A Conversation with Alvaro Deprit

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Alvaro Deprit

Alvaro Deprit is one of the four winners of the 2015 Conscientious Portfolio Competition, with Al-Andalus, a playful project that appears to contain hints of magical realism. I spoke with the photographer about his general background and about Al-Andalus.

Jörg Colberg: Can you talk about your background? Who are you as a photographer, what are your main interests and/or motivations?

Alvaro Deprit: I am from Madrid. I was born in a large family whose origins are partly from the North, partly from the South of Spain. I studied at the Italian College of Madrid. Ever since, my education has been exposed to different cultures. Later, I decided to study German Philology and Sociology at the university.

I always had a strong interest in cinema, but at the time I didn’t have the means to undertake that kind of study in Spain. In spite of this, I strongly nurtured my fascination for images and my strong connection with cinema and photography.

At the age of 25 I left Spain and travelled through Europe both for studies and for my job, ending up to Italy where I settled down and where I started to work as a professional photographer.

I used to approach photography as a self-taught photographer. What is important to me as a photographer is not so much the plot or the sequence of events (they work as a frame). I try to catch what is underneath, the colours and the mood which surround every story.

JC: Al-Andalus mixes aspects of Spain’s background, the recent economic crisis, and your own personal history. How did you get interested in exploring this photographically?

AD: The aim of Al-Andalus is to give a shape to emotions, feelings, memories, nostalgia I have from family tales and photos about Andalusia. I did not live there. I do not have a direct experience of that place, but it is the place where my family comes from.

In line with my approach, this project has no well-defined plot, It wants to show pieces of life and images of reality in order to express emotions and feelings related to my personal life. Al-Andalus can be considered a search for my imaginary childhood as it is depicted in my mind, through the tangible experience of that space. It is important to stress that my representation of this place cannot disregard the contemporary, historical, and social context. This interaction between personal and social representation produced an interesting contradiction between my mental construction of this place and the real place itself.

Andalusia is the result of a complex cultural stratification, derived from the passage of different civilisations which, over time, gave life to a hybrid identity capable of containing within it the stereotypical traits of Spanish culture.

Andalusia is the fusion of the rational and irrational. ‘Duende,’ a word that means fairy or pixie, belongs to the Andalusian tradition. A ‘Duende’ is a mythological creature, an inhabitant of a house who uses to create confusion and disorder, changing things around. It is also a mysterious enchantment associated with flamenco and to an evil existence. I did not try to explain the history of Andalusia. Mystery and fragmentation, together with a closeness to the land: that is Andalusia as a desire in itself, which provoked in me the need to explore.

JC: How did you go about producing the photographs for Al-Andalus? Did you use the well-trodden road-trip tradition, or was there a different approach?

AD: So far, I have been working on Al-Andalus for four years. I did not have a travel plan, but only particular places which I have been reflecting on for a while and where I spent a period of my life. I choose these places mainly because, as I said before, they were a part of Andalusia where my family come from, and also because they represent the ‘fabulous scenario’ of my childhood memories.

The first step before I leave for a place I am working on is to know about its geographical features, its historical, social and cultural background. When I arrive at a place I don’t like to follow any kind of method or theoretical structure, but I feel like the flâneur. I do not look for something in particular, but walking through it I am open to be overcome by the space itself. It is through an absolute experience of places and through encounters with people and their tales that I can perceive changes and myself as a part of them.

JC: Can you talk in more detail about photographing for Al-Andalus? Do older pictures inform newer ones? Given you have worked on the project for four years, how did the process of editing, shaping the work evolve?

AD: The older pictures I used for my project represent my Andalusian family. I went through them so many times, especially the one I choose to open my work with. It depicts my great-grandfather (in the center, without his hat while he is hugging his dog), my grandmother and her family. Clothes, boots, hats, whatever I could see in those pictures carried me away, across the ocean. It seemed to me to be taken to somewhere in the Western United States or in Mexico. Also, the age of those photos, their state of decay, their vague and warm colour contributed to this mental trip. Therefore these older pictures are the starting point for my fantasies, consequently for my memories and, not least, for my research. Integrating the older pictures into the process of editing created a sort of “spiazzamento” (break): the older pictures, as a symbol of tangible reality, in opposition to my photographic vision produced a fictional atmosphere.

After two years of taking photos I started editing them. This is the most important stage in my work. As the syntax for language, editing can be considered as an unformed puzzle that needs to be accurately and coherently organised. Editing does not mean just choosing and organising pictures in order to give them a coherent shape, it involves emotions and feelings. There was a strong emotional involvement in editing Al-Andalus, which created a stream of consciousness, impressions and feelings. This emotional state is not necessarily caused by something reasonable, and it is the mood through which I tried to explain what I was feeling. I found philology very useful to understand these feelings, given that our thoughts express themselves through language.

JC: You have also produced a couple of photobooks. What role do books play for you and your practice?

AD: I think photobooks have a central role in the production of photographers today: they are an adequate tool for displaying photography, reaching a wider audience, but not in an ephemeral way.

Probably my strong connection to them is due to my former practice in the editorial world. I like my pictures printed. Moreover, I like the material quality that photography gets when it is printed in a book.

Last but not least I experience photobooks in a sort of collaborative sense: for both my publications I had the opportunity to collaborate with other professional figures. For Suspension I worked with Dutch studio Koehorst in ‘t Veld. They were able to help me to shape my project in an object with more content than just my pictures, adding other elements I also collected during my research. There are some drawings in the book from the guys I portrayed.

