British Museum on #AskACuratorDay 2012

September 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

  1. Here is a taster from this year’s Twitter event. Thank you to all the curators who gave up their time to help.
  2. One week before the event we registered the British Museum on the website for #AskACurator Day and contacted curators across the Museum to get involved:
  3. Beket_Aten
    I’ll be tweeting on behalf of #AncientEgyptandSudan at the @britishmuseum for @AskACurator Day on Weds – have your questions at the ready!
  4. Curators taking questions on the day:

    Lisa Galvin (Africa, Oceania
    and the Americas)
    Barrie Cook (Medieval and Early Modern Coins)
    Ian Leins (Iron Age & Roman Coins)
    Anna Garnett (Ancient Egypt & Sudan)
    Julia Farley (European Iron Age)
    Daniel Pett (Portable Antiquities)

  5. britishmuseum
    It’s #AskACurator day today and we have curators @britishmuseum answering your questions from 9.30. Fire away!
  6. TheHistoryPress
    The @britishmuseum are having a #AskACurator day from 9.30 this morning. Great opportunity to get behind the scenes!
  7. britishmuseum
    Anna, our future curator of Ancient Egypt, gained experience from volunteering in local and national Museums @tm_teacake #AskACurator
  8. britishmuseum
    @KirstyCaddy There are around 200 – 250 and they specialize in subjects from Contemporary Japan to Ancient board games #AskACurator
  9. britishmuseum
    .@erikajoy Lisa Galvin, curator of African collections, smiles when she sees this Tanzanian Kanga with Michael Jackson:
  10. Lauren_Findler
    @britishmuseum hi Lisa, it’s my dream to be a curator. just finished a BA and about to start my MA but what steps did you take to get there?
  11. britishmuseum
    @aliceturner Lisa says curators are always collecting. “We record life today for people tomorrow.” #AskACurator
  12. britishmuseum
    .@Lauren_Findler Do fieldwork, network, write papers and volunteer. If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life! #AskACurator
  13. Lauren_Findler
    @britishmuseum thank you! Been trying my hardest to get voluntary work but even that is so competitive #keeptrying #askacurator
  14. allarthistoryis
    Couldn’t agree more! “@britishmuseum: @Lauren_Findler Find a subject you are passionate about and study it as much as you can #AskACurator”
  15. britishmuseum
    @damonayoung All cultures have some form of art. I’m working on contemporary sculptures from Zimbabwe at the moment:
  16. HullUniHistSoc
    Its currently #AskACurator over at the @britishmuseum. So if you’ve got a question, drop them a tweet! :)
  17. britishmuseum
    Anna, curator in Ancient Egypt & Sudan says this ‘unlucky mummy’ is supposedly haunted: @HowlsOfGrace @ani_DB
  18. 27 re-tweets (highest of the day!)
  19. venart
    @britishmuseum #askacurator have you ever been tempted to play a game of chess with the lewis chessmen?
  20. britishmuseum
    @venart Curator Julia says it would have to be a big board. One large enough for the modern game would be 82cm across!
  21. British Museum
    Today the Museum is participating in #AskACurator day on Twitter, where curators at the Museum will be answering your questions until 17.30. Please direct these questions on Twitter @britishmuseum and use the hashtag #AskACurator.

  22. ClaireMadge
    At @britishmuseum today. So many different languages being spoken by visitors. How important are language skills for curators? #askacurator
  23. britishmuseum
    @ClaireMadge Very important. People come from all over the world and we need to read and sometimes write publications in other languages.
  24. trucks_here
    #askacurator @britishmuseum so will there by anything from the London Olympic games that go into the collection?
  25. britishmuseum
    .@trucks_here Barrie Cook, curator from coins and medals, has been actively collecting material relating to the Games!
  26. venart
    @britishmuseum #askacurator What makes one coin out of a countless number worthy of being displayed in the museum? Any notable examples?
  27. britishmuseum
    @venart Barrie says that some are obvious but it’s because that coin best illustrates a point, about money or about history more generally.
  28. broadbandsauce
    @britishmuseum lf A History Of The World in 100 Objects had allowed 1 more- which from your department would you pick why? #AskACuratorDay
  29. britishmuseum
    @broadbandsauce Curator Barrie says The Juxon medal – despite its name a unique gold £5 of King Charles I #askacurator
  30. AfrikanCanadian
    @britishmuseum What’s the best way to display Roman coins? (We’ve an antiquities-museum at my uni with a fair number of coins) #askacurator
  31. britishmuseum
    .@afrikancanadian We use model railway track fixing pins(!) Avoid straight lines and grid layouts as they can put people off #AskACurator
  32. museumgeek234
    @britishmuseum hi always wanted to know if the horses on iron age coins are realistic and did horses really look like that back then?
  33. britishmuseum
    @museumgeek234 Ian says the horses on Iron Age coins are highly stylised like the white horses on hillsides, like modern abstract art.
  34. JoIsisMarie
    What are some of the more mundane things your job entails and why? curator in Ancient Egypt & Sudan #AskaCuratorDay @britishmuseum
  35. britishmuseum
    @JoIsisMarie Anna from Ancient Egypt & Sudan says “Difficult to say but perhaps the constant battle to empty my inbox is rather mundane!”
  36. britishmuseum
    .@ChelleHY The Egyptian collection, particularly the Rosetta Stone, attracts thousands of tourists per year #AskACurator
  37. Beket_Aten
    RT @britishmuseum: Anna’s favourite object is the quartzite head of Amenhotep III, one of a pair outside the Egyptian sculpture gallery …
  38. venart
    @britishmuseum ahh, I use that as a marker for anyone coming to the families desk asking ‘Where’s the rosetta stone?’
  39. britishmuseum
    Thank you for all your questions, that’s all for #AskACurator day. Watch out tomorrow morning for some exciting news.
  40. As a result of the day the Museum

    - Gained 211 followers
    - Received over 300 mentions
    - Received 1060 clicks on links shared
    - 214 re-tweets
    - 34 favourites

    Thanks for participating!

