One of the interesting aspects of this course is the opportunity to discover how contemporary photographers have found new ways to address the age-old subject of breaking down the insider – outside dynamic to explore identity and place. This essay, which looks at Caroline Drake, Wendy Ewald and Chris Shaw follows on from reviews of John Goto (here), Henrik Duncker and Yrjö Tuunanen (here) who have each devised very personal approaches to their work.
I have a tendency towards straight photography, often in the documentary style, and one of the challenges of the Context and Narrative and Identity and Place courses has been to break out from the inherent conservatism of my practice and explore new approaches and new ways to present my work. If there is one feature that marks out contemporary photography in general from work in the 1970’s and earlier it would be the wide range of, often radical, approaches to, what would historically have been, straight documentary projects.
Carolyn Drake – Wild Pigeons
At one time, and not so long ago, a radically different approach to a photographic project might have marked out the photographer as a contemporary artist who uses photography rather than a documentarist so it is interesting to start by looking at a documentary project by a Magnum Photos nominee.
Carolyn Drake became a professional photographer at the age of 30 initially moving to Ukraine to “examine cultural partitions in a country pursuing a unified national identity” (1) and then between 2007 and 2013 basing herself in Turkey whilst traveling into Central Asia to progress two long term projects; Two Rivers, looking at the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers and Wild Pigeons which explores the status of the Moslem Uyghur people in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on China’s Western borders.
I have been unable to source a copy of Wild Pigeons (i) so this review is based on the various, and usually small, selections from the series that can been found on line. This is an inadequate method of review, understanding the flow of a book is as important as being able to see the printed photographers, and it is especially inadequate in this case having noted Ian Johnson’s comment that “This is a challenging book. It requires paging through and studying its sequences several times before its intentions unfold.” (4)
The region is in the midst of an enforced and dramatic drive for modernisation with historic neighbourhoods cleared for the construction of modern cities and a significant influx of Han Chinese workers. A ban on contact with the press and religious beliefs that oppose the depiction of living creatures in artwork were just two of the obstacles that needed to be overcome if Drake was to document the world of the Uyghur people.
“With this project I found myself trying to tell a story about people who are forbidden from describing themselves to the broader world in their own ways; who speak a different language than me and have different religious and intellectual experiences; and who live in a place that is changing rapidly, not by their own choice. I had to ask myself how to make meaningful work considering all of these conditions. The experiments were a response to these deliberations.” (3)
The book is organised into four sections that separate an intriguing mix of straight, dreamily atmospheric and subdued documentary style pictures, collaborative collages and sketches on photographs, straight portraits and manipulated postcard-style portraits.
The landscapes, both urban and rural, have a dusty, misty eeriness, somehow more Marco Polo than twenty first century. There is often great depth to the pictures even though the furthest points may dissolve into hazy horizons; they describe great spaces, grey skies and flat deserts bordering rivers and roads, human subjects are often dwarfed by the landscape. Sean O’Hagen summarises their atmosphere as a “sense of isolation and otherworldliness” (2) and it is this “otherworldliness” that sets these photographs apart from so much documentary photography. Reviewing these images provides an insight into how the public reacted to travel photography in the nineteenth and early twentieth century; this is a place that is not only far from any tourist destination but a truly forgotten corner of China’s sprawling empire. Everything from the landscape to the people and their architecture is novel and Drake’s pictures drawn us in to explore this remote and strange place.
Much has been made of the collaborative art works that form the second section of this book where Drake relinquished control of her photographs to allow people to collage or graffiti the originals and how in doing so gave a small number of Uyghurs a creative and political voice that they are otherwise denied. The available examples of these collaborations are intriguing and we must assume reveal an unique insight to the Uyghur mind. Darren Byler (5), an anthropologist who edits a collaborative blog focussed on Northwest China and Central Asia, showed the book to both Han Chinese and Uyghur photographers to gauge their reactions; the Han photographers were initially struck by the mixture of high quality photographs and the overwritten and poorly Photoshopped montages but after discussion recognised that by discarding aesthetic or quality goals Drake had found a way to express the suppressed ideas of her collaborators:
“Wow, this book really is about the dreams of people. The idea is not to achieve some high standard of beauty, but to understand the desires of people.” (5)
The Uyghur photographers reacted quite differently, relating very directly to the manipulated pictures and finding narratives that reflected their own experiences.
These responses better explain the collaborative sections of the book than any detached reviewer can hope to achieve. They suggest that these parts of the book are subversive, a message smuggled out of Xinjiang that communicates the fears and dreams of a subjugated people. If we accept that idea then the whole book acquires a political edge that the landscapes and portraits might have failed to achieve in their own right.
