America in Crisis

A group exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery explores decades of social change in the US

The Selma March, Alabama, USA, 1965. © Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos

In the 60s, a project entitled America In Crisis was released into the world conceived by photographer Charles Harbutt and Magnum New York’s then-bureau chief Lee Jones. Featuring imagery from 18 photographers, the show, book plus accompanying short film and installation explored the issues prevailing in the country at the time. This was decades ago and little has progressed, point blank. In a new revisiting at London’s Saatchi Gallery, an exhibition of the same name sheds light on social change in the US with a group exhibition of 40 leading American photographers such as Bruce Davidson, Zora J Murff, Kris Graves, Stacy Kranitz and Mary Ellen Mark. Multiple similar themes from the work proceeding have been brought to the fore: inequality, racism, poverty and the demise of the American Dream to name a few, which are coupled with the more modern-day markers like Covid-19 and the rise of Black Lives Matter.

Curated by Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris and Tara Pixley, the exhibition – which runs until 3 April 2022 – illustrates many deliberate comparisons towards the original project. This includes the same chapter structure as before, with titles such as The Streak of Violence, The Deep Roots of Poverty and The Battle of Equality making appearances. It also consciously sheds light on a diverse and contemporary presentation of photographers today, featuring honest and thought-provoking imagery from those who are actually embedded in the stories – like Zora and his mixed-media narration of power, race and privilege, or Stacy Kranitz who’s spent years documenting a community in Appalachia. Below, I chat to Sophie, one of the show’s curators, to discuss the danger of repeating history and the wavering power of the image in today’s digital world.

The Capitol, 6 January 2021. Washington D.C. © Reuters/Leah Millis

Can you tell me about the parallels between the new and old exhibition with Magnum Photos?

Clearly, things have changed. I studied history and history of art college, but in my day and age, you were told that there was an idea of history of progress. Maybe it’s just getting older, but it all becomes a bit circular after a while. 

In 1968, it was a massively tumultuous year globally. Charles Harbutt felt there was an opportunity and a need to create the original project, and it was that same period of time leading up to an election that he and the Jones had the instinct it was going to be quite a pivotal moment. 

We’ve used the original framework, but we involved all chapter headings except one; a chapter on the unwanted Vietnam war in 68. We didn’t replicate that into the contemporary project, because we felt that there isn’t an unwanted war or any contemporary equivalents. Now, you could say Afghanistan, but honestly, we felt that there was so much going on with the domestic policy issues that we were addressing, that to bring that in would have made it too complicated. 

In 2020, there was the unlawful killing of George Floyd, and that was really the catalyst for the explosion on the streets of Black Lives Matter. And there’s Covid-19, which was a very different experience to the original exhibition. There are a number of different catalysts and contexts. However, the core premise is the American Dream versus reality on the ground, and the long form issues within, the founding of America, the slavery and the issues around equality; all of these things are long-form issues. The Deep Roots of Poverty being another section that addresses the fact that, despite it being such a wealthy country, there’s a lot of people below the poverty line. So there were a number of things that we felt still resonated 50 years after the original project.

Smithville, Tennessee, 2015 © Stacy Kranitz

How do you think photography can impact social change? And how does this exhibition highlight that?

I don’t think photography changes things by itself. I think the days of believing in that are long gone. We all take photographs but it is a very slippery medium; I think it can be re-contextualised in lots of different ways. That’s what the third room deals with – the fact that people tell stories with photographs that sometimes shift the meaning of that image completely. 

What I do think, though, is that because it’s a recognisable medium, we all know how to take pictures and there’s a way to gain a better understanding the world around us. I think it is a language, despite its mutability, and it does inform us about and gives access to points of view; it’s all about acknowledging that it provides a window into different perspectives on the world. 

I think there’s also something to be said for the still image. There’s so much visual noise out there; we’re all hopelessly addicted to our phones. I think there’s something quite meditative about standing in front of an individual picture and just engaging. I really feel this is a project to be seen in the space that it’s shown. It gives you time to pause for thought. It’s also telling that there’s a lot of different strategies within the show from the individual practitioners, in terms of how they choose to communicate using their photographs. 

Bungalow Family with Last Ash Tree, Midway, Chicago, USA, 2018. © Paul D’Amato

What would you say are the key takeaways for visitors of the exhibition – to educate, to steer away from the noise of the digital world?

