Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Covering up

I am going to Norway tomorrow for a few days. I am attending a conference, after a gap of over two years and I will be doing a presentation. I feel quite excited and a little scared. Will my material be interesting enough? Will I be able to deliver the whole thing within the allotted thirty minutes? Will the technology let me down?

I will also be doing a couple of photoshoots with local photographers - Unbearable Lightness , whose birthday is today (many happy returns, sister!) has inspired me with her wonderful post about Horst and I would like to try out a few things.

It will be cold  so I will have to cover up and wrap up. I have never been to a Scandinavian country and am really looking forward to going!

Covering up  means  to conceal from view and it may mean  to put on clothing to protect your nakedness. We cover up when we dont want to be seen or when it is cold and we need protecting from the elements. By extension a cover up may refer to concealing a scandal or a possible one.

It is an interesting coincidence that as I was thinking of literally covering myself up to brave Northern climes, the news reached me of a cover up in connection with a minor - let's face it, it is minor - transgression that occurred on my favourite site, deviantArt.

Artist: Alex Rennie

I discussed the matter on these pages. A photograph showing a heroin addict injecting was nominated as Daily Deviation on 17th September, as an example of photojournalism. I was disturbed by it and pointed out that the photoshoot had been set up and the heroin had been supplied by the photographer. I obtained the information by scanning through the comments left under the image and the answers given by the photographer.

 Photographer: Marcello Pozzetti

I asked for clarifications and reported the image to dA admins. An investigation took place and it seems that no real heroin was used, the whole thing was a simulation.

So it still is not photojournalism, my initial point - by this token you would have to regard Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream as documentary films. But even more disturbing is the ease with which statements can be retracted. So Pete might not have been a heroin addict after all. He was a model. I am amazed, the shoot looked so very real, his desolate expression still haunts me.

Or perhaps deviantArt realised that admitting that a real class A drug was supplied for a photoshoot might not go down very well. Possession of heroin and supplying heroin are illegal activities.  And as someone pointed out, selling prints of a heroin addict shooting up might raise the question of 'immoral earnings'.

Better to cover it all up and say it was not real, it was art inspired by reality. That's all very well, I am all in favour of meaningful art, art that has a social message to convey. However I always thought that photojournalism was about reporting actual events with objectivity. Was I wrong? Most of all, as I wrote elsewhere: what is the  message conveyed by this deceitful tale?
(All photos modelled by Alex B. )Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, 27 September 2010

In praise of David Nuttall

I have worked with David for some years now and every time I find that my shoots with him definitely improve.
So I would like to dedicate this post to him.
My first shoot with David was in April 2008, shortly before my birthday. It was my second art nude shoot and I was a bit nervous.
This was one the best images from that  shoot
I then worked with David again in June 2008, at model Akemi's incredible apartment, with one of the best views of London. We got several images out of that shoot, but this remains the signature shot
We shot again in December 2008. I particularly like this photograph.
 May 2009. We did an outdoor shoot and this was a great image out of that shoot.
 In September 2009 we did a fashion shoot with MUA Anna Orkiszewska

The last shoot was in august 2010. I particularly like this image

but there are many more, such as this

Thank you David. working with you is always a great pleasure and I have learnt much from you about modelling and photography in general.

(all photos modelled by Alex B. and taken by David Nuttall)

Friday, 24 September 2010

The context is what turns a creative pursuit into art

 I wrote the following in my deviantArt journal and I am reproducing it here for the record. There are lots of issues I raised that I want to unravel and hope to do so in my next blog posts. For now I am simply recording my anger turned into immense sadness. Such matters do affect me deeply and make me cry. I spent nearly two hours at my therapist's after writing this journal and we worked on how these broader concerns relate to myself - so many intimate memories were suddenly evoked and personal suffering resurfaced which I thought was buried and forgotten. That work is of course highly personal and it cannot be shared  in a blog. I am mentioning it here because of the complexity of what is involved. But we did something which marks a new beginning.  We worked on choosing something that would represent my inner child out of a number of dolls Leah had in her studio  for me  to take home and nurture. I have a baby owl now and that is me. I chose it because it was the loveliest of the dolls and because my name is connected with Athena, whose symbol was the owl.  My baby owl  now lives with me, inside myself and outside. Over the months to come we will develop a new relationship. 
This is a long piece of writing with only one photo. It is not the norm for me and I will soon resume posting photos - that is partly what this blog is for, but not exclusively.
I would also like to thank Unbearable Lightness and Solus for leaving very thoughtful comments on my dA journal. UL has also given me much support through personal emails which I truly value. She is like a sister to me. In this instance I feel even  closer to her as we both have had the experience of losing to drugs someone we loved. So forgive me for my strong views but heroin to me has been personally devastating.

