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Police unwilling to venture into a space where the consent between the agency of the state and the population had been repealed, and I found that nothing much had changed.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.

Standard
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.

 

Standard
Behind the scenes, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories

Pits (dis)

Pits. Everywhere, pits.

map001

©Crown Copyright 2015

The dimpled remains of an agricultural past litter the landscape. Farm labourers gathered its chalky alkaline nutrients, then applied it back to the topsoil as fertilizer around a hundred years ago. Then, fields were smaller and could be re-energized more easily with modest machines and brute strength. Pastures were dotted with people, talking, shouting, singing even.

Go to a ‘less advanced’ nation, Morocco say, and listen to the sounds the land encourages people to make. Whooping in the cold morning light. Toiling ‘till the sweat appears. I’ve been there and heard it. I’ve camped out under the stars on a rocky hill by the side of the road: pitched up by bicycle the day before, thinking I was the only one for miles. As dawn broke, a work party lying low nearby filled the air with the clatter of their pick-axes, which reverberated round the valley walls. These were the sounds that once resonated in the spaces carved out between these woods, in these pits. Now this clamour of voices is consigned to the past.

morocco

Al Haouz, Morocco ©djnorwood 2015

Of course, this is not the whole story. There is quiet – in between the gunfire from pheasant and partridge shooting, when their less appetising cousins can be heard. Coppices are festooned with plastic feeders and barrels that could grace a gallery space, as Duchamp-esque ready-mades, such is their utilitarian sculpted form. The only way to negotiate these places, without straying across the sight lines of twin barrels, is with the help of a map. Maps help keep us safe.

feeder-1

Untitled #1 ©djnorwood 2016

Maps also spur our curiosity, if we let them. At the risk of stating the obvious, the ordnance survey map aims to graphically represent three dimensional reality on a two dimensional plane, with all the necessary information needed for safe passage in the outdoors – the location of the nearest pub, for example, being of particular significance. But it also harbours information about physical features deemed necessary for safe passage through space. Pits are a fine example. Each one is marked as if it were a key feature to notice or negotiate – the map yielding these features – pit (dis) – as if they were waypoints on a quest. Yet in reality they are hard to find and usually disguised by mature trees, making full use of the fertile soil beneath.

pheasants-2

An open chalk pit ©djnorwood 2016

We are aware of the significance of local actions on the global whole, and this is the starting point for my curiosity. This was reinforced recently by reading the fascinating and far reaching biography of Alexander von Humboldt, ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf. Humboldt recognised the connectedness of the natural world back in the early part of the 19th century, and although much has changed in the way that we interconnect with each other, our interdependence with the land remains the same. Humboldt recognised both the significance of humans impact on ecosystems and the details of flora and fauna that gave flesh to his ideas. In the absence of so little of each, were he alive today, I’m convinced he would have searched out clues such as these.

alexandre_humboldt

Humboldt in South America: Versuch über die gereizte Muskel-und Nervenfaser (1797)

These particular ones aren’t heroic monuments like the usual totems of our recent industrial past – in Cornwall for example – where the chimneystacks of abandoned tin mines break the horizon like spires. These are intimate , hidden depressions, surrounded by trees, and this is the M3 corridor of rural Hampshire – a heavily industrialized zone of mono-cultural farms and fields.

pit-1

A disused chalk pit, ©djnorwood 2016

Perhaps lingering significance lies with the map makers themselves, who have carefully documented their pock marked presence, laying cartographical bread-crumbs on the surface of paper, and leaving it up to the curious minded to discover and create their own narrative. Perhaps it lies in the simple notion that something insignificant marked on a map can arouse interest and curiosity, and this in itself should be a cause for hope and optimism.

Anyone with a (healthy) map obsession can scratch the itch at the British Library. The fascinating  Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line is open until 1st March 2017.

Standard
Book reviews, Inspiration, Landscape

Missing Buildings

Hessel Street, E1

Our real times were spent out of school. I spurned authority, all the boys did. We used the derelict bombed houses as our hideaway places. They were the arenas for our obnoxious behaviour. We would buy a pennyworth of chips for our lunch, ram them into a dry roll and take it into a derelict house, climbing right to the top where we would sit and discuss things, as if we were in some kind of parliament.’

