Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Lee Lockwood: Castros Kuba

"Ich bezweifle, dass irgendjemand, der damals in Kuba zugegen war, egal ob Einheimischer oder Ausländer und ungeachtet seiner heutigen Meinung über Castro, je die von Begeisterung und Hoffnung geprägte Stimmung vergessen wird, die sich in den ersten Tagen nach dem Sieg der Revolution ausbreitete", schreibt Lee Lockwood im Vorwort zu seinen Reportagen aus den Jahren 1959-1969 aus Kuba. Und genau davon legen die Bilder in diesem eindrücklichen Band Zeugnis ab. Eine überwältigende Aufbruchsstimmung vermitteln diese Aufnahmen, der Enthusiasmus ist gleichsam mit Händen zu greifen.

Bei Fidel Castro hat man ja das Gefühl, er sei so recht eigentlich immer schon dagewesen. Beim Betrachten von Lee Lockwoods Fotos staunt man jedoch nicht wenig darüber (zugegeben, ich spreche von mir), wie jung der Mann (33), sein Bruder Raúl (28) und Che Guevara (32) waren, als sie die Macht übernahmen.
Saul Landau, ehemals Journalist, Filmemacher und Uniprofessor, bringt mit nur gerade einem Satz (der aus einem längeren Text stammt) auf den Punkt, warum diese Revolution eine besondere war: "Während die Vereinigten Staaten Nuklearsprengköpfe konstruierten, baute man in Kuba Strassen in die unerschlossenen Berge und dazu Schulen und Krankenhäuser."

Lockwoods Buch erschien zunächst in einem üblichen Hardcoverformat mit etwa hundert kleinen Schwarz-Weiss-Fotos und "war vor allem ein Buch zum Lesen, so lang wie ein Roman oder ein dicke Biografie", schreibt Herausgeberin Nina Wiener. Für die nun vorliegende prächtige Bildausgabe "war es nötig, Teile des Originaltexts leicht zu kürzen, einige Fussnoten zu aktualisieren und Bildlegenden hinzuzufügen, die es vorher nicht gab. Ansonsten wurde der Text seit der Erstauflage 1967 nicht verändert."

Im Zentrum des Buches stehe, so Nina Wiener, "eines der aussergewöhnlichsten Interviews, die im ganzen 20. Jahrhundert mit einem regierenden Staatsmann geführt wurde." Castro war während Wochen mit dem Redigieren der Mitschriften beschäftigt. Diese legte er dann wiederum Lockwood vor, dem jedoch ein, zwei Abweichungen von der Mitschrift nicht gefielen, die er auf eigene Verantwortung zurückoperierte und sie dann wiederum Castro vorlegte, worauf es noch einmal drei Tage intensiver Durchsicht durch Castro und seinen Vertrauten Vallejo bedurfte, bevor das autorisierte Manuskript vorlag. Heutzutage ist das alles schwer vorstellbar.
Die Wohnanlage "José Martí", Santiago de Cuba, 1967

In einer ähnlichen Plattenbauanlage, in Alamar, einem Vorort von Havanna, habe ich dreissig Jahre später, in regelmässigen Abständen, jeweils mehrere Wochen verbracht, weshalb ich denn auch die Aufnahmen in diesem Band mit mehr als nur einem beiläufigen Interesse betrachte. Natürlich sind Lee Lockwoods Fotografien in erster Linie aufschlussreiche Zeitdokumente, doch wirken viele davon eben auch berührend zeitlos, weil sie einerseits wunderbar illustrieren, was Aufbruch, Würde und Hoffnung heisst und andererseits das typisch Kubanische erfassen.
Castros Kuba ist exzellenter Fotojournalismus und das meint: herausragende Bilder und herausragende Texte. Wie die Fotos so vermitteln auch Lockwoods Reportagen und Interviews, dass die damalige Zeit für die Mehrheit der Kubaner (nein, nicht für alle; auch von den politischen Gefangenen ist ausführlich die Rede) eine der Freude und Zuversicht gewesen ist. Ähnliches strahlten jedoch auch die Gesichter der Männer am Hafen von Camarioca aus, die dort 1965 auf die Ausreise in die USA warteten ...

