Category Archive: projects
A few months ago, at a Belgrade photo night called Periskop, I saw Marija Janković present one of her new projects about her time as a patient at a Serbian maternity hospital, which she calls GAK. The first time I saw this work, with Serbian text, I could only really react to the photographs and the audience around me, who were often left gasping. After the event she told me the project would soon be available on her new website with English captions. I found the quotes she paired with the scenes she had photographed to be extremely compelling. They added a fascinating depth to the reportage and made me think of a slew of questions about the project and the hospitals themselves. Janković has generously agreed to publish the complete series GAK here on dvafoto and to answer some questions about her wide-ranging projects.
I’ve long admired Janković’s approach to her work and the novel ways of framing some very serious topics in Serbian history. I’ve known Janković for a few years but we had not had the chance to have an in-depth conversation about her work and what she was accomplishing. It is my pleasure to present this interview with Marija where she elaborates on GAK and some of the other projects she has completed in her career. Visit her website www.marijajankovic.com for these and many more projects.
dvafoto: Where are you from and what is your background? How did you come to be a photographer?
Marija Janković: I grew up in Sombor, a small baroque, multiethnic town in [the Serbian province of] Vojvodina. Before the WWII, four large ethnic groups lived together in this quiet little town. Now there are two, plus the minorities. My father was from Kosovo and this mix was important for my future work.
Visual art is pretty much all I ever wanted to do in my life. I went to a design school, than I studied painting. I quietly painted still-life until the day in 1999 when the bombings of Serbia started [ed: the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia]. It was the first time I experienced fear for my life. The involvement of the media was shocking to me. I thought that the news was supposed to follow the events, not to create them. On one side there was the Milosevic’s manipulated news, on another, the Western manipulated news. From that moment, there was two ways: close your eyes or get involved. I chose the second. I wanted to understand how the media machine looked like from inside. And I also got my first decent camera, so when I had to make my living, working in the newspapers was the solution. And I loved it, at least at the beginning…
Some of the work on your work on your new website is classic reportage, and other projects are very conceptual, featuring dioramas and models. Do you work on both of these sorts of projects simultaneously? Or do they represent different periods of your career?
If there were only two… hahaha. It’s a parallel work, sometimes more conceptual, sometimes more photojournalistic. Sometimes conceptual becomes documentary, and reportage artistic. I had, for years, worked in the press in a more traditional way (and I still do). I noticed that there are some patterns on how to make a good picture for publishing. Once I learned how to do it, I got bored. To me it was more interesting to do things differently. Unfortunately, at least here in Serbia, there is little space for that. But if I am touched by something I’ll do it, published or not. And then I decide about the approach. Not being under pressure of publishing gives you a beautiful freedom. But it also means that you will work on some other creepy, non-creative photo job to support yourself.
What do you see as the difference between these two ways of working, and why do you choose one approach over the other? How did you first come to make set-up scenes for your pictures?
When stock photography became hysterically popular I thought to join the crowd. In my shopping basket for the set I just dropped the bag of cheap plastic soldiers; it was a strong symbol to me. Back in the studio I made a salad spiced with figurines and I was suddenly in the war zone. [ed: see Janković's War Story]. Pictures from the front line followed me from childhood and in 1999 I made collages with pictures I found in newspapers from the war zones around the world. I got a wish to make my war material but I was aware that, despite my wish, I will have little opportunity to go and cover one. So I created my own. That way I could be critical about whatever I wanted. As I said: freedom.
From the series “Bor” by Marija Janković
Did you feel there were limitations in the traditional reportage you practiced before? Are there freedoms that you are able to explore with these studio photographs? Do you consider them documentary? Either if so or if not, is that label important to you?
Two of my stories (Staro Sajmište and GAK) would be impossible to make as a classical reportage but they are based on true stories. Sajmište happened 60 years ago and many people photographed the actual place, or wrote historical essays or books. For me it was important to show the feelings of the victims and not only the political background. This is how I chose testimonies of survivors, to give them a second life. During the process of making every picture, besides double-checking facts, I had to ask to myself “Who am I in this story? Am I a victim, a reporter, a German soldier or a simple citizen?” As a matter of fact, there are only few original pictures from the time of the camp and none from the period when it was the “Judenlager”. But we are aware that the Germans made pictures and movies. In the way I tried to make the missing pictures. Later I found only one single picture of the “Semlin Judenlager” in the archives of the Novi Sad museum.
Also GAK wouldn’t have been possible as a classical reportage. No woman would tell these things with a camera or a microphone pointed at them. Because I was a patient, without camera, in the intimate atmosphere, women shared to each other their life stories. Gynecological hospital is like a micro extract of our society.
Now we see all the fantastic work from photographers reporting from Kiev. I must admit that I would like to be there, I love the adrenalin of the protests and teargas. I did cover protests in Serbia, but we all know how classic photojournalism can also be manipulative.
Labeling… I couldn’t care less. If somebody needs labels they have all the freedom to attach some to my work but I don’t start my project by giving them this kind of definition. I begin with the problem.
Your work takes on some very complicated and occasionally sensitive topics, such as concentration camps, the destruction of a mining town and loss of the German community in Vojvodina. What motivates you to photograph these stories?
