Small Town Portraits

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Sandwiched between a news agent and a clothes store, Dinneen’s Bar is housed in a small building on Main Street in the small Irish town of Macroom, which is roughly 15 miles west of Cork in southwestern Ireland. From the 1950s until 1985, the bar was owned and operated by Dennis Dinneen and his wife Claire, who lived upstairs with their five children. A “room at the very back of the bar [functioned] as the family kitchen”, the website dedicated to Dennis’ work informs us, the work being the result of the fact that he also was a photographer.

“Dennis provided photos for passports and driving licences, took individual and family portraits, and captured images of the bar’s patrons. […] he also photographed weddings, religious ceremonies, theatre productions, sporting events, and a variety of other local occasions”, leaving behind an archive of thousands of negatives (before his death in 1985, more than half of the archive was destroyed in a fire).

An assortment of backdrops was employed by the photographer for much of his portraiture: blank walls, curtains, some cloth pinned up, a little screen designed for slide or movie projections. For the work, Dinneen employed a square-format camera with an added flash. The passport or driving-license pictures would be cropped later (a common practice all over the world when a photographer didn’t work with a dedicated camera for the task at hand).

If this sounds like there might be an incredible wealth of photographs to look at, that’s exactly the case, as Small Town Portraits makes clear. The book presents 75 photographs, edited by David J. Moore, the archive’s director. Without exception, he always presents the uncropped photographs, which reveal a plethora of detail around the sitter, including a (recurring) Kodak poster, boxes of Lucozade (a soft drink intended to boost energy a Google search informed me), and more.

The charm of collections such as Dinneen’s is universal, regardless of whether they were compiled in Mali (Malick Sidibé), the US (Mike Disfarmer), Japan (Shoichi Kudo), or elsewhere: a usually utilitarian approach, combined with a lack of pretense, possibly some idiosyncratic choices, and sheer — often very playful — talent combine to yield photographs that give a sense of locale in ways that are usually hard to come by.

Not surprisingly, several of these archives have been raided (“reclaimed”) and exploited by people eager to cash in on the art market. In fact, I don’t even know why so often art-world acceptance (in the form of representation in galleries, shows at museums, and/or a write up in some famous newspaper’s “Arts & Entertainment” section) is seen as the ultimate validation of such archives. More often than not, the work itself takes a hit — such as when, for example, Malick Sidibé’s photography suddenly end up as very large, contrasty prints despite the fact that they would have never been seen that way in their original context.

But there always is some context switching involved when such an archive is being made public. This inevitably comes with a re-presentation of the pictures at hand: uncropped passport photographs originally were not intended to be seen as such. For me the key to all of this is whether the re-presentation serves to speak of the photographer’s overall spirit (as in this book) or the moneyed interests that might be behind the changes (as in, say, the Disfarmer case).

Small Town Portraits focuses on presenting the world depicted in its pictures. It’s doubtful that the photographer would have OK’ed this particular selection of photographs. Obviously, we have no way of knowing. But I think in the end, he would have come around to appreciating what has been done. After all, the photographs powerfully speak of Macroom and its people, with the Dinneen bar serving as one of its social hubs.

Here, through the eyes of Dennis Dinneen, the unremarkable becomes remarkable, inviting us viewers to maybe pay attention to the unrecognised beauty all around us, in whatever unremarkable location we might find ourselves in.

If I had to describe what I want from a good photobook, I’d say that it should have good pictures that are presented in a well considered package. I’ve written about this before many times, but the latter still is more of a bonus in the world of photobook making than it should be.

This particular book could serve as a good example of what happens when attention is also paid to graphic design and production. The design feels very contemporary without trying too hard to chase current fads: it’s understated, yet elegant. And I like everything about the production: the book’s size, the cloth cover, the relatively small square, …

In other words, Small Town Portraits demonstrates how a fairly conventional catalog can be produced in such a way that not only the pictures but also the object “book” are made to shine. That should always be the goal.


Small Town Portraits; photographs by Dennis Dinneen; essay by Doireann Ní Ghríofa; 160 pages; murmur books; 2020

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New books by Sibylle Fendt and Michał Adamski

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“Hundreds of thousands of people have fled across the Mediterranean Sea this year to escape war and persecution,” the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR wrote at the end of 2015. Two of the key events listed in the article have now resulted in photobooks.

