Soul thieves

What I’d call ‘the American traveler photographer mystic’ is a strain of photography 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 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?

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 often 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?

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 tubes that gurgle and regurgitate a soup of water, soap and filth for about an hour, before finally coming to a steamy halt.

But this box of tricks has an abundantly important task; a universally despised task: the task of cleaning up dishes, bacon fat pans, and our multitude of soiled eating and cutting tool.

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 to output enough metal boxes to fill all the kitchens in the world. 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.

The irritating piece of junk will clap out! We now have to pay to add 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 earth, the environment, the universe… the everything.

Firstly, let’s ask ourselves, how many dishes are needed to fill up one load? Either you have too 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. 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…why? Because our dishwasher is so exceptionally ‘good’ at its’ job.

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. Wait, doesn’t that 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. 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.


What do you do with an image that you think is great but has a fatal flaw? Well, nothing, it floats around your archive like an orphan.

This is one of my favorite ‘orphans’, a image of the charismatic man who calls himself Sinbad, taken on Lamu island, Kenya. There is no remedy for the amputated hand.

Sinbad, his tourist name, was all about attracting business, hence the shades, the hat and his little dhow.

Sinbad’s technique was to unrelentingly hassle you the moment you set foot upon the island until you limply complied to whatever he had for sale. This was the preferred method of extracting off traveller types. But once you had paid your dues, well, the rest of your stay was hassle free.

I bear no grudge – Islanders need to make a living – but there was a time when you could go to Lamu without the tourist persona hanging on you, buy at local prices, meet people on equal terms. A steady flow of visitors, caught by the romance of open roofed nights and warm monsoon breezes, have set the tourist trap forever.

Wilfred Thesiger in Lamu island, Kenya

Somewhere between 1987-89 I took the picture on the left of Lamu fort (built between 1813 and 1821) . For Xmas 1990 I was given the book “Visions of Nomads” by Wilfred Thesiger and in it found the image on the right. I’m not precisely sure of the date for the Thesiger image – minus however long it takes for a coconut tree to double in height!

The Pike

Ever since listening to the poem “Pike” by Ted Hughes, I’ve been caught up by the metaphorical idea of a ‘Pike’, despite never actually seeing one in the real world.

A few years ago, I made a watercolour of frogs in a pond. Everyone liked it… and of course, it was the most expensive, popular watercolour and sold quickly. We’re all sad it’s gone.

I’ve been trying to make paintings in the same watery ‘spirit’, but it’s a spontaneous style, and difficult to create.

On the weekend, while walking along a giant lily pond near Stackpole in Wales, Alistair spotted a young pike drifting about among floating leaves. We sat there watching as small innocent fish drifted by. The pike minutely shifted, turning its body, then flashed. Unsuccessful, this time, but was the highlight of my day!

Mombasa old port, 1997

Despite a “No photography” sign at the gates of the old port, I was granted permission to enter with my camera. I found labourers loading boxes onto a destitute looking motorised dhow and a khaki clad customs officer lording over the scene with his bendy stick. I flagged down a fisherman with his dugout to take me out for a better angle and I found myself amongst a sorry selection of rusty ships.

Lamu, 1987

“At high tide, when the seawater level is almost as high as that of the drains, rats are forced through the drains. Little boys enjoy catching them and showing them to little old ladies from Chicago. After such displays of doubtful goodwill, it’s highly unlikely that the ladies will make another visit to Lamu. Attempts have been made to eliminate the rats, many of which are larger than the Lamu cats. The last real effort was made in the 1950s. In 1959 the district commissioner proudly reported that 949 rats were caught, but a little later he laments, ‘Again the courage and stamina of the Lamu cats failed them and it is believed that rats actually eat cats here.’ – Lamu district annual report, Kenya 1959” ~ excerpt from ‘Cargoes of the East’ Esmond Bradley Martin.

How to make a living in paradise

Tony created the perfect situation. He became the ‘yachties’ marine SSB radio connection within the western Indian Ocean, guiding boats into the protected Kilifi creek. Care was required for yachts to pass beneath the newly built 21m high bridge but once through Tony provided anchorage and facilities below his house.

Mohammed Amin (Mo)

Coming from a rather ‘information sheltered’ upbringing in Kenya, I was exposed rather late to the photographers who make it into the history of photography compilations. Those that I was exposed to, seem unremarkable in comparison. Their work mostly graced the coffee table, or the touristy section of the bookshop, with titles like, Beautiful Kenya, or Vanishing Africa (some of them awesome photographers in their own right).

One of these photographers, Mo (Mohamed Amin), became very well known.

I remember him for two things, his pictures of sunsets – some that showed the sun so high in the sky that the scene could never have been so orange, as though he’d not been bothered to wait, and had thrown on an orange filter to get the effect – and for his images of “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

But neither of those are what made him big, big. In 1984 he hit the world stage with what might as well be one of the first links in the chain of starving people pictures.

