For the USSR, 1947 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution that ushered the Bolsheviks under Lenin into power. Coming just two years after the end of the Second World War, the year also marked the emergence of the Soviet Union as a global superpower who controlled vast swathes of territory in Eastern Europe (under compliant local rulers dependant on Moscow for support). The post-war narrative also heavily emphasised the victory of the competing economic systems (after all hadn’t the communist Soviet Union defeated the Germans?), but it also consolidated the personal power and control of Stalin as arch-dictator, whose rule during the initial German invasion had looked increasingly shaky. Now, the wartime compromises and promises made to the people of the USSR were being slowly rolled back, terror was returning, those who had shown initiative during the war were now increasingly regarded as potential threats to be crushed, while the tensions between the former wartime allies were rapidly turning into a state of fear that would consume the world for the next forty years.
This book, despite its name, is not an actual calendar, more an encyclopaedia celebrating the accomplishments and achievements of the USSR over the previous thirty years on a month by month basis. The overall message is straightforward: under the guidance of Stalin and Lenin (but mainly Stalin or you risked going to a prison camp) the USSR has evolved from a backward agrarian country into a global power. Tangible accomplishments are presented in terms of the development of a new society in which a communist utopia was being created (under Stalin’s control). Like the plot of Orwell’s 1984 come to pass, the book is an attempt to rewrite and reconstruct a version of history in which the triumph of communism is presented as inevitable. Although the dictator dominates the everything, space is permitted for acceptable heroes and role-models that embody the virtues of blind loyalty and self sacrifice (i.e. fawning, opinionless yes- men and women) who are presented as embodying the ideal for those who lived under this regime. Literary and other artistic figures who survived the purges of the 1930s (usually by informing on their peers to the secret police) are also valorised as embodying the vibrant, thriving culture of this new revolutionary society under construction. Similarly, space is devoted to prestige projects that appear to demonstrate the accomplishments made during the Soviet period, mainly around agriculture and industry, the twin pillars of communist society. Naturally, the book only shows the successes; the downsides and human costs of this vast social experiment are ignored.
Design-wise the book is an interesting example of the evolution of Soviet propaganda. (Alas, the binding appears to have been very poorly done and finding a copy that has not split open over the past sixty years is a hard job.) Gone are the experimental techniques of the early 1930s as socialist-realism has taken root as the only permissible way of visualising the great leader and the paradise he has created. For photography, this meant that every image should convey a singular, unambiguous meaning that could be easily understood by everybody (particularly the censors). The book uses colour in places to convey the positive message of the USSR on the way up and separate pages display the various national symbols that made up the constituent countries of the Soviet Union, the national anthem is presented in bold red text, sayings of the great and good are emblazoned in red, while tipped in colour photographs show the great leader himself presiding over this display of might and unity.
Photographs dominate the book and are used to illuminate the anniversaries of the assorted heroes, accomplishments of the regime and the cult of personality surrounding Stalin that constitutes history according to this book. Uncredited, these images show us a procession of martyrs whose example is held up as being the supreme example of how people should behave in Stalinist society. Two years after the end of the Second World War, a deeply traumatised society was still trying to come to terms with the horrific loss of life that it had just endured in fighting the Germans and were desperately trying to repair and rebuild a shattered country. All this was taking place in the menacing shadow of their unpredictable psychotic leader who, by all indications, fully intended to reinstate the regime of terror he had instituted in the 1930s that had seen millions killed or sent to prison camps.
Similarly, industrial scenes show how the USSR under communism has emerged from agrarian backwardness into becoming a world power to rival the US and the rest of Europe, while the reconstructed new-towns and cities are presented as proof of the care the state takes in looking after its loyal and happy citizens. Photographs of heavy industry, belching factories and steel plants are ideologically loaded, becoming images of a global superpower, more than capable of taking on the Western world. Similarly, photographs that show spotlessly clean, modern cityscapes, dotted with cars, populated by well dressed and happy inhabitants are used as proof that the utopia promised by Marx has come to pass under Stalin. Of course, the reality was very different.