In Serbian society many historical topics are either forbidden or rewritten and people tend to go with the mainstream flow. Nobody ever told me what happened with the Germans after WWII. First, it was dangerous to speak. Then people forgot that thousands of German women and children were kept prisoners by the Partisans in camps in ghost villages in Vojvodina. Thousands died from hunger, cold and diseases. That story was challenging. Many of these German men, husbands and fathers, committed crimes, but we tend to generalize. Women and children were not guilty. It can sound naïve, but I’m often driven by the simple feeling of “justice for everyone”. Some of this motivation comes from the feeling of guilt for the crimes that the Serbs committed, against the will of many Serbian citizens.
Across the body of your work I feel there is a very thoughtful and determined confrontation with certain areas of Serbia’s history that I don’t see many other artists or photographers tackling. Do you in any way see all of the series you’ve published as part of a single, larger narrative? And why do you focus on Serbian stories rather than regional or global issues?
I don’t see Serbia as a very happy or healthy place. It’s country with a constant problem of finding its place and direction. For example, you can’t be a patriot and in the same time say that your people committed crimes. I think opposite: first as a citizen, and then as a photographer. But no matter how much I’m stressed about many things in Serbia, it’s my country and my people and I wish them well. I would like that the Serbs know their history better and that Serbian women (and all other women in the world, for that matter) have better conditions, more human rights, more jobs and better work conditions. I traveled around the region and in Europe and made some good pictures, but there are still a lot of topics to be covered in Serbia. I’m sure that the female stories are similar in the whole world but I think we should start with what we know the best. And experiment.
Are there other artists, from Belgrade or the region, that you look to for inspiration or camaraderie?
Ten years ago I was more inspired by my colleagues work than nowadays. Many of them are good friends and I love to see their work, but at this point I have the feeling that I walk alone. Working with dolls is not my invention. Dolls are a universal symbol and inspiration to many artists. There is always something traumatic about these replicas of humans. However my recent work is more appreciated by my colleagues abroad. I don’t inspire myself just with photographs. Books, fine art, music, daily life and news, global news… All this make us who we are.
I see your latest series GAK and your photograph “Original and 52 notarized photocopies, 2012″ as a direct and logical continuation of the investigations that you completed in your earlier work. But it is much more personal. How has your work lead up to these projects? Do you feel better prepared now to document your own life and the people around you?
In the past few years I went through some difficult personal times. It’s not accepted today to complain, or to be weak. We should be up to every mission all the time, but we witness many complications due to unresolved personal problems. Domestic crime is very common in Serbia. I love the stories that nobody else talks about. I did it in my name and the name of other troubled women. Putting yourself out there is much more difficult than photographing hooligans (this is my artistic side). “Original and 52 notarized photocopies” was very popular in the Serbian media; it became a symbol of bureaucracy. It’s my baby on the picture and my documents, but the problem is universal, and concerns the whole region. During pregnancy, instead of working, I had to spend time collecting useless documents. If I had found that story and those documents somewhere else I would have used it. But one day I just realized that I am the story and the reporter in the same time. Hahaha.
“Original and 52 notarized photocopies” by Marija Janković
As a man – therefore not a patient – and as a foreigner who does not speak Serbian well, I cannot conceive of having any access to the stories of these women in a gynecological hospital if it was not for your reporting. The anecdotes and quotes struck me because of their very distinct and uncomfortable voice, I suppose because they are phrased in such a frank and unguarded way, overheard and not polished for quotation. This, coupled with your photographs of a dirty model of a hospital filled with ghoulish nurses, makes an interesting approach to reportage.
How did you come to conceive of this way of telling this story? Did you consider other more traditional approaches? What advantage (as I was asking above) did you see in telling the story with models and quotations? Do you see any disadvantages with presenting this story in this way?
As I mentioned above, I didn’t set out to make “GAK”. It wasn’t a situation where I made a decision and strategy, like we do for the stories. I was kept [in the hospital] in a t-shirt, with a dying mobile phone, and one notebook. During the next 5 days I was surrounded by sensitive women talking about their deepest secrets and fears. Two weeks after I found the notebook, it clicked together. I was just open to see it. Now, finding a text for this kind of work is difficult. Also, if I imagine the same text with the portraits of those women, it would be less strong. It’s like a painting of a shoe by Van Gogh; it’s much more exciting than a pair of real shoes.
I have my “test audience”, my closest friends and colleagues and I send them the projects to get some feedback before I publish more sensitive things. Most women replied “I can donate you a story!”, and men: “I didn’t know, I feel sick, great work but I can’t look at this twice”…
From time to time we read reports about hospitals and what is noticeable is that people react more to some dodgy pictures that patients made themselves with their mobile phone. You need to be extremely upset to take things in your own hands. 99% of these women accept with resignation these conditions, saying “What can I do?”
How would you like this project to be received? Is there any advocacy present in this project, for example to challenge for better conditions at your hospital?
Once I got the same question (referring to Original and 52 notarized photocopies). My answer then was “Yes, it would be nice to see somebody change something”. Today I am more realistic. I don’t think somebody will see those pictures and say “She is right, we don’t need form 227/b. II” or “We should order nurses to be nicer to patients”. But it can always serve as a support on the level of “woman to woman”, or help in reaching a critical mass of complaints where things need to be changed. It’s a job for all of us to make some pressure.
Are you continuing to photograph your family? Does this project mark any turning point in your work?
Becoming a mother is a turning point, now all I do is photographing family. I’m less prepared to deal with heavy and dark stories, or to run towards burning buildings to get more dramatic shots. At least at this moment. On another hand, I want a better environment for my child, so I will continue to challenge this absurd but well established social structure.
