A Portrait of Our Times

Port speaks to renowned curator and author William A. Ewing about the epic undertaking, Civilization, which tells a story of the world in which we live through the work of 140 contemporary photographers

Michael Wolf, Architecture of Density #39, 2005, (c) Michael Wolf, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

“To me, the seeds of it go back to the 1960s,” says William A. Ewing, when asked how the landmark project, Civilization: The Way We Live Now, came to be. “At university, we were made to take a class called ‘civilization,’” he recalls. “I remember lectures about Gothic cathedrals, which opened my eyes to something that beforehand had just been piles of stones. That was a really profound experience for me.”

Fast-forward several decades and the Lausanne-based curator and author has been working closely with fellow curator and art historian Holly Roussell, alongside colleagues Todd Brandow, from the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, and Bartomeu Marí, from the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea, to create an “aerial survey” – a book and international travelling exhibition – that considers the state of early 21st-century civilisation through the eyes of many of today’s most prolific photographers. As Ewing neatly puts it in the book’s introduction, the project is “a wide-angled overview of how photography deals with an exceedingly complex and abstract idea – that is, civilisation.”

Philippe Chancel, Construction of the Burj Khalifa Tower, Dubai, 2008

Currently on show in Seoul, the exhibition will travel to Beijing in spring 2019, and then to Melbourne and Marseille. In London, a complementary show featuring work by a number of featured photographers – among them Robert Polidori, Simon Roberts, Nadav Kander, Edward Burtynsky and Michael Wolf – has recently opened at Flowers Gallery.

Edward Burtynsky, #4 Saw Mills and Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria, 2016, (c) Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Comprising many sections and addressing myriad themes such as where and how we live, how we communicate, and our beliefs and hopes, Civilization is truly global in its vision and ambition. At its core is a focus on shared human experience and how this has been rendered photographically. Indeed, Ewing draws an interesting parallel between civilisation and photography’s evolution: “Like civilisation, that wide practice known as photography also expands, evolves and mutates,” he writes in the book. “No one knows where it’s all heading, though we suspect it’s heading somewhere.”

Robert Polidori, Dashashwemedh Road, Varanasi, India, 2007 (c) Robert Polidori, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Given the enormous scope of the topic, it was imperative to set clearly defined parameters from the outset, explains Ewing. “If you started ticking all the boxes of everything you should put in a book called ‘civilisation’ you’d go mad. You’d end up with a list of thousands of things and it’d just go on and on. That would be a book that illustrates and you would need thousands of chapters to do any justice to it as a social work. We wanted something more poetic that would excite people and [encourage them] to think about civilisation.”

Sifting and categorising the material gathered from photographers working in places as diverse as Sudan and Mexico and across topics such as the development of humanoid robots, space telescopes and digital technologies, was a labour-intensive process that required careful decision-making, Ewing adds. “Images that seemed to be about moving – moving goods, transportation – became [the chapter] ‘flow’. We didn’t want to use the word ‘transport’ because if we chose a more symbolic picture, people could say, ‘what’s that got to do with transport?’ 

Ahmad Zamroni, Muslims pray at a mosque during the Friday noon prayer in Jakarta, 14 September 2007

“We then assembled all the ‘breakdown’ pictures (images of migrant camps, wars and so on) that you can say are about breakdown, and used the heading, ‘rupture,’” he continues. “The titles are meant to be more poetic or ambiguous; you’re not trying to label something so much as say, ‘ok, here is one way of looking at this.’” 

Indeed, what makes the project so fascinating – and what gives it its depth and breadth – is the multiplicity of international voices, approaches, perspectives and motivations that feature. There are photographers who make direct calls to action such as Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who writes: “While trying to accommodate the growing needs of an expanding civilisation, we are reshaping the earth in colossal ways. We have to learn to think more long-term about the consequences of what we are doing.” Others express an impending sense of doom: “Our civilisation is facing crucial challenges with man-made threats that imperil our collective future,” writes Italy-based Irene Kung. “Ancient ruins are poignant reminders that complex and sophisticated civilisations have collapsed.” Implicit in Kung’s words is the warning that nothing can be taken for granted.

National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, Parliament Square, London, 9 December 2010

The project, as a whole, reminds us just how much we’ve achieved in our relatively short time on earth. “Civilisation is really only 5000 years old and in that time we went from inventing the wheel to sending spacecraft into space,” Ewing points out. “We take so much for granted, and we have to, otherwise we’d go nuts. […] But it is an astonishing thing to see how far we’ve come. There are many ways of expressing that, but I hope that photography, collectively, conveys that sense of richness.”

Nadav Kander, Bathers, Yibin, Sichuan, 2007, (c) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

A quote from the book’s foreword written by Todd Brandow and Bartomeu Marí sums up both the uncertainty and sense of possibility that lie before us: “There are sober voices today that wonder if human civilisation will survive this century, while other voices trumpet a ‘new Renaissance,’” they write. “It is not up to photographers to say which of the two realities will triumph, but they can certainly lay out for us the state of the world, and help us think about where we want to take it.”

