Migration as Avant-Garde

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Some of the world’s most virulent anti-migration populists originate from countries that without migration wouldn’t exist in their current forms, let’s say Hungary under Orban or the US under Trump. In fact, if you erased all forms of migration from history books, you’d end up with a book filled with blank pages — or rather, history would look a lot different, with homo sapiens never leaving Africa (who knows what might have happened elsewhere).

Some of culture’s most beloved heroes were also migrants (or refugees or both), such as Chopin who was born in Poland (another country currently ruled by such populists) but worked in Paris or the entirety of the US’ so-called Founding Fathers. Photography itself would be unthinkable without the contributions by migrants/refugees. For example, André Kertész was born in Hungary and migrated not just once, but twice. Robert Capa was born as Endre Friedmann, also in Hungary, before he essentially followed Kertész’s trail, albeit for different reasons. Robert Frank was born in Switzerland but his claim to fame is not called The Swiss but The Americans. Walter Benjamin who wasn’t a photographer but whose writing about photography still is very widely read wasn’t as fortunate. Attempting to escape Nazi troops (he was Jewish), he committed suicide at the French-Spanish border in 1940. Thus, in light of its own history the world of photography has every reason to be particularly sensitive to the plight of migrants or refugees.

Of course, migration is notoriously hard to photograph because it is a symptom of a complex set of circumstances that play out in at least two locations at the same time, a migrant’s (or refugee’s) place of origin (home) and the place s/he hopes to reach (a new or at least temporary home). Most photography I am aware of centers on the actual process of migration, with often vast groups of people moving on foot, crossing or attempting to cross borders. That obviously makes for good fodder for photojournalism (at the time of this writing, John Moore’s photo of the crying refugee girl from Honduras is nominated for a World Press Photo trophy). Almost inevitably, though, these photographs don’t get at any at of the larger underlying issues, nor do they actually help fix anything (“Since the Trump administration announced it would end its practice of separating families apprehended at the southern border last June under its ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy, at least 245 children have been separated from their parents, according to a new court filing.” reported CNN on 12 February 2019).

On their artier side of things, the technological overkill produced by Richard Mosse won the artist a Prix Pictet. Since I finally saw the video installation last year, I have even more concerns about the work than when I wrote about the book. Before that (and way before the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants/refugees in Europe), Henk Wildschut had approached the topic by photographing a large migrant camp in Northern France (there’s an updated version as well). These examples aren’t intended to fully cover how photographers have been attempting to deal with migration. The topic is quite old, and one can easily find a lot of older examples (such as, for example, Jim Goldberg’s Open See — which also won one of those awards, or the now curiously overlooked  The Seventh Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr).

And then yet another migrant project won an award, the 2018 Kassel Dummy Award, in the form of Michael Danner‘s Migration as Avant-Garde. So I had a peek. Obviously, the worst way to look at many photography projects is to visit the website. I’m using the word “obviously” here, even though the book had to actually remind me of what I should have kept in mind. On the website, the pictures are presented as a hodgepodge of the types of photographs that many artists produce these days. That fact, plus the title, had me on edge, because if anything migrants or refugees ought not to be fodder for any photographer’s attempt to produce something overly arty.

It was seeing and experiencing the book that made me realize the value of the work. To begin with, the book demonstrated what can be gained from organizing photographs into this type of linear form that a viewer holds in her or his hands. This is an obvious statement, but pictures that shouldn’t be seen next to each other won’t be seen that way in a book. In addition, the overall organization of the visual material allows for a structure that helps communicate the intent. Most importantly, though, there are quotes by Hannah Arendt interspersed in the book, herself a refugee at some stage. These quotes give voice to the migrant/refugee experience and, crucially, they provide the context within which the book’s title itself can be understood.

