Let There Be A World – Felix Greene

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With the invention of nuclear weapons, mankind now has the ability to destroy everything. Previously, we were limited in the scope and scale of destruction we could create – now we can completely wipe out all life on our planet. That changes everything.

In the context of Cold War tensions between East and West, ostensibly over which long-dead economist was best, the omnipresent threat of global annihilation was the elephant in the room. Sometimes, during periods of crisis, we actually acknowleged the presence of this monster. But most people did their best to suppress this knowledge and get on with everyday life. The arms race between the two blocs was a constant feature of the Cold War with each side vying with the other to come up with more innovative and destructive means of killing each other. Atom bombs became hydrogen bombs, which went from being carried on planes to being stuck on missiles that were able to reach any part of the globe in minutes. This era was defined by immense levels of spending on more and newer weaponry at the expense of everything else. The sheer, immense horror of what was created is staggering to behold for any sane person. Carl Sagan summed up the Cold War arms race best: “Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches. The other has seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger.” But, locked in this cycle of fear and distrust, in the simple binary world of East-v-West any form of dissent was presented as an act of treason. In an attempt to somehow justify this pursuit of  insanity, MAD (Mututally Assured Destruction) was advanced as a serious strategic theory. Now, in the twisted logic and the paranoia of the Cold War, nuclear arsenals were transformed into the guarantors of security and peace. MAD held that our enemies would be prevented from attacking us for fear of retaliation in kind, producing a balance of terror. Various shadowy think tanks devoted time and immense resources towards developing models (such as Game Theory) in an attempt to predict and control the outcomes in this high-stakes global chess game. Yet widespread public disquiet was always present just beneath the surface.

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It is interesting to see how the popular reaction to the power of these weapons shifted through time as expressed in the movies that dealt with the theme. These are important because they show how the unthinkable was presented to audiences riddled with suppressed anxieties about the subject. These movies also had an educational value. By using identifiable characters they taught viewers what kind of behaviour was expected of them in such a crisis. During the 1950s the consequences of such a war were minimised and survival was presented as a very distinct possibility. Social cohesion was paramount and unquestioning deference to authority figures was presented as being the key to our survival. A particularly good example can be seen in the 1954 TV movie, Atomic Attack (sponsored by Motorola no less). Here, all the horror occurs offscreen and we follow an family straight out of 1950s central casting as they anxiously wait for news about pop who cheerfully put on his fedora and went to work after a wholesome all-American family breakfast. Everybody in the ‘burbs looks a bit concerned about New York getting nuked and all that radiation floating around, but the authorities swing into action and soon have everything under control. The wonders of medicine has everybody up on their feet after an inconvenient dose of radiation sickness. No real need to worry. (Alas, poor pop gets fried offscreen but mom cheerfully perseveres to hold the family together in spite of her unspoken fears for the future).

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The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 changed all that. Popular culture, in tandem with the growth of a generation who were more critical of authority, began appreciate the horrors that could be unleashed by such a war. For example, Panic in the Year Zero! (1962) envisaged the need for rugged individualism and a return to the gunslinging, frontier ways in the face of lawlessness (only for a little while – just until the panic subsided and order was restored). But the idea that everything we took for granted would be destroyed utterly had taken root. Indeed, it can be argued that the presence of nuclear weapons directly contributed to the undermining of traditional authority. Now, a younger generation, presented with a clear demonstration of the failure and incompetence of those in charge (who had created this hair-trigger scenario of global annihilation) lost all faith in the idea that those who ruled over the rest of us were somehow smarter and knew what they were doing. Once that happens, then everything is up for grabs. These developments were paralleled in how nuclear war was represented in the popular media.  In Britain this was best explored in the groundbreaking 1965 docudrama by Peter Watkins, The War Game, which portrayed a nuclear attack through the use of traditional documentary filming and editing techniques to produce a fictional film.  This movie so alarmed the Wilson government that they put pressure on the B.B.C. to pull the plug (particularly as it highlighted their embarrasing u-turn on their pre-election pledge about unilateral nuclear disarmament). As was stated afterwards; “In the event, the effect of the film has been judged by the B.B.C. to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Interestingly, this film reflects the recent past insofar as it portrays the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain in distinctly Second World War terms (just as the American version used mythical elements from the Old West to represent the un-representable for a US audience). Thus, nuclear war becomes a form of neo-Blitz with higher casualties, greater destruction and more radiation, with everybody scurrying around in army-surplus tin helmets left over from the previous war. But in this film, for the first time, we see a more detailed exploration of how nuclear war had the potential to change everything. The optimism of earlier representations disappears. Now, viewers were confronted with representations of terror, injured and sick victims, hastily organised mass-cremations of bodies, food-riots (in a rather dated reference, it notes that even the respectable middle-classes may be inclined towards such lawless behaviour), summary executions by military tribunal and a bleak future of radiation poisoning and death. But I suppose it could be argued that all such depictions were inherently optimistic insofar as they envisaged a scenario in which any human beings would be left alive in the aftermath of an overwhelming nuclear assault.

