Archive for the ‘Images’ Category

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The story behind the Abu Ghraib series

April 25, 2007

by Giuseppe Di Bella, artist/photographer based in London

Art and myself vs. the British anti-terrorist branch and the FBI

The first time I saw the Abu Ghraib photographs I was unsure what I was looking at. Of course I very soon realised the seriousness of these images and their global impact upon political, social and cultural life. In the same way that many of us were, I was deeply disturbed and shocked by these images as they contrasted with the US military and political objectives under George W Bush presidency. These objectives were to bring democracy to the people of Iraq and to free them from the tyranny of its former president, Saddam Hussein.

Although the Abu Ghraib images provoked profound anger and disgust, I must admit they didn’t really come as a surprise. Sadly, these atrocities happen in every single war and are nothing new. I believe the Abu Ghraib photographs expose and remind us of the power relation in a war zone. An imbalanced power: the powerful against the powerless.

As an artist working with photography, I felt I had a moral obligation to respond to the Iraqi conflict and particularly to these tragic events. At the time (May 2004) I had concerns on the way public images were being circulated, treated and consumed by society; particularly gruesome and violent images. So it is from this perspective that I produced the Abu Ghraib series that consist into a collection of postage stamps that I put into public and global circulation. (Make it a better place – Group exhibition conceived and curated by Dinu Lee – The Holden Gallery – MMU)

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The reasons I chose the postage stamp format as a vehicle for my ideas was because of its consumable, desirable and collectable characteristics. It is also a very democratic way to diffuse images and information. Traditionally, the postage stamp function is to pay tribute or commemorate the traditions and culture of a country. It is also a powerful form of communication as it travels around the globe advertising the proudest aspects of a nation, in contrast to the Abu Ghraib photographs. I was interested in how the mechanical act of licking and stamping a postage stamp could be linked to a notion of humiliation and abuse/torture as revealed in the photographs. I was conscious that this process could turn the viewer into an active consumer and make the user aware of the consumption and treatment of public images in circulation. This could also lead the user to become an active accomplice – in some sense – to the abuse and violence. The repetitions of images on the stamp sheets are also a reflection of the depersonalisation that happens to victims of such abuse. The intimate and personal details of each account, and the consequences for the abused/tortured is hidden and forgotten as the images are multiplied, repeated and ‘consumed’ by society.

The way I chose to present the work was also a very important factor, as I wanted the viewer to look at the stamps as objects of consumption. In addition, four series of franked stamps – therefore used/consumed – are presented framed and as such, as trophies. Ultimately, that is what some photograph seems to be about. Through this presentation, I wanted to highlight the contemporary society’s appetite to consume such gruesome and violent imagery.

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As there is two version of the Abu Ghraib stamp (US/UK) I had to delegate the distribution of the US version of the stamp to a friend who lives in New York: Art. (Stands for Arthur) My friend Art, whom I have not met (not yet!), agreed to actively participate in this project. I sent Art, via an international courier company (I won’t name it here for legal reasons) more than 100 envelopes and postcards – all pre-addressed and with the Abu Ghraib faux stamp affixed on it. The instructions given to Art were clear: to buy US stamps and affix them onto the envelopes and postcards beside the faux stamp and to post them from New York.

When I contacted the courier company to inquire the lateness of the parcel I was told that the police, then subsequently the British anti-terrorist branch were investigating the content of the parcel for alleged ‘anti-American documentation’. I was also informed that the content of the parcel had been scanned and passed onto the American authorities for further investigation. I requested the courier company many times during that week to be contacted by the British authorities in order to explain my work, but my requests were systematically refused.

A week later, I required the courier company either inform the British authorities to release the parcel or to charge me with an offence I evidently had not committed, (The fact that I use a real postage stamp onto the envelopes and postcards, invalidated the potential problem any faux stamp could present to the postal authorities) The courier company agent put me on hold and eventually informed me that the British authorities found the work ‘offensive’ to which I replied that the images are indeed unpleasant; but they are a verification of the sexual abuse and of the torture to the victims, their families and their communities. They are an insult to humanity and human dignity. So, I cannot but agree with the British and other authorities that the images are indeed offensive. Later, I was also told that the British authorities could keep the work indefinitely, to which I answered that it was illegal even for the British authorities to hold something indefinitely, particularly when no offence had been committed. I demanded the immediate release of the parcel otherwise I would be seeking legal action to retrieve it. Eventually, the following day the parcel left for its final destination in New York. My friend Art started to post the mail and I was beginning to receive back the envelopes and postcards so important for my installation.

