The Moskvich Automobile Factory (Автомоскбиц)


Cars are powerful symbols of progress and modernity. As well as symbolising personal freedom and choice for individuals, they also conveyed an aura of industrial sophistication, national pride and power for countries that were able to produce them. In the Soviet context, the crash industrialisation of the 1930s and the demands of war production during the 1940s meant that making automobiles for ordinary people was not a priority. Cars were reserved for important officials, not mere mortals.


That all changed after the death of Stalin in 1953. People were sick of unrelenting terror and exhausted by hard-work and violence. They wanted to see the tangible results of all the sacrifice, death and destruction that had occurred over the past two decades. The idea of scrimping, saving and making-do in order to help build some glorious communist future had lost its appeal to a new generation. People wanted the good things in life and they wanted them now. This became all the more evident as consumer culture took off in the West and began to slowly seep in through the cracks of the Iron Curtain. Thus car production served as a way to demonstrate that life was getting better and it was capable of competing with the shiny wonders being churned out in the West.


As part of the reparations after the Second World War, much of the Opel factory and machinery was dismantled and taken back to the USSR where it was used to update the MZMA car that had been turning out copies of Ford Model A cars and vans since 1929. The new German equipment was used to update the line and the factory soon began to turn out rebranded copies of 1930s Opel Kadett’s, now called the Moskvich 400, for the Soviet market. From this a new line of models evolved during the next four decades of the USSR’s existence. Moskvich cars were small, rugged and cheap, designed for the average respectable Soviet citizen who didn’t rock the boat. In a society where money had little meaning (because the dysfunctional Soviet planned economy was incapable of producing things people actually wanted, there was nothing much to buy in the shops) the possession of consumer goods signified your importance and status in Soviet society. It showed that you were well connected and had influence. Ever since they were invented, cars have always been a very public way of showing off to the neighbours.

The book has a traditional company photobook format: it’s designed to showcase the product, the modern, efficient factory and the good care it takes of its employees. Published by the Ministry of Automobile Production, the cover of red leatherette with the company logo stamped into it is designed to impress. As part of a corporate rebranding exercise in the late 1960s, the MZMA name was ditched and an equally awful name chosen – AZLK (Avtomobilny Zavod imeni Leninskogo Komsomola or Leninist Communist Youth League Automobile Factory). Sadly the rest of the book design does not do such a good job. Using randomly chosen bright primary colours as page borders and for text printed over the photographs doesn’t work very well. The word kitsch springs to mind. I’m tempted to suggest that these represent the different colours the car was available in but somehow I don’t think so. The cars depicted appear to be the final model produced, the Moskvich 412, which rolled out of the Moscow factory between 1967 and 1976 before production was transferred to the huge IZHMASH weapons and motor manufacturing plant. No details of the photographers or even the date of publication is given but a photo caption proudly states that the 16 of August 1974 saw the 2 millionth Moskvich produced.


Beginning with a lineup of the different models produced over the years, the book moves into the factory itself. Here we see industrious workers and supervisors presiding over all aspects of the production within a bilious green environment. Once we move into the assembly line the colour palette lightens, helped by the addition of brightly coloured car bodies that serve the same purpose as the strategically placed figure in the red jacket used by postcard photographers of old. Like most company photobooks, the shop floor in such imagery is remarkably spotless; not a hint of clutter or rubbish that might hint at problems. The vastness of the factory is continually emphasised in the images to show the power and might of this industrial powerhouse. Everything is neat, tidy and clinically efficient and many of the images are remarkable for the absence of people in them, all adding to the hi-tech feeling the book tries to convey. Once the final cars roll off the line, a disapproving image of Lenin glowers down from above, undoubtedly dismayed at the sight of such consumerist frippery.



Just like corporate propaganda in the capitalist world, it’s important in such photobooks to have a section showing how well the company looks after it’s loyal workers. Again, we see interior shots of bright, clean and modern dining areas, corridors, classrooms full of eager young workers ready to do their bit for the glory of socialism. A couple of pages later we get to the middle management who look a decidedly more serious bunch, shown doing serious party political work that culminates in a trip to the war memorial to lay a wreath. Images of swimming pools, sports facilities, kindergartens and toy Moskvich pedal cars rolling off the production line are all used to show that a Soviet company, unlike those in the West, really cares about it’s employees.


The 1970s were a pretty miserable decade for design all round but Soviet products of that era are particularly crude. Everything from cameras to cars became clunky, blocky objects as if they’d been designed by a kid in a kindergarten using crayons. In fairness, the Moskvich wasn’t as ugly as the Lada which really just looked like a cavity block on wheels. But the wider point is that any attempt at making an object look aesthetically pleasing disappeared. In part this was down to the creeping malaise that took hold in the USSR during the Brezhnev era. Everybody just stopped caring during this prolonged period of economic and social stagnation. This book with its brightly coloured borders, full of images of cleanliness and order tries hard to project an aura of success at a time when the whole system was slowly rotting away from the inside.

P.S. The AZLK company went bust following the collapse of the USSR and the factory was abandoned. Some urbex photos of the site can be found here.



Photomontage and Religion during the 1930s – the J.O.C.


As part of the general malaise of the 1930s (a decade characterised by uncertainty, political extremism and widespread unemployment) mass political movements sprang up on both the left and right throughout Europe. During periods of social flux there is always an increased tendency for people to affiliate themselves with groups that provide mutual support and direction when confronted by an uncertain environment. But the mass political movements of the 1930s did not emerge in a vacuum; they adopted tried and tested strategies to recruit and bind a diverse range of people to their cause. Indeed, many of the outward rituals, processions and insignia of mass political movements copied the strategies successfully used by the Christian church for thousands of years. This made sense; people would have been familiar and comfortable with such religious symbolism, rituals and concepts due to the high rate of religious observance in Europe during this time. Not to mention the fact that European society is built upon countless references to Christian doctrine that has shaped its evolution. Therefore, it made sense to exploit this familiarity by creating your own versions of the symbols, rituals, processions, martyrs, mass-gatherings, saintly figures and messiahs that people were already comfortable with. All the mass political movements of the 1930s privileged concepts such as discipline, order and the collective good. Individualism was regarded as anathema to their political philosophies. In essence what you saw at this time was the emergence of politics-as-religion. But instead of putting your faith in God in heaven, you were expected to place your trust in the party and the leader who was destined to lead society to a happy future.