But the real purpose of this book is to prove that Stalin’s rule has been a success. The cult surrounding him had grown to massive proportions by this period and everything in this society, all art and culture, was devoted towards valorising his dictatorial reign. He is presented as a god-like figure, all-knowing, ceaselessly devoting his life towards improving the lot of the common man as well as single-handedly winning the war. Actually, the book format is almost biblical: communism is the new religion, Stalin is the messiah sent to save the world, the heroic Stakhanovite workers are saints, the Second World War was a test of faith, while the industrial and agricultural development are miracles that prove the validity of the new ideology. But the cracks were starting to show in Stalin’s rule by this time: too many people had demonstrated their ability to think for themselves during the fight against the Nazis and the balance of terror that had prevailed in the 1930s no longer worked as effectively in a society exhausted by war and devastation. The fact that after his death in 1953, the cult was quickly dismantled with little protest from the general populace showed just how shallow were these claims of popular acclaim.
Iraq has dominated the Western imagination since the 1990s. Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship was more than tolerated during the simplistic polarisation of the globe into capitalism/communism that prevailed after the Second World War. But that model changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in order to replenish its coffers after a futile decade-long war against Iran, Saddam became the test case of the new post Cold War Pax Americana. (The triumphal hyperbole during the first half of the 1990s knew no bounds with commentators declaring that a New World Order had been created and even stating that the End of History was in sight – all nonsense of course.)
The 1991 Gulf War showed just how far the US military and political establishments had come in devising strategies to control and censor information in order to maintain public opinion. Key to this was the promulgation of a simplistic narrative about a crazed dictator and a coalition of allied nations uniting to free an occupied land and people (a strategy that clearly appropriated themes from the Second World War and distanced this conflict in the public mind from Vietnam). Even the names, such as Stormin’ Norman leading Desert Storm, were carefully chosen to resemble something out of a cheesy 1980s Schwarzenegger/Stallone action movie, familiar to audiences of the period, with a simplified plot, clear distinctions between the good/bad guys and a moral relativism that celebrated the use of violence on the part of the good guys but condemned the bad guys when they behaved in the same manner.
After Vietnam, reporters and photojournalists were regarded as threats and potential enemies who might undermine the carefully managed fiction being produced by the military and political spin-doctors. Therefore they were carefully managed throughout to ensure that what they reported didn’t contradict the overall message of a bloodless war. Although CNN provided constant coverage of the conflict on a scale heretofore unknown, the imagery produced was surprisingly limited. Lots of soupy green night-vision video from the roof of Baghdad’s Rashid Hotel and carefully chosen footage from so-called smart bombs hitting their targets with pinpoint accuracy were the motifs of this war for a distant audience. This produced a distancing effect, turning it into a video-game that precluded any identification on the part of the viewer with the end results produced. Death and suffering were subjects that were conspicuous by their absence in this spectacular display of power.
In this tightly controlled environment, very few images managed to depict the carnage caused by the much-lauded smart bombs that had convinced the Western world that it could engage in war without consequence. While the war went on for over a month, it was only towards the end of the period that images showing the effects of war emerged. In particular, Kenneth Jarecke’s searing image of a badly burnt and disfigured Iraqi soldier sitting in the cab of a truck has assumed an importance insofar as it undermines the officially sanctioned narrative.
Published in 1992 by Bedrock Press, this book is a collection of images taken by Jarecke alongside texts by Exene Cervenka and is one of the few photobooks to emerge in the aftermath of the first Gulf War that criticised the narrative of a (then) very popular war at a time when challenges to US global power were almost non-existent. The largely celebratory manner by which the first Gulf War was represented contributed, in part, to US public support for the second war against Iraq in 2003 because it was assumed that it would also be a quick and easy victory, the carnage would remain unseen, and American casualties would remain light. That proved not to be the case.
Dispensing with the standard 35mm format that was the camera of choice for photojournalism at the time, Jarecke presents a series of square format black and white images depicting his experiences during the war. Printed in high-key, due to the harsh light of the region, much of the photographs depict coalition soldiers either during periods of boredom or inaction, echoing the fact that photographers were kept well away from the realities of warfare. This also reflected that for much of the conflict, the actual soldiers had nothing to do as the air bombardment of Iraqi forces went on for a month before the famed 100 hour land offensive occurred. Thus, for photojournalists with the coalition forces the effects of this warfare remained almost totally invisible until the last few days of the war and by then the smart-bomb/night-vision narrative produced by the media had become firmly embedded in the public consciousness. The new technology of Western warfare was celebrated while the consequences remained invisible.
