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Monday, 11 December 2017

We are all arsenic eaters

    all pictures by Simon Brugner

 A couple of years ago I met Simon Brugner at Vienna Photobook Festival. He was a super nice guy with a fascinating project on the arsenic eaters of Styria. People used to eat arsenic it was odd and it was interesting and the pictures created a world that meshed dreams with reality in a way that reminds me of Tito Mouraz's House of the Seven Women. There's class in there, there's magic, there's old ways, there's a dead horse and there's a stable boy. The attraction. It gives you a buzz and makes the blood flow in all the right places as the following quote from this piece in the Scientific American shows.

'The ratsbane (arsenic) eaters belong mostly to the lower classes, wood cleavers, stable grooms, charcoal burners, and wood warts. They fall into that habit at the early age of fifteen, and continue it until the ages of seventy and seventy-six. Although the female sex is not averse to it, the majority belongs to the male sex. They are generally strong and healthy persons, courageous, pugnacious, and of strong sexual dispositions. The reason of this habit is very probably atiributable to the fact of its apparent favorable action upon horses.'

Reality is not stable as Simon says, and the way that he looked both at that old arsenic-eating world and the present-day world was a reflection of that perspective. 

The lesson of the arsenic eaters is not that they are something old and alien, but that they should help us reflect on who the contemporary arsenic eaters are. And they are all around us. We are all arsenic eaters.

Simon is now planning to publish a book which will be released next year. You can pre-order a copy of the book and see more work, and more on the history of the arsenic eaters, here.

Why did people eat arsenic?

People ingested arsenic in order to overcome physical limitations: to be strong and healthy, to look rosy, to boost their sexual potency. It made them more competitive. This makes sense if you look at the broader context: eating arsenic was common until the early 20th century among the rural population in the eastern parts of the Alps. Living off the mountains meant to be subjected to physical hardship. People were self-supporters, they did not have much. But they could get their hands on arsenic, one of the strongest mineral poisons.

When did you find out about arsenic eaters? 

In the region I grew up, there is a myth of a special substance people used to take in order to become strong and ruthless. I started to investigate in it and quickly found out that this substance was arsenic. My grandmother told me that it was still around when she was a kid. And she called me crazy for wanting to investigate the matter. Eating arsenic was a taboo.

Do people still eat arsenic?

Not as I am aware of. It lost its market in a way. We live in a capitalistic world where people can get their hands on a lot of other things to improve themselves: all kinds of legal and illegal drugs. Eating arsenic does not make sense anymore.

When did you decide to make a story on arsenic eaters?

When I started researching the topic I kept on finding material connected to the use of arsenic: on historic mining, on superstition, on medicine and on pre 20th-century rural life in general. And I visited the remote, still accessible arsenic mines dating back all the way to the 14th century. I was fascinated by how this almost surreal story was literally still accessible. And by how much effort was made to dig those mines in order to get hands on arsenic.

I wanted to find out how this story is connected to our present existence. I wanted to find out in what kind of reality eating arsenic made sense.

Have you ever tried arsenic? Are you tempted?

I managed to get my hands on the actual historical product. Its lethal dose is said to be very small: 0.1–0.3 grams (it is said that you start with the dose the size of a wheat grain). And I think that the arsenics full effect comes from its chronic use. It’s an experiment I did not dare to undertake yet.

Why did you decide to make a book on arsenic eaters?

I am a photographer and work on a multi-layered story. I think a book is just the most natural form for that.

What is the contemporary relevance of arsenic eating?

Eating arsenic is not relevant anymore. But the fact that it even existed – and it existed until the 1950ies – is. What once was common is now unthinkable. Reality is not a stable concept.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Two Millionth Page View Today

It's the tenth anniversary of my blog this week and today will be the 2 millionth page view, so that's good timing. It's a failing I know, but I like the numbers even when they are not that big and not quite right.

So whoever you are, thank you. You're my 2 millionth page viewer. Yay!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

10 years of the Blog: Best Movie

Ten years of the Blog and the Best Movie Award goes to Om Shanti Om. It's not the best movie I have seen in the last 10 years, but it was one of the most enjoyable, and with its themes of screaming injustice, reincarnation and the Bollywood film industry, it was a gateway drug for my wife. After seeing this she went on a three year Hindi Cinema binge, and I went along for the ride.

