OCA Study Weekend at Brighton Photo Biennial
3rd and 4th November 2012
I was there on both days and stayed overnight which was good because those of us who did so were able to continue with debates and discussions over an evening meal and/or in the bar of the hotel where a few of us were staying. It was windy (very) and wet especially on the Sunday. I definitely felt the power of nature. It’s full of interest there – so many individual shops, cafes and restaurants that always seem more vibrant than the usual national chains. Places we visited were scattered around the centre of Brighton and so there was much rushing backwards and forwards.
It was suggested that we look at the Brighton Photo Biennial website beforehand. I also subscribed to Photoworks and have the meaty extended issue that covers the Biennial and that acts as an excellent reference point for me. The Editor’s Note ascribes two sets of meanings to ‘Agents of Change’ – the forces that shape and control space under capitalism and those who aim to resist these forces and contest space. I’ve collected a deal of other reference material as well and so now I will just comment on particular aspects that struck me from the Exhibitions we were able to visit in the time available.
1. Uneven Development
This comprised works of Jason Larkin and Corinne Silva that focus on ‘walling’ in southern Europe and the Middle East . Larkins’ s Cairo Divided focuses upon the development of gated communities near to desert golf courses and new towns there which have no space for social housing. Larkin distributed self-produced newspapers, containing his images, together with essays and descriptions, translated into arabic in Cairo real-estate development. In Badlands (2011) juxtaposes images of resort houses and walled mansion with the shanties built by illegal migrants and in Imported Landscapes she placed images taken in Morocco on billboards in Spain. In this sense Silva and Larkin, “make an effort at opposing the proprietary claims of image-ownership beyond the gallery (where they also show their images)” (T.J. Demos (2011) in p. 6 Photoworks (2012/13).
Several thoughts struck me as I was going round. There is nothing new in the type of activities being examined even though their nature may have changed. The pyramids were built by slaves and poorer workmen in the desert in Egypt before ‘capitalism’ was invented; poorer people have always travelled to find work etc. (my immediate ancestors travelled to Sheffield to work in the steel industry in the late C19th and certainly lived in ‘mean streets’ moving fairly often as well.). What is different is in the way that the photographers themselves have taken a political stance and adopted egalitarian approaches towards distribution of images. The other question I asked myself was, “what do the people, say, in Egypt think? Are there Egyptian photographers who are also making political comments through their photography? Maybe I’ll find an answer to this question when I visit the Exhibition Light from the Middle East at the V&A.
Another questions for me was , what is it that takes photographers to other countries. Larkin’s bio on his site states that, “Much of my work focuses on identity and how, whether viewed from an individual or collective group within society, it fluctuates as the environment and social situations constantly shift and evolve”. Information about Silva on her site states, “…Corinne Silva explores the interrelationship between human mobility and the physical environment… By focusing on the formation and reconstruction of geographical and photographic landscape aesthetics, Silva creates a space for the consideration of imagined landscapes”. There was one particular image in the Exhibition that drew me.
Plastic mountain II, plastic recycling plant (c) C. Silva
(With Corinne Silva’s permission)
I was sure I could see dead bodies in there until I saw the title. There was something about the sculpted effect that fascinated me as if it had all been assembled just to remind me how much waste we produce – mountains reaching towards the sky. I emailed Silva to ask permission to use this image on my blog and she kindly agreed. I looked at more of her work as well and bought the book Roisin Ban : The Irish Diaspora in Leeds (2006). thaat tells the story of Irish people in Leeds with images – portrait, landscape, documentary and old photos – written narratives and commentaries. Corinne Silva was co-ordinator of this project. So far as I can tell this was her first published project and it was interesting to see how her underlying concepts of displacement and assimilation have developed.
