Tree and Soil

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Unlike in the West, in Japan what we call paganism has survived into the present day in the form of its Shinto religion. But also manifested through, let’s say, yōkai. Consequently, the natural world isn’t seen only as a passive canvas that can be dealt with willy-nilly. At the same time, the Japanese landscape has been subjected to a large amount of modifications, which usually are incredibly stylized (even where they are merely concrete barriers set around rivers).

“Universal principles make up nature,” Donald Richie wrote in Japan: A Description, “but nature does not reveal these principles, in Japan, until one has observed nature by shaping it oneself. The garden is not natural until everything in it has been shifted. And flowers are not natural either until so arranged to be. God, man, earth—these are the traditional strata in the flower arrangement, but it is man that is operative, acting as the medium through which earth and heaven meet.”

A little further down he continued: “A garden is not a wilderness. It is only the romantics who find wildness beautiful, and the Japanese are too pragmatic to be romantic. At the same time, a garden is not a geometrical abstraction. It is only the classicists who would find that attractive, and the Japanese are too much creatures of their feelings to be so cerebrally classic. Rather, then, a garden is created to reveal nature. Raw nature is simply never there.” (You can find the essay in A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan.)

This reveals a very different sensibility towards both the natural world and the constructed environment than the one we know in the West. With this in mind, you can probably see how a disaster such as the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after the 2011 tsunami created a stunning catastrophe.

This statement would be true for any country (on second thought, I’m not so sure any longer the statement applies in the US, given the sheer indifference displayed by large parts of the population towards both the pandemic and the enormous wildfires in the West). But a country with such a specific relationship between the natural and man-made world could only have been shaken up by the fact that there is one more addition to the various invisible forces that guide the world: radioactive material whose presence potentially creates a huge hazard for anything and anyone exposed to it.

This is the background of Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth‘s Tree and Soil, a book that combines photographs from around the closed-off areas near the Fukushima plant with images of a collection gathered by Philipp Franz von Siebold, an explorer who collected material in Japan (this is now housed at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands).

If you’re expecting to see a lot of photographs of abandoned buildings in empty towns, you’re going to be disappointed by the book. There are some of these pictures. But the majority of photographs taken in Japan focus on the land itself, on forests, streams, boulders — all those entities that in the country’s traditional thinking habour a spirit.

That said, one of the most arresting photographs is of an abandoned building. Not quite halfway into the book, one of the many gatefolds open to show a row of five vending machines that are housed under a protective roof (much like what you see at gas stations, with the vending machines replacing gas pumps). Its English language signage indicates the presence of a “drink paradise” (the Japanese text, Google Translate tells me, is more prosaic, saying it’s a liquor store). Curiously, two of the machines are still fully lit, which has me believe one could still get a drink.

The area around the stricken power plant was evacuated in haste. But somehow, even years later, nobody thought of cutting the power to those vending machines. In the larger scheme of things, it’s an irrelevant detail. It’s the details and their seeming irrelevance that gives art true meaning: after all, in a strictly neoliberal sense, the people who had to leave these towns ought to just rebuild their lives elsewhere. But such thinking only dispenses with what makes life truly meaningful and displaces it with a culture so shallow that it were an affront to even remotely consider the word “depth” in its description.

With its photographs of forests and of specimen and drawings created by Von Siebold, its reproductions of traditional Japanese art and of scientific studies, and its occasional giving voice to humans, Tree and Soil evades descriptiveness, instead embracing an atmosphere. It asks of the viewer to think about their engagement with the natural world: when you leave your house, do you register the chipmunk’s warning signals that sound as if it were a bird? Could you tell the difference between the cardinal’s babies’ cries for food from its parent’s chirping? Or do you simply go on, get in your car, and drive away?

The book was made with the typical attention to detail that we’ve come to know from photobook making in Holland. The dust jacket can be taken off and unfolded, to reveal a double-sided poster of sorts. There are ample gatefolds whose function and necessity, however, isn’t all that clear to me: what is revealed isn’t any different than what’s already visible elsewhere (with the exception of those vending machines). Occasionally, pictures will wrap around pages (which for sure is going to rankle traditionalists).

