Archive for June, 2011
The political aides and PR consultants of British prime minister David Cameron are usually very astute in arranging photo opportunities. Who could forgot the amazing footage of Cameron playing Ping Pong alongside Barack Obama at a school for children from low-income families in London. Cameron welcomed Obama in May 2011 to reinforce the transatlantic ‘special relationship’. As a result, rather than playing against each other, Cameron doubles up with Obama as they play against two school kids. Cameron might have been slightly overzealous when he high fives Obama on the odd point they scored against the kids, but in essence it was precisely the type of photo op Cameron and Obama were set out to deliver.
These photo ops are highly stage managed and orchestrated events for the assembled media. The angle of the camera, the height of the camera, the distance of the camera to the main subject, the use of artificial or ambient light and the use of personal microphones or sound booms is carefully considered in support of an ideological agenda. So it was the case on the 14th of June 2011 when David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg and the Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley visited Guy’s hospital in London. The visit coincided with the governments announcement of a recently modified and highly controversial National Health Service reform bill. The emphasis in this reformed bill, it is argued, is on patient care. In other words, the patient is on the top of the agenda.
As a result of this re-found emphasis on patient care, the photo op on that day, naturally, would involve a patient. Both Cameron and his deputy Clegg are filmed and photographed as they somewhat casually speak to a hospital patient in his bed. In line with hospital requirements to avoid the spreading of viruses, Cameron and Clegg have rolled up their sleeves and have taken off their ties. Their bright white shirts evokes the image of a doctor’s coat. Here, clearly, prime minister and his deputy briefly perform the role of doctor and head nurse deeply concerned for the well-being of their patient. The added benefit of choosing to speak to an elderly patient, as opposed to a younger person, is that the government projects an image of caring for pensioners – precisely the type of person who paid a life’s worth of taxes and who now deserves to be taken care of when ill.
Yet, precisely because the photo op is so carefully stage managed, it is also prone for accidents. To the utter surprise of everyone, a man claiming to be the most senior surgeon in charge storms into the room by shouting ‘sorry, sorry, sorry …’. By pointing at the camera crews’ long sleeves and ties, he continues: ‘Why is that we are all told to walk around like this and these people…?’ As the regulations clearly state, no long sleeves and ties are allowed in the vicinity of the patient. The man bursting into the room and shouting at TV crews is an absolute photo op and PR disaster. Cameron and Clegg’s near identical facial expression is one of disbelief and bewilderment. The patient meanwhile displays a rather nervous smile. Cameron seeks to diffuse the situation by telling the assembled members of the press: ‘Why don’t we erm, why don’t we, why don’t you disappear… I agree.. out… because we’ve all taken our ties off.’ The perturbed and bow tie wearing surgeon meanwhile (his name is Dr. David Nunn), angrily gesticulates at the TV crews and shouts ‘I’m not having it, now OUT.’ Watch the incident unfold on this Youtube clip:
Dr. David Nunn’s now infamous disruption of the photo op is noteworthy. He is, by totally defying the usual respect and professional distance associated with the photo op, disassembling the very ideological foundation of the event itself. In a matter of a few seconds, all over sudden its not Cameron and Clegg that are in charge, but David Nunn – as he points out the most ‘senior surgeon’ on the ward. Nunn effectively calls an end to the photo op by ordering the TV crews out of the ward. The bizareness of the situation is reinforced by the cameras beginning to shake as their operators head for the exit. If we compare the photo op to (political) theatre, Nunn’s intervention calls to mind the radicalism of the German playwright and director Bertholt Brecht. In his plays, Brecht invited to audience to take a critical view of the action on the stage. Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself. Similarly, David Nunn effectively highlighted the constructed nature of the photo op itself and as a result, it turns into a farce. In other words, the photo op loses its very purpose once its constructed nature is uncovered. David Nunn, apparently a brilliant hip replacement surgeon, reminds us in comical fashion how fragile the political stage can be.
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It’s an unusual looking photograph that got Anthony Weiner into trouble. It apparently depicts the congressman’s underwear bulging from an erection. On May 27 Weiner sent a link to the photo via twitter to a 21 year old woman. And so the ‘Weinergate’ scandal unfolds. It is difficult to determine Weiner’s motivation for sending the photograph to one of his ‘followers’ but, for the sake of argument, here the photograph clearly fulfills the function to communicate a message. On a primordial basis, Weiner communicates to his follower that he is a man and that his body functions as nature intends to. Yet this message is also slightly coded as the photograph is taken from an odd angle and upside down. The photograph thus becomes a type of visual game, alluding to a bodily function while not disclosing it entirely.
While Weiner initially denied sending the link to the photograph, claiming that his twitter account was hacked, the photo scandal was still unfolding. On June 6 a photograph emerges which depicts Weiner’s shirtless torso. This image too appears to have been sent to a follower on twitter. Yet it is the background of the image that I find most intriguing. While Weiner was careful not to depict his face, in the background there are several photographs that reveal his identity. In one image Weiner can be seen meeting Hilary Clinton. Other images in the background show Weiner with his wife, with his family and friends. Here, the collection of family photographs fulfills the function of communicating that Weiner wishes to be perceived as a family man, embedded in a community, with friends in high places. It is the type of image a politician nurtures for decades and then loses in seconds. ‘Exposed’ the newspaper headlines read. It is not a coincidence that ‘exposure’ is also a photographic terminology. In other words, the photograph is a crucial aspect, if not the determining factor, in the scandal itself.
