Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Reluctant Father and the Drudgery of Parenthood

Keeping on the father theme, here is The Reluctant Father by Philip Toledano.

The Reluctant Father is a book about reluctant fatherhood. It starts out with Toledano's baby daughter being born. Toledano is both bewildered and resentful. It's not so much that he's gained a child as lost a wife.

The baby, LouLou, screams. That's her emotion of choice, so Toledano gets a picture of the screaming Loulou printed on a plate. When people ask to see a picture of the baby, that's what he shows. Fantastic.

Toledano calls LouLou a 'sea-sponge' and resents the cultural expectation of being constantly delighted by being a father. He doesn't connect.

Except that in the end he does, when she begins to smile (so when she's four weeks old or thereabouts) and do things other than scream. So they all live happily ever after!

I know you're supposed to go warm and soggy when you get the emotional payoff, but I was kind of disappointed when this happened. I wanted the confusion to continue, if not to its natural conclusion, then to something a bit more familiar. It's almost too polarised, the idea that the connection ends the drudgery of being a parent. That's when the drudgery begins.

I have always been a very present father but hold little nostalgia for the relentlessness of having a 3-year-old or six-year-old or 9-year-old in the house. The early mornings, the constant 'playing' and the bedtime reading had their moments but reading and reading again and again and again books such as The Flower Fairy series is a fate that I would happily wish on my worst enemies. Or the playing that is more like performing, or the half mile walk that takes two hours because you have to stop (my mistake, there was no had to about it) to look at every dog, horse, duck and train along the way. Yes, lovely but its time is past thank goodness. For Toledano, that time is just beginning.

Buy the book here.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Zun Lee's Father Figure

In the introduction to his new book, Father Figure, Zun Lee says:

'When I began my project in 2011, I knew that I wanted to explore a different take on the usually negative representation of Black fathers.'

As soon as he began photographing, Lee began having doubts, the question pile was getting higher and the answer pile lower:

'What qualifies someone as a “good” Black father? How much of the deadbeat-dad narrative do we tend to accept as fact? Do statistics confirm or disprove popular stereotypes? Can empirical evidence and actual lived experience  reveal another reality behind the numbers? The more I dealt with these questions, the more I realized that the path to my answers lay in finding redemption to my own past.'

That front door involved a biological black father who disappeared before he was born, it involved an emotionally and physically father and it had involved Lee seeking and finding solace in other families on the military bases where he mostly grew up.

As he photographed, Lee's attempt to understand American Black Fatherhood (and it's really important to stress that it is American) became a struggle to understand his own upbringing, his own father and to let go of the imaginary childhood that he didn't have. (read more about this here)

So a book that started as a counter-propaganda exercise (Lee says that he was originally looking for the right kinds of fathers) became something altogether more interesting - a three-dimensional portrayal of fathers that embraces far broader aspects of black fatherhood than the stereotypes allow,

And Lee's pictures show us how thin those stereotypes are. He shows us a black father lying exhausted on a sofa, two kids by his side. He's probably not as exhausted as the mother who's cooking in the kitchen, but he's still exhausted.

Or there's the dad standing on the street corner with a baby in a sling, his mates gathered round, looking all skinny and street in a dad kind of way. I've never seen that before in a photograph, movie or TV programme.

There are dads playing with their kids in the street, changing babies' nappies and going on days out to the aquarium or park. And all the time there are quotes, really obvious quotes

'My first few months as a father were so overwhelming. Sure, you prepare as much as you can but you quickly realize you don’t really know how things will shake out, and despite all the advice from family and friends, you’re still just winging it. You kind of learn as you go, and over time, your confidence grows.'


'It seems basic or obvious, but spending quality time with your kids – being present really comes down to that for me. For me, that’s not just being in the same room, but actively engaging with the kids.'


'Fatherhood at its core means that there is someone else on the planet that is more important to you and that it humbles you to realize that there are more unknown elements than known. It means that I have to be open to learning more and experiencing life through another. It is wildly satisfying.'

It's obvious but it's also essential. These are pretty much universal feelings that all fathers (and mothers for that matter) go through. But it's that obviousness that makes these sentiments so essential, because (from a distance - I'm not black and I live in the UK) they are so rarely expressed in such a direct manner.