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So, in this atmosphere of raw, palpable fear the anti-nuclear movement grew. Felix Greene, a leading left wing figure (whose book Vietnam! Vietnam! I reviewed previously) edited this protest book published in 1963 by the Fulton Publishing Company of California. Using a mixture of journalistic, commercial stock and official government images, Greene produces a narrative which is an impassioned cry for an end to this collective insanity. (In many cases, these images appear to have been chosen solely for their visual impact rather than accuracy in representation. Photographs made by Ansel Adams, Werner Bischof and Andreas Feininger are all used.) In order to visually represent the invisible dangers posed by radiation, Greene adopts the (probably predictable) strategy of relying heavily upon the imagery of children to illustrate the long term genetic damage caused by exposure to fallout. Such images are used by aid agencies the world over because the message they send is apparently clear and unambiguous, cutting through the empathetic barriers of the viewer who may have difficulty in identifying with distant victims. (By contrast, images of injured adults – who may look different from us, be regarded as our enemies or somehow culpable for their own demise – are less favoured because they may be subject to a more nuanced and less sympathetic response on the part of a distant viewer.) As the text states: “because of the bomb tests already carried out no child anywhere in the world can drink milk that is free of poison caused by radioactive fall-out.” These photographs of healthy and happily innocent children are contrasted with dark images of horrifically deformed, stillborn babies from Nagasaki. The net effect of such an emotive juxtaposition is to produce a causal link between the decisions made in the present with the irrevocable long-term effects they may have upon future generations.

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The next section of the book deals with the legacy of the past. Here, imagery of the civilisations and man’s achievements are combined with a text in which a simplified, linear view of human progress and future development is presented to the reader. The extensive use of black within the design of the book provokes an ominous, unsettling sense of danger. Here, the present generation are presented as a link in a much longer chain that links the past and stretches far off towards a bright future. Nuclear weapons threaten to break this chain. As visual proof of how everything mankind has accomplished so far can be utterly destroyed, Greene uses Japan as a case study. This begins with a full page image of a peaceful Japanese market scene followed by a dramatic double-page spread of post-atomic Hiroshima as a desolate grey wasteland through which a line of dazed survivors trudge. Following this, another double-page spread from Nagasaki appears; here we see a devastated, bleak urban ruinscape populated now by the blackened, charred remains of those who once lived there. The next few pages depict the survivors. Traumatised and clearly in pain, they are shown in a state of shock, passive in the face of imminent death which they are powerless to prevent. Again, women and children feature heavily in these photographs (Yosuke Yamahata’s images from Nagasaki are used extensively). Due to the distinct racial and cultural difference between the Japanese victims of the atomic bombs and the American viewer of the 1960s, the depiction of women and children as primary victims is used as a device to create empathy and serve as a metaphor for lost innocence.

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If the previous sections were used to show just how much of a threat nuclear weapons were to life on Earth, Greene uses the next section to undermine Cold War arguments about security; of course we don’t want to have these horrible weapons, but if the other side has nukes then we have to have more nukes. MAD did produce a stable state of constant terror between East and West but at a tragic cost. In particular, this era saw the emergence of the military-industrial complex as a concept to describe the nebulous military, bureaucratic and commercial interests who all had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Interestingly, the term was first coined by Eisenhower in an unprecedented farewell speech at the end of his term as office as president in which he warned against this shift of power to unaccountable forces that posed a threat to democratic accountability (Khrushchev termed the Soviet equivalent as the Metal-Eaters alliance). Greene shows us the slick new products of military spending with new missiles rolling off the assembly line ready to be launched from their silos. Yet the security this technology appears to offer is elusive; an image of a pile of junked fighter planes, yesterday’s high-tech wonder-weapons, is captioned with a quote from Eisenhower: “we pay for a single fighter plane with half a million bushels of wheat …Is there no other way this world can live?” The answer to this is provided in the final section of the book which offers a sliver of optimism (in distinctly modernist terms). Although science and technology have brought us to the brink of disaster, it is not too late; they can be used to provide a better future for us all.