Jocistes 1937

But this blurring of the boundaries and the growth of politics-as-religion was also reflected in new structures emerging from within the Catholic church. Early in the twentieth century, a Belgian Catholic priest, Joseph Cardijn, had founded a movement called the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne, which translates as the Young Christian Workers (or JOC for short with members known as Jocistes). This organisation has a distinctly socialist slant to it, combining trade union and labour activism with ideas of social-justice, alongside Catholic religious teaching. As such, it was remarkably popular and received official Papal blessing in the mid 1920s, before quickly expanding to other countries and is still in existence today. In part, the growth of this organisation can be regarded as the church responding to the changing priorities of those living in a modern, industrial world. Previously, social values based on outward respectability ensured automatic compliance. Deference to authority and outward conformity to religious dogma were the norm in societies heavily influenced by Catholic doctrine. But this was all changing. Social trauma and widespread loss of faith after the horrors of the First World War, industrialisation, urban alienation, mass unemployment and political turmoil all meant that change was in the air. Young people were looking for meaning and purpose. Thus the JOC can be regarded as an attempt to recapture the dissatisfied youth of the 1930s who were slowly drifting out of the orbit of the traditional Catholic church. Here, the anxieties and concerns of the young were framed in a way that was made compatible with Catholic doctrine and an organisational structure created to give meaning and certainty to individuals during a period of uncertainty.

Jocistes 1937

The first publication, Une Date Dans l’Histoire Ouvriere, was published in 1937. This booklet celebrates the tenth anniversary of the founding of the French branch of the JOC, which saw a mass gathering of 85,000 members in Paris on 18 July of that year. Our familiarity with the mass-rallies of the left and right that occurred during that decade does resonate when looking at these photographs. Lines of uniformed Jocistes, banners and flags being carried, torchlit processions, rows of people standing to attention in stadiums immedately evokes how political ovements of the period presented themselves. Discipline and order was in the air. Individualism is bad. And fun is most definitely not part of the equation. The narrative structure of the book is fairly straightforward: photographs show members at work, then travelling to Paris from all over France, congregating for the mass rally and being addressed by their leaders. This is all designed to showcase the great strides the movement has made in just ten years. Design wise, this publication reflects the influence of this period. There are some nice design touches and the photomontage works well to provide some drama to what could otherwise be a rather static visual narrative.


Entitled Croisade Ouvriere (The Workers Crusade) this second softcover magazine is a very interesting publication produced by the JOC two years later. This time it commemorates a mass gathering/pilgrimage they made to Rome in 1939. Obviously, that was a momentous year for Europe and the storm clouds had been gathering for some time and the date on the back cover of the book is September of that year, the same month that Germany invaded Poland and World War 2 began in Europe. As can be imagined, peace is an recurring theme of the book. As is solidarity and the unity of mankind, another hot topic of the period. Again, like the previous publication, the basic narrative is a simple story about members of the organisation, from all walks of life, coming together to celebrate their beliefs publically by travelling to Rome. Where it differs from the previous publication is the production quality and the graphic design which produces a real sense of energy and drama in a strong package.

The book begins with a cloudy seascape which is then followed by a close-up of an apartment block, a black-framed view through a window of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, followed by a montage of male and female industrial workers over a series of train tracks, before finishing with a view of a railway station, with a waiting train belching steam, all viewed through the prison-like bars of a railing. The accompanying text is spread over the five opening pages. Translated (my own – so this is open to correction) from French it reads: “In this troubled world – through our obscured horizons – clarity – people from all industries march to Rome.” This initial image-text combination sets the tone for the rest of the book and clearly sets out the main ideological message promoted by the JOC; that in the midst of turmoil people should can rely on the spiritual guidance offered by the Catholic church.

A page then offers us a strange cartoon of St Francis of Assisi superimposed upon a photograph of a town (presumably Assisi?). The relevance of this figure here presumably has more to do with his renunciation of his inherited nobility and his concern for the poor and downtrodden rather than animal welfare issues. On the facing page is an image designed to resemble a Roman tablet with an inscription stating that twenty thousand people young people left their factories, workshops, offices and cities to participate in this gathering. Both of these images are designed to reassure viewers that this relatively new mass movement was firmly located at the heart of the traditional, and familiar, structures of the Catholic church. This is reaffirmed by the images on the following pages which depict St Peter’s Basilica and images of a beaming Pope Pius XI engaging with an appropriately deferential and scruffy looking Parisian train engineer, complete with Charlie Chaplin moustache.

After that we get into some of the strongest visual images in the book which serve as a link between Christian iconography and the workplace. Entitled Who Knows how the Workers Live, this section shows the factories and mills of the young workers who, thanks to adherence to the values espoused by the JOC, are helping to create a better society for all. Bordered by chains, we have a montage of male and female workers in factory settings, linking this work to the slavery of the past. These images are accompanied by quotes from various popes, showing their understanding and concern for those who work in the mechanised world, asserting that they are working to liberate the oppressed from the conditions they toil under. This is followed by a montage of an infant bordered by newspaper cuttings that catalogue the breakdown of social values (as defined by the Catholic church naturally) including such items as divorce, infidelity, suicide, infanticide. The shrill newspaper headlines contrast with the peaceful image of the baby in order to produce the message that the JOC will assist in creating a better society for our children and our children’s children (a standard claim of every social organisation that ever came into being).aJOC07

Reinforcing the message of peace, an image of birds in flight (presumably doves) is juxtaposed against dark images of aeroplanes in an ominous prediction of the death and destruction that would soon be visited from the air. In a family of man moment, a photomontage shows the different people of the world all united by the church while the opposite page shows a seated Pius XII presiding over a religious institution that has, according to the caption, provided 20 centuries of stability. Other images show beaming workers looking to the future superimposed over images of fields, technology and blueprints, demonstrating that the movement had fully embraced the innovations of the modern world in building a better future. The final page, the past and present are linked through pairing a Roman triumphal arch with a modern factory worker. Much of the rest of the book is devoted towards the architectural glories of Rome, including an acetate map showing the highlights. These images serve to bridge the gap between the old and new. The JOC were offering a new version of the church that the young could buy-in to while at the same time reassuring them that their message was firmly rooted in the traditions of the past. This emphasis on continuity was probably also designed to satisfy rivals within the Catholic hierarchy who in the internecine office politics played out within this organisation were undoubtedly heavily resistant to anything that even looked like change. Parallels with the present are evident. A two thousand year old institution carries a lot of baggage.