Thus, Tree and Soil becomes its own precious object, and its preciousness only serves to enhance its overall message. You’ll have to go through the book many times. I suspect that each time, something else will have to be discovered. It is through the reproductions of scientific reports that the topic of radioactivity is being brought up. While it’s difficult to imagine how else one would go about it, that type of description almost isn’t needed. Throughout the book, it’s easy to pick up on the idea of something having gone awry.

But then, don’t Von Siebold’s specimen and beautiful drawings connect with those scientific reports? Isn’t the thinking behind them essentially the same? Couldn’t there be a straight line drawn from the Western explorer’s colonial idea of Japan as a country that needed to be deciphered, sliced and diced to the disaster caused by the consequences of the very same thinking, namely that nature’s sole purpose is to be exploited?

Turns out that radioactive materials aren’t easy to control. When they’re out of control, their terrible power will make any yōkai monster seem tame in comparison. Actually, the Japanese already have a monster created from radioactivity even though it’s not thought of as yōkai: Gojira.

What exactly will it take for us to finally take care of our natural environment? I’m writing this article as there are huge fires in the (US) American West, that clearly are one of the many consequences of global warning. Billions of years into the future, before it dies our sun will expand massively and scorch the surface of this planet, making life impossible. It’s as if our plan was to do the very same ourselves, just a lot earlier. What’s wrong with us?

The book’s colophon tells me that it’s the “[f]irst and only edition.” The publisher’s website speaks of a “unique edition of 925 copies, of which 400 copies are for sale.” If you want a copy of the book, you might have to move fast.

Tree and Soil; photographs by Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth; essay by Erik de Jong; 112 pages with 10 gatefolds; Hartmann Books; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.0

Photography in Racial Time

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In a world dominated by photographs and video, visual literacy is one of the most important skills. To be visually literate means to be able to navigate the world while being able to detect where someone is trying to tell you something about yourself or other people. I called visual literacy a skill because it is that more than anything. It is not just knowing photographs — even though for sure that is a part of it. Beyond that, it’s being able to understand how photographs operate in a given context when seen by specific viewers, how, in other words, photographs acquire what we like to call “meaning.”

Photographs don’t come with meanings, and a photograph’s meaning can change radically depending on how it is used in a specific context. In photoland, many practitioners operate only in one specific context and are puzzled by my insistence on this basic fact. Switch context, though, and what has been taken for granted often takes on very different facets. As a consequence, being visually literate does not necessarily mean being able to read photographs in just one specific context well. Instead, it’s much more important to understand the use of photographs in different contexts.

Seen that way, visual literacy centers on photography only in a very basic sense. It’s not necessarily about understanding photographs (even though that’s a large part of it). Instead, visual literacy centers on understanding visual communication — much like literacy in the world of literature doesn’t just focus on discussing vocabulary. This might sound daunting, but I think it should instead be seen as liberating: if visual literacy is a skill that relies on a method, then that’s something that can be learned, something that can be improved over time through practice.

I’m very drawn to an approach to photography that starts out by looking at pictures, to see what they show and how they show it, and that then examines how pictures are used, given the context they’re in, and how that use, given its time, ties in with larger societal and/or cultural aspects, to form a meaning that, more often than not, is not stable in time. Ultimately, such an approach amounts to cultural or societal or political criticism. A brilliant recent example is provided by Mark Sealy‘s Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time.

(An unrelated aside: formerly a voracious reader, it took me months to realize how the pandemic has disrupted my habit of reading regularly. Many back issues of the New York Review of Books — my only subscription — have been lying around unread all over the apartment, and the pile of books waiting to be read has only grown since roughly mid-March this year. One of the many books in the pile was Sealy’s — already published last year. So in that sense, this article is late. But then, it’s never too late to talk about a good book, is it?)

