Friday, 17 October 2014

Beyonce's Camera

What camera do you own and what does it say about your personality? I share a camera with Beyonce, a Fuji x-100, but then I share that camera with everybody who wants a cool-looking camera. And I'm not sure that's a good thing.

But we get a cool looking camera and get to share it with Beyonce and Jay-Z, so that ain't bad; I used to have a little Ricoh and so Terry Richardson! Sharing with Bey is way better than sharing with Tel.

But then I've still got a Hasselblad and Neil Armstrong had (no getting picky here) a Hasselblad on the moon. And you don't get cooler than that?

Unless you're talking Robert Capa. There's no-one cooler than Capa and Capa used Contaxes and I used Contaxes too. What a Dreamboat! 

You get weirder than Capa though. I used to have a whole bunch of electric Rolleis. I liked the electric Rolleis (until they broke) and so did Roger Ballen? 

Which makes me an amalgam of Beyonce, Ballen, Armstrong, Capa and Tel. Which, with a few misgivings along the way isn't bad. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Manchuria, The West Bank and School Playgrounds

Noriko was a Japanese student I once taught, but unlike Michiko (who you can read about in yesterday's post) she came from a position of privileged ignorance. She was lovely and kind and was part of a fantastic class that had Japanese, Greek, Iranian and Chinese students in it. Everybody was incredibly smart, tolerant and generous to each other and Noriko was at the heart of all that kindness.

Then one day, one of the Chinese students was talking about China and where her parents came from in the far north-west, in Manchuria. And that's when Noriko piped up. "Oh, that's Manchuko," she said. "My grandfather was the top general there."

And then there was silence. The Japanese committed horrendous crimes in China including biological and chemical testing as well as having camps where humans were experimented on. This was like happily telling a Jew or a Czech that your grandfather is Dr Mengele or Reinhard Heydrich and expecting them to be happy about it.

But Noriko didn't know this. And this was understood. And so for the next few days, the Chinese student would take her Noriko away and give her a new interpretation of both Japanese and her own family history. And Noriko listened and took it all in, wiser but sadder.

It was a lesson in tolerance and the ability to listen to and understand something very difficult to hear (that had possibly been nestling in the back of Noriko's mind). And maybe it was only something that could happen outside the heated environments of accusation and denial that you might have in China or Japan.

I often think of Noriko and her miraculous ability to grasp something that must have been so personally shattering. I wonder at the ability of both Noriko and the Chinese student to engage with each other on terms that lie outside the usual political discourse, on terms that you will never see in the news or on television.

And sometimes I connect it to something happening in the news, something where the two sides are so diametrically opposed that even as an outsider, one is infected by the driven bile and hatred of one side to the other, bile and hatred that appears to be ubiquitous and all encompassing, but that still has little chinks in, little gaps where there is a willingness to understand and take responsibility for one's own failings and not just blame others, where the humanity of the opposing party is recognised in at least some form - and because of it becomes less of an opposing party.

One place where the Noriko homily pops up is with Israel and Palestine. I don't know that much about these countries ( and Palestine was recognised as a state in the UK this week) and I have limited sympathy for Palestine and even more limited sympathy for Israel. Sometimes it is hard to get beyond the hypocrisy, cruelty and backwardness of both sides.

But maybe that's because when I talk about both sides, I talk about the leadership one sees on TV, or the despicable spokesman who pops up every few years to justify war crimes and murder, or the police state that imposes a culture of violence on its people.

On the few occasions that I see people or words that go beyond this (albeit engrained) rhetoric of opposition and enmity, then I identify more. It might be reading the Fuck Everyone statement by Gaza youth. It goes like this

"Fuck Hamas. Fuck Israel. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNWRA. Fuck USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!
"We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference like the Israeli F16s breaking the wall of sound; scream with all the power in our souls in order to release this immense frustration that consumes us because of this fucking situation we live in...

Or it might be watching a film like Lemon Tree, an Israeli-made film that details both the injustices of the West Bank occupation but through the distant relationship between the wife of the Israeli Defence Secretary and a Palestinian lemon farmer.

But the trouble is it's Israel and it's Palestine and so not everything is so illuminating. And that's where we come back to photography and Nick Waplington's brilliantly photographed Settlement.

