Friday, 9 December 2016

Removing the Barriers to Empathy

 image by Patrick Willocq for Save the Children

So speaking at the Barbican in London at the Magnum Photos Photography and Empathy was exciting.

I talked about empathy in domestic, family and historical settings through 3 of my projects, Sofa Portraits, All Quiet On the Home Front and My German Family Album - and basically started out with a bunch of questions and ended up with even more which is not how it's supposed to work.

Olivia Arthur gave a really interesting talk on the relationship between intimacy, trust, private space and photography centred around her Jeddah Diary project in particular.

And Jess Crombie, who works with storytelling at Save the Children, talked about the more experimental side of photography and how that is being developed to tell the stories and create three dimensional characters that sweep away the assumptions and blockages we have in understanding others.

There were so many questions raised that I don't know where to start and it might even be that empathy is not the right term to use (I used it a lot!).

But I wonder that though empathy can be useful in creating relationships and opening people up, can it also be a barrier to telling the stories that people either don't want to tell or don't want to hear - which is a point both Olivia and Jess raised.

Jess also touched on the idea that the projects she works with are small scale in terms of both cost and fund raising potential. The upshot of this is that pity and guilt (hi Ewen!) are still the emotions that work best.

And allied to that is the idea that we are just not that sophisticated. Images work on an instantaneous, emotional level and it's basic. Even for people who are intimately involved with photography, the natural processing is at a basic level.

The barriers to that processing, the barriers to empathy are also at a basic level; gender (let's start with that one), nationality, religion, race, skin colour, educational level.

And the storytelling that seems to work is that which essentially hits the Family of Man sentiment that really we are all the same despite all our differences. So when people see Patrick Willocq's amazing sets they see the richness of the interior life of children, at least partly because the interfering signs of poverty, disease and location that immediately trigger certain connotations are not there. The empathy blockages have been removed.

Of course there is much more going on than that. The image featured above was designed by, amongst others, Anicet, a Burundian boy who wants to be a  'malaria doctor' in his imaginary ward complete with dead mosquito kids on the floor and all sorts of things, It's fantastic. The kids who made it are fantastic. And so we go, look, these children have a vivid imagination, like kids everywhere, and here is a fabulous photograph (from a photographer with a fabulous imagination) to prove it.

And it works. I'm touched by it. But then I would be touched wherever it would be made because it's odd, quirky, a bit mad in the way that children can be. And that's what makes interesting stories, and interesting images ultimately; those images where there are cracks and imperfections and you have people who aren't completely clear cut but have an undercurrent to them. the undercurrent can be something beautiful and charming like a child's imagination, or it can be something more desperate and difficult.

Everything does not have to be perfect in other words, and if we pretend it is, then we are doing everybody a disservice,

The problem is sometimes people don't want to recognise the imperfections of life and that maybe is where empathy can be a barrier. Because people do like telling the truth, but they don't like telling the truth to power. What people are willing to say in private is not what they are willing to say in public, because that can bring repercussions or shame or embarrassment or be mishandled. So there's another question... how do you handle that.

I have no idea. And I haven't even talked about fake empathy or political empathy or the fact that ultimately photography is completely unempathic and so what!

What is really interesting from a photographer's point of view is that the work Jess is doing with Save the Children is being replicated across numerous institutions and industries. There seems to be a sudden interest in how images work, how they tell stories and how they can be used. This signals an opening up of opportunities for photographers and a realisation that if you do use images - in use, in advertising, in fund raising, in fashion, in editorial - then you have to know how to use them; on their own, with text, with film, with sound, with touch. Which means you can't just be a photographer anymore. But then perhaps that's a good thing.

The blog is almost done for the year, but I haven't done my Best Books list yet, or my other Best List. So that will be the next post and then it will the Babel Blog for 2017.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Empathy and Photography

 images from Sofa Portraits, All Quiet on the Home Front and My German Family Album

I'm looking forward to talking and taking part in a discussion at the Barbican tomorrow on Empathy in Photography.

The event is sold out, but I'll be talking about these things I think.

What is empathy? (nobody knows)

What do we empathise with? (it's not just people)

What blocks empathy? (everything)

How can we create empathy? (with difficulty)

Does empathy serve any purpose? (hope my fellow speakers, Olivia Arthur and Jess Crombie help me out with this one).

