Tuesday, January 23, 2007

El sentido de la vida es cruzar las fronteras

This is not about a photographer or photography, exactly. The renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski has crossed the last frontier and I felt compelled to take note of his passing here. For a great interview about the significance of his work, and in particular the meaning of crossing frontiers, one ought to read this piece from El País. It is for Spanish speakers, but maybe you can babelfish it.

In some ways Kapuscinski is an apt companion for those of us who travel with lenses instead of pens. His essayistic portrayal of the world is very much in tune with our own methods of capturing life on the run: like Montaigne he was an essayist through and through, a man who tested, probed, explored contradictions and was happiest when he hit upon the trenchant ironies that after all are the only satisfactory truths that life offers us. He had a novelist's eye for character and detail, a flair for storytelling, and a healthy love of humanity despite a clear-eyed view of its foibles.

When I look back on what has led me to this particular point in life, I find that essayists have had a huge influence on me. First there was Joseph Mitchell, whose portraits of New York -- a New York that still existed in tattered form when i was a child -- compelled my father to collect us kids together and go on Mitchellesque explorations around town. The love of exploration, of meeting different people and learning about their lives was instilled in me by those magical outings. I am not the only photographer influenced by this writer: Diane Arbus's early forays into the eccentric followed directly in his path. Then came Montaigne in my college years, who introduced me to the pleasures of traveling conceptually through ideas in a similarly picaresque mode.

For Kapuscinski this idea of crossing borders is the essence of his endeavor. As El País points out, "Hay otras barreras que también es necesario saltar: la de la cultura, la de la familia, la del idioma, la del amor... "Mi vida ha sido un cruzar constante de fronteras, tanto físicas como metafísicas. Ése es para mí el verdadero sentido de la vida." One must constantly cross all types of barriers -- cultural barriers, linguistic barriers, and family barriers as well as national borders, class lines, and so on. Perhaps it is the inevitable effect of our being outsiders to the places we visit that we should find our most fruitful interrogations undertaken from this vantage point of transit rather than rootedness, but the perspective that derives from being in between and on the edge is somehow the most sane we can adopt. However that may be, it requires a nimble wit, and Kapuscinski had it in spades.

"Caminante, son tus huellas el camino."

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Beach, a Book and Modern Photography

Two shows have opened at the International Center of Photography that, were I presently in New York, I would jump at the chance to see. The two poles defining modernist thinking about photography can now be seen side by side: First off, Martin Munckasi, whose remarkable image of boys playing in the surf apparently inspired Henri Cartier Bresson to take up the camera because it showed him in a flash its potential for capturing stolen moments on the run, is being given an entire show of his kinetic and sometimes oddly framed compositions (odd for their time perhaps).

According to Michael Kimmelman who did the write up in the Times, Munckasi "favored scenes of daily life, absorbing avant-garde ideas about odd angles and abstract compositions. His sports photographs epitomized his special gift for action and movement: capturing a soccer ball just as it neared a goalie’s outstretched hands or a motorcyclist at the instant he splashed through a pool of water.” It would appear that this impulse in Munckasi's work led Henri Cartier Bresson to recognize that "the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving." Sadly this celebrant of women and joie de vivre, of speed and energy, ended up destitute, immobilized by circumstance, and died in his apartment while eating out of a cold can of spaghetti. I cannot think of a more ironic or cruel end for a man who, like other Europeans flooding into Hollywood and bringing us the archetypal modern art form, the cinema, represents the modernist fascination with motion -- in essence they made it possible for us to see two dimensional reality in new ways, because the motion inevitably leads to skewed perspectives if you follow where it leads. Academic notions of spatial propriety were trounced by a bunch of scruffy immigrants off the boat.

The other pole is represented by HCB, whose own esthetic becomes much clearer to me now in light of the comparison between these two photographers. The beach shot ignited him: “I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks,” he recalled years later. “I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said, ‘Damn it,’ took my camera and went out into the street.” What in fact happened was that HCB took off on a photographic journey that would eventually lead to great things, Magnum among them. But the means of his journey is what particularly interests me because it is so typically reserved: he travelled and created a scrapbook of his imagery spanning the years 1932 to 1946. It is this scrapbook that the show at ICP concentrates on. How like HCB to work in this manner. While Munckasi set out to conquer the fashion world and magazines in the land of opportunity, HCB quietly travelled and surreptitiously lifted oddly complex images out of the streets at home and abroad -- but his was an entirely private endeavor the results of which he pasted secretly into his scrapbook. The kodak family album was transformed into a documentary format that managed to define the modern world not only through its broad ranging content but also through its powerful organization of form which tied esthetic ideas from the world of painting to a livelier sense of the flux of life. In a sense, too, and I say this without facetiousness, HCB was a blogger, patiently recording and logging the serendipitous moments that caught his eye -- private moments of no particular import, certainly not newsworthy. (Even when, subsequently, HCB would turn up at an event to document it, he seemed almost perversely determined not to record it as such, but instead always chose to focus on the peripheral, the inconsequential. He would never have survived at a paper.)

I can see much more clearly now the significance of this famous photograph of the bicycle whizzing past a complex arrangement of perspective and form: it is about trapping that fleet moment, that evanescent event, within a rigorous formal structure whose effect is multiplied with every added line and shape. That tension is present in many of HCB's photographs, and ultimately it is what makes him the more interesting of the two photographers. Alongside the love of materiality's inevitable ghosting, there is a contrary impulse, a need to fix things in place, to render an supremely convincing illusion of their solidity.

"Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing."

Saturday, January 13, 2007


First off, a quick announcement about another weblog, "More a Question than a Reply," which I am in the process of setting up. I am collecting there all my journalistic essays on various cultural and social matters I encounter on my travels. As I find the time and energy I will use it to explore the combination of imagery and text in order to play with different narrative structures. A little bit of Joseph Mitchell, a dash of Ryscard Kapuscinski, and a healthy dose of documentary photography. At present there are a few essays in Spanish as well which discuss the history of the colonial city of Santo Domingo, the sugar plantations, and a bawdy tale of bestiality. One of my favorite pieces, "Death of a Patriarch," about burying our great grandfather, has been dusted up and posted anew. One or two of the Spanish language essays have yet to be translated. I will eventually be posting essays on the public transport system in St. Domingo (sounds dull, but it is one of my best), the sex trade, some recent assignment work, and pieces about India, Brazil and other countries.

Second thing to note, John Loomis's Blueeyes Magazine has just published its newest issue, number 14, featuring Matt Black's poetic documentation of life in Mixteca.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Click and Flick: Storytelling on the Web

The recent discussion of Robt Hood and Ed Kashi’s Flipbook film on Lightstalkers provoked some of us to question the technique, along with the marketing and, on a higher level, the overall nature of multimedia storytelling -- or any kind of storytelling -- on the web.

I got curious and decided to dig out the original experiment that one of the members alluded to, some of you may remember it: Gilles Peress and Fred Ritchin collaborated on an unusual narrative process facilitated by the web whereby the reader can plot a variety of paths through the “essay,” thus ceding some authorial control to the viewer, opening up possibilities for more complex connections, and compelling the viewer to take an active part in the consumption of news—which may well be the most important aspect of the experiment. As Matthias Bruggman pointed out, the current spate of multimedia potentially induces the usual passive participation that we get from watching TV. We want to engage our audience, not turn them into couch potatoes.

