DIGNITY: Chris Arnade

I met Chris online, back in 2011. He’s an ex-astrophysicist, ex-Wall Street trader and, when I got in touch with him (or did he get in touch with me?), a photographer.

I’d been photographing drug addicts, so had he. I’d been criticized for photographing drug addicts, so had he. We compared notes, commiserated and pretty much saw eye-to-eye.

Then, in 2013, business took me to NYC, where Chris lived. I contacted him, asked if he wanted to hang out. Sure, he said, wanna go to a crack house in The Bronx?

Let’s go, I replied.

Chris, Hunts Point, The Bronx, 2013

We kept in touch over the years, he visited me in Kapital City a few times. It felt like we were fellow travellers.

Then Chris, as is inevitable, got worn down, broken down by all the time, energy and emotion he had spent with addicts. (Oh, I know that feeling.)

But his curiosity remained intact. So he set off across America to further the education Hunts Point had provided him. He went to the edges (which are, ironically, in the centre), those places given lip service (and knee jerks) from the media and by just plain comfortable folks.

Three years and 150,000 miles later his head was full. He dropped out to make some sense of what he’d seen, what he’d felt, and what he’d learned. The result is his book, DIGNITY, which hit the shelves this week. It’s a book of words and pictures. Lots to sink your teeth into. Food for thought.

drool. calls it required reading if you want to understand a bit more (different) about what’s happening now in the USA. Or, really in any place or society that is in the grips of, is suffering from, late-capitalism (aka neo-liberalism).

But don’t take my word for it. The Economist, in a review, compares it to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Walker Evans and James Agee). High praise indeed.

Chris doesn’t think of himself as a photographer, although photography is definitely part of his working method. We had a conversation about that, and then got sidetracked. And the sidetrack, as is often the case, led us to the crux, or, more accurately, a crux . . .

Chris Arnade: For me the photography comes second to the story and learning. I think that shows in my images. I do care about taking good pictures but they are secondary, and became more so as this project evolved. 

If I have a framework it is to take portraits that the subject wants. Or trying to at least. Or giving dignity to the subject. Meaning I almost always let them choose how they are photographed, and allow them, should they want, to clean up before the shot. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some action pictures. But more often it is intentionally posed. 

It also means I do relatively simple stuff. I try not to make it too arty, because I think that just feels artificial. 

To the larger point. I care more about learning than getting the right shot.

T. F.: We’ve talked before about how poverty is mostly comprised of stasis and crushing boredom. Yet many photographers who render poverty seem to look for, or at least inject, all kinds of drama into their photos of that poverty. Tell me a little about your thinking on this.

C.A.: Thank you for asking this. One of the most difficult things to do as a photographer is to not “artify” or add too much drama to your pictures. To take simple photos that respect, not transform, what you find. For a long time I fought the realization that much of poverty takes place amidst the banal. Partly because of what I had seen before, via the more traditional and famous photos of poverty, which rendered it dramatic and the subjects broken. Sharply contrasting black & white, wooden homes, weathered faces, clichéd poses, whatever, you know what I mean. I thought maybe that was how it was supposed to be photographed.

But the reality I found was more like the interior of McDonald’s, or the decidedly bland architecture of low-income housing projects. It was cheap corporate – an attempt through bright colors to hide the shoddy or uncomfortable environment, or through countless grey tones, to not offend anyone. 

This is the world of so much of low income America. Bland & banal strip malls, repetitive architecture, loud & jarring advertising. The attempt to make that pretty, or dramatic, or whatever just isn’t right . . .

I’m curious if you disagree with this. Or . . . curious to hear your thoughts since you are so much more familiar with Photography and its history than I am.

T.F.: I think your take on this is mostly right but a bit too categorical. 

It is possible to manipulate, artify, images of, well, anything, poverty included, in a way that is true (whatever that means) to the subject. Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.

In the end it comes down to the intent and talent of the person making the images. I believe intent and talent can actually be seen in the results . . . if one cares to look.

And therein lies the problem . . . most people (as you know) don’t care to look, they just want their biases confirmed and, thus, to be entertained.