In early September that year, after thousands of refugees decided to walk from Hungary to Germany, things accelerated very quickly, with Germany accepting over one million of them (please note that while the use of the word “refugee” in this context is contested — see some details here, I decided to stick with it, given it’s the term used in the UNHCR article).

As you can imagine, accommodating over a million people would strain the resources of any country. In what now can be considered the long term, Germany did very well; but of course the lived reality of all those who arrived with next to nothing varied considerably. A group of young men ended up in a former guesthouse in the Black Forest, located far from the next village and shopping facility.

Black Forest — that might sound nice, unless you imagine being stuck there in the legal limbo that German authorities only slowly managed to lift. “The mills of justice,” a German saying goes, “grind slowly” — and let’s not even get into discussing what’s contained in that term, justice. How do you even deal with such justice, which might insist in all kinds of paperwork, when all you have with your are the clothes on your body and, possibly, a few possessions? How can you prove anything in a country whose culture (if that’s the word) relies on requires written proof, usually in notarised form?

What do you do with your spare time (of which you have a lot), given you’re not allowed to work and the next village is far away, when you’re confined to what actually is a pretty shitty dump?

These questions sit at the center of Holzbachtal, nothing, nothing, a book by Berlin based photographer Sibylle Fendt. Over the course of a few years, Fendt drove to the shelter to spend time with the men. “I spent hours, days and weeks there,” she writes, “without anything happening. […] Usually, I was welcome, I was often invited to dinner and was allowed to pass the time in their company. Every so often however […] they wanted to be alone.” (quoted from the book’s brief afterword)

In a sense, the book is completely devoid of a story — what would be the story of “nothing”, of waiting endlessly for something to finally happen? How can you make “nothing” the story, in particular in and with photographs?

Fendt solved the problem the way any photographer would do it: by photographing the inhabitants of the shelter while they were going about their business of spending time until the moment when something happens. Phones provided a window out into the world, and where young men gather with nothing else to do, inevitably there will be weights to be lifted.

The (mental) proximity Fendt established with the men clearly comes across in their photos, whether they’re portraits or pictures of them doing something. In between, there are photographs of parts of the house, which was little more than a grimy mess — a mess one would imagine many of their peers would have also found themselves in after their arrival in one of the richest countries of the world (to imagine that some right-wing dipshit would inevitably complain about how good these refugees had/have it makes one’s blood boil).

A view towards the Black Forest from the same vantage position at various times of the day and year serves as the book’s introduction. Time somehow passes even as that passage of time does not appear to result in any meaningful change for the better. Maybe now that we’ve all gone through living under the pandemic, we have all caught a glimpse of what it might be like to wait somewhere for something better (obviously, unlike these refugees, we have had all our creature comforts while we were or are in lockdown).

I’m always hoping that getting a real glimpse of someone else’s suffering might make us better people. But we already know from history that that’s probably not going to happen. Why then even bother photographing or making books like  Holzbachtal, nothing, nothing? Because doing nothing is an even worse option. I’m here speaking for myself and not for Sibylle Fendt. I have known her for quite some time now, and I’m thinking she might be more optimistic. Either way, here’s a book about the ongoing refugee/migrant crisis in Europe.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, the country whose opening of the borders with Austria (literally a cutting of holes into a fence) accelerated the collapse of the East German communist regime, its autocratic leader Viktor Orbán built a new border fence, ostensibly to keep refugees out, but also to drum up even more support for his utterly corrupt regime.

The European Union has now started to look into the corruption, causing Orbán to rail against the organisation that his country decided to join. It’s not even that the EU minds a violation of the rules all countries agreed to abide by, it’s also not clear why European citizens should essentially pay to line Orbán’s and his allied oligarchs’ pockets.

Two tailed dog is Polish photographer Michał Adamski‘s portrayal of Hungary. The book is named after the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party, a satirical party that has achieved some actual electoral success. I’m liking what I’m reading on Wikipedia: “The party participated in the 2019 European Parliament election. Despite receiving 2.62% of the votes, it did not win a seat. Its campaign promises included building an overpass above the country for refugees, opening six Nemzeti Dohánybolt stores outside Hungary, introducing mandatory siesta and banning the Eurovision Song Contest.”

