Big Brother

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Photography doesn’t deal well with mental states because by construction, the camera only records surfaces. This basic fact is a particular challenge for those aiming to deal with mental illness using photography. Depictions typically oscillate between the two poles of people either looking catatonic or acting out (often violently). However much such expression of a person’s mental state might indeed be what an outsider witnesses, for sure it does the person in question a severe disservice: you don’t have a mental illness (like you have blond hair or brown eyes), you suffer from it.

In fact, any depiction of a person’s mental state can easily become problematic. People suffer or are made to suffer in many places, and the world of photojournalism, for example, has developed a set of cliche approaches to deal with the various situations. In that world, one’s person’s suffering might not be depicted in the same way as another person’s. Obviously, suffering is always an individual feeling, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. A mother losing her child to violence in all likelihood is going to be overwhelmed with the very same sense of grief regardless whether she’s, let’s say, American or Arab. But (Western) photojournalists won’t depict such mothers in the same fashion. The American mother typically will be given a kind of visual dignity — unlike the Arab mother. This poses a huge problem, and discussions around this particular topic unfortunately are only in its infancy.

You could argue that, well, that’s photojournalism with all its various problems. Why do we have to worry about that when dealing with, for example, a long-term documentary project of a particular person suffering from mental illness? We do have to worry about the idea of the cliche here for the same reason as in the case of photojournalism. It’s easy for me to call types of depictions cliches. But the moment a type of depiction becomes ubiquitous while, at the same time, falling short of necessary nuances, then you’re in cliche territory. And unfortunately, photography projects dealing with mental illness all-too-often fall into this particular trap.

I’m writing this article as someone who is personally familiar with mental illness in the form of depression. I have first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to be at times often extremely depressed. I also have seen various attempts to depict depression — moody looking people, bland pictures with a lot of grey tones (Emo Photo 101). I understand the idea behind such depictions. But I can tell you that such depictions don’t even come close to conveying what happens to you when you’re depressed: you don’t merely live in a grey cartoon world.

This all makes attempting to work on mental illness possibly one of the hardest challenges you could imagine. Given the preceding, the only sensible solution that I can think of can only be to be mindful of the pitfalls and to find ways to work around everything that the camera cannot show. A crucial aspect of such an approach probably should be to give voice to the person who is suffering. In all likelihood, you will never be able to convey what they will be feeling, in particular given that that’s already based on your own understanding. But you will have to live with that. And on top of that, everything should be based on an approach filled with dignity, acceptance, and affection — it’s that approach that’s usually entirely missing from photojournalism.

Louis Quail‘s Big Brother is a new book that approaches the subject mental illness in the form of the photographer’s brother’s schizophrenia. Whatever stigma there might exist around depression, for sure schizophrenia is a topic most people would rather not deal with. Where depressed people are mostly “just sad,” people with schizophrenia are… well, what are they? To be honest, I didn’t know, either — until I finished looking through and reading this book.

In the book, Quail takes a multi-layered approach to describe his brother Justin and their relationship. In addition, there is a third person, the brother’s long-term partner (who also suffers from various afflictions). On top of everything, there’s society in the form of neighbours who don’t — or maybe can’t — understand and who thus create all kinds of problems. And there is the state, a state ruled by a mindset that basically cuts funding for mental health (and health in general), only to thus shift the responsibility for dealing with problems from trained mental-health specialists to the police who obviously aren’t trained to deal with this whatsoever.

Quail introduces all these different characters in some form. The photographs focus on the brother and his partner. The text — there is ample text — speaks of various aspects that either cannot be shown or for which there simply are no photographs. In line with strategies now commonly used in photobooks, there are facsimiles of documents. But, and this is the key aspect here, there also are reproductions of Justin Quail’s poems and artworks (drawings and paintings), including a little booklet at the very end of the book.

Much of the portrait of the brother focuses on his life and not merely on his illness. Justin Quail is an avid bird watcher, and this activity is explored in some depth. He also is just a good guy and brother whose mental illness interferes with what otherwise would simply be an ordinary life. Justin Quail is trying to lead an ordinary life, just like the rest of us, but his illness won’t let him. This is the main insight I took away from this tremendous book.

