dvafoto’s Book Club at the Movies, Vol. 2: “Winter’s Bone” and “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”

More than a year ago my friend John Malsbary and I began trading emails about a couple of films and some ideas that they inspired. I suppose it is a follow-up to our first post together: Dvafoto Book Club, Vol 1: The Hurt Locker. This discussion started when he told me to watch Winter’s Bone and after I saw it I started drawing a lot of connections to my fascination with the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. So I asked John to watch that documentary. This post is an edited form of the ongoing discussion John and I have been having, and jumps around quite a bit to other bits of art and society that we’re interested in. We hope you find it interesting. Watch the trailers for Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and Winter’s Bone.

Matt Lutton:

I think the most important thing that sticks out to me personally with Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (directed by Andrew Douglas, 2003), in concert with Winter’s Bone (directed by Debra Granik, 2010) is the different approaches to telling stories that I’m interested in. I could see myself working on the stories at the heart of either movie, but I don’t know how I would do that with still images.
Watching Winter’s Bone, I kept thinking .. could I do something like this? Take a very realistic story and use some fiction to be able to communicate the story better? Would it allow me to give the audience more than they could see if I shot it ’straight’ as a documentary? For instance, some of the stories I’ve heard in the Roma camps (I spent much of 2009 photographing the destruction of a Belgrade Roma community), there is no way to show all of those elements in still images made at the moment. These were things that happened in the past, things happening where I can’t photograph, or mental images described to me. It seriously makes me think about doing some work on films some day, to explore that itch to tell a more complete story than “purely” what is in front of my lens. Or maybe there is indeed a way to do that within documentary photography.

It is the same thing with Wrong-Eyed, it makes me dream about making a documentary film. What they are able to pull out of the story, with some scripting, some crew, some lighting, is different than what I would get with my still photographs if I were standing there the day before or after with the exact same idea or perspective. Likewise, their way of telling a story would probably not work at all with the stories I have done. My stories exist because I’m one guy moving quickly with one small camera, really no equipment, and just shooting what happens in front of me, no set-ups at all. That movie can not exist without those setups. It took a crew of people to set up access and equipment, to get those people (in jail, in the bar, the preacher) to say their deepest thoughts in those particular tableus. We could both get in to these places, but our way of working changes what we will get on film. And making the decision about how you physically approach a story changes what you will record.

That’s the essence of what I’m interested in this conversation: the nature and method of story telling. And how choices about a medium, given their specific limitations and advantages, can reveal new elements of the story.

Since watching the film the first time I’ve read up quite a bit more on Wrong-Eyed and have fallen deeply in to Jim White’s music (see the embedded video below for one scene of White playing some music and telling a story while driving around). If you like his tunes and want to hear him talk about the making of the film there is a great live set and interview from KEXP in 2005. There is also a nice press kit with much info about the film, found on the website of the distributer.

The White interview on KEXP gave me some interesting perspective on what they set out to achieve. In response to one of the things you raised in your reading of the film, the whiteness of it all. They say that they chose to focus specifically on the rural southern poor white perspective. And for me, that is something that I haven’t seen much real documentary of. My experience with this population is mostly just jokes about rednecks and northern snootiness. Man, I want to just go drive around the south now. I don’t think I have the balls or emotional space at the moment to actually open myself up to these experiences and go to all of these places right away though. Something I’ve realized living and working abroad: it really can be easier photographing away home. Less personal baggage that you hear off the cuff. Not knowing the nuance at first (though I am obsessed with finding it over time, this is why I am five years in to my project with barely an end in sight). You can photograph and not feel so bad not knowing word for word the details of their life story.

John Malsbary:

I have no idea why you would be afraid of these places. You are straight, white and male. People would make fun of you for being northern/west coast, but that would just be their way of trying to know you. The struggle would be to put up with the hateful shit they’d say, and keep your cool, and not judge them or fight it. Or maybe you would feel you have to fight it.

You know, I think you’ve put yourself at such a disadvantage by talking to people in a foreign country. In America I sometimes feel like narratives are a dime a dozen. Part of my job, as I’ve told you before, is just being where people are aching to be heard.  My supervisors occasionally say that people with literally no money only have their story to trade.  No one wants a hand out from me.  So I receive stories like they’re legal tender.

