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Before Christmas, I mentioned that Zora Murff‘s first photobook Corrections–published by Ain’t Bad Editions–was out. I was invited to write the introduction essay. Murff and I agreed that it’d be nice to share the essay with some images here on the blog.
The title of the essay “Off Paper” comes from a common phrase used by many of the children with whom Murff worked. It refers to the time when they will no longer be supervised, monitored, checked, tested or on probation. I thought it interesting that they describe paper documents as the form that control takes. Especially as it is networked, electronic, digital devices that are increasingly used to maintain the day-to-day control over their activities.
Paradoxically, Murff has tried to describe the children’s experiences and individuality beyond the formless, GPS surveillance, the case number and the rules under which each lives. Murff has used photography–and specifically the photobook–to do that. He has put them on paper. Unlike legal paper, the paper of art is non-binding and possibly more sympathetic.
The kids hope they are only temporarily on paper, in the legal sense, but Murff’s book locks them permanently in. And on.
Scroll down for the essay.
“My therapist said that I’m a criminal because I think like a criminal. She’s wrong. I’ve just made some bad choices when I’m in the moment. It doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing right.”
– A youth in the Linn County Juvenile Detention & Diversion Services system.
The extreme cruelties and systemic failures of the United States’ brutal prisons are, at this point, well known. Far from being a solution, mass incarceration in America has exacerbated profound social problems, widened the gap between the haves and have-nots and set generations back. We’re starting to accept these truths and admit our collective mistakes. We’re starting to think less-and-less of prisons as institutions that solve the behaviors and social dynamics that lead to the state’s need to control; we’re starting to identify them as the problem. Across the country, prisons and detention are now considered a last resort for the disciplining of children.
As criminal justice agencies employ community supervision more and more, monitoring systems are used more and more. James Kilgore — academic, activist and a man who was once electronically monitored — has described ankle bracelets as “going viral in the criminal justice system.”
In 2005, 120,000 people wore electronic monitoring ankle bracelets; in 2012, the figure was 200,000; and in 2015, we can assume the figure has grown further still. Proportionally, within the 7 million people under correctional supervision in the United States, a larger percentage of youth wear monitoring devices than adults.
Imprisonment is known to negatively impact young minds and bodies far more severely than those of adults and current policy — and carceral logic — deem ankle bracelets a palatable, convenient and more humane alternative. There are some blind-spots to this logic.
Corrections comes at a crucial moment. Electronic monitoring (EM) has come into its own in the age of GPS. Faster, more accurate and more reliable than previously-used radio-based devices, GPS technologies provide the state agencies responsible for managing sentenced and pre-trial citizens with the rhetoric of control, the vision of the future and assurances to the public of total security.
EM is presented as a more humane, productive and progressive means of social control. Companies such as iSecure Trac, Secure Alert, Pro Tech, GEO and Omnilink which manufacture ankle bracelets also talk up the cost savings to their state clients.
All this to say, that this moment, in which we as a society are turning ever more faithfully to electronic monitoring, is not based solely on enlightened policy based upon supposed enlightened morals and the prioritization of the humane. No, it is based in large part to salesmanship in growth industries and the rhetorical promise of redemption through technology.
Corrections is an opportunity to reflect upon what is means to rely on widespread, diffuse and near total surveillance to correct antisocial behaviors. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to interrogate the outcomes of such surveillance upon larger society and the problems GPS-powered panopticism purports to address. Do ankle bracelets prevent criminal acts? Does EM propel, distract or compliment our investment in educational, economic and healthcare systems–systems we know improve citizens and reduce anti-social behaviors?
While many of the recent headlines about juvenile justice reform have focused on New York State, California and the South, ankle bracelets are utilized nationwide. It is fitting that Corrections emerges from Iowa, the heartland of America. The young men and women in Murff’s photographs are ordinary children, just like all children are ordinary. And yet, we have a propensity to think of urgent debates about the social contract we share as being those centered around the big cities. GPS tracks kids the same in the Midwest as it does in urban cores; it “knows” geography but does not adhere to our regional stereotypes. Corrections, in its modest way, puts the debate about electronic monitoring of youth into all our communities.
Helping children to modify and understand their behavior is a vital task — a fact Murff acknowledges. Ask any of the teens he monitored and they’d say they were happier being out in the community than locked up. Murff grew close to many of the children through face-to-face contact with youths on a regular basis. He talks of “watching the youths grow throughout the probation process.” But that does not mean that all the teens evaluate their monitoring as fair or right. Having a clunky box strapped to ones leg can hamper ones feeling of freedom just as much as being locked within a box. This tension–this constant to-and-fro about the costs and benefits of EM–is what informs Murff’s photographs, and his images provide some avenues to explore the tension.
The kids in Corrections are anything but armed and dangerous. The portraits came out of collaboration, discussion and sometimes accident. The evasive gesture and posturing of anonymous subjects is, for me, less a metaphor for the youths’ prior furtive behavior, but more a metaphor for our collective unknowing of the mechanism of the monitoring systems that we fund in order that they might inhabit them.
If the portraiture in Corrections is artful and poetic, then the studies of objects are pure documentary. Images of standard-issue deodorant, case files, uniforms, bracelets and other accouterments remind us of the regime and remind us of the industries behind it.
A youth writes “I have what I need to be fine,” on a self-assessment form and reminds us of the gulf, often, between what a child in crisis needs and what a caring society might be able to provide. It puts us right there. In tension. By contrast, a beautiful sun-dappled portrait of a youth seems so very far removed from the contested system and its narratives. Until you notice the ankle bracelet.
(But) seeing the system and understanding the system are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, the ability to see is a great privilege. GPS “sees” relentlessly. Can Corrections help us understand the psychology and control at play as well as EM purports to understand the needs of youth and community?