Jarecke’s images are combined with texts, of differing lengths, on the facing page by Cervenka that serve as an immediate personal response and a deeper critique of the jingoistic narrative, whilst attempting to place this conflict in a historical perspective. Certainly, from a typographical point of view, the text is very effective, producing a very personal commentary on both the photographs and the war itself. Cervenka’s text operates to contextualise the war, dissecting the simplistic narrative produced by the cheerleaders of Western power, tracing it back to the decisions made by now defunct colonial powers in the aftermath of the First World War. These decisions had the effect of destabilising the region in the pursuit of imperial ambitions that have long since been consigned to the dustbin of history. Cervenka also examines the ambiguous relationship between Saddam’s Iraq and the United States in the decades prior to the war, the military-industrial complex and an oil dependent economy.
But what really made Jarecke’s visualisation of this war stand out was his iconic image of the blackened, incinerated body of an Iraqi soldier bent over a steering wheel, framed by the empty windscreen of a burnt out truck. As well as being one of the few images that depicted the realities of high-tech warfare (and showed that the end result was just as brutal as ever) the photograph was particularly effective in that the anonymous man’s gaze met that of the viewer, staring out in a grimace of unimaginable agony. According to Jarecke, they came across a single truck on a highway which had been recently attacked from the air. While that single image has assumed an iconic status and has become one of the few depictions to challenge the official rhetoric, the book contains a number of other images made of the same scene. (It was only published by the Observer newspaper at the time – Time magazine wouldn’t touch it despite Jarecke being under contract to them.) If the news media found printing that particular image problematic, then the other photographs Jarecke made had no chance of appearing in newspapers. The horrific realities of so-called smart-bombs are laid bare in these few images of disembodied corpses representing undermined the video-game/action-movie narrative adopted by the media. If the authorised narrative privileged distance and the elevated perspective of technological awe, then Jarecke’s images depict the grim results on the ground. But from the American military’s perspective, they achieved their objective of maintaining public support for the war through tightly controlling how it was represented to a distant audience. This strategy would have profound implications for the future.
Annelie and Andrew Thorndike were a husband and wife team of filmmakers who produced a number of documentaries for the East German DEFA company during the 1960s and 70s. True-believers, the pair produced numerous uncritical documentary films that whitewashed the repressive nature of the East German regime and “proved” the superiority of communism (such as Das russische Wunder [The Russian Wonder] and Die alte neue Welt [The Old New World] – this film sought to prove that communism was the ultimate evolutionary outcome for humankind). As committed and trusted members of the East German cultural elite, the pair appears to have lived a relatively privileged life in return for producing propaganda films that toed the ideological line.
This book, published in 1966 by Hinstorff of Rostock, is a collaboration between the two filmmakers (Andrew provided the pictures and Annelie the text). On the surface, its a straightforward pictorial travelogue of a journey by ship from Antwerp to Bombay with images and text narrating their experiences. Much of the content would not appear remiss in any such travelogue – anecdotes and observations on the exotic sights and people they encounter as they journey from Europe to Asia. But it is impossible to divorce this book from the broader political and ideological context in which it appeared.
As they spend nearly all of their time on board ship, a lot of their focus is on the ship’s crew and their routine, which they observe as privileged outsiders. There is a moment of darkness in the book when a crew-member commits suicide and disappears overboard in the middle of the night causing a frantic search for him. But even this tragedy is presented in an ideologically “correct” manner so as to minimise any disruption to the narrative. (The unnamed crewman is described as introverted, a bit of a loner and not really a full part of the group. This has the effect of emphasising the inherent instability and self-destructive nature of bourgeois selfishness in contrast to the strength of the collective under communism.)
This ideological edge pervades this travel narrative. As well as a bizarre love-letter to the DDR on the anniversary of its foundation, Cold War anxieties are always close to the surface and the NATO warmongers are decried for their meddling in the Mediterranean. Picking up a cargo of cotton in Sudan, the country is presented as an example of progressive de-colonization where the presence of a left-wing political grouping pressing for change meant the potential for a better future existed. In contrast, once they reach Pakistan and India the vestiges of colonial rule and the continuing exploitation of the poor are heavily emphasised. The inequitable nature of capitalism in these former colonies (without left wing groups to fight for the poor) is expressed in photographs of poverty, beggars, porters and a photographic montage of signs that all demonstrate that, in spite of their independence, these countries remain in thrall to their former colonial rulers.
The photographs are a mixture of documentary images and picturesque travel pictures that are both visually appealing and serve to progress the book narrative at a nice pace. Black and white is used for much of the early part of their journey, but once they pass through the Suez canal then a lot more colour appears. This emphasises the Orientalist exoticism of these faraway lands for the viewer. Individually, some of these photographs are quite strong. But this is an example where book design can transform a fairly routine subject into something a lot more interesting. With its jute cover, different font styles, facsimile handwritten captions and the tipped in ephemera (telegrams, letters, tickets) the book does successfully manage to recreate the feel of a handmade travel journal and engage the reader’s interest. It’s a surprisingly creative and self-expressive publication in the context of 1960s East Germany.