Migration as Avant-Garde attempts to cover the topic at hand from as large a variety of angles as possible, while avoiding the kind of visual fodder that dominates the news and that is so useless to understand anything. The pictures that on the website look so much like New Formalism exercises merge into the overall story, adding elements of visual delight as much as distancing (in the Brechtian sense). The fortress that Europe has constructed at its edges becomes clearly visible. It is the very last section, though, photographs of people who the viewer is made to think underwent the trek to Europe (there is no text) that really seals the deal (their names and origins are given by the artist in the afterword). They are shown as fully-formed individuals who possess as much a sense of personal agency as everybody else (contrast this with the way both photojournalists and artists like Richard Mosse visually dehumanize migrants/refugees to focus solely on photographic or artistic effect).

Obviously, the Kassel book festival has a lot less visitors than the various venues where World Press Photo pictures are being shown, and the same is true for photobook stores (where they in fact exist). It’s too bad that John Moore’s photograph of the crying girl will be seen by a lot more people than Michael Danner’s thoughtful exploration of what migration might really mean. That’s the fate of photography as art versus photography as news fodder/news click bait. But maybe the book will find itself in the hands of just the right people to serve as a starting point for discussions about not only what art can do, but also — and in this context especially — how slowing down and allowing for more nuance is something our societies desperately need. We owe that to ourselves as much — or maybe even more — as to those who reach our shores, often for the most desperate of reasons.

Migration as Avant-Garde; photographs by Michael Danner; text by Hannah Arendt; 120 pages; Verlag Kettler; 2019

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

Showcaller: The Politics of Looking

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One of my biggest photography related pet peeves is most artists’ and critics’ unwillingness or inability to take images made outside of the very narrow confines of photoland seriously. If you listened only to the chatter inside photoland I think you’d be very surprised once you visited Instagram or got exposed to any of the many other ways in which photographs have become a prominent feature of everyday life. Photographs are now routinely used to communicate a large variety of often incredibly mundane messages, messages that despite their being mundane still have a power that, let’s face it, most artists can only dream of in their own work.

Of course, you dismiss the richness of photography outside of the photoland cloisters at your own risk. This fact was demonstrated last year by Anika Meier‘s exhibition Virtual Normality, which focused on a number of young female artists in dialogue with not only everyday ways of sharing pictures but also with societal restrictions and taboos that still play out in the larger public sphere (even though in principle, Instagram is not a public sphere, much like Facebook it de facto has become one).

Along these lines, Talia Chetrit‘s photographs also stand in dialogue with both public and private pictures, the former ones being those widely and openly seen and discussed, the latter privately seen and if discussed then only in private settings (or in news reports about sexting blackmail, say). As already noted above, I have long been fascinated by these two spheres, by their interaction or overlap, and by the (intellectual and actual) prudishness with which most of photoland approaches that overlap.

In her essay in Showcaller, the newly released catalog of Chetrit’s work, Sahra Motalebi spells this overlap out as follows: “Any of our phones holds private directories of our workplaces, family, enemies, parties, items for sale online, other artist’s work, but also, possibly, of our genitalia, and those of others.” This simple statement has considerable power. In this particular context, I believe it allows for a fuller understanding and appreciation of what is on view in the catalog, namely many photographs that in possibly less photographically competent ways might exist in many people’s phones.

Placed into the context of photoland, there exist a variety of artists that are referenced in the photographs, ranging from Barbara Probst to Janice Guy to Izima Kaoru (the latter in the for me least interesting pictures in the book, older work in which Chetrit poses as a murder victim). There would be considerable insight gained from just that context, especially in light of the ideas around which Virtual Normality centered and which are explained much better in that catalog than I could do it here.

But as already noted, there also is that escape into the larger world of photographs, an escape that might not exist for much longer, given that photoland — much like capitalism itself — tends to annex (and then commodify) everything that successfully escapes its cloisters’ walls eventually. This escape here centers on female sexuality and agency, and the latter of inevitably is tethered to aspects of power (again, see Virtual Normality for other examples).

If, as still is the case, men live by different rules concerning their representation — regardless of whether or not they’re the ones taking their own picture, then demanding that the very same rights should also apply for every other member of society is a political — feminist — act, which just happens to manifest itself partly through what I suppose would be called sexually explicit photographs.

