Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Liberal Arts

Ironically, Shami Chakrabarti’s last job before she left the Home Office saw her drafting anti-terror legislation. This institutional-insider’s perspective, together with her legal background and front-line human rights activism as the current Director of Liberty, made her a particularly apposite speaker to lead a talk and discussion in relation to 9 Scripts From a Nation at War, currently showing in the Level 2 Gallery.

This ten-part video installation explores the way words and their definitions have been shuffled around, stacked together and split apart by lawyers, the military, politicians, journalists and the public in response to the Iraq conflict. This results in a maze of casuistry in which any surety is lost – as one installation title has it: ‘We are the good guys, at least in the version we like to stick to.’ Demonstrating that moral and ethical questions can often seem composed of many shades of grey rather than black and white, 9 Scripts From a Nation at War sparks a multitude of questions about the rights of the individual in relation to the state and the rest of society.

Although the video pieces frequently address these issues from an American perspective, Chakrabarti was quick to translate them into a specifically British context, arguing that in the UK ‘“human rights” have become dirty words’, and that the need for debate regarding the status of human rights in Britain is now particularly pressing. She cites as evidence attacks from politicians and the press on the 1998 Human Rights Act, which made the rights set out by the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, and posits that Britain has ‘been on a slippery slope since the 1990’s’, with 9/11 acting ‘as the catalyst’ which accelerated a tendency to circumscribe civil liberties in the name of the war on terror.

Interestingly, Chakrabarti links the undermining of human rights with the current emphasis on the concept of ‘citizenship’, which she feels can foster a dangerously polarised ‘us and them’ mentality, and prioritizes an inward-looking nationalism at the expense of the more universal idea of ‘humanity.’ Guantanamo, she feels, has been able to come into being precisely because it perches just beyond the borders of America, and in citizen-speak can easily be classified as an irrelevant ‘elsewhere’.

As the ensuing discussion demonstrated, the debate surrounding human rights covers complex territory, throwing up the kind of questions that generate a myriad of arguments and counter-arguments. One audience member asked Chakrabarti if she could conceive of such a thing as ‘ethical violence’, another if she felt that the concept of human rights is in danger of being arbitrarily ethnocentric (answers: yes, in certain situations, she could see the necessity of having to ‘take a life to save life’ and no, for Chakrabarti human rights are by definition needs and aspirations which unite people throughout the world).

Difficult as such discussion can be, they go a long way to stimulate the independence of thought that works such as 9 Scripts From a Nation at War also promote. Both provide an area in which the individual can begin to formulate their personal response whilst learning to balance it with the considerations and perspectives offered by others. Chakrabarti for one is certainly encouraged by what she describes as the movement of the human rights debate ‘into the cultural sphere’, stressing that ‘human rights can’t just live in the courtroom.’

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Scruples Behind the Lens

Editing is often an act of extreme violence that should never be exercised upon oneself. That's why professionals are hired to wield the ax that cuts through the redundant sentences or the not-quite-right photographs that, as the author or the artist, you've grown attached to in spite of their shortcomings.

The leader of the Urban Portraiture workshop, Melanie Manchot , summed it best when she said : “Sometimes you have to kill your babies.” Thankfully, no babies were harmed in the second week of this workshop as the participants submitted examples of their very own photographic work to the critical abilities of their peers. Ranging from candid street photography to improvised studio portraits, the works were displayed on tables like the many offerings of a breakfast buffet, quite appropriate on this gray Saturday morning.

Some projects stood out for the strategy that they employed. For instance, one participant used a single red circular (magic) carpet and a brick wall as an improvised set to photograph children. The recurrence of this device in a series of about 20 photographs steered the focus away from the context and allowed for the children's personalities to come across in wildly different ways. One series simply depicted the people that the photographer regularly encountered on her street in the form of candid color portraits. Beautiful in its simplicity, this project was well executed and inevitably satisfied a form of curiosity that we all have about the people around us. What is their story? Where do they go when they take the bus every morning? What does their house look like? Another project pushed this form of curiosity one step further by documenting the lives of the residents of the Elephant and Castle area of London. Instead of taking portraits of the people themselves, the photographer created spare images of their beds as they leave it in the morning. The resulting images are haunting and, paradoxically, they represent presence just as well as absence.