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In the context of early 1960s society, shocked to the core by the Cuban Missile Crisis, fuelled by paranoia and repressed anxiety about the omnipresent possibility of nuclear annihilation, the traditional deference to political authority broke down, particularly amongst the young. Horrified by the nuclear trap that the generation who had fought in the Second World War had bequeathed them, they turned against it. For those who wanted a change in this terrifying status quo their argument was persuasively simple; reduce the tension and get rid of the nukes because the alternative was mass extinction. There was no alternative. Morally, the possession and use of such weapons is completely indefensible. There is no argument you can use to counter calls for peace in these terms. In response, those in authority shifted the debate by arguing that such calls would play into the hands of their enemies and place the Western world in jeopardy. This book is an attempt on Greene’s part to rebut these claims by creating a photo essay that links the past and the future with the terrifying present in an attempt to convince the viewer that this insanity cannot go on. For most of us, such debates have been happily consigned to the past and appear of little relevance today. The problem appears to have been solved. Yet, despite the collapse of the political systems that spawned this terrible arms race, the arsenals remain. While arguments about dead economists no longer have the potential to destroy us all, other factors that produced this situation (such as rivalry between competing states over the control of resources) remain in firmly place. But in the holiday from history we have taken since the end of the Cold War, we just don’t want to think about it.

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Occupy London – Ed Thompson

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I’ve talked about the photographic representation of the Occupy movement previously so this book makes a an interesting addition to the subject. Made by photographer Ed Thompson, this small self-published book is focussed upon the nocturnal aspect of the Occupy London encampment during 2011. This was particularly contentious in  London as elements of the mass media continually suggested that the protestors were mere day-trippers who went back home at night rather than being prepared to rough it overnight. Whether or not people sleep in a tent or in bed is irrelevant to the actual political message being disseminated but in such situations the weaker party (the protestors) have to be squeaky clean. Any tiny aspect that can be used to undermine the credibility of their message is blown out of all proportion.

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While the fiction is promulgated that the right to protest is enshrined as a cornerstone of liberal democracy, the reality is that mass public demonstrations and gatherings will always be viewed as a threat by those who hold the levers of power. Over the past decade or so there has been a steady erosion of civil liberties in the UK that can, in part, be traced back to the widespread public disquiet surrounding the Iraq War of 2003. This has meant that public protest has increasingly been presented as a near-criminal activity. While the legal framework surrounding the right to protest may present it as being perfectly legitimate and permissible, the fact that the subjects of protest (governments and other powerful institutions or bodies) largely define the boundaries of legality/illegality gives them a lot more power. This power can be used to undermine public expressions of discontent through redefining events; minor aspects of bad behaviour within a crowd become a threat to public order that requires more “robust” policing. Or sanitation and health & safety issues suddenly become an excuse for the dispersal of protest encampments. As long as they don’t alienate middle class opinion through disproportionate displays of over-reaction or violence, the authorities usually get away with such measures.

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The 1960s were the high point in mass-protest and counter-culture movement, largely as a reaction against the stifling orthodoxy imposed by a previous generation (itself traumatised by world war) as well as the omnipresent danger of nuclear annihilation that served to undermine the credibility of those in authority (their bungling incompetence had stoked the creation of a horrific balance of terror between East and West so their credibility to rule us was shot). But, the high hopes of the 1960s were followed by the stagnant 70s, the free-market 80s, the end-of-history 90s, the booming, globalised 2000s, and the current aimless slump. While the mass protest of the 1960s undoubtedly produced social change the political system adapted and survived. It did so by accommodating calls for change within the political system (the “inside” versus “outside” the tent argument) and negating the effect of radical politics. So successful was this strategy that many of the young radical figures of the 1960s and 70s are today’s stuffy politicians. Or to use a simpler term: they sold out. In this context, we no longer believe in the idea that we can change the world through sweeping mass political action. Instead (in the developed world) we are seeing the emergence of movements based upon single issues, such as climate change or aspects of economic injustice, which maintain support for a limited period. In the short term, an established political system is well able to deal with such challenges through the tried and tested processes of negotiation or compromise. However, in the long term, our growing scepticism in the ability of politics-as-usual to respond to the growing challenges of societies which have long since outgrown the simplified answers that structures based upon eighteenth century ideas of rational governance can provide, means that the scope for alternatives will grow. What form they take is anybody’s guess.

