Hello and welcome to my photography blog. I’m a documentary photographer and writer from Manchester in the UK. You can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or watch a short film or three here on vimeo and you can read my own publications here at Issuu.
What happens when CCTV, fashion and commerce come together… It’s the last week of ‘Loitering With Intent’ – the psychogeography exhibition I’m taking part in at The People’s History Museum. One of the things I wanted to show when I was documenting the rise of CCTV in the UK, was how it had become part of popular culture – I’d argue that when advertisers start using its imagery to sell you stuff, then it has.
CCTV camera operated by Manchester City Council and billboard advertising the mobile phone company, Three
There are almost as many CCTV cameras as advertising hoardings in the urban street scene. Both are so much part of the everyday experience of city living it was only a matter of time before cameras started appearing on the adverts in a kind of cultural cannibalism.
Most of the photography I like is “vernacular” – it was taken for some purpose other than to be a “good photo” or “beautiful image” – So I went to see ‘? THE IMAGE AS QUESTION: AN EXHIBITION OF EVIDENTIAL PHOTOGRAPHY’ – a new exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London. It shows a hundred or so photographs by nearly the same number of photographers, which were taken as documentary evidence of something – crime scene photographs, scientific studies and the like. The introduction explains:
“Most of the photographs were never intended as beautiful images. “They were required to prove a point, solve a mystery or simply to inform with clarity. The identity of a face, the location of a cell, the shape of a skull as confirmation of evolution, the coaxial lighting down a gun to show the twist of the barrel. All these images were made to illustrate a fact”.
And the idea that photographs are documentary proof is still central to the medium.
This weekend on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, a new flag is being put on display in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. I wrote about the story behind this flag in my booklet and video – but now there has been a new twist in the story – a story that unwittingly offers a telling comment about how 9/11 is understood, particularly in the USA.
“Every time there’s some kind of national emergency, we put up flags.
The flag represents the life of the country.”
– Carolyn Marvin, Professor of Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
The late edition of the Bergen Record newspaper on September 11th 2001 carried a photograph of three firefighters raising a flag over the destruction at the site of the World Trade Centre in New York. ‘Ground Zero Spirit’ had been taken earlier that day by staff photographer Thomas E. Franklin. The photograph consciously echoed Joe Rosenthal’s famous 1945 photograph of U.S. Marines ‘Raising The Flag at Iwo Jima’.
A couple of posts ago I wrote about how I approached the issue of homelessness, by photographing anti-homeless spikes and other examples of ‘defensive architecture. These were evidence of how those in power tried to get rid of homeless people, rather than homelessness. I said I tended not to photograph homeless people themselves my rationale being that:
“I’m always conscious that I might be seeing them as a stock type rather than as an individual person. Any photograph I take will probably exploit more than help. You could of course take a picture where the identity of the person is hidden, but this risks doing even more to render them as a type not an individual.”
Yesterday I did take a picture of someone who was sleeping on the streets, and in many ways it was for the least legitimate reason – aesthetics.
I was actually photographing a cycling bag for a review, when I chanced upon this man asleep as you see him in the photograph. The unusual raised doorway (I assume some kind of loading bay) offered him a level of privacy (apart from prying photographers) and some protection from the cold and rain. But that didn’t occur to me at the time – to me it looked like a picture frame.
This was of course ascribing artistic sentiments to a social injustice, tempering what should have been a sense of moral outrage and making us think in terms of the those religious scenes where there is some supposed nobility in the plight of the poor.
The man in the picture was sound sleep – he looked almost serene – his beard and hair made him look Christ-like – which only added the crime of glamorising poverty as ‘ascetic’ to the crime of seeing a social evil in terms of aesthetics.
I doubt he was aware of me stopping my bike opposite him, taking four pictures and moving on. I had what I consider a ‘good’ picture, but one that is notable more for the ethical issues that documentary photographers have discussed, avoided or been not been aware of for over a century.