Take, for instance, Sebastiao Salgado, I really dislike his Wagnerian, melodramatic, biblical really, photographs, and Bruce Gilden, who I kind of like for the brutality of his approach. For me Salgado is just lies filtered through Romanticism, while Gilden’s work seems to be more reality-based.

So it’s complicated. I try to judge each body of work on its own merits.

C.A.:I agree there is no set rule. I also fully agree on Salgado, who I was partly thinking of when I wrote what I wrote. I am not sure about Gilden. I really dislike his work because I think he is mocking his subjects, and I hate how he surprises them at times — I think with bad intent.

I fully agree with this “Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.”  

I guess my approach is more literal than most — which is why I am not really a photographer in my heart — I come into a place, look around, think about it, hang, and then try to figure out what is the essence of that place. What did I learn from this. What do I want others to learn? And how can I communicate that essence, or what I learn, the best via words & photos. 

Perhaps that would mean arsty-ing it up. Perhaps not. I don’t think Salgado or Gilden communicate the essence of a place or their subjects. Although by that measure, Gilden does indeed do a ‘Better” job.

T.F.: There’s more than one way, though, to show the essence of a place. For me Salgado’s images are way too melodramatic and idealized to be a “true” reflection of the recognizable world

And I don’t want to be an apologist for Gilden, because lord knows it’s so easy to see his images as just plain nasty. But for me there can be more to them than that.

But folks look for confirmation of their biases. You can easily find that in both those photographers’ work. Whereas with more neutral work (yours, for instance) that built-in bias is moved way to the back.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s there on the surface and not hidden behind trickery.

C.A.: I agree with all that, and fully agree that communicating that essence can come in many different ways. 

With regards to confirming ones bias, or having a bias. One thing you become very very aware of as a Wall Street trader is dangers of having a bias. Perhaps that is why I approach it why I do! 20 years of Wall Street made me determined to be aware of my bias!

T.F.: Okay, we sort of agree. I hope I haven’t bullied you into agreeing.

C.A.: I don’t think you bullied me. I asked your opinion because you know the photo world like a million times better than me. I intentionally operate without building that knowledge so I don’t end up copying a style.

T.F.: Fair enough. I’ve gotta go do the dishes, make dinner. And I’ll let you get back to your life.

C.A.: Cheers.

BREXIT: two views from the same side

Colin Pantall and Robert Darch both think that the UK leaving the EU is stupid. They each reacted to the causes and effects of the vote to leave, and its aftermath, in their own way. And those ways are diametrically opposed.

Colin, angry, attached extended captions to images he already had. He imagined a parallel universe where Brexit makes sense. He posted these to Instagram.

Robert, melancholy, used the Brexit thing to reimagine an idea he was already working on, but had no real emotional attachment to.

I’m interested in how photographers can address the same subject yet still (if they are any good) have their personalities come through in the work, can make it their own.

So I asked Colin and Robert some questions to see if further light could be shed . .

Another week of Brexit negotiations beckons . . . and I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to it with the anticipation normally only granted root canal or dental implant surgery. It’s going to be great. (And greetings to all my new dentist followers. I’m sure you will find much to interest you on this stream) From: Brexit Pictures ©Colin Pantall
From: The Island ©Robert Darch

 What was the genesis (apart from the obvious) of your Brexit project?

Colin Pantall: I live on the edge of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s constituency. (ed note: Jacob Rees-Mogg is a hard-right arch-Brexiter.) Pretty much every day I walk through these gaps in hedges to go to my allotment garden or just take a walk. As soon as I walk through that hedge, I’m on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s land. I’ve photographed a lot there because of the allotment. There’s this strange mix of the rural – the allotments, the views of Solsbury Hill – combined with allotment weirdness.

This mix seemed to fit with the emotional idea of Brexit, an idea that mixed an idealised nostalgia for what Britain used to be with a blinkered and quite baffling hostility to anything ‘foreign’.

As Brexit day (originally 29th March ) approached I made an edit of my work that mirrored a journey into the mythical land of Jacob Rees-Mogg where everything made sense in an off-kilter kind of way. I started putting this edit up on Instagram. 

