Sunday 29 May 2011

In Western Finland

My taxi driver from Vaasa airport to the city center is in his mid-thirties. Tomorrow, I will have half a day to spend in Vaasa, what would you suggest me to do? I ask him. Sleep, he laughs. Although he has lived all his life in Vaasa, he has been all over the country and seen lots of woods. It looks pretty much the same everywhere, except in the North where you will find hills, he says.

Light patterns in Nykarleby

The guy from the B&B in Nykarleby (I'm the only guest) takes me to the supermarket where I can choose what I would like for breakfast. To my considerable surprise I discover Alpen, Swiss Style Muesli, that I, many years ago, enjoyed in London but have never found in Switzerland.

The most impressive thing at this time of the year is that it doesn't really get dark - there is daylight around the clock. Well, it gets somewhat dark between two and four in the morning, I'm told, but who is awake then anyway ...

Outside my B&B in Nykarleby

I'm conducting a workshop on visual literacy. One afternoon I ask: Since anybody can take a good photo, what then makes somebody a photographer? Well, says one of the students, I can also bake and occasionally come up with new creations yet I wouldn't call myself a baker because of it. Put differently: A baker's life revolves around baking, a photographer's life around photography.

The day before I leave I get to see an exhibition of students' works in Jakobstad. To some of the photographs I felt immediately drawn, others aroused my curiosity, and again others left me indifferent. I especially warmed to some winter shots. What made you take them? I asked the student. I wanted to document what I first laid eyes on when coming to Nykarleby for I knew that later on I wouldn't really see these scenes anymore, she said. In other words, our photographs do not only show how things once have looked but also document how we once looked at, and were seeing, them.

Patterns in Jakobstad

The best time of the Finnish year are the three summer months – I've heard that several times – when after considerable hibernating, Finns wake up to life. So what do you do then? I ask my driver on the way from Jakobstad to Vaasa airport. For one or two weeks we go abroad and then we go to our summer houses on the archipelago – this is what almost all Finns around here do. Sounds pretty good to me.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

What photos do not show

This is where I sat on the morning of 25 March 2011.

And this is what my eyes were showing me.

What the pictures do not show is what was on my mind:
I was entirely focussed on the singing of the birds inhabiting the trees in front of me.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Indian Memories

Photos trigger memories, so what memories does this photo of the Taj Mahal trigger?
The hordes standing in line at the entrance - and my guide who saw to it that I could jump the queue.
The many who took photographes inside despite an announcement that said that it was prohibited.
A brief conversation with a visitor from Mali who said that she had come here because she had always wanted to see the Taj Mahal.
Images from dirty and crowded Agra - the friendly waitress at Pizza Hut, the smart rikscha driver who guided me from one leather factory to the next, the kiosk owner who tried to sell me a coke for four times the regular price, the excellent chicken curry at a restaurant I would have not dared enter had my guide not convinced me, and sitting in traffic surrounded by constant noise.

It does not cease to amaze me how many of my memories triggered by this photograph seem to have nothing to do do with what the photograph shows.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

In 81 Tagen um die Welt

„Der Globalisierung auf der Spur“, liest man im Untertitel. Um dies zu tun, haben sich acht schreibende Reporter der ZEIT sowie acht Fotografen auf eine Weltreise gemacht, und zwar in acht verschiedenen Etappen. Die erste (an einer Erdgas-Pipeline nach Osten) führte von Bayern nach Moskau und ist, wie alle andern Etappen auch, mit einer Karte und gerade mal einem Foto bebildert. Die zweite berichtet von einem russischen Fotomodell in Indien (von Omsk über Moskau nach Mumbai). Dann geht es mit einem Rikscha-Zieher durch Kalkutta, per Containerschiff nach China, von dort mit einem Chinesen in die USA, weiter auf den Spuren des Klimawandels nach Südamerika (Genauer: von Sacramento über Phoenix und Cancún nach Manaus). Die siebte Etappe führte dann mit brasilianischen Missionaren von São Paulo über Rio nach Nairobi und die letzte Etappe handelt von E-Mails aus Afrika nach Deutschland.