And more.

The talk is in connection with an exhibition in the Magnum Print Room of David Chim Seymour's Children's World photographs for Unesco shot after the Second World War.

Here's a link to the book that was published in 1949, be sure to read the children's letter. How relevant is that now.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Best Handmade Small Editions that can be very expensive

 by Hiroshi Okamoto

What a category! I'll have to scratch my head for that one.

OK, here goes. I'll plump for Reminders Photography Stronghold who this year published Hiroshi Okamoto's fabulous Recruit (edition of 147 - at about £50 each), the beautiful Snowflake/Dog Man by Hajime Kimura (edition of .69 priced at just over a hundred of our glorious pounds - if you're on the continent and reading this in 2020 that's either 90 of your euros or possibly 200 depending on how things pan out) and many more..

by Hajime Kimura

It's run by Yumi Goto who is fabulously knowledgeable, dynamic and to the pointand she uses this to further the historical and the personal narrative through books, installations and general global influence.

At RPS, the overlap between the artist's book and the photobook is huge, but at the same time there is an elevation of personal stories (also see books like Red String) and a respect for the documentary tradition (as evidenced by Kazuma Obara's brilliant Silent Histories).

You're paying for something more than a photobook in other words (though I must say my eyes stung when I saw the price of the latest book. £375? That might be pushing it a little even if the edition is only 20.) and you're getting something more than a photobook. You're getting a beautiful book-work that is lovely to handle, to touch, to feel, to smell, oh baby, yeah, best stop there before I go all Austin Powers on you.

See if you can find the books here.

And read my interview with Yumi Goto for Photobook Bristol here. 

Monday, 5 December 2016

Best Augmented Reality Book of 2016

Turbine Hall installation shot

This is a double category this one. It's both Best Augmented Reality Book of 2016 and Best Photobook that the reader is guaranteed to do more than just flip through.

And the winner is, without any shadow of doubt, Making Memeries by Lucas Blalock, published by Self-Published be Happy. 

Right, so this is the sequence of events of what happens when you get the book. The book arrives in the post. I open it, rip open the bubble wrap and get a super glossy card book which is like a children's book and has strange, fractured images of sausages, medical diagrams, and fragments of chairs. It's an odd one. It's puzzling.

But then I see that there's an app to go with it and you use this with the book. So I delete a couple of other apps on my phone which doesn't work too well and download the Making Memeries App (which also doesn't work too well - or maybe that was my phone. I'm not sure).

Then I succeed in opening up the app and look at the book with it; it's like looking at the book through the camera phone. At first, not much happens, but then the phone image clicks into something altogether crisper and the epidermis of the skin diagrams gets a little bit alive. Not too alive, but the hairs stand on end and the blood starts pumping. I get to the page of fragmented chairs and everything goes 3d through the phone; the layers reveal themself and start shifting. It's weird and hynoptic and I start jiggling the phone about to get a better look.

I go to the next page and there's a phone (an old style phone) - it jumps off the page, it starts ringing, I can put my hand between the page and the phone. I'm looking at phones through my phone!

There are sausages (not cut the right way incidentally), hands, chairs, it's all odd. I call people to have a look. They look. I look some more. And then I put it away and I look some more the next day. And I'm still looking at it now. I'll stop looking at it at some point and delete the Making Memeries app so I can get Navigator back and work out where I'm going, but it's not happened yet.

It's augmented reality and it feels like it comes from gaming and virtual reality and it's a way of seeing and looking that we'll see much more of. That connects to the way we see and look already.

Either that or it will be like those Magic Eye 3D pictures you got quite a few years back that gave you a headache but were still hard to resist because you'd strain your eyes for hours and see a plane or a dinosaur something in 3d and you could move your head around and it would move too. Except of course it wasn't 3D, it was a Magic Eye book.

I don't know if Making Memeries is significant or not, or if it's a gimmick or not, but it's really, really interesting. And it's different. What it all means I have no idea. But I get the feeling that it does mean something and that many different uses of the technology will become (or already are - I have no idea) apparent somewhere. It's the future in other words!

Christmas Present ideas! Definitely! To go with Ivars Gravlejs' Useful Advice for Photographers. Someone should give Lucas Blalock a copy. Then he'd know how to photograph sausages properly (at an angle to bring the best out in the cut!).