Chav Culture: A demonization of the working class?

August 13, 2011 § 9 Comments

In light of all those loony looters parading the streets with their freshly gleaned carpets and plasma TVs, I thought it might be appropriate to reconsider my ethnographical investigation into the Chav-Life. Originally I wanted to defend this social caricature against their derogatory media representation. But while those seen as scum openly act like scum, I start to struggle.  As the brave African lady said; These youths need to stop runnin down footlocka and teefin shoes to show you a BADMAN. This aint about bustin up the place…GET REAL.

The term ‘Chav’ is commonly used to categorise and ridicule working-class underachievers who deserve little sympathy as they parade and perpetuate their own conditions of existence. The subcultural group today incorporates a variety of prejudices associated with working class people;  violence, laziness, teenage pregnancies, racism, drunkenness, and the rest. The derogatory caricature instantly connotes a young aggressive teenager of a white working class background, usually found acting rowdily around council estates and McDonald’s car parks in the North of England. Chavs typically settle in small groups or ‘tribes’ with their own hostile manner of communication, often appearing rude and brash.  The stereotype is attired in a matching Adidas tracksuit, fake Burberry cap, a lot of ‘bling’ and an optional orange tan.

Considering that Chav culture seems to embody a reconfiguration of the working-class, it is interesting to recognise their exaggerated display of consumerism, particularly for branded goods. Despite ridicule and distaste from middle and upper-classes, the Chav ‘look’ is highly ostentatious with a fashion for flaunting their acquired taste. It is therefore interesting to consider Bourdieu’s assumptions (1984 [1979]) about how cultural distinctions and unequal power relations shape identity and how taste can help us to situate people within these classifications.

In Distinctions Bourdieu believes that systems of class domination can find expression in all areas of cultural taste such as fashion, food, music, media and art preferences. He believes that “cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education” (Bourdieu, 1984: 1) where the most culturally educated will consequently favour higher forms of art. This tendency towards a particular taste derives from what Bourdieu terms habitus which involves a process of inculcation and exposure from early childhood; “a set of dispositions which generates practices and perceptions” (Bourdieu, 1993: 5). Habitus does not evolve from rules which govern a particular lifestyle, but from habits, perceptions and dispositions to act in a certain way and follow a predetermined socially defined path (Hanks, 2005: 69). As William F. Hanks states, “Through the habitus, society is impressed on the individual, not only in mental habits, but even more in corporeal ones” (ibid).

In relation to Chav culture, this is overtly expressed through corporeal habits which oppose the discreet elegance of the bourgeoisie; a fashion for flashy and tacky brands, fake handbags and excessive accessories. These material components are what help us to categorise society, emphasising the life-style influence of habitus upon this particular group. Perhaps Chav consumer habits are the product of a post-Fordist niche market where individuality has to be stamped with increasing eccentricities.

Even if we take a typical assumption about Chav music preferences it seems they favour ‘RnB’ and Rap, genres which focus lyrically and visually on excessive bragging, the male gaze and overstated sexual ability. The sub-cultural group is therefore explicitly synonymous with an anti-social voyeurism and an exaggerated pleasure in consumption. Bourdieu would argue that the materiality of the Chav ‘look’ derives from a lack of exposure to high art, culture and education from a young age. However, this ability to experience culture from a young age is made easier through wealth and accessibility.

I want to observe how Chavs create and develop their identity. I want to question how they identify themselves and whether they will ever move beyond the contours of their classification. I hope to integrate myself into Wolverhampton’s strong Chav community to enhance my understanding of cultural taste and distinction in relation to wealth and class.  In our society, identity is often shaped by how others classify us, as Bourdieu stated, “taste classifies and it classifies the classifier” (Bourdieu, 1984: 6). The Chav community in Wolverhampton have been categorized and stereotyped and now cannot seem to escape their own conditions of existence. They have become what they are due to their classifications, and those who classify can safely exclude themselves from the life-style habitus of this sub-cultural group.

In today’s society, having an identity means belonging to some kind of community and feeling socially accepted by those within a close proximity. My current hypothesis is that the Chav community in Wolverhampton emerged as the populace subconsciously want to belong to what they are born into. Influenced by the community around them, they consequently develop an appropriate habitus as this is what appears familiar and ‘ordinary’.

Owen Jones (2001) believes the term Chav stereotypically connotes a gross caricature which now symbolises a politically broken Britain. He believes that Chav-hate acts as a demonization of the working class to constitute for an unequal society; “We are all prisoners of our class, but that does not mean we have to be prisoners of our class prejudices” (Jones, 2001: 11). It seems today’s Chav phenomenon replaces and suppresses a clear continuation of a working-class majority in society. To argue the case of Chav injustice, Jones compares recent media impact surrounding the disappearances of Madeleine McCann in May 2007 from an upper class resort in Portugal and the working class girl from West Yorkshire, Shannon Matthews in February 2008.

The tragic disappearance of McCann “was not supposed to happen to folks you might bump into doing the weekly shop and waitrose” (ibid: 15) and caused a national distress with rewards as high as £2.6 million. In contrast, Shannon Matthews did not alert such extreme attention, her “background was just too far removed from the experience of journalists who covered such stories” (ibid: 16). However, to fit the media representation, Shannon’s own mother, Karen Matthews had kidnapped her nine year old daughter in a shocking scam to win the reward money. This incident was a big hit for the Chav community, dramatically strengthening their immoral and shameless stereotype. In this chapter, Jones draws attention to the snowball effect of the incident on the working-class majority who were now all targeted as dysfunctional clones of Karen Matthews. He believes the blame should rather lie with the middle and upper-class biased journalists and the successive governments of recent decades (ibid: 33). Despite the help and money raised by Shannon Matthews’ local community, these were the people collectively stereotyped and repulsed by the media. As Jones makes clear “the case said a lot more about the people reporting it than about those they were targeting” (ibid: 26) drawing to mind Bourdieu’s classification of the classifier.