Fred Ritchin’s argument, printed in 1996, can be seen HERE. But I wanted to reproduce a selection from his concluding statement in order to spark some thought among you all and perhaps a willingness to take up the experiment where it left off. That is what I intend to do, along with further experimentation with multimedia. Ten years after this interesting project, it seems that little has been done to explore the possibilities of communication over the net, other than what can be seen on the Pixel Press site. The new craze for multimedia is turning us all into sound recorders, but really I dont see much real innovation in most of them: they are slideshows with a song, or maybe some oral history (as if that were somehow a superior means of providing authentic content, a notion I just dont buy and I find, to my dismay, is almost universally assumed to be true by the current Left in the debate about the politics of representation). Their brevity ensures that the oral history or ambient sound be too clipped to allow for indepth commentary.

Here are Ritchin’s comments:

” Certainly ‘Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace’ is a flawed and fairly primitive attempt to build a new model of photojournalism. But at least one commentator feels that it succeeded in important ways. In Print magazine, the only publication to cover in depth what we had tried to do, Darcy DiNucci wrote: ‘Clumsy as today’s low-bandwidth presentations must be in some particulars, the site indeed pioneers a new form of journalism. Visitors cannot simply sit and let the news wash over them; instead, they are challenged to find the path that engages them, look deeper into its context, and formulate and articulate a response. The real story becomes a conversation, in which the author/photographer is simply the most prominent participant.’

Can such a project happen again with better results? Certainly it should be possible. In the masses of new Web publications coming out there is hope that some will recognize the need to tell stories differently about issues of serious interest, . . . many photographers and their collaborators already know that conventional photojournalism needs new ideas.

Undoubtedly these new attempts to tell stories on the Web, some accomplished with very meager financial resources, will also affect previous media so that partially non-linear, layered photo essays will appear in magazines and newspapers. Ironically it may not be the linear photo essay that is eventually revived after its long decline, but a new essay form that makes the collage of television seem rather predictable.

The new medium of the Web brings with it many valuable legacies – one is the possibility of exploring the world differently, with greater complexity and from many points of view, in order to help photographers, reporters, editors, readers and even subjects understand what is going on in deeper and more meaningful ways. Whether these new models come from personal homepages, students frustrated by conventional journalism, relief agencies, new media companies or more conventional ones, we can only benefit. They are sober alternatives to forthcoming virtual reality systems. They may also be productive extensions of deconstructionist critiques that encourage new and timely strategies of knowing. Once implemented, their impact on the ways in which we think and act should be considerable.”

Reflecting on these words ten years later, I have to say that I agree with Matthias, the current experimentation with multimedia is somehow flawed, if the ideals expressed by Ritchin here are taken to be the goal for which we strive. And I am dismayed by what seems to be a failure to followup on the promise of this endeavor and the fact that mainstream narrative venues appear not to have been induced to experiment, despite the hope expressed by Ritchin in the penultimate paragraph. Unlike Matthias, I dont believe that multimedia is necessarily reactionary just because it doesnt allow for an active participation on the part of the viewer -- I happen to think that, like reading, it does in fact allow for a kind of active participation and we cannot really discount the power of the reader to make his or her connections in an autonomous manner (anyone who has read Proust probably will remember that author's famous ruminations on boredom and the nature of reading -- I rest my case). I know that I certainly dont sleep through a good multimedia—I was glued to all 15 minutes of Chris Anderson’s report on Lebanon. And I am aggressively pursuing a multimedia agenda of my own, which depends on the argument that multimedia should make greater use of film technique. But be that all as it may, I am not surprised that multimedia in its current form is so successful given that such form is really a recapitulation of the narrative status quo favored by the institutions that govern the media, and we are still left with this unanswered challenge from Ritchin and Peress.

And Multimedia puts special strains on all of us: we have to capture sound and image almost simultaneously; we have to learn new softwares, learn new behaviors or skills, buy new equipment, spend more time at the screen instead of shooting, etc; we work harder, longer, for basically the same amount of money (or proportionately less). I like a challenge, so I dont mind learning these new things (in fact I am enjoying it all) but I like a fair paycheck too, and I am a bit worried by two aspects of the current situation: (1) that marketing these things is not an open and transparent process in which we all share equally and with full knowledge (the current players have not been open about their practices and thus no one is helping to establish fair protocols whereby we can all formulate some notions of fees etc;—we are already screwed by the fact that fees for digital processing were never adequately threshed out by everyone, so practices vary, with the result that many clients simply do not compensate us for all the extra time we spend editing); and (2) control of the market is largely concentrated in the hands of a few players intimately connected to the mainstream media, and this leaves the individual players in a very weak position. One thing about Ritchin’s project was that it was intended to open things up for people outside the mainstream, and thus exploit the web’s nature as an open communication medium. I would hate to see that openness be thwarted.

Since "Bosnia," new softwares and greater bandwidth delivery have facilitated the creation of narratives built round Flash as well as html -- you can see some interesting experiments in the work of Alfredo Jaar and Kim Köster's 99rooms site. But the essential modus operandi remains the same: the viewer clicks through scenarios, thereby following links. Narrative threads are composed of linkages, so the question becomes how to make the linking stimulate the linker and amplify the meaning of the imagery.

This led me to speculate whether gaming held a clue to the future of narrative. Friedrich Schiller established the fact that the “spieltrieb” (play-instinct, or drive) is at the back of all learning processes, and it manages to consolidate our divided nature (form vs content, sense vs intellect). Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here after all: that we need to reintroduce a bit of playfulness into narratives, a bit of indeterminacy and hazard or chance. Let people wander at will and learn formatively. In the case of the 99 rooms, I was disappointed by the fact that ultimately it came down to a simple mechanism: mouse around until you find a switch to click on (event/action structuring); click it and watch something happen; find the exit and move to the next tableau. The scenarios initially are intriguing, but the repetitive clicking and content become tiresome.

HERE is the link to the narrative experiment that Peress and Ritchin created. Enjoy it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The POYi and its Respect for Web Publishing

In the midst of my feverish attempts to post my imagery via the new World Press online interface, the agony over which was shared by other Lightstalker members, I was pleased (once I had managed to submit and then had a few rums) to see that POYi has been fairly creative this year in its recognition of web publishing as a legitimate outlet for our work. Not only do they include a category for Multimedia (as they did last year) but they also have created a new category for "Best Photo Column." They define the category thus:

"A regularly reoccurring, self-generated enterprise that uses a narrative style to blend words and images and reflects aspects of a community or lifestyle. The forum may be defined as either a photo column, photo journal, or photo blog. This should be an individual’s entry, not a team entry. The “entry” will consist of three (3) individual photo columns. This will allow the judges to examine the theme and consistency of the reoccurring column. The photojournalists must provide a brief “statement of purpose” for the column, appearing in the caption field of the first image. Judges also will weigh the quality of the text that accompanies the images. The column must be “published” in some form — either in print and online, or combined. Entries should be submitted in their original published form as either a .jpg or .pdf page from the print edition, or a URL link to the online edition. Independent and personal web sites will be considered as “published.” "

I had some questions about just what sort of column they might be looking for, since most photo blogs either run a photo a day, or talk about the industry, or comment on the art of photography, and none of those quite seem adequate. It appears that what they are looking for is something like Ryscard Kapuscinski meets photojournalism, and I am for one am pleased to see it. Throughout 2006 I was posting travel essays to my website (before I had bothered to look into blogging) and then started up Trozos de un Viralata to harbor Spanish language commentary on the culture and society of this little island I inhabit. Well, this little event has proved the catalyst for me to create a third blog and collate all my travel essays on that forum instead. More a Question than a Reply is going to harbor essays in Spanish and English on various journalistic themes, mostly related to my travels, and I hope to experiment more with the mixing of imagery and text.

What does this all mean? Well I view it as a development every bit as bracing as the appearance of fourth screen devices. It means that my attempt to take control of the means of production and distribution of my own material is now a reality and has been recognized as such by a leading industry organ. Essentially, POYi has given its imprimatur and these self-generated intiatives can now compete legitimately with content produced through traditional print media. But I am free of big media's priorities and protocols, free of desk jockeys, and free of interminable delays while an underpaid and overworked team strains to meet its deadlines. I am also free, as yet, of any remuneration for my labors, and that is something that has yet to be tackled.