2. Five Thousand Feet is the Best : Omer Fast
Chilling in the way it portrayed how real acts of destruction can become just like a video game. I knew that already but the film was so well put together with its juxtapositions of acting, fact and documentary that it really brought the point home. I didn’t see it all the way through in situ, because of having to stand for so long, however, a shortened version was put on the WeAreOCA blog a while afterwards (also a video of the Urban Ghosts project – see below) and you can see it here . I also read the illuminating interview with Omar Fast in the Photoworks edition (p. 60). A couple of days ago I watched a recent TV ad for the RAF which actually used footage of drones/operators to attract recruits. I also remember doodlebugs and the fear my mother had of them.
I know going way back there have been debates as to whether boys playing with toy guns encourages them to violence in the future. The video certainly shows how drone operators become objectively remote from the consequences of their actions ( an interesting aspect here has been the comments of Prince Harry recently which have been much discussed in the media). The video also shows impact on mental health from this day-in day-out dissociation. However, is the dissociation to do with the psychological effect of killing people remotely, or that of spending day-in and day-out in front of a screen and living in a virtual world?
3. The Beautiful Horizon
The No Olho da Rua (‘In the Eye of the Street’) Project.
I have mixed feelings about this project which was begun in 1995 in Brazil. The Exhibition brochure describes it as a long term collaboration between young people living on the streets of Belo Horizonte (Brazil); two photographers (Julian Germain and Patricia Azvedo) and a graphic designer, Murilo Godoy.
Our relationship with the ‘street kids’ (as they call themselves) was not and never has been educational, nor has it ever been our intention to offer them some kind of social assistance.
Our ‘contract’ with the kids is direct and uncomplicated. We just told them that we believed they could take great pictures and that people be interested in their lives. We had no clear idea of what would happen, simply a conviction that they would grasp this opportunity and make beautiful photographs; that their vision of their own lives might be of importance to us all
Julian Germain’s blog, from October back 2012 contains posts about recent contact and also photographs of the exhibition here.
Approximately 75 children took part in the project over the years, most of them had left home by the time they were 9 to lead nomadic lives. The artists provided them which basic, plastic cameras; tape recorders; notebooks and pencils. The children came to them when rolls were complete and exchanged these for fresh rolls. I couldn’t find anywhere which explained how this was funded.
Here is an ll minute video where Julian Germain and Patricia Azvedo talk about the project http://youtu.be/IVFpqUdmPLg with Celia Davies, co-curator of the Biennial. Germain explains that they aimed to, “ ….use the exhibition to initiate an archive and provide a documentary of our relationship with them and their relationship with us” . He says, “It’s not about who made the pictures to them it’s about whose in the pictures” .
The exhibition was well-organised with original prints in individual, named, boxes; some enlarged on stands. Images were put on posters and into newspapers which the children distributed in the streets. It looks as if most of the children just snapped away taking photographs of anything and everything. A lot of the images reminded me of the kind of images youngsters often post on Facebook in the UK and I think that there too it’s more to do with whose in the picture. There are other images more telling and poignant though, such as a young child with a gun and a girl laid-out after death.
Here is an extract from a commentary by Mark Sealy, Director Autograph APB on Julian Germain’s website
Rather than just being willing students, these kids have actively negotiated the terms in which they have allowed themselves to be seen; they have performed for the camera and pointed the camera. In many ways though, through the production and distribution of these photographs, the kids have become activists for social change. This newspaper therefore allows their experiences to transcend the street and be literally placed in the hands of those who all too readily ignore their very existence.” Mark Sealy, Director Autograph ABP.
I think the idea of such a Project was a brilliant one. It’s its aims that I have a problem with, because there don’t seem to have been any really. Now, I know that this could well be the ‘rescuer’ in me that wants and has worked for people’s lives to change for the better, but it seems such a waste of an opportunity. There isn’t any evidence of any fundamental change in the lives of these young people (not even one), evidence of them becoming ‘activists’, seeking help towards education etc that might have come about through involvement in the Project.
We did discuss this amongst ourselves and with the tutors at the Exhibition but I don’t recall any clear answers as to what the project really gave the youngsters – ‘control over their environment’ was mentioned but how? Patricia Avedo makes some telling remarks in the video – regarding when to end this lengthy project, “I don’t want to end when everyone has died . …..We cannot move them from where they are”.
