Book reviews, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Photography and current affaires, Project reviews

Tribal Meditations

Simon Roberts’ atomised survey of Brexit Britain’s divided soul. A short review.

Merrie Albion, the new monograph by the photographer Simon Roberts is a timely publication delving into the social landscape of England. The work has been ten years in the making and was conceived, as much as these things can be, before the uncertainty of Brexit could taint the sea air or sour the national psyche. The pictures reveal a society of tribes, each imbued with their own laws (lores), engaging in the complex, hierarchical and habitual activities comprising our western society; rooted in a landscape rich in history, meaning and metaphor.

Merrie Albion

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Shoreham Air Show, West Sussex, 15 September 2007

Gatherings of people in grand and intimate scale could signify that contrary to popular sociological discourse, we are all ‘somewhere’ people despite issues of class, religion and social status. This ‘somewhere’ may not be a home in the domestic sense, but it is a shared space of social interaction, where the emphasis is on a communal sense of values and attitudes. Equally, the pictures allude to the hidden rifts between people of different class, social status and socio-economic background. In both senses, we are English when we look, sound and feel the same as our neighbour, whether they be daubed in face paint in anticipation of a Kiss concert, or donning Captain Beeny t-shirts in support of a comical parliamentary candidate.

Merrie Albion

Download Festival, Donington Park, Castle Donington, Leicestershire, 13 June 2008

The pictures appeal for their detail and scope. Each element is carefully stage-managed in an act of patient observation. We see ourselves in the reflected gaze of the curious professor, peering down over half-moon spectacles, smiling wryly. The stillness of the images and their resolution reward a forensic gaze. If this is a mirror held up to us, it is gilded and gaudy, depleted of sophistication, worn and artfully stressed.

More classic British wit is on show: the absurdity of a dunking in Dickensian costume; men and women in white coats at a county show (are coming to take me away, ha ha!), the authoritarian demarcation of the end of a tourist beach; a cat (belonging to a malevolent psychopath, perhaps?) sits innocently on a wall outside a weapons factory; ‘A warm welcome’ emblazoned against a fire damaged building, provides a lurid, ironic twist. This is a country suitably sanguine about its ability to cope with political fallout and economic turmoil. The pictures seem to solidify a sense of British resolve to face up to the least worst options available.

Merrie Albion

Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 19 June 2008

As David Matless, one of the astute writers, academics and commentators included in the book says in apt English understatement, ‘There is much variety in Merrie Albion.’ It is this remarkable breadth that would habitually dilute a voice within a project, leading to unproductive cul-de-sacs and dead ends. Yet Roberts has elegantly navigated any danger of disconnect by being clear about his socio-geographic objectives and by opening the work up to collaboration from voices across the cultural spectrum and political sphere.

Merrie Albion

Beachy Head, Seven Sisters Country Park, East Sussex, 14 March 2017

He pictures his fellow country folk in circumstances of apparent free-will, when quiet passions, pastimes and affiliations float to the surface as if in subconscious reverie. But we need direction to navigate this complex terrain and it is the narration, both in the form of extended captions and other voices, which prove to be illuminating guides on this complicated but rewarding ten-year journey around the isle.

Author’s note: this review was written from a pdf kindly supplied by the publisher, Dewi Lewis. The book is available to buy online here.

All images ©Simon Roberts

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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism, Stories, Theory

Incoming

Incoming from Daniel Norwood on Vimeo.

Incoming is a multi-media instillation on show at the Barbican Gallery in London by the artist Richard Mosse in collaboration with the cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and the composer Ben Frost. Its theme is the migration crisis of refugees into Europe, and branches off into independent but related scenarios such as the demolished ‘Jungle’ Camp in Calais and naval operations in the Mediterranean.

Mosse uses a military grade thermal imaging camera to represent migrants as monochromatic, anonymous figures irradiating heat signatures in varying tonalities, depending on their circumstance and predicament. The thermal rays bounce off a metallic blanket like light, and the tips of fingers and the ends of noses fade against warm palms and faces. The vision of this highly sophisticated camera in this context is resolutely other: a piercing dystopian eye which sees like an alien and renders those within its gaze as heat maps, rather than identifiable individuals.

As a linear progression from his previous work Enclave, where the artist used discontinued military grade infra-red film to reveal Congolese fighters in deep jungle, Incoming utilizes the technology of surveillance as a medium of artful reflection, rather than for, as in this case, its intended purpose – as a tool for battlefield awareness or the long range enforcement of border crossings and other state sponsored surveillance. Where Incoming departs from Enclave, and expands the critique on the use of such systems, is in the insidious rendering of all human life as equally vulnerable to the camera’s technology.

