A self-published paper reflecting my interpretation of the dilemmas faced by advocates of plans to expand Heathrow Airport and residents who live in the villages nearby.

Music by Lizzie at Grow Heathrow; the original ‘Sprawl’ by Arcade Fire.

Inspiration, Photojournalism

A master of the veneer

Marine iguana, Galápagos, Ecuador, 2004:

Marine iguana, Galápagos, Ecuador, 2004:

The word ‘epic’ stands out in the advertising material for Sebastiao Salgado’s latest project – Genesis, now showing at the Natural History Museum in London.  However, this surely has more to do with the vast tracts of the worlds surface through which Salgado flew, drove, floated, tramped and climbed than a more pressing engagement with hidden truths discovered on his eight year quest.

That is not to say there aren’t astonishingly beautiful images here which startle with their characteristic use of dramatic, reverential light and majestic composition.  This is a photographer at the height of his powers, using new – to him – technology (Salgado eschewed film in favour of digital capture for the first time) to produce highly detailed and sumptuous prints.

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Two Mursi women, Omo Valley, Ethiopia, 2007

The problem is that these pictures only add to a sense that nature is something wholly apart from ourselves.  In other words, that nature and the indigenous people that live in it – are something to be visited, to be wondered at – gorped at even – until our desires are met and we return, satiated, to the modern world with all its complications and hypocricies.

In his essay,  Sebastiao Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism , Julian Stallabrass brings up an interesting point about the indigenous people depicted in his book – Other Americas.  He highlights the successful way in which Salgado has drawn attention to the communities which have survived and thrived away from the ravages of modern existence.  This critique can be applied to Genesis, where some of the most interesting single images depict specific social groups with strong bonds to each other and their natural environment.  He nevertheless states that ‘it is an unavoidable strength and weakness of such pictures that they exhibit something real but unaided can say little about it, except that it exists; the pictures reify, display, and sell back to their viewers the husk of what they have abandoned.’

After Salgado’s previous project – Workers – Genesis seems to be more colonial travelog than serious photojournalism.  On this point, one cannot help but be drawn back to Salgado’s bruising portrayal of Gold miners in Brazil enduring monumental hardships to fulfill the West’s desire for natural resources.

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The Gold Mine, Serra Pelada, Brazil

Ultimately, with this exhibition, Salgado’s reputation will grow as a new audience engages with his work.  In his back catalogue, Salgado has tackled big issues with a style which has ingratiated himself with galleries and the art market.  Much of the hidden rhetoric in his latest work will emerge, and the historical significance of many of the pictures will only increase as indigenous populations are pressured to enter modern life to a greater or lesser extent.  Furthermore, it was heartwarming to read at the end of the exhibition about the farmland which he has replanted in his native Brazil as his way of contributing to the health of the planet.

A shame, then, that there were no pictures of this – probably aesthetically bland – piece of land in his finished work.  In Salgado’s unique vision, his holy light only illuminates the beauty of the surface of things.

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Behind the scenes

A freedom fighter, an avocado car and other stories

The avocado car had found its natural environment

I contacted David G the first morning I arrived in Nairobi, hoping he could assist in my latest quest.  Knowing he was of the Kikuyu tribe and of an age where he would be well connected with the local inhabitants, I was sure he would be able to lead me towards one of the last remaining freedom fighters in the country.

I wasn’t disappointed.  After spending a night as his guest in Huruthura opposite the Kenyan airforce base – sleeping under a particularly holey mosquito net – we travelled up to Lari district where he has aspirations for Political office. This lead to a certain amount of flesh pressing as I shadowed his movements.

We met up with Joseph, a family man who runs a gas station, and who very generously agreed to take us to Kahuho, where we had an appointment with a certain Sergeant Major.  The mists had cleared by the time we arrived at the edge of the escarpment at 8,000 feet, ready for our descent into the midday heat of the Rift Valley.

The roads started to worsten as we weaved downhill – at one point crossing the Kenya to Uganda railway.  After more hand shaking and guttural conversations in native Kikuyu between David and his potential constituents, we continued down a tree-lined track and past a sign which read, ‘Freedom Fighter in 1952, Sergeant Major Wamweya Kinyanjui.’

Sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with the words ‘Silver Slipper’, our host was already in position – sitting under Jacaranda trees on a grassy patch surrounded by out buildings.  With formal introductions over, we got down to some hard listening as the Major gurgled Kikuyu through sizeable gaps in his tusk like teeth.  I managed to remember the iphone, to record these rumblings (although seismic equipment might have been better) and strategically placed it on my knee, then Joseph’s, while I tried to compose pictures.

The old man quickly had his guests in the palms of his bucket like hands, which he flailed around to colour his story.  So engrossed were the den of men, that time didn’t allow for many pictures when the Major finally dried up.  By the end I felt like I’d achieved a couple of good portraits, but there were too many distractions, and I ended the day – surrounded by 30 Kikuyu men, in a bar, eating freshly slaughtered goats intestines – feeling as if it was a job half done.

Nothing for it but to go back…

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Behind the scenes

Photojournalism in the Gallery Space

Photojournalism seems to work best on a small scale where one can intimately engage with the message being disseminated. Its intention can be said to be a narrow, more didactic one than ‘art’ photography, drawing the viewer along a narrow passage of thought, rather than the more opaque qualities of photography intended for the gallery wall.

Photojournalism’s role has always been one of social responsibility; a moral conscience with which it ventures out into the world, aiming to respond to injustice and tyranny. However the ‘fetishization’ of the gallery based image works contrary to photojournalism’s intention to comment on political subject matter. On the one hand it seems to say, ‘look at the system, look at the problems it causes,’ and on the other, ‘the system is good – it allows me to show this to you for your consumption and pleasure.’

The shrewd photojournalist needs deal with this contradiction. They need to change the emphasis of their work to in order to have one eye on the gallery space/ art market. With this comes an acceptance that production values play a significant, and perhaps, defining role in the gallery environment.

The image as ‘object’ has had significance through the history of photography. Single prints of Cameron, Atget, Steiglitz and Evans fetch many hundreds of thousands of pounds at auction. The gallery is the natural domain for the wandering collector, who is engaged by the image, of course, but needs to be seduced by the object.

As technology progresses and systems of communication become more engrained in our everyday lives, the gallery space becomes, I feel, more not less relevant as a space to view photography. Not just to view the image – but to view the object and to re-engage with the craft of production. We can engage with the image here in a fundamentally different and more visceral way compared with the bafflement with which we view images on the computer screen.

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