Personal Work: Calais project & other artist’s work

Personal Work: Calais project & other artist’s work

I was incredibly pleased and honoured to be included in the Bank Street Art member’s exhibition last week. (I hope this link continues to work – will replace with an image if not). Being chosen in the first place felt like a definitive step in a direction I have been aiming for, and so quite gratifying. I am of course extremely grateful to fellow students and tutors for their help, encouragement and support because as I have said previously I view pretty much all human activity as being a result of collective rather than individual responses and actions.

I was a bit uncomfortable about making any form of capital out of the suffering of others during a week when over a thousand young people have been left to live in utterly inappropriate packing crates. And they were the lucky ones since a number of minors have also been left to sleep outdoors in the burnt wreckage that was the Jungle. So, I felt I needed to tread carefully about ‘promoting’ myself.

I have also felt extremely frustrated that I have not been able to go back to Calais lately, despite several attempts. I have to remind myself I am not a journalist and the sort of dramatic and quite aesthetically ‘beautiful’ photographs we have seen in the press recently, with tear gas, then with fire, then suggesting the abandonment are perhaps not what my project is about. Nevertheless, it is annoying I cannot get out there for a little while.

I learnt something about screen presentation and prints. I had not thought about printing up until a few weeks ago, other than possibly in a book at some point in a distant hypothetical future. And when I knew I had to provide BSA with something I spoke to ex OCA tutor, Sharon Boothroyd, who was extremely helpful. She suggested I take the opportunity, if possible, to print one image to see something of the work printed at this stage, and to supply a slideshow as well. I got myself in quite a hoo-ha with the printing and actually when I saw it I thought a slideshow would have been sufficient in this instance, although I don’t regret printing at all (see reason below). However, the light of the screen illuminated the images well and the print actually looked quite dull and small, even insignificant next to the screen. I need to think about that if I were to print for any other purpose. I suspect a much larger print would have been better – although my technical failings might dictate otherwise. In another universe where money isn’t a problem (and I am actually required to print several large scale prints) I’d probably want to print very large indeed, and not have the images attached to any walls but instead objects that can be walked around. Or maybe a slideshow on a screen is all that is ever going to be required for this.

All in all I feel really fortunate to have had this experience and in fact, a vague idea I had before I was even pregnant with Arthur, my youngest, has now been realised. And that idea was to have a picture on a wall in a gallery. At the time of having what seemed like an impossible fantasy, one that I barely dared to allow myself to have, it felt totally unlikely and even presumptuous to consider such a thing. Having reached goal No 1 I must of course have another to aim for. I shan’t say what it is but if/when I achieve it I’ll let you know. This first one took nearly five years for me to realise, and I had to overcome an unplanned pregnancy, several house moves, a marriage breakdown and subsequent divorce, and learn a whole bunch of new skills, not to mention what feels like an entirely new way of existing … I’m hoping the next step is less trying …..

Work by other artists

When I visited Bank Street Arts in Sheffield last week I was really impressed with and inspired by the other work in the exhibition. All of it was moving and/or thought provoking. I will concentrate on a few here that stuck out for me either because of UVC course work, or due to the direction I want to go in.

Jessica Harby’s video, Referendum (Ask Me how Do I Feel?) was a reconstructed, deconstruction of the film, A Matter of Life and Death. In it, Harby has created a surreal conversation using text and clips from the film to suggest a sense of confusion, rage, and disappointment, which the title clearly identifies as being linked to the referendum.  We are told in the artist’s statement that Harby is not from the UK and this work is therefore by “an immigrant responding to life in a country increasingly hostile to outsiders.” I am someone who is often horrified and highly embarrassed by behaviour we are witnessing towards people who just a few months ago would never have felt ‘unwanted’, and found this work incredibly moving. And also profoundly interesting because Harby is doing something I see myself doing; playing with a variety of mediums. She appropriates, narrates, sings, constructs, edits and presents this art work as a moving-image. The result is complex and rich, and I was utterly entranced by it. What is really crucial from a semiotic and semantic point of view are the levels of meaning in the text which overlay the images. Statements are repetitive and then contradictory, and the way Harby plays with words is immensely powerful. One element, and I think this often about work, is that the title possibly hands the viewer too much on a plate. Many would disagree with me and I am being really nitpicky because I loved this work a lot. I am perhaps a fan of things that are too obscure and even impossible to read, and quite probably that is one of my failings. I do like it though when readers must work hard to join the dots. And certainly the work as a whole does provide viewers with a great deal of nuanced, deeply thought-provoking, substantial material, and so I’m being really harsh by suggesting the title, for me, might be a bit pedestrian. I really feel very bad saying that though – because it’s super special work. But I am trying hard to write a bit more critically and less descriptively. Although it does seem that I have merely described what I think. I am aware I have not adequately analysed how the work is constructed in this brief paragraph.

