Review: Cristina de Middel’s Party. Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung

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Cristina de Middel

There always is the curse of that one famous thing – album, novel, photobook, movie. Then what? I suppose the choice is to either agonize over your success so much that you kill off your own creativity or to simply do something else. (Let’s face it, though, the second-album problem really is only a problem if you agonize over your choices.) In this day and age, where the hype around photography and/or photographers has reached levels previously only witnessed in the larger sphere of popular culture, this decision increasingly has to be faced by those who, well, strike the jackpot. Cristina de Middel is one of those photographers. Her self-published book The Afronauts has quickly reached cult status, and deservedly so. If you take away all the hype, it is an incredibly endearing book, a prime example of how you can truly bring to life photographs in book form (I saw the work on the wall of a gallery, and I didn’t like it nearly as much).

When I met Cristina last year in Ireland, I was a little bit surprised to see her so unfazed by all of this. Or maybe unfazed isn’t the right word. She clearly enjoyed the success and having an opportunity to show the work in so many different places, to so many different people. But somehow, it didn’t look like she was overly worried about what to do next. In fact, when we spoke, she told me about what she had been working on, what was to be the next book.

Doing something like The Afronauts would have been incredibly tempting. But once you walk down that path, things can turn into a shtick pretty quickly. And there’s no shortage of photography that has become a tiresome shtick, isn’t there?

But of course, at the end of the day a photographer has to do what s/he has to do. It’s not up to the public, certainly not up to critics, to demand anything, the hype over a body of work notwithstanding. As a photographer, you really want to do what feels right, which, I think, includes doing something that challenges you at least to some extent.

Cristina told me about a trip to China that had resulted in photographs. And she wanted to incorporate those photographs into a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, the “little red book.” With Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin‘s Holy Bible lying on a table nearby, I asked her how about that. Of course, there was absolutely no need to ask that question, given that two different books made by two different groups of artists in all likelihood will be quite different. But then, adding pictures to a very specific culturally loaded book – in how many different ways can you do that?

Turns out, if you have two such books, you can do it in two different ways. I’m glad that Cristina did not do what a lot of people (me included) would have done when she learned about Holy Bible: not pursue her idea. So here is Party. Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (or “Quitonasto Form Chanmair Mao Tungest” as it says on its cover).

Holy Bible and Party roughly follow the same ideas: take a book and add pictures to it. But there are crucial differences as well. Holy Bible (which I reviewed here) uses archival imagery from the Archive of Modern Conflict. In contrast, in Party, Cristina used her own photographs, taken on a trip to China. In Holy Bible, specific phrases are underlined and matched up with photographs. In Party, the vast majority of the text has been covered up (with white correction fluid), to leave behind short phrases. In Holy Bible, photographs are superimposed on the original text. In Party, they’ve been added as separate pages.

Holy Bible is a profoundly political and ultimately very angry book. Party, I’d argue, ultimately is equally political, but at the same time it’s often almost dada.

If you know about the history of China under Mao, you know about the millions of people who lost their lives (see, for example, Jun Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story). How do you then adequately go about the “little red book”? Well, for example, you white out most of the text so that what is left is “people can talk much nonsense” (p. 212), “the real heros are ignorant” (p. 118), or “intellectuals tend to be thinking” (p. 292). I’m tempted to think the artists organizing Berlin’s 1920 Erste Internationale Dada Messe (First International Dada Fair, see this article), people like Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, or John Heartfield would have accepted Party in a heartbeat.

Given our times have become so strange, given our responses to all these problems we’re dealing with right now appear to have become so inconsequential, bringing  dada back seems like a pretty good idea to me.

Party. Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung; photographs by Cristina de Middel; original text by Mao Tse-Tung, heavily edited by Cristina de Middel; 306 pages; Archive of Modern Conflict in association with RM Verlag; 2014

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4

How to write about your photographs

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I frequently run into being asked by photographers how they can become better at writing about their own work. This is not an easy topic to talk about, certainly not without using specific examples. But I thought I’d do so anyway, in the hope that those who are interested in it might get something out of it.

