Sunday 22 December 2013

Boy Bitten by a Dog

I am revisiting Boys in a City Park’ whilst I am working on an exhibition proposal. The project was developed during a personal enquiry into concepts of fracture and healing in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine. At the point where the previous Hospital Gardens’ project evolution was at the very limit of what seemed possible, I met a child whose traumatic experience was locked within him (see below image from exhibition and outtake of him with his mother). This moment was key and led to an exploration of a form of fracture beyond the physical and an introduction to the charity supporting families with autistic children.

When we initially approached the boy and his mother, as they wandered around the garden of the Central Hospital in Donetsk, she immediately dismissed our request to photograph him. She was particularly protective of her son at that moment; he had been attacked by a dog previously and had come back to hospital for some corrective plastic surgery on the scarring on his face but it was clear that he was also distant and emotionally vulnerable. Sometime later the mother came back to us and explained that her son had said he had wanted to do the photographs, so she agreed.

It is hard to explain the experience of sharing an emotional event as powerful and as complex as this; it is even harder to believe it is possible to capture something of it in two dimensions with a camera. Beyond this, it is even harder to believe that anything of our living present experience will communicate in anyway to an objective future audience.

It’s a mistake we can easily make as photographers (and as people), that because we feel something ourselves so strongly that this will automatically be felt by others; it isn’t. In the need to communicate, we are tempted to cut corners and fall back on aesthetic cliché’s to help make an immediate connection to others. Its hard to resist, especially in the moment when we must make an instantaneous decision on how to communicate an event as it reveals itself to the camera. In this respect, we must ‘become’ the ‘person’ as a photographer that interprets that immediate moment instinctively.

I am undeniably an objectivist, I am inescapably, emotionally drawn to the dogma; I allow the emotion of an event to occur uninterrupted in juxtaposition to the cold, hard reality of the camera lens and fixed composition. I believe that some part of the emotion and humanity are revealed as a foil and in spite of, the brutality of the objectivist dogma. By stripping away any aesthetic emotional language to ‘help’ communicate, we are left with the raw emotion which is not the whole story but a kind of ‘truth’. (A word I hate to use). My approach always feels dangerous and there is a very thin line between a form of success and complete failure but I prefer it to belittling such complexity with cliche.

I found this quote recently, I can't remember where but it resonated with me and reminded me of the boys in Ukraine and the bright and powerful flashes we used that captured a small part of their hidden world.

“All of a sudden there was a dazzling light and in the centre of that bright whirlpool was a core of blinding light that flashed down from the depths of the sky with terrifying speed until suddenly it stopped, motionless and sacred…The sparkling features of the being wore an expression of supernatural beauty and grief.” – St Francis receives the Stigmata, from Brother Leo’s account, circa 1224.
Image_2096, Boy Bitten by a Dog, from series 'Hospital Gardens, Ukraine © Richard Ansett 2011
Image_2099, Mother with Boy Bitten by a Dog © Richard Ansett 2011

Sunday 15 December 2013

Image_1887, Bedlam Garden

Image_1887, Bedlam Garden © Richard Ansett 2013

Originally named Bedlam, as an English abbreviation of Bethlehem or ‘house of bread’, the word has became attributed to the confinement of 'lunatics', and the colloquial understanding of it as a ‘house of confusion’ and uproar. This image is recorded within the walls of a garden specially created for the patients of the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital, London. 

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Contact Sheet for Bather #5, Ukraine 2011 (image_1625)

Bather #5_1622 © Richard Ansett 2013

Bather #5_1623 © Richard Ansett 2013

Bather #5_1624 © Richard Ansett 2013

Bather #5_1625 © Richard Ansett 2013
Winner Grand Prix de la Decouverte 2013/Acquired by Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Bather #5_1626 © Richard Ansett 2013

Bather #5_1627 © Richard Ansett 2013

Bather #5_1628 © Richard Ansett 2013
Bather #5_1629 © Richard Ansett 2013

Bather #5_1630 © Richard Ansett 2013

Monday 18 November 2013

Out-take from Bathers

Image_1790, out-take from series Bathers, Ukraine, 2011 © Richard Ansett

Wednesday 13 November 2013

We Need to Talk about Robert

It is the 100th anniversary of the birth of war photographer Robert Capa and what seems particularly  poignant, is a shift in the attitude of the photography establishment to acknowledge the controversy surrounding his work as part of the commemoration. Up until this point the reaction to the increasing evidence against the authenticity of Capa's most famous image has been more of a ‘head in the sand’ mentality, that has infected any decent debate about ‘Falling Soldier’