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In part this can be seen in the presence of the Guy Fawkes masks that appear in many images of protest we see from around the world. Here, a historical figure associated with a failed plot to destroy the English parliament, is recontextualised as an icon of protest for today. Furthermore, the fact that the mask,  popularised by a Hollywood movie and sold on Amazon, has appeared throughout the world in such situations demonstrates how much has changed between the 1960s and today. Nowadays, protestors incorporate motifs from Hollywood (the main cheerleader of the capitalist dream) in their rejection of capitalism, a paradox that is striking in itself.

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Unlike much of the other photographic work that has examined this subject, Thompson has solely focussed on the protest at night (like Occupied Spaces by Ben Roberts). Here, through Thompson’s effective use of chiaroscuro, individuals and groups are shown highlighted against the darkness that surrounds them. In his introduction, Thompson references Caravaggio, a comparison that sets the bar quite high.  Thompson’s images show us the evolving Occupy movement grow in size and complexity as more and more disparate individuals are drawn to this experiment in social organisation. Far from the night being a time of dispersal and inaction, Thompson’s photographs show us a place of vibrancy and activity. There is also a seductive grandeur to these images (not captured by the lousy images shown on this blog post) due to this interplay between light and dark. Returning to Caravaggio, Thompson’s photographs do work well in evoking and recontextualising the representative conventions of Christian iconography and history painting in a new setting. Thompson presents us with scenes of “great deeds” as the forces of good versus evil are locked in an epic struggle for the soul of London (and the world).

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This book uses a number of different elements to produce a narrative of the Occupy London which attempts to capture the aspirations and enthusiasm of this complex gathering of disparate individuals. It reproduces short texts from a number of those involved in the movement that examine a number of issues, including what was achieved, as well as the legal debates and battles surrounding the nocturnal eviction. Through the effective use of typography, photography and design, the book is a sophisticated attempt to delve deeper into the layers of this event and it does so very effectively. The only aspect I would change would be the size – the images have a grandeur that a bigger book would convey. That being said, it is a very important book about a period of recent history, the ripples of which will undoubtedly emerge once again in the near future.

For more and better quality images of this work check out the photographer’s website: http://www.edwardthompson.co.uk/occupy.html

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.