The context is what turns a creative pursuit into art. I wrote this sentence at the end of my blog yesterday. It is something one always needs to bear in mind.
I received some notifications last night which made me think long and hard about certain events.
I have openly disagreed with a recent DD awarded to a popular photographer here on dA in the category of photojournalism. My disagreement is not to be taken as a personal attack on the photographer, as it has been suggested. I am aware of his skills as one of the best amateur photographers in the dA UK community. I have myself in my portfolio a handful of photographs taken by him , duly acknowledged, which have received much praise for his photographic skills and my performance as a model, a combination which at the time the photos were taken was a successful one.
We all have disagreements at some point in our lives and we may have harsh words with friends, associates and collaborators and sometimes there's no way back, we cannot ever find a way to agree again. But I am definitely not one of those people who starts finding faults with someone's work simply because of hurt feelings. In my work as educator if I have a disagreement with a student I don't fail her/him - and I dont always like my students!  I look at what they do and if it does not match certain criteria, I point this out. If the work is faultless, I say so.
I disagreed with the DD, and I am perfectly entitled to do so, politely, and expressing my disagreement through the appropriate channels, which I have done. I found the subject matter of the photograph offensive and the overall treatment of a very serious and highly charged issue such as heroin addiction inappropriate for a number of reasons I regard as valid ones. I took it up with dA and asked them to look into the matter. dA decided that the only action to be taken was adding a mature content tag. That had already been requested before, by someone else, and the request promptly dismissed at the time by whoever assessed the submission on dA's behalf. So it is a small victory for those of us who dissent with the view that such a photograph would put youngsters off drugs that at the very least now such a tag will be in place. I would have also recommended that the photographer should turn off the share buttons, but dA did not think it mattered.
Last night the photographer, Neil H, issued a statement, through a comment that is most disingenuous. Apart from attacking me personally and most flippantly, he still remains unable to give a good reason for making his series of photos showing a heroin addict injecting, a series of which he feels, as he says, very proud. That may be the case but what was the point of taking those photos? His statement is, ostensibly, a response to what I regard as a rather naive comment left by an admirer under one of those photographs, and who, in my view, does not seem to be able to appreciate the devastating impact of such photographs.
Let me clarify that the photographer has blocked me from his  gallery and I am unable to respond directly to him, which I would have done if he had not attempted to silence me. I know he reads every line I write and even my blog - or he would have never known of my disagreement to begin with. Therefore I have no option but respond from here, for the very last time, as the matter of the wrong assignation of this DD is now, perforce, closed. Some of us have suffered personal losses through heroin addiction and the spectacle of someone injecting, especially when the portrayal of such a spectacle is not justified by a good cause,reopens old wounds.
I was not fully aware of the existence of this photograph, but I knew of its companions. It was the DD that made me look at the whole series properly. I dont visit this photographer's gallery every five minutes, but I avidly follow the DDs awarded everyday. I remember that one of the other two photographs a while back carried a statement in the comment box which now the photographer has removed, in which he said he was an admirer of Sally Mann's work. Unfortunately, he went on, he did not have children so he looked around for something to photograph in a similar way. So when he met Pete, the heroin addict, through a friend - somewhere else he stated he was the brother of a friend - he decided to take pictures of him shooting up.
He paid for Pete's heroin to be used during the shoot. Pete fully agreed and he now tells us that Pete was very happy for the photos to be uploaded on the internet, although the shoot took place in 2006 and the images were uploaded in 2008 and 2009. The photographer regards this as an example of photojournalism and dA endorses it. In his statement last night he refers to the fact that all permissions are in place, the photographs cannot damage Pete any further because he is alreay known to the police and his family are aware of his condition and Pete is happy to be known as a heroin addict. This may be good enough for dA as it means that Pete will not attempt to sue (as dA goes that's all that matters) but it does not exonerate the photographer from his ethical responsibilities.
