W. Eugene Smith’s The Jazz Loft Project

Lets face it; when it comes to photojournalism and the photoraphers who most defined its characteristics, attitudes, aspirations, values and language, we would almost always have to begin with W. Eugene Smith. The master photographer, the passionate soul, the determinedly individual and independent, the singularly human, Eugene Smith raised the bar of not only how one worked as a photographer, but also how one ‘drew’ a photograph onto film.

Who can ever forget the beauty of Tomoko Uemura in her bath, and the genius of the photographer who found a way to represent it:

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath Minamata, 1972 Copyright W. Eugene Smith

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath Minamata, 1972 Copyright W. Eugene Smith

I do not exaggerate when I saw that this was the photograph that back in 1986 first made me think about becoming a photographer. It has remained etched in my mind and soul since.

So it was with some excitement and pleasure that I discovered Sam Stephenson,of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, website for his book The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project

Stephenson describe’s Smith’s production of this work as ‘…an obsessive achievement’, but clearly, by his own definition, Stephenson too was obsessed for he points out that he:

…made 115 trips to New York City over a span of time that can be measured by telephones and storefronts: I called Robert Frank from a cold, indestructible pay phone at the end of Bleecker, near CBGB; Roy Haynes on a Motorola StarTAC from a brownstone on 9th Street, a few doors from Balducci’s; and, a few weeks ago, Mary Frank on my iPhone from Spoon in Chelsea.

You can read Stephenson’s piece in the new issue of The Paris Review blog where in a piece called The Jazz Loft Project he discussed Eugene Smith’s involvement in this project and the characters and lives that he documented.

This is a wonderfully interesting site, and it is a thrill to see the love, care, attention and detail that has been bestowed on the work of W. Eugene Smith. Stephenson’s inquiries into the life and career of this most amazing of photographers continues as he works on a new biography that will also see him:

… embark on a five-week visit to the Pacific Islands, where Smith made combat photographs during World War II, and to Japan, where he photographed Hitachi City in the early sixties and Minamata a decade later. There are some fifty more people I want to interview as well. The detective work is intoxicating, opening up unexpected worlds outside of Smith’s immediate circle.

W. Eugene Smith was frequently derided in his times, ignored by editors and even fired from his positions at major magazines. But he worked past all of this through the strength of his vision, convictions and self-confidence. His work and his legacy has stood the test of time and remains an inspiration to so many still naively determined to produced beautiful works about beautiful and human issues.

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The Impossible Project: A Discussion – Amsterdam, Netherlands November 17 2015

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What happens when the issue, the situation or the circumstances do not permit or posses the obvious photograph? What does a photographer, who believes in the issue and is determined to bring it to light, do when s/he finds herself unable to find and/or take photographs? NOOR photographers Asim Rafiqui, Benedicte Curzen and Stanley Greene discuss a project each that confronted them with this challenge, and talk about how, determined to tell the story, they chose unconventional and unexpected approaches to it.

During the week of 16-20 November, Stanley, Bénédicte and Asim are teaching the NOOR-Nikon Amsterdam Masterclass with 15 young, aspiring photojournalists from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom at De Balie. As part of the week’s program the NOOR Foundation, with support from Nikon, has organized this evening – open to local industry professionals and the public at large.

The evening will be moderated by Nadia Moussaid.

The Courtier’s Obsession

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The Guardian reviewed Carlos Spottorno’s new work Wealth Management and claimed “…that there is enough mischief here to prove that Carlos Spottorno is one of the most serious political provocateurs currently operating in photography.” There is no doubt that Spottorno is a very smart photographer, but I disagree with the thought that this work is anything provocative. Unlike previous efforts, such as his project PIGS, this one falls within the same confines of the predictable and unimaginative.

The fact of the matter is that it has now become quite banal to document the profligate life-styles of the super-rich. In fact, Lauren Greenfield was an early pioneer of documenting the bizarre and deviant priorities and interests of the American elite society. However, since the 2008 crash, there have been a whole host of works that try to speak about global inequality and do so from the perspective of the hyper-wealthy. In fact, there are so many works that Time Magazine’s associate Photo Editor Myles Little could put together a massive global exhibition of works that bring together a visual potpourri of the lives of the super-rich.