In the case of Dreaming Leone, I worked with with my peer and colleague Michela Palermo. We designed an object rooted for sure in my documentary work of the Tabernas desert. But we were able to nod to a more complex visual culture: the book is also an homage to the cinema tradition of Spaghetti Westerns.

I think these experiences enhanced my photographic production. They gave me the opportunity to see my work through other perspectives, empowering my awareness of the photographic language.

A Conversation with M. Scott Brauer

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M. Scott Brauer

If you’re paying any sort of attention to the news, you will be aware that leading up to this year’s US presidential election, the so-called primaries are happening. Even now, despite the fact that a lot of them already dropped out, there still are plenty of candidates. And there is an abundance of stories and narratives around them, which might or might not reflect what’s actually going on. M. Scott Brauer has spent a lot of time photographing these primaries, and I thought that would make for an interesting conversation. Much to my delight, Scott took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions. Grab yourselves a cup of your hot beverage of choice, and enjoy his fascinating take on the primaries — and photography — behind the scenes of politics!

Jörg Colberg: In this day and age, democracy seems to revolve as much around the fact that there are elections as that these elections are portrayed in very specific ways. From what I can tell, most political campaigns spend considerable efforts on trying to make sure the right kinds of pictures are being produced, so that their candidate is presented in just the intended way. There are plenty of flags, and candidates giving speeches often use very clearly selected people as backdrops – Count Potemkin would recognize all of this well. As a photographer, how do you approach photographing such events?

M. Scott Brauer: From the beginning of the project I knew I wanted to do something different from the coverage of political campaigns seen in most newspapers and magazines. I’d photographed the primary a little in 2012, but with a very straightforward style. The work didn’t excite me, and I spent a lot of time in the first part of 2015 thinking about exactly why that older work wasn’t interesting to me. I come from the American newspaper and magazine photojournalism traditions and shot it with that sort of natural-light, fly-on-the-wall approach. But looking back at the work, I find it doesn’t reveal much about the political process.

These campaign events are essentially press releases with everything perfectly arranged to present the candidates in (sometimes literally) the best light possible. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes at these events, and that’s hard to see when the focus of attention is lit 3 or 4 stops brighter than anything around them or when the flag or people background behind the candidates is arranged just so. Thinking about this all, I knew I needed to counteract their lighting, figure out ways of shooting around the pre-determined set-ups, and also get a wide-enough depth of field so viewers could get a better idea of the environment surrounding a candidate. There are also really interesting moments before the candidate steps on stage or after they leave an event. There’s a legion of staff that makes sure the flags or banners are just perfectly positioned, for instance. Even with the lighting, these events are often really dark. Photographers have to use low apertures making everything but the candidate a soft, attractive blur. And looking at the images on candidates’ campaign websites, that’s exactly the sort of image they want to present of themselves: a patriotic hero standing in sharp focus in front an American flag or diverse collection of supporters.

I started the project with all of that mind, wanting specifically to subvert the images that the campaigns present of themselves. That doesn’t mean I don’t shoot the podium shots, but I realized I needed to make those podium shots interesting and informative about the process of modern American politics. I look at the project as not being about the specific candidates or the parties at all, in fact, but rather about the overall process of politicking. A good portion of these candidates’ appeals to the public is to show just how in touch they are with “real America” or “working families” or whatever the term they use is. But there is nothing less authentic than these campaign events. They are rehearsed and stage-managed and designed and focus-grouped to be almost infinitely repeatable. I’ve heard Ted Cruz tell the same joke at 6 or 7 events in the past month, for instance. It seems like Donald Trump just switches around a few superlatives at each rally. Sanders will hit the same 5 or 6 points about wealth inequality and climate change in every single speech. Hillary Clinton has something like a 45-minute playlist that plays “Happy,” a Jennifer Lopez song, and a couple others on repeat for a couple hours before each event. Scott Walker squinches up his nose in exactly the same way in the instant before every time he smiles. It’s a bit like Groundhog Day, but unless you’re really paying attention, it seems like each speech or meet-and-greet is a unique event. The attendees might feel like they’ve had special access to a politician. TV viewers see only a snippet or two, even if they regularly watch the nightly news, so it all seems novel. The reality, though, is that almost every moment you’ve seen in the news or at an event has happened over and over and over.

My approach to these events is thus a bit different from the way I approach a lot of the projects I shoot. I’ve got all of the above in mind, so I’m looking for cracks at the seams, repetitive elements across events or candidates, expressions and gestures by attendees or the campaign that belie the excitement and patriotic front that is put forward, etc. And I’ve singled out a few ideas that fit my conception of the primary being the worst party I’ve ever been to. This is a radical departure for me. I’m never one to make lists of what I need to shoot for a project and am happy to just let the subjects or story lead me however it will, like unravelling a sweater by pulling on a loose string. With this, it’s like the sweater’s pulling back, always trying to maintain its form. I’m trying to show that the sweater isn’t really a sweater at all, so I’ve got to keep pulling at my idea. It’s risky to let the idea shape the story. I don’t want to let my idea take over. I feel there’s an honesty to the way I’m photographing this, and if I let the idea guide me too much, I lose that honesty. The work might become untruthful, mean, or parodic.

JC: Those primaries and election events would really not work at all any longer if they weren’t also broadcast, in whatever form. So it’s kind of a dance, and for most dances you need more than one person. “The Press” – photographers, journalists, etc. – clearly are that partner, and there clearly is another agenda at play that is not quite independent of the campaigns’, but that follows different goals, goals that often somewhat openly work around a preconceived narrative around a politician. Is that something you think about before starting to work? Do you consider your own biases or ideas, or your peers’?

