Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur‘s work “Stranger” is about Dubai, connecting its past and its present days. While she was researching for this project during her artist residency in Dubai, she found out about a shipwreck incident in Dubai in 1961 and lots of people died. One of the families believed that his son never died from the incident and that he is still alive in present days. Using this story as an inspiration, Stranger is about telling the city of Dubai through this imaginative character – what if he’s still alive now, how and what would he see?
Although she was trying to see it from the point of view of this character, the book encapsulated a feeling which is universal for outsiders coming to the place – a sense of isolation and loneliness as well as strangeness to the things that happen and exist in the city. From the book, she also collected quotes and extracts of conversations that she heard. For the final words of the book, she extracted from what she found out from the divers – that people were in their life-vest and pockets full of gold – to use as a metaphor for a city that draws people in with its promises of riches and full of workers on all levels of society, saving something for a life elsewhere.
The design of the book was also carefully thought out to represent “Stranger”. The book was printed entirely on transparent paper creating these new double or sometimes triple compilation images which gives a sense of confusion from the layering of the past with the present. This somehow matches what Olivia imaged the survivor would feel when walking around the city.
image courtesy to Olivia Arthur
This series by Clare Strand is a simple and a brilliant analogy about communications in this era. How information nowadays can be miscommunicated and misinterpreted – be it positive or negative, whether deliberate or accidental – has an ever-increasing and overwhelming effect on our everyday life. These failures of communication can lead to minor confusion, fantastic revelation or global outrage, depending when and where they occur. Her inspiration came from the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the 1971 film adaptation, Mike Teavee says: “You photograph something then the photograph is split up into millions of tiny pieces and they go whizzing through the air, then down to your TV set when they are all put together in the right order.” However, what Mike fails to foresee are the complications and disruptions that can occur in the act of transmission. When Mike transports himself via Wonka Vision he is indeed broken into a million pieces, but when put back together again he is a 10th of his original size.
Strand asked her husband, Gordon MacDonald, to select images from her archive and create a grid. They became this human machine for transmitting information of an image from one person to another. From there, he would communicate the sequence of numbers depicting the tonal code (ranging from 1-10) of each photographic element on the grid and Strand would then paint the code on the corresponding large-scale grid she had drawn up in her studio. This method was actually forseed by George H. Eckhardt during the pre-internet age where he discussed the potential for transmitting a coded photograph via telegraph to produce an accurate representation of the original image.
This work reminds us the very physics of photography and what it used to be – chemicals, papers, chemistry and shapes. And how using such primitive methods can translate to visual representations about issues happening nowadays.
I don’t know much about this book. Actually I shouldn’t really write about it until I’ve read this book. But what intrigues me so much about this work is that it’s talking about family (which is a topic of my interest) and that it uses playwright and other forms of medium to weave into the narrative, talking about one’s struggle in life being pulled by different directions. References and talks about this book has lifted my interest higher. Especially it is shortlisted for Aperture and Paris Photo photobook award 2017. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book.
After watching the video of MACK and Clare Strand making this photobook, it got me interested to look into what the book is about and who Clare Strand is.
Clare is a conceptual artist based in Brighton. This photobook is based on a very simple idea of her conflicting love and hate of snakes. She as a person is terrified of snake yet she collects images of people, especially women, holding snakes since 30 years ago. Clare found this notion very interesting, she said, “It strikes me as rather perverse to collect what I despise.”