It’s interesting to see how history can repeat itself. I don’t want to oversimplify, but I want people to be more conscious of how they read images, the power of photography and the importance of it as communication as well as an artistic medium. 

Some of these earlier images would have been viewed by the original audience in 1969 as news photographs, and now they’re almost iconic, which I hate as a word. But something like Bruce Davidson and the Selma Marches, they have such a power as images; they’re almost talismanic because they’ve been reproduced multiple times. Then the reboot was referenced a lot during the Black Lives Matter protests pre-2020 as a kind of seminal protest image. Photography is an incredible, aesthetic medium. I want people to enjoy the layers of the show and how we encounter photography. The top line is to engage with the issues that have allied between both eras, but also to be conscious of photography, how we encounter it and read it and to do it in a considered way.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary Committee and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. © Reuters/Leah Millis

Grant Park, Chicago, 1968 © Charles Harbutt

Lee Square, Richmond, Virginia, 2020. Courtesy of Sasha Wolf Projects © Kris Graves

Pink Sidewalk, Florida, 2017. From the series Floodzone. © Anastasia Samoylova

Massive Support for Richard Nixon at the Republican Convention. Miami, Florida, USA, 1968. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

The Capitol, Washington, USA, January 6th, 2020 © Balazs Gardi

America in Crisis, organised by Saatchi Gallery, opens from 21 January to 3 April 2022. The exhibition is curated by Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and academic Tara Pixley. Tickets from £5. Members go for free.

Jo Ractliffe: Nadir

The South African photographer publishes her first comprehensive book of works made over 35 years

Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl. The Borderlands (2015)

From 1948 until the early 90s, apartheid took hold of South Africa and South West Africa (now known as Namibia). Politically dominated by the nation’s minority white population, the first apartheid law was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949); followed by the Immorality Amendment Act and the Population Registration Act of 1950. Between 1960 and 1983, over three million Black Africans were removed from their homes and into segregated neighbourhoods, while the government announced that those who had been relocated would lose their South African citizenship, and moved into ten designated territories known as ‘bantustans’.

Sparking outrage and backlash against the institutionalised racial segregation of apartheid, this resulted in resistance and the rise of social movements across the globe – some of the biggest of the 20th century. Notable documentary photographers of that time would pull their lens onto the uprising and division prevailing across the country, like David Goldblatt who documented South Africa’s people and landscapes, and Ernest Cole, one of the country’s first Black photojournalists. Jo Ractliffe, a South African photographer born in Cape Town, first raised her camera in the mid-80s during the midst of the anti-apartheid movement. But rather than documenting its brutality, she turned an unusual lens onto the metaphorical, shooting landscapes and somewhat allegorical placements of figures, things, animals and nature; capturing the borderlands of her home town; the aftermath of civil war in Angola; addressing themes of conflict and displacement in far from the typical documentary manner.

Jo’s earlier series include Crossroads (1986) and Vissershok (1988), both of which were crafted in her hometown, shortly followed by Nadir (1986-1988) that compiles a collection of photomontages in a land where seemingly aggressive stray dogs have replaced humankind. A move to Johannesburg in the 1990s led to reShooting Diana (1990-1995), which captures the moments of ordinary life. While in 2007, she documented the war in Angola and published three books on the after-effects of the war on the South African landscape: Terreno Ocupado (2008), As Terras do Fit do Mundo (2010) and The Borderlands (2015). These are all but a few examples of the 35 years spent as a photographer, and now her life’s creations have been formed into a comprehensive tome titled Photographs: 1980s to now, co-published with the Walther Collection and Steidl and featuring text by Emmanuel Iduma, Matthew Witkovsky and a conversation with Artur Walther. 

In this publication, you’ll find a mix of prose, impactful imagery and in-depth, personal cadences written by Jo that detail the reasoning behind her credited works. Like Nadir – a series shot in 1988 that, now more than ever, conveys a sense of dystopia in the formidable aftermath of the apartheid government. The stray dogs are luminescent and the backgrounds are dark and bare, alluding to the hostile control of the police as they roam the bleak, supernatural landscapes. And even the name, Nadir, denotes a feeling of despair, defined as the lowest or most unsuccessful point in a situation. It’s a powerful series to say the least, and one that echoes with history and politics.