Thank you Marija.
“This is it. This is your country. This is what I saw.” – David Guttenfelder
David Guttenfelder, Associated Press Chief Photographer in Asia, has made 30 trips and stayed 100 days in North Korea, one of few Western photographers with regular access to the isolated country. The AP was the first news organization to open a bureau in Pyongyang, in January 2012. Guttenfelder, an American photographer who has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize seven times and has won seven World Press Photo awards, oversees the bureau’s photography and staff.
He posts regularly on his instagram account (@dguttenfelder), including images transmitted directly from the streets of Pyongyang since he was first allowed to bring a cell phone in to the country in February 2013. Just Something magazine published a blog with 41 of his instagram images that are well worth checking out; the feeling we get with instagram and mobile photography – casual, personal, instant – is very interestingly applied in the context of the “hermit kingdom”. These are not images we’ve seen before.
Guttenfelder is in a unique position to document a country that had almost no independent photographic record for 60 years, and luckily for all of us he is doing a wonderful job and is very eloquent about what he is trying to accomplish. National Geographic, who recently sent him on assignment in North Korea, invited him to speak at a recent National Geographic Live! event, and they’ve published a video of his talk.
After earlier comparing his vision of North Korea on his first trips to the country to the movie The Truman Show he talks about his mission as “trying to interpret reality, trying to reveal what is real inside the country.”
This is one of the more inspiring videos about photography and how it can be used that I’ve seen in recent memory.
2013 was an interesting year for me, full of travel and new experiences. I was able to see a couple of stories I’ve been trying to produce for years turn into full pieces in major magazines. I was also thrilled to join Boreal Collective, where I will be collaborating with fantastic photographers and good friends of mine. We have a lot of exciting plans for 2014, and you can follow us on twitter or facebook. Another high moment from last year was exhibiting my work “Only Unity” in Belgrade, Serbia in November. It was the first complete solo exhibition of the project I’ve been working on for the last seven years.
It has been a year to take stock and think about how to present the work that I’ve completed in my time living in Serbia and start to plan what comes next.
Today, weeks late as is my tradition here on dvafoto, I present 25 of my favorite images from the last year, presented chronologically. Now I can’t wait to get started on new projects and new endeavors in 2014.
You can follow my work more regularly through my tumblr: onlyunity.tumblr.com and on instagram: @mattlutton. Here are some of the other major happenings in my life and work last year, some of which showed up in my slideshow above:
I completed a story that I’ve been looking in to for the last year about segregation in Roma communities in Slovakia, which sometimes takes the form of construction of barrier walls separating Roma communities from Slovak neighborhoods. The project was commissioned by Vice Magazine and published in April as “The New Roma Ghettos: Slovakia’s Ongoing Segregation Nightmare” alongside an incredible story written by Aaron Lake Smith. More of the project can be seen on my website.
In April I attended the first New York Photo Review organized by the New York Times and James Estrin of the NYTimes’ Lens Blog.
I spent June traveling around Croatia and Serbia for the Dutch travel magazine Columbus. It was great to get off my normal beat in the Balkans and see some beautiful sights and eat very well, especially in Central Serbia near Uvac Canyon. The photographs from Croatia are now available in my archive.
While photographing for Burn I visited Istanbul, Turkey for a friend’s birthday and promptly found myself photographing street skirmishes relating to the Taksim Square / Gezi Park protests we wrote about in mid-June. It was my first real experience with tear gas and rubber bullets, giving me a new perspective on the work all of our colleagues who work in these situations regularly. It is not easy.
In August and October I was reporting in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina for the Chronicle of Higher Education for a piece that was published as “The Science of Hatred”. My pictures and work was published alongside Tarik Samarah’s photographs from Srebrenica.
My exhibition at the ArtGet Gallery, part of the Belgrade Cultural Center, was a part of Raw Season organized by the collective Belgrade Raw, who I interviewed on dvafoto in 2009. The series of exhibitions this year included shows by very talented friends of mine, including Donald Weber (who was showing his project “Interrogations”) and Pete Brook (who exhibited ‘Seen But Not Heard’: Photos from US Juvenile Prisons.). It was tremendous fun to show them around Belgrade when they were in town for their openings.
The year concluded with an opportunity to see through another story I’ve been interested in for years, and to do it alongside my friend and fellow Belgrade foreign correspondent Andrew MacDowall. The Financial Times commissioned us to produce a audio-visual slideshow in Bosnia and Hercegovina about the unique relationship between a iron ore mine in the Republika Srpska village of Omarska and a smelter in the Federation city of Zenica. The piece which was published online as “Zenica partnership helps banish ghosts of Omarska” as part of their annual Connected Europe magazine. More images from this piece are also available on my archive.
See some of the presentations of these stories in print and pictures from my exhibition on the published work section of my website.
Thanks everyone, and see you around dvafoto this year!
Alan Chin is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for his new project Toishan, China: Another Home 8,000 Miles Away. Chin’s project will take him back to his family’s home in the Toishan region of China, an area that is undergoing rapid development since his first visit in 1989. The fundraising campaign will run until October 28th but we are happy to report that Chin has already exceeded his initial goal. Congratulations to him, but the project is still worthy of support and we hope that with further fundraising he will have more time and flexibility with the project, something every photographer would dream of.
Chin answered a few of our questions about the new work, and I also encourage you to have a look at Chin’s Kickstarter video below and his fundraising page for more information about his plans for this project.