But there is an inherent contradiction at the heart of this book. East Germany by this time was a failed state, propped up by coercion and paranoia. The fact that so many of its citizens were voting with their feet and attempting to leave the country necessitated the building of increasingly elaborate (and deadly) barriers to keep them in. By contrast, the Thorndikes are shown revelling in the freedom and advantages bestowed upon them by the same state that was viciously preventing its own population from leaving. While they pay lip-service to communist ideology in their text, a distinct sense of self-indulgence and privilege pervades the book. It clearly demonstrates to the East German reader the rewards the regime could bestow upon those who were loyal.
While the Thorndikes voyage on board a cargo ship and not some luxury cruise-liner, they still remain passengers, isolated from the crew and exempt from the labour they valorise so much. But even this token gesture is dispensed with at the end when they are transformed into minor celebrities and whisked away to film premiere’s and the demanding social circuit that have to be endured by these socialist VIPs. (One of the last spreads in the book is of Annelie gazing into a shop window while a pasted notice on the facing page lists her demanding round of interviews, lunch meetings and embassy receptions for the day.)
But this book clearly shows the disparity between the rulers and the ruled in this society. Imagine being an average DDR citizen, trapped in a life of drudgery in the chemical factory or the collective farm, watched over constantly by an increasingly paranoid and repressive state, and subject to being shot should you stray too close to the border. Then you encounter this book. In that context, reading about the Thorndikes swanning around the globe telling you that Every Day Was Beautiful (outside East Germany) must have been a hard message to stomach.
The unwritten social contract in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre has been a simple one; if you don’t threaten the regime’s political authority then it will permit you to make money. The Maoist fervour of old has long since been discredited and cynicism has taken its place. Making money becomes a tool of social control and a way to keep China’s vast population placid. Of course, not everybody will be able to avail of the opportunities provided in the semi-capitalist free-for-all that is China at the moment – but that’s not the point. As long as there is a widespread perception that there is money to be made and things will get better that is enough to keep the lid on social discontent and prevent most people from thinking too deeply about the inequalities of the system under which they live. Now, this model is breaking down. Recession/Depression in the rest of the world means that the Chinese can’t sell as much of their stuff, ultimately resulting in redundancies and unemployment. The real fear for China’s communist leadership is a groundswell of jobless, discontented and angry people venting their frustration on their authoritarian rulers. Just like the emperors of old, if the Chinese communist party fails to uphold their end of the bargain and the dream of economic prosperity fades, then they will have lost the Mandate of Heaven. Turmoil would inevitably follow.
The post-Tiananmen massacre consensus, while laying the foundations for much of China’s economic expansion during the past two decades, has produced some unpalatable side-effects. For a start, if the ruling party’s legitimacy and right to rule is based on claims of economic prosperity then everything will be sacrificed in the name of keeping the growth rates high so that they can claim continued success. As China’s manufacturing base grew from a relatively low level in the late 1980s to the boom of the late 2000s (when it was manufacturing much of the rest of the world’s stuff), these high growth statistics and numbers were relatively easy to maintain. Labour was cheap. Foreigners had an insatiable appetite for manufactured objects (and cheap credit to pay for it). Lots of money flowed in and most everybody in China felt happy and said what a great job the leadership was doing.
But now, the limits of this policy have been reached. With downturn in the rest of the world, less Chinese exports are being sold and the illusion of ever-continuing economic prosperity has come under severe threat; an issue that may result in profound social and political consequences. The other area where this policy has had a profound impact upon is the environment. This relentless pursuit of manufacturing growth has meant that corners have been cut in relation to pollution and the disposal of hazardous waste in the name of short-term political and economic gain. Cynicism and moral bankruptcy amongst the Chinese political and business elite has meant that opportunities for corruption and personal enrichment have greased the wheels of environmental degradation and created untold long-term problems.
