Hungary To-Day – Gábor Vályi & Mária Veres (eds.)

Hungary To-Day - Gabor Valyi & Maria Veres

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Hungary occupied an ambiguous place in the newly re-drawn boundaries of the Cold War. It had been an ally of Germany and fought against the Soviets, but now it found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, defeated and occupied by their enemies. Like Poland and Czechoslovakia, other countries the Western powers were keen to keep out of the Soviet orbit of control, Hungary was promised free elections to replace the dictatorial Horthy regime that had brought the country into the war.

Hungary To-Day - Gabor Valyi & Maria Veres
However, Stalin was keen to ensure that the elections produced the “right” outcome and despite getting only 17% of the  1945 vote, the Hungarian communist party assumed power (with the help of Soviet military intimidation to terrify its rivals). The next few years were spent consolidating its power and destroying its political rivals until the communists took full charge in 1949 and formed the People’s Republic of Hungary. Taking its cue from Stalin’s way of doing business, Mátyás Rákosi (the new thug in charge of the country) set about intimidating, torturing and murdering all potential rivals – the count is placed at about 350,000 victims. This Hungarian version of Stalinist-inspired terror went on for a number of years until his demise following Khrushchev’s denunciation of his predecessor in his ‘secret speech’ of 1956. But the brutal legacy of this failed attempt to impose control over the populace led directly to the 1956 Hungarian Uprising which, although suppressed with great ferocity, revealed the bankruptcy of a communist regime that needed to rely on Russian tanks to prevent its own people from stringing them up from the nearest lamppost.

Hungary To-Day - Gabor Valyi & Maria Veres
Printed in 1949 by Szikra, this is an English language celebratory photo album (French and German editions were also made) published in an attempt to whitewash the imposition of authoritarian rule and political violence for the outside world. As usual in such post-war publications, the narrative is fairly simplistic; back in the olden-days, under the autocratic big-wigs who ran the country to enrich the rich and powerful, times were tough. Things got so bad that they even managed to drag the country into a war on the wrong side. Luckily, the Soviets defeated the old dictatorship of Admiral Horthy and are just hanging around to help build a new, improved Hungary.  Now, the new communist leadership is going to create a better future and a utopian society where everybody is going to be happy with their lot. And to prove this, here are photos of bountiful fields basking in the sunshine, people looking busy and smiling away inside gleaming factories, all looking forward to a brighter tomorrow. When it comes to the reconstruction section the device of contrasting the war damaged infrastructure with the newly rebuilt version (with Soviet help) is used as visual proof of the new regime’s success. As always in such propaganda publications, progress is presented as the inevitable way of solving all ills in order to create the ideal society as envisaged by the reigning sociopaths.

Hungary To-Day - Gabor Valyi & Maria VeresDesign-wise, the book is fairly straightforward, with the black and white photographs printed full page throughout. Photographically, there are some strong images in the book, particularly in the industrial section where there are a few nice modernist style photographs of chimneys and silos. A few dynamic images of individual workers also punctuate the section and move the narrative along. Unfortunately, the other sections are not as strong, filled with interesting (but not extraordinary) images that get the job done.  Although the photographers are listed at the end of the book, none of the individual images are credited to a particular maker.

Hungary To-Day - Gabor Valyi & Maria VeresThe book is divided into sections, each examining the particular social themes so beloved by communist propaganda makers (such as agriculture, industry, education, infrastructure, reconstruction, culture etc.) Interestingly, for what was to come, the military aspect is heavily downplayed. Usually such publications have a section about the glorious people’s army bristling with firepower ready to defend socialism to the last bullet…but here we get a single picture of a line up swearing allegiance to the new regime. In part, this reluctance may be due to Hungary’s recent position of being on the losing side during the war and a new found subservience to the Soviets. Whatever the reason, the militaristic overtones are heavily downplayed in favour of beauty-contest style platitudes about world peace.