For me it’s a pleasurable job. But I get a kick out of incoherent pandemonium. I think the hard part for a story teller would be sewing it all into something coherent.


Rob Hornstra’s New Book: “Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land”

Institute for Artist Management’s blog just published a full view of Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen’s new book “Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land”. It is the second annual publication from their amazing Sochi Project and concerns itself with the tiny and absurd nation of Abkhazia. Hornstra of course is a favorite of ours and we’ve written about his work many times in the past (and recently posted a great video interview). But this is one of the first times I’ve gotten to really dig in to one of his books (other than briefly flipping through a copy of 101 Billionaires earlier this year) and see how it all comes together in the form that he clearly prefers. This book is a thick 272 pages with lots of interesting text and maps. It is great that there is a complete preview online, you can see and read it all, but the real book would be of course much superior to absorb their words and pictures (e.g. the recent discussion “Seeing work on a computer is not seeing it at all”)

‘Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land’ (ELPLFL) is an account of four years spent travelling through Abkhazia. Abkhazia broke away from Georgia after a short, violent civil war in ’92-’93 and was recognised as independent in 2008 by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the atoll of Nauru. Over the past four years we have seen how the country has slowly attempted to claw its way out of isolation. We visited the refugees in Georgia and described the attempts made by the Abkhazian government to repopulate the empty, war-ravaged country with new immigrants.

In ‘Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land’, we sketch a picture of Abkhazia from the perspective of many different Abkhazians, from pupil to president, in cities and in the countryside. It is the first time that the young country has been so extensively portrayed in words and images.

The book was first unveiled last week in Paris as part of Paris Photo at Offprint Paris. You can order the book for €49 (or €35 if you are a sponsor of The Sochi Project) through Hornstra’s website or via email: rob@thesochiproject.org.

Magnum / Georgia

Magnum’s Georgian Spring is an incredibly interesting project, and possibly a turning point in photojournalism and agency work. This book, print, web and ‘multimedia’ project is a collaboration with the Georgian state itself, funded by the Ministry of Culture and arranged by photographer Thomas Dworzak with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and independently curated by publisher Chris Boot.
As Scott mentioned when this project first went live, 10 Magnum photographers are involved and are a very interesting cross section of what is being done in photojournalism today. Jörg Colberg, of Conscientious and photojournalism criticism fame, agrees in his review of the book. To quote him, “So there are ten photographic voices, all from the same photojournalistic agency – how could there be a crisis in photojournalism when there is such variety? Or asked in a different way: What kind of crisis?”
Mark Power / Magnum
I see Georgian Spring as the latest in a series of interesting photographer and agency-driven productions where people are “doing it themselves” with alternative funding methods. I think of two other Magnum projects directly that I’ve always respected: Euro Visions, about the ten new EU states in 2004 in collaboration with Centre Pompidou and Magnum Off-Broadway (a project that deserves a post in itself, definitely coming soon).
Beyond being a necessary development to continue doing the work we’re out in the world to do, these agency and photographer-led projects almost invariably produce more interesting and personal work. (But maybe this is because I’m a photographer? Wonder if there is a breakdown between publication-designed and producer-designed projects with the public?).
There has been some hubbub around VII’s recent efforts (especially on the public relations front) to get ahead of new funding opportunities, such as working directly with NGOs and then maneuvering to have the work published. In an era where the number of assignments is shrinking and our archives are our pensions, finding any way to photograph important stories prior to selling them is intelligent. So likewise getting countries to pay for portrayals of themselves is an interesting idea that just brings this idea to a new level, and shows impressive lateral thinking. The multifaceted distribution is terrific too, from podcasts to an impressive book (so says Colberg, I haven’t seen it in person yet), to an exhibition and interactive website (with maps and breakdown by region in Georgia, which is nice to see). All around, from ideas to photographs to presentation, extremely well done and I think (at this early moment, juries will tell in time) a new landmark in photojournalism.
Alex Majoli / Magnum
Thomas Dworzak has a long personal history of working in Georgia, having been (or continuing to be, as the website suggests) based in Tblisi. And maybe because of his close relationship with the country, and the president, his photographs in this project are the most contentious to me. Dworzak presents a love letter to Saakashvili, which is a curious choice given the mix of other work by his colleagues and the nature of the project itself. By all means I’ll defend his right to publish what he feels like but in such a project it is so strange to see this photo-profile of the president traveling the world, wooing its leaders and his domestic successes. The video presentation is especially strange, with lighthearted music, rapid pictures of the smiling president and running tourism-board commentary by Saakashvili himself. As PDN brought up in its piece Magnum on Georgia, For Georgia a “photojournalistic” project about a State funded by that State on the surface is begging for careful scrutiny of its objectivity. There seems to be ample distance between the creative and journalistic freedom of the photographers and their curator Chris Boot from the state itself, and many of the essays and their subject matter probably would not be picked up in tourist literature by Georgia.
Also enlivening from the PDN article is this quote:

According to Dworzak, the project set off some debate within Magnum. “It’s nothing extraordinary, Magnum has done it and other agencies have done it for many other countries, it’s just usually done in a very shitty way,” Dworzak says. That the Georgian government agreed to a completely hands-off approach “made it really easy to accept,” Dworzak relates.

On the other hand, I was blown away by many of the other projects. In some sense this was a narrow assignment, to bring photographers into one country and have them all cover it in their own way, perhaps putting photographers in positions they are not suited for in an obvious time crunch (the book was published roughly a year after the conflict with Russia). But just the opposite has happened, it opened each to do what they do best and it really compounds the impression of contemporary Georgia. As I said above, this project brings together ten unique voices and gives them freedom to search out their own stories and it is a treat to see it come together. I haven’t had a chance to watch through all ten ‘Magnum in Motion’ video presentations but two really have stuck with me, perhaps for obvious reasons.
Alex Majoli / Magnum
Alex Majoli has long been an important photographer for me but his work in Georgia, both here and in the recent war, has taken my respect for him to a new level. Please have a look at his piece for this project on Magnum in Motion. From two stark black and white title cards that tie his personal experience (and relationship to music, which is dear to my heart) to his early photography and then straight to the emotions and people he was photographing in Georgia. The soundtrack, from Italian punk band CCCP, provides stark cohesion with the best of movie scores. The images are raw, beautiful and confounding.
Guergui Pinkhassov / Magnum
Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov provides a similarly personal dispatch from Georgia, with terrific commentary (I believe his words, read by another person). Most of this piece is short video clips, fitting for a man who began his career as a cinematographer and working with Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. And they are ridiculously beautiful, absolutely in Pinkhassov’s ‘style’ but in motion. Indeed some of the videos are from scenes that became final photographs for his contribution to the book, such as the one posted alongside here. It is a moving and unique vision, and I can’t recommend strongly enough seeing his work on Magnum in Motion.

And have a look at the Jonas Bendiksen video, you just might spot him having a drink with the people at the party (in another short video clip, again used nicely). Glad to see the photographers getting involved personally!
Antoine D'Agata / Magnum
Another question, which I admit not giving much thought to yet, is the new “Hollywood” film about the war tentatively titled “Georgia”. Wired’s terrific Danger Room blog riffs on an AP story in a post titled One Year Later, Hollywood Re-Fights Georgia-Russia War. What does this other project Georgia-supported project mean for this Magnum work? The film isn’t funded by Georgia it seems but it has gotten state support, and Wired is framing it as pro-Georgia. Does this paint the Magnum Georgia a different hue?

In the end, I think it is a wonderful thing to have such a portrait about a nation in an interesting point of its history, and I of course want to see more projects of this sort of subject matter as well as innovative funding strategies like this. But the final product of Georgian Spring does still leave me with some caution, particularly with Dworzak’s piece included. Maybe it is the newness of this idea, having the subject fund the project themselves, or having potential conflicts of interest so close to the surface (that’s a good thing, but still something new to deal with), but I’m a touch uneasy still. A bold approach, ingenious in many regards, and its bound to ruffle feathers, and I’m happy that it has affected me that way too. Can’t wait to see what is next, and I’m inspired to think about all of these issues anew.