Below, Jo shares an excerpt from the book that explains more about the series Nadir (1986 – 1988).

Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl. Nadir (1986-1988)

Come down with a thump on the out side of the fents and slyding down the slippy bank in to the ditch which I come up out of it soakit and sopping and there wer that black leader waiting for me with his yeller eyes. 

Jus stanning there in the rain and waiting for me. 

Dint see no other dogs jus only him. Looking at me and wagging his tail slow. Then he ternt and gone off easy looking back over his shoulder like he wantit me to foller so I follert. I ben waiting for it so long when the time come I jus done it. 

» Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker, 198à

 

Nadir began as an experiment in montage. I was disappointed with my photographs; they seemed somewhat apart, detached from the events that surrounded them. I wanted my work to register with what was happening in South Africa. Especially in that moment, in what felt like ‘a world gone mad’, I wanted to make work that, more than simply an image, conveyed an experience of the world. 

Initially, my intentions were quite straightforward: I needed to retain a degree of photographic mimesis, but I also wanted to destabilise the veracity of the photograph and insert something of the unreality of my own experience. I started to reconfigure my photographs, taking structures and objects from one set of images and incorporating them into another. My ‘empty’ landscapes became like stages as the various constituents found their place and the narrative developed. As I became more technically proficient, I began assembling entirely fictitious spaces made up of fragments of ground, texture, sky and clouds, all with conflicting light sources and distorted scale relationships – things impossible in ‘reality’ but plausible nonetheless. This also influenced how I approached things photographically, my seeing often directed more towards the needs of my montages than the photograph as an end in itself. 

Making these screen-printed photographic lithographs involved printing my negatives through an enlarger onto line film, using a sheet of sandblasted glass as a halftone screen. Various elements were cut and pasted to make up the composite image, which was exposed onto a lithographic plate and printed on cotton paper. Colour and tone were built up by screen- printing layers of transparent ink and finally the image was varnished to produce a surface quality similar to photographic paper. 

In the beginning I didn’t think about dogs, although funnily enough they were always around, getting themselves into my pictures. I then began to seek them out. I photographed domestic dogs at play, went to animal shelters and followed feral dogs roaming the streets. I attended police-dog training sessions, had the trainers set their dogs on me so I could photograph up close. One day in 1986, when photographing in Crossroads, my eyes met those of a white dog slinking around a pile of discarded boxes and rubbish. Soon after that encounter, I came across Ryszard Kapuściński’s book Another Day of Life (1976), about the events leading up to Angola’s independence and subsequent civil war. I was very struck by that book, the ways it resonated with what was happening in South Africa – in particular, a passage about the dogs in Luanda, abandoned when the Portuguese fled. And when I read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, the journey of the dogs in Nadir started unfolding. 

Jo Ractliffe’a Photographs: 1980s to now is available here.

Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl. Nadir (1986-1988)
Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl. Nadir (1986-1988)
Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl. As Terras do Fit do Mundo (2010)
Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl. As Terras do Fit do Mundo (2010)
Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl. The Borderlands (2015)
Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl. The Borderlands (2015)
Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl. Everything is Everything (2017)
Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl
Photographs: 1980s to now by Jo Ractliffe published by Steidl

The Picture Library

In celebration of The Photographers’ Gallery’s 50th year and the Guardian’s 200th anniversary, a new exhibition presents 200 images from the Guardian’s mammoth photojournalism archives

Greenham Common protester, Roger Tooth, 1982 Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive

In celebration of its 50th year, The Photographers’ Gallery has launched an exhibition titled The Picture Library, arriving in conjunction with the Guardian’s 200th anniversary. The show, conceived and co-curated by The Guardian Archive’s founder Luke Dodd, along with TPG’s senior curator Karen McQuaid, features more than 200 images pulled from the mammoth Guardian picture library – or better known as the home to around one million prints and negatives, not to mention a plethora of contact sheets, editing notes and newspaper ephemera. 

“In terms of actual numbers,” explains Luke, “the archive and library comprises about 100,000 individual files – it has been catalogued in such a way as to preserve the original categorisation.” This includes extensive photography collections from industry greats, like Guardian photographer Don McPhee, Cecil Beaton and Yousuf Karsh, as well as a close inspection into the inner workings of a traditional picture desk, revealing the role photojournalism has played throughout society. It also provides a visual timeline, spanning the entirety of the 20th century and divulging into major cultural and political subjects that have occurred in the UK over the years – such as race, gender, feminism, nationalism, immigration, post-colonialism, globalisation and the climate crisis.