Aidan Hartley in his absolutely ripping book ‘Zanzibar Chest‘ writes:

“His greatest triumph was TV footage, voiced over by the BBC’s Michael Buerk, of the first pictures to break the 1984 Ethiopian famine. Mo’s pictures whipped up publicity, rock songs and concerts that raised funds for food that probably saved a further two million from hungry deaths. He may have seemed diffident but he was as conceited as hell and never let you forget about his fame

“Mo proudly showed me his office. Covering the walls were framed snaps of Mo with Bob Geldof, Queen Elizabeth giving Mo his MBE medal, Mo with Sidney Pointer, Mo with sundry Third world despots, honorary degrees, TV awards and a platinum disk of the song ‘We are the world’.”

In Africa one has to be able to face blood and guts. Facing the whimsical Idi Amin is likely to make you shake your head in disbelief, while expecting at any moment a sudden death sentence after a joke turned sour.

Mo had one major talent of many, he was always on the spot:

‘He was no media cowboy, no thrill seeker…. he was brave and committed, and his genius was being there when it happened.’ – Michael Buerk

He died in the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines Flight 96 crash, November 23, 1996.

Liu Zheng’s, The Chinese

The Chinese” Liu Zheng’s vision of – something akin to Robert Frank’s over indulged “The Americans”- is something of a retort to an enduring party line of perfect people with a perfect future under, of course, a perfect leadership, who might even be so bold as to claim immortality were their optimism not already spouting beyond capacity.

In Liu Zheng’s tragedy we have Chinese who actually get old and die, have accidents or live in a less than perfect world, among a wide cast of subjects, from strippers, to beggars, to predatory business men to entertainers and asylum cases. If the ‘perfect leadership’ were to actually spend a moment or two reading this book they might find themselves having to sweep quite a few, well, marginal folk, up, in preparation for their perfectly happy olympics.

Liu Zheng’s dedication to what appears to be a rather too true reality, allows us to register our own impermanence – we all share the same fate – while also questioning whether these Chinese are in fact marginalized and on the fringe, perhaps they are rather more the diverse norm, there might even be something of them in us.

An exceptional book, really, and in my view transcending by far Frank’s self obsessed work. I always get the feeling that Frank describes something not even there. By not allowing his own interpretation – he does have one doesn’t he – he’s kind of letting the storm carry his work where it will.

Furthermore, while Frank seems to heavily criticize, there’s always a statement to be found somewhere in his work, Zheng allows his subjects to speak. His images reflect people in a world that really exists. Were it not for the notoriety of the ‘Americans’, perhaps there should not even be a comparison, save the stringing of images bit. Maybe we’re really looking more in the line of Diane Arbus, without the freakery side.

Reflective reality and Ryszard Kapuscinski

I heard somewhere that journalists are second only to politicians and estate agents as the most hated among the British public. Who actually proposed this and what survey (everything has to have a survey attached these days) provided the evidence, I don’t know, but I do know my own thoughts:

If by participating in life, somehow, regardless of intentions, you inevitably participate in its decline, what can you do to transcend it? Well i think, you can, at least, describe it.

Describing is what journalists do, so I don’t feel so bad for liking and aspiring to the best of journalism. There is, though, a wide margin between the endless conveyor belt of instant drama thrown out by newspapers and blogs forced to scratch out content on a daily basis, and what could be termed ‘literary reportage’; well documented, described, commented upon, stories.

For me, regardless of actual possibilities of photography, the interesting thing about the medium is its ability to capture, like written jornalism, for lack of a better term, a reflective reality. This is a kind of journalism, a report on perceived reality. It may only be a fraction of a second, but it’s a story nevertheless, and when done in a certain way may even faithfully describe a reality. This kind of journalism does not cancel out imagination, neither is it separate from art.

There is one particular journalist who fits the bill for me, and there are moments in his descriptions that could easily have been photographs, they are in any case photographs etched on the memory and conveyed by words. The journalist is Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Very memorable for me, in the context of photographic lucid imagery in a written form, is his description of dogs in Angola, in his book: Another Day of Life (1976), a unique and closely observed account of the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in Angola. The particular scene occurs after the departure of all the wealthy Portuguese from their suburb properties in Luanda:

The dogs were still alive.

They were pets, abandoned by owners fleeing in panic. You could see dogs of all the most expensive breeds, without masters – boxers, bulldogs, greyhounds, Dobermans, dachshunds, Airedales, spaniels, even Scotch terriers and Great Danes, pugs and poodles. Deserted, stray, they roamed in a great pack looking for food. As long as the Portuguese army was there, the dogs gathered every morning on the the square in front of the general headquarters and the sentries fed them with canned NATO rations. It was like watching an international pedigreed dog show. Afterwards the fed, satisfied pack moved to the soft, juicy mowed lawn of the Government Palace . An unlikely mass sex orgy began, excited and indefatigable madness, chasing and tumbling to the point of utter abandon. It gave the bored sentries a lot of ribald amusement.

