PLEM 1909-1959

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Our dependance on energy has never been greater. While we may complain about the costs (financially and environmentally) electricity imposes upon us, the fact is that ready access to vast quantities of energy has transformed our lives to an unimaginable degree. Both as individuals and society we are addicted to the stuff. Without it, our technology is worthless junk. Similarly, the utopia promised by pundits of the digital revolution is dead in the water without a reliable supply of massive quantities of electrical power. It truly is one of the essential building blocks of life as we know it today.

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Like many other countries, electricity generation in the Netherlands first began at a local level with private companies competing amongst each other for business. But economies of scale meant that this could not last. Originally founded as the Limburg regional electricity company in 1909, the Provinciale Limburgse Elektriciteits-Maatschappij was a semi-state company based in Maastricht. PLEM retained it’s distinct identity until 1992 when it became part of Mega Limagas and later Essent. This book, simply titled PLEM 1909 – 1959, was published to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the company in that year. Overseen by Dick Elffers, and using a lot of top-quality Dutch photography talent of the time, this book is an excellent example of that particular country’s talent for combining various design elements to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. The various aspects of the design and more background about the individuals involved can be found on the excellent Bint Photobook site.

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So how do you visualise something invisible like electricity? Photography is great at showing tangible objects but once the subject matter becomes more vague and abstract then you need to come up with a new strategy. In terms of electricity, the obvious answer is to focus on the production and consumption sides (the power station and the person using the electricity). Unlike the invisible products of work today (e.g. data) large scale electricity generation requires imposing industrial structures and lots of machinery. This is visually impressive when recorded on camera. It is then a relatively straightforward process to contrast these images with photographs of the banal domesticity of the everyday user as they bask in the glow of the power generated far away.

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For a designer, how do you make your book stand out from the crowd? How do you show us something different about a subject that has been done many times before? Simultaneously, you also have to ensure that the people funding the book are happy with the final result. This can be a challenge when it comes to corporate publications as, usually, the people who sign off on the book are not particularly visually literate. So as a designer you have to bring them with you rather than suddenly present them with a final book which might not meet their expectations. The company will have it’s own agenda and reasons for producing a book of this nature which a designer must be aware of. As long as the agendas of both the designer and the company are compatible, then the project has a good chance of working out successfully. Otherwise there will be problems.

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Roughly about a third of the book is devoted towards the historical aspects of the company. There are the usual introductory texts by the corporate bigwigs extolling the virtues of the company and the great strides it has made over its fifty years of operation. As this is a company that prides itself on its roots in the local community, the positive impact they have had on the area is heavily emphasised in this introductory section. The book even starts with the Limburg anthem (Limburg mijn Vaderland) also composed in 1909. Electricty generated by PLEM is presented as being at the heart of all the great modernising strides the region has made since the early part of the century. Graphs and charts show the expansion of electricity production over those years while images of street lights demonstrate the tangible benefits of electricity for the people. Picturesque colour images of farms and the agricultural landscape are used to stoke both regional pride and also convince readers that modernisation would not pose a threat to their regional identity and the traditions they hold dear.

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This first section of the book appears in a muted colour palette – the archival images are stiff and static, heavily laden with serious looking groups of dignitaries. Dark suits and respectability predominate. This is the past. Once they become established, corporations, then as now, like to tell their foundation myths. These usually take the form of a small group of courageous visionaries, the struggle to be taken seriously, the overcoming of obstacles, the battling of challenges, the gradual growth of the company and it’s ultimate success as a leading player in the field. These stories are usually just that, stories. But they are used to get new employees to buy into the corporate culture of the organisation in order to try to make them feel as if they are part of something larger and that they too are helping to create history. These foundation myths also add a layer of gravitas and tradition to an organisation that makes them appear trustworthy.

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We now move on to images of the landscape transformed by electricity. Streetlights illuminate the picturesque buildings and streets of the region as the old and the modern harmoniously come together in order to produce a better future for all. Blocks of colour are used to produce a sense of energy and dynamism that was absent in the previous historical section of the book. Here, electricity poles run alongside roads bringing power to towns and villages.The metal skeletons of pylons loom above the camera lens as the viewer gazes skywards in awe to the immense power that courses through the cables above their heads.