In a traditional political sense, such a party might appear being cynical. However, building an overpass above Hungary for refugees is only an absurd solution if you accept the problem as real. The moment you start asking the question why refugees shouldn’t be left into the country, such an overpass is not all that much more absurd than Orbán’s solution, the fence. In a nutshell, such parties subvert the widely shared assumption that elections should focus on determining which technocrat can provide the best solution for some technocratic problem (while autocrats and neo-fascists run circles around them).

In the book, a collection of scenes encountered in Hungary over the course of three years, quotes from either the Two-Tailed Dog Party or Viktor Orbán are presented. Outside of their context, they’re impossible to tell apart: both offer slogans that are grandiose and vague at the same time (along the lines of “Make America Great Again”) and pin the blame for any problem or crisis on outsiders (much like all autocrats, Orbán is both extremely nationalistic and more or less openly racist).

There is a clear disconnect between what is depicted in the photographs and the quotes — and it is this disconnect the drives the overall message home: some things are too complex to be understood with simplistic slogans. We better re-acquaint ourselves with that idea — instead of relying on “deeply divided” narratives that only serve as cash cows for today’s intellectually impoverished media landscape.

I can’t help but think that even as the Iron Curtain has come down, there still exists a clear divide between photographers from what used to be west of said curtain and photographers east of it. For a large number of reasons, that divide should not exist. But I bet a lot of people in the West would have a much easier time naming a British, German, or French photographer than a Polish, Czech, or Hungarian one.

In light of the fantastic work coming out of Eastern Europe and in light of how the same stories take on very slightly different meanings when told by someone from there, we ought to be doing more work to bridge the divide.

Holzbachtal, nothing, nothing; photographs and texts by Sibylle Fendt; 168 pages; Kehrer; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.4

Two tailed dog; photographs by Michał Adamski; appropriated text; 96 pages; Pix.House; 2019

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 3.0 – Overall 3.1

The Locusts

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In the US, it currently feels as if the country is finally getting out of an incredibly abusive relationship. With the exception of the hardcore “MAGA” crowd, everyone seems to be taking that much needed deep breath, knowing that very soon, nobody has to listen or pay attention to the malignant-narcissist-in-chief any longer. It’s not clear what will come next — there still are ample reasons to worry; but at least the noise level appears to have gone way down.

As a consequence, I’m thinking (or maybe just hoping) that we’re going to find more time for nuance again, in particular those small moments when something reveals itself that is unexpectedly beautiful. Photography is very good at dealing with that. This is not necessarily why I personally look at photographs (and I don’t think I have much hope of finding it with my own camera). However, without such photography my experience of dealing with the medium would be vastly impoverished.

The most recent photobook to have made me think about all of this (even before the election) is Jesse Lenz‘s The Locusts. When I first received the book, I was surprised to see its photographs. The book itself is rather large and imposing — unlike the vast majority of its pictures, which depict a fragile world in a very gentle manner.

In a variety of ways (and using a variety of cameras), the photographs centre on small moments in a world seemingly inhabited only by children and animals.

In particular the square pictures are real showstoppers. In one, a little toad is shown, sitting on a leaf of much larger plant, possibly enjoying the sun. In another, a little boy with what might be a mix of a drawing and a temporary tattoo on his face looks at the camera while clinging to an apple tree bearing fruit. The pattern of the shadow cast on his body has him partly blend into his environment.

It’s precious moments like these that connect the work beyond its immediate American predecessors to other photographers all over the world who find beauty in small moments that won’t last long and that might not be seen by anyone else. I’m thinking of Rinko Kawauchi, for example. There are many small moments in most of the photographs. As Kawuchi has demonstrated, that already would have been enough for a good book.

But The Locusts adds other elements. There are many pictures of children playing. When you’re a child, the world is your playground. I don’t know at what stage one loses this approach to one’s surroundings — I suppose at a certain age, you’re just “too old” for this (which, if you think about it, really is a shame — maybe we’d collectively be a little bit happier if we regained our sense of play).