Some of Murff’s images fill our gaps in knowledge; others inhabit blind spots in our collective understanding of a legally protected arena. What we learn, mostly, from Corrections is that we’ve more to know about how we’re helping troubled kids. We know that we’re using electronic monitoring more readily. How far will we proceed with this brave, new technology? Some Texas school districts, which include a large number of black and latino students, have expanded the use of EM for kids with histories of excessive truancy.
What does Murff’s documentation of fracture and healing from Iowa tell us about this very 21st Century practice? What is this version of freedom and control? Do we accept it?
One afternoon, Murff was sat in the bedroom of a young man for whom he was responsible for monitoring. The teen was playing his guitar and Murff was making a photograph. Then, a friend of the teen came to the bedroom window. He was confused by Murff, his camera, and the scene before him. Without missing a beat, the teen told his friend that he had just been signed to a record label and that Murff was from Rolling Stone Magazine.
I end with this anecdote because the teen, in spite of his circumstances, was witty and present. And he had agency. Lighthearted moments are harder to come by when people are implicated in the criminal justice system. Corrections is a serious body of work about a serious project, but it has been built on years of very personal interactions. For the protection of the youths, all of Murff’s subjects remain anonymous but that doesn’t mean they are distant.
What we think today affects what we do tomorrow. As you leaf through these pages, think about how you would feel as a kid under monitoring, think about your current attitudes about “delinquent” kids, and think about if those can change. Think about these things today because, certainly, there’ll be more electronic monitoring devices tomorrow.
CORRECTIONS THE BOOK
Title: Corrections, 2015
Size: 9.75 x 7.75 in
Page Count: 80 pages, 40 images
Publisher: Aint-Bad Editions
Edition Size: 450, signed and numbered
Print: 8×10 signed and numbered edition of 50
From Thomas Mailaender’s book ‘Illustrated People’ which won the Paris Photo+ Aperture Foundation Award for “Photobook of the Year 2015”
THREE WEEKS AFTER THE PARIS ATTACKS, I’D LIKE TO SAY THESE THINGS
Paris Photo 2015 will be remembered for reasons we never wanted.
Photographers went to Paris to see old-friends, hob-nob with moneyed institutions and to blur the lines between work and vacation. Some of them ended up documenting one of recent memory’s worst terror attacks.
Paris Photo opened the doors to the Grand Palais the day before the bombs shook Paris and 130 lives were taken. One of the biggest international photo events on the calendar, artists, publishers, gallerists, collectors and enthusiasts descended on the French capital for four days of viewing, networking, buying and selling.
After the tragic events of November 13th, Paris Photo was cancelled. No one was thinking about art sales. No one was talking about awards. Shuttering the event was the only sensible and respectful decision to make.
As with any massive event, though, the activity and conversation surrounding Paris Photo had long led up to the long-weekend. Check the social media timelines of any of the 147 galleries or the 60,000 visitors to understand anticipation and the pre-sales hype. Paris Photo can be career-defining, it can provide a crucial contact, it might be a platform to test or showcase ideas. And then there’s awards too.
On Thursday November 12th, Aperture announced the winners of the 2015 edition of the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards.
Some people say the best way to move forward is, after the memorials, to live life as you would. To continue with a full life. I would have written about these awards before the attacks and so now, three weeks on, I feel I should write about them still. I cannot make sense of murderous ideology, but I can make sense of books, photos and how they exist in the world.
Below, in each of the four categories, I offer some analysis followed by Aperture’s official blurb and videos. I end with some concluding thoughts about the four entrants considered in unison.
What To Make of the Winners?
Let’s do things the backward way round and start with the Special Jurors’ Mention category as opposed to the three main categories.
Special Jurors’ Mention
Deadline. b.frank books (Philadelphia, 2015)
Designed by Will Steacy
Will Steacy’s Deadline is my book of the year (slide 42), so a tip-of-the-hat here is no surprise. Deadline is about the heritage of storied newspaper Philadelphia Inquirer and about the forecasted chaos of downsizing. It was printed on the same presses that churned out the Inquirer over decades.
Deadline is a look to the past with an eye on the future. Most of all, it’s a tribute to the working man. When labor movements are usually talked of in the past tense, Steacy is putting workers’ issues into art world discourse, reconnecting art with politics.
Union membership has fallen from 1 in 3 workers to 1 in 10, over the past 50 years. I’m no blind preservationist, but I do want to know that progress is made for the benefit of all and not at the expense of any. As I wrote for time:
“Fanatical in its view of both the newsroom and the printing presses, Deadline honors the labor of the copyboys, the reporters, the inkers and the editors equally. Decorated journalists reflect back on the Inquirer’s “Golden Age” and Steacy’s dad reflects on generations of their family working in newspapers. In five sections, the amount of research, fact-checking, phone-calls, line-editing and captioning in Deadline is astounding.
Deadline is dense, daring and difficult to pigeonhole; I think that’s why it got the special mention but not one of the category gongs. It didn’t fit neatly, but it was impossible to ignore.
OFFICIAL APERTURE BLURB
Will Steacy’s Deadline is a newspaper about a newspaper: the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he spent five years photographing the newsroom, employees, and printing plant. Thanks to the Internet, most newspaper staffs are a fraction of what they once were. The Inquirer is no exception, and Deadline chronicles its history — with texts by current and former staff, and archival photographs alongside Steacy’s own — through to its very uncertain future; the final pages see the formerly prominent newspaper moved into a much smaller office.
For Steacy, who comes from a family of newspapermen, this story is personal — his father was an editor at the Inquirer for nearly thirty years, till he was laid off while Steacy was working on this project. The materials, design, and printing quality of his son’s contribution are all in line with family tradition (it was even printed at the Inquirer’s own press), but the focus has been turned inward. As Christoph Wiesner comments, “it serves both as a history of the journalism sector and a work of subtexts, revealing a process of deconstruction or mise en abyme.” Deadline is less a case study than it is a eulogy.