National Front demonstration against Asian immigrants, 1970. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive

To say that The Guardian has a lengthy history would be understating, what with the debut photograph published by The Manchester Guardian in 1905 – a half-tone of the Angel Stone in Manchester Cathedral. Three years down the line and Walter Doughty was appointed the first staff photographer, which arose in conjunction with the launch of the picture library. In the 60s, the desire for photography in newspaper format increased, equating to the arrival of feature spreads, colour pages and use of the 35mm camera.

So naturally, with such a hefty collection of records under its belt, the library required a strict categorisation of sorts. “Originally, everything was filed in terms of two catch-all categories: personalities and subjects,” says Luke. “So the library grew organically rather than systematically, and when non-staff photographs were added (licensed), they were integrated with the existing. No special treatment for photos from Magnum, or Madame Yevonde or Beaton, for example.” And when curating the works for The Picture Library exhibition, Luke manually made his way through the library in its totality – “I physically went through all the files; months of work”, he notes – whittling down the 500 images initially selected to the 200 seen in the final cut of the exhibition. 

Anti-Apartheid demonstrators being removed from the South African Airways office, Peter St, Manchester, Don McPhee 1972. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive

Gay rights marches, riots, demonstrations, strikes, political rallies and social deprivation all make appearance throughout The Guardian’s liberal output with publishing and journalism. And this is indeed mirrored in the curation of The Picture Library. “Obviously, I had to keep in mind a number of different strategies when deciding what was to be included: historically important (Belsen trial); vintage classic (Annie Kenney, suffragette); representation of other cultures in a post-colonial Britain (Commonwealth Conference); Guardian liberal stance (male anorexic); routine sexism (Picasso photographed surrounded by young women); politics (Bernadette Devlin); the purely aesthetic (Water Board Salford, 1966); heavily annotated images (Harlem),” adds Luke. “But there was also much room for the esoteric, those images that have transcended the particulars of their context (fog from driver’s viewpoint).”

“In many ways, the show is a good illustration of the anxieties that have played out in England (as opposed to the United Kingdom) in the past few decades: immigration, relationship to Europe, post-colonialism and what that means any more, sexism, racism and capitalism.”

Domestic bliss for Alfie and Shirely, Don McPhee, 1976. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive

To reflect the wide-spanning nature of photojournalism, the exhibition equally follows suit of this non-hierarchal structure and pairs the well-known alongside the more unfamiliar. The pictures involved are vast; take Medical Research (1968) as an example, detailing the “flu vaccine being grown in hens’ eggs”, says Luke. Another sees the arrival of the Quest at Plymouth in 1922, as part of the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition wherein venturers headed to Antarctica via the Falklands and South Georgia: “There is a definite and recurring narrative of conquest which flows from colonial expansion but which persists as the Empire vanished, related to the idea of British exceptionalism – much rehearsed in the Brexit debate.” 

Luke continues to highlight a few more significance images, like one of Mr M Hamdy of Manchester University and DR J Maslowski of Cracow University, attending the Selenodesy conference in Manchester, 1966, following the crash landing of a man-made missile of Russian origin on the surface of the moon in 1959. He describes the piece as “one of those difficult to define and ‘strange’ photos of two men attending a conference but there seems to be a supreme ease between the two parties.” Meanwhile, a photo of Irish civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin at an anti-internment rally in London, 1972, is one of his personal favourites, “because had Devlin been listened to in the early 1970s, three decades of needless voices in Northern Ireland could have been avoided.”

Chinese mission staff face off with police, Peter Johns, 1967. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive

There’s so much history littered throughout these works, that to see it all picked apart and compiled into an exhibition is only going to have universal impact on all that visit. “The exhibition straddles the 20th century, so it’s hard to imagine a visitor that won’t find something that resonates,” says Luke. “I imagine the audience will leave knowing a little more about the workings of a picture desk, and how decisions are made on the use and context of images (and how this has changed over the decades). I would also like to think that people might leave the exhibition with a greater appreciation of the sometimes pernicious nature of representation – how images are never neutral. Even those images being used to campaign for a particular cause are in fact informed by retrogressive views, like the Biafran famine victim.”