The ethical use of this medium is born out of the artist’s desire to diverge from the common use of images in the mass media, and showcase the awesome (it provokes awe) properties of the camera itself. In simple terms, this means that the gallery visitor can see what the soldier or law enforcement officer sees. More importantly however, it highlights the complicity of this ‘seeing’ in the context of the gallery space, and casts the unwitting witness as complicit in this crisis. The result is that one emerges into the daylight equally moved and troubled by the experience. Yes, the refugee ‘other’ is represented as stark, featureless biological traces, but so too are the aid workers, doctors, police officers and military personnel. Indeed, anyone who strays into the dehumanising vision of the all-seeing-eye is deprived of humanity.

the-society-of-the-spectacle

The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord

 

 

In this way, the gallery visitor, by association, is implicated in the work, and this fact could be used to respond to criticism of Mosse’s approach as mere gimmickry. The discrepancy of power relations between migrants and governments create an unnerving undercurrent, raising questions about the ethical use of surveillance techniques against people who are essentially rendered (in their essence) the same as us – just another heat source. This could be seen as helping to break down barriers of representation, rather than re-enforcing usual stereotypical narratives. However, it is complicated by the inherent sense of voyeurism – the overall production values borrow from the language of entertainment – the lingering close up and the stylized slo-mo being two obvious examples.

In short, Incoming refers as much to the new frontiers of military hardware available to the State as to the vulnerable refugees that this project seeks to represent.

The powerful and emotive Incoming is a free exhibition on at the Barbican until April 23rd.

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Behind the scenes, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism, Stories

Fluency and Empathy

community-centre

The refugee Community Centre, Athens. ©djnorwood 2017

Part two of  three part post…

The following day I met up with Sophie again after she invited me to an Arabic film at a community centre. I made my way across the city just in time only to be told it was a women’s only screening. No problem, I thought, I’ll sit in on an Arabic class instead.

One of the volunteers stood in while we waited for the usual teacher, Raman to arrive. We were all there for our different reasons, and not all because we had nothing better to do. Olga’s Iranian husband always spoke to her in Russian, but she’d never been able to reciprocate in his native tongue, so this was her big chance. She seemed touchingly determined to change this discrepancy in one go.

Our three British classmates were there in various capacities to fill the void for aid and services – English language classes, community aid and social work – each providing a link between charity groups and displaced peoples. I was beginning to get a sense of the roles carved out by the arrival of migrants and, equally, the diversity of those who choose to respond to their calls.

Raman helped us wrap our mouths round unfamiliar words and phrases, laughing with every failed vowel and mispronounced glottal stop…

Kefak/Kefek – How are you? (Male/female)

Alhamdulillah – Praise (be to God)

Taman – Good

Sho ho Esmak/Esmek – What is your name?

Ismi – My name is…

Sophie’s interactions in Arabic had impressed me, but also reinforced how fluency builds trust between the displaced people Safe Passage was here to help. This brief Arabic lesson only reinforced the sense that a language barrier can lead to antipathy, then perhaps inexorably on to more obvious physical borders, boundaries and ill conceived walls. An obvious question now seemed to hang in the air: would we in the west be so xenophobic if we shared the ability, or even the desire, to communicate on equal terms? I left the centre with a new sense of empathy wondering how long it would last.

Tonight was the night I had promised to hook up with Ahmed and Akram and I couldn’t help wishing I’d postponed the meeting till later in the week. It was now 5, so I had to kick around until they surfaced at 10. I wandered back towards Exarchia, pausing to stare in through bookshop windows, admiring the exotic beauty of the Greek alphabet. I had no real desire to decipher the many titles on offer, my eyes just luxuriated in their foreignness: aesthetically accessible but resolutely incomprehensible – like some kind of enigmatic code.

Eight O’clock came round and I was beginning to flag. My gut, now full of greasy Gyros said this was voyeuristic, given that I had no real reason to be at the squat full of asylum seekers, yet the toothbrush in my bag told a different story and weighed more heavily on my mind than its diminutive size might suggest. The whole escapade now felt vaguely surreal. Everything was set apart from my conviction that this was a good idea. I wandered back across town, back to the apartment and spent a couple of hours with my host and his friends playing snakes and ladders of all things, feeling guilty about my lack of commitment. Were they really expecting me to spend the night with them?