This brings to mind another reference, Jemima Stehli who explored some of these aspects in different ways (e.g. see this interview). But it also brings to mind Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who became a feminist icon in her native Egypt during the brief Arab Spring and who now lives in Sweden (with Egypt having become a military dictatorship yet again; see this article).

It’s crazy that thirty years after Barbara Kruger produced her seminal image (Untitled) Your Body is a Battleground, it is just as relevant today (if not even more). That shouldn’t be the case. But it is. And with photographs having become a means of communicating at least somewhat publicly for much larger segments of society, the struggle has become ever more visible, ever more pressing, one image on Instagram that supposedly violates their “community guidelines” at a time.

I personally believe that photographs on their own are completely meaningless. Photographs only acquire meaning in context. Their meaning is then negotiated by those perceiving them while the acts of making/selecting and then placing them acts serve as catalysts. In other words, photographs are made by people, and they’re made for people: photography is a form of politics. Photoland — especially the “art” section with its gigantic, buffoonish pretenses — is awfully good at concealing this basic fact.

Sexuality and agency, power (or its denial thereof), observation — all of these aspects are touched upon in Talia Chetrit’s Showcaller, and all of them are of extreme relevance today. The catalog thus focuses on the politics of looking, a politics that plays itself out daily on millions of small screens. Much like Virtual Normality, it elevates what runs the risk of becoming atomized on those small screens to a larger stage.

Showcaller; photographs by Talia Chetrit; essays by Sahra Motalebi, Ruba Katrib, Moritz Wesseler; MACK; 2019

(not rated)

Photography in India

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“The erroneous understanding of anthropology coupled with the deeply problematic way in which the subject is rendered, as well as the speed at which it was digested by Western audiences, sets the tone for much of the way early photographs made in India functioned.” This sentence, taken from the description of the very first photograph that is discussed in detail in Nathaniel Gaskell and Diva Gujral‘s Photography in India, sets the stage not only for what the reader is going to encounter time and again in the book, it also explicitly spells out how photography from its earliest days was a medium filled with huge problems, most of which have not gone away 180 years later.

Photography’s dark side is curiously underexplored. Its being a willing handmaiden in humanity’s worst excesses, some of which cost millions of people their lives, is known to academics and some critics and artists. However, for the most part this aspect of photography’s history continues to be glossed over with silence, resulting in discussions of, for example, the Other often being led from perspectives of curious ignorance.

Seen this way, Gaskell and Gujral’s decision to write Photography in India and not Indian Photography makes sense in more ways than one. To begin with, photography in India cannot be understood without the work produced there by people not native to the country — first the colonizers, later visiting artists some of which have been delivering neocolonial fantasies (more of this later). Indian photographers, in other words, cannot escape working in an environment whose visual understanding in the West to a large extent has been shaped by foreigners.

At the same time, while the book focuses on photography made in and about India, its themes apply in some variation also to many other countries, in particular if they were at some stage also colonized by Western powers. I’m not sure this is a situation that can be understood easily by most Westerners, a situation where your own history and culture have already been told in a very simplified, distorted, and demeaning manner by people who clearly didn’t (and often still don’t) know and/or care to do better (imagine signing up on some social network, and there’s already your profile with all kinds of demeaning and nasty stuff set up by other people, none of which you can change).

The photograph from whose description the sentence above was taken is not the first image in the book, but it’s the first one discussed in detail. It’s such a ghastly picture, though, that it might take the viewer a while to be able to read the text. Entitled Andamanese group with their keeper Mr Homfray (1865) and produced in the studio of John Edward Saché and W.F. Westfield (in then Calcutta), it shows Mr Homfray (fully dressed) and seven Andamanese people (naked), with the latter curiously arranged around the former. When I first saw it, it took my breath away (but not in a good way). It’s a very violent picture, and the violence is structural. It’s an image of oppression.

