With the invention of nuclear weapons, mankind now has the ability to destroy everything. Previously, we were limited in the scope and scale of destruction we could create – now we can completely wipe out all life on our planet. That changes everything.
In the context of Cold War tensions between East and West, ostensibly over which long-dead economist was best, the omnipresent threat of global annihilation was the elephant in the room. Sometimes, during periods of crisis, we actually acknowleged the presence of this monster. But most people did their best to suppress this knowledge and get on with everyday life. The arms race between the two blocs was a constant feature of the Cold War with each side vying with the other to come up with more innovative and destructive means of killing each other. Atom bombs became hydrogen bombs, which went from being carried on planes to being stuck on missiles that were able to reach any part of the globe in minutes. This era was defined by immense levels of spending on more and newer weaponry at the expense of everything else. The sheer, immense horror of what was created is staggering to behold for any sane person. Carl Sagan summed up the Cold War arms race best: “Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches. The other has seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger.” But, locked in this cycle of fear and distrust, in the simple binary world of East-v-West any form of dissent was presented as an act of treason. In an attempt to somehow justify this pursuit of insanity, MAD (Mututally Assured Destruction) was advanced as a serious strategic theory. Now, in the twisted logic and the paranoia of the Cold War, nuclear arsenals were transformed into the guarantors of security and peace. MAD held that our enemies would be prevented from attacking us for fear of retaliation in kind, producing a balance of terror. Various shadowy think tanks devoted time and immense resources towards developing models (such as Game Theory) in an attempt to predict and control the outcomes in this high-stakes global chess game. Yet widespread public disquiet was always present just beneath the surface.
It is interesting to see how the popular reaction to the power of these weapons shifted through time as expressed in the movies that dealt with the theme. These are important because they show how the unthinkable was presented to audiences riddled with suppressed anxieties about the subject. These movies also had an educational value. By using identifiable characters they taught viewers what kind of behaviour was expected of them in such a crisis. During the 1950s the consequences of such a war were minimised and survival was presented as a very distinct possibility. Social cohesion was paramount and unquestioning deference to authority figures was presented as being the key to our survival. A particularly good example can be seen in the 1954 TV movie, Atomic Attack (sponsored by Motorola no less). Here, all the horror occurs offscreen and we follow an family straight out of 1950s central casting as they anxiously wait for news about pop who cheerfully put on his fedora and went to work after a wholesome all-American family breakfast. Everybody in the ‘burbs looks a bit concerned about New York getting nuked and all that radiation floating around, but the authorities swing into action and soon have everything under control. The wonders of medicine has everybody up on their feet after an inconvenient dose of radiation sickness. No real need to worry. (Alas, poor pop gets fried offscreen but mom cheerfully perseveres to hold the family together in spite of her unspoken fears for the future).
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 changed all that. Popular culture, in tandem with the growth of a generation who were more critical of authority, began appreciate the horrors that could be unleashed by such a war. For example, Panic in the Year Zero! (1962) envisaged the need for rugged individualism and a return to the gunslinging, frontier ways in the face of lawlessness (only for a little while – just until the panic subsided and order was restored). But the idea that everything we took for granted would be destroyed utterly had taken root. Indeed, it can be argued that the presence of nuclear weapons directly contributed to the undermining of traditional authority. Now, a younger generation, presented with a clear demonstration of the failure and incompetence of those in charge (who had created this hair-trigger scenario of global annihilation) lost all faith in the idea that those who ruled over the rest of us were somehow smarter and knew what they were doing. Once that happens, then everything is up for grabs. These developments were paralleled in how nuclear war was represented in the popular media. In Britain this was best explored in the groundbreaking 1965 docudrama by Peter Watkins, The War Game, which portrayed a nuclear attack through the use of traditional documentary filming and editing techniques to produce a fictional film. This movie so alarmed the Wilson government that they put pressure on the B.B.C. to pull the plug (particularly as it highlighted their embarrasing u-turn on their pre-election pledge about unilateral nuclear disarmament). As was stated afterwards; “In the event, the effect of the film has been judged by the B.B.C. to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Interestingly, this film reflects the recent past insofar as it portrays the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain in distinctly Second World War terms (just as the American version used mythical elements from the Old West to represent the un-representable for a US audience). Thus, nuclear war becomes a form of neo-Blitz with higher casualties, greater destruction and more radiation, with everybody scurrying around in army-surplus tin helmets left over from the previous war. But in this film, for the first time, we see a more detailed exploration of how nuclear war had the potential to change everything. The optimism of earlier representations disappears. Now, viewers were confronted with representations of terror, injured and sick victims, hastily organised mass-cremations of bodies, food-riots (in a rather dated reference, it notes that even the respectable middle-classes may be inclined towards such lawless behaviour), summary executions by military tribunal and a bleak future of radiation poisoning and death. But I suppose it could be argued that all such depictions were inherently optimistic insofar as they envisaged a scenario in which any human beings would be left alive in the aftermath of an overwhelming nuclear assault.