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The quasi-religious symbolism continues in the next section of the book, which deals with the construction of the Masscentrale Power Station near Roermond. Built between 1951 and 1960, this “temple of energy” was PLEM’s greatest achievement to date and they were keen to show it off. The cult of technological progress that has dominated Western thought for at least two centuries finds expression in this imposing structure. Size matters and by emphasising the scale of the plant they are signifying just how important the company has become, as well as the awesome nature of the power harnessed by mankind. Unlike the historical section of the book, which consisted largely of the upper managers huddled around bits of new machinery looking dignified, the images in this section reflect the social changes of the time. Now it is workers and builders who dominate the photographs. Like many of the communist publications I have reviewed on this blog, much of the imagery has a distinctly heroic quality to it. Once more the use of blocks of colour with photographs adds a sense of energy and dynamism to the narrative. A vast new building emerges from the ground. Again, the images used emphasise the immensity of the project, designed to produce a sense of awe in the viewer as we gaze in wonder at this immense cathedral of power.

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Now we delve deep into the bowels of this vast structure. Images of pipework and circuit boards form geometrical patterns, abstract images of technological progress and power. Similarly, substations stand ready to convert and transmit this raw power on its journey to the final user. The overprinting of black and white images with blocks of colour again add vibrancy and interest to what would otherwise be relatively straightforward industrial images.

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The final section of the book brings it all back home with images of industrial equipment, trains and factories all powered by electricity, helping develop the industrial base of the region. A simple but effective message is sent: with electricty comes progress and a better life for all. Limburg’s happy future is assured. By repeatedly using blocks of colour, the book produces a sense of rhythm that assists the narrative flow and connects the various sections together.

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The late fifties was a time of hope. Postwar austerity and the all-consuming effort to rebuild the shattered lives and countries left in ruins had largely been completed. Optimism returned. Modern technologies promised new ways of living and working that would produce a better world. Clean and cheap electricity would fuel the labour saving devices that promised to consign everyday drudgery to the past. Colour and brightness has returned to life.

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The Making of the €uro; a mosaic of history – Claudio Hils

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With the crisis in Greece rumbling ominously along in the background, I thought it might be an appropriate time to have a look at a publication produced to celebrate the introduction of the new European currency (imaginatively called the Euro). Of late, there has been a marked tendency to reduce issues surrounding the European Union to simplified pro or anti arguments in which the subtleties and nuances of a very complicated subject disappear (particularly in the UK). This binary argument allows no middle ground for those who think that the idea of keeping the Pandora’s Box of European nationalism firmly shut is a good thing, whilst also recognising that there are deep flaws at heart of this political project. This is important because the continual failure to address these flaws has resulted in stagnation and a sense of malaise that afflicts much of Europe. Firstly, what is the big-idea that lies at the heart of the whole European project? Simply put, it is designed to prevent nationalistic rivalries from once again spilling over into World War by tying the various countries of Europe so closely together that they would have to resolve their differences through discussion and negotiation rather than by killing each other. That’s it. In return, the pay-off was economic prosperity for all. This was supposed to produce a  happy and contented European continent. This trade-off lies at the core of the argument for increased cooperation by European countries. For many decades this deal sort of worked. Most of the time. But with the rolling financial crises that have engulfed various European countries since 2008 this arrangement has come under increasing pressure. While the benefits of European co-operation are regarded positively by most people, nationalism never disappeared. In terms of loyalty, the European Union has lukewarm popular support at best. People still feel a deep affinity for their nations. And in times of crisis it reappears. Put at it’s most stark, it would be a very hard-sell to convince people to join some sort of pan-European army if the European Union suddenly went to war with Russia. Sacrificing yourself for Spain, Belgium, France, Denmark Latvia, or any other European country you care to name, is something that millions of people have willingly done over the past couple of centuries. Patriotism and the national ideal are something that people will readily die for. But who is going to put their life on the line for the European Union? To protect the legacy of Jean Monnet? To risk life and limb for the Common Agricultural Policy? Or the principles of social inclusion embodied by the European Social Fund? A very hard sell.

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The core, underlying problem that lies at the heart of the various EU institutions is the lack of buy-in from the people they are supposed to represent. This is euphemistically termed the democratic deficit and the various official institutions have been scurrying around for the past couple of decades trying to make themselves more accountable and relevant to the public throughout Europe. (Such as the European Parliament – the MEP who purports to represent me vanished into a black hole for five years until he suddenly resurfaced in the months prior to the last election. He then plastered every lamppost with posters about a series of public discussions in various local hotels about cyber-bullying he was holding in a transparent attempt to demonstrate both his common touch and what an important guy in Europe he is.) So why does this matter? Simply put, without widespread public support the EU is dead in the water. It becomes irrelevant. Of course the institutions and structures of the EU will keep plodding along on auto-pilot (once you set up a big bureaucratic apparatus it is almost impossible to dismantle it under normal circumstances) but without public support such institutions become hollow at the core, devoid of any substantial motivating ideas and growing less and less significant to the average person. This combination of indifference, cynicism, frustration or anger on the part of the public towards these remote institutions opens them up to attack by national political actors and parties. They exploit this apathy towards EU institutions in order to mobilise support amongst their population to pursue national agendas, whilst also using Europe as a convenient way to shirk blame when things go wrong. All national politicians have used this tactic for decades. And, to a large degree, it works quite well.