Bryan Eccleshall, After Picasso and Bosch (The majority of this drawing remains at home. A minority has been left here for you to see) I was really surprised by the powerful reaction I had to this work. And it was only when I saw it in the gallery that I realised how strong it was. Maybe something to argue in favour of Benjamin’s aura here – although I was also moved by photography and video. I suppose this is interesting because here the title like the one above, makes it very clear what the work is about. But in this instance the title resounded loudly and the fact it seemed so clear in intention and meaning to me at any rate appears to be fitting – like an open wound. But am I projecting? Or I am reading it to quickly? The words within the brackets may be read as an ironic joke – if so, it’s an angry one. The certain grief that nearly half the country felt (feel) about a loss of identity and of voice following the referendum is explored. It’s impossible not to be interpretive, again I struggle with analysis. The work is a large hanging of two very well-known paintings, Picasso’s Guernica and a painting by Hieronymus Bosch recreated (I think The Garden of Earthly Delights but might be wrong – I do wish I could go and see it again), but with only 48% of the entire work presented, i.e. the same ratio between those who voted to remain and leave Europe. The absence of the other 52% leaves a void, negative space. The geometric shapes created by the way in which the work is cut out leaves behind an object that is missing integral parts of itself. Again, I’m interpreting, rather than analysing, but that raises thoughts about how both sides of this ‘argument’ in fact need each other in order to be whole. Or does it suggest the new whole is this object with lots of blank spaces? Blank space, nothingness, signs that are empty of content equate to death, and as echoed by Zizek in the video I mentioned in another post, the UK in voting to disconnect with the European project might be seen as an organism experiencing its own ‘death drive’. The absence of the majority show a minority, in which we can see an  updated connection to a collective and long shared cultural history, one that stretches back across various parts of Europe – represented by Bosch and Picasso, and their paintings, re-represented here by Eccleshall. The bit left at home presumably is also connected to that past but we can’t see it since it is disconnected to the 48% we can. Viewers were offered a pair of binoculars to see (again – it’s about looking and witnessing and seeing) the work more clearly from afar. This revealed surprising ‘updated’ hidden details  – and I really do wish I could have viewed this in the daylight without my children and so spent a lot more time with it.

Liz Hall, That which does not remain, leaves.

‘My work explores the changing nature of relationships, growing older (while still hoping for immortality, or at least regeneration) and trying to understand how our egocentric view of everything fits in to an oblivious universe.’ (Hall, 2016) This work is a miniature framed ‘installation’ behind glass on the wall. A picture made with words formed by a single sentence repeated several times. But the words at the end of each version are transformed into crumbly dusty matter until the last the rendition is no longer a sentence but merely a string of crumbs. What is interesting is that although the words disappear and lose meaning there is still something there. It’s not an absolute absence, like in the blank spaces of Eccleshall’s. In fact, as the loss of recognisable meaning progresses, what is left instead is material which has more physical presence than the typed words had. I thought that was really fascinating. Although comparatively unassuming and quiet, That which does not remain, leaves was incredibly powerful and memorable. I recently watched Still Alice, a film about rapid early onset dementia and the loss of access to language. The character was still there by the end of the film but utterly transformed from the highly successful linguistics professor she had started as. She had lost her identity, internally and externally. But ‘she’ still existed, although not as the same she. Her daughter still loved and cared for her. She was still a mother, a wife, a person. Again, thoughts about England as an old organism are provoked. In fact, if you look at Eccleshall’s wall hanging , it could almost be seen as a metaphor for the diseased brain – parts of it have died, 52% in this case, so the super-brain that is a human community must continue to struggle on without – which is far from ideal at best and catastrophic at worst , and in Alice’s case in the film, leads to loss of memory, loss of speech, of control over basic functions.  We the viewers must work harder to join the dots in this submission than in others, even with the directional title. And so there seemed to be more subtly in Hall’s work than some of the other pieces exhibiting. Hall’s creation is kinder and more gentle than my somewhat caricatured reference to England as a mad, geriatric, stick-waving, lunatic yelling, “Get off my land!” in an earlier post. I very much concur with Hall’s statement about the universe being oblivious, and would like to see more of her work. I’ve included Liz Hall’s work here because I also thought about doing something with words disintegrating. Although I was thinking about the way words lose meaning; for me it was how their value is diminished or diminishing  in our society.