Winner of Photobook of the Year
Archive of Modern Conflict and RVB Books (Paris, 2014)
Designed by Thomas Mailaender and Rémi Faucheux.
One thing’s for sure: there’s no other photobook like it. Whatever gaveThomas Mailaender the idea to burn images onto people’s skin with UV light? I can’t work out if Illustrated People is fringe genius or just a gimmick, but the answer to the question is less important than the inquiry. For the deeper you go on these photos the more disturbing shit gets.
Let’s start with the easy obvious stuff, though. The coupling of images from the Archive of Modern Conflict on dull paper in washed out B&Ws with glossy glaring blood reds is very striking. It’s a catchy reference to red-top newspapers, so activist posters, to Soviet graphics to political and military propaganda.
It’s strange that we might be put off by Mailaender’s violence toward his volunteers’ bodies. After all, these are images are taken from an archive devoted to war and technological chaos fo the 20th century. By comparison to any bullet or nuke, Mailaender’s work is playful. Maybe that’s the point? Is Illustrated People a manic embrace of disorder and a Dr. Strangelove-esque riding of the bomb?
Yet, even in acknowledgement — and some celebration of — Mailaender’s flippant wit, I can’t stop thinking that these are like some scorched-earth futuristic nightmare. Like this is sci-fi gone awry; a vision of a time in which humans are branded with culture, not creators of it, and a dystopia in which bodies are a drain on resources on an overheated, water-scarce planet. Or given the side-boobs and pin-up girls, is Illustrated People just a photo-sadist’s wet dream? That I’m still guessing is (and talking) is a good sign. Can. Not. Unsee.
OFFICIAL APERTURE BLURB
When artist Thomas Mailaender was given access to the Archive of Modern Conflict’s photo archives, he decided to “print” some of the negatives he found onto a whole new medium: the human body. Using a UV lamp, Mailaender projected these negatives onto models’ pale skin, leaving sunburnt imprints of the images.
Full-color documentation of this performance alternates with archival images inIllustrated People, a playful softcover book encased in a translucent red plastic jacket. While the archival images have a faded appearance, printed in black-and-white on plain matte paper, the “sunburn” pages are bright and glossy. “What’s interesting to me is the relationship between the immaterial archive and the living bodies,” says Yannick Bouillis. “He made something that goes beyond just the selection of images — he’s putting pure culture onto something natural, the body.”
Winner of Photography Catalogue of the Year
The Images a Charge/Images of Conviction book cover features a photo by Rodolphe A. Reiss, rendered in the negative, showing a demonstration of the Bertillon metric photography system.
Images of Conviction was one of the curatorial highlights of 2015, but a great exhibition doesn’t always guarantee a great catalogue, so it’s wonderful that the excellence of Dufour and Barral’s presentation of material on walls is matched by their presentation of content on paper.
Coincidentally, like Mailaender’s book, the only time grayscale is punctuated in this catalogue is by the red tones and exacting dots. Many of the images here are drawn from government archives, official reports, military imaging or sites of forensic investigation (even if the photographers, Meiselas below for example, are not forensic photographers).
Grace A-South, Koreme, North of Iraq, June 1992 © Susan Meiselas, Magnum Photos.
Images Of Conviction brings together ten case studies in which images were used to establish truth and narrative in the wake of death — be that of a single person, of a religious tale or of an entire people.
I think of Images Of Conviction as the sister exhibition to the Tate’s epicConflict Time Photography in 2014. But whereas the Tate focused on the changing types of photographs made in response to conflict over time, Dufour and Barral focus on the changing technologies use to make photographs. Whereas the Tate considered subjective response (prints, photobooks, memorial), Dufour and Barral are concerned with the application of objective fact. Whereas Tate was sympathetic to artistic response, Dufour and Barral’s framework has little room for it.
Photography extract from Decoding video testimony, Miranshah, Pakistan, March 30, 2012 © Forensic Architecture in collaboration with SITU Research.
In an uncomfortable echo of Mailaender’s work we see the body as a battle ground. Mailaender subjects are willing participants but, by contrast, Dufour and Barral show us images in which the dead are drawn into space of the contested narrative. Here, dead bodies are used to to deliver or deny accusations of a fatal crime against them.
Richard Helmer’s face/skull Mengele superimposition 1985 © Photo Richard Helmer Courtesy Maja Helmer, 1985.
Folks in the art-world often forget that photography underpins judicial, political, labour and territorial infrastructures. Images Of Conviction reminds us that pretty pictures are just papering the cracks over fizzing, and sometimes terrifying, realities.
OFFICIAL APERTURE BLURB
In this meticulously designed catalogue, photography itself is put on the witness stand. Published to accompany an exhibition of the same name that originated at LE BAL, Paris, Images of Conviction is a fascinating historical survey of the ways photography has shaped official versions of truth — from the Shroud of Turin to crime-scene photography of the freshly dead, to video evidence of drone strikes.
The design is sedate but never boring, alternating between pale gray and clean white paper. The images are all reproduced in black and white, with a chilling negative image printed on the cover. “Everything is made so that the catalogue stays neutral, but not cold,” says Julien Frydman, who also praises the diverse, well-edited texts. The volume offers a variety of answers to the question posed by editor Diane Dufour in her introduction — “How does the image take shape in truth-seeking scientific and historical discourse?” — without losing its sense of mystery.
Winner of First Photobook
You Haven’t Seen Their Faces
RIOT BOOKS (Madrid, 2015)
Designed by Verónica Fieiras and Daniel Mayrit
The former Arsenal and Brazil midfielder Gilberto Silva expressed his dismay this week that next to no professional footballers were speaking outabout the FIFA corruption scandal that is tearing the heart out of the beautiful game. Maybe it’s that the story is old or maybe it’s that we don’t know how or where to pinpoint our anger at white collar crimes?