An extreme example of this was that of George Rodgers. He founded Magnum, the legendary photo agency. It was run as a cooperative and championed a concerned photojournalism with an ethical and social conscience, that was pursued with varying levels of commitment by its members. Rodgers himself had put his cameras down when he was photographing one of the Nazi concentration camps. He realised he was composing the piles of dead bodies into pleasing compositions as he would a still life.
Watch the video here… I went to see the ‘Loitering With Intent’ exhibition at The People’s History Museum in Manchester – it includes my piece about CCTV surveillance, which is called ‘You Have Been Watching…‘
It’s usual to make a record of a piece on situ when it’s exhibited, partly for vanity so you have a memento for your old age, or to evidence that it happened, or to show other people who might put something else of yours in their gallery.
Instead of just taking some record shots, I thought taking some covert surveillance footage of people looking at it, might be the sort of thing a smart arse would do. So I did. If you go to the exhibition, you can scan the QR Code that is part of the exhibit and see the surveillance footage (I think that might make it “meta” – a picture about a picture). Or you can always just watch it by clicking on the link at the start of the article, though that will mean you miss seeing the other exhibits, which would make you a bad person.
I’ve discussed surveillance and voyeurism elsewhere, and can’t say I enjoyed doing the surveilling, but what I found watching how people react to individual pieces in this (and other) exhibitions will probably end up in the project I’m doing about art galleries.
If you’ve not been paying attention at the back, the piece is made up of two ViewMaster slide viewers, one has a reel of photographs of CCTV cameras taken in Manchester and Salford, the other has a reel of photos inside the control rooms that control the cameras on the other reel – you have to guess which control room operates which camera – there’s a book with the answers in.
In a civilised society, homelessness would be seen as a problem. In ours, the homeless are seen as the problem. The housing campaign Shelter find “Homelessness is still viewed by many as the result of personal failings”. In fact Crisis, the national charity for young single homeless people, says much of the massive rise in homelessness is because of a “lack of affordable housing; high levels of poverty, unemployment or worklessness; the way in which the benefits system operates; and the way social housing is rationed” — All of these are direct consequences of government policies motivated by an ideology that says what is public should be privatised and where there is no profit there is no worth.
Not everyone who is homeless sleeps rough on the streets, although those who do are the most vulnerable and visible people affected by the crisis. Their presence in plain sight is a poke in the eye to the narrative of the content, consumer society. So, it is the homeless, not homelessness that is tackled.
In this photo essay, I wanted to look at how the city itself is turned on those of its citizens who live on its streets. For a number of reasons, I did not photograph people who were sleeping rough or begging – the most visible and obvious would be invisible. Instead I showed so called ‘defensive architecture’. This includes measures such as CCTV, limited, uncomfortable seating and most infamously, ‘anti-homeless spikes’ – metal studs set into doorways making it impossible to shelter or sleep in them.
An article in by Alex Andreou for The Guardian argued:
“Defensive architecture is revealing on a number of levels, because it is not the product of accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought process. It is a sort of unkindness that is considered, designed, approved, funded and made real with the explicit motive to exclude and harass. It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations, especially in retail districts. It is a symptom of the clash of private and public, of necessity and property.”
Like all good ideas it was simple, and like the best laid plans of mice and men… The men (as it usually is) were members of The Moulton Bicycle Club – the plan was to meet in London and ride round all the streets on the Monopoly board – I’ll blame the mice in a moment.
So this morning, one disassembled Moulton was put into four bin bags and taken on the 06:55 train from Manchester to London. At Stockport I was joined by Mr Mark Taylor with one slightly more expensive Moulton, similarly disassembled and put into two ballistic nylon bin bags.
We got to Euston on the dot and began to put the bikes back together, watched and inspired by the statue of the great engineer George Stephenson. The plan was to ride to Liverpool Street Station, in time to meet up with a dozen or so more Moultoneers and do the Monopoly board before joining tens of thousands of other people on bikes in the ‘Ride London’ festival. And then it all went wrong…