explaining myself stuff that matters

Dispatches from the Woodpile

For one reason or another I recently found myself getting my ducks in a row about making photographs of transracially adopted people. At the root was the simple wish to make voices like mine heard because I think we have some interesting information that might illuminate some of the febrile discussion around race. I also wanted the excuse to write about two of my favorite films: The Watermelon Man by Melvin Van Peebles and The Uncle by Desmond Davis. Both of these movies are about individuals who have and identity imposed upon them by external interests and in both cases the movie charts this experience, not least the confusion and discomfort of the protagonist undergoes at this sudden shift in their own perception of themselves coupled with the absolute failure of empathy of those they had considered close.

The Watermelon Man seems far more a product of its times than The Uncle. The basic plot is: a fairly unpleasant white guy wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into a black man. After the initial shock of his new appearance, his fundamental self attempts to carry on as normal and almost immediately the bindings of white privilege unravel to his dismay. The movie shifts from ur Farrelley Brothers into far more complex territory and ends with a Jeff Gerber teetering on the brink of radical black politics. This is all wrapped in 1960s sensibilities so there is a visual, social and linguistic tone to the movie that locks it into that period. The racism that Gerber shells out and then receives in the movie however, is timeless.

The Watermelon Man, Melvin Van Peebles 1970

The Uncle is a film about a child that children can watch, though it doesn’t make it childish. It is located within the world of a 7 year who happens to be a boy. The conundrum is simple, he has a much older sister who had a son at the same time as he was born and that makes him an uncle. The other children use this as a means to bully him and the adults fail to understand just why this hurts. The movie could easily be called The Auntie and tell the same story with different genders. One of the things that makes it so believable is Davis’ decision to shoot, for the most part, at eye level of a 7 year old. You see what Gus sees and what he sees confuses the hell out of him.

The Uncle Desmond Davis, 1965

This empathetic view works in unexpected ways. It seems hard to imagine now, but at the time, Van Peebles had to fight against the intention to cast Jack Lemmon in the role of Jeff Gerber. Had Van Peebles failed to get his wish, Lemmon would have spent all but 10 minuites of the running time in blackface. It could so easily have become Lemmon’s The Day the Clown Cried. In refusing to bow under pressure Van Peebles shows the audience the inherent tinearedness of blackface by putting Godfry Cambridge in whiteface and it grates.

Empathy is something I bang on about a lot. I think most of us are hard wired to have it and as we grow up those wires are snipped by experience, by family, by the need to fit in. The nature of transracial adoption is the narrative around who you are shifts a lot and those shifts affect your own self image. I can honestly say I have been taken by surprise by my own appearance in photographs: from a brown face with a frizzy mop of hair in school photos to sitting next to my mother in a Parisian cafe about 12 years ago where we look like stock photos of international, intergenerational friendship. I am sure I belong in each of those images, but to a stranger, if these were found photos, there are always going to be questions, superficial or not.

Paris 2007

Casting about for other movies that might fit this I came up with these titles, but I’m not entirely convinced by all of them: Lars and the Real Girl, the Lives of Others, Moonlight, It’s a Wonderful Life, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing. I am sure I could extend that indefinitely, just not sure if I should. However, none of those films explores liminality per se and certainly none of them, in my opinion, gets under the skin of living constrained by the imagination of others to quite the same effect of The Watermelon Man and The Uncle.

stuff that matters

Little Races

I’ve been sitting on this forever.  I have wanted to make work about the experiences of transracial adoptees but I’ve been shy and unconfident and full of excuses why I should not do it and lazy, I’m prepared to admit that I am capable of lazyness, just not very good at it because I am also a high achiever when it comes to feeling guilty about lying on the sofa watching daytime TV.