But as the negotiations took hold, Britain found itself in the grip of these bizarre circular arguments that went nowhere. The votes in parliament were almost like a live sport. And so the Instagram posts evolved into something more responsive to events, and as events moved from the political to the satirical, the cynical and sarcastic, so did my posts. They ended in anger, frustration and despair. That’s where I stopped them. After all the negotiations and votes, Brexit has been delayed till October 30th before which the process will begin again.

Back in 2016, Britain voted narrowly to leave the EU. There were problems with the vote, irregularities in funding and information. It was based on lies.

I remember going to bed with a sinking feeling and waking up to see the vote confirmed. It was like walking through a door to a parallel universe. A universe where wrong is right and right is wrong, where the stupid get to lead, where liars are called honest, where thieves are made rich. 

I’m sick of Brexit and its little England racism, I’m sick of the lies that have been told by the carpetbaggers, the delusional claims of the left that somehow Brexit will lead to a Workers Paradise, the blind eye turned to the destruction of Britain, of Ireland, of the lives of millions, of the freedom to travel, work and study where we want. 

Luckily there’s a gap in the hedge near my house. I walk through it every day to get to our allotment. It passes from the constituency of Bath (where I live) to that of North East Somerset. The MP for our allotment is arch-Brexiteer, liar, and profiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg. It’s like a magic land. I walk through this gap and suddenly everything make sense, the truth of Brexit rings clear. These pictures are taken from beyond the gap in that hedge, these words are from that place, that age of madness where right is wrong and wrong is right, from the place where I believe in Brexit, from the place where the Wizard of Mogg is king.

For the next month I’ll be posting from that magical zone, where everything is true and everything makes sense…
The boss of Procter and Gamble, maker of Fairy liquid and Gillette razors, says its products could cost more if the UK leaves the EU with no deal. Tariffs the company may have to pay would be added to grocery bills, David S. Taylor told the BBC. “If it’s a hard exit it can drive cost in the system,” he said.

If prices rise or goods dry up, we’ll manage. In anticipation of unforeseen increased costs, I’ve started making my own razors and they work just fine. We survived the Black Death and the Plague with no problems. We’ll survive Brexit.

 What was the genesis (apart from the obvious) of your Brexit project?

Robert Darch: In 2015 started taking pictures on Portland Island, a small island in Dorset, England, connected to the mainland by a road and causeway. The island is scattered with quarries, dramatic coastline, tunnels and imposing prisons. It has a peculiar, uncanny atmosphere, quite distinct from the mainland but with elements of Britishness, so really appealed to my sensibilities. My initial idea was to make some observations about the British nation, using this small island to reference the British Isles as a whole. This was of course well before there was any notion of Brexit happening, but I envisaged exploring a lot of the issues that led to the Brexit vote, immigration, poverty, etc. However the project didn’t evolve, most likely as I didn’t have any personal attachment or real passion for the idea, and aside from an interest in the atmosphere of the island I couldn’t envisage how the project would develop beyond that. My work specifically deals with attachment, feeling and emotion, to generalize, i’m a heart, rather than a head photographer and my initial idea for the Island was definitely a head led concept.

However, that’s where the title of the Island originated. Then a few years later when Brexit happened, I felt so heavy and sad about that decision, I just started taking pictures that attempted to visualize how I was feeling, which became a new version of The Island, photographed in the South West and the Midlands, where I grew up. 

Most of my work has a slow genesis, often encapsulating older ideas and taking some time to realize the atmosphere or sense of place I am trying to create. Although The Island is a response to Britain voting to leave Europe, I was also drawing on feelings of melancholy I experienced in the past and how these emotions somehow felt heightened as a young adult.

Why do you use an imagined approach, as opposed to a documentary one?

Colin Pantall: Documentary is always imagined. Arguably it’s least imagined when its imagined in a positive way that embraces and recognizes the imagination? I think the straight expository voice of documentary is unbelievably fake and historically is a visual form of control. That might be a bit extreme, but yes, why not. Sometimes I wonder if straight photography isn’t like talking in a big, booming baritone voice that shows off your private education and economic status and your expectation to be believed because of it. And finding that actually you are.

