BOOKS REVIEWED IN THIS ISSUE:
- Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay by Debi Cornwall
- MFON: Women Photographers of the Africa Diaspora co-edited by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Adama Delphine Fawundu
- Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand by Mariette Pathy Allen
- On the Frontline by Susan Meiselas
- Traces by Weronica Gęsicka
- Human Tribe by Alison Wright
Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay
by Debi Cornwall
Radius Books, 2017
Essays by Moazzam Begg and Fred Ritchin
At the United States military prison camp known as Guantánamo Bay detention camp, visiting photographers were welcomed, as long as they complied with pages of rules. No photos of faces or locks. Photographers were always accompanied by military escorts, who would sometimes move them and their cameras until something that should not be seen was out of view. During nightly reviews of memory cards, the authorities deleted any images that broke the rules, stated or unstated. The photographs that were left showed only views consistent with the prison’s mission statement: “Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent.”
Debi Cornwall, a lawyer turned photographer, found brilliant ways to evade these restrictions of “transparency.” Her book, Welcome to Camp America, sketches the outlines of what cannot be shown by juxtaposing photographs of the areas of Guantánamo that hold detainees and “Camp America,” the recreational facilities for their guards. Stools pulled up to a tropical-themed bar contrast with a chair, laden with restraints, used during the force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees. A red plywood sleigh spray-painted with “Happy Holidays” perches on the roof of a life-sized gingerbread house, reinforcing the barrenness of a metal cage in detainee housing, holding only a folded prayer rug and a spray-painted arrow pointing towards Mecca. A sign printed with a reminder to call 911 “in case of emergency” hangs poolside, below a palm tree, reminding us that the detainees have no such recourse to aid.
The book also contains text, including excerpts from court documents in which guards have described the horror of detainee conditions. The photographs offer commentary on this text, as when the description of a cover-up of abuse is accompanied by an image of cleaning supplies. A photograph of the American flag printed on a trash can is even more bitter.
Photographers visiting Guantánamo could see detainees only during tightly controlled media tours. Conditions varied, but Cornwall reports that she saw detainees only through a two-way mirror. The military escort handed out bits of tape to the photographers to cover their cameras’ focus-assist light, which might otherwise let the detainees know they were being photographed. Rather than cooperating with depicting these detainees as “the worst of the worst,” Cornwall pointed out that hundreds of the men who were detained and tortured at Guantánamo were released after military commissions determined that they had been arrested by mistake or without any supporting evidence. She travelled to visit some of these former detainees, photographing them in collaborative creation, with their permission and in places of their choosing.
Cornwall visited Guantánamo during the Obama Administration. Since President Trump took office, the words “legal” and “transparent” have been omitted from the prison’s mission statement. Photographers who wish to follow in Cornwall’s footsteps must find new ways to show Guantánamo, one that no longer maintains even the pretense of being visible.
— Erin Thompson
MFON: Women Photographers of the Africa Diaspora
Co-edited by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Adama Delphine Fawundu
Eye & I Inc., 2018
MFON: Women Photographers of the Africa Diaspora is a revolutionary anthology of work dedicated to the memory of Mmekutmfon ‘Mfon’ Essien, a young, sharp and visionary Nigerian-American photographer who passed away in 2001. It is the beginning of an initiative that includes an annual publication and the establishment of the ‘MFON Legacy Grant’ which will be awarded to emerging black women photographers of African descent. The closest black women photographers have had to this in the past thirty years is Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s 1986 Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers that documented the contributions of black female photographers in the United States. ‘MFON’ goes further and broader by encompassing women photographers of the African diaspora all around the globe and including essays written by women scholars, journalists and artists.
