Posts Tagged ‘black and white’
Today is the International Day against the use of Child Soldiers, a United Nations sponsored campaign which aims at the universal ratification of the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.
I spent a couple of years in the late 1990’s looking at the mental landscape of war amongst former child fighters in Africa in a series called The Lord of the Flies
Here are some images.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the photojournalism festival held every year in Perpignan: Visa pour l’Image. In 1998 I had a show there with a two-year body of work from Africa called The Lord of the Flies. Since then, some of my work has also been projections but that first show was a really special moment and meant a great deal to me. I remember that I arrived in Paris to see the enigmatic founder of Visa, Jean Francois Leroy clutching a box of fibre prints under my arm. After he saw the first three images he stopped and said, “OK, you have the exhibition…” I was so shocked that I thought he was joking and I told him so. He assured me that he wasn’t and we signed a contract there and then. I walked around Paris that day at least a foot taller. It marked a turning point in my career and the first real recognition that I was on the right path professionally.
Subsequently, I’ve had an uneven relationship with Visa. I think it’s true to say that I find the whole networking aspect pretty uncomfortable and certainly it seems to bring out the worst in terms of ego in some people in the industry. Because of that, I haven’t been since the demise of Network. It might well be said that the exhibition selections also conform to a very rigid view of the world and of photojournalism. As I am writing this however, it occurs to me that although that certainly is problematic, I’m probably more on the side of Visa than I am of the narcissistic trend in what I’d call personal reportage about/within the world. I mean by that a self conscious style – a bleed from the art world that I see a good deal now. This is generally medium format, generally about close focus on objects and a melancholy that seems to me like a teenage angst. “Oh the world is so terrible/Oh, but it’s so beautiful/I’m so original and important” In a funny way, despite the protestations of ‘artists’ who photograph like this, stylistically it has more to do with them than what they purport to be photographing. I wouldn’t shoot The Lord of the Flies in the same way now (I probably wouldn’t shoot it in black and white for a start because of the connotations I think that has in terms of the West reporting Africa now) but serious stories that never get anywhere near a magazine do have a home at Visa and I hope that that continues. If nothing else and despite all its faults, Visa does stand for an engagement even if that is a little blunt and simplistic. The selection is purely down to Leroy and good luck to him. As he says in a very interesting interview with Time here, “You can like my taste or not, but at least you can see that there is a strong line”. He is also – absolutely correctly – critical of young photographers who have no idea of the heritage within the industry in which they are working. As Leroy points out “It’s very difficult to do a reportage about prostitutes in India, if you’re not familiar with the work of Mary Ellen Mark”. The internet generation may have more cameras and more opportunity to take pictures but they seem to have, according to Leroy, very little ability to tell stories. I agree. A random set of images are not a photo essay. This is worth quoting in full:
“It’s not because I have a pencil that I’m Victor Hugo or Shakespeare. It’s not because you have a camera, that you are a photographer. There is currently a trend in photography to cover specific communities, like poor people in Ohio, or very poor people in Connecticut, or really, really poor people in Arkansas etc. Where is the story? The other favorites are: my mother has breast cancer, my father has Alzheimer’s, my brother is a schizophrenic. I know these kind of stories. It’s personal, yes, but I’m not sure it makes good work”
Crucially for me, when Leroy is asked about advice for young photographers, he says “Work, work, work. Read everything done before you”. I couldn’t agree more. One’s work, although unique, is in a continuity; a flow of humanity and journalism gone before that is bigger than each of us but one that by adherence to an ethical framework, should be there to bear witness not simply to suffering but a better world. That multi-faceted, outward-looking storytelling is what is sorely lacking in much of visual journalism today and what Visa – with all it’s problems, it’s cliches and idiosyncrasies – is still largely about. Personally, I can’t stand the ‘Scarf and Leica brigade’ with their egos and delusions about being heroes but at least that tradition (although I’m the first to admit it needs a re-invigoration) is about reporting and not about photographing dying flowers as metaphor. In a world where print media and funding have almost disappeared, at least Visa is still there.
Here are a couple of images from my show at the Couvert des Minimes, Visa Pour L’Image all those years ago.
I read with great regret a small piece from the Economist that tells of a ‘souring mood’ in the tiny African country, Burundi. It seems that opposition forces have again taken to the hills after around three hundred of their number have been killed since July and dozens arrested. Much of this goes back to the 2010 election which, despite the International community declaring reasonably fair was greeted by anger from the forces opposing President Nkurunziza. I worked several times in Burundi during the last twelve years – assignments ranged from looking at the so-called Regroupment camps where the Tutsi government corralled Hutu peasants ‘for their own safety’ in appalling conditions (as part of a global series called The Politics of Hunger) to looking at the steps to reconciliation with the Bashingantahe councils. I also photographed and wrote about the extraordinary Marguerite Barankitse, The Angel of Burundi who adopted children of all tribes amidst the terrible violence of the Civil War. I fear that her heroism and devotion will be called on again.
On Monday, The Forces for National Liberation (FNL) leader Agathon Rwasa, whom Burundian authorities believe is hiding along with fellow combatants in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, called on Nkurunziza to step down. Reuters are reporting this as a declaration of war. I sincerely hope that they are wrong.
Delighted that at least some justice has been served today for the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia after Charles Taylor was found to have “aided and abetted” war crimes” by a United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague.