Everything about Brexit and the Leave Campaign is imaginary too, but in a bad way that doesn’t embrace or recognize the imagination. It’s based on lies, dishonesty, and open racism and it’s backed openly or surreptitiously by people in all parties who pretend certain parts of it don’t exist because they’ve never been a racist so it couldn’t be possible. 

Brexit has never been thought out, the Leave arguments are based on fantasy and emerge from decades of infantile anti-European propaganda that revolve around second-rate British icons like custard creams and sausages denied us by envious, snooty Frenchmen and scheming, organized Germans who never got over the war. When really we’re the snooty ones who never got over the war, or the loss of empire, or anything. Brexit is an emotional thing and to treat it in an expository documentary voice is to make a categorical mistake.

Imaginary though my approach is, it’s still documentary – documentary can be emotional, with an unreliable wavering voice. That’s the voice I have, it’s inconsistent and it changed as the negotiations became more conflicted.

Dr Freud will see you now. So tell me, you’ve lost your paternal role now don’t have the colonies anymore, you’re getting fucked over by your American colonial son, so what exactly is it that is troubling you with your European relationship… (These are Freudian Slippers. They are a thing.)
“What the Fuck are you doing, baaaa?” Even the sheep are laughing at us . . . I think the sheep have the answer to how to get out of this mess.

Why do you use an imagined approach, as opposed to a documentary one?

Robert Darch: I am not a traditional documentary photographer, instead I work instinctively and use photography to capture a feeling or an emotion. I don’t like using the ‘A’ word as it feels slightly pretentious to me, but I do work more as an artist than a documentary photographer. Maybe I should just get over that hang-up and embrace it, buy some round glasses and a navy blue smock! 

The Brexit vote and the outcome of that decision is highly complex and layered with a multitude of underlying sociological, political and psychological issues that make envisaging a documentary work close to impossible. Also if I did consider a documentary project about Brexit as a Pro European, I would start making judgements about certain elements and aspects of the British mentality that I can’t abide, and as an educated, white middle class man I can’t begin to imagine how I could do that without appearing judgemental and privileged in some people’s eyes. 

Equally, i’m not so blinkered and idealistic that I can’t see and understand how this happened, why people would want to leave Europe, for the perceived safety and familiarity of good old Blighty. The Brexit vote was the result of years of austerity, mass immigration, lack of job security, raised aspirations, greed, the class system, politics, neoliberalism, privatization, fake news, indifference, social media and spin alongside a perceived lack of control over individual and collective fears…. I could go on. 

Instead of trying to rationalize that I made a quiet series of images that reflect my own hopes, fears and aspirations for the future, combining melancholic landscapes with portraits of young adults, whom this decision will impact the most and (in general) they passionately want to remain part of the European Union

I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh, or cynical, but what’s the point of your Brexit work, what does it achieve?

COLIN PANTALL: It’s a reflection of a mood, a wave of fluctuating sentiments and emotions that accompanied Brexit. It’s not rational, it’s not considered, it’s not trustworthy, it’s not consistent. It doesn’t achieve anything and it became quite destructive towards the end, a wave of what-the-fuckery and sarcasm. I don’t know what the point of that is. Maybe it’s a kind of Instagram therapy, a release valve for me to vent my rage.

It really was quite a unique period in British history. Was or Is? Because nothing has been resolved, we’re no closer to a way out of the mess that has been created. In fact we’re probably even further away. 

Why do people vote for assholes and their shitty, self-interested policies. That’s what I ended up asking. It’s like pigs voting for the butcher. That’s Brexit. I’m getting irate now just thinking about it. That’s why I had to stop. I was getting too angered by it all. Perhaps that was the point of it. It ended up just getting me all irate first thing in the morning and last thing at night.  So what was the point of it? Probably it was pointless, but I’m not sure if it was in a good way or a bad way? Or a bit of both. 

I’m feeling especially proud to be British today (that’s why I’m wearing my Brexit hat. I’m an early adopter) and I’m confident we’ll get everything sorted by the early evening. (PS: Apologies if you feel depressed and have a negative body image because of the retouching done on this image to make me look hot and unattainable. I’ve been beta-testing the new Brit-Face-Tune. – no tariffs on this one thank you very much!

