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.

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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.

agata
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.

Keep on Walking

At some stage in a photographers life they feel the need to go on a journey of photographic exploration. This maybe simply because the photographer needs new inspiration or has simply run out of ideas. In other instances the photographer is retracing the steps of those who have gone before, following relatives that have escaped, famous historical figures or even fictional mass murderers. These journeys, be they by road, rail or on foot force the photographer into experiences that they would never normally encounter. Even journeys that are quiet and contemplative can be highly productive as Paul Gaffney‘s We Make the Path by Walking proves.

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Paul Gaffney was a man with a lot of spare time and a very sturdy pair of walking boots¹. Over the course of several years he go into mediation and found the act of walking was one of his favourite ways of relaxing. Rather than just walk blindly across the country he began to explore the roads and overpasses that led from the motorways. The premise was very simple, find out where these little used lanes would take him and record the journey. Soon walking across the UK was not enough and so he decided to follow the Camino de Santiago ‘the way of St James’, a popular pilgrimage route that stretches through France and across northern Spain.

Soon Gaffney had covered over 3500 kilometres, taking photographs as he went.  The calmness of his journeys is clearly seen in the resulting images and self published book. I initially didn’t ‘get’ the images. They were just boring landscapes to me but I must admit that having heard Paul talk about his work I have become a convert. The importance of being able to speak clearly and enthusiastically about my work has been highlighted by this presentation. Seeing the images at the proper size on display in ffotogallery helped further cement my love of the work and It thought it was clever the way that the display forced the viewers to move around the space – making their own journey.

The soft and unassuming tonal ranges, the quietness and the small details in each scene all combine to create a sense of serenity and calm. The annoying thing for me is that I came on board too late and can’t afford a copy of the book until a second edition (or wooden-boxed collectors edition) is published.

 

All images copyright Paul Gaffney.

¹He’s now a very busy man who has been working very hard on promoting his work and giving talks about the book!

Newport’s Class of 2014

I managed to go along to the University of South Wales, Newport graduation show to see the work of this year’s batch of Documentary Photographers.  The standard was really high and there are several series that I can easily imagine seeing in the Guardian or being made available as books in the very near future.  The exhibition, We Are This, is being held on the third floor of Jacobs Antique Market in Cardiff but the last day is 14 June 2014 so you will need to get your skates on. The We Are This website has images from each of the 31 graduates and contact information should you want to know more.

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In order to better see some of the works I’ve taken images from their websites – click on the photographers name for direct links:

 

Triin Kerge Kodukoht (Place of home)

This work visits the homes of Estonian residents. Estonia, a country that was occupied by the Soviet Union for nearly 50 years, regained its independence in 1991 and in 2004 it joined the European Union. It has attempted to leave the past behind, however there are still elements in the country reminding us of the history. The project takes place between Autumn 2013 and Spring 2014 showing the changing seasons captured through the windows of the homes visited, reminding the viewer of the continuous change taking place. This work will be shown in the Estonian National Museum.

I love the soft pastel colour range of this series and the careful framing of each room is really well thought out. I find the images appealing because they remind me of kitchens from the UK in my youth – the screen images do the prints no justice, the level of detail is incredible. When talking about her work a few months ago Kerge saw the project progressing to focus on the tower blocks that dominate the Estonian urban landscape.  I don’t think that this is necessary as it would detract from the grubby charm she has captured already.

Sam Peat Nothing Like It

Peat’s project is about the challenges facing the NHS and how these manifest themselves in Accident & Emergency (A&E) departments. The images focus on the Royal Gwent Hospital, Newport. On average this A&E department sees a new patient every six minutes and thirty seconds, every single day of the year. Like most A&Es that have to cope with additional stresses from the reduction of services elsewhere in the NHS, the department is under constant pressure to perform despite the limited numbers of staff and resources that they have.

Peat has spent several weeks building up a rapport with the staff of the Royal Gwent and this has given him great access for his photography.  He quickly discovered that the night shift staff tended to be more approachable (perhaps because they were more tired) and meant he was better able to portray the environment as run down and harshly lit. Each day staff are put under more demands to pick up, patch up and push patients out the door. In instances where Peat had to maintain patient confidentiality he has used clever framing and blurring to make the patients anonymous. The series is stronger as a result, we don’t need to see every face to be able to imagine ourselves, friends or family being part of this giant NHS machine.

Sissel ThastumI Am Here When You Are Here

Through the nature, the landscape and the feminine form, I am here when you are here mediates a close and intimate relationship between mother and daughter. It is a bond that is found within the return to the familial; the home and the mother. Portrayed through a melancholic language our relationship to each other, to our age, our gender and our identity become underlying themes.

This was one of the most intimate and ‘quiet’ projects I have seen this year. Thatsum, working in conjunction with her mother, has produced a series of images that are memorable and thought provoking. As part of my own research I look at a lot of documentary photography and this series struck me more as fine art work – and is stronger as a result. It reminded me of the Sabine series by Jacob Aue Sobol but has a much more delicate and feminine touch. The large gallery space didn’t really suit this work (and the images from her website don’t do the prints justice); I would love to see how it would be presented as a book. If you are having problems viewing her website and you use Chrome you may need to switch to another browser.

 

Laura Böök – Pudasjärvi

There are more reindeer than people living in Pudasjärvi, a small town in Northern Finland. With the local population drastically shrinking, the town has set the exceptional goal that in 2018, one in ten residents will be an immigrant. This ongoing project focuses on Congolese families who have moved to Finland to start a new life after fifteen years of living in refugee camps.

Böök’s images are the result of a project that she has been working on for some time and she has made repeated trips over to Pudasjärvi. The wider body of her work includes family album portraits from the Congolese migrants and these are a mix of happier times and harsher life in the refugee camps. These images, when added to the current environmental portraits, work really well to show the stark difference of the lives of the subjects.

