Paula Markert’s voyage across Germany

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The most recent prominent German court case dealing with large-scale domestic terrorism spanned four years. Unlike the cases from the 1970s and 80s, this one did not focus on a left-wing terror organization. This time, the defendant was the sole survivor of a group that had called themselves National Socialist Underground (NSU), responsible for a string of 10 murders. The case was remarkable for a variety of reasons, one of the most important ones being that for the longest time, authorities hadn’t been concerned with terrorism at all. Of the ten victims, only one had been not of originally Turkish or Greek origin. In all the other cases, authorities had suspected all kinds of reasons for the murders, many of them connected to their own blatantly racist biases.

In an article in the weekly Die Zeit, journalist Özlem Topçu noted that the long duration of the case notwithstanding, it had been worth it. There had been clear evidence how the trio had had deep ties to Germany’s far-right underground and was thus no conveniently isolated group. Topçu wrote: “And other ugly things have been brought to light: the failure and falsehoods of some intelligence services and investigating authorities. Their partly questionable working methods and their attitude towards the victims.” (my translation)

This is tough stuff, especially in light of a far-right party now sitting in the national parliament, the Bundestag, or with the head of one of the federal intelligence services being removed from his post after he questioned the obvious existence of far-right violence in an East German city. Said far-right party calls itself Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and German history aptly demonstrates what such an alternative path might lead to.

So there is obvious concern about the open emergence of far-right voices in Germany. But as the NSU case demonstrated, that concern does not appear to be quite as widely shared to the right of the country’s political center or by some of the people in charge of upholding the constitutional rights of all its citizens — and not just the ones the AfD considers as the real Germans.

How can you tell such a story with pictures? Well, you can’t, or rather you can’t tell the story with pictures alone. When you open Paula Markert‘s A Journey through Germany. The NSU Serial Murders, the first thing you’ll see are the names of the ten victims, the dates of their murders given under their names. If you’re curious whether there is something contained in the folded cover (the book uses what is commonly referred to as Swiss binding), there is a dedication against a blood-red background: “In remembrance of the victims of the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU).” (the book is fully bilingual German/English — here, I’m only quoting the English text) And then you might notice that the cover contains more than merely an image of what looks like a German court room: the book’s title is embossed.

I find the use of these devices not only effective but also entirely appropriate. In fact, not even just appropriate but also morally necessary — especially in light of the suffering of the families of the nine victims with migrant backgrounds. After all, this is as much their story as their adopted home country’s. To insist on a separation between the two would only serve to create that gap that serves as the foundation of the racist völkisch thinking of the AfD and other far-right organizations.

So how is the story being told? It’s a combination of photographs that work along the lines of Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site plus portraits plus added text. Unlike in Sternfeld’s case, the captions for the photographs are listed in the back of the book and not right next to the pictures. In addition, there is a variety of texts interspersed with the photographs throughout the book, including extracts from legal texts, court protocols, newspaper reports etc. The separation of the captions from the photographs allows for a space to open up, where the sheer malleability of photography helps tell part of the story.

After all, for many years, the NSU was going about their killing spree without the dots being connected. A photograph of a piece of forest might show the location where a victim was found, but as a viewer you only know that if you’re being told; and even after you know, nothing in the pictures indicates that what you’re looking at is in fact what you’re looking at. This is, in other words, where photographs separate from the world they’re taken in and become something else entirely.

The viewer will thus become broadly acquainted with the story through the Foreword in the book. But the lack of the kind of information later provided in the captions adds an additional charge to the photographs: you know that each picture must mean something in the overall story, you just don’t quite know (yet) what. It’s an effective way of storytelling that makes part of the book positively uncanny. It also produces an emotional charge that involves the viewer in a story that in all likelihood they might not have any direct relationship with.

The book thus is a form of documentary that refuses to be too documentary, that, in other words, is happy with uncertainty seeping in, with viewers being able to feel something that cannot be expressed in words or pictures.


A Journey through Germany. The NSU Serial Murders; photographs by Paula Markert; text fragments from various sources; 112 pages; Hartmann Books; 2019

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.5, Edit 3.0, Production 3.0 – Overall 3.6

家族 – A Fragmented Response to Masahisa Fukase’s Family

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I can’t look at 家族 (kazoku – family) without my ideas of family in mind, in particular my tortured relationship to some of its members. To pretend that I could look at these photographs of a father-son relationship without any of that weight would be a travesty.