The result of this is an impressive record of photographers of ages ranging from 13 to 90, from Madagascar to Arkansas, Johannesburg to London, Stockholm to Chicago, working across different genres from fine art to commercial photography. It is, however, not a comprehensive survey or a complete history of black women photographers, and neither was it intended to be. Instead, it includes a cross-section of images selected to frame stories about freedom, justice, belonging and repossession of selfhood. Roaming through the over 100 photographs included in this anthology is the gaze of the black woman in diaspora, revealing what she sees, the questions she asks and the ways she imagines and reimagines the world. Many of the women in this book focus their cameras on their own bodies, families and communities, and some of the rites and rituals that come with these possessions from religion to motherhood, food, sexuality and the subject of black hair, beauty and fashion. Some look out, interrogating the boundaries of blackness and others look at celebrity figures and socio-political phenomena shaping our world today. These are essays and photographs bearing voices that are often ignored, not taken seriously, or not given the opportunity to develop and their presentation evokes links across the African continent and diaspora. This is an anthology that understands that who we are depends on how we see and are seen.
Agency, community and possibility are the currents running through this book and it pulls on this current by anchoring its focus on self-portraiture: the practice of including one’s self and history in the well of narratives, literally and symbolically. Beside the inspiring talent it showcases, this book is important because representation matters, especially when it’s one brimming with possibility; one that squarely says, especially to women photographers of the African diaspora: “you can be, be and be better.” It is “a love letter to lovers of photography, black women, women of African descent, those who show up, those who are present, lens folk,” as Laylah Barrayn says in her editor’s note.
Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand
By Mariette Pathy Allen
Essay by Eli Coleman, PhD.
Preface by Zackary Drucker
For Transcendents, her fourth book exploring the lives of gender non-conforming people, Mariette Pathy Allen turns her lens on the spirit mediums of Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand.
Allen is an artist and activist who has been documenting gender variance for decades. Her first book, Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them (E.P. Dutton) was published in 1989. Since that time, she has continued to focus on the transgender community, and brings to her work the benefit of a decades-long immersion. As such, her images are not voyeuristic, nor do they seek to be sensational. In the preface, Zackary Drucker, transgender LGBTQ activist and producer of the television series “Transparent,” notes that the power of Allen’s documentation of trans and gender nonconforming lives is in the way it quietly shows “trans folk living among their fellow country-people, fully integrated into the fabric of their communities and living openly…”
In the communities in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand that Allen photographed over the course of four trips, she captured individuals who serve as mediums to the spirit world. The two countries share a similar culture of Animist spirit worship that coexists with the predominantly Buddhist culture. Mediums are the messengers to and of the spirits—who are called upon for guidance and favors. Transgender and gender nonconforming men are increasingly stepping into the esteemed role of medium that traditionally was held by women. In so doing they find a means of expressing their gender identity while also earning the respect of their families and communities.
Burma and Thailand share a traditionally homophobic and transphobic culture. It is all the more powerful, therefore, that these individuals have found a role within the context of their cultures that allows them to flourish and to be fully integrated into their communities. Allen’s collaborator, Eli Coleman, PhD., professor and director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota, remarks on the way in which Allen’s photographs “show how the status of transgender individuals is socially constructed and more or less stigmatizing, depending on the context.”
Allen has an MFA in painting and has brought this sensibility to her photographic work: She seems to delight in layered, saturated color. Transcendents contains 75 plates, which are a mix of portraiture and documentary-style photographs of mediums mid-ceremony. These are punctuated by a handful of still lifes and landscapes that are intended to put the other images in the context of their geographic and cultural setting. The portraits have a certain formality to them; they are not intimate, but rather, are politely distant and respectful. You sense that the subjects had a hand in composing them. There are only a few photographs that capture in-between moments—a medium painting their nails on the seat of their motorcycle, applying makeup, or enjoying a glass of wie. These glimpses add another dimension to the story, and leave the viewer wanting more of them.
Taken together, the photographs of Transcendents tell a story of both the unique mystery of the mediums’ spirituality and—equally important—of the mundane and unrmarkable apects of their everyday lives as members of their communities.