Anyhoo, I got made redundant at the end of July from a parody employer.  I sat about plotting revenge for a while and then I thought fuckit, make that work you have been banging on about since Noah docked.  So here is the start of it.  For those of you not up to speed, I’m transracially adopted.   I grew up in a town full of white people, I had a very weird relationship with my skin colour, but on reflection, not half so weird as just about everybody else.  Amongst other stuff I learned growing up I learned  I am not nor never was any of these things:

  • Lucky to have such a beautiful sun tan
  • Lucky not to need a sun tan
  • Like one of ‘you’ even if you think of me that way
  • A dusky maiden
  • Better at sex than white girls
  • More available than white girls
  • Impressed with ‘your’ colourblindness
  • Interested in being colourblind
  • Tolerant
  • Ignorant

I’m a little race.

I am unpacking those items and I’m pretty sure a whole lot more with some other trans racially adopted people.

If for some reason you have accidentally arrived on this page and you share the fundimental weirdness of transracial adoption, and would like to be part of this project (you don’t have to sit for a portrait) you can contact me through the form at the bottom of the Info page.



explaining myself stuff that matters writing for the hell of it

The Thin Black Line and the Broad White One.

I went to a talk between Lubaina Himid and Paul Goodwin at the Whitechapel Gallery last week.  They discussed three exhibitions she had worked with in the 1980s: Five Black Women at the Africa Centre (1983), Black Women Time Now at Battersea Arts Centre (1983-4) and The Thin Black Line at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (1985).  It was illuminating and more than a little  depressing.   One thing that got wedged in my head was how the exhibition at the ICA, deeply symbolic in a conduit between the big art stuff (ironically very small artworks by Richard Tuttle) and the bookshop, had been reviewed by Waldemar Januszczak who dismissed the exhibit as ‘angry’.   That is the same Waldemar Januszczak who I recently had a short Twitter exchange with on the subject of the Oriel College Rhodes Must Fall campaign.  He saw the idea of taking down the statue as censoring the past and likened the people who wanted to remove the object to the Taliban.  He called me idiotic for saying the comparison is idiotic but, regrettably, he didn’t answer my question as to whether it was also censorship for some post communist countries to have taken down their images of communist leaders and other socialist inspirational types.  I guess he was busy.

Anyway, at the moment, the admittedly entertaining Januszczak, is striding about various locations for his programme  The Renaissance Unchained  with what frequently looks like an empty suitcase (ha!) banging on about the marvels of  northern european painting sculpture and architecture that has been buried under the italian big beasts when it comes to discussing the art of the Renaissance.  He has a point.   I too love the intricacies of Durer’s Roller’s Wing and Cranach’s Adam and Eve, I’m glad he gets to push the viewer in their direction.  The thing is he is a determined revisionist and that rankles because of his obdurate approach to Rhodes’ statue which as far as I’m concerned has no aesthetic value whatsoever as it’s main purpose seems to be to make people  walk beneath the feet of the person who funded an important scholarship, placing no emphasis at all on the fact that this is a statue of someone who could be described as a founding father of apartheid.


explaining myself stuff that matters

Black Portraits II Revisited NYC Feb 2016

Last year I wrote about seeing the Lynette Yadiom Boakye exhibition, Voices After Dark at the Serpentine Gallery and the huge effect it had on me.  My responses to the exhibition had been the cause of a small spat between me and another associate at Open School East because I found it really difficult to explain what it is like to be in my skin, with my experiences to stand in a gallery surrounded by unglossed images of black people.  The spat was interesting because the conversation rapidly shifted from being about me and my experience to being about him not being a racist.  I know he isn’t a racist, it never crossed my mind to think he could possibly be a racist.  But he is white and I know a lot about the emotional lives and experiences of white people and when it comes to art, well, until last year my entire art education has been about the preoccupations, proclivities and perversions of, for the most part, white men.

