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.

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.

The Roosevelt Year – Pare Lorentz

With the re-election of Obama now over, I thought it might be interesting to look at another American president who was presented as a beacon of hope during a period of economic and social crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, occupied the presidency between 1933 and 1945 and oversaw the U.S. response to the Great Depression as well as World War 2. Although he is now widely regarded as the primary architect who helped the U.S. recover from the devastating 1930s, during the early years of his administration he was subject to a huge amount of criticism from his Republican rivals. In a parallel to today, the Republicans under Hoover had been in power during the Roaring Twenties and their policies had inflated the speculative bubble which then burst during the 1930s, sending the world into a decade of economic decline and social unrest.  Roosevelt was left with the unappetising task of picking up the pieces, bringing order to chaos as well as providing some sort of hope to the quickly growing numbers of unemployed and destitute.  Added to his problems were the environmental catastrophe of the Dustbowl conditions in the Mid-West and the festering sore of Jim Crow racism in the Southern States, which when combined with economic collapse, threatened to make a volatile situation much worse.  His response was the New Deal  which sought to provide assistance for the unemployed, kickstart a stagnating economy and restructure the financial system in order to prevent the problem from happening again.  Of course, Roosevelt was a politician like any other with his flaws and foibles – and he was certainly not a saint – but the Republican alternative would have been a lot worse. There’s more than a hint of déjà-vu when you start comparing the thirties with today.

Obviously to the right-leaning Republicans, whose incompetence during the twenties had laid the groundwork for the crash, all this talk of social solidarity and safety nets for the poor sounded a lot like communism, and they weren’t shy about saying so. American society, then as now, has a consistently right leaning and conservative slant, so charges that a president might be un-American (whatever that might mean) were damaging to Roosevelt’s credibility. A wide ranging, officially endorsed political propaganda campaign to convince the middle-classes and wealthier sections of society, who were isolated from the sights of destitution and squalor, was designed to build support for Roosevelt’s reform agenda and to undermine the Republican charges against him. It was also useful to remind these richer sections of American society that doing nothing to help millions of desperate and unemployed people was not in their own self-interest. 

Photographically, this resulted in the establishment of the photographic section within the FSA during 1937 whose impact on documentary practice has been legendary. However, before the establishment of the FSA, Pare Lorentz (a film critic and minor movie maker prior to this point) in this highly charged atmosphere of social crisis became a leading advocate for New Deal policies. Best known for his two documentary films; The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938) – both government funded movies that presented New Deal policies in a very positive fashion – Lorentz also produced this photo-book in 1934 which documented Roosevelt’s achievements during his first year in office. Originally designed to be a movie (the book does have a cinematic quality to it), The Roosevelt Year is a large photo-book that uses images from a wide range of photographers and picture libraries in an attempt to show that things were getting better under the new administration. Its main function is to produce a straightforward narrative of change and hope for the future. As such the book faces a classic political dilemma; the problem (unemployment, strikes, poverty etc.) has to be presented to an audience in a manner that neither diminishes its importance (if it’s not such a big deal then what’s all the fuss about?) nor exaggerates it into a massive crisis that appears completely out of control (if things have got that bad then there’s no point in wasting time and money trying to fix it).  Social problems need to be large enough to influence public opinion while small enough that a solution can appear possible.  The office of US president due to the limitations of the system within which it is placed, according to political theorists, is one in which mastery of the power of persuasion is the only way to prevent political gridlock.

The images themselves are an interesting mixture of news photographs taken from a wide range of sources (as well as at least one Lewis Hine image I recognise). Much of it is fairly unremarkable and is of a quality you’d expect from a newspaper documenting local events that have long since passed into obscurity. Some are presented as explicit successes of the administration – such as the repeal of prohibition, resolving the bank crisis and opening diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union – while others emphasise the lawlessness and violence that seems to have engulfed America (including a little remembered assassination attempt on Roosevelt.)   Now, placed within a broader political narrative of hope over adversity they become evidence of both the social ills that need to be overcome and accomplishments already achieved.  Images of work and industry also appear throughout, designed to show that the productive economy was on the move again. However, the two predominant picture types within the book are crowd-scenes and sober suited political figures. A clearly identified and calm looking political figure, be it Roosevelt or one of his appointees, is contrasted with the anonymity of the crowd who are presented as a ominous, malevolent force. The message is clear; the unruly mob needs to be taken in hand by the guiding hand of a compassionate politician who will steer the country out of this mess and to a brighter future. Only Roosevelt could do this, Lorentz hints, and the Republicans would only stir up social unrest even further.