Don McCullin, Unreasonable Behaviour

Borough High Street, SE1

An overall sense of loss pervades the work of brother and sister Beth and Thom Atkinson in their new book, Missing Buildings which, as the name suggests, is a typological study of the bombed-out spaces left in London from the second world war.

This impression is reinforced by the lonely streets, the unpeopled pavements and flat, empty skies. It’s as if the air raid sirens never stopped. As if the living have sought shelter below ground alongside the dead and other archaeological remains. An eerie calm pervades throughout.

As metaphors for memory – both collective and individual – and the cumulative effect of time, these traces of buildings act as a cypher to contemplation; not only about the legacy of war, but also the cycles of social and political change that shape a modern city. Much as weather is photography’s unintended subject, so the changing socio-economic landscape of London permeates Missing Buildings, asking us to look again, and question how far we’ve come.

The outlines of these spectral structures are sometimes hard to see. One might assume that the locating process took weeks of walking and looking. The reality, it seems, is less arduous, and opens a subtle element of ambiguity in the project. Thom describes how most sites are marked on official war record maps, but some aren’t. These ‘unknowables’ are nevertheless taken to be bomb sites, both by the photographers and by passing locals, who engage the pair, curious about the project.

The public recounting of war stories adds a sense of certainty to these unverified facts, and intriguingly, Beth and Thom conspire in this story-telling with photographic ‘evidence’ – enhancing and repeating the fiction. In other words, this is not an exhaustive – or reliable – compendium of sites, but a foray into the urban past, a process of awakening and patient revelation using photography as the key to unlocking a deeper, psychological connection with places imbued with myth.

Copeland Road, Peckham

These places are remarkably, disconcertingly familiar. The urban syntax of regeneration, gentrification and disenfranchisement pervade. The side of one building – in graphic coincidence – is rendered ‘transparent’ by talented graffiti artists, showing the private décor of a fictional family, complete with ground floor pub and upstairs cat. An embarassed looking washing machine, surprised by its very public display, peeks apologetically out from a small shed onto a damp carwash courtyard. And a surrealist masterpiece – a giant monochrome rat – eyeballs the lens of Thom and Beth’s camera. Both unblinking.

Hackney Road, E2 #1

This process of walking and looking unifies the project and connects the photographers to their subject as vulnerable pedestrians, at risk from speeding car or vindictive pigeon. We learn – in the insightful afterword by David Chandler – that their grandfather was an ARP warden, based in Balham during the Blitz, whose job it was to ‘map bomb impacts in the area.’ Beth and Thom continue in this tradition – walking, observing and recording – much as their grandfather had done 75 years earlier. They have created a fitting and timely memorial to their grandfather and to the bomb site victims.

Goulton Road, Lower Clapton

In a picture from Goulton Road, Lower Clapton, a large billboard for a business directory proclaims ‘Knowledge is king.’ Next to it the ghostly, pointing, pock-marked apparition of what appears to be Lord Kitchener hovers above a sign which says ‘Cars wanted for cash.’ The memories of war, if we dare to look carefully, are everywhere.

Buy the book here.

Standard
© Corinne May Botz
Aftermath, Exhibitions, Forensic Photography, Inspiration

The Anatomy of Crime

Art and science mix in this boldly curated take on multi-layered forms of evidence.

What is interesting about the Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is the interweaving of science and art, allowing connections and highlighting differences, between the intentions of the artist and evidence gathered from crime scenes. In both cases there is room for dialogue between the viewer and the object. However, evidence gathered by crime scene examiners is in some sense mute until it is given meaning and context in a court of law. Visual artists, in comparison, generate their own sense of context and create an internal dialogue with the work before it is placed in the public realm of the exhibition.

This exhibition of material inspired by and derived from the investigation of crime, creates a tension whereby the artist appears to be substantiated and re-enforced by a proximity to the tools of science and evidence gathering. Corinne May Botz’s photographs entitled ‘Nutshell Studies’ offer a satisfying and successful embodiment of this relationship. They are shrunken recreations of actual murder scenes used by forensic trainers to teach new officers ways of interpreting crime. They are also powerfully subversive in their illustration of an innocent object twisted in form and function, which seems to mirror in some ways an innocent object manipulated, in the assailant’s hands for example, to become a lethal object.