The book plays around with the magnified fragment of the original images, showing the intensity of the relationship between the hand and snake, followed by the original images (sometimes snakes held by women, sometimes just the snake on its own), and then a poetry which is automatically generated from the written stories on the back of the collected press images and tweeted by Strand. “Bound in a faux-snake leather cover, the book fits comfortable in the hands—its size suitably intimate. Combining dramatic full-bleed images with full-size reproductions, the book moves in and out of the images—drawing us close and then pulling away. Love. Hate. ”
On the surface, we see the book is about the relationship between girls and snake, yet deep down, the book also reflects the momentary power that women have over the snake, that split second when there’s a balance of control. As Strand mentioned in her website, “the relationship between snakes and women has a long history, which Strand acknowledges through her discussion on the work. “The snake has been the subject of allegory and metaphor since biblical times, signifying eternity when holding its own tail; suggesting cunning and temptation to Eve; the agent of suicide for Cleopatra, and even the symbol of health and healing in the rod of Asclepius, the god of medicine. The snake can represent both good and evil, wisdom and cunning, rejuvenation and death, and, of course, sexuality and the phallus.” This book is more than just about girls and snake. It can also represents our inner conflict tug of war between good and evil.
What interest me as well about this work is that we can see this work flourish from start to end. From the concept and idea to how the book is made, how the ideas and concepts are translated into book form. And then, how that same idea and concept is translated into forms of exhibitions, showing how the same concept can be played and manipulated with different forms of publications. In the “Girl plays with snake” exhibition, the poetry are instead boldly imprinted on top of the enlarged fragment of original images. “The result is an overt and graphic interplay between text and image. Alongside the framed works, another automatic poetry generator, constructed for this exhibition, is projected onto the walls of the gallery, creating new random arrangements of Strand’s poems. The automatic text is printed out as a snaking ticker tape for the audience to tear off and take away.” This is something which increases the interactions between the artwork and the audience that can be only done in the form of exhibition, but not in a book form.
Her more renowned work about digital misinterpretation “The Discrete Channel with Noise” will be discussed next.
This is a good documentary video about how Clare Strand, a conceptual artist, worked with MACK publisher on her book “Girls plays with snake.”. From concept, to developing into a form of a book.
What I love about what MACK said was, “the book is an ideal translation of the ideas and concept from the author. Avoid excess of design, causing the ideas to be a distraction. As long as the content is good then it’s easy to make a good book.”
Photo courtesy to the artist: Saskia Wesseling
Saskia Wesseling is a Dutch photographer based in Hong Kong, who is a finalist of 2019 WMA awards. This year’s theme is “opportunity”. Saskia used this opportunity to talk about the education system here in Asia, especially in Hong Kong.
Visually the work is simple and straightforward. Images are portraits of children in their uniform, with exercise book or text books covering their faces, symbolising a lot of different meanings. It can be interpreted as the system only cares about children’s achievements, they don’t even want to know their “faces” ie. the child as a whole. The age of the children ranged from kindergarten to teens – showing that, this corrupted system starts from such young age. Postures of the children are very stiff and meticulous, indicating the indirectness of what the education system is doing to children, whom are meant to be free and creative, boxing them into exactly the same “robots”. Amongst the series, one of the photos indicating a boy with lots of medals around his neck, plus other other in the background, showing that education system emphasises on successes by achievements and awards, and regardless of children’s emotions or individuality.
There were two more photographs with a group of children standing on each step of the stairs with same posture and uniform. Saskia wanted to portray that if following what the system is providing and do so accordingly (visually indicated by the stamps), the children can take one step at a time to higher status. In one of the two photographs, a westerner child rebelled and left the “line”, so then in the other photograph, she was placed in much lower status of the stairs, which indicates that the system is rigid and there is no flexibility for creativity and the potentials for individuality.
All in all, the work is easy to understand and visually straightforward, so that even for those who doesn’t have art background can easily grasp what the topic is about, and what it is questioning. I’m not entirely sure why some photos are in black and white and some are in colour, maybe to indicate that the problem isn’t just a contemporary problem, but it grew from a long history and it is still happening now, with no changes.
The work is inspiring in that we both care about the same topic, but personally I am not too fond of the visual language used. Maybe it’s the mix of colours or images with selective colours. For me I think the visual form can be stronger. Maybe the use of light can be better but maybe she wanted to present the work in the most ordinary way. But definitely, work from film could be totally different and to a higher standard. It is what digitals can’t do.