Dalian, the subject of this self-published book by Portuguese photographer Filipe Casaca, is a Northern Chinese city that was one of the early beneficiaries of the 1980s policy of creating Special Economic Zones to entice foreign investment into China in the aftermath of the Maoist nightmare. As such, it can be regarded as one of the early prototypes for the export-oriented model that now underpins the China’s existence as we know it. It is also a place where nineteenth century incursions by foreign colonial powers (and their wars) over who got to control China were played out. As such it has a deep historical resonance, being a site where Western ideas of industrial capitalism and the weight of Chinese history came together to produce this hybrid product of globalisation (millennia old traditions of authoritarian rule coexist alongside an almost Victorian mania for industrial production at any cost). The title of the work stems from an English translation of a former name of the city, but serves as an apt metaphor for what the past twenty years of frantic economic development have been built upon.
The obvious ravages of pollution and other scars left in the pursuit of short-term economic progress remain hidden from view in this book. Instead, Casaca concentrates on the city, a place where the profits and migrants unleashed by this narrow and tightly controlled form of social engineering have been poured into. Casaca’s portrayal of Dalian is a confusing cacophony of concrete, strange structures (a spiky shelter of some sort and a pair of concrete horses), and the surreal (a burning dust-cart) which operate to disorient the viewer, echoing the dislocation and trauma that Chinese society has undergone over the past number of decades. As well as the blue colour cast that operates as a key to the narrative structure, the lack of a horizon in many of the landscape images enhances this mood of ominous darkness. The accompanying short story by Mingyu Wu, which speaks of the sudden “heaviness” that descended on a city’s people, echoes the themes explored within the visual narrative. Dalian is Blade Runner brought to life.
The mood is also enhanced through the portrait images. Here, we see isolated individuals trapped in this artificial space, a status shared by the zoo animals he also pictures. The animals depicted also resonate with traditional symbolism and demonstrate that despite all the concrete and Starbucks that has filled China’s urban centres, these are a thin veneer over a much more enduring culture. Yet, the cultural hybridisation produced by globalisation is never far away; a quote from the Book of Revelations at the beginning of the book provides a Western reading of these images. Casaca plays with the intersection of these two cultures and produces a sophisticated, multi-layered visual narrative that engages with cultural difference whilst getting his point across.
Although the people of Casaca’s images are depicted basking in the consumerist glories of this artificial paradise (an aquarium, roller blading, enjoying the pleasures of the beach), the bleakness remains. Material possessions cannot compensate for the sacrifices and losses inflicted upon a society still reeling from a century of traumatic change and an uncertain future. The final, strong image of a young woman in a white dress lying on the beach serves as a powerful metaphor that has a number of layers associated with it (a symbol of purity in Western eyes, white in Chinese culture is associated with mourning and death).
Here, we see the failure of the political dream peddled by an increasingly desperate Chinese ruling elite. As the epitome of their grand vision for the future, Dalian has instead become a dark, artificial pastiche of progress. A creature of the frantic manoeuvrings of an out of touch political system defined by the failures of the two modernist grand ideologies (communism and capitalism), China has tried to use greed and gaudy consumerism as a way of distracting its people. Yet, this is a short term solution. A directionless leadership that relies on a carrot-and-stick approach to maintain its power (consumerism and state violence) in a country scarred by pollution and the ravages of industrial growth, populated by an increasingly cynical population, produces a situation in which a society slowly corrodes from within.
Apologies for my photos of this book – better images can be found here.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Hungary occupied an ambiguous place in the newly re-drawn boundaries of the Cold War. It had been an ally of Germany and fought against the Soviets, but now it found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, defeated and occupied by their enemies. Like Poland and Czechoslovakia, other countries the Western powers were keen to keep out of the Soviet orbit of control, Hungary was promised free elections to replace the dictatorial Horthy regime that had brought the country into the war.
However, Stalin was keen to ensure that the elections produced the “right” outcome and despite getting only 17% of the 1945 vote, the Hungarian communist party assumed power (with the help of Soviet military intimidation to terrify its rivals). The next few years were spent consolidating its power and destroying its political rivals until the communists took full charge in 1949 and formed the People’s Republic of Hungary. Taking its cue from Stalin’s way of doing business, Mátyás Rákosi (the new thug in charge of the country) set about intimidating, torturing and murdering all potential rivals – the count is placed at about 350,000 victims. This Hungarian version of Stalinist-inspired terror went on for a number of years until his demise following Khrushchev’s denunciation of his predecessor in his ‘secret speech’ of 1956. But the brutal legacy of this failed attempt to impose control over the populace led directly to the 1956 Hungarian Uprising which, although suppressed with great ferocity, revealed the bankruptcy of a communist regime that needed to rely on Russian tanks to prevent its own people from stringing them up from the nearest lamppost.