Castros Kuba ist, wie der Titel sagt, vor allem ein Buch über Fidel Castro, einen charismatischen Anführer mit diktatorischen Zügen, der sich, wie viele starke Persönlichkeiten, die Kritiker vom Leibe hielt und sich zunehmend mit Jasagern umgab. "Heute steht nach sieben Jahren fest, dass wir immer noch nicht ohne Fidel Castro über die Revolution reden können. Er dominiert sie total, von oben bis unten. Niemand in der Gesellschaft kann sich mit ihm an Macht oder Einfluss messen, denn die wahre Quelle seiner Stärke liegt in seiner Fähigkeit, direkt mit den Menschen zu kommunizieren und sie mittels seiner Persönlichkeit zu dominieren."

Castros Kuba ist ein wunderbar informatives und höchst eindrückliches Buch.

Lee Lockwood
Castros Kuba
Eine Amerikaner in Kuba
Reportagen aus den Jahren 1959-1969
Taschen, Köln 2016

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Roberto Donetta, Fotograf und Samenhändler

Da ich nicht weiss, wo das Bleniotal liegt, mache ich mich kundig. Und dann fahre ich hin. Mit dem Bus der Autolinee Bleniesi vom Lukmanier hinunter ins Tal nach Olivone. Und von dort weiter nach Biasca. Ich bin nicht der Einzige, der an diesem prächtigen Sommertag des Jahres 2016 auf dieser Strecke unterwegs ist, sie scheint bei Touristen beliebt, ich selber staune, dass mir sämtliche Namen der teils schmucken Dörfer unvertraut sind. Motto, Campo, Campro, Dangio, Dongio ... noch nie gehört, genauso wenig wie Castro, wo Roberto Donettas Vater als Militärbeamter arbeitete. Nach dem Tod des Vaters erbte Roberto dessen Posten ("eine 'sitzende' Arbeit"), gab ihn jedoch weniger als ein Jahr später wieder auf, wie Gian Franco Ragno in "Donetta und seine Zeit" schreibt.
Familienporträt, Bleniotal 
@ Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzonesco

Ich betrachte die Porträtaufnahmen mit einer Mischung aus Verwunderung und Rührung. Fotografiert zu werden war damals (Donetta lebte von 1865 bis 1932) offenbar eine ernste Angelegenheit. Niemand lacht, das Sich-In-Szene-Setzen geschah anders als heute, es war wohl dirigiert vom Fotografen.

Auffallend sind die vielen Kinderporträts. Peter Pfrunder ist diesem Phänomen in "Donettas Kinder" nachgegangen. Speziell geht er dabei auf das Porträt eines Kleinkindes ein, das auch mich ganz besonders angesprochen und sehr eigenartig berührt hat. Mir gefällt seine Auseinandersetzung mit der Aufnahme, macht sie doch deutlich, dass Fotografien vor allem dazu einladen, Fragen zu stellen. 

"Obschon es offensichtlich noch kaum in der Lage ist, auf eigenen Beinen zu stehen, erscheint es, aufrecht, ganz allein im Bild. Mit seinem weissen Festtagskleid hebt es sich deutlich ab von der verwitterten Steinmauer im Hintergrund und von einem schwarz drapierten Sockel, der ihm doch irgendwie Halt gibt. Aber warum wirkt das Bild so unheimlich? Bei genauerer Betrachtung erahnt man, dass hinter dem schwarzen Tuch eine Person – wohl die Mutter – steckt, die das Kind mit beiden Händen fest im Griff hat und es von hinten ruhig stellt. Dies erklärt freilich nicht, warum sie sich unter dem Tuch verbirgt. Ihre Unsichtbarkeit, ihre Abwesenheit bei gleichzeitiger Anwesenheit, verleiht der Szene etwas Geheimnisvolles. Wollte die Mutter nicht in Erscheinung treten, um die volle Aufmerksamkeit auf das Kind zu lenken? Ging es darum, die Reinheit des Kleinkindes zu betonen, das den Gefahren des Lebens trotzt, die im dunklen Untergrund lauern? Oder folgte die Mutter den Anweisungen des Fotografen, der sich bei der Komposition von seiner Intuition leiten liess?"
Arbeiterinnen der Schokoladefabrik Cima Norma, Dangio-Torre
@ Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta, Corzonesco