Before going into any of the details, I will have to make a disclaimer: I wrote a piece about statements before. The following, just like this previous article, inevitably is based at least to some extent on my own personal preferences as someone who reads a lot, who writes a lot (mostly about photography), who looks at a lot of photography, and who teaches in a graduate photography program. Whether there is a perfect recipe for how to approach writing about one’s own photography is not clear. What is clear, however, is that you will want to keep in mind whatever biases and/or preferences you have detected in my writing already.

I will also have to make an assumption: I’m assuming that you, the photographer, want to be understood. In other words, I’m assuming that you have an interest in writing something that not only talks about your work in a smart and engaging way, but that also can be understood by a large variety of people, including those who do not hold advanced philosophy (or other obscure) degrees. If that is not the case, if, in other words, you like your highfalutin art speak, you needn’t read any further.

How do you write about your photographs? For a start, you will have to be able to have a long, hard look at the pictures. And you will need to start writing about them before it’s all done. Don’t approach writing about your photographs by making them first, and then getting to writing about them. That’s not a good idea. Instead, take photographs and write. Look at what you have, both in terms of pictures and of writing, and see what works. Constantly re-evaluate what you have. Don’t try to have the photographs conform to your writing (unless you’re working on a completely conceptual body of work).

If what you’re writing about is not in the pictures you’re in trouble. Just like your (already existing) pictures need to inform the future ones, they also need to inform your writing.

But writing about something that’s not in the pictures teaches you a lesson: your ideas of what you’re doing might be off. That’s not a problem at all. In fact, provided you’re open to the possibilities offered to you it’s an immense gift. Projects often evolve in ways that cannot be foreseen. Be open to those possibilities – that’s where you can find more (and often better) photographs, and that is also where you can find the basis for your writing.

At the same time, have a good look at what you’re writing, and try to figure out why it’s not in the pictures. The idea is not necessarily to bring it to the pictures, but to understand what’s going on. Your writing might reflect, for example, points of resistance, points of hesitation. Seeing those in writing can help: Wait, this is me? Why am I hesitant to approach this particular aspect? What can this tell me?

The clearer your understanding of what you’re doing becomes, the easier it will be to take photographs and to write about them, but also to edit them.

I’m a firm believer than good editing requires a thorough understanding of the photographs in question. That understanding might be mostly subconscious. Good photo editors are good photo editors because they can pick up on what’s in the work in almost no time, creating edits that very quickly feel a lot more coherent than the unedited original set. How these photo editors do that is not that clear. I enjoy editing photographs, and I usually find it easy and straightforward; but I often have a hard time talking about it in a generalized way. You have to be very open and susceptible to the work.

This is, in part, why photographers usually are such lousy editors: Being open and honest with oneself is very, very hard, even if one has the best of intentions. Here, having developed a deeper sense of the work through writing helps. If you can write about your work in all likelihood you will be able to produce a good edit as well.

For photography, writing always has to start from what is in the pictures.

I’ll say it again: If what you’re writing about is not in the pictures you’re in trouble (even if the writing sounds so good).

That being said, don’t write about what’s in the pictures. Do not describe your photographs. You will have to realize that your viewers are not blind.

Also realize that in all likelihood your viewers are not stupid. Do not explain your photographs.

One of the problems many photographers appear to have is that they think they’re somehow required to write illegible gobbledygook. I don’t know where that idea might be coming from. Maybe from many atrocious artist statements already out in the world, often used by galleries or photobook publishers to advertize their wares? It’s possible. Maybe from too many photography curators using jargon to embellish their own work? Equally possible. The reality is, though, that nobody requires you to write nonsense. Nobody expects you to try to impress people by embellishing already poorly written text with pseudo-intellectual jargon and references to French philosophers. Actually, if your gallerist tells you that’s what they want, you might want to look for better representation.