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This brings us to the Euro, the common currency that was introduced in January 2002 and the subject of this book by German photographer Claudio Hils. Published by the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen and supported by the European Central Bank (the institution responsible for the new currency) this book was produced as a visual record showing the introduction of the new money. After seven years of austerity, uncertainty, unemployment, social unrest and political turmoil throughout the continent, it is a rather surreal experience to examine this work about the advent of the Euro. Optimism pervades throughout the texts. Prosperity for all is coming. Everything will get better. As the introductory essay by Ulrich Schneider states: “the aim of ever closer union in Europe has doubtlessly been brought considerably closer with the introduction of the single currency.” Oh dear. Similarly, in an essay provided by Antii Heinonen (from the European Central Bank) he notes that “in the early hours of 1 January 2002, long queues formed at some cash dispensers as everyone waited to examine the new banknotes.”

How times have changed. Today, long queues forming at cash dispensers are the stuff of nightmares for European politicians.

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Hils images document this transitional phase when the old national currencies were being phased out in preparation for the launch of the Euro. Photographs of shredded banknote cubes, Irish punts with holes punched through them and sliced up German one mark coins are all used to signify the supposed end of this era of quaint nationalism. These images are complemented by the photographs depicting the manufacturing process that occurs in sleek, antiseptically clean, hi-tech factories where shiny new coins and bundles of crisp notes are churned out by gleaming machinery. Alongside these rather antiseptic factories, Hils shows us the interiors of various Central banks, where signs of disorder and subtle disruptions to the corporate aesthetic (such as bank note wrappers hurriedly ripped off and dumped by an office chair) introduce an element of urgency and chaos into the supposedly well organised changeover to the Euro. Similarly, portraits of the backroom workers who operate the machines, check the watermarks and do the myriad other tasks required to physically produce a currency provide a human dimension to the process. These are the invisible spaces, places and people that the media does not normally show us. The other aspects that Hils documents are more visible and part of the familiar experience of everyday life that we encounter on the news and in movies. So we have the understandable pre-occupation with security; serious looking men with sub-machine guns, helicopters, money convoys, secure cash boxes and all the other paraphernalia associated with moving large amounts of cash (and that we have become familiar with from so many heist movies over the years). The final sequence of imagery deals with the media and advertising campaign designed to educate the public about the new money; posters in the baggage reclaim area of Dublin airport, a Finnish family watching a TV infomercial, a small pack of journalists surrounding a Dutch politician (who appears to be trapped in a cage thanks to the series of flagpoles he is standing alongside), TV cameras and lights set up in front of a local government building in Maastricht on a grey winter’s day, and a neon sign stuck on to the railings of the Luxembourg national bank are all used to signify the culmination of this changeover process. Then we are shown some people at midnight of the launch day excitedly examining crisp 10 Euro notes on the street.

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Like many projects of this nature, the photographer has to ensure that the requirements of the commissioning body are acknowledged whilst also ensuring that the critical quality of the work is not compromised. Certainly, those who commissioned his work wanted to show an efficient and well organised operation, which would demonstrate their mastery of the many logistical problems involved. Although Hils does document the success of this transitional period, the photographs also operate to critique the various institutional behemoths that underscore this process. The impersonal corporate spaces and the surveillance and regimentation of all those involved in this process all evoke a unsettling mood that  contrasts with the upbeat introductory texts penned by the various cheerleaders of this political project.

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Unlike other books I have reviewed where the passage of time and hindsight has exposed the hollowness of the agendas and claims made by the authors, this publication is more ambiguous. The very architecture of the Euro (constructed through a process of political horse-trading, compromises and short term priorities) laid the foundations for the current crisis that rumbles ominously onwards. How will this short-sighted thinking impact upon broader social and political developments into the future? Nobody really knows. There are just too many variables that feed into the mix and the unintended long-term consequences of any actions taken are impossible to predict. Certainly the track record of the various European institutions and the big-wigs charged with sorting out the mess over the past seven years has been less than encouraging. A central problem there is that there are too many competing interests and mutually incompatible priorities (at personal, political, national and international levels). Hence, we are left with the default policy of damage control and muddling through as the European project lurches blindly forward into what appears to be an unpredictable future.