Roberto Donetta machte jedoch nicht nur Porträts, sondern fotografierte so recht eigentlich das ganze Tal und schuf damit ein aussergewöhnliches sozialhistorisches Dokument, denn "Fotografie war nicht unbedingt das, was man von einem Bewohner des Bleniotals als Brotberuf erwartete", wie Matthias Böni in seinem Beitrag "Spuren eines Sonderlings" schreibt.

Abgesehen von den bereits erwähnten Texten, finden sich in diesem Band noch weitere: Marco Franciollis "Wiedergeburt eines fotografischen Vermächtnisses", David Streiffs "Donetta, der Erzähler" sowie Antonio Marottis "Ein moderner Fotograf?". Es sind anregende und aufschlussreiche Ausführungen, auch wenn sie womöglich mehr über die Autoren als über Roberto Donetta und seine Fotos aussagen.

Schön, dass es dieses Buch gibt!

Roberto Donetta
Fotograf und Samenhändler aus dem Bleniotal
Limmat Verlag, Zürich 2016

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

In Estonia

Tartu, Estonia, August 2016

What brings you here?, asks the young woman in charge of personnel at one of the many coffee places in Tallinn. Well, I've had this vague idea I would explore the country by train for I had recently been to Latvia and loved the old Soviet trains there. Unfortunately, I added, I've then discovered that the trains here are Swiss made and not any different from the S-Bahn I know from back home, comfortable but unexciting. If you're fond of old trains, she says, you should go to Georgia or the Ukraine. And, Saint Petersburg is definitely worth a visit. A totally different culture, including dancing in the streets. You probably speak Russian, I say. Yes, she answers, I do, enough to get by. And that much Russian is a must if you want to go there ...

What did you do today?, she wants to know. Walking around the old town for a few hours and I think that by now I've seen it. I felt reminded of a museum, hordes of tourists stare at buildings, take photos, listen to history lessons by tour guides – very definitely not my cup of tea.

And what about the people? They seem a rather sullen lot, I say. Right, she laughs, I'm myself from Vilnius and in Lithuania we're totally different. How's Tartu?, I ask. Cozy, she says. And so I go there.

Upon my arrival I learn that I had booked a hotel on the outskirts of town. My taxidriver has been around, he is a collector. Thailand, he says, four times. United States, three times. Fishing in Finland, three to four times a year. But isn't Finland expensive? Well, one hundred euros per day for a house on an island, divided by four. Food and drinks we bring along from Estonia. His hobby, he says, is barbecue. He does it every day. Even in winter? Yes, five below zero is no problem, twenty below zero is however too much.
The view from my hotelroom in Tartu, August 2016

I take the bus to Pärnu, a popular seaside resort. My hotel (compared to everything else, hotels are expensive in this country, reservations via the internet do often result in bargains) turns out to be an old sanatorium that also accommodates tourists. Old people (quite probably younger than I am) on crutches or with walking frames are all over the place. The very friendly lady at the reception informs me that it was built in the 1920 by a Swedish company and enlarged in the 1970s by the Russians  –  it looks like it, it feels like it, I love it!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Afghanistan between Hope and Fear

I've often wondered whether photographs from conflict zones really make a difference. There are of course the ones that have become icons such as Nick Ut's photo of Kim Phuc – and been attributed a significance that back then they probably did not have. Well, who knows? What we do however know is that the military is afraid of pictures (and that means: feelings, emotions, sensations) for they cannot control them.