And then, Qiana Mestrich tweeted about the Black Portraits II Revisited conference in NYC and I booked my place, bought my ticket and spent the most fantastic two days listening to presentations and reflections from the Florence conference last year which I dearly wish I could have attended.  The presentations began with the executive director of NYU Florence describing her own arrival in La Villa Pietra and her responses to the two Blackamoor statues flanking the door to her office that had lit the touch paper.   From there on I was taken through a historical overview of the black body in the arts via a myriad of contexts and a multiplicity of practitioners from a contemplation about Giovanni Moro a 16th Century Florentine actor/writer/musician; the possibilities of humanising through photography and the work of Gordon Parkes; reflections on migration and refugees, the experiences of black people travelling abroad from the USA freed from segregation by the willingness of the Europeans to put commerce before prejudiced when it comes to restaurant seating; a terribly moving account of abstraction in art illuminating the chaos of suicide for someone who had little time for awkward art; a corrective account of Ota Benga who was housed in a monkey cage in the Bronx zoo eventually released only to end his own life in despair; the exploitative nature of the American penal system that charges inmates $200+ for a staged family photograph; a fictionalised description of the taking of a photograph of captured Ethiopian women; notions of passing and the price of passing on the individual (boom) ;  objectification; fictionalised accounts that illuminated real and terrible incidents; reasons for travel and exploration of other cultures; ornamental blackness;  Betty Davis – no not that one, this one;  and while we are talking female musicians, obviously Missy Eliot; Berry Gordy insisting that the lyrics in Motown songs could be heard and properly understood; the use and abuse of melisma in current popular music; Aftofuturism;  a female Cuban documentaryist who managed, somehow, to work with a group who abjured women; a fascinating panel of artists who all seemed to use, in some way or another the camera.

That isn’t everything, I met some wonderful people especially Jacqueline Johnson who introduced me to Marilyn Nance and between the two of them, they seemed to know everybody.  What I need to do now is to start to synthesise this into more coherent thoughts around the panels I saw and heard.  Ultimately the best thing I took away was the knowledge that I was given privileged access to a whole world of art practice that I knew precious little of and this access has given me more confidence to explore my own preoccupations through my medium of choice without needing to explain that I am not calling someone else a racist just because I want to talk about living in my brown skin.

And I also got the chance to stand next to my pinhole camera in Grand Central Terminus for 45 minutes while I took the shot at the top of this post.  It all makes sense if you read to the end..


stuff that matters

words fail me

Quick opinion poll: which one of these statements is true?

a) Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States of America or b) Barack Obama is the forty fourth white president of  the United States of America.

If you answered a,  he’s mixed race so he’s not exactly black per se, so perhaps you should go to the back of the class and try to work out if answering a makes you a racist.  If you answered b, you should probably get your eyes tested as that is a very weird kind of colour blindness but for now, go to the back of the class and sit next to the possible racist.

Representation matters because people identify with each other.  If you come from a caste or group that is persistently represented in a negative, patronising, belligerent or subjective manner seeing that group you identify with presented in the manner most missing is going to do something to you and last Sunday Lynette Yiadom-Boakye ‘s exhibition Verses After Dark did exactly that to me.  I had gone on the recommendation of Anjalika Sagar who  I had a tutorial with the Friday before.  This tutorial was without a doubt the most thought provoking and interesting tutorial I have had in my time at Open School East.  Having a discussion with another woman who shares some of my experience around the subject of race and art was – I really lack the vocabulary here – great.  But it was seeing the exhibition that did a chaotic series of physical and emotional things to me and I am still working my way through them. 

Later, I tried to explain it to a fellow associate and I just couldn’t do it without resorting to lumpen phrases like, it isn’t possible for you to understand this…  This got the kind of standard liberal response to things that tickle at issues around racism which is to get really defensive at the merest suggestion that a person without, ahem, pigment, cannot understand or empathise with something that a non white person knows inside out.  This might make you think here we go again and I’d say you are kinda right if this is a post about racism but it isn’t.  It’s about being represented and not needing to qualify this representation and if issues around genes are mired in the middle of it, there is absolutely no reason to shoot the messenger.

Clearly, blackness, or more specifically, darkness, matters.  Lack of representation in places of power is all the more acute if you one day find yourself standing in a gallery where the only representation on the wall is of non-white people who you find it easier to identify with than the entire collection in the National Portrait Gallery; if you find your self in an exhibition that represents people who are absolutely not white and the theme is not about war, AIDS, fundamentalism, Ebola, female circumcision, gun crime, drugs, gangs, poverty whatever, it’s going to do something to you.

