Kampuchea Rising from the Ashes – Yevgeni Kobelev, Nikolai Solntsev and Albert Liberman

Kampuchea Rising from the Ashes

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Cambodia was a casualty of Cold War posturing on the part of the great powers.  In their struggle for global domination the competing blocs of East and West cynically used Cambodia as a pawn to be played in their zero sum game. Put simply, the Chinese and Soviets (even though they were rivals) were united in helping the Vietnamese fight the Americans during the 1960s and early 1970s. Once the Vietnam War ended, the USSR and China set about trying to gain influence and control over the newly communist countries of South East Asia.  Cambodia, already destabilised by the war in neighbouring Vietnam, was finally torn apart when Nixon ordered the bombing and invasion of Cambodia in 1970 as a way to put pressure on the Vietcong.  This led to the collapse of the existing royal government under Prince Sihanouk (who had tried to remain out of the war) and the rise of Lon Nol (a military dictator allied to the Americans). This in turn led to the strengthening of a communist guerrilla group, the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to create a new society in Cambodia. With the American exit and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, Lon Nol’s regime collapsed and the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot took power. They immediately instituted a radical form of ultra-communism (inspired by Maoist ideology) in which they attempted to produce an agrarian utopia. In pursuit of this they murdered millions during their rule from 1975-79. The Khmer Rouge’s attitude towards killing can be summed up in their motto: “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” Estimates vary, but the figure given is that they were responsible for the death of approximately 1.7 million people (one fifth of the population) during this period.

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This murderous regime was only ousted when Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was renamed)  in 1979. The Khmer Rouge regime collapsed and retreated into the jungle to fight a guerrilla war. Many elements of the group only finally surrendered in the late 1990s after doing a deal with the Cambodian government. However, the Khmer Rouge’s fall from power in 1979 exposed the horrific scale of atrocities they had perpetrated in their quest to build a “pure” society. In the meantime, a pro-Vietnamese government was installed in Pnomh Penh and the country was renamed as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. This is the basic historical narrative. But what happened during the 1980s is a lot less well known.

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In an attempt to undermine the communist bloc through divide and rule tactics, Nixon opened relations with Maoist China in the early 1970s, deepening a split that had existed between the USSR and China since the 1960s. The tactic worked and China slowly moved towards the West. But the ripple effects of this policy had a profound impact on countries allied to either China or Russia; in South East Asia, Vietnam and Laos were firmly allied to the USSR, while Khmer Rouge controlled Democratic Kampuchea was in the pro-Chinese camp. While tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam had always been a historical factor, the 1979 invasion can in part be regarded as a proxy-conflict fuelled by sparring Chinese and Soviet factions as they sought to establish their dominance over the region.

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So into this steps the United States, China’s new best friend. In effect this meant was that  the US ended up supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge who were still hiding out in the jungle. Throughout much of the 1980s, the US recognised an alliance of the Khmer Rouge (who gave themselves a very cosmetic rebrand) and Prince Sihanouk as the legitimate government of Kampuchea/Cambodia and supported their claim in the United Nations. They even instigated a Cuba-like sanctions regime and economic blockade of the country in support of the Khmer Rouge. This got so bad that Oxfam, the international NGO and aid agency, published Punishing the Poor; the International Isolation of Kampuchea in 1988. This book argued that these sanctions were causing untold damage to a society traumatised by years of terror and murder and called for international assistance to rebuild this fragile society. It also cites a letter from December 1986 from a US senator which details that 85 million dollars were given to the Khmer Rouge between 1980 and 1986 (page 83), a period long after the genocide had been exposed. This was made possible by the fact that public and media interest in that part of the world had waned by the 1980s. Obviously US government support for genocidal mass-murderers would have been impossible without widespread indifference and apathy on the part of the general public to the consequences of political decisions being made in their name.  All this meant that the deeply cynical and immoral stance (to put it mildly) taken by the US government in support of the Khmer Rouge went largely unnoticed and the suffering of those who had survived the genocide was compounded. The lesson is clear; the great powers play their games and small countries are mere pawns to be used for international point scoring. As always, it is the poor and powerless that suffer the most. That lesson is as applicable today as it was in the past.