I remember reading an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who is Nigerian). She wrote that until she came to America, she didn't realise she was black. This sentiment is echoed in a quote by one Domican-born father who, said:

'I got into a lot of trouble as a teenager. As part of my rehabilitation process, I spent time in Kentucky with the Job Corps Program. Living there you realize very quickly that no matter how you see yourself, America reminds you that you are Black.'

Father Figure is very Family of Man; it says that black men are people too, that they love their children, they feel pride and sorrow and long for what is good for their families. But it also recognises that not all fathers are great, that there is a spectrum of fatherhood that ranges from the good to the bad - and that must be recognised and addressed.

I think Lee begins to do that with this book. I spend a lot of time talking to people about how all photographs are fiction and nobody believes in images anymore. And I kind of sympathise with that.

But at the same time, we do believe in images more than ever before. There is a reality principle behind images that is greater than ever before. That's why so many people believe in simplistic stereotypes of all kinds. Because however much we may say we don't believe in what we see, everything's manipulated - we still believe it in our hearts. It still works! We still believe in it. But most of the time it's in a bad way.

'I provide for my son as best I can, but as a single father, it’s hard to provide for him emotionally at times. I give him enough affection as a dad. But sometimes he needs the input of a mother in his life.'

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Paul Graham's Rainbows

I wrote something the other week in this post about people  in the Independent how 'Cultivating vegetables and herbs at home is also just an extension of the modern foodie culture, in which visiting farmers’ markets, home-brewing, and splurging £4.50 on a loaf of artisanal bread is increasingly the norm among urban-dwelling twenty- and thirtysomethings.'

I think that is a despicable thing when it is done in that particular precious way that is elitist and excludes others from food culture and claims good food as something that is only attainable through either great expertise or great expenditure..

And then I thought about photography and wondered about photography, wondered about this blog and how we could change a few words around so it was all about photobooks and handmades and Japanese stab-bindings and spending £126.73 on an artisanal crafted edition of 45 with slipped in leaflets... and well, we're talking about me and a fair few other people as well. 

Oh well, so it goes.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is I was sent Paul Graham's new book, Does Yellow Run Forever  in the post a few weeks ago. 

Sometimes it takes a bit of time for Paul Graham's work to filter through, sometimes it only filters through in conjunction with other books. So perhaps I'm wrong on this. 

But I couldn't really work myself up to liking it. The pictures are super-glossy and run through a rainbow, dreaming girlfriend, US gold shops riff ( pot of gold, streets paved with gold, sell your gold) but it all seems a bit artificial to me. Or maybe not artificial enough. It seems like the metaphorical is being pushed but it's got stuck in the photobook mode of presentation. Whatever it is Graham is trying to say is somehow blocked by the fuzzy cover and the glossy pages. Or it might be that it's not that interesting a story. 

Maybe it's because I got it at the end of the summer and I am just not in the mood for this obtuse kind of narrative when there's a more obvious one might do. The story feels disguised by the format rather than revealed . Or maybe I am out of practice and need to get back into my artisanal groove and appreciate it a bit more. 

Or maybe I just don't like gold.

I do like Teletubbies though. That's why I have the picture up.

I'm sure it will sell out though. You can buy it here. 

And here's an interesting interview with Michael Mack about the book here.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Osama Bin Laden's Secret Base

The great thing about interviewing Joan Fontcuberta was it gave me a chance to use Osama Bin Laden's secret base in a story. I've been waiting to do that for years and finally the opportunity came.

Osama Bin Laden's secret base was a fictional hideaway that had been dug out of the Tora Bora Bora mountains. It was the cave complex where Bin Laden and hundreds of his fighters were holed up in Afghanistan, post-911, 2001. It was packed with food, water, weapons and everything else that a good Jihadi needs; a mosque, cinema, boutique and bowling alley are missing from the diagram but you can bet they were there.

I remember seeing this in the UK papers and laughing out loud. The story of Bin Laden's secret base went global and was shown on TV. Donald Rumsfeld was shown the plans and said "And there's not one of those. There are many of those."

But of course the base was never found. Not yet anyway. And now if they found it, because Al Qaeda have now somehow been reinvented as the cuddly arm of the jihadist movement ("We would never have kidnapped an aid worker. He was helping muslims"), it would have yoga rooms and Anger Management Therapy and counsellors for religious OCD.

Anyway, now that we know that Islamic State are the real bad guys, the really real bad guys, here is a handy guide to Good Beheadings and Bad Beheadings. There's a difference.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Joan Fontcuberta: Is he real?

