Friday, 1 May 2015

I'm a High-Grade White! Hire me!



image by Bianca Bosker: image of imitation Eiffel Tower from Hangzhou


This video  by David Borenstein looks at the practice of renting foreigners to lend prestige to failing housing developments in China. Go through the ad and watch it. It is great.

The basic idea is if you're finding it hard to shift your out of town housing development, you rent a few white people to give it that cosmopolitan feel. It's an extension of the copycat property developments you have had in China over the last 20 years but with the additional delight that you get high-grade, medium-grade and low-grade whites. Oh dear. Which would you be? And what would you hire the low-grade whites for? The mind boggles.

It's like having a guy in a turban standing in from of an Indian restaurant, but with the idea that the white guys are adding a patina of transparency, sex appeal and a virtual doorway out of the country. There might also be something going on under the surface about redressing past humiliations of China at the hands of the West by having a skin colour for hire, but in this video, it's mostly it's about seeing young white men stripped down to their nick-nacks and looking sheepish while Chinese women of wealth and experience cast their lustful eyes over the buff(ish) bodies of Europeans in China. That skin is like a blank slate on which you can project whatever fantasies you like.

If you can't afford a white, blacks are cheaper and still give an international feel. But Indians would have to be specially brought in. There doesn't seem to be a market for them.

The hiring of white people doesn't just come down to their being part of the marketing entertainment for these buildings, or becoming part of a pretence that they're living in these buildings. A lot of people like to pretend white people are their engineers


"The real value of a house or any product doesn't really

matter."


"As long as there is a good image, people will be willing 


to buy."


"For the time being...



the image has become the reality."


But isn't that true of everything.

Watch the whole thing here.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Picture isn't Everything




The earthquake from Nepal has been on the local news and it's all about Bath residents phoning home to say they're safe. There was a live report from someone's front room supposedly showing the mother getting the son's safety message. Now they're arriving home and the cameras at the airports

On the national news it's all been about Everest and reports about how many Britons are still missing and first-hand accounts. From a UK perspective Nepal is all mountains and trekking, probably because when people from the UK go to Nepal that's what they do for the most part.

It's a lazy manufacturing of empathy through choosing experiences we can easily understand - because we know people who have gone trekking, or stayed in a hotel in Kathmandu, or been in a restaurant. It's condescending really, and lazy, a general failure to frame what the earthquake might mean to such a rural, mountainous, landlocked, infrastructure-free nationand the people who live there.

But manufacturing a story within a familiar framework is what it's all about.  We've just had the alive-after-5-days story and we can await the inevitable person-rescued-after-10-days narrative to pop up. And it will be uplifting and bring tears to the eyes, but really... Nepal, China, Haiti, Turkey, Pakistan, they're almost interchangeable. I can't tell them apart anymore.

The need of a tale of salvation or redemption has almost become a condition of any disaster. The sickly tsunami film, The Impossible,  does this. When I watched it, despite my better judgement, that story of family salvation against all the odds got the tear ducts going. The rabidly conservative Bambi/Private Health Care subtexts were another matter and all part of what made it such an objectionable film. But the salvation was the thing, and for saps like me, it worked.

One disaster that lacked that redemption was the most spectacular one of all, 911. Here the spectacle conquered all. And, from my distant emotionally uninvolved point of view, still does.

It seemed like there was an attempt to reclaim the humanity from the spectacle through the identification and beafication of the Falling Man (or the passengers and crew of Flight 93). But it never quite worked or if it did, it was only temporary. Instead the pictures of these horrors became part of the spectacle and never quite escaped it.

It's always a problem for 911, that for all the heroics and the bravery, you never escape the fact that it looks exactly like a disaster movie complete with panicking city dwellers running while casting glances back over their shoulders.

There were objections to the Falling Man picture and it's not shown anywhere near as often as it once was. Nor are the clips of distant people jumping, nor is any of it.

But these objections are selective. Jumping pictures are thick on the ground in the history of photography (this Brussels fire and the Boston fire escape collapse.and here's the Budapest suicide and there's Okinawa...) and if it's not press photos of people jumping, then it's art projects with people jumping or looking like they're jumping. It's a short cut to a belly swirl.

