Wednesday, 10 April 2019

No Photography Allowed

As part of a road trip through the southern states I visited La Grange, Georgia. In 2017 it attracted press attention as the first town to officially apologize for the circumstances that led to the lynching of a young African American man, Austin Callaway in 1940. As part of the Equal Justice Initiative's 'Community Remembrance Project', soil from the sites of known lynchings was collected in special labelled memorial jars to be installed at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

‘In Lynching in America: Confronting the legacy of Racial Terror, the EJI documented 4400 racial terror Lynchings in 12 Southern States – and more than 300 in eight states outside the South – between 1877 to 1950. Most critically, Lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed.’


Lynching in America: Confronting the legacy of Racial Terror and hotel breakfast © Richard Ansett 2017
The soil collection for Austin Callaway's memorial jar had not yet taken place and before leaving for the states I requested that any descendants might be found and asked if they would participate in the collection as a specific event for the camera.

Arriving from the UK, racial politics feels very different in the US,  in many ways more progress has been made and even the unresolved issues between black and white feel closer to the surface. In Britain we are culturally less used to airing racial division so openly. We arguably avoided a US style civil war by massively compensating slave owners, funding the industrial revolution and we have unsuccessfully circumvented the conversation ever since. But even in the US there is a reticence to fully negotiate the minefield of racial tension and the EJI project recognises that contemporary generations are shaped by an emotional legacy associated with victim, perpetrator or bystander. The genius of the Community Remembrance Project recognises how these old wounds perpetuate continued  prejudice and division, damaging everyone.

When I visited the EJI offices in Montgomery, Alabama, the home of the civil rights movement, I was conscious of the monetary value of 'civil rights tourism' and in light of William. C. Anderson's article 'When a lynching memorial becomes a photo oppertunity' I can empathise with how behaviours more associated with tourism than commemoration are perceived as disrespectful. I photographed myself at the Rosa Parks bus stop, was photographed with the minister of Martin Luther King Jr's church and was even offered a haircut by his barber; At a time when tensions were rising in nearby Charlottesville, I sent a postcard of black prisoners to my partner in the UK with the standard sentiment and ironic 'Wish You Were Here'. There are many people on holiday visiting the sites on the civil rights trail offering opportunities for the virtue signalling selfie as valuable currency for our social media feeds. I can see that a form of 'Disneyfication' of the black struggle has occurred in making the suffering more palatable to the white visitor so as not to alienate and in that there is a danger of an empathic disconnect from the very demographic trying to be reached in any re-education process. 


Selfie with Lynching Memorial Marker, La Grange, GA, USA
However the overall approach across all the sites is an attempt to be educational, there was a generous welcome at MLK's church and I felt I was a valued guest in someone else's history and the minister pulled no punches in reminding our group tour that the oppression and inaction against black people was by 'white folks'. Surrounded by the safe space created by the love and forgiveness of the pastor there was a palpable sense of shame I faced in that moment at odds with an otherwise glorious narrative of British colonialism and white history that had an early influence on my racial and cultural identity. A confidence built on these foundations is racist.

There is an art to remembrance; in the UK we have our ostensibly conservative and austere permanent memorials to heroic sacrifice in 'victory' but we have no significant monuments to any collective guilt or moral failure defining our past as less than glorious. Germany, crushed and defeated twice and re-born, has embraced another form of national commemoration and Berlin especially has monumentalised the lessons of humanity born from defeat and hubris (my favourite is the Room of Silence at the Brandenburg Gate). But in re-framing the evidence the UK can be considered as equally defeated; the bullet holes in the walls at Amritsar are a more fitting testimony and potentially more valuable to the national character than any tribute to the glorious dead defending the empire.


Bullet Holes in the walls at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab. Image subject to © .
The most successful memorial as visitor centre and museum I have seen is Oradour-sur-Glane, a village in France and the site of destruction and massacre of the population by the German army. On the instructions of Charles de Gaule it was sealed off to preserve the evidence of the atrocity as it had occurred. On arrival one is directed through an underground tunnel from the modern world into the heart of the deserted original village. Crucially the visitor is instructed on appropriate behavior including, no dogs, no photography or filming and no food or drink. With less distraction the silence encourages a presence to the terrors and increases the chance of empathy.




A white tourist's lack of empathy epitomised by the ubiquitous selfie at a memorial to black suffering directly as a consequence of white oppression is perceived as disrespectful in William.C. Anderson's article. The selfie defined arguably as only casual narcissism and photography's diminished power and importance by the vast numbers of digital images created can be argued as devaluing of any subject. In the context of the US civil rights movement, the contemporary snaps at a memorial to the subjugation and murder by a previous generation who thought so little of the victims that they photographed them as entertainment and were produced as postcards is darkly ironic. Mr Anderson's perfectly erudite description of the act as the ‘rigorous documentation of their own evil’ might be equivalent to the US army selfies with torture victims at Abu Graib.


