Tag Archives: Photo-journalism

Romka magazine: a collective photo-album

Romka magazine, Issue #7

I wrote about Romka magazine over on the eyecurious Tumblr some time ago, but I will confess to never having picked up a paper copy before, so the latest issue (#7) is the first I have been able to flick through. The conceit is a simple one, “favorite pictures and the stories that lie behind them” by pros and amateurs alike. No book reviews, no interviews, no ads… no excess fat. The result is a kind of crowd-sourced collective photo-album, which makes it sound terrible when it is really quite good. Romka simply does what it says on the tin: it presents a series of single images by photographers (that might be Roger Ballen or it might be Sachi “the builder who lives in a pink house in New Orleans”), each accompanied by a short text explaining what that image means to them. It is a very simple recipe, and like many simple recipes it is hard to get right, but when it works it is rather delicious. Although it follows a fairly strict formula it doesn’t feel formulaic because of its democratic, all-inclusive approach to images and because it helps to reveal some of the myriad reasons why photographs matter so much to people. This simple formula also makes it refreshingly different to most other photography magazines out there.

I have done a lot of wondering (to myself and sometimes out loud) about whether the photo album has become irrelevant today given the changes in the way that we make and look at photographs… Romka makes me think that there is life in it yet.

Romka magazine, Issue #7

Romka magazine, Issue #7

Romka magazine, Issue #7, November 2012, edition of 1,500.

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Photographers

Loving this short film montage by Mishka Henner and David Oates, collectively known as BlackLab. By extracting and resequencing hundreds of movie scenes featuring photographers, Photographers explores the tropes of the photographer on screen from voyeur, to fashion photographer, investigator or war photographer. Beyond the fun of trying to figure out what films were used for the montage, this is also a fascinating deconstruction of the mythology of the photographer.

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Review: Will Steacy (ed.), Photographs Not Taken

Photographs Not Taken

We live in the age of photo proliferation. Digital technology in all its forms (cameras, phones, computers, the Internet) has made photography the most democratic of media, both in terms of making and disseminating images. And they are everywhere, all the time: on our TVs, our computer screens, our smartphones and in our streets. Of course, this state of affairs is not as new as we might think—it has been in place since Walter Benjamin and his age of mechanical reproduction—but digital technology has led this proliferation to take off exponentially.

The impact of this is clear, even in traditional, ‘purist’ photography circles. In 2007 the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne created a crowd-sourced exhibition entitled We Are All Photographers Now, allowing anyone to upload their photographs to be included in the show. More recently Europe’s biggest photo-festival, the Rencontres d’Arles, centred on an exhibition entitled From Here On, a kind of manifesto for the age of the online image (“Now we’re a species of editors. We all recycle, clip and cut, remix and upload. We can make images do anything.”) where much of the work was made by artists appropriating or collecting other people’s images. Even Elliot Erwitt has been saying that more pictures are better than one.  So what a relief to open a photobook (am I allowed to call it that?) and discover that it does not contain a single picture: the cover’s ‘empty’ frame is the closest thing to an actual photograph.

Photographs Not Taken is a collection of essays about photographs that, for one reason or another, did not end up being taken. The writer and photographer Will Steacy, who edited the volume, asked an eclectic group of photographers (Emmet Gowin, Tim Hetherington, Laurel Nakadate and Jamel Shabazz all feature to give you an idea of the mix) to “abandon the conventional tools needed to make a photograph–camera, lens, film—and instead make a photograph using words.” The book is both a collection of opportunities missed, of attempts to conjure up in words those images that got away, but also a look into the psychology of the photographer and their ethics, reflexes, and methods.

Naturally many of these non-photographs were not taken because of an ethical or moral decision by the photographer, a decision that photojournalists must face on a day-to-day basis. Interestingly, many of the writers contrasted the act of taking a photograph with the state of being present as a human being. In these cases the camera is described as a defense to hide behind, with which to shield the photographer from the impact of the moment happening in front of or to them. The book also has its more surreal moments: Matt Salacuse describes the scientologist jedi mind trickery of Tom Cruise forcing him to lower his camera and to pass up the opportunity of photographing Cruise and Kidman’s newborn adopted baby.