Jocistes 1939

The JOC movement of the 1930s can be regarded as an attempt by an old religious institution to come to terms with the pace of social change. Older forms of automatic deference were breaking down during a period of social and political turmoil so they needed to change the way they did business in order to maintain their relevance. The days of simply being able to awe the peasantry with the power and majesty of gold encrusted buildings whilst simultaneously preaching the benefits of passively accepting a life of squalor were over. A key part of getting their message across was the use of modernist graphic-design and photomontage techniques to engage with a younger, media savvy audience who had little time for the stuffy old ways of the past. The JOC needed to tread a fine line between emphasising their coolness and relevance whilst also ensuring that links to the past were maintained. In many ways, this movement can be regarded as a forerunner to the social activism and the ideals of Liberation Theology that emerged amongst the Catholic clergy in Latin America after the second world war. In both cases, the traditional structures and institutions of the church were regarded as remote and irrelevant to the real concerns and injustices experienced in everyday life. A new purpose had to be found that would get people to buy-in to the ideals of the Catholic church. This constant need to reinvent itself in order to remain relevant to its membership at a time of rapid change is something that the Catholic church, and other religious groups, still struggle with to this day.

Some personal thoughts about the state of art photography


Much of what this blog does is discuss how powerful people try to manipulate and control others through the use of images and propaganda.

So lets apply this to how the art photography world works.

There is a lot of noise out there these days about the current state of photography as a whole. It feels as if there is a huge weight pressing down on us. Anybody who cares passionately about the medium can sense it. Behind the bluster and self-promotional aggrandizement there is a palpable sense of malaise eating away at the heart of photography.

This crisis goes far deeper than stale, circular debates about visual culture, changing technology, an image-saturated world or the crisis of representation.
Right now the photography scene is rightly convulsed by a sexual harassment scandal. Various institutions and bodies that only a couple of weeks ago were fawning over a self-proclaimed guru are now scurrying around trying to distance themselves from him. The issue of sexual harassment within photography has been well and truly been put on the map.

Not before time.

The basic dynamic is this: a powerful individual preys on weaker and vulnerable people. He uses his position of power and influence to intimidate, silence and manipulate others for his own selfish ends. By associating himself with influential institutions and other individuals who are capable of making or breaking careers he produces an aura of being untouchable. They effectively enable him to continue his predatory activity.

According to Brian Martin there are 5 common tactics used by perpetrators to evade responsibility for their actions:

1. Cover up what has happened
2. Use official processes and channels to give the appearance of justice
3. Outright intimidation and bribery
4. Reinterpret events through lying, blaming others, and re-framing the incident
5. Devalue the person who speaks out by undermining their character or reputation using gossip or by labelling them as being unstable

The other common tactic that a perpetrator will use once they are cornered is the pity-play. Here, they try to turn the tables and make you feel sorry for them. Think about all the apparently heartfelt Oprah-style confessions and crocodile tears you’ve seen.


Stepping Back

But lets take a step back. Why did this individual wield so much power and influence? Is there something rotten within the structure of photography that allowed him to build a network of power and intimidation? I would argue that there is. And it has to do with the types of people that rise to the surface in an intensely competitive environment.

There has been an increased awareness about the prevalence of sociopathy in society. This is a term that many people have heard bandied about on cop-shows (interestingly, the term psychopath is the same thing as a sociopath – it has nothing to do with actual violence or chainsaws). But what does it actually mean? Well, it’s defined as an anti-social personality disorder in which a person has no inhibitions or conscience. They do not feel guilt or remorse for anything they do or the consequences that their actions may have upon others. This means that they feel that the normal rules don’t apply to them. They actually consider themselves to be superior than the rest of us. We are looked down upon as idiots; mere pawns to be used and manipulated by them for their amusement. All for kicks. And they feel no guilt about doing this. None whatsoever.

However, they are very, very good at emulating emotions and projecting charisma. This is very useful in manipulating others. They also tend to need constant stimulation and get bored easily. Manipulating others and game playing provides endless entertainment for the constantly bored psychopath who craves excitement and the rush that controlling others provides. Because of these traits they tend to rise to positions of power and responsibility. Politicians, lawyers, surgeons, bankers, CEO’s and heads of various institutions  can all be safely be regarded as exhibiting sociopathic traits insofar as many preside over, or conceal, predatory behaviour where the powerful abuse the weak.

Indeed, as Clive Boddy has argued, the current global economic recession can be attributed to the activities of  what he terms corporate sociopaths.

For simplicity’s sake, the common traits of sociopaths/psychopaths are:
• glib and superficial charm
• grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
• constant need for stimulation
• pathological lying
• cunning and manipulativeness
• lack of remorse or guilt
• shallow affect and superficial emotions
• callousness and lack of empathy
• poor behavioral controls
• sexual promiscuity
• lack of realistic long-term goals
• impulsivity
• irresponsibility
• failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Recognise anybody you know?

Obviously, some of these features can be more pronounced than others. But as a rough guideline, if somebody exhibits a number of these features then they may be a sociopath/psychopath.

What do they get out of it? Why do they behave this way?

No reason. Simply because they can.

That’s it.

There’s nothing deeper to it than that.


Psychopathy and Photography

It is no surprise that such psychopathic individuals would thrive in a loose, unstructured photographic world based largely on smoke and mirrors. They are able to use their charm and manipulative abilities to assume positions of power. They then may use their position to prey on weaker individuals within the photographic community. Or manipulate them as pawns in whatever scheme they have cooked up to amuse themselves today. Just because its fun.

