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 . . .
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.
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.
And that’s the beauty of it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.