When the Gutenberg bible was published (1455), the forms of mass communication were altered forever and the ecclessiastical establishment was initially quite worried about it, because it put the Word in the hands of the people. One could read and decipher it on one's own without sacerdotal mediation. This was one of the motive forces behind the Protestant Reformation (normally dated to coincide with the posting of Luther's 95 Theses in 1517). Now we are entering on yet another paradigmatic shift in communication that further consolidates the power we have over the word, and I am presently fairly excited about the opportunities and the challenges it presents us. ¡Venceremos!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Fourth Screen, The Seventh Mass Media: the Newest Wonder of the World

No it is not a photograph or directly related to photography, but this phenomenon and the thinking behind it are clearly going to have tremendous consequences for the future of mass communication and the distribution of photography and photojournalistic stories. The appearance of Apple's iPhone, the device that handily combines a phone, computer, and ipod, and whose salient virtue is its mobility, has already created a buzz on Lightstalkers, which you can check here and here. That last link leads to a thread that deals with this blog, but it ends up, in typical LS fashion, dealing with an entirely different theme. As it bears some important comments by Sion Touhig, it is worth consulting, as are his recent comments on his blog.

As we all know, we are witnessing the beginning of a seismic shift in the alignment of the mass media plates that make up our informational globe. I think it is safe enough to predict that, while print journalism isnt going to disappear any time soon, it will certainly morph into something that is far more focused on communication via the web. I dont know about you, and it may be because I live in a country where the selection is somewhat limited, but I rarely look at and never buy magazines anymore. I can get most of the content via their web pages, and while my internet connection is rather expensive, it is the only reliable means I have of connecting to the world outside these borders, so I make sure to pay that bill before all others. My point: globally speaking, and in spite of the so-called Information Gap, the audience for such devices is huge, and content providers are going to have to realize that their material is best served by other than traditional distribution networks. We are a poor country, and many of us do not own personal computers, but it is less costly to pay for an hour of internet connection at the local café than to buy a magazine. Moreover, while many of us wont have PCs anytime soon in all our homes, you can bet we will be buying iPhones. We already buy Razr phones and all the rest. There are practically no landline phones in our homes, but everyone has at least one cell phone. If content is adequately priced for mass distribution, the incentive to buy will be huge; and while photojournalism is not going to be one of the biggest "channels" offering streaming video, it will surely outdo its current distribution rates. And dont forget that while not everyone will want to download the Times or El Mundo onto their iPhone screen, documentary work that appeals thematically to a particular audience would have a greater chance of reaching that audience. I can foresee Dominicans downloading my multimedia piece on cockfighting, for example, simply because that is a theme that is dear to their hearts, though they might not otherwise be interested in documentaries per se. And I could see such presentations achieving a cult status, the way that videos do currently on YouTube.

But it is incumbent upon us photographers and above all the agencies we work with to start considering our options. We need to ride the wave on this one, and not play catch-up as we did when digital hit us. While Magnum in Motion is out in front, and busily consolidating their lead, the other agencies are limping along, and that is going to have severe consequences for the photographers they represent. According to industry pundits these devices and the exigent evolution of mass communication into what is now being called the Fourth Screen and the Seventh Mass Media are going to revolutionize the way we distribute information henceforth. It is only a matter of time before such devices are universal. I believe that this is mainly a matter of change in distribution rather than production, but it will probably have some effect on the narrative forms we choose as well (it has been noted that multimedia better serves the storytelling purpose of photojournalism than does the isolated jpg). Regardless of the esthetic consequences, the financial stakes are high and the time has come to act. Instead of herding like sheep at the Apple stores to buy this thing, we should be pick up the crook and do some herding ourselves -- line up the people for our market and define our market strategies while we have time to speculate. Let those who have ears, hear.

Your Best Shot and The Detail that Makes It Work

Leo Benedictus of the Guardian is running a series of articles grouped around the idea that a photographer should select his or her "best shot" and discuss it a bit for the benefit of the readers. So far he has interviewed Alec Soth, Bruce Davidson, Loretta Lux, Martine Franck, and a few others. It is frustrating trying to locate these on the Guardian Unlimited's website, as there is no specific category or slot for them. You just have to keyword it in their search field (use quote marks around "best shot" for best results). But the search is well worth the effort.

I was apprized of these articles when I read Jim Johnson's blog today, and I was intrigued by the idea. First of all the photographers do not pick their best shot, they pick their personal favorites, and for quirky reasons. This is particularly useful as our quirks are often more revelatory than our conventional thoughts and choices. Their discussions of the pix are not particularly profound, they are not particularly analytical, but they manage to communicate two important things: first of all, the very personal relationship they have with their imagery, and second the fact that the capture of their imagery and its meaning depend on processes that are intuitional and somewhat beyond their control, which of course is the underlying tenet of this very blog.

Here is Martine Franck on her shot: "I was there for an hour, just sitting quietly in a corner, observing. I never imagined for a second that the bird would perch on the monk's head. That's the wonder of photography - you try and capture the surprises."

She adds, "The picture is somehow a symbol of peace, and of young people getting on with old people. Although I certainly didn't think that at the time -- in the moment, it's just instinctive. Afterwards, maybe, you realise what the photograph means." The meaning of what we shoot is grasped intuitively in the moment of its capture, but it is understood rationally or intellectually only after the event, sometimes long afterwards, which is why I like to pin up pix of mine in my office and ponder them. I often live with pictures for years before I discover their meaning and make a final approval. Something is there beckoning, but I cant always quite wrap my mind around it, so I let it whisper to me until my intellect matures.

Alec Soth's personal choice was interesting to me because he too pointed out an important feature of the meaning of photography. We often prize photos because of the odd associations they elicit, the "spark of accident" that connects us in unexpected ways to the photo. After discussing the qualities he prizes in the picture, and the process whereby he set it up, he makes the following observation:

"There's always one little detail that makes an image work, and for me it's that water in the lower left. It was raining out, and it feels like the Falls are creeping in, tugging at her dress. There's also that thing about rain on your wedding day, which is supposed to be good luck. It rained on my wedding day, and Melissa sort of reminds me of my wife, so I have this funny relationship to the image that way - one that doesn't matter to anyone else."

There is that spark again. Does this association with the water outside hold for the different viewers as well? Do they even notice it? (The image appears in cropped form with the article, and in fact until I clicked and enlarged it, I couldnt see what Alec was talking about.) Does that mean that photos consistently work on two semiotic levels, a personal and a public register? Clearly, the meaning of the photo is largely contained by the bride in her dress -- she dominates the scene, our eyes naturally peg themselves to her. But what causes the eye to wander round the frame to discover the greater meaning? (And let us not forget more transgressive wandering, outside the frame, if extraneous elements intrude and should lead us away -- a technique that I myself favor and which has a long esthetic tradition: witness the structure of an Oriental rug.) This meaning is not extrinsic, nor is it negligible. Alec insists, it is the "detail that makes an image work." I cannot help but think that herein lies the secret of photography and its special contribution to the Arts. I dont think there is a form of esthetic representation more ironic, more paradoxical, more elusive than the photograph. One hundred and sixty-odd years of mechanical reproduction and we have yet to plumb its mystery.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dos Épocas -- de Nuevo

Well, I have only been at it for a week and I already have the pleasure of watching one of my posts give birth to another blog, so I can write a little plug for it. Gabriel has taken wing and created a blog entirely devoted to publishing elements of his interesting story about the riven Quintanal family. Check it out here. Three posts already and full of good stuff.