The art photography sub-culture is actually quite similar to athletics or cycling. These are highly competitive “sports” dominated by money where ruthless individuals are rewarded for behaving badly.

For a start, photography is an intensely individual pursuit and it takes self-belief and confidence to assert your vision through the medium. Obviously if you are an individual with psychopathic characteristics then you have no self-doubt whatsoever. You utterly believe that your photographic work is the best the world has ever seen. Or that your opinion is the most important and influential ever. Psychopathic charisma works wonders for your career. That probably goes a long way to explaining some of the huge egos you encounter within photography. A generous helping of narcissism adds to the flavour.

Of course, some of it is probably learned behaviour; if successful people do it then others will emulate it.

But without a disfunctional anti-social personality it is impossible to sustain such behaviour for any length of time.

Why this works so well within photography is because there are just too many people chasing too few opportunities. Because of this, people who occupy influential positions can wield immense power over emerging photographers. This lends itself open to abuse.

Like many other jobs or professions, the photography world is pyramid shaped – there are a very few places at the top and lots and lots of people at the bottom. The problem is that the vast majority of them won’t succeed. And mostly it has nothing to do with talent, ambition or vision. It is simply because there are not enough spaces available at the top. This has huge implications for how the art photography world behaves and treats people.

But the higher you climb, the harder you fall.

Fear permeates the entire photography hierarchy.

Patronage is used as a way to control those beneath them and prevent dissent or a wider discussion of the arbitrary nature of this bizarre photography sub-culture which we inhabit.  Thus, emerging photographers are strung along and a few crumbs are strategically doled out to keep them quiet and compliant. As well as fostering a sense of dependence it also serves to confer immense power on those who claim to be able to make or break careers. The rampant industry-wide exploitation by magazine editors and newspapers who pay a pittance and expect struggling photographers to work for free in return for vague promises of raising your profile is a classic example.

There are many other examples.

It also works to explain the cliques and bitchiness that is rampant within the photography world. Gossip and innuendo are used to sow doubt and undermine others for the purpose of maintaining control.

These processes all work to prevent challenges. The result is toxic – it pits a small group of privileged insiders against outsiders.

A key part of this process is to ensure that the vast numbers of photographers who fail to climb the pyramid (simply because there aren’t enough places available) internalise this as a personal failure rather than as a result of the system itself. This ensures that they will not pose a challenge to what is a very flawed structure.

But it’s all just an illusion. It’s a social construct that only works if people accept it. With cutbacks and economic downturn, the competition for funding within the photography and arts scene is getting more and more cut-throat. Behind the bonhomie, people are increasingly turning on each other in a ever more desperate fight for the few crumbs left on the table.

Let’s get even more depressing – the problem is that this short-term self-interested behaviour is undermining the future of photography itself. Ruthless sociopaths/psychopaths are very good at ensuring they get what they want. But they are not so good at the big picture. And this is a massive problem. A central aspect of the psychopathic condition is that they get bored easily and need constant stimulation or excitement. Therefore they will always privilege short-term immediate games (that often serve no purpose whatsoever other than the rush of “winning”) over long-term outcomes. And if many of the people who occupy places of power within a system exhibit psychopathic characteristics then it is doomed to inevitable collapse. Superior and arrogant, occupying positions of power, surrounded by lackeys and protected by a culture of silence, poor decisions are the inevitable result. They overestimate their abilities. They push their luck with one scheme too many. And then the entire house of cards comes tumbling down around them. Think FIFA, Enron, UCI (the cycling federation) etc.

The entire system stagnates. Lip service is paid to creativity and encouraging new talent but in reality the rules of the game are structured to preserve the insider-outsider dynamic.


What is to be done?

So lets end this on a more positive note: what is to be done? Well, these problems are nothing new under the sun. Frustrated artists have long battled against the old-regime and the vested interests of a stagnant academy who were holding them back. But the problem is that once the avant-garde take power they quickly turn into clones of the narrow and conservative people they once fought against.

So, my advice (for what it’s worth) is as follows; don’t follow the rules of the game because they are rigged against you. Talent and ability will get you so far but they’re not enough. Being a sociopath will increase your chances of success but even so there is a hell of a lot of competition for the few remaining places left on the pyramid. So don’t bet on success just because you’re a schemer and a manipulator – there will always be somebody better at it. Don’t expect a miracle to happen and be discovered by an art world which is obsessed by money and superficial shallowness. Don’t depend on kingmakers to pluck you from obscurity.

If you want to succeed in photography, do your own thing. Be smart. Don’t follow the herd because nobody really knows what they’re doing and they’re too frightened to admit that the emperor has no clothes. Besides, if you’re part of the herd then you’ll never stand out in a world where individual vision is supposed to be valued. Find a niche and go for it. Don’t be too swayed by the opinions of those in authority – many are pursuing their own agendas and relish the power and control they wield and use it for malicious purposes. Be suspicious of them. Be sceptical.

At its core, photography is about telling stories through images. If you have an interesting story then find way to tell it and stick with it. Find something different. If you’re reading this then you’re a creative person – so create! Without people who are committed and love their art the entire photography sub-culture will collapse. The dirty secret is that the people sitting at the top of the pyramid are only there because creative, passionate photographers allow them to stay there out of fear. Unless we encourage more people with fresh perspectives, passion and enthusiasm, then I fear photography is doomed to a bleak future of endless introspective navel-gazing, stagnation and slow decline.

The various institutions and the diminishing number of people they support will stagger on in a zombie-like daze, propped up by inertia and the vested interests of a few. But they will be hollow at the core because there will be no real purpose to their existence. And inevitably, they too will decline.

But by that time nobody will care because all the committed and passionate people will have left.

P.S.  Absolutely nothing I have written here is meant to distract from the very urgent need to address sexual harassment within the photographic community. 

These are all my personal views. Not everybody is a psychopath so don’t get paranoid. Just keep your eyes open.


