Last weekend I attended the OCA study visit to the Brighton Biennial Photo Festival. The event was very well attended with around 25 students, four tutors and Gareth. The theme for this year’s Festival was Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space. The website for the event is here.
University of Sussex Gallery
We started the visit at the University of Sussex Gallery, where we saw work by four photographers.
Uneven Development showcased the work of Corinne Silva and Jason Larkin whose work focusses on the human and environmental impact of urbanisation.
Larkin’s series Cairo Divided deals with the development of luxury housing and leisure complexes in Egypt. Armed with the knowledge that forty percent of Egyptians live on less than two dollars per day (provided in the artists statement), my reading of the photographs became much more politicised. No longer was I simply looking at photographs of building development. I was now gauging the extent of investment in facilities for the wealthy in this relatively poor country – a country which we all know has been the location of major political upheaval in recent times. Whilst showing in the main development activity, the photographs also showed glimpses of Islam – the mosque sitting in isolation in an otherwise undeveloped building site, the worker praying in the middle of a room still under construction. These references were poignant reminders that whilst we were seeing an aspect of economic development, Islamic fundamentalism is growing in Egypt. This work is a good example of how documentary photography can convey complex messages without the images being overtly transparent and fully resolved. For me the key to understanding this work was the ’40 percent/two dollars a day’ statement.
Corinne Silva had works from two different series. In Imported Landscapes, Silva places Moroccan landscapes onto Spanish billboards and then re-photographs the scenes. What I found most strange about these photographs was how similar the landscapes on the billboards looked when compared with the actual landscapes surrounding them. For me this was a message about the ubiquitous nature of globalisation.In Badlands she ‘uses architecture and plastic in the southern Spanish landscape to explore connections between European leisure migrants and irregular African workers’. I must confess that I didn’t read this message into her photographs at the time. However having looked again at the work I can see how she was contrasting the luxury villas (all with large walls guarding them) with the temporary housing in plastic make-shift shelters occupied by migrant labourers. This work has provided me with another illustration of how narratives can be built in documentary photography. But it has also reminded me that photographs are fundamentally polysemous and can be misleading without text to steer the viewer in the right direction.
The third photographer whose work was on show was Edmund Clarke with his series Control Order House. I found this extremely intriguing. The artists statement explains that “The 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act granted the Home Office the power to relocate any controlled person to a house in an alien town or city and impose strict conditions, similar to house-arrest. Since the Act, 48 people have been made subject to a Control Order.” Clarke’s photographs document one such house. He was subject to many restrictions on what he could not photograph so as to maintain the anonymity of the controlled person. The result is a series of bland interiors with no personality. By inference the work points to the fact that the controlled person has lost their personality. Fascinating stuff. Clarke has succeeded in conveying difficult intangible concepts very cleverly.
The final photographer showing at the University Gallery was Omer Fast. The festival was hosting the UK premier of Fest’s film Five Thousand Feet is the Best.In the film a former drone operator explains how he controlled unmanned planes to fire at civilians and militia in Afghanistan and Pakistan from a Las Vegas Desert base. Five thousand feet is reckoned to be the optimum height. The film mixes fact and fiction with the drone operator talking about his experiences and dramatisations of several alternatives of the same scene in which a man is interviewed in a hotel room. During each of the alternative scenes the man tells a different allegorical story, which appear to be related in some way to the ethics of the use of drones as weapons of war. I enjoyed the film but I am not exactly sure why. To be honest I don’t think I fully understood it but without doubt it is a strong statement about the indiscriminate nature of killing in modern warfare.
The second venue was Fabrica Gallery, which is a converted church building. This venue hosted the The Beautiful Horizon (No Olho da Rua) exhibition. This is a collaboration between photographers Julian Germain, Patricia Azevedo, Murilo Godoy, and street kids from Belo Horizonte in Brazil. This project has been going for some 17 years. Most of the young people participating in the project have been living on the streets of Belo Horizonte for many years. The kids were given cameras and were asked to take pictures about their lives. In the video made for the festival it becomes clear that the kids are most interested in images in which they appear rather than the ones they personally made. Indeed who made which picture is not recorded. So the project is very much about identity and self esteem for the kids taking part. At various stages the photographs have been published, through fly posters on walls within the favela and through distribution of a newspaper.
The exhibition was set out in a novel and interesting way. At the entrance some of the fly posters were pasted onto partition walls. The photographs themselves were displayed on four curved walls. Some A3 size prints were mounted and placed on shelves built into the wall panels. Rows of 6×4 inch prints were also placed on other shelves. There were also pigeon holes with boxes of prints placed in them. Against the rear wall there were samples of the newspapers the kids had distributed. All in all a very large number of prints were on display. The photographs themselves were made in a free snapshot style, as one might expect. Virtually all of them show pictures of the kids, and their families and friends. Some were very rough and ready. Others were very well composed and exposed. We had a lot of debate about whether what we were seeing was in fact what the kids had chosen or whether in truth we were seeing what the organising photographers and the curators wanted us to see. My sense is that we were seeing a bit of both. Certainly the A3 prints were all very well executed and charged with emotion. A kid might prefer just to see a smiling face of themselves and their friends. On a sad note it seems that some of the kids pictured are now dead.
There was much to learn from this exhibition. To begin with it is very apparent how powerful this type of collaborative documentary is. It potentially overcomes the issues of exploitation which is often directed at photographers who take photographs of disadvantaged people. It provides the disadvantaged subjects with a means of expressing themselves – it gives them a voice. It seems to have done a lot to boost the self esteem of the kids. A secondary learning point relates to how the exhibition was set out. It was not just a few selected photographs (the best photographs) on a wall. It showed the extent of the collaboration, it seemed to give the kids themselves a voice and it was engaging and fun to explore for visitors.