And then there is mortality. In the bucolic setting the photographs were taken in, death is a lot more visible than in a city. Here it appears in the form of a dead coyote lying in a field or, one of my favourite pictures, a black cat staring intently at a little mouse right in front of it. In one picture, a child holds a (different) cat, and two pages later, there is a photograph of what looks like the same cat being prepared for burial — a cardboard box with what looks like a towel wrapped around the body serves as the coffin.

I never had children. But I’m guessing that for all the work and worry of raising them, they also offer bringing a sense of the world’s possibilities and joys — if, that is, one is receptive to it. One doesn’t need a camera to pay attention to what the world has to offer, but sometimes, having one helps. Lenz appears to have had at least one available on many occasions, which for sure explains the plethora of work on display in the book.

While I feel that the book probably should have been a little more intimate and not quite so hefty, and the edit could have been tighter, The Locusts for sure is an impressive debut book by a photographer who I’m sure we’re going to see and hear a lot more of in the future.

The Locusts; photographs by Jesse Lenz; 144 pages; Charcoal Press; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 2.5, Edit 1.5, Production 5.0 – Overall 3.5


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Seventy five years after the end of World War 2 and 30 years after reunification, Germany is being assaulted by right-wing extremists again.

The aughts saw a series of killings that German police quickly dismissed as “döner murders” (the majority of the victims were part of the Turkish community) — only to find that they had in fact been committed by a group that called itself National Socialist Underground. In late 2019, Stephan Balliet, a 27 year-old neo-Nazi, attempted to enter a synagogue in Halle with a number of guns. It was only one sturdy door that prevented mass murder. Less than half a year later, Tobias Rathjen went on a shooting spree in Hanau, targeting two shisha bars. He killed ten people and wounded five others (all of the victims had a migratory background), before returning to his home, to kill his own mother and himself.

And on 29 August, 2020, a large mob of people consisting of neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists attempted to storm Berlin’s Reichstag, the iconic building that since reunification has served as the seat of the country’s democratically elected parliament. There, due to the government’s so-called Grand Coalition the far-right AfD party currently constitutes the largest opposition faction.

For me, living in the United States for the past 20 years has vastly increased the relevance of what is at stake in Germany’s second attempt to establish and maintain a democratic republic.

In a lot of ways, being physically removed from the country I was born in has had me engage with Germany a lot more closely than I think I would have had I stayed. Physical distance resulted in mental distance, and after a while, something in me rebelled against that mental distance. Especially in light of Germany’s Nazi past, being away felt too much like trying not to be connected to a historical burden that I cannot deny.

At the same time, the Germany that revealed itself in the 2000s was a lot different than the one I had grown up in. Suddenly, there were all the neo-Nazis and far-right politicians crawling out of their holes.

But there was also the Germany that would welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015, the Germany where the public sphere would see many citizens of migratory background play a major role — unlike the (West) Germany that I had grown up in.

I didn’t set out to create what would become my first photobook, Vaterland, when I started photographing in 2016.

Originally, I wanted to explore the region in Europe’s heart whose largest parts are made out of Germany and Poland, Central Europe. On my trips to Warsaw, Germany’s past became something that would always only be another serendipitous photographic discovery away.

At the same time, the 2017 federal elections in Germany, after which the far-right AfD ended up becoming the largest opposition party on a national level, caused enormous outrage in me — outrage combined with a deep sense of shame. That outrage only grew as parts of the conservative spectrum belittled the danger that I have been perceiving the country to be in.

I’m neither a journalist nor a documentarian. With Vaterland, I don’t attempt to be either one of these.

I intend the book to be what in German is called a Stimmungsbild — a metaphorical image expressing a mood.

I don’t have any explanations for what I see in Germany. But for sure I know how I feel. Vaterland is an expression of my unease, of my worries, of my upset, of my realization to what extent Germany and its past are an integral part of my own life.

You can find more photographs from the book here.