Image (c)SJField 2016



Calais project

Calais project

I am incredibly pleased to have some of the work I’ve done in Calais chosen for an exhibition at Bank Street Arts. And grateful to all the people who’ve been encouraging and supportive and helpful – by suggesting submitting the work in the first place to making decisions about what to show and how to show it.

I have chosen one image for print and will, I think, have a slide-show of further images alongside. There are several reasons for choosing to do things this way but one of the main ones is time, or rather lack of it, and cost at this point. Prior to submitting I had not thought about how I would show the images but suddenly when it became a reality I had to answer all these questions about how to, which I’d not even considered previously. This has been a really important learning process – not that I should have thought about it earlier, because I think it is right that I didn’t. But that you need to carefully consider what is communicated with each and every little detail.

In the past I have put pictures up in local coffee shops and restaurants, and I have been aiming to publicise myself a bit and also sell some prints. Frames and paper are sort of obvious – you could choose to  get all artsy in a coffee shop but you’d have to accept if you started pinning fragile bits of paper up all over the place, for example, they might be tugged by a 4 year old, bashed by a busy serving-person or have ketchup inadvertantly chucked at them. Plus people just want to buy pictures that look like pictures, which they recognise and understand as ‘PICTURE’ in that setting.

This time, choosing how to print and frame, or not, has been less obvious and required lots more thought. The learning has also cost me a small fortune as I make mistakes and then come to subsequent decisions about reprinting etc.  The irony of being in a position to be able to rectify those mistakes while I’m working on a project that is essentially a story about people who have very little agency, are perhaps not afforded the chance to rectify mistakes, and live on the barest minimum has not passed me by. (Calais Kitchens who supply food have cut the budget for a single meal from over £2 to £1 due to a combination of increased numbers and donor fatigue)

From an art point of view this has been an important process and one that I hope will ultimately help me in the future with this project if I ever have an opportunity to exhibit more images, as well as any other projects I work on.

For this single image I have in the end printed on Hahnemühle German Etching, and it will be block mounted on di-bond with a sub frame (a frame that sits behind the image rather than surrounds it, which means the print will be 20 mm away from the wall but you can’t see the frame).

My reasons for choosing this combination is  –

  • When I saw the print mounted traditionally it felt completely wrong (I nearly cried! Although the person who did it did a great job – it just wasn’t right for various reasons)
  • I had thought about a tray frame as it encloses the image, and makes it sturdy too which I felt the story warranted, but when I saw an example of that type of frame in reality, I thought no, that’s just ‘trendy’ and so not right at all
  • A frame and traditional mount creates a boundary – a border, and that seemed wrong for this. Borders, not only the sort that demarcate pictures which hang on walls, but also the sort that demarcate people are an important element in this image (borders, labels, categories are the things that so much of the tensions in the UK and elsewhere are currently about – there is a conflicting tension in the ether – To Demarcate or Not To Demarcate (gender, countries, actual words – see new IOS texting ability,  you can just send a feeling if you prefer)
  • If I were to do more images from this series I would think carefully about the material used for the subframe and have had further thoughts too about where/how images would be positioned but more of that another time….
  • I’m happy with the paper  – it works well with the image quality, which was shot at very high ISO and wide as it was quite dark by the time I took it. The roughness of the paper combines well with those aspects and is true to the contents within the image too
  • The sort of paper and lack of glazing mean the final object will be fragile and could be easily damaged – it requires a good deal of care, which I think is right  – not that I want to perpetuate a western narrative of us lot swooping in to help unfortunate non-westerners (who in reality are perhaps far more resilient than many – not sure how long I’d cope living in the Jungle), but rather the message should be that the global situation for humanity is currently fragile and requires care, patience and delicate negotiation

I feel I should have used some ‘semiotic’ words in the above but I will need to think about that a bit more and perhaps come back to it later.

