Agents of Change : Photography and The Politics of Space – Brighton Photo Biennal 2012

statue with pigeons - Brighton

statue with pigeons – Brighton

“The title for this photography festival,” Agents of Change : Photography and The Politics of Space”, is not one that attracts me greatly. I wonder what is means – “agents of change” sounds promising yet space is surely space and if it contains something then it is no longer space! Presumably, space is not being used in it’s original sense rather in a relative sense such as the area determined by buildings. Neither is it referring to the “space race” for instance!

I have ordered Photoworks (a journal which has a special issue about the festival) and another publication that has the notes for the conference being held about the festival which I am unable to attend. I pay extra delivery charges but the publications do not arrive as expected. I telephone Photoworks and they agree to send the material; no explanation why it was not sent before. Am not sure about this festival but since the college are going and tutors will be on hand, it seems worth attending. Have been receiving some hate mail from another student – I objected to his attitude towards the tutors who he appears to regard as hired hands.

20121103-Brighton-_MG_1610-street musicians-Brighton

Am not going to stay at Hotel Metropole where some students are going to be but with friends in nearby Hove. They run a meditation centre or did, and want me to attend a festival they are arranging. Am interested to see their place and them since it has been a few years since we were last in touch.

Monday and an email from the college with instructions for Brighton. I need to do some research beforehand not because the college suggests it but because I want to try and understand what this festival is about. The following is a quote from the OCA hand out …

BPB12 explores how space is constructed, controlled and contested, how photography is implicated in these processes, and the tensions and possibilities this dialogue involves. This year’s Biennial provides a critical space to think about relationships between the political occupation of physical sites and the production and dissemination of images. Responding to recent efforts to politically re-imagine urban space through social and civic uses …  At the core of BPB12 is an examination of photography as both a tool and a process: a means of understanding the world, and an active force in shaping it.

The college also asks us to read an article by Stephen Bull who we are going to see in discussion during the visit. This article deals not only with the use of retro in photography which is seen as  a way of making photographs look as if they had been taken in a previous era (sepia toned images is one example while an image looking as if light has leaked in is a more extreme example) as well as the use of vintage cameras. Retro effects can be simulated on modern photographic devices such as mobile phones and over all this kind of activity hangs the spectre of nostalgia. I have read Professor Bull’s book on Photography and heard him speak before at Tate Britain. It seems the discussion with Sean O’Hagan will be about a set of Desrt Island photos that O’Hagan has chosen which sounds good and not too serious!

We are also asked to look at some of the work on view before we actually get to see it. On a college forum, I write the following “In regard to the use of titling and captioning, at the Brighton Photo Biennal (the object of an upcoming OCA study visit!) there is a photographer Edmund Clarke exhibiting a series called “Control House Order” containing photographs of a house in which a person suspected of terrorism was forced to live. It seems our understanding of these photographs relies a great deal on knowing the background to the images and I can not help but feel this detracts from the photographic effect of the series.” Clark was chosen as one of the Prix Pictet nominees this year; his photograph of an open window which seems to been so obviously taken with a flash (the effect of the refracted light is probably of appeal to many) looks tacky and I wonder at what this image is about.

John “Happy” Hopkins is a character from the 1960’s and his exhibition “Freedom as a career” looks a little more easy to understand; it is not one I get to see though.

photos from The Argus Archive on display outside

photos from The Argus Archive on display outside

One student has written, “My copy of the Photoworks Journal just dropped onto the doormat and all I can say is wow! For any students planning to attend the study visit or go to BPJ independently I say order this now if you don’t have it already. It’s beautifully produced and has got me jumping around the room with excitement. Can’t wait and so glad I have got this in advance.” I do not share his enthusiasm however; the front cover photo although interesting, it shows a group of people blocking traffic by lying on a road, is over-sharpened and characterised by a halo effect around some figures such as that of a policeman.

