10.5 ways of looking at a story (Africa and the Telling of Tales)

A village Chief listens during a community meeting / Ngegebma, Kailahun District
Community meetings are held in Kailahun’s villages to ensure the returnees successfully re-integrate. Here, the Chief of the village of Ngegebma listens to returnees’ questions.
Photograph by Caroline Thomas
Caroline Thomas is a documentary photographer based in Sierra Leone. She is a stringer for EPA and works with NGOs and the UN as a photographer and communications adviser.

The name Kailahun rang in my ears for more than a decade – the civil war in Sierra Leone was almost exactly coterminous with my time working for the BBC Africa Service – but I’ve never seen the place. I find this picture, from the new website African Lens (Telling the Story of Africa), both beautiful and moving.

The inaugural editorial is suitably thought-provoking and concludes on a rising clarion note:

These are exciting times for visual storytellers, with the power of the web facilitating the global production and circulation of new photographic projects. There are many challenges involved in getting better stories to the right people, but the gatekeepers of the mainstream media no longer have total control over what we can or cannot see. If we appreciate how stereotypes have been produced and can be contested, we can, over time, achieve the re-visualization of ‘Africa’.

The author, academic David Campbell, links, more than once, to this utterly delightful TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which I’m embedding here in the hope that everyone who comes across it will watch it all the way through. It’s worth every minute of it.

A vision indeed. But perhaps if every child in the world were issued with and inspired by Ben Okri’s 10 1/2 Inclinations (advice he formulated when asked to recommend the top ten books he thought children should read) we should be nearer that three-dimensionality of mind:

The 10 1/2 Inclinations

1.) There is a secret trail of books meant to inspire and enlighten you. Find that trail.
2.) Read outside your own nation, colour, class, gender.
3.) Read the books your parents hate.
4.) Read the books your parents love.
5.) Have one or two authors that are important, that speak to you; and make their works your secret passion.
6.) Read widely, for fun, stimulation, escape.
7.) Don’t read what everyone else is reading. Check them out later, cautiously.
8.) Read what you’re not supposed to read.
9.) Read for your own liberation and mental freedom.
10.) Books are like mirrors. Don’t just read the words. Go into the mirror. That is where the real secrets are. Inside. Behind. That’s where the gods dream, where our realities are born.
10.5) Read the world. It is the most mysterious book of all.

(Okri via Jeremy.)

Fishermen

I went back to the photo-portrait exhibition at the Tate Modern, puzzled about how two videos running for more than 25 minutes could be defined as a photograph, located the puny screen representing the public’s involvement, bought the catalogue and thought thoughts about the extraordinary twaddle (badly translated from German) therein. But actually why bother with any of that when there is this:

fishermen

Just look at that light. Fan-bloody-tastic. Setting sun running west-east along the Thames. These two fishermen were absolutely delightful, as was their dog, a collie called Charlie, who was as rotund as they but had seemingly limitless energy when it came to chasing a small plastic bottle which he demanded be thrown for him at 40 second intervals. When I first sat down on the bench next to them they were having a long conversation with a Russian man who was bemoaning the near extinction of the sturgeon.

Me and you (annoyingly subtitled Permission and Power)

To the annoyingly subtitled exhibition An Urban History of Photography (surely the photography is urban not the history thereof) Street and Studio at the Tate Modern with Hg (and the already holidaying FirstSpawn).

The blurb is similarly annoying:

Street & Studio brings out the contrast between the photos taken in the carefully orchestrated studio, and images captured in the changing and uncontrollable street, whilst highlighting the crossovers between the genres and their influence on each other…

Focusing on photos taken in buzzing cities, with their cosmopolitan cast of hipsters, businessmen, beauties and criminals, Street & Studio builds an engrossing urban history of photography, ranging from early black-and-white pictures from the late 1800s, to elegant fashion photography from the mid twentieth century, to cutting-edge portraiture by contemporary artists.

How many adjectives can one be expected to take in such a concentrated space?

However the exhibition itself is fascinating but its hugeness means repeated viewings will be necessary in order to absorb all the photoyumminess.

What most interested me on this, the first pass, was the concept of permission in terms of images of people. In other words the perennial question of whether it’s “ok” to take pictures of people in public without asking them. Although Room 2, Passers-by is where the issue is most clearly demonstrated but discussion avoided, as far as I could see. However I find the tone of the accompanying text interesting:

DiCorcia takes striking close-ups but goes to extreme lengths to ensure his subjects are not aware of being photographed. Using a long lens and flashlight, he sets up a complex apparatus above the street and is able to illuminate and isolate passers-by. Ed van der Elsken’s tactics were more aggressively voyeuristic. He followed an anonymous woman around the streets of Hong Kong, creating a sequence of pictures that is reminiscent of a tracking shot from a movie. ‘I followed this babe around for a while. She knew I was doing it, and didn’t like it one bit’, he confessed.