Kaiiki – Hiroshi Uemoto


The fact that thousands of Japanese people were willing to commit suicide in a vain attempt to influence a war that was already lost is something I have always found puzzling. Attempting to bridge the distance of time and cultural difference is a very tricky thing and everything written below is my attempt to interpret the motivations and processes behind the kamikaze phenomena. As this is a highly charged subject about which people have a number of understandably different views I’d just like to say that no offence is intended on my part whatsoever.

Undoubtedly patriotism and national fervour played an important role, just as it did in every other country during the Second World War. While the older residual beliefs of a traditional warrior-based society that valued death over dishonour and presented suicide as a honourable option certainly played their part, I would suspect that these had a lot more to do with rationalising a decision after it had been made. But I would certainly not dismiss the bushido code and the samurai tradition as motivating factors for individuals and for producing a culture of self sacrifice at a time when all appeared lost. By selectively emphasising a powerful legend from Japanese history – the original divine wind that had deflected the Mongol invasion during the 13th century – it was possible to produce a seductive narrative in which the mythology of the past was used to rationalise the actions of the present. In cloaking their actions with the trappings of historical legend, the Japanese leadership (who had led their country to absolute disaster) sought to maintain their grip on power in a society now stretched to breaking point. Another aspect is to do with how the Emperor was regarded at this time; he was not only a royal person and head of state in the Western mode, he was also at the apex of the Shinto religion. Whereas some sources state that he was regarded as a living God, in reality the closest comparison is to the European idea of the Divine Right of Kings. This theory appeared in Medieval Europe in order to give legitimacy to the dynasties of monarchs who had (usually) grabbed power in rather a grubby fashion. Obviously, I’m simplifying things; Japan in World War 2 was not the same as medieval Europe. However, in a strictly defined hierarchical society such as Japan this gave the edicts and commands issued in the Emperor’s name an importance that went far beyond the orders of a mere politician. This sense of absolute loyalty to the Emperor created a wartime culture whereby anything other than complete sacrifice in his name was presented as shameful. Surrender was a disgrace. Also, for much of the 1930s Japan was at war and militarism pervaded social and media discourse throughout. This meant that for those who came of age in the mid-1940s, who made up the bulk of the kamikaze, their formative years would have been dominated by a culture in which death and glory was presented as an inescapable and inevitable duty, one not to be shirked by a true and loyal member of Japanese society.


By the last years of the war, Japan had effectively boxed itself into a corner. The frenzy of militarism that had stoked the public mood for conquest turned into a double edged sword; it had worked well in mobilising and motivating Japanese society and had contributed to the spectacular victories of the 1930s and early 1940s. But once the war turned against Japan it meant that they were trapped by their own extreme rhetoric and couldn’t back-peddle. In the heightened emotional state of a country at war, surrender was presented as beneath contempt. Similarly, once you wind up the war machine then it is very difficult for anybody to call a halt, particularly if a lot of blood has been spilled on your side. While the momentum of total war kept most people passive, busy and silent, it would probably be a mistake to think that everybody was a blind follower. In a rigidly conformist society such as Japan at war, peer pressure would have ensured that dissenting viewpoints could not be expressed in public (any doubts would be confined to the private realm or to a few trusted confidants at most). This would have created a self-reinforcing cycle where the inability to publicly express doubt or dissent meant that the rhetoric of victory or death grew and grew until it appeared that there were no other options available.

While the images of aeroplanes crashing into ships are the best known (probably because they were the most visually dramatic aspect of this tactic caught on camera), the kamikaze phenomena permeated all forms of warfare, from the soldier on the ground to the largest battleship in the world being sent on a suicide mission. There was a sort of twisted logic to all this; once the sheer scale of the Allied offensive in the Pacific reversed the gains made in the early part of the war, the military commanders looked for ways to redress the balance. Kamikaze tactics were designed to both shock and disorientate those on the receiving end of them and, more importantly, to send the message to the Western powers that Japan would fight to the last. But this message was not only intended for the enemy; it was also used to keep a grip on the Japanese population at home. As part of the domestic propaganda campaign for their own people, those who committed suicide in this way were termed gyokusai or “shattered jewels” and the process of diving a plane into a ship was termed “a cherry blossom falling”, linking it directly to one of the iconic signifiers of Japanese culture.  When combined with a propaganda campaign that valorised such Special Attacks (i.e. kamikaze), the entire process operated to normalise suicide in wartime. As a good citizen it was now your duty. Furthermore, if everybody is expected to die for Japan, then there is no room for dissent – you were a disloyal coward who had betrayed your fellow countrymen and women who had all (outwardly) accepted the idea of suicide rather than surrender. The Japanese leadership knew the writing was on the wall (even if they could not say so publicly) but by throwing wave after wave of suicide attacks at the enemy they hoped to break the Allied resolve. In a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable the Japanese leadership hoped that they could somehow wear the Allies down and cut a deal in which they could preserve their positions. Or, if Japan hung on long enough it was hoped that the Allies might start fighting amongst themselves and create an opportunity to might provide a route out of the quagmire. The net effect of these delaying tactics was counted in countless lost lives on all sides.


This brings us to the book; published by Sokyu-Sha in 2013, Kaiiki (translated as “sea area” or territorial “waters”) is an exploration of the base where sailors were trained to attack enemy ships with manned torpedoes called kaiten. As can be imagined, if you were sitting on top of a torpedo and steering it towards an enemy ship the chances of survival were nil. Due to Japan’s island status, any invasion would have had to come by sea and so a lot of desperate energy was devoted to disrupting the Allied juggernaut as it moved across the Pacific. As such, the kaiten programme was part of the Special Attack forces and the waters around the island were used for training purposes before combat. After training was completed, the kaiten and their pilots would have been loaded on to larger submarines for operations in the Pacific Ocean against Allied ships. As more than ten percent of the total morality rate for kaiten pilots occurred during training accidents, surviving this stage appears to have been an ordeal in itself. Presumably, the rationale behind manned torpedoes was that it would improve accuracy; if this was the case it failed miserably. For all the expenditure of Japanese blood and treasure on this programme the results were negligible; only two American ships were ever damaged by kaiten attacks.


