Kazuma Obara’s ‘Exposure’: Photography at the borders of the medium

Essays, Writing

I have two pieces of news. Not only has photographer, editor and all round unique genius, Myriam Cawston launched Artistika Magazine, in order to bring readers explorations into skilled, sincere and beautiful art, but I have an article in it where I discuss Kazuma Obara’s project Exposure, which won the World Press Photo ‘People’ category in 2015. Excerpt below and find the whole article in the magazine; “Chance and Craft: Photographing Chernobyl’s legacy”.

Perhaps the most interesting photography is that photography which struggles at the edge of what is possible in the medium. Aritstika‘s interest in interdisciplinary forms and moments also brings us to that border between one medium and another, or where one medium fades off into something a little indefinable.

These borders must be explained. It is easy to stand on the sidelines of a discipline, calling out, usually in opaque styles, the weaknesses of the core discipline. We may not want to say that ‘clever’ works are poorer for their cleverness, but what we can say is that they command a more narrow audience: those who are in on the joke, in on the discipline, usually in an academic sense.

It is harder to play in the borders of a medium in a way that is sincere and communicative. It is this type of endeavour that leads me to Kazuma Obara’s project Exposure, something of a documentary piece, which draws on fine art and a sense of the artefact to respond to the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

As Obara told World Press Photo, upon receiving first prize in their People category in 2015, his aim with Exposure was to “help people imagine the invisible problems” that the nuclear explosion has left in its wake… Read the full article in Artistika

Swarms: Marketing and Migrants

Essays, Writing

David Cameron’s use of the word ‘swarm’ to describe the migrants desperately creating an existence at Calais has been remarked upon a lot, but it was a word which instantly set thoughts rolling for me as I have been reading Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi on that exact term.

In Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, he uses it to identify how groups of people act in hyper networked info-capitalism (1). What could be revealed by the use of the word in both cases? The more I look into it, the more both uses prove mutually revealing and the more they say about how connectivity really operates in this intensely networked society and economy. What I mean to say is, the usage of the term seems more than coincidental – it is informed by a common context even if it bubbles to the surface of discourse for very different reasons and for very different objects. That common context can be understood as the market and its role in shaping our society.

This is what I will explain with this blog post, and I hope by the end of it, I can stir some creative ideas about how we get beyond the ‘swarm’.

House keys

Work in progress, Writing

As the door closed, I noticed that I did not have my keys. The second when you realise that your plans have been fundamentally rearranged is one of suspension. It provokes a laugh. A moment of stillness before everything runs awry.

Locking myself out of my home today is nothing profound or major. I lost only a few hours. But I noticed that the moment of suspension, where the ridiculousness of your situation is revealed to you, is not much different to the same moment one experiences upon hearing life altering information. When we hear that we have lost more than just a few hours – a loved one, a dream, a home – that one split second is actually remarkably similar. Afterwards, it all rains down on us and laughter may abandon us for a long time, maybe forever.

I tend to err on the side of the absurd and I remember being in fits of giggles with my cousins as we rode to our grandfather’s funeral. Mainly because we were in a hearse. There is actually something hilarious about being in a hearse. Laughter and weeping seem to be a short flick away from one another.

I have had the privilege to often feel a strange kind of creative potential when things have gone awry. Or maybe it is a writer-photographer’s inclination towards observation at moments of heightened emotion. Being outside yourself as you experience life changing things is very elating.

In an attempt to gain access to my flat, I was on a train to pick up some keys. The Battersea development loomed to my right. What you can see there at the moment is an ultra-HD building site on a massive scale. The spokes and spikes and cranes and cords; the high vis-jackets and hard hats and fences and scaffolding; a whole mass of detail and structure. There are hundreds of glass panels, hundreds of concrete frames where balconies will be. The off-white chimneys of the old power station are set to be engulfed by a grey tide.

London is a tide itself and I am not a preservist. But those blank grey boxes seem to prophecy the empty spaces they will soon be for absent investors. Change is the nature of London, change is creative potential, but empty houses mean that someone has lost a home. Somewhere a life is going awry in a fundamental way, never to be hauled back to the promised framework.

Metaphor is knitted into the fabric of things – it’s only a matter looking at it in a certain way. As the train turns the corner towards Victoria station, a piece of graffiti reads: “It only takes a minute girl”.

For the powerful there are split second decisions that change everything. For the weak there are split second revelations that change everything. There is after all, the moment when something was possible, and the moment when it stops being possible. There is the closing of opportunity, and the asserting of one reality.  There is a liminal space within that moment in which strange things happen.

I’ve started writing about development in London because I think it needs to be visualised, and in a more simple sense, because I am starting to feel it. I am not the poorest, I am not the richest. I am very lucky, I have a good education, I have some debts. I come from a working class family that became to all effects middle class thanks to the last period of social mobility. I guess this set me up to be hyper-class-conscious (as you might call it). I’d rather say, I think empathy is everything that matters.

Now back in ‘my’ flat and with more to follow.

Taking the disposable camera backstage…


I have an ongoing love affair with disposable cameras – the cheap kind with cardboard housing. I’ve used them for years to photograph my environment and things I see when walking around, but I wanted to see what would happen when I used them in the hectic and peopled world of the backstage of a catwalk show.

London College of Fashion, BA15 Catwalk. Madeleine Corcoran.

