Opening the door to Hidden Islam

Hidden Islam by Nicolo Degiorgis
Hidden Islam by Nicolo Degiorgis

Whilst working for the Italian Contrasto photo agency Nicoló Degiorgis was given the task of photographing the Muslim community in Northern Italy as part of an international project. Although the wider project fell by the wayside little did Degiorgis know that his work would actually take five years and end in the critically acclaimed book Hidden Islam.

When he turned up to photograph at the first mosque location he was given Degiorgis discovered the worshippers were actually not in a ‘classical’ building but were using a temporary space inside a converted warehouse. In Italy the main religions have good representation with the government but Islam still remains mostly unrecognised. The number of official mosques in Italy numbers only a handful but, in the small region Degiorgis was working in, it is believed that there were almost two hundred ‘unofficial ones’.

Using maps, interviews and newspaper articles he was able to locate many of the temporary mosques. Whenever an application was made to build a permanent mosque there was often complaining letters and articles in local news papers and these were a rich source of information. Using this method he was able to find, visit and photograph around twenty makeshift mosques in two years.

The advent of Google maps and Street View made his research task far easier.
With information from the newspapers he was able to use Street view to get a feel for the area and better locate the mosques. As is only right many of the worshippers wanted to spread word about their mosque and provided interior shots of the buildings for use by Google.

You can check this out for yourself with just a few mouse clicks. If you go to google maps and enter ‘Centro Islamico do Spinea’ you are taken to the exact spot of the mosque. With street view you can see outside and if you select the photograph option you can see the interior images. Degiorgis’ photograph of this space appears in the book on page 15.

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By saving all of the places he was able to create a large catalogue of different building types in use. Working through Hidden Islam you can see that a different photographic strategy was used to frame each of the types. In the case of apartment buildings, for example, the camera was placed directly in front of the building and the frame was cropped on the floor that the prayer room was located – if the room was on the 2nd floor then the higher floors would be missing. The communities he works in tends to be those of migrant workers and second-generation immigrants. These communities often have little money and generally live on the poorer fringes of cities. Industrial units tend to be the cheapest places to rent for the mosques.

The book itself is cleverly designed by Degiorgis himself. On flicking through the pages you are presented with endless non-descript black-and-white shots of the exteriors of buildings. From this casual flick through it is easy to miss the point of the work. A second reading of the book an you discover that every other page is actually folded over. When you open out these pages you are presented with colourful and vivid shots of the hidden mosques and their worshippers, usually on their hands and knees in the act of praying.

Degiorgis is sensitive to the needs of those he has photographed and has shown all of the images in the book to the communities involved. If there were any concerns about the images he would drop them. Several images were dropped before the first print run and even now, with a third edition, three of the original images have been swapped out at the request of the communities.

Despite this close cooperation with his subjects, Degiorgis still receives some criticism about his work. It has been argued that the kneeling, head down, position that fills so many of the interior pages makes the subjects look awkward and submissive, more so as the majority of these shots are taken from behind and so we as viewers are presented with rows of raised bottoms. Degiorgis sites several reasons for this approach. From the purely aesthetic capturing this moment allows him to get more people into the frame than if they were standing, it is easier to see how the worshippers fill the space. When he first started visiting the mosques it was the moment of synchronised prayer that struck him as a powerful visual symbol of the act of worship. From a practical point Islamic law strictly forbade him from taking pictures from the front of the mosque during the ceremonies.

Hidden Islam - 479 Comments. Image taken from the photographer's website.
Hidden Islam – 479 Comments. Image taken from the photographer’s website.

After the book was reviewed by Sean O’Hagan for The Guardian website the article received 479 comments in the five days that followed – The Guardian closes off comments after this period for all of it’s stories. These comments have been collected together alongside some of Degiorgis research to make the book Hidden Islam – 479 Comments. This book is intended as an appendix to the main work but only 300 copies have been printed so you may have to move quickly if you want a copy. You can read more about that book on The Guardian website.


Hidden Islam is an example of a great photobook, Hiding the colour images inside bland grey exterior shots is a brilliant stroke of design. Degiorgis is able to deal with the subject of religion, isolationist policies and migrants forced to live along the fringes in a seemingly simple series of photographs. First editions of the book have increased in price but the current, third edition, can still be bought from the Rorhof website for the original price of £35.