©   Corinne May Botz 2015

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” is an exploration of a collection of eighteen miniature crime scene models that were built in the 1940’s and 50’s by a progressive criminologist Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962)

Angela Strassheim’s ‘Evidence’ monochrome photograph, re-appropriates forensic methodology for aesthetic effect. The ex-Police Photographer visits historic sites of violent murder – homes now occupied by new and unwitting owners – and searches for latent evidence still lingering on the walls and around door-frames. The resulting image records the ghostly glow produced by a chemical called ‘Luminol’ as it reacts with traces of contaminant present in the room. The presumption is that this is a reaction with the haemoglobin in blood, but in this context, the finer points of interpretation are masked and diminished by the picture’s ambiguity. Appearing to show evidence that cannot be substantiated, this picture shows the power of the photograph on the one hand – in its ability to render the invisible visible – but also the fragility of the image as a depiction of the empirical truth.

© Angela Strassheim 2008

Evidence No. 1, 2008

In a reverential ode-to-the-dead, natural processes of decay are represented in Sally Mann’s enigmatic, faceless corpse at the Tennesee Anthropological Centre, aka ‘The Body Farm’. Equally enthralling are acutely observed and luxuriously rendered illustrations from the 13th century – apparently in the Buddhist tradition – showing the nine stages human body decomposition – from pre-death portrait through to tumulus – an innocent looking grassy mound.

L0070296 Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body.  Final painting in a series of 9 watercolour paintings. The final image is of a memorial structure upon which her Buddhist death-name is inscribed in Sanskrit. Watercolour Published: [17--?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body.
Final painting in a series of 9 watercolour paintings.
The final image is of a memorial structure upon which her Buddhist death-name is inscribed in Sanskrit.
Watercolour

Nostalgia for the light, Patricio Guzman’s 2010 film, presents family members searching for their lost relatives in the arid Atacama Desert in Argentina. These women are shown searching for minute fragments of their husbands and brothers, who were arrested as political prisoners under the Pinochet regime and made to ‘disappear.’ Fearing their acts were about to be unearthed, the perpetrators exhumed the mass graves and scattered the remaining body parts, but shards of human bone lie visible still, and relatives identify and collect them, in the hope that these small acts of physical recovery will lead to lasting emotional ones. The unresolved nature of this case and its open ended narrative draw attention to and reinforce the difficulties of identification found elsewhere in the exhibition.

LustmordSimilarly, the care taken to present the bones in Jenny Holzer’s Lustmord (above) deliberately undermine the violence and careless demise of these victims of sexual crime. The silver tags on finger bones which once wore adornments more comfortably, are etched with ‘unsettling perspectives on sexual violence from perpetrators, victims and observers’. The instillation is protected behind an alarmed barrier, affording the victims more protection in death than they ever had in life. In an adherence of the term ‘forensic’ – meaning ‘of the forum’ – these inscribed ‘voices’ are made mute by their position within a very specific space and time.

© Šejla Kamerić 2015

Ab uno disce omnes

The showpiece of the exhibition, however, is the instillation by artist Sejla Kameric, located in the ‘Search’ section. Inside this solid silver box – a working refrigeration unit normally used in temporary morgues – a projector flashes images of evidence collected in the process of identifying recovered human remains, or Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) in Police jargon. Walking into the unit is a humbling experience. The cold air and drone of the generator are an unsettling distraction, but add a sense of brutal authenticity to the stark representation of hard facts.

This giant industrial cooler embodies the act of scene and evidence preservation in order, as a moral stance it seems, for future generations to find solutions to old problems. The refrigeration process keeps fresh those ugly things, which require revisiting and re-examining, after and beyond eyes tired and jaded.

Standard
Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape, Photojournalism

Beyond the Devil’s Rope

A review of the new work ‘Mountains of Majeed’ by photographer Edmund Clark

Edmund Clark has been photographing behind the scenes of the West’s ‘War on Terror’ since the late 2000’s. His breakthrough investigation of Guantanamo Bay ‘If the Light Goes Out’ drew attention to the plight of detainees and the daily routine of unconvicted terrorist suspects. With his new project, Clark continues to mine this rich seem, highlighting the discrepancies which exist between two polarized ideologies. ‘Mountains of Majeed’, is very clearly grounded in space and time – in Bagram Air Base in northern Afghanistan – but on closer consideration becomes a subtle allegory on the nature of experience.