Tell me something about the region of China that your family comes from? How many times have you visited the area?
Toishan (or Taishan in official Mandarin Pinyin romanization), is about a hundred miles from Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Two-thirds of all Overseas Chinese immigrants to the United States came from the greater Toishan area, until the 1960s. Today, Chinese-Americans hail from diverse regions in China, especially from Fujian, but for a hundred years that was Toishan.
I first visited in 1989, when I was eighteen years old. I was there again in 1997 and then many times in 2008 and 2009.
Do you still have family in Toishan that you are in contact with?
My last close relative was a great-aunt who died in 2009 after I saw her for the last time in 2008; I still have more distant cousins that live in the village.
What is the relationship between this area and Chinese-American communities, particularly in New York? Is immigration from this region still prominent?
Starting in 1965 with LBJ’s immigration reform to reunify families (as important a piece of landmark legislation as Medicare or the Civil Rights laws), the Chinese-American community expanded tremendously. And as the Cold War ended, commercial and diplomatic relations improved between China and the US. Individuals began to travel to-and-fro with much greater ease and frequency. Toishanese continue to emigrate abroad, but now are one of many Chinese clusters rather than the majority. The old part of New York’s Chinatown in Manhattan, dating from the late 19th century, was originally Toishanese and remains predominantly Cantonese. (Toishan is part of Guangdong, the Cantonese province.)
Are you going to be documenting Toishanese communities from both countries with your book?
Yes, but the emphasis is on China, on where we come from.
How do you plan to use your family’s photographs in this project? What are some of your favorite photographs in this collection that will help tell the story?
I will use some of my family photographs to track our specific history, which is typical of so many families. The oldest photograph we have is of my great-uncle, Sing Chin, who emigrated to Cuba in 1927 and then the US in 1935. The photo is a formal studio portrait from his time in Cuba. It shows him in a tropical suit, and he was younger then than I am now. I think it will help show just how transformative the 20th century was in its global impact of revolutionary change.
My favorite photographs? That’s too hard a question to answer!
Click image above to start Chin’s video about the project
Asim Rafiqui, Aftermath Project Grant winner and the writer behind The Spinning Head, has spent much of the last year photographing in Pakistan for his Justice in Pakistan project. Rafiqui was named an Open Society Fellow by the Open Society Foundation last year to embark on this major new work. Last week he debuted the first chapter of this project “Bagram: The Other Guantanamo” with an exhibition in Islamabad, Pakistan. He will also be presenting this work in Washington DC on September 12, 2013 at The Fridge Gallery. The project features portraits and interviews with family members of the nearly 40 Pakistani men still detained at the Bagram base in Afghanistan and is presented in a highly organized and internally referenced website that links the families, prisoners and their stories.
Rafiqui has generously agreed to answer some of my questions about his new project and share some of the images here on dvafoto.
“Nearly 40 Pakistani citizens remain indefinitely imprisoned at the Bagram Prison in Afghanistan without charge or trial. Denied the right to a legal defense these men have become victims of a cruel and unjust detention system with little or no hope for a fair trial or release. Some have been behind bars for over 11 years. Periodically allowed to speak to their immediate family members via Internet telephone calls, they are denied access to the outside world. They are isolated from the law, the media, and human rights organizations.” – About The Bagram Campaign, Justice Project Pakistan.
Dvafoto: What drew you to the idea of a large new project about Pakistan?
Asim Rafiqui: I had been looking to do something in Pakistan for some time. I had also been looking to extend the work I had done in India – a work that explored colonial histories and their continuing impact on our modernity, into a new direction. With the War Against Terror tearing apart the fabric of so much of Pakistan, it was difficult to simply stay away. I had already begun work on a project on the victims of the War Against Terror in late 2011, and now, once the work in India had been completed, I realized that I had a chance to return to Pakistan and produce something new. Perhaps in the end I was most attracted to the idea of producing new stories from Pakistan, and doing so from the perspective of the individual Pakistani. This has rarely been done – we have become used to speaking of ourselves in the collective. Perhaps worse, we have become used to speaking of ourselves through borrowed narratives sold to us through the Western press and pundit who maintain an inexplicably powerful influence amongst the country’s political, bureaucratic and class elite. What that means is that there is a vast chasm between those who hold the power and the wealth in this country, and the tens of millions who hold all its burdens of existence. As Saadia Toor, author of the brilliant new book The State of Islam said:
…[the] liberal discourse reveals [a] profound dissociation from – and even a distaste of for – ordinary Pakistanis and their lives, hopes, dreams and struggles, reflected in the abandonment of mass political work. (page 199)
I see the same dissociation amongst our celebrated literati – most all of whom can only speak about the country through the prism of borrowed frameworks – the War Against Terror, globalization, Islamic radicalism and a whole host of dehumanizing, debilitating, distancing and degrading structures of thought and engagement that remove the individual Pakistan as a real subject, and replace her with victimhood, dependency, helplessness, and irrelevancy. My work in Pakistan will be built around 300 individual stories, each of which is meant to reveal the genuine struggles of the ordinary Pakistan and most importantly, provoke thought about the social and legal justice as it needs to be fought for and delivered.
How did this specific project about Justice in Pakistan come about?