On the Frontline
by Susan Meiselas
Susan Meiselas’s On the Frontline is not so much a photo book as an illustrated consideration of what photographs can and should do, framed by the career of a hugely influential photojournalist, writer, activist, curator, and educator. Some of Meiselas’s images have entered popular memory as archetypes and symbols. She has long held leadership roles among the people and institutions that link documentary practice with social justice. Meiselas’s thoughtful description and analysis of her practice is the result of some 40 years of making pictures and thinking about them, while also trying to make sense of the larger world and her responsibilities to it.
The book’s opening images show the forensic unearthing of mass graves that Meiselas documented in Kurdistan in 1991. As front matter, they resonate as metaphor for the relentless digging into the past that characterizes Meiselas’s work. Her pattern of returning over decades to a place she photographed is a way of recognizing that photographs are slippery and the story is ongoing, but it also lets her acknowledge that her past work there is now a part of multiple histories of a place that merit continuous re-consideration.
The bulk of the book is a careful blending of words and images that investigate the idea of narrative as the link between Carnival Strippers and Kurdistan, Prince Street Girls and the Dani, Nicaragua and scenes of domestic violence. Each story is told of and with the people the photographs depict, but these stories extend well beyond the frozen photographic moment to include past and future and multiple perspectives. From her earliest photojournalism to recent experiments in publication and installation, Meiselas has sought ways to help those who are often voiceless tell their stories. On the Frontline is notable because it affirms both why and how this must be done.
Everything about this book encourages us to weight words and pictures equally. The book is small and in vertical format, to be held in the hands rather than displayed on a coffee table. A third of the pages are text; her photographs, while thoughtfully chosen and sequenced, are de-emphasized by reproductions that demand less attention than the lavish prints we have come to expect in art books. Meiselas’s words are direct, open, conversational, and considered, a tribute to the interview format from which the essay is derived, and the skill, sympathy and intelligence of Mark Holborn, interviewer and editor.
I can’t think of another photographer’s memoir that so rigorously considers picture-making as a practice with intellectual, aesthetic and moral dimensions. This is an essential book for photographers, theorists, historians and others who care about pictures, not just for what they look like but for what they do.
By Weronika Gęsicka
J. & W. Ge˛sicka, M. Sokalska, 2017
64 pp. / $35.00
Somewhere along the way we collectively decided that the 1950s and 60s were the heyday of the American Dream. Despite the fact that the era was rife with racism, sexism, war, and myriad other issues, photographs of that time conjure up notions of suburban idealism: two-parent households with freshly scrubbed kids, cold glasses of milk, and warm slices of apple pie.
Traces by Weronika Gęsicka upends such rosy-colored memories, slicing them apart and rearranging them so the fragments become a Frankensteinian version of history—a monstrous reimagining of a sugar-coated past. Using stock photographs from the 1950s and 60s, Gęsicka deftly manipulates the content, reworking mundane commercial imagery of happy families and young lovers in a variety of situations—mowing the, lawn, roasting marshmallows, and sitting around the dinner table—into surreal tableaus that underscore the fear and anxiety that permeated the time.
Post-war America may have been prosperous and victorious, but the specter of WWII still loomed over the country and fear of Communism, homosexuality, desegregation and civil rights, and the war on drugs permeated the nation’s conscious. Anxiety was at the forefront of the medical and psychiatric fields, and self-medication was rampant given the accessibility of alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs (not to mention the use of illegal drugs like heroin and marijuana). However, along with these anxieties came the rise of American commercialism, which promoted ideals such as the nuclear family and the American Dream as existing in symbiosis with luxury cars and household goods. In the midst of a sea of uncertainties, the obvious antidote seemed to be spending money.
