The Black and White Photography of Sebastião Salgado

At the beginning of this month I attended a How To Academy online event in which Alan Riding, author, playwright and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times interviewed Sebastião Salgado, Brazilian photographer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, about his work. This was a fascinating hour on many levels.

I have attended many How to Academy events this year, and all of them have been good. This one I came across by chance, and although I had never heard of Sebastião Salgado before (and now wonder how I missed him), I was immediately struck by the power of the photograph used to advertise the event, and so decided to attend. It was time well spent.

This is the image used to advertise the event. It was taken in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein set fire to Kuwait’s oil fields. Salgado describes how at that time he was working for the New York Times. 600 oil wells were burning at the same time. One of his camera lenses melted because it was so hot and very heavy oil was raining over him, such that he had to cover his camera with his body to protect it, and constantly use kitchen roll soaked in petrol to clean both his camera and his hands, so that he could take the photos.

Salgado did not start out his working life as a photographer. He qualified as an economist and it was only when he was sent to work in Africa, and borrowed his wife’s camera for the trip, did he realise that photography would be his life. He then knew that it was humanity in distress that concerned him. He himself was a migrant, leaving Minas Gerais in Brazil, the place of his birth, and taking refuge in France during the time of the military dictatorship.

In the following years he worked for many humanitarian organisations, was committed to projects that were concerned with social justice, photographed the migration and movement of populations and covered the genocidal civil wars in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Rwandan Refugee Camp

Ultimately this led to him becoming physically and psychologically sick, when he withdrew from his work as a ‘photojournalist’ and returned to the farm he inherited from his parents in Brazil.

Here he was dismayed to find that the land was as sick as he was …

Before

…. so, with his wife Lélia Wanick Salgado, he set about replanting and restoring the natural forest, turning 17,000 acres into a nature reserve and creating the Instituto Terra. The institute is dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation and environmental education.

After

Salgado does not consider himself a social photographer, saying:

It’s limiting. Listen, I am not a social photographer. I am not an economic photographer. I’m not a photojournalist. Photography is much more than that. Photography is my life. It’s my way of life, and my language. I went to photograph the things that I had a great curiosity to see and to organize. I felt a certain revulsion, and a compulsion to show that others also have dignity, that dignity is not an exclusive property of the rich countries of the north but exists all over the planet. That’s what photography was for me, my language, my life and my way of going about and doing things. (https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/23/sebastio-salgados-journey-from-brazil-to-the-world/)

I found this talk fascinating. It included many of his amazing photographs and the stories behind them, but the reason for this post is the question that Alan Riding asked Sebastião Salgado right at the start of the interview: Why do you photograph in black and white?

Salgado explained that when he first borrowed his wife’s camera for his trip to Africa, he took photographs in colour, but then he began to find colour disturbing. He felt that a colour photograph both detracts and distracts from the subject, and from the information that he was trying to capture. I think I understand this, in the context of what he chooses to photograph. I find his photographs stunning and extremely powerful. But for me the world is full of colour. I am happy to look at black and white photographs as works of art, or as statements on our social condition, and to appreciate the contrast between black and white and the many subtle shades of grey, but I see the world in colour, and it is colour that draws my attention.

Photography and ‘Living in the Moment’

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Last weekend I walked across Morecambe Bay with two friends. This is a wonderful experience. Morecambe Bay is renowned for being one of the most dangerous areas of quicksand in the world, but the walk is guided by the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, Cedric Robinson, MBE  and there is no risk as long as you follow his lead. The walk, about 7 miles from Arnside  across to Kents Bank, took us three and a half hours and involved walking through water channels up to our thighs. We then got the train back to Arnside to pick up our cars.

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I thought the walk was magical – the light on the sands was stunning and the atmosphere was wonderful – there must have been about 100 people doing the walk. Another friend described it as having the feeling of a pilgrimage.

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I took a lot of photos, which the friend I went with did not appreciate. She told me I was being ‘a pain’ and asked me why I couldn’t just ‘live in the moment’. She’s a good friend so can say these things and get away with it 🙂

Since then I have been thinking about what ‘living in the moment’ means. At the time I believed and felt I was truly in the moment. Does taking photos to record and ‘capture’ an event necessarily equate to not living in the moment?