I find Photoworks to be visually interesting but not easy to read. Wading through a lead article by Ben Burbridge, I come across the following sentence … “The Biennal is not immune to the pressures faced by artists, and it must also be positioned within, and in relation to, these geographies of seeing.” The article explains what the festival is about and it’s focus on the representation of political issues which does not really interest me very much yet there are some interesting statements in this essay such as “BPB is concerned with the possibilities and limitations of photography as a political tool” while the essay ends with the following, “The task of closely scrutinising an image world must be understood as a means, never an end.

Another email from the college asks us to consider a chapter by Liz Wells from her book “Photography: a critical introduction” in which the increasing importance and value of the family photo is discussed. I wonder if this relates to the festival or is just something that the OCA want to focus on. It might have been sent in error since it seems to relate to another workshop later in November but OCA insist it is relevant to this week-end. As it happens, it has been sent in error and does not even relate to any OCA visit.

A cross country train journey and the hospitality of friends makes this visit easier and considerably less expensive. Arriving late on friday afternoon, I am able to attend an evening session with staff from Brighton University which includes Annebella Pollen, Bella, who is a lecturer in History of Art and Design at Brighton University; I decide to follow her group in a tour of some of the exhibitions.

My first impression of the whole festival is that the political message is dominating the photography. Politics is so often about power, who has it who has not got it, that is becomes a “free for all” in the negative rather than positive sense. Different kinds of politics are being represented here with different kinds of photography being used.

We wander around a number of exhibitions which I will discuss later when I have seen more of them; it will be interesting to see if my first impressions are justified. For now some general comments from questions that were raised during the evening tour. For instance, what is the virtue in making appealing landscape photographs when so much landscape is not appealing; photographers can create pretty pictures but they may also need to make more relevant images of a contemporary nature particularly if they have a political message to put over.

Uneven Development Exhibition

Uneven Development Exhibition

Personally, I find some of the politics being expressed here a little naive; while workers from poorer countries are forced to live in poor conditions while they build luxury houses for the rich, those poor people are likely to be grateful for the money they do get which is probably being sent home to their poor relations. If I am being asked to see the injustice in it that is fine but there is also the sense that we are being asked to do something about it and I am not sure what could be done because egalitarianism can often destruct the status quo.

A newspaper with photographs along with a lengthy article by a senior journalist from another country even when it is translated into the local language is going to have minimal appeal. The article is likely to be understood by only a few although the photographs might strike a chord with many. I am wandering from the point however, as I am talking and thinking about politics rather than about what I have come for, the photographs! There are certainly some very fine photographs on show such as those of TP that have been finely made and rendered with strong and effective colouration. A public display of photographs from a local newspaper, the Argus, are also well crafted images that look good when printed large and stuck in the middle of a square.

What I don’t like about these exhibitions is that I feel I am being asked to take sides … against capitalism, against the government. In the final exhibition we see, an originally staged 17 year long project conducted in Brazil with street people, one feels their life is being glamourised and it is therefore interesting to hear that many of the people pictured have since died, some through natural consequences but often as a result of violence, while most of those who have not died are in prison …

“In the 17 years since we started working, most of the original 55 participants have died, disappeared or been sent to prison. Several hade died of AIDS or been run over by traffic. Some have been killed in fights, or may have been murdered. Those in prison are there, we assume, because of theft, violence or selling drugs … we are still in touch with 15 of the original group … unfortunately, they are still spending much of their time on the street, where their social life is and where they can use crack.”

Photoworks 19, p.28 interview with the No Olha Da Rua photographic team

exhibition from street children

exhibition from street children


The gallery space where the images are often large and hence very impressive, a quality also helped by the photograph being well made, the message of the exhibition can be forcefully put over. The photographic image is used in politics just as it is used in selling and hence, we as onlookers, need to be all the more aware that we are not bowled over by the subjects. There is propaganda here and one surely needs to be aware of that as one interacts with the subject matter.