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

365 – Alexander Aksakov

365 - Alexander Aksakov

The military is an institution in which people (usually young males) are isolated from the rest of society for a defined period of time, given uniforms to strip them of individual identity, are subjected to arbitrary rules and discipline, and exposed to a cult of violence. This process is designed to produce people who will do what they’re told, when they’re told. They will ultimately kill on command. That, at least, is the rationale for all the training. However, once you start looking at the military in this way, then it starts to resemble a quasi-religious institution that imposes a new set of values and ideas upon individuals (through peer-pressure and strict conformity within a rigid hierarchy) in order to produce almost unquestioning obedience.

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Many countries still use conscription. A product of late-eighteenth century European ideas about having large armies for national defence (particularly in response to the turmoil unleashed by the French Revolution) it has waned in effectiveness with technology. Some countries still have it, but for most of those drafted it is merely a rite of passage that has to be endured. Certainly, very few actually expect to put the test and end up in the trenches somewhere (in Western Europe anyway).  Russia is one of those countries that still relies upon conscription to produce a large army, which it uses to enhance its power and prestige as a world power. It also performs the task of nation-building insofar as it is a way of inspiring patriotism towards the artificial, constructed entities that we are supposed to feel loyal towards.

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However, for the individual suddenly thrust into such an organisation, it can be a traumatic experience to say the least. The Russian military also has a reputation for strict discipline, bullying, violence and the brutalising of recruits, leading to numerous instances of suicide. This is usually tolerated within such institutions (to a degree) as a necessary process of toughening up their raw recruits and a way of inculcating the aggressive culture of violence required by the army. However, the psychological trauma and carnage this can wreak on a personal level is incalculable.

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Like The Myth of the Airborne Warrior I reviewed some time ago, this book is a personal narrative of the photographer’s experience as a soldier for a year (hence the title).  Using a smuggled 35mm camera (a Smena 8m – the Russian army forbids cameras), Aksakov documents his life in the army in order to produce a visual record of his experiences. Here, we see the visual journal of an individual struggling to come to terms with this enforced institutional incarceration. Enhanced by the flat Russian light and the erratic camera, in tandem with the personal text, this book produces an intimate depiction of alienation and loneliness (but not despair). Despite the superficial camaraderie and the group activities imposed by military life, both the photographer and his fellow recruits are perpetually isolated from one another. They have all been cast adrift in a bleak psychological no-man’s land for their year of military service.

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Using the snapshot aesthetic (imposed in part due to the Smena) the resulting book is a visual narrative of his year long ordeal of self-isolation that reflects the chaos and emotional turmoil of his own sudden powerlessness. Other uniformed figures appear in his photographs but they remain anonymous. Although they are presumably fellow recruits like him (with their own insecurities and anxieties) they remain distant, serving to enhance the mood of  loneliness that pervades the book. In spite of the scenes of barrack life, the distance between the photographer and those around him is never quite bridged. They are all living lives of quiet desperation, hidden behind the masks of their uniforms and the macho bravado expected of them.

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These remote, distant figures inhabit the desolate spaces of military architecture or a bleak, featureless tundra where nature itself mirrors the sense of isolation felt by Aksakov. His repeated photographs of stunted nature can be read as a metaphor for his true position, allowing us to glimpse behind the outward conformity imposed by military discipline. Like the landscape, the soldier/photographer has been reduced by the state to an anonymous, featureless resource it has decided to consume in the name of national greatness. Defined by his lowly status in this institutional machine, photography becomes a way of escaping the pressures inflicted upon Aksakov during this enforced stay in purgatory (he describes the camera as his friend). Like the book itself (a wonderfully designed publication by Akina Books) these images reassert his individuality, showing that in spite of the best efforts of the military machine to create standardised, obedient soldiers out of those who fall into their clutches, they have failed. While we may outwardly conform and modify our behaviour according to what is expected of us in a given situation, it is never a true guide to inner character. To borrow a term from Foucault, where there is power, there is resistance (however small).