Although the broad sweep of the Depression era in America is relatively well known, it is interesting to focus on a single year, which can be regarded as the pivot upon which attitudes changed. Certainly the sense of crisis embedded within the fabric of the book comes across even today. Violence, fear, the fracturing of society, extremism, financial collapse, greedy bankers fleecing everybody and mass unemployment; these are the underlying themes of the book. Lorentz’s narration, like a documentary film, comes through in the large sentence fragments that fill the top of the page, guiding the viewer how to read the photographs beneath. It also serves to soothe our anxiety when looking at images of lynchings and stike-breakers with machine guns; the narrator lets us know that Roosevelt has a plan and will put the country back on an even keel once more. The parallels with today are striking.

With Freedom in Their Eyes; A photo-essay of Angola – Robert Kramer & Laurie Gitlin

An early victim of European expansion, Angola was ruled by Portugal for over 300 years (between the 1650s until the mid 1970s) which saw ever increasing exploitation of its natural resources and labour as the centuries passed and Portugal’s power in the world declined. Portuguese politics in the twentieth century was defined (and still is) by the Salazar dictatorship, which lasted for 40 years between 1928 and 1968. In order to bankroll his authoritarian and stagnating state, Salazar was heavily dependent on the revenue offered by the colonies which Portugal hung on to like grim death at a time when most of Africa had already gained independence. Inspired by the anti-colonial movements throughout Africa, Angola soon produced its own underground rebel group, the MPLA, which began to fight for an end to Portuguese rule. In the paranoia of a polarised Cold War world as Portugal was a member of NATO it meant that the MPLA naturally looked towards the Communist camp for support, which was forthcoming.

After the demise of Salazar in 1968, his protege Caetano took over and fully intended to keep the authoritarian show on the road. However the times-were-a-changing and the combination of a stagnating economy, rising oil prices after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, social unrest, the unpopular colonial wars and the disgruntled old-guard within the Salazar regime who felt they had been hard-done by the new guy, led to a military coup in 1974. General Spinola tried to install himself as the saviour of Portugal but his action had the unintended effect of lighting the fuse on decades of resentment;  his regime was swept away by mass demonstrations and the army fragmented in what became known as the Carnation Revolution. In the midst of this chaos in Portugal, the MPLA under Agostinho Neto seized their chance and declared independence in Angola. However this success was short lived as the new independent Angola was immediately beset by problems; as well as a legacy of 300 years of colonial rule which had kept the economy and society deliberately underdeveloped, Apartheid South Africa invaded and there was a civil war  between the MPLA and a rival group UNITA (aided by the US and South Africa) which lasted for decades and caused the death of millions through conflict, disease and starvation.

Known primarily as a filmmaker, Robert Kramer was a product of 1960s anti-Vietnam War radicalism in the US who, unlike many of his contemporaries that drifted back into the fold come the 70s, continued to explore anti-capitalist themes throughout his career.  His earliest and most influential work is the film Ice (1969), an early mock-umentary about an armed insurrection in the US, was met with criticism from his fellow radical brethren who were disturbed by his questioning of the nature of activism as well his depiction of the fragmentary tendencies and internal tensions that are inherent within all such groups. In the context of Portugal and Angola, his 1977 film, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, about the aftermath of the 1974 Carnation Revolution can be directly linked with this publication.  Whereas Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal attempts to explore the themes of the harnessing of mass-political power and the residual influence of business/financial/military elites who attempt to reassert their influence in a post-revolutionary society, With Freedom in their Eyes is a straightforward record of the emergence of a newly independent Angola. (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal can be found on Youtube.)