A search online reveals that many people have asked this question. I have often said in the past that I like to take photos as a memory aid. Some researchers believe that photography actually impairs your memory rather than aids it and that, for example, people in an art gallery who stand and look at paintings rather than photograph them, remember them better. I have lived long enough to know that this is not the case for me. I love visiting art galleries and if it is allowed I always take photos, but I also stand and look and I also spend a long time when I get back looking at my photos. I know I remember the paintings better by having taken the photograph and for me, remembering through a photograph is better than not remembering at all. Between my 40s and 50s, I scarcely took any photos at all and I now regret the conscious decision that I made at that time, believing that I didn’t need photos. I now have only vague memories of places visited and celebratory events over those years.

I do not only take photos for the purpose of remembering. I take them because I have been visually stimulated in some way, because I want to remember and capture that moment of stimulation, and because I want to share it with my partner who is a wheelchair user and sometimes cannot get to places I go to, or with my mother. My mother has dementia and my means of interacting with her is almost entirely through photographs, either current or past photos. (As an aside the other means is through singing old music hall songs. We do a lot of singing when I visit my Mum).

In the Ted Conversations archives I found this question by Charlie Friedman.

Should we live in the moment or should we stop and take a picture? – Is it worth losing part of an experience in order to remember it?

He goes on to write:

…….we can enjoy the sight of a beautiful mountain and be caught up awe in the moment, or we can enjoy a beautiful mountain and wonder how we are going to take a picture and show it to our friends. Is it worth losing part of the experience in order to better remember it in the days or years to come? Is it worth losing parts of future experiences by trying to remember those of the past? 

And then he quote Daniel Kahenman’s question:

What is more important: the experiencing self or the remembering self?

I don’t see that it has to be an either/or and why we can’t be living in the moment and take a picture of that moment.

Reflecting on my friend’s comment I think the problem was not that I wasn’t living in the moment, my moment, but that I wasn’t living in her moment. In other words, I was probably being rude by not giving her my full attention. Maybe if I want to take photographs on walks I should walk on my own. I don’t very often, for example, take photos when I am having meals with friends, so maybe I shouldn’t have my camera out on walks with friends.

But if we agree that living in the moment means …

You are characterized as “in the moment” if wherever you are, whatever you are doing, your mind and body are right there as well. No dwelling on the past, the future, or any obligations or troubles you may be encountering in your life. If you are in the moment, you are right here, right now, nowhere else.  (Source of quote: Urban Dictionary)

… then I was living in the moment on the Cross Bay walk – my moment.  Cross Bay Walk 20-09-2015

The Micro and the Macro of the EdTech World

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This year’s Association for Learning Technology Conference in Manchester, UK, focussed on Shaping the Future of Learning Together. By all accounts the conference was a great success trending on Twitter as never before.

I attended two keynotes virtually: Jonathan Worth’s keynote (I’m not sure if there was a title for this – if there was I didn’t see it) and Laura Czerniewicz who talked about Inequality in Higher Education.

I found both keynotes thought-provoking. It seemed to me that they presented micro and macro issues being faced by the Edtech world at the moment.

Jonathan’s keynote addressed issues of vulnerability, privacy and trust in open learning, at the local level of the learner. Laura took a global perspective, providing evidence for Inequality in the Higher Education landscape, particularly between the global north and the global south.

Jonathan is of course well known for his photography and Phonar MOOC so it is not surprising that he is used to looking closely at the world around him and took a local, intimate perspective of learning in a digital age. He talked about the difference between the image and the photograph and told us that there have been two major paradigm shifts in photography, the first when photography broke away from painting and became an art in its own right, and the second is happening now as the image breaks away from the photograph. Unlike a photograph, an image is not about evidence; an image is about experience. The image is an algorithm, it is what is behind the photo. Thinking about this I have wondered whether this is just a play on words and what the significance is for learning. My understanding is that all photos are images, but not all images are photos. For me the significance of thinking about this is that online we mostly see photos – not images – i.e. it’s hard to get behind what you see, which is why people still value face-to-face meetings and recognise what a difference that makes to online relationships. But to get behind the photo, to see images, we have to recognise that this can make people vulnerable. Audrey Watters has said that vulnerability is essential to the learning dynamic, but this brings with it issues of trust and the right to privacy. If we want to see more images, rather than photos, then we need to recognise the vulnerability of the subject or in the case of education, the learner. This shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been written about for decades and longer, but perhaps in recent frenetic digital times has been forgotten.

Similarly Laura’s talk about inequality on a global scale should not have come as a surprise. The surprise should be that people still need reminding. As she pointed out, inequality is literally a life and death issue, but the challenge these days is to address inequality in an austerity environment and particularly in new online landscapes. Inequality is about power, agency, ownership and choice, about the nature of relationships and who decides. Laura’s message was powerful and affective. She suggested that we need critical research, inequality-framed experimentation, policy and advocacy. We also need to shift from a broadcast culture to one of equal partnership and foster global partnerships. She said she is a researcher – she can raise the questions, but doesn’t have the answers. I suspect that the answers will rely on attention to both macro and micro views of the problem. Jonathan’s focus on vulnerability and trying to see the image clearly will inform issues of inequality and Laura’s focus on inequality will inform Jonathan’s concerns about privacy, trust and vulnerability.