Ein origineller Ansatz, und wie ist er umgesetzt? Mit auf konventionelle Art gut geschriebenen Texten wie sie ZEIT-Leser von ZEIT-Journalisten erwarten dürfen. Sie sind angenehm zu lesen, tun niemandem weh (wieso sollten sie das auch?), plätschern gefällig dahin. Doch ob man die Globalisierung nach dieser Lektüre besser versteht? Schwer zu sagen, denn so recht eigentlich verstehe ich gar nicht, was das sein soll, diese sogenannte Globalisierung.

„Vielleicht ist das Globalisierung: ein diffuses Gefühl von Verwirrung. Dass immer weniger Menschen wissen, wohin sie gehören, weil das Glück immer woanders zu warten scheint“, lese ich im Bericht über Uliana, das russische Fotomodell in Mumbai. Wissen wirklich immer weniger Menschen wohin sie gehören? Gerade im Falle von Uliana ist es doch fast schon überdeutlich, dass sie ganz klar weiss, wohin sie gehört – zu ihrem Freund nach Omsk. Zudem: dass das Glück immer woanders zu warten scheint, hat wenig mit der Globalisierung, doch viel mit der Natur des Menschen zu tun – immer will man, was man nicht hat. Wie der Fotograf Vikram Bawa beobachtete: „ ... im Westen jetzt viele Yoga praktizieren und ayurvedisch essen. In Indien dagegen wollen viele leben wie im Westen.“

Bei der Globalisierung gehe es um Glauben, Gefühle, Gedanken, lese ich im Vorwort. Und von diesen erzählen diese Geschichten. Eine ganz besonders schöne ist die Liebesgeschichte von Chuck und Norma – schon alleine dieser wegen sei dieser Band empfohlen.

Nur eben: Was Globalisierung ist, weiss ich auch nach Lektüre dieser Geschichten nicht so recht. Könnte es sein, dass das journalistische Personalisieren von Abstraktem uns gewisse Vorgänge, Abläufe etc. letztendlich nicht wirklich schlüssig nahebringen kann?

Stefan Willeke (Hg.)
In 81 Tagen um die Welt
Berliner Taschenbuch Verlag, 2007

Sunday 15 May 2011

How photographs should not be interpreted

Copyright @ AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza

„Aghast, Hillary Clinton clutches her hand to her mouth. Obviously, she observes a matter of life and death“, commented psychologist Martin Schuster on the above photograph for the German weekly Der Spiegel, and continued: „Many fold their arms or hide them behind their backs. Given the situation shown, it is possible to interpret this as discomfort or even as sense of guilt.“

In the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger communication consultant Marcus Knill stated: „The picture is reminiscent of a group who watches an important soccer game or a brutal movie. Yet this is about watching an execution, and that live – very much like on an execution square in the Middle Ages. A similar photo could have been taken in the White House on the occasion of the Columbia-disaster in 2003.“ And, Miriam Meckel, professor of communication at the University of St. Gallen, wrote that the media reactions to Clinton's photo suggest that she is not allowed to show her fear.

To interpret photographs in such ways does not tell us anything about the photographs, it only tells us something about the interpreters. As the Talmud states: We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.

We do know now what was on the minds of the interpreters when they were looking at this pic – quite some things that were not visible on the picture shown. Needless to say, this isn't exactly helpful – if we're interested in the picture, that is.

By the way, according to the Washington Post, Clinton said she has "no idea" what exactly she and the team were viewing at the moment official White House photographer Pete Souza took the photo: "I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs," she said. "So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever."

In order to understand photographs we need to know how they came about, we need to ask questions such as these: How, when, where and for what purpose were they taken? Sure, not all of these questions can be easily answered but asking them will certainly alter our perception.

The photo shown here is a document that was offered to the press. In other words, it is primarily a propaganda tool. And this means: the communication advisors of the White House have offered this pic to the press because they welcome interpretations of the above kind – for to read into a picture what is not there (discomfort, sense of guilt, execution square in the Middle Ages, Columbia-disaster etc) was the perfect distraction from the pictures that were talked about intensely and that the communication advisors were not willing to show: the pics of the dead Osama bin Laden.

The above pic shows a classical photo op: the ones portrayed, who know about the power of pictures (like all successful politicians, they are PR-professionals), were given the opportunity to present themselves the way they wanted to be perceived.