Chosen [not] to be is a series about Down’s syndrome. A social activism project to bring awareness and act as a catalyst for government to make changes. These 5 girls, representing the Down’s syndrome’s community question and challenge a few questions that we are now facing.
- What is beauty? As part of the Radical Beauty Project, which is about “challenging opinions and understandings of beauty in contemporary culture… working to provide an alternative vision for beauty today”, are we embracing diversity in the art fields? Why are we still considering Down’s as “faulty”?
- With the rapid technological developments concerning prenatal screening (NIPT), we have the ability to know and decide whether we want to keep the child. So then are Down’s getting extinct? Are we embracing diversity of human forms?
What strikes me the most is that throughout this project, the artist found out that when the results of prenatal screening confirms Down’s, the first question the physician asks is “when are we scheduling the abortion”. Instead of asking “what do you need from me to make the best decision for you and your family”, the woman is immediately steered towards ‘getting rid of it’. Which means that the woman in question will never receive the proper information to make an informed decision about her new baby and prospective addition to her family. So the question is, what is the society and culture shaping us morally and ethnically?
In terms of the visual elements and conceptual symbolism, I must say I don’t really understand. What does the rope all over her face leaving an open eye means? It feels to me that the rope represent struggles from the outer-world, and that even that is so, she is piercing through. What about the dead plant on top of her head? It feels to me that the higher ups (those with authorities) are treating Down’s as dead weight, but still her face not entirely covered may mean that they are fighting against this issue. What about the pixels covering her face? Usually in television, we cover those who are of crime, or of shame with pixels to blur out their faces, so as they say to protect them from being recognised but also shaped us to label these are people as shameful and of vulnerable and dangerous groups. Marinka has cleverly used this symbolism to represent that conflict. Are they or should they be the protected type? Are we or should we be ashamed of them? But why she used yellow pixels I’m not entirely sure. Finally, the velvet circle and lines in on of the photographs. What does that represent? The lines reminded me about geometry and that maybe it means society or the outerworld is boxing this group of community. There are still other symbolic images that I have no clue why the artist uses it that way – e.g. the green smarties around Down’s faces. Or those red dots on a black and white landscapes etc.
All in all, I believe this is an important piece of work that brought us to question some very important topics about humanity. And what I admire the most and hopefully works out is, that it really does act as a catalyst for governmental changes. That we will have to wait and see.
“Dear Chris” is a body of older work by Katrin Koenning. I must say, I don’t used to understand this type of documentary photography. It’s like, when you learn English, and you haven’t learnt the style of poetry. My belief of photography at first was focused on single photographs. How to get the sort of “perfect” photograph. Time passed and after exposure to so much more variety of photography, especially with narrative photography, I began to understand and appreciate this type of work. And actually, it is the type of work that I want to move forward to. There’s so much more depth and layers that can build upon within a body of work.
Storytelling is very interesting. As a young kid, I’ve always loved illustrations and reading picture books. The range in storytelling with photography or visuals can be so huge. I used to think in movies, simple and direct, everything then in photographs must be literal so people can understand. Yet, the way Western artworks is told through symbolism. And visuals help audience to widen their imagination on the topic presented.
“Dear Chris” is composed of three interchangeable chapters – childhood albums, his objects and photographs of places of significance to Chris.
“As a society we don’t talk about death, let alone about suicide, so I felt a sense of responsibility,” Koenning explains. “But I was also aware of the fact that out of the family I was probably going to be the only one who could do that, because as an artist I had the right tool kit.”
Old family photographs immediately fill all of us with sentimentality, as a viewer you are not just seeing Chris’ childhood but, depending on your cultural background of course, you are seeing your own memories. On the website, I like how Katrin juxtapose these images with the clinical ways of presenting his objects. Objects are meticulously placed centre frame and the pale blue and blue background of the objects Chris’ possessed gives a feeling a “blue” but also the feeling of objectivity. That these objects are neither alive nor dead, losing its original function. The juxtaposition interchange our memories of Chris from past to present, from hope to loss, mirroring how we might feel when we loose our loved ones.