Gęsicka’s photographs dissect the relationship between ideological consumerism and societal ills. In one photograph, soda shop patrons are swallowed up by the shop’s interior, engulfed by the countertop and the interior’s wood paneling and wallpaper. In another, children run down the front sidewalk of a house toward their father’s outstretched arms, except a portion of the sidewalk is missing, indicating that they are instead running towards their deaths. The images are at once funny and haunting, the sort that make you chuckle and shake your head while sending shivers down your spine. Through her darkly playful reimagining, Gęsicka exposes the machinations of the collective desire to escape the terrifying traces of our past. Do we even know who we are or where we have come from, or are we better off pretending we are something else?
by Alison Wright
Schiffer Publishing, 2017
180 pp /$29.99
Alison Wright’s fifth photography book, Human Tribe, takes viewers through an immersive journey into the unified experience of human life around the globe. With every turn of the page, viewers are confronted with a new face from a different part of the world. Wright writes in the introduction of the book that her intention with these portraits is to reflect the complexity and beauty of humanity, while highlighting our common desires and needs as humans on earth.
Wright has a distinct documentary style, producing frames that lend each portrait a unique character. Each person shares a part of themselves. Their eyes communicate a story—some warm, some intense, some vulnerable, but each shared with intention. The colors maintain a vibrant thread throughout the book. Whether through a beaded necklace, a cigar hanging out of an older man’s mouth, or luminescent water reflecting in the background, each person’s story is amplified by the colors captured in the frame.
The author compliments her stunning portraits by positioning the photos with nuanced coordination, continuing a narrative and conversation between the subjects. On page 68 and 69, Wright positions a photo of a toddler leaning into another baby’s crib in juxtaposition with a middle-aged man and woman dancing in Buenos Aires, mirroring the posture of tango. Aligned together, these two narratives of movement explore the ways we express human energy. Page 48 and 49 show a middle-aged man posing in a straight-on portrait in Lanzhou, China opposite a young boy from Omo Valley, Ethiopia. Each gazes straight into the viewer’s eyes. While the older man wears big circular glasses made with smoothened plastic and glass frames, the young boy’s similar round glasses seem to be self-made of styrofoam and wire—both are looking through a lens to view the world. Wright’s intentional sequencing of bold colors magnifies the synchronicity and unity of human experiences.
Human Tribe furthers Alison Wright’s unique ability to reveal individual essence and offer insight into our shared human experience. She accomplishes her goal of capturing the diversity of human life and she does so with an exquisite eye.
ZEKE is published by Social Documentary Network (SDN), an organization promoting visual storytelling about global themes. Started as a website in 2008, today SDN works with thousands of photographers around the world to tell important stories through the visual medium of photography and multimedia. Since 2008, SDN has featured more than 2,800 exhibits on its website and has had gallery exhibitions in major cities around the world. All the work featured in ZEKE first appeared on the SDN website, www.socialdocumentary.net.
Spring 2018 Vol. 4/No. 1
Executive Editor: Glenn Ruga
Guest Editor: J. Sybylla Smith
Editor: Barbara Ayotte
Social Documentary Network
Founder & Director: Glenn Ruga
Communications Director: Barbara Ayotte
Special Issue Editor: Caterina Clerici
Intern: Demi Yueying Du
SDN Advisory Committee
Lori Grinker, New York, NY
Independent Photographer and Educator
Catherine Karnow, San Francisco, CA
Independent Photographer and Educator
Ed Kashi, Montclair, NJ
Member of VII photo agency
Photographer, Filmmaker, Educator
Reza, Paris, France
Photographer and Humanist
Molly Roberts, Washington, DC
Senior Photography Editor, National Geographic
Jeffrey D. Smith, New York NY
Director, Contact Press Images
Jamey Stillings, Sante Fe, NM
Steve Walker, Danbury, CT
Consultant and Educator
Frank Ward, Williamsburg, MA
Photographer and Educator
Amy Yenkin, New York, NY
Independent Producer and Editor
ZEKE is published twice a year by Social Documentary Network
Copyright © 2018
Social Documentary Network
Print ISSN 2381-1390
ZEKE does not accept unsolicited submissions. To be considered for publication in ZEKE, submit your work to the SDN website either as a standard exhibit or a submission to a Call for Entries. Contributing photographers can choose to pay a fee for their work to be exhibited on SDN for a year or they can choose a free trial. Free trials have the same opportunity to be published in ZEKE as paid exhibits.
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