This is a book that Waplington says shows images '...created between 2008 and 2013, when I photographed over 350 distinct settlements, from populous cities like Ariel to tiny outposts made up of a few caravans. The exact number of settlements cannot be determined with accuracy, as both construction and demolition take place regularly throughout the region. In general, however, the presence of Jewish settlers in the West Bank is entrenched and their building projects continue with the support of the state of Israel.'

No kidding! Settlement is taking a solid, objective tone. Waplington is not trying to untangle the politics of occupation and settlement, he's simply showing it. And there are maps and references to back this up. Settlement is what it is, nothing more and nothing less. Except of course it's not.

Is it possible in such a charged landscape to be neutral, objective? Is there such a thing? I don't think so  but I think the idea of objectivity may be a central element to the book. And that's what makes it so very, very interesting and so very, very difficult.

It's a fantastic book; the landscapes are charged, and the simple family portraits of settlers come with a subtext, a history and a projected future. Some people find them sympathetic, portraits of family who gain strength from each other and do not look outwards.

picture above by James Mollison

 But I didn't get that feeling whatsoever. I found them hard and brutalised, in the same way I found James Mollison's picture (see above) of a Palestinian school in the West Bank hard and brutalised. I don't know if this is coming from my own very limited background knowledge of the West Bank and what is happening there now, or if Waplington is putting something into the pictures. I think it's probably the former because Waplington does have a sympathy towards the settlers. That might come out to one audience but to another (including this viewer), the portraits are anything but sympathetic.

What it amounts to is quite devastating; a folding over of landscape into power, of religion into family, of control and dominion that combines those elements of pioneering farming with annexation and occupation.

There's no middle ground here though, The people who are photographed are single-minded and will not budge. That's why Waplington has made it in the way he has I guess; as a mapping, of the land and of the people who live there. The future is bleak and it does not blink. Unless you think differently, and then it's all bright and lovely, with a little bit of struggle along the way; The One-State Utopia?

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Whatever Evil is, it wasn't in that Room

picture from Kikuji Kawada's The Map

Last night Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It's the story that connects to  his father's experiences on the Thai-Burma Railway - as Flanagan says "Between 100,000 and 200,000 died. More than died at Hiroshima. More corpses than there are words in my novel."

Flanagan worked for 12 years to tell this story. He told it as a love story because he says that while war stories dark about death, war also illuminates love which is the greatest expression of hope. It's what we live for.

And because it's what we live for, it's what we want to read about. Flanagan has every reason to be self-indulgent and wallow in his father's misery, but it seems like he's translating the story for readership. He's reaching out, he's editing, he's adapting, he's simplifying, he's making it a story that has been written for the reader. It's written on the reader's terms. I think an interesting question here is how often do photographers do this?; go out to the reader and sacrifice their self-indulgence to tell the story well? How often do they do this, how often don't they do this?

I haven't read the book, I only read an excerpt that appeared in the Guardian at the Weekend. All six of the books were highlighted, but for me, Flanagan's (along with Ali Smith's) were the ones that stood out. Here's an excerpt.

I went to Japan. There I searched and found several guards who had worked on the Death Railway. Five minutes before meeting with one guard I realised he was the man who had been the Ivan the Terrible of my father's camp, the man the Australians called the Lizard. Sentenced to death for war crimes after the war, the Lizard later had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and then was released in a general amnesty in 1956. He is the only man I ever heard my father – a gentle, peaceful man – talk of with violent intent.
The meeting was in the offices of a taxi company in suburban Tokyo. Lee Hak Rae, as he is now, was a gracious old man. Near the end of our meeting, I asked him to slap me. Violent face slapping – known as binta– was the immediate form of punishment in the camps, doled out frequently and viciously. On the third blow, the taxi office began to shake and toss violently, like a dinghy in a wild sea.
In one of those coincidences in which reality delights but fiction, for fear of being unrealistic, never permits, a 7.3 Richter scale earthquake had hit Tokyo. For half a minute I saw the Lizard frightened. I saw too that wherever evil is, it wasn't in that shuddering room with that old man and me.