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Published by Planeta of Moscow in 1988, this book is a pictorial account of the reconstruction efforts being made by the Vietnamese-backed government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea under Heng Samrin. A typical 1980s design, this glossy book is a part of Planeta’s Countries of the World series in which they showcased various Soviet allies in a format similar to travel photobooks of exotic destinations the world over. In particular, the book emphasises the aid given by the USSR to rebuilding Cambodia through photographs credited to Albert Liberman which are unremittingly positive. Throughout, the text repeatedly asserts the hideous nature of the Khmer Rouge regime, emphasising how every aspect of Cambodian society was utterly destroyed during this period. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge deliberately targeted educated people for execution and broke up family groups in their pursuit of a new and “pure” society. The book begins with some double page spreads of the Cambodian landscape interspersed with small photos of individual workers and farmers. This then moves on to an extensive section which extols the resilience and perseverance of the Khmer people to overcome their recent nightmare and build a better society (with Soviet help). To prove this, the book contrasts images of traditional Cambodian buildings and temples with progressive new hospitals, factories, soft drink sellers and Soviet ships entering port. All this serves to show that old and new coexist peacefully in Soviet-backed Kampuchea. These themes were carefully chosen because all of them were targets of the Khmer Rouge who emptied the cities and forced the population into camps in the countryside. There they were reduced to abject slaves, living in constant fear of starvation or execution. The captions beneath these images further emphasise the contrast between the current situation and the all too recent terror of Khmer Rouge rule.

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As a country in which the rice crop is vital, agriculture takes up the next section. Indeed, all the deaths and forced labour in the countryside under the Khmer Rouge revolved around an insane attempt to increase the rice yield (inspired by similar schemes tried in Maoist China which led to their famine of 1959-61). Now, with Vietnamese and Soviet assistance, sanity has been restored. Traditional agricultural practices along with modern innovations (such as tractors) have succeeded in transforming the countryside back into the picturesque, and happy, state it once was. All the images of those working and living here show a contented and happy peasantry, greatful to be free of the Khmer Rouge and looking to the future.

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This leads on to the next section which concerns the future generations. Here again, the horrors of Khmer Rouge life are contrasted with the progress ushered in by the new regime. Any form of education or exposure to the outside world was regarded as a threat by the Khmer Rouge and they actively attempted to kill anybody who possessed it. Even wearing glasses would get you killed. In pursuit of an ethnically pure Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge wanted a docile population, isolated from the outside world, who would obey without question. The photographs show how the education infrastructure is being restored with schools and third level colleges being established (with Soviet assistance) to give the country a modern future. This progressive narrative is combined with the resurrection of traditional Cambodian culture (also banned by the Khmer Rouge) in order to establish the legitimacy of the new regime by linking it to the past. Thus, it is presented as the inevitable and natural outcome of historical progress. Photographs of historical buildings and artefacts along with people engaged in traditional practices, serve to underline the respect the regime has for the past, in stark contrast to the vandalising Khmer Rouge who sought to wipe the slate clean. The final section of the book is devoted to the overt legacy of violence. Here, we are shown images of the Tuol Sleng prison and the remains of the apparatus of torture and murder used by the Khmer Rouge. These are then followed by images of the new Kampuchean military who are presented as being wholly determined to fight off any threat to the newly established state.

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Trapped between the competing agendas of East and West, the Soviets were actually the lesser of two evils. While it would be a mistake to assume that they were not selfishly pursuing their own geo-political aims, in contrast to the murderous alternative of Khmer Rouge rule their objectives were benign. The USSR and Vietnam had an interest in establishing a stable and functioning society (under their control) in which mass murder and genocide were not a daily reality in order to discredit the Chinese. This book is designed to assert the legitimacy of the Vietnamese/Soviet backed regime through contrasting the bright future ahead with the horrors of the past. While the text continually refers to the horrific crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, the images do not (with the exception of the Tuol Sleng photographs). Through the use of predominantly upbeat and positive imagery and a design that is similar to unconfrontational travel photobooks, this publication effectively normalises a deeply divided, fearful and traumatised society coming to terms with a horrific past.

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Pastoral / Moscow Suburbs – Alexander Gronsky

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For any society facing a housing shortage the high rise tower block appears to offer the perfect solution. While differing in shape, size and form depending on architectural vision and national priorities, the basic pattern remains essentially the same. Mainly produced using uniform, system built construction methods that utilise pre-fabricated concrete panels, the components are then transported to the building site and slotted into place to form a series of identical concrete boxes. These are then usually stacked on top of each other to form the completed high rise building. As well as being cheap, easy to construct and maximising the use of scarce land in urban areas, such buildings have the added advantage of being modern and rational, two factors which appealed greatly to urban planners the world over in the second half of the twentieth century. In the Russian context, other factors that came into play. The sudden industrial development ushered in by Communist rule meant a huge increase in the urban population and a consequent demand for new housing, leading to cramped, shared communal living in crumbling mansions and other wholly unsuitable buildings. This situation was not helped by the destruction wrought by World War 2 which laid waste to many cities in the Western part of what was then the USSR. These factors combined to give a real impetus to the adoption of high-rise buildings as a quick-fix solution to all these problems.