With Freedom in the Eyes is a small book of black and white images, mostly credited to Kramer, accompanied by a text written by Laurie Gitlin. Published in 1976 by the People’s Press in California, this book seeks to document and explain the recent war against the Portuguese. Kramer’s black and white photographs within the book fall into two categories; images of the MPLA guerrillas bristling with crude weaponry and portrayals of newly-free Angolan society getting back to work now that Portuguese have gone. Of the actual fighting itself, we see nothing and in fairness, Kramer was not a photojournalist so he wasn’t going to produce dramatic action photos. Through his images Kramer attempts to portray a society coming to terms with the new found situation in which it finds itself; the presence of armed men, even though they are presented as representatives of the people, serve to disrupt the idealised portrayal of a disciplined and unified society. Here we have a desperately poor people, impoverished materially and culturally for centuries by the Portuguese, trying to keep going. The images are pure documentary record and for the most part the presentation is kept simple. (A half-hearted attempt at graphic design is made with the presence of some black-printed pages accompanied by quotes from Angolan rebel leaders and an round image of a crowd with crosshairs over it – but that’s it.)

Gitlin’s text is simplistic, full of Marxist cliché about the struggle against imperialism and optimistic assertions about the future of an independent socialist Angola which were not to come to pass. Unlike Kramer’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, this book is a very straightforward narrative of the triumph of the rebel struggle for independence; it has none of the complexity or nuances that appear in the movie (in which some of Kramer’s Angolan pictures appear) that attempts to explore the inevitable tensions and conflict that occur in a vacuum once political power is up for grabs. Kramer’s subjectivity in the movie, in which he explicitly asserts that what he is showing are fragmentary snapshots and scenes from an ongoing process, is not present in the book. Instead we have an over- simplified and over-optimistic narrative about the emergence of a free Angola.

Perhaps Kramer the filmmaker was more concerned with the movie in production and let the book slide, or were the photographs merely a sweetener used in order to get access in Angola? He obviously had the talent and the skill to produce complex and layered films but this book just doesn’t compare at all.  Whatever the reason, Kramer obviously relinquished control over his photographs which were then used to illustrate a rather mediocre book. It’s a real shame to imagine what kind of a book he could have made if the images had been presented thoughtfully and the text had been more incisive.

Looters – Tiane Doan na Champassak

The riots that engulfed England between 6 and 10 August, 2011 were the subject of much media commentary which sought to advance explanations for this wave of destruction (the ostensible trigger seems to have been a police shooting incident that occurred two days before the riots.) On the one hand you had die-hard right wingers saying that the whole thing was precipitated by unemployed yobs sponging off the state who needed to get off their backsides and find a job, combined with vaguely muttered semi-racist remarks, all usually accompanied by a yearning to see a return to the good old days of public hangings.  On the other side you had hand-wringing lefties saying that this was a result of a deeper political malaise within a post-colonial post-imperial society, the dissipation of hope in the current economic turmoil, the ghettoisation of ethnic groups as well as institutional discrimination that pervades mainstream social and bureaucratic structures within the UK. Of course, both arguments are rather simplistic; on the one hand you have rioters presented as the scum of the earth while the counter argument saw them as legitimate political activists. While of course unemployment and the current economic situation mean that desperate people without hope are more likely to engage in political action, including violence, to say that all those involved were motivated by a political agenda is fanciful. Once chaos reigns, order breaks down and the normal rules that govern our lives no longer apply.  It’s an intoxicating free for all. Human nature being what it is, some people take advantage of the situation to do a bit of good, old-fashioned, thievery.

Looters – Tiane Doan na Champassak

Britain is the leading proponent in the use of surveillance technology; no other country has demonstrated such a historical eagerness to utilise advances in technologies to document, gather data on and control their population. More recently, assisted by decades of terrorism spilling over from Northern Ireland, the need for robust policing to enforce unpopular policies during the Thatcher era, and the build up of a substantial military-industrial complex that sells quite a lot of lethal and not so lethal weaponry and technology to some very dodgy places (such as many of the regimes in the Middle East that have been in the news of late), the marriage of technology to social control and policing has reached new levels within the UK.  From the humble mug-shot, to the countless CCTV cameras that pepper every street corner and alleyway, the ANPR system that is used to track cars around the country, as well as the ongoing DNA database police project (taken and stored from pretty much anybody they encounter no matter what the outcome of the arrest might be), not to mention the recently discarded (on cost grounds) ‘voluntary’ biometric identity card that was presented as  being a wonderful addition to personal data protection and safety (I would imagine that life would have been made very difficult without one), surveillance and monitoring has become an integral part of everyday life in the UK. Looters – Tiane Doan na Champassak

So all this technology, does it really work?  In the case of CCTV, sort of. Sure, CCTV cameras might discourage crime in certain circumstances or might help in the arrest of people after the event but it doesn’t actually stop the actual crime from taking place. The CCTV camera and the person watching it (if anybody is actually observing it in real-time) is usually located at a distance and powerless to intervene. And if the CCTV camera does discourage crime from happening in one place it is likely just to displace it to another area where these cameras are absent.