So you want to be a photographer?

The question of cash for writing reminds me of Paul Theroux; a while ago I read his book ‘Sir Vidias Shadow’. Some writers, as Paul Theroux reveals about himself in this book, often have a sense of having to ‘hide’ (or at least not reveal, solidly) the fact that they are writers until they achieve some form of recognition (this is also true for photographers as noted by Robert Adams who felt apologetic for being a photographer until he was earning money).

Saying that one wants to write, or one intends to be a writer is not the same as saying, with confidence and absolute self belief, ‘I am a writer.’

Publishing a book is one kind of recognition; a form of ritualised initiation, receiving acceptance from a successful writer is another (Naipaul accepts Theroux as writer). Any writer would be satisfied with this, but a little something is missing: would our writer not want to establish absolute certainty? Money may or may not be forthcoming – but gladly accepted if and when it does, it is the cherry on the cake, a final recognition; a medal of achievement from the reader. Money means that a writer can do writing all day and everyday if it so pleases him. When someone asks, ‚”What do you do?” you reply with comfortable finality: “I am a writer”

Had Theroux not achieved his recognition, would he have eventually stopped writing, I wonder? Probably not, but would he have called himself a writer? I propose, he would still be calling himself a teacher of English.

Ultimately it is the reader who bestows the title and money is one gauge of this, but writing from the heart does not require a title, nor recognition – except, surely, by at least one reader.

There is another perspective though, one where writing is a necessary skill for everyone. A journalist is a writer, a traveller can be a writer. Sebald, a master of writing (and found images – which he splices amongst his texts) himself, finds scientists to be better writers that bona fide ‘writers’. Come to think of it, my favourite books are not written by writers but by journalists, scientists, investigators and the new writers of the age bloggers.

It seems this line of thought may also be true – we all now have a camera of sorts – for photgraphers. So you want to be a photographer? Perhaps this is good advice:

Don’t, whatever you do, take a fine arts degree in photography, take a science degree (or a degree covering your subject matter to be, anything but photography) such as zoology, ecology, biology, agricultural science, or perhaps even an athropology degree, – being a doctor, too, would be ideal. This way your profession will pay for you, take you to interesting places and while your out there you can do photography.

Snap snap snap

Here’s a little snippet from the book, the Zanzibar Chest, by Aidan Hartley which I’m engrossed in at the moment:

“I managed to get a vehicle from some Tutsi guerrillas who knew me, and Lizzie piled in with photographers Sebastiao Salgado and Giles Peress of Magnum. Snap, snap, snap went the photographers, all in a line. Up ahead, a truckload of bloated Hutus blasted by RPG: snap, snap, snap. Go on for five minutes. Heap of corpses seething with maggots, partially eaten by dogs: snap, snap, snap.”

A good book!

Bang Bang!

I read The Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva in one sitting.

Before you’ve even hit the second page, you’re immersed, bullets singing past you, rusty bars and heavy knives jabbing as though into your own body, and the smell of petrol on flaming flesh.

The insanity of racial violence bought to you by way of ‘beach bum’ photographers and, dowsed with dollops of intimacy and history; girl friends, mandrax and bhang parties, Reuter contracts, suicide and Afrikaner gunslinging racists (itching for a full on battle to the death with black people). Out of this chaos emerge images that win the pullizers, sell newspapers and signpost history.

But the awe dies, you’ve realised, that in fact, bringing yourself to within a hairsbreadth of death (yours or someone else’s), might not be so heroic after all, its like voyeurism into lunacy, but once you’ve seen it, an apathetic deadness sinks in, faith in life destroyed when you see how much is now left to repair.

Apartheid has barely faded and the Rwandan genocide is coming alive and then Iraq and Iraq, and shit you know I’ve missed some….bang, bang, bang!

Photographs as lie

Take this question put to Guy Tillim:

PM: At the same time you admit to capturing the ‘worthy moment’, which also points to all the countless moments of truth which go undocumented. Are there any photographs you have taken, which beyond the notion of looking for the photographic moment, have amounted to a visual lie?

and the answer:

GT: Yes, but I won’t tell you which ones! Perhaps in this context there are no lies, but then there is no truth either.

Then you look at Tillim’s images.

We don’t need much to realise images can lie, but we need superhuman abilities, to find the lie. If there is any judgment to be planted, perhaps it should be sown near the intentions of a ‘peddler’. In the case of the british media, the sentence? Life. In the case of Guy Tillim? The right to lie.