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.

Jeder Tag War Schön
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.

Jeder Tag War Schön
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.)

Jeder Tag War Schön
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.

Jeder Tag War Schön
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.

Jeder Tag War Schön
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.

Jeder Tag War Schön
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.)

Jeder Tag War Schön
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.

Jeder Tag War Schön

Blue Mud Swamp – Filipe Casaca

Blue Mud Swamp - Filipe Casaca
The unwritten social contract in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre has been a simple one; if you don’t threaten the regime’s political authority then it will permit you to make money. The Maoist fervour of old has long since been discredited and cynicism has taken its place. Making money becomes a tool of social control and a way to keep China’s vast population placid. Of course, not everybody will be able to avail of the opportunities provided in the semi-capitalist free-for-all that is China at the moment – but that’s not the point. As long as there is a widespread perception that there is money to be made and things will get better that is enough to keep the lid on social discontent and prevent most people from thinking too deeply about the inequalities of the system under which they live. Now, this model is breaking down.  Recession/Depression in the rest of the world means that the Chinese can’t sell as much of their stuff, ultimately resulting in redundancies and unemployment. The real fear for China’s communist leadership is a groundswell of jobless, discontented and angry people venting their frustration on their authoritarian rulers. Just like the emperors of old, if the Chinese communist party fails to uphold their end of the bargain and the dream of economic prosperity fades, then they will have lost the Mandate of Heaven. Turmoil would inevitably follow.

Blue Mud Swamp - Filipe Casaca
The post-Tiananmen massacre consensus, while laying the foundations for much of China’s economic expansion during the past two decades, has produced some unpalatable side-effects. For a start, if the ruling party’s legitimacy and right to rule is based on claims of economic prosperity then everything will be sacrificed in the name of keeping the growth rates high so that they can claim continued success. As China’s manufacturing base grew from a relatively low level in the late 1980s to the boom of the late 2000s (when it was manufacturing much of the rest of the world’s stuff), these high growth statistics and numbers were relatively easy to maintain. Labour was cheap. Foreigners had an insatiable appetite for manufactured objects (and cheap credit to pay for it). Lots of money flowed in and most everybody in China felt happy and said what a great job the leadership was doing.

Blue Mud Swamp - Filipe Casaca
But now, the limits of this policy have been reached. With downturn in the rest of the world, less Chinese exports are being sold and the illusion of ever-continuing economic prosperity has come under severe threat; an issue that may result in profound social and political consequences. The other area where this policy has had a profound impact upon is the environment. This relentless pursuit of manufacturing growth has meant that corners have been cut in relation to pollution and the disposal of hazardous waste in the name of short-term political and economic gain. Cynicism and moral bankruptcy amongst the Chinese political and business elite has meant that opportunities for corruption and personal enrichment have greased the wheels of environmental degradation and created untold long-term problems.

Blue Mud Swamp - Filipe Casaca
Dalian, the subject of this self-published book by Portuguese photographer Filipe Casaca, is a Northern Chinese city that was one of the early beneficiaries of the 1980s policy of creating Special Economic Zones to entice foreign investment into China in the aftermath of the Maoist nightmare. As such, it can be regarded as one of the early prototypes for the export-oriented model that now underpins the China’s existence as we know it.  It is also a place where nineteenth century incursions by foreign colonial powers (and their wars) over who got to control China were played out. As such it has a deep historical resonance, being a site where Western ideas of industrial capitalism and the weight of Chinese history came together to produce this hybrid product of globalisation (millennia old traditions of authoritarian rule coexist alongside an almost Victorian mania for industrial production at any cost). The title of the work stems from an English translation of a former name of the city, but serves as an apt metaphor for what the past twenty years of frantic economic development have been built upon.

Blue Mud Swamp - Filipe Casaca
The obvious ravages of pollution and other scars left in the pursuit of short-term economic progress remain hidden from view in this book. Instead, Casaca concentrates on the city, a place where the profits and migrants unleashed by this narrow and tightly controlled form of social engineering have been poured into. Casaca’s portrayal of Dalian is a confusing cacophony of concrete, strange structures (a spiky shelter of some sort and a pair of concrete horses), and the surreal (a burning dust-cart) which operate to disorient the viewer, echoing the dislocation and trauma that Chinese society has undergone over the past number of decades.  As well as the blue colour cast that operates as a key to the narrative structure, the lack of a horizon in many of the landscape images enhances this mood of ominous darkness.  The accompanying short story by Mingyu Wu, which speaks of the sudden “heaviness” that descended on a city’s people, echoes the themes explored within the visual narrative. Dalian is Blade Runner brought to life.

Blue Mud Swamp - Filipe Casaca
The mood is also enhanced through the portrait images. Here, we see isolated individuals trapped in this artificial space, a status shared by the zoo animals he also pictures. The animals depicted also resonate with traditional symbolism and demonstrate that despite all the concrete and Starbucks that has filled China’s urban centres, these are a thin veneer over a much more enduring culture. Yet, the cultural hybridisation produced by globalisation is never far away; a quote from the Book of Revelations at the beginning of the book provides a Western reading of these images. Casaca plays with the intersection of these two cultures and produces a sophisticated, multi-layered visual narrative that engages with cultural difference whilst getting his point across.

Blue Mud Swamp - Filipe Casaca
Although the people of Casaca’s images are depicted basking in the consumerist glories of this artificial paradise (an aquarium, roller blading, enjoying the pleasures of the beach), the bleakness remains. Material possessions cannot compensate for the sacrifices and losses inflicted upon a society still reeling from a century of traumatic change and an uncertain future.  The final, strong image of a young woman in a white dress lying on the beach serves as a powerful metaphor that has a number of layers associated with it (a symbol of purity in Western eyes, white in Chinese culture is associated with mourning and death).

Blue Mud Swamp - Filipe Casaca
Here, we see the failure of the political dream peddled by an increasingly desperate Chinese ruling elite. As the epitome of their grand vision for the future, Dalian has instead become a dark, artificial pastiche of progress. A creature of the frantic manoeuvrings of an out of touch political system defined by the failures of the two modernist grand ideologies (communism and capitalism), China has tried to use greed and gaudy consumerism as a way of distracting its people. Yet, this is a short term solution. A directionless leadership that relies on a carrot-and-stick approach to maintain its power (consumerism and state violence) in a country scarred by pollution and the ravages of industrial growth, populated by an increasingly cynical population, produces a situation in which a society slowly corrodes from within.

Blue Mud Swamp - Filipe CasacaApologies for my photos of this book – better images can be found here.