Hungary To-Day - Gabor Valyi & Maria VeresThe narrative structure of the book makes it very clear who the communist regime owes its existence to; Stalin gets a full page portrait early on and then there is a image of a recently erected monument to the Soviet soldiers who took Budapest. Without Soviet support this regime is a non-runner. Usually, such pictorial books showcase the achievements of the new communist leaders, but in this case the cupboard is slightly bare. There are no real showcase grand projects or schemes that they can gloat about photographically. There is some mention about the achievements of the wonderful 3 year plan (which seem more than a bit dubious to me) and the regime appears to have organised other people to shovel the rubble off the streets, but apart from that it seems fairly thin. Even the language they use to describe this process (“stabilisation”) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in their abilities to manage the future. Instead, this book is more of a celebration by the communist leadership of their consolidation of power and providing lots of positive images to demonstrate that they had the support and backing of the population. The fact that a few years later there would be open revolt on the streets of Budapest using tanks and machine guns between those same people and the ruling regime shows that this premise was false.
Hungary To-Day - Gabor Valyi & Maria Veres

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The Pigs – Carlos Spottorno

The Pigs - Carlos Spottorno

At the time of writing, Europe is in the midst of an intractable and apparently unending crisis that will probably (either directly or indirectly) determine how the continent develops for the next half century or more. At the heart of this crisis is the systemically flawed economic project brought about by the single currency, the Euro. While presented as a vehicle of European integration and prosperity at its launch back in 2002, it has turned into a voracious monster, consuming ever more resources in order to stave off the collapse of this political project. A toxic combination of political idiocy, greed, ideological blindness, and short-sighted stupidity has created a triage situation within the European Union. Triage, a medical technique used in disasters when a sudden influx of mass casualties overwhelms the capacity of health care services to respond to it, involves splitting patients into two groups. One group receives all the attention while the hopeless cases are ignored and left to fend for themselves as best they can. In such a crisis, a calculated cruelty occurs; not alleviating the pain and suffering of those in agony is excused in the name of diverting resources to aid the strong who have a chance of survival.

Pigs - Spottorno
Transferring this metaphor to the current Euro crisis, what has happened is that certain countries in Europe (who stupidly believed the nonsense and took the cheap loans) have been consigned to the isolation ward and left on minimal life-support in order to protect other countries (whose stupid banks got very, very greedy and issued the cheap loans). Now the loans can’t be paid back and the banks that lent them the money are verging on bankruptcy.  That is the nub of the matter – everything else is just noise designed to conceal the fact that this is a monumental, systemic failure on the part of the institutions that govern our world. Never mind the immediate human carnage this causes for those consigned to bare survival, the long-term implications of this policy for Europe are too horrendous to contemplate. (For a start it immediately reveals the idea of an EU made up of equal states as a lie – like Orwell’s Animal Farm, some countries are more equal than others, apparently.)

The Pigs - Spottorno
This brings us on to the PIGS, an acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (Ireland can also be included to produce PIIGS), the countries that have suffered most in Europe during this crisis. The term itself is heavily ideologically loaded. It reduces these societies and individuals to animals and transforms them into objectified entities that are inherently “different” from the smugly “superior” Northern European norm.  But this is all part of a broader process to blame the victims. A classic technique used by groups in power when they want to wriggle out from their responsibilities is to transfer all fault to the victims and, by so doing, control public disquiet about their own culpabilities. Undeserving victims are easy to ignore. (Quite frankly, some of the media coverage about the “lazy” Greeks has been downright revolting.)

The Pigs - Spottorno
Economics itself bears a good deal of responsibility. Developed in the later part of the eighteenth century in order to facilitate and rationalise the emergence of capitalist industrialisation, economics presents itself as a science. However, it is not a science. It is a series of assumptions (or guesses) based upon carefully selected and partial pieces of information, interpreted through various ideological and political prisms to produce theories that supposedly explain human activity. Add lots of incomprehensible jargon and scientific-looking mathematical formulae into the mix (in order to make it look complicated and to ensure that it is impossible to understand by non-specialists) and you have your very own attempt at imposing order on chaos. But simplifying the sheer quantity of ever-changing variables and factors inherent within society into a single model or theory that can be used to envisage outcomes is simply impossible.  The scale, complexity and multiplicity of human activity and decision making choices are far too complex and varied to reduce into a one-size-fits-all model that explains everything.