I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh, or cynical, but what’s the point of your Brexit work, what does it achieve?

Robert Darch: I think you have to fundamentally make the work and take the photographs that mean something to you, and if someone else shares in that experience and relates to them then that’s wonderful.

I don’t make work thinking about what it will achieve, especially not in changing people’s fundamental views. I am not a political campaigner, that’s why I chose to make a quiet series of images that capture a subjective mood about a specific time, rather than add to the chatter around Brexit.

We live in a time where people appear to be fundamentally entrenched in their views, tribes, religions, politics and aren’t able to see something from a different perspective. People inhabit bubbles surrounded by collectives that feel the same as they do. This has definitely been reinforced by social media, witnessing people deleting friends if they were pro Brexit for example.

There’s an arrogance about believing that your viewpoint or opinion is correct and a safety and security in surrounding yourself with people that think like you do. I am sad about (Possibly) leaving the EU, but I am also sad about how divided and less empathetic humanity appears, something I am guilty of too.

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COLIN PANTALL: Brexit Pictures
‘The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want’
David Davis, 10 October 2016

I’ve never heard a truer word than that and there’s the path, smooth and steady with a clear end in sight!

My name’s Colin and I’m a Happy Camper because we’re leaving Europe and taking back control!
The trade secretary, Liam Fox, told MPs last November: “There are no health reasons why you couldn’t eat chickens that have been washed in chlorinated water.”

Which is good news because yesterday our powerful trade negotiators (our potential partners need us more than we need them, remember) were told by the US negotiators that the deal goes like this: we get their chickens, and that’s it.

I for one can’t wait to sink my teeth into the crunchy little critters.Chicken never tasted this good . . .
Brexit and Ireland. What could go wrong?
Theresa May’s Jacob Rees-Mogg doll, looking a bit worse for wear this morning.
Dave bought his Spanish holiday home after voting to leave but told Mr Jenkins that he regretted his vote. He told the journalist the main factor in his change of heart was the loss of “freedom of movement in Europe, for the proper Europeans”.

When he was asked if he wanted to keep his own freedom of movement rights intact he replied. “Yes. I know it might be selfish but I think on reflection now we’d probably vote, if we had a referendum, the other way now.”

The journalist asked him if he had “shot himself in the foot?” He replied:”We might have done, we may very well have done.” (The Scotsman)
The Brexit fox oracle. He goes north it’s another election, he goes west a second referendum, south is no deal, and east is more confusion and pain.

So east it is then…. never saw that one coming. 
Sad news. My pet duck Theresa passed away this morning.

She was lame yesterday and now she’s dead . . .
The Brexit Light at the end of the tunnel.

After last night’s no votes, the nation knows where it’s going and all is clear in the land of Brexit.
The Deal is Dead, Long Live the Deal.

And I thought the deal was dead . . . I apologize for getting ahead of myself . . . The deal LIVES.
Who wants to talk about Brexit?

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ROBERT DARCH: The Island

INDUSTRY, HAPPENSTANCE AND PONDERING

This week we begin with a short thing, and a link, to a discussion about photographing power. There’s also an update on my new project, plus a couple of Ottawa Notes. And be sure to tune in next week when drool. will have a special BREXIT! edition.

Let’s begin . . .

PHOTOGRAPHING POWER

A little while ago I participated in a Skype-type round table discussion, the subject: Photographing Power. The discussion was moderated and edited by Laurence Butet-Roch, for The Magenta Foundation’s newsletter.

In on the discussion were Glenna Gordon, Janet Jarman, Yvonne Venegas, Paolo Woods and Luca Zanier. Some seriously smart photographers.

It’s a long(ish) read but if you are interested in, well, in how and why to photograph power you’ll find some interesting thoughts, ideas and links in there.

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INDUSTRY, HAPPENSTANCE AND PONDERING

When I began this project the plan was to allow my new camera, plus a certain amount of industry, happenstance and pondering, to provide direction. What the project might be about, what it would look and feel like, was totally undefined.

But now something, some possibility, is emerging out of the semi-randomness of my shooting.