The middle class journalists who report offensive and derogatory Chav stories cannot understand the political, sociological and psychological reasoning behind this sub-cultural group, they can only ridicule and blame them. For this reason, through ethnographic research and self-integration, I aim to personally understand the development of Chav culture and identity from an inside perspective.

Distant Suffering

July 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

In today’s society, images of distant suffering flood the daily media in an appeal to captivate attention and arguably motivate those at a safe distance into some form of supportive action. Lilie Chouliaraki defines the concept of mediation as “the capacity of the media to involve us emotionally and culturally with distant others” (Chouliaraki, 2006: 19). This previously impossible insight into cultures outside the contours of familiarity would seem to create a ‘new cosmopolitan ethics’ or a more collective understanding and emotional relationship between world citizens. However, there is also a pessimistic side to the media’s new capacity for world awareness, as Chouliaraki states, “The overexposure of human suffering has unaestheticizing, numbing effects” (ibid: 18).  She believes the dissemination of public life through the media domesticates the most shocking realities and can arguably cause suffering to become common, passively accepted and even “banal” (ibid: 33). Susan Sontag also recognises a numbing of compassion due to an abundance of images whereby the pain of others “has to be turned into a spectacle to be real – that is, interesting – to us” (Sontag, 2004: 97). This over-exposure leads to what Chouliaraki terms the “apathetic spectator” who believes distant suffering is inevitable and begins to dismiss such images as integrated elements of everyday life (Chouliaraki, 2006: 34).

This essay will argue that images of distant suffering either develop into an illusory spectacle or begin to constitute Romantic elements of the sublime in order to overcome this mediated monotony and demand public attention. The ‘spectacle of suffering’ will be demonstrated by examining images following Japan’s recent 8.9 magnitude earthquake which triggered a catastrophic tsunami and severe nuclear crisis. Observing photographs used by BBC News of the mass-scale media event on 11th March 2011, it seems the Japan tsunami was originally represented as a spectacle bordering on the sublime, evoking fear and urgency but wavering from reality. Once the reality of the disaster was established, orderly images of control and organisation were released suggesting that the media can manage and manipulate our understanding of distant events. In contrast, Don McCullin’s tragic photographs of individuals suffering with famine in Africa seem beyond the point of help and lend themselves to a deeply moving aesthetic which provokes emotional responses. In both cases, the mediation of distant suffering struggles to deplore the spectator’s voyeurism into a ‘new cosmopolitan ethics’. As suffering becomes a spectacle of the sublime or a sensuous artistic expression, mediation produces an inactive spectator who can merely gaze in disbelief.

This essay will argue that the spectator must rise above feelings of pity and compassion provoked by this mediation in order to deplore their passive voyeurism. 

In the face of distant suffering, Luc Boltanski argues that the spectator succumbs to a ‘Politics of Pity’ defined by Hannah Arendt as “not being centred directly on action, on the power of the strong over the weak, but on observation” (Boltanski, 1993: 3). The ability for spectators to create a new cosmopolitan ethics therefore depends on their capacity to act upon what they see and within a ‘Politics of Pity’ it seems the spectator can merely observe. Boltanski (1993) argues that knowledge of suffering forms an obligation to give assistance or else one could be accused of looking for pleasure. However, he classifies the action which separates an altruistic from a selfish viewpoint as merely “the criterion of public speech or conversation” (ibid: 21). Confronted with the spectacle of suffering following the Japan tsunami such as that seen in Figures 1 and 2, it seems impossible for speech to comprise a cosmopolitan action, surely a stunned silence would emit more concern than a casual conversation at a safe distance.

Figure 1: BBC News Asia-Pacific, The 8.9 magnitude quake triggered a huge tsunami which has swept across the sea threatening countries all around the Pacific Ocean (released 11/03/11 21:23)


Figure 2: BBC News Asia-Pacific, Damage to gas pipes and electricity lines meant fires broke out in the aftermath of the quake, including in Natori City (released 11/03/11 21:23)


The above images of the Japan crisis maintain a safe distance between the onlooker and those suffering causing them to become less relatable and more spectacular or sublime.

As well as the dilemma of “watching-acting”, the spectator’s response to distant suffering will also depend on Chouliaraki’s idea of “proximity-distance” (Chouliaraki, 2006: 19). Overcoming geographical distance and constructing ‘a sense of being there’ or “modal imagination”[1] is more likely when the cultural difference is not so extreme.  The Japan tsunami was a natural disaster which greatly affected a first world country. The West will therefore more eagerly identify with such a scale of instant and undeserved suffering in comparison to McCullin’s victims who will be regarded as so distant they often resemble an ‘otherness’. The secondary effects of the explosion at Fukhushima’s nuclear power plant also caused the proximity of the disaster to both physically and economically impend upon the West instigating an immediate alarm for attention and action. There is much more pressure to adopt a cosmopolitan ethics and undertake some form of action with an immediate disaster which has presently approaching effects. The context of the suffering in Japan, as seen on TV news broadcasts, online updates and Youtube video clips also puts the suffering into what Boltanski terms “The Politics of the Present” which “has an overwhelming privilege: that of being real” (Boltanski, 1993: 192).