In the book’s chapters, Sealy dives deeply into six separate topics. In each case, he starts out with the initial photographs, to then discuss their makers, their dissemination, the original contexts, and how the photographs in their context were viewed their audience. That audience splits up into two group. The first group is the one that might have found itself depicted or that would have identified in some ways with the depicted. The second group is the one that remained an outsiders while at the same time being the intended target.

This dichotomy in audiences is one of the most important aspects in many areas of photography, in particular in photojournalistic or documentary settings. It forms the basis for the most pressing issues in photography, whether it’s the male gaze, othering, representation, etc.

The book explicitly focuses on photography’s colonial uses, so these two groups are those subjected to colonial rule and those exercising that rule. Sealy manages to accomplish a variety of things. To begin with, he discusses in detail some of photography’s most ghastly episodes, episodes that, I suspect, are not as widely known as they ought to be. Photography played a major role in most (all?) of humanity’s most recent atrocities. That role has to be understood especially since its repercussions are still with us.

For example, I don’t think anyone can engage with photography in Africa without taking into account the role photography played in the colonical context. In the first chapter, Sealy discusses Alice Seeley Harris‘ photographs of atrocities in what then was the Congo Free State. These photographs and the accompanying presentations across the UK and the US could easily be seen as the kind of revelatory material that still is being used by photojournalists today. However, the photographs’ and especially their maker’s background and motivations make this topic a lot more complex than one might naively imagine.

Sealy: “What surfaces from the images as we look back at them with the benefit of hindsight is that a multiplicity of meanings emerges, the most obvious being the scopic pleasures in looking at the African as both the exotic Other and the photographic origin of the image of the helpless victim. These historical photographs of violence in the Congo provide the perfect photographic moment for benevolent Christian ideology to work within a continued visualisation and infantilisation of the African subject.” (p. 61)

Photography cannot run away or ignore these facts any more than I, someone born in Germany, could run away or ignore the fact that my grandfathers’ generation brutally murdered millions of people during World War 2.

In this particular case, the “exotic Other” as much as the idea of the “helpless victim” (to quote Sealy’s words) are still with us. Such photographs are still being made as I write this, and they are viewed by their target audience in very similar fashions as Alice Seeley Harris’ lantern slides were by their target audience back then (except that our lantern slides are slide shows online). The onus is on their makers as much as on us as viewers to understand what is going on visually, so we can break out of what often is little more than colonial photography done with digital cameras.

I suspect that some of the chapters in Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time could serve as the basis for a whole class, given the breadth of the material and background resources covered and given the profundity of insight offered by Sealy.

For example, in chapter 2 — entitled Race, Denial and Imaging Atrocity — the famous 7 May 1945 issue of Life magazine becomes the a jump-off point for a discussion of how to picture atrocities (here: concentration camps in Nazi Germany), how to put such pictures in the context of the actions (or lack thereof) of those who present the pictures, how the pictures of an atrocity can be viewed one way by one group and another way by another, how one atrocity might invite comparisons with another, and much more.

What makes this chapter so strong is that Sealy treats the magazine as a whole, instead of dissecting it into its separate, seemingly unrelated, parts. He connects the depiction of German concentration camps with pictures of US and Russian soldiers meeting up, with pictures of Russian delegates at the landmark San Francisco conference, and more. In some ways, this is a very obvious approach: after all, all these things happened at the time. But much too often, such discussions end up being atomized, being isolated, as a result of which crucial deeper connections and insights are not to be had.

It is the making of connections across time that brings the real value of the book into focus: the reader not only learns a lot about the main issue at hand — photography’s ugly history of serving as a handmaiden of colonialism and racist violence, s/he also learns about how to connect photographs through the larger topics they relate to, which, crucially, includes an awareness of one’s own vantage point as much as knowing about someone else’s (in particular the group depicted).

I’d like to think that reading Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time will make every photographer more aware of the history of their own medium. It will also enable them to approach their own photography at a deeper level, in particular if that photography centers on other people. For those two reasons, this is an absolute must-read. Teachers in any serious photography program might want to include this book in their required-reading list.


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