What to do, though? How to approach writing? As I noted, you don’t want to start at the very end, trying to add some words to a finished project. Start writing while you’re in the middle. Every photographer should write (and read – a lot). The act of committing thoughts to paper – or hacking them into a computer – is more liberating than you’d imagine. You are probably only going to use a small fraction of all the writing, but you will be surprised what your subconsciousness can come up with – the same subconsciousness that’s responsible for so much in your photographs.

My general advice for photographers always is: write using a simple, clear voice – your voice. What gets conveyed in the pictures should get conveyed in the writing. So you have to be aware of what your pictures do and how they do it, and you then have to be able to bring that to your writing. In each case, the way to do that is to practice a lot. Do it over and over again, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

Have your writing evolve along the pictures. Have it be informed by the pictures and, possibly, inform your pictures. There has got to be a balance. If in doubt, it’s your pictures that matter, though.

The beauty of a false start, of a failure, is that it’s a start. It moves you to a different place. If it feels wrong, there is a chance to learn something. Figure out why it feels wrong. That will tell you something about your pictures (and, by extension, about your writing).

The form of the writing should follow the form of your work. That’s almost too obvious to point out, but it’s amazing how many people don’t take this to heart. If you have a very poetic series of photographs, why not write about them in much the same way?

The interaction between writing and photographs is tricky. What I’ve found is that people let their viewing of photographs be guided by writing. In other words, they read a statement, and if they don’t see what’s in the statement they then complain about the pictures. This tells us two things. First, people somehow trust words more than pictures. Second, people are very good at picking up on a mismatch between what they read and see.

Thus, writing about your photographs boils down to making sure any mismatch disappears. People will pick up on that mismatch right away. You can try to hide it with art speak or quotes, but people aren’t stupid – they’ll see that you’re trying to get away with something.

Of course, someone might look at the pictures first and then read the text. This gives your pictures a much better chance to work on their own. But if there’s a mismatch it’ll still be noticed.

How do you write about your work then? Let’s assume you’ve written down texts or phrases or whatever else along with your shooting. If you have done that, it’s very likely you’ll find writing much easier. The closer you are to understanding your images on a photographic level and on the written level, the closer you’ll be to getting the right text done.

Let’s assume you haven’t written about your work (for whatever reason). The rules so far were: no art-speak bullshit, no explaining, no describing. Fourth rule: absolutely no NPR speak. NPR is good for what it does – provide interesting subject matters in a way that won’t upset anyone and leaves everybody just a tad bit better informed. But you don’t want that for your writing. Don’t try to make everybody happy. Don’t try to cover all your bases.

This is not to say that your writing needs controversy. It doesn’t. It might, though. And if it does, it needs to be there. It’s up to you to figure it out. In order to do that you have to know where you’re coming from. What do you care about as an artist? And what do you want people to care about?

Provide an answer to the following question: Why should I, the viewer, care about your pictures?

As a photographer, it is your responsibility to make people care about your work. In other words, do not expect people to care! And do not chide people for not caring about something you care deeply about! Instead, make them care! Of course, your photographs always will have to do the heavy lifting. But you can help them a little, and your writing can be part of it.

Mind you, your job is not to be a marketing person. If we assume that you care about your pictures, then it seems obvious that you’d love if other people cared as well. Show people how you care about your photographs; but don’t be a phony. No marketing speak. Again, resist the temptation to write in a way that will appeal to as many people as possible. You’re not in the business of selling soap.

The fact that you care about your photographs is crucial. If you don’t care about your work why do you even bother? Why should I care if you don’t care?

Given you care about your work, there are some commonly used phrases and words you want to avoid like the pest. Here’s one: interesting. Never, ever say you worked on a body of work because you found it interesting. People find all kinds of things interesting, yet they deem very few of them worthwhile to give them the attention a fully realized photography project requires. It’s one thing to be interested in something, it’s quite another to have the fire in one’s guts to work on that for a long time. Where’s that fire coming from?

