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Police unwilling to venture into a space where the consent between the agency of the state and the population had been repealed, and I found that nothing much had changed.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