OWS – Robert Dunn

Simply entitled OWS, this photobook explores the ongoing fallout from the continuing economic crisis that dominates everyday life and politics throughout the world. A small, softcover book of photographs without text published by Coral Press Arts, OWS is a personal reaction to the 2011 Occupy Movement in New York. (For other publications and my thoughts on the Occupy Movement have a look at this previous post.)  Responding to contemporary political issues can be a tricky business for photographers, particularly in the case of popular demonstrations, as it’s very easy to fall into the trap of solely concentrating on drama (after all that is what we see in the media.) Dramatic confrontations with authority are the bread and butter of much media coverage of protest because they seem to condense the entire event into a single image which the average news ‘consumer’ can easily understand. (Such images also have the effect of presenting protest as an ‘abnormal’ activity carried out by people who may be a potential threat to the ‘normal’ middle-class individual whose vote holds the balance of political power. This makes it easier to dismiss the issues and concerns raised as being inconsequential.) Of course, this is not to say that dramatic things never happen in protests (they often do) but they tend to be overrepresented within media coverage. There is an inclination to reduce everything into a decisive moment that provides a short hand depiction of what are, in reality, multilayered and nuanced events. But this media formula works because it’s easy, fits the pre-packaged news-event formula, suits short-term rolling news cycles and the audience has, to a large extent, already been conditioned to expect such imagery whenever an event is discussed.

Unlike other photographers responding to the various Occupy encampments, (such as Mathieu Asselin and Ben Roberts) Dunn adopts the classic street photography aesthetic in his depiction of the people congregating in New York’s Zuccotti Park.  The fact that Dunn experienced the student protests in Berkley during the 1960s, undoubtedly a formative experience for many of that generation, informs how he responds to the presence of the first serious mass public protest movement in America since then. Of course student protest in the US since then has been blunted thanks to the restructuring of universities and degrees, turning them into courses that usually avoid critical thinking and impose massive debts upon students, which makes them fearful of upsetting the status quo.  The education system results in a conveyor belt of indebted young people entering the corporate workplace who will do what they’re told, when they’re told, and can be relied upon not to rock the boat.

Dunn’s images are quietly observed slices of time of everyday life within the protest camp; a man sweeping the street, somebody writing a placard, details such as tents and tarpaulins with protestors huddled within them, as well as images of other people sitting and sleeping within the park (the main occupations of a sedentary protest). While a few images show drums being banged and banners and flags being held aloft the usual visual signifiers of protest are muted and subsumed into a broader narrative of long-term, determined calls for change. This was after all not a simple street protest but a long term occupation. One image in particular, a bearded man, arms outstretched, with a Bank of America sign behind him, is an icon of non-violent political action in the face of power.  Another recurring theme is the presence of that American icon, the Stars and Stripes, which is represented through the predominance of red, white and blue within many of the images (as well as the flag itself) that serves to assign the values and ideals of the American dream to the protestors.  They are the hope for the future in contrast to the corruption and ineptitude of the financial-corporate-political clique that has hijacked the dream and twisted it into a nightmare for so many.

OWS is not a dispassionate portrayal of the Occupy Movement; Dunn sees it as a signifier of the rekindling of ideals and values that had been subsumed beneath the tawdry trappings of consumerism and greed for decades. His images clearly respond to this empathy he feels for the protestors cause and this has resulted in a small book that has a resonance with the past whilst engaging with current events. For many decades the idea that greed was good (to borrow a line from Wall Street) went largely unchallenged; now that the foundations upon which we organise our society have been shaken to the core, a (brief) opportunity arises for alternatives to the status quo to be explored. While the Occupy Movement failed to bring about change, it did lay down a marker to the great and good that their policies are under scrutiny like never before. What will be the lasting legacy of the Occupy Movement?  Nobody knows at present. We shall see.

C.E.N.S.U.R.A – Julián Barón

Politics is about power. Everything else is just window dressing. In politics the only things that really matter are gaining power, maintaining power, increasing power or losing power, and much of the discourse within news falls into one or more of these categories.  Endless comment about the nuances of policy or the ever shifting alliances between individual politicians or parties and how this may impact upon the balance of political power are at the core of much of our news reporting. Yet, this media comment serves to frame and structure debate surrounding politics in a very narrow way, one that emphasises the importance of individuals and parties within a very particular system. Ever since the advent of mass communications, particularly television, a three sided game has been played between politicians, the media and the public; all the players hold some of the cards needed to win this never-ending contest. Politicians need the media to get their message across to the public and build support, while, in turn, the media need politicians to create and frame news agendas (which are usually dominated either directly or indirectly by political issues – reports from a committee on A, a response from the Minister about B, calls to reform C, a statement about D etc) which they also use to justify a public service function. Like celebrity culture, there is a cycle of dependence between the media and political elites; they need each other. And just like the audience of a tv talent show, we too get a chance to participate and cast our votes for who impressed us with the best song-and-dance routine on the day.