It always begins with a thought, and these thoughts always emerge during the process of a reading. The idea for a project on questions of justice in Pakistan came up during the summer of 2011 when I was living in Delhi, India. I was taking time off from my field work on the Idea of India project and had set aside a month to review a number of articles and books on South Asian colonial histories that I had been meaning to read but had been forced to set aside. It was during that summer that I noticed that I had collected into a pile a number of books that focused on the law and colonial history – I had been avoiding reading these sections because I had thought them irrelevant to my current work in India. But as I came back to them and started to go through them I thought that it was a theme worth exploring and something that may be a way to do something new from Pakistan. By coincidence a close friend had introduced me to Osama Siddique – a brilliant lawyer and professor in Lahore, Pakistan, who had written some remarkable papers on the continuing impact of colonial institutions, laws and practices on modern day Pakistani court and legal methods. And I was hooked. It took me a few months to work out the details and transform what were purely academic questions into a workable concept of a photo project. That phase I completed sitting in a small apartment in Queens, New York in early 2012.
What is your partnership with Justice Project Pakistan?
There is no formal partnership as such. I am a Soros Fellow this year, and JPP is an OSI supported legal chamber. I was introduced to Sarah Belal, the director of JPP, when I arrived in Pakistan to start my justice project work. We both quickly realized that we share a deep commitment to the same questions of the rights of Pakistani citizens, and the objective of the law. What has emerged is a collaboration between two liked-minded individuals, both deeply naive and idealistic, but equally committed to speaking out on behalf of some of the most dehumanized, degraded and marginalized members of our society. Sarah was well aware of my ongoing work on the human cost of the American/Pakistani War Against Terror practices in the country that were / are tearing apart the lives of tens of thousands. And she approached me to see if I would be interested in doing something on the question of the Pakistani prisoners in Bagram. She and her team had already been working on a report about the situation of the Bagram prisoners, and I suggested that we broaden the focus on the work to include the lives and struggles of their families as well. We were soon able to transform a lunch conversation into a pilot project, and pitch the idea to funders, who, upon seeing the pilot website, were soon backing our work with the necessary funds. Our recently launched website (www.jpp.org.pk/bagram), and released report, and the various events and exhibitions we are holding in Pakistan, USA and the UK, are all a culmination of earliest discussions where we felt that we could do something new and more powerful by working together.
How long have you been photographing in Pakistan?
For this project I have been photographing since October 2012. However, I have been working in Pakistan since 2002 and have produced a lot of work from the country. I don’t live here, and in fact have not lived here since 1984. But I do keep coming back and can find my way around. In fact, Pakistan was the first country I travelled to when I decided to become a photographer. The current justice project work will keep me engaged here for at least another 2 years, though I am also in the midst of working on a draft of my India book, and starting work on a new project in the Middle East.
Where have you been traveling to work on these pictures?
There is really no specific travel agenda. I am going wherever I can find the stories. I am looking for individuals. So in many ways the physical and geographical dimensions are not so important this time. This is in sharp contrast to my work in India which was all about geography, sites, locations, and regions.
So far my work has taken me to the main urban centers – Pakistan as a very high rate of urbanization so this is not so unusual. The recent work trying to locate the families of the men in Bagram of course took me out into remote settlements along the Afghanistan – Baluchistan border regions, and deep into the slums of Karachi. But I also met some of them in legal offices, as for example when I was working with the victims of drone attacks. As I said, I am trying to find certain kinds of stories, and meet individuals with certain life experiences. The geography of the country becomes unimportant in some regards.
What is the process of identifying the prisoners and their families, and getting access to them?
We began with the court files, and those that had decided to join the various litigation that JPP had filed on behalf of the families of the men imprisoned in Bagram. These were the families that were easiest to reach. When I say easiest I meant that they had at least had left a mobile phone number at the office. That is how I began. Read on »
Valentino Bellini wrote to us recently to share his new project BIT ROT, about the troubling issue of electronic waste worldwide that results from “rampant consumerism” and products that are “designed for the dump”. We really enjoyed the photographs and the story he was revealing to us, so we asked him to answer a few questions about the project. His responses were fascinating and we are happy to share his work.
Bellini is looking for more support to continue his project, and you can donate through the BIT ROT Project’s Support page on the project’s dedicated Tumblr.
Dvafoto: Where are you from? How did you come to photograph this project?
Bellini: I became interested in photography about 4 years ago when I moved from Palermo, my hometown, to Milan, where I attended a course at the annual CFP R. Bauer (a public photography school). Immediately after I graduated I started working at the LINKE. lab which offers various services for photography including fine art printing, post production, mounting and realization of photographic exhibitions.
During the first two years of my stay in Milan, during times when I could go back down in Palermo I started working on a photographic project about the Ghanaian community of Ballarò, a neighborhood in the historic center of the city. I’ve known several young Ghanaians with whom I have a great relationship now, this was probably the main reason that push me to visit Ghana in April 2012. Once in Ghana, among other issues, I had the opportunity to visit and photograph the e-waste dump of Agbobloshie, where I discovered the terrible world regarding the trafficking and disposal of e-waste in developing countries. (Ghana is probably the African country, along with Nigeria, where the flow of electronic waste is the growing fastest).
How are you doing the research for this work? Where are you traveling to to make the photographs?
I’ve got the opportunity to work with some guys from a Ghanaian NGO that works to improve the living conditions of Ghanaian children. After our first visit we jointly launched special projects addressed at all those young boys who work in Agbobloshie e-waste dump. From that experience, from the contact with those people, I felt the need to investigate this issue and to develop the project in other countries and on different levels of investigation. Then I continued in the last months, visiting Pakistan and India.