The festival consists of a number of exhibitions and these will now be considered individually although some photographers overlap such as the images by Corinne Silva and Jason Larkinn whose joint exhibition is called Uneven Development; it details the building sites that are being constructed around the world specifically Cairo in Egypt and Spain. These are well constructed images which draw the viewer in and another OCA student explains her reading of one of SIlva’s photographs which shows some nicely constructed houses behind a wall in front of which is a pile of rubbish; for her the wall is a dividing line between order and chaos while there is also the sense that the impressive buildings will one day themselves be reduced to rubbish. There are other building site images and one wonders what one is being asked to consider here; one thing is the opulence of the buildings which is contrasted with the makeshift dwellings of workers. The other photographer, Jason Larkin, also brings this theme into his work and has made a remarkable photograph of a Muslim kneeling at prayer on an old sack in an unfinished room which looks like a space in a construction site. This is one of a set of 4 photos and there is a similar set of photos nearby with this time a photograph of a mosque in one of them. The meaning is not clear and it is perhaps an inspiring rather than a negative one since even in squalid conditions, faith can still be practiced. Most of the students seem to be bringing more negative judgements about the work; it is surely a mistake to read criticism that is not there. Photography is merely revealing in great detail a certain situation without making any obvious comment.

Jose discusses a photograph by Jason Larkin

Jose discusses a photograph by Jason Larkin

Jason Larkin has produced a newspaper of his photographs which was distributed free in Cairo. What might have been the purpose of the photographer in showing these images? Apparently, he wanted to make local people aware of what was going on in the environs of their city. The newspaper also included an essay by a Guardian journalist which was translated into Arabaic. It seems unlikely that many people would have been able to understand what it was about and yet the photographs would have told them something.

There is one photograph by Jason Larkin of a golf course being built in the middle of what looks like a desert yet the outskirts of a city can be seen in the background. Some comment on what a criminal act it is to build a golf course like this in a poor country where there is obviously a shortage of water; there is another view though in which one can see a process of regeneration not just in the green patch amidst the desert but also in the reconstruction work taking place.

Jose, one of the tutors, points out just how well made the images are; they are tonally well reproduced and the detail is fine.

According to the following statement by Larkin, his intent was the following …”In focusing on these landscapes I wanted to capture the reality of fantasy lifestyles in mid-production, to document the extravagance of a few whose wealth put sharp focus on the fact that 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

In a room adjoining this exhibition of “Uneven Development” is a movie, a 30 minute loop, about the reality behind drones, a modern military action in which the weapons are controlled by someone on a computer in the USA and their victims are living in another country. While this kind of warfare involves no danger on behalf of the operator, they can suffer from extreme stress and it is this the film attempts to convey. It is almost impossible to tell what is actually real in the film and what is scripted which in turn gives a sense of the confusion that such warfare can cause. The work is by Omer Fast and is called “FIve Thousand Feet Above”, a reference to the optimum height of the drone, ironical perhaps because the “pilot” is not there but sitting at ground level.

Control Order exhibition - Edmund Clarke

Control Order exhibition – Edmund Clarke

There is another exhibition in this building called “Control House Order” containing a few images by Prix Pictet nominated photographer, Edmund Clarke; these are images of a house in which a suspect terrorist was forced to live. The effect of seeing a house in which there appear to be no personal objects is chilling. The festival website has the following to say about his work …

In December 2011, Edmund Clark was the first artist to be granted access to a house in which a person suspected of terrorist related activity had been placed under a Control Order.

The 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act granted the Home Office the power to relocate any controlled person to a house in an alien town or city and impose strict conditions, similar to house-arrest. Since the Act, 48 people have been made subject to a Control Order. In these cases, the Home Office has chosen not to prosecute a controlee, nor revealed the full basis of the allegations against them, as evidence is based on intelligence sources they are unwilling to reveal publicly.

The material Clark produced has had to be screened by the Home Office and the controlled person’s lawyers. Revealing the identity of the controlled person or the location of the house would be an offence.

Over lunch at a nice Italian restaurant, there is discussion over the Landscape module which some students do not find very easy; there is also talk about the candid photography of people like Bruce Gilden which is very “in your face” and a far cry from the kind of photography I do during OCA study days.