And most of the time we see people jumping, it's a kind of photographic rubber necking. It doesn't really touch me or move me but I look all the same - it's like looking at a car crash. Perhaps we should drop the pretence of ethics and just admit it for what a lot of photography is; photographic rubber-necking, where there's no claim to empathy, or evidence or mourning. I find that preferable to hypocritical and selective hand-wringing.

The manufacturing of hope through generic survival tales is close to rubber necking, but maybe more objectionable. It gives us the ability to experience empathy and get tears in our eyes without making any leap of the imagination into what has really happened. It is applying a Hollywood narrative to a global disaster and making it generic.

I wonder if the real horror memory of the Twin Towers wasn't something that was seen (the visuals were spectacular and I still can't take my eyes off them even now - in the same way I can't take my eyes off tsunami footage). The real horror of 911 did come from those jumping off the towers, but it wasn't the images of the people falling that got me, but the sound of those poor people hitting the glass and the ground. There was nothing Disaster movie about that, it was far too physical and violent and real and it sent shivers down my spine even though not a body was too be seen.

Pictures are never everything. Something else might tell the story better.

Maybe that's the case in Nepal, but what that something else is there I don't really know. Like I don't really know anything about what happened there 5 days ago or what is happening there now. The story simply isn't being told.


Monday, 27 April 2015

"I am not a number. I am a free man."






Abdimalik Hajir

I was shocked by these pictures of those murdered by Al-Shabaab at Garissa University in Kenya . It had been toppish story on the TV news for a few days, and pictures had been shown of the outside of the university, with maps to indicate how close the region was to Somalia, and how distant and isolated it was.

In the days following the massacre, some newspapers ran profiles of some of the people who had been killed for their religion, or more for what their religion wasn't. But none of it quite hit home like these pictures.

People say all the time that we can't be shocked anymore by pictures of death, that we are numbed and immune to what they depict, and that's true when the pictures (or reporting) is lazy and just slips into generic massacre tale-telling.

But I never feel that to be true when the picture brings us closer to death and gets something across as the ones above do, or specifically the picture of the classroom.

The first picture shows the people lying dead in a classroom. They've been shot in the coldest of blood and all around them lie empty chairs with those little side boards that you write on, and a frame underneath where you put your books and your bag and your bottle of water. You know exactly where you are in this picture and you know exactly who's been killed.

There were four attackers, only four, and the result of what they did, the scale of what they did is evident in the picture of the bodies in the courtyard. These were students that were killed, who were living and working in classrooms and dorms on a university campus. We connect the two pictures and the language of the space works together to tell us what happened and how it happened.

None of the other pictures I saw in the newspapers or television, the pictures of security forces or sirens or frightened students ever got that across. It was just blind chaos that was more about the failures of the Kenyan army and police. Nor did the graphics, the maps or the analysis. Nor even the pictures of survivors being rushed away from the scene told any kind of story. It all just fell into an undifferentiated morass of news reporting, reporting that never really told you anything, supported by footage and pictures that said less than nothing.

But the classroom with its chairs and its mass of bodies; that made a difference to me. Somehow, Garissa stopped being a remote place near the Somali border of which we know little, and the people shown became much more real. The woman in the red dress; what did she study, who did she love, how tears have poured from the eyes of those who mourn her poor, murdered body. Or the man in the back with his hand up. You fan feel his pain, his bewilderment, and you wonder at who he was, where he came from and what he would have become. Pasts and futures haunt these pictures. There is something there that takes us and reminds us both of what has been lost but also points a finger at those who committed this crime.

There was a hashtage on twitter (#147notjustanumber ) for the Garissa killings, which had the intent of making the 150 (I think that's the latest figure) people killed more than  just a number.

But numbers are all around and so is death and so often the two overlap. Numbers conceal the human cost, reduce it to something abstract. The number of those killed in the Nepal earthquake at the weekend currently stands at 3,000, but that's just a number. It doesn't really mean anything, except when it is made to.

Sometimes the point is to show that a number is just that - a number. This is a picture of a coffin that was widely circulated (on Duckrabbit - and there were variations in other places) following the latest Mediterranean sinkings of  boats carrying migrants.





It's a picture that lays bare the cold venality of the way we use number to list lives that don't matter. You get lots of pictures showing rows of coffins but they don't touch the raw nerve that this one does, because this is a picture of one coffin, one number, one person. This is photography of a process - of how people are reduced to mere numbers on a box (or a cockroach).