Most of us even know that defining someone by or through an affliction they have to deal with does them a huge disservice. So we ought to be careful with that. But do we really know why? If I look at all the discussions around the phrase “political correctness,” then both on the right and the left, the idea that it’s just some sort of artifice to stifle people’s freedom of expression appears to be widely spread — even in circles where you’d think people know better (yes, I’m looking at you, photoland).

So Big Brother not only does an amazing job bringing the life and suffering of Justin Quail closer to a general audience, it indirectly also teaches us why we should be careful with how we talk about people, especially people whose afflictions we simply don’t (can’t) comprehend. Lastly, though, the book is testament to deep brotherly love, evidence what dignity, acceptance and affection can lead to — a marvelous achievement.

Highly recommended.

Big Brother; photographs and text by Louis Quail; artworks and poems by Justin Quail; 196 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2018

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 4.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.9

And Time Folds

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There is a photograph by Vanessa Winship that I could not live with, whose presence in my home would probably challenge me too much on a daily basis. It’s a photograph from she dances on jackson, and it shows a young couple (thankfully, the book has now been reissued; I reviewed the book in 2013).

That they are a boy and a girl or — almost — a man and a woman is barely betrayed by the shapes of their bodies, their hair, or their faces. They’re very young. The passing of time has not yet etched ravines of discontentment into their skins: they’re not quite aware of what the future might hold. They both meet the camera’s mechanical gaze straight on, looking into and beyond its lens, the girl being more self-assured than the boy. Her left eye’s brow is slightly raised, as if to assert some sort of autonomy, some sort of knowing what lies ahead. But they don’t know. We all don’t know — so how would they?

Here is what gets me about this photograph: There are this young couple’s hands. It is partly the hands and what they do with them that has me not wanting to live with the picture. It would be too much.

 

To begin with, the boy and girl hold hands, her right and his left hand clasping each other, the two young bodies drawn towards each other. The fingers are not interlocking. But they’re holding each other, and they do so tightly. The position and orientation of their bodies stresses this embrace: we two belong together. To affirm that stance, the girl’s left hand rests very lightly on and against the boy’s chest, grasping his t-shirt in the lightest possible way: there’s a fold running down the shirt, and she has that fold running in between her index and middle finger, her thumb asserting just a little pressure. It’s gentle gesture of possessiveness. You are mine. I really like and care about you. In contrast, the boy’s remaining free hand, his right, is left to merely hang next to his body. There’s an animal skin — a fox’s? — wrapped around his wrist, a symbol, possibly an expression, of wildness, a wildness which, however, is more a desire than a reality.

In an obvious sense, this photograph speaks of young love, of two young people having met and now clinging to each other. But there also are elements of doubt and uncertainty in the photograph, which I see as not only concerning the future of their relationship (this too shall pass?) but the future in general. It is that doubt that gets me. I know I have some grasp on the future — less than I’d like, though. But I don’t know if I would want to be exposed to that fact every day. It’s not even that knowing it makes me uncomfortable.  It’s also that I wouldn’t want this discomfort to become part of the daily decorations I am surrounded with.

If I had to describe Winship’s art it would probably center on the idea outlined above: it’s very gently outlining some very hard truths. she dances on jackson has none of the machismo that run through so many America road-trip projects, Robert Frank’s The Americans being the most obvious example. There is nothing particularly wrong with the machismo per se; Frank’s work clearly derives its power from it. At the same time, it is that very machismo that is partly responsible for making The Americans a dead end for this particular photographer, a dead end from which he never managed to extricate himself (the other part being provided by his biography).

As a countermodel of The Americans, she dances on jackson offers a different perspective of what the American road trip could be, a somewhat amorphous and very powerful sense of dread and sadness. It might be just a tad too convenient to conclude that Winship’s biography informed this result, with her father’s ill health hanging over the trip. Ultimately, she had to return home, cutting short her trip, to be with him when he died just a few days after her return. When I first saw the book, I sensed something might have been afoot, but I didn’t know. Still, the book did and does feel very Winshipian, and what that means — Winshipian — can now be seen in the catalog that accompanies a retrospective at Barbican Art Gallery (obviously, it can also be seen in the show by those able to visit), And Time Folds.