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Published by Contrasto in 2013, Gronsky’s book examines the edgelands on the periphery of Moscow, now a thriving 21st century mega-city of 11.5 million people fuelled by the proceeds of natural resource exploitation. Along with St Petersburg, Moscow is a magnet for all those who want to escape the narrow confines of rural Russia which perversely, for the world’s largest country, has led to a shortage of living space. Modernist architects with their dreams of architectural order, liked to produce clean, neat and rational spaces that (they assumed) would produce contented citizens. The reality was very different. Instead of producing utopia, this architectural form created alienation and despair with people cooped up in oppressive grey blocks, identical in all aspects. This theme was explored in the 1976 movie The Irony of Fate, a Soviet comedy in which the interchangeable nature of bland architecture is central to the plot: the main protagonist is unable to tell different cities apart because they look exactly the same. Even the street names and front door keys to different apartment blocks were standardised. Naturally, this architectural bleakness is exaggerated somewhat for the movie but it does reflect a deeper malaise about this form of architecture that is common throughout the world.

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A key aspect in the adoption of this architectural form was the assumption that this rational mode of living would be met with approval by those who dwelt within. However, the evidence is that people react against this imposed conformity at the first opportunity. The scruffy waste land surrounding these buildings becomes a playground where the cramped constraints of communal living can be rebelled against. In previous centuries the artistic representation of the pastoral landscape was an ideal, something to be envied by those living in the dark, polluted cities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gronsky shows us a hybrid landscape in which these simplified binary categories no longer apply.  Here, amongst the scrawny vegetation and the rubbish, people come to escape the cares and worries of urban life. Through his use of an elevated vantage point and the distance between photographer and the subject Gronsky mirrors the eye of the planner surveying the scene around him. Only instead of the rational, ordered landscape envisaged by the architect, he shows us chaos. In many ways, his photographs are reminiscent somewhat of the artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder who also depicted everyday peasant life amongst the vernacular architecture of sixteenth century Holland. Of course, this visual strategy has also been adopted successfully by photographers since the 1970s, most notably by the New Topographics who explored a tired America on the cusp of industrial decline.

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Gronsky’s book does a masterful job in depicting this subversion of the modernist architectural ideal. Amongst the waste ground, bordered by smoking power stations, electricity pylons, motorways, railway tracks and building sites, overlooked by high-rise buildings, disorder and chaos reigns. Suffusing Gronsky’s images is an aura of melancholy; perhaps it’s something to do with the national temperament or the legacy of Russian literature which produces this air of viewing people that are trapped in living lives of quiet desperation. Beginning with the buildings themselves, Gronsky swiftly moves on to the surrounding waste land that is the focus of this book. Here, we see people interacting with a subdued and tattered natural environment; bored teenagers mooch about in the bushes, people go for a swim in a river into which a pipe discharges something that is probably quite nasty, others choose to have a picnic beside the railway tracks or sunbathe amongst the construction sites, two Moslems kneel in prayer, while a macho wanna-be shoots at bottles amongst the scrub. The seasons change; summer turns into winter and the sunbathers move away to be replaced by a snow filled landscape. Throughout, drinking sessions are held in the scrappy undergrowth and the empty bottles, plastic bags and broken chairs are dumped behind. The rusting carcasses of abandoned cars lie submerged beneath the wild nature that is in the process of consuming them. This is a scarred landscape. Everybody uses it but nobody takes any responsibility for it.

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Far from the utopia the architects and politicians promised us, we have been reduced to living in a hybrid state in which we are the inhabitants of a landscape damaged by pollution and tainted by the ceaseless demands of the construction industry, the vast profits of which grease the wheels of elite groups the world over. In real life, people are not the interchangeable, two-dimensional caricatures envisaged by the sociopathic visionaries or the ego-maniacs with the grand plan. Human nature is far too complex to regiment in this way. This landscape is the inevitable result of architectural and political decisions in which the needs of those who had to actually live in this space were completely ignored.