I’m intensely drawn to these photographs as much as I am revulsed by aspects of many of them. I’m tempted to think that this is what makes good photographs. But I will admit that having thought about this idea for a while I’m not so sure any longer. It is, however, what makes photography interesting for me.

I don’t believe for a moment that the pictures in the book are a project in anything other than the loosest sense. I never believed this, even without knowing the dates of the pictures. As much as I have been enjoying seeing them, they always struck me as fragmented. Maybe that fragmentation gets at a larger truth of family.

Various of these photographs contain elements of cruelty. Whatever you might think of Masahisa Fukase, I will deny that you can think of him without such an element of cruelty. I’m somewhat tempted to think that I understand part of the impetus that might have produced the (photographic) cruelty, but I am not willing to accept this interpretation as an excuse. As a photographer, I don’t think I could employ my own cruelty to make pictures. This might make me a bad photographer (in the eyes of those who cherish seeing cruelty in pictures), but that’s a price I’m willing to happily pay – both as a photographer and (first and foremost) as a human being.

That said, the photograph of Fukase and his clearly ailing father (plate 29) is a masterpiece. It is cruel. The old man looks terribly frail, while the younger man’s gaze appears to cherish the power he is being granted by the camera and also by his father who has submitted to that. The submission could have arisen in a variety of ways – we have no way of knowing. The old man was a studio photographer for many years, and I’m refusing to believe that the knowledge of what a camera can do would have left his mind completely by the time the picture was taken. There is a slight smile in his expression – maybe a hint of that knowledge/acknowledgement. Fukase’s essay informs me that back in the day, he was well known for his ability to “prettify his shots, to straighten people’s noses, firm up their mouths and level up their shoulders”. That is a form of benevolent cruelty – make people see themselves in their pictures the way nobody would see them in real life (the fact that in a society such as Japan’s nobody would say this doesn’t change a thing). There’s more to the picture, though, given it’s just the father and son, surrounded by nobody else: there’s just so much space around them: They’re close, and they aren’t. They’re separated by so much.

“I was terrified of my father as a child. He had an extremely short temper, and he would fly into rages at the slightest thing.” (Masahisa Fukase, afterword to 家族, p. 85f. in this MACK reissue)

Coming back to that picture (plate 29), the cruelty isn’t so much the depiction of the frail man’s body, it’s the posture and the knowing glance by the son holding his father, holding his frail father in place. The old man is made to sit. I didn’t know this when I first looked at the picture, but when I read what Fukase wrote about his relationship to his father as a child it all made perfect sense. This photograph is some serious pay back.

Speaking of pay back – in advance or as you go, of the various female props used by Fukase, his wife Yōko stands out the most. In the larger-group pictures, her place is at the left side, at the edge, and much like her peers, she is allowed to only wear what I learned is a traditional undergarment for women (koshimaki). In effect, she is naked, and it is only said garment and her long flowing hair that allows for some form of modesty. Her gaze is very confrontational in the way the gazes of all the other extra women are not. Even in the picture with her husband (plate 23) she looks very unhappy. If someone had told me that she would divorce her husband after I had seen the pictures I would have totally believed it. Truth be told, I knew that she did just that, but I only learned about her identity in those pictures from the captions. So there’s more cruelty – in all the photographs of the extras, it’s only the wife (ex-wife when the book was originally published) that looks profoundly discontented.

Fukase “once drunkenly stabbed Yōko in the back with a kitchen knife.” (Philip Charrier — ‘Becoming a Raven’: Self-Representation, Narration, and Metaphor in Fukase Masahisa’s ‘Karasu’ Photographs, Japanese Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2. September 2009, p.219)

Coming back to why I don’t believe that this was in fact a project: it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like pictures of convenience, albeit a convenience that was very inconvenient in the moment when each picture was taken. The dates from the book support my idea. Nineteen seventy one, 72, 74, a huge gap, 85… This is just too convenient. The 1985 ones would almost seem like an idea picked back up from ten years earlier. This is not to invalidate the idea of the book; it’s just that I don’t buy Fukase’s packaging.

The variations on the themes, the different family photographs have me engaged. There clearly is the idea of exploding the boundaries of the official, expected studio photograph through the addition of elements alien to it, whether it’s the dress (or lack thereof) of the extras or their behaviour. The naked young woman striking a ridiculous pose from 1972 (plate 9 – she is referred to as “K., an actor”) is the most extreme example and possibly the most failing one. There is the question of how much is too much, how much, in other words, one would have to break through and out of the conventions of what an official family portrait might look like. In a sense, having that added visitor might be enough, but then in all cases it’s a young (attractive) woman, and does one really need that kind of device? I’m not sure.

