Republicans offended by the faces of Soldiers?

Soldier Williams, University and Pascal, St. Paul. Photograph by Suzanne Opton.

Photographer Suzanne Opton and Curater Susan Reynolds are collaborators on a project that invloves putting photographs of soldiers on billboards and displaying them in various places around the country. They were due to be on display on five billboards in Minneapolis for about a month beginning on Monday, coinciding with the Republican Convention.

The contract however has been cancelled, with a Jodi Senese, executive vice-president of marketing for CBS Outdoor, the company who owns the advertising space saying:

"We understand that 'Soldier' represents a political art project, and that the individuals depicted are actual soldiers," "Out of context [neither in a museum setting or website] the images, as stand-alone highway or city billboards, appear to be deceased soldiers. The presentation in this manner could be perceived as being disrespectful to the men and women in our armed forces."

Suzanne Opton replied that;

"They don't look dead,"

"It's like you see someone opposite of you with their head on the pillow. We see our lovers and our children in that pose. They look like the heads of fallen statues, and they afford the viewer an intimate look at the face of the young person whose life is at risk, and that was the point.

"When you see soldiers on the news you have no idea who they are. They're representing the United States and they have all that gear on. I wanted to get past all that".

I personally can see how the photographs may appear to reference the image of a deceased person lying on a slab in morgue, but the faces - though largely expressionless - appear full of vitality and certainly do not look dead to me. Only the The colours in each soldiers face may also be part of the problem. It brings to mind the criticism that was once levelled against the Impressionist painters at the end of the 19th Century. These artists chose to add vivid greens, yellows, purples blues and reds to their pallete when rendering skin tones. This brought accusations that the people in their paintings appeared corpse like. In fact, if you look closely at a persons skin, it is abound with colours from across the spectrum, even when that person is very much alive and a long way from becoming a bloated decomposed corpse.

The decision to cancel the display of these images is basically censorship and the timing means that political motivation cannot be discounted. Jodi Sense claims that the decision was based upon how the billboard sized images might be perceived by a passing motorist and not by the intentions of either Opton or Reynolds - somthing discussed here.

Billboard, I-690 Syracuse, April-May 2006
~ Photograph © Xie Jiankun.

This at least is consistant with the idea that advertising and propaganda is supposed to tell people how to think and what to do. However, these photographs are not claiming any specific agenda. There is no specific message attached to these images and as a result the viewer should be left to make up their own mind about what these images represent.

This decision has already been taken by CBS, who seem to be under the assumption that the image of a soldier that may have some connotation to that of a dead soldier is one that will cause offense. A rather presumptive and vague assumption and one which in my mind shows a greater lack of respect for the soldiers photographed for this project and for the armed forces in general than that which Opton and Reynolds are accused of.

These photographs and the manner in which they are displayed are most definitely political. That much is obvious. In a country where free speech is protected by law, it seems that sometimes you can't even pay to get your voice heard.

For full reporting of this story check out the Guardian and the Minnesota Independent.

See the project itself here.

National Geographic

National Geographic is one of those institutions that has both it's defenders and it's detractors. Some of the world's greatest photographs have been published in it's pages and yet I often hear the name used as a derogatory term for a photographic style.

In part, I guess it's true that the photography perpetrates a kind of exoticism for places and people that panders to a kind of colonial outlook as in 'Oh look at the natives!'. Honestly though, I think this is a misplaced criticism and it is one of the publications I always find fascinating.

I happen to be spending too much time on the internet and at my computer at the moment and while doing some reseach I see this picture and I just stop.

It is images like this that remind me just how amazing this planet is. I hope I don't have to explain why.

Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic Image Collection

Thomas Annan - The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow

My Grandma is from Glasgow, though she hasn't lived there for 60 years or so. I have many many cousins there who I haven't seen for years and one day I'll go there and track some of them down.

So when I came across these photos by Thomas Annan I feel like I am looking into images of my own family history. I wonder if he ever photographed a distant ancestor of mine, or if any of the people here were aquainted with someone in my family. I will probably never know, but these photographs resonate with me for all these reasons and more.

I may of course be romanticising...