Despite the urgency of the Japan crisis within the reality of the present, its original mediation displays a ‘derealisation’ where distant suffering is publicized as an unearthly panorama. Slavoj Žižek believes there is a paradox in Westerner’s desire for realism because this passion for the real “ends up in the pure semblance of the spectacular effect of the real” (Žižek, 2002: 10). He discusses the World Trade Centre horrors of 9/11 which caused an intrusion of the real upon the Western illusionary sphere of suffering. Following the 9/11 crisis the American spectator became the sufferer which led to a subsequent “derealisation” of the disaster (ibid: 13). This is similar to Japan whereby the actual carnage of all those killed and injured is replaced with an overwhelming spectacle to avoid the social reality of the event, such as that depicted in Figure 2. Whilst highlighting the ‘spectacular effect of the real’, this spectacle distances the viewer from the gruesome realities of individual sufferers and causes him to become a helpless passive voyeur to a disaster which seems too colossal to control.

Figure 3: Don McCullin, A nine year-old albino boy clutching an empty corned beef tin, Biafra (1968)

In contrast to the mediation of a mass-scale disaster, Don McCullin’s tragic photographs of those suffering with famine in Biafra speak more about an entire human condition. McCullin’s harrowing images, such as Figure 3 and 4 were first published in the June 1968 edition of Sunday Times magazine but “still retain their unequivocal visual and emotional power” (McCullin, 1993: 3). Rather than spiral the spectator into a state of urgency, McCullin’s photographs go beyond a feeling of pity into what Arendt differentiates as ‘compassion’ causing the viewer to be pensive; “compassion is content with a ‘curious muteness’ in comparison with the ‘eloquence’ of pity” (Boltanski, 1993: 6). Observing these images, the spectator is left feeling powerless to aid the brutal condition of famine in Africa and Boltanski argues that “the distinction between reality and fiction loses its relevance” (ibid: 23).

Through the photographic aesthetic and a distance which encourages no urgency, McCullin’s victims exist in a tragic timeless state beyond the point of help, a mediation which can only stun the spectator into silence.

To substitute the spectator’s helplessness, McCullin’s images lend themselves to an aesthetic representation which prioritises individual victims. Unlike the mediation of Japan, centralizing the individual sufferer has a greater emotional affect upon the spectator. Online news coverage on the day of the Japan earthquake and tsunami mediates the whole event through a sequence of numbers: “350 people dead… 500 missing… 200 to 300 bodies were found… Thousands of people were ordered to evacuate… Some 1,800 homes are reported to have been destroyed.”[2] Similarly, the photographs (Figures 1 and 2) are aerial shots which prioritise the importance of the sublime scale of the event. These numbers cause the individual agony of those involved to lose its significance. McCullin’s images arguably speak more about the scale of suffering by centralizing the immense affect on individuals, individuals who are just one of many.

Figure 4: Don McCullin, A 24-year-old mother and child awaiting death, Biafra

By photographing such extreme cases of suffering, McCullin wanted to “show a sensitivity, even in the darkest, suffering moments of these peoples’ lives so that you were allowed to be drawn in.”[3] He wanted to raise awareness by drawing the spectator into horrors they would prefer to overlook; “a pilgrim to the front line of human suffering, returning with his kit-bag of horrors to appal the comfortable, the wilfully blind and the unknowing” (Le Carré, 1981: 17). The paradox of his photographs lies in their attempt to create a familiarity whilst focusing on details which distance his victims from a Western perception of humanity. Figure 3 shows a famished albino whose stick-thin limbs, skeletal structure and pigment-less skin bring him to a state of otherness. The hauntingly emaciated young boy struggles to stand and his expression appears desperate and hopeless.

The suffering of McCullin’s subjects is more poetic than painful and his victims maintain a sense of dignity rather than desperation. Although the mother in Figure 4 awaits her death whilst feeding her child as much as she can, her expression emits a sense of bravery and beauty. To honour the struggle of such sufferers, these photographs embody an aesthetic quality which is “distinguished too, by composition, the compelling mood achieved by sombre lighting, and their sensitivity for the subjects” (McCullin [Evans], 2003: 12).

Perhaps this ‘aestheticisation’ is what prevents the spectator from overcoming the medium and moving beyond the image surface to act upon the social reality of the event. Those at a safe distance to the suffering who should be seen as strong and indignant become emotionally wounded and weak through McCullin’s moving aesthetic. As Berger states, “it is not possible for anyone to look pensively at such a moment and to emerge stronger” (Berger, 1980: 43). Upon observing McCullin’s photographs, it seems that those viewing are defeated by their own emotion. In contrast, John Le Carré wrote that McCullin’s images “scream to us of ‘LOOK!’ – they rob us of our armoury, our blinkers, our complacency, they bring us out of our armchairs” (Le Carré, 1981: 20). Yet this appears to be more of a presumption about what such images of suffering are supposed to do. In reality they cause a cowardice response whereby the spectator sinks deeper into their armchair, into their own reality and away from all that appears ‘other’.

McCullin’s photographs therefore encourage a passive viewer who leaves the image feeling inadequate in their ability to help. However, the photographs have one strong advantage towards motivating action; their ability to remain embedded in the spectator’s memory. Susan Sontag is openly aware of the public’s rising immunity to images of suffering as modernity becomes habituated to life’s horrors (Sontag, 2004: 95). However, she admires McCullin’s images in their ethical ability to haunt the spectator’s memory stating “a photograph can’t coerce. It won’t do the moral work for us. But it can start us on the way” (McCullin [Sontag], 2003: 17). McCullin’s photographs leave a deep scar in the spectator’s memory which will relate to the painful emotions they endured whilst looking at it. Roland Barthes claims this is the indexical advantage of the photographic medium in Camera Lucida, whereby the camera can shoot a moment of existence and freeze it in time to live forever (Barthes, 1981: 76). Perhaps McCullin’s images are therefore open to a more endurable form of ethical action as they retain an unforgettable moving aesthetic which makes them useful in the long run as propaganda for charitable donation.