The Pigs - Spottorno
As a product of the rational Enlightenment project that emerged from Northern Europe during the eighteenth century, it is no surprise that economic theories tend to present developed societies (based on rationalism) in a positive light, while societies that do not meet such criteria are dismissed as underdeveloped, backward and irrational. This is where history comes into play; it is no coincidence that the PIGS are all countries whose greatness and grandeur has been consigned to antiquity. They were no match for the newly emergent industrial Northern European states that emerged in the nineteenth century and created economics to rationalise their hegemony. In general, the Southern European PIGS have long been condemned to picturesque relics of pre-modern primitiveness within the popular Northern European imagination since the advent of modernity.

The Pigs - Spottorno
Deliberately appropriating the format of the British news magazine, The Economist (complete with typographic and design references), Spottorno’s soft cover book/magazine becomes a visual narrative of the four societies in question, viewed through the prism of their apparent inability to live up to Northern European ideals of economic rationalism. The tone is set on the front cover which shows two tourists gazing up in awe at the ancient ruins of past imperial grandeur.  This is contrasted with an image of a time that has already been consigned to the past in terms of a fictitious advert offering credit alongside that ultimate symbol of aspirational consumer awe and social status amongst the thrusting financial elites; a sports car. Yet once we delve inside this publication the apparent promises of the past and future dissolve. Image after image shows us the signs of poverty, desperation and despair.  The illusory cheap-credit bubble that the Euro inflated during its existence has well and truly burst. Its legacy is mass unemployment and an uncertain future. The Euro was presented as offering a new future to Southern Europe. The PIGS (under the Euro) would suddenly become modern, efficient economies under Northern European tutelage. Of course this was a complete illusion.

The Pigs - Spottorno
On one level, Spottorno’s photographs appear to confirm the stereotypes presented as embodying Southern European life; images of people on the beach, endless sunny skies, the distinct lack of work, siestas in the shade and the inevitable contrast between the ruins of the past and the present. All these appear to reinforce how the PIGS have been represented in the media. But Spottorno’s images subvert this simplification. The riots so beloved by the news media are absent. Instead, we see the everyday spaces of nowhere and ordinary life continuing. Yet the bewildered and passive people within his images appear trapped within this slow motion trauma, hemmed in by an ancient past, oppressive present and an uncertain future.  Spottorno also emphasises the surreal in his visual travelogue. A cow roams the streets of a new-build development; a woman poses for his camera in front of a fishmonger’s stall as Padre Pio looks indulgently down from a portrait on the wall behind; a family group suns themselves on the beach in front of an abandoned concrete development; a grubby looking grocery shop called Chic Market (that looks anything but), and a hooded horse being led through the street by men on motorbikes, all serve to punctuate this narrative framed by the failure of economics. As well as being visually humourous, these images also illuminate the inherent irrationality of human life and make a mockery of the pretentions of economists and their attempts to reduce people into rational, predictable consumers whose behaviour can be managed and controlled.

The Pigs - Spottorno
What Spottorno’s photographs show us are people living in the midst of two sets of ruins; the classical remnants of a civilisation long since consigned to history and the grubby, graffiti-daubed concrete wreckage of a more recent collapse. Between these two sets of ruins which will define and circumscribe both society and choices for decades to come, people are struggling to survive. Small scale trading and the discarded detritus of everyday life overflowing from the waste bins, all serve to indicate the collapse of the consumerist dream.  Spottorno shows us a return to a smaller, local world in which the illusions peddled by glitzy corporate advertising have no place. Aspiration has been replaced by survival.