So, in this atmosphere of raw, palpable fear the anti-nuclear movement grew. Felix Greene, a leading left wing figure (whose book Vietnam! Vietnam! I reviewed previously) edited this protest book published in 1963 by the Fulton Publishing Company of California. Using a mixture of journalistic, commercial stock and official government images, Greene produces a narrative which is an impassioned cry for an end to this collective insanity. (In many cases, these images appear to have been chosen solely for their visual impact rather than accuracy in representation. Photographs made by Ansel Adams, Werner Bischof and Andreas Feininger are all used.) In order to visually represent the invisible dangers posed by radiation, Greene adopts the (probably predictable) strategy of relying heavily upon the imagery of children to illustrate the long term genetic damage caused by exposure to fallout. Such images are used by aid agencies the world over because the message they send is apparently clear and unambiguous, cutting through the empathetic barriers of the viewer who may have difficulty in identifying with distant victims. (By contrast, images of injured adults – who may look different from us, be regarded as our enemies or somehow culpable for their own demise – are less favoured because they may be subject to a more nuanced and less sympathetic response on the part of a distant viewer.) As the text states: “because of the bomb tests already carried out no child anywhere in the world can drink milk that is free of poison caused by radioactive fall-out.” These photographs of healthy and happily innocent children are contrasted with dark images of horrifically deformed, stillborn babies from Nagasaki. The net effect of such an emotive juxtaposition is to produce a causal link between the decisions made in the present with the irrevocable long-term effects they may have upon future generations.
The next section of the book deals with the legacy of the past. Here, imagery of the civilisations and man’s achievements are combined with a text in which a simplified, linear view of human progress and future development is presented to the reader. The extensive use of black within the design of the book provokes an ominous, unsettling sense of danger. Here, the present generation are presented as a link in a much longer chain that links the past and stretches far off towards a bright future. Nuclear weapons threaten to break this chain. As visual proof of how everything mankind has accomplished so far can be utterly destroyed, Greene uses Japan as a case study. This begins with a full page image of a peaceful Japanese market scene followed by a dramatic double-page spread of post-atomic Hiroshima as a desolate grey wasteland through which a line of dazed survivors trudge. Following this, another double-page spread from Nagasaki appears; here we see a devastated, bleak urban ruinscape populated now by the blackened, charred remains of those who once lived there. The next few pages depict the survivors. Traumatised and clearly in pain, they are shown in a state of shock, passive in the face of imminent death which they are powerless to prevent. Again, women and children feature heavily in these photographs (Yosuke Yamahata’s images from Nagasaki are used extensively). Due to the distinct racial and cultural difference between the Japanese victims of the atomic bombs and the American viewer of the 1960s, the depiction of women and children as primary victims is used as a device to create empathy and serve as a metaphor for lost innocence.
If the previous sections were used to show just how much of a threat nuclear weapons were to life on Earth, Greene uses the next section to undermine Cold War arguments about security; of course we don’t want to have these horrible weapons, but if the other side has nukes then we have to have more nukes. MAD did produce a stable state of constant terror between East and West but at a tragic cost. In particular, this era saw the emergence of the military-industrial complex as a concept to describe the nebulous military, bureaucratic and commercial interests who all had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Interestingly, the term was first coined by Eisenhower in an unprecedented farewell speech at the end of his term as office as president in which he warned against this shift of power to unaccountable forces that posed a threat to democratic accountability (Khrushchev termed the Soviet equivalent as the Metal-Eaters alliance). Greene shows us the slick new products of military spending with new missiles rolling off the assembly line ready to be launched from their silos. Yet the security this technology appears to offer is elusive; an image of a pile of junked fighter planes, yesterday’s high-tech wonder-weapons, is captioned with a quote from Eisenhower: “we pay for a single fighter plane with half a million bushels of wheat …Is there no other way this world can live?” The answer to this is provided in the final section of the book which offers a sliver of optimism (in distinctly modernist terms). Although science and technology have brought us to the brink of disaster, it is not too late; they can be used to provide a better future for us all.
