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
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

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Little North Road: Africa in China

Little North Road portrays Africans, most of them in their Sunday best, on a pedestrian bridge in Guangzhou, Southern China. The portrayals are meant to illustrate that they are doing fine abroad. 

How did the book come about? Photographer Daniel Traub stumbled across two Chinese guys, Wu Yong Fu and Zeng Xian Fang, who took pictures of Africans (and made prints on the spot) in Guangzhou. Traub convinced them to transfer several hundred files to his computer and the came up with the captivating selection that is now found in Little North Road.

Traub describes himself as „someone who has long been involved with China, including a decade spent living and working there, and as someone who has worked in various parts of the African continent“ and so it's no wonder he felt intrigued by Wu Yong Fu's and Zeng Xian Fang's picture taking.

Guangzhou is a port city with a population of about 13 million including a considerable number of Africans. I thought this astonishing – hence my interest in this book – for during my four-month stay in China (in Fujian Province, in 2002) I was told by Chinese that they had not much sympathy for Africans. Whether this is true or not (or can be so generally put) I cannot say but it influenced my perception of the Chinese not exactly favourably. Looking at the pics in this tome did however modify my view. Especially Traub's double-page spreads at the beginning, that show Little North Road by day, and at the end, that show Little North Road by night, convey the impression that Chinese and Africans are getting along just fine.
„The title of this book LITTLE NORTH ROAD is the literal English translation of Xiaobeilu, a road in the Yuexiu District of Guangzhou, which the pedestrian bridge adjoins. 'Xiaobeilu' s also the colloquial name for the broader area surrounding the road. It is the most diverse section of the city, and includes the largest number of African visitors and immigrants in Guangzhou.“

For the full review, see here