“…more aggressively voyeuristic”… “he confessed”… hmm… a tadette, a mere whiff of the pejorative, perhaps?

knitting, spawn, bee, beer

(Gratuitous portrait interlude to break up the blocks of text and pejorative only to beer-seeking bees inhabiting the buzzing city)

Perhaps this issue just isn’t controversial any more, it’s merely my continuing considerable unease with the practice in a tide of acceptance which makes me feel it’s so. It certainly has been in the past though. There are a couple of pictures in that room by Philip-Lorca diCorcia from his series Heads which prompted a lawsuit from one of the unwitting subjects and much debate on blogs. The photograph in question is not in the exhibition which could be entirely unconnected with the subsequent litigation but I did wonder whether there might be worries about further action under a different legal system.

Meanwhile, and relatedly, over in Room 9, Liberation: 1960s – 1980s there’s a piece by Laurie Anderson called Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which is described as a “photo-narrative installation”. Back in 1973 Anderson got sick of being harassed by men as she went about minding her own business so she decided to retaliate by taking a picture of the harassers.

The piece consists of an introductory text statement explaining the background followed by a number of photographs of men with their identities obscured in time-honoured newspaper journalistic fashion (a bar over the eyes) and beneath each picture is a short account of the event around the photograph. In the introductory text she compares taking someone’s photograph to mugging them.

This project was apparently the inspiration for a number of web-based “fight-backs” against street harassment – Holla Back New York City (not annoyingly sub-titled If You Can’t Slap ‘Em, Snap ‘Em) and Blank Noise in India for example.

The piece explicitly and the effect it has had demonstrates clearly the fact that one person taking a photograph of another person is an act which involves a significant power relationship and it is this which I think lies at the heart of my unease with some, possibly a lot, of street photography.

This twinning of permission and power is delightfully exemplified in a showcase in Room 5 (Ordinary People and Celebrities). One half is occupied by a hundred or so photographs of women taken in photobooths in 1928. The women, alone, entirely in control of what is happening, pose in exactly the way that appears on such pictures today. One even holds a telephone receiver to her ear which presumably she had brought with her for the purpose of appearing to converse animatedly.

The other side of showcase has a series of police mug shots – individuals without any control or power at all.

lunch

(Second gratuitous portrait interlude to break up the blocks of text, having nothing at all to do with mug shots)

The issue of permission emerges in the “public contribution” section of the exhibition. Street and Studio is following in the footsteps of last year’s How We Are at Tate Britain – which invited the public to contribute to the exhibition via a specially-set-up group on Flickr – and has set up a Street or Studio group. There’s an interesting discussion thread about “permission” centred around the Tate’s rather vague terms and conditions:

For legal reasons, the main subjects of the photograph should have consented to being photographed and not have received any payment in return.

Tate do not require evidence of written consent from the subject of the photograph…

The condition applies where the subject is the main focus of the shot, as in a staged studio portrait.

A snatched street shot would not require this permission as the subjects may be incidental.

The main thing is that the subject of the photograph has not been paid for being featured in the photograph.

Clear? Yeah, as mud.

I was disappointed not to see the Flickr photographs anywhere in the exhibition itself, unlike How We Are Now which included several screens showing pictures from the group pool and later 40 of those submitted were chosen for display in the gallery for the end portion of the show’s run. It seems counter-intuitive to invite public participation in a themed exhibition and then not incorporate those contributions in the gallery itself.

True, the involvement is billed as “Your photos in print” but there’s a para which claims “All submissions will be posted and shared on Tate Online and displayed on a screen in the gallery” so maybe I missed it. I’m a cynic, of course, but this does look more like a marketing opportunity for the project’s publishing partner to cash in on a new variant of vanity publishing rather than exploring the richness and variety of responses to the theme.

I shall look carefully for the screen in the gallery on my next visit, which shall be very soon indeed.

Fleecing the sheep

“Did you know” ask Craig and Gerard “that there are more than 60 breeds of sheep in the UK?”

We had the best of the weekend weather yesterday, without a doubt. The spawn and I winkled Jean from her work and went to the Alternative Village Fête where, to celebrate all things ovine, we selected beautiful British yarn from the baskets available and Jean, SecondSpawn and I knitted a swatch to attach to the I Knit London sheep.

We were not alone. Large numbers of people leapt at the chance to do likewise, sitting in the sun, accompanied by various attractions ranging from Rediscovered Urban Rituals, the Bollywood Brass Band and (very surreal, this) a man who made a hat entirely out of cake icing (and plastic cups and sugar-coloured-sprinkly-things too, but they weren’t mentioned).

FirstSpawn is not a knitter but he kept us in stitches (sorry, couldn’t resist) with wisecracks about his “new” mobile phone. Due to an unfortunate incident over which I shall draw a discreet veil he is now reduced to using a, uh, vintage (more than ten years old!) handset – my very first mobile in fact. In a youth culture where only the very latest, most complex and most expensive will do his brick is going to stick out like, well, a brick. However he is putting a brave face on things.

“You know how small is good in mobile phone terms”, he says, “well *my* mobile phone has got the smallest screen I’ve ever seen”.