As I was going round the Exhibition I had in my mind projects in the UK such as those run by “Storying Sheffield” that have a whole range of projects involving young people in telling their stories and exploring their City and their lives. Projects that have a purpose that can be clearly evaluated and this is what was missing for me although I do accept that the circumstances are very different.
I’ve already referred to the ongoing work review group we had in the morning in an earlier blog post so I won’t repeat that here. I would have liked it to have been for longer but we only had a certain amount of time as an exhibition was to open by photographer Phil Taylor . He came in just as we were finishing off.
4. ‘Dio de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead)
Taylor was inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s novel ‘Blood Meridian’ (1985) to spend three months in Tucson, Arizona in 2011. The novel“… traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen year old who stumbles into a world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is rising” , and the book informed the six locations visited by Taylor.
We stayed on a while for a closer look at the prints which were on the wall and to watch the video. The video is fascinating – it weaves together some haunting images interspersed with quotations from the book and with a soundtrack created by Taylor himself. (He is also a musician http://youtu.be/sLjyAV1zgII ).
I wish OCA could have organised an actual presentation/discussion so that he could have discussed his work with us in more detail. As it was I just had the opportunity for a few quick words with him before we had to rush off somewhere else. He told me he travelled around on his motor bike and all he used was a 35mm film camera and hipstamatic app on his iphone. The video was made with a Canon Ixus. So far as I can tell it was a coincidence that his exhibition was on at the same time as the Bennial as it was not a part of it. I would like to buy the book he produced, Confluence, Fragments and Urban Ghosts’ but, at the moment, it’s rather too expensive.
5. Drawing the weekend to a close
The weekend was rounded off for me with a ticket to watch ‘Desert Island Pics’ – based on desert Island Discs with Stephen Bull (Photography Course Leader of the University for the Creative Arts) interviewing Sean O’Hagan (The Guardian) about his choice of eight personal favourite photographs. The venue was the Marlborough Theatre (website undergoing maintenance at present) a small, rather grotty theatre on the top floor of a pub I was surprised at the venue to begin with but, actually, it was perfect in providing an intimate and picturesque space . I won’t go into any detail about the images chosen except to say that they were all very interesting and it was generous of Sean O’Hagan to share personal memories with us.
I’m pleased I went on the weekend. It was good to spend intensive time with other students and tutors and really focus on photography. My thoughts on it all might seem somewhat of a hotch-potch but then all the exhibitions were different and I’ve just drawn some threads that appeared colourful to me from the tapestry of the whole that have regard to:-
- Different ways of presenting work, including the use of multi-media which really appeals to me but I don’t yet feel confident enough in my skill to try this.
- Egalitarian approaches towards sharing work so that they reach a wider audience – posters, newspapers etc
- Using images as metaphor for social and political concepts
- Photography as a amedium for enabling people to record their lives and tell their own stories.
- Collaborative working – something else that appeals to me
- Using poetry and novels as creative inspiration for photographic exploration – this has just reminded me of the work I did in Derbyshire when I followed the path of some of the characters in Stephen Booth’s novel The Devil’s Edge a short extract from which is here . I haven’t really talked to anyone else about this or done anything with the photographs I took and this has now been added to my to-do list.
So – there you have it; a whirl of activity, lots of talking, thinking and looking things up – not to mention the books and music I bought as a result of it all – a perfect experience!
8th February 2012
Booth, S (2011) The Devil’s Edge, Sphere/Little Brown Book group, London
Deos, T.J. (2011) Spaces of Global Capital: On the Photography of Jason Larkin and Corinne Silva, Photoworks, Brighton, UK
Photoworks (Oct-April 2012/13) Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space, Photoworks, Brighton, UK
Silva, C (2006) Roisin Ban : The Irish Diaspora in Leeds , Leeds Irish Health & Homes, Leeds, UK
Taylor, P (2012) Confluence, Fragments and Urban Ghosts,