So there I was in an establishment that seems easily distracted by the shiny stuff that (pale) oligarchs and arty hangers on shimmer around in.  In the midst of portraits of black people, big portraits, some of them truly beautiful portraits in muted palettes, except for the sudden reds and greens and yellows was disorientating.  I have never been in a gallery of any kind anywhere in my entire well travelled life and seen anything like it.  Certainly I have seen exhibitions that are beautiful, impressive, thought provoking and enlightening,  lots of exhibitions about the black experience, for the most part  captured by people who cannot properly share it (and I am not criticising this work); I genuinely believe that  Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse deserved to win the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2015.  Still the Serpentine exhibition made me feel a little shaky, a little strange and incredibly elated in a manner Subotzky and Waterhouse’s work could never do.

I’m not talking about racism in the terms that I encountered it growing up, the casual under estimation of what I was and what I could ever be,  the vile taunts, the absurd and insulting ‘we think of you as being like us’ statement that was proffered as if it were a benediction.  That was just ignorance but what I  realise now is that ignorance was underpinned by an undeserved feeling of superiority that should have been interrogated and if it had been perhaps I would have a more subtle vocabulary to discuss it.  As despite the inescapable fact that Barack Obama is 50% white, his blackness somehow carries more weight and this is because of representation and it took some un-glossed representation to really hammer that point home.



stuff that matters

Making images in public, making images of the public

I’ve been following the case against Arne Svenson with a lot of interest and I am glad that it has been resolved in his favour.  Some of these photographs are quite beautiful when taken as images of calm domesticity but his method opens up a can of worms that says more about affluence and the assumed rights it appears to bring than it does about the ethics of the photographer. The issue with Svenson’s photographs is they are of the insides of people’s homes and he took them using a long lens from outside their homes and did not ask permission.  Initially I found the images exploitative and creepy, but on reflection I do not.

Neighbors #17, 2012 pigment print Arne Svensen
Neighbors #17, 2012 pigment print Julie Saul Gallery Arne Svensen

My reasons for being pleased he won are about the complaint itself which I feel was wrong. Although I wouldn’t call myself a photographer, most people think I am and as a person who photographs I am of the view that if I can see it, then I can photograph it.  Svenson appears to be of the same opinion.  Clearly Svenson was not using a magical sci-fi camera that can see through walls.  If he had invented such a machine, I would guess he’d have a far more lucrative time in the defence industry.  But he calls himself an artist and exhibits as such.  I get that.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that there is no real difference between me and him as I also exhibit my photographs and some of them are of people who have no idea that they are on display.  I make no apology for this.  The fork in the road is how far I am prepared to go to get an image.   I have photographed many people in public spaces.  I’m relatively benign, I don’t troll or shame with my images, but I am sure there are some of my subjects who would not be best pleased with the results of me pointing and shooting at them.  My justification is that if someone objects to being the subject, then I will not take the shot.

Some people having a nice time outside a pub.

The catch is, I take a lot of care not to be observed observing and with over 30 years of experience hiding in plain sight, you’d need to be on your toes to catch me watching you.  The fact that I am watching you in the first place most likely means you are so absorbed in something else that I’m just not an issue.  That is, in fact, the very thing that makes you interesting.  You observing me breaks the spell.  Well not always:

Krakow 1994
Krakow 1994

The thing that really gets my goat is the complaint about privacy as those people were doing the stuff they were doing in front of windows that made no attempt to conceal what was going on inside the room.  Svenson could see them from his own home.  Granted he took a closer look with a long lens which is questionable but not illegal and people are prepared to leave an awful lot on show anyway.