According to the photographer, Uemoto’s first encounter with Otsushima island (the training base for the kaiten) occurred many decades previously while he was in his twenties, around the same age as those who piloted these torpedoes. But it took him that length of time to process the significance of this space which has since been turned into a museum. Like other photographic representations in the malevolent landscape genre, representing events that occurred in the past is a difficult task to carry out successfully. Normally, a photographer can focus on features within the landscape, often commonplace, which then become powerful to the viewer once they become aware of the horrific context. Obviously, this is impossible when confronted by an expanse of open water that has no such features. Instead, Uemoto attempts to produce a psychological portrait of his personal response to this place in an attempt to come to terms with what those who trained here may have felt. For anybody who grew up in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, a period which saw massive social change in Japan, reconciling the recent past with the present is a challenge to say the least.


Uemoto shows us the Seto Inland Sea, the semi-enclosed body of water between the main Japanese islands of Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū, the home waters to which the title refers. The book begins with a series of apparently straightforward images; cherry blossoms on a path and floating in the water on the island evoke the idea of Japan as a sacred space. Calm, placid images show us the sea, first with trees from the island in the foreground, small boats and the mist-shrouded features of other islands on the horizon. The mood quickly darkens as the sea and sky merge into an ominous dark grey with occasional beams of light coming through the clouds. Uemoto uses the cloud and fog as a metaphor for the mood of psychological confusion and uncertainty he is trying to convey with his work. In this context, the Inland Sea now occupies an ambiguous position; it is both a sacred place, because it was an integral part of the Japanese homeland, and also a source of constant danger to those who practiced there for their suicide missions. The ships in Uemoto’s photographs grow larger and more defined; ordinary container and cargo vessels on the horizon within these eerie seascapes start to resemble the targets the kaiten were launched at. We see some of the training complex next; endless underground tunnels stretching outwards and an abstracted image of a circular object (the front of a kaiten torpedo) are the few remaining traces of what this place once was. The concrete piers stretching out into the sea show us the link between the land and sea or, in this case, between life and death beneath the dark waters. Immediately afterwards the seascapes become much darker as Uemoto attempts to convey the immensity of what people were expected to do on this island at this time. The competing ideas and ideals of glory, patriotism and sacrifice are locked in conflict with the competing urge to survive and the will to live; this, I believe, is at the root of what Uemoto is attempting to convey with his work. The grey shrouded seascapes darken as night falls and beams of light weakly flicker through the fog and cloud in places, illuminating the placid sea as it descends into darkness. The denouement of the narrative appears in some very powerful nocturnal images of the sea now transformed into blurred and indistinct abstractions where all the boundaries collapse. Relief is found on the next page in a pair of images; small pieces of debris float on the water and clouds float above us, signifying release from this psychological drama.


Sucked deeper into a web of illusions shaped by dreams of martial glory, nationalistic hubris and imperial conquest, large numbers of people in Japan found themselves presented with no other option but to sacrifice their lives in a futile attempt to win a war that was already lost. Like any form of psychological manipulation, convincing people that they have no way out makes them much easier to control. This book also demonstrates the impossibility of recapturing the attitudes and memories of the past. History is always viewed through the prism of the present. Our experiences and our attitudes colour our perception of the stories we tell about the past. Attitudes, ideologies and states of mind that appear utterly alien today were interpreted as being perfectly rational and normal for those immersed in a society dominated by leaders who demanded that large numbers of their own people die on their behalf. Dark and designed to unsettle, this book is a complex meditation on the consequences of actions taken more than seventy years ago that still echo to this day.

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


The Heroic Epic (Героическая Эпопея)

This is probably one of the more interesting Stalinist propaganda books produced during the 1930s because it touches on a lot of themes that are still relevant today; spinning bad news, myth creation, the media construction of heroism, as well as the all consuming need of political leaders to associate themselves with success.

chelyuskin-coverFirstly, some context. As part of a broader strategy to conquer and exploit the arctic tundra, as well as showcasing the achievements of the new USSR to the rest of the world, great emphasis was placed on polar exploration during the 1930s. Here, the rational, scientific credentials of the new Soviet state would overcome the natural obstacles that had stymied previous endeavours by the old regime under the Tsar. Vast swathes of the Soviet Union (and Russia) were just blank spots on the map, sparsely populated by native peoples living upon subsistence agriculture and fishing. For a society that regarded itself as dynamic and revolutionary, with had a mission to change the world, these blank spaces within their own borders were completely unacceptable. Industry, new technology and human endeavour would turn these inhospitable wastelands into productive spaces to be exploited by man. This was the big idea. And the pursuit of this idea stimulated much of the scientific research and exploration on the part of the Soviet state throughout its existence. Indeed the possibilities opened up by global warming with the thawing of the arctic regions is still a seductive policy (albeit with short-term benefits) informing much Russian government and business thinking today. Crises produce opportunities which sociopathic leaders will exploit to their own advantage.

This policy tapped into a wider public fascination with polar exploration that had reached its peak during the end of the 19th and the early part of the twentieth century. All the dramatic elements needed to produce a heroic narrative were present in these stories of intrepid explorers risking life and limb in the vast frozen wastelands of North and South; an utterly alien environment of snow and ice, horrendous cold, unimaginable physical adversity, near escapes from disaster, extraordinary bravery, dogged determination to reach their goal, compassion for a sick comrade (or exemplary courage as they trudge on despite the pain), all while the shadow of death hangs over the group should they make a misstep. The end result is usually a feel-good moral fable in which the triumph-of-the-human-spirit overcomes adversity. Alternatively, the brave-but-doomed heroes meet their demise calmly, stoically and with dignified courage. In such cases, the narrative then becomes a guide for the reader, instructing them in the admirable characteristics they should emulate in the face of everyday hardship. This tale is no exception.