In the morning I logged in to the house wifi and picked up the WhatsApp messages from Ahmed.

‘Where are you?’ hit me like a punch in the side. I apologized, then hurriedly arranged to meet them the following night. I promised I wouldn’t let them down again.

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Behind the scenes, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

Ahmed & Akram

exarchia

A corner of Exarchia District, Athens, during a gathering of political activists. ©djnorwood 2012

‘If you stay there one night, you will want to kill yourself.’

I was sitting outside a bar overlooking Exarchia Square in central Athens, scoffing pizza with some new acquaintances, two of whom happened to be Syrian refugees. We’d been talking about the journey the sixteen and eighteen year olds had had to endure to get to their current place of residence – a squat in an abandoned school close to the centre of Athens.  Ahmed was describing in great detail what it was like to be living persona non grata in a foreign country. The pizza had come as a welcome distraction from the more pressing thoughts of an uncertain future.

‘If you like you can stay the night with us,’ he continues, giving a cheeky smile across the table to his friend who is occupied with a particularly large and unwieldy slice. Akram smiles with his eyes, knowing exactly the hospitality his friend has in mind. His mouth is far too busy with the pizza to reply.

Just before my week long trip to Athens I’d been mulling over ideas about how to interpret questions of social cohesion, economic depression and individual discontent. It put me in a reflective mood, but already this encounter was helping to understand the truth about what it was like to be displaced, miles away from home. I got the impression Ahmed was making the most of his last year of boyhood, and was enjoying some aspects of his pioneering adventure. He wore his displacement on his sleeve, and my subdued reaction to the thought of spending a night there only seemed to bolster his sense of pride and resilience, with a smattering of school-boy excitement thrown in.

I’d been to Athens before, in the summer of 2012, again for a frustratingly short amount of time, but had returned with something approaching a visual style and a vocabulary of themes. Then I had stayed just down the road from this spot, in a small apartment with a friend from Estonia, and had walked these same streets in an effort to understand the symptoms of the financial crisis facing the country. Exarchia Square and its surrounding neighbourhood had become something of a safe haven for demonstrators – the Police unwilling to venture into a space where the consent between the agency of the state and the population had been repealed, and I found that nothing much had changed.

In my peregrinations this time, I find myself sitting outside a smokey bar, a favourite haunt for left leaning literati, overlooking the same tree lined Square I got to know four years ago. Lost in my own thoughts, I’m asked in English ‘do you order drinks at the bar, or is there table service?’ I thought I fitted in quite well as a local, but obviously not. Strangely, I felt my cover blown. Sophie, an Arabic speaking charity coordinator working for Safe Passage, was out at the end of the working week taking the pulse of the city. As we sit together overlooking the Square, she is recognised by the two boys, whom she had helped when they were both living in a camp on a nearby Island.

‘Where is this place? Where are you staying?’ I ask, trying to get a sense of whether staying a night in the squat is a good idea or not.

‘It’s only just around the corner, just up there,’ says Ahmed pointing over his shoulder and lifting his chin at the same time.

‘We can find a place for you, no problem. But no pictures.’

‘How many people are there,’ I ask.

‘About one hundred and fifty.’

Sophie, peers over in my direction.

‘What an opportunity,’ she says. ‘Are you going to do it?’

‘Err…Yes’, I reply hesitantly. ‘Why not? My project isn’t primarily about refugees, but it’s part of the broader picture, and I can put it down as research.’

Those last words make me feel uncomfortable, like some kind of disaster tourist, but I push these thoughts aside, together with Ahmed’s rather dramatic warning, and resolve to get in touch with them both the following evening.

We exchange numbers, friend each other on Facebook (of course) and dissipate into the night, the cold Athenian air tinged with the taint of tear gas.

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Behind the scenes, Environment, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

In Transit

athenian-vans

These graffiti covered vans seen recently in Athens seem to distil many of the arguments about the economic woes of a country coupled with the migrant crisis we hear so much about in the media.

I spent a day walking around the neighbourhood near the flat, which happened to be close to Athens China Town. If ever there was a success story of economic migration, surely this was it. Nothing glamorous about the location but the fashion draped over mannequins on pavement corners had more than a hint of glitz. One wondered how the dark warehouses behind, full of sequinned dresses and racy underwear could sustain themselves, yet business seemed to be booming. In harsh times a little bit of luxury seemed to go a long way.