Vaterland is published by Kerber Verlag. If you would like to get a copy from my own pre-sale, please send me an email (

The Social Photo and Collective Modern Life

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The dominant Western model for creation in the field of visual arts is one that puts the individual front and center. According to this model, art, in whatever form, is created by a single person: the painter, the photographer, the print maker, the sculptor… An extreme form of this idea is provided by the artistic genius who, we are led to believe, creates her or his work out of thin air, through a combination of incredibly talent, hard work, and an outstanding personality.

In reality, making art is not that simple, and the history of art cannot be told simply as a succession of such geniuses. To begin with, many artists relied or rely on a larger number of helpers that work in their workshops or studios. However, in a world focused on artistic genius such approaches to art making will get folded into the general narrative. For example, whole legions of art historians now work on determining whether a painting was in fact produced by some famous artist or by someone in the workshop. In the contemporary art market, an artist might have never touched a piece of art in question, but it still is attributed to them (and not to the usually underpaid and anonymous minion responsible for its creation).

This approach neatly ties in with capitalism, which has resulted in an elaborate set of rules and laws to make sure the genius artist can legally defend her or his work, regardless of whether or not it was actually made by her or him. The topic of plagiarism, for example, almost always comes down to determining whose copyright was violated, who, in other words, stole something from whom. In fact, the idea of plagiarism itself also rests on the model of one artist being the sole creator of a piece of art.

Perhaps because it is such a technical and relatively new medium, photography has internalised these ideas to a very large degree. The history of photography is told as the succession of a few eras — some more arbitrarily defined than others — each of which was triggered and/or dominated by a very small number of practitioners.

When during the era of postmodernism a number of artists began to subvert some of these ideas, there quickly was an intellectual mechanism created that cemented the status of the single artist. Appropriation was seen not as a sharing of authorship — something that intellectual property rights have no easy way of dealing with, but as one author creating something that is uniquely their own out of some other author’s visuals. This approach works well for the economic interests in the background — large galleries that profit from an appropriator making money off someone else’s work; but in a legal sense, it can lead to some very, very iffy outcomes (just look at the various famous lawsuits in the world of art, many of them involving Richard Prince).

That all said, the idea that an artist pulls something out of thin air is actually very, very unlikely. Art historians have done a good job at connecting pieces of art to earlier pieces of art. In much the same fashion, contemporary artists are usually very adept at describing their work in a way that acknowledges some influences, while making sure that these influences do not overshadow their own contribution.

As Roland Barthes noted, the traditional approach to authorship is flawed. For example, we almost never have access to an artist’s intentions, ideas, or biography. So, he argued, isn’t it us readers or viewers who create the meaning of a piece of art? There’s much to be said for this approach to art — unless, of course, you’re an artist or someone selling art, in which case you want to retain the Deutungshoheit over what’s on view (Deutungshoheit is such a beautiful German word, translated here as either “interpretational sovereignty” or “prerogative of interpretation” — so many characters in such complicated words for such a simple German word!).

I like Barthes’ idea, but I don’t think it goes far enough. In his relationship between a piece of art and its reception by an audience, the arrow points only in one direction: the piece of art exists, and its reception is then contingent on its existence. That makes a lot of sense for most pieces of art, especially those who were created a long time ago, before we — the contemporary audience — were alive.

What about today’s art, though? In particular what about today’s photographs?

If we were to approach the problem using a Gedankenexperiment (another beautiful German word that has already made it into English), we might ask what the inversion of that arrow would look like. As it turns out, our Gedankenexperiment already is a reality.

In fact, ever since photography has become the visual currency of social media, the vast majority of photographs is produced in a way that essentially subverts what we could call the classical model of authorship, in which a single author creates something based on mostly her or his ideas.

I want to call these pictures “social photographs.” In essence, we take social photographs not despite the fact that everybody else takes them, but because we all take them. None of the considerations that might guide artists apply to social photographs. Social photographs are obviously not original at all — how original is a photograph of a sunset? In fact, social photographs are not even being taken for their own sake — to have a photograph. Instead, they are being taken because to do so means participation in a larger, agreed-upon setting.

For example, when we travel we take social photographs of sites that are part of the larger social canon. A trip to Paris, for example, would be incomplete without a photo of the Eiffel Tower, much like a visit to the Louvre would be incomplete without a picture of the Mona Lisa (or actually the crowds around it — because that is the event, not the painting).