It was a trawl through the language of cinema, and the ways in which it mirrors the political imperatives of its time, from the social realist influences of 1950s cinema to the optimism of the 60s, the anger of the 70s and the mass consumption of the 80s.

It was a trawl through a world where you start off with a 1950s world of evil landlords and oppressed peasants and end up with a contemporary world turned upside down with evil peasants and oppressed landlords - which is when we kind of lost interest. It was also a lesson in how to fuse two completely opposing messages in one perfectly meshed form. Yes we're reactionary misogynists which is a bad thing, but we're modern reactionary misogynists and we give a big speech before doing what  the father demands so everything's OK then because being modern is good but being traditional is even better.

Most of all, however, it was a lesson in the discourse of entertainment, and how important pleasure is in cinema, and how pleasure can be used as a vehicle to convey social and political messages so much more effectively, and enjoyably, than the discourse of sobriety - the default mode for some corners of photography. But not all corners it needs to be said. It's also a lesson in how narrative works, how music and dance can act as a fulcrum for the plot to turn on, how emotion can be teased and shaped in the pursuit of viewing pleasure and the language of love.

That being said, watching 150 Bollywood films you learn some things (namely that once you get past that top 150, the pickings get slimmer and slimmer) , but most of all you learn what you do not know. I don't even know the language the films are made in, I have no idea of some of the deeper references to Indian culture, politics and religious thought, and I don't have that deep emotional connection to the people and places that you see in the films (though I did meet Amitabh Bachchan at Bangalore Racecourse).

In effect watching 150 Bollywood movies made me more ignorant than I was before. Here is a visual language that was alien to me before. But even after watching those movies I remain ignorant. I'm learning Italian on Duolingo (which is no way to learn). Duolingo tells me I'm 44% fluent. Well, har har, I'm not even 10% fluent. If there was a Duolingo for the history of Hindi Cinema I would probably have been about 50% fluent in Duolingo terms, maybe 12% in real life. But the real significance of those figures is the negative space. If I was 12% fluent in Bollywood, I was also 88% ignorant. And ignorant not just of those unreachable social and cultural significances, but also ignorant in the basic ways in which words, song, dance, cinematography and all the rest work together. But to be fair to me, I'm not alone in that, because very few people know exactly how all those things tie together. If they did, you wouldn't have such a thing as bad movies. And there's nothing quite like a bad Bollywood movie, not least because they are so fecking long. Two hours of bad movie is bad enough, 3 hours is awful especially with bad songs and bad dance to drill down the pain into your inner core.

In fact I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't all be defined by our ignorance, if people like me who pontificate and proclaim things should qualify all our statements with an, 'Actually, I am a huge chancer who may sound like he knows what he's talking about but actually doesn't. I'm profoundly ignorant. Bear that in mind when you read these thoughts.'

I think that would be good not just for having a bit of humbleness and admitting that our arrogance might be founded on some kind of psychological quicksand, but also as a way of encouraging others to be more forthcoming with their own opinions and thoughts. Basically I'm saying Don't worry about talking nonsense. We all talk nonsense. We all make it up as we go along.

Earlier in the year I saw Thresholds, the VR exhibition of the first photography exhibition. It got me thinking about new photographic and visual languages. Now I know something about skeuomorphism, about the limitations of MKS based interfaces, about frameless spaces, and reduced cognitive loads.

It's a fascinating world and one we will be living in in 20 or 30 years time. So I was wondering about this language and how we integrate it into our understanding of photography because there is this huge overlap that will only get bigger as time goes by. I was wondering why we don't have more of this language in our writing, in our teaching, in our making of work.

But then I thought about my understanding of not just Bollywood but any cinema. I thought of my understanding of photography. Photography is nearly 200 years old and we have no understanding whatsoever. This August Sander was on show at Paris Photo and it just held the wall it was featured on; a supremely powerful portrait of one man, Heinrich Hoerle, a painter who died in 1936.

And I wondered what is it about this picture that so held the wall. I can look to visual theoreticians, I can ask people involved at the top of facial recognition, but nobody has an answer. The facial recognition people I ask just laugh in my face and say we don't know that. They admit their ignorance. They can talk about fuzzy logic, and recognition learning, and memorability and algorithms. That is their world, but nothing that ties it in to the emotional heartbeat of images. That's a different territory. The answer isn't tied down to any single logical process. It's something far more complex than that. It's something very human, very emotional, that is lodged somewhere in the hearts of our beings. That's why Heinrich Hoerle sticks in our mind, that's why it is a wonderful portrait that has a soul and a heart and a being of its own. It's an emotional picture.