A different type of oppression, albeit one most Westerners will be more oblivious of, is given space a few chapters into the book as “The New Exotic.” Here, some of photography’s (supposed) greats are revealed as perpetuating what I usually think of as a neocolonial fantasy. In the authors’ words: “the photographs fix India in a designated past, a ‘there and then’, out of which its inhabitants cannot escape.” The photographer — whether Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marc Riboud, Don McCullin, or Steve McCurry — here becomes “a sort of time traveller who, in photographing India, appears to reach into the past in order to bring an ‘authentic’ India to light.”

Obviously, Photography in India not only focuses on the visual abuse the country has suffered at the hands of colonial or neocolonial photographers. There is ample work included by non-Indian artists that has much to offer, and of course there are many Indian photographers featured whose names might not be very well known (yet). Dayanita Singh and Raghubir Singh both recently became known in the West. One can only hope that many of the other artists featured in the book will be lifted out of their obscurity in the West.

The reader/viewer will inevitably gravitate towards what s/he most strongly responds to. I found myself mesmerized by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew‘s An Indian from India, Ketaki Sheth, Sohrab Hura. Of course, there also are the photographs from Suresh Punjabi’s Studio Suhag, even though there I’m torn between my own delight coming across the photographs and my concern over their own becoming a bit too much of a spectacle for the possibly wrong reasons (as always, your mileage might vary).

All of this makes Photography in India a book that anyone seriously interested in photography might not want to walk past. It crucially pulls back the curtain that still conceals too much of the medium’s horrible past and its ongoing contemporary abuses, while opening a large variety of views of a complex country (that has more inhabitants than the US and Europe combined).

I’m hoping that the approach used for and in the book will be emulated should other authors decide to approach other countries whose reception and photographic treatment in the West has been equally problematic.

Highly recommended.

The Last Image: Photography and Death

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It’s probably a fair statement to say that most Western societies have developed rather unhealthy ways of dealing with the most basic biological parts of our lives. People are born and die, and they are born after people have sex. Most aspects of this very basic and natural process remain hidden, usually either not to be talked about or when talked about then either in code (for example, “passing on” instead of “dying”) or in often grotesquely distorted ways (such as in the case of pornography). We are, after all, fascinated by all of that — despite (and in part because of) the vast set of stigmas and codes created around it.

As is always the case, the world of photography neatly reflects this situation. For example, a little while ago, the New York Times published a photograph of a Kenyan man who had been shot and killed in a terrorist attack. Other news outlets had published the picture as well, but with its own tone-deaf grandstanding, the Times asked for the response it received: “African victims of atrocities such as yesterday often get their death displayed for consumption with little to no regard for their privacy or the grief of their family members” James Siguru Wahutu was quoted in a BBC article about the incident.

Photographs of the dead, in other words, are firmly located in the world of taboos. How a newspaper deals with them exposes the concerns of the society it is embedded in. In the case of the New York Times, this includes both the taboo of publishing such pictures as well as denying other societies the same rights. What makes this Times case so instructive is not merely the implied neo-colonial attitude (which, granted, is problematic enough). It also points at a more basic fact concerning such photographs.

Photographs of the dead are deeply fascinating for people. But that fascination splits into two separate components for anyone who is intimately related to who is depicted and for everybody else (by intimately related I here mean either family members or close friends). A photograph of a dead person almost inevitably strikes terror in the heart of the beholder. If as a beholder you’re intimately related to the depicted there also is the vast loss experience and felt — feelings that are inaccessible for everybody else. It is this aspect of such photographs that Roland Barthes famously wrote about in Camera Lucida, starting out with a photograph of his dead mother.

An exhibition at C/O Berlin entitled Das Letzte Bild (The Last Image) — deftly curated by Felix Hoffmann — brings together a large variety of images to look deeply into how photography has been used to deal with death ever since the medium was invented (the exhibition is on view until 9 March 2019). Please note that for this article I’m working off the marvelous catalog published by Spector.