This leaves us on a final thought about the role of photography itself, particularly in journalism and in the medium of newspapers. What was once a slower and perhaps more considered approach is now transformed with utmost immediacy, where all it takes is the snap of a finger on a thin piece of touch screen glass and, there you have it – a photograph. But does this waver our level of trust with photojournalism, or add a more personal and reliable sensibility? “It’s easy to take photography for granted nowadays given that nearly everybody has a serviceable camera on their phone,” says Luke. “But despite the ubiquity, the photographs ability to pull one up short, to shock, to amaze, and to change the course of history has not diminished – the football of the killing of George Floyd is the best recent example.”

The Picture Library is on view at The Photographers’ Gallery from 25 June – 26 September 2021

Families Need Fathers protest, London, E Hamilton-West 1979. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive
Immigration – Gatwick. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive
Arthur Scargill faces police line, Orgreave Coking Plant strike, Don McPhee, 1984. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive
Adrian Churm and Rebecca Evans, winners of Juvenile modern trophy, Michael Stephens, 1983. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive
Mr and Mrs Keith Wells with their adopted Vietnamese war orphans, Surrey, 1969. Courtesy, Guardian News & Media Archive

Why Take Photographs?

Photographer Giles Duley – who himself was photographed minutes after he lost both legs and his left arm in 2011 as a result of stepping on an explosive device – asks how photography can be justified when documenting the horrific injuries of war

Abdulah in Erbil, by Giles Duley

I’ve covered few stories that have affected me as much as documenting injured civilians in Mosul. The time I spent there, earlier this year, left me questioning the validity of my work and bereft of hope. For a month after returning home I hid from the world. When faced with such darkness and violence, what value can a photograph have? Does it become voyeuristic to capture and share those moments? Against such horror a camera seems impotent, its use almost perverse…

I believe photography comes with great responsibility and as soon as I lift my camera to record somebody’s story, I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this? Nothing in photography goes more against human nature than the process of pointing your camera at somebody injured, afraid or in real peril. So, why do it? Does it, can it, make a difference?

In February I was based in a hospital run by EMERGENCY in Erbil. Every day they were receiving dozens of badly injured civilians from the fighting for Mosul. Even after over a decade of photographing the effects of conflict, the scenes I witnessed there were amongst the worst I’d ever seen. Babies with amputated limbs, a young child paralysed by a sniper’s bullet, whole families lost. It was beyond words.

In the past, I have referred to how I try and find a positive in such situations, a moment of humour, or to show the love between loved ones, families. But what I witnessed from Mosul left me beyond that: there are times when you can find no such image, no positive. I think back to Raghad, a man I met in the hospital: For four days, I watch him sit silently by his injured son’s bed. He nods when I walk by, nothing more. Then one day he comes over and grabs my arm.

“It was not my fault,” he pleads through dead eyes, a hollow expression I have rarely seen. “I did what I thought was right.”

He tells me his story: His family sheltered beneath a table in their home as bombs landed around them. The house opposite was hit, then the house next door, and at that moment his nerve gave; he told his family that they must run. As they left the front door, a third bomb dropped. Raghad’s wife, three daughters and two sons were all killed instantly. A son, Abdulah, survived, left blind in one eye.

There is nothing you can say to such a story. You cannot say ‘things will get better’, because they never will. There is no hope, no positive angle. This is the real face of war and its sinking, sucking horror.

I photograph his son against a white wall, a patch still on his left eye. Skin pitted by shrapnel, his expression as hollow as his father’s.

I could only see the darkness and terror of what was happening. I was shooting angry, disregarding my normal practice of not showing the blood and gore. I wanted the world to see what was happening and reel away as I had.

As the days passed, I knew this was wrong. It should not be about me, but about those I was photographing, and to do their stories justice I had to work in a balanced way. I don’t like the phrase ‘to give people a voice’, they have voices already – my job is to make sure those voices are heard.

But there’s still that question: Why do it? What difference will a photograph make anyway? Only recently I’d heard my inspiration, the war photographer Don McCullin, say there was no point to his decades of work because wars still go on. So, if my photograph makes no difference, why point my camera at a child who’s just been injured? It’s an intrusive act.