So learning that new VR language is fine, but it needs to be balanced with the fact that we actually don't know the languages that preceded it. It's like me deciding to learn Spanish  because I have already learnt a few words of Italian. Great, it's another language but it doesn't mean I have a clue about Italian. It just means there are now two languages I don't know. So now I'm more ignorant than ever. That's what photography is like. There is not one language to learn, there are multiple languages. And if we focus just on one aspect or one language, we end up more ignorant than ever. We should always remember that. We should recognise it.

So there are emotional languages and there are technical languages. And they meet in the most surprising places The point was brought home to me earlier in the week when I saw a fantastic documentary on the Voyager spaceship called The Farthest: Voyager's Interstellar Journey. This tells the story of what is essentially a photographic assignment; sending the Voyager spaceship out to take pictures of the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And it was beautiful. And the most beautiful thing was the passion of the people involved in the project, and the ways in which photography, science and the sheer novelty of seeing something so distant for the first time, in images made with such relatively primitive and simple equipment, was wonderful. It was poetic too. The image above shows a picture Carl Sagan had made, when Voyager was turned around and the lens turned on Planet Earth, that tiny little white dot in the upper band, photographed as Voyager made its way beyond Neptune to the outer reaches of the solar system. Science, emotion, poetry and pleasure. They do go together.

And that brought me back to Bollywood. The thing about Bollywood is it's the cinema of love, it's the cinema of emotion, it's the cinema of pleasure. In Om Shanti Om there is a sheer pleasure in seeing the absurd dance sequence in the Pain of Disco song Item Number being used as a fulcrum to lever the movie into full reincarnation mode. Watch Amar, Akbar, Anthony  and the pleasure of seeing Rishi Kapoor camping it up in a green pixie suit while telling his girlfriend he wants to see the ace beneath the veil a delight to behold.

And maybe that's the ultimate language of classic Bollywood. It's the language of emotion, of love, and of pleasure. That is a language that is universal and runs deep.

More pleasure, and less pain! More love and less hate. That's the lesson, there you have it.  And it might be a lesson for the more joyless borders of photography. Because pain and hate, boredome and sorrow gets you nowhere.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Best Photography Event: Three Days in Tharoul

It's the tenth anniversary of the blog, so to celebrate I'm doing a series of Best of Posts.

Well the best photography event of the last 10 years has to be Three Days in Tharoul. It's an event where you have three days to make a book.

You end up in a small town in rural Belgium with the lovely Philippe Malcorps hosting. There is a wine cellar with fine wine and Belgian beer (Rochefort and Orval), there's Fabrice Wagner cooking dinner, there is a fire and Pierre Liebaert is playing medieval choral music, there is Philippe playing a hurdy gurdy, Paul Gaffney's taking photographs, I'm writing the text and then Pierre makes a book of it all. In three days. Simply wonderful. It's beautiful, demanding and incredibly involving. If you are ever lucky enough to be invited, don't even think twice. Just go.

But how about the best photobook festival. Basically they're all good as far as I'm concerned, but Gazebook Sicily is by a beach, in Sicily, started on a budget by three wonderful people called Melissa Carnemolla, Simone Sapienza and Theresa Bellina. And it is free and lovely. A real joy.

Read more about the 2015 event here, the 2016 event here, and the 2017 event here.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Best Blog Post Title in the Last Ten Years

All of a sudden Theresa May, Sajid Javid and all the rest of the government are up in arms because Donald Trump is supporting a low-rent gang of racist thugs in the UK. 

Which is fine. But if they only complain now, does that mean they tolerate him when he supports low-rent gangs of racist thugs in his own country. 

What kind of thinking is that. It's only bigotry, prejudice and racism if it's in your own country, you can mock the afflicted, stamp on the faces of the poor, and justify neo-nazi murders just as you do it in your own back yard. 

Fuck me, what a pitiful bunch of backbone-free leaders we have. 

Anyway, that brings me on to the best blog post title in the last ten years.