– the bulk of the information in this article has been sourced from a presentation given to  photography students, including myself,  by Nicoló Degiorgis at the University of South Wales, Newport in February 2015.


Magnum Contact Sheets contact edition published

Contact sheet from Bruce Gilden.
Contact sheet from Bruce Gilden.

I don’t recommend that many photo books as ‘must haves’ for serious photographers but “Magnum Contact Sheets” is one of them. Released a while back as a monster sized edition the £100 or so price tag put many people off. It has now been released as a compact edition (but with 16 more pages bringing the total to 524!). Once you’ve finished looking at all those lovely images and seeing the thought processes of the photographers you can always use the book as a handy step. Buy your copy whilst you can get hold of one!

Why does Wales look that way? Part 1

If you didn’t already know I’ve set up my family home in Wales.  I live here, study here and my wife and daughter are both Welsh. If I asked you to think about how Wales and its people look I’m sure that many different images would be brought to mind but that the stereotypical ideas shown in the Blackadder clip at the opening of this post might prevail.  When speaking about a group of third-generation American descendants of Welsh emigrants Patrick Hannan said:

The image many of them carried was erratically familiar: of a nation of Welsh-speaking, chapel-going, hymn-singing, rugby-playing, coal-mining, iron-making, slate-cutting, sheep-farming, look-you troglodytes peering truculently through a permanent light drizzle.

Many of the readers of this blog will never have been to Wales and so their idea of what the country and its people look like. If we have never visited a country our notions are preconceived by various cultural strands: literature, the visual arts, sculpture and even architecture – all easily accessed with a few clicks on google!

I think Hannan’s quote on Wales addressed pretty much every stereotype there is of the Welsh (other than one or two ruder ones). As a photographer I always try to make myself aware of the visual representations of anywhere I shoot. Research is a vital weapon in the photographer’s arsenal and so I dug around a bit to find out how our photographic perception of Wales has been formed. This lead me to look at how modern photographers are still subconsciously, and consciously, shaping their work based on these images.

The Role of Painters

Ibbetson's Llangollen
Ibbetson – Llangollen

Photography is a relatively new branch of the arts and as so it is the smell of paint that draws us to early visual representations of the country. In the 18th and 19th centuries the unspoilt and beautiful landscapes of a pre-industrialised Wales that was the main attraction to painters. Although there were Welsh artists working in the country it is the works of visiting artists that became the most well-known. Francis Towne (1759-1816), JMW Turner (1775-1851) and David Cox (1783-1859) were all Englishman that came to love Wales and the Welsh landscape. Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759-1817) was an exception to the rule as he came to Wales to paint the Welsh people rather than the mountains. In his work Llangollen he presents an idealised vision of rural welsh life. His subjects are well dressed, clean and enjoying an early evening together.  There is little indication of the realities of the hard life of poverty.

It can be argued that the Welsh artist tradition was to a large extent enriched by foreign artists who settled in Wales while Welsh-born artists lived and worked outside Wales.  In his introduction to The Welsh Lens 12 Contemporary Photographers from Wales (1997) Crawford wrote:

In the nineteenth century there was really no indigenous appreciate value applied to the landscape, either as a source of beauty or wonder or visual splendour.  On the contrary, you can find by comparison, even into the late nineteenth century more apologies from those who lived here.


Morris - Caeharris Post Office
Morris – Caeharris Post Office

This was because the landscape of Wales was considered to be wild and close to nature.  Until only recently, in the mid-twentieth century, these were thought of as negative traits.  For modern painters and photographers the ‘wildness’ now eludes to a romantic woodland or a quiet dell.  This pride in the landscape is apparent in many of the paintings of Cedric Morris (1889-1992).  Morris has the distinction of being one of the first Welsh artists to fix the character of the Welsh industrial landscape in paint.

Zobole - Rhondda Landscape
Zobole – Rhondda Landscape

Another Welsh painter, Ernest Zobole (1927-1999) chose the Rhondda Valley to become the centre for the ‘The Rhondda Group of Painters’.  These painters changed the grim industrial scenery of the Rhondda and the Taff Valleys into a world of rainbow colours and unforgettable imagination with their often surreal interpretations.