Yet, in our increasingly globalised world dominated by the invisible hand of ‘the markets’ whose ever shifting sentiments appear to be able to make or break countries with impunity, the power of national politicians has been slowly ebbing away. Finance and the influence of global corporations have produced a situation in which national power has, to a large degree, been hollowed out and where almost every substantial political policy or action is informed with reference to how these trans-national players will react. In effect the political system within countries has become nothing more than a means of managing the population, with parties offering differences in nuance rather than substance. The cut and thrust of politics is, in many ways, a mere facade designed to conceal the real absence of substantive debate. Alternatives are always presented in such a way that they fall within the limits set by the broader system; radical viewpoints or alternatives are condescendingly dismissed as unreal or unworkable in the ‘real world’. Challenges to the status quo only become possible after a dramatic shock (a war, natural disaster, sudden economic collapse or some other catastrophe) when the shortcomings of the political system are laid bare and a brief window of opportunity appears within which alternatives can be contemplated.

In conjunction with this hollowing out of real power, politicians have increasingly become concerned about carefully controlling their public image and how they are seen and perceived. Historically, the first real attempt to disrupt the facade of power projected by politicians was made by Erich Solomon during the 1920 and 30s, when his chutzpah and concealed cameras exposed the behind-the-scenes goings on of the great and good to the public. Foaming like rabid dogs at the latest results from a focus group or an opinion poll, contemporary politicians are insatiable in their search to capture the elusive median voter who is the key to electoral success.  Deception is praised as political cunning. Formulations of words are used to convince people that what appeared to be a straightforward promise made last year was in fact no such thing and, anyway, circumstances have changed since then so it’s impossible to do that now. (Recessions always bring out the twin sisters of WAWA and TINA [‘We Are Where we Are’ and ‘There Is No Alternative’] who politicians just love to blame for inaction.) Substance becomes spin. With the advent of mass communications, particularly from television onwards, politicians have been struggling to ‘connect’ with their public while simultaneously striving to control how the media represents them through image consultants and PR people.  In response to these demands from journalists and news-makers, politicians have tried to restrict the situations within which the media have access to them (press conferences, photo opportunities, media-events etc.) in order to minimise the chances of negative portrayal while ensuring that their message gets across.

Turning to the book itself, Barón has ambitiously attempted to deconstruct the visual rhetoric of political imagery and look beyond the facade to what lies beneath.  Within photojournalism some wry images and a slight subversion of the veneer of power is permissible; fleeting glances and momentary expressions are frozen by the camera lens during otherwise carefully choreographed photo-opportunities (or the unwary politician may position themselves near a backdrop or some other inappropriate prop which will leave them open to ridicule) and are then captioned to either poke fun or provide a visual shorthand for the opinions of a pundit. Such images are the standard fodder of newspapers (we see them over and over again) and they form the acceptable limits of visual criticism within the news photography of politics. But in many ways they still serve to underscore the importance and primacy of the politician concerned; being the subject of such attention means that they possess a degree of status that implies importance. Censorship in this case is not the case of a dour, humourless official determining what is permissible to publish; in democratic political systems it’s much more subtle. Freedom of the press is constrained by the unwritten rules of the game (or ‘news values’ as Galtung and Ruge call them) that determine the choice of one story/image over another, the prominence it receives, where its placed in the newspaper/report, how it is analysed and understood. (Transgress the rules of the game and there will be political consequences through calls for tighter legislation about intrusive journalism and the right to privacy.) All of these factors are decisions made by the editors and creators of news, who consciously and unconsciously, shape how politics is presented to the public at large.

However Barón goes far beyond these superficial and clichéd forms of mild photographic subversion. Through the use of flash to overexpose parts of images, bleaching out facial features and rendering political figures as ghostly apparitions, Barón removes the signifiers of individual power that politicians are so desperate to project. Stripped of their carefully crafted political identities, they become blank, hollow shapes; insubstantial spectres wandering the halls of classical buildings, desperate for attention, trying to convince us that they somehow know what’s best.  No longer individuals, they become interchangeable parts of a larger system that is desperate to assert its power and relevance to an increasingly sceptical public. Alongside these images, we see fragments of theatre within which this performance is played; neo-classical architecture, frescos, statues, flags and the rest of the tawdry theatrical props needed to convince the great unwashed that these few individuals are important people. These apparitions are the contemporary manifestation of the divine right of kings walking amongst us. Also subjected to Barón’s gaze are the other players in this eternal game; the photojournalists and camera operators who are likewise transformed into blank, ethereal spirits. Only the cameras remain; the individual players are irrelevant, the game is all that matters.