For the love of God, please don’t tell me you’re investigating or exploring something with your pictures! You’re not. You’re not a scientist (unless you are literally one, in which case you publish the work in a scientific journal). There’s really nothing wrong with scientists (after all, I was one for years). But when it comes to your pictures, your art, the last thing you’re probably doing is investigating something. You’re no disinterested observer following widely accepted rules that strive to result in as objective an observation as possible.

Your pictures are not about something. OK, they are, all pictures are about something. But your statement is the last place where you want to spell that out. After all, good work that is about something also has something at stake. And that’s where the juice is. What’s at stake in your work? Don’t explain that (remember, no explaining). But whatever is at stake is a good basis for a statement.

The reality is that not everybody is going to care or even going to like your pictures. That’s just the way it is. So don’t worry about that. When writing about your work, don’t worry about pleasing everybody (as I said no NPR). Instead, write to please yourself first. If you do that well, you will please the same people who will like your pictures.

In other words, just like when you are photographing you will have to trust yourself first, and you then have to have the faith that your pictures and writing will speak to the right people.

A good approach to writing about your own photographs is to write around them instead of about them. As I noted earlier, your viewers aren’t blind, so don’t tell them what they see. Don’t tell them what you want them to see, either. If someone doesn’t see that, but something else  – then what? Do you want to limit what people can get out of your pictures?

Writing around your pictures means producing a piece of writing that conveys very similar ideas than your pictures, albeit in other ways. Maybe you’ll add some things that are inexpressible in pictures. Writing around your pictures means that you’ll add a bit of your own personality, of where you’re coming from. You’re going to be showing your viewers a different angle from which they can approach you (and the work).

If you look at how many well-known photographers present their work, many of them talk around them, instead of about them. In fact, a lot of photographers are very reluctant to talk about their pictures, because it takes the magic away. You will have to be a little bit like a (real-world) magician, a large part of whose trickery relies on shifting the viewer’s attention elsewhere. Because photography seemingly is so descriptive, many photographers have a hard time doing that. But that’s where you can find the art of photography.

Lastly, always get an honest opinion from a few people about your work, whether it’s the photographs or the writing. Needless to say, avoid using loved ones and/or family members unless you can be 100% sure they’re going to be honest with you (in much the same way, avoid people who can’t be critical for whatever reason). That being said, don’t try editing by committee. That’s not going to work. Get honest feedback from people whose opinions you appreciate and trust, and then incorporate that into your work.

As I already noted, there is no general recipe for how to write about one’s photographs. There is no general recipe for how to take pictures, either. But the preceding contains many pointers that I hope can help you approach writing about your pictures. It really is not nearly as hard as you’d imagine. As long as you keep it simple, as long as you remain close to yourself, as long as you resist the various temptations (again: no explaining, no describing, no art speak, no meaningless generalities) you will be fine.

Review: The Third Day by Henrik Spohler

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Henrik Spohler

The photographs in Henrik Spohler‘s The Third Day are irritating to the point that you almost don’t want to look at them. This gives us a chance to appreciate what they do and how they do it, in particular since the craze over the Düsseldorf School is now a thing of the past, and we can – I hope – finally move beyond discussions about scale and/or pictures behind plastic to talking about merit, and to seeing German photography for a bit more than what came out of that little town just north of Cologne (Spohler graduated from Essen and teaches photography in Berlin).

The book centers on industrialized agriculture: the way most of our food is grown. We are used to being able to buy quality products at – ideally – always low prices, which has quite a few ugly consequences, many of which are in the pictures. Technically speaking, strawberries or shiitaki mushrooms still grow the way they always did. But in any of those industrialized megafarms, this looks very different than in your community vegetable garden. Scale matters, as does industrial convenience. As a result, many megafarms are huge monocultures that have very little, if anything, to do with what one would think of when hearing the word farm.