MSB: You’re right. The whole point of all of American politicking is to get on TV news and in the papers. The candidates depend on exposure afforded by mainstream news coverage and, as Trump has pointed out so much recently, the networks depend on this whole show to bring in ratings and, thus, ad revenue. I mean, the 24 hour news networks would still be blathering on even if there weren’t an election, but the campaigns give them so much more meat to carve up.

There’s a really weird thing that happens between journalists and politicians, too, as regards access. At the beginning of the campaigns, the candidates want every journalist they can get. But when they’re at the head of the polls and every journalist wants to cover them, the candidates can be a little choosier in who they let ask questions or get exclusives or even get in the door to an event. You see this much more when politicians are actually in office and they’ll dole out access or off-the-record comments to journalists that they like, and cut off access to those who the politicians perceive as having reported wrongly or unfairly. The journalists need access so they can write stories, so they might pull some punches. There’ve been plenty of stories of Trump kicking reporters out of events. Many candidates, especially when they get more popular, will set up pool coverage of their events. That means only a few reporters are allowed in and other publications must share their reporting. It makes sense when the event presents difficulties to covering like normal. Courtrooms, for instance, will have pools because the space is usually very small. On the campaign trail, the small business stops will sometimes be pooled just because there’s no way to physically fit the whole press scrum in, especially for a candidate like Clinton or Trump. Sanders’ campaign did some pooling at a couple of events in December that journalists thought was unreasonable and it resulted in less coverage of his events. One event was in a barn, and there’s always a way to fit more people into a barn. But the campaign wanted to pool it, so many of the journalists just refused to cover it.

There’s a documentary called “Spin” about this. It’s a look at the 1992 campaign almost exclusively through raw satellite feeds. In it, you can see the relationship between journalists and politicians. You can see how repetitive the “satellite tours” are. You can see how the candidates immediately turn on their personality when the live broadcast starts and how they turn it off as soon the broadcast stops. It’s fascinating.

The reason that I bring this up is that the give and take between politicians and journalists, which is generally doling out access depending on the favorability of coverage, has no factor in how I’m covering this. I almost never shoot politics; none of the images for this project are from private events; I don’t depend on access to politicians for my future work as a journalist. As I’ve said, I’m not trying to do a hit-piece on any person or party, but I also don’t want to pull any punches. My position as a journalist whose work does not depend on politics means that I can take more chances with my work. If, for some reason, every current and future politician denied me access to photographing their campaigns, it would make no difference to my career or bottom line. I can take risks other political journalists can’t afford to.

As I’d mentioned above, one of the main reasons for starting the project was my dissatisfaction with most political photography. I don’t mean to denigrate the wire photographers or anyone else covering politics. There’s a value to the work they do. Newspapers around the country and world need that sort of work. It’s important for the historical record. But many people are already doing that type of work, so there’s no reason for me to do it. There are valid complaints about the amount of press coverage certain candidates get, but I don’t think individual photographers should be blamed for that. All the photographers I work alongside at these events are great at what they do and cover the events in fair and interesting ways. Quite a few are working on little side projects that are pretty interesting – maybe portraits, maybe still lifes, maybe multiple-exposures, maybe something else – but it’s not the work that their employers/clients want. The newspapers have to observe a level of objectivity (I know that’s a sticky issue that you’ve covered here previously, but you know what I mean), and there’s just no room for certain types of photography. And sometimes, perhaps, some interesting work has been shot and even submitted to the photographers’ clients, but it just won’t work with what the publication can or wants to do.

Here are a couple of stories that speak to these issues, I think. In 2012, I did a behind-the-scenes assignment on a campaign for a big, international newspaper. The idea was to get me behind the scenes on both the Republican and Democratic campaigns in the race. The editor wanted to do a nice display in the paper and run slideshows online. The Republican side gave me full access, but the Democratic candidate wouldn’t. I spent a full day with the Republican and had enough to do a nice slideshow and a big spread in the paper. But because the Democrat wouldn’t let me in, the paper didn’t want to publish all of my work for one candidate and then just grab some wire photos for the other side. The end result was that only a single picture from 8 or 10 hours of shooting was ever published. I completely understand why; the paper needed to show balance in coverage and it couldn’t.

Specifically in this project, take a look at this picture of Ted Cruz. On the left of the frame is the arm of a great newspaper photographer. We’d been talking before the moment happened; he saw it happen and got a little ahead of me to take the picture. But after a frame or two, he put his camera down and said, “They’ll never run this.” On the other hand, that picture led the portfolio of the project that Esquire just published in the February issue. Different publications have different tolerance for different sorts of images and approaches.

As for my own bias, I’m lucky that I don’t have any of the pressures of the desires and sentiments of editors or publications to influence my coverage. Few photographers have that luxury. As of this writing, in fact, I’ve had just a four days’ assignments in the 6+ months I’ve worked on the project. There was an exclusive with Donald Trump for the Wall Street Journal; there was a day photographing campaigns for Businessweek; and there was two days for Time. For the WSJ, I knew the editor was interested in the way I’ve been shooting the project, but I also know that the paper has a certain style of coverage, so I tried my best to fulfill both my own interests in shooting the subject, and the paper’s. But other than that, it’s been totally free rein. That freedom raises its own complications, though.

