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photography politics

Photo book as political object: Edmund Clark’s Control Order House

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Edmund Clark’s Control House Order is a book that on the surface appears to be about banality. This banality stems from the form of control or detention without trial created as a consequence of the fear of terrorist attack. Control Order House maps, through photographs, diagrams and documents, an apparently unremarkable British suburban house in which a “controlled person” suspected of terrorism is detained, and it details how this space is created and maintained through detailed, bureaucratic practices of control. Far from the exoticised, foreign spaces of terror we see one of the mundane, domestic spaces in which the war on terror is materialised.

I first wrote about Clark’s work in November 2010 when his book Guantánamo: If the light goes out was excerpted in The Guardian. I was struck by the way Clark focused on the objects of violence as a conscious strategy to avoid the dehumanising effects of conventional photojournalism.

Here is a photographer employing a deliberate aesthetic strategy — the exclusion of detainees and guards from the photos — in order to humanise the issue. He does so because the normal photographic strategy for humanistation (giving the issue a ‘face’) plays into stereotypes that drive the war on terror. For Clark, rehumanisation involves not showing people. His understanding of the aesthetic and political issues at play in this subject are I think a model example of the reflexivity that is required to make the best documentary work.

I interviewed Clark (via Skype on 31 October 2013) to discuss Control House Order, and his reflexiveness is evident throughout the recording, which is available here:

 

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We discussed a number of important issues in his work, but four stand out for me:

First, Control Order House is at one level a photo book, but a very different photo book. Because the house is, in Clark’s words, “anondyne,” the photographs and the way they are printed in the book, appear as crime scene images that offer a visual recording of the space. Because of that, Clark focuses on the process of photography, the practices of control implicated in the making of the images, rather than what the photographs show. This is aided and abetted by the publication of relevant documents in the book.

Second, the indispensability of interpretation is at the heart of Clark’s photographs. While he photographs with a particular intention, he knows he does not control the meaning of his images, because meaning is produced by their context, location and encounter with other viewers, and indeed he welcomes this openness.

Third, Clark understands his work as an artist to be political in the sense that it is about political events, experiences and issues, and has a general political motivation in the form of engaging people. However, he notes in the book that, “I’m not writing to persuade you for against these measures,” and does not see it as activist or campaign work. That is because he regards that form of political work as closing off different interpretations inherent in images by insisting on one meaning.

Finally, Control Order House is deliberately made (in collaboration with a talented designer) as a beautiful, tangible object in order to enable the process of engagement. Because Clark is dealing with mundane issues, he is conscious of the need to present them in as attractive a form as possible. Every aspect of the book’s design and production has been thought through, with different paper stocks for particular sections just one example. And as an artist, Clark doesn’t resile from having made a relatively expensive, limited edition book as a general political work, instead seeing it as the condition for engagement. This means Clark understands his book as the beginning of a process of engagement rather than its finished product.

For anyone concerned with the how and why of contemporary documentary work, and how a photo book can function politically, I think Clark’s book and interview are indispensable resources.

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Photographs courtesy of Edmund Clark. Copyright Edmund Clark. 

Categories
photography politics

Who’s afraid of home? Photojournalism’s foreign fixation

The US presidential election began this week. Although polling day is still 18 months away, yesterdays Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire marks the start of the race.

As ever, the economy, jobs, healthcare and education will be key issues, with more people worried about these than war. In Britain, along with immigration and multiculturalism, the picture is pretty much the same, which is not surprising given we face an ideological government savaging public services.

Which got me wondering – what does photojournalism contribute to these debates? Beyond the daily campaign picture and stock political portrait, what stories are we seeing from photojournalists and documentary photographers that engage these issues? My sense is not much, and certainly not enough.