Printed in 1949 by Szikra, this is an English language celebratory photo album (French and German editions were also made) published in an attempt to whitewash the imposition of authoritarian rule and political violence for the outside world. As usual in such post-war publications, the narrative is fairly simplistic; back in the olden-days, under the autocratic big-wigs who ran the country to enrich the rich and powerful, times were tough. Things got so bad that they even managed to drag the country into a war on the wrong side. Luckily, the Soviets defeated the old dictatorship of Admiral Horthy and are just hanging around to help build a new, improved Hungary. Now, the new communist leadership is going to create a better future and a utopian society where everybody is going to be happy with their lot. And to prove this, here are photos of bountiful fields basking in the sunshine, people looking busy and smiling away inside gleaming factories, all looking forward to a brighter tomorrow. When it comes to the reconstruction section the device of contrasting the war damaged infrastructure with the newly rebuilt version (with Soviet help) is used as visual proof of the new regime’s success. As always in such propaganda publications, progress is presented as the inevitable way of solving all ills in order to create the ideal society as envisaged by the reigning sociopaths.
Design-wise, the book is fairly straightforward, with the black and white photographs printed full page throughout. Photographically, there are some strong images in the book, particularly in the industrial section where there are a few nice modernist style photographs of chimneys and silos. A few dynamic images of individual workers also punctuate the section and move the narrative along. Unfortunately, the other sections are not as strong, filled with interesting (but not extraordinary) images that get the job done. Although the photographers are listed at the end of the book, none of the individual images are credited to a particular maker.
The book is divided into sections, each examining the particular social themes so beloved by communist propaganda makers (such as agriculture, industry, education, infrastructure, reconstruction, culture etc.) Interestingly, for what was to come, the military aspect is heavily downplayed. Usually such publications have a section about the glorious people’s army bristling with firepower ready to defend socialism to the last bullet…but here we get a single picture of a line up swearing allegiance to the new regime. In part, this reluctance may be due to Hungary’s recent position of being on the losing side during the war and a new found subservience to the Soviets. Whatever the reason, the militaristic overtones are heavily downplayed in favour of beauty-contest style platitudes about world peace.
The narrative structure of the book makes it very clear who the communist regime owes its existence to; Stalin gets a full page portrait early on and then there is a image of a recently erected monument to the Soviet soldiers who took Budapest. Without Soviet support this regime is a non-runner. Usually, such pictorial books showcase the achievements of the new communist leaders, but in this case the cupboard is slightly bare. There are no real showcase grand projects or schemes that they can gloat about photographically. There is some mention about the achievements of the wonderful 3 year plan (which seem more than a bit dubious to me) and the regime appears to have organised other people to shovel the rubble off the streets, but apart from that it seems fairly thin. Even the language they use to describe this process (“stabilisation”) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their abilities to manage the future. Instead, this book is more of a celebration by the communist leadership of their consolidation of power and providing lots of positive images to demonstrate that they had the support and backing of the population. The fact that a few years later there would be open revolt on the streets of Budapest using tanks and machine guns between those same people and the ruling regime shows that this premise was false.
At the time of writing, Europe is in the midst of an intractable and apparently unending crisis that will probably (either directly or indirectly) determine how the continent develops for the next half century or more. At the heart of this crisis is the systemically flawed economic project brought about by the single currency, the Euro. While presented as a vehicle of European integration and prosperity at its launch back in 2002, it has turned into a voracious monster, consuming ever more resources in order to stave off the collapse of this political project. A toxic combination of political idiocy, greed, ideological blindness, and short-sighted stupidity has created a triage situation within the European Union. Triage, a medical technique used in disasters when a sudden influx of mass casualties overwhelms the capacity of health care services to respond to it, involves splitting patients into two groups. One group receives all the attention while the hopeless cases are ignored and left to fend for themselves as best they can. In such a crisis, a calculated cruelty occurs; not alleviating the pain and suffering of those in agony is excused in the name of diverting resources to aid the strong who have a chance of survival.
Transferring this metaphor to the current Euro crisis, what has happened is that certain countries in Europe (who stupidly believed the nonsense and took the cheap loans) have been consigned to the isolation ward and left on minimal life-support in order to protect other countries (whose stupid banks got very, very greedy and issued the cheap loans). Now the loans can’t be paid back and the banks that lent them the money are verging on bankruptcy. That is the nub of the matter – everything else is just noise designed to conceal the fact that this is a monumental, systemic failure on the part of the institutions that govern our world. Never mind the immediate human carnage this causes for those consigned to bare survival, the long-term implications of this policy for Europe are too horrendous to contemplate. (For a start it immediately reveals the idea of an EU made up of equal states as a lie – like Orwell’s Animal Farm, some countries are more equal than others, apparently.)