Abu Ghraib selfies © Unknown
As part of my photographic project 'Lynching in America' I have included some abstracts of the soils in the jars as a typology to emphasise the scale and geography but my main focus is in the documentation of the simple, intimate action by the direct descendants Frances and Walter of the murdered boy Austin Callaway. This documentation of the collection of soil at the site of his lynching whilst conventional in appearance is not intended as a conventional editorial, photojournalistic observation.


Frances and Walter collecting soil for the EJI memorial jar © Richard Ansett 2017
Soil from the site of the lynching of Austin Callaway © Richard Ansett 2017
Entering the unmarked woodland glade and recording the events at the site of the lynching of Austin Callaway with his descendants Frances and Walter, my actions as a white photographer could be compared to a continuation of the damaging legacy of recording mass murder as entertainment and in this re-enactment I am a valid participant in the action equal to the subjects in a process of reconciliation. Any act of reconciliation requires the presence of all parties and I am welcome and present behind the camera. 

This event whilst staged for the camera is a collaboration and a genuine act and is not just between myself Frances and Walter but the result of negotiations with a huge number of other invested people from the La Grange community, black and white, church, police and state. Understanding of photography is transformed from a conventional document of complicity to murder and oppression, to its antithesis. It is the catalyst for healing and a search for truth. As the subject, the experience of being seen and recorded can feel personally valuable and in this moment Frances and Walter's lives are recognised as valuable to this process, very different to how the mob must have viewed Austin Callaway in 1940.

At the time of documenting our quiet act of truth and reconciliation, the riots of Charlottesville were in full swing and drawing the media gaze with the burning torches and chants of "Blood and Soil".

*The apology was not for the lynching but for the failure to protect Callaway from being taken from the police station cell by 6 white men and murdered in nearby woods. One indication perhaps of inherent racial bias and 'white saviours syndrome' is that the much-respected white Police chief who offered the original apology became the centre of the media story eclipsing the black community’s courage in its willingness to accept the apology and the hard work of the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryon Stevenson for inspiring the entire process.

**There is the matter of the colonial gaze as an accidental inherent bias of the white documentary photographer as an ‘invested observer’ and obstruction to the fair and objective representation of any event . There is a responsibility on a contemporary photographer seeking documentary truth to at least have an awareness of this legacy..

This blog is developed from a response to 'When a Lynching Memorial Becomes a Photo Opportunity' - William. C. Anderson 

Saturday, 23 March 2019

More Than Documentation

Danel and Erin, Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize Exhibition 2018/19, National Portrait Gallery, London

The portrait of Danel, 9 years old, a survivor of the Grenfell Tower from the series ‘Children of Grenfell’ and the Portrait Erin, 12 years old, a survivor of the Manchester bombing was submitted to the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2018.  Both images were successfully shortlisted guaranteeing the inclusion in the exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery, London.
DANEL
The Danel portrait inclusion highlights the disconnect between ordinary people and the establishment graphically illustrated by the official response to the Grenfell disaster and the circumstances that led to the fire itself whilst at the same time its presence in a national institution reminds all those affected by Grenfell that they are infact valued. Further, the inclusion in such a prestigious international prize brings an increased level of exposure offering the visitor* an opportunity to engage with Danel’s portrait as a vessel for our empathy and sympathy for all affected.
In the presence of children it is impossible to not consider their potential; this was pronounced as I faced Danel with my camera during the capture of his image, his future has been inevitably altered by his experience. Photography can be more than just documentation and the inclusion in a prize exhibition is more than celebration of craft and ego. The process of creation and the bringing of the work to the gallery space offers an opportunity for further understanding and potential for healing.
Danel with his mother and brother were invited to return to visit his portrait for the first time in the elitist gallery environment. It is both a celebration and examination of the processes that are defining them. The gallery was specially closed to the public to allow them time with the work. A film crew was invited from ITV news to record the event.
” I feel like a celebrity.” – Danel
*The portrait was voted as the favourite by the visiting public.
ERIN
The inclusion of Erin’s portrait emphasises the therapeutic possibilities of photography. Similarly to Danel and the other children survivors of Grenfell, the act of attention during the photographic act itself offers the possibility of healing and Erin as a print is the focus for empathy for all those affected.
Erin’s unique circumstances as a survivor of a terrorist attack have left her (as with other survivors) with diagnosed PTSD. The inclusion of her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition offered an opportunity to invite the subject to consider attending the private view event that could have parallels to the Ariana Grande concert. The National Portrait Gallery offered Erin and her family a special space available to her exclusively to recognise her value to them in attending and to help her manage the experience of being once again in a large crowd in a confined space.
Erin had trouble liking her own image but since has requested a print and the family have put it up in their home.