“In 1973 an exasperated Yōko wrote about Fukase’s dramatic mood swings in Camera Mainichi and said that he inhabited a kind of personal hell which made it impossible for him to see beyond himself.” (Charrier, p.220)

The following statement by Michiko Kasahara, at the time Chief Curator at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, easily applies to Fukase as well: ‘For better or worse, we are able to glimpse the Showa-period male’s concept of women and view on life and death running throughout Araki’s body of work.” (Michiko Kasahara — Captive Araki, in: Araki Nobuyoshi — Sentimental Journey 1971-2017-, HeHe, 2017, p.255)

Two plates (18 and 19) stand out in that they feel very different. Well, they are very different. They were made by Fukase as i-ei, as photographs to be used at the sitter’s funerals (a Japanese custom). One (18), the one of the father, does indeed appear later (in plates 32 and 33), much like another such photograph (probably not taken by Fukase) does, one of a young girl, a niece of the photographer’s, who died aged 5. These i-ei and their uses are interesting in a variety of ways: they speak of what some photographs mean for us as human beings.

However much the sitters are made to clown around in the pictures, the young girl’s i-ei always faces the camera. It is as if Fukase knew some boundaries after all — or maybe it is merely that his connection to his niece was very loose, with very little emotional attachment.

“When I work I’m wishing that I could stop this world. This act [of photography] may represent my own revenge play against life, and perhaps that is what I enjoy the most.” (Fukase in Camera Mainichi, 1976, quoted in Charrier, p.227)

In the penultimate picture in the book, the final family portrait (plate 33), it is telling how much Fukase ended up physically resembling his father, much more so than his brother (who is holding the father’s i-ei above their mother).

Maybe what attracts me to this body of work, to this book, is that it resists the kind of resolution of so many other family projects where differences are acknowledged, and people might go their own ways, but it’s all good. Often enough, life just will not conform. Here, that narrative is missing, and there is just an assembly of fragmented ideas and aspects, some which are fighting each other. This is good. This is interesting. I’m almost glad that there is this gap of ten years in the book, because if it had been somehow filled out (making this a real “project”, let’s say in the sense used at art schools) the whole might have become so much less. Sometimes, it’s good when things are not too spelled out.

Does plate 22 (1974) show Fukase’s own i-ei? I’m thinking yes and no. Yes for the self-absorption Yōko wrote about the year before, and no because while the dress looks at least somewhat formal to me, it is not quite as elegant as the one worn by his parents. There is what looks like a stain on the collar. Two years earlier, Fukase had written in Camera Mainichi that “these photographs were a ‘parody’, taken by ‘myself, the third-generation son, the loser'” (Tomo Kasuga, Archiving Death: The Family Portrait as a site of Mourning, p.90 in this MACK reissue). So the no becomes a yes? Does plate 22 show the photographer’s narcissism gone haywire?

For her earliest work, Yurie Nagashima was to create photographs along the lines of plate 17, except that there, the family members would be completely naked, they’d be in their home, and there’d be no stranger added. I’m liking both group images equally. However, the grim determination of the Nagashimas wins me over more than the more deadpan studio setting of the Fukases (plus guest). Yurie Nagashima’s shaved head strikes me as the more radical gesture than the addition of the guest actress in Fukase’s studio (maybe it is my knowing of the female photographer’s feminism that is making me feel a little bit guilty over even comparing these two pictures).

I feel like one can’t do a family project any longer without considering 家族, whatever conclusions one might arrive at. I’ve recently been spending some time with Kaitlin Maxwell‘s photographs, the ones called Current Series on her website. I’d love to see it as a book, and I’d then love to have that book and Fukase’s next to each other to see what that would teach me. Obviously, the types of photography are very different. But there are overlapping themes, such as what photographs can tell us about families, and what happens when a photographer decides to place her or himself into the pictures (which, truth be told, I always thought Doug Dubois should have done).