And, the communication experts fell for it.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Baobab Trees

I think it was in the title of a novel about an African woman that I first came across the name Baobab tree. I didn't give it much thought then but imagined it to be big. My first real Baobab tree I saw in Malawi or Zimbabwe. Or was it in Mozambique? I only remember that it was a huge tree, its trunk was immense, lots of people were hanging around it and I was told the tree was famous.

Baobab Tree, Mali @ Elaine Ling

When looking at Elaine Ling's Baobab trees I do experience very different sensations from the ones back then when I encountered my first one. Elaine's come in shapes and forms that are unfamiliar to me, and they are situated in spacious landscapes.

Baobab Tree, South Africa @ Elaine Ling

I feel reminded of paintings when looking at them. Sure, the frames contribute to that yet it is not only the frames, it's also to do with the skillful handling of light, and with the geometry of the images - I marvel at the various possibilities of growth that these trees are showing. Antonio Machado's words, "no hay camino, se hace camino al andar", do not only apply to human beings, they also apply to Baobab trees.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Dominique Manotti

Es sei gleich gesagt: das ist ein super Krimi, da stimmt nun wirklich alles und das liegt nicht unbedingt am Plot – da geht es, zur Zeit Mitterands, um illegale Waffenverkäufe an den Iran, ein über der Türkei explodierendes Flugzeug, klassische Polizeiarbeit und politische Mauscheleien – sondern an der Art und Weise wie die Autorin zu erzählen weiss: ungeheuer intensiv, intelligent, immer wieder überraschend und so atmosphärisch, dass man Paris und Französisches gleichsam riechen kann. In mir jedenfalls kam der Wunsch auf, unbedingt wieder einmal französische Luft zu schnuppern und das will was heissen, denn ich bin nicht frankophil – doch vielleicht werde ich es noch.

Dieses wirklich aussergewöhnliche Buch beschreibt das französische Politikerleben als ein Pendeln zwischen Luxusbordell, Geliebter, Kokain, Machtspielen und kriminellen Machenschaften; schildert die Faszination von Pferderennen, erzählt von verratenen Freundschaften und beschreibt auch den Alltag der Polizistin Noria Ghozali (im Kommissariat: „drei kleine fotokopierte Plakate: 'Keine Kanaken bei der Polizei', dazu eine Zielscheibe auf einer Silhouette, die der ihren gleicht.“) – ich glaubte nach der Lektüre die Welt, in der sich niederrangige Polizisten bewegen, ganz gut zu verstehen: „Und heute wie an jedem Tag Formulare in dreifacher Ausfertigung, davon eins für die Versicherungen, Routine. Routine ist an diesem Morgen auch das Verschwinden von 174 Pekingenten, die in Privatküchen im Vierten Bas-Belleville in Schwarzarbeit zubereitet wurden und für die dort florierenden Chinarestaurants bestimmt waren. Vergeltungsmassnahme, Erpressung. Eintreiben von Schutzgeldern, Beutezug von Hungernden. Im hiesigen Chinatown fühlt sich keiner aus dem Kommissariat so richtig wohl.“

Es ist Manottis so recht eigentlich unvergleichlicher Erzählstil, der diesen Krimi speziell macht und herausragen lässt. „Und so hatte Bornand ihn 1982 in den Beraterstab des Elysée berufen. Er war dem Ruf gefolgt, doch nicht für lange: Zu viele Stümper, hatte er gesagt, zu viele Bürokraten, zu viele Chefs, zu wenig Action und zu wenig Sonne. Und hatte daraufhin seine eigene private Sicherheitsfirma ISIS gegründet, mit Sitz in Beirut, deren Stern über den gesamten Mittleren Osten strahlte.“

Der Verlag preist diesen Titel als „die brillante Chronik einer authentischen Staatsaffäre“ an. Basiert das Ganze also auf einer wahren Geschichte? Anzunehmen ist das nicht, sonst wäre es ja kein Krimi. Doch dann schreibt auch die französische Verlegerin: „Ihre kühlen, präzisen Sätze zoomen ganz dicht ran wie eine minimalistische Kamerafahrt [was das wohl ist?], die mit den Augen der handelnden Figur blickt und ihr gleichzeitig ins Hirn guckt. Alles ist echt.“ Alles ist echt? Sollte das so gemeint sein, dass genau so, wie hier beschrieben, das politische Geschäft vor sich geht, glaubt man das sofort. Dominique Manotti beschreibe „den Krimi der Wirklichkeit“ meint die Verlegerin; überzeugender ist das schon lange nicht mehr gelungen.