Herman - Miners Singing
Herman – Miners Singing

The work of modern foreign painters cannot be overlooked, Josef Herman (1911-2000), a Polish painter, moved to Swansea in 1944 and fell in love with the Swansea Valley and the miners who he depicted in many of his paintings. The subjects in his paintings represent a metaphor for the exploitation of the work force and the associated hardship and poverty, but also their strength and courage to survive their conditions.

We have now looked at a wide historical scope of paintings.  If you clicked through some of the slideshow links I’ve provided you should hopefully have already started to recognise the role that this paintings have played in forming the early photographic images.  Before we move on to photography my next post will take a quick dip into the role that movies and TV have played in creating the visual language of Wales…


Sand dunes and water and trees, oh my!

I like to think of myself as a documentary photographer.  Its only a title but for me it conjures images of a press photographer who is looking at the ‘story behind the story’ and portraying it visually.  I always thought that meant getting portraits and the odd detail shot and I had never really considered the importance of landscape photography.

From the earliest days of photography the land has been the muse of many a photographer. I can see the attraction: you have plenty of time to capture a subject that doesn’t move, you don’t need a model release and generally there’s no need to ask for permission.

Timothy O'Sullivan
Timothy O’Sullivan

The earliest landscape photographers often found themselves under the employment of government agencies. Their task was to chart and record the ‘unknown’ country. This was especially true in the USA where Timothy O’Sullivan was working to capture images of the vast basin areas. Although his pictures show empty landscapes it is known that thousands of native Americans inhabited the area. Already we can see the politics of landscape photography – take the first picture or draw a map and it seems you can claim it as your own.

Joshua Cooper
Joshua Cooper, Atlantic Basin Project

Thomas Joshua Cooper’s The Atlantic Basin Project is an interesting take on landscapes and combines a journey too. He has skirted around the edges of the Atlantic Basin and takes photographs where the sea reaches the shore. Inspired by the early photo explorers he is using a camera from 1898 and this gives his pictures a sinister feel as long exposures turn day into a misty other world.  He talks about his work here.

Mark Power, 26 Different Endings
Mark Power, 26 Different Endings

Mark Power came to my university recently and talked about his project 26 Different Endings. This project was inspired by changes he noticed in the London A-Z map book. Each year the book is updated and the borders of ‘London’ tend to ebb and flow with each edition. He travelled around the edge of the area shown by the book and photographed in the different regions. This is a clever use of an everyday object and by picturing the changes in this way it highlights our understanding of space and ownership.

Ian Brown, Godolphin Woods
Ian Brown, Godolphin Woods

Ian Brown is another artist who likes to travel. A painter by training he would walk the countryside looking for inspiration. To remind him of what he saw he took photographs every few steps. He then merged the images together to create impressionist style prints. Not just pretty to look at but an abstract ‘map’ of his travels.

Michal Iwanowski Clear of People
Michal Iwanowski Clear of People

Taking a darker turn by looking at a more ominous journey, Michal Iwanowski’s work Clear of People was inspired by his grandparents. They escaped from a POW camp and travelled 2,000km, mostly at night. They were scared of being turned in by the locals and so steered clear of any built up areas.

Chris Coekin The Hitcher
Chris Coekin The Hitcher

Journeys really seem to be popular amongst photographers. Perhaps it’s just an easy excuse to get out of the house and travel the world. Chris Coekin The Hitcher (2007) was made over a series of journeys during which he hitch-hiked across the country. There are four strands to his images, selfies, the roadside/detritus, the signs he used to get lifts and portraits of the people who gave him a lift. This takes the project beyond a simple landscape project. By including the portraits Coekin is making his work a social documentary by showing us the sort of people that are prepared to take the risk and pick up a complete stranger.

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Two great series of work that help provide counter viewpoints of each other are Simon Roberts’ We English (2008) and James Morris’ Landscape of Wales (2010).  Both were taken in an attempt to counter the ‘traditional’ view of their respective countries but have their own focal points – Roberts looks at leisure and the middle classes, Morris tourism and the post-industrialised landscape.  These images feel very ‘contemporary’ and the trend for taking pictures of the ‘ordinary’ dull landscape is growing.