I suppose what I’m trying to say with the preceding is that it’s fine to photograph your family, but there will have to be something at stake for you, the photographer (“Show Your Wound” — Joseph Beuys). I don’t know if Fukase knew that there was something at stake for him. It’s possible, albeit not likely, assuming that the aforementioned statement about the personal hell he was living in was correct (and why would it not?). But whether he knew or not doesn’t really matter for us, the viewers, because we can see for ourselves. And we should have a good, hard look at these pictures, because they can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Family; photographs and text by Masahisa Fukase; essay by Tomo Kasuga; 80 pages; MACK; 2019

Your Post Goes Against Our Community Guidelines: An Algorithmic Rewriting of History

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One of the defining features of a free society is that it can write its own histories, accounts of what happened at certain points of time in the past. These accounts might differ in detail or final interpretation, and they can be heavily contested. They often are in flux and in need of being amended or outright rewritten. Still, all of that is possible.

In societies that are not free, whether in dictatorships or under authoritarian regimes, this process does not exist. There, what happened, when, and how is determined by those in power, and it is not to be contested. Crucially, such societies live with an imposed type of forgetting (which with time turns into an imposed not knowing): there are certain events that did not happen even though they did, because their existence is at odds with the rulers’ narrative.

It comes as no surprise that photography has played a part in the writing of history. In the Soviet Union under Stalin, for example, formerly powerful people were not just made to physically disappear, they were also airbrushed out of official photographs. In much the same fashion, the leadership of China has worked very hard on erasing all evidence of when soldiers were made to massacre its own citizens in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Imagine my surprise when after posting a photograph from the Abu Ghraib archives next to a recent one of Donald Trump on Instagram I was informed by the site that the post had been removed because it went against “Community Guidelines.” A little further down, the notification gave a more specific reason, which is worth quoting in full: “Post removed for violence or dangerous organizations”.

To begin with, that’s quite something, isn’t it? A corporation’s algorithms determined that the US military (of which Sabrina Harman was a member when her thumbs-up picture next to a corpse was taken) is a dangerous organization (obviously, this wouldn’t come as a surprise to Iraqis).

There was a big, bold “button” underneath the notification entitled “OK”. Right below, less prominent, I was given the option to contest the removal, which I did. To be honest, I didn’t expect this to go anywhere, but whatever gesture the contesting was, it was one that I felt was necessary.

A few weeks ago, I had seen a documentary about Facebook’s censors (newspeak: “content moderators”). In the documentary, a different Abu Ghraib photograph played a role. Clearly not knowing the background of the picture, a censor discussed how such photographs were produced by ISIS as part of their terror campaign, which is why they had to be censored. Again, the irony of the US military being mistaken for another dangerous organization is quite rich.

The makers of the documentary also didn’t set the record straight, which added another element that had me deeply worried — and this brings me back to the above: if photographs can be suppressed so easily on social media, then we’re essentially in the same situation the Chinese are in. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a government that’s censoring photographs or the algorithms of a US corporation — censorship is censorship, and these kinds of developments do not bode well for us.

After two hours, there was a (much less prominent) notification on my Instagram account that my post had been restored. Some censor might have looked at what I had posted. Having seen the documentary did (and does) not give me much confidence in the overall process — I might have just had luck.

I recently published an in-depth article about censorship on Instagram that focused mostly on the company’s essentially misogynistic treatment of the depiction of the female body. The algorithmic censorship of the Abu Ghraib photograph (much like the case around Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War photograph) adds a different dimension to the overall problem at hand. It is not just that a corporation essentially decides which types of beauty are acceptable and not (“sexy” looking influencers in bikinis: OK; photographs of female bodies that do not subject themselves to such a blatant male gaze: no); on a larger scale, a bunch of people who know how to write code but who are not known for their insight into the humanities decide what we can remember — and what must be forgotten.

Given the scale of Facebook, that’s not just coding, that’s not just corporate decision making. That’s a form of politics.

That politics is a very grave danger to the free society we’re attempting to preserve while it’s under severe attack by an openly authoritarian and racist president and his enablers and supporters, the Republican Party. After all, what exactly is that “community” in the “Community Guidelines”? A community that is defined by fiat, by the words and actions of a few unelected greedy geeks — what kind of community is that?

Whatever it might be, one thing is certain: a free community it is not.

A World Held At Arm’s Length: Ke Peng’s Salt Ponds

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Looking at Ke Peng‘s Salt Ponds for the first time, I had the feeling that I was not being given full access to the world presented in the book, China (or rather the parts photographed by the artist). That irritated me and had me put away the book for a while. But a book that irritates me at first or maybe even for longer is more interesting than one that is unable to produce any reaction, emotional or otherwise.