On the last day, I sit with Dawood Salim, a 12-year-old boy who has lost both of his legs and most of his right hand. For the past week, I’ve been visiting him and his mother: He always smiles and jokes. For the first time, I feel ready to take his photograph.

I ask his mother, “Do you mind if I photograph your son?”

She looks at me with a defiant yet resigned stare: “When a child is injured like this, the whole world should see.”

Does this answer my doubts? Does that make it all ok? Of course not. But it reminds me of my simplest role: to act as witness, to tell their story. What Dawood’s mother has said has not given me permission, but has challenged me to do what she has asked. There is no point in taking a photograph if I do not then do all I can to make sure the whole world sees it.

That is where my duty lies.

This is an excerpt from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe click here.

Duley’s exhibition, I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See was shown from Wednesday 4th through Sunday 15th October, The Old Truman Brewery, 89 Brick Lane, London, E1 6QL.

In this article, he reflects on the exhibition and presents a video collaboration of the event directed by Phoebe Arnstein.

Kyrgyzstan

French photographer Elliott Verdier travels to the remote central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan to capture an ex-Soviet country struggling to find a national identity in a globalised world

The Muslim cemetery of Balykchy, on the western end of lake Issyk-Kul, the second-largest high-altitude lake in the world. Eighty per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s population is Muslim.

Horses in Karakol, the fourth-largest city in Kyrgyzstan, near the Kazak and Chinese border.

Two abandoned Moskvitch cars in Min-Kush, a city built by the Soviet Union in 1953 to mine uranium. Surrounded by checkpoints, the city was rich, enjoying champagne and caviar, while the rest of Kyrgyzstan lived in poverty.

A child at an orphanage in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. Parents who are too poor to care for their children often abandon them. This orphanage takes care of its charges until they’re 16 but many orphans then fall into crime and addiction.

Captain Boris Vassilievitch Tchoumakov, who oversaw Balykchy’s port organisation during the Soviet years. Currently used as a testing ground for Russian military hardware, it is now forbidden to sail on the lake, though it used to be essential for trade between Balykchy and Karakol.

The bulb factory of Mailuu-Suu. Established 40 years ago after the closure of the region’s uranium mines, the factory – once the second largest in the USSR – is still running today. Poor management of the mines has made the town one of the most polluted places in the world.

Workers in a concrete plant of Balykchy. Once one of the most industrialised cities in Kyrgyzstan, as with many places in the country Balykchy struggled following the fall of the USSR, with almost all its industrial facilities having since closed.

A coal miner in a pit in Tash- Kumyr in the west of Kyrgyzstan, near the border with Uzbekistan.

A worker at Mailuu-Suu’s bulb factory who has been employed there since the factory was established by the USSR to keep people busy and save the city from being abandoned.

A retired miner from Tash-Kumyr in his home. With 34 years of experience, including 26 under the USSR, he witnessed the collapse of the mining organisation when the USSR fell, and his work became more dangerous as a result.

 The landscape around Tash-Kumyr, bearing the scars of coal mining.

Elliott Verdier

Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline

Port speaks to acclaimed photographer Susan Meiselas, recipient of the Robert Capa Gold Medal, about her long and varied career photographing strippers, Nicaraguan insurrectionists and Kurdish refugees

© Susan Meiselas. Self-portrait, 44 Irving Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971

In 1979 the photographer Susan Meiselas was in Nicaragua, covering the revolution against the Somoza regime, when she captured a guerrilla fighter throwing a molotov cocktail. Although she had been documenting the conflict for over a year, it was this image that would go on to be one of the most widely circulated and reproduced images of the revolution, as well as establishing what has become a long and celebrated career. 

Born in Baltimore in 1948, Meiselas attended Sarah Lawrence College and Harvard, taking a photography course one summer with famed American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams. After her first photographic essay, Carnival Strippers, was met with universal acclaim in 1976, Meiselas became a member of Magnum Photos, and has worked as a freelance photographer ever since. Today, alongside the Robert Capa Gold Medal awarded for her work covering the Nicaraguan insurrection, she is also the Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Harvard Arts medal, and is widely regarded as one of the most talented photographers of her generation.