The Chris Lee photo scandal unfolding only three months earlier, in February 2011, evokes some startling similarities with Weiner’s case. Both Lee and Weiner are congressmen from New York, Lee is 47, and Weiner 46 years of age, they are both married, Lee has one child, while Weiner’s wife is expecting a child at the moment. The most intriguing similarity is not however some biographical detail but in what the photographs depicts: both Lee and Weiner appear to be proud of their bodies, tensing their muscles as they photograph their shirtless torso. They are men who perhaps go to the gym on a regular basis and work out. Lee and Weiner use the photographic self-representation and performance to the camera as an opportunity to present their otherwise fully dressed bodies. In a sense, the ideological turf for the photo scandal is not necessarily in what it depicts, but the contrast it creates in comparison to the public image of the person depicted. In the construction of a photo scandal and the parallel destruction of a politician’s public image, the question as to whom the images were sent to and for what reason is crucial. Lee sent the photograph of his shirtless torso to a transsexual he met on Craigslist. Embarrassed and humiliated he resigned shortly after the scandal hit the headlines. Weiner meanwhile sent his photographs to female followers on twitter. He is, at the time of writing, still clinging on to his job.
The photographic self-representation of Lee and Weiner underlines that at all times the focus is on their own bodies. Perhaps they wish their bodies to be seen in certain ways by others (a virtual stranger, a ‘follower’, a random bystander). But I am willing to speculate that above all, the photographs are predominantly representative of how they wish to see their bodies themselves. Like Narcissus falling in love with his reflection, the photographs allude to a deeply embedded love with one’s self-image. In one of his most quoted passages, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan writes:
“The mirror stage is a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body image.”
While it is assumed that Lee’s and Weiner’s photographs are taken and distributed for sexual satisfaction supplied by others, Lacan’s formula suggests that this satisfaction can also be produced self-referentially. In other words, Lee and Weiner might photograph themselves for their own satisfaction. Similar to the mirror, the (digital) photograph is used to supply an almost immediate representation of the self. And this is perhaps the most scandalous aspect in the case of Lee and Weiner: that the photographs allude to a type of autoeroticism usually hidden away from the public. The photo scandal thus becomes representative for the immediacy of digital technologies, the instantaneity of social media but also the unrelenting allure of individuality explored via the internet.
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Regular readers of this blog will know that Japanese visual culture is a topic I often seek to explore in my posts. I have a personal attachment to Japan since I lived in Tokyo from 2003 to 2004 and until today I return about once a year to photograph and conduct research. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March this year, I want to give back to a country that has been incredible generous and hospitable to me over the years. This post then is my attempt to raise some money for the more than 100.000 people made homeless on that tragic day in March. All photographs discussed in this post are for sale as framed artworks with fifty percent of the proceeds going to Japan Platform – a local NGO based in Japan that that has established a sophisticated and cost-effective network of support on the ground for victims of the earthquake and tsunami.
In 2007 I photographed a series of photographs called ‘Floating Cities’ depicting amateur musicians practicing their instruments along the main river on the edge of Tokyo. Unlike previous bodies of work in which I search for the subjects of my photographs by sight, here I found myself searching for the sound of music as I traversed up and down Tamagawa river. The riverside musicians cannot be compared to buskers or those playing music for an audience. Rather, the riverside musicians play for themselves, wishing to improve their music, trying not to bother others while others don’t appear to bother them.
The photographs underline that, despite the lack of an audience, the musicians actions nevertheless constitute, albeit only to the camera, a performance. The performative aspect is further emphasized by several photographs being taken under or near a bridge alluding to the proscenium arch of a theatre. The title of the photographs refer to the subjects’ favorite musician suggesting that despite the riverside musicians quest for loneliness, there is a latent desire to be, perhaps one day, as famous as the person whose music they are playing.
Historically speaking, rivers have long been perceived as a place of liberty and artistic freedom in Japanese culture. The emergence of the Kabuki theatre in the Edo period (1603-1868) is inextricably linked to the rivers of the capitol. Crucially, in the summer months the dried up riverbed constituted a space that was not owned by private landowners, nor was it owned by the state. The riverbed thus represented one of the very few urban spaces that was not directly under control of the merchant or samurai class. The Kabuki, with its embrace of performed transgenderism, is deeply linked to the ‘lawlessness’ of the river. It is a similar sense of freedom that is being explored by those seemingly performing to themselves as they practice their instrument.
Another reason for the habitual venture to the riverbank is a desire to encounter the natural in the wholly unnatural surroundings of the megapolis Tokyo. The conurbation Tokyo and Yokohoma is home to more than 30 million people – about the population of Canada. In that environment, any sense of nature, solitude or peace is a highly sought after entity. While it is the music that might initially provoke a trip to the river, the trip is also, I would suggest, characterized by the desire to encounter that which is to rare in Tokyo: a glance at the horizon or basking in the sunshine. The riverbank is thus also a highly sought after location for lovers who are periodically visible or even constitute the main subject in the ‘Floating Cities’ project.
From the perspective of post-tsunami era Japan, clearly, these photographs refer to a far more innocent relationship with ‘nature’. There are no waves of liquid concrete crashing in, there is no sense of an imminent threat, the nuclear crisis was yet to unfold. It is perhaps this contrast which continously reminds me of these photographs I took four years ago.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.