I haven't been to Afghanistan and never had any desire to go there. I'm still not sure whether I would like to visit the place despite the fact that the images I now carry around in my head fill me with warm feelings for the Afghans portrayed. Paula Bronstein's photographs convey the impression that she is fond of, and touched by, the people she decided to photograph.

Photographs are meant to direct people's eyes. Paula Bornstein shows us what she wanted us not only to see but to look at. We need to confront the reality in Afghanistan not only because the policy makers in the West are partly responsible for contributing to, and being a part of, it but because what is happening there is a human made tragedy. What human beings have decided to begin, they can also decide to stop.

For the full review, see here

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Emma Sky: The Unravelling

When, in July 2016, the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry (a British public inquiry into the nation's role in the Iraq War) were published, I happened to be glued to the TV-screen. One of the persons interviewed not only caught my attention but fascinated me  Emma Sky. Her account of how she found herself a role in this war I thought hilarious, admirable, and most impressive.

"Muddling through is not an option in business plans", Chris Patten penned in East and West. This is however what we do in real life. Moreover, there's nothing wrong with it, provided one does it as intelligently, witty, and self-reflective as Emma Sky.

She wasn't given any briefing before she went to Iraq, there was no job description, and when she got to Basra airport there was no one there to meet her. "So I went to Baghdad, I made my way to the Palace and there I met the British team ... I spent a week going round the Palace seeing how things worked, getting as many briefings as I could. They said: we have enough people here. We don't have enough people in the north. Go north. So I went to Mosul. They said: we've got someone here. I went to Erbil. They said: we've got someone here but we haven't got anyone in Kirkuk. So I went to Kirkuk. I didn't know I was going to Kirkuk when I left the UK."

By the way, "So I went to Baghdad" doesn't really describe Emma's trip on an RAF C-130 Hercules which was hot and loud and included a rapid descent in a spiral called 'corkscrew landing'. "Emerging from the plane, it felt as if a hair dryer on its hottest setting was being thrust in my face."

Her background? Oriental Studies with a focus on Arabic and Hebrew, worked for Palestinian NGOs and the British Council. Although she had been in troubled areas before in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, her situation in Iraq was different in the sense that "for the first time in my life, I was in an environment where I was actually a target."

How come this smart woman who isn't exactly in favour of this invasion (quite the contrary) decides to put herself in such a situation?  "I had decided that if the invasion took place, I would find a way to work in Iraq, to apologize to Iraqis for the war, and to help them rebuild their country. It was not a surprise to anyone who knew me that I would go to Iraq. It was the sort of thing I would do."

So what did she do in Kirkuk? What was her role? She asked John Sawers, Bremer's deputy in Baghdad, and was told "to become a trusted partner to all groups and to get to know the Turkmen."
She gets an office and begins to receiving visits from all sorts of people  and all of them want something, from money to contracts to positions to help for mediating their disputes. She eventually should become political advisor to General Ray Odierno.

While political advisor may sound like a somewhat safe office job, surfing the internet, attending meeting after meeting, Emma Sky's job was not. "I was seated on the outside, with every chance of falling out as the helicopter flew acrobatically. I gripped the seat beneath me, hanging on for dear life, staring at my knees, too terrified to look at the stunning scenery ...". Moreover, it was a life  with no electricity for weeks, no hot water, dust all over the room ...

She doesn't complain, makes herself useful, meets quite some characters: "Brooks spoke at a hundred miles an hour, the pace at which her brain worked." "Lambo would never have survived in the US military culture of political correctness. His e-mails were usually a stream of consciousness." She frequently challenges the ones she works with, gets challenged herself, it is quite an education. By the end she is exhausted. "After years of trying to make the world a better place, I needed to understand it better."

Rarely have I read a more blunt and succinct description of the horrors of war. " So many bodies were found floating in the Tigris that some Iraqis stopped eating fish, claiming its flavour had changed from nibbling on human flesh. Dead animals were used to conceal roadside bombs. Bodies of dead Iraqis were booby-trapped to blow up relatives who approached them. Mentally disabled children were turned into suicide bombers. Funerals were frequently the target of attacks. The morgues were full of mutilated bodies: if the head was cut off, it was Shia; if the head was drilled through, it was Sunni. Iraq was in the midst of civil war. But we were not allowed to acknowledge it because it was not what Washington wanted to hear."