Other projects were more memorable for what they represented or for their specific aesthetic. That was the case of a few series of surreptitious photographs of random people taken in public spaces. I was surprised by the double standard that they generated. Indeed, one a group of intriguing images of men photographed in the street led to comments about seduction and mystery as well as parallels with the work of Sophie Calle. Yet, a series of portraits of women shot in similar circumstances was referred to as predatory. Perhaps this tension can partly be explained by the fact that the former project was produced by a woman and the latter by a man. Yet, there were other elements that impacted on our reception of these images. The respective photographs looked very different: the men were depicted in sharp black and white from a significant distance, whereas the women had been shot in color, fairly up close and the pictures were shot from the hip level leading to an unusual composition. These aesthetic differences certainly impacted on our understanding of the photographs along with the mode in which they were presented. The first series made use of the narrative device of the triptych in small format prints to direct the attention to the subject’s story, whereas the other series comprised individual medium format prints, focusing on the subject's appearance rather than her actions or the context. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we would have reacted in the same manner had we not known the gender of the artist... Is the photographer always a bit of a predator?

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A thing about things

Cornelia Parker is obsessed with things: old things no-one wants any more, things salvaged from the dump, things unearthed in pawnshops, fleamarkets and dingy antique shops, things tarnished with a thick patina of accumulated history – things that have the ability to ‘make the hair on the back of your neck stand up’ with their sense of presence and past.

Throughout her talk, the joyous and groundbreaking exhortation of the American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams – ‘say it: no ideas but in things’ – hummed through my mind. Parker may be working on the other side of the pond, decades later, and in a different medium, but like Williams she is attuned to and tremendously excited by the power that can be exerted by an old cup, a ring, some scrumpled up newspaper.

This, though, is to misrepresent Parker a little bit. When things are around her, they often don’t stay things in their pure state for long: she likes to tamper with them, add things to them, or insinuate them into places they shouldn’t really be. She enthuses about having bought a piece of the moon and lobbing it into a pond, and talks with a mischievous glint in her eyes about an attempt – vetoed by a combination of authorities – to smuggle a piece of Emily Bronte’s hair into that of Nelson’s on his column.

She seems to delight in visual – and verbal – tricks and puns of the kind that are at once entertainingly silly and gracefully eloquent. I am particularly taken by her account of a work that involved throwing a lead mould of the work ‘gravity’ over a cliff, to see what effect ‘the thing itself’ would have on the human linguistic representation of it. Unsurprisingly, it reduced it to a garbled lump. Williams might well have been cowed by such a violent coalescence of idea and thing.

Parker’s work gleefully inhabits the varied uses of the word ‘thing’: at once used to refer to the specific and physical (the very thing), together with the vague and indefinable (something). This duality gives her plenty of room with which to play, and stops her work from either becoming restricted to the purely physical or lost in the tortuously theoretical. Interestingly, she distances herself from the ‘conceptual’ label, saying that she thinks of herself ‘as an intuitive rather than a conceptual artist.’ This is also underlined by the fluidity of her approach to ‘things’, repeatedly describing their capacity to accrue meaning, to mutate and change.

Her attitude to her own work is, refreshingly, by no means an exception – ‘once you’re done with it, it has a life of its own’ – she enjoys the fact that objects and images can take on extra significance after their making. For Parker, we are surrounded by stuff, and she ‘likes the idea somehow that stuff stands in for us’, taking continued inspiration from the transference of histories, thoughts and emotions that results from our everyday interactions with the things around us.
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Friday, June 6, 2008

Truth and Ubiquity

Joel Sternfeld
Attorney with laundry, corner Bank and West 41 street, NYC 1988
Museum Folkwang, Essen © Joel Sternfeld courtesy Pace/Mac Gill Gallery, New YorkC-Print138 x 111 cm

“Photography is truth.” once said the French director Jean-Luch Godard , but who owns this truth? The photographer? The subject? The image itself? Why have we come to expect truth from photography in the first place? Staging Authenticity. Photographic Stories from the Street and the Studio, the course led by artist and lecturer Joy Gregory aims to explore these questions.