© Edmund Clark

The photographs draw attention to the incidental spaces created between the buildings, boundaries and machines of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, creating a link between these highly ordered features and those which exist beyond the confines of the perimeter walls. The eponymous mountains of the title appear in each photograph like a vague recollection, their ethereal existence acting like a theatrical backdrop and counterpoint to the tangible solidity of the centre stage. The nature of warfare, analogous to rehearsed performance, is further enhanced by other details – a huge stars and stripes flag draped across the roof of a car port evokes the exuberant patriotism of a stage-show and a painting, intricately rendered, could be the set piece from a blockbuster movie.

Bagram-Day-1_0059-book

© Edmund Clark

Reality is further questioned by the use of other, more formal representations – this time of the landscape surrounding the Camp found as a mural in the military canteen. These idyllic paintings of the Hindu Kush by an anonymous artist known only as Majeed, contrast cleverly with their surroundings. The appropriation of this artist’s work acts as a cipher between diametrically opposed states. On the one hand is the geographical space between the soldiers inside the camp and the mountains receding into ultra violet light, and on the other the technological and existential distance between the two sides of the conflict.

© Majeed

This disparity is further enhanced with the knowledge that Clark used a state of the art high-resolution digital camera – further accentuating the difference between his Hasselblad and Majeed’s hog hair brush. The mechanism used to capture the image is sometimes a moot point, yet in this context it seems to reinforce the concept, providing a further critique on the gulf between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’. By adopting the technology of the foreign power, Clark acknowledges his place as an artist embedded within the machine of war.

Throughout the mountains remain alluring and intangible. Despite the project’s title, the clearest representation of this place is mediated through Majeed’s hand. This then becomes the most powerful narrative force within the work. The mountains become an enigmatic ‘terra incognita’ rich in human history and geological time but remain tantalizingly, for western eyes at least, beyond the devil’s rope.

The ‘devil’s rope’ is a term first used by native American Indians to describe the barbed wire ranchers used to enclose their newly acquired land. A BBC R4 program on the subject can be found here.

‘The Mountains of Majeed’ by Edmund Clark is on show at Flowers Gallery until 4th April 2015.

See more of Clark’s compelling work here.

Standard
Inspiration, Photojournalism

The Critic

Below is a review I wrote as a response to an exhibition at Host Gallery in 2012, and also forms part of my submission to The Critic on Ideas Tap – this time with images. I’ve posted about this project before, but I do find it an inspiring, well conceived and above all brilliantly executed piece.

 

In Abkhazia, a forgotten corner of Russia’s vast landmass, emptiness and decay are everywhere. Two-thirds of the population of Sochi a resort town on the Black Sea have been driven over the border to Georgia. Landscapes are battered, pock marked and strewn with abandoned buildings. Empty interiors are as welcoming as mausoleums and cracks are crudely filled with mortar – but there are no attempts to hide the scars. People are unsmiling and melancholic behind their resolute faces. In this current exhibition of the work of photographer Rob Hornstra, we see the hidden cost of recent Russian history etched into every image.

The Mandarin Republic

Pictures representing deceased war veterans evidence the cost of independence to this fragmented state. Family portraits are tacked onto floral walls, or occupy their own reverential space in vernacular wooden frames as formal reminders of their sacrifice. By including these images, Hornstra has handed the role of narrator back to the Abkhazian people. One can only applaud this decision as it connects the viewer on a deeply personal level to the deceased, and their relations who covet their chemical imprint.

Photo of a deceased husband in a refugee centre on Shamgona island. Many Georgian women who were forced to flee Abkhazia lost their husbands.

Photo of a deceased husband in a refugee centre on Shamgona island. Many Georgian women who were forced to flee Abkhazia lost their husbands.

Such intimate pictures contrast starkly with more formal portraits of bureaucrats, slotted between pine desks and pine-paneled walls. They seem imprisoned like marionettes in their wooden worlds. Behind one desk bound official a painting of a sinking ship lurks like a premonition. Behind another a tiger’s head emerges. Danger, it seems, is never far away in the Caucuses.

Sukhumi, Abkhazia

Post Office Administrator Suzanna Kaldzhan (35). ‘You can’t stick Abkahzian stamps on your card abroad

This exhibition is a poignant and sensitive portrayal of a largely unrepresented community. Aptly, Hornstra’s sympathetic, nuanced approach – re-enforced by the looming presence of the 2014 Winter Olympics – allows the complexities of the subject to emerge, justifying this long form style of photojournalism and the project’s beguiling array of printed and digital media.

All images ©Rob Hornstra/Institute

Standard