Ten Photographic Things I Liked about 2006

What the hell. For fun I thought I’d join the legion of listmakers in this hackneyed New Year’s ritual, even though I have never been able to divide up time in this manner. My experience of time never seems to run according to these neat segments and I have never felt compelled to mark the beginning of the new year. For me it always seems to come around Spring anyway. These are not the best moments, the most important moments, and they probably have no significance for anyone other than myself.

However, I need a break from the cerebral effort I have expended so far on this blog, so here goes, in no particular order:

1. Lightstalkers was singled out by PDN as one of the top ten blogs. I am not sure I would call it a blog exactly, but it is certainly an important feature of web communications whose potential is not yet fully realized. Why has Lightstalkers been so important to me this year? Is it the original vision held by the Kuwayama brothers, its nature as an advanced communications tool for journalists? Is it the chance to connect with people outside the borders of this little island? The chance to learn technical digital stuff about which I am hopelessly ignorant? The opportunities for self-promotion? The work that came to me through it? The chance to use one’s profile page as a virtual agency and portfolio? The chance to show one’s work? To broadcast or test one’s ideas in a fairly sympathetic but critical space? The camaraderie? The ability to connect with people on the other side of the globe about whom you would otherwise be entirely ignorant? The support? All these things apply, and none suffices to explain the virtue of LS. A Mexican student recently interviewed me about all this for her thesis on the information age, and I was forced to think about it more soberly; having done so I concluded that two things make LS special: its freewheeling, slightly anarchic MO, which is very different from other cyber forums; and its experimental nature. As Teru so eloquently put it in the Manifesto: “We live and work in uncharted, unstable territory, navigating the grey areas of geography and technology. We travel in countries that are still in development or recently destroyed, using gear just barely out of R&D. For better or worse, we are the beta testing generation of the post-industrial era. This is our homemade “do-it-yourself/don’t try this at home” field guide and users manual to the 21st century.” Why these two? Because they form the crucible of creative effort.

2. Blogging. Well, this is not entirely photographic, but I became aware of it through the photographic community, so it will do. I started thinking about blogs as a result of the unfortunate and rather shrill dispute over the Lebanese fauxtography scandal, and then I became aware of its positive potential after being persuaded by LS member Luis Andrade to start one of my own in Spanish, thereby helping me to master that language. Subsequently I turned my thoughts to using the blog format to write about photography (OK, so I am a little slow on the uptake). I was pleased to discover that blogging can release one’s creativity because it removes the usual obstacles to publishing one’s thoughts publicly, and I also found that it gave me a platform for discovery. My curiosity about things now has free reign.

3. Magnum in Motion. Along with MediaStorm, the recent expansion of Magnum’s multimedia production has got us all talking about multimedia, its nature, its potential, how to make it, how to sell it, and how it might rejuvenate photojournalism. While the pieces that Magnum has lined up tend to focus on the photographers’ thoughts, rather than provide oral history from the subjects’ point of view, the virtue of this work overall is that it is constantly evolving and exploring new ideas. Magnum is channeling some of that old cutting edge spirit in a new enterprise that could be of tremendous importance to the development of photojournalism in this century.

4. The Attribution and Reassessment of a Remarkable Photo. Well, just the reappearance of this remarkable photo, really. Someone on a blog compared it with two famous paintings of assassination scenes by Goya and Degas. (I apologize here for not properly citing the blogger and for borrowing his idea.)

The comparison made me appreciate the photo more. Jahangir Razmi’s photo has the same iconic quality that distinguishes Goya’s remarkable canvas, and this is unusual for what is essentially a spot news photo. As one would expect from a photo, there are formal inconsistencies or “flaws” (though it should be clear that such “accidents” are precisely what makes photos so interesting, in my view); but the photo succeeds in capturing this event with the same sweep and range of feeling that Goya depicts. You may think me insensitive for commenting on the formal qualities of an image that is really quite frightening, as though it were mere "art" and not a record of a real event -- but I do so precisely because I want to remind people that photography is not alone in recording real events and some painters are journalists too; meanwhile, it is well to remember that our formal armament is what helps us bring meaning to these raw images. I myself wouldn’t mind accomplishing something that approaches the condition of a Goya painting, but I doubt I ever will.

5. Jill Freedman, who made The Online Photographer's "Ten Best Living Photographers" list. Hey, I like her work and was glad to see her appear on the list. One picture will suffice. “Like those who collect stories from the shannachies, or storytellers, I am collecting moments. For who will remember the old ways?” Nuff said.

6. I discovered Oculi (I said I was slow) and Glenn Hunt’s marvelous work Equus, about horse culture round the world, a selection of which has just appeared on Foto8's site. I will save my comments for a later essay, but what can one not like about an innovative collective that manages to defy easy description and be so consistently surprising?

7. James Whitlow Delano’s Death Throes of a Great Rainforest at Noorderlicht’s 2006 survey of Asia. In James’ words, “The rainforest of Borneo is one of the oldest in the world. Previously it covered the whole of Borneo and parts of western Indonesia, reaching as far as The Philippines. Today large parts have disappeared due to commercial logging. The very existence of many impoverished native tribes is threatened by this. Some have begun armed resistance, others turn against the migrants who, likewise in search of a better life, have arrived to work the land as it is cleared.”

Magisterial, original, ambitious – these are just some of the terms that occur to me as I review the incredible catalogue of visual poems that James has captured. And I especially like the fact that it marks a return of serious investigation into environmental issues. In this drama there are many players, but the protagonist is sublime, an enormous primeval forest, and there is no doubt that it is a living breathing thing.

8. Patrick Yen’s zeal for Web 2.0 thinking. Ok, the guy is a pain in the neck sometimes with his programmatic statements, but that is the role of a gadfly, and the truth is, we need to listen to what he says. He is pointing the way to the future. Have a look at his Gonzo Global Photojournalism site.

9. Cristina Rodero Garcia went to the Burning Man Festival. Gotta see the show on Magnum's site folks.

10. VII Photo Agency. For innovation, for resuscitating a bit of that old Magnum magic, and for taking that older formula (a cooperative composed of “photographes engagés”) and updating it for the web. They have been showing the way – how to adapt to the present market and make use of digital technology for a leaner, meaner operation – and provide a meaningful alternative to the monopolies like Getty and Corbis. An interesting interview with John Stanmeyer about it all appeared in Take Great Pictures.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Grant Gets Close: The Transfiguration of the Flesh

(click on the picture above to view the entire sequence of images from the beginning)

Grant Lamos, a photographer who works mainly in black and white and maintains a photo-a-day style blog called Street Zen, has been steadily working his magic on what many might think would embody an unpromising and mundane assignment. He shoots celebrities at premieres and other events around town, but he shoots them in an extraordinarily direct, realistic, even brutally honest fashion that strips them of the hucksterish aura normally clinging to famous characters, yet he does not rob them entirely of their dignity. And the irony is that by doing so, he transfigures them. Here for example is Abe Vigoda:

By knocking all the glamour out of the event, by presenting them all snaggle toothed and warty without the distraction of color and makeup and flattering light, he succeeds not only in bringing them down to earth, making them oh so very human and magnifying their imperfections, but he also sends them right back up to the stratosphere without missing a beat. The direct, confrontational, right up in your face stance, which produces incredible detail so that every flaw, every pore, every bit of life’s harsh lessons can be seen etched into these faces, succeeds in recreating these totems of material success and monumentalizing them in an unexpected manner. They are the Easter Island idols of a bankrupt starmaking machinery that typically deludes itself about where the value of its properties lies and overlooks the very real and astonishing power that ordinary daily life conceals. They are like ancient runes, Ur-celebrities, whose features we read anxiously to discover the secret of their superhuman humanity.