The series was created between 1868 and 1871 as part of a commission from the City of Glasgow Improvements Trust, a full 20 years before Jacob Riis did the same in New York City with his famous publication - How The Other Half Lives.

More on this series can be found on the University of Glasgow's website here.

Photographing the Olympics

Check out the coverage of the Olympics by Vincent Laforet, on his blog, and on Newsweek's blog.

If you are interested in what equipment he took with him (and I know you are) then check out his step by step packing and preparation here. I'm gonna show it to my wife so she doesn't complain when I pack a comparatively lean three or four cameras for our trip to South Korea later this year.

Koudelka, Ethics, Invasions and editing.

Czechoslovakia, August 1968. Koudelka positioned a passerby to show the exact time that Soviet troops invaded Prague. Photograph: Josef Koudelka/Magnum

The photograph above breaks an oft broken rule of photojournalism - and brings up the ethical problems inherent in posing photographs of 'news' events. However, I'll bypass that argument for now and direct you to this interview with Josef Koudelka on the guardian website.

This image seems somehow appropriate given the recent events in Georgia. Like this photograph, time has been frozen. People fight wars over territory today just as they did 40 years ago, and 400 years ago, and even 4000 years ago. Things haven't changed much, despite President Bush's ridiculously hypocritical assessment that in the 21st Century the invasion of a Sovereign Nation is unacceptable.

But back to the interview. There is no doubt that Koudelka has taken some of the most compelling photographs in the history of the discipline and two quotes stood out for me, for different reasons. The first is regarding the editing of around 5000 photographs Koudelka took during his week in Prague, 1968. The original edit numbered 10 photographs. It is only with the release of this book 40 years later that some of the others have been made public.

'Originally, I did not want to make the book or the exhibition,' he says. 'I knew already I had selected the 10 best. And, to be truthful, when I was working on this book, I did not discover one that I would have added to these 10. They are the ones that have a universal value. In them it is not so important who is Russian and who is Czech. It is more important that one man has a gun and one man has not.'

The second makes me wonder what kind of man he really is.

When pressed, Koudelka talks with pride about his children, but one detects regret too. 'Listen,' he says, when we meet the following day over a beer, and I broach the subject of family and commitment, 'I am not a family man and I can never be a family man. But I am very happy, I have children and I hope that they are happy that they exist. From the beginning I make certain rules with my children and one is that I can't be with them all the time. I tell them that when I am with them, I am for them, and when I am not there, it is best they should try to forget that I exist.'

At least he's honest. Which is more than can be said for those directing the tanks, both then and now.


II AMERIKA is a group exhibition featuring 24 photographers and will be on show at the ICP education gallery from September the 6th to October the 12th. The opening reception will be on September the 12th from 7-9pm. More information closer to the date and I hope to see you there!


One of the hardest things to reconcile as a photographer interested in using photography to explore and enhance people’s lives is how exactly to do this without being exploitative. When I started working with the ICP community programs, teaching photography to teenagers and young kids it was partly because in my own life, photography had provided me with a direction, a reason to explore and ask questions and a desire to seek answers. Photography had become the pivot around which my interest in everything else spun and had helped me focus on what I wanted to do with my life. Of course, I was in the privileged position of being able to make that choice, though it has taken me many years of hard work to get started on the path to where I want to be. I thought that if I could take what photography has done for me and pass on some of that to a younger generation then it would help them on their own path, as it has helped me.

I used to think that it was ok to turn up somewhere, take some photographs and get them published. That it would be enough to tell a story in the hope that someone, somewhere might see it and do something about it and to a certain extent I still believe this is the core of a journalist’s role. However, we are human beings before we are reporters, artists, documentarians or whatever and we should be doing more than that. Thankfully, many people do just that. People work with organizations, charities, governments and NGO’s. There are many journalists and photographers who will help those they are photographing on a personal level and not just point a camera in their face, take a snapshot and disappear.

I believe that more and more this is the way a journalist should behave. As a photographer, as an artist, it is important to engage with the world around you. To make an effort to work with the community and not just become part of the pack engaged in what has been labeled as ‘disaster tourism’.