In fact, even if you can see the exhibition itself, you might want to spend time with the catalog. In addition to presenting the photographs, it features a plethora of insightful essays by a variety of authors about aspects of the exhibition, often centering on specific examples. What is more, I suspect that the experience of looking at the book will be vastly different. While this is usually the case for images on a wall versus on a page, here it is the very nature of the photographs in question that amplifies the difference.

During the 19th Century, a time when mortality rates were vastly higher than they are now, it was common to have a photographer take a final image of a deceased loved one (who more often than not might still be a young child). This practice might strike many people today as strange if not outright weird, but it is still being performed today (this — German language — article profiles a photographer who specializes in taking pictures of stillborn babies). I personally know photographers who took pictures of dead loved ones in funeral homes.

While death and the idea of the macabre are by construction related, they needn’t be addressing the same thing, or rather person. Death might be death, but the death of a loved one is always an entirely different entity to deal with than the death of a stranger. I suspect that if we were to ever be able to cross that divide as humans, things might take a turn for the vastly better on this planet (don’t hold your breath, though).

As The Last Image shows there exists a depressing archive of photographs made at the occasion of death meted out at people, whether during times of war or otherwise. While I find it hard to comprehend how someone could become a killer, I know that if the history of humanity teaches us anything, it’s that pretty much anyone can become one. But the ease with which people not only can become killers or active or passive bystanders for me isn’t remotely as disturbing as people’s documented willingness to have visual records, in which they are willing if not eager to appear, either as killers or as bystanders.

It’s not quite the same thing, but seeing the lynching photographs in The Last Image is as deeply unsettling to me as is coming across a well respected photojournalist posting a photograph of a dead person’s face on Instagram to essentially brag about his bravado (no need to point this particular case out — at the time of this writing, it’s from a week ago). Maybe these kinds of photographs need to be taken, and maybe they need to be shown in newspapers (these two aspects are deserving of further discussions). But for sure they should not be presented in pretty much the same way as those of hunters posing with dead animals (as always, your mileage might vary).

Unlike Barthes in Camera Lucida, when I look at photographs of dead people my focus become the dead and those responsible for their death, whether actively or passively. Of course, death might be caused by old age, illness, or some misfortune. But often enough, death arrives in the form of a human hand pressing some form of trigger. State-sanctioned killing disturbs me as much as outright murder, regardless of whether the sanctioning happens beforehand (war time) or after the fact (such as when someone who killed in obviously cold blood is acquitted in the courts).

Photographs might be viewed as documents, but they always are a lot more. As I wrote a few years ago, the act of photographing is an affirmation of one’s presence. But in many cases of death, it can also become an act of acquiescence, if not an act of open support (such as in the case of lynching photographs).

So photographs of death are as much about the dead as they are about those who are not — those who might be responsible for a death, those who might be bystanders, those who have lost a loved one… (or any combination of these). And, of course, much like all photographs they’re also about and for those looking at the pictures, the people who will respond to someone having pointed her or his camera at the dead.

More than anything, The Last Image can — maybe should — make us more aware of our own involvement, which ultimately also ties in with the fact that a stranger’s death is never the same for us as a loved one’s. Photography has a strange power of externalizing its viewers’ involvement (much like how in the world of business costs can be externalized and thus made to essentially disappear beyond the horizon). This is what makes it so easy to write tone-deaf and self-aggrandizing justifications for making or showing pictures of carnage for or in a newspaper, or it explains why after seeing all these photographs of death and destruction there still is no end in sight.

This is not to say that at any point in time photographs will have the power to change the world. If anything, they might change us viewers, and it’s then up to us to change the world. To change the world, we will have to recognize what is at stake for all of us, a task that is simultaneously made easier and harder by photography. Photographs might show us death, yet as I already noted they allow us to externalize possible reasons even further (which might include our own involvement, however indirect it might be).

So The Last Image ought to make us look not only at the dead and at all of the horror responsible for such vast parts of it, it also ought to make us look at how photography has the power to point out our own being connected to what is on display. At the very least, one fact is certain: one day, we’re all going to die. Maybe that’s why there’s a reflective band of material inserted into the black cloth of the catalog: the first things we’ll see are our own faces.