Soul thieves

What I’d call ‘the American traveler photographer mystic’ is a strain of photography particularly infectious (to me) and seems to have become a process, originating in Walker Evans, where the face of America is redefined each time someone photographs it in a new way.

‘Ordinary’ America, in this tradition, appears largely to be the subject matter whether by direct portrait, suburban street scene (with telephone wire and car) or contrasts found between haves and have nots. Ironically the audience, generally speaking could not be further from this apparent ‘common’ world, yet it is amongst this audience and through its media where the identity of America is actually defined and reflected visually.

If they (our folk outside the photographic sphere) get to see these works at all, would they not be looking at themselves and their pictured environment with perplexity rather than recognition? I suspect, too, that they would be too busy living their ordinariness to waste time on a photograph. Perhaps they won’t even be aware, 20 years from the shutter’s moment of truth, that via a gradual cultural osmosis, photography will have given them a new face and called it America.

Because cultures don’t really model themselves on the photographic image; they develop instead along their own lines of traditions and norms, we may find the public visual map of America, widely differing from its actuality and that the pictorial definition is far more about the photographer (and his following) than the subject and their identity, however noble or ideal the pursuit. Was America ever like Stephen Shore’s vision, if so is it still that way?

For those of us that aren’t in that world we may really think it is that way, if we don’t carefully notice that the dates say 1973-1979, or when at some point we are shown a differing image by a new generation of photographers.We’ve tired long ago of the oft repeated fear claiming that the cameras steal our souls. Perhaps though, it’s really true, in so far as it substitutes reality with a select fake?

All Aboard to Virgin Lands

We are a culture of discoverers. Everywhere we are discovering things and if we are not then we are wishing we were. Choose any field, there we will find our discoverers in any number of professions: we have scientists cataloging, we have travellers wandering, explorers poking about, entrepreneurs, anthropologists, investigative journalist, photographers, internet surfers, etc…

When we embark on a mission of discovery we have set up for ourselves certain goals. Even if we decide simply to drop everything and head out, we cannot leave without some kind of justification. Our justification can be any variety of things: discovering the source of the Nile, simply getting away from it all, exploring a hitherto unknown jungle for a bird of paradise, learning something new, simple entertainment or it could be researching a cure for cancer.

We understand, from the onset, any goal must be for the benefit of the individual or the group otherwise it would be pointless. This is the first prerequisite. But the second prerequisite (intrinsic anyway) is that the object of pursuit must reside in the unknown, a place or idea devoid of man’s touch… virgin territory, otherwise, obviously it would have been discovered already.

So once these two prerequisites are satisfied the voyager heads out to places hitherto unknown, in the hopes that there he will find his sought after delights.

The road is full of perils, it is very much the hero’s journey with pitfalls around every corner, but with bravery and endurance, at last, the goal is achieved (our hero can fudge it if he fails, after all he lives in a marketing, ad infested world). His discovery, however, is rendered useless, unless he promptly returns home to report his findings to his fellows.

But his compatriots are very sceptical and he must provide evidence, he must provide a photograph, a diagram of data, a carcass of the bird of paradise in question, a witness, anything to prove his exploits otherwise he risks falling into obscurity as a charlatan. If he does as required, presently he will have convinced the world of his sincerity and thereby, with luck, receive a degree of fame as reward. He proceeds to write his memoirs, canonizing himself as true and brave. He squeezes every last drop of juice out of the hype by assigning himself medals of accomplishment and accepting offerings of respect from his fellows. He is now the first human to have achieved such and such commendable height and has now established his importance.

Meanwhile, our innocent virgin ‘jungle’ discovery has been lying quietly fallow. And when the furore has died down, our compatriots guided by the laws of the state which are wisely made for good business practice, set about extracting the benefits, because in our troubled lives anything that will relieve our suffering, anything with the promise of a utopian life must be penetrated very thoroughly in order to extract all that is beneficial for the good of humans and the propagation of its species.

Our compatriots dig into the discovery’s unforeseen nooks, analyse its details, and prepare it for the plate, so to speak, before finally extracting and consuming it. This last phase is accomplished very efficiently and very soon our virgin is not a virgin anymore, but an old and wasted lifeless desert.

Though there is a vague sense of guilt (especially among sentimentalists), and those who did not reap the benefits complain bitterly of wonton exploitation and misuse, our guilt and gripes do not stop us embarking on yet further and more refined voyages of discovery.

And so we grow richer and richer from the good works of our prestigious discoverers who innocently bring us reports of wealth in far flung lands and hidden realms. Wherever our discoverers stick their noses, soon their fellows will follow, Rather us be rich, than us be poor and others rich.

To caption or not to caption

Look at the image below. Try, first, to determine what is going on, or what you feel about it, without reading its’ caption.

And now the caption:

Red Cross Train, Budapest, Hungary, 1947. A large tear collects under each eye of the girl on the right as she and her companions – orphans under the care of the red cross – stare into an uncertain future. Children like these were often sent to Switzerland for three months of recuperation, only to return to the shocking devastation of their own country – Phaidon 55, Werner Bischof

While I could do without the melodramatic ‘tear collecting’ or the ‘shocking’ bits, the image has, for me, become dependent on it’s caption. The truth? Though I’m not going to waste too much time doubting what is impossible to conveniently verify, I’d take the image with caption, the detail, rather than not know who, why or what.