Photo fun

This evening (um, sort of yesterday now) Jean (re)drew my attention to photography community Utata and more specifically the projects it runs. I was utterly entranced by the most recent Iron Photographer (whatever that may mean) project, the parameters of which are as follows:
1 – something rubber
2 – something made with/from wire OR with sequins
3 – shot outside at night

I waited impatiently for night to fall since I happened to have about my person a ready-made wire-and-rubber object to which, for good measure, I attached a few sequins.

night rider

Needless to say more haste results in the proverbial lack of vitesse and I did everything arse over tits since I didn’t read most of the instructions. However I hope I’ve retrieved the situation as far as possible and won’t be ejected as a bungling neophyte.

So excited am I by Utata I’ve placed its bookmark in prime browser real-estate, right next to that of Ravelry which is without a doubt my top favourite social networking site (so far).

Lolmario

Courtesy of Hg.

(I’m working on the arms, ok? give a knitter a chance, why don’t you. Damn cat.)

Fibretaxis

Cats, as we know, have small brains. Much of their limited capacity is utilised in ways the average amoeba would not find challenging. Take, for instance, phototaxis. The average vegetable is capable of phototaxis. And the average vegetable uses it for a useful purpose – photosynthesis. The average cat is also capable of phototaxis, but the purpose is highly maladaptive.

I am talking, of course, about the ability of the average cat to assess the quality of light reflected from its coat and, having done so, move to position itself precisely on a surface displaying exactly the opposite properties. My cat, for instance, is mostly white. This means he comes to rest on the darkest possible surface, ideally an item of my clothing, upon which he can then shed his hair liberally. Black cats, obviously, choose pale clothing to sit on.

Why this should be is a mystery. It would appear to be counter-productive given the average reaction of the average cat owner on discovering their clothing looking like it’s been caught in a pillow fight is not positive and friendly towards the offending cat. My theory is that cats are so unbelievably vain they care not for the opprobrium this behaviour attracts since their only concern is to set themselves off to best advantage.

There is another taxis that cats have refined to an art form, and this is fibretaxis. For there is no place, however obscure and protected, that one can place ones knitting that the average cat will not locate in order then to sit, lie or otherwise lounge squarely on the work in progress. No item of knitting is too small or insignificant. An inch or so of sock is as inviting as, for instance, the completed back of a large garment.

Here we have a typical example of the behaviour in action.

Feline fibretaxis

Reading from top left to bottom right we have the cat insinuating itself on the edge of the knitting (which has been placed on the kitchen table to be measured); total occupation is achieved with the entirety of the cat’s body (including tail) placed inside the boundaries of the knitted surface; any suggestion of removal is greeted with extreme contempt; the territory is defended with vigour.

Why? I ask myself. Why, why, why? I whimper as I nurse my slashed hands and attempt to remove white hairs from my green garment without getting it covered in red blood.

The cat merely looks inscrutable (he is, after all, an oriental breed) and I realise my question is in vain. He has about as much idea of why as a cabbage has of how, but without the advantage of tasting delicious boiled and covered with melted butter and freshly-ground black pepper.

Sea dreams

When I was a little girl my father gave me a shell at the seaside. Not one of the ones you pick up on the beach but one of the ones that would never grow so huge and hyperbolic in the cold native water, which has instead been ripped from the tropics, eviscerated, blasted and basketed to gather dust in one of the tat shops that line the front.

It was a murex very much like this although I think the interior was more orange and white than bright pink. I can still feel the textures – rough, pitted and spiny on the outside, glisteningly cool and smooth on the inside.

“Hold it to your ear,” he said, “and you can hear the sea.” I did, and I could.

ear

“Is that really the sea?” I asked, my eyes no doubt as big as the shell. “Oh yes”, he said. “There’s sea inside every single shell.” “Real sea?” “Yes, real sea. No matter how far away they are from the shore, shells always have the sea in them.” I think I might have surreptitiously shaken it to see if any water came out.

I believed him implicitly, of course. At night I would lie in bed in the dark holding the shell to my ear and travel deep into its cool coilings to the sea itself, breeze-blown and spume-spattered. I still dream of the sea, often.

Perhaps there is an inundation. Sometimes a great wave seen approaching from afar gives sufficient time to scramble to higher ground up tussocky, cropped-grass covered slopes. Other times it is a slow barely noticed indrawing of lapping foam-fingers which forces a retreat up a shingled beach towards a paved esplanade. It is a source of relief that those whom I am responsible for (variations of family, friends and animals) are shepherded to a place of safety. Once there the others melt away as I gaze down at the waters. Sometimes I walk into the water and swim directly towards the horizon, but mostly I don’t.

Always under the waves can be seen the flickering forms of whales. Sometimes the long grey outlines of right whales, sometimes the leaping harlequin of orcas, occasionally the white of Belugas. Often one or more swim up to where I stand and then I know what they know, a deep and ancient knowledge, but cannot remember in the morning.

One day I shall live next to the sea. One day.

I really want…

…to drag everyone I know and love to Brighton beach and take pictures of them.

eye see you

I used not to want to take pictures of people at all, finding it difficult, intrusive and somehow embarrassing. Now I love it. I think that must in a large part be due to Neha’s patience putting up with me practicing.

Dogs, on the other hand, have never presented a problem.

salty

The rest of the set is here.