Image (c) SJField 2016 (not the one I’ve printed, incidentally)


Personal project: Calais

Personal project: Calais

After a period of stagnation my project in Calais seems to have got going again, and there are a number of possibilities opening up. What’s good to consider is that had I not headed over there alone in the past the connections I’m making now might not have happened at all.  The most concrete development is a definite link with the organisation, Just Shelter, which asked me to accompany them and document their trips in July and August. I have been asked to get more permanently involved and perhaps do something along the lines of online marketing/image curating for them. This is good because it gives me a reason to be in Calais regularly, although after the last two visits I feel I need to be clearer in my own head about how much time I spend in the camp, and crucially at what time of day (for light), and how much at the warehouse which is useful but not as interesting for my own purposes. What was tricky last time was the I felt limited about where I spent my time.  I have made contacts in Calais now though so hopefully I will be able to have a little more agency as time goes on but still fulfil any functions that Just Shelter require of me. Anyway, I am pleased with how things are progressing as I really worried I came across as too bossy and precious about how the images might be used when chatting to people but if so, it doesn’t seem to have put them off.

What I have retained from reading about the subject is that the focus shouldn’t just be on the camps, but on Europe and its relationship with other parts of the world, and the assumptions we make abotu people, groups, places. I think that’s really important.

Image (c)SJField 2016

Personal Work: Jungle, Calais

Personal Work: Jungle, Calais

I have been wondering how to keep working on the project I began when  I first visited The Jungle in December and again in January.  I became deeply uncomfortable with the voyeuristic act of crossing the channel and photographing people who were suffering, like so many other western photographers simply because we could, and so did not return until the other day. I was recently asked to accompany a charity, Just Shelter, to document their visit and also take more photographs of the camp. I have, for the last few months, been thinking about the issues that I recognised in Calais and Dunkirk.

  • Innate human drive and ability to create, to exist, to form groups and make life bearable under most difficult conditions
  • Social phenomena of a ‘town’ emerging where just a few months before there was nothing but wasteland
  • The states’ reaction and desire to quash the new group’s growth and cynical strategy aimed at breaking down their resilience
  • The sums of money spent on signs of power, strength, authoritarian solutions along with the lack of empathy and any basic kindness; an extremely alarming slide into and acceptance of state sponsored cruelty, bullying, beatings, abuse towards vulnerable people, open and blatant racism
  • The tension and conflict between the two positions described
  • Evidence of kindness and empathy occurring anyway in the form of non-state funded groups (grassroots charities), volunteers
  • Evidence of kindness in state funded individuals who go against the status quo – MSF was allowed into Dunkirk so it could be made into a proper, albeit limited in size, camp thanks to the local mayor who has risked his political career to enable that (facts surrounding this needs verifying)

In this month’s BJP, which focuses on migration, photographer Alessandro Penso says, he “has grown increasingly critical of the work he and his colleagues are doing.  “We’re not doing our jobs properly if we don’t look at the whole crisis,…()…We’re implicated if we only zero in on the ‘waves’ of people coming to our shores.” He goes on to say, “that although the migrant crisis has been documented more than any issue before it, there is too little in-depth or investigative journalism, adding that few photographers are focusing on Europe’s culpability and the economy that surrounds the camps.” Penso’s words have helped me to understand what I was photographing this last visit and the ones before. I have been looking at the evidence of human activity which I found moving and interesting and think that is a more useful and desirable aim than simply taking pictures of non-westerners suffering.  We know that is happening. And there are enough of those images out there. Also, whilst they may remind sympathetic people of what is going on, I suspect they only serve to further entrench the minds of those who are not sympathetic.

During this last visit I was interested in the gardens that had sprung up around make-shift homes as well as the fields of flowers that have grown in place of the tents and shelters built by volunteers but bulldozed by the authorities in March. I am also interested in the sums of money spent by the UK and French governments building fences and paying for security compared to what needs to be raised by charities to feed people living in the camps. The charity Just Shelter delivered goods to, Kitchen Calais, which requires £7k a week to keep operating and feeding people, for instance.

So, I hope I will be able to continue accompanying Just Shelter and documenting what is happening there. But I also feel like I need to think carefully about what words I use to give context and drive any form of narrative. I feel strongly that ‘taking’ pictures of people, if at all, needs to be done with enormous care and consideration, and then they should only used if absolutely necessary in order to illustrate something relevant to whatever story I begin to see. I have stumbled across some excellent essays about how white/non-white selves function in a world that is still post-empire, and which contains such a devastating history regarding slavery in the visual culture readers for this course and I suspect they contain thoughts that will be useful for me here.