Waffle House Index

WAFFLE HOUSE INDEX TYPOLOGY from American Road Trip © Richard Ansett
The typology is pastiche, tribute and critique of Ed Ruscha’s classic Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, 1963. No architecture better expressed American’s burgeoning love affair with the motor car and similarly I focus on a contemporary architecture of the road trip satiating a 21st century obsession with consumption. I reflect on Ruscha’s seeming casual, objective record as part of my exploration of ‘The American Roadtrip’ as an overworked and exhausted photographic genre.
Further I discuss whether historic art, literature and films have assisted in defining the prism through which we view the contemporary American landscape that obstructs a relationship to the now. There is an aesthetic recidivism that hides the uncomfortable truth that we are unable to perceive present reality as valuable or even beautiful without the crutch of established aesthetic convention. This snap shot and blunt cliché of the architecture of the open road undermines the genius of Ruscha’s original work and his once radical vision has become the sentimental yardstick and stalwart of any photographic right of passage. Perhaps this is the fate of any great artist whose work so completely influences the zeitgeist.
This pastiche masks a contemporary narrative. ‘The Waffle House Index’ is an informal metric used by FEMA the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine the effect of a major storm and the likely scale of assistance required for disaster recovery. The geographical concentration of Waffle Houses and their 24 hour, 7 day a week opening times combined with their fixed menus makes the Waffle House chain an invaluable resource for the evaluation of the effects of any major storm on communities, through the assessment of any change in opening times and menus.
These 9 Waffle Houses were photographed with 1 hour and are no more than 2 km apart. Each restaurant has its own unique number.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Nothing Matters..

File:_T7A1950 Nothing Matters George © Richard Ansett 2018
File:_T7A1842 Nothing Matters George © Richard Ansett 2018
The huge challenge of attempting to illustrate the complex and bespoke nature of mental health, especially through such a limited 2 dimensional medium, has led me to the realisation that perhaps photography in its purest sense is not enough and I am deluding myself if I consider that somehow I am 'making a difference'. Don McCullin (who does not define himself as an artist) admits that his images will make no difference to the subjects he has taken, many of whom were either already dead or would soon be. It does beggar the question 'what are we doing this for ?' and this is an intellectual anxiety at the fore front of the mind of the empathic artist. Conscience and responsibility are part of the self negotiation in the representation of other people.

Depression is hard enough to define in any medium and perhaps so much exposure to it has allowed it to infect my own confidence. Being around complex and overwhelming mental issues does take its toll for a sensitive and confluent person. I have been known to say that I do not care about my subjects but this is a conceptual statement only, their identity is less important than the message I am attempting to communicate through them. I am attempting to detach the conventional narrative that helps us to easily define and therefore compartmentalise the subject as 'other', so that we as an audience can potentially imagine this hell for ourselves.


For example, without wishing to pull back the Wizard's curtain too swiftly, this man's name is not George, it is in fact Edward; it doesn't matter, nothing matters. I find confidence to declare my process through the anecdotes of other artists and I recently read that David Hockney re-named the cat in his most famous painting 'Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy' because it sounded better. 'Nothing Matters Edward' doesn't have the same flow either.


I spent some time recently alone with George, he is so consumed with ennui and despair at the loss of his mother that he inspired an attempt to define it, or perhaps to attempt to capture something of it, bottle it or worse pseudo-scientifically observe if the molecules bouncing back from him and onto the cold hard plain of my image sensor convey anything of his suffering to you or even me. Can his emotional and physical pain that is so visceral in the moment be captured within the boundaries of the conventional photograph? My practice is defined by this challenge. I am not looking to redefine the craft but create new and original work within traditional boundaries.


Margaret Atwood accidentally came close to defining depression when she stated that "There is always hope. Otherwise why get up in the morning." Similarly, to believe that “if one thing matters” to quote Wolfgang Tillmans “everything matters” noble as it is, sentimentalises a starker reality, that the fabric of our existence is a fictitious human framework to help make sense of our insignificance. Depression is a consequence of this awakening from this delusion. Depression can be defined as progress as we awaken into a hopeless realisation.


As in the myth of Daedalus and Icarus to face this realisation is to risk destruction. Depression is a bespoke emotional and physical destruction, the pain of imprisonment of self through a failure to rationalise truth.


The awareness of the hopelessness of reality and our existence within it, is something we must negotiate but this awakening can come as a terrible shock to the unprepared. As an artist I deliberately place my hand in the flame. Mortal anxiety is a catalyst to this process and how we manage our relationship to it defines us as unique, complex individuals.


The paradox is that there is hope; the irony is that there is only one thing that can help us come to terms with 'the hell of existential loneliness, OTHER PEOPLE. We are both the problem and the solution.


SEE FULL SERIES HERE: Nothing Matters George, 2018