The project is now at a very important stage. Very soon I will visit China, the country with the highest numbers for import of e-waste from abroad, and also for domestic production (China is second only to the United States for the production of electrical and electronic equipment, and of course, this also increases the amount of electronic waste produced and disposed of). The project will then continue investigating other methods of waste disposal and recycling, including more green and sustainable methods implemented by world leaders industries in developed countries in Europe and the United States (in this series there are already images produced in two facilities of companies that do this kind of work, authorized by the government and in a clearly legal way, in Tamil Nadu, India).
I will focus also on those places that represent the cathedrals of the consumerism world, the places where the “induced” need is generated, the places that are fathers of all the problems mentioned above.
Are you being supported by any grant or other funding to work on this? What is your goal for how to present this work, where will it be seen?
This project was started by a very personal experience, and is currently funded, with many difficulties, all by myself. At the moment I’m in contact with several international magazines trying to get this first part of the work published, in order to collect funds to continue the project.
In parallel with the classical editorial channels, I also launched a website dedicated to the project, through which I have implemented a funding campaign, hoping that this will help to raise funds that will enable me to move forward in production. In addition to thinking about photographic exhibitions in the international photography circuit, one of my primary goals would be to be able to bring the work with some exhibitions, in very rough shape, in the same places where the photos were taken, inside the dumps, in the districts in which the disposal takes place. It would be a way to give back the work to those who are directly protagonist, as well as to try to sensitize the communities themselves who inhabit those places, which, much to my surprise, they are often not even aware of the problems that this kind of processes can create for human health and for the environment. For this I’m working with the guys at Ghanaian NGO and with other realities that slowly I also met in other countries I have visited.
What have you learned about electronic waste and its relationship with the culture of consumers of electronic products?
Concerning the flow of electronic waste and their disposal, it is definitely a very complex phenomenon that is constantly changing and very, very quickly. It is important to emphasize that the issue of waste disposal in some countries in the developing world (see Pakistan or Ghana) has two different aspects. Employment shortage and continuous internal migration stream which can be observed for several years now, especially among the younger population ranges, from rural areas to urban centers, makes an occupation such as the disposal of electronic waste particularly desirable, as it ensure at least the possibility to earn a little amount money, just enough for daily survival, condition, however, still difficult to reach among the poorest segments of the population.
On the other hand, the import, though often illegal, of electrical and electronic waste from Europe and the United States, has contributed in some way to improve access to certain types of technologies by those same poor people. In Pakistan, for instance, until a decade ago, for the vast majority of the population was almost impossible to buy even a television, let alone a computer. In this sense this illegal flow, it is always good to remember, gave to some people a new access to different forms of culture (like internet) that were not remotely conceivable a few years ago. The production of electronic waste today is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) estimated that in the coming years could grow up to 500%, especially in those countries where the domestic electronics industry (countries like China or India) is experiencing a period of exponential growth.
What is sure is that this issue is caused by a system. The Western system (whose differences with other cultures such as those of Asian or African countries are decreasing) increasingly is dominated by rampant consumerism. A system in which the value is not intrinsic in the object we buy, as in the possibility of being able to display it. This is also reflected in the project guidelines adopted by production houses of electrical and electronic components. The term “designed for the dump” expresses this concept very well. Producers prefer to build products that will have a short life and will be difficult to repair, so as to impose on consumers a continuous supply of these tools, producing huge amounts of waste that regularly end up on the other side of the globe illegally, and which is disposed of in a harmful way. Probably the way to try to break down the problem is to make the producers responsible, forcing them to implement more sustainable production lines (and consider that some electronic components release harmful substances, although in small amounts, throughout their life cycle). For sure we must rethink the legislation, both locally and supranational, to preserve tools like the Basel convention, one of the few mechanisms to control the international movement of toxic waste, including from electronics. For example, these rules are continuously circumvented by exporting second-hand items to developing countries, as a way to reduce the so-called digital divide.
A big job of responsibility will also need to exist in these communities disposing of the waste, to make it clear that this work is destroying human health as well as the surrounding environment.
Serbian photographer Boogie, known for his street photography from all over the world, has been working on a series of wet-plate collodion portraits in his hometown of Belgrade over the last few years, a project that he calls “Demons”. I had the chance to see the fascinating process of making this work up close in 2011 when I was photographed in his studio’s courtyard for an earlier version of the project. This year Boogie took delivery of a new custom-made 11×14 inch wet plate camera and he is pushing forward with new portraits (and still lifes). You can see a lot of the new pictures on his website for Demons.
He recently posted a link to this great behind-the-scenes video made by Stud 7 and Sima Film in Belgrade, which reveals somewhat how his massive camera works and the complicated chemistry that goes on to make the pictures happen. A cool little video that shows off Boogie’s process. The Tom Waits soundtrack and mad scientist vibe fits him too.
I met Camille Lepage in South Sudan last September when I arrived in the capital Juba on a two-week assignment. She had already been living there for almost two months, and has been there ever since. She was a huge help in getting our story off of the ground and filling my colleague and I in on how South Sudan works, with all the necessary tips and tricks that help make things happen there. And there are a lot of tips and tricks needed.