Keeping watch like sentries outside the store fronts were dilapidated vans, mostly white and mostly adorned with a livery of spray can tags. The tipping point of resistance to this criminal damage had long been surpassed, and now these most utilitarian of vehicles were slowly morphing into their surroundings.

The vans show something of the industrial heartland of commercial Athens, away from tourist attractions. They are a modern symbol of what the Ancient Greeks termed ‘Polis’ – the agents of citizenship which help drive, literally in this case, the economic well-being of a city.

 

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Environment, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

A frictionless future

“Bill Gates has recently promoted the notion of a ‘frictionless capitalism.’ But even if it were other than a myth, it would not be a good idea because it would mark the end of innovation. Friction can be productive when it helps us to be reflective about what we have taken for granted. Innovation occurs when generative friction stimulates reflexivity to recognize new recombinations.”
– David Stark, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Columbia University
51 40'35.38 N, 0 38'22.78 W

51 40’35.38 N, 0 38’22.78 W ©djnorwood2012

The HS2 rail project is an eye-wateringly expensive proposition. Understandably it has provoked consternation among residents along the length of the route and it inspired me to go out and see for myself the threat posed to parts of the landscape. Angry signs along hedgerows and bordering beech woods were an obvious – perhaps too obvious – motif around which I formed a series which featured in the Politics of Land magazine FOV (Field of View) in April 2012.

The resulting images were as much about our ideals of nature and ‘the natural’ as they were about the inevitable tide of progress. I concentrated my gaze on the Chilterns – a so called ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’ – walking paths that will, for many years during construction, be blocked with aggregates. Yet the landscape here is far from natural, being as it is, littered with pylons and the detritus of intensive agriculture.

Nevertheless there is an indefinable need in all of us to hold onto an idealized concept of ‘nature’ rather than the more brutal reality – something that has been articulated in one word – biophilia. Literally translated this means a ‘love of life and of living systems’. You won’t hear the term in village hall meetings up and down the length of the line, but it is implied; and it is there in the carefully tendered lawns and herbaceous boarders of the houses threatened with demolition.

I was recently contacted by Dr. Jos Smith of Exeter University, who walked the length of the proposed route from London to Birmingham and writes eloquently about the disparity and disconnect between this project and the communities through which the rails will run. As well as further points about ‘frictionless capitalism’, he also includes a picture of a ‘yarn bomb’, a beautifully light and poignant way of drawing attention to a weighty and somewhat prosaic subject. I encourage you to read it here.

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Environment, Photography and current affaires, Theory

Junkyard Economics

waste vb wasting, wasted 1 to use up thoughtlessly, carelessly or unsuccessfully

Picturing the detritus of the the West has produced a rich vein of photographic work. A new book by the journalist Adam Minter, however, casts the subjects in this trade, particularly in China, in more nuanced terms.

From the series Permanent Error ©Pieter Hugo 2009

For photographers, there has always been an attraction to the gritty, grungy aesthetic of a landfill site or recycling dump. The pictorial qualities of waste can draw on links with historical painting or engage with a sense of injustice; evidence that rich nations are consuming more than their fair share. The subtle beauty of the former can be seen in the work of Neil A White.

As evidence of injustice, waste dumps are often labelled on a par with the industrial exploitation of resources – mining for gold and metals used in smartphones – and other human rights abuses from which local people have no escape. This however ignores the very real economic benefits these dumps provide, and the dignity gained from a sense of agency and entrepreneurialism. Powerful and noteworthy work along these lines include projects by Sophie Gerrard and Pieter Hugo.

©Sophie Gerrard 2006

©Sophie Gerrard 2006

I am not suggesting that individuals working on these sites should be universally grateful for their lot, but I am questioning the concerned gaze of the western viewer who, when confronted with such easily decoded images, is prevented from delving into the intricacies of the issue. We look at the figure. We take in the surroundings. We reel in horror. And do nothing. This seems to be the default position.

Despite these universal truths, there is according to journalist and re-cycling expert Adam Minter , a vast and hugely rewarding trade in e-waste and recycling happening in China, which might suggest new commercial opportunities for communities in suitable parts of Africa and India. Needless to say, contamination of food and water supplies need to be addressed.

Minter argues that far from being no-go areas, recycling dumps particularly where large quantities of valuable metals can be extracted, provide the necessary raw material for new products and industries and for communities to emerge and thrive, despite the odds.

An excellent review of the book published in the Guardian by Isabel Hilton can be found by here.

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