The final venue for day one was an exhibition of photo books at the central library in Brighton. The books were simply laid out on two large tables in the centre of the building. The variety of the books on show was what struck me immediately. Some were hardbacks as one might expect of a photo book. Others were simple pamphlets. And some were just printed in tabloid size on newspaper. Seeing them all together like this demonstrated the scope which exists for a book to be tailored to fit in with the nature of the photographic work. A newspaper for example is a very democratic medium. It would be possible to make large numbers and sell them at low cost or even give them away for free. I can see how such a presentation might make sense. For example I could print up my Urban Artists photos in a newspaper form and distribute the paper at Urban Art festivals next year. This would get my work out to an interested audience. After all what’s the point of producing photographs if no one is going to see them? An alternative to this would be a Xerox book with the pages made from photocopies of the photographs. I saw one such book at the event which had been produced by Paul Graham. This was also the basis of the Print Event at the current Klein/Moriyama exhibition at Tate Modern.
I didn’t find any particular book which I must now go out and buy. Rather the exhibition opened my eyes to a world of opportunity for presenting my work.
In the evening we dined in groups but most people made it back to the bar at the Hilton Hotel where we had some fun but also talked photography some more. This was excellent. The thing I find most difficult about distance learning is just that you work at a distance from other people…so this was a refreshing and motivating change. I also had a chance for a longer chat with Jesse Alexander my tutor and we agreed that we should take stock of what further work I need to do on the Advanced course prior to going for assessment. I said I would let Jesse have a status report (this I have now done).
Morning Group Discussions – Brighton Media Centre Gallery
The morning session was a group meeting at which we all got to present some of our work. The idea was to share ideas and gain some feedback on projects we are working on. This went very well. I find it illuminating to look at other people’s work and to hear what other people have to say about it. I was impressed by the range and quality of the work I saw. Some of the photographs I had seen before on the OCA Flickr site but it is nice to see some prints. I was very taken by Eileen Rafferty’s work on urban trees and facades. It looked even better in the flesh. What was interesting about the discussion of Elaine’s work was that we were examining different ways of locating the work as a series. Is it simply a documentary piece about the particular location? Is it about the survival of trees within an alien urban environment? Is it about suburban life? And so on. The learning point here is that at the beginning of a project a photographer often does not know how his/her work is going to turn out an what direction it may eventually take. To some extent you have to get out there and take photographs and decide what they are telling you. Rather ironically Elaine Self’s work on Domestic Space which we saw later in the day at the Memory Territory Space seems to be exploring similar issues to those contained within Eileen’s work. Eileen’s work can be seen here. I did not get a chance to get feedback on my own photographs. The idea had been that I would give a short talk about my work at level 3 – there was only one other level three student attending – and then show some of my work. I had time only to give a short talk. I am sure that I’ll have an opportunity to show some of my work on another occasion.
Whilst at the Brighton Media Centre Gallery we also had a chance to look at Phil Taylor’s Dia De Los Muertos – Day of the Dead. This is a personal documentary piece on the cultural phenomenon, the celebration of the deceased, which takes place throughout Mexico and the Southwest States of America. The photography is in a fairly loose black and white style. A style which I do like when it is done well. Taylor got his inspiration from Cormac McCarthy’s Western novel Blood Meridian (1985). Inspired by this book at the end of 2011 he spent three months in Tucson to find out more about the place himself. He identified six locations from the Blood Meridian and accompanied this with archival research which connected each one into a historical narrative. I think I needed to spend more time with this work to get more out of it. But the idea of linking a photographic project to a book is something I have also been considering for my East End work. The reference for my work is Jack London’s People of the Abyss, which is London’s first-hand account of living in the East End for six months in 1903. I plan to go back and look again at Phil’s work. I may even get in touch with him to discuss how he approached the project.
Our next port of call before lunch was the Bellis Gallery. Along the way I spent some time taking photographs of the huge seas surrounding Brighton Pier…just could not resist, although I was not photographically equipped for landscape photography.
At the Bellis Gallery I spent most of my time discussing Elaine Self’s work on Domestic Space with a number of students and tutors. The series comprised of a number of photographs of the fronts of suburban houses with each image showing how the occupants had delineated their space. On first sight the work looks a little dull. However on closer inspection one starts to see nuances in the photographs leading to speculation on the nature of the owners. For example there is one house with two large stone lions, one either side of the front door, and a large Mercedes motor car parked with the front grill towards the viewer. These two status symbols send a clear message the ‘this person’s home is most definitely their castle’. Once again it is interesting to see how Self has developed the theme for her work.
Phoenix is an interesting place. It looks like a derelict 1960s office but it provides 100+ studio spaces, short-term project space for hire by community groups. It also supports a gallery and education programme. It was the final venue for the weekend. Here’s an Instagram photo of one of the entrances to the place.
As I was catching a train I didn’t have long at the venue, which is a shame as there seemed to be a lot of interesting work. I spent almost all of the time looking at the work presented by The Photocopy Club. This is an exhibition in which 30 photographers were asked to take portraits of another photographer they live or work near. All of these were posted along a wall. As might be expected they looked as if they had been reproduced on a colour photocopier. We were all speculating of the character so the people in the photos. If I needed proof that people are just interested in looking at other people this was it!!
Onwards to the next portrait series…..