This is not photojournalism. Maybe the photographer's childhood dream was to become a photojournalist but to document a heroin addict shooting up for a personal portfolio, allowing prints to be purchased by anyone from a personal  website, does not constitute ethical photojournalism. He refers to a very famous photojournalist interviewed on a TV programme - I quote him here in full "He was talking about a situation in Rwanda when he came to a cross roads where bodies had been piled high (now a well known picture). They were the butchered bodies of men women and children (including young babies). The photographer said he was in the process of moving round the pile, his concern was trying to find the best composition when it suddenly struck him how obscene that gesture was. He still came away with an award winning photograph that shocks to the core and opens up peoples minds to man's inhumanity to man when at its basest. I don't wish to suggest my work is on the level of a great photojournalist, as with most people on DA this is merely my hobby but hopefully I captured something of meaning"  Of meaning for whom?
Raising awareness of the massacres in Rwanda is one thing, photographing someone like Pete injecting - and paying for the shoot, if not directly supplying the heroin, and the right to upload the images on his personal website, is another. And yes, Pete may be happy for Neil H to take pictures of him shooting up - he is not proud of the photographs but he likes them and is happy for others to see them, says Neil H - but the point is, it would be more beneficial for Pete and more meaningful if those pictures were to be used by a professional organisation in the context of an anti-drug campaign, in the context of initiatives which would make sure that Pete's experience is referred to in order to avoid its occurrence or at least lessen its devastating effects on people's lives.
Right now if Pete is still fighting his addiction he truly does not care. I am not aware of Neil H saying anywhere that he will donate all proceeds from the sale of these prints to charity or that such profits could be used to support Pete's rehab which indeed would have made the whole thing admirable and dramatically changed the context.
Whether you like it or not, even if Pete has given his full consent to be made a spectacle of, he still is a vulnerable adult. He still deserves to be treated with more sensitivity than that demonstrated so far and much greater respect for him as a human being. One day he may be able to kick the habit. Then what? Have these photographs helped him in any way? Like I said at the start, context is what matters. And the context here whether you like it or not, regardless of Neil H's dream of being a photojournalist, remains a sordid one.
These photographs do not alert anyone about anything, they are not linked to an anti-drug campaign, they are simply taken for the photographer to feel he is engaging in meaningful photography. What do people on dA seeing them say? "Oh your lighting is marvellous. Oh poor guy I hope he gets some help. Oh I am so glad it is not me" And the answers? "Oh yes, such a shame, he is getting some help, but you know addiction is so difficult to come off" Platitudes, in other words. I have said elsewhere that the photographer is probably not sensitive enough to be aware of the implications for others of what he does for himself. I don't believe he is an evil person, only that he does not think things through enough and then tries to justify himself, in this case, by saying he is practising photojournalism and trying to make photographs with meaning.
There is another picture in his gallery where we see a young woman labelled 'Self harmer'. She looks barely 16. It is a portrait. She is very beautiful indeed. Yet by branding her 'Self Harmer' he again shows a lack of concern which is remarkable. Does she want to be known as a self harmer? Does he realise what he is doing by labelling her thus? Does she have family and friends that know she is self harming? Don't worry, I am not going to report this deviation. There is no point in doing so, dA could not care any less.
Neil H, you work with children and young people when not taking photos. Are you not aware of the need to regard certain matters as confidential? Of course self harming is a terrible thing. But what good does it do to anyone and this girl in particular, even if she were over 18, to know that she self harms? And when I say anyone, I mean the dA community and internet communities again such as Facebook, Bebo etc.
I am now working with vulnerable people. I am more and more aware of their needs, their rights and the fact they have to be protected. Not judged but helped. In what way, Neil H, do your photographs of these helpless people make a difference to the quality of their lives? A real photojournalist always asks himself/herself such ethical questions. I believe that is the difference between a photojournalist and a paparazzo -yes I know that paparazzi only concern themselves with the rich and famous, but it is the principle of the thing I am looking at. And dont tell me that it is only for professionals, not amateurs, to engage with ethics!
Context. That's all there is to think of.