We are exploring our planet in greater and greater detail. Google street view cars are driving across the planet taking photographs every few metres. Videos like the one above show that with patience it’s possible to ‘travel’ anywhere without leaving the comforting glow of your computer screen.

Santa Anita Panorama
Santa Anita Panorama


Satellite imagery is now easier than ever to access and there has been a recent upsurge in the number of photographers and videographers using small drones to get a different perspective on the land. As the number of uncharted places diminishes we must look elsewhere for inspiration. NASA is one of the few government agencies that happily releases images of its work. The Santa Anita panorama was taken on Mars in 2004. Many of the images from this program tend to have a hyper-real look to them, almost like a video game screen shot. There is a potential photo project lurking there that combines the two I’m sure.

For some heavier reading on the subject of landscapes and photography/art two books are recommended. Liz Wells’ Land Matters (2011) is hard to find in print form and very expensive. Thankfully technology saves the day and the kindle version is around £10. Malcolm Andrews’ Landscape and Western Art (1999) looks beyond the boundaries of photography – it predates the digital age, but is still an interesting read.

So what have I learnt from all of this?  Well the first thing is that there is really no such thing as ‘just’ a landscape photograph – there are usually layers of political, social and historical meaning in every shot. Secondly is that I need to try and take more landscape photographs to include in my documentary stories. By missing out these sorts of shot I am only telling a small part of a story.  Finally the landscape around us is changing all the time from coastlines that are eroding to cities that are swelling uncontrollably – it’s important to record these images.

The Male Gaze

Until I started my photography degree I had never even considered the importance of the male gaze in photography (and in fact in all art). It’s not just about how men look at women but also how this affects how women look at themselves and how women look at other women.

That’s a lot of looking.

From Julianan Beasley's Lap Dancers
From Julianan Beasley’s Lap Dancers

When looking at bodies we may all see something different. Our background effects what we see in the person portrayed, be it religious, artistic, sexual, non-sexual, poor, muscular, fleshy or sick. For example when looking at Julianan Beasley’s Lap Dancer images it is possible to see that the subject with the power is not the men but the women. The low camera angle and the dominant position of the dancers tilts the balance of power in their favour.

One of the main elements of the male gaze in photography is that the camera is used to ‘look’ at the world like a man does. Curves and the female form draw the eye and the interests and personalities of the women captured seem to be of lesser importance. One way of testing this idea is to do the Bechdel Test. A film passes this test if at anytime two women characters talk for at least a minute about anything other than men. Hollywood movies do particularly poorly at this test.

Ducati Advert
Ducati Advert

The male gaze is still the dominant one in advertising. Using the female body in irrelevant situations is common, the question is whether these degrade women. For example the above image is for a bike manufacturer – is there any need or relevance to having an almost naked woman in the shot?  How do we feel as consumers when men are used in the same pose?

Surveys have been done on advertising images and how the faces of the models can be characterised depending on their gender. For women the categories are chocolate box, invitational, super smiler and romantic. Compare this to the male expressions of carefree, practical, seductive, comic and catalogue. What, no Blue Steel?

In 1998 Jonathon Shroeder wrote “to gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze”.

Victoria Beckham
Victoria Beckham

Former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham is clearly aware of the idea of the male gaze. Famously, since leaving the band, she never smiles in photographs. The reason for this is simple; top end models never smile, by smiling you are succumbing to the male gaze and showing you are friendly and accessible. By being cold and aloof you are implying exclusivity and that you don’t have to please anyone else.

Meisal Make Love not War
Meisal Make Love not War
Meisal State of Emergency
Meisal State of Emergency

A few more examples of the male gaze in action. The first image is from Steven Meisel’s series Make Love Not War. It’s a classic example of how advertising attempts to strip the meaning from it’s images. It is easy to step away from any backlash if you hide behind the ‘it’s only art’ argument. See other work by Meisel State of Emergency and Water and Oil.

George Rodger
George Rodger

Magnum photographer George Rodger’s image deals with the age old photographic tradition that African bodies are treated differently to Caucasian ones. Since the colonial days high society used anthropomorphic ‘interest’ to justify showing naked black women at a time when a white woman in underclothes would be controversial.