When I speak to Meiselas on the phone she has just returned from opening an exhibition of her photography in Barcelona. I ask her about the atmosphere in the city – the capital of Catalonia and, for the past few weeks, the focus of the world’s attention following the independence referendum in October. “I can easily give you a line about opening an exhibition simultaneously with Catalonia hoping to declare itself as a republic,” she replies. “But I don’t think that’s really what you want to write about. It will be past tense.” It’s a fitting response from the renowned conflict photographer and Magnum Photos inductee, who will turn 70 next year. Meiselas’s work often poses questions about memorialisation: how historical events are absorbed into the public and private consciousness, and how such milestones are marked. And it’s these concerns that form the backbone of her new retrospective Susan Meiselas: On the Frontlinerecently published by Thames & Hudson.

Though primarily known as a photographer of war-zones, Meiselas’s work also encompasses more domestic projects. Carnival Strippers, the work which secured her membership with Magnum, documented the the lives of female strippers working the New England country fairs from 1972 to 1975, Meiselas pairing portraits with taped interviews with the women, their boyfriends, their managers, and the punters. She interviewed her subjects on many occasions throughout her career, and often returned to the places she had shot to provide them with a copy of their own portraits, to gauge their reaction.

What is it that particularly interests her about this mutual gaze? “At the beginning, I wouldn’t say that it was a strategy yet,” she replies. “It was an instinctive response to the act of photographing. I was curious about who the subject was, and how they perceived themselves. It wasn’t theoretical.” Is there a sense of justice in portraying the subject talking back? “Yes, in some ways, but I don’t think it was laden with that worry at the time. I felt the power of a camera over a subject, and I was uncomfortable with that role. I had to try to acknowledge the collaboration as implicit in the act of photographing.”  

© Susan Meiselas. Sandinistas at the walls of the National Guard headquarters: ‘Molotov Man’, Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979

Meiselas was studying at college during the explosive year of 1968. But while conflict and protest were integral parts of her coming-of-age in 1960s America, this was nothing in comparison to the violence she would encounter abroad as a conflict photographer. “There were certainly confrontations, like the march on Washington,” she explains, “But they weren’t using real bullets.”

When Meiselas first went to Nicaragua in 1978, she found herself in the midst of a conflict, and felt drawn to stay. “I saw it as a society in turmoil, trying to resolve tremendous disparities, in power and economics, and in a desire for a different kind of state, and citizen.” The situation escalated swiftly; by July 17, 1979, Nicaraguan leader Anastasio Somoza Debayle had fled the country and the popular insurrection led by the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) assumed power. “It was a very dramatic, transformative experience,” Meiselas reflects. “It certainly shaped my path, as well.”

A photograph that Meiselas took in Nicaragua on 16th July 1979 – a man captured the moment before he throws a molotov cocktail – is likely the most well-known of her images. Did Meiselas foresee at the time that her image would become iconic? “I’m not sure you intend to make an iconic image,” she demurs. “You might have a combination of circumstances lead to what becomes iconic. I could never have known when I captured that moment, that gesture of defiance, that he would become the symbol of the revolution for thirty odd years.” The ‘Molotov Man’ in the photograph, later identified as Pablo ‘Bareta’ Arauz, is still alive. Recently, a friend of Meiselas’s sent her a link to an picture of Arauz on the BBC, holding Meiselas’s portrait of him.

The image has been reproduced in street art, flags, monuments and t-shirts. “And he’s proud of that, and so am I,” Meiselas continues. “But I couldn’t have known that would happen when I made that photograph. It was in the middle of a war that seemed as though it wasn’t going to end, but that evening, Somoza left the country and the transition of power began. So, it becomes symbolic to anyone who knows that history, it becomes more than just an iconic image.”

© Susan Meiselas. Page spread from Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, showing Qala Diza, 1991 in comparison to Qala Diza, 2007, Northern Iraq, November 2007

In Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, published originally in 1997 and reprinted in 2008, Meiselas plays more of a curatorial role, collating (mostly) anonymous images dating from 1880 to form over a century of photographs depicting a persecuted people. In the book, she writes: “Every picture tells a story and has another story behind it: Who’s photographed? Who made it? Who found it? How did it survive?”

What purpose does she see in asking these questions? “I was trying to contextualise images,” Meiselas replies, after a brief pause. “I wanted the image to be what draws you to want to know more. And I think that is true of any of the images I make… I know that the photographs can in themselves be powerful, but they are only sightlines towards knowing more. Whether they live on walls or in magazine pages, they’re windows into other worlds that you want to know more about. That is what, for me, matters.”