The Unravelling. High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq is a pretty unique book for a variety of reasons. Here are some: 1) That a young British civilian woman should serve as advisor to a US Army General is exceptional in itself (Tony Blair, when visiting Iraq, had considerable trouble believing it). 2) Given that she did not believe in the whole premise of the Global War on Terror, Sky's willingness to work for the military (that "did not do nuance" and still doesn't) is surely out of the ordinary. 3) Her frank and nuanced account of the challenges of occupation is not only highly informative but also fun to read. 4) It modified my view of the US army. "It was an important lesson for me, I was on General O's team. And no matter how badly we disagreed or argued, he was not going to throw me out. This was a family that worked through its problems and did not break down." But also: "The American Forces Network (AFN) blared out across the base and its announcements still seemed geared towards those with subnormal IQs. Don't drink and drive. Speed kills. Always wear a seat belt. Remember the military code. Don't commit suicide ..." 5) It is wonderfully written and highly argumentative. 6) I guess that by now you should be curious enough to go and buy the book ...

Emma Sky
The Unravelling
High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq
Atlantic Books, London 2016

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Afterimages: Photography and U.S. Foreign Policy

GI and child, Vietnam, 1962 by Philip Jones Griffiths

Remember Nick Ut's photograph of Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack? It has been often said that this picture had contributed to ending the Vietnam War. But can photographs have such an impact? And if so, how would one measure it? Moreover, was photojournalism during that time really as important as it is often claimed given that, in the late 1960s, already the majority of Americans looked to television for news on the war? "Photojournalism", writes Liam Kennedy, "did not quite cede the ground of news representation to television. Together, they constructed a visual grammar for looking at Vietnam. At the same time, and partly in response to the challenge of television, photojournalism evolved certain techniques that emphasized its capacity to document decisive moments and that were commensurate to the nature of conflict in Vietnam."

Kennedy, who teaches at University College Dublin, also points out "that photojournalism not only complemented television coverage of the war but also served distinctive documentary functions, especially as it maintained a power to frame decisive moments." Just think of the image of the Buddhist monk Quang Duc who set himself on fire. Malcolm Browne, who took the picture, aptly noted that "millions of words had been written about the Buddhist crisis, but the picture carried an incomparable impact." And, while it is impossible to exactly say what this impact was, there is no doubt (people in the military and politicians know that) that we all instinctively respond to images (feelings/emotions, that is) and not to reason. Which is why uncontrolled pictures are usually feared by the ones in control.

Afterimages is a wonderful title for, as the word combination says, images only really come into life after being taken. As Max Kozloff once noted: "The afterlife of images is the beginning of their effective life – when news value has evaporated, the photographer repossesses the visual material." Or the public, or academics like Liam Kennedy who (occasionally) pen sentences that obviously are exclusively addressed to fellow academics: "The metaphorics of vision in modern geopolitical thought is often associated with the concept of a worldview, connoting the strategic politics of global diplomacy and governmentality as issues of visual power and control."

Most compelling are however his portraits. For instance, the ones of Larry Burrows and of Philip Jones Griffiths, not least because of the detailed and convincing analyses of their photographs. And, because Kennedy makes it clear, that attitude matters. While Burrows was very much the "embedded" photographer and "remained broadly sympathetic to the U.S. mission in Vietnam", Griffiths aimed at demystifying American power and policy "but also to humanize Vietnamese people and culture".

Especially moving I thought the portrait of Abbas, the Iranian photographer working for Sipa and Gamma. "Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the extraordinary corpus of Abba's work is the sense of his immersion in the revolution as a participant as well as an observer – his camera often appears to be in the center of events." And, highly illuminating is the one of Susan Meiselas and how she struggled "to go beyond the news event and document what I saw a history." I'm not really sure how history can be photographed but what Kennedy tells us about one of Meiselas'  most famous photographs (Cuesta del Plomo, Managua, Nicaragua) makes one thing very clear: a picture can be much more than just a picture.