Yes to A Rosy Future – Nicholas Righetti

Yes to a Rosy Future Nicholas Righetti

The civil war in Syria has been going on for more than two years now and it looks to have reached a stalemate at the moment. As well as the unfamiliarity with the region and society by foreign audiences, the fact that both sides appear to have been tainted with accusations of war crimes makes it difficult to generate interest in anything that might stop the violence. This is in part due to the over-hyped media-generated optimism of the Arab Spring that was capable of producing a simple news story of people fighting for “freedom” against repressive regimes. However, although the rulers may have changed the underlying conditions and problems that generated the protest are a lot more difficult to resolve (and are a lot less dramatic so there is no media interest in exploring them.) The people at the top may have gone but much of the social and economic conditions that produced the anger remain. Unfortunately, the lesson is that you can’t escape your history no matter what politician attempts to convince you otherwise. History is like a dead weight dragging a society down, circumscribing choices and preventing alternatives. Unlike Libya which was isolated, had no big-power allies prepared to help and could be presented to the Western public as a Star Wars-like struggle between the heroic rebel-alliance and the evil baddies, Syria defies simplification. (Libya is a lot more complicated also but there is no interest in talking about yesterday’s boring news.) As an aside, it was interesting to see how the Western media presentation of Ghadaffi went from being a sinister, Machiavellian orchestrator of terror back in the 1980s, into a laughable clown during the 2000s when Bush and Blair used his renouncing of a (fairly crude and small scale) WMD programme to retrospectively justify the Iraq war, to reverting back to the arch villain once Nato got involved. (Not that I have any sympathy for Ghadaffi or Assad – two brutal dictators who have committed horrible, horrible crimes.)
assad1But back to Syria. It’s complicated. Really complicated. And to add to the mix, there are a lot of big international players in this game and they all have their own agendas. And the pursuit of these agendas are costing lots and lots of lives. The prize that these players are looking at is who gets to run post-Assad Syria (or whatever takes its place) and they all want to make sure that it suits them. Of course, in the long term Assad’s finished. He can hold out for a long time (maybe years) and kill a lot of people in order to hang on to his position but the scale of the rebellion against him means that, sooner or later, he’s going to go.  As a gesture of reform the regime may even ditch Assad and replace him with a “moderate” figure, but as so much blood has been spilled that is probably not going to work as a long term solution. But for Syria the real question is how much carnage will be caused by the continuing war, what forces will be unleashed by this horror that will traumatise and haunt the population for decades to come and whether it will be possible to have some sort of functioning society in the future. I fear that Syria is on a downward spiral for many years to come.
assad2Bashar al-Assad wasn’t supposed to be in charge of Syria – he was handed the job of dictator from his father Hafez al-Assad, who grabbed power in a military coup during the 1970s (Bashar’s older brother Bassel had been groomed for the job but he was killed in a car crash while rushing to the airport in the 1990s). Syria was yet another construction of Imperial meddling in the aftermath of the post-First World War carve up of the Ottoman Empire with an arbitrarily drawn national entity being placed in the French sphere of influence. After decolonization there was an attempt to  create a Pan-Arab super-state under the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party in the 1960s, of which Egypt, Iraq and Syria were the three big players (that’s why their black-white-red tricolour flags all look so similar). Now the Ba’ath’s idea was to create a modern, progressive state guided by moderate Islamic values and principles (which actually made them violently opposed to all forms of Islamic fundamentalism). All fine in theory, but building utopia is usually accompanied by purges, executions of opponents, and widespread terror to enforce social change. Anyway, three strong-men with egos all vying to be the one in charge of the new unified Arab state was not going to work out well. Although the three countries joined forces to attack Israel in 1973 and almost succeeded in their attempt (leading to increased Israeli interest in nukes) the idea of a single Arab state quickly fell apart.
assad3A small publication by Trolley Books in 2012, Yes to A Rosy Future consists of square images of Assad’s posters combined with slogans and quotes from his speeches that subverts the regime’s propaganda through exposing the hollowness that lies behind the icon of power.  Like many other similar regimes in the region, Assad’s image is everywhere. But unlike Saddam who liked to play dress-up and was depicted in everything from traditional Arab costume to military supremo, Assad is shown mainly in sober business suits that make him look like a fairly dull, unimaginative middle-manager. He looks like a safe pair of hands. Grand visions for the future and rabble rousing are not his thing. He certainly doesn’t exude any of the charisma associated with dictators (no doubt his speech impediment, inheriting the family job and being a spare part for most of his life have defined his position.)  So what is the purpose of all this imagery? Well, Righetti made these photographs during the last election campaign in 2007 when, in theory, Assad was returned with 97% of the vote as president (the title of the book comes from one of the slogans used in the election campaign.) But of course, such elections in a dictatorship are utterly without meaning but they do serve as a way to force people to demonstrate their active loyalty and support for the regime in a manner reminiscent of a medieval serf paying homage to the ironclad gangster who demands obsequious public devotion in order to validate his claim to be lord of the realm.
assad4But from the scale and ferocity of the violence, we can see that this apparent display of loyalty was a sham, devoid of all meaning for substantial parts of the population. However in a totalitarian state where the secret police are constantly watching for signs of dissent and disloyalty a strange game is played with icons of the glorious leader. Within an insecure and paranoid regime, any sign of dissent becomes a threat. For the regime, enemies are everywhere. Arrests are made to produce fear and maintain control over the population. Thus, in this climate of fear, the image of the leader starts to appear everywhere. He becomes a religious icon whose purpose is to ward off evil spirits in the form of the authorities. Think about it; if everybody else has pictures of the leader plastered over their houses then by not doing the same you are asking for trouble. A one-way ticket to a jail cell and torture would probably be the result for your outward display of non-conformity. By not putting up the picture of leader you are in effect refusing to go along with the idea that he is the divine ruler of the magic kingdom in which you live. So as a means of self-preservation the portrait of the leader becomes a talisman that people hide behind in a dictatorship. But it doesn’t end there; it creates a self-reinforcing cycle of ever increasing demonstrations of loyalty as people begin to display the icon everywhere at home and in public because to do otherwise could be regarded as a sign of you not being 100% committed. But of course this outward display usually hides the fact that whatever initial popular support might have been held at the beginning of their rule has collapsed over time (usually endemic corruption quickly erodes the initial ideals of the revolution) until it is reduced to meaningless slogans as paranoia and fear consume everything.
assad5This can be seen Righetti’s image of a bored looking man holding up a poster, demonstrating the utter farce this ritual of public adoration has been reduced to. Assad’s portrait, large and small, consumes both public and private spaces from huge billboards to small posters and stickers on menus and shop shelves, apparently showing his complete dominance of the public and private realm. But the presence of Pepsi and mobile phone ads alongside images of the leader show that his monopoly of power has been undermined by the outside world, whose enticing images of an apparently glamorous lifestyle provide a threat to the control the totalitarian regime exercises over its people. The bubbles and creases in the images puncture the idealised facade presented by the regime. Similarly, adopting an Orwellian metaphor, Righetti repeatedly uses the Big Brother motif of Assad’s eye peering down, monitoring and watching his subjects, such as the image of the crowd scene. But, this eye of power is blind. It no longer has the power to intimidate or control. All it can do is look helplessly down as popular support turns into grudging conformity backed by the threat of violence, until that too collapses.

