Must see: Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis

Adam CurtisBitter Lake is a phenomenal documentary exploring the recent war in Afghanistan through the intertwining histories of the US, Britain, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, especially through their various economic, cultural, and political interests. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. You have to see it.

I believe the film is free through the BBC’s iPlayer for the rest of the year if you’re in the UK, but you can probably find parts or all of the film on youtube or other sites if you spend a few minute’s searching.

Descriptions of the film call it “an experimental documentary.” The majority of it is presented without much narration through disjointed remixing of what appears to be found footage, archival BBC footage, excerpts of farcical British films, etc. The sound design, at times, feels straight out of a David Lynch film…other times, as in the end of the trailer above, it’s a Kanye West song.

The movie requires patience, but it’s well worth the effort. I was immediately intrigued and entranced by the trailer (embedded above) and the rest of the film’s 137 minutes follow this style. There are moments of extreme violence–blood spatters the camera lens, in one memorable vignette, and there’s plenty of war footage–but then there’s an interlude of a soldier playing with a bird that lands on his helmet, footage from a Morrison-Knudsen swimming pool party, American soldiers getting manicures, and a lot of dancing. There are off-moments of politicians waiting for a broadcast to start, kids hamming it up for a camera, Afghan dogs fighting, soldiers joking about how many people they’ll kill, a desert trader emerging and disappearing into a sandstorm, and so on. Tarkovsky‘s “Solaris” is a frequent metaphor throughout.

I don’t think any description I can come up with will ever do the movie justice. It’s dreamy and beautiful and poetic, but also forceful and informative and polemic. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’d definitely consider it one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Here are a few reviews: The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and Hollywood Reporter.

Worth a look: Послание-70 – Portraits and Interviews with Russian World War II Veterans

Through a few Russian photographer friends on facebook, I ran across the fascinating project Послание-70 last week. The name translates to “Message-70″ and it’s a series of portraits and short interviews with Russian veterans of World War Two (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War). For the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, hard fought on the Eastern Front in Russia, a group of Russian photographers (mostly freelancer photojournalists) came together under the name Vasily Terkin, the hero of Alexander Tvardovsky‘s great war epic, to photograph surviving veterans of the war. When you navigate through the site, the red text next to the portraits (or gray in the gallery above) are veterans’ responses when asked to give advice to younger generations. The larger text, below each portrait, comprises some of the veterans’ recollections from the war. More than 50 photographers from 30 cities across Russia participated in the project

The website is only in Russian for now, but Google Translate does a decent job with getting the general idea across. You will need to copy and paste excerpts, though; it doesn’t seem to work when you try to translate the whole page. I’ve translated the quotes in the above gallery, so you can read the veterans’ advice to youth in the captions.

I was intrigued by the project, so I reached out to ask some of the photographers involved how this all came about. Anton Karliner, a young photojournalist based in Novosibirsk, Russia, involved in the project, answered a few questions. The interview was conducted over email and facebook in English, and I’ve made a few minor corrections to grammar in Karliner’s responses. Our conversation is below.

M. Scott Brauer: First, a bit about the project. How many photographers were involved? How were the chosen? How did you decide on the style of presentation (both photography and writing)? How did you keep it consistent across all of the photographers?

Anton Karliner:First of all, I want to highlight the fact that I’m not a “leader” or “curator” of the project. Im just one of the authors. We all have the same rights, it’s truly a collective work and this is pretty much the idea. Speaking about how it actually worked, firstly we had some kind of a “core” – a group of young photographers mostly involved in Misha Domozhilov‘s course in documentary photography at Fotodepartment.Institute, with Misha himself as well. We discussed the idea for some time and then, as it was clear, we invited reliable photographers from all possible regions of Russia. Everyone could invite. So, at the end it was more than 50 photographers from more than 30 cities (which is unique for a group photography project, I would say!). At the first phase we continued to discuss the style we want to keep, we did some sample shoots, it was a lot of discussion and then, as things were set, we just had to introduce them to newcomers. As you can see, our visual language is not very complicated, so it wasn’t a big problem.