Scot Sothern
Scot Sothern

Scot Sothern spent twenty years sleeping with and photographing prostitutes (another example of exchanges in photography). The work has a strong documentary lilt but the women are all posed unusually or have been selected because they don’t conform to the ideal of the naked female form.

Robert Capa Collaborator
Robert Capa Collaborator

Robert Capa’s images of French women collaborators again highlights the fact that the world is based around the male gaze. There are no images of male collaborators and it can be argued that the scape-goating of the women’s behaviour was used by the French government to distract from the wide scale political collaboration that took place.

Across the internet there seems to be a growing movement to empower women and finally place them as equals or superiors to men. The run like a girl campaign is a good example of this.  Will these campaigns change the way that we as photographers create images or how our work is perceived? I have definitely become far more aware of my own male gaze, a first step in hopefully creating work that is different and has an appeal to a wider audience.


What does it cost to take a photo?

When looking at photographs I often find myself wondering just how the photographer was able to get access to the subject. What form of coercion was used to get the subject in the frame? For me, access has always been the trickiest element at the start of any photography project and failing to get permission meant that several of my promising leads turned to dead ends.

Subject's view of Gilden at work!
Subject’s view of Gilden at work!

So how have the professional photographers dealt with this tricky issue? Bruce Gilden simply puts his ethics to one side. He openly admits that he almost steals images of his subjects. That’s his style though, and this ‘offensive’ use of cameras captures the subjects in a way that makes them look abnormal.

Antoine D’Agata

Magnum photographer Antoine D’Agata takes and shares drugs during the process, he is not always behind the camera and can be seen in many of his images. He goes from merely being an observer to being an active participant. Transactions therefore don’t just mean cash but could also include services, food, clothing or drugs.

W E Smith, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, 1971
W E Smith, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, 1971

W Eugene Smith’s series on mercury poisoning makes me wonder, ‘what did he get from doing this work, what sort of transactions took place?’. Although I couldn’t find much on the internet it is clear that by choosing to fight a ‘moral’ battle Smith is able to portray himself in a positive light as a humanitarian. Similar ideals apply to much of the work of Nachtwey and his project on sulphur mining.

Meiselas Marrakech
Meiselas Marrakech

Susan Meiselas was working on a project to document the female workers in the Marrakech market. This series dealt with the issues of money and visibility. The subjects were offered a chance to take either a copy of the print or a small amount of cash. When they were displayed in a gallery the cash amount was displayed where the portraits had been taken by the subject. This makes the transaction far more open and becomes an important element in the the final project outcome.

Such transactions are less obvious in the work of Boris Mikhailov and his book Case History. Did he pay the homeless and poor subjects in his images order to exploit them?  In the beach swap portrait series Front by Trish Morrissey the exchange was social. Morrissey used her approachable nature in order to secure the images she was after.

With all these series it is important to consider where the images are intended to be shown and for what reason. Is there a different value system in place for a gallery instalment vs a magazine spread?

De Genevieve Panhandler
De Genevieve Panhandler

Barbara De Genevieve’s Panhandler project has come under some criticism. She openly admits that she paid male homeless people to pose naked (after getting a free night in a hotel, food and some money). Is this any less honest a way to capture images than Di Corcia’s Hustlers? Philip Lorca DiCorcia ‘Hustlers’ series is taken of rent boys. The titles of the works reflects how much it would have cost for a sex act with the subject, and was the money that was exchanged in order to secure the portrait.

Avedon at work
Avedon at work

A lot of photographers hide the coercion and intervention between them and their subjects. In order to get a better insight we must often turn to ‘behind the scenes’ shots taken during the process. A photo of Richard Avedon taking a photo of a plant worker is a good example. The particular set up of this scene goes some way to explaining the shifty look of some of the subjects. By using a large camera and a team of several assistants it is difficult for the subject to know who is taking the photograph and when the shutter is being released. This shows the ‘transaction’ taking place, one where the photographer is dominant and the subject servile.

Taking a photograph can involve far more than just the simple transaction of the promise of a few free prints. The different levels of transaction and the steps that photographers are prepared to take are fascinating. In my future work I would like to tackle this issue and make the transaction a key element.

Are we ready for Christoph Bangert’s War Porn?