I was really worried about the project during the first month I’d shot it. I was recovering from a badly broken arm, was planning my wedding, and I had regular assignment work keeping me busy. Because of that, I could only get up to a few events here and there, and they all happened to be Republican. At the time, there were 17 or so declared candidates and my work really fit the prevailing “clown car” narrative about the Republican field. I didn’t want this to be a hit piece on the Republican party, and not having covered any Democrats’ campaign events in my career, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to photograph Clinton or Sanders in the same way. I think I photographed Sanders first, and I immediately knew it would work. It was in a weird wood-paneled room and there was just as much bunting as any other candidate’s events. Sure, there’s a little more tie-dye at the Democrat events, but otherwise, they’re basically like all of the Republican campaign stops. I’d mentioned earlier that this project is meant to critique the political process rather than individual candidates or political parties. The process is basically the same on both sides of the aisle: bad music, some patriotic decorations, bored staffers on the sidelines, pleas at every event to donate and volunteer, similar graphic design on the campaign signs, etc.

The other thing I’ve been worried about is losing my critical perspective as the months wore on. Just a few weeks into the project, people started coming up to me and saying they’d seen me at another event, and soon I started recognizing people, too. I started to know all the other journalists on the beat, and I developed friendly relationships with some on the campaign staffs. I know it’s not the same, but I’ve read about the bias resulting from embedded war reporting, and I was worried about something like that happening. I was worried that maybe I wouldn’t photograph a poorly-placed campaign sign, for instance, because I knew the person who’d put it up. Or perhaps I wouldn’t be as aggressive in my coverage of a particular candidate because I’d decided they’d be getting my vote when my state’s primary comes up. Or perhaps I’d be too aggressive, making a certain campaign look bad because I’d been treated poorly by their staff or I didn’t like something they’d said.

But after covering this story for so long, I feel like I’ve been fair across all of the candidates. To be honest, it all actually runs together. I was talking with an editor this week and they wondered what I’d been photographing recently. I mentioned a couple candidates and then said I knew there were a few more but couldn’t actually remember. When I’m taking pictures of these events, I have a hard time paying attention to what’s being said. And after a while, everything at one of these campaign events feels more like a still life than anything else. Maybe still life isn’t quite right. I was talking with another photographer recently who’d been covering this but wasn’t all that interested in politics. One of us said that it felt like we were aliens observing humans going through some strange ritual we’d never seen before. That’s really what it feels like after all of this time. I guess that’s what the project was meant to show: all the things involved in these events (the candidate, the audience, the signs, the decorations, the music, the food….) are really just props. After working on the project even just a few weeks into it, everything had turned to props in my own mind, too.

JC: When we throw all of this together, especially in light of what you just said, it isn’t quite clear to me what anyone possibly gains from this whole spectacle. Through all the control and mediation it seems so far removed from the underlying ideas of what eventually is at stake. I read Ben Cramer’s 1993 book What It Takes, and I couldn’t escape the impression that the combination of campaigning, plus of dealing with all of this stuff, is completely grueling for everybody involved. Being a part of this all so frequently, how do you deal with what it is, how it relates to your normal life? How do you decompress?

MSB: Well, this is really the first time I’ve covered politics so extensively. Everyone always comments that it’s got to be grueling or boring or exasperating (“How can you stand to be in the same room as Ted Cruz,” one side will say. Or, “I couldn’t stand 10 minutes of listening to Hillary talk,” from the other). This is just another project and it’s pretty rare for me to get tired of something I’m shooting. I haven’t tired of it yet, and sometimes I’ll cover 4 or 5 campaigns in a day. I’ve been doing that for 6 months. The final week before the primary started to get difficult. 7am to 11pm or so each day with a lot of driving and always feeling like you’re missing something. I’m lucky that I rarely have deadlines to worry about or editors looking for something specific. I also can just pick and choose what I cover, so if I need a break, I’ll take a day or a week off. I’ve been shooting a few assignments a week for years now, so it’s not really different from my normal work.

There is one thing that really bothers me, though. Those patriotic country songs that every candidate plays before and after events have a way of making me hate everything. Recently Sanders had a Bowie song playing after one of his speeches. That was a nice change. And when I’m driving between events, I’ll listen to podcasts or music that I really like to cleanse my palate a bit. Thirty minutes of listening to Warren G or Laura Veirs or Miles Davis or Hardcore History really does wonders.

One thing that has been difficult is the sheer amount of pictures I’m taking. I’m not sure I’ve ever photographed a single project or subject so heavily. And then there’s the editing, captioning, other post-production (really minimal, but the time adds up), uploading, and then sending out to publications. It takes hours and hours and I have a huge backlog. It’s also been really difficult to edit through the work after the fact when working with publications or thinking about contests, calls for entry, and the like. It’s a daunting task and I’m not sure I’ve succeeded at it yet. I’m in a weird space between the daily photojournalists and other sorts of photographers. I don’t have deadlines, but there’s also a short shelf-life during which this work will remain relevant for the sorts of publications I typically work with.

JC: So what will the “end product” be? I mean, given all the work you put into this, given a different take should be seen by a larger number of people, and given most media outlets are as you said unlikely to publish the work, will you produce your own publication? But then, given the photobook market is such a tiny niche, how would it reach a somewhat larger audience?

MSB: That’s the big question. My interest in taking pictures is always in getting them out to an audience, no matter how small. If my pictures are just sitting around filed away on a hard-drive, collecting dust, I’ve failed in my goal. When it comes down to it, the reason I pick up a camera is to tell a story to others about the things I’m photographing. Some projects are more successful than others at that, but that’s always the goal. I’ve been lucky with publications wanting to take a risk with this. Esquire published an 8 page portfolio in the February issue and also online. The New Republic recently did a big web piece and will have something in print in the March issue on newsstands now. Time used a few photos in print and online and published a story we worked on about Jim Gilmore’s long-shot campaign online. Le Monde’s weekend magazine ran 5 pages of images for a Trump story, and Canada’s The Globe and Mail did a nice doubletruck for another Trump story. New York Magazine’s political blog, The Daily Intelligencer, ran some pictures. The Wall Street Journal ran a couple pictures shot on assignment in the style of the project with an exclusive interview with Trump both in print and online (I did shoot some natural light on that just in case the editors didn’t want to run this weird sort of coverage; there isn’t much in the WSJ that looks like these pictures). Blooomberg Businessweek did a spread. I’ve been sharing pictures on my Instagram and Tumblr, which together equal around 35,000 followers (though who knows how many actual people that reaches). There was a great MetaFilter post about the project with good discussion from people outside the photography and journalism worlds. I did an interview with The Image, Deconstructed and now this piece with you.