Übrigens: man stösst dabei auch auf solch nachdenklich machende Sätze wie diese: „Madame, für die Frauen beginnt die Freiheit oft mit einem Verrat. Glauben Sie mir, ich weiss, wovon ich spreche“, sagt die ihrer Familie, die sie malträtierte, entkommene Polizistin Noria Ghozali.

Dominique Manotti
Roter Glamour
Ariadne Kriminalroman
Argument Verlag, Hamburg 2011

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Picture Perfect

First things first: this is a book for people whose reference points are North American. The ones who aren't terribly familiar with, or interested in, say, Candid Camera or America's Funniest Home Videos - yes, I'm speaking of myself - will again and again be annoyed by such a limited world-view. "Quite apart from its scientific interest, the daguerreotype won instant popularity in America as a means of portraiture." As everywhere else, right? "North American Life in the Age of the Photo Op" would have been a more appropriate title.

This said, let us turn to some aspects that might be of relevance to readers with no special interest in the particularities of North American media culture.
There exists nowadays "a new form of image consciousness - a photo-up culture", Adatto writes: "Today we pride ourselves on our knowledge that the camera can lie, that pictures can be fabricated, packaged, and manipulated ... If one side of us appreciates, even celebrates, the image as an image another side yearns for something more authentic. We still want the camera to fulfill its documentary promise, to provide us with insight, and to be a record of our lives and the world around us. But because we are so alive to the pose, we wrestle with the reality and the artifice of the image in a more self-conscious way than our forebears."

Indeed. And now, what consequences does that have?
Kiku Adatto elaborates on sound-bite democracy and we learn that "it was not uncommon in 1968 for candidates to speak uninterrupted for over a minute on the evening news (21 percent of sound bites); in 1988, it never happened." She also points out "the danger that politicians and the press could become caught up in a cycle that leaves the substance of politics behind, that takes appearance for reality, perception for fact, the artificial for the actual, the image for the event." Given the fact that Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and George W. Bush - impersonators of presidents and governors respectively - held influential political office, I must admit that I find this rather dated. In other words, this is not a danger, this is reality.

There's the telling story of a 1984 piece on Ronald Reagan by Lesley Stahl "which criticized at length Reagan's manipulation of television imagery during the campaign. Stahl was surprised that the Reagan White House loved the story. Grateful that the piece included almost five minutes of potent Reagan visuals, a presdientail aide seemed oblivious to Stahl's critical narrative.'They don't listen to you if you are contradicting great pictures,' the aide told Stahl. 'They don't hear what you are saying if the pictures are saying something different.'"
"Image outlives fact," as the photographer Lisa Kahane pointed out; in the words of Kiku Adatto: "Network reporters and producers think that covering the construction of images for television will alert viewers to the contrivance of those images, and so expose the artifice of the campaigns. They think that revealing the media advisers and handlers and spin-control artists manipulating the levers of illusion will dissolve the illusion and replace it with reality. But it does not work that way."

How come? We prefer illusions over reality, in fact, we need illusions because we can't stand reality - and there is no better illusion than a photograph that seemingly can bring to a standstill what we know to be a constant flow.

Adatto opens her concluding chapter with this illuminating paragraph:
"Today we are aware, as never before, of the artifice that constitutes the pose. We are as fascinated by how images are made as we are by what they mean. In popular culture, politics, and everyday life we have elevated the image-making process to a subject in its own right. In some moods we are connoisseurs of the slickly produced image, whether in political ads, celebrity photos, or popular movies. In other moods we are outraged by the distortions and deceits that images purvey."

Right, I couldn't agree more. And also with Adatto's conclusion that we "are fascinated with copies of copies, images of images. If Daguerre's generation, in its naïveté, failed to glimpse the potential of the camera to distort reality rather than record it, we, in our sophistication, may risk losing the capacity to behold 'the spirit of fact' to which the perfect picture can still aspire."

I only wonder whether our fascination with "copies of copies, images of images" is really something new? As Ludwig Feuerbach, 1804-1872, (in: David Levi Strauss: The highest degree of illusion) stated: "But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence ... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness."