And the picture of the dead students in the classroom does the same in a way. It shows the process of living and in so doing shows the process of dying and that it happens to people who don't deserve it.

If this is a man...
If this is a woman...


Thursday, 23 April 2015

Maus: "Having a writer in the family is to have a traitor in it"




Continuing on the cartoon and animation theme are these images from the manga, Doubt. It is wonderful the way that visual tropes get poached and translated from one place to another. In yesterday's post, I looked at the use of still photographs in Black Lagoon ( an anime which was heavily influenced by the films of Quention Tarantino, a film maker who was heavily influenced by anime - as well as everything else )  and here you can see a little bit of Guantanamo creeping into the manga action.





The central symbol of Doubt is hanging rabbits. And as soon as you see hanging rabbits, you are absolutely into Art Spiegelman and Maus; the link is inescapable It's how you get from Japanese teen fiction to the Holocaust in one easy step. Such is the magic of the visual world.



Maus is the phenomenal story of Art Spiegelmann's father and the holocaust. But it's also a story about family, relationships and the destruction the Holocaust wrought after the fact. It's a story in which Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs and French as frogs. That notwithstanding, it's a story that Spiegelmann insisted should be filed in the non-fiction section of bookshops. And quite right he was too.

But in Maus, amidst the mice, and the cats and pigs, there are photographs. There are cartoons of photographs and then there are 'real' photographs; three of them. One of Spiegelmann's brother Richelieu (who died before he was born), one of his father, and one of Spiegelmann with his mother.






In Family Frames, Marianne Hirsch writes about how these images ask how 'different media - comics, photographs, narrative, testimony' create multiple voices that may 'definitively eradicate any clear-cut distinction between documentary and aesthetic.'

Maybe, and maybe for Spiegelmann including these images reconstitutes a nuclear family that once was and now is reimagined in a haze of Spiegelmann's  'postmemory' ( that's a memory where the personal and historical overlap).

The top image is of Richeu, the brother Spiegelmann never met. He was poisoned before deportation so 'he wouldn't suffer in the death camps.' The picture is a longing, a memory that isn't, of a being together that never happened. The picture introduces a chapter, it's outside the narrative. It's a stamp of personal sorrow and regret.

The picture of his mother is one of a meeting of histories; Spiegelmann's personal history, that of his family and that of the Holocaust, with the history of his mother smothered; she killed herself in 1968 when Spiegelmann was just out of 3 months in a mental hospital. In the chapter that follows, the mice and cats and pigs of the rest of Maus are replaced by human figures and it's Spiegelmann who is now wearing the camp uniform. He's been transported into the hell that his parents lived through but now it's one of family anguish and guilt with an overlay of the Holocaust to make things even worse.


The picture of his father is a 'souvenir photo'. It shows him after liberation in a borrowed camp uniform provided by the studio where the picture was taken. It's the picture he sent his wife, Anja, to show he survived. He didn't send a picture of himself in civilian clothes, but in camp stripes. But they're souvenir stripes, ironed and clean, and Vladek is full-cheeked and bright eyed. He's showing 'their common past, their survival, perhaps their hope for a future,' says Hirsch. Spiegelman didn't sentimentalise his father in Maus, he portrayed him with all his flaws and in the book stated that he could barely stand to be in the same room as him, so there might be a bit of that coming up in the photograph as well.

"Having a writer in the family is to have a traitor in it," says Spiegelman and the treachery here is the refusal to conform to the idealised view of what a father, a family, a survivor should look like. And it might be that Spiegelman's brutal familial view is slipping into how his father portrait is used in the book. It's another kind of alchemy at play here, one that works at a subconscious level.

The photographs then are fragments, part of the 'testimonial chain' that make us identify with the survivor. And the whole of Maus is made up of framed fragments in 'an aesthetic that is indistinguishable from the documentary.'

But at the same time the photographs jump out of this past/present chain as something that is instantly recognisable as a photograph but at the same time an unfamiliar part of a history 'we cannot assimilate', 'a past that will neither fade away nor be integrated into the present.'


The picture of Spiegelmann's father is also a kind of trophy picture. Vladek is reclaiming himself and is wearing the clean, lice-free skin of the thing that tried to kill him. He's making himself a human again and he's giving the finger to the dehumanisation of those millions that were killed in Auschwitz and in the other campls.






Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Red Flag and the Reichstag: The Anime Version



 

I watched the first series of  the Black Lagoon anime over the holidays. It centres on Lagoon Company, a gang-for-hire who live on an island of mobsters, racketeers and hoodlums in the South China Sea. In one of the Black Lagoon arcs, there's a story line that features the fall of Berlin in 1945, a sunken Nazi submarine, Nazi treasure and contemporary Nazis (who all turn out to be property developers which is a nice twist!).

The story is introduced with an anime version of Yevgeny Khaldei's Raising the Red Flag over the Reichstag. It's an accurate (?) depiction but cleaned up after an anime fashion. What's interesting is why they include an anime version of such an iconic photograph and how this fictionalisation works within the bounds of Black Lagoon.

A clue may come from science. There's the idea in scientific archives that photographs are regarded as having a scientific foundation because:

a) photographs are essentially objective; it's scientific because of the indexical nature of the chemistry and the relationship between the film/paper and what is being photographed

or

b) when pictures form a more random catalogue, a scientific ordering can be applied to them which somehow makes the photographs then become scientific. It's a kind of alchemy in other words. The touch of science gives the pictures a magic scientific sparkle.

The anime version of the Red Flag over the Reichstag is used as a historical verifier for Black Lagoon. It has the alchemy of b), it's part of a visual history where the Reichstag picture adding a tab of authenticity to the show, a glint of photographic sparkle that makes everything a bit more real.









Later on we get family pictures of one of the submarine captain, with the same picture being shown both in 1945 when the captain is alive and then in the present when the captain is dead.

Here the portrait of the captain's wife and children uses the alchemy of the his family album to show his essential humanity to the evil SS man.

Alchemy is everywhere. We go to the future and the captain is dead, but his picture remains, now lightly stained and ripped, creating distance in time, ideology and intention. The alchemy of what we consider the past is at work here.

It's a strange thing to see photographs used in film, especially animated film, where there is a simultaneous appeal to some mythical photographic authenticity and a subversion of that authenticity through its animation. But then perhaps there are things more powerful at work here; the integrity of the narrative structure and the essential alchemy of the photograph, the way in which we categorise it, the way we attach it to whatever area we think it lies closest to (science, history, family in this case) and the way in which it acts like a lightning rod for our faith and our belief in the basic constructs of life. We believe in it even when we know we shouldn't. That's the alchemy of the photograph.




Monday, 20 April 2015

Showdogs: A Fun Book for All the Family!



I was picking up some books from the warehouse of RRB Photobooks last week when Rudi the owner brought out a copy of Showdogs: A Photographic Breed by Kate Lacey. 

"You should do something on the worst buys ever. This is my worst buy ever. I bought 200 of these thinking I could shift them quickly over Christmas. I priced it at £8, but did I shift any? Not one."

And so he gave me a copy which I took home and started flicking through. And then I flicked some more. It's a book of dogs made by Kate Lacey. It is marketed as a dog lover's book and so doesn't have the kind of god-help-me photobook statement we are familiar with. It's a different kind of god-help-me statement. It's quite straightforward really. Showdogs is  a book of America Kennel Club Breeds shot with pop-up backdrops and little doggy expressions. It's a reference book for dog fans.

I quite like most dogs so I went back and forth with the book, checking out the breeds and then I put it on the table. My wife (Katherine) and daughter (Isabel) came through and picked it up. Now I had Laura El-Tantawy's excellent new book In the Shadow of the Pyramids (get a copy if you can find one) on the table as well. They didn't pick that up. And they don't pick up any of the other 'great' books I put down on the table. They don't find them that interesting which we can put down to either:

a) they are not educated in photobookery (which is rather condescending)

     or

b) they are right and photobooks really are not that interesting (which is rather insulting)

   or

c) both of the above


But the dogs they spent time with. So this was their review.


K: "Most of the dogs are either ugly or look sad."

I: "How can you say that. Ah, look at that one. It's got the wind blowing through its hair. It has so much swag. It's so cute."

K: "There nothing cute in this book, that's for sure."

I: What about the really furry dogs. They're so cute."

K: "Toy dogs! What the hell are those?"

I: "They're little dogs. You have to admit that one's cute."

K: "She thinks it's cute, but I think it's hideous. They look so sad. The problem with these show dogs is they're trained to have the wrong kind of obedience..."