For instance, I see these four as being connected. But the connection, whatever it is, is very crude and probably mostly in my head. And even then it’s foggy. But it does feel like I’ve caught a glimpse of something in that fog, some possibility, something to pursue.

Of course I’ve just begun, and the act of discovery (as opposed to executing a plan to arrive at a foregone conclusion) takes a lot of time. I have to keep reminding myself. Yes.

Plus, as I work away I’m sure there will be rethinks, maybe even wholesale revisions of what I think I’m trying to do.

Who knows?

And that’s the beauty of it.

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OTTAWA NOTES

PHOTOBOOK WORKSHOP

This workshop, at SPAO, will enlighten you about all kinds of practical photobook-making tips, tricks, strategies, resources, promotion and more. Stuff I learned the hard way, through trial and error, when I was running Straylight Press and produced 18 titles by 12 photographers.

Sign up here.

Covers of some Straylight Press photobooks.

RUTH STEINBERG: Comfortable in His Own Skin

After Angus Wright lost 300 pounds Ruth Steinberg photographed his body. The resulting images, large B&W prints from 4×5 negs, are on display at the Enriched Bread Artists gallery.

This is a hard yet elegant look at a male body. The photographs contain no gauzy symbolism, they are not overwrought, nor do they cater to romance. What they do do is, they tread the fine line between forensics and art history. They are difficult to ignore.

The viewing sched is a bit finicky, but this exhibition is definitely worth the effort. Go have a look and a think. Details here.


FRESH. FROM ANGOLA.

ÉMILIE RÉGNIER: La Bella de Luanda

I first met Émilie 4 or 5 years ago at the Boreal Bash in Toronto, where she showed her Passport West Africa work. I was immediately taken. Shot with a Polaroid passport camera, four identical images on a small piece of positive film. Mostly women, a few men and children. Headshots.

from: Passport West Africa ©Emilie Régnier

Since then I’ve been looking at her subsequent work with wonder. Created mostly in Africa, almost always based on fashion. But it’s not really of fashion, also in the mix is portraiture, culture, exoticism (to Western eyes), sociology, anthropology, art, and the document.

Her most recent work, La Bella de Luanda, photographed in Angola, stopped me in my tracks. There’s something about these images that seem (at least for me) to provoke interesting questions about representation, questions that photographers people these days might want to think about. And they do it in a fresh, modern way that invites wonder.

Top to Bottom
Miss Allina
Maria and Hortancia
Madame Mendes

I asked Emilie a few questions. Her answers are as fresh and honest as her photographs . . .

Tell me a little about how you came to photography and why you choose to work with cameras that seem to embrace, for lack of a better word, the analog qualities of the medium.

I came to photography at a very young age. My grandfather bought me my first Polaroid camera when I was about 6 years old. I was then living in Gabon, and I remember shooting whatever I could, my friends, landscapes etc… They were terrible images, but I was already infatuated with the magic of photography.

When I was 16, I start working, and I used my first paycheck ever to buy myself a semi-professional Pentax camera. I was then taking photos of my friends and parties until graduation, most photos were taken slightly drunk or high and I would paste them on the wall of my room. And from then, I tried hard to not embrace photography as a professional career, but at 20 after dropping out of college on a winter day because they were no more parking spots available… I decided that maybe it was time to stop running away from what I really wanted and I went to study photography at College Marsan in Montreal. I instinctively disliked digital at the beginning. It doesn’t have the same sensuality, the depth of field bothered me, it had with time became too sharp and mainly it doesn’t exist in the material world, plus the beauty of mistakes with film camera is hard to beat. But I guess I am just like a nostalgic DJ swearing vinyls are so much better than MP3….

Miss Oliveira
Miss Maria
Miss Fatima
Miss Esperança

What draws you to Africa?

I spent my childhood in Gabon, and we got back to Canada when I was about 8. I for a long time said and thought that I went to live and work on the African continent to be an actor of change and witness inequalities.

Today, if I am honest, I think I was drawn back to this continent because a part of me belongs here. I am mixed race, and I was raised in a suburb of Montreal where I always stood out. Despite the love and affection of my family and friends, there was not a day I didn’t remember that I was different. It could maybe have been another experience if my father would have been around and I would have a positive reference of what it is to be a person of color, but he didn’t, and I grew up around white peoples.