Both demonstrations of suffering locate the spectator in a ‘Politics of Pity’, which may lead to compassion but emphasises emotional observation prior to any form of charitable action. From a Nietzschean perspective, this pity is counter-productive towards the formation of a new cosmopolitan ethics because “to do good out of pity, we have to increase the evil in the world” (Cartwright, 1984: 84). Friedrich Nietzsche was influenced by Immanuel Kant in his conclusion that pity is a “contagious infection” which will ultimately result in two people suffering (the ‘pitied’ and the ‘pitier’) although only one person is affected (ibid). Nietzsche believes that the spectator is manipulated and controlled by the sufferer as the overwhelming infection of pity usurps the spectator’s original autonomy (ibid: 86). In opposition to Nietzsche’s perspective, it seems extremely unreasonable to accuse McCullin’s distant sufferers of relief in their transmission of pity and pain onto onlookers. It is only through the photographer that these suffers were illuminated into existence and they were undoubtedly harvesting too much pain to think about infecting spectators’ emotions. It is more likely the case that pity is generated by the ethics of the onlooker who consolidates his incapacity to immediately overcome the pain of those suffering by internally suffering himself.

In contrast to Nietzsche, pity at a distance appears to be the greatest ethical response the spectator can instantly accomplish. Perhaps it is only after being confronted by images of suffering again and again that the spectator can overcome his emotions to rise above pity and implement some form of charitable action. This conclusion would suggest that our over-exposure to images of suffering does not necessarily lead to Chouliaraki’s “apathetic spectator”. An over-exposure to distant suffering may strengthen our emotions so that we can overcome the weak and helpless state of pity and actively face up to distant realities.

Mediation attempts to bring distant suffering closer to our understanding and reality. In both examples it is an accentuation of this same mediation which causes distant suffering to appear even further away. Berger states that “the double violence of the photographed moment actually works against this realisation” (Berger, 1980: 44). Perhaps it is therefore the process of mediation itself which makes us passive as we struggle to urgently respond to a text removed from the flow of time. We may be able to sympathise with such suffering, but the fact that we continue to gaze upon it suggests that we are ultimately passive, until emotionally empowered to involve ourselves in ethical action.

[3] McCullin in BBC Radio 3 (2006) ‘The John Tusa Interviews: Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Don McCullin’ [www] (13/05/11 18:37:28).

[2] BBC News Asia-Pacific (11/03/2011) ‘Japan earthquake: Tsunami hits north-east’ [www] (16/05/11 11:55:30)

[1] Modal imagination is “the ability of spectators to imagine something that they have not experienced themselves as being possible for others to experience” (Chouliaraki, 2006: 20).

Photography: The Hill Tribe Village Children of Northern Laos

June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Extracts from A Personal Essay on ‘Locating Photography: Space & Situation':

There is no longer the need to linger in time and space to remember a moment…Aim, look, shoot, FLASH, and the memory is stored.Proof of existence is now concentrated in the careless, casual click of a button.

When I think back to my travels around Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, there is one distinct memory inseparable from the entire experience. Unsure whether this memory is so poignant because it was profusely photographed or whether the proliferation of images is what pins it to my mind; I ponder the difference of a camera-less retrospect.  Either way, the photographs of this experience cause an internal agitation as I gaze upon them. The images are ‘memory traces’ which provide an inventory of information, but there is also a moving mystery within the memory. Barthes would call this the punctum or “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (ibid: 27). He believes that this personal sensation in relation to the photograph is the essence of the medium. He disregards a cultural participation in images which would value what he calls their studium; “the very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste” (ibid: 26). The photograph animates each spectator differently through the most insignificant or unassuming details of distraction. My punctum is not a detail like strapped pumps, bad teeth or a finger bandage. My punctum is an insight into a life with no images.

The photographs I want to discuss are of children who have never seen photographs themselves, children who do not exist to end in an image; the Hill Tribe Village Children of Northern Laos. The trek to the village began at the break of dawn a few hours north from Laos’ ancient capital city of Luang Prabang. There were only four of us and a generous family from a small hill tribe village far off the beaten track had offered us a bamboo shack and a blanket for the night. The trek was one of the toughest tests of strength I have ever endured and every step along the way the importance of my camera increased. Despite trekking through mosquito-infested jungles, wading knee-deep through rivers and stumbling up vast mountain ranges, I was sure that my camera was safely clenched at my side the whole time. Hervé Guibert describes the device as “a mutilated being that we have to carry around with us like an infant” (Hervé, 1996: 77). My camera felt more essential than the bottle of water. What would be the point of such endurance to see sublime landscapes, colourful crop fields and rare wild animals if I didn’t have the photographs to prove it? American photographer Walker Evans, a master of the medium, once stated that photography is driven by “a simple desire to recognise and to boast” (Badger, 2007: 8). I photographed at every opportunity along the way, rewarding my endeavour with the beauty of each new shot.

In the village I was fascinated by the lifestyle of this ethnic group and they were equally amazed at me with my big black machine. The village has no electricity and one water pump for all the families. The houses are hand-built from woven bamboo strips, as were the baskets used to collect corn and rice from the fields. Grazing water buffalo, pigs and chickens roam the premises. On rare occasion or celebration the village may save some meat for themselves, but usually these animals are sold as their main source of income. Most families can only afford to send one or two of their average twelve children to school and the lucky ones will trek for three hours to get there. While the fathers are out farming and the mothers travel to collect water, the children are left to look after themselves. The young girls were already mini mothers far beyond their years; their eyes were so wise from all they had already seen in their short lives.