To my eye there is more than a little bit of Weegee in this series. The puckish, ironic and deflatory gaze, best exemplified in his famous picture “The Critic,” is shared by Grant, and of course the contrasty lighting, the mix of irreverance with a sympathetic feeling for humanity, the delight in the comic, if not to say burlesque, nature of our pretensions, all are in tune with the cigar-chomper’s wry take on life. But there is much more. Some would jump to the conclusion that the power of Grant’s work lies in its demystification of an essentially empty ritual that seeks to create the illusion of royalty, perhaps even deity, for a secular and egalitarian society. He debunks the whole show, like a perverse carny barker who would have the crowd just go away. But I think the genius of these bracingly intimate portraits is that they rescue the human being from underneath the oppressive weight of all this ostentation and return it to a state of fleshly grace. The sheer lumpy, pocked meatiness of these faces is so palpable, so much there, that one cannot doubt their reality, the eternal leadedness of being. And in recovering that substance, Grant recovers their spirit as well. They are much more vivid.

All this reminds me of another artist, Chuck Close, whose monumental head shots have long been popular in the art world.

His brand of Photorealism, however, had a very different thrust to it, though it too was initially concerned to render detail with an almost unreal immediacy due to its magnification. Ultimately it was not about fleshliness or corporal being; it was about atomization and a focus on the compositional element of the paint – he focused on detail to the point that he emphasized its essential non-human materiality. Grant’s focus is resolutely on the carnal. He makes the “stone stony.” You can almost smell the breath exuding from the forced smiles. Here is his Grant’s tribute to Chuck:

There is something similar to the art of caricature in these portraits. Caricature tends to exaggerate disproportionate features in the subject and give it a force that is larger than reality. But while it strives for instant recognition of the personality by reducing it to one prominent feature, Grant’s work strives for something like what Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian modernist, called estrangement (ostranenie). It is dislocating, disconcerting. It causes you to readjust your coordinates. Sometimes you have to look twice or more to identify the character otherwise so familiar to you on screen, and other times you feel like Grant has captured the very essence of that screen persona. While Robert DeNiro here looks like some boozer stepping out of a Paddy’s bar near the Deuce, Nick Nolte has never looked more Nolteish,
and the unfortunate screwiness of the screen character that Rosanna Arquette has been forced to play ad nauseum is here presented conclusively.

Everything is so convincing, so sharply defined that these people appear trapped in the image – trapped in the camera’s flash, trapped on the red carpet, trapped in a role that has subsumed their identity to the point where it threatens to disappear. This is not to say that all the celebrities come off looking bad or ugly, nor do I find the “ugliness” ugly at all. On the contrary, many of the young starlets look quite beautiful: though the light be harsh, they radiate a kind of charisma still, but there is no doubt that many of them have the look of a deer caught in one’s headlights and they seem almost hysterical at times. While Hilary Swank seems somewhat grotesque in terms of the exaggerated features, it is not disagreeable; but Paris Hilton’s self satisfied vixen is somehow, even though she is quite fetching in her furs and her face betrays no flaws.

In the end this lapse into vivid carnality, this pratfall from an illicit grace, is just what saves them all and makes them all the more memorable. Grant has cast them in the role of a lifetime, to play themselves with unimpeachable conviction, and the interpretations, while not freely given, are endlessly surprising.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Making Friends in the Blogosphere

My new effort here has been plugged by Jim Johnson on his wideranging, broadminded, eclectic, and endlessly fascinating blog, "(Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography." I am indebted to him for doing so and for seeing fit to include me in his copious links, which are a veritable encyclopedia of interesting sites. So far I have also linked up with Sion Touhig's Sionphoto blog, John Loomis's quirkily named Drinking with a Dead Man, Stefan Rohner's Ball-Saal, Velibor Bozovic's Vebahood, Jonathan Auch's the thousand words, Roland Quilici's Miradas, Jeremy Sutton Hibbert's Tokyoland, Wayne Yang's Eight Diagrams, and a few others.

The idea of making friends in cyberspace has always somewhat perplexed me, as I find it odd carrying on sometimes quite penetrating discourses with people whom I have never met face to face. I consider some of these people real friends now. I have gotten used to it since becoming a member of Lightstalkers, but the phenomenon is nonetheless rather odd. Ferdinand Tönnies made a famous distinction between Community (gemeinschaft) and Association (gesellschaft), the former a feature generally of small rural communities connected by blood and the latter a feature of a new abstract type of social organization brought about by capitalism and urbanization -- association through the cash nexus, through the workplace, through bureacratic institutions and so on which are entirely bloodless and potentially alienating or anomistic. When the web came along, I remember that everyone was crowing about the potential community building inherent in the forums that cropped up everywhere, and while I was skeptical about the predictions of a radical redefinition of community, I have to admit that something like that is in the wind. I wouldnt say that the blogosphere or forums like Lightstalkers are genuine communities as defined by Tönnies, but they do seem to straddle the fence between community and association. They are bloodless and abstract, seen from one angle, but almost filial and all too human in their ability to tie one person to the next with the filaments woven by common purpose, curiosity, and passion for ideas. And they have tremendous potential to connect people from all over the world, the political and cultural implications of which have hardly been plumbed.

Networking is no new thing. The circle jerk that defines the networking in Academic parlors is one sort of community building, albeit one that ironically seems to cut the participants off from the rest of the world, as the jargon that serves to dress up one's intellectual bonafides, like medals on an Eisenhower jacket, has succeeded in alienating outsiders who might otherwise have joined in the discussion. But here we have another sort of networking, which, if I understand correctly the thinking behind web 2.0, is inclusive, eclectic, open, and inviting. My hope is that while all we photobloggers are linking to one another and reading one another's weblogs, we succeed not in creating merely a tightknit circle of photo fanatics but a genuinely freewheeling and expansive community of individuals driven by intellectual curiosity and the desire to explore. The existence of photo blogs written by the likes of Jim Johnson, a political theorist, and Joerg Colberg, an astrophysicist, give me hope that indeed we have achieved a valuable eclecticism here.

One thing I can say without a doubt: the fact that I can publish my thoughts at will, rather than having to wait on approval from a desk jockey at some magazine, has made me much more productive and creative. Creativity is a drive every bit as exigent as hunger or sex, but one needs resources to feed it. The web is one such resource, its particular virtue being its ability to entirely sweep away the obstacles that hitherto obtained in the pursuit of mass communication. There are no gatekeepers.

Well, I only hope that as this blog changes and grows it can live up to the example set by the rest of you.

¡Mi Comandante Se Queda!

Much has been written in the North American media about the shift to the Left in Latin America, but I for one have been left wondering whether the recent elections in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua constitute a coherent shift, or whether some other factors are at work which have escaped the pundits. I think there are very few North Americans who understand the nature of Latin American politics, the authoritarian traditions that are so deeply embedded here and which consistently hinder the development of stable democratic institutions, as well as the lasting influence of Spanish colonialism, its social organization, which places family and clan at the center and the larger social good at the periphery, and the lasting psychic effects of the institution of slavery, whether it involves exploitation of Indian or of African populations.

Thus it was with some satisfaction that I viewed a masterfully done multimedia piece about Chavez’s recent re-election, put together by a young photographer from Slovenia, of all places. Manca Juvan has managed to say quite a lot in her brief show, not only because the images are so strong and so well mixed, but also because of her take on the story, which is always the deciding factor in photojournalistic storytelling. When it comes to telling a story, strong images are just one element, but the narrative point of view is often what translates the work to a higher sphere. The question for me always is, what do you choose to look at? What is particularly notable is that her insights are the result of a complete outsider taking a very inside look at a city that has baffled many other onlookers. This is often the perspective of the best documentary work, an outsider working on an inside track, which flies in the face of the current ideology espoused by theoreticians of identity politics, who would have us believe that only a member of an oppressed minority can adequately represent his or her experience in any given discourse. Karl Mannheim had a name for this sort of perspective, which he described in his book, The Sociology of Knowledge. He called such travellers who venture beyond the borders created above all by class, the "freischwebende inteligenz" (the freefloating intelligentsia).