In the context of early 1960s society, shocked to the core by the Cuban Missile Crisis, fuelled by paranoia and repressed anxiety about the omnipresent possibility of nuclear annihilation, the traditional deference to political authority broke down, particularly amongst the young. Horrified by the nuclear trap that the generation who had fought in the Second World War had bequeathed them, they turned against it. For those who wanted a change in this terrifying status quo their argument was persuasively simple; reduce the tension and get rid of the nukes because the alternative was mass extinction. There was no alternative. Morally, the possession and use of such weapons is completely indefensible. There is no argument you can use to counter calls for peace in these terms. In response, those in authority shifted the debate by arguing that such calls would play into the hands of their enemies and place the Western world in jeopardy. This book is an attempt on Greene’s part to rebut these claims by creating a photo essay that links the past and the future with the terrifying present in an attempt to convince the viewer that this insanity cannot go on. For most of us, such debates have been happily consigned to the past and appear of little relevance today. The problem appears to have been solved. Yet, despite the collapse of the political systems that spawned this terrible arms race, the arsenals remain. While arguments about dead economists no longer have the potential to destroy us all, other factors that produced this situation (such as rivalry between competing states over the control of resources) remain in firmly place. But in the holiday from history we have taken since the end of the Cold War, we just don’t want to think about it.
Industrialisation defined the nineteenth century. Country after country first emulated and then surpassed the success of the British in developing sophisticated capitalist economies in which technological progress was hailed for transforming the world. But the carnage of the First World War destroyed the fundamental concepts that underlined this system; it completely shattered the idea that this form of social organisation was inevitably going to bring about a stable world. People suddenly realised that the same machines that had promised unstoppable progress could be used to kill on a scale unimaginable before then. So, industrial societies in the aftermath of this war faced two possible choices; one was an escapist return to an earlier pre-industrial epoch, epitomised by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century(in which the bespoke and handmade was privileged). The other option was to somehow separate the grim realities and the negative consequences of industrialisation (war, pollution, urban poverty etc) from a belief in the inherent good of technology to produce a better future. In this view, the Great War could be regarded as an aberration, an unrepeatable period of collective madness when technological developments had been used for evil rather than for more noble purposes. Unsurprisingly, this was the path chosen. This seductively simple idea thoroughly permeated public discourse during the inter-war decades, influencing everything from art and architecture to politics and science, as traumatised societies attempted to escape the stifling structures of the past by constructing a New Age based upon rational principles derived from apparently objective scientific concepts.
The influence of Le Corbusier (the pseudonym adopted by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) as the leading prophet of high-modernist urban planning and design cannot be underestimated. Nearly every country with pretentions to modernisation during the twentieth century dabbled, to differing degrees, with the alluring idea that it would be possible to reorder society through planned intervention in the built environment. While Le Corbusier was not alone in advancing these ideas, his charisma, drive and ego made him the best known and most influential of those who put forward such utopian schemes. At the core of the high-modernist architectural philosophy was the idea that through the use of rational, planned design it would be possible to influence human behaviour and so create a perfectly ordered and balanced world of peace and plenty (as outlined in Le Corbusier’s publications Toward an Architecture  and The Radiant City ). In the high-modernist view, the dark, squalid slums and overcrowded tenements of previous centuries, breeding grounds of disease, poverty and crime, were to be eliminated. A new era of progress and civilised order would be ushered in through the construction of new, rational cities based on universally applicable rules that would determine the precise requirements needed by each inhabitant. And just how were these cities to be built? The urban planners and politicians who had permitted the growth of unchecked urban squalor in the cities of old had been corrupted by vested interests and the grubby compromises of representative democracy. They obviously couldn’t be entrusted with such a task. No, this job required somebody new. This needed someone who was far above such tawdry concerns; it required a visionary genius who would act in the best interests of all. (The final sentences of the book state that: “Sometimes in the course of the centuries a man has sprung up here and there instinct with the power of genius, establishing the unity of his time. A man! The flock needs a shepherd.”)
High-modernist ideas were based on the idea that you needed to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. As can be imagined, this particular view of how humanity should be improved tied in rather neatly with the various political movements, of both right and left, that sprang up in the 1930s. The difference between countries that wholeheartedly embraced high-modernist schemes and those that merely toyed with modernism on a smaller scale has less to do with ambition and a lot more to do with politics – an authoritarian regime is much more likely to indulge in grandiose re/construction projects than a system which has a greater degree of political accountability. It is certainly no surprise that Le Corbusier flirted with both the USSR and Nazi-backed Vichy France in his pursuit of an despotic patron who would be able to bulldoze all opposition to his centrally planned utopia. Interestingly, for all his enthusiasm, Chandigarh in India was the only city Le Corbusier actually managed to see built (even then he wasn’t the first choice – the sudden death of the primary architect Matthew Nowicki provided a sudden opening). Basically, the fundamental flaw with the high-modernist concept is that it is utterly disdainful of the very real cultural, social and human needs of those who actually have to live in these cities. This contempt lies at the heart of their failure.