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the start of the war in Bosnia. Cities, like people can produce strange feelings in visitors – leave tiny traces of discomfort and Sarajevo always struck me as being a little odd; a little schizophrenic… of course I never knew it before the war as a place of civility and culture. The work I made there was always conditioned by conflict but I thought I’d take this opportunity to show a small selection of work from the city taken almost a decade apart that show two different sides. The work from 1997 was made as I’d just returned from a near fatal trip to Sierra Leone and I came back to a landscape of a bitter and fragile winter. I remember the dark coffee and the sleet, the ominous surrounding mountains and the deep, jagged gouges in the buildings – and in the people. I photographed the Blind School, devastated by shelling but trying slowly to come back to life. I photographed children learning to use their canes on a path that the instructor, Borko swore was surrounded by unexploded ordnance. It made the children – and me – very diligent. A decade later I came again in better weather and better spirits with an old friend of mine from Delhi, the critic and writer Meenakshi Shedde to make a story on the Sarajevo Film Festival. Clearly, for me and the city, most of our visible scars had healed.
I’m coming late to this because I’ve been away but…
The Kony 2012 project is a film that ‘seeks to make Joseph Kony famous’ and in doing so, expose his deeds to a wider world. All very laudable but the entire thing makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Certainly, exposure for such dreadful stories are generally to be welcomed however this enterprise bears all the hallmarks of an emotionally manipulative Hollywood fantasy that a crazed warlord just appeared from nowhere. I’m all for people changing the world but perhaps we might have prequel (I’m not sure that’s a word either) explaining exactly how something as awful as Kony came about. Perhaps we might talk about how Kony fits into the post-Amin world of Acholi politics (Kony’s early pronouncements on Museveni and his ‘Tutsi empire’); we might talk about disengagement in American Foreign policy in the nineties in Africa shaped in part by the New Barbarism thesis. We might talk about the allegation that the Ugandan security forces had an incentive to keep the war going to keep themselves in power. We might also talk about how the discovery of potentially billions of dollars worth of oil has made (especially) the US sit up and look at how the situation might be pacified.
Crucially we might try and work out why the film makers are doing this now when in fact the LRA aren’t currently operating in Northern Uganda. A cursory glance at the African and NGO press show that people who have worked in Northern Uganda on development and reconstruction are generally surprised; this story has moved on (and that’s not to deny the suffering involved). Not only that, they are arguing that efforts should be made to rebuild and that rather than these children being ‘invisible’, they are, certainly to people like Glenna Gordon (the author of the notorious and extraordinary photograph of Russel, Poole and Bailey holding weapons) and others who knows the situation, ‘pretty visible’. It is certainly true that this story was difficult to place in the mainstream media – although that didn’t stop a stream of Western photographers in the early 2000’s going and photographing the ‘night commuters’ as the children were called. In that respect the film certainly manages to circumvent traditional media outlets that wouldn’t want poor African kids getting in the way of their advertising. My point though is that if you want to defeat something, you have to understand it. And that is where this film, devoid of a good deal of context and seen through the distorting sentimental prism of a well meaning white film maker and his child (At 07:35 the white narrator says that ‘we are going to stop them’) falls down very badly indeed.
Something strikes me as deeply patronising in portraying this as a fight between good and evil. I spent a few years in Africa in the late 1990’s trying to make the point that the perpetrators of disgusting violence in the guise of child soldiers – were as much sinned against as sinning. An attempt – however flawed – to expose the mental landscape/legacy of exactly these situations of Post Colonial devastation that led to the rise of people like Kony and Taylor and Sankoh rushing in to fill a space that the State could not (or didn’t want to) hold.
I’m sad to relay to those people urging others to be ‘awesome’ and blindly support this campaign that if we blunder in, as well meaning as we might be, we might just make this situation worse. If a generation of American youth think that by capturing Kony and giving him up to the Hague, we can sort this out they are very much mistaken. Doesn’t that sound like the warnings that we were fed about the ‘madmen’ Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden? And didn’t that turn out well? Kony is clearly a product of the political situation in Post Independence Africa. You deal with that by dealing with the ramifications of poverty, politics and corruption. If you take away the justifications for Kony, you take away his legitimacy and his means of survival. And no, that isn’t as sexy and as easily reduceable to sound-bite length for the YouTube generation – but maybe that means the YouTube generation is the one that needs to remove itself from the tit of ‘info-tainment’ and decontextualised explanations. Ugandans aren’t stupid – they aren’t waiting for the White man to come and save them – they are, against very great odds trying to save themselves. They just need the tools to do that without people either exploiting their country or their situation.
According to General Stanley McChrystal, America’s war in Afghanistan began with a “frighteningly simplistic” view of the country.
An illegal, arrogant, NeoCon invasion was premised on a basic misunderstanding?
As our colonial masters in the White House might say.
This Saturday, July 2nd 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War and events will be held at memorials all across the UK. This annual commemoration honours the 2,500 men and women from the British Isles who served in the International Brigades as soldiers or medics, of whom 526 were killed in Spain. They were among 35,000 volunteers from around the world who rallied to the Spanish Republic as it tried to put down the fascist-backed military revolt.
In the London ceremony on the South Bank, I believe that two surviving veterans plan to attend. They are David Lomon, who was captured with other members of the British Battalion during fighting in Aragón in the spring of 1938 and spent six months in the notorious prison camp of San Pedro de Cardeñas, near Burgos, and Thomas Watters, who served in the Madrid-based Scottish Ambulance Unit. I hope I can be there.
In 1996 I wrote and photographed a piece for the Independent Magazine about the veterans of that war.
Here are three images that I found from my archive.