The book reveals Winship’s particular sensitivity, that very gentle outlining of hard truths I spoke of earlier, just as much as her not standing still as an artist. In fact, the different projects are actually quite varied, with a range of approaches, some bordering on photojournalism while others are incredibly still. Yet these different photographic approaches notwithstanding, there is the photographer’s sensitivity that keeps shining through. More often than not she seems to be drawn to those who still have their future ahead of them, as if to show her audience that the very same is true for all of us. Of course, this is a trite statement, but its triteness doesn’t mean it’s any less true: from tomorrow — or maybe even from now on — I can be a better, a different person.

Set against this very basic and simple idea are depictions of what surrounds us, the often harsh landscapes and dilapidated hellscapes we call our cities. Those are “easy” to photograph. But it is the adding of the very different human element that brings forth this particular photographer’s voice, a voice that, as I noted above, differs from the still so prevalent machismo in the world of photography.

Over the past years, it has become overabundantly obvious that the range of voices we are being able to view have to expand beyond the usual Western white males. I’ve said this before, and I will do so again here: there is something to be gained from doing that for all of us. We need more voices that speak of the human condition beyond the often angry white male’s. We need to be able to see what can be gained from being able to listen — especially now that our larger cultural and societal fabric has become so torn as a consequence of the aggressive, angry white male exploiting and degrading our democracies.

Thus, And Time Folds is a timely book not just for a history of photography that begs to be more inclusive. It also is a book that shows us a different approach to describing some of the world’s biggest problems. These problems are being caused by people. There is much to gain from looking at and engaging with them.

Highly recommended.

And Time Folds; photographs by Vanessa Winship; essay by David Chandler; 256 pages; MACK; 2018

(not rated)

Human

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Leave it to Gábor Arion Kudász to photograph the relevance of the humble brick and make it interesting. After all, how or why should anyone care about bricks? Conceptually, though, this object isn’t only one of the oldest and most important human artifacts, it specifically has ties to both the human scale itself and to the homes many people live in. Those considerations would have less inventive artists produce a dreadfully tedious and boring project. But the Hungarian photographer is sufficiently steeped in a humanistic tradition to be fully aware of this pitfall and to circumvent it by considering the truly human aspect: bricks are still produced involving a lot of hard manual labour, and everybody has aspirations of having or possibly owning their own home.

I have been following this project ever since Kudász showed me the first pictures while I was on a visit to Budapest. Later, he was one of the winners of the Portfolio Competition that was run on this site for a decade. To find out more about the artist’s background, thinking, and project there’s an interview I did with him in early 2017. And now, there’s Human, the book, that’s a bit harder to locate online than it should be (at the time of this writing, there appear to be copies available here, here, and possibly here — you might have to email the latter; please don’t email me, I only know Google search results).

You could take Human as a perfect example of how to give a project its right and proper shape in the form of a book. It uses all the bells and whistles available without ever going overboard. My only minor complaint would be the artist’s insistence in mimicking the printing in old technical manuals — I don’t think this fully supports the work (and if you’re unfamiliar with such manuals, you won’t pick up on it). But that’s really just a minor gripe. Everything else is simply stunningly beautiful.

The book takes the viewer through the aforementioned ideas without ever feeling or looking didactic (which would have been that huge pitfall here). There’s a surprising variety of photographs, which allows for the inclusion of images that simply on their own would fall flat. And there is that human aspect of the work that’s so important, the grimy and brutal hand work, the aspirations of a home… I didn’t think the book would allow me to discover a lot more in the work (which I had seen, in all kinds of variations, many times). But it did.

Printed in a relatively small edition, unfortunately the book is almost sold out. I’m usually not too eager to review books that are sold out (or very close to it). As much as I like to give credit where credit is due, I also feel queasy about a photobook market that all-too-often is interested in the commodity more than the enjoyment it can provide. But when I last met him, Kudasz confided in me that he was considering a second edition. So this article isn’t merely a review. It’s also a plea to the artist to produce that second edition as quickly as possible. Rayon Vert and Human are by far the best photobooks I have seen in a long while, and it would be a shame if one (or both) were not available for a larger audience.

Highly recommended.

Human; photographs by Gábor Arion Kudász; 78 pages; self-published; 2018

Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 5.0