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.

Growth

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

Source

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.

Sinbad

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, even the hardest critics, my family… and of course, it was the most expensive, popular watercolour and sold quickly. We’re all sad it’s gone and can never look at it in the real again, we don’t even know who the buyer is due to the gallery’s conditions.

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 as though pretending to be a leaf among the reeds. We sat there watching as shoals of small innocent fish drifted in closer and closer. The pike minutely shifted, turning its body, then suddenly it flashed into the scattering shoal. 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!