By circulation/readership size of each of these outlets, that’s probably at least 3 million viewers who have at least seen snippets of the project, which seems like a a pretty wide reach for my strange perspective on American politics. I’d love to do a book or exhibition or something, but lately I’ve just been focusing on shooting the project since it’s there is such a short, fixed time in which to shoot the project. Now that the primary is over, hopefully I can think about this a bit more. You’re right, though, that photobooks have such a small audience. But each method of getting work out to the public has a different audience, not necessarily overlapping. Each of those outlets I mentioned above reaches different people, and that’s what I’m after. I had a project China’s zoos published on Buzzfeed last year, for instance, and I was getting emails from 15 year olds around the world who were inspired by the work. Pieces of it had been published before, but the other places that published it would never reach those 15 year olds. Interviews like this reach a radically different audience from the magazines that have published the work, too. I think I’ve done a decent job getting the work out so far, but there’s always more to do.

I’m also curious what life this work will have after the primary and especially after the 2016 election. It will lose its news value, of course, and my pictures probably don’t have the same historic value that the AP’s coverage has. These will never be the pictures printed in textbooks along a blurb about Hillary Clinton. But I hope what I’m trying to say about the political process through these pictures will have some value, even when these particular candidates no longer have national and international relevance.

Photobook Reviews (W07/2016)

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There are many ideas around photography that appear to inflate what it – or its makers – can actually achieve. The medium is potent. However, this is mostly not because what it can do, but what it cannot do: its actual potency is its ability to remind us of how flawed we actually are.

Let’s say there is a picture of a dead child on a beach in Turkey, just one of the countless children who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, unlike all the other ones this child makes its way onto the front pages of websites and newspapers. If that picture somehow had changed the world we probably would not be witnessing the mind numbing and shameful displays of pettiness, xenophobia, and racism that still pervade discussions of how to deal with what is termed “the refugee crisis” in Europe. We would not be witnessing more border fences being erected in Europe, or US or Central European politicians talking of banning Muslim refugees for reasons that are as absurd as they are disgraceful.

I’d like to suggest the following. Let’s once and for all put the idea that photography can change the world where it belongs: into the part of our mental garbage bin that contains our delusions and wishful thinking.

Having spoken with a large number of photographers over the past decade, including many who either did or still call themselves photojournalists, I can’t help but think that they know what they’re up against. It is not for nothing that many photojournalists first risk their lives to take pictures and then bitterly give up on that.

While I can certainly understand the motivations for doing something else, bearing witness with pictures still is an incredibly important act. Even if there are no immediate repercussions, the presence of a witness who will bring back pictures is an act of affirmation: yes, this just happened, and we all get a chance to see. This young child drowned miserably, at an age where he should have happily skipped about some playground, and while nothing or very little might change at all, for a short moment we are confronted with his death — and by extension, the deaths of all those who drowned completely anonymously.

While one might reasonably argue about ideas of the child’s dignity concerning the photograph itself, the fact that it exists gives the toddler a kind of dignity of another kind: we are being forced to acknowledge, however briefly, what happened. This is how photography matters greatly. And this is what makes actions such as Ai WeiWei’s re-staging of the photograph so shallow and infuriating, however well meaning it might have been: there is nothing that can — or should — be added to the original photograph.

Photographers thus bear witness, and their pictures are best left as that: results of the act itself, expressions of someone’s presence who is willing to be a witness for us, someone willing not to avert their eyes — as we often do. What might result from the photographs never is clear, and more often than not the answer is: nothing. If we were to approach photography this way, especially photography dealing with what is commonly called “conflict”, I think we would have a much easier time learning lessons from them, a much better chance to see what they have to offer.

While the preceding offers an impossibly long way to introduce Noa Ben-Shalom‘s Hush, I believe it might allow us to fully appreciate what the book does. It comprises photographs taken in Israel/Palestine over the course of more than a decade, combining them with letters written by the photographer to friends. In contemporary photography parlance, the pictures tell the story of the “conflict” there. But in reality, they don’t. For a start, photographs don’t tell stories (collections of them might, provided they follow the rules of storytelling). But that detail aside, what these photographs really do, together with the words, is to center on bearing witness and on having to deal with all the pain, grief, and heartache that comes with not being able to easily hang one’s hat, given there is no far-away home to get back to.

Whichever of the various narratives around the conflict you might be eager to pick, Hush won’t easily let you. It won’t confirm your expectations, it won’t offer you the same — stale — visual diet we are used to from what we like to think of as the news. Instead, it presents that actually pretty small piece of land, fought over for generations now, and its inhabitants. It seeks to find the new approach to the land that might finally allow us to come closer to some solution, realizing full well that it’s probably an impossible goal. Bearing witness here truly and mostly means acknowledging the humanity of it all. As I said, that is what photography can do. What is to be gained from doing it well will become apparent to those willing to spend time with this book.