"The Beautiful Horizon" exhibition

“The Beautiful Horizon” exhibition

After lunch, we visit “Fabric” which is a gallery inside an old church. Here are the results of a 17 year photographic project. The exhibition itself is called “The Beautiful Horizon”, the horizon here perhaps being the aspiration of youth. The festival brochure states …

The Beautiful Horizon, No Olho da Rua is an acclaimed project, documenting a long-term collaboration between young people living on the streets of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and artists Julian Germain, Patricia Azevedo and Murilo Godoy. The project demonstrates how photography has been used to offer a platform to the socially and economically excluded, enabling them to express their ideas, thoughts and feelings.

This exhibition perhaps needs to be seen with the knowledge that most of the young people featured have since lost their lives through drugs, murder and traffic accidents or are now in jail. This rather undermines the project as a force for social good although one of the participants says “we learnt to be human!”

Photographically, it is interesting but probably better and more honest photos could be made by a professional photographer; the kids who have photographed themselves have done it in a very self-conscious way. Knowing their photographs are for use, they pose for the camera in a deliberate way, to show off roles that they think are what is expected of them rather than being who they are. Have they been exploited? Not directly but the photographic project has not helped these people except perhaps in the short term as participants who enjoyed being part of the project since it gave them a sense of identity for awhile. Just holding their own camera for many was something they had not experienced before and relished.

The photographs are exhibited in different ways. There are poster sized blow ups, video recordings of interviews with some of the participants, framed prints of their work as well as enprints put out on shelves and in boxes. It is an impressive display and although the images are amateurish, they do convey something of the kinds of life lived by street people in a country like Brazil.

Having seen a number of exhibitions today with a political angle, I can not help but feel that the photographers have not been very successful in conveying their messages. This may be because photography is ambiguous by nature and so the intended message might be lost and a different one appear to the viewer. Personally, I found some the photographer’s statements of the intent a little naive; the West has Christian ideals that it wants to impose while democracy is also being forced on to nations like Egypt.

Our last visit is to the library where there is an exhibition of photo books lain out on a couple of tables. I look at a few of these. One is called “Who the f*** is Carla?” which is a rather crude collection of photos of European politicians shaking hands and embracing. Carla is presumably a reference to Carla Bruni, the former French president’s glamorous young wife, but I do not see enough of the book to see how this is played out. In fact, many of the books on show need more than a cursory glance to understand; a brief flick through the pages is not really enough although one book is designed to be flicked through, the ends of the pages creating a short movie of sunlight moving across a wall.

However, other books do require a more generous read. One called “Workers” by Helen Couchman is a series of portraits of Chinese workers standing outside their factory. The background is the same in each picture while the workers stand in more or less the same place; this helps to emphasise their differences as individuals. The idea that all Chinese people look the same is obviously not the case as this book emphasises. The portraits are endearing.

“The Time Machine” by Edgar Martin is a series of well executed photographs of hydropower stations. Although these are brilliant photographs they seem rather boring as a series but hold a particular interest. Another book, “Deconstructing the Maze” is a book of derelict buildings that assume significance when one understands that this prison is where many IRA terrorists were imprisoned.

The next day, sunday, started at 09.30 a.m and I caught a taxi into Brighton since I was not exactly sure where the place where we due to meet was while I was also running late owing to an extended chat with my hosts. At 9 o’clock, there was no one at the media centre where we booked for a seminar. I walked back to the Hilton where many other students had been staying and found some of them in the hotel foyer, getting ready to leave. returning with some of them 15 minutes later to find the doors still locked with no one answering. At about 20 minutes past I rang again and a woman appeared to let us in, directing us to a gallery inside which was showing an exhibition by Phil Taylor, a teacher from Brighton University. The exhibition was a set of black and white prints from Tuscon Arizona which serve to illustrate the book “Blood Meridian” by Cormac Mac Arthy; however, the prints have no captions and so one is left to wonder at their significance. After our seminar, Phil Taylor appears to show a short video about his work which gives some idea of what it is about but I find myself still in the dark about what are obviously a series of historical events about early white and red man interactions often of a fairly bloody nature.

