmates and these two correctional officers were not told, it is that no story at all was told.

But, let’s not be churlish; this blog post is not an exposé. Van Agtmael’s images are not an illumination of a definable event because the details cannot be verified. They are, however, a depressing suggestion of the fraught and intense-contact situations that play out in prisons and jails across the U.S. every day.

I am not amplifying the inmates’ allegations; to do so would be baseless. I also don’t want to appear to be generally criticising correctional officers. I will however criticise politicians and a voting public that allows mammoth-sized prisons and jails to operate. The experience of prisoners and staff would be less frantic in smaller institutions, and in institutions designed to treat (as well as categorise) and not necessarily detain as their main task.

By publishing these photos my aim is to – again – call readers to think not only about the images they see but those they don’t see. Ultimately, I take van Agtmael’s tack, which is, to let the photographs speak for themselves.

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Here’s some other selects from van Agtmael’s visit to Cook County Jail:

Anthony Smith, a prisoner in the Cook County Jail, Chicago, IL, complains to Sheriff Tom Dart about his treatment and sentence.

Sandwiches for prisoners in the Cook County jail system.

An employee of the Cook County jail system.

A deputy at the Cook County Jail.

PETER VAN AGTMAEL

Peter van Agtmael (b. 1981) graduated from Yale University in 2003 with a degree in History. Following graduation, he spent a year in China on the Charles P. Howland fellowship photographing the effects of the Three Gorges Dam. Since the beginning of 2006, he has documented the consequences of America’s Wars, at home and abroad.  A monograph of the work, ‘2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die’ was published in 2009. In 2008, he helped organize the exhibition and book Battlespace, a retrospective of unseen work from 22 photographers covering Iraq and Afghanistan. Peter is represented by Magnum Photos.

Peter van Agtmael has been awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Young Photographer (2011); PDN Photo Annual (2011); PDN 30 (2010); PDN Photo Annual (2010); American Photography Annual (2010); FOAM Talent (2009); Santa Fe Project Competition –  Honorable Mention; Pulitzer Center Grant (2008); World Press Photo Joop Masterclass (2008).

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All images: Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
‘Unconcerned but not Indifferent’ Foto8 (March 2008)

Timmy (center), with Peter (left) and Frederick, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

Timmy (center), with Peter (left) and Frederick, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

Dion, 41, General in the 28s describing his imaginary uniform, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

Dion, 41, General in the 28s describing his imaginary uniform, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

If two ends of the spectrum were identified this week during the debate about race and how it is (mis)treated by photographic practice we could see them as the moronic fashion world practitioners and then everybody else – “everybody else” being social documentarians, new-media image-makers, old-school bang-bang-club photographers and fine art practitioners. This second larger group is where most thoughtful folk place their energies.

Bizarrely there are a couple of guys who run the length of this spectrum. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin used to be the creative directors of Benetton’s controversial Colors Magazine AND they travel through Africa and Central America taking photographs of people in institutions.

Broomberg and Chanarin have also pissed a lot of people off. They are that good.

We all remember Steven Mayes’s departure speech from the World Press Photo, but Broomberg and Chanarin beat him to his oft-repeated remarks that photographers repeat motifs and collectively thicken the pen around photojournalism’s self-drawn caricature.

A full year prior to Mayes’ rallying call for new imagery (genuine, everyday Black culture; affluent drug use and users; and real sex), Broomberg and Chanarin were throwing punches low and hard at photojournalism’s conceit. They quoted Brecht; ‘The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about conditions in this world. On the contrary photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth.’

In turn, Broomberg and Chanarin relied on Sontag and Barthes;

‘Since its inception photojournalism has traded in images of human suffering. If one of its motivations for representing tragedy has been to change the world then it has been unsuccessful. Instead the profession has turned us into voyeurs, passively consuming these images, sharing in the moment without feeling implicated or responsible for what we are seeing. Roland Barthes summed up the analgesic effect of looking at images of horror when he wrote “someone has shuddered for us; reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing – except a simple right of intellectual acquiescence”.’

They provide a pat description of the “obscene feeling” jury process in which there is no text, caption or context. Judgement is dependent only on the aesthetics of the image: “We are asked to judge whether, for example, a photograph of a child suffocating to death in a mudslide is sufficiently beautiful to win a prize.” After this Broomberg and Chanarin explain the means by which the panel narrowed down the 81,000 images to five winners, suggesting with some contempt that Hetherington’s Exhausted Soldier was a predictable result.

Before I go any further, I should say that Tim Hetherington voiced a stirring rebuttal to Broomberg and Chanarin’s derision.

Self-Portrait by Mario, Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba. (c-type print 12" x 16", 2033)

Self-Portrait by Mario, Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba. (c-type print 12" x 16", 2033)

So what? They’re a grumpy duo with a pocket full of common critical theory? Yes … and no. They go further. To my observations they apply what they preach. I have coined the term Slow Photography for this piece because they lug about a 4×5 camera and as well as standing over the top of their medium format to hold a conversation, they’ll usually stick around for a week or three.

There is a sense that Broomberg and Chanarin arrive ‘either too early or too late’ and not within the usual media-driven time scale at a site of social crisis.

They’ve described the relationships they build with their subjects as very important. Lucky for them they have the leisure to hang around you are saying?! Fair point, but they use their time well.

With Ghetto, they went to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in South Africa and made portraits of male, female and transgendered inmates. They went to Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba also. In total they went to twelve rare communities, methodically photographing and asking the same questions: “Who is in power here? Where do you go to be alone, to make love, to be with friends? What are your hopes and dreams?”

I love that question, “Who’s in power here?”

Broomberg and Chanarin simultaneously reference old slower photo-processes and question the sped-up practices of 21st century photojournalism. Charlotte Cotton, Curator of Photographs at the V&A, has observed, “The sense of activity being slowed for the camera references nineteenth century photography both in terms of process and style. It also serves to detach their photographs from the conventions of photojournalism.”

And if we needed any more proof that these two geezers are on top of their game, lets look how they dealt with the two major conflicts of the beginning of the 21st century.

They got quiet with wartime scratches and scrawls, but have received none of the plaudits Peter Van Agtmael, Tim Hetherington, Roger Ballen or bubble chamber photography have.

The Red House documented the prison and torture center run by Saddam Hussein’s Baath party in Sulaymaniyah, Iraki Kurdistan, 330 kilometres from Baghdad.

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

And, then when they were “privileged” enough to merit an embedded assignment with the British military in Afghanistan they thumbed their noses at any notion of photojournalism. Instead they took 70 metres of photo sensitive paper and unrolled sections to expose it to light and that became the record of each day and their time in conflict.

Each roll was given its title based on the occurrence of an event, death or absence of death during that day. Below is the work from the day of a prison escape.

The Jail Break, June 13th 2008. 76.2 x 600cm, c-type

The Jail Break, June 13th 2008. 76.2 x 600cm, c-type

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