Needless to say, megafarms might produce cheap produce, but they still come at a cost, whether it’s large-scale pollution or strawberries or shiitaki mushrooms that, well, don’t quite taste so great – if, that is, they taste like anything at all. Spohler went out to photographs such farms, plus related industries or research institutions, producing the kinds of deadpan, seemingly disinterested photographs a somewhat superficial observer might expect to come from Germany.

But here’s the thing: how else can you show, say, a tomato plantation somewhere in the Netherlands other than setting up your camera, making sure all lines are exactly where they should be, and then producing a picture that makes you never want to eat tomatos again?

You really can’t have it both ways, have always low prices and the freshest fruits and vegetables, regardless of season, and, at the same time, not have this kind of zombified form of agriculture. You just can’t.

The Third Day toggles between large-scale views and smaller details, the latter providing little comfort themselves. It really doesn’t matter whether you see what looks like a wasteland or a few plants hidden behind copious amount of plastic. You’d imagine that with fruits and vegetables there would be at least some sort of relief in the form of colours. But there isn’t. Spohler’s specific choice of aesthetic at times made me think that what I’m looking at surely must be radioactive. As I said, it’s completely irritating.

And that’s an irritation that we will have to bear. It’s an irritation that I’m glad is being brought to us, so that we can see where the stuff that we buy is coming from. It’s not a pretty sight.

The Third Day; photographs by Henrik Spohler; essays by Christiane Stahl and Friedemann Schmoll; 96 pages; Hatje Cantz; 2013

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.4

Peter van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11

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It must be nice to kick back once you’re retired. Suddenly, you got all the time in the world to truly enjoy life. George W. Bush, formerly the president, decided to take up painting: “I wanted to learn about painting — water hitting water.” And there’s an exhibition of his work now, which got a nice review in the New York Times, written by Roberta Smith. Other art critics, however, were quite a bit less impressed. Greg Allen wrote a long piece, which serves as a nice counterpoint to Smith’s, concluding: “This is how art appears in our society today. Art works, as they say, and this is what it does: it absolves and redeems and defuses and deflects. Ultimately, George Bush’s paintings are important less for what they show, than for what they obscure.”

The human body consists of around 60% water. So in that photograph above, that’s what it looks like, for some people at least, when water is hitting water.

Here is the caption of the photograph, which was taken by Peter van Agtmael: “Bobby Henline didn’t realize how badly he was injured until he returned home. When that sank in, he prayed for God to take him in his sleep. He didn’t want to be a burden on his family. Houston, Texas. USA. 2013″

Having watched, yes, I’ll admit it, part of the Today Show interview with George W. Bush (conducted by his own daughter – apparently, nobody seems to think there’s something weirdly unjournalistic about this), the former president seems rather worry free. I don’t think he is considering whether he might be a burden on his family – or country. The same is true for the likes of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld. They, too, are enjoying their retirement, having written their obligatory memoirs (Mark Danner wrote a series of remarkable articles about these two men for the New York Review of Books).

I was going to point out that Allen’s lament about art in our society isn’t quite correct. There is quite a bit of, well, art about the legacy of George W. Bush. Photography, after all, is part of the art world. But then I read a current piece about photography, in particular about how photojournalism can be art and all, and I changed my mind. I’ve long argued that everything can be art, as long as you hang it in an art gallery or museum. And sure, there is a lot of photojournalism that can be art. But somehow, this all seems to miss a rather important point.

Pernilla Holmes, the author of the piece writes “Trying to distinguish between art and documentary photography quickly leads to a murky series of vague distinctions and then their many exceptions, and is somehow always unsatisfying – partly because these images are often so powerful and affecting that whether one adds the label of art or not seems almost petty.” That’s too simple for me. Why don’t we do the following: let’s just accept that anything can be art, and let’s – for the love of God! – not talk about that any longer. Because, let’s face it, there really is no controversy about hanging pictures, wherever they might come from, in an art gallery and have people sip sour wine at fancy openings over them.