visiting the Trevor Paglen exhibition

visiting the Trevor Paglen exhibition

The seminar is about us students showing photographs we have made that relate directly to OCA work. Eileen shows her work, photographs from her neighbourhood, that are mostly urban areas in which there is some kind of green growth; the tutors, in our case Jesse Alexander and Sharon Boothroyd, comment on her work. When that has finished, I decide to jump in and show my own work since like Eileen’s it is about my neighbourhood (we have both been doing the PWDP model). It was good to show this work in the context of a similar project and the feedback was helpful as it usually is. I discuss this in my other blog where I have a piece about the assignment I did. Someone asks me why I use a tripod; I find this question a little difficult because I am wary of getting into an argument about the value of a tripod which some regard as a waste of time while others swear by it. Fortunately, the tutors respond to this matter and give a good explanation of why.

teacher student discussion

teacher student discussion

One student says that one needs to choose between an image that is aesthetically pleasing, picturesque and one which has a message. Is it really an either or question? I think one needs to combine both qualities.

There is a certain amount of chatter over other people’s photographs. I did not note it all down but listened and looked since one can learn from the images of others and the comments made about them.

There is also talk about Level 3 of the OCA course. This does not really interest me yet is good to hear of the changes since what I had heard about the last part of the course had sounded disingenuous. The emphasis is more on “sustaining one’s practice” rather than “becoming a photographer”; job prospects for BA photography graduates are not great! According to the only Level 3 photographer attending the day, Level 3 is about creating a body of work of one’s own choice and doing assignments that relate to that work while working with a tutor.

Photography is not just about taking photographs, it is also about working with those photographs. In the days when stock photography was a job option or if one is actually employed to take photographs such as for a newspaper then taking the images might be all one needs to do; however, digital images often need to be processed by the photographer and prepared for submission, a job that can take longer than the physical act of capturing images.

We visit a gallery above a gift shop just behind the Queens Hotel called Beliss. The photographs here are well crafted but not very interesting dealing rather clinically with subjects such as domestic space.

Brian Lavery, fellow student

Brian Lavery, fellow student

I lunch with Irish Brian who has spent a lot of his life in South Africa. He recently had an epiphany moment at the Saatchi Gallery Out of Focus exhibition which had left me feeling a bit dazed owing to it’s size and profusion of images, some of which meant nothing to me. On the photograph below which I think some will consider insensitive, he comments that “I saw your photo on Flickr and was impressed with how unobtrusive it was to take. A  great result.”

Man eating fish and chips Brighton : a non-political photo

Man eating fish and chips Brighton : a non-political photo !?

After lunch, I make my way to the Marlborough Theatre, to listen to the conversation between Stephen Bull and Sean O’Hagan; this account can be found in another post.

Just around the corner, is the final venue; the festival is being wrapped up by a Magnum event. The Sally Bennis Theatre is much bigger than the one we have just left yet there are not more than about 50 people present. Mikhail Subotsky sits on a chair at the front looking rather inconsequential, a reminder of the character of other Magnum photographers I have seen and met; they tend to be unnassuming and not at all like the stereotype of the cavalier photographer who does not mind compromising his subjects. He shows photographs he has selected from his career as a photographer which he prepared for an exhibition; it is an interesting body of work and makes one consider what fine photography can be. He is later joined by another Magnum photographer, Alessandra Sanguinetti to whom I had showed work a couple of years or so ago.

There were only a couple of questions at the end and it seems the festival came to an end with more a whimper than a bang. Unfortunate. There was good work on show (Trevor Paglen was perhaps my favourite) and although I found myself questioning the political views of some of the photographers, I found myself in a space where I could question the work on show rather than merely consume it as one does with so much popular culture. Visiting with tutors from The Open College of the Arts helped toy maintain a spirit of inquiry while listening to speakers such as Stephen Bull and Sean O’Hagan helped one to put the whole show into perspective.

One thought on “Agents of Change : Photography and The Politics of Space – Brighton Photo Biennal 2012

  1. I’m also working my way through Photoworks and agree it’s not an easy read, although it is the course language so I feel i should try to understand it.
    I enjoyed your approach to the blog and your description of the events, and it would be useful if more students blogged in such depth. I know there are debates about privacy of the blogs and shyness, but we can all learn from each other and all opinions have weight.

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