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Justice at Nuernberg – Charles Alexander and Norimberk 1946 – Karel Hájek

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Years of brutal war in Europe had left the continent in ruins, millions dead and the survivors traumatised on a scale impossible to comprehend from this point in time. An uneasy consensus prevailed between the Allied powers who now occupied the broken continent between them. Advances in weapons technology had blurred the boundaries between military and civilian targets (as in the case of aerial bombing), while the brutal racism of the Nazi regime meant that it had engaged in widespread brutality and executions to terrorise the populations of countries they occupied. Then there were the concentration camps set up for slave labour and genocide. While many at the top of the Nazi hierarchy had either been killed or committed suicide, others from the higher echelons of the ruling regime, directly implicated in these brutal practices, had been captured alive. This posed a dilemma for the Allies – what was to be done with them?

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Justice for the millions killed was called for. But for countries that had fought under the banner of freedom from Nazi tyranny how this could be achieved was a major problem. This was complicated by the fact that the Nazis had been adept at using show trials during their ascent to power to discredit their opponents. Similarly, Stalin (whose representatives now sat in judgement on the Allied side) had used sham trials for the same purpose during the 1930s. The question was how to ensure that any trial of the captured Nazis avoided being seen as such and prevented the creation of martyrs for the future. It was imperative that the trials were seen as both legitimate and impartial. The Nuremburg trials of 1946 also served as a platform to completely discredit the hideous Nazi ideology and war aims that had seen millions killed and a continent reduced to smouldering rubble. The outcome of the trials was predictable enough – many of the defendants were found guilty and executed, while others were given long terms of imprisonment. But by this time, the Allied consensus was already falling apart and the Iron Curtain was being drawn across Europe. Further trials for middle-management Nazis who had also been implicated in crimes were shelved as both sides chose to employ their expertise rather than hang them.

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This then was the background to the two photobooks under discussion. The first is Justice at Nuernberg by Charles Alexander, an American photographer (listed as being director of photography during the trial) with text by Anne Keeshan. This spiral bound paperback published by Marvel in 1946 is a very comprehensive documentary record of the whole International Military Tribunal process, employing a straightforward layout of photograph on the right hand page with an extended caption on the facing page. The book begins with an overview of the ruined city of Nuremburg and the Palace of Justice that hosted the trials (in the American sector of occupied Germany), the facilities for the news media, portraits of the Nazi leaders on trial, the vast behind the scenes complex of translators, archivists and typists, portraits of the prosecutors and judges, as well as the trial process itself. The final section of the book shows the Nazi leaders in the dock looking horrified as they are confronted with evidence of their crimes in the movie created by the prosecution from German newsreel and other archival footage, The Nazi Plan.

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The book’s narrative and photographic sequencing is quite slow. Much of the imagery focuses on a behind-the-scenes look at the trial infrastructure, with photographs of the press facilities, the library, Heinrich Hoffmann (Hitler’s personal photographer) going through his archive to find evidence for use in the trial, depositions being taken and other such imagery. The individual portraits of the Nazi defendants appear to have been made while they were in the courtroom. These portray them in awkward poses in which their facial expressions range from sneering contempt, anger and malevolence. These images are in stark contrast to how the judges and the rest of the staff are portrayed. The final section of the book attempts to convey a sense of drama as the trial gathers pace and the evidence is presented to the Nazi defendants. Alexander does this by interspersing four archival images of Nazi crimes (from the Nazi Plan) with images of the defendants sitting in the dock. However, it doesn’t convey the drama he is seeking to produce; it’s too static. Although the trial is supposedly the focus of this book, a relatively small amount of space is devoted to it. Instead, the organisational and logistical preparations consume much of the book and distracts from the magnitude of the trial itself. Similarly, the book finishes rather abruptly. The final image shows yet another photograph of the defendants in the dock, with Goering holding his hands over his eyes, captioned as showing the differing emotions experienced by the Nazi’s as their crimes are finally exposed to the world. But then the book just stops.

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Robert Jackson, the chief American prosecutor, contributes a forward to the book in which he states that “the accusers were four victorious nations which had it in their power to execute the defendants without trial but which considered it more in keeping with the principles for which they fought to give the defendants the benefit of hearings and to establish before the world their guilt.” Here, I think, is the main purpose of the book. Jackson, a former U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Judge, was well aware that these trials had to be seen as fair and conforming to the broad principles of justice expected from an American audience. Any sign that this was a kangaroo court had to be quashed. Similarly, in the context of a rapidly emerging Cold War split in which America presented itself as a bastion of liberty and freedom, the book presents the decision to hold these trials as proof of U.S. moral rectitude in contrast to the behaviour of their barbaric Nazi enemies. In this context, the focus of this book on the preparations and infrastructure surrounding the trials makes sense. Here, a distant American audience is presented with a courtroom setting in which right prevails over wrong and justice has been served.