I lived in Krakow for a few years in the early 1990s.  From there I moved to Hamburg and one of the first things I noticed was the fact that people did not cover up their windows anywhere as near as much as they had in Poland.  One journey I frequently took was on the Schnellbhan along Isestrasse in Eppendorf which is one of the most affluent parts of Hamburg.  This line went along a street at height and from any carriage you could see directly into people’s homes.  I was mystified why they didn’t have curtains on their windows as I could clearly see into their beautiful apartments.  I didn’t avert my eyes when I went past.  If anything I was fascinated by the little glimpses of the lives going on oblivious to the thousands of people passing by.  It was in stark contrast to the net curtains on Polish windows.  It said a lot about how people dealt with privacy, about how secure they felt they were and perhaps about the way those inside felt about those on the outside.

From the kitchen window of my flat in Altona, I frequently caught an unintended eyeful of a neighbor who had some interesting proclivities that were eventually concealed, much to my relief, by the marijuana plants growing on his window ledge.  He either didn’t think anybody could see him or he thought it mattered little if they did.  Considering the little I was unable to avoid of what he was prepared to do, I’m guessing that he didn’t care in the slightest and possibly wanted us to look. I never met him so I got the chance to ask him and to be honest, I very much doubt I would have mentioned it had we ever come into close enough contact.

The complaint about Svenson included some business about the fact the photographer was profiting from this snooping.  This is the bit that infuriates me the most.  Svenson did the work, he owns the equipment, is represented by a gallery.  This is how he makes his living.  To expect a cut in any profit generated by his work is ridiculous and was deservedly thrown out.  It is also at odds with the claims to privacy.  Money is was it frequently seems to boil down to.  Privacy it is assumed, is a commodity and its price is dictated by the market.  But market is stupid and knows nothing about the urge to make art only what it can get out of selling the package on.  Privacy is a wildly abstract term that is so hard to reinforce.  I am most often challenged on the matter outside the buildings of corporations rather than near the homes of the wealthy.  And it is simple for me to run rings around those men in tabbards who parrot rubbish about the legality of my actions and are so completely ignorant of what I am doing that they demand to see the pictures I have taken on a roll of film there and then.  I feel sorry for them really as they have no chance of winning the debate and cannot afford to touch me or my camera for fear of being caught on the surveillance systems that bristle all around us.  This demand for privacy is frequently related to an assumption about why the image is being captured and a warped idea of the potential value or use of the final product

This guessing is another problem.  I had a spat with my middle brother a few years ago because he told me about an incident when he had seen a man photographing a merry go round that his 7 year old daughter was on.  My brother approached the man and intimidated him into deleting the photographs he’d taken.  My brother is over 6 foot and substantial.  If someone had done that to me,  they would have got short shrift and no cooperation whatsoever.  My brother did it to ‘protect’ his daughter.  It mattered nothing to him that he was in a public place, that the man statistically  was most likely to have been just indulging an innocent hobby, having a nice day out, like my brother and his family.

A singing child in a buggy, on the bus.

Svenson is tacking far closer to the wind than that particular happy snapper, but again, in the complaint the issue of children was brought up.  The inclusion of children in some images, it was implied, in some way made Svenson’s activities more sinister.  This really is arrant garbage.  It is incumbent on parents to protect their children, but most situations do not call for the destruction of someone else’s property.  By the same token people need to protect their own privacy and not expect other people to do it for them.

The question really has to rest with if the images were worth the effort and I think they most certainly are.  I would probably be taken aback if I was confronted by a photograph of me taken by Svenson in the manner of the ones that got contended.  But I would also appreciate the fact that the images themselves are rather lovely, almost like Vemeer.  In fact they remind me of Vemeer precisely because many of his paintings are so candid and the subjects appear to be unknowing or only very recently aware.  I do not think Svenson criticizes his subjects or even comments upon them, instead he shows serene domestic tableaux.  What he may have done as an unintended consequence is disrupt this feeling of security and destroyed the thing he set out to portray and that is a shame.  What is most evident in these images is a kind of domestic calm and comfort that most of us aspire to.  What actually goes on in those private spaces remains completely unknown because privacy is about a good deal more than what can be seen in a moment and this is why I feel that Svenson should not have lost his case.

