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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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

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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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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Photojournalism

Photographing evil

Many pictures at the World Press Photo Exhibition have impact, but the surprising beauty of some require revisiting

Migrant sex worker © Paolo Patrizi

This image and the collection from which it came, for me, was the highlight of a recent visit to the World Press Photo exhibition. Paolo Patrizi’s story about migrant sex workers in Italy say very little about the lives of the individuals within them, but allude powerfully to complicated social issues of migration, poverty and race.

This got me thinking about why I want to return to certain pictures and not others within a gallery space occupied by talented photographers and worthy stories. In an effort to understand a little of the psychology at work here, I revisited Robert Adam’s book ‘Beauty in Photography’ and an essay entitled ‘Photographing Evil’, a subject traditionally associated with Photojournalism.

Adams had been photographing coal mines in the area around Ludlow, Colorado, a place which he found unnervingly beautiful despite the facts with which he was confronted – ‘carcinogenic residues that were being dumped into streams and air, for instance, and the broken social patterns that the mines brought to nearby towns.’

He tried to photograph a monument to the killing of miners and their families by the Colorado militia, but felt resigned to the fact that he had wasted his time – that his skills and methods weren’t up to recording his heightened awareness of the issues that had motivated him to drive 80 miles out of his way on a sunny winter morning.

Adams does not berate himself though, preferring to take comfort in the fact that many photographers and artists, when faced with the horrors of war or social inequality, have made their best work while looking the other way. He cites Edward Hopper in particular as someone who worked through the Depression of the 1920’s without addressing its problems directly.

Edward Hopper, Night Windows, 1928

Adams goes on to suggest that, by choosing subjects which in some way celebrate life – or in the case of Patrizi’s pictures use nature and light as a metaphor for hope – the pictures might become objects to which we return when hope is the only emotion we can salvage from a particularly traumatic situation or experience.

‘Restated, photography as art does address evil, but it does so broadly as it works to convince us of life’s value; the darkness that art combats is the ultimate one, the conclusion that life is without worth and finally better off ended, Which is to say that art addresses an inner struggle whereas journalism more often reports on the outward consequences of it.’

The Photojournalism I admire not only addresses an issue but invariably uses elements of composition or light to draw the gaze and the mind away from the issue itself to a place where an alternative narrative – which would be different for every viewer – is allowed to take hold and develop. This imaginative space is created by elements of composition, light and the presence of nature which combine to unlock a sense of beauty.

Adams finishes his essay by referring to images where photographers have been able to capture this duality in a single frame citing Lewis Hine as a prime example.

trodd-lewis-hine-01

“There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profit only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work.”

— Lewis Hine, 1908

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Book reviews, Inspiration, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism, Project reviews

Reporting on a Folly – Sochi 2014

“If you love Russia, you don’t tell the truth about it.”

Go for it!

Go for it!

This ironic quote was reported by Arnold van Bruggen (at a recent talk at the Frontline Club) as the main criticism from the Russian ‘blogosphere’ of the Sochi Project’s coverage of the build up to the Russian Winter Games.  Together with Photographer Rob Hornstra, the pair have devoted their lives to the region over the last 5 years producing 10 separate publications and an insightful website that can best be described as a compendium of stories from a troubled region given scant coverage in the mainstream media.

The aim of the project is an ambitious one. It seeks to disseminate stories – political, ethnographic and cultural – to a broad audience both within Russia and elsewhere. It uses a variety of means to do this, which all rely on the close bonds formed during many re-visits to the region. These return trips add further layers of material which are then compared and added to the encyclopaedic narrative, then made into books, newspapers, poster campaigns or shared on the web.

Human Rights Lawyer

Human Rights Lawyer

This long-form or ‘slow’ journalism is particularly suited to a variety of media with varying emphasis given to pictures or text.  The book ‘Empty land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land’ (re-printed 2013) for example, gives equal weight to both.  Chapters guide the reader through a narrative web, the strands of which – appropriately – can only be fully appreciated with time and effort.

Journalist for a local newspaper

Journalist for a local newspaper

In this regard, Hornstra’s photographs achieve a certain stateliness and formality which mirrors the lurking presence of state authority. Many of the images allude to memory and trauma – photographs of photographs, decay and dereliction – or highlight bureaucracy in all it’s monotonous repetition. The photographs, however, become a perfect medium to relay this stasis – paralysis, one might say – being themselves a form of preservation.

The success of the project is primarily due to two overarching factors. Firstly, there is a successful marriage between content and presentation: where design and layout combine to present both text and image in a beautifully approachable and tactile form. Credit here must go to designers and cartographers Kummer and Hermann, who have given the body of work its distinctive style. Second, despite the breadth of the project, the looming presence of the Winter Games in Sochi provides an anchor point around which stories revolve like constellations.

Beach in Adler

Beach in Adler

In short, this project provides a possible template for other committed story tellers keen to engage a large audience over an extended time-frame. The pair may well have been listening to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during her TED talk in 2009. She warns of the dangers of a single story representing a stereotypical point of view. Admittedly the Caucusus as a geopolitical region are so under-reported that stereotypes are hard to imagine. Nevertheless, their approach seems to avert the kind of criticism normally leveled at photojournalists.

An intelligent and thought provoking project which challenges photojournalists to commit to their subject – becoming investigators, not just voyeurs.

All images © Rob Hornstra

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