A few weeks after the British authorities incident, I received a phone call from my friend Art informing me that two FBI agent were about to pay him a visit regarding the Abu Ghraib work and myself. As he was obviously concerned about it, I suggested he simply answers their questions and not to worry too much, as it was clear they were inquiring about my artwork and me. The FBI wanted to know where he knew me from, if I had spoken to him about my political views and finally if I had a bigger agenda. (Making new stamps maybe?) The funniest thing about this laughable story is that the two FBI agents were dressed with back suites and black glasses.

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After that, I did not hear neither from the British authorities or the FBI. Although I freak out about the British anti-terrorist branch, the FBI seemed to be less formidable because of the comical link inferred by their attire. Sometimes I wonder how much trouble I would have got into if I were a Muslim artist, or worse if was living in America?

The saddest thing during and about this story is that I was beginning behaving as if I were doing something wrong, something illegal. I felt my emails and my phone calls were being monitored. Some how I felt watched. Whether this was pure paranoia or not, I don’t know. The idea of being investigated by the anti-terrorist branch was somehow concerning, and although I am an Italian citizen, I could be easily mistaken for a person of Middle Eastern origin, therefore a potential threat to the authorities – or am I wrong? The reality remained that I had to bring the framed work abroad without having it seized by the authorities. I wasn’t prepared to take any more risks, because of the exhibition deadline, and little by little and with the crucial help of my friends, the installation material crossed the British border unnoticed and the work was successfully exhibited in Brussels. (Portraits de l’autre – Group exhibition curated by Virginie Devillers – Musee d’Ixelles, Brussels – Belgium)

The story of the Abu Ghraib series inevitably points to the events of the 9/11 and the Madrid and London bombings and their aftermath. Anti-terror laws have been implemented all over the world. We must wonder whether these new laws pose a threat to our freedom of speech and artistic expression and if they infringe our civil liberties. We need to ensure that the current war on terror does not completely annihilate our freedom; it should not justify everything and anything. More power is being taken from us when actually more trust should be given to people. The experience I have encountered with the authorities poses a fundamental question: Are we really living in a democratic society?

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Global Documentaries – Your Comfort Is My Silence

April 23, 2007

by Ali Mincer

 

 

I went to Mark Durdens talk called ‘Global Documentaries’ at the Cornerhouse on Thursday. He spoke about Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Philip Chancel, Santiago Sierra, Andreas Gursky and Boris Mikhailov. He also referenced the work of Chris Killip and Nobuyoshi Araki. The images moved through both positive and mostly negative sexualised images of women and images of the working classes as either automatons or vulgar.

 

More than 50% of the images were actually of sexdolls, ‘tacky lipstick’, working class women sitting in dirty landscapes and Mikhailovs naked older women. We were even shown the place where women buy their shoes. Mark Durden selected the photographers and then selected the images. When he spoke about Philip Chancels images of Korean women he then spoke of ‘how sensuous, erotic, exotic’ they were. The audience was predominantly female. Talk about white noise – the torture method. I was told later I called out ‘I can’t take anymore – of these talks’. It took all my strength to stay in the room. Someone even called out ‘Do you think they have issues?’.

 

He told us that through these images of us, through these endless negative images of women and workers and the downtrodden, these men were revealing the very ‘ugly, shallow, hollow, tacky, fake’ face of global consumerism. No one was prepared to question the very holy grail of documentary though Mark seemed open to our questioning. I wondered why this work had more old boys colonial theory wrapped around it and were we to believe these photographers had in fact conquered us with their cameras? Whilst Mark seemed a very lovely person he was totally unaware of what he had just shown us. We offered alternative suggestions but Mark said he didn’t like their work. I explained that I found each individuals work very interesting but shown together in this particular context with these particular images he was giving out a very clear message. He also spoke of their influences including, Turner, Araki, Barnett Newman, Pollock, all male artists but no mention at any time was made of any female creative practitioner bar the fleeting barely audible reference to Sherrie Levine…

 

Ironically women have long been at the forefront of the deconstruction of those very images dealing with consumerist culture. From Barbara Kruger – ‘your comfort is our silence’ – to Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer to Jo Spence and many more. In lens based media for decades marginalised artists have been questioning these old boys visual clubs. How sad for us then that this mentality still persists in our institutions….