As I look at the images of these children, what pierces and wounds me is the memory of their energetic spirit and liveliness. I recall their happiness, excitement and adventurous nature despite the little they have. It was unnerving and disconcerting to see children with so little bouncing around, clinging to my legs in excitement and jumping in the river so full of life. I look at the photographs and these same children are suddenly shot dead in an instant, they have been killed by the camera. This is the punctum which stings my conscience.

Sontag recognises the predatory nature of the camera as it turns living people into frozen objects. She wrote; “just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder” (Sontag, 1979: 15). Similarly, Barthes believes the photograph “produces Death while trying to preserve life” (Barthes, 1981: 92). In Part Two of his ontological desire to discover the very nature of photography, Barthes finds the perfect photograph of his late mother. She is aged 5 in the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ which cannot be revealed. For him, there is a punctum in the photographic representation of time. The photograph of his mother as a child confirms that she did once stand at the end of that little wooden bridge in a Winter Garden. The fact that she is no longer there emphasises the transience of our existence, it induces death even if she were still alive;

“In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (ibid: 96).

Hervé Guibert believes the ephemerality of his mother’s existence can be saved by the photograph. He wants to construct the perfect photograph of his mother before her appearance collapses with age. As he describes the intimate photo-taking process, we learn that the film was unexposed and tragically, “the essential moment lost, sacrificed” (Hervé, 1996: 15). Perhaps what makes the story of his mother’s un-captured image so faultless is the very fact that it doesn’t exist.  Guibert’s image remains animated through memory and mystery like Barthes’ ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ which would lose its powerful punctum if displayed for all to see.

The hill tribe village children in my photographs are ghost-like traces of what they once were in the moment. All I can think as they gaze back at the lens is the average life expectancy of the village which is merely 56 years old due to poor water and bad hygiene. If these children were to fall ill, they would probably die before they had time to reach the nearest hospital. The photographs are screaming with the inevitability of their death despite their animated existence in that instant. Frozen in time, they resemble a token of both presence and absence in “an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then” (Barthes, 2003: 120). It seems they would be so much more alive in the mind’s eye of memory than stuck in the frame, immobilised from their energy.

When I remember my time with the hill tribe children in Laos, I recall a distinctive purity to their existence. They live in a place which isn’t ruled by images. Their self-perception comes from real feeling and living in the moment rather than reflecting back upon photographs. Many people these days align photographs of themselves with their entire existence during a certain time. They will look at an image of themselves as a child and proclaim: ‘this is me as a child’. These children are not under such repression, they are liberated from the photographic control and restriction of identity. At first I thought I wanted to return to the tribe and reveal their two-dimensional effigies. I wondered if they would recognise themselves from the few times they’ve caught their own reflection in the river. It is a frightening prospect that with my collection of images I’ve seen their faces probably more than they’ve seen their own. Barthes believes there is violence within the photograph “because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed” (Barthes, 1981: 91). The ruthless violence of the photograph has corrupted the purity of the children’s sole being. Because of the camera they have been sliced up, fragmented and reproduced.

There is one image amongst the collection which supplies a particularly poignant punctum. Figure 1 displays a young girl by the river who appeared to be the leader of the group, when she jumped in the water the others followed. Her wise eyes dominate the frame as they lock the spectator’s gaze from every angle. The girl in the photograph is forever haunting me and I can’t escape it. With my big camera I must have been like a futuristic alien from another planet, yet she is not in awe. She emits a sense of bravery and seems to understand our world without envy. The thing which pricks me most in this photograph is the second child moving towards the lens from the bottom left corner of the frame. As she emerges from the river, this girl resembles a ghost-like embodiment of the indexical “has-been” which no longer exists.This same girl can be seen again in Figure 7, she falls backwards into the water, she’s been shot dead by the camera. In Figure 1 Both Laotian girls stare back at me in the camera’s decisive moment and they will forever; I feel haunted by this photograph.

Like Barthes’ ‘Winter Garden Photograph’, the photographs from Laos animate me, create an adventure and supply a punctum. What pricks me the most is the camera’s destruction of this liberated life without images. These children are happy with their life in the mountains. A magic surrounds their natural liveliness in the present moment, a pure existence which is not dominated by references to a pictorial past. I hope they never see their own photographs.

Figure 1: This girl was the leader. When she jumped, the others followed.

Figure 2: This girl loved having her photo taken. She could have been a model.

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5: The children were left to look after the children

Figure 6: They were equally amazed at me with my big black machine

Figure 7: What pierces and wounds me is the memory of their energetic spirit and liveliness, shot dead by the camera.


  • Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Ltd.
  • Barthes, Roland (1981) [1980] Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, [Translated by Richard Howard]. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Barthes, Roland (2003) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in Wells, Liz. (ed) the Photography Reader. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Guibert, Hervé (1996) [1982] Ghost Image [Translated by Robert Bononno]. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press.
  • Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

All images copyright Melissa Darby.

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

June 12, 2011 § 3 Comments

“I understand that an artist is someone who, in the midst of others’ silence, uses his own voice to say something and who makes sure what he says is not useless, but something that is useful to mankind.” – Miró

Organic form, Enchanting colours, Poetic shape: Miró’s exhibition at Tate Modern amounts to an imaginative expression of spirit and vigour during an era of dictatorship and repression in Spain. The artist’s work is organised through 12 rooms into politically poignant periods of his life. Aside from being an enlightening insight into Miró’s artistic escape from fear and exile during the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, it is the poetical expression of this political context which pricked my senses and cleared my mind. The beauty of his work is that you don’t have to understand it to understand it. Miró’s images will automatically trigger you into the dream-like state which is so central to all Surrealist art, just by getting lost within it.