But the main question we need to deal with is not if some photojournalism is art. It is whether some photojournalism is in fact photojournalism, in other words whether it conforms to what we have come to expect from that genre (however much or little we enjoy using the term). We all expect very specific things from photojournalism – you can’t just, for example, stage your pictures or Photoshop them to remove something you don’t like. As much as the idea of objective photography is fundamentally flawed, in many circumstances we stick to it, in particular in the context of the news.

This is then why I did not want to point out that there is all that photography made around George W. Bush’s so-called War on Terror as a response to Allen’s lament. Sure, photography is art. Peter van Agtmael’s photographs are art. But they are also more than that. Within the parameters of the medium they strive for bringing home a form of truth that art, per se, does not have, a form of truth that is as naive and unattainable as it is affecting and powerful.

Like many of his peers, van Agtmael went to war once he had left school, armed with cameras, not guns, to take pictures. He spent considerable time in Afghanistan and Iraqs, and he suffered some of the same consequences, post-traumatic stress disorder. Van Agtmael came to know some of the soldiers in his photographs quite well, and he continued photographing them back home. Many of them were deployed more than once, many of them were killed.

His photographs, covering the years 2006-2013, have now been released in the form of the book Disco Night Sept 11, published by Red Hook Editions (you can order the book right there). It’s a strange coincidence that the book is being released roughly at the same time as the paintings by the former president are exhibited. It doesn’t necessarily serve as a counterpoint of those paintings – that would be too simplistic a reading. You can, of course, see it that way; but you could also see it the other way around.

Disco Night Sept 11 features a fair amount of text, the vast majority of it coming alongside van Agtmael’s photographs. Some of the text is close to what you imagine a simple caption might be, some of it is quite extended, speaking of all those things you can’t show in photographs. All of the text is indispensable, in particular since it establishes recurring characters in the form of soldiers at war or (at least physically) after the war.

As a photographer, there is only so much you can do. Your medium gives you a set of limitations you have to struggle with, and the larger circumstances of your work do as well. How do you even go about photographing what the War on Terror has meant and still means? At the same time, the photographs’ viewers will have to accept the fact that there are limitations, that, in other words, photographers can only do what their medium allows them to do and that they cannot be omnipresent or omniscient.

So very clearly, Disco Night Sept 11 does not provide the complete and full overview of everything that happened over the course of those years. That would be impossible. But the book’s arc is huge, both in terms of the geography it covers and in terms of how it weaves back and forth between the personal and the universal.

Here then is what is going to be one of the defining photobooks of this era, an era that in all kinds of ways is still with us – and it will be until we come to terms with it. We might as well realize that its message is not particularly new: this is what war does to people. It always has, and it always will. Unless we finally come to honest terms with it, we’re doomed to repeat the experience over and over again, destroying or maiming many more lives.

Highly recommended.

Disco Night Sept 11; photographs and text by Peter van Agtmael; 276 pages; Red Hook Editions; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 5, Edit 4, Production 4 – Overall 4.3

Review: Memory of Trees by Kathryn Cook

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Kathryn Cook

Kathryn Cook‘s Memory of Trees is one of those books that’s almost impossibly hard to make. How do you take photographs of something as big as the Armenian Genocide? How do you even approach it? How can you possibly do such a topic justice? And how do you tell the story in the form of a photobook?

The facts of the Armenian Genocide can be established fairly easily, the ongoing fights over what to make of them notwithstanding. But just like in the case of any genocide, when the sheer numbers approach hundreds of thousands or even millions our capacity to grasp what this might have meant breaks down.

Imagine (or maybe remember) the pain caused by losing a very closed loved one. Then try to imagine that pain multiplied by one million.

Or try to imagine a culture being uprooted from its land and made to disappear.

But then isn’t photography the ideal tool to do this, given all its limitations, in particular its inability to show what can’t be shown? Aren’t photography’s limitations, when used well, exactly what can help us imagine things, what can help us try to get a better understanding, to the extent that it is possible?