Turning to the book itself, a small, self-published softcover that appeared in 2011, na Champassak presents a series of images culled from the internet entitled Looters. Even the title, Looters, immediately evokes a negative response within the viewer in which all sorts of pre-existing subjective views are assigned to what is portrayed by na Champassak. In contrast to the iconic image from the riots, a photograph of the woman leaping from the burning building (here), these images eschew the overt drama of violence in favour of a more considered portrayal of the individuals involved.  The source of each images is not mentioned but each portrait is accompanied by the jpg file name which it was assigned and from a few of these captions  it is possible to ascertain that these images may have been posted on the internet by the authorities in order to identify the individuals concerned. Apart from a succinct quote from Aristotle at the beginning of the book (‘The mother of revolution and crime is poverty’) there is no other text to guide the viewer.

Looters

The images are presented as head-and-shoulder portrait images of individuals, in grainy, indistinct and blurred black and white, which have been heavily cropped (by either na Champassak or the authorities), many of which are so indistinct as to be completely useless for identification purposes.  A number of the subjects of the images have clearly anticipated the CCTV cameras and wear masks or scarves over their faces to disguise themselves rendering the footage quite useless in the case of prosecutions. This work also has resonance within nineteenth century classificatory techniques where individuals were measured, photographed and described with the object of using their physical features as a way to identify a certain ‘type’ of person on sight (criminals, the insane etc.). These techniques have been resurrected  in the use of profiling to identify individuals selected for scrutiny because they meet the definition of those who might be likely to commit a crime. So using the images in the book as a guide, what does the stereotypical looter look like? They seem to be in their teens or early twenties, predominately male, like wearing hoodies or scarves wrapped around their faces and with a better than average chance of coming from an ethnic minority. In that sense, the book does not provide us with anything new; these are the same people we see on crime shows day-in, day-out.

Looters – Tiane Doan na Champassak

If CCTV doesn’t actually do very much to prevent crime it does provide dramatic footage of gritty, real life ‘crime’ for us to derive vicarious entertainment from. In this context an aesthetic of crime is created.  Criminals in the CCTV world are presented in stark film-noirish terms, usually at night or in dimly lit conditions, as indistinct, grainy or heavily pixelated figures, engaged in acts of drama that are far beyond the experience of most viewers. This is the ‘normal’ image of crime. These are the underclass of violent, dangerous, degenerate, unredeemable offenders who pose a constant threat to a society of decent law-abiding folk, which in turn, serves to legitimate and valorise the police who are presented as the last bastion of order in response to the forces of chaos who threaten to overthrow everything we hold dear. Such is the simplified narrative that permeates much of both fictional crime drama and the supposedly objective fly-on-the-wall reality programmes of cops on the beat (where cracks do show they are usually presented as a simplified morality play of an honest ‘good’ cop fighting against the corrupt ‘bad’ cops to do the right thing.) This is a particularly nineteenth century construction of both crime and our response to it which still largely defines the debate in this area. The flaws inherent within a strictly hierarchical, bureaucratic organisation consisting of uniformed, often armed, individuals, possessing special powers and in daily contact with corrosive elements in society, who have the potential to abuse their power and influence to ensure that supposedly fair laws are not applied justly is an area that is never part of the official narrative. Of course the alternative to the police is probably just some form of anarchy.

Looters – Tiane Doan na Champassak

All this surveillance actually appears to have had little or no impact upon the riots themselves. Smart rioters concealed their identities while many others didn’t bother either through ignorance or a simple disregard for possible future consequences. Technology such as CCTV does have an impact upon how the authorities police society but by itself it achieves nothing other than presenting a visual depiction of what happened after the fact, which is used by vested interests, such as the police and politicians, to boost their own importance (and budgets). After all, if  society is not constantly under threat from a dangerous underclass why spend all that money on fancy technology that doesn’t really seem to achieve very much? Unlike photojournalistic representations of rioting, which tends to focus on the drama of violence, Looters represents the helpless gaze of the eye of power looking down upon the disorder and chaos which it was supposed to prevent.