Civilization: The Way We Live Now, edited by William A. Ewing and Holly Roussell, is published by Thames & Hudson. Civilization will be exhibited at Flowers Gallery, London E2 until 22 December 2018.

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

Into the Woods with Noma Bar

Taken from the latest issue of Printed Pages, It’s Nice That catches up with graphic artist Noma Bar to discuss artistic responsibility and his idiosyncratic office

If you go down to Highgate Woods in London today, you might be in for a bit of a surprise. Among the dog walkers, the frazzled parents searching for their kids and the forestry workers making sure that the ancient woodland is being preserved, you might, if you look carefully, find one of the most prolific artists and illustrators working in the UK. Highgate Woods, all 28 hectares of it, is Noma Bar’s ‘office’. Everyday, come rain or shine, the graphic artist is there, somewhere, armed with his notebooks and pens, working through ideas that will appear in their final forms in newspapers, magazines, as part of a campaign or a gallery.

“You won’t find me drawing the flowers or the trees,” says Noma with a chuckle. “I’m not here to react to the seasonal changes or the landscape. I need the energy and the contrast to what is happening in the city.” We are sat by his current ‘desk’ that is hidden away from a footpath. It is here that he works, pen in hand, only leaving for meetings in the city or to go home and turn his ideas into the thought-provoking, inventive and sometimes controversial work he is famed for. It’s Nice That has joined for an afternoon to see the sights and learn more about Noma, his background and art. Our interview occurs soon after he has released Bittersweet, a “mid-career retrospective” with Thames and Hudson – a mammoth five volume box set that splits his portfolio thematically between: Life DeathPretty UglyLess MoreIn Out and Rough Smooth.

Noma’s work has been exhibited and published extensively responding to subjects ranging from war crimes to online porn. Over the course of his career his images that playfully tackle these far ranging topics have become known for the juxtaposition within the imagery and his mastery of negative space and block colour. “When you see my work, you wouldn’t think it was created in the woods,” says Noma thoughtfully. “I like this contrast.”

His work is adept at condensing complex subjects into simple images that belie the depth of thought and endeavour that goes into making them. His work for the GuardianNew York Times and other bastions of the old media establishment has seen him deal with the topics that informed the names of each section of his new book with apparent ease. “There isn’t one way to do it. There’s something in me that wants to strip things down. No one knows the pain and sweat that goes into making each work,” he explains. “It’s like being a musician or a dancer. You might see the sweat on the stage, but you don’t see everything that has gone into it. I’m not crazy about showing that process, I want to keep things for myself. Theres a lot of deleting and starting again.”

Whatever the brief, be it a commercial client, a publication or a commission for a charity or campaign, Noma’s belief in his responsibilities is resolute. “As designers we have power. If I can use my pen to say things, to affect and change realities, I will,” he says firmly. “It’s like a singer writing a song. If I work for someone like Cancer Research and can attract someone to donate to the cause through a poster, that is my contribution. It’s another voice. It can be a powerful thing.”

It’s not only the more overtly emotive works that embody this thinking. Noma has been called to produce portraits of countless faces over the years. It’s something that endlessly fascinates him and his sketchbooks are full of faces he has seen on his travels in the woods, around the capital and further afield. “Taking iconic faces and working into them is fun,” he says. “It’s deconstructing them to the extreme. The power lies in taking on something that is already iconic. I am taking the icon and breaking the icon. An average, normal, beautiful face is more tricky to draw.” Among the film stars, politicians and royalty he has to depict, one face returns more than others. “I get a lot of Hitlers. People don’t like that I draw Hitler. For me, drawing Hitler is provocation whatever the message is. It’s something that I am dealing with and it is a bitter pill. Hitler is fun. Challenging is fun.”

The challenges come thick and fast, and as Noma gathers his thoughts and records them in his sketchbook, sat among the foliage in the woods, he can never truly anticipate the response an image will generate. Controversy has followed his overtly political works – be it a Time Out cover that merged the image of Big Ben’s clocktower with an representation of anal sex, or a piece about George Bush and the Iraq war that saw “countless emails and letters questioning why I did it”. It’s Noma’s storytelling abilities that get him to his final ideas. “I didn’t choose this. It’s just something I can do,” he says. Noma can reduce the graphic nature of a topic without losing how profound the message it is, or place something in the mainstream media that might be too difficult to convey in another way. “I have a name now, people come to me to solve problems. I wouldn’t do what a photographer would do. I can say things about, say, sexuality and bring fun to sex. Or I have done really serious briefs covering topics like rape, war or paedophiles. There is no harm in what I am doing visually. I enjoy doing this work.”

The dualities within Noma’s work mirror his life. This fascination with the essence of the story and a translation of this into a beautiful and profound image is a struggle on which he thrives. In the spirit of Bittersweet I ask him to try and sum himself up in two words. He pauses, furrows his brow beneath his ever present hat, then smiles: “Always More!”

Photography Jack Johnstone

This is an excerpt from an article published by It’s Nice That in August 2017, and features in the latest issue of Printed Pages