I haven't read the book yet, I'm just going on the 500 words or so he wrote for the Guardian - but if he can make the story interesting, and magical, in 500 words, then I'll bet the book is interesting too. From the quote above it seems to me that he's humanising the inhuman, and that's what makes the story interesting. It gives it another dimension that goes beyond the usual heads or tails, good and evil dialogue. It's why Studio Ghibli is better than Disney, why Doris Lessing is more profound than Dan Brown.
And it's the same with good photography, or interesting photography. It gives three dimensions, it tells parts of the story that haven't been told before, it questions our assumptions, and it reaches out to the viewer on the viewer's terms. Certainly there's a place for self-referential streams of consciousness but it should only be a niche; a niche within a niche. 
I wrote last week about Silent Histories, Kazuma Obara's  excellent book on victim's of the American bombing in the Second World War. In addition to this, the book also questions Japanese society's attitude to the war and its victims. But I wondered at whether there are Japanese photobooks that focus exclusively on the role of the Japanese military in the Second World War, that look at people like Lee Hak Rae and what they did in the war and how they feel now. There are plenty of photobooks made at the time that wondered at the glory of the Japanese Imperial Army, but ones that wonder at the brutality, that question Japan's role in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s? I couldn't think of any and I ran it by a few people who know about Japanese photobooks and nobody could come up with anything. 
But that doesn't mean they don't exist or they won't exist. A few years ago when I taught English, I had a couple of Japanese students. The first was called Michiko. She was five foot two, with pigeon toes, chubby thighs and she wore Miffy socks. She was 30 but she looked 13. Her classmates were Swiss lawyers, Brazilian economists and Italian philosophers. At the start of the course, she was patronised to an extent I have never witnessed before. It was quite disgusting and I can honestly say I have wiped out the memory of everybody else in that class from my mind. But Michiko bore it all with good grace and at the end of her first week I found out why. Everybody gave a presentation on what they were studying. The Swiss talked about law, the  Brazilians about economics and it was all very good. I felt for Michiko who had chosen to go last. 
And so she came to the front and she started. "My name is Michiko and I am going to talk about the research I am doing for my PhD on the role of the Japanese Imperial Army in forced prostitution in Korea during the Second World War."
Oh my Giddy aunt. It was like something from a film where the tables are turned on the class bullies. After that, nobody ever patronised Michiko ever again. From that moment on, she was greeted with only politeness and respect by the other students. And a little fear. They were afraid of her and Michiko knew it. She knew it and she enjoyed it because she knew she was kinder, smarter and tougher than them. She didn't look it, but she was. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Propaganda, Propaganda, Propaganda

I really enjoyed the propaganda books day at Photobook Bristol yesterday. It was a simple format of a series of talks topped off with great food and music by Andy Sheppard and the Pushy Doctors - all in the really comfortable surroundings of The Bedminster Boys Club in Bristol (or something like that). Four hours of talks can be incredibly longs sometimes, but yesterday's weren't.

First up was Ian Bamford who brought up a series of books from his collection. My personal favourite was a book highlighting the ideal agriculture village of Tachai. Made in 1969, it was a Cultural Revolution classic that coincided with the period when everyone had had enough of Red Guards and student militias and they were all being sent out to the countryside for a bit of agricultural re-education.

Lewis Bush who talked abwas next and he talked about 3 different versions of Brecht's War Primer. From Looking at the original, he moved on to the Broomberg and Chanarin version (I don't have the hard copy but I do have the free ebook they have here)  - which was partially made by unpaid interns. So this led to the 3rd version, Bush's own, which repurposed the anti-war message into something approximating to the dignity of paid labour. It was a nice shift from a universal message to something more specific to something even more specific but with a different direction.

Wandsworth Roundabout - Brian Griffin. You can buy a vintage print of this at a Brian Griffin hosted auction here.

Brian Griffin came at the propaganda theme from a practioner's angle and looked at how propaganda informed his work. And for this he returned to a primary religious meaning of propaganda - originally propaganda as used to convert people to and keep them within the Catholic faith. So Griffin showed worked that was inspired by great religious art. This was real cutting-to-the-chase stuff, a direct influence where the general idea is "well, if it worked for them, then it'll work for me."

Griffin focussed on the gaze, expression and lighting but especially the hands. Hands are so important. But why is that? What is it about hands in religious paintings that convey so much content? And what is exactly that they convey?

Next up was Oliver Hartung who showed a range of images of the Blessed Al Assad family from Syria. Here, the representations were those of a personality cult, but what was especially interesting was the way in which images were incorporated into everyday furniture. He's now working on a series of images from Iran,


Here, the representation of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war was a main feature. It was really interesting to see how these have changed over recent years from heroic agit-prop to a more colourful and benign style that uses a mix of children's book illustration with a slight anime crossover - with the feeling that in a few years they will be full anime martyrs on the walls. An Iranian member of the audience made an interesting point here on the extent to which people believed in these images and also the extent to which they get 'modified'. Who believes in this kind of propaganda in other words?