The Tilled Field (1923-24)

 The first room of the exhibition takes us back to Miró’s Catalan roots and imaginative influence from the countryside, particularly his parent’s farm at Mont-roig. In The Tilled Field animals take on gigantic proportions, the tree has an ear and a soul and together all elements create a fairy-tale universe only accessible through the mind’s eye. The capacity of Miró’s paintings often comes from their inability to be articulated. His work emphasises the fact that the imagination can create a thousand possibilities out of no certainty. All of the objects and animals which seem so bizarrely out of place are scrupulously positioned to make perfect sense within the nonsense. A carefully considered randomness orchestrated by welcoming pastel colours.

Head of a Catalan Peasant (1925)

In room 2 I had the pleasure of meeting the wise and sombre, dreamy and dismal, unassuming but all-empowering Catalan Peasant, locked in expression. The head of the peasant is reduced to a calculated alignment of signs; a red cap, two glaringly round eyes and strands of beard, set against the vivid blue sky background. The Catalan Peasant floats in uncertainty and boundlessness, like the imagination. Difficult to interpret and less definable than Miró’s expressive characters of the Barcelona series, the Peasant signifies a suppression of Catalan freedom and identity as Spain was under siege. The fictitious character changes slightly in his variations throughout the series and some images require a rather trained imagination to render him into existence.

One thing I did notice so far was the elaborate and detailed frames which tend to enhance the nobility and independence of each painting. With a unique hand-picked frame, each image stands sovereign within its sequence.

Still Life with Old Shoe (1937)

Swanning through animated landscapes, collages and pastels of distorted figures I stumbled upon the image Still life with Old Shoe, one of my favourites from the exhibition. Maybe it’s my fetish for all things psychedelic, kaleidoscopic and hypnotic that drew me to the Old Shoe – a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say! Miró produced the image in response to the Civil War as events unfolded around him. Illuminating everyday objects to become wildly disconcerting, he depicts a disjuncture even in the most mundane. As anarchist and communist militias took command in Barcelona, Miró chose to find artistic inspiration in the banality of everyday objects. Miró believed that an ant and mountain deserve equal importance… imaginative interpretation can elevate anything into significance.

Plate XXIII from Barcelona Series (1944)

Plate IX from Barcelona Series (1944)

Plate XVII from Barcelona Series (1944)

The next room displays the Barcelona series - 50 lithographs spread along a wall linking the adjacent galleries. I could have stared at these all day long in an endless visual discovery! The works were made while Miró was in exile during Franco’s control of Spain. The creatures are abnormal but relatable; it’s as if you can hear their voices and read their traumatic expressions as you walk along the sequence. Like aliens from another planet I was intrigued and wanted to enter their world! New faces form within the nose and ears of others, yet they all seem locked within their frames. Trapped and going crazy, perhaps like Miró while in exile, I wanted to set them all free and watch them tear up the streets of London…wreak havoc crazy creatures!

I continued around the small-scale and densely packed Constellations onto increasingly Surrealist visualisations. His small array of sculptures failed to arrest my attention like his paintings…I suppose it’s difficult to elevate imagination using materials so earthly and grounded. His Self-Portrait was impressive, focussing on regions of his face with immense detail. Within the bold abstract outline of bodily matter it’s as if there is a deeply layered, faded soul pushing at the boundaries.

Self Portrait (1937-1960)

A small room behind this portrait contains the big blue saturated Triptych. Sat on a bench in the middle of the enclosed space I was surrounded by pools of blue, blue, blue. Being an insomniac, I sometimes gaze at the inside of my eyelids when I can’t sleep…Blackness. But then dots appear, you follow them in random directions and they form a hazy line. This reminds me of Miró’s canvases. If I close my eyes up at the sky this blackness is blueness. I’m sat in the middle of the room and I don’t know whether my eyes are open or closed, I need to wake up! For me, the triptych shows an empty thoughtlessness… until shapes and forms distract the mind off in a direction.

Blue Triptych (1961)

Miró’s burnt canvases emphasise his anger and protest towards the repressive government. Suspended in space, I’m given the chance to see through and around the images, a new perspective, a backstage pass. Each room has an aura of the artist’s emotion and there is no doubt that by room 11 Miró is burning with resentment… we can see right through him. Even by the artists 75th birthday, this emotion manages to fuel a powerful creative energy.

Burnt Canvas I (c.1973)

There is finally a sense of optimism in the ultimate room where the Fireworks Triptych hangs. This work coincides with the eventual collapse of the Franco regime, capturing the tireless energy of creativity as it remains unassumingly black and white. As the paint which has been thrown onto the canvas is pulled down by gravity, Miró’s powerful resilience dissolves into liberation.

A deeply moving exhibition both educationally and imaginatively, Miró puts politics into poetry and lives up to Breton’s description as “the most Surrealist of us all”.

The exhibition at Tate Modern runs until September 11th 2011 and costs £15.50 (adult), £13.50 (student).

Nikki S. Lee: Faking Identities

June 2, 2011 § 5 Comments

Crunch time has come to snap out of my post-graduate daze and choose a topic for my all-encompassing, grand sweeping finale Masters Project (no pressure). Last Summer I spent countless late stuffy nights in John Rylands Manchester Library, incessantly analysing the gigantic, grotesque, aged, wrinkled and hairy body parts of self-portrait photographer John Coplans for my undergraduate dissertation in Art History. I’m not complaining too much as Coplans is a unique and characteristic photographer and his reluctantly compelling images got me a good grade in the end (whilst my friends and flat mates slaved over papers on Fungi or Thermodynamics). However, this year I’ve decided to think carefully about a unique and exciting project which preferably avoids looking at old men’s wrinkly balls.

Raised in ‘the ghetto’ that is Wolverhampton (I’m actually from a nice suburban area but like to sound streetwise) I’ve moved to Manchester and now London which has given me the chance to meet and mingle with a variety of social groups, each with distinctive identities. The one which fascinates me most is the ‘chav‘ community in Wolverhampton. Contrast chavs with the ‘hipsters‘ in East London, the ‘toffs‘ from Chelsea, the retro ‘ravers‘ of Manchester and the freshly graduated ‘Yuppie bankers‘ in their swanky city centre apartments. My experience of different social communities fragments into a series of clearly distinguished social identities.