This work deals with a really contemporary issue and I love that Böök has found somewhere that is actively looking for migrants at a time when Europe seems to be trying to close the doors. There were only a few images form this series on display from a much larger collection so hopefully the entirety will make it into print soon as I’d love to see the project when it is completed.

McCullin

Today was the third time that I have seen the video biography McCullin about the great war photographer Don McCullin. Each time I watch it I realise there is a lot more to this man than just the amazing photographs he takes.

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I went to his exhibition at the Imperial War Museum a few years ago and was amazed at the breadth of work he had produced. It seemed that every major conflict and hot spot I had heard of had been covered by the man: the Congo, Vietnam, Israel, Cambodia, Northern Ireland and Beruit to name but a few. His iconic black and white images defined photo-journalism for several generations.

I wonder what the price of this lifestyle has been on the man? Physical injuries aside (he was shot) he seems to be a man who is haunted by what he has seen. He now spends his time taking pictures of quiet country scenes. He has had a great time to contemplate the arguments of his critics, chiefly that his work was voyeurism and that it did nothing to help the plight of any of the subjects he captured. He talks about this in the movie and his answered are quiet, measured and given in an unfaltering manner. Watching earlier interviews, such as one with Michael Parkinson, shows that this stoic reflection only comes with time. In his youth he craved the danger and only felt alive in perilous situations.

The public image of McCullin is as finely crafted as his pictures. I think that he hides his demons well and has learnt to cope with the nightmares he must surely have had.

You can buy a DVD (or blu-ray) of the movie from amazon and it can be bought digitally from iTunes.  At the time of writing iTunes has a special offer on and you can get a HD version of the film for only £3.99!

I’ve also found a 27 minute video of McCullin at work using a Canon 5d Mark III.  It’s sponsored by Canon and so is essentially a long advert but there are some interesting bits in there.

Artist Talk: Elin Høyland

In an earlier post I talked about a visit to the Norwegian Church in Cardiff to see The Brothers exhibition.  I loved the images in the exhibition and noticed in the Diffusion 2013 programme that the photographer was giving a free talk and gallery walk.

It was with a little trepidation that I attended, as I can find these events a little pretentious.  Fortunately this did not prove to be the case and Elin, although initially seeming shy at the attention, quickly got into her stride and gave a really interesting talk.

The small but very attentive group
The small but very attentive group

Her series The Brothers is a quiet and intimate look a the lives of two elderly Norwegians, Harald and Mathias Ramen.  Elin was initially working on a ‘pairs’ project and heard about the two brothers from a friend.  She had only planned to take a few images of the two but soon realised that this was a much more compelling project.  The ‘pairs’ project was put to one side but elements of this are evident in The Brothers, with multiple paired images.

Elin described how she found it quite difficult to penetrate the brothers lives.  They were reclusive and not used to talking to outsiders.  However, she was able to gradually establish a rapport with them, although from her description it seemed that there was always a distance between her and her subjects.  After some of the images were published in a local paper the brothers achieved local celebrity status, prior to this they had been regarded as rather an odd couple.

Discussing the silent communication between the brothers
Discussing the silent communication between the brothers

For the first few sessions Elin didn’t even take a camera but used the time, usually no more than an hour, just to try and get the brothers to talk and find out about them.  She noticed that their lives were simple but very ordered.  The brothers spent their time chopping wood, restocking numerous bird tables around their property and bird watching.  They didn’t have a television but had a radio each and access to a telephone (for their weekly call to a relative who rang to make sure that all was well).

Talking about the brothers pale skin
Talking about the brothers pale skin

Although she never really broke into the brothers ‘inner circle’ she did build enough trust to be able to take photographs.  The project started in 2001 and was finally finished in 2009.  Harald, the younger brother passed away in 2004, and Elin visited to take pictures of the last brother until he also died in 2007.  She returned to the house following their deaths with the last time being in 2009, when she took some images from outside the home.  Over the years Elin showed the brothers many of the images that she had taken and talked through her work with them.  She didn’t realise just how successful the project was to become and, as the book wasn’t published until 2011, the brothers never realised just how widespread their fame would be.

Proof that my copy is real!
Proof that my copy is real!

The talk itself lasted around thirty minutes and afterwards Elin stayed around to talk to people individually and to sign copies of her book.  I even convinced her to let me get a picture of us both standing by the most famous image from the series.  In my earlier post about the Church I complained that the gallery space didn’t do the images justice.  The atmosphere for the talk was completely different.  The small space really worked to create an intimate feeling to the talk.  Questions could be asked at normal speaking voice and it was easy to hear everything being said.  As Elin talked about different images it was very easy to move around the gallery to see what she was talking about.

One thing that I am almost surprised about is that photographers have to pay to get their work published.  The Brothers finally made it into print in 2011 and is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing.  Elin had to approach the publishers and pay a substantial amount (she wouldn’t say but hinted it was well over £10,000) to get the printing presses rolling.  In order to get the money together she had to seek a grant from the Norwegian Photographer’s Fund.  Is this really the way that publishing should work?  Publishers have plenty of experience in what images sell and so should be prepared to risk their money to support the best photographers.

Elin agrees to pose next to her work.  I grin like an idiot :)
Elin agrees to pose next to her work. I grin like an idiot 🙂

The event was organised as part of Cardiff’s brilliant Diffusion 2013 Photography festival.  The festival runs for the month of May and so there is still time to go along to the multitude of exhibitions and events being run across the city.  If you are in the Cardiff area then you should definitely make time to visit The Brothers exhibition.

Update:  An image of my grim face made it to the official Diffusion page about the talk!

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