This brings us on to the PIGS, an acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (Ireland can also be included to produce PIIGS), the countries that have suffered most in Europe during this crisis. The term itself is heavily ideologically loaded. It reduces these societies and individuals to animals and transforms them into objectified entities that are inherently “different” from the smugly “superior” Northern European norm. But this is all part of a broader process to blame the victims. A classic technique used by groups in power when they want to wriggle out from their responsibilities is to transfer all fault to the victims and, by so doing, control public disquiet about their own culpabilities. Undeserving victims are easy to ignore. (Quite frankly, some of the media coverage about the “lazy” Greeks has been downright revolting.)
Economics itself bears a good deal of responsibility. Developed in the later part of the eighteenth century in order to facilitate and rationalise the emergence of capitalist industrialisation, economics presents itself as a science. However, it is not a science. It is a series of assumptions (or guesses) based upon carefully selected and partial pieces of information, interpreted through various ideological and political prisms to produce theories that supposedly explain human activity. Add lots of incomprehensible jargon and scientific-looking mathematical formulae into the mix (in order to make it look complicated and to ensure that it is impossible to understand by non-specialists) and you have your very own attempt at imposing order on chaos. But simplifying the sheer quantity of ever-changing variables and factors inherent within society into a single model or theory that can be used to envisage outcomes is simply impossible. The scale, complexity and multiplicity of human activity and decision making choices are far too complex and varied to reduce into a one-size-fits-all model that explains everything.
As a product of the rational Enlightenment project that emerged from Northern Europe during the eighteenth century, it is no surprise that economic theories tend to present developed societies (based on rationalism) in a positive light, while societies that do not meet such criteria are dismissed as underdeveloped, backward and irrational. This is where history comes into play; it is no coincidence that the PIGS are all countries whose greatness and grandeur has been consigned to antiquity. They were no match for the newly emergent industrial Northern European states that emerged in the nineteenth century and created economics to rationalise their hegemony. In general, the Southern European PIGS have long been condemned to picturesque relics of pre-modern primitiveness within the popular Northern European imagination since the advent of modernity.
Deliberately appropriating the format of the British news magazine, The Economist (complete with typographic and design references), Spottorno’s soft cover book/magazine becomes a visual narrative of the four societies in question, viewed through the prism of their apparent inability to live up to Northern European ideals of economic rationalism. The tone is set on the front cover which shows two tourists gazing up in awe at the ancient ruins of past imperial grandeur. This is contrasted with an image of a time that has already been consigned to the past in terms of a fictitious advert offering credit alongside that ultimate symbol of aspirational consumer awe and social status amongst the thrusting financial elites; a sports car. Yet once we delve inside this publication the apparent promises of the past and future dissolve. Image after image shows us the signs of poverty, desperation and despair. The illusory cheap-credit bubble that the Euro inflated during its existence has well and truly burst. Its legacy is mass unemployment and an uncertain future. The Euro was presented as offering a new future to Southern Europe. The PIGS (under the Euro) would suddenly become modern, efficient economies under Northern European tutelage. Of course this was a complete illusion.
On one level, Spottorno’s photographs appear to confirm the stereotypes presented as embodying Southern European life; images of people on the beach, endless sunny skies, the distinct lack of work, siestas in the shade and the inevitable contrast between the ruins of the past and the present. All these appear to reinforce how the PIGS have been represented in the media. But Spottorno’s images subvert this simplification. The riots so beloved by the news media are absent. Instead, we see the everyday spaces of nowhere and ordinary life continuing. Yet the bewildered and passive people within his images appear trapped within this slow motion trauma, hemmed in by an ancient past, oppressive present and an uncertain future. Spottorno also emphasises the surreal in his visual travelogue. A cow roams the streets of a new-build development; a woman poses for his camera in front of a fishmonger’s stall as Padre Pio looks indulgently down from a portrait on the wall behind; a family group suns themselves on the beach in front of an abandoned concrete development; a grubby looking grocery shop called Chic Market (that looks anything but), and a hooded horse being led through the street by men on motorbikes, all serve to punctuate this narrative framed by the failure of economics. As well as being visually humourous, these images also illuminate the inherent irrationality of human life and make a mockery of the pretentions of economists and their attempts to reduce people into rational, predictable consumers whose behaviour can be managed and controlled.