I’ve never seen a coalition of photographers publish a project under a single name. Sometimes agencies and collectives work together, but the way this was done turns the photographers into a single author. Why?

The idea of doing some kind of “anonymous” group project came from the very beginning. And the reason is very simple – we want to give a voice to veterans, not to express our personality in pictures. When you sign the photographer’s name near to the picture, it starts to influence the viewer. So we prefer to stay under the name of the book’s hero. It may sound vain – but this is maybe a true documentary photography. We don’t want to interpret and express ourselves, we only document things and then present them to the viewers like this.

I’m a student of Russian literature, but don’t know much about the poem “Vasily Terkin.” (here’s an excerpt with English translation. The name may also be written as Vasily Terkin or a similar variation.) Is that where the name comes from? Was he a real person? Could you talk about why that name was chosen to represent the authors of this work?

Vasily Terkin is the name of the hero of the Alexander Tvardovsky (famous Soviet poet and writer) poem. Vasily Terkin wasn’t a real man, it’s an image of the Soviet soldier during WW II. Tvardovsky constructed his hero from the soldier’s types he met in the battlefields. Tvardovsky worked as a journalist during the war, and the “Vasily Terkin” poem chapters were printed weekly in military newspapers and soldiers could read it. The poem was extremely popular, also because there wasn’t a lot of ideology inside, Stalin wasn’t mentioned at all, for example. That’s how Vasily Terkin’s image – a simple, but wise and honest man, who can survive during the hardships of war time and also express his thoughts in humorous and metaphorical way became very popular in USSR. This is why we’ve chosen his name.

Screenshot of Poslanie-70.ru
Screenshot of Poslanie-70.ru

Poslanie-70 seems like a journalistic project, so it strikes me as a little strange that journalists would insert themselves into the story of war by naming themselves after a representation of heroism in the war. Is this a work of journalism or something else? How should viewers consider the work if it is presented under the name of a participant in the war (or at least a representation of the war)?

I understand your question. And yes, our project is a documentary project. But I think that it’s in a bit of a different field. We don’t try to investigate the sides of this war, who was right and who wasn’t (speaking of which, we believe that Nazism is the most terrible thing ever happened). We try to preserve the memories of those who defeated the evil. So, I don’t think that this pseudonym makes us less objective here.

In the US, where I’m from, veterans have special status in society. People are very grateful and respectful of what soldiers did for their country. Is that the same in Russia? Do ordinary Russians respect and revere WW2 veterans in a similar way?

For sure, WWII veterans (or Great Patriotic War veterans, as we call it) have a lot of respect in Russia. There are a lot of veteran organizations which do their best to make veterans’ life better. There are also many volunteers who help veterans in very different ways. Sometimes the state fails to make everything possible for them, but simple citizens do. The sad thing is that there are very few veterans left. Even some of the heroes of our project passed away already.

Were most of these veterans featured in the project drafted into the military, or did they volunteer? Does that change how they think about their military service?

Most of veterans who we took pictures of volunteered in some way. Most of them were younger than 18 years old when the war began. But there were also those who were already doing their military service before the war began [Note from MSB: Russia has had compulsory military service of some sort since imperial times). I didn’t have an impression that it changed their attitude. Many of them told us that they felt duty to protect their homeland.

I’ve seen similar projects on American veterans that pair contemporary portraits of the veterans with photos of them at the time of their service. A project like this is necessarily about their deeds in history, but you don’t show pictures of them then. Did you ask the veterans how they would prefer to be represented? That is, in a modern portrait of how they survived life and war, or if they’d prefer a portrait from their time in ww2?

We didn’t ask them for their war portraits, but that could be an interesting addition, I think. But in our project we have another goal – we want to show them now. Their wrinkles, scars and eyes tell a lot about their history as well.

This project as you have presented it is very much about the Soviet Union. You’ve taken the name of a Soviet hero, you’re exploring a very significant part of Soviet history, the uniforms are Soviet uniforms. But the Soviet history is a complicated one with both great and terrible things done under Soviet banners. I don’t know who all of the photographers involved are, but I’m sure many of them don’t even remember Soviet times. What is it like to look back and celebrate this history when current politics are so removed from the politics of that time? I guess, looking at American history, for instance, that many or most people would think (or hope) that current American politics is very closely allied with the American politics driving our participation in the war, but that might not be the case with Russians.