It must be said that the essays are uneven… after all this is a collection of texts by photographers and not by writers. I found that some of the texts failed to bring the images to life, or perhaps that too many of these images ended up ‘sounding’ the same. For me Roger Ballen‘s essay stood out: he avoids any explanation of why he didn’t photograph the scene he describes (did he even have a camera with him on that day?), but there is no question whose world this lost moment belonged to. Rather than in attempting to resurrect lost images through words, an exercise that surely would be better accomplished by a group of writers, I found Photographs Not Taken to be most successful when it makes the reader think about the decisions that go into making, or not making a photograph. And if it encourages us to put down our cameras from time to time, that can only be a good thing.

Note: The International Center of Photography in New York will be hosting a book signing with several of the contributors on Friday, March 23rd from 6:00-7:30 p.m.

Will Steacy (ed.), Photographs Not Taken, (Daylight, 2012).

Rating: Worth a look

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Review: Donald Weber, Interrogations

 Donald Weber, Interrogations

The title of Donald Weber’s latest book, Interrogations, is very appropriate: both because they are the book’s subject, but also because this book raises a number of difficult questions which it deliberately refuses to answer. Set in Russia and the Ukraine, the book is made up of a series of portraits of people being questioned in different interrogation rooms, each as sparse as the next. By choosing not to include any captions and very little information about the context of these interrogations, Weber has put together a book which is an unflinching and discomfiting encounter with a particularly brutal and raw manifestation of power.

Donald Weber, Interrogations

Although the interrogations themselves are book-ended by a prologue and an epilogue, these provide limited context. The prologue consists of images which set a mood for the book. They depict a bleak, difficult world punctuated by a few moments of natural beauty and provide an abstract sense of life in these parts. They also serve as a reminder that Weber did not parachute in to shoot his portraits but spent close to six years shooting in the region. Rather than showing us the specific worlds or lives of the subjects of the interrogations, the prologue creates a sense of foreboding for what is to come.

The epilogue—a longer essay by Larry Frolick and two shorter pieces by Frolick and Weber and by Weber on his own—refuses to provide much context either. Like the book’s photographic introduction Frolick’s essay is also a mood piece documenting a difficult trip that Frolick took with his Ukrainian fixer, an echo of the bleakness, strength and the violence of the world photographed by Weber.

As an object, the book is very well made. Its size, unusual ‘vertical’ format and the full-bleed one-per-spread treatment of the portraits all contribute to its intensity. The cover is initially a little confusing, until the portraits reveal that it replicates the cheap, textured wall of one of the interrogation rooms, a clever design feature.

Donald Weber, Interrogations

Naturally the meat of the book is the portraits themselves. Taken in a handful of dingy, sparse interrogation rooms, they show different people undergoing a psychologically and sometimes physically violent interrogation process. We are not told who these people are are, what they are accused of, or why they are being interrogated. Indeed the book only indirectly reveals that these photographs were not staged and were taken during real interrogations. As one portrait follows the next, the emotions intensify. Concern and defensiveness give way to terror, panic and perhaps most alarmingly to expressionless faces, the faces of people whose spirit has been broken. The claustrophobia and tension of these portraits is heightened as the interrogators are never revealed. The few glimpses that Weber affords us are manifestations of pure violence and intimidation: a hand outstretched to grab a man or to strike another on the back of the head. In two of the most shocking portraits an interrogator presses a gun to the head of their subject.

Donald Weber, Interrogations

Weber prides himself on his unflinching gaze and this comes through clearly in these portraits. Just as for those being interrogated, there is no respite or redemption in the book: we are ‘forced’ to stare head on at raw terror, at the loss of dignity, at brutal physical intimidation. The overall effect is visceral and deeply uncomfortable. In Weber’s words, “the unseen subject of these photographs is Power”. For me this is the success of the book: by removing any context about these people, thereby turning them into the “Invisible Man”, and by reducing the interrogators to faceless threats, to an abstraction of brute force, Interrogations is able to grapple with the ‘capitalised’ ideas of Power, Violence and Fear.

The book also raises some fundamental questions about the photographic process at play here. By sitting through these interrogations and photographing them without intervening, was Weber not complicit in their violence and their brutality? Indeed, by looking at these pictures are we not also complicit in their violence? What did Weber have to do to get access to these situations, who did he have to associate with and what, if anything, did he do for those that were being subjected to this violence? Why did he show them stripped of all dignity and reduce them to total anonymity? These questions are not new: they are at the heart of any documentary photographic practice, but this book poses them in the starkest manner possible.