I want to think that because photographing around the Armenian Genocide would appear to be almost impossible – that is exactly because it has to be done. Photography’s various shortcomings mirror our own – taken together photography’s shortcomings and our own can help us approach a subject that on the surface looks so unapproachable (beyond historical facts and statistic).

For Memory of Trees, Cook traveled to the parts of Turkey from which Armenians were uprooted and expelled. One hundred years later, “this land calls a return to the history of Armenians, this garden worked by their hands once,” the photographer writes. “The story of these gardens imparts instructions on remembrance; the more one tries to forget, the more one has to remember what to forget.” And: “The woman gives me a branch of a knowing tree, hung with silvery cocoons. The rings of memory recorded each year in its trunk, which defy the force of forgetting.”

Photography always in part is an act done to do just that, to “defy the force of forgetting.” Even if what must not be forgotten can only be photographed in part or indirectly, it is the act itself that carries most of the weight. And this act is then matched by a viewer’s willingness to engage with the photographs.

Seen this way, the act of photographing and the act of looking are what can help us try to understand something that might previously have been only a collection of facts too immense to register deeply.

Memory of Trees, the book, thankfully is an initially modest affair. You can easily hold it in your hand and look through it. In other words, its makers resisted the temptation to create an object that would also physically heavy (think Joel Meyerowitz’s Aftermath, which I’ve always felt was just way overdone). I have a few minor quibbles over how the book occasionally feels a little designy, but in the end the photography completely won me over.

Looking at the book won’t do – the viewer is asked to feel what is in the pictures. And the book refuses to reveal itself in single viewings. The viewer needs to come back to it, so that subsequent exposure amplifies what was noticed earlier.


Memory of Trees; photographs by Kathryn Cook; essays by François Cheval, Karin Karakasli, Kathryn Cook; 159 pages; Kehrer; 2014

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.7

A Conversation with Bahar Habibi

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Bahar Habibi

Bahar Habibi was one of the winners of last year’s Conscientious Portfolio Competition, having submitted Whispers will become eternal. Juror Ann-Christin Bertrand wrote about the work “This wasn’t an easy decision to make. While going through the series several times, I realised that the series by Bahar Habibi was the one I stopped to look at the most. For me, this portrait of  a country and its people seems particularly successful. The project combines sensible portraits and landscapes, but also sometimes slightly absurd seeming situations, using in a well-thought-out aesthetic in every image. Content and form join together very well.” Over the past months, I conducted an interview with the artist who had just moved back to Iran.

Jörg Colberg: Can you talk a little bit about your biography? You were born in Tehran, Iran, but now you live in Vancouver?

Bahar Habibi: I was born in Tehran at the beginning of the 1990s. My mother is from a region in the centre, my father from an area near the Caspian sea. I grew up in a middle class, secular family in Tehran until we immigrated to Vancouver in 2007, where I did my undergrad at Emily Carr University of Art. In 2010 I did an exchange semester in the UK, which was an entirely different and rewarding experience. Whereas the photo department at ECU is to some degree still under the influence of Vancouver Conceptualism, the school in the UK was much more focused on hard core documentary. I think my work is in some ways a cohabitation of these two extremes.

How I ended up on the Canadian West Coast was mainly due to a decision made by my parents, who, like many others, took the family abroad for the prospect of a better life. Right now I am living and working back in Tehran.

JC: Whispers will become eternal contains photographs you have been taking while visiting Iran. At what stage did you realize that you wanted to create a body of work around images taken there?

BH: I made my first visit back to Iran two years ago while on exchange in the UK. It was a very intense trip, full of emotions and discoveries. I had not anticipated the start of a big body of work. It just sort of came about. I had my camera everywhere I went, and slowly realized that the process of having a camera and making photographs was a brilliant way to be here again, to interact and start having conversations. It was making me understand the context I was in, as an outsider. An outsider with lots of memories, and friends, and familiarities. Thomas Roma put it beautifully saying that photography is an excuse to be in the world -not just looking-, it is being in the world. Photography keeps me engaged, alert, and always curious.