Read more about Oliver Hartung by Gemma Padley here.

The final speaker was Martin Parr who showed books from his collection, in particular Italian propaganda books and their incredible design and use of montage and double page spreads. One of these was what Martin said  "...might just be one of the greatest photobooks ever made .." despite not being in any photographic history. Interestingly, he said this was the first event he knows of (and he knows of these things) where a series of talks had been put together to talk about the propaganda books - which is incredible.

So all good there. I think it's a subject that could be investigated further. I really enjoyed seeing the crossover of propaganda themes, but want to know if this is just generic or are there some kind of propaganda archetypes? We listen to, read and see propaganda everywhere and although we may pretend we are too sophisticated to believe in it, we completely do (Islamic State, the world's biggest evil thing, Ebola, we've all seen Outbreak so we know exactly how serious it is, economy not growing, that means another recession round the corner etc, etc) even if we think we don't.

So there we have it? What exactly is propaganda and how does it work? There's a couple more questions to ask!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

"It took almost 1 day to make 2 books maximum by hand."

I posted yesterday about Kazuma Obara's excellent Silent Histories. It's a beautiful multi-layered book about the indiscriminate bombing of Japan during the Second World War, and the suffering of the civilians who lost their families, homes and limbs; suffering that dragged out into the post-war until the present day.

The screengrabs above aren't from the book but from Grave of the Fireflies, the tragic film that I think of an anime companion to the book. It's not, but I like to think it is.

The book includes pictures stuck into photo-corners, propaganda magazine facsimiles and a hand drawn and written narrative of events as told by one of his interviews.

Silent Histories was made in an edition of 45 (because that's when the war ended). It's a miserly figure, especially when the war ended in 1945. Why not make 1,945 copies?

That was asked and that was answered by Kazuma Obara on Twitter; "It took almost 1day to make 2 books maximum by my hand."

So the 45 books took up 22 days of his life. Mind-numbing and possibly quite frustrating days. I wrote a feature for the BJP on Photobooks a few years back and remember interviewing him about his publishing house, LBM, and how they made Conductors of the Moving World, a fundraiser for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

For the Conductors of the Moving World Book we taped the pictures in ourselves. Each book had 17 pictures taken from a selection of 90. The edit  was supposed to be random but it’s difficult to be random so we had a system for putting pictures in. We started and after 20 minutes I had dinked 3 pictures, bent the pages and hadn’t even finished one book. We had 500 books to do and I was going into meltdown. 

So it was all going to shit. But then their intern, Johnny Longfingers stepped into the room. He didn't dink pictures or smudge the glue or spread dirt on the pages. He did 5/10/100 books in an hour and before you know it they were flying off around the world.

But not everybody is Johnny Longfingers. So it doesn't always work that way. And unless you are really good with your hands and your cutting and pasting, it doesn't end up being that quick. That's why people pay printers huge sums to do it for them.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Kazuma Obara's Silent Histories

The shortlist for the Aperture First Photobook Prize is up and there are so many really good books in there (including old favourites like  Hidden Islam, Father Figure, War Porn and Euromaidan as well as great books like Epilogue, Red String and Andrea Botto's Number Book!). It's strange how the First Photobook Prize seems so much more interesting than the other Aperture book awards. It's also strange how small some of the editions are. And how concerned they are.

For example, Silent Histories came in a really small edition of 45. And it was expensive. But it sold out very quickly because it is an meticulously made photobook that combines contemporary, historical and archive photography with first hand accounts of what it's like to grow up with a war-inflicted disability in post-war Japan. It helps redefine events that happened a long time ago and it's a campaigning photobook. And it deals with a difficult subject; Japan and the Second World War. A that, despite all the fetishisation of the Japanese photobook, isn't talked about too much. I'm not sure why. 

So I wrote about Silent Histories for Emaho Magazine. This is what I said. 

Grave of the Fireflies is an anime film about the Second World War in Japan.  The main characters are a young boy and his younger sister. Their house is bombed, their mother is killed, they are shunned by their family and they go to live beyond the town in a life where the food runs out. It goes beyond miserable. I won’t give away the ending but it is one of the most tragic films I have ever seen, a film where the people who neglect and mistreat these children are almost as bad as the people who bombed them out of their house and home.

Silent Histories, a handmade book made in a sold-out edition of 45 by Kazuma Obara  shares many characteristics with Grave of the Fireflies. It’s a book that details the suffering endured by civilians who were injured in the American bombing of Japan. And it’s fantastic.