It probably isn't the best title, but it has a ring to it. And it's kind of catchy huh. And some of my best friends are complete twats. So there you have it.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

10 years of the blog: And the Best Talk is Lina Hashim in Conversation with Amak Mahmoodian

Next up on the 10 years of the blog is the best talk which was by Lina Hashim in conversation with Amak Mahmoodian.

Lina deals with really complex ideas that she is thoroughly engaged with, that she understands and that she communicates clearly and directly to her audience. There is passion and understanding both of what she is dealing with and the visual lexica she is working with. She operates in a very direct world of evidence, belief and truth and she makes work that confronts this world head on. It is ridiculously difficult.

In that respect she shares something with Mathieu Asselin's Monsanto, which has just been shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse Prize. Asselin also deals with things head on, and has "No ambiguity" as a kind of catch phrase. His work, like Lina's, is rooted in evidence in belief and in and idea of truth, an idea of right and wrong.

In photography, there is an inbuilt and lazy cynicism that everything is propaganda, that nothing is truth. There is some value in this. When everything is accepted as truth, then it's important to look at what's true, what's not true, and how images/words/siting can make us believe or not believe in something. What, basically is the language of news, advertising, propaganda, documentary, fashion, travel, everything.

OK, so we got that. But what happens when truth goes out the window and we pretend that we don't believe in truth anymore. I say pretend because it's pretty selective when people say that everything is propaganda and there is no truth. Stick a few quid under their nose and most people will believe in the truth of hard currency pretty quick, even though that's the biggest mass psychosis of all.

In this so-called post-truth society, when everything is believed to be untrue, partially true or propaganda, it's still important to look at how images are understood, how they can influence us, how they interact with power.

When images are used against us on a regular basis, we need to understand how they are used and how they are understood and the relationship between the two. And then we can use those strategies in our own work.

But the underlying foundation of the post-truth society is that there is no truth, there are no absolutes.
That's a hugely political foundation to build upon. It's a foundation upon which no progressive policies in economics, in gender, in sexuality, in race, in health, housing, childcare, education, or welfare can be built. It's a foundation that is antithetical to all that is good and human and kind. It's a foundation for people with robber-baron hearts and robber-baron minds. It's a foundation for the government we have in the UK at the moment, a government that will happily sacrifice the life of the poor, the homeless, the sick, the disabled to line their own greed-filled pockets.

In the UK Jim Mortram deals directly with this in his work. He is emotionally and personally involved in what he does. but he is one of very few. Far too few. I do sometimes wonder if the obsession with the conceptual and the emotionally and socially distant meta-story isn't more to do with a secret plot to shut down the massively persuasive visual arguments that could be ranged against our neo-liberal overlords than it is to do with a fatigue with slightly crappy concerned photography. Because when that's crap, it really is crap as well.

Still, I think we need more 'truth' in our lives, more no-compromise fuck-those bastards kinds of ways of thinking. We need it in photography. So much photography relies on meta-narratives on how we tell stories, of how images are understood.

That's fine, but if you are going to deal with meta-narratives, you had better be sure you understand the narrative supremely well. Both the narrative that the meta is dealing with and the narrative of the meta.

It takes a long time to learn the narrative. Lina Hashim is immersed in the narrative. It's part of her life. Mathieu Asselin spent five years working on Monsanto. It's not easy to learn the story your going to pick apart. It is really hard. It wears you down. It can fuck you up!

One idea of the meta-narrative is that all the stories have been told. I would call mierda de toro to that as they say in Spain. The stories have not all been told. They have not even begun to be told.

The problem is it is quite difficult to tell a good story. First of all you have to know something about it, which is actually much harder than cobbling together a few images together with a lame editing rationale and some confident mumbling  about post-truth narratives, and subverting the supremacy of sequencing paradigms.

And then once you've done your research, you've got to photograph, interview, film, write and collect your story with the added dilemma that as you do so, the simplistic visual musings that you made earlier might be a bit shite. So on you go. And on you go. And on you go. And it's five years before you finish. And then you have to try and publish and show and sell the damn thing.

Fuck that for a game of soldiers, it's much easier to pretend that all the stories have been told and then cack out some sorry lines about meta-narratives that nobody is really going to understand anyway. Do that three or four times a year and you're made up.

That's why I'm so happy Mathieu Asselin has done so well with his mammoth 5-year project, Monsanto, which has just been nominated for the 2018 Deutsche Borse Prize. It is a proper story, it's an obvious story and it's one that hasn't been visually told. And it was tremendously difficult to tell, it was hugely wearing, possibly dangerous and came with a massive personal commitment. That's not easy.