In fact, so much so that Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes even went so far as to point out recently that:

More and more, I’m seeing wealth and power — in specific photo stories, and even more so, in the increasingly random presentation of news photos — as not just a recurrent theme, but as connective tissue….If hyper-capitalism is becoming the issue of our time, however, I’m tempted also say that more and more images…are presenting a moral counterweight. Details »

Minding The Perceptible Gap

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I did find this discomforting…its only the trailer, but the associations and presumptions are a offensive combination of Orientalism / Historical revisionism. Indeed, as someone pointed out, they are fantastic musicians, but this fact is entirely irrelevant to the issue at hand i.e the appropriation of Western symbols of liberation and freedom, juxtaposed against highly curtailed and crafted ideas of ‘religious’ fundamentalism and barbarism. We have seen this very often, and as well made as this film is, and as well crafted the narrative, it really doesn’t seem to want to get past this dichotomy, and to find a way to convince the international movie-going circuit that there is a longing to be more like them, and a desire to speak more like they do. And in that process, all sorts of liberties have been taken to construct the freedom vs. barbarism narrative.  Details »

Prisoners Caught In The Searchlight!

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There is a uncomfortable relationship between winning awards and doing journalism. Or photojournalism. Personally, I find it odd that reporters and photographers are so keen to ‘pick up’ awards, to walk down red-carpets, to accept trinkets that are apparently there to mark their ‘achievements’. It begs the question: what is the journalist’s or photojournalist’s achievement? How does one measure that in fact? Well, clearly in photojournalism, the achievement is always merely aesthetic. The works are never measured for their political, social, cultural or intellectual impact. Never. We are merely happy to pick up awards because the pictures were nice. Its all quite insular, self-congratulatory, and in complete contradiction of the public rhetoric of the craft, and the moral grandstanding that so many writers and photographers spew in social media and interviews. Details »

New World Order?

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The theatre of democracy keeps falling apart. What we are witnessing is the ideology of neoliberalism that is now so deeply entrenched in the EU member states that an entire political idea – people centred democracy – that Europe once claimed was ‘its heritage’ is being jettisoned. We saw how the voice of the people of Greece was never even a consideration in the way the Troika dealt with that crisis, we see it here the constitution is effectively discarded to protect the arrangements of the EU itself, and we will see it again elsewhere. This is however, not just about ideology. It is also about faith in a system called Ordoliberalism – a German concoction that emerged in the aftermath of WWII, where it is believed by its adherents that:

…like the Anglo-Saxon advocates of laissez-faire, believe the state should not distort the workings of the markets, but they also believe that free competition does not develop spontaneously. The state should establish a legal, technical, social, moral and cultural framework for the markets, and make sure everyone follows the rules….They argued that a strong state was needed to neutralise cartels and avoid the escalation of economic war. Eucken wrote: “The state has to consciously shape the structures, the institutional framework, the order, in which the economy functions … But it [should] not direct the economic process itself.

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The Amsterdam NOOR / NIKON Masterclass

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I am in Pakistan now. But in a few weeks I will be in The Netherlands. And here is why.

We hear from self-proclaimed photojournalism futurists that the media world as we know it is dead. We are told repeatedly by major magazine editors that there are no budgets for serious, long-term photojournalism assignments. We argue every week with other editors for a even the most basic of day rates for the assignments we do get. We hear and read about all the new technical breakthroughs that are making sure magazine-spread, linearly laid out photo-essays, once the bread and butter of the craft, are no longer relevant, and that more sophisticated tools are promising us non-linear, complex, multi-layered means of story-telling.

And yet, there are few photography workshops that will actually discuss and incorporate these realities and help students figure out ways to navigate them. Even the most well known, resourced and taught photojournalism workshops continue to teach students based on a pedagogy that has little relevance in the world the students hope to make a name for themselves. We continue to see people standing around a light table carefully and with exaggerated precision, laying out photos in an A-to-B sequence, as if the magazine page was the principal and only possible publishing medium. We continue to hear teachers talking about ‘sense of place image’ or ‘an opener’ or a ‘closer’ and other such anachronistic ideas that frankly suggest that there  has been no digital transformation. Linearity, sequencing, start-here-then-go-there approach remain the principle method in workshops, photo festivals, gallery exhibits and even online portfolio presentations. This despite the fact that more likely than not, a new photographers work will end up on a digital platform far before it ever ends up in a printed one.