Despite millions of people losings their homes, pensions and security, still no-one has been prosecuted for their role in the housing crisis and consequent global meltdown. Daniel Mayrit’sYou Haven’t Seen Their Faces uses news and public domain images to mimic CCTV captures. The 100 people featured in this stack of butcher-paper fly-posters are those deemed most powerful in the City of London in terms of policy, politics, and those in control of banks, corporations and regulatory bodies.
The title is a cheeky inversion of Margaret Bourke-White’s landmark You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) a book about poverty in the Southern states. In the 20th-century we thought we could, as a society, come together and solve social ills. Now, however, we struggle to know from where the confusion festers and we rely pathetically on mischievous artists to out the beneficiaries of 21st-century capitalism.
Images were once tools of humanitarian witness, now they’re cheapened, desperate and frustrated gestures toward the insulated power-classes.
OFFICIAL APERTURE BLURB
Daniel Mayrit plays with the semiotics of law enforcement in You Haven’t Seen Their Faces. Full-bleed close-ups of the declared “100 most powerful people in the city of London” are printed in the style of grainy CCTV footage, with condemning information against them scrawled on every image. The book is a response to police fliers handed out after the 2011 riots in London, when surveillance images of alleged rioters’ faces were publicly distributed in a presumption of guilt. Mayrit flips this visual language on those believed responsible for events that are arguably far more damaging: the recent economic crises that have wracked Europe.
Yannick Bouillis calls the design “streetwise”; held together by screws at the top, the images are printed on lightweight brown pages akin to butcher paper, and fastened to stiff cardboard. A map of the suspects’ headquarters is tucked into the back.
It was not obvious to me until I really approached the final drafts of this review how depressing the four photobooks are in conglomeration. In them we have the slow death of free press, corporate criminals at large, homicide, dispute, intimate violence, microcosms of global warming, total surveillance, harrowing medical procedures, genocide, labor camps and the havoc of the markets.
The Paris attacks exploded out of fear, hatred, deep-level antipathy and dehumanisation. ISIS’ acts of terror are a symptom of profound division: Western military meddling and foreign bombs in the Middle East + Whackball religious ideology = Crumbling social fabric. Unfortunately, I think that the attacks will also serve as cause; the cause of more military meddling and fundamentalism.
The international community, and the French people in particular, have already shown that they will not be divided by murderous acts. Nor should France sacrifice its ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood in response to the extremist nutters. However, increased military incursions into Syria and strikes on ISIS will, I fear, only poor flames on the fire.
France launched attacks on ISIS positions the Monday after the attacks. President Obama has sent U.S. troops to carry out raids throughout ISIS-held territory. This week, the British and German governments voted to launch airstrikes in Syria.
Seeing Is Power
And so we have two types of “sight” in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Abroad, is drone recognizance, military mapping and satellite imagery providing data upon which awesome bombardments are planned. At home, throughout European cities and transit hubs, citizens are subject to pernicious and exacting CCTV. In both cases, the application of these technologies is meant to prevent further killing (perversely, in the case of guided-bombs, by killing targets not civilians) but also to establish moral cause and “truth” in the aftermath of death. CCTV will be used as evidence. News channels will be fed footage of bombs striking combatants through air vents. Facial recognition software will identify people IRL and in the digital realm at exponentially faster rates.
This writer cannot see how more bombs in a region already pummeled into unknown levels of chaos is likely to help, but geopolitical strategy is above my pay grade. Righteous anger is an understandable response, but should it make for armed retaliation? Let’s just say this writer is comfortable deferring to Nicolas Hénin, a man who was held hostage by ISIS, who cautions against massive military airstrikes:
While we are trying to destroy Isis, what of the 500,000 civilians still living and trapped in Raqqa? What of their safety? What of the very real prospect that by failing to think this through, we turn many of them into extremists? The priority must be to protect these people, not to take more bombs to Syria. We need no-fly zones — zones closed to Russians, the regime, the coalition. The Syrian people need security or they themselves will turn to groups such as Isis.
The fallout from the tragic events of November 13th will inevitably involve more bloodshed.
Anxiety reigns currently. That is understandable. Some reaction to the anxiety is less understandable. Sometimes, it is easy to overlook or downplay the constant state of vigilance in which people, and especially government agencies, operate. The Paris attacks revealed the threat is real.
As much as the Paris Photo-Aperture Photobook Awards reflect cultural production, and as much as cultural production reflects common concerns and public psyche, we can identify in these four winners the trauma and violence that bubbles constantly under the surface in our global community
These four books are not entirely unrelated to the violence that broke the peace in Paris three weeks ago. They are documents of our time and, sadly, they deal with miseries that harken back long before these tense times.
The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation award winning photobooks on view
Aperture Gallery, New York (December 12, 2015–February 8, 2016); Huis Marseille, Amsterdam (December 2015–January 2016); Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, Toronto (May 1–31, 2016); Self Publish Riga, Riga Photomonth, Latvia (May 12–June 3, 2016); 15th International Festival of Photography in Łódź, Fotofestiwal 2016, Poland (June 9–19, 2016); Landskrona Foto Festival, Landskrona, Sweden (August 19–27, 2016).
I just wrote, for Vantage a review titled The Portraits In This Book Are Only Visible When You Hold It In Your Hands of Carina Hesper’s yet-to-be-made book, Like a Pearl In My Hand.
The book is printed with thermochromatic ink (yes, the same stuff used to make 90s Generra Hypercolour Tshirts) and so it changes from pitch black in a resting state to emerging portraits of blind Chinese orphans the next.
I’ve never seen anything like it. Of course, the book hasn’t made full production yet, so I’ve not held on in my hands, but the dummy and the vids look impressive.
The degrees to which Like a Pearl In My Hand plays with metaphor and reconfigures our use of sight and touch further distinguishes Hesper’s book.