Moi Parizh (My Paris) – Ilya Ehrenburg

Life in the shifting uncertainties of Stalinist Russia, where denunciations, arbitrary arrests and sudden changes in policies meant you could suddenly become an ‘enemy of the people’ overnight, was a nightmare that has left Russian society traumatised to this day. Primarily known as a writer, journalist and poet, the twists and turns of the left-leaning Ehrenburg’s personal history should have meant a one-way trip to the Gulag but he seems to have managed to chart the treacherous waters of Stalinism with aplomb, and, unlike many of his literary contemporaries who tended to end up in a muddy Siberian grave, he was acclaimed and valorised before being allowed to shuffle off this mortal coil in 1967 at the ripe old age (for a Stalinist literary figure) of 76.

His international reputation and the fact that he was living in Paris probably helped to keep Ehrenburg out of the Gulag, but Stalin had a long reach (as Trotsky found out in Mexico) and being a Soviet writer was a dangerous game. To survive well into old age under Stalinism required a certain kind of flexibility and moral dexterity, involving the loss of all sense of personal integrity or morals, an ability to change your opinions in an instant, ratting your colleagues and workmates out before they did the same to you as well as being prepared to snitch on your friends and family to the secret police. Terror and fear poisoned everything.

It was in this context that Ilya Ehrenburg published My Paris, a study in words and images of the underbelly of that great city. Published by the State publisher Izogiz in 1933, and designed by El Lissitzky, (this copy is the faithfully reproduced Steidl reprint of 2005 which helpfully includes an English translation of the Russian text) My Paris is an interesting example of book design and an insight into how the Soviets viewed their proletarian brothers in the West. Ehrenburg’s familiarity with the city made him uniquely qualified to produce a Russian perspective on injustice there for a Soviet audience. This book certainly avoids the pitfalls and clichés that seduce many a chronicler of that iconic metropolis; the Eiffel tower only appears once in the background of a picture of a scruffy building site.

Ehrenburg’s introduction to the book, in which he describes how he used a right angle viewfinder attached to his Leica in order to catch them unawares as he was taking their photograph, does strike me as being rather at odds with his status as a fellow proletarian. As he boasts “I can talk about this without blushing; a writer has his own notions of honesty. Our entire life is spent peeping into windows and listening at the keyhole.”  In his defence we must also admit that he was not a professional photographer used to the rough and tumble of taking photographs on the street and certainly, from personal experience, you soon learn that street-photography can produce some ‘interesting’ reactions from the people you photograph. But this inordinate pride in deception and dishonesty that Ehrenburg displays, in my opinion, speaks volumes about his character.

Ehrenburg used his modified Leica to produce images for a book depicting what he describes as his Paris, the working class areas of the city and the poor that live there. A good portion of the images and text are taken up with depicting the better-off sections of the working class eating, drinking and enjoying themselves, which only serves to heighten the contrast with the homeless and destitute. The result is a procession of images we expect to see from a photographer documenting this kind of subject; dirty streets, comatose men sprawled in the gutter, homeless people huddled on benches, grizzled old women scowling suspiciously, shabby houses and the discarded flotsam and jetsam of material culture picked over by the poor.

Is there any empathy with the people Ehrenburg depicts in this book? I have to say that I can’t see it. Ehrenburg’s work skims over the surface of the human degradation and squalor surrounding him but he doesn’t penetrate beneath the surface of life on the margins. Even the text serves to negate Parisian poverty, describing it in a straightforward manner, showing it as a normal, accepted state of affairs with no solidarity between the different sections of the poor. The individuals in his images are presented as passive and docile. They are browbeaten, broken and selfish people, content to wallow in their bottle of cheap wine after a meal in a restaurant or collapse in the gutter.