Although this book is about Spain, the critique it makes about the visual manipulation of politics is quite applicable to any country that uses a system of representative democracy and vests a small elite group with immense power checked only by a periodic election every few years.  The Spanish political system, still struggling with the legacy of a bitter civil war and forty years of dictatorship, is under severe pressure to deal with the current financial and social crisis that is engulfing the country. With the current massive rate of unemployment (July 2012) there will inevitably be profound social and political outcomes within Spain which will impact on many lives both now and into the future. After such a sudden shock to the entire fabric of a social system there will be consequences.  How severe and what these consequences might be depends on how long the pressure cooker is allowed to boil away. In this context, the appearance of control and leadership is everything. Society only works if we have confidence in it. These images strip away the facade of political power, propped up by massive egos, the trappings of state office and the constructions of news media agendas. Barón’s images reveal that the emperor has no clothes and more importantly, the emperor has no answers.

P.S. My sincere apologies for the quality of my images here – they are just to convey a sense of the book. Better images and a video presentation can be found on the photographers website here.

When It Changed – Joel Sternfeld

Beyond the immediate economic and social crises that dominate the ever shortening attention span of  today’s news media, climate change remains an ongoing issue that continues to fester away in the background. Once relegated to the margins, climate change has most assuredly made it into the mainstream. To put it simply, debate around climate change essentially revolves around a dispute amongst various vested interest groups who are all pushing their own particular agenda and seeking to maximise their position. It can be seen as a contest between environmental degradation and humanitarian disaster versus economic interests, political power and profits.  This debate is also shaped by the fact that no immediately dramatic events have been conclusively linked to climate change, which creates the space for doubt in the public mind. And doubt is always open to exploitation. The immediacy of danger also informs how we respond – we all know that certain things are probably bad for us or may be potentially dangerous but if the effects take decades to harm us then the human mind seems quite willing to ignore it; say, instead of giving you cancer in 30 years time, smoking a cigarette killed you tomorrow then our response to the matter is very different.

Obviously the big polluters (countries and corporations) have a large incentive to downplay or dismiss the issues surrounding climate change and pollution but thanks to their rather murky track-record in responding to environmental problems in the past their credibility on this issue is very low. A classic tactic such large and well funded corporate interests tend to deploy is to undermine the validity of the arguments presented by the opposite side through the use of scientific studies that appear to refute claims or otherwise cast doubt upon them. Although science is presented in the popular imagination as a purely objective process it can be filtered through an ideological prism when circumstances demand.  If an energy company is funding researchers (or universities) examining, for example, the effects of pollution on marine life then there will be a great deal of unspoken pressure to ensure that the results do not embarass the company funding your work. To do so would almost certainly affect future contributions from industry towards both you and your university, not to mention the potential damage to your career prospects. Unspoken bias creeps in. The report conclusions can be skewed in a certain direction. And the usual way to ensure that your research doesn’t come back to haunt you later on is to include a section stating that these findings are based upon available data but that more analysis needs to be done over a much longer timeframe which may alter the conclusions. (For more see this article by Professor Brian Martin.)  Big business, money and science make for uneasy partnerships.

The images that comprise this book were made during the 11th United Nations Conference on Climate Change, held in Montreal during 2005 by Joel Sternfeld, the seminal photographer whose legacy in terms of the photographic visualisation of the American landscape is writ large.  But information about the purpose of the conference itself is lacking in the book. The UN stated that they regarded this conference as particularly important because it saw the coming into force of the Kyoto Protocol. (Information about the conference can be found on the UN website.)  Yet even a cursory glance at the agenda for the conference will reveal that a good deal of the schedule was taken up with proceedural matters, bureaucratic niceties, acknowledgements of contributions made by member states and rather uninspiring, dry legalese about the implementation of various sub-sections of the Kyoto Protocol.  Lets be honest here; the bulk of the conference itself sounds quite dull and boring. For a topic of such apparent global importance it is surprising that there appears to be no real urgency about finding a lasting solution. Public pressure expects that policy makers will combat climate change as well as preserve living standards (in developed countries). So what’s with all the foot dragging?