It is frustrating not to have seen a copy of this publication as I sense the interrelationship between the different styles and approaches in the four sections is important in understanding Drake’s overall intent. However, based on the available photographs, I surmise that she has used the collaborative works as the key that unlocks the meaning of her straight documentary pictures which appear more dream-like as a result. In their own right the collaborative works do not hold the aesthetic appeal of the landscapes and portraits but by offering a tiny window into the minds of their authors they help us understand the overall, sad narrative of the Uyghurs. A narrative that is common to all minorities.
Wendy Ewald – American Alphabet
Wendy Ewald’s American Alphabet continues with the themes of alternative approaches and collaboration. This project which arose from a recognition by Ewald that, in American schools, children to whom English was a second language were being taught using primers that reflected white middle-class values based on motifs and educational concepts first devised in the fifties.
Ewald identified that far from being democratic language was a barrier to progress for children from non-English speaking homes and set out to create primers based on her photographs that were relatable to various ethnic groups. Initially photographing Spanish speaking migrants:
“I asked them to think of a word in their own language for each letter of the alphabet, and to assign these words visual signs specific to their culture. I photographed the signs, objects or scenes they selected. When the negatives were developed, the children altered them with Magic Markers, adding the letter and word they were illustrating.” (6)
After working with Latinos she was commissioned by the Cleveland Centre for Contemporary Art to develop a similar project with African American children. This evolved the project from one based on an internationally recognised language to the vernacular language or dialect of black American youths.
These projects are highly collaborative with the children designing the theatrical settings, poses, props and eventually over-writing the prints. It revealed not just the distance between these minority groups and the assumptions of the wider American population but also the huge creative resource that lies latent in schools in deprived areas not just in the United States but in any developed society. Ewald has tapped into this resource to make an educational, political, cultural and artistic statement of real merit
Ewald might easily have left it there or continued to work with ethic minorities but to explore contrasts and similarities she then evolved the project by working with the students at Philips Academy, an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts, where she had been a student in the 1960s. The most interesting feature of this series which clearly concentrates on the white middle class that “owns” the American-English language was the choice of words by the teenage female students. They selected words like “tearful”, “sentimental” and “orgasmic” to describe themselves which Ewald says revealed a “sad portrait” and an obsession with sexuality. (6)
In 2002 Ewald took the project to Queens in New York City to enable her to work with Arabic-speaking students. To put this in context the so-called Patriot Act had been passed into law in 2001 (ii), the Iraq war was about to start and Ewald found school principals highly protective of their Arab American students but one school cooperated and connected Ewald to a group of children from the Middle Eastern immigrant families.
This project was significantly different from those which proceeded it as Ewald set-out to create an Arabic language as opposed to English primer. To that end the students chose words to represent the Arabic alphabet. In the same way that Ewald saw the Latino, African American and White Girl’s choices revealing cultural and social under currents she was surprised by the sophisticated choices made by the Arab American children; jar (neighbour) for the letter jim to represent “something like kindness, which is what people must show in the world” (6), fekr (thinking) for the letter fa because “It’s a good symbol. It represents me. I’m a good man because I’m smart” (6).
In hindsight and now understanding the long term impact The War on Terror had on relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in America and Europe we can understand that this project was revealing the underlying fears of young Arab Americans as they saw themselves becoming demonised by ill-thought-through government policies and media attention that verged upon hysteria.
In many ways it is the Arabic series that is the most moving, the strange script and language emphasises the isolation of these young people; their faces, attitudes, poses and clothing mark out their similarities with any group of students but their otherness is highlighted by the foreign script of their language, a language that Ewald points out many of them do not even speak.
Chris Shaw – Retrospecting Sandy Hill
With no disrespect intended to any of the parties involved Chris Shaw is the antithesis to Ewald and Drake. Instead of being a white, middle-class, college educated American he is a British Northerner who felt so alienated by the “rich kids at college” he lost his way, turning to alcohol and becoming a disruptive element in the late 1980’s at what is now UCA Farnham.
He found his release valve documenting the Sandy Hill housing estate in nearby Aldershot. As a long term resident of the area I can confirm that Sandy Hill was never a pretty place but it was here that Shaw was able to engage with what he describes as “normal people” (7) This project was collaborative only to the extent that Shaw gave away photographs as a way of connecting with people, which, of course, led to more photographs. He created a scrap book of the pictures but lost it on a train to London and it is only recently that he has recreated the scrap book and published it as Retrospecting Sandy Hill.