(Layne Staley, below,  is one of the many wonderful people heroin took away from us. He was found in his condominium 14 days after he died of an overdose, his body already decomposing)

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Monday, 13 September 2010

Photography websites and popularity

 There has been a lot of thinking around our increasing involvement with online communities and many blogs routinely seem to be tackling this issue. Online communities are separate from our real lives and yet everyday we devote some time to our online contacts and friends, so our being online is an integral part of our everyday lives.I have already attempted to discuss the interrelatedness of our online selves with our real life ones in another blog post so I will not repeat myself here.

But a recent journal on deviantArt by Solus made me reflect on a related issue, that  of online popularity gained through photography websites. What Solus made me think about was the popularity of photographs posted online, it kind of followed from what he was saying. In my dA journal this morning I began to address this issue. I received some interesting comments/replies.  In a nutshell, when I post photographs on deviantArt - a good example of an online photography community - some of them get thousands of views, others get fewer views but a higher number of favourites.  This often surprises me: the photographs of mine I personally like may not receive much attention, whereas it is often the ones I like the least that seem to get the most views.

What makes a photograph posted online popular? Is that popularity only gained  because the image is online? Is that popularity measured through  views or through faves? Is there a correlation with how the image would be received were it not made available online? And received by whom?

What is popularity to begin with?

I have found two definitions of it:

1. The quality or state of being popular; especially, the
state of being esteemed by, or of being in favor with, the
people at large; good will or favor proceeding from the
people; as, the popularity of a law, statesman, or a book.
[1913 Webster]

2. The quality or state of being adapted or pleasing to
common, poor, or vulgar people; hence, cheapness;
inferiority; vulgarity.
[1913 Webster]

Surely there must be something in between these two extremes!

Let me see if I can get my head around this. To begin with popularity is contextual. It follows that online popularity is not necessarily 'real' but then again it depends on which online context we are talking about, some online contexts are very real indeed - connected with real institutions and businesses, the websites are simply their online interface.

Popularity on a site such as deviantArt or Flickr is somewhat self contained. It does not bring the same rewards of  popularity gained in other contexts - no substantial income increase, no further work  opportunities, no recognition beyond the confines of the site, in the real world - just page views, comments and favourites, and the feeling of being part of a large virtual community of fellow artists/photographers.

On the version of this blog which I posted earlier on dA, while I was still  mulling over some of these ideas, Arrik Kim  left this comment, which I reproduce here and which relates to the two definitions of popularity I quoted above:

" If an online community is a slice of a demographic then there should be some kind of correlation.
I suppose 'real life' needs definition, but here is how it looks to me. If real life is how the artist and non artist are the same then it makes perfect sense that a pretty girl posing explicitly gets ten times the views, mostly those are men, like myself, who feel 'biological' desire... lots of views... some faves by people who don't do a lot of art... the percentage of faves to number of hits is low. She would get views -looks
As to the first definition, take a picture with one tenth of the views... but a higher percentage of faves... those faves will usually be more by those who do art. They want to see it again and again, because it speaks to them or reminds them of something they want to try.. Instead of getting comments like "what Genes" or "damn I want to...." the comments are more supportive of the art effort rather than subjects qualities. There are less artists and artistic people in a slice of society than men interested in women, generally speaking, so an artistic effort will be less popular in most cases... DD's (Daily Deviations on deviantArt) will be a bigger slice but should kind of follow that template... of popularity.
I can only look through my own eyes and consider the kinds of work I post.. but it seems to me to have real correlations. I think that the higher fave to view ratio, when viewed against the backdrop of comments is a good indication of 'quality' popularity over 'raw' popularity and will be similar online or at an art show in person.. If you don't put yourself forward in person or online you can't be popular either way"

The last sentence  sums it up: popularity comes through putting oneself forward, that's for sure. I am not convinced that online popularity truly equates with that gained through an art show, but the principles seem to have a remarkable similarity.  

(All photos by Michael Culhane modelled by Alex B, Michael Cooney and Siobhan Cooper Lyons)
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Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The art of giving feedback to models

If you have ever been involved in teaching you will know that there is no getting away from providing feedback to students on their assignments, be they written, oral or practical ones. But giving and receiving feedback is not confined to educational activities, feedback is part of our everyday life. In our jobs, no matter what we do, we are appraised and our performance discussed.
 Photographer: David J. Green
Models on sites such as Model Mayhem or Purestorm receive references, which are feedback on their overall behaviour , usually commenting on things like showing up on time. Photographers too receive feedback  on these sites and the more experienced models will give references which go beyond the  "and a good time was had by all" but will dwell on the photographic skills of the individual. 

