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!

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.

Book Review: In Sickness and in Health

Rather than make you all wade through pages of my thoughts on Colin Gray’s emotional book, In Sickness and in Health I thought I’d let you look at the book yourself.  I’ve made a short, high definition, video where I show you all of the book and if you like it you should consider buying yourself a copy  – they are still easy to come by and copies can be found on Amazon (the link for UK customers is HERE)

The book is part of Gray’s work documenting his parent’s lives.  In this book his mother has grown increasingly unwell and, as the book progresses, we learn that she dies.  The final pages of the book show the loneliness of his father and his attempts to carry on after his loss.

Hate having music in this sort of video?  Comment and let me know so I can change future videos.

Book Review: Myth of the Airborne Warrior

Myth1The Myth of the Airborne Warrior, published by Photoworks, is a set of personal images from the portfolio of Stuart Griffiths.  As a subscriber to the Photoworks magazine I came across this work through one of their articles and was immediately struck by it.

The book contains photos taken by Griffiths during his time as a paratrooper serving in Northern Ireland.  They are casual snaps of his colleges on and off duty and the streets that they patrolled in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  To break up the images several pages include ‘censored’ extracts from his personal diary.  The book is sold as a limited run of 500 numbered editions.  Included in this version is a signed numbered 4×6 print and four facsimile documents that include a rules of engagement card and two nationalist posters.

Myth2

Griffith collaborated with fellow photography student Gordon MacDonald to compile the book.  The original intention was not necessarily to create a historical record of the troubles but more to help Griffith organize his images into a coherent narrative.  The resulting work is an emotional record of the gradual disillusionment of Griffith.  Over- trained and bound by strict rules of engagement Griffith and his colleagues found themselves in a world that was 99% boredom with 1% extreme excitement.  The pictures alone do not convey this story, in fact, I feel that the images themselves are quite weak.  In our current climate soldiers with their mobile phones and compact cameras are taking hundreds of photos that are similar, or better, to ones shown in this book.  Griffiths’ has the advantage of serving before the proliferation of war blog photos.  Taken in the 80’s his images already have the ‘retro’ style that is currently popular.  Several of his images have light leaks, are too vibrant or are poorly exposed but these are strengths rather than deficiencies.  The excerpts from his diary really add to the book and provide the much needed narrative.  It is from these that the decline in Griffiths’ morale and increasing frustrations can be felt.  Much of the text has been scored through with a thick marker pen as if censored but there is enough visible behind the marker to read, albeit with a bit of effort, what is ‘missing’.  I like this technique as I made me feel I was breaking the rules and seeing something secret.

Myth3

The book finishes with a short essay by MacDonald that charts the creative process behind the book and explains a little of the professional relationship between the two authors.

Myth4

It is possible to get a look at the full book by clicking HERE.  And no, those aren’t my hands and painted fingernails 🙂

To learn more about Griffiths’ work you can follow his blog HERE.

Manzine Magazine has a short but interesting interview with Griffiths HERE and Sean O’Hagan discusses the book for the Guardian newspaper HERE.

Book Review: Loretta Lux – Imaginary Portraits

lux1
Study of a Girl 2, 2002

After the type heavy post earlier this week I thought I’d keep it much lighter today.  My latest book purchase arrived in the post yesterday and so it seems a perfect time to do a quick review of Loretta Lux: Imaginary Portraits published by aperture books.  It was first published in 2005 and it is still easy enough to get hold of first editions – I got mine on amazon for under £20.

Loretta takes portraits of children and digitally manipulates them to create seemingly otherworldly images.  It feels like she is trying to create an almost storybook feel to her subjects and many appear to have been cut out and placed on a new background.  The heads seem out of proportion to the body size and the eyes are frequently enlarged to make then an irresistible focal point.

All the images in this post are copyright Loretta Lux and you can find more of her work on her portfolio website HERE

As you look at the images below you need to be aware that they lack the subtle colour range that is present in the book.  It is definitely a case of the printed version being far superior to the on screen version. The 96 pages of the book have a high quality semi-gloss feel to them and the layout of the images on the pages is pleasing with the text being smaller and unassuming.  The book opens with an interesting essay by Francine Prose that discusses Lux’s work and her inspirations as well as talking about the images themselves

Almost all of the images are of children but towards the end of the book this is an image of a hunter and his dog.  It feels very out of place amongst the images of children and I’m curious as to why it was included in the collection – if you own the book or are aware of the series I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on it.

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Baghdad Calling

bag1

Book Review: Baghdad Calling

Geert Van Kesteren

ISBN 9789059730830

Much of the talk during the presentations at The Eye festival this year was centred around the future of photo-journalism.  This book is a great example of many of the professionals fears – that the ‘citizen reporter’ will soon overtake the paid veteran.

This book has been printed on two different types of paper.  The bulk of the book has been printed on what looks and feels like newspaper.  The colours are subdued and the image quality is low.  This is obviously a deliberate choice by the publishers to make the book feel like a collection of cut-outs from contemporary newspapers at the time of the trouble sin Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey.  The images were all collected by Kesteren and his team to give an exclusive insight into the lives of everyday citizens.  By using these images, many taken on mobile phones, he is able to present pictures from locations and situations that a professional journalism would never have access to.  Many of the images seem mundane, a wedding, men in a public park, a market place but dispersed amongst these shots are scenes of dead bodies in the street, bullet riddled buildings and the aftermath of suicide bombings.  These images are not exceptionally graphic but there placement amongst the ‘banal’ serves to shock the viewer as they skim the pages.

In addition to the collected images is a photo essay by Kesteren.  His images are presented on a higher quality a paper on pages that are slightly smaller than the rest of the book.  The difference in quality is huge, both  of the print and the actual photographic skill.  Kesteren is clearly fighting the case for the professional journalist.  The level of access he has is less than that of the amateurs but his use of light, framing and composition add a level of beauty to his images.

Each chapter is a compilation of images from one ‘hotspot’.  At the start of every chapter is a few pages of text, extracts from diaries or eye witness accounts from people who lived through the troubles.  Much like the book ‘It’s All Good‘ these stories really add to the book.  This is a device I will need to consider for any future work I may be attempting.

For me both sets of images are equally important and are strengthened by being shown together in one book.  Photo journalism is close to a tipping point and the future is unclear.  Books like Baghdad Calling show how the amateur and professional could work together.  The amateur images give a greater level of access but the sheer volume of images produced during any event requires strict filtering to capture the essence of the moment.  This can then supported by the images from a professional who is able to pick specific topics to represent and, in a way, act as a figurehead for the massed images.  Without Kesteren many of these images may have been lost forever and that would be a terrible shame.

Baghdad Calling can be bought on Amazon HERE