Photojournalism has long been fixated on the foreign. Check out the web sites of major agencies like Magnum, VII, Panos and Noor and you will see that in the featured stories domestic concerns are a minority interest (though LUCEO is perhaps an exception to this). I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the ‘Features and essays’ in Mikko Takkunen’s excellent Photojournalism Links, and over the last month foreign stories outnumber domestic ones by a ratio of 3:1. All this confirms Stephen Mayes 2009 statement that photojournalism is now more romantic – meaning “heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious or idealized” – than functional, and supports Asim Rafiqui’s claim that we face a “strange silence of the conscience” whereby the “hollowing out” of our societies is under-recorded.

Of course, all generalizations are dangerous (even this one). What counts as ‘home’ is linked in part to personal identity, so, given the preponderance of American and European photographers in the industry, I’m thinking of the minority world as ‘home’ and the majority world as ‘foreign’.

It is also the case that in a globalized and interdependent world, the distinction between ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ is far from clear-cut. Many stories cut across borders. Even war is not something that occurs only beyond the water’s edge. When Nina Berman, Edmund Clark and Ashley Gilbertson show the impact of conflict on the home front, it is not easy to locate their work on one side or other of the international boundary.

There are also a number photographers working in domestic space on social issues. Recent examples from the UK include Liz Hingley’s ‘Under Gods’, Liz Lock and Mishka Henner’s Borderland and Hinterland, George Georgiou’s Curry and Chips, my multimedia partner Peter Fryer’s work in South Shields, and of course Amber/Side’s long history of documenting the north east of England. On emphas.is (although still a minority) the recent US-based projects of Matt Eich, Aaron Huey and Justin Maxton would count as domestic. The ongoing projects of Anthony Suau and Matt Black (highlighted by Asim Rafiqui) are impressive, and no doubt readers can (and should) add others.

And yet so much more is needed. It’s best illustrated by one of my all-time favourite multimedia pieces, Evan Vucci’s 2009 story “Faces of the Uninsured.” It tells the story of working Americans who cannot afford health care and must travel long distances to access the services of Remote Area Medical, an NGO that once focused on aid to “the Third World” but now concentrates on the US (17 of their 21 missions in 2011 are in America). Vucci’s story is an under-stated but shocking presentation of a domestic issue.

Given that the Republicans scorn Obama’s modest health care reforms as ‘socialism’ there is ample reason for a humanist tradition of photography to engage this issue alone. Initiatives like Facing Change: Documenting America and American Poverty.org show promising signs of movement on other related concerns. I’m not suggesting people walk away from the important international stories. But surely there are more than enough visual storytellers for many lenses to be turned towards home.

Photo credit: A discarded kitchen appliances sits in one of many fields surrounding the Hattersley Estate. Copyright Liz Lock & Mishka Henner, 2006.

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking images v.4: Edmund Clark’s Guantánamo project

Thinking Images – an occasional series on a small selection of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

More documentary photographs in the mainstream press – Guardian Weekend has surprised us again! This week they have published work from a major project, Edmund Clark’s “Guantánamo: If the light goes out.”

Although Guardian Weekend has the all-important (sic) story of Take That’s reunion on the cover, thereby demonstrating the power of celebrity, Clark’s project is showcased from page 12 onwards with text by former detained Moazzam Begg – 21 of Clark’s photographs appear across eight pages and are accompanied by an online feature that has interesting captions from Guy Lane. Other sites have given this project attention, among them Lens Culture’s September gallery of 30 images.

I was prompted to think about Clark’s powerful project when @martincoward tweeted this week that in Clark’s photographers the “objects speak of their implication in political violence.” Clark’s portrayal of three experiences of home — the base where prisoners are detained and the American military community lives, as well as the houses where former inmates now reside – is concerned with the objects and spaces of home. Martin’s remark calls attention, therefore, to the way situations do not need a face to convey their significance.