I interviewed Joan Fontcuberta for the BJP this summer. It was one of my favourite interviews of all time because by the time it was finished I didn't know which way was up and which way was down. The fact that guys in white kept on walking behind Fontcuberta during the Skype interview probably helped as well. I thought he was in some kind of Dojo somewhere running through his killer moves, but he wasn't... But he might have been.

The basic gist of Fontcuberta's work is 'don't trust the packaging'. And because the 'packaging' takes up at least 90% of all photographic work, it ends up as don't trust anything you see. But the problem is we do believe the things that we see, even though we should know better. This is what Fontcuberta said;

“We may not believe images in our conscious minds, but in our unconscious minds we do believe them. In both our individual unconscious and the collective unconscious.” This collective consciousness influences how narratives are presented to people and how we read them and it is these that Fontcuberta seeks to undermine. “I’m interested in fakes and fictions. I think there are 3 levels of fictions; criticism, parody and pastiche. I use fiction to create a critical discourse of how information is transmitted and filtered through academic and cultural institutions.”

Those academic and cultural filters are what make photography a fiction in other words. Or maybe it's non-fiction in which the packaging and the filters (galleries, museums, books, archives, magazines, blogs...) that are contained in the means of production, presentation and dissemination are the plane where reality strikes.

Anyway, if you want to get a taste of Fontcuberta's work The Nature of Photography contains extracts and the introductory essays on key works; it is a fantastic introduction into how photography works and how and and why we believe it in particular situations.

“I like to consider my work a vaccine where you inoculate the world with a very weak virus so it will protect you against the big virus. My mission is just to warn people about the possibility that photography can be doctored, that people need to be critically sceptical of images that format our behaviour and our way of thinking.”

You can also see Fontcuberta's exhibition Stranger than Fiction at The Science Museum in London. Most of his great projects are on show here (Fauna, Herbarium, Miracles...) but Sputnik (Fontcuberta's fictional project on a Russian cosmonaut - those are his images above) is missing, supposedly because the Museum thought that it would clash with an upcoming exhibition on Russian cosmonauts, but maybe because, as Fontcuberta told Source Magazine, "Yuri Gagarin’s daughter – an important officer at Hermitage Museum – disliked deeply my Sputnik series."


Monday, 15 September 2014

Who is Innocent and Who is Guilty?

The censorship row over Yunghi Kim's pictures of Hutu refugees had me spluttering my cornflakes over the breakfast table this morning.

In 1994, Kim was in Goma photographing the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were stuck on the volcanic wastelands around the Congoese town with little food, water or shelter. Cholera was rife and they were dying in their thousands.

Amidst all these refugees were those who had been responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda two years earlier. In fact they were refugees as well; not all refugees are nice.

But still, they were people, as were the babies, the women, the children and the men who had played no part in the massacres. Kim didn't consider the crimes of the assassins, she looked at the human suffering those hundreds of thousands of suffering people were going through. She didn't think of who had done the killing, who done the encouraging, who had made the propaganda, or who had played a passive role in the massacres (which would have meant just about everybody over the age of ?). She simply photographed the suffering.

And this month her pictures appeared at Visa Pour L'Image at Perpignan, Kim was accused of 'revisionism' and the pictures were taken down.

This is part of what she said on the Contact Images Facebook page.

With respect to my Rwanda work, I have always been consistent and clear, in my floor talk at my exhibition and in the intro panel and wall captions, I indicated that I was not present for the barbaric and murderous rampage of the genocide that took place. I was responding to cover the humanitarian crisis -- the mass movements of people -- as they fled Rwanda for Goma. As photojournalist, I responded instinctually documenting life on the run, people frightened, burdened with possessions thirsty, hungry and fatigued. Later, along the roads and in the camps when disease took hold, it did so indiscriminately.

Some people thought it was terrible, some thought it justified. Jan Banning ( who knows a thing or two about revisionism and denial of history) thought it was justified. This is what he said on his website.