At the time she had just finished a stint at a local newspaper, The Citizen, and was starting work as a stringer for AFP. Since I met her, she has traveled all over South Sudan and the border region and begun to produce impressive stories on her own. I wanted to feature her project “The Silent War” from South Kordofan, which was was photographed in October and November last year and published this week in Le Monde. We also wanted to ask her a few questions about what life is like as a freelance photographer in South Sudan.
Dvafoto: When did you arrive in South Sudan?
I arrived in South Sudan in July 2012, just after finishing my degree in journalism at Southampton Solent University in the UK.
What was the main story you wanted to cover when you set out?
The wars at the borders with Sudan really pushed me to come to South Sudan. They are going on in complete silence and I have always wanted to cover underreported (if reported at all) wars or humanitarian crises, so I figured going to South Sudan, which was a new nation under construction, would probably be a good way to start. On top of that, I thought it was very unfair that a one year old country was constantly referred to as doomed or failed so I wanted to see it for myself and perhaps bring some new light on it.
How has the story you’re pursuing changed?
I think I really have two main focuses. The first is the humanitarian crisis in both Blue Nile State and South Kordofan where locals are being bombed by the Sudanese government, where NGOs and journalists are forbidden. Since June 2011, it has led hundreds of thousands of people to be displaced to other countries. I didn’t think I would spend so much time and energy on this, but after having spent 3 weeks in South Kordofan last November, I know I have to go back as often as I can. I also want to make my way to Blue Nile, which is trickier and much more costly too. Also, I can only go to those places during the dry season, when roads are practicable, so from November to May. I also need to finance those trips by working for NGOs at the same time, it’s a little challenging.
The second story is on the quest for identity of South Sudan and how a country that has been at war for decades can become a united nation. I’m looking the obstacles such as lack of infrastructure, which results in the lack of health care and sparks tribalism around the country but also the way forward, like a youth which wants peace and education.
How are your pictures getting out? Where are they being published?
I started freelancing with AFP when I arrived so through them they are often published in The Guardian, Time Magazine’s Lightbbox, BBC, sometimes on the NYT Lens Blog etc. For my personal projects, I’m pitching them to pictures editors here and there, the South Kordofan story was published in Le Monde, but I’m hoping to have it published in other places soon. The other one isn’t ready at all, so I’ll wait until I feel I have some good material to pitch that too.
In general, what is life like for a photographer like you in South Sudan?
Life isn’t easy, really. Everything is very expensive here, I used to rent a tent at a hotel for 600$ a month. Now I live in a local house far from the town and without electricity, but it’s only 200$ a month. I obviously don’t have AC or a fan, so the temperature can go up to 38 degrees at night. I got used to it though, and now whenever I go to the field, which should normally be more rough, I have more comfort. I always think it’s quite amusing.
At the moment, we are only two photographers in the country so we can quite easily get assignments with NGOs and UN agencies, but I only do so to pay my bills and finance other reportages.
At first, people here are seriously reluctant to be photographed. They get very very aggressive, I even had my life threatened a few times when I wanted to photograph people. I’ve learnt how to approach them, so it’s becoming easier and easier every time. But it takes time!
Are there many other photographers there? Are they staying as long as you?
We were four only a few months ago, now we’re two only. I think just like most foreign correspondants, stringer photographers stay between one and two years. There are also some people who come over for a one week or two on assignment.
What is the benefit to staying longer?
You get a much better understanding of the place. Especially in a country like South Sudan where everything is logistically complicated, you need to know the rules, to understand the ‘un-said’, discover how to approach people, to make them trust you too. After six decades of war, the South Sudanese are very suspicious of spies, and they remain in this ‘war spirit’ when you know at any time things can go wrong if you say something they didn’t want to hear. On top of that, it’s really a fascinating place, they are so many stories to tell, and it takes time to get proper insights of it.
What is one story that you wish you could be covering in South Sudan that you so far have not been able to, due to access or due to resources?
Apart from the Blue Nile story that I previously mentioned, I’ve been meaning to go and spend some time with the Murle tribe in their cattle camp in Jonglei state. Cattle camps are huge areas where armed kids are keeping hundreds of cows (cows show the wealth of a family and often are used for securing a bride). Traditionally the Murle go and raid other camps to steal their cattle either as an initiation into adulthood or to simply increase ther ‘wealth’. They often end up in very violent fights between the tribes unfortunately. The Murle are also said to be sterile, so at the same time they steal children from other tribes; but there is very little documentation on the Murle, so I’d like to see it with my own eyes. I haven’t managed to cover it yet as the UN are forbidding journalists to go to Jonglei state because of security issues, and no NGOs are able to facilitate journalists to go there because the area is too sensitive.
What is your background in photography, where is your home?
I don’t really have any photography background. I studied print journalism, but was more than often interested in the visual part in each story. It clicked about one year ago, what I was really into was photojournalism and I decided to go for it. When I arrived in South Sudan, I introduced myself as a photojournalist, despite my very meagre portfolio at the time. I think people didn’t take me very seriously at first, but I worked hard and still do, so I think they see me a little differently now. and I’m from France!
A few years ago, I stopped talking about my work completely. I found that the process of trying to explain it to others got in the way of my own attempts to understand it myself. But this is a TED talk and I very much wanted to accept the invitation to be here. So, I’m going to show you some of the images that I’ve made and to go with them I’ve stolen some words. Some as you’ve heard from T.S. Eliot, some from James Agee, from Tom Waits, from Herman Melville and from Wim Wenders. And I’ve added a few of my own.