This brings us neatly to the book in question. First published in 1935 (my copy is a rather scruffy ex-library book of the 1988 Trefoil reprint), Aircraft was the first in a series published by The Studio under the New Vision banner. In this series, new technologies and ideas were presented to the reader through the combination of short texts and photographs (two other titles in the series looked at Locomotives and Photomicrography). Using images gleaned from a wide range of sources, this book is a celebration of flight, both as a clear demonstration of man’s mastery of the air and for providing a new perspective on the world. From this distance, when we have all become jaded with cheap and nasty airlines making us print out our own boarding cards and trying to flog us overpriced sandwiches, it’s hard to understand just how much of an adventure flight was in those early decades. At the time of publication, the Wright Brothers had made their first flight only 32 years previously. Given impetus by the Great War, powered flight had quickly advanced from the rickety, pioneering days to becoming a mode of travel by the 1930s that was both more reliable and accessible to the public at large (at least in the developed world). Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s designs are featured in Le Corbusier’s narrative of progress – which can be read as an obvious attempt on his part to bask in the reflected glow of Renaissance genius. Thus aviation is presented as the inevitable pinnacle of human achievement and served as an unequivocal demonstration of how progress could be attained through wholeheartedly embracing new technologies and ideas. Here, photographs of aircraft in flight and abstract close-up images are used to celebrate form. The myriad shapes and types of sleek, gleaming aluminium aeroplanes that were at the pinnacle of 1930s design all serve to underline the rupture between the discredited legacy of the past and a New Age of progress.
But it is how the aeroplane has changed our perception of the world that is the real subject of this book. The aeroplane, according to Le Corbusier, has liberated mankind from the stifling, narrow point of view that is an inevitable feature of life at ground level. Now, freed from these shackles, we are able to soar high above the earth and, in so doing, look down upon the hellish urban environments we have created. The bird’s eye perspective has revealed what was once kept hidden from view. What Le Corbusier sees is the moral and physical poverty of a former era which he indicts as being the root cause of injustice and conflict. As he asserts in the introduction to the book, “Such are the great cities of the world, those of the nineteenth century, bustling, cruel, heartless, and money-grubbing.” Furthermore, “The city is ruthless to man. Cities are old, decayed, frightening, diseased. They are finished. Pre-Machine civilisation is finished.” Contrasting these images of cities with nature, Le Corbusier also proclaims that their failure is due to a fundamental lack of harmony in the way they grew up piecemeal over the years. But a plan devised by a genius (guess who?) would overcome these flaws and produce a rational urban environment that would be fully in balance with the natural and objectively scientific concepts discovered by man. But the aeroplane does more than just provide a bird’s eye view from which to contemplate the city below; for Le Corbusier, it creates a wholly new and modern conscience which will no longer tolerate the injustices of the past. Thus, new technology is used to discredit everything that has gone before and pave the way for the slate to be wiped clean. By piggy-backing on the widespread public enthusiasm for the new (in the form of aviation), combined with photographic “proof”, in this book Le Corbusier is attempting to link his particular ideas about urban design with a broader popular mood for change.
From the trauma of the First World War, which discredited the rigid aspirations of a society based upon nineteenth century values, a new-found optimism in the potential of new technology to create a better world emerged. The 1920s and 30s were defined by ideas and social movements that attempted to use apparently rational and objective principles in an attempt at social engineering, presented as a way of escaping the horrors of the recent past. The aeroplane was the apex of modern achievement at the time and was held out as a shining example for those who wanted to believe in the future. Up in the air, the aeroplane reveals an old, decrepit urban world that is the root cause of all evils. It is also no coincidence that this perspective mirrors that of the high-modernist planner, who sees all and ceaselessly strives to better mankind as an omnipotent God-like substitute. For an architect salivating at the thought of wiping the urban slate clean and starting afresh (heedless of the direct human consequences) the aeroplane proved to be a very useful tool in pushing this own agenda. Progress is presented as inevitable and natural; an unstoppable force that only needs to be harnessed by someone of vision and genius for the betterment of all. Utopian phrases and comparisons with natural forms are repeatedly used by Le Corbusier in this attempt to impose his very narrow and simplified vision upon the world. As he clearly states in the book, “Cities with their misery, must be torn down. They must be largely destroyed and fresh cities built.”
But as we have discovered to our cost, such cities are the concrete fantasies of a sociopath.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.