In a legal sense, when I take a picture of the Eiffel Tower, it is still my photograph. It is a unique photo, regardless of how much it might resemble thousands of other pictures. But to approach my Eiffel Tower photo this way is a pointless exercise. I am actually not the author of the photograph, much like none of the other people who take a picture of the Eiffel Tower are their authors. Instead, we share a collective authorship.

This collective authorship is completely at odds with standard ideas of what it means to be an author. My photo of the Eiffel Tower exists because I took it, knowing that by taking it I allow myself to become a part of a larger group of people. In other words, my taking of the picture is a social act. By construction, social acts do not rely on exclusivity. In fact, exclusivity or creative genius is completely at odds with social acts.

Social acts rely on people doing things based on the situations they’re in. They’re not fixed, but they’re agreed upon. For example, once the pandemic hit and people realized that shaking hands when greeting each other would run counter best medical practices, elbow touching became a thing.

I’ve never met someone who uses the handshake because that’s an activity they really enjoy (there might be such people). It’s just something you do, much like how in certain countries you hug or bow or exchange a kiss (or more) on the cheek(s) etc.

What this means is that to approach social photographs as if they were pictures created by artists is completely misguided. Such an approach can only lead to the absurd ideas and theses that are promoted in photoland when photos of sunsets or selfies are discussed. The dismissal of the selfie as a narcissistic exercise only shows how far removed from the lived experience of people’s lives large parts of photoland actually are.

People take social photographs because that’s what you do. A very obvious consequence of this fact is that social photographs are being shared. But neither the photographs nor their sharing actually matters all that much. It’s just what you do. When you photograph a sunset and put the picture on Instagram what you really do is to partake in the experience of what it means to be alive as a human being. This is not to say that you need to take such pictures. But when you can and you do it, then that’s being part of the human condition.

Who, after all, does not admire a beautiful sunset? (If you don’t, you might want to discuss this with your therapist.) Who does not enjoy the experience of being at a concert or on a trip that you’ve been looking forward to for so long?

Our social photographs have their predecessors in picture postcards. I’m old enough to remember that not so long ago, going on vacation almost inevitably included buying postcards and sending them to friends and family. Of course, you would pick the postcard(s) you liked the most — out of a selection that offered the very same motifs. Photographically, those postcards weren’t that great. Often, the colours were radioactive, and there were all kinds of goofy design elements added to them. But you wouldn’t buy a postcard for the photography; you’d buy it to send it, with a few short notes added. Even those notes often weren’t particularly memorable. The point was to send the postcard to a friend or family member because that was part of being on vacation as a member of a social group.

As I noted, there are many other social acts that we somehow have agreed upon, whether it’s shaking hands, kissing under a mistletoe, saying “Happy Birthday” on certain days, or saying “Gesundheit” when someone sneezes. Photography has simply become a part of the social activities we are engaged in.

Nobody is forced to participate. You don’t have to take a picture of a sunset, much like you don’t have to shake hands or kiss under a mistletoe. It’s up to you.

With social acts all ideas of originality or individual authorship go out of the window.

When I spoke of inverting the arrow in the relationship above, it is exactly the creation of something that we all already know what it looks like. In a Barthian sense, the meaning of social photographs is created by us viewers, but the actual meaning does not lie in the pictures. Instead, it lies in their making.

One last comment, with the above I’m not arguing that social photographs are necessarily profound. Many of the social acts we perform — someone’s sneezing: “Gesundheit!” — aren’t profound. Profundity is besides the point for social photographs. Or rather it’s not the pictures that are profound, it’s the social connections behind them.

As a consequence, the fact that we don’t look at most of the social photographs we end up with on our smartphones or computers is completely besides the point. In much the same fashion, we don’t dwell on the fact that we said “Gesundheit!” to a complete stranger when we heard her sneeze, and we don’t remember the handshakes or elbow bumps we used. The only thing that these photograph point at is the fact that we engaged with the world in a social fashion.

Consequently, social photographs do not devalue photography in any way. Instead, they show us that the act of photographing itself has become an integral part of our collective modern lives.

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