Hush; photographs and text by Noa Ben-Shalom; 312 pages; Sternthal; 2015

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 3.0 – Overall 3.5

Troubled masculinity and a tendency towards gratuitous violence are character traits of the United States, which the country has so far been unable to shed. Awash in guns, all efforts to reign in a gun lobby that is completely and irrationally out of control are currently doomed to fail, regardless of however many people are being killed. Even kids in an elementary school getting gunned down didn’t result in any change. The emotional poverty of those resisting change baffles the mind.

Violence and its depictions are ubiquitous. Many television shows include large amounts of violence – whether psychological or physical – as regular fare. The most popular kind of sport leads to many of its practitioners retiring with copious amounts of brain damage. And politics itself has become increasingly violent, with anger levels rising, and agitators taking over the Republican Party.

Having worked with the collection of vernacular photographs assembled by Peter Cohen before, Melissa Catanese yet again dove into its strange world of pictures, to extract and compile Hells Hollow Fallen Monarch. It’s a book about violence, and about the enactment of the violent fantasies harboured by (mostly) men in the form of hunting.

The book keeps its imagery at a minimum. We get to see men posing with guns and/or dead deer, and there are many pictures of deer corpses, picture after picture after picture… In between, colour photographs of the woods, taken somewhere, make for chapter breaks.

It’s a grim book, a book that successfully manages to put violence and violent male fantasies center stage, with the most restrained means possible: just pictures of a relatively small variety. The key is the repetition, relentlessly showing more and more and more carnage. As is always the case, the easiest and simplest solution is the best.

Hells Hollow Fallen Monarch; vernacular photographs edited by Melissa Catanese; 82 pages; Spaces Corners; 2015

(not rated)

The harder you try to instill your photography project with conceptual rigour, the more likely the risk that you’ll drain it of all soul, of all that which makes it precious in any other than a cerebral sense. As much as I enjoy them, some of contemporary photography’s widely acclaimed bodies of work either have no soul whatsoever, or they feature an entirely artificial, entertainy, and thus ultimately just simulated kind of soul, much like a Hallmark card or an episode of Prairie Home Companion. In the latter cases, we run through the motions of being moved really just because we feel that we have to, even though deep down we know we’re being cheaply manipulated.

Photography might have a hard time dealing with the problem of soul, the problem of creating something that cannot be quantified, simply because of its technical nature (this might all get only worse with digital photography and all that talk that photographs – somehow – are “data”). But of course, there always is the hand of the maker, the photographer, and photography is a great medium in the right person’s hands. I had to think of that looking through Yola Monakhov Stockton‘s The Nature of Imitation, a book about birds (there’s that other weight photography can’t shake: it has to be about something, as if being of somehow wasn’t right).

Most people would probably not even think twice about birds, or they might just know them as exotic pet birds. Observing wild birds, the ones around us, usually is left to people we call bird watchers. If art means paying attention to something, devoting a lot of attention to something, then clearly photographing birds is a worthwhile artistic endeavour, especially if such work is also tied to being aware of the artifice around the subject matter (this latter point might be what separates wildlife from fine-art photography – please note I’m not interested in implying any value judgments).

The Nature of Imitation is a collection of photographs of and around birds, which often enough are almost a tad too good to be true: moments that cannot possibly have happened without all kinds of planning, or luck, or whatever else. That is art, too: getting those pictures.

The book might be pushing the envelope a little bit too much at times for this critic, at times being indecisive about where to fall, what focus to put on artifice. Had some of the Polaroids or the more obvious visual trickery been omitted, this probably would have resulted in a slightly more consistent experience for the viewer. Photographers, after all, often are bad magicians: not content with having tricks that work, they really need to show them off, overdoing it.

This minor quibble aside, in a world of photobooks that has become a little stale, a little too concerned with either its clever self or with some process that in ten years is guaranteed to look dated, The Nature of Imitation reminds the viewer what is to be gained from the seduction of pure photographic beauty, from seeing beautiful photographs of beautiful little creatures, creatures that, of course, often are made to follow our whims.

The Nature of Imitation; photographs by Yola Monakhov Stockton; essay by Elisabeth Bondi; 104 pages; Schilt; 2015

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 2.5, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.4

A Conversation with Francesco Merlini

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Francesco Merlini

Francesco Merlini is a co-winner of the 2015 Conscientious Portfolio Competition with his project Farang. I spoke with the artist about his background, motivations, and work.

Jörg Colberg: Can you talk about your background? Who are you as a photographer, what are your main interests and/or motivations?

Francesco Merlini: While studying product design at the university I started to take pictures of friends, road trips, drunken strangers at parties and this kind of stuff. Later, five years ago, I started to work at the photojournalism agency Prospekt that now represents me. I entered the agency as an assistant scanning negatives and doing post-production. Later I started to realize small reportages and news pictures for Italian and international magazines, and I started to think that I could have become a photographer. This experience has been very important to me, because I understood that photography is not about taking good single pictures, but it’s about ideas, projects, and narrations.

In the meantime, while doing more photojournalistic series, I started to keep a visual diary of my life, and I was charmed by how photography was enabling me to find something that maybe I had already found, but that was hidden inside me. The photographic quest started to assume another meaning, another value that gives life to a journey of discovery that sees its arrival in myself.

Every day I see so many interesting photographic projects, and sometimes it seems to me that everything has already been photographed. In order not to be overwhelmed, I look for input and paths to follow outside of photography or at least outside of the “official” photographic networks. I really want to produce series that are still able to stupefy and intrigue viewers. In order to do this I continue to on one side produce reportage works with a very strong personal language and a strong bond with photojournalism. On the other side I started to experiment with mixing fiction and reality in order to get something new to me, a playground where you don’t understand what is real and what is not.

JC: Can you introduce Farang? In your statement, you speak of epiphanies – I’m curious to learn more about that!