A useful way of understanding this is to have an awareness of how bureaucracies and politics operate in the context of such issues of widespread public concern. Once an issue becomes mainstream, pressure groups tend to be sucked into various bureaucratic systems where the promise of real power and influence to achieve their goals is too tantalising to resist. Its a classic trap. If environmental groups reject calls to work with government/bureaucracies to assist in changing the system they risk the losing public support they have built up over the years. Compromises are made. The earlier radicalism and public mobilisation outsider groups and organisations once possessed are now controlled and negated by the bureaucratic structures they are now working with. Politics works in a similar vein; once public opinion shifts towards an acceptance of something that was previously dismissed as crazy, the language and policies of politics moves to appropriate these issues in order to woo potential voters and support. Simply put; the rules of the game are set by the existing power structures (bureaucracies/politicians) and these systems operate to hollow out and negate the threat to them by incorporating and controlling calls for change that pose a challenge to the status quo.  This results in a situation where the language of change becomes bereft of meaning and is reduced to political sound-bites and the commissioning of inaccessible phone-book sized studies and reports stuffed with jargon that makes it difficult for the public to follow. (This is not meant as a criticism of any particular NGO or environmental group – this is just how bureaucracies and politicians operate on a vast range of issues in order to maintain their power and position.)

Once an issue such as climate change becomes mainstream a whole new structure of environmental-bureaucracy is created whose sole purpose is paper shuffling, attending conferences, passing resolutions, creating international legal frameworks, drafting press-releases and ensuring that national governments are seen as global team players.  A perception is created within the wider public that something is being done at an official level so therefore there is no need for them to care about this issue anymore. Similarly through incorporating vague policies and talking the talk about environmental issues (which are usually ignored by those in power in the pursuit of short-term electoral gain and popularity) politicians ensure that the issue is managed within the structure of the existing political system and does not become a threat to the way they do business.  Lip service is paid to environmental issues in press statements and political sound bites but substantive and lasting change can often be more difficult to find.

Turning to the book, Sternfeld combines portrait images of conference delegates with a series of brief news reports dealing with climate change events, beginning in 1957 with the first indications that the oceans might not be able to deal with increased CO2 emissions.  The images are all close-up, head and shoulders portraits of conference delegates that appear to have been made during the proceedings. All of the individuals depicted (with the exception of a solitary Asian man who is fast asleep) exhibit the signifiers of gravitas and pensive concentration. None of them appear to acknowledge the camera; to do so would show that they were not paying sufficient attention to the important proceedings taking place. Public perception would lead us to believe that such conferences are full of committed and concerned advocates (and there are undoubtedly some present) but most of the participants represent various national, bureaucratic, environmental and corporate interest groups who are all there to ensure that they maximise the benefits to their own organisations.

Accompanying these images, the brief news reports serve as a catalogue of scientific predictions, unpredictable weather incidents, melting ice caps, ozone layer depletion, droughts and potential epidemics to come all related to Global Warming and climate change.  Sternfeld creates a narrative in which the reader-viewer directly links the faces of the conference participants to the accompanying text.  Yet, Sternfeld’s images do not show individuals responding to such events. (Of course, it should be recognised that some of the media accounts selected by Sternfeld tend to be overly sensationalist in nature which heightens the contrast.) Instead, what we see are images of participants in a Montreal conference room distanced from the immediate effects of catastrophe in the middle of a negotiation process. Even the gestures within the portraits seem to convey a sense of concern, and even horror, to the viewer at what they are hearing and seeing at the conference. But in reality we don’t know in what context these gestures were made; boredom, annoyance and tiredness are all equally valid readings. Ambiguity pervades this work which creates more and more questions about what I am seeing here.

Even the title, When It Changed, raises a further questions. What exactly is the It he refers to? A global response? The actions of business? Public attitudes?  And how has it changed – for the better or the worse? None of these questions are answered by Sternfeld within the book. This ambiguity is further enhanced by Sternfeld’s own words on this work which is presented on the Steidl website as a visual legacy for future generations about current decision making processes. A more telling indication can perhaps be found in this article by the New Yorker about his later work iDubai, which states that Sternfeld began to believe that “even if we could solve climate change, it would simply allow us to consume the world and the world’s resources in some other way”.

This work is not a simplistic portrayal of climate change. Questions are raised by Sternfeld which remain deliberately unanswered. Certainly after viewing images of these participants, my faith in the ability of the world to respond in a meaningful way to climate change has not been restored. To my mind what we are seeing here is the orderly management of looming catastrophe.