The beauty of the disposable for me is that they are so unassuming. Most people don’t notice you are taking a photograph when you use them, and even if they see the camera, they think it looks so simple and unprofessional that it must be meaningless. This means their reactions don’t change too much.

Also, of course, I love their limits: the grain, the faded or warped colours, the blurs and blocky depth. They are everything that an Instagram filter wishes it was.

London College of Fashion, BA15 Catwalk. Madeleine Corcoran.

The joy of handing in another disposable camera for processing – usually having forgotten what is actually on the film – is a fizzing, sherbert kind of excitement. When I pick up the prints, I consume them immediately –  standing in a Boots, or on an elevator into an underground station.

But it’s mainly all about the clicking – the little plastic shutter button just going click click click – consuming the world with my eyes.

It’s my way of connecting with the joy of making a photo.

Flower Diplomacy

Essays, Writing

As part of my research into the politics of plants and flowers I attended a panel discussion on “Photography, Colonialism and the Politics of Planting” at The Mosaic Rooms.

The discussion featured interesting points on the legal frameworks which make invisible non-Western forms of relationships with the land and the political nature of the classification of plants.

Simply reciting the language we use when classifying plants, tells you much about the political potential of the systems used to order the natural world: native species, invasive species, non-native species, alien, exotic…

The symbolic weight of these words is surely due in part to our metaphorical use of systems of flora classification for systems of classifying groups of people, but I would argue that the metaphorical relationship runs both ways. Flora and fauna have come to shape our language about peoples, and our language about plants reveals our political and social stances and narratives towards peoples.

As an example, I recently heard some discussion of the fact that Aborigines were categorised as ‘flora and fauna’ in Australia until the 1967 referendum. There seems to be some debate over this, but whether it was true in some cases, or has entered the discourse through a different logic, its presence as an idea is meaningful. Indeed the non-verification of this idea, and the anxiety it seems to provoke, reveals much about the limits of colonial ways of recognising meaning (seen in the discussion on those hyperlinks).

The underlying principle is that people and land are semiotically bound together. A relationship which proves revealing and full of implied meaning when land and people are physically and politically separated.

There is much to explore here, but one point which intrigued me given my ongoing artistic interest in flowers and blossoms, came from artist Uriel Orlow’s research into plants and South Africa. It’s something he called “Flower Diplomacy.”

Through waves of boycotts towards apartheid South Africa, one object not included in the list, he pointed out, were flowers. The South African government could still send bouquets to foreign embassies, contribute flowers to international cultural events and was allowed to take part in the Chelsea Flower Show.

Flowers were deemed as ‘non-political’; benign, unimportant and without agency. Of course, the South African government used this to great effect – sending beautiful flowers across the world with labels proudly marking them as South African species. Orlow showed photographs from the South African Botanical Garden documenting the gifts and their oversized labels.

This blind spot interests me as it reveals something about the connection between international politics, the limits of colonial and patriarchal ways of envisioning meaning, and the subversive acts this framework allows for – whether we support those acts for not. It is always my deepest instinct that bodies and individual identities are replicated in group identities, are replicated in global political systems, and that any one part impacts all parts.

Here flowers are devalued and underestimated because of a misogynist reading of the state of nature: beauty equals uselessness; beauty cannot be understood as an act, only as a state and cannot sit alongside agency.

It reminds me of stories of female intelligence agents or political envoys gaining unguarded and sensitive information because powerful groups of men presume the visiting woman could not be of any importance, or even be able to remember and use information she is party to.

The deep need of patriarchal systems to align femininity with beauty, and beauty with powerlessness, creates a political situation which cannot envisage the clear political value of sending and featuring national flowers.

The body of the young girl has often been likened to the flower. It is that connection between youth, femaleness, exoticism that reveals to me the bodily message of such political systems. They cannot comprehend the subjectivity and agency of the young girl, and they write systems which make sure her subjectivity and agency cannot be recognised.

Add to this the racial and national identities that become key in the South African context: the native plants are colonised as white South African national symbols, connecting one group of people to the land over another.

These two dynamics, misogynist and racist systems of value, on the whole cohere with one another. In this case what is interesting is that their implementation becomes a contradiction in terms, exposing the untruthfulness of these systems of meaning.

If flowers mean nothing, then why send them at all? If flowers carry meaning, then why not exempt them from the boycott? Whilst governments sought to oppose South Africa, they clearly had a breakdown in non-meaning which allowed for meaning contrary to their stated political aims to occur. It is clear that in sending these bouquets, claiming native plant species was a way of claiming national and racial identity in connection to land.

Flowers became vulnerable to carrying a meaning that inflicted pain on groups of people and put them in jeopardy. Equally, by overlooking flowers, the West revealed its ongoing capacity to overlook both the vulnerability and potential agency of those bodies who feature at the bottom of a deeply embedded system of colonial and patriarchal meaning – even when it sought to make a statement against these structures.

The revealing alignment between flowers and people in terms of both the feminine and the exotic, offers a rich imaginative ground upon which to explore further connections between land, plants, and bodies. It raises the possibility that flowers as a subversive act could be used to challenge these systems from the other side. That their assumed in-agency, parallel to the assumed in-agency of the feminine and the black and the colonised, could be used to make statements – all the more powerful because of the irony of their position.

This is always the hope I seek as an artist when working within these paradigms which crush bodies, peoples and identities: That the limits of dominant forms of meaning provide us with ways to subvert and celebrate forms of meaning that recognise human agency and human value; that beauty can act.