Yunghi Kim went to Goma to photograph these Hutu refugees. But she treated the evolving crisis as if it has started as a ‘deus ex machina’, a phenomenon without a history. And I tend to consider it even more na├»ve to see the captions that now – 20 years (and a lot of reports, books etc.) later – accompany her photos in the NY Times Lens and in the Visa pour l’Image exhibition. To give just one example: she talks of “residents who had fled the fighting” or “fled the civil war.” That is absurd: a great many of them fled to avoid the consequences of killing Tutsi’s.
In her captions, she also talks muscularly about ‘the deadliest crisis in modern history’; we are left in the dark about when ‘modern history’ begins but surely, the refugee crisis at the end (and in the aftermath) of WW2 in Central and Eastern Europe was deadlier. And now that I come to talk about WW2: it would shed light on Kim’s captions, if we consider an exhibition of photos of Germans having fled East Prussia or Sudetenland in 1944-46 with captions that would not mention their fate being related to the Second World War and, certainly in the case of the Sudeten Germans, without touching upon their massive support for the nazis just a few years earlier?
I don't know. I think I'm a bit with Kim and bit with Banning on this one, but ultimately the question is who is guilty and who is innocent? And historically where does innocence end and guilt begin? Even in times as seemingly clear cut as Nazi Germany or genocidal Rwanda, shouldn't compassion and a non-comparative morality be used, however difficult that may be. If we don't do that then we end up in a place where all that exists is vengeance and hatred, where everything is black and white and there is simply right and wrong and no in-between. And considering that pretty much everybody is collectively guilty of something, that is an ugly place to be in. 
So, perhaps Kim was naive or clumsy in her wording, but does that mean that the hundreds of thousands of innocent people (including a great many who were not directly involved in the killing) who were stuck on those Goma rocks didn't deserve some compassion and caring? Or is to show that just to show emotion and somehow be incompatible with informing the audience as Banning suggests (strangely, I've always felt that what made Banning's comfort women so powerful is the anger,grief and sorrow they convey as well as the dignity). Where does innocence end and guilt begin?
More on continuing campaigns for justice by Indonesian Comfort Women here.
...and this from Jan Banning on continued Japanese denial of war crimes.

Friday, 12 September 2014

#bringbackgoodluck, genocide and the first ever photobomb

I saw this on Twitter the other day (on @DapperHistorian) and I am inclined to believe it with the proviso that it might very well be nonsense or even the DapperHistorian himself. The exposure times don't quite add up.

But it doesn't really matter. Or does it? Who knows? Not me.

Then I saw this. Essentially, the story is how come you have Rhodes Scholarships when Cecil Rhodes was such an outright murderer, racist and plunderer.

Which is fair enough.

But was Rhodes a murderer responsible for the deaths of 60 million people, 10 times the number Hitler killled which is what the text that accompanies the text says.

Come again on so many points.

The Hitler comparison and the questionable numbers weaken the very good idea of ending Rhodes Scholarships because of who they are named after. Because Rhodes really was a piece of shit. Why would you name a scholarship after him?

One excuse is that things were different then, or we didn't know any better. I live in Bath which is next to Bristol, a city which for many years was one point in the slave triangle. It's not something that's properly remembered in Bristol - there's a corner of the M-Shed museum on the slave trade, and there's Georgian House, which is a fabulous museum that was owned by a slave-owning family, but apart from that we only have the streets and statues named after one of the city's great slave owners, Edward Colston, something that a large number of people in the city are still in denial about, 

This is what Mike Gardner wrote about Colston.

"Between 1672 and 1689, Colston's company transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the Americas. To maximise profit, his ships divided their hulls into cramped holds, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. They were stripped and chained in leg irons – the women and children were caged separately and were frequently victims of sexual abuse. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery, smallpox and scurvy meant mortality rates for the eight-week crossing were as high as 20 per cent. Slaves who died or refused to eat were thrown overboard.

A third perished within three years of arriving in the New World after a short life of unimaginable horror, flogged and chained and starved until they could take no more, farming the fields of cotton, sugar, tobacco and molasses."

I don't know if any of that can be justified by some kind of hisorical relativism. It's evil all round. You don't need Hitler and outlandish figures to justify your argument in other words. Research and a sense of common humanity will do the job much better. 

Oh, and while we're on dubious propaganda and slavery, does anyone remember #bringbackourgirls, the campaign from, oh, way back in April when almost 300 girls were abducted in Nigeria by Boko Haram. 219 of the girls are still missing, and the incompetence and disregard shown by the Nigerian authorities is something to behold, even from a very long distance and with a great deal of ignorance thrown in.

So imagine how offended people were when they saw this re-election poster for the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan. It was unofficial and has since been recalled, but still,

Is it real? It can't be? But it is. I don't know anymore....