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The second book on the same subject by the Czech photographer Karel Hájek, Norimberk 1946 – Zlocin a Soud (Nuremberg 1946 – Crime and Court), a small paperback printed by Neubert in Prague, is another photographic representation of the same event. However, this book takes a wholly different approach towards documenting the trial. In part, I believe this can be traced to the fact that Alexander was producing a book for an audience who, while they had fought the Germans, had no direct experience of Nazi rule. This was not the case for the Czechs who had suffered many years of brutal Nazi occupation. The establishment of precedents for future international war crimes trials was not a concern for a small country left traumatised and shattered by war. For a Czech audience, this was no abstract exercise in the administration of justice.

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Hájek gets straight to the point; his focus is on the evidence against the accused. He skilfully combines archival images of the same Nazi leaders at their height of their power, smartly dressed in uniforms and gold braid surrounded by saluting crowds or shown consulting with Hitler, with photographs of the same individuals in court. Now they have been reduced to the status of prisoners desperately trying to justify their complicity in unspeakable crimes. In one telling double page spread, Hájeck juxtaposes an archival image showing two lines of seated Nazi officials in 1938 with a photograph made from a similar viewpoint showing two rows of the same individuals now on trial in the same city. The portraits from the trial have been carefully chosen to present the accused Nazis as figures of derision, now stripped of the trappings of power they once wielded (undoubtedly a very satisfying sight to those who had suffered through Nazi rule). Like Alexander, the portraits Hájek made during the trial emphasise the obvious discomfort and haunted demeanour of the accused, presented as evidence of their guilt as they confronted by the enormity of their crimes. But it is his integration of archival images of atrocity with these portraits that is so effective. The need to establish a causal link between those at the top and the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi functionaries was vital. In essence, the Nazi leadership argued that because they were in their Berlin offices they could not be held responsible for what their subordinates did in Auschwitz or other sites of horror. Hájek’s book is very effective in undermining this argument and establishing a direct causal link between those on trial and the crimes perpetrated during their rule.

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Establishing this link between the decisions made by those in charge which were implemented by their subordinates was vital in order to discredit the “just following orders” defence which is a seminal feature of the bureaucratisation and division of labour inherent within all forms of industrialised warfare and mass killing to this day. An atrocity can be regarded as the result of a chain of decisions made by various individuals within a hierarchy (largely defined by institutional and political prerogatives) who all bear responsibility for the commission of a horrendous crime. Alexander’s book fails to do this. Instead, his focus is upon the structures and procedures of the trial itself which produces a simplified message in which justice is seen to prevail. He fails to interrogate the “banality of evil” as Arendt called it. In contrast, Hájek firmly and unequivocally undermines the excuse of distance used by the Nazi leaders on trial. Coming from a small country that had experienced the direct effects of Nazi rule for many years, Hájek produces a sophisticated and nuanced narrative of the trial in which he explores issues of culpability, guilt and responsibility in the aftermath of a period of untold suffering and death.

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Occupy London – Ed Thompson

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I’ve talked about the photographic representation of the Occupy movement previously so this book makes a an interesting addition to the subject. Made by photographer Ed Thompson, this small self-published book is focussed upon the nocturnal aspect of the Occupy London encampment during 2011. This was particularly contentious in  London as elements of the mass media continually suggested that the protestors were mere day-trippers who went back home at night rather than being prepared to rough it overnight. Whether or not people sleep in a tent or in bed is irrelevant to the actual political message being disseminated but in such situations the weaker party (the protestors) have to be squeaky clean. Any tiny aspect that can be used to undermine the credibility of their message is blown out of all proportion.

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While the fiction is promulgated that the right to protest is enshrined as a cornerstone of liberal democracy, the reality is that mass public demonstrations and gatherings will always be viewed as a threat by those who hold the levers of power. Over the past decade or so there has been a steady erosion of civil liberties in the UK that can, in part, be traced back to the widespread public disquiet surrounding the Iraq War of 2003. This has meant that public protest has increasingly been presented as a near-criminal activity. While the legal framework surrounding the right to protest may present it as being perfectly legitimate and permissible, the fact that the subjects of protest (governments and other powerful institutions or bodies) largely define the boundaries of legality/illegality gives them a lot more power. This power can be used to undermine public expressions of discontent through redefining events; minor aspects of bad behaviour within a crowd become a threat to public order that requires more “robust” policing. Or sanitation and health & safety issues suddenly become an excuse for the dispersal of protest encampments. As long as they don’t alienate middle class opinion through disproportionate displays of over-reaction or violence, the authorities usually get away with such measures.