This new pragmatism acknowledges the discrepancies in his career that challenge his journalistic authenticity, whilst celebrating his skill as a great photographer; re-branding him as a ‘war artist’. Rather brilliant yes but…

To truly appreciate why the photography world might be so twitchy about challenging this photographer’s legacy, let us imagine for a moment the consequences of the complete destruction of Capa’s reputation as a photojournalist. What if we accept that Falling Soldier was in fact NOT shot in an area of conflict during the Spanish Civil war but on exercises miles away from any action but then presented as the former?

"The truth is the best picture..." - Robert Capa

I remember being deeply shocked by the evidence presented against 'Falling Soldier', it shook my foundations of trust in photojournalism but I was more disappointed by the complete lack of acknowledgement of its importance across all sections of the photographic community. I am not challenging the quality of Capa’s work and I agree with the vested interests, that he is one of the great photographers, what is at stake is a larger issue of documentary truth. We must accept that the entire emotional reaction to ‘Falling Soldier’ is dependent on its veracity; its strength is not in its composition but purely in the belief that this is a terrible moment in time, captured by a photographer caught in the heat of action. If the circumstances are called into question, the images power is diminished. To recognise this ambiguity and attempt to re-catagorise Capa under the contemporary label of 'artist' is in danger of weakening confidence in photojournalism.

Under these circumstances, to continue to celebrate Capa as a poster boy of the photojournalistic genre may be a dog whistle to all future generations that look up to the amazing organisations like Magnum (co-founded by Capa himself), The International Centre of Photography (founded by his brother Cornell Capa) and the Ian Parry Scholarship that nurtures a new generation, that ‘anything goes’ in the pursuit of an image to illustrate an event that traditionally requires some objective self-awareness. 

"If you call yourself an artist, you won't get anything published. Call yourself a photojournalist, and then you can do whatever you want. "- Robert Capa

But if we start to accept the ambiguity surrounding this one image and debate Capa’s legacy openly, there is a chance to learn from it in a constructive way. What are the pressures on the photographer to capture the definitive moment for their hungry editors at home?

The last great days of objective documentary photography seem to have passed with the changing face of modern newspapers and magazines that feel they must appease their advertisers. Don McCullin articulated these issues in a great documentary film about his life. The media no longer want images that show the stark reality of humanity, the advertisers feel it sits too uncomfortably with their finely crafted portrayals of consumerism; they don’t want a starving baby or mangled corpse opposite their 2 for 1 offer for a chocolate bar or a shiny car.

The contemporary war photographer doesn’t have the same access afforded to the great photojournalists of the past. PR agencies control access to the situations that may reflect badly on our countries’ actions. Photographers can be ‘over-looked’ for trips if they are deemed unsuitable and of course wars are fought differently now with a stronger emphasis on virtual warfare to limit the casualties brought home.  My photographer brain tells me that this has led inevitably to photographers like Tim Hetherington being forced to revert to a fine art practice, creating personal and interpretive projects from what is available. See Hetherington’s tender, homoerotic sleeping soldiers. These projects are heavily loaded with the personal views of the photographer and are less about an irrefutable defining and 'truthful' moment.  Mari Bastashevski records the banality of modern warfare and the actual lack of access to the photographer within her work.

At this point, where the photographic community is marking the 100th anniversary of Capa’s birth, (he was killed by a landmine whilst covering the ending years of the first Indochina war in 1954) celebrating the hard work both he and his brother did in the advancement and promotion of photography, setting up enduring and extremely influential institutions, we should take the opportunity to re-evaluate our definitions of 'photojournalism' and 'art' and think carefully about what message we are sending out to a new generation.
Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, 1936 © Robert Capa Estate

Alcantara, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 2008 Digital C-print © Tim Hetherington Estate

Head office of a major arms industry outlet. Permission to photograph inside was declined. State Business, Chapter II. From the series "State Business" © Mari Bastashevski