Throughout the Balkan Wars "photojournalists became especially frustrated by the lack of interest in and response to the imagery they were producing." Therefore, quite some started to explore new avenues. Gilles Peress and others, for instance, began to focus intensely "on the evidentiary approach, treating the environment as a huge crime scene."

I've very much appreciated to be introduced to photographers such as Ashley Gilbertson and Jay Romano who I did not know, and to learn more about photographs I had commented on myself.

"As the nature of warfare changes so photography must shift its strategies to reflect this", Kennedy states. Most convincing I thought the approaches by Simon Norfolk (the IBM BlueGene L supercomputer) and by the late Tim Hetherington (the sleeping Sergeant Elliot Alcantra), neither of whom "believe that photojournalism is adequately conceived and equipped to represent the realities of twenty-first-century warfare." Well, I'd say, their own work contradicts them. Moreover, there are also images of war that are simply timeless. Think of Chris Hondros' "Samar Hassan screams after her parents are killed by U.S. soldiers" or Kenneth Jarecke's incinerated Iraqi soldier.

Although it eludes me why we, as Kennedy claims, should be living "in a postphotographic age" (I do not even understand the term "postphotographic" for never have there been more photographs around), I've rarely read such detailed, wonderfully informative and well-told descriptions, and analyses, of photographic documents (including the photographers' reflexions). Afterimages is a most useful, inspiring, and enjoyable book!

Liam Kennedy
Afterimages
Photography and U.S. Foreign Policy
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois 2016

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Yang Liu: Heute trifft Gestern

Die Verknappung aufs Wesentliche, Typische, Charakteristische ist eine Kunst. Yang Liu, die 1976 geborene deutsche Designerin chinesischer Herkunft, beherrscht sie.

Kompliziert sein kann jeder. Wer argumentiert, dass alles nicht ganz so einfach ist, hat natürlich häufig recht, doch noch häufiger fehlt ihm (oder ihr) schlicht der Durchblick.

Einfach zu sein braucht Mut, ein scharfes Auge sowie Humor. Ohne Talent zum Witz ist man auf diesem Feld fehl am Platz. Yang Liu hat sehr viel Witz.
Frühstück / Frühstück 

Hingucken, genaues Hingucken, ist die Voraussetzung fürs richtige Sehen. "I see", sagt der Anglo, wenn er etwas verstanden und sich nicht nur angesehen hat. Richtiges Sehen bedeutet, gedanklich und imaginativ Verbindungen herzustellen, Zusammenhänge sichtbar machen, die denen, die zu stark fokussieren, entgehen.
Freundeskreis / Netzwerk

Während meiner Studienzeiten habe ich auch Professoren erlebt, die mir Eindruck gemacht haben. An einen von diesen, einen Jura-Professor, erinnerte ich mich, als ich Yang Lius smarte Vereinfachungen genoss. Wer sich nicht klar ausdrücken könne, habe nicht klar gedacht, hatte der Jurist gemeint.

Damit brachte er sprachlich auf den Punkt, was Yang Liu zeichnerisch (und mit höchst treffenden Bildlegenden) auf den Punkt bringt. Sie hat zuerst klar gedacht und dies dann klar illustriert.
Steuerhinterziehung / Tochtergesellschaft

Dass heutzutage die Technik unser Leben bestimmt, wissen wir alle. Dass das Vor - und Nachteile hat, wissen wir auch. Darüber zu lesen ist das Eine, darüber Nachzudenken das Andere. Und noch einmal etwas ganz Anderes ist, uns die durch die Technik hervorgerufenen Veränderungen vor Augen zu führen.

Ganz besonders clever, gekonnt und zum Schmunzeln einladend tut dies Yang Liu. 

Yang Liu
Heute trifft Gestern
Taschen, Köln 2016