It took me some time to connect to this series. The scrapbook aesthetic, which Shaw calls “anti-aesthetic” (8), initially looks a little clichéd, although not forced or contrived but it slowly reveals itself as a illuminating way of describing a run-down post war housing estate with its low-rise sixties architecture clustered around urban wasteland originally conceived as an amenity but now scarred by neglect. Shaw’s felt tip graffiti captions and edge-torn prints capture a moment in time, perhaps a mood, where political correctness was far in the future. His captions are often insinuating and suggestive of socially unacceptable behaviour but he avoids patronising or ridiculing his subjects.
As a documentary diary it held my interest, partly no doubt because of the local connection, but were the eighties a period when we were so obsessed with cars? or was this just Shaw’s connection with the residents. At one level it is pure documentary but the informal presentation, casual compositions and printing defuse any political or social messages. He likes his subjects and they are relaxed in his presence, they relate to each other, ordinary working class people pictured without the intellectual smirk that we sometimes think lies behind Martin Parr’s work or the political statement that is inherent in so much British documentary from that same period. I find this refreshing and it allows me to absorb the series without searching for the subliminal message.
So, given all the differences, where is the connection between Drake, Ewald and Shaw? The answer lies in the most fundamental challenge of documentary photography; on the one hand we ask for objectivity but that suggests detachment and staying firmly in the position of an outsider but we also require a commentary, a subjective statement from the photographer and that only comes with empathy for the subject which in turn demands a breakdown of the insider-outside dynamic.
Despite their quite different intents and motivations Ewald and Drake have found ways to break down the barrier that exists between the documentary photographer and their subjects. Objectivity exaggerates the photographer’s status as an outsider and to move beyond photo journalism in Drake’s case or an art project in Ewald’s they needed to bring themselves and their subjects together, to create a shared intent. They have achieved this through sensitive and meaningful collaboration.
For Shaw, the relationship he developed with his subjects was part therapeutic, perhaps, as he talks of the similarities with the estates he knew in Toxteth (9), even nostalgic but this project is not truly collaborative, there is no relinquishing of authorship or editorial control. Instead he used the sharing of free prints and a common interest in cars as a way to break down barriers and become friends with his subjects, to become a partial insider. There is, in that regard, some similarity to Mark Neville’s (here) various series where his work was directed at his subjects as the audience. It is perhaps telling that Shaw only published Sandy Hill in 2015, thirty years after taking the pictures.
Notes on Text
(i) After completing this review I did find a copy of Wild Pigeon which at time of writing is on order, I may therefore update this review at a later date.
(ii) The Patriot Act or to give it its full title – Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 – was a piece of rushed, some might say “knee-jerk” legislation as a reaction to September 11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks. It gave law enforcement agencies the power to detain immigrants for indefinite periods and search premises without the normal processes of law.
(1) Drake, Carolyn (ND) Carolyn Drake (accessed at the photographer’s website 29.11.16) – http://carolyndrake.com/About-2
(2) O’Hagen, Sean (2014) China’s Wild West: Photographing a Vanishing way of Life (accessed at The Guardian 29.11.16) – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/10/china-west-photograph-wild-pigeon-carolyn-drake
(3) Tototazo (2014) Interview Carolyn Drake (accessed at Tototazo 30.11.16) – http://www.fototazo.com/2014/11/interview-carolyn-drake.html
(4) Johnson, Ian (2015) China: What the Uighurs See (accessed at The New York Review of Books 29.11.16) – http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2015/04/13/wild-pigeon-what-uighurs-see/
(5) Byler, Darren (2015) Xinjiang Thoughts on Carolyn Drake’s New Book Wild Pigeon (accessed at Beigewind 29.11.16) – https://beigewind.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/xinjiang-thoughts-on-carolyn-drakes-new-book-wild-pigeon/
(6) Open Democracy (2006) American Alphabets (accessed at Open Democracy 30.11.16) – https://www.opendemocracy.net/arts/ewald_3346.jsp
(7) Farnham Herald (2016) Paris Photographers Love Affair with Sandy Hill Estate (accessed at the Farnham Herald 30.11.16) – http://www.farnhamherald.com/article.cfm?id=105909&headline=Paris%20photographer’s%20love%20affair%20with%20Sandy%20Hill%20Estate§ionIs=news&searchyear=2016
(8) L’Oeil de la Photographie (Chris Shaw at Garlerie di Jour Agnés b. (accessed at L’Oeil de la Photographie 30.11.16) – http://www.loeildelaphotographie.com/en/2016/02/01/article/159888556/chris-shaw-at-galerie-du-jour-agnes-b/
(9) O’Hagen, Sean (2015) Chris Shaw” Art college was full of rich kids so I used my camera to speak to normal people (accessed at The Guardian 30.11.16) – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/29/chris-shaw-photographs-normal-people-retrospecting-sandy-hill-interview