As  I already mentioned, Asselin's tagline for the project is "No ambivalence" and I really like that too. It's a polite way of saying "Fuck these bastards". If you want post-truth you can have it, but I'd rather go to post-post-truth - which is truth. And the truth is what Asselin tells in Monsanto. They're bastards and here's the proof. And if you want some meta-narratives, well here they are as well, this is the visual language of how they lie, take note and learn it and see where else you can spot it.

That brings me back to Lina Hashim, the best speaker I've heard in the last 10 years. She also deals with  tremendously difficult subjects that she is invested in personally.

I saw her in conversation with about 18 other people but the number doesn't matter. Everyone there knew she was the real deal (and follow her on Instagram to see some of her latest work on Suicide Bombers). And you don't get many real deals.

The writing below is from a feature I wrote for the BJP a couple of years ago. Here Lina talks about her Suicde Bombers porject.

In her most recent project, Hashim collects and modifies pictures of dead suicide bombers. By doing so she examines the cult of martyrdom, asking how that martyrdom is established, and looking at the contradictions between religious laws, the acts of killing and the fetishisation of the bombers’ remains through images. “The Koran says that committing suicide is the biggest sin, and killing somebody is the next biggest sin,” she states, adding that martyrs are supposed to be created on the battlefield, and only if you are fighting soldiers.

“These people are not on a battlefield and they are killing everyone. And they are especially killing other Muslims and making their own rules. It’s very interesting because we don’t know where this fiction comes from. It’s definitely not from the Koran.”
Hashim’s main focus is on the blood of the bombers. “When they die, only the imam can take the decision of who is a martyr and who is a killer. And when they make the decision, they make it with blood. If the body gets washed, the body gets sent to the grave as a normal person, which in this case means as a killer. And if they don’t wash the blood, they send the body into the grave as a martyr. That means they are honouring him. They want to show he is going to God with the sign of blood to show the clearness of his heart in defending Islam.”
Read the whole article here. 

See more images and follow Lina on Instagram here.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

10 Years of the Blog: Best Video/Best Goal/Best Day

The thing that has given me most pleasure over the years of the blog is Mishka Henner's video of his father walking across the pitch following Man City's last gasp title winning victory over QPR in 2012.

I used to go to football a lot, home and away and all the rest of it but hadn't been to see a live game for a long, long time. I only followed City when they were shit which about sums everything up. Still, my wife and daughter say they have never seen me as happy as they did on that day.

My main job at the time was teaching ESOL to young migrants at the time (my favourite job incidentally) and I went into work the following day and we did a couple of things. First we re-enacted the goal. I was Sergio Aguero, a boy called Abadin was Mario Balotelli, and a girl called dua was the QPR goalkeeper Paddy Kenny. In my mind it was virtually identical to the real thing, complete with ripping my shirt off and waving it around my head. In reality it was probably a bit like this scene from Kes. But so it goes. You can see the last five minutes of the game here here.

The other thing I did was play Mishka Henner's video to the class - over and over. For a couple of months it was the start to the day. It was emotion cranked up with a Cowboy Junkies soundtrack (which had its own nostalgia for me).

And then earlier this year Mishka Henner's father died, and that changed it again. It becomes a dual memory, a double nostalgia. It brought tears to my eyes before, and now it does so in double doses, in two different ways. But it also brings me closer to a man I never met and have no involvement with except through a youtube video. And that is something, because it doesn't feel that way when I watch this video.

This is from the post I made earlier this year.

But from that simple video, I remember Bill's face, his smile, his, hat, his little jaunt that is not quite a dance, and Henner's affection as they head back to their seats. I watch it for the good-naturedness of it all, for the jubilation, for the smiling steward, the man on his knees in the centre circle, the disbelief, for the feeling of summer peace, all accompanied by the slowest Blue Moon every by the Cowboy Junkies.

It's not part of the Henner ouvre, it's something else, and it's quite beautiful. And enjoyable. I don't know if there are too many things in photography I've enjoyed quite so much as Bill walking across that pitch in 2012. It's a window into a soul that I can identify with, that I can share a moment with from a distance. So I feel like I know him a little bit. And for that I am grateful. Thank you Mishka Henner and thank you Bill!