- Mikhael Subotzky at TEDxStellenbosch
In 2011 writer Pete Brook took his blog Prison Photography on the road. He used Kickstarter to successfully fund his trip, and produced a number of interviews with photographers, prisoners and activists, gave six lectures and visited three prisons. Last year the project grew in to the exhibition Cruel and Unusual at Nooderlicht in the Netherlands, with a newspaper-style exhibition catalogue and an upcoming Prison Photography on the Road (PPOTR) book.
After he was safely back in Portland last fall, he and I were discussing some of what he had accomplished and what he was thinking about doing next. Fortunately for us, he agreed to an interview so I can share some of his interesting insights and ideas. It has taken a while for us to find the time to put this together, but I’m excited to share some of Pete’s reflections on PPOTR and how he sees his work as a writer and curator evolving. It is especially relevant for other photographers and bloggers as they think about producing work ‘across platforms’ and offline, and what is possible when engaging and collaborating with our community at large.
dvafoto: I heard through the grapevine that you had an interesting experience right as you hit the road?
Pete Brook: I think you’re referring to my arrest. Before the trip began officially, I was in California. I’d been at a wedding, dancing and drinking in the sun all day. When the after-party began to die down, and being a gent, I offered to walk a couple of ladies home as they were across town and not staying at the hotel. Along the way, I took a piss on a palm tree (not so gentlemanly).
Thirty seconds later, two California Highway Patrol squad cars pulled up. I was pulled aside and told that urinating in public was an offense. I didn’t think a discrete piss on parkland at 5 am would land me in jail so I may not have taken the interaction as seriously as the officer expected.
I was on the road, had no permanent address, I was a bit merry, had no ID with me and was generally bemused as to why so much attention had fallen upon me. When asked if I would answer the officer’s questions, I said I didn’t feel compelled to do so. He took my wrist, turned me round, cuffed me and walked me to his patrol car.
The officer said, “We’ll do it your way. You could be in jail for days, weeks, months, even years.” A nonsense statement. He was reacting emotionally to the situation. Not good. He was also proving who had the power. I’m guessing it was late in his shift and he may not have had the patience for an inebriated me. I get that, but his solution, so to speak, was unnecessary and disproportionate.
I was in jail for 9 hours (as quick as they process anyone, I was told). Upon release, I was served with a court date and faced two misdemeanor charges of ‘Disorderly Conduct’ and ‘Willfully Resisting Arrest’. Just ludicrous. The court date was two weeks away, by which time I had scheduled to be in Ohio. I had to juggle my itinerary, bring all my Southern California appointments – that were to be in the last week of PPOTR – forward, and extend my research in the Bay Area.
Two weeks later, at the courthouse, I didn’t even see a judge. Not wanting to waste court time, the District Attorney threw the charges out. Common sense prevailed but not before I’d been inconvenienced.
The arrest nearly jeopardized PPOTR’s main prison visit, to Sing Sing in New York State.
Visitors to prisons must go through a criminal background check and mine flagged the arrest. So, now the New York Dept. of Corrections knew of the interaction, but had no details. I had to explain that no charges were brought and scramble for the paperwork to back up my claim. The workshop I did with the men in Sing Sing was a highlight of the trip and it would have been a sore loss to miss out.
I remain in the system. I am interviewed about the interaction by Customs & Immigration every time I re-enter the U.S. I’ve been told the record cannot be updated to include the info that there was no conviction; I’ll have to go through the same conversation every time I travel from overseas.
The experience was not great, but the irony could not have been greater. If I can get a copy of my mug shot it’ll be my press-photo for life!
Now that you’ve finished the fieldwork for PPOTR, co-curated an international exhibition, and printed a newspaper, do you think that Prison Photography the blog will change at all?
I’d like to say no, but it probably will. Not because of these projects but because more like them are in the pipeline. These emerging projects will take away from my time at the keyboard-helm.
Before I tell you about those new developments, I should say that PPOTR was designed to test the limits of the blog, test my stamina with the issues and test the reception of the public. In some ways, maybe I could or should have had the imagination to take on new formats earlier?
Directly out of PPOTR came the opportunity to co-curate Cruel and Unusual at Noorderlicht and that was a phenomenal privilege. Given how much I enjoyed that there’s no reason to draw back from activities outside the blog.
Cruel and Unusual travelled to the Melkweg Gallery in Amsterdam last April and then to Photoville in New York in June. This year it will show in Ireland and Australia. There’s some logistics involved in making those exhibits happen, and Noorderlicht and Photoville are greasing the wheels with that.
I initially planned to self-publish the Prison Photography photobook for the PPOTR Kickstarter backers, but Silas Finch a non-profit photobook publisher expressed interest and I decided to make it a bigger production … and print run.
We’ve signed on the dotted line and I’m writing the text for it now. The image edit will come in the summer and we hope to release it later this year. It’s wonderful to have, again, institutional support.
A couple of photographers working on the topic of prisons have expressed interest in collaborating on books and that interests me, but it has to be right for them too. That might sound silly, but how many essays would I need to do before I became the guy who writes introductions for prison photography books? Not many! It’d be good bylines for me, but not necessarily for the photographer. As a reader, I generally enjoy photobook essays that are not about the photography per se but about the larger subject and there’s many activists, advocates and academics who can write better on aspects of the prison system than I. Perhaps one or two essays will get done in time.
Furthermore, I just agreed to curate a photography show on the East Coast in January 2014. It’ll be an entirely new collection of works with a new curatorial statement.