Arne Svenson is represented by the Julie Saul Gallery, The Neighbors images can be seen here, as can more of his work.


stuff that matters

60 Minutes at work

I would be lying if I said I love my job.  I certainly do not.  I love the idea of my job and it is probably this that has kept me banging my head against the wall for almost 16 years because the institutions I work for certainly haven’t covered themselves in glory when it comes to actually using my skills, experience or education.  I used to be called a Learning Technologist, even for a period of time a Senior Learning Technologist, these days I am an Academic Developer, but in truth I am a check box that universities like to tick against a technology and inclusiveness question. It’s bullshit really.  Luckily it is well paid bullshit.

The first time I really registered the term Learning Technologist was when I applied for a job that seemed to be asking for the suite of experience and qualifications I had accrued.  I thought the job title sounded like dental hygienist, except nobody stares blankly at a person who says I am a dental hygienist. I would imagine that most people find themselves wondering if the dental hygienist is making mental notes about the quality of their smile once that bit of information is unleashed into the conversation.  Anyway, despite all those years of experience, I appear to be mainly a branch of the help desk for all the institutions I have worked for, and by help desk, I mean, people think I am there to help them get their emails.

I don’t mind helping, but I am technically and expert in online teaching and learning .  I have views about how we learn and I don’t expect them all to be agreed with, but I didn’t just trip over them in the street, I got them through an expensive post graduate education and trying things out.  I would like it if people with far less experience than me would maybe engage all this free expertise now and then and not treat me like I am a know nothing doofus just because I don’t lecture or have a Phd. For what it’s worth, the first person I ever knew with a Phd had to have the difference between unisex and bisexual explained to them after a trip to the hairdressers. I think of that every time I come out of a meeting with an academic about using technology in teaching and learning and they dismiss everything I say.

So it can’t be much of a surprise that the most productive day I had at work last year was the last day in 2014 in the office when I took my camera and the polaroid back to work and snapped away at some of the things that I liked the look of.

[RFG_gallery id=’17’]






stuff that matters

Art School

I am starting at Open School East on Thursday 8th January.  I’m kind of daunted and excited by the whole thing.  I’m most worried about being so much older than everybody else, including all the tutors, but also about my lack of basic artschool.  I should be ok though. I have set upon a project about gentrification, though I am pretty sure the system is awash with this kind of thing.  Nevertheless, I am personally interested in the changes that have been happening around where I live and I am even more interested in the lives of the people who were here before the developers realised that rather than gouging out ever smaller bedsits from victorian housing and just building stuff would make more money, so I reckon I may be bringing something to the table that hasn’t paid a visit before.

My project is intended to get locals to map and photograph the area as they experience it.  I see plenty of beardy plaid dressed people wandering about with zeniths and praktikas as well as iPhones and the like, archly photographing Ridley Road and other stuff.  Good for them, but that is fresh and new eyes.  I can’t help wondering where the photos taken by the locals are, what would you click on that you’ve been walking past all your life?  I do this photographing thing as a reflex. I just always have a camera.  What about if you never do, or if you do, you save it only for selfies.  I thought I had forgotten some of what it was like to see my first pictures come out, but I haven’t and it was kind of magical.  I really hope that I have the ability to extend that to at least one other person who isn’t one of my mates.

Anyway, seemed like a good reason to play this:


stuff that matters


I’ve recently been taking portraits for the wax project.  I have never seen myself as  portrait photographer because I feel uncomfortable looking closely at people despite the fact I do it all the time, but in a furtive and private kind of way.  I know and like all of these people, one of them I have known for over 20 years so I have had plenty of time to study him at close quarters.  I really enjoyed doing it and may do more in the future.  It is funny that these have turned out so well as it was inadvertent.  I started with a single portrait that I wanted for a particular purpose and the rest of these shots came out of that.  I can’t help wondering that if I had explicitly started out to take portraits, I would have got bogged down in all kinds of details that would have ended up with me shelving the whole thing because I am prone to procrastination and not hugely confident when it comes to asking for what I want.

stuff that matters

why do it: redux

I have been thinking about the motivation to photograph a lot recently.  Thinking about why I do it and ruminating on why other other people choose to do it too.  I have an account on eyeem where I post pictures from my phone.  I use the filters which I would never do on on flickr and prettyfy my shit until it looks a lot like everybody else’s.  I never considered why I treated those things differently to the stuff I put on flickr, I just did it. It is the way it is done, I am part of the gang of look at me.