In the climate of fear that pervaded Russian society, books just didn’t get printed by State-run publishing houses without layers of bureaucrats being satisfied about the bona fides of the author and the contents. To do otherwise was to shorten your lifespan considerably.  I would imagine that My Paris was regarded as ‘safe’ because it was interpreted by the Soviet authorities as a straightforward representation of systemic problems associated with capitalist society, such as drunkenness, homelessness and unemployment. The individuals he portrays are presented as pitiful downtrodden pawns of capitalism in contrast to the revolutionary fervour of the masses building a bright new future (under Stalin, naturally). This servile attitude is also used to explain why the Russian revolution hadn’t spread westwards across Europe; it was their own fault for being so weak and spineless. The flame lit by the Paris Commune has been passed to the workers of the Soviet Union (led by Stalin of course) who are in the vanguard of progress.

Although Ehrenburg’sbook is ostensibly about Paris, it is really being used to convince a domestic audience about the great strides being made in the Soviet Union.  The formerly revolutionary workers of Paris are no more; that mantle has been assumed by their Soviet counterparts who are now the only hope left for the working masses.

Remnants of the Recent Past – Pip Erken

The abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s meant that suddenly a number of new, supposedly independent, states emerged blinking into a changed world. While ostensibly free to plough their own furrows, these former satellite states are still shackled by the legacy of more than 70 years of centralised planning where local realities were ignored in the decisions made in distant Moscow.

Ukraine, with its agriculture and heavy industry, was a key component in this centralised economic system and was heavily dependent on energy inputs from other parts of the former Soviet Union in order to keep the production rolling. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of those times can be found in Chernobyl, whose crumbling concrete sarcophagus still lurks ominously in northern Ukraine, continuing to invisibly poison the environment and devastate countless lives.

Unlike other newly independent states in the post-Soviet zone, Ukraine has had a long and proud national tradition which has helped to bind the country into a largely cohesive entity (unlike its neighbour Belarus which is effectively a Russian satrap). Preoccupied with dealing with the economic and social trauma of the break-up, Russia was in no position to assert much influence over its new neighbours allowing many to build ties with former Western enemies, such as Nato, a strategy which was designed to prevent future Russian interference.  While many of the former post-Soviet countries are regarded as being distinctly different, Russia considers both Belarus and Ukraine as Slavic brothers who most assuredly fall within their zone of influence.

Looking hopefully to the West while the weight of the past pulls them to the East, the ties that bind this new nation together are being slowly unravelled by competing powers. Politically, economically and socially Ukraine is defined by this struggle. In this conflict, energy, the vital motive force behind a society, becomes a weapon. The pipelines that were laid in Soviet times are crucial conduits of gas and oil that are key to keeping Ukraine working and the Russians have been more than happy to threaten that they would turn off the tap if they didn’t get their way. Additionally, as much of the natural gas that flows from Russia to Europe runs through Ukraine, an additional layer of pressure is added to any events that might jeopardise the EU economy.

Erken’s photographs are a portrait of a country struggling to come to terms with its new and uncertain place in the world. His images produce an account that ties together the varying strands of this invisible geopolitical tug of war and  its impact upon both ordinary individuals and Ukrainian society.  Moving seamlessly between scenes of industry, apartment blocks, coal mines, power stations, desolate landscapes, and everyday people sleeping and drinking, Erken creates a narrative that is refreshingly broad and ambitious in its scope.

The landscape in these images is bleak and heavily polluted; this is a country where the environment has been ravaged by man for decades. Interestingly, the few images of lush greenery and the bright red berries that appear in the book are pictures from the deserted and heavily contaminated zone around Chernobyl.  The promise of the future has been tainted by the legacy of the past.

As a book object this is a wonderfully produced example of what can be done through self publishing. It comes complete with cardboard sleeve which has a small black and white image of a Soviet era dam under construction on the front. Sliding the soft cover book out, there are a number of translucent pages before you get to the book proper. The sequencing and the narrative flow of the images works well, while the deliberate use of different sized pages prevents it from becoming yet another oppressive survey of despair. Despair is most assuredly evident in this work but it is the quiet scream of mute anger and individual powerlessness rather than the shrill cry of the outsiders fleeting outrage that pervades the pages of this book.

Erken’s work is an examination of the human impact of this posturing, portraying an uncertain nation, shackled by history, trapped between their aspirations and the inescapable influence of their larger neighbour who is determined to reassert control.  Unlike other photographic projects documenting the Soviet legacy this is not just another study of rust and squalor; the clichéd gnomic semi-naked alcoholics of Boris Mikhailov are absent here.  Erken’s images are subtle and, in my opinion, all the more effective because of it.