At that time, for me being black was either synonym of a gang, crimes, hip hop, absent father or Africa and starvations. When you are mixed, you embodied both, the oppressed and the oppressor. There’s a natural tendency to embrace the part of you that has been oppressed, as it is your weakest link. I used to hate being mixed from a Black father, so I guess I had to learn about that side of me, to learn about what it means to be Black.

When I first came to Dakar more than 10 years ago, I felt that there were other realities than the one I had been living in. That the narratives about peoples of color I have been exposed through Western media as a child and a teenager were lies and stereotypes, that this continent was something other than conflict and malnutrition, that this is a place of creativity where the world is being reinvented. And I felt I wanted to be part of these narratives, not the one I was seeking at first, but the one that is still taking shape in front of my eyes.

Miss Lebia
Blue
Madalena and Luzia
Miss Americo

To my eyes the work you are doing there moves well beyond what these days is commonly called “othering”, your photographs ask a lot of questions. Can you talk a bit about your approach, both on the ground with the people you choose to photograph, and how and why you came to this way of working?

The goal I am pursuing with my work is to build bridges, to create other narratives and other ways to look at peoples. Our brains are over lazy and Western ideas of success, beauty, wealth are widely spread through Western Media and are often held by the elite around the world. This has created conditioning on how we see ourselves and how we see others. I want to challenge those ideas. I have been exposed to them growing up, and every day I am working hard to rewire my brain and to believe other truths. I want my work to make others question their absolute beliefs. I don’t have answers, but I am continually seeking new questions. I believe Fashion and Art are powerful tools to lead to new ways of thinking and to expand our consciousness.

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OTTAWA NOTES

SPAO hosted their annual grad show this past Friday. As usual a swell crowd filled the premises. Merriment, chat, discussion, catching up, looking, et cetera, ensued.

But what about the work?

Well, as usual, each graduating student has brought their own voice, concerns, perspective and approach to the show. What struck me, though, is I can’t remember a graduating cohort who seem more outward-looking and politically engaged than this one (generally) is.

Some of the politics is overt.:

  • Katherine Fulwider’s prints on cardboard of homeless youth, these accompanied by cardboard signs those youth use to tell you what they want you to know.
  • Christine Potvin’s portraits with interviews of Canadian Forces veterans, if that’s the correct word, who were drummed out of service because they were gay.
  • BPG’s reimagining of supermarket tabloids as hard political propaganda.

Some is elliptical:

  • Vivian Törs’ reaction to letters, written from 1937 to 1944, by a Hungarian-Jewish wife and mother.
  • Lauren Boucher’s ode to home and surviving cancer.
  • Destroyed money by Nicolai Papove Gregory.

Some documentary:

  • Through her grown children, Patricia LaPrairie looks at life in her home.
  • Lindsay Irene’s portraits of sex workers.

Of course there’s more. And who knows, you may see politics there where I don’t. After all, couldn’t all self expression be classified as somehow political?

And, as usual, some of the bodies of work here are more accomplished, fully realized, sophisticated, multi-dimensional, (fill in your own word here), than others.

Go have a look and decide for yourself. It continues until May 5th.

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FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY- LOUIE PALU

What draws a photographer to harsh environments?

Here Louie Palu talks about his trip from photographing hard rock mines in Canada to the front lines in the war in Afghanistan. The reasons he does it might surprise you.

He also talks a bit about the how’s and the why’s of his book, Front Towards Enemy, which is a box that holds a newsprint, an accordion book, a ‘zine and 10 loose portraits. All these aspects can be looked at individually, or they can be pulled apart and mounted on a wall.

Read on . . .

Tell me how you got from hard rock mines to Afghanistan.

My childhood was full of oral histories to do with war and the lives of workers. I realize, looking back over my life, that until I discovered photography, all I could do was use my imagination to try to see my family’s stories.