Disability is a hidden problem. Blindness prevents sight. By literal description or by strategic manipulation, everyone is in the dark. But when sight is denied, other senses compensate. Hesper plays with this truth.
Hesper is currently raising Kickstarter funds to get the project into book form (it’s already shown at numerous festivals as single prints on the wall.)
Read my review in full and see more pictures: The Portraits In This Book Are Only Visible When You Hold It In Your Hands.
Photobook “Best-Of” lists sprout like wild-cakes this time of year. Among selections, we are not always guaranteed variety, but we are guaranteed quantity.
Aperture tends to preempt many of the main runners and riders in the autumn with its shortlists for the Aperture/Paris Photo Book Awards (30 books total). Then the deluge beings.
A deluge that which Photolia has made an inventory. It’s a list of Photobook “Best-Of-2013” lists; a list of 80+ lists!
Furthermore, QT Luong at Terra Galleria has taken all the individual titles of those 80+ lists, broke down the votes and constructed a meta-list that cumulates each book’s number of votes. Some titles have votes in double figures, and the “winner” Lieko Shiga’s Rasen Kaigan has 22 votes.
By years end, Best-Of lists had been written and checked twice by Wired, American Photo, Time, Mother Jones, New York Times, Dazed Digital, Lens Culture, Washington Post, Brain Pickings, Tom Claxton, Microcord, Eric Gundersen, Conscientious, Tim Clark, Monsters & Madonnas, Valerian and Discipline and Disorder just to name a few.
The Guardian made two lists — one for best indie books and one for offerings by established photobook publishers. Not to mention Alec Soth and Martin Parr‘s eagerly anticipated annual dispatches. Roger May shifted the formula and picked his favorite book purschases . The Artists Book Cooperative maintained their cheeky approach with the year’s worst photobooks.
So what does all this mean? Head to Blake Andrew’s analysis of the best of the “Best-Of photobook lists. Hilarious.
Well, who am I to reject this ubiquity of Photobook “Best-Of” lists? A few weeks ago, I was asked by Photo Eye to name my highlights for the PhotoEye Best Photobooks 2013 feature. I picked seven titles. Here they are. And, below they are.
Bumbata, Cosmin Bumbuţ (Punctum)
Beyond the prison subject matter which is, of course, very appealing to me, Cosmin Bumbuţ’s book is the best of design with beautiful binding, a punctured front cover, and thoughtful essay. Those elements compliment pictures that are, frankly, some of the closest, least judgmental I have seen of incarcerated peoples. Bumbuţ spent 3 years visiting a single prison. The portrait he paints is of a closed but relatively stable environment with equal representation. Staff and prisoners feature in similar amounts. The variety and color is something beyond that of most American prison photographers. Here is a documentarian who has worked hard to form an understanding with his subjects.
In December, I spoke at length with Bumbuţ about his project and the book.
Tales From The City Of Gold, Jason Larkin (Kehrer Verlag)
It is astonishing that with such a distinct and consistent approach to image-making that this is Jason Larkin’s first monograph. His work seems so familiar. Once more, the Englishman Larkin has entered (with his 4×5) a peculiar faraway place with peculiar and depressing social and environmental history. Johannesburg is one of the world’s most successful mining cities but waste dumps litter the landscape. South Africans have built communities in the mines’ hinterlands. The price of gold is spiking and the lives of people who live and work in the region is tied to our global commodities market. Larkin casts a curious but not a judgmental eye over our priorities at the dusty and noisy point at which commerce and daily life intersect.
Photojournalists On War, Mike Kamber (University of Texas Press)
End of year lists often prioritize photo books with fancy design elements; books that are small run, hand-sewn delicate things. But what about those books about photography that are a bit bigger? What about books put out by a large press, such as UT Press, say? And what about books with more text than image? Photojournalists On War is a brick of a book. Mike Kamber interviewed 89 photographers who covered the War on Iraq. If we are to understand the nature of that flawed conflict then we should pay attention to the journalists whose activities were meant to makes sense of it at the time; make sense of it for us. But, what sense do they make of it now? By virtue of the breadth of opinion and depth of questions, Photojournalists On War is THE reference book for any discussion of the War on Iraq and photography. In much the same way as Photographs Not Taken in 2012 delivered us personal reflections and new entry points to photographic thinking, so Photojournalists On War in 2013 surprises and delights with the first-hand and imperfect narratives. Truth is not usually found in a photograph, but perhaps it can be found in a photographer’s words?
Swell, Mateusz Sarello (Instytut Kultury Wizualnej)
Sea foam smells, threatening birds, big clouds. Swell is a rough experience. As was Mateusz Sarello’s break-up. This book is in two halves. Each half is a visit to the Baltic Sea — the first with his girlfriend, and the second without as part of some therapeutic turn. So different are the images and mood of the images it’s effectively two books in one. Both books’ exposed spines reflect the vulnerability Sarello has embraced in creating a book about his crushed love-life. 88 pages of fragile hand-made loveliness. Handle with care. Given the proliferation of east-of-Western-Europe sea photography projects (think Petrut Calinescu, Rafal Milach, Mila Teshaeiva, Mikhail Mordasov and even Rob Hornstra), it’s tricky to do something novel in this sub-sub-genre, but Sarello pulls it off with focus on the hyperpersonal. And he’s not afraid to use Instax Fujifilm either. I was skeptical at first, but later blown over by the earnestness of the well-edited and understated grouping of images.
Rasen Kaigan, Lieko Shiga (AKAAKA)
Between 2006 and 2012, Lieko Shiga lived and worked in the region of northeast Japan worst hit by the 2011 Tsunami. Shiga is part photographer and part conceptual artist, so it makes sense that these images (many of which abandon formal photographic considerations) look nothing like the photojournalism we saw in the aftermath of the Tsunami. Darkness, hard-flash, plants, flowers, sweaters, sand and minerals. It’s all very earthy … and strange. But then again, that region is a geography and a collective psychology transformed. Despite Shiga’s camera experiments, we are still presented images of Japanese communities on the mend, making do, building up, tilling the land and doing the simple things that they must. Big disasters are met with small victories. Shiga’s volatile approach is a reminder that the uncomplicated things she photographs only exist because of massive tectonic force.