Sociology, the context of people and the politics of identity are all concepts which interest me and I’m yet to open up Pierre Bourdieu and deeply indulge in the theory behind the likes of ‘cultural capital’ and ‘habitus’. Therefore, after much deliberation I’ve decided to soon perform some kind of ethnographical experiment regarding these different social identities as part of my final Major project. I want to learn more about how and why these cultural groups form. Can everyone be categorised? Do we choose to belong? And most interestingly…How easy is it to become someone else?

For the purpose of this blog post, I want to draw attention to one of my favourite photographers/ performance artists and biggest influence: the Korean born and New York based artist, Nikki S. Lee.

The Hispanic Project (25), 1998.

In her series of photographs Projects, Nikki S. Lee transformed her own identity through a blend of clothes, make-up, tanning salons, diets and sheer determination to fit into cultural groups from the Punks, Tourists, Lesbians, Hispanics, Yuppies, Seniors, Skateboarders and Schoolgirls. Like the tropical Chameleon, Lee has camouflaged herself into the environment of specific social groups, changing her outward identity to blend in with surroundings. She has infiltrated each group over a period of time, adopting their mannerisms and gestures to ultimately document her new look with a snapshot camera, taken by a friend or total stranger. Through the snapshot aesthetic complete with a date stamp in the corner of the image, her photographs are intrinsically ‘raw’ carrying an artlessness which registers as authentic and ‘real’ for the viewers.

The Hiphop Project (1), 2001.

Lee introduces herself as an artist and explains the nature of her project to each group but it seems this fact is quickly pushed aside as she is casually accepted due to her fake persona. The seniors simply refuse to believe that she is actually a young woman in disguise, dismissing her story as early senility! (Cantz, 2001: 13).

The Seniors Project (26), 1999.

To an unaware viewer, Lee becomes invisible in each image (like the Chameleon of the trees), finally recognisable only by her Korean ethnicity. Her images speak to people’s fantasies about wanting to become something else, wanting to live other lives and wanting to embody something they’re not.

The Yuppies Project (15), 1998.

Via the photographic medium, Lee demonstrates how easy it is to fake an identity and perform a variety of lifestyles.

The Lesbian Project (14), 1997.

 Nothing is certain except that nothing is certain.

Any information about UK local Nikki S. Lee exhibitions or contact details for the artist would be greatly appreciated for future research.


Tracey Emin: Love is what you want

May 24, 2011 § 3 Comments

People often read works of art these days as an accumulation of the artist’s vision or an insight into the mind which created the work. Tracey Emin’s confrontational openness takes this common form of analysis quite literally. There’s no need to question or consider life-style influences in this exhibition as Emin’s own life memories, traumas and tests are aggressively pasted all over it. Entering the exhibition is like walking into a live soap-opera…

The ‘Tracey Emin Show’ [under 16’s MUST be accompanied by an adult!].

Tracey Emin, once known as ‘Mad Tracey fromMargate’ (a small-town slag), has developed into a media celebrity and Turner Prize nomination. Her creative success derives from a history of confusion, suffering and damage… with liberation through this illustration.

‘Love is what you want’ shows a selection of her work through a broad range of materials (painting, drawing, photography, film, textile and sculpture) which unite to fabricate a provocative collage of her life. Many works are created from a compulsive hoarding of personal things, investing the materials themselves with meaning.

Her big hanging blankets are recycled from family clothes or ‘sacred fabrics’ to form a measured collage of her chaotic life. Their pastel colours and patchwork patterns have innocent connotations, until you read them…Every time I see my shit…A carefully considered shock with more layers of detail the deeper you look.

Whilst the exhibition was thought-provoking in its unity, many of her individual works appear so abject that they seem to rather resent reflection. Take the corner of blood-stained tampons for example. Sooner than encourage aesthetic stimulation, a selection of blood-stained tampons delicately assembled in a glass case hurried me around the room in humiliation. How awkward to stand and contemplate a used tampon! Imagine if the aristocracy of the Victorian era stumbled across that amidst Pre-Raphaelite portraits of innocent and dreaming women… “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty… wwaaahhh dear lord forgive me!”

I guess the art is in this unease and agitation…the raw reality of ‘LOOK this is what goes on’. In Emin’s work, our 21st century infatuation with the abject and gruesome realities of humanity overrides traditional ideals of beauty in art. It seems her detailed drawings of women masturbating become resentfully compelling. Ideas and questions which commonly remain private can be broadcast in a gallery. You’re there to look… GAZE…the small scale of the masturbating works insist you look closely.

My personal favourite was the ‘Neon room’ inspired by the conceptual work of Bruce Nauman. Emin uses Neon signs to illuminate graphic messages and emotions which she believes should not be brushed under the carpet. Although I’d usually imagine neon lights on the side of a strip club in Blackpool, hanging across a dark blue velvet corridor, the florescent colours and free-flowing shapes had a beautiful allure. Emin believes that only certain sayings warrant being made in neon. Neon is light, living chemicals, moving all the time.

Is anal sex legal? Is legal sex anal? One which lingered in my mind for a while…

You really get a sense of how various events in Emin’s life spiralled her into different mental states as they seep through her artwork. The films vary from a heartfelt monologue addressing the most painful details of her abortion to a her liberating drive away from Margate and crazy dance moves to Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel. It’s like the artwork found her and her entire life is a rollercoaster performance.

All in all, a glaringly honest representation of a real woman with real questions…

(if you can take her seriously)

Exhibition runs until the 29th August at the Hayward Gallery, £12 adult, £9 student.


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