A video of the book and exhibition can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USTARVFBGkI

Occupy Photography – Shaun Hines

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As any reader of the blog knows I’ve been interested in discussing photography surrounding the recent Occupy Movement. As such, I’d be more than happy to post links to photographers work on this issue. So if you do have some work you’d like to share then send me an email with a link to your website.

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Shaun Hines work is an extensive and long running documentation of the Occupy London encampment which captures the different layers and issues surrounding the protest, including the attempts at removing the camp from the precincts of St Paul’s Cathederal.

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His second body of work, ‘The Signs of That Time‘ documents the various placards and signs that accompanied the Occupy London protest.

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.

Occupied Spaces – Ben Roberts & The Ninety-Nine Percent – Mathieu Asselin

Economic turmoil has always gone hand in hand with social unrest. The new Great Global Depression we are currently experiencing has been no exception (let’s call it what it is). While the news media gravitates toward the spectacular scenes of  riots and violence that emerge from Greece, a country that has been pushed to the brink through a toxic combination of ideological blindness, economic lunacy, corruption, greed, coercion and incompetence on the part of political and economic elites, both foreign and domestic, who are keen to pursue their own particular agendas at the expense of ordinary people, popular discontent is emerging elsewhere. Certainly it would appear that the very fabric of Greek society is unravelling as it spirals ever downwards; whatever happens in the grand macro-economic scheme the consequences of this trauma upon Greece will continue to haunt it for many decades to come. The cold economic statistics disguise the countless lives cut short or lost through health problems, heart attacks and suicide caused by the sudden shock of having your life ripped apart, not to mention the stunted prospects and aspirations of ordinary people left without hope and trapped in a situation of mere survival.  But challenges to the status quo have emerged more recently through the Occupy Movement which spread to many cities throughout the globe during 2011. However the two central encampments were located in New York and London, the homes of world finance where the foundations of the current global financial meltdown were laid down, and are the subject of the two publications discussed here.