What might be otherwise read as an assault on the senses is a celebration of the senses — a celebration of life and of living.
Control Order House, Edmund Clark (HERE Press)
The images are boring; but the concept is exhilarating — which is exactly the point. Edmund Clark photographed the interior of a “home” inhabited by a UK terror suspect under house arrest. A dull suburban 3-bed semi in no-name Britain. Clark worked within pre-agreed, tightly controlled parameters set out by the UK Home Office. Clark and HERE Press include scans of his contracts and official correspondence. The act and the access is more important than the images; the images are only evidence that Clark made a sortie into this never photographed territory before. (In April, I wrote about Control Order House for Wired.)
So many projects these days comment on control from the outside, but here we see images from from within, and according to, control.
Two Rivers, Carolyn Drake (Self-published)
Carolyn Drake’s photography has long impressed me, so I’m not surprised her first book is a triumph. Dutch book-designer Sybren Kuiper brought considerable style to Two Rivers. Apparently, it was Kuiper who proposed starting the book’s sequence at where the two rivers appear to end versus Drake’s original idea to begin where the rivers originate high in the mountains. Drake has visited the vast expanse of central Asia that lies between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers 15 or more times in recent years. Judging by the images, it remains a region that beguiles Drake. Two Rivers abandons traditional documentary sequencing and reveals the creators own feelings, uncertainties, awe and brief encounters. One slimmer book is words and notes for the chapters in the other larger book containing pictures of fuzzy narrative, refused objectivity and love. The wrap of images around the Japanese style bound pages is stunning.
What happens when you’re a soldier and you are asked to fight in a war your conscience tells you is immoral?
I’m not from a military background and I always opposed the Iraq War, so it was a stretch for me to empathise with Jo’s struggling subjects who, to me, simply made – and continue to justify – rational assessments. How difficult or taxing can common sense be? To get me out my own head, I called on Jo to explain this emotional minefield of a topic.
Scroll down to read our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Where does the title come from?
JMS: The title is to try and explain the difficult position so many of the soldiers found themselves in. Nothing is ever black and white, nothing is ever as simple as right or wrong, and these people were having to make a decision between what they were contractually obliged to do and what they felt was the right thing to do. I felt The Grey Line was a way of explaining the difficult line they were choosing to walk.
PP: You say some of the soldiers were imprisoned for their views?
JMS: Actually, none of the soldiers were imprisoned for speaking out against the Iraq war. Some of the soldiers refused to fight in the Iraq war and were imprisoned for going AWOL, but not for speaking out.
Each person’s story is very different, so I’m always nervous about generalizing. So instead, I’ll give an example. Kevin Benderman was one of the older and higher rank soldiers I interviewed and he was very opposed to the Iraq war. He was deployed to Iraq for a short period. Over there his opinions really became clear and he felt strongly that being in Iraq was the wrong thing to do. When he came back he applied for Conscientious Objector status but it was denied. So he refused to go back. He was court martialed and given a 15 month prison sentence.
Kevin said he always knew that he would get a prison sentence. It was fascinating to hear how his morals were so strong he was compelled to go against the military and risk his career. It wasn’t that he was a pacifist, or had found God, he just strongly believed that what America was doing in Iraq was wrong. That’s what really impressed me about some of the people I interviewed, they really stayed true to how they felt. Kevin knew if he spoke out and refused to fight, his career would be ruined, he’d be accused of being a coward and he faced imprisonment, but he still refused to go to Iraq.
It’s like another person I met who refused to deploy to Iraq. He was openly gay, and could easily have got out through the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Policy, but he felt if he wanted to leave for moral reasons it would be wrong as he would see it as taking the easy option. Instead, he applied for Conscientious Objector status, which was denied, so was then imprisoned for refusing to be deployed.
Kevin Benderman can explain his situation so much more clearly that I ever will. He said to me:
“Have you heard the term, “I cannot in good conscience do that…?” Well, that’s how it was for me.
I took a look around when I got over there. We weren’t fighting an army, there were no weapons of mass destruction. None of that stuff was there. We were just bullying the civilians. We weren’t fighting soldiers; we were just kicking doors down of civilians’ houses and taking them out and that’s not what I joined the army to do. I mean, if there had been a soldier over there I would have fought a soldier, but that’s not what we were doing… not at all[…]
There was no doubt in my mind that I’d go to prison. I had to be made an example out of. I mean, I was an NCO for one. I wasn’t a young kid and they knew that if I was able to do what I was trying to do it would only strengthen my argument. They had to make an example out of me so that no one else would try it.
With all the charges they were trying to give me I could have got seventeen years. They tried to charge me with larceny, desertion, missing movement. I knew it was a bunch of bullshit. I knew they weren’t gonna be able to stick all that stuff on me. I was convicted of missing movement by design, which carried a fifteen month sentence. It was a dishonourable discharge but it was upgraded to bad conduct. But that still isn’t very good. I mean you can’t really do a whole lot with a bad conduct discharge.
I know I did the right thing but it just didn’t really change anything, you know? I invested twelve years of my life in the military. I gave that away. I gave away my retirement. I lost my home, my wife … I can’t really find a … well, I’m stuck here driving a truck.
I had more trouble with my family – sisters, brothers and brother-in-law – than with people in general.