I see your point. But I have to say that the importance of WW2 for Russia isn’t connected with Soviet ideology only. I mean, there are some people who are very nostalgic about Stalinism, but most of the veterans say that they didn’t fight for Stalin (or for Stalin only, at least); they fought to protect their homeland and their beloved ones. The interesting thing about this period is that war united all people, independent of their political views, nationality, etc. That’s why these 4 years stay apart from the Soviet history (which, I can agree, is very double-sided). So, it’s not about Soviet ideology, I would say. And you can see that many of the veterans even don’t wear their old uniforms at the photos.

What did the veterans think about putting on their old uniforms?

Well, some of them are very proud to wear their uniforms and others don’t want to put on their medals – they say that they remind them of the terrible events of war. So, it depends.

The website for the project is wonderful. What other plans do you have for presenting the work? Book? Exhibitions?

Thanks! We plan to redesign the website, actually, we took much more portraits (about 230) and we want to add them. We also plan to make a book, for sure. Now we’re looking for possibilities. We also want to translate the site into English, hope it will happen soon. And we continue to shoot! We don’t want to stop now, there’s a lot of work to be done.


Thanks to Anton Karliner for talking about the project. Spend some time with the Послание-70, if only to look at the portraits. You should also check out Fotodepartment.ru to get a feel for current Russian photography.

RadioLab discusses photojournalism; other podcast recommendations

Radiolab is usually an interesting listen. Sometimes the sound design is a bit much and sometimes the “gee whiz” presentation of science gets tiresome, but the subjects are almost always worth the time. The most recent episode (available wherever you find podcasts, embedded above, or here) discusses a particular set of photos taken by Lynsey Addario in Afghanistan in 2009 and you should take the 30 minutes to listen.

Unlike Addario’s other recent media appearances, the discussion focuses much less on her career and life and instead considers the nature of photojournalism, what it means to those depicted in the pictures, and who gets to decide what pictures get published and seen. You can see some of the pictures from the day at the end of this Time gallery.

On the subject of podcasts, here’s a few I’ve been listening to recently that you might want to check out:

  • RadioLab was an inspiration for my work photographing China’s zoos; make sure to listen to the early episodes of the show. Seasons 1 through 4 are my favorite.
  • Everything is Stories is a new podcast focusing on individuals or events on the edge of society. Their first episode, of particular interest to our audience, looks at the lives of a cameraman who worked on the TV show Cops and a photographer who is a crime scene specialist in the American southwest.
  • Here Be Monsters is “a podcast about the unknown” and often features stories from the northwestern US, where I spent much of my life. I first listened when our friend Pete Brook was interviewed for an episode. Episode 6, Clever Hans, is a particularly good entry point, but there are many more episodes to choose from.
  • Criminal is a podcast about crime, but it’s never quite what you’d expect. I really liked their recent episode Final Exit.
  • Love + Radio tackles all sorts of subjects, and the stories are usually emotionally complicated. The episode I tell most people about is The Silver Dollar, about a black man who befriended members of the KKK. The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt is also a standout.
  • The LPV Show is Bryan Formhals‘ podcast featuring interviews with photographers. It’s a good listen and much better than you’d think a podcast of interviews with photographers would be.
  • Finish Line, produced by the Boston Globe and WBUR, is a short-form podcast that recaps the day’s events in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev. The trial is now in the penalty phase, but the podcast is still worth listening to. The two hosts spend about 10 minutes talking about what happens in the courtroom each day. It strikes me as a great way to report this trial and their podcasts always add a little bit of historical or emotional weight to what you’d see in other news reports.
  • A Life Well Wasted was a short-lived podcast about video games. I’m not an avid video game player and this podcast is what you’d think a podcast about video games would be like. There are only 7 episodes.
  • The Memory Palace is a podcast about history, usually in chunks less than 10 minutes. Again, it’s not what you’d expect from a history podcast…much more impressionistic and emotional. Check out 400,000 Stars, an episode that caught my attention recently.