I literally started out in the darkness of underground mines looking for my direction. Before I started working in the mines I worked as an intern to photographer Mary Ellen Mark which gave me the structure of working on large, long form projects that went beyond magazines and newspapers. This set up how I approached every project I have worked on.

How does that you do relate to the stories you heard from your family when you were growing up?

The story that haunts me to this day is from one of my father’s closest friends who was in a prisoner of war camp. The story I was told was that the camp guards made his friend fight the guard dogs for the left over scraps of food from the guards meals. The cruelty of the stories told to me from my childhood were made a reality in Afghanistan.

It is hard to come to terms with your family identity in which your parents lived in poverty and experienced the trauma of war. For years I only had my imagination to visualize my parents detailed oral stories from the war. In Afghanistan it was now very real and right in front of me and it affected me deeply. When I looked at the young boys I asked myself if that is how my father looked when he was a boy.

What are your first impressions of Afghanistan.

To answer this question I need to go further back, before Afghanistan, to when I covered the Afghan refugee situation in Pakistan in 2004 as a Staff Photographer at The Globe and Mail. That assignment was my first view into Afghanistan. I had to document the repatriation of refugees from Pakistan back to Afghanistan. I worked out of Islamabad and Peshawar and rode a truck through the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border. I also lived with an Afghan family with 9 children that were accepted into Canada as refugees. Witnessing first hand that journey to a new country and leaving everything behind was very personal for me because my parents and sister left Italy in the 1960’s after growing up through the Second World War.

How many tours (is that what you call them) did you do in Afghanistan, and how long did it take, once you decided not to return there, to arrive at some kind of conclusion you wanted to present to the world?

I would just call them trips, tours are for soldiers and I am not one. I think I made around 7 trips total, maybe 8, I forgot and they ranged from 3 to 7 months per trip. I did the math once with a friend who also covered the war . . . we figured out I spent about 18 months only on covering frontline combat, more than 150 medevac missions and I lost count of how many miles I walked around on patrol. I also did a lot of independent work away from the military covering civilian related stories. Over the course of 5-years I produced a series of photo essays, shot video and wrote a lot.

As a photojournalist I was sharing my reporting daily, weekly and monthly in the news. I knew there would be a book one day, but it took 7-years to produce my book Front Towards Enemy after the war. The big surprise is I also made a feature documentary film, Kandahar Journals, which was not something I planned and it came out in 2015 before the book. The film was my friend Devin Gallagher’s idea, we met in a film editing class in which he was the instructor. I have many personal diaries from back then that several people are encouraging me to publish.

I love the idea of Front Towards Enemy, that it’s one thing made up of four things (which are each, of course, made up of many things, i.e. photographs). How did that idea come about and what’s your rationale for it?

In 2011 I started covering the Mexican drug war. What I quickly understood was happening was how there seemed to be two sides trying to control the narrative of how we did and did not see the drug war. So I published a newspaper called Mira Mexico that the reader could re-edit to suit what they thought the narrative should be, in essence manipulating which photos were seen and in what order. I followed up with three more newspapers one on the prison on Guantanamo Bay titled Operational Security Review and the third on Washington DC titled Federal City as a centre of political power.

 Front Towards Enemy became an expansion of this idea of the reader being able to change the edit of the photographs. I think the thing that frustrated me most about covering any war is how disconnected everyone back home was from the war. Anytime the war came up in a conversation people who had never been where I had been in person were telling me what it was like and criticizing in some cases how I covered the war without having direct knowledge of what the facts were. With Front Towards Enemy I am breaking down the role of the gatekeepers such as photo editors and curators and handing it to the reader.

Your images are widely seen, your movie, Kandahar Journals, features in film festivals around the world. Do you think your work, and the work of other photographers who are doing, for lack of a better word, political photography, makes any difference? What do you hope your work achieves?

 Photojournalism is all about knowledge, transparency and accountability, what you do with it as a reader or viewer is what makes a difference. For me the work my colleagues and I do is about creating dialogue and helping people keep themselves informed about what is happening in the world.

I am not sure when it happened or who started this narrative where photography is supposed to change the world, it doesn’t. However informed and motivated people with a conscious can make a difference and photography is a tool to help those people see parts of the world or issues that are hard or impossible to see.