The landscapes – “places of significance” – are empty and still, using suggestive titles for viewers to extend their imaginations for what it would be like or where would Chris go when he was alive.
The title of the photograph below “Missing (2009)” made me think that this was taken while looking for Chris the first time he tried to commit suicide. The light behind the trees suggests hope at finding Chris, it is a hint of how much happened before Chris’ death.
I absolutely adore her visual language and poetry. I used to be taught that the work needs to punch you in the face. Her work isn’t like that. It’s like water, lingering and longing, sip into your body here and there, gentle yet powerful. I didn’t know colour work can be so mesmerising. I used to think that deep contrasty black and white work is the way to make a punch. And a way for a statement. But slowly, being more open and receptive to ALL kind of imagery, I enjoy more and more the ordinary. The little here and there through life, which we all must go through and must encounter.
I put these two work together to discuss because both are about the transitional period from one identity to another. Sasha is about the transformation from childhood to adolescence; Martha is about the transformation from adolescence to adulthood. Both work were shot by their mothers who happens to be great photographers, and the work both talks about identity, the internal process for Martha and Sasha of reconstructing their identity and their relationship with others and the world.
Sasha – Claudine Doury (member of the VU agency and winner of a host of awards including the “Leica Oskar Barnack Award” in 1999, the “World Press” in 2000 and the “Prix Niépce” in 2004)
“Sasha is a series taken over 3 years time where Claudine Doury has caught the shifting from childhood to adulthood. With this young girl (her daughter, as a mirror her own adolescence) Doury witnesses the loss of childhood and questions the construction of identity, through secret games, intimate rites, fears and dreams of adolescence.”
I love this series, and also “Artek”, but this series grew on me even more. Both talk about the fine line between childhood and adolescence, the youthful metamorphosis. In “Artek”, her language was candid and genuine. She was capturing rather than making images. In “Sasha”, she used a totally different approach. Even though images are staged and created, they feel very natural. Her sensitive touch with the soft colour she used accentuate the feelings of tenderness and sensitivity. The ritual of the cut hair strike me the most. The symbolic meaning behind about growing up and leaving behind the childhood memories was striking for me. The other photograph I love was the image of her sister lying on top of Sasha on the bed. Sasha’s eyes were closed and gave me a feeling of some sort of a spiritual transformation from childhood to adolescent, visually presented literally.
Martha – Sian Davey (artist represented by Michael Hoppen Gallery, winners of several awards including PDN Book Award ‘Looking for Alice’)
This series is about Martha who was 16 years old transforming from adolescence to adulthood. Again the series talks about changes and how Martha reconstructed her identity and gained a deeper sense of self as a woman. The series of photographs included a lot of Martha’s portraits with different type of gazes, ranging from firm, questioning, doubts, blanked, playful, longing etc and her relationships with the nature, her sister and her friends. The images at the beginning suggests to me that she was at the edge of this bubble where she was blocked from the societal norms and expectations, that she could still be her free self as she wanted to be. Slowly the series moves towards how she grew to become a woman e.g. Martha as a role of a maid, dressing up and attending social events etc, suggesting how we, as women, all needed to act in the society – reserved, articulated, elegant etc. Towards the middle of the series, I love the photograph of Martha smoking a cigarette at night. If the series were progressing the way I thought it was, this image to me suggested that this is the time, if there is one, that she would turn from a caterpillar into a butterfly. And then after series shots of her friends got drunk, the first portraits of Martha comes up was of her wearing a pink sweater. Her posture and gaze speaks so differently to the ones before – her eyes were somehow suggesting to me that the transformation is confirmed. She is now a woman. While she still had some doubts (indicating by the few images of her and her friends during their swimming times), the last image of her in the kitchen wearing a sporty bra suggested a reconfirmation of her identity as a grown woman.
The two texts in between this series help readers like me a lot in understanding the work and having resonation with the work. It did lead me to go back again and again to experience Martha’s change, bringing memories of my adolescence and how I transformed.