FM: These pictures were taken in Italy, France, Turkey, Thailand, and Kosovo over a time span of three years. What connects the pictures of this series is that as the title suggests after years of pictures in a “comfort zone,” of people and places I feel comfortable with, almost all the pictures of Farang were taken in circumstances that were alien to me. What happened in front of my eyes and my emotional and visual interior mold together to create a personal interpretation and narration of things, places and people, transforming something that is extraneous to me into something that speaks of me. The flash of the camera has consecrated these small revelations that I call epiphanies, impressing the shroud that lies on the subjects whose truth I’ve discarded. To me these images are relics of something invisible.

JC: I’m also curious of your description of the images as “tarot cards.” What kind of fortune do they tell?

FM: Well, the process of discovery, the process of unveiling someone’s fortunes or misfortunes in tarots reading is not far from my idea of photography. But there is more than one analogy with tarot cards: in this body of work almost every picture has an evident subject, a single element, a person or an object that acquires a larger meaning, that becomes a symbol of something bigger and collective, a new archetype… the child, the staircase, the mask, the hanged child. Usually, as a photographer, I don’t want to leave the reading of an image as something complete subjective; I try to suggest the meaning of my pictures but, as with tarot cards, different readers give different meanings to what they see.

Simultaneously, as with tarot cards, the usage of the vertical format and the framing of the subjects intensify the evocative power of the images.

JC: How did you go about working on the series? Did you mostly find pictures, or was there a plan, however loose?

FM: Usually there are no plans. I just bring myself to places and situations where, given my interests I could find something I want to photograph. Very often I see something special in situations that often are quite normal. The camera becomes an instrument to break people’s blindness to reality’s wonders and to the fascination that I feel.

I have been influenced by the masters of the intimate diary like Anders Petersen or Daido Moriyama. But at the same time I’m scared to become a photographer who, no matter where you are, always looks for the same things and photograph those in the same way. The risk is to make every place of the world look the same, and that is really scary to me. Before starting a new project I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of visual language is the best to create an aesthetic that reinforces and is in dialogue with the narration I want to create. I hate it when the choice of color or black&white or the post production become pure decoration that transforms a useless picture into something aesthetically pleasant.

At the same time, the editing process is really important. I separate the pictures that are only aesthetically pleasant from the pictures that have a sense of the story I want to tell. Every picture has to have something in it, every picture has to evoke or suggest something in order to move the viewer. I believe in the invisible. Beauty is not enough.

JC: So you go out with an idea for a story, and you then create the photographs that fill it? Do you allow for pictures to change your original idea of the story? Have you ever had to change your visual treatment of the photographs, given you found it worked better if done differently?

FM: It depends on what kind of project I’m working on… If it’s a reportage or a project with a strong bond with reality, for sure I have an idea of what I will probably find and shoot. But it’s only an idea, an idea that very often is proven wrong. A photographer always thinks beforehand about what he could photograph in a certain situation. But Dorothea Lange used to say that if you already know what you will photograph, you will photograph only your preconceptions.

About my personal projects, sometimes I have a very strong idea and I photograph according to what and how I want to communicate it. If, for example, I’m doing a visual diary of a journey, there is no idea to follow. Maybe there are some previous thoughts that anyway will change during the time I take pictures, giving shape to a narration that at the end will be a mix of previous expectations and surprises.

About the visual treatment, I have some aesthetic languages I usually use, because they successfully emphasize my vision and the atmosphere I want to reveal. As already said, before shooting I usually think about what kind of post production could fit with the project. But it has happened that I change ideas while shooting. While I was shooting my series Le Tchad Dense in Chad last summer, I started to think about how to communicate the sense of suffocation I was feeling there. When I came back and started editing the pictures I realized that I could have achieved the effect with a different type of post-production, working on the grey layers. The result is something totally different from what I had expected before leaving.

JC: I’m also curious how you would describe that difference between a beautiful picture (or maybe one with a specific aesthetic) and one that, to use your words, moves the viewer? I guess what you’re saying is that you don’t want your aesthetic to become a filter – maybe like those Instagram filters we all use. But finding the pictures that work and separating them out from those that don’t is a big struggle for many photographers, so maybe you can share some of what you do when you do that?

FM: Well, I was a fixer for Bruce Gilden once, and he told me one thing: “Every picture has to have something interesting in it, it cannot be only about the aesthetic”. I thought a lot about this statement; and I think it’s true, especially if you want to take pictures that can be universally appreciated. If a picture is only aesthetically pleasant, someone might like it, someone else might not. If there is something else, people who maybe do not like the picture visually will look at it with interest, and maybe they will remember it.

Doing the editing is so important and so difficult. I work also as the photo editor of a photojournalism agency. It’s easier to edit a reportage since you have a linear story to narrate, and you need some pictures in order to collect all the elements of a story and show it to the audience.

With personal work, editing is more complex since it’s much more personal and subjective. It’s very hard to explain how I decide that a picture works. It’s about something you feel in front of the picture, something that you feel in your guts the first time you see it. Maybe if you start thinking too much if a picture works or not that means it doesn’t work. For sure, in a series aesthetically good images are necessary, but you also need images that link things and communicate.

During the editing of my work I discarded many nice pictures because of their emptiness or because they didn’t find their place in the narrative. They would have weakened the whole sequence. At the same time, I don’t think that a series has to include only beautiful images with a strong meaning. There also have to be images that slow down the rhythm in order to create a roller coaster that keeps the viewer interested without anesthetizing his gaze, enabling him to be stupefied many times.