I am in the process of negotiating a couple of shoots in Norway, where I will be heading to in the first week of October, to attend a conference on dance education. One of the photographers I have been exchanging emails with has an interesting caveat on his MM profile. " I dont know how to comment on a model's performance" he says. "I look at the photograph and if there is something wrong with the pose I think it is the photographer's fault for not directing the model well. Therefore models please dont ask me to give you feedback"
 Photographer: Wolfgang Kettler
This intrigues me.  Is the pose the only thing a model engages with? I often get comments on my dA homepage and someone once said that in looking at my gallery for the first time he was looking at the model rather than the photographs. I thought that was very flattering. I am sure he did not just mean 'poses' because to be honest I do not have a repertoire of a thousand plus poses.
How difficult is it to give feedback to a model? and why is it so difficult?
 Photographer: David Gibson
I don't imagine for a moment my answer has universal validity. But let me try and give an answer to this  difficult question . A model, like any other artist, expects to grow - or does she? Feedback will help her to do so, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. Though I know that when I look at a photograph the directions given by the photographer do matter, the photographs I find most striking are the ones where the model is alive and present. Of course she will be alive, I hear you saying. Well, I dont mean literally that she is not a corpse - that much we know . I mean  that the model has a certain way of delivering, a way of indicating she is the performer.  A model embodies a character, even if that character is herself.

I am now  starting self -portraits. I am my own model. Technically I have much to cover, so my self portraits wont be seen around for some time. In them I am myself of course. But at the same time I am a character called Alex. There are certain things I am dying to capture about myself but I  know that in the moment of doing it  I  will be performing myself, which is a good thing. So in looking at those photographs I will be considering my photographic skills but also whether I have been able to portray the character called Alex.
 Photographer : Carl Williams

The art of giving feedback to models is the art of giving feedback  to a performer.

(All photos modelled by Alex B.)
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Thursday, 2 September 2010

Stoning Sakineh

My friend Quinto  wrote on my Facebook wall "No to the stoning of Sakineh" and directed me to the page where people are collecting signatures for a petition to save her.  I hardly have to write this, everyone is aware of this woman by now,  but for the record I will say here that Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani is the Iranian woman condemned to death by stoning for her alleged adultery and involvement in the murder of her husband.

 Photographer: Jan Murphy

At the weekend Carla Bruni-Sarkozy,  wife of the French President , was branded a prostitute by the Iranian media. Carla Bruni had written an open letter pleading for Sakineh's life to be spared. Iranian papers did not hesitate to pass judgement on her  lifestyle as a model and singer,  virulently condemning her for being immoral.

On the page to which Quinto  directed me there were dozens and dozens of comments. The ones that struck me most were written by people that felt entitled to condemn Islam altogether for  being 'a barbaric religion'.

 Photographer: Pascal Renoux

It has been said before, it has been pointed out by Islamic scholars in several articles, books and papers.  It's worth repeating it. The kind of practices, such as stoning, embraced by the Iranian regime as also by the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan  are not representative of Islam. To begin with stoning is not prescribed by the Koran, but is found in the hadiths, where it is mentioned as the penalty for adultery. The hadiths are the legal traditions of the time of Mohammed. Stoning was a widespread practice in the Near East in the 1st century AD. There is a mention of it in the Bible and Rabbinic law describes it in great detail.

 Photographer: Bob Adams

The fundamentalist Islam of Iran and of the Taliban is a  very extreme attempt at restoring a long gone past in a search for religious authenticity.These countries endorse laws which are  totally anachronistic and which most Muslims will not recognise as being part of their religion.

 Photographer: Marcello Pozzetti

It is worrying to see that in the western media Islam continues to be identified with fundamentalism. I clearly cannot condone the killing of an innocent woman such as Sakineh, either by stoning or by hanging. I find  the insults levelled at Carla Bruni-Sarkozy  by a reactionary Iranian paper unacceptable as they are aimed at all Western women. But I dont go  as far as condemning Islam wholesale on the face of such incidents. That too  would be, if not barbaric, extremely disingenuous and false.

(All photos modelled by Alex B.)