Susan Meiselas: On the Frontline is published by Thames & Hudson

I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See

Conflict photographer Giles Duley reflects on his recent exhibition, ‘I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See’, a meditation on the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East 

In October 2015, the photographer Giles Duley was commissioned by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to document the developing crisis in Europe and the Middle East. A gruelling, seven-month long project, Duley would visit 14 countries – from the chaos of the refugee camps of Iraq and Jordan, to the terror of crossing the Mediterranean and the reality of life for refugees in Europe – forming a remarkable record of one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time.

Held at the Old Truman Brewery in east London from 4th to 15th October 2017, ‘I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See’ brought together over 100 images from the project for an innovative multimedia exhibition. In a collaboration with the Legacy of War Collective, a loose body of artists who have been affected by conflict, over ten days Duley’s work was joined by artists, musicians and writers, and was host to a supper gathering each evening.

For Duley – who lost both legs and his left arm when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2011 – the exhibition was an attempt to move away from the traditional constraints of a photographic show, and to celebrate life, culture and the human spirit in the midst of war and abject suffering. Here, in a film directed by Phoebe Arnstein, Duley and the exhibition’s participants reflect on ten days of food, music, talks and collaborative art.

Photography Giles Duley

Soundscape Rob Del Naja

Artist Semaan Khawam

Musicians Alaa Arsheed, Lisa Hannigan

Volunteer Susana Repaneli

Paintings Young Syrian Children

Director Phoebe Arnstein

Executive Producer Dan Keefe

Producer Michelle Hagen

Camera Operators Robbie Chapman, Tom Sweetland

Editor Theo Gibara

Sound Recordists Duran Darkins, Edwin Weiss, Robert Newman

Colourist Oisín O’Driscoll

Sound Engineer Jeff Smith

Titles Chris Egglestone

Creative Direction Black Sheep Studios

Samba City: The Blocos of Rio

  As Brazil gears up to celebrate Carnival, photographer Fran Petersson recalls hitting the streets of Rio de Janeiro to discover the city’s notorious street parties Famed for its annual televised Sambadrome parade, the heart of Rio de Janeiro’s carnival success lies with the ‘Bloco’ – the legendary parties that flood the city’s streets. In 2017, there will be 462 officially recognised Blocos taking place in the city, attracting nearly 5 million attendees. Open to all and following a set route for a duration of a few hours, the biggest blocos draw crowds of up to one million people. Those held in the once crumbling neighbourhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa are the latest locations to lure in Rio’s thrill-seeking tourists. Inland from the popular seaside attractions of Ipanema and Copacabana, the historic Santa Teresa district  is one of the oldest in the city, dating back to the construction of a convent of the same name in 1750. Despite it’s cultural significance, Lapa was, for many years, known for its insalubrious characters and seedy nightlife. That was until 1990, when Chilean artist Jorge Selarón began his now iconic tiled staircase artwork outside his house: the catalyst perhaps to one of the most drastic urban transformations to have ever taken place in Rio. Street art now cheers many of the fractured walls, and tourists flock for selfies on the colourful steps, taking shade under the radiant aqueduct arches Lapa takes its name from, helping local businesses to flourish.

A man reclines by the roadside in Santa Teresa

A combination of this creative regeneration along with cheap rents for ballroom-scaled real estate, and a series of elevated walkways thronging the main street level have unexpectedly created the perfect destination for Rio’s young and beautiful fans to live out their carnival dreams in the balmy sunshine of new bohemia. Offering a completely different kind of experience from the beach party crowds, Lapa and Santa Teresa’s Blocos draw in the artistically minded to it’s samba-spiked celebrations, and has quickly become the place to be seen and stay during carnival season. The winding streets of Santa Teresa are filled with free spirited, iconoclastic creatures who have been drawn from all over Brazil, mingling happily to the sounds of street corner drummers, laughing samba first-timers, and excited chatter. Being an old pro at throwing a party, when the fun is done, Rio’s cheerful and unanimously good looking clean-up crews sweep up behind the masses. Every trace of the foot stamping soiree that minutes before caroused through its cobbled streets vanishses, leaving Bohemia to wake up from yet another great party in peace.

Photography Fran Petersson

Interviewed by Drew Whittam