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War As A Product

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Militarism was thus being perpetuated at precisely the moment that it had become marginalised as a political program…[This was possible because of the]…spatial packaging of the underside of British modernity, in which Arabia figured as the last bastion of the world free from bourgeois convention, a place of honour and bravery (however mindless), of manly sportsmanship and perennial conflict…As Glubb put it, “Life in the desert is continuous guerrilla warfare,” and this meant striking hard and fast because that was the way of “Bedouin war.” “Not a moderate, but a maximum weight of bombs must be dropped” to maintain the native’s respect for airpower, insistend Flight Lieutenant Mackay. On his return home, General Haldane corroborated this truism about Arabs’ masochistic respect for “force, and force alone,” assuring audiences at the United Services Institute that though he had been “obliged t0 inflict a very severe lesson on the recalcitrant tribes, they bore me no resentment.” To them, Glubb elaborated, war was a ‘romantic excitement” whose production of “tragedies, bereavements, widows and orphans” was a “normal way of life,” “natural and inevitable.” Their taste for war was the source of their belief that they were “elites of the human race.” It would be a cultural offence not to bombard them with all the might of the empire (not least out of respect for the frequently invoked tribal principle of communal responsibility). Arnold Wilson confirmed for the Air Ministry that the problem was one of public perception, that Iraqis were used to a state of constant warfare, expected justice without kids gloves, had no patience with sentimental distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, and viewed air action as entirely “legitimate and proper.” “The natives of a lot of these tries love fighting for fighting’s sake,” Trenchard assured Parliament. “They have no objection to being killed.”  (Page 250)

Priya Satia Spies In Arabia: The Great War And The Cultural Foundations of Britian’s Covert Empire In The M.E. 

They are two individuals embedded deep inside America’s war machine. Ostensibly and formally introduced as ‘reporters’ for The New York Times, Helene Cooper and Adam Ferguson, we are told are “…aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt in the Persian Gulf.” And they are supposed to be conducting journalism. The fact that instead they are producing propaganda pieces for the US military is rather difficult to avoid stating. I suppose in such a situation, where access to a major battle fleet has been arranged from negotiations between the highest levels of military command, and the highest levels of The New York Time’s corporate command, I can’t see either one being able to produce anything else. Details »

On Indexing, Categorising And As A Result, Erasing

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I would like Arab women to stop trying to represent ‘Arab’ women.

This is an insidious trap that steals from them the width and breath of life and imagination. We have so much to document, so much to speak about, beyond the constant rehashing of issues of ‘hijabs’ and ‘harems’ and ‘self-identify’. The Western curatorial tradition – ideological, and blind to its affiliations to power and politics, wants the brown wo/man to only always be explaining and representing themselves. It’s as if we are alien beings under constant interrogation and curious observation. Previously they forced it from us, now they try to get us to do it voluntarily by offering us a ‘space’ in their beautiful galleries and magazine spreads. No Western photographer or curator would ever put together an exhibition like this about White /European women. The subject would not even occur to them, and in fact, it would be considered seriously bizarre. The European needs no representation. The ‘other’s’ women – inexplicable, opaque, deviant, incomprehensible, are constantly placed under a gaze – curatorial, documentary, journalistic and what not. Or being bought together to justify their ‘humanity’ by showing possibly that they are as much human as we are. I don’t even quite understand the need to have such ethnically and geographically segmented works, but clearly there is a huge market for it in the imperial nations. The French are great purveyors of such anachronistic Orientalism, constantly categorising and indexing the world into its neat little ‘packets’.  Details »

Dream Palaces / Tensin Tsundue – IV

My father died
defending our home,
our village, our country.
I too wanted to fight.
But we are Buddhist.
People say we should be
Peaceful and Non-Violent.
So I forgive our enemy.
But sometimes I feel
I betrayed my father.


Betrayal by Tensin Tsundue

Details »

Dream Palaces / Tensin Tsundue – III

When it rains in Dharamsala
raindrops wear boxing gloves,
thousands of them
come crashing down
and beat my room.
Under its tin roof
my room cries from inside
and wets my bed, my papers.

Sometimes the clever rain comes
from behind my room,
the treacherous walls lift
their heels and allow
a small flood into my room.

I sit on my island-nation bed
and watch my country in flood,
notes on freedom,
memoirs of my prison days,
letters from college friends,
crumbs of bread
and Maggi noodles
rise sprightly to the surface
like a sudden recovery
of a forgotten memory.

Three months of torture,
monsoon in the needle-leafed pines
Himalaya rinsed clean
glistens in the evening sun.
Until the rain calms down
and stops beating my room
I need to console my tin roof
who has been on duty
from the British Raj.
This room has sheltered
many homeless people.

Now captured by mongooses
and mice, lizards and spiders,
and partly rented by me.
A rented room for home
is a humbling existence.
My Kashmiri landlady
at eighty cannot return home.
We often compete for beauty
Kashmir or Tibet.

Every evening,
I return to my rented room;
but I am not going to die this way.
There has got to be
some way out of here.
I cannot cry like my room
I have cried enough
in prisons and
in small moments of despair.

There has got to be
some way out of here.
I cannot cry,
my room is wet enough.

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