My second observation was that there was a red thread going through the book in the form of the tackiness of the objects or environments depicted in the photographs — a tackiness that I might not be able to recognize as easily had these photographs been taken in, let’s say, the US or Germany, locations I’m much more familiar with to the extent that I’m blind to many of their visuals.

Of all the things we can say about this world, ruled by anonymous corporations and, increasingly, by dimwitted authoritarian neofascists whose only skill is to whip up discord and anger, isn’t that one thing we don’t talk about much, namely how incredibly tacky and/or outright infantilizing so much is that is being made to surround us?

I actually believe that to show that tackiness is in itself a political act: it makes us see, and it gives us a chance to see more clearly. (Photography is political if — and only if — it does that.)

Placing that tackiness all around us is a political act as well: it tells us very clearly what those doing so think of us.

Coming back to the book, these two aspects became clearer to me, and I couldn’t decide what this spot was that I was given as the viewer. I tend to be reluctant to have my own reaction make me think about a photographer’s intentions (that first, I have no access to, and second, I’m usually not all that interested in because I only have the pictures that might or might not communicate those intentions). Still, though, I was wondering why the photographer had decided to keep her subjects, the people who appear in the pictures, so far away from the camera. (Thankfully, there are people in some of the pictures — without them the book would be absolutely dreadful.)

The first person we encounter is a middle-aged man sitting on a bed, his front facing away from the camera. Further, there are three young women, clustered around the hand of one of them — what they’re looking at we can’t see. There’s a group of four older women (tourists maybe) standing in front of some statue — the camera is far away  (one must have left what might be her bag a little behind — this does stand out to me). And it continues with this kind of strategy.

The person we’re closest to is an old women who looks at a smartphone with a magnifying glass — but it’s her hands that (maybe inevitably) are the center of the photographer’s attention. There almost is a portrait in the book: a middle-aged woman stands in front of a white wall. But the camera puts the image on her shirt — a cartoon of some sort of fairy holding on to dandelion seeds — into the center, cutting off most of the woman’s face.

As a viewer, I’m being denied more access to these people. That must mean something — or speak of something. What is that, though? I’m not sure.

With one exception — a center-weighted photograph of what might be a toy hand grenade holding candy — I’m mostly drawn to the pictures that focus on little observations. These all seem less pointed and less hesitant to maybe dive in too much…

See, I am putting a read on things — I just can’t help myself. But there clearly are those two options, namely that the photographer was hesitant (or unable — the infamous Mamiya 7 problem) to get in closer or that she didn’t want to because staying at arm’s length is communicating something. I can’t say what’s making me think it’s the former.

Well, anyway, it’s the small observations that are often touching because more often than not they reveal a resistance of sorts against the otherwise drab or tacky environment. And this is what we all do, isn’t it? Small acts of resistance that we don’t think of as that, but that are indeed more than just some idiosyncratic way to organize or embellish the spaces we live in (especially the ones we can control only to a small degree).

There’s an interview with the artist in the middle of the book that I wish it weren’t there. In general, I don’t think it helps a photographer when they’re trying to make their intentions clear or when they try to explain their own work and motivations. Of course, I realize that that’s increasingly the case. Maybe this is a consequence of the increasing competitiveness in photography, coupled with most photographers being aware of the fact that they relentlessly think they need to define and promote their own image through social media.

The problem (at least for me) is that when you package your work with such material, this approach instantly reduces the way the photographs can be seen, possibly vastly (maybe the most extreme example I’ve come across of late is Alec Soth and the interview in his latest book). So people can either see the work just that one way. Or they see it differently, facing them with the decision whether to distrust the photographs or their maker (or, as I think is much less likely, distrusting how they see).

If as a photographer you want to be an artist, you really have to resist the temptation to package yourself. And even if you’re fine with merely being a photographer (why not? – after all, art is difficult, but making photographs is easy), then the packaging still runs the risk of essentially turning you into some sort of editorial photographer who is following her or his own assignments. (Ugh!)

That all said, the world presented in Salt Ponds still intrigues me, as much as various aspects of it repel me (I’m talking about what’s in the pictures here, not the pictures themselves). I think that’s an achievement, given the surroundings Ke Peng photographed in. I’d love for the artist to push in a lot further and be less furtive. This being her first book, I’m thinking (hoping) that throwing all caution overboard might lead to the next one, the bolder one. I’m looking forward to that one.

Salt Ponds; photographs by Ke Peng; interview with Ke Peng by Kang Kang; 152 pages; Jiazazhi Press; 2018

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.3