The emergence of photography revolutionized our way of seeing the world. Actual events could be represented with a device that allowed for a recording of the refraction of light, we could literally write with light. The fact that the image was framed and exposed in a certain way by the photographer did little to deter the people who attributed the unquestionable veracity of the image to the optical device. Doesn't that amount to saying that the brush did the painting rather than the painter? Although that awry reasoning has long since been deconstructed and invalidated, it still has a recalcitrant hold on the people's imagination.

Documentary photography is the genre that might be the most problematic with regards to questions of truth. Street & Studio. An Urban History of Photography, the current exhibition at Tate Modern (22 May until 31 August 2008) testifies to the overlap between a documentary function, requiring some notion of truth, and an aesthetic one, privileging form. The juxtaposition of images originally meant to record facts and events with slickly composed portraits also raises the following questions: what is the difference between art and document? Do these genres have a different visual language? Should they be displayed and used differently? Needless to say that Staging Authenticity will address these interrogations over the next few weeks.

In order to anchor our thoughts about truth and photography with examples, we moved from the seminar room to the gallery in order to take a good look at the images of the pioneers of documentary photography: Lewis Hine who documented child labour; Arnold Genthe who took a particular interest in San Francisco's Chinatown before the earthquake of 1908; Paul Strand who developed his practice around the candid image. Encouraged to comment on the images, one person noted that the titles of the works in Genthe's Chinatown series had a racist connotation. Although, admittedly, the portrait of a reclining oriental man bearing the title Dead to the World. Opium Fiend was not exactly an example of subtlety, this comment appeared to generate a flurry of discomfort. The “truth” that Genthe chose to represent was very much of its time, not burdened by political correctness, and resonated quite differently in the current context.

So truth in photography requires a certain exercise in constructivism (or reconstructivism if such a thing existed) in that not only do you have to consider the point of view of the photographer, but that of the subject, the context in which it was taken and the time in which you are encountering the image are just as important. In other words, forget the 1000 words that a photograph can apparently summon. If truth is what you are looking for, you might have to think in terms of a 1000 points of view. And even then you might be surprised: we encountered a portrait of Arnold Genthe holding his camera... and the photograph was attributed to him. Perhaps next week we will talk about ubiquity.

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Mind Your T&Cs - Getting it Right

Pound for Pound, © The Forum, May 2008

Shoot London offered the chance to get snapping in a fun way but it is also a commercial venture and teams were offered the opportunity to submit their work to its online photo library website Shoot Bank which is currently in production.

If you sign a contract make sure you understand all the terms. Thankfully, the Shoot London team provided an A4 sheet giving a brief definition of Royalty Free (RF), which is the only licence option they offered contributors. However, there is another licensing model in use, which offers greater control, and that's Rights Managed (RM). I urge anyone taking photographs for competitions or events to read the T&Cs carefully and get savvy about what's on offer; this includes knowing the difference between the common licensing models in use, copyright and model release issues. Here's why...
Shoot Bank is using a Royalty Free (RF) model for the photos from its Shoot Experience events and competitions.

What is the difference between RF and RM?
The basic distinction is that a Rights Managed license is defined by USE, whereas Royalty Free is a license defined by UNIT.

Rights Managed (RM) license fees are based on specific USE. Since all uses are recorded, clients will know ahead of time if there are any conflicts or concerns. The RM model allows clients to license an image with varying degrees of exclusivity, such as by category or geography in a specified time period.