Grass-roots political activism is a terrifying prospect for established political elites who seek to frame issues and debates in such a way that they can control and potentially use for electoral gain.  Professional politicians of all shades tend to be like leeches; they use their experience and the leadership positions they hold in order to latch on to a particular issue and bleed it dry of any meaningful significance (through either support or criticism; it matters not which) and turn it into pre-packaged sound-bites which they know our increasingly frenzied news media will leap on.  This is just the way representative democracy works. However, the distinguishing feature of the Occupy Movement was that it had no central leadership, being a disparate group of individuals brought together by a shared sense of injustice about the various issues which they felt passionate about. This of course is both a source of strength and also of weakness; by having no centralised leadership structure it is very difficult for opponents to undermine such a group because there is no central point to focus their attacks upon. However, this structure is also inherently weak in that what you get is a confusing cacophony of various messages about a range of issues that will not impact upon the wider public. Capturing middle-class public opinion is the key in order for protest to create a momentum for change. But middle-class opinion is inherently conservative (they have mortgages to pay and families to feed) and tend to be attached to established political parties so this lack of a central message meant that it was easy for them to be swayed by arguments that presented protestors as cranks whose demands were unworthy of serious consideration.

Looking at the first publication, Occupied Spaces by Ben Roberts, a 28 page book published by HERE Press bound in red cord, we are presented with a series of images documenting the interiors of the London tent encampment. Beginning with the cramped interior of individual tents stuffed with personal possessions and sleeping bags before moving on to the larger, comparatively cavernous tents which have been established as canteens and educational spaces complete with sofas and pianos we are presented with images of something that is neither wholly temporary or permanent.  Although individual protestors are absent from the images their presence is etched upon the very fabric of the personal possessions that are presented to us. Sleeping bags that have seen countless cold, wet and dreary nights, scrounged bits of furniture, battered guitars, cardboard boxes serving as tables and hand-made placards all serve to represent the determination and resilience of those who voluntarily chose to inhabit these uncomfortable spaces for so long.  By camping out on the streets, the Occupy Movement was attempting to signal their sincerity and determination to press for change and ensure that the pressure would be kept up.  However, one of the main arguments used by opponents of the protest in London was that the tents were mostly empty. This narrative served to attack the credibility of the protest and undermine the legitimacy of the issues they raised; it cast doubt upon the scale of the protest movement, questioned the commitment of the protestors who weren’t prepared to sleep overnight on the street and, most importantly, attempted to represent the protestors as engaging in active deception. In essence, the media message was what else are the protestors lying about? Instead of engaging with legitimate issues and concerns raised by the protest the media debate shifted to discussions surrounding the moral character of the protestors. Powerful people never have to justify themselves; protestors always have to be squeaky clean if they are to be credible. Fear of moral outrage is also the reason why the authorities usually attempt to clear such encampments in the dead of night (using the pretext of sanitation concerns or health and safety to legitimise their actions) and preferably keep their actions hidden from public scrutiny, which is exactly what happened in London.

Turning to the second publication, The Ninety-Nine Percent by Mathieu Asselin, this work presents a series of individual portraits of protestors made in a temporary studio within New York’s Zuccotti Park, printed in the format of a newspaper with a print run of 1000 (900 were distributed free of charge on the streets of the city.)  Using a newspaper format, for me, is significant; the traditional news media, in spite of the internet, are still perceived as more reliable in the public mind as a source of truth and their reporting of events forms the broad parameters of debate within which an issue is viewed by middle-class opinion. The photographer has clearly built up an engagement with each individual he photographs and this comes through in the final images which exhibit a vibrancy that can only be attained once a rapport has been established. Presented in a grid format over three pages, the portraits serve to present a snap-shot in time of a spontaneous movement made up of courageous (committed protest takes courage) and idealistic individuals whose only weapon is moral outrage against injustice.  Returning to my earlier comments, these images, in my opinion, also highlight one of the main weaknesses of the Occupy Movement; corporate greed, the ending of US military involvement abroad, environmental concerns, unemployment, voter registration, Wall Street fat cats, GM food, health-care, police brutality, Puerto Rican independence, Monsanto, Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and Fox News are just some of the very legitimate and pressing issues raised by the protestors in these photographs. However, if public protest is to result in any movement on the part of political elites then it must reach middle-class opinion (who politicians ignore at their peril) and the lack of a single coherent message left the space open for media attacks which discredited the Occupy Movement in the eyes of this influential social group.

The Occupy Movement because of its structure was always going to find it difficult to battle on equal terms with the vested corporate, financial and political groups who wield immense power within society. However the strength of a just argument presented by a sincere and committed individual or group with integrity is a great leveller. That is the reason why it is so feared.