Buy Making Memeries here!

(And if you want to make your own, simpler, augmented reality book, here are some instructions on how to do it. Thank you Daniel Donelly for the link)

Friday, 2 December 2016

2016: The Year of the Shoe!

all images Catherine Balet

Ok, so we all know that 2016 was the Year of the Shoe?

In some ways, the Shoe took over from the twig, the rock, and the reaching hand as photography's favourite trope.  And we all know that literally hundreds of photobooks were made on the subject.

From Spain we had From Sock to Shoe ('Del calcetín para el Zapato' is the original title, a great allegory on the current economic crisis and,  the globalisation of the shoe industry), from Italy we had Le Scarpe Odore (The Shoes Smell), an allegory of self-loathing linked to the decline of the Roman Empire as manifested in the impending financial crash, from the USA we had Left Shoe Right Shoe (an allegory on the ways in which arbitrary labels are imposed on our personal, political and economic worlds realised through a journey across the MidWest that is explored through the semiotics of the American road.

all images Catherine Balet except the one by me

Last but not least, from France we had Catherine Balet's Looking for the Master in Ricardo's Golden Shoes, Which is a re-staging of famous photographers using Ricardo Martinez Paz. The book, says the blurb, '..questions the dematerialisation of the photograph as well as the nature of authorship in the process of re-creation.'

Mmm, maybe, but that tone of voice leaves me reaching for the razors. Can we rephrase it please because I get the feeling the book is a lot more dynamic than that. It's a celebration of photography, of life, and of Golden Shoes.

Viva Ricardo! Viva Catherine. Viva los zapatos de oro!

Buy the book here

Er, why not Truman Capote!

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Best Book you Can't Buy Anywhere and Never Could

Whats the arbitrary category of the day again? Ah, yes, it's not the best book you can't buy, because that would be too easy and too big a category in the heady world of photobooks. Instead it's the best book you can't buy anywhere and never could. That's how special this book is.

And the winner? Oh, that's easy, and it's a book that also fits into the Best Photobook inspired by Modern Art and Building Sites.

 It's 3725 and it's by Alberto Castro. It only came in an edition of 60 and I don't think he's even promoting those, but the book is really nice and ties in with planning and modern art.

I saw the Abstract Expressionists in London the other week and all the Rothkos and the Pollocks and the Newmans and the Clyfford Stills (hadn't seen those before or even heard of him) and they  made me think of this book.

The nice thing is abstract expressionism looks awful in book or postcard form. Size matters. All these tributes look great in book for.

But I'm not sure if it's for sale or anything.

2015 - Courtyard B Block- Ground Floor
'Cuts on Concrete', 30cmx30cm. Author: Laborer
Tribute to Lucio FONTANA (see below)

2013 - D Block - Second Floor
'Black Hole', flexible air duct, 20cmx20cm. Author: Unknown
Tribute to Eva Hesse (see below)

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Best Russian Self-Published Photobook Stable of the Year (and Best Photobook Video)

image of Lookbook

I never quite know what to make of the books that come out of the Russian Independent Self-Published Photobooks Stable but they always have a  bit of a different feel, I always enjoy them, I always end up smiling, and I always look at them again to see what the hell is going on and wondering how I can elevate myself to the higher plane of existence that the inhabitants of RISP inhabit.

image of Alla Mirokskaya's book

That's true of three of the titles that I saw this year. Anastasia Bogomolova's Lookbook Alla Mirovskaya's Old Family Photographs and Deep Space Objects and Julia Borissova's Dimitry, and Olga Bushkova's Google Wife.

And sorry if I've missed a few out because there are more I know.

Fabulous Stuff.

image from Dimitry

Buy their books by following the links above or here. And Olga Bushkova's Google Wife also came with my favourite photobook video of the year in How I tried to Convince my Husband to have Children. The title's misleading because she didn't (not in the video) or did she?

And did she really pin pictures of babies up around the wall to convince him? Is she really as obsessive as that. And is her husband as much of a jerk as he's made out to be?

Is it true or is it all just a fictional lie? And if it is who cares.

You'll have to watch the video to find out.

Here it is:

Olga Bushkova "How I tried to convince my husband to have children..." ver. 1 from Misha Bushkov on Vimeo.

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