What Spottorno’s photographs show us are people living in the midst of two sets of ruins; the classical remnants of a civilisation long since consigned to history and the grubby, graffiti-daubed concrete wreckage of a more recent collapse. Between these two sets of ruins which will define and circumscribe both society and choices for decades to come, people are struggling to survive. Small scale trading and the discarded detritus of everyday life overflowing from the waste bins, all serve to indicate the collapse of the consumerist dream. Spottorno shows us a return to a smaller, local world in which the illusions peddled by glitzy corporate advertising have no place. Aspiration has been replaced by survival.
The military is an institution in which people (usually young males) are isolated from the rest of society for a defined period of time, given uniforms to strip them of individual identity, are subjected to arbitrary rules and discipline, and exposed to a cult of violence. This process is designed to produce people who will do what they’re told, when they’re told. They will ultimately kill on command. That, at least, is the rationale for all the training. However, once you start looking at the military in this way, then it starts to resemble a quasi-religious institution that imposes a new set of values and ideas upon individuals (through peer-pressure and strict conformity within a rigid hierarchy) in order to produce almost unquestioning obedience.
Many countries still use conscription. A product of late-eighteenth century European ideas about having large armies for national defence (particularly in response to the turmoil unleashed by the French Revolution) it has waned in effectiveness with technology. Some countries still have it, but for most of those drafted it is merely a rite of passage that has to be endured. Certainly, very few actually expect to put the test and end up in the trenches somewhere (in Western Europe anyway). Russia is one of those countries that still relies upon conscription to produce a large army, which it uses to enhance its power and prestige as a world power. It also performs the task of nation-building insofar as it is a way of inspiring patriotism towards the artificial, constructed entities that we are supposed to feel loyal towards.
However, for the individual suddenly thrust into such an organisation, it can be a traumatic experience to say the least. The Russian military also has a reputation for strict discipline, bullying, violence and the brutalising of recruits, leading to numerous instances of suicide. This is usually tolerated within such institutions (to a degree) as a necessary process of toughening up their raw recruits and a way of inculcating the aggressive culture of violence required by the army. However, the psychological trauma and carnage this can wreak on a personal level is incalculable.
Like The Myth of the Airborne Warrior I reviewed some time ago, this book is a personal narrative of the photographer’s experience as a soldier for a year (hence the title). Using a smuggled 35mm camera (a Smena 8m – the Russian army forbids cameras), Aksakov documents his life in the army in order to produce a visual record of his experiences. Here, we see the visual journal of an individual struggling to come to terms with this enforced institutional incarceration. Enhanced by the flat Russian light and the erratic camera, in tandem with the personal text, this book produces an intimate depiction of alienation and loneliness (but not despair). Despite the superficial camaraderie and the group activities imposed by military life, both the photographer and his fellow recruits are perpetually isolated from one another. They have all been cast adrift in a bleak psychological no-man’s land for their year of military service.
Using the snapshot aesthetic (imposed in part due to the Smena) the resulting book is a visual narrative of his year long ordeal of self-isolation that reflects the chaos and emotional turmoil of his own sudden powerlessness. Other uniformed figures appear in his photographs but they remain anonymous. Although they are presumably fellow recruits like him (with their own insecurities and anxieties) they remain distant, serving to enhance the mood of loneliness that pervades the book. In spite of the scenes of barrack life, the distance between the photographer and those around him is never quite bridged. They are all living lives of quiet desperation, hidden behind the masks of their uniforms and the macho bravado expected of them.
These remote, distant figures inhabit the desolate spaces of military architecture or a bleak, featureless tundra where nature itself mirrors the sense of isolation felt by Aksakov. His repeated photographs of stunted nature can be read as a metaphor for his true position, allowing us to glimpse behind the outward conformity imposed by military discipline. Like the landscape, the soldier/photographer has been reduced by the state to an anonymous, featureless resource it has decided to consume in the name of national greatness. Defined by his lowly status in this institutional machine, photography becomes a way of escaping the pressures inflicted upon Aksakov during this enforced stay in purgatory (he describes the camera as his friend). Like the book itself (a wonderfully designed publication by Akina Books) these images reassert his individuality, showing that in spite of the best efforts of the military machine to create standardised, obedient soldiers out of those who fall into their clutches, they have failed. While we may outwardly conform and modify our behaviour according to what is expected of us in a given situation, it is never a true guide to inner character. To borrow a term from Foucault, where there is power, there is resistance (however small).