The ostensible purpose of the Chelyuskin’s voyage was to see if an ordinary cargo ship could sail around the Northern coast of Russia, through the Arctic Ocean. If you look at a map of Russia, the immense size of this country makes communication and travel immensely difficult. Essentially, Russia (and the Soviet Union) is a land power and that is the reason why it never developed a strong navy or shipping industry. It was simply not a priority for a huge country that only has a tiny usable coastline in Europe and Asia – the rest of the sea surrounding it being dangerous, frozen, ice-filled bleakness. Therefore, sailing from Murmansk (in the Baltic Sea) to Vladivostok (in the Pacific) was a very long and complicated voyage involving a long detour around the Suez Canal and up past China. Finding a route through the frozen Arctic sea above Russia (as you look at a traditional Mercator map) would have shortened this voyage considerably. But the problem was ice. Lots of ice. The unpredictable weather as well as the treacherous sea and ice conditions in this arctic sea could sink ships very easily. The quest for this Northern Sea Route around the top of Russia had been pursued for centuries without success. Should the new Soviet state succeed where others had failed previously, it would be a tremendous propaganda coup that would demonstrate the superiority of the new utopian society under construction.


So the Chelyuskin sets sail from Murmansk in July 1933 with 104 people on board (including one baby and another is born during the voyage itself!) into the ice-bound Northern Sea around the top of Russia. The whole set-up is a strange mix of macho polar expedition, geeky scientific exploration and what passes for a normal passenger cruise. The two main players are the expedition leader Otto Schmidt (the guy with the big beard in the photos) and Vladimir Voronin, the Chelyuskin’s captain, who had successfully managed the crossing a couple of years previously with a specialist icebreaking ship. Now they were trying to repeat the trip and show that an ordinary ship could do the job just as well. Everything goes well for much of the voyage until nature intervenes. Only a short distance away from the Pacific Ocean (varying from six to fifteen miles depending on the source), bad weather strikes and suddenly heavy ice builds up around the ship, trapping it completely. They were completely stuck and powerless as the ship drifted further and further northwards, away from land. Using their radio, the Chelyuskin contacted the outside world and made them aware of their plight. There was the possibility that they might break free from the ice and continue their voyage so all was not lost and Schmidt put a cheerful face on it.A contemporary account of the rescue from 1936 can be found here.


But after three months in the ice, the ship was finally crushed by the ice and sank on the 13 February 1934. Apart from one death, the rest of the crew managed to abandon ship and carry enough supplies of food and equipment with them to set up camp on the ice surrounding them. There they use the radios to alert the world that they were in dire trouble, trapped on the cracking, drifting ice with only 2 months worth of food and supplies left. Thus, the scene was set for an epic polar drama in which modern communications had alerted the rest of the world about the plight of these apparently doomed people. Anyway, our intrepid group of stranded pioneers set up camp on the ice waiting to be rescued. As part of the propaganda machine, an English language version of their exploits was published in 1935, The Voyage of the Chelyuskin, another collectively authored book in which members of the expedition narrate their stories. If you consider that their prospects were pretty grim, the tone of the book doesn’t really ring true. Basically, they were cast adrift on a floating lump of ice in the middle of the sea, completely at the mercy of the Arctic winter, little food, living in bodged-together shelters and completely dependent on a radio for some sort of lifeline to the outside world. Surely, anybody in that situation must have thought their chances of survival were low at best.


Certainly, the idea that everybody suddenly decided that this was a jolly good adventure and that the plucky survivors all pulled together to help each other out rings a little hollow. Even today, this would be an immensely traumatic experience. Such prolonged events usually bring out the worst in people, no matter how much goodwill exists at the beginning. Bitterness, bickering and petty squabbling over trivial matters takes hold as all the tension and suppressed fear that builds up in such a situation is released. But the people we are discussing were creatures of 1930s Soviet society, a place where violence, paranoia, uncertainty, back-biting and blaming others was the rule. Even if they were rescued, they must have been terrified about the possible consequences when they got back to the USSR. Stalin’s shadow hung over them all. I would imagine the reality of the experience was a lot more bleak and terrifying than the rosy narrative presented in the book. But of course this book is important in that it transforms a rather depressing story of failure, despair and death into an inspirational account of man’s triumph over nature. Central to this triumph is the application of Stalinist ideology to guide their decisions. So the Party organisation takes charge, builds a watch-tower, organises everybody to build a runway on the ice, proudly puts at least one snitch into each tent to keep an eye on what people are saying, holds meetings,  makes personal sacrifices of food and shelter for the greater good, and generally holds the line while they wait for Stalin to rescue them. All very commendable – but I just don’t buy it.


Luckily, Stalin decides to allow a rescue operation be organised. Once the decision is made, top Soviet pilots and their flying machines are mobilised and make a bee line to the region in order to be of assistance. Well known celebrity airmen who had set world records a few years previously all play their part in this adventure, pushing their aeroplanes to the limit in the face of horrendous conditions. There are numerous close shaves, a crash en-route and all sorts of problems locating the survivors. But through sheer determination, skill and heroism, the airmen make it through successfully and begin to shuttle the survivors off their icy prison. The successful use of aeroplanes to rescue the survivors sends a couple of messages to the outside world. Firstly, that the USSR is capable of mastering the latest technology (aircraft) and operating them in extreme conditions, something that was in itself quite impressive for the time. Secondly, even though man had failed to overcome nature in this instance (the ship sank), ultimately the faith that the Soviet Union placed in technology to surmount all obstacles was proven correct thanks to the combination of radio and aircraft. Thus, the central guiding idea of the USSR, that man could change the world through the rational use of technology, was maintained. But all of this is not to diminish their very real accomplishments; flying in arctic conditions using the latest, temperamental, aviation technology, where disaster lurked around every corner was no mean feat in itself. All the ups-and-downs of this drama in the arctic is followed by the world with bated breath as they see whether or not the plucky survivors will make it back alive. There is widespread jubilation at a job well done when everybody gets out alive and the group then make their way towards Moscow.  Parades and celebrations follow their progress through Russia as they travel towards a meeting with Stalin himself.