Manca took the brave decision to look at the elections from inside the teeming, violent and oppressive barrios of Caracas, a city that exemplifies all the problems associated with urban development in Latin America. Crime and violence are out of control, and yet this is ironically where Chavez derives his control of the country, for it is among this desperate, incendiary, enraged underclass that Chavez finds his greatest support. And this presents him with a quandary: he cannot act too strongly against “la delincuencia” which has everyone complaining in Caracas, because he would alienate the underclass, but he can try to coopt it, employ it on his behalf, as many another “caudillo” or strong man has done in the past. And that is why so many Chavistas have a thuggish air about them – they are thugs.

I suspect that Chavez, for all his talk of socialism, anti-Americanism, anti-globalization, and Bolivarian revolution, is really just a demagogue in the Peronist mold, with a dash of Castro's charisma wrapped in green. Lots of bread, a few circuses, and choice words intended to play on the fears and prejudices of a disinherited mass of urban slum dwellers. What would El Libertador think of present day Venezuela and the city where he was raised? Probably not much, as he was defeated by the same forces which at are work today in South America and which caused him to relinquish his dreams of a federated nation guaranteeing the inalienable rights of man. The dissolution of Gran Colombia put an end to lofty democratic designs and validated, at least in practice, the subsequent use of dictatorship as a means of governing and solving problems. The rousing song that serves as a backdrop to the multimedia sequence is inevitably tinged with a bitter irony, for it is unfortunate that while el comandante indeed is sticking around, he must do so by appealing to the popular love of authoritarianism.

Manca is a young photographer, but she has already traversed Afghanistan and other Asian countries, bringing back several strong stories from there, as well as having covered her native Slovenia with flair. In 2006 she was named Photographer of the Year in Slovenia, and she has published her images in several major magazines and papers. There is a maturity to her work that is rare to see in a new photographer, and it is instantly apparent that her vision is very much her own, though it does partake of certain current esthetic trends in photojournalism. Unlike Chavez, Manca does not deal in utopian promises, she delivers a social vision that is altogether humane, soberly realistic, and above all genuinely sympathetic. Hers is a compassionate eye, but not a naïve one. She is nobody’s fool. Compassion and realism make for a strong documentary vision, and I expect that Manca will eventually dominate the ranks of the younger generation of photojournalists who will take the genre into the 21st century.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Kill the Lawyers?

“Nature always gives us happier laws than those we give ourselves.”

“Consider the form of this justice that governs us: it is a true testimony of human imbecility, so full it is of contradiction and error.”

("Of Experience," Michel de Montaigne.)

I was recently dismayed to receive a query from a major foundation responsible for supporting a lot of documentary work as to whether I acquire written releases from the people that I photograph as a documentary photographer. I immediately sniffed out the purpose of this query and wrote the following answer:

“Well, the short answer is a resounding no. These legal issues are entirely moot down here, and it would be ludicrous for me to burden myself with such forms. Course, I would never use my pix for questionable commercial purposes, so even in the North American legal context, I would have no need for the permission. Moreover, there are serious legal questions about the validity of such forms being signed in countries like the Dominican Republic and then being used to protect image usage in the States or Europe. There is no international law governing the practice, and a legal form that is good for the states is meaningless down here. Finally, just in terms of mere practical considerations, there is not a single Dominican in any of my photos who would ever object to having their picture seen in the normal venues where I would be willing to publish them. On the contrary, many of them are quite clear about the need to advertise their plight and hope for the best from it. I always explain to my subjects whenever I can just why I want the photo and I never take photos of people if they object.

Now if you are asking this question because (your organization) wants to use some of my photos, there is no problem at this end regarding such usage. Go right ahead, you have my blessing. However, if (your organization) is worried about some chimerical legality regarding such usage, and the organization feels bound, for whatever bureaucratic reasons of protocol, to conform to US legal strictures regardless of the ad hoc nature of these photographic situations, then I guess you will be obligated to use only such photos that come with written permissions. This will pose a problem for you, because there are bound to be very few of your photographers who can furnish such permission. while you all may well recognize that this measure is nothing but a sham, a paper tiger as it were, let me point out, and in so doing so tell you what you probably already know, that this is not a good road to go down and it is unwise to set a precedent like this when it comes to using documentary photos. The genre is seriously threatened presently by the increasing legal pressures being brought to bear on photographers in every field but especially in documentary and photojournalism. I think a strong case can be made for such photography as an exercise of free speech and I dont doubt that we will soon see some legal cases brought before the US Supreme Court. Aside from the fact that we are reporting in the field, and thereby are not actually bound by existing laws regarding usage and the rights of privacy, one must also bear in mind that we shoot in public spaces and thus we have to right to make use of the photos without seeking permission of the subjects who appear in those photos (though again this grey area has become the focus of some legal wrangling most notably in the case of Philip Lorca deCorcia, but that was because he was profiting from his images in the Art World market and not operating as a journalist -- nonetheless, "The suit was dismissed . . . by a New York State Supreme Court judge who said that the photographer's right to artistic expression trumped the subject's privacy rights." That from the NYTimes). On one hand the controversy is intellectually very interesting, but on the other hand the trend is worrisome to me. People in the so called First World live in societies increasing hedged round with laws and rules and restrictions, and it is one reason why I currently prefer living in the admitted mess (often dangerous mess) of a developing nation, where I am free pretty much to make things up as I go along. It suits me.

Anyway, as I said before my peroration, the short answer is no, I dont have such contracts. I might add that the contracts wouldnt be worth the paper they are written on, as almost all my subjects are illiterate and wouldnt understand the contracts anyway, effectively exempting them from any binding relationship.”

The subsequent response to my message confirmed my fears. The lawyer wants the photographers from whom the organization licenses and commissions work to obtain and make available all necessary releases from persons portrayed in the images, and to guarantee that the images do not infringe upon any third party’s copyright or right of privacy. The consequential damage that will ensue from making this a formal requirement is not to be underestimated by those of us in the field. While it will certainly inconvenience the foundations who rely on our imagery to promote their programs, it is bound to have a much worse effect on the photographers. If I win a big grant, say, from such an organization, I am virtually assured of getting no mileage out of it as the images will be unusable by them. Of course, the next step will be that the organizations require all their grantees to furnish such releases as part of the deal, which means that people like me, who work in developing nations where such agreements are worthless, could effectively be prevented from applying for important grants.

There will be those who would remind me that after all this is nothing but a legal formality and there are many photographers working in developed nations already accustomed to using such forms. France, as we have learned recently on Lightstalkers, from a debate about the use of blurred faces in pix taken by Simon Wheatley, is one place where the legalities of photographing in public places have become impossibly entangled and inhibitive.

Well, aside from the fact that, at least in my work, there are few moments I capture that lend themselves to prolonged legal discussions with my subjects about the need to sign a release, and putting aside as well the impossibility of handing out releases to all the people in the crowds I habitually photograph, the ludicrous nature of the thinking behind this measure is such that I can only agree with Montaigne about the imbecility of it all. Of what possible use is a legal document, albeit written in Spanish, in a country like the Dominican Republic where the subjects I shoot are all illiterate and the laws are all routinely ignored because they are mere smoke and mirrors? While the releases signed down here are not worth the paper they are written on either in a Dominican court or a North American court, they are also absolutely useless as a symbol of respect for the rights of the photographed subjects, and in reality are nothing more than flimsy sanitary paper designed to protect somebody’s ass back in the States-- and whose that might be is not really clear since I doubt that this really helps the organizations much. I think it is ultimately intended to protect the lawyer! Of course, if I have to, I suppose I will start carrying around such forms, but in all honesty the idea of colluding in this sham does not sit well with me, it seems a betrayal of everything that my practice of photography stands for, and I am not sure I can in good conscience cooperate. I would be deceiving my photographic subjects and my clients as well as behaving like a hypocrite, and I despise cant.