There are many aspects of Clark’s project that provoke reflection, but his deliberate strategy of imaging spaces and their objects rather than people is an important place to begin. Clark told Culture 24 in October that before he began his project “the imagery I had seen from the camps contributed to the stereotypes of Guantanamo – defenders of freedom against pitiless terrorists; torturers against the abused; national revenge against human rights outrages. No-one seemed quite human.” Yet to highlight humanity Clark avoided people. He elaborated the point in a recent interview on Spoonfed, where he was asked why the project had no personal portraits:

I find that a lot of photographic portraits, you’re not really saying anything. All that’s going to happen is that the viewer’s preconceptions are going to bounce back at them. Some of the ex-detainees wouldn’t have taken part if I wanted to photograph them. I was absolutely adamant that this wasn’t journalistic; I just wanted to work in their homes. I also think if I produced a set of portraits of ex-detainees from Guantanamo, most of whom are of Pakistani, Middle Eastern, African origin, I think a lot of people would look at those and say, “ooh look that’s what a terrorist looks like”. The portraits would be completely dehumanised. They wouldn’t actually say anything about the individual – the spaces are much more evocative.

In the Guardian gallery, alongside the photograph of the exercise cage at Guantánamo, Clark commented:

We’ve seen lots of pictures of people in orange jumpsuits…and plenty of photojournalistic long lens imagery of Guantánamo, and I’m not really sure what that tells anyone. In a way it just reinforces our paranoia, our fear and our suspicion. I wanted to go and photograph areas of personal space … and use that as a way of making people think beyond the representations, the demonisations, and the process of dehumanisation that these people went through.

These remarks are, to me, incredibly important. Here is a photographer employing a deliberate aesthetic strategy — the exclusion of detainees and guards from the photos — in order to humanise the issue. He does so because the normal photographic strategy for humanistation (giving the issue a ‘face’) plays into stereotypes that drive the war on terror. For Clark, rehumanisation involves not showing people. His understanding of the aesthetic and political issues at play in this subject are I think a model example of the reflexivity that is required to make the best documentary work.

Edmund Clark: Camp 4 Mecca Arrow Shackle Eye.

Clark’s aesthetic strategy has two other dimensions. One is its conscious relationship to art practice. As he observed:

Still life imagery of personal space and possessions follows a long tradition of symbolism and metaphor. My work draws on the ‘Vanitas’ style of 17th century Dutch painting in which objects like hourglasses, candles, skulls and flowers symbolized the passage of time and the transience of human existence.

The second involves the edits through which he presents his work, where images of Guantánamo are juxtaposed with domestic pictures, using the narrative structure to make a substantive point:

The narrative is confused and unsettled as the viewer is asked to jump from prison camp detail to domestic still life to naval base and back again. This disjointed edit is intended to evoke the disorientation of the process of incarceration and interrogation at Guantanamo and to explore the legacy of disturbance such an experience has in the minds and memories of these men.

The conditions under which Clark worked in Guantánamo are also worth noting. Access to the camp is obviously restricted by the military so Clark had to cope with censorship. As he told Spoonfed, “working in Guantanamo is a really pressurised time. It’s a constant process of negotiation.” Although he usually shoots on film, Clark had to use digital so his images could be inspected by the US military each day. He was forbidden to photograph many subjects, and some – such as the chair used for force feeding inmates – could only be pictured after long discussions with the authorities. This shows that even in tightly controlled environments it is possible, if the photographer is persistent and thoughtful, to make pictures that are anything but propaganda. (It was for this reason I thought Pete Brook’s criticism of John Moore’s Detained project as being a “product of US military deceit” was too strong. Moore’s project is good, if not as good as Clark’s, but if you read Moore’s description of his negotiations with the military you we can appreciate the limits he had to work with to get anything. Whatever has been excluded in each of these projects it is better that we get to see what Clark and Moore have been able to offer).

Edmund Clark’s project is available in a book from Dewi Lewis, and has been part of three exhibits across the UK. I’m travelling to the Impressions Gallery in Bradford this week to review one of those shows for Source magazine. I am looking forward to seeing his images in that context. Along the way I will be thinking about the page one report (“Iraqi prisoners ‘abused at UK’s Abu Ghraib‘”) from the Saturday paper that contained Clark’s project. Clearly there is much work still to be done.