That’s the background. Let’s have a look at the book. Published by Pravda in 1935 and designed by Simon Telingater, amongst others, this is a grandiose Stalinist production. (By the way this book is not to be confused with a 3 volume editon of the same name that appeared in 1934.) They certainly spared no expense on this publication; photomontage, hand-tinted photographs, foldouts and small flags tipped are but a few of the design features that appear in this book. The photographs come from a number of individuals as there were a number of photographers and cinematographers on-board (the most prominent being P. Novitzki and A.M. Shafran). These do seem to have provided a steady stream of imagery that is incorporated within the book. 1930s ideas about the documentary authenticity of photography didn’t really apply in the USSR and there is a distinct possibility that some of the photographs may have been staged or recreated at a later date. This attitude towards photography can be found within the English language account The Voyage of the Chelyuskin which states that “our photographer Novitzki insisted on me repeating my handshake with Vodopyanov, as he had been too slow to register that “historic” act.” (p. 236) Furthermore, by deliberately mixing staged photographs with images that have a documentary aspect to them, the result is a blurring of the boundaries between truth and fiction. From the perspective of today’s Crewdsonesque constructions of reality this is not an issue – but back in the ‘30s people got really hot under the collar about faked photos of events.


The narrative structure of the book doesn’t deviate from the official myth promoted by the authorities. It can be broken down into sections depicting the Chelyuskin setting sail on a voyage of adventure, getting trapped in the ice, sinking, setting up camp, waiting for rescue, the arrival of the aeroplanes and then the triumphant welcome back home in the USSR. The sections dealing with the initial voyage and the camping on the ice are quite static – but I suppose that is understandable since there is very little in the way of action that can be shown. There is an interesting series of images when the crew try to cut a passage through the ice for the ship. But of course this attempt fails. Once they are trapped on the ice floe, the images change to depictions of rather pathetic looking tents and the immense scale of the mounds of ice surrounding them as they wait for rescue. But there are only so many ways you can take photographs of people sitting around waiting. The radio operator’s importance is emphasised in these images as he is the vital link to the outside world. But there are no signs of despair or hopelessness in these images – everybody looks determined and cheerful as they wait trapped on what is a giant ice cube floating in the sea. In many ways, the design helps to enliven this section of the book which is not so visually dramatic. A celluloid transparency showing a map of the camp and a fold-out of the hand-written newspaper produced by the eager communist party members in the camp provide some added details and interest to a rather static subject.


However, once the rescue gets underway the tempo changes and it becomes more cinematic in scope. A photomontage foldout depicts smiling portraits of the heroic pilots while a fleet of aircraft flies over the iconic lookout tower, topped by the red flag, that the stranded survivors built. Photographs show the pilots readying themselves back at base after being summoned to the rescue by the ever-concerned Stalin. Portraits of pilots wrapped up in their open cockpits, braving the freezing weather and horrendous conditions instantly demonstrate their unimpeachable heroism as they risk their lives for the sake of others. There is a real sense of urgency and energy in these images. Anticipation is conveyed by pairing photos of people looking to the sky with aeroplanes landing on the ice. That all adds to the drama of the event.


This is then followed by the triumphant return of the survivors to civilisation. Building on the excitement of rescue, there is a dynamism in these images that again contrasts with the rather static nature of the early sections of the book. Crowd scenes and trains are used to convey movement and energy as an expectant public comes out to greet their heroes. Aeroplanes make celebratory fly pasts, demonstrating again the Soviet state’s complete mastery of the new technology of the period, showing that they too could compete with the other big powers of the time. Flowers are handed out to our suitably modest heroes in provincial locations as the procession winds its way to the capital. Crowds throng the spaces where the survivors receive yet more flowers and make the predictable speeches attributing their survival to the glories of Communism and the genius of Stalin, without whom they would have met their demise.


Finally, our intrepid group arrives in Moscow where they receive a ticker-tape parade before being granted an audience with Stalin, where they hand him a banner from the ship. In the grand scheme of a rescue-narrative like this, the triumphant homecoming is usually only a peripheral aspect, used to provide a happy-ever-after bookend to the story. Yet, an inordinate amount of space is devoted to this train trip through Russia after all the excitement is over. Why? I think the answer may lie in the fact that in the USSR of the 1930s everything revolved around Stalin. Quite literally everything. The fact that the shipwrecked survivors had escaped relatively unscathed from an icy grave by the skin of their teeth thanks to a combination of luck, physical stamina and the advent of new technologies that made a rescue possible (radios and aircraft capable of flying in arctic conditions) all fade into the background. Stalin’s presence consumes all. All success is Stalin’s success. Everything they achieved was accomplished by strictly following his guiding principles and ideas. Thus, the entire narrative is transformed into a moral fable for others to emulate in Soviet society – place your trust in Stalin’s wisdom and you too can overcome adversity.


Books of 2014

This blog has been quiet of late because I’ve been snowed under with various projects but it will get back on track again soon.

It’s that time of the year again. As a part of the way we try to comprehend the sheer chaos of the world, we like to simplify everything and transform it into a personal narrative which is then used to define our experiences and identity. And we tend to use the celebration of a full orbit around the sun as an excuse to indulge in some navel gazing and introspection in an attempt to condense the myriad events that happened over the previous 12 month period. This is then used to demarcate a particular block of time in our lives.

This usually involves making lists. So here’s my contribution towards humanity’s obsession with bringing order to chaos (in terms of photobooks).

Never mind me – bah humbug and happy Christmas!

Here’s 11 politically themed photobooks that made an impression on me over the last year – listed alphabetically by title.
1. Cairo Diary by Peter Bialobrzeski
2. Cœur D’Acier by Philippe Lopparelli (published in November 2013 so cheating slightly here)
3. Euromaidan by Sergiy Lebedynskyy & Vladyslav Krasnoshchok
4. Exit Ghost by Kai Bornhoeft
5. Go There by Gen Sakuma
6. Italia O Italia by Federico Clavarino
7. Kaiiki by Hitoshi Uemoto (Oct 2013 – cheating again)
8. Land Without a Past by Philip Ebeling
9. Lulu and Her Portrait – On the Traces of Kyoko (2 books)by Saori Ninomiya
10. Neither by Kate Nolan
11. One Road by Kazuo Kitai