 

I went from there to the East German show at the Cornerhouse – the difference was pronounced and I wondered why that was. There wasn’t the same old boys colonial vibe to this show – it was predominantly women taking the images here and more than half the big hardback monograph books were by women. Very different from the documentary mentality in the West. I compared this to the old boy’s mentality I just witnessed in the talk.

 

I later called into a sweet shop and was confronted by long rows of photographs of naked, white, blonde haired women on the front of all the mainstream male magazines on the mainstream shelves and I knew I was back in ‘that mentality’ again…..

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Access

April 21, 2007

By Charlie Devereux, liveblogging at the Democratic Image conference

Following on from Jessica’s post about accessibility, during the lunchbreak I was speaking to Janice McLaren, projects organiser at The Photographers Gallery. She told of an intern who had recently completed a photography project in China where the children involved had never before seen a photograph, let alone had access to the myriad of images available on the net.

So when we talk about how the internet is democratising photography, we must bear in mind that until the whole world has online access then this debate is only relevant to one sixth of the world.

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Autograph

April 21, 2007

By Jessica Reed liveblogging at the Democratic Image conference

Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph just gave a presentation highlighting the fact that if we talk about Democracy in the digital photography world, we should keep in mind that only + one billion people worldwide have access to the Internet. He also talked at length about the (mis)representation of “visible minorities” in relation to the while middle class males’ “white noise” which obstruct access to the global media platforms for an enormous amount of people left voiceless or misrepresented.

You can find more about Autograph’s mission and ongoing work here.

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Giuseppe di Bella’s stamps

April 21, 2007

by Jessica Reed, liveblogging from the The Democratic Image conference

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As I was walking to the conference this morning I found myself chatting with Giuseppe Di Bella, a French-Sicilian photographer based in London; I hope to get him to blog here this week-end. Talking about the myriad of exhibitions around the city, he asked me if I had seen his work. “Not yet”, I replied slightly embarrassed, “but I will as soon as possible”.

He smiled, “well there’s a really good story attached to my work, something you might like to blog about. It turns out I have the FBI following me around. They find my work to be suspicious”.

And how could they not! Giuseppe used photographs of Abu Ghraib which he then transformed into stamps, sending letters worldwide adorned with his controversial art. “Of course”, he pointed out, “I would also add a real stamp so as not to be accused of counterfeit. But they didn’t like my art one bit. They have been watching my actions closely, and even interrogated one of my acquaintance in New York”.

“Well”, I replied, “… that would certainly make a good blog story”.

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The professionals, the media and the people

April 21, 2007

by Hughes Leglise-Bataille, Paris-based amateur photographer

“Time magazine has voted you “The Person of the Year” for “seizing the
reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital
democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own
game”. So, did you?”

In my native French, the word “personne” means both a person, and no one. By making us all “Person of the Year”, ironically, Time magazine has replaced the individual with the people, offering us as its cover a blank computer screen, like a mirror of billion faces. Is this a faceless crowd, or like these mosaics of thousand of images, does it have some recognizable features ? And most importantly, can we shape it ? After all, in “digital demo-cracy”, there’s the computer, the people, but also the power (kratos): by the people, for the people.