The problem lies in the extreme dissociation between legal and everyday realities. Here is an interesting story by Montaigne that sums it up nicely:

“here is something that happened in my time. Certain men are condemned to death for a murder, the sentence being, if not pronounced, at least decided and determined. At this point the judges are informed by the officers of an inferior court nearby that they have some prisoners who confess outright to this murder and throw a decisive light on the whole business. They deliberate whether because of this they should interrupt and defer the execution of the sentence passed upon the first accused. They consider the novelty of the case and the precedent it would set in suspending the execution of sentences; that the sentence has been passed according to the law, and that the judges have no right to change their minds. In short, these poor devils are sacrificed to the forms of justice.”

I rest my case.

Addendum: I was given permission to publish this on Lightstalkers and on my blog, as the organization wants the issue aired, but certain clarifications were made which I duly added to the essay above. A few questions could not be editorially absorbed into the body of that text, so I will take time to broach them here.

First off, questions were raised as to whether in fact such legalities are, as I claim, moot in the DR and whether or not in fact there is international law governing these matters. The answer to the second is easy: no. Just as copyright laws are notoriously difficult to enforce internationally due to the fact that no global consensus exists, this issue of free speech vs rights of privacy is as yet unlegislated globally and subject to local interpretations (or an entire lack of attention to the matter, as in the DR). The answer to the second is a bit complex: while I have never ever by any organization or legal body here been hampered in the pursuit of my work on the sugar plantations, and on the contrary have practically been forced to photograph in the most private of situations with narry a concern for the subject, there is in fact one area in which I have been counseled to proceed more judiciously, shall we say, and that is in working with Plan Dominicana on issues dealing with minors (child abuse, child labor, etc). Here we work more scrupulously to protect the identity of the children, though it is more a matter of conscience than of binding laws. I believe the laws are on the books, but they are ignored—or rather, they are complied with only because we see fit to do so, not because the laws are effective here. And we do it to protect the children, not to protect ourselves from litigation.

Now in a sense that for me is still besides the point. In an authoritarian society where the rule of money and power goes unchecked despite the written law, I think it is imperative to proceed in a manner consistent with the exigent and all-important right of free expression, because privacy rights here are invoked only to protect the cabal of rich businesspeople and landowners. If a case were ever cooked up against me on the grounds that I violated the privacy of a bracero in the pursuit of my story, you can be sure that it would be done so by the mill owners in an attempt to silence me rather than protect their workers’ rights, which are hardly of concern to the ruling class. This is one reason why artistic expression and free speech, which are exercised in pursuit of a larger good, must take precedence over the rights of privacy—regardless of whether we are working in public or private space, too. After all, a mill owner could claim that I had trespassed on private property when I entered a batey and therefore my pictures constituted a violation of privacy. You see the danger of this kind of argument?

I was asked if my subjects would object to having their pic appear on the cover of the foundation’s annual report, as I had already answered that “many of them are quite clear about the need to advertise their plight and hope for the best from it.” Clearly, though I do not spell out the various uses which I deem legitimate, as they wouldnt understand it anyway, there is good reason to act in faith that such usage as outlined here is in conformity with the need to advertise their plight.

Finally, the foundation clarified a crucial point: “Our lawyer doesn’t have a problem with us using them, as long as you sign a contract stating that you have all necessary permissions, releases, etc, and that your work does not infringe upon any third party’s copyright, trademark, or right to privacy.” How can I guarantee any of this? how can anyone? As I stated, the release that I would have them sign, albeit written in Spanish and in proper legal form, would be useless as there is no clear precedent for its use internationally. To talk of copyright and trademark in the context of braceros who own nothing more than a machete is of course irrelevant, but to talk of “right to privacy” in this context is even more ludicrous if not insulting. The whole point of my documentary is that these poor devils have no privacy whatsoever: they live four to a room on metal bunkbeds without mattresses, they own nothing, not even their own identity; they are stateless, without rights, in a legal and national limbo. that is the whole point. Besides the fact that “privacy” as a concept, which is every bit cultural as well as legal, is construed in an entirely different manner here in Latin America, there is the added fact that privacy as a right cannot be said to exist in the context of the quasi-Apartheid like conditions of the bateys. These people belong to the mills and as such the only privacy to speak of belongs to the mill owners, and therein lies the danger.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dos Épocas

Long term photographic projects can win a viewer over for a variety of reasons: some photographers provide compelling narratives that hang together because of certain formal qualities, while others enthrall you simply because their theme is unusual, or their take on an otherwise conventional theme is fresh or offbeat. The best projects somehow manage to combine both. Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street is such a project; no matter how many times I turn its pages, the book never ceases to fascinate me. I own a first edition, and while I have been tempted during lean years to sell it, I have somehow, thankfully, been spared that humiliation. There is a new edition available, but the improved rendering of the shadow tones in this edition is no match for the tarnished and tired old friend that has inspired me for so many years.

The project is simplicity itself, nothing more than a series of portraits taken with a large format camera. The format dictates the type of imagery obtained: studied and steady observations of people who return the gaze of the viewer. By adhering to this method and patiently cataloguing the people and the streetscapes over a period of a year, Davidson created a profound and lasting portrait of a community on the edge -- literally and figuratively, as a ghetto is by its nature a community that has been edged out of the mainstream, and this particular ghetto was geographically pushed up against Manhattan’s northeast edge created by the East River. Like many great books of photography this one defies easy categorization and straddles different genres. It is photojournalistic in its themes, but “artistic” in its manner, since it adopts a format usually reserved for studio portraits or arty landscape work. And while it deals with journalistic themes such as poverty, drug abuse, segregation, and urban decay, it refuses to examine these themes using the rhetoric of the day and it resolutely avoids casting them in terms of being problems with answers. The result is that the photos, while they are quite clear-eyed and unsentimental, are open to all kinds of nuances and human variety; in concert they achieve the quality of an ode.

Above all what makes such projects so compelling is their capacity for world-building. When I was a child I liked nothing better than to curl up with a book like The Hobbit, The Tales of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, or Alice in Wonderland, because I could lose myself in the imaginary worlds they fleshed out with such convincing detail. My favorite photo books do this too, and of course theimmediacy of the lens makes the detail all the more tangible. Abbas’s Return to Mexico, Salgado’s Other Americas, and Ackerman’s End Time City are among the books that I prize most.

Currently running on Kit Roane’s Warshooter, a site that has consistently been presenting all sorts of thought-provoking work, is a very interesting project with great potential: Dos Epocas: Un Vuelo sin Vuelta, which deals with a Cuban family divided by the Revolution. The photographer is a member of Lightstalkers who goes by the nom de plume (or de camera) of Gabriel – an apt choice given that Gabriel is the patron saint of journalists. It is also a necessary choice if the photographer is to continue working on this theme and travelling back and forth to Cuba – a certain anonymity is required. Gabriel’s project has that same potential to create a world in which one can lose oneself, but in this case the world is bifurcated. The project is all about shards and shoring up a world that came tumbling down when one side of the family left for the States while other members remained in Cuba. Gabriel is a second generation member of the exiled family and as such his perspective is imbued with a kind of nostalgia that cannot ever be requited because it is not based on something real, it is based on an imaginary powerfully formed by absence – it is the essence of what the Portuguese call “saudade.” His family is Cuban, but he isnt quite, and he didn’t know Cuba – until now. This lends a powerful motive force to Gabriel’s investigation of his roots, and the palpable sympathy felt for all the characters involved in this story stems not just from his filial ties but also undoubtedly from the personal wounds that he is healing through the creation of this narrative.