I'll stop it there because it went on like this in a back and forth for about twenty minutes. My daughter thought the baby alien that burst out of John Hurt's stomach was cute, so you'll understand how little discrimination was going on there. Everything was cute. Or the flip side, from my wife's side, everything was hideous.

I know Showdogs is an illustrative coffee table book in miniature, and it doesn't agonise about dogs or place them in some pretentious framework, but it was the most family fun I've had with a photobook since Fauna or Fruits. And it's got those candy coloured backdrops that used to be favoured by a certain breed of new formalist photographers a few years back.

So I wonder if the whole series wasn't reshot with the dogs looking kind of deadpan, and the wind machine turned off, and with the narrative broken up with random bone sculptures and pictures of cans of dog food (actually this is sounding really fucking good. Do it someone!) with a new statement saying how 'these images challenge the bla bla bla of canine bla bla bla-iness' and was published by someone ironic and cool, then wouldn't it just do great and be on our book of the year list.

Well, probably not, but what I'm saying is the shift between the work that we like and the work we denounce as cheesy or commercial (and this is cheesy and commercial) is not as great as we think. What would it take to move this from being a commercial book to being a 'photobook' book.  Not that much I'm guessing. And it wouldn't necessarily make it any better. We could just pretend it's better.

Possibly we can get a bit precious about it all, and not enjoy things just for the sake of enjoying them - while still recognising that there is some work that is just unadulterated crap.

But Showdogs isn't. I don't think. It is what it is; a book of dogs, and I quite like it for that.

Buy the book here.

Or don't buy the book here. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use!



EVA-04 by Sabine Schr√ľnder is a book about identity and how it is constructed. It's quite conceptual in some ways because it's based on a series of polarities (individual and the social, location and studio), but it has a heart and it tells a story that is both sometimes puzzling but also visually engaging. The clues click together, which is part of the point of the book and the way it has been sequenced..

There's a  Wittgenstein quote at the back of Sabine Schrunder's book, EVA 04. 'The meaning of a word is its use in the language'. That sums up what the book is about; how people function in (Japanese) society, how they are suited and booted by the world around them, by the social constraints, the architecture, the planning, the way of thinking, everything. That's the book explained in verbal form.

The book starts on a grey sand beach with a woman in jeans sticking pieces of straw into the grey sand of the beach, sand that she is patting down with her right hand. She's not looking a happy camper, but does have a slightly wistful air as seen from the back. It seems like she's dreaming of another life, that there's a conflict between what she is and what she is supposed to be. That's the book explained in visual form.

A grey framed window appears next and then we're back on the beach with schoolgirls whose grey socks match the grey sand. Their shoes are brown and they stand pigeon-toed on this rather joyless looking beach.


By the next picture, the schoolgirls are gone and we have two attendants of sorts. Maybe they work in a car park, maybe they work in a hotel. We don't know but what we do know is their shoes are black and they are not pigeon toed. And we can see one of the attendant's face. She's got ill-fitting gloves to go with her ill-fitting jacket but the skirt has stayed the same. And it's grey. The world doesn't fit and the world is dull!


A child watches his mother blowing bubbles. She's wearing a grey skirt too. She's standing under a roof and behind her is a grid of panels. Never mind the bubbles, the child's world is being shaped already to fit into her socially-moulded template.



We see that world taking shape in a rooftop panorama of a city's rooftops. There are squares, there are grids, there are lines that are straight and everything is in grey order.  It's a kit world, one that you put together with steel and screws and concrete.

To emphasise that point there are pictures of a plastic robot kit (the kind that Airfix or Revell make), though these might be pressing the point. The architecture and the grids get the point across. Mixed in with these are black and white studio portraits, Japanese men and women pose deadpan for the camera, but now you can see their faces and (even when there are lines) the lines that society seeks to impose are broken through a particular vulnerability. The organised chaos of uncombed but not unkempt hair, the intimacy (or intrusion) of a hand holding a forearm, and a subtle sense of the androgynous (the skirts have disappeared by the end ) add to the disruption.





By the end of the book we're back where we started, with the sticks in the sand on the grey beach. Only now there's no hand to pat the sand down and without that nod towards scale, the sticks look like driftwood cast onto a wild landscape because that, ultimately, is what we are.


Buy the Book here.