Worth a Look: “No Man’s Land” by Mishka Henner

Mishka Henner has a new project on the Panos Pictures website, made with Google Street View, called No Man’s Land. It purports to be a series of pictures of women who “appear to be soliciting sex”. We knew there were going to be a lot more of these Google-based projects coming, following the controversial World Press Photo award given this year to Michael Wolf. But this one impresses me a lot, though in pushing more boundaries raises a new set of questions.

About his project Henner says,

No Man’s Land explores the margins of our urban and rural European environment as experienced by what appear to be women soliciting sex in liminal, post-industrial and rural settings, captured by Google Street View cameras.

Occupying liminal spaces in post-industrial and rural settings, the focus on these women also casts a critical eye on the Street View project itself and on photography’s indelible link to voyeurism and surveillance.

The Street View project heralds a new age of street-level cartography that offers a vast, regularly updated archive waiting to be mined by documentarians seeking to make sense of our contemporary condition. …

I think the project is terrific, especially in the visuals, and it is interesting to hear how Henner contextualizes the issues of using Google Street View immediately in the introduction to the work. I’m still working through some of the implications of the work, and I’m curious about your reactions. For example, these blurred faces imposed by Google itself… I’m sure there are legal implications for displaying peoples’ likenesses but in this context of possible illegal activity, it adds something else. It draws some parallels, in that fine line of documenting accusations, with Donald Weber’s project Interrogations, and many of the same issues of consent and imposition.

Overall I’m struck by the consistency of this project, photographically and conceptually: 64 images (on Panos’ site) with remarkably similar compositions. An amazing, consistent collaboration between Google’s ‘unseeing eye’ and Henner’s curation. The banality of the scenes is so strongly undermined by the repetition, the ubiquity and the scope of these images across Europe. I’m also struck that it would be nearly impossible for a photographer on his or her own to create such a project. Can we really imagine someone driving around and capturing as many scenes, as consistently, on their own?

Henner is showing me that sexual trafficking (as he implies, or maybe just a phenomenon of women sitting by rural roads) has a particular pattern consuming Europe; I am not accustomed to seeing anything like this with my full eyes nor before in an arts project. That is useful I think. This is perhaps journalism in a new form, it is informing us about something after investigation and we can likely rely upon it. Screw the medium, this is showing us something new in our communities and in an eloquent and democratic manner.

Passing this link to some friends I heard some very interesting, and critical responses. Ranging from the idea that a photographer should really just go out and make their own pictures (ideally, sure, but I think that it is clever to use the mass resources of Google photographing more places in less time than an individual could) to the very serious issue of Henner painting all of these women near the streets as street-walkers. Does he have any evidence to make such an accusation? Is this project interesting only because it is voyeuristic and speculative? I don’t have the answer, and Henner does not really give any firm answers in his own words about the project .. so again, I suppose we’re just asking questions but not coming to any conclusions. Interesting questions, but still troubling.

(via photojournalismlinks. You can also see a PDF/book presentation of the project on Panos’ blog)

3 Responses to “Worth a Look: “No Man’s Land” by Mishka Henner”

  1. Alan Chin

    Matt, my initial response:

    Yeah, it’s all fun but a bit shallow. I mean, presumably because of the guy’s first-hand knowledge of these actual locations, most of these women are probably prostitutes — certainly from my own experiences driving these roads I can attest that there is plenty of this on the sides of Central/East European highways — but that’s about all you can say.

    Looking at his selection, at least a few of these women were probably NOT prostitutes and were unlucky enough to be picked for his project. And so what does this mean? That if you’re not a prostitute, when your anonymous image gets picked by some conceptual photographer-artist masturbator, then you are associated with prostitutes? That if you ARE a prostitute, your presence at the side of the road when the Google camera went by now gets your image picked by this masturbator?

    Whatever. Intent matters. Google Street Views is a navigational tool, an educational resource, and sure, it can reveal a lot about a place and a scene at a given moment in time. But if you, the artist, are really so interested, then go there and take some pictures yourself. This is about as interesting as cutting out adverts from magazines that have some connection and then presenting your edit as a work of art. Post-modern post-structuralist post-whatever denizens of of the art world and academia love this self-indulgence. Which is well and good for the university-press industry. But it has little to do with actual reporting and actual documentary work in the field.

    Arguably, it would be interesting to juxtapose the Google Street View with the artist’s OWN view of the same scene. That would bring the political/cultural meaning of the GSV into the work, adding to the artist’s own analysis, observation and commentary.

    But hey, that would actually require getting off his chair and out there. Which is such a pain compared to sitting in front of his computer screen clicking away.

    Fun fun fun. Forget about this. There’s plenty of interesting work in the world that never gets seen.


    Now, in response to your point about “I think that it is clever to use the mass resources of Google photographing more places in less time than an individual could” — uh, NO, Matt. Because he has used GSV to curate. To edit. Yes, he may have clicked through 69,000 views, but he’s only picking a small number to present. And these places he could easily visit. Guess what that’s called? RESEARCH, and WORK.

    I find it distasteful that what could be an interesting idea, but here without any actual additional edification or exploration on the part of the artist, is considered interesting and complete.

    This is neither journalism nor new, nor democratic. Rather, lazy, exploitative, and sensationalistic.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so traditionalist as to denigrate innovative new forms of technology and dissemination in both technology and art. But for a piece that purports to social and political reportage and commentary to have value, it must include some actual new information adding to the research.

    This is the difference between democratic citizen journalism — where ordinary people use technology to report actual things happening to the world — and the echo chamber of the chattering blogosphere, where no new information gets generated, only ideas that get more hackneyed with each pingback.

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