Socially and politically, Iran has been very isolated in the last thirty years. Outside of Iran people know very little about how things are here, and how things and streets look; how people look. This was another motif for making photographs. I want to create an archive that is telling of some kind of history intertwined with emotion and my own state of mind.

JC: Was your decision to move back based on your experiences and your photography? Are you planning on using photography to (re-)discover Iran, or was the photo aspect secondary?

BH: I would have to say both. Everything kind of went hand in hand. I had been thinking about moving back for a couple of years. I wanted to experience living here again and photograph at the same time. I can’t separate these two from one another. In my work, I try to examine the systems that underpin my daily life such as everyday objects, routines, events and experiences, and the relationship they form to a larger social context. Based on this, the process of living and thinking and being in the end constitutes the photographs. I understood that in order to make the archive that I want to make, I needed to live here for an extended period, rather than visit shortly.

JC: And how do you approach photographing in Iran, given you have this project? To what extent is it pre-planned, to what extent is it informed by what you come across while visiting?

BH: It is pretty much not pre-planned at all. The way I approach photography, regardless of where I am, is to be open to what comes my way and take note. In Iran there are some limitations to where you can have a camera. But for the most part, I have my camera on me everywhere and photograph spontaneously. Whispers will become Eternal is about the spaces between belonging and alienation, history and self presentation, exoticism and everydayness. For me photography is similar to catching someone quietly whispering; it is hovering in space, and then it is gone. Making a single frame in any given space is like eternalizing a whisper, a point in time, without beginning or end.

I still shoot with analogue mediums, with film and Polaroid, because there is a sense of tactility and craftsmanship. I like the intuitive process and the need to wait for processed film. Chance plays an important role in all of this as well. Photography has always had a delicious element of mystery for me, which I think is also what fuels my process. The technology of the camera that I use to a certain degree dictates the kind of photographs I make. It stills time and lends itself to a much slower process, which I think is visible in the work. Sometimes I see something and either don’t photograph it or photograph it with my phone and later go back to the scene with my camera and wait for something to happen.

JC: Can you talk a little bit more about the role of mystery and what excites you about this?

BH: The mystery I am referring to is the accidents that happen while photographing. In the micro instant between the decision to make a frame and when the shutter is pressed the whole scene can change and once in a while you get something wonderful and magical. Mystery is what you can’t plan. It is these lucky collisions into a moment that make life worth living.

Accidents can also take shape on the material itself. Film and analogue mediums lend themselves to the possibility of something more. In the image, ‘Sepideh, (Cafe en route Alborz Mountain)’ [top image], there is a bright yellow light leak but it adds to and compliments the gaze of the girl in the image. These unplanned occurrences are what excite me about photography. I have another ongoing project solely based on light leaks.

JC: Given you’ve been living outside of Iran as an expatriate, have you noticed your feelings and ideas of Iran change? And if so, has this had an effect on how you see and photograph Iran?

BH: This is a hard question. How do people’s perceptions of their own culture manifest in general? The paradoxes that I feel exist within my culture complicates my relationship to it. And I suppose this is a common way to feel about Iran for a lot of people. The revolution has left so many bitter.

I would say my feelings and ideas have greatly changed, partly because I have changed and partly because I was away for many years. Nostalgia is something that I try to get away from in my work, but it is a by-product of migration, whether I like it or not. I cannot help but embrace aspects of life in Iran that cannot be found in other places, where at the same time, the same things might frustrate someone who lives here permanently. In relation to how this affects the way I photograph, I think my experiences allow for a kind of separation from the city that lets me see more clearly. When you live far from a place of origin, your ideas of what constitutes ‘normalities’ start to shift. I think, when I am back in Iran, certain things that might be overlooked because they are considered normal and familiar, attract my attention. Ideologies start to show themselves in a more obvious way, rather than being engrossed within the fabric of everyday life.