However, some captions I could do without entirely:

Good Dog, Iglesias, Italy, 1947. Bischof’s Magnum colleague Henri Cartier Bresson claimed that a good photograph should ask questions. This one demands to know: how long has this dog been sitting to attention? – Phaidon 55, Werner Bischof

Nope, not for me.


African Elephant Range Countries Human Population.

1900 71.1 million
1950 166.3 million
1970 275.1 million
1985 419.5 million
2000 626.6 million
2025 1,172.6 million


Are the effects and importance of human encroachment on habitats, given back seat to campaigns to save animals within ever decreasing national parks?

“In terms of elephant ecology, a single elephant popoulation in a national park is as incomplete a phenomenon as a single elephant in a zoo enclosure.” Ian Parker – ‘What I tell you three times is true

“Tourists may be as malign as a multitude of poachers in their multifarious influences upon animals and habitats” – Ian Parker

Just some thoughts to keep you on your toes.

A Culture of Magic Boxes

It’s ugly, it sits in your kitchen taking up about 3 feet cubed of space and it is fed by esophagus-like tubes that gurgle and regurgitate a savory soup of water, soap and filth for about an hour, before finally shuddering to a steamy halt.

But this box of tricks has an abundantly important task; a universally despised task: the task of cleaning up filthy dishes, bacon fat pans, and our multitude of soiled eating and cutting tools all contaminated with the stuff we shove down our endlessly demanding consumption holes.

Let us think for a second why this contraption is so in demand, why is it we have scores of factory workers, suppliers, businessmen, transporters and middlemen all toiling away madly to output enough metal boxes to fill that wanting space in our kitchens. And don’t we need the damn thing. Apparently, we so hate washing dishes that we will ceaselessly argue over who is going to be the unlucky one to do it, or we will bicker over the fact that it has not been done at all. Moreover, we should not discredit the suggestion that more than one marriage has fallen victim from one man’s tendency to shirk his chores.

Universally, in the West, we begrudgingly accomplish what is now – with the fantastic, the incredible, the extraordinary dishwasher – magically done away with as painlessly as flushing the loo. The dishwasher is in essence a kitchen toilet, through which we flush our crap. This act of clearing up, which fills us with revulsion, fear of contamination – symbolic expulsion of disease – now can be accomplished with peace of mind. Our scientists have worked hard to build us this box, into which we throw our greasy pans and our sauce-soiled plates and out of which will issue shiny, sparkling as good-as-new dining stuff.

But is the dishwasher everything it claims to be?

Consider the various requirements necessary to possess and run your very own magic dish box:

First, of course, we need money to purchase it, deliver it, and to pay for the running expense, then the labor and energy consumption expense used to fix it when it malfunctions.

One day the irritating piece of junk claps out completely! We now have to pay to get rid of it (we must consign it to the collective garbage heap – note: it has now become a public responsibility – that’s ok, the tax payer will foot the bill – and also, fuck the fish in the deep blue sea, fuck the monkeys in the trees…. fuck the earth, the universe… the everything.

Some additional, minor irritations:

Firstly, let’s ask ourselves, how many dishes are needed to fill up one load? I’ll tell you: either you have two few dishes or you have too many! A couple of dishes, inside the box or outside it, will doubtless be sitting around like orphans.

Secondly, in this world of convenience it is important not forget that having a dishwasher necessitates putting dishes in, yes it is true, Jesus does walk on water (perhaps I’m not too bright, but am the only one struggling to find a place that fits the frying pan), what a bother… Here, furthermore, we must spend a portion of our time first rinsing the dishes, because our dishwasher is so exceptionally ‘good’ at its’ job.

To summarize, let me briefly point out again in case it’s not clear; though putting dishes in is a necessary hassle, laced, it’s true, with confusion on where to put weird shaped things, essentially we still must rinse the dishes beforehand. Which, therefore means we are doing half the job by our own very hands despite the promise of the machine’s super intelligent. What the fuck!

It’s not over yet. After putting in the soap and the salt, and, hopefully, pushing the right buttons (read the manual stupid), we must at last take the dishes out and put them away.

Quite understandably water has collected in various hollows and puddles, never mind…do as I do and stick the dripping cups in the shelves regardless – a tiresome task. Ok, I am being unreasonable; we would have to take dishes out and put dishes away anyway, would we not? Yes of course we would, but why, I ask you, does the machine not do it for us? Are we living in the technological age or what?

So, most eloquently, I have shown why we should all have a magic box, how we are a culture of magic box lovers, that we love to throw things in a box and then tadaaa there we have it all new again. No-more do we live in a dirty, contaminated, disease ridden, sausage-grease world of dish washing, we are an advanced society and all thanks be to China or wherever who made these wonderful, indispensable, masterpieces of modern culture.