Royalty Free (RF) licenses are based on UNITS and the RF license fee is essentially a standardized ‘purchase price’ for that unit. A unit could be a single image, a collection of images, or even a subscription period allowing unlimited access to images. The terms of an RF license grant clients virtually unlimited usage rights, so that the same image can be used by any company for any number of uses with few restrictions.
(These definitions are from the Pro-Imaging website page Stock Licensing Models. Accessed 29/05/2008 )

RM offers more protection and control over use. When a RM license is purchased it is good for that use only and for a limited length of time.

Copyright is not transferred with either the royalty-free or rights-managed license. Contrary to what some suggest, RF images are licensed; the license simply requires no future royalties (license fees) to be paid for extended use or if the image is used in various ways.

Images of people (and in some cases, property) without releases, should be licensed RM to control unauthorized commercial use.
(These points are from Acclaim Images – stock photography website. Accessed 29/05/2008)

The T&Cs for Shoot Bank stated that: This license means that the photograph is brought for a one-off fee that is "at a chosen size" where "the buyer is free to use it in as many ways (within permitted guidelines) as they wish. Other buyers may also buy the same RF rights to the photo - so one buyer cannot buy exclusive rights to a photo. With RF licensing only, these photos are likely to be used on websites, in brochures and flyers, not for large-scale advertising campaigns.

"It is likely that you have appeared in one of your photos from today's event. In order to sell photos commercially with recognisable people in them we need consent from the person in the photo. Shoot Bank will give buyers the information to ensure they use your photos in the appropriate way. They will not be permitted to use photos containing recognisable people in any way that may be seen as derogatory or offensive towards the person/people in the photo."

One clue in the day’s event, Out of sight, Out of mind, was realised by some teams by photographing a homeless man and his dog sitting on the walkway along the Thames. I don’t know how many people actually asked the man for permission to take his photograph or even explained what they were doing but it is a point that needs to be made as it is raises ethical and moral questions regarding what one photographs and how. Photographers need to be aware and sensitive especially when 60 groups descend on the same places causing bewildered shopkeepers and locals at Gabriel’s Wharf to ask The Forum team “What’s going on? Why are there so many people running around taking photographs?” If photography is all about communication then it helps to get the basics right.

Furthermore, without the man’s consent, i.e. through getting him to sign a model release form, photographs in which he is clearly recognisable cannot be exploited commercially. This refers to non-press use of the images, however, taking a picture of someone in a public place for press purposes is not problematic. In fact, the right to take photographs in public, including street photography, is subject to on-going debate, especially in the light of Metropolitan Police anti-terrorism campaigns as posted on iN-PUBLic's blog. I will look at this in detail in a future post as it ties in neatly with the Tate's current exhibition and course programme Photography in the Street and Studio

The photo library also wants exclusive rights to sell these images. Payment is at a 50:50 split, divided between all team members (that is a team of four).

Reading through the Terms and Conditions (T&Cs) and after a discussion with the other members, I was unwilling to submit images to Shoot Bank. I have written and reported on issues around photo libraries, rights grabs and Intellectual Property for consumer magazines and have reported on conferences, such as the NUJ Photographers conference where invited organisations including the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA) and the Designer and Artists Copyright Society (DASCS) debated these issues. I am also a member of the London Freelance Branch of the National Union of Journalists.

It is up to the individual to make a decision but it should be an informed one. In an age of increasing media convergence where authors need to keep up-to-date with trends and legislation, the old adage seems pertinent: Forewarned is forearmed. What do you think?

Useful links to relevant organisations and articles:
Stock Artists Alliance (SAA)
Beyond the Lens
National Union of Journalists

British Journal of Photography
NUJ London Freelance Photographers' section
Richard Dedomenici whose art shenanigans joined The Forum for the day

Definitions of:
Royalty Free
Rights Managed

Original document in PDF SAA White Paper

UK British Council promotes Rights Grabbing Competition

Making money from stock photos

A few things you should know about copyright
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