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Trying to tackle this question, I can only draw on my personal experience as an amateur photographer. Covering news in Paris, I’m somehow “competing” with professional photographers from the media, often working side-by-side with them. At night, I quickly select the best shots and upload them to Flickr, with short captions describing the events, so people have the opportunity to discover the images at the same time they appear in the media. The question at that point is: why do they look ? What difference is there, what’s the added-value, how this so-called “citizen (photo)journalism” is complementing or competing with the mainstream, professional media ? I believe these differences can be broken down into four points :

story-telling: for obvious reasons, the paper media can only show very few pictures of an event, often just one or two. But there’s no way one can tell an exhaustive and balanced story with a couple of photos. Therefore, the ones selected tend to be either informative but boring, or spectacular but biased. Even on the main media websites, it’s rare to have a portfolio of more than half a dozen shots. Amateurs have no such restrictions, and can choose to post on their blogs as many photos as they deem necessary to present all the angles of an event, from the mundane to the dramatic.

access: depending on the type of event, amateurs can be handicapped by more or less restricted access to the scene. Without the proper accreditation, some places and personalities are simply off-limit. Sometimes, it’s the publication itself which is legally restricted, a growing trend in France with a recent law officially aimed at the “happy slapping” phenomenon but which in fact, will strongly limit the freedom of citizen photojournalism. The sheer complexity of the logistics also hinders the coverage capacity of an amateur: for instance, professional photojournalists often have a motorbike with a driver to move around.Therefore, citizen journalism is bound to be local. And that’s also where it can beat the pros: by being closer to the community, amateurs are less intrusive and better accepted (eg. the French suburbs where journalists, especially TV crews, have been regularly attacked since 2005).

ethics: beyond the legal framework, professionals have rules, amateurs haven’t. While some may argue that these rules can sometimes amount to a form of censorship (eg. the collusion of political / business interests with the media), the lack of standards in citizen photojournalism is probably more worrying. Image manipulation (so much easier with digital photography), staged photos, bias towards spectacular / violent images, lack of respect for the subjects, etc. are all disturbing. Responsibilities probably lie with all parties: the photographers, the websites hosting their pictures, and the people visiting them.

economics: stating the obvious, amateurs don’t work for the money, while pros have to make a living. However, the digital revolution has dramatically reduced the difference between the two and it’s now relatively easy for an amateur to have the same equipment as a pro, and to get some exposure. Exposure, that’s often what matters for the amateur: it’s not about the money, it’s about the (relative) fame of having one’s name in a newspaper, and/or thousands of visitors on one’s photoblog. The problem is that intermediaries have jumped on the opportunity, promising both the “fame” and (some) money by putting the amateurs in contact with the media. I tend to believe that unfortunately, this is both lowering the quality of the work and its economic value.

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Finally, I would like to mention one important thing: citizen journalism, especially photojournalism, is often mixing up testimonies with journalism. To me, the people sending photos taken with their camera phones of the bombings in London, for instance, are just testimonies. What they do is no different than in the pre-digital age, when they would have told their story to the media. Now, they have the pictures to back it up, but in essence it’s the same process. Photojournalism isn’t just the recording of an image, and owning a camera doesn’t make one a photographer. But maybe it’s the media’s job to raise the standards, and demonstrate what good photojournalism can and should be ?

Thanks to the digital revolution, amateur photojournalism has become available to many photographers (“by the people”) and is able to reach a tremendous audience (“for the people”), but ultimately, does it mean better photojournalism and therefore, better democracy ? Or on the contrary, is it threatening professional photojournalism and forcing it to lower its standards ? From a strictly financial point of view, if the increase of the photographic offer has decreased its value, it seems the only way out is to compensate by increasing its quality. Call me optimistic, but I’m convinced the problem is not with the professional photographers (because they do take excellent photos and because even if you have to make money out of it, it’s not a job you choose for the money), nor with the public (people would learn and appreciate high-quality photos), but with the media owners themselves, who are trying to lower the costs at the expense of quality.

As for amateur photojournalists, I guess that in an ideal world, either they should be good and committed enough to ultimately become professionals, or they can exploit the niche of local journalism, for which they are better prepared than the professionals, and where the investment is lower for the media. But if everyone wants to be the “Person of the Year”, I’m afraid no one will…

Hughes Leglise-Bataille is winner of the NPPA – Best of Photojournalism 2007 awards in the Amateur Photoblog News and Photojournalism categories. Photos featured in articles in Le Monde, le Figaro, LCI (French TV news channel), Salon.com, MAX magazine.

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poDcast on photography and the digital age

April 20, 2007

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Pedro Meyer from the leading photography website zonezero.com (and who previously posted on this blog) was interviewed for our weekly openDemocracy poDcast. You can listen to it here.