And it really is some narrative. First of all, it is ambitious: it spans two nations, two generations, two epochs. Its thrust is genealogical, journalistic, historical, and sociological. Above all, it is very very personal, but of course it is also of public import because it gives insight into one of the most important events of the latter half of the 20th century. But rather than give us the grand historical march of jackbooted revolutionaries (the usual landscape of the photojournalist), Gabriel trains his lens on the minutiae of everyday life, the paraphernalia of family life. The narrative is made up of all the shards that remain to give these people documentary evidence of their identities and their histories. In Gabriel’s photographs we can read pages from a journal which describe one family member’s meeting with Castro, or the return plane ticket that remains an eloquent reminder of dashed hopes, or family letters (one in particular being a love letter that is priceless in its effusive sentiment), or the newspaper article detailing the confiscated properties once belonging to the family. The narrative proceeds by comparing photos of family members in the States with those of members back in Cuba, but this contemporary perspective is then given further comparison by introducing family snaps from the past. Thus the narrative travels between different countries and different epochs.

In a sense Gabriel has reinvented the family album, turning it into a postmodernist narrative of fragments and disorientation. But that is not all. The effect of flipping through this album is nothing short of novelistic: so many different lives, so many different subplots – all set against a compelling historical backdrop. It is very like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, but here the best and worst of times are related by an observant photographer instead of an observant writer. I might add, and not altogether facetiously, that this project has all the makings of a great telenovela (soap to you gringos) – Gabriel if you sell the rights, remember me when you calculate the fees!

The family must have been wealthy: there is one snap of Gabriel’s grandfather with his two children (Gabriel’s mother and uncle) on a sumptuous lawn with a palatial home in the background. The palatial home appears to belong to the neighbors as it sits outside the fence that surrounds the family’s backyard. But it is obvious they lived in a very good neighborhood of Havana, and manicured lawns are pretty much a luxury in the Caribbean. These people were landowners and businessowners who were forced to leave Cuba when the revolution took a left turn. The North American branch of the family continued to prosper, or at least they managed to maintain a comfortable middle class existence, but while the family members in Cuba appear to have to struggle a bit (selling octopus on the black market, for example) they too appear to have done fairly well in spite of their reduced circumstances – in one photograph we see the family’s pool adjoining their Havana home. The real difference is less obvious and unrelated to economic circumstance, and I cannot be sure whether this is an effect of the photographer’s excitement on being in Cuba or whether in fact it reflects a malaise or tedium inherent to American suburban life; but it seems to me that the Cubans in Cuba are happier than the Cubans in the States. The photos come alive in Cuba, they are full of light and color and theatrical gesture, while stateside the photos are more subdued. To be fair, there are very few of the latter in the selection appearing on Warshooter, but I suspect that one motif that will eventually become more salient as the project nears completion is the rueful irony that attends most exiles, even those who succeed in refashioning their lives – one can build houses and businesses from scratch, but one cannot recapture the magic that endowed the original home with its mystique, its sacred aura. It is not just that home is where the heart is, but that the heart is ultimately what makes a home. Suburban America is not the sort of place where a Cuban heart can beat to its habitual syncopated rhythm.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Introduction: On Accidents and Essays

A while back I started a thread on Lightstalkers about Walter Benjamin's famous phrase, the "spark of accident." It seems an apt phrase to describe the kind of photography that I do, and so I decided to use it as the title of this photo blog. I am new to blogging, but I got interested in this medium when I started a blog of my own in Spanish, Trozos de un Viralata, in order to help me master that rather unSaxonlike language. While that blog touches on photography from time to time, it doesnt focus on it, and after reading impressive photoblogs such as those written by Alec Soth, Martin Fuchs, Sion Touhig and Joerg Colberg, I decided that I should enter the fray with a photoblog of my own. I have shot my mouth off enough on Lightstalkers, so I guess I might just spare those patient people a while and collect my thoughts here instead. To that end, I am going to begin by dredging up some of the old LS posts and refashion them for publication here.

Blogging in my view is essentially a postmodern form of the Montaignesque essay. That great philosopher used the essay form to test ("essay") experience, to interrogate it from a variety of perspectives that were not necessarily consistent. In fact, contradiction and inconclusiveness lay at the heart of his enterprise: "I do not portray being, I portray passing. . . . If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial." While most philosophers are compelled to systematize and rationalize life, Montaigne, who lived during a time of great social and religious conflict, eschewed system and favored paradox and irony over logic and sequential order. Blogging by its very nature -- an ad hoc diary of stray musings and errant thoughts motivated by nothing more than the author's fancy -- seems the perfect medium to carry on in his vein.

I think of photos as visual essays of a sort. Saatchi recently invited me to be part of their online gallery, which I readily accepted, particularly as it gave me the opportunity to consider what it is I do and how it might fit into the context of the Art World. The definition I gave of my photographs seems to be in line with Montaigne's definition of his writing: "A good photograph tells many stories, but only if the photographer opens him or herself up to the object world. I am not interested in creating something original, but in discovering things that others see but do not heed. In that sense, I suppose my photographs are more like questions than answers." Course, one could argue that this is nothing more than the classic stance of the street photographer, and I would agree. Alex Webb defined it best in the prologue to his book on Haiti, Under A Grudging Sun: "I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner." That search for the secret heart of the known is quintessentially Romantic in tradition, not unlike what Wordsworth called "spots in time." While a postmodern searcher might balk at defining the goal of his search in these terms, the "unexpected" remains a legitimate goal for the street photographer, and that accident which provides the photo with its power and seduction is nothing more than the stumbling block that reality conspires to toss in the path of the wanderer, by means of which one's expectations or assumptions are shaken to the core.

Elliot Erwitt said in a recent interview conducted for a multimedia piece, "I always include Luck in the budget." That consummate photographer of comical accidents ought to know. Luck, serendipity, accident, contingency -- that little bit of reality that the photographer can never control -- is the animating force behind a great photograph, the enlivening spirit, the magic of the moment. When I set out to photograph, I like nothing better than to carry one small light camera and then to give myself over to the experience of discovering whatever might occur during the span of time that is curtailed only by the fatigue to which my legs eventually succumb. But one never knows whether that adventure will yield a surprise or not. For that reason, I consider any assignment a somewhat hazardous duty in every sense of the word, because while I am being hired to bring back the goods, I dont really know ahead of time what goods I might procure, if any. Like any other seasoned shooter, I try to maximize my endeavor by preparing properly for the assignment, researching the situation, lining up reliable contacts, and setting up a reasonable itinerary. But the essential irony governing my occupation is that my best work is inevitably the result of losing myself in a place and surrendering control. By giving myself over to the moment, instead of dictating its form and sequence, I am more likely to succeed in bringing back something that really is good, while it may or may not serve as goods.

The Argentinian writer, Adolfo Bioys Casares, once wrote, " . . . no creo en magos, con o sin bonete, pero sí en la magia del mundo" (I dont believe in magicians, with or without a magic hat, but I do believe in the magic of the world). That defines my attitude as well. I dont necessarily believe in the wizards who dazzle us with their visual prestidigitation, but I do confide in the magic that their practice serves to delineate or throw into relief. It is probably impossible to define what makes a good image or where the images come from, but a good photographer learns to rely on the fact that they will come, albeit of their own accord.