There are things in this world which concern me greatly but one of the reasons I don’t hop on a plane to the latest war zone or disaster area is that I am not sure I'd feel like I was helping much. Don’t get me wrong, I have utmost respect for those who do go to the most stricken areas around the world at a moments notice and show us what is happening there and I know for a fact that many of them often struggle with the notion that they can only stay for the briefest of periods and that when they leave, others stay. I know of correspondents who have returned again and again to places, who have made lifelong commitments and are fully engaged with the work they do.

The question as always is what do I do and how? Is this really making a difference to anybody. Over at the excellent blog by Jim Johnson – (Notes On) Politics, Theory & Photography – I came across the work of Photographer JR and in particular the project Women Are Heroes.

He has focused on women who are leading difficult lives by virtue of their surroundings, dealing with war, disaster and crime as a constant neighbor. Looking at this project brought up some of the above issues – how involved is JR with the communities and vice versa. To what extent is this work actually helping the women he photographs for the project. The website for Women Are Heroes includes the portraits he has done, video footage of the process, and some contextual photography of the places where he is working.

Sierra Leone


I love the project’s concept. I think the portraits are excellent and I think the way he has chosen to display the work is very powerful, but I wish there was more information on the women involved. There is only a short video in which a woman describes being attacked by men. This is not enough. More detail on the plight of these women is needed to put the project in its proper context.

The other thing that is missing is the result and the effect of this work. What happens after these portraits have been displayed in the community? What happens to the women?

In all fairness, this last point is a claim that could be leveled at almost all photographic projects carried out, but isn’t that the crux of the issue?

When I was a student I attended a lecture by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. They had some very interesting things to say about the role of photography as documentary in today’s world but one thing really stuck with me. They said that the projects they do are always ‘Unresolved’.

This is always a struggle for me. When I lived in London I photographed the lives of my friends and the culture we were engaged in. I photographed the nightlife and club scene in England simply because it was my life. I knew it and was part of it. It is one of the hardest things in the world to step out of your own life, to enter into someone else’s and record it faithfully. There are many ways people have done this but often the result is – as Broomberg and Chanarin so accurately pinpointed – unresolved.

Young Americans

Pat Dollard is a self styled Hollywood pimp who quit his high paying job and began to make a documentary about soldiers in Iraq entitled 'Young Americans'.

I cannot agree with his politics and on reading his blog I found much of the content objectionable. He seems to be pandering to the worst kind of short sighted ultra-conservative, gung ho, 'USA Number 1!' audience, especially if some of the comments by readers of his posts are anything to go by.


I found the footage he has shot in Iraq compelling and deserving of attention. Whether you agree with the angle he takes or not, it is well worth a look.

Press Freedom

With the crackdown on press freedom in the UK and the US, is it any wonder that Chinese police feel justified in their actions toward the foreign media attempting to cover daily news during the Olympics?

Guardian photographer Dan Chung stops police from grabbing his camera while attempting to photograph a 'Free Tibet' protest.

Photograph: David Bebber/The Times

Day by Day.

For many reasons, the demands on my time have taken me away from blogging recently. Probably no bad thing. I have a backlog of things to write about. In the meantime, I did come across this article on Jamie Livingston in amongst the coverage of the Olympics and the warring between Georgia and Russia.

His photographs are one of many 'photo-a-day' projects out there, but his story has a twist and the photographs are worth more than a cursory glance.

Polaroids still retain their object-aura to this day. Imagine if someone said to you "I'm going to take a digital photograph every day of my life." You'd probably reply "Yeah? So What?" If, that is you bothered to reply at all...

...y'know, for fun.

One thing I love about the teaching I get to do is the absolute joy that kids and teenagers have for photography. The spontaneous snapping of stuff they find interesting without all the complications of being an over-educated college graduate with a folder full of notes on art theory, a head full of jaded assumptions and the pressure to please clients and earn money. I love photography, and sometimes I forget how much fun it is. Luckily my students, my nieces and my friend's children are there to remind me (adults often do this too of course, but most of the time they are far too serious).

Here are some pictures by kids from a Guardian competition.

This is Patty. I like to help my dad (who is an animal behaviourist) with his work. She is great in our house but outside she wants to chase cats and attack sheep. I have attached a horse lead to a goal post that stops her from running off.

Photograph: Max Sands,
12, Lancashire