Christoph Bangert is a photographer who has worked in Palestine, Darfur, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Iraq, where he spent about nine months in 2005 and 2006 on assignment for The New York Times. From his time in Iraq he produced the book The Space Between. Many of the images that he took in conflict zones were judged by editors to be too gruesome for publication. In May 2014 he published War Porn, a collection of some of these graphic images.

War Porn - Christoph Bangert
War Porn – Christoph Bangert

The growth of the internet and the increasing number of TV news channels available to a UK audience over the past few years mean the images in the book are, perhaps, not as shocking as they would have been when they were taken. Turning through the pages of the book it is important to remember the level of editorial censorship that still exists in the UK and US regarding Iraq and Afghanistan.

BBC News 24, ITV News, and Sky News are the main news channels in the UK and their vision of the world is almost universally one where blood is never seen. In the rare instances that blood is shown the viewers are warned of the “graphic content” but still the images will have been heavily blurred.

Even when reporting directly from the heart of a war zone this censorship still applies. I remember watching the TV coverage of the Gulf War in 1990 and was enthralled by the explosions and hi-tech nature of the war. I stayed up as late as I could in order to drink up as much of the coverage as possible, scared I would miss a dramatic development. As a teenager I never really considered the grim reality of battle and the news channels, despite their 24 hour coverage of the conflict, never slipped up, never showed the human face of what was going on. For me the War was all about video footage of Tomahawk cruise missiles flying into radio towers or laser-guided bombs dropping on the centre of empty bridges.

Perhaps things would have been different if the Al Jazeera news channel had been readily available at the time but its fully English spoken 24-hour service didn’t began broadcasting until November 2006. This is the only channel in the UK that, in its late night broadcasts, regularly shows the aftermath of war or terrorist attacks – still censored but far less so than the other stations. Al Jazeera is still regarded by many as a channel for extremist views and so is rarely watched by the mainstream of British viewers.

War Porn - Victim of a suicide bomber
War Porn – Victim of a suicide bomber

War Porn forces me to face reality, not only of the original Gulf War and the continuing battles in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but of my own part in the conflict in the Middle East. I was stationed in Basrah in 2008 as an air traffic controller. Sat in my control tower I helped direct the battle behind the safety of a computer screen. I had the sanctity of distance and never really considered what the gun sectors and ‘hot zones’ really entailed.

War Porn - Civilian casualty of a gun battle.
War Porn – Civilian casualty of a gun battle.

The book’s small size means I have to hold it close to properly see the images, close enough to catch wafts of the smell of ink and glue. Up close these pictures are larger than my TV screen, clearer and more real than anything I have seen digitally.  More importantly the book’s design means I have to make a deliberate decision to view the most graphic images. These have been printed in such a way that the pages are sealed together. If I want to look at them properly I must cut the pages apart myself.

I tell myself that I am a collector and so the book needs to be in perfect condition. In reality I don’t know that I want to see the pictures inside. Perhaps I should buy a second copy of the book, one that I can open fully and keep as the ‘uncensored’ version? In the meantime I can’t help myself and I squeeze the edges of pages together and this lets me peek inside.  It’s difficult to see into the dark interior but as I move through the different images I can make out enough to know I am looking at pictures of bloodied faces, mashed red limbs and dirtied grey flesh.

War Porn - Close up of the civilian casualty 'hidden' inside the books sealed pages.
War Porn – Close up of the civilian casualty ‘hidden’ inside the books sealed pages.

As I look at the shattered bodies I am reminded of the ‘surgical’ bomb strikes that promised no fatalities and I am annoyed that the TV news channels lied to me. They didn’t just lie but deliberately sought to protect my ‘innocent’ mind from seeing something they thought was too horrible for me to deal with. The question is were they right to do this? Are they right to continue to do this, even with today’s live-leaking, no filter, gore-soaked internet? What do the citizens of other countries get to see on their nightly news? Are they treated more like adults than I am?

I hadn’t really thought about this until I bought Bangert’s book. It doesn’t contain the answers. Instead it acts as a great starting point for a conversation about who decides what we can and can’t see, even if we wanted to, as consenting adults. It makes me wonder who is shaping my interpretation of the world and what they feel I need protecting from?

That’s why I love this book.