Kiku Adatto
Picture Perfect
Life in the Age of the Photo Op
Princeton University Press, 2008

Sunday 1 May 2011

We see things as we are

We do not see things as they are.
We see things as we are.
The Talmud

Cynthia Stewart is a passionate photographer. "That overwhelming sense of the transcience of life made her marvel at her camera: a box she could put a moment inside of; a contraption that could catch and keep what was fleeting". In order to record the growing up of her daughter Nora, she went with her Nikon around her neck wherever Nora went.

On 28 September 1999, two policemen came to see Cynthia at the farmhouse about a mile from the center of Oberlin, Ohio, where she lived with her partner David and their daughter Nora. Cynthia was informed that "they had some of her photographs down at the station" and that "there are serious questions about those pictures, ma'am."

This is what had happened: "When her daughter was small, Cynthia had started a bath-time game to make sure she had washed and rinsed properly. Nora would stand in the tub, and Cynthia would name each part of her body, asking if she had rinsed there. Nora would answer by pointing the showerhead at that part of her body and spraying. The rinsing went from head to foot, including her buttocks and genitals. Sometimes as she rinsed, pretending to be a Power Ranger, Nora would assume poses that made her look like a superhero. A couple of times in the past, Cynthia had photographed the rinsing game."

The police and the county prosecutor judged these photos pornographic - Cynthia was arrested, taken away in handcuffs, threatened to have her daughter removed from her home, and charged with crimes that carried the possibility of sixteen years in prison. Only in America, the land of hypocrites, I briefly thought (as if in other countries people were different) but this misses the point completely because not only her friends but most of the community defended Cynthia and fought for her.

Lynn Powell, a poet and a neighbour, who became instrumental in organising a community response against the county prosecutor, wrote a fascinating book about the case. Framing Innocence is a must read. In the apt words of Anne Higonnet on the book jacket: "Bad law and great community - some of the worst and some of the best aspects of America are wisely brought together in this important book."


"Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder", as the saying goes. Not only beauty, one feels like adding, everything else too. In the case of pictures this means: We see in a picture what we want to see - regardless of what the picture shows. This, however, is not where it all ends, this is where it all begins.

The legal subtleties of what exactly constitutes pornography ("I know it when I see it", "the average person with average sex instincts") aside, how one interprets a picture does only in part depend on what the picture shows, it also depends on who, and in what frame of mind, - Cynthia Stewart considered the rinsing game pictures of her daughter "really no big deal", her lawyer "was not so sure", and the prosecutor thought them pornographic - looks at it, and where (in a porn mag or in a gallery), and under what circumstances (in a family album, as evidence in court), and, of course, in what mood.

"What makes a photograph indecent?" Powell asks. "Is it the situation in which it was shot? Or is it what you can imagine looking at the photograph? How you can interpret or misinterpret that photograph? And if you can look at a photograph and see something obscene, no matter who you it obscene? Or is it only obscene of the photographer meant it to be obscene?" Pretty abstract, and pretty impossible to answer, I'd say. It is the concrete situation, it is the practical reality, that is more likely to provide an answer we can live with.

How we approach the world tells us generally more about ourselves than about the world, or about pornography. And this is good news for it means that attitudes can be altered. As I penned on another occasion: "... we are not condemned to expect from the world what our culture has told us. The culture we grow up in is not a static entity, neither is our identity fixed once and for all. We get older, might decide to live in foreign cultures, might even acquire knowledge that teaches us that some of the things we were once taught are quite possibly wrong in themselves, not only wrong in a given context." (Durrer, 2006). In other words, we do have the ability to change our point of view. Not that we would want to ... yet sometimes we become ready for it.

A good example of this readiness is the guardian ad litem appointed to the case by Children's Services, a Christian fundamentalist who had dedicated herself to combating child pornography. In the words of Powell: "She turned this town upside down investigating the family, she spent time with the family, and she marched down to the police station and demanded to see the photographs. And when she looked at those photographs, even though her ideology and her lifestyle was fundamentally different from Cynthia's, she looked at those photographs and she said, 'Wait a minute. That's not child pornography, that's a little girl taking a bath.' She did a 180-degree turnaround and became that family's strongest advocate."

As Horatio says in Hamlet: "The readiness is all."

Lynn Powell
Framing Innocence
A Mother's Photographs, a Prosecutor's Zeal,
and a Small Town's Response.
The New Press, New York, 2010
ISBN 978-1-59558-551-6