My family didn’t even want to hear my reasons for doing what I was doing and they still don’t. Most of the ones who have openly criticised me have never served and don’t know what they’re talking about. More soldiers and veterans agree with me than my own family do. But I’m not really concerned about their opinion and that makes them mad. You know, that was part of the stress; my own family chose George Bush and his stupid ass doing something illegal over defending me, and they wouldn’t even hear my reasons why. […]
There’s still people who say I’m a hero. Well no, I’m not a hero. I was just doing what I thought was right and I really thought that people who made noises about the constitution and the law would stand up for that instead of just wanting someone to be a figurehead for them. […]
A few years ago I took a job in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor. I wanted to go back was because I know I’m a good mechanic and there’re still soldiers over there and I figured they deserved somebody who was conscientious about the work. I had given them the best vehicles that they possibly had. I didn’t leave the military to abandon the people that I served with, but I knew that it didn’t matter. Whether or not it was right to be there […] I’m a good mechanic and they’re still over there. They’re not coming back and we’re not prosecuting Bush and I wanted to make sure that they had the best possible vehicles. Should we be there? No. Are we there? Yes.
PP: Benderman’s is one story of how many? What was the number of soldiers you met?
JMS: Over the space of 5 years I met in total 45 soldiers. 29 are in the book.
PP: Has the story of conscientious objectors been adequately told?
JMS: Before I started the project, I had only associated the term Conscientious Objector to the first and second world war – to times of conscription. So I was intrigued to know why someone would need to apply for conscientious objectors status when they had willing signed up. Meeting with the veterans and doing this project made me realise that of course people who are in the military can have a change of morals and principles just like any ones else does, and some people also realise that they no longer want to be a part of war.
But not all of the people I met with were conscientious objectors. Many of them didn’t even know that the process existed. I was interested in meeting people who had moral doubts about their involvement in the Iraq war, not all were conscientious objectors.
Some people choose to whistle blow and speak out to the media about their experiences, others simply refused to fight and went AWOL. Others chose to keep quiet until they left the military and then spoke out. Speaking out from within the military is a very difficult thing to do. The quote below is from a veteran called Ryan. He was in the Marine Corp and was deployed for 7 months to Iraq. After he was honourably discharged from the military, he decided to speak out about his experiences in the military and about what he came to see as atrocities that he and his colleagues committed in Iraq.
After I made my public testimony, my brother disowned me on Facebook for everyone to see. He said I was a traitor and I wasn’t his brother anymore, that I wasn’t even a man.
Every single person that I served with in the war found out about my testimony and have publicly said that I’m a liar, a bitch, that I’m full of shit, that I’m a fucking American flag-burning, troop-hating, communist.
I understand why a lot of these guys did what they did; they’re not ready to accept that what we did was wrong … because it’s hard. It’s hard to accept that what you believed in was wrong. And not just wrong like two plus two is five, but wrong like you fucking killed somebody and that’s something you have to live with for the rest of your life. Some people just aren’t ready to live with that yet.
PP: What do you hope to communicate with The Grey Line?
JMS: Many of the people I spoke to were very torn between their duty, the bond with the people they fought with and their own belief that what they were doing was wrong. Several soldiers talked about being ordered to do things that they felt very uncomfortable about doing, but that they knew were legal.
I spoke to one soldier who had been a military Intelligence officer in Abu Ghraib. He had absolute faith in the military, but was feeling very uncomfortable with what he was being asked to do. In the quote below, he talks about his experiences of interrogating a young detainee.
He was 16; just a kid, scared to death, and skinny as a rail. We went out to get him from the ‘general population’ [prisoners who aren’t in solitary confinement] area to interrogate him. The general population area was right next to the questioning booth, but they still wanted me to put one of those sacks over his head to transport him. It wasn’t like a normal sack, it was like a plastic sand bag with sand all over it. It barely fit on his head and he was shaking as I put it over him. We used it so he couldn’t see where we were taking him, even though we could see the booth from where we were standing. We had to cuff him too, but his wrists were so skinny you couldn’t put the handcuffs on him. So he just kind of carried them instead. I felt so rotten.
The weirdest thing was when we were in the room with the kid and an MI guy came in and gave the interrogating officer a handful of Jolly Ranchers. It was meant to be put on the table like, if you talk we’ll give you some apple Jolly Ranchers, you know? The kid knew nothing. He was just this guy’s son. Originally we were supposed to interrogate his father, a general in Saddam’s regime, which was why I had agreed to be a part of it. It sounded interesting. But then when we got there, they told us that he had already been ‘broken’ and as a sort of consolation we were told we could interrogate his son.
I only found out afterwards what they had done to break his father. His son had been doused in cold water, driven around in a truck in the freezing cold night, and covered in mud. I guess, at the same time his father was being interrogated somewhere else and from what I understand they told him that they’d take a break from the interrogation and let him see his son.
So the general’s thinking he’s gonna see his son and have some kind of a reunion with him, but instead they just allowed him to see his son naked, shivering, and covered in mud.
A lot of people will probably wonder why I didn’t say something publicly right away, but it would have been pointless. Even though I thought what was happening was wrong, doesn’t mean that it was illegal anyway.
PP: What are your thoughts on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Jo? Was it wrong, justified, legal or illegal? Is your opinion of importance? Does it come through in the work? Or need to come through?
JMS: I was shocked when Tony Blair took my country to war. I couldn’t believe that he could go against the majority of the country’s wishes. I was shocked that he didn’t listen to the advice of the UN. Maybe it was naive of me, but that is how I felt. I think that is why I became interested in the soldiers stories. I had really believed in Tony Blair when he had come to power. I never would have dreamt he would have taken us into a war like Iraq. And that’s why I wondered how some soldiers must have felt. Many people join the military having complete faith in their government, so what happens if then the government goes into wars you think are wrong? As a soldier you have no choice.
People will always say. “You can’t have military that questions every order their given,” but on the flip side what if it was you? If it was you being asked to do something you felt in the bottom of you stomach was wrong? Something you felt went against everything you been taught? Do you ignore that feeling and carry out your contractual obligation or do you listen to your conscience?