Incidentally, this month’s BJP is a fantastic resource as it has quite a lot of relevant material and addresses the issue of photographing people, making them real, enabling and facilitating empathy without putting anyone in danger.

(c)Image SJField 2016

Ref :

Alessandro Penso, 2016; 37 European Dream in The British Journal of Photography, September Issue, 2016, London

A second trip to France to build on previous work looking at life in European refugee camps

A second trip to France to build on previous work looking at life in European refugee camps

I went to France again on Tuesday to spend some time in the refugee camps.  I visited in December and wrote about it on my commercial blog.  I am less inclined to put anything up there this time round just yet but I wanted to make a record of my thoughts about my role as a photographer somewhere.

One of the things that troubled me (as it did others I know) is the fact that there are many western photographers visiting those camps, sometimes as news reporters, sometimes as independents.  There is an acute western gaze on people who are vulnerable, have nowhere to go or hide and virtually no agency over their lives once they reach those camps.  We visual vultures are more than a nuisance to them.  We are benefiting in some way from their distress, even if most photographers are present with at least some good intentions in amongst the self-serving reasons that send us there in the first place.

The letter in this link communicates the feelings of people who have frankly had enough of being looked at and photographed by people who have the freedom to come and go as they please.  Even though I try hard to be respectful and always aim to chat to people before taking any photographs, especially where faces are shown, I am acutely aware that I am one of the pests to whom that letter was addressed.

So why did I go in the first place, why did I return and why I do plan to go again?

This is very difficult to answer.  Yes, I was emotionally moved by stories I read, especially of children living there.  To read about people suffering so much and being treated with so little dignity made me cry often.  Perhaps naively, I found it incredibly hard to understand why the world we live in can be so cruel and harsh.   By the end of last year it had got to the point where every time I read about the camps I ended up in tears.

But my tears were also, I know, borne out of frustration because the more I read about it the more I wanted to go over and do some photographic work there.  What is happening is extraordinary and unusual – to have a human disaster on that scale on the shores of Europe so close to our apparently safe, homogenised, modern world is fascinating for lots of reasons.  We are so used to seeing things like this happen far away (often in part due to interventions from the west that may have originated during times of Empire or more recently), and that separation protects us from the realities of life for so many on this planet.  It interests me greatly to see that reality begin to intrude so physically into a western paradigm.

Our collective reaction, the politics surrounding the NGOs’ inability or failure to address the situation, the quite stunning humanitarian reaction from volunteers who go there, often self-funded to help because they just have to, the power structures that exists within and around the camps all interest me so much, I can barely express it here adequately.

Of course, to begin with I was terrified for lots of fairly obvious external, as well as more personal internal, reasons of going.  Eventually I had to go though.  I just felt so strongly that I had to; and so frustrated by my fear of going.

I’m extremely glad I went.  Although I do try to be careful and sensible, as I would on any high street in London, I have not felt unduly threatened whilst there.  But I have learnt and experienced which is always good.  My interests as listed above have deepened and broadened.  There are so many questions for me to come out of being there.  But I feel I can’t go back just to randomly wander round and take pictures.  I think I must have more of a focus next time.  Although I did have ideas to begin with, they proved tricky and so the business of working with what’s there, what’s possible, allowing ideas to develop and evolve has become much more apparent to me in the process.  As has the notion of being patient and tenacious, of not giving up, of making connections and how important all that is.

So my project continues, I hope.  From all that I have learnt in the last 18 months or so I know I will not be certain of the value of the images, of which ones are important to the story I am telling (as opposed to all the many other photographers who are out there) for a while.  I must therefore just keep building and collecting and trying to see how it unfolds over time.  And above all I must be patient.

Finally, I am extremely grateful to the people who allow me to hear their stories and let me take their photographs.  It is heartbreaking sometimes and confounding.  I have met a wide range of people there; highly intelligent, articulate individuals as well as less educated, and perhaps troubled souls.  Some of the rhetoric in the press is so shortsighted and troubling, dehumanising and frankly rather stupid.  It is a highly complex, dreadully difficult situation and I have no idea how it will be resolved.  But I think it is a situation that is supremely interesting and important to us.  And so I justify my western camera’s gaze because I want to know more about how we operate as a society now in these altering times, and that’s my way of exploring it.

Image (c)SJField 2016 – The Jungle, Calais. A fence funded by the UK government that separates the camp from the industrial outskirts of Calais behind it.