As an object it is beautiful. It comes bound in ox-blood and brown tweed, with a family portrait from 1930s Japan on the cover. But in the middle of the picture the face of the youngest family member is whited out. She’s missing. She’s hiding herself. This is a book about people who were destroyed by the war, who hide themselves away.

Open the book and the adventure begins. There are inserts; one class picture, four certificates and three replicas of a Japanese propaganda magazine dedicated to showing civilians how to defend themselves against aerial bombing.

The introduction to the book details the destruction to life and property endured: ‘The indiscriminate bombing by US forces during the Second World War massacred 330,000 and left 430,000 Japanese civilians injured.’

It highlights the resultant suffering of survivors who, ‘…have lived in the shadows, trying to hide their scars and avoid causing someone trouble by being visible, trying hard to cover their pain.’ And that is what the book is about, the Japanese people who have suffered because of the war.
The first subject is Teruko Anno. We see childhood snaps of her, class photos and the background she came from. But we also see waves of American bombers in the sky, their bombs dropping and a destroyed city. The message is clear. America did this. America is to blame.

We also see Teruko at the doctors, her suffering and pain still ongoing, and we hear her story, of how she was bombed in 1945, how she lost her leg, of the malnutrition that took her brother’s life and of the ‘…discrimination and prejudice against the wounds of war.’

Eiko Kobayashi tells her story through an illustrated insert. Her house was firebombed, she ran and was hit by shrapnel, she ended up in a hospital where she stayed for four days until her parents finally found her. It’s a story filled with the wanton violence of war, and what it does to the people who live under it. Kobayashi also suffered prejudice after the war ended. She was blamed for a defective product at the company she worked for; ‘”It’s because you employ people like her with bad legs.”’ And so she resigned, but from then on simply agreed with people who expressed their prejudice. ‘First and foremost, I had to prioritize making a living.’

The tales of suffering and prejudice continue. Mariko Fujiwara’s left leg was injured by a bomb two hours after she was born. She tells us how she went to a public washhouse when she was a child. In the evening to avoid other people. But one day a boy and a girl saw her injured leg. ‘”Mom, look, what a strange leg!” Their mother said, “If you do bad things, your legs become like that too!” When I heard that, I felt so sad.

There is a long list of classic Japanese photobooks that deal with how awful the Americans were in the Second World War, that examine the horrors of the blanket bombing of cities and the cruel devastation Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What’s worrisome is, in a country that has never been able to take responsibility for the crimes it committed during the Second World War, the lack of photobooks or photography that recognise the horrors Japan inflicted on the populations of other Asian countries.  There are Dutch books, Korean books and Chinese books, but Japanese? Japanese textbooks still skim over what Japan did in the Second World War. It would be nice if there photobooks that did otherwise.

But in a strange and very quiet way, Silent Histories is a step in the right direction. Though it addresses the indiscriminate cruelty of the American bombing campaign, it also addresses the failings of the Japanese government to adequately compensate the victims of the bombing. In a postscript, the photographer Obara writes how he went to attend a ‘…signature-collecting campaign for legislation supporting victims of the air attacks.’ But  the legislation hasn’t come, there is no support from a government which still provides compensation for ‘former military personnel, civilian employees and surviving relatives’.  The case is coming up to the Supreme Court and the next step is for the victims of the bombings to show the scars they have kept hidden for almost 70 years.

So ultimately the book is about making visible the scars and pain of war, of recognising the suffering that civilians go through everywhere, and ending all wars. It’s a dream, but it’s a good one, delivered in outstanding powerful fashion.

A message from our sponsors....

Why can't everyone be like me?

I've tried imposing my will on my domestic and working life. But somehow it's not working, something's not getting through. my desire for everything that makes life organised and manageable is not being conveyed to the slothful, gluttonous and lustful people that surround me.

Some new strategies are required. That's why this weekend I'm going to Photo Book Bristol Propaganda Event at the Southbank Club in Bedminster, Bristol. It's all about propaganda, photobooks with fabulous food and music thrown in.

The speakers are Martin Parr, Lewis Bush, Ian Bamford and Brian Griffin. There will also be an extensive collection of propaganda photobooks in the upstairs section that you are not going to see anywhere else.

Buy tickets for the Propaganda Weekend here. 

And sign up for Lewis's Propaganda Workshop here.