A Conversation with Jonas Feige

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Jonas Feige

Jonas Feige was picked by Melissa Catanese as one of the winners of the 2015 Conscientious Portfolio Competition. Melissa wrote: “I chose this work for its open-ended narrative. Time feels as though it’s stuck somewhere between the past and present. The sequence is thoughtful and the implied metaphors left me curious as to what may have happened within this constructed world. The sequence quietly begins with an entrance through the dark shrubs at night. The first character feels as though he’s a ghost from the past, juxtaposed by a discarded bottle on the ground. Condensation shines in the bottle and makes me think of the exoskeleton of a cockroach, recollecting Kafka’s well-known novella, The Metamorphosis. The viewer is led through both a stark interior world, and a minimally framed natural world – the base of a cliff with a shallow, yet ominous cave; the rotting trunk of a tree read from the cockroaches perspective; and finally ending abruptly at a corrugated metal fence where the flash bounces you backwards to the beginning again.” I spoke with Jonas to learn more about his background and work.

Jörg Colberg: Can you talk about your background? Who are you as a photographer, what are your main interests and/or motivations?

Jonas Feige: I like photography because of its inherent contradiction. No matter how abstract or staged a photograph might be, since it is taken with a camera it will always be assumed to at least partially representing reality. But there is so much that goes into making (and publishing) a photograph that it can never be more than an interpretation.

And that’s a great paradox, because it opens up a lot of creative space and the possibility to work with it. It allows us to use photographs not only as documentation but as a means of expression. And it enables the photographer to tell fictional stories or to talk about the future, rather than the past – all that while maintaining the idea that what you see is somehow real – something a painting could not do.

I aim to take photographs that are very clearly taken from the real world and that can be combined into open-ended narratives in order to talk about things you could not express otherwise. I like when things are a little obscure, cryptic and not easily solvable.

JC: Night on the Sun, you say in your short intro to the work, is a phrase “that hints at our inexplicable, arguably meaningless existence.” Can you talk about what motivated you to try to photograph around the idea? Why bother making pictures when it’s all meaningless anyway?

JF: During my studies I actually asked myself that very often. You are of course constantly challenged to come up with ideas for projects that you could realize within a semester or two. I often had a hard time pinning down what I was looking for. Mostly because that question of meaninglessness kept nagging me, and after a while I noticed that it would also find its way into my photography, my motives and aesthetic.

I think the starting point for the series was reading a book that actually tries to answer that exact question. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus talks about the ultimate absurdity of life: If there is no God, no definite answers, and if we are all going to die anyway, what is the point of living? He rejects the idea of suicide, instead saying that we have to accept but also revolt against that contradiction. One way of doing that is by making art, by being a creator and thereby giving life a meaning of your own.

Now this is all very theoretical, and I don’t claim to be a philosopher, but reading that certainly motivated me to ask a different question. So instead of „What are you going to photograph this semester?” it would be „Why photograph at all?” and my pictures would be the answer to that question. It sounds a little sinister but it is actually the opposite. It freed me up and allowed me to not frantically chase after the pictures but to just let them come to me, as cheesy as that sounds.

JC: How would you go photographing then? Wander, and find pictures? And how would you make sense of it all – what the bigger story might be, how to edit…?

JF: Wandering and finding pictures is certainly a big part of it, but it sounds a little too coincidental. For a lot of the motives I had a general idea of what I wanted, and I then figured out where I might go in order to get it.

For example, after a while I knew that I wanted to have some images that talk about traces of mankind in nature, which led to me visiting a salt mine. I wasn’t interested in showing the salt mine as it is, but I assumed that the location might provide me with some unique motives. I don’t usually have an exact image in my head before photographing and when I do, most of the times they end up not being as strong as the ones that just jump at me, surprise me.

This also means collecting a lot of images and constantly editing right from the start, figuring out where your photographs take you and then trying to follow up on that. Pinning down what exactly it is that makes one image stronger than the other and finding common ground between them can be really difficult. That’s probably where most of the actual work lies and I am glad that I had many fellow photographers that I was able to ask for outside perspectives.

I probably changed direction a couple of times throughout the project, but it was very important for me to keep things open right until the end. I always think that when you decide on a concept too early on or when you set up too many rules for yourself, you end up just illustrating preconceived ideas instead of actually discovering something new.

JC: I’m curious about your predominant use of a portrait frame for most of the photographs. It might really not be a very relevant question, but still the framing makes for an interesting dynamic in many of the pictures. Can you talk about that?

JF: I sometimes wonder about it myself, and I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to use it as much as I do. But especially with Nacht auf der Sonne [Night on the Sun] it does enhance the cryptic nature of the motives. With the portrait frame you can really isolate your subject, take it out of context and elevate its importance. It might have to do with the fact that we read things from left to right and that the portrait frame basically cuts off the surroundings, leaving you with very little information about where you are and what you are looking at. I think this can become especially confusing (in a good way!) when you hint at an overall narrative.

JC: Given you have also made books, can you talk about the role they play for you?

JF: The two books I have made have actually first and foremost been ways of finding out where the work is headed. I started making dummies very early in the process and that allowed me to edit and thereby to find out what I was going for right from the start, in parallel to the actual photographing.

Another reason for the books was to steer things in the right direction. As I said, I like to leave a lot of room for interpretation in my work, and I do not want the viewer to accept a predetermined idea. But that does not mean that you can just let go of your images, an open-ended narrative might even be more difficult to tell than a closed one. Online, for example, you don’t have a lot of control over what is going to happen to your photographs, the context or the edit in which they will be presented. A book provides you with that control and really lets you fine-tune your vision.

I only self-published the two books I have made in very small numbers, but it is of course a great experience to have it transformed the pictures into something physical, something that can easily be shared.