Donald Weber, Interrogations

Although he does not answer them directly in the book, Weber has been quite open in interviews (with Colin Pantall and with Pete Brook) about his process and the questions his images raise about his motivation and responsibility as a photographer. However, for me the book’s one failure is in Frolick and Weber’s short essay outlining the intentions for this project. The text manages to be grandiloquent (“the photos in this book were … the inevitable product of a Western artistic sensibility confronting the mystery of the Other”), confused (“the artist’s goal is to shock us with our own wordlessness: to show us proofs of life in its willful alternative histories”) and sometimes a little silly (“exposing yourself to the cold winds of the void”, “speaking in silence”), in a way that feels very much at odds with the directness and simplicity of these photographs. The book would have been even more brutally powerful without this poor articulation in words of what it succeeds in doing with images alone.

Donald Weber, Interrogations

Donald Weber, Interrogations. (Amsterdam: Schilt Publishing, 160 pages, colour plates, 2011).

Rating: Recommended

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Hannah Lucy Jones

This week we are exploring the work of the Fiveleveninetynine Collective of London, the creators of the Broken Train and A Royal Wedding.

London photographer, Hannah Lucy Jones, studied at English and Philosophy at Leeds University, though found her way to the visual world and decided to pursue photography as a career after being shortlisted in the Times Young Photographer of the Year Award in 2005. From there she attended the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) photo-journalism course at Norton College, Sheffield, and has been employed as a press photographer since 2006. Her photographs have appeared in The Sunday Times Magazine, The Times, The Guardian, and The Sunday Telegraph, amongst others.

To enrich Hannah’s ability to create in-depth storytelling , she received her MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication. Her project featured below, To happiness, endlessly, is a chronicle of a solitary journey she made around England, and was intended to evoke her emotional state as she travelled. This project was recently selected for the Foto8 Summer Show at Host Gallery, London, and was featured in BBC coverage of the show.

To happiness, endlessly: To happiness, endlessly, is a series of encounters from a journey around England. Curious about this country I’m from, a little lost in my own life, and feeling unable to make decisions, I opted to travel with no planned route or destination. Instead I was led by the suggestions of the people I met, many of whom spoke to me of their dreams and sorrows. With no intention to characterise the English as a nation, or England as a country, the trip was imagined more as a series of disconnected experiences joined by their happening within Englandʼs borders, a melancholic psychological journey, and a visual diary of what I saw, who I met, and where I went.

Though this was a personal journey, the photographs and stories I collected on the way explore a universal emotional landscape. The project is true to the melancholic feeling I found almost everywhere as I travelled. In the people I spoke to, the places I visited, the stories I heard, there was a common sense of sadness, fading hope, dissatisfaction, hard times. Thus the images are less a document of the nation, and more a psychological journey through its’ mind, using the physical journey around England to locate itself. The final edit reflects this rather melancholic nature.

Tim Hetherington 1970-2011

As most readers will already know by now, Tim Hetherington, the war reporter, photographer and filmmaker was killed on Wednesday 20 April 2011 in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Misrata, Libya, alongside another photojournalist Chris Hondros. The news has clearly shocked and deeply saddened the photojournalism community, but also many people far beyond the confines of that world. Bryan has written a post which provides an interesting account of how the news spread very rapidly through Facebook and Twitter and was then held back by some out of respect for the families of the deceased men, until it finally became official. I am not really involved in the world of photo-journalism or reportage, but I had been following Hetherington’s work for some time and saw his excellent documentary Restrepo only a few weeks ago. My impression was that he was a truly unique figure in his field who seemed to be aware not only of the many potential ethical pitfalls of his profession, but also of the need to break with a burdensome past to try and find genuinely new ways of telling stories. He considered himself an “image-maker” rather than a photographer and seemed to be constantly interested in trying new approaches to getting a message across. It also appears from the many tributes that have emerged in the past few hours that he was a profoundly compassionate man who managed to remain sensitive to the suffering that is caused by the violence about which he made his images. To understand what made Hetherington such a unique figure in his field, I recommend watching the last film, Diary (2010), that the uploaded to his Vimeo account. A “highly personal and experimental film” it shows how deeply and carefully he thought about his profession and its implications for his own life, and illustrates why so many people have recognised that his loss is a tragedy not only for his family and friends, but for anyone interested in hearing those stories that can be so hard to tell.

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