In the end I didn’t particularly want to look at the politics of the Iraq war (though a lot of issues are raised in the book). What I wanted to explore was how an individual deals with the doubts they have in times of war. I wanted to look at the more complicated issues affecting a soldier’s decision. There are so many other things that affect one ability to make a decision – commitments to colleagues, expectations of family, financial implications, confusions of loyalty and legality. The aim of the book was to explore the complexity of their situation. There wasn’t a right way or a wrong way of doing things.
PP: How does The Grey Line fit in with your other work? You’ve recently been in Sri Lanka, you hang out with Beth Orton. I mean, to me, all your work is gentle, warm and purposeful so I’m not asking about the style or aesthetics in The Grey Line, I’m asking about its purpose for you as an artist.
JMS: I love doing commercial work and the challenges and opportunities it brings. But my approach and my purpose in doing commercial work is different to my personal work, and its difficult to compare them.
I am interested in people and because I have a camera it allows me to enter their lives in a unique way. I like to tell other peoples stories through my photographs.
For a long time now the theme of morality is something that I have questioned and explored – my own sense of morality and other people’s sense of morality, and how that affects their decisions… I think that I was unintentionally looking for way of exploring this theme with my photography, and when I first met Robert, something clicked.
PP: Can you imagine not having explored this issue? Can you imagine not having made this statement to the world?
JMS: It doesn’t really feel like I made a statement, or at least it wasn’t my statement to make. The men and women that were in the military and had the courage to question are the people making a statement.
PP: Thanks Jo.
JMS: Thank you, Pete
[Right click on the images below to view them larger.]
Jo Metson Scott is a portrait and documentary photographer whose work highlights the relationship between people and their communities. She has been commissioned by organisations including The New York Times, The Telegraph and The Photographer’s Gallery and her work has been exhibited in both the UK and Europe, including Arles Photography Festival, Nottingham Castle Art Gallery, Hereford Photography Festival and the Venice Biennale Fringe. She is repped by Webber Represents. Jo lives and works in London.
It was great to see Obama take on a liberal agenda yesterday with promises in his inauguration speech to improve equality for gays and lesbians and to reform immigration policy.
On the topic of immigration, or more precisely one arm of immigration – refugees and asylum seekers fleeing political or religious persecution – have you seen Gabriele Stabile and Juliet Linderman‘s new book Refugee Hotel?
Refugee Hotel is a collection of photography and interviews that documents the arrival of refugees in the United States. Stabile’s images are coupled with testimonies from people describing their first days in the U.S., the lives they’ve left behind, and the new communities they’ve since created.
I noticed the work as the book was in planning 18 months ago. Good, now, to see it massaging its message in people’s hands.
The press release details the following testimonies:
Psaw Wah Baw was forced to flee her village in Burma amidst armed conflict. She describes how her family left their village with just five cups of rice, beginning an arduous journey toward resettlement that would take them through Bangkok, Tokyo, Illinois, and Texas.
Pastor Noel fled the civil war in Burundi in 1972 for a refugee camp in Congo. When war erupted in Congo in 1996, Noel was once again forced from his home. He now lives in Mobile, Alabama, and is a central figure in the African refugee community as he pursues citizenship.
Felix joined the rebel army in South Sudan as a teenager but was forced to flee to a refugee camp in Kenya when fighting within the army threatened his life. After long delays and identity theft by a fellow refugee, Felix now lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he works for Habitat for Humanity to assist African refugees in purchasing their own homes.
Refugee Hotel is the latest project by Voice of Witness, a small San Francisco-based non-profit, founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen.
Voice of Witness uses oral history to illuminate contemporary human rights crises in the U.S. and around the world by publishing book series that depict human rights injustices through the stories of the men and women who experience them. The Voice of Witness Education Program then takes those stories, and the issues they reflect, into high schools and impacted communities through oral history-based curricula and holistic educator support.
Published by McSweeney’s, you can buy Refugee Hotel here.
View a large PDF of the Refugee Hotel Press Release
Published by McSweeney’s, you can buy Refugee Hotel here.
I’m intrigued by Nathalie Mohadjer‘s project Zwei Bier Für Haiti. I hope you will be too. First, you’ll need to get past the idea that Zwei Bier Für Haiti is about, or in benefit for, Haiti. It is, in fact, a body of work about the residents of a homeless shelter in Weimar, Germany. Mohadjer made the images between 2006 and 2010. She explains the title:
“When an earthquake shook Haiti in January 2010, Margitta, one of the inhabitants, started a fund-raising campaign among her neighbors in the homeless shelter, which she called “Two Beers for Haiti.” The idea was for every resident to drink two beers less a day. She collected a total of 15 euros.”
I’m always intrigued by long-term photo studies of institutions on the margins and those within them – Peter Hoffman’s Bryan House and Maja Daniel’s Into Oblivion are two top-notch examples. Mohadjer’s Zwei Bier Für Haiti/Two Beers For Haiti fires the same visual intrigues. Good stuff.
Mohadjer has nine days left on her crowdfunding effort for the book. It’ll be published by Kehrer Verlag regardless but every penny donated will be a penny less out of her pocket. See the crowdfunding page here and the video-pitch on vimeo here.
Works by Nathalie go on show today at the Museum Sala Galatea, Cordoba, Spain (January 16 – February 24, 2013) and works from Zwei Bier Für Haiti go on show at the Heussenstamm Gallery Frankfurt, Germany for the Abisag Tüllmann Prize Exhibition (February 19 -Mars 15, 2013).
… Joseph Bristow from Harrogate, UK!
The four books will wing their way to you as soon as you provide a mailing address.
The 25 entries came in from 9 different countries. And for those 13 U.S. entrants, I might just be tapping you up for a couch in the next 10 weeks.
That was fun. Enjoyed that.
Videography by Sye Williams