I thought about motivation a bit more this week because this week a few people have shared a New Yorker article (The Last Days of the Twin Towers) with me. A lot of people share articles about photography with me, especially articles about loners who take photos and then get famous for it post mortem.  In my more paranoid moments I wonder if people are dropping hints. It got to the point last year that I got roundly sick of Vivien Mair despite this fantastic shot:

Boy on a horse Chicago
This image is a link from the Maloof Collection copyright remains with them.

The fairly consistent, ‘have you seen this…, you are a photographer…, you’ll find this interesting…’ and then a link to the same old articles about her and others on buzzfeed with their clickbait headlines can be a little stultifying.

Anyway, the article from the New Yorker is related to 9/11. An Estonian called Konstantin Petrov who worked in the world trade centre took a lot of digital photos of his place of work and posted them on a site called Fotki.  Some of the pictures are just plain lovely and some are banal, but they all have that held in amber quality that you get when you suddenly unearth a photograph of your long dead grandparents looking young and vital, because they are of something irretrievably gone that you were never really aware of.  This image is particularly arresting and it would have been without the heavy weight it now bears.  To my super nerdy self, even the darkness on the flag somehow gives it more weight:

View from the Windows on the World Resturant by Konstantin Petrov.
View from the Windows on the World Restaurant by Konstantin Petrov.

Nobody could have forseen what actually happened on 9/11. Whatever the plan, nobody knew the buildings would come down like giant reverse rockets no matter what the intention of the abhorrent ideology that arranged it.  For more than just a day or two, most of the western world at least stared at the same footage on their televisions or looked at the same photographs in magazines and newspapers in disbelief while the families and friends of the close to 3,000 dead were funnelled into an existence that they will never fully be permitted to escape.  It is that collective experience which gives Petrov’s photographs their immediate power, but it isn’t the only thing that is of interest about those photographs.  I have no critical imperative to judge his pictures good or bad.  I am interested because Petrov  had the urge to photograph his surroundings because they interested him.  I cannot get into his head, he died in a motorcycle accident within a year of the destruction of the towers but it is questionable that he could have fully understood their significance as they have only really been publicised recently. I know in my own mind the motivation is to frame something.  Not physically and hang it on a wall, but intellectually, to put it in a space, to isolate it, to use the lens, the shutter speed, the film speed, whatever comes to had in order to isolate it further and then to look at it long after the contents of the frame have moved on.

I would have struggled to put this into words until recently when I have been thinking about photography and why I do it.   I have my own extensive back catalogue to look at and the things I captured have changed hugely through time.  Petrov’s images are doubly significant due to his own death in a motorcycle accident (caused by what appears to have been his own reckless behavior) within a year of the attack.  Like Vivienne Mair, there is no possibility of an interview to outline just what was going on as a result the opinions of others gets draped over the catalogue and the artist.

There has been a lot of noise about both of these photographers, obviously far more about Mair (and much of it seems spurious or ill informed); focussing on the individual rather than the camera and why some people felt the need to learn it, carry it and use it on a daily basis. I think Mair and Petrov have more in common with the instagram and eyeem tribes than might be apparent in the first place.  I think that phone pictures are not less worthy or interesting just because they are so ubiquitous.  What seems to be getting lost in the discussion is the very impulse that why someone might have done it in the first place because photographs are slippery things and only garner collective meaning when they are of an event or thing that the viewer has an emotional response to and that could be anything from the image is of cross eyed cat or W. Eugene Smith’s portrait of Japanese mother gently cradling her damaged child, which I am not going to insert here because the family asked that it should no longer be published.

It is important to keep hold of the tension between the photograph and the motivation for taking it, both Petrov and Mair might have been interesting interviewees, but by the same token, they might also have been dullards and fools, it isn’t really the point.