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The 1960s were the high point in mass-protest and counter-culture movement, largely as a reaction against the stifling orthodoxy imposed by a previous generation (itself traumatised by world war) as well as the omnipresent danger of nuclear annihilation that served to undermine the credibility of those in authority (their bungling incompetence had stoked the creation of a horrific balance of terror between East and West so their credibility to rule us was shot). But, the high hopes of the 1960s were followed by the stagnant 70s, the free-market 80s, the end-of-history 90s, the booming, globalised 2000s, and the current aimless slump. While the mass protest of the 1960s undoubtedly produced social change the political system adapted and survived. It did so by accommodating calls for change within the political system (the “inside” versus “outside” the tent argument) and negating the effect of radical politics. So successful was this strategy that many of the young radical figures of the 1960s and 70s are today’s stuffy politicians. Or to use a simpler term: they sold out. In this context, we no longer believe in the idea that we can change the world through sweeping mass political action. Instead (in the developed world) we are seeing the emergence of movements based upon single issues, such as climate change or aspects of economic injustice, which maintain support for a limited period. In the short term, an established political system is well able to deal with such challenges through the tried and tested processes of negotiation or compromise. However, in the long term, our growing scepticism in the ability of politics-as-usual to respond to the growing challenges of societies which have long since outgrown the simplified answers that structures based upon eighteenth century ideas of rational governance can provide, means that the scope for alternatives will grow. What form they take is anybody’s guess.

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In part this can be seen in the presence of the Guy Fawkes masks that appear in many images of protest we see from around the world. Here, a historical figure associated with a failed plot to destroy the English parliament, is recontextualised as an icon of protest for today. Furthermore, the fact that the mask,  popularised by a Hollywood movie and sold on Amazon, has appeared throughout the world in such situations demonstrates how much has changed between the 1960s and today. Nowadays, protestors incorporate motifs from Hollywood (the main cheerleader of the capitalist dream) in their rejection of capitalism, a paradox that is striking in itself.

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Unlike much of the other photographic work that has examined this subject, Thompson has solely focussed on the protest at night (like Occupied Spaces by Ben Roberts). Here, through Thompson’s effective use of chiaroscuro, individuals and groups are shown highlighted against the darkness that surrounds them. In his introduction, Thompson references Caravaggio, a comparison that sets the bar quite high.  Thompson’s images show us the evolving Occupy movement grow in size and complexity as more and more disparate individuals are drawn to this experiment in social organisation. Far from the night being a time of dispersal and inaction, Thompson’s photographs show us a place of vibrancy and activity. There is also a seductive grandeur to these images (not captured by the lousy images shown on this blog post) due to this interplay between light and dark. Returning to Caravaggio, Thompson’s photographs do work well in evoking and recontextualising the representative conventions of Christian iconography and history painting in a new setting. Thompson presents us with scenes of “great deeds” as the forces of good versus evil are locked in an epic struggle for the soul of London (and the world).

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This book uses a number of different elements to produce a narrative of the Occupy London which attempts to capture the aspirations and enthusiasm of this complex gathering of disparate individuals. It reproduces short texts from a number of those involved in the movement that examine a number of issues, including what was achieved, as well as the legal debates and battles surrounding the nocturnal eviction. Through the effective use of typography, photography and design, the book is a sophisticated attempt to delve deeper into the layers of this event and it does so very effectively. The only aspect I would change would be the size – the images have a grandeur that a bigger book would convey. That being said, it is a very important book about a period of recent history, the ripples of which will undoubtedly emerge once again in the near future.

For more and better quality images of this work check out the photographer’s website: http://www.edwardthompson.co.uk/occupy.html


Thirty Years of the Soviet State: Calendar 1917-1947

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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Just Another War – Kenneth Jarecke & Exene Cervenka

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

ImagePublished 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.

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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.

ImageJarecke’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.

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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.

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Jeder Tag War Schön (Every Day Was Beautiful) – Annelie and Andrew Thorndike

Jeder Tag War Schön

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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