Seeing the Wider Picture

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I have been following David Hockney’s work since the 1960s and this week I saw a film which wonderfully captured his work and life and brought back so many memories for me; the sort of memories that people usually associate with music. This Guardian article provides good coverage of the contents of the film and this video clip provides a flavour of the film

In such a rich life, there is much that I could comment on, but anyone who knows Hockney’s work, will know that in addition to drawing and painting he is also interested in the role of technology in his work, using the ipad for drawing, and photography and film for seeing the world differently.

Near the end of the documentary film that I went to see this week, they showed his film work in which he has simultaneously used 9 cameras to film the changing seasons of a Yorkshire landscape.

I first saw this at his exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2012. What struck me in the documentary film I have seen this week, was that Hockney said that historically paintings have sought to take our eyes inwards, into the painting, using perspective and the well known vanishing point. But in this film he suggested that perhaps, rather than looking inwards, we should be looking more broadly and outwards, to the sides, above and below, as he does with the 9 cameras.

This seemed to me to resonate with Iain McGilchrist’s work on trying to understand the relationship between the left and right hemispheres of the brain – in his book the The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

The two hemispheres have different ways of attending to the world and produce different realities (p.176). The right hemisphere is the hemisphere of broad vigilant attention, of seeing the whole picture; the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of focused attention, just seeing what it expects to see (p.163).

It struck me in watching the film that throughout his work Hockney has been trying to make us see differently; in other words, to make more use of our right brains.

I wonder what that means for writing.

Update 20-09-17

I have been contacted by Jenna at Artsy to let me know about two upcoming Hockney exhibitions and to point me to their David Hockney page which features Hockney’s bio, over 400 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Hockney exhibition listings. This is a great resource for anyone interested in Hockney’s work.

The two upcoming exhibitions are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which is scheduled to showcase David Hockney. Hockney will also be featured in the upcoming exhibition David Hockney: 82 Portraits and a Still Life at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Thank you Jenna at Artsy 🙂

Whose Flickr is it?

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Flickr – the long standing photo-sharing site of which I have been a member since 2006 – has within the last couple of weeks launched a completely new design of the site. I have surprised myself at how annoyed I have felt about this.

The new design has many critics, so I am not alone, but also many supporters, so I have had to reflect on whether I am simply an old ‘fuddy duddy’ who doesn’t like and is resistant to change – but I don’t think it’s that.

What I most strongly object to is that Flickr users have not been given any choice. I simply went to the site one day to find it looked completely different. Not only that, but that its functionality is also different.

Here are the things that don’t work for me.

  • I don’t think seeing a lot of photos packed onto one screen with scarcely any space between them does even the best of photos any favours. It’s like hanging too many paintings on a wall in an art gallery.
  • Having uploaded a set of photos to this new format, I found that I had to delete some photos that just didn’t look good next to each other and that led to the next problem. It used to be a simple one click action to delete an uploaded photo, but now it involves a number of actions. And if it doesn’t then it’s not obvious to me.
  • And then there’s the fact that my ‘Collections’ no longer show on the opening Flickr page and if I had to hunt to find out where they are, then there’s not much chance that anyone else will find or see them. My ‘Collections’ are not only the way in which I organise my photos (in my case into geographical locations), but this organization says something about me. What Flickr hasn’t seemed to recognize is that they have ‘meddled’ with my identity. Since 2006 I have developed my Flickr site to reflect not only my photos, but also what it might say about me. In one fell swoop they have interfered with that. I wonder whether the people who made these changes actually have a Flickr site of their own.
  • Finally, from my perspective they have completely misunderstood what Flickr is all about for it’s users. The new changes might be great for people searching for photos, or who are ‘observers’ of photography, but who is Flickr principally for? Apparently naively, I always thought of Flickr as my own space where I could post and organise my photos to suit my own purposes and share as I feel appropriate.

The worst thing about these changes is that they have decreased and diminished my sense of ownership over my own photos, since I no longer have a choice about how they should be displayed. I am hoping that Flickr will listen to the thousands of people who are also dismayed by these changes, and hopefully give us some choices.

Update 03-06-13

See Stephen Downes’ post about this – http://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/whats-ours.html – and the associated comments