RaMell Ross

Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body

Book review by Pelumi Odubanjo

Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body, RaMell Ross’ debut book published by MACK, is a potent visual reminder of the history of black American life, a kaleidoscope of lyricism, and visual and narrative abstraction. Pelumi Odubanjo considers the gravity of what it means to carry such an archive of black visuality.

In his debut monograph Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body, multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and writer RaMell Ross reflects on the landscape and visual scope of the American South, reimagining it through a range of mediums, from large format photography and conceptual work, to film and writing. Journeying through the optical terrains of the region, Ross directs our attention through the everyday environments, bodies and structures which coalesce to form what he terms ‘Spell/Time/Practice/American/Body’. Unravelling these words through the five chapters which form his monograph, Ross invites us to reimagine the ways in which the visual may be used to disrupt our existence, in turn asking us what the black body is able to do, say and reperform when abstracted across land and time.

The monograph stretches over Ross’ interdisciplinary practice, mimicking a musical compilation album as we pace through its mystery and quotidian nature. Commencing with a pictorial account before combined with textual narrative, the story begins with the chapter “Spell”, set in South Country, Alabama, where Ross directed his Academy Award-nominated documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018). In the two photo series that are present in the monograph, Ross documents South County over two different periods, first from 2012 to 2014, and then from 2018 to 2022. Both capture the semi-ruralness of the land using an illuminating approach to photography, extending beyond the physical structures of the environment into intimate, multigenerational layered images of black communities in the American South.

In the opening series South County, AL (A Hale County), Ross plays on the idea of the undetected as he obscures place and person through various visual tricks; with some subjects facing away from the camera with their hoodies acting as figurative silhouettes, some using the parts of cars to fragment their bodies and others tactfully using light and shadow to allude to a slow unveiling of face and body. The series simultaneously inhabits pastoral and urban spaces as Ross repeatedly searches for new ways to abstract his subjects within the American landscape. In one image, titled “Yellow”, we see a young girl crouched down, the bend of her body mirroring the outline of the foliage that surrounds her. The rose bush that occupies the closest point to the camera obscures the girl, refusing to let her be shown in totality, the red petals slowly fading into the image, appearing as small glimmers of red paint flicked across the photograph. The young girl acts as a mediator to the image’s green hues, her small yellow dress delicately draped alongside the cut grass of the meadow, her small white hairclip and yellow hair accessories appearing as if extended parts of the rose bush closest to the camera’s eye. The image intends to draw the viewer directly towards one place: our young subject who rests in a state of adolescence and wonder. The viewer’s vision becomes purposely pixelated as the young girl’s body both fades away into the landscape and is illuminated through the camera’s unquestionable focus on her. This action is mirrored in Ross’ later image “Giving Tree”, where we see another young character with their body bent, facing downwards as they hang from an isolated tree. Again, Ross purposefully dissembles the young body, fragmenting and splintering it as a large branch passes through her abdominal area. The young girl folds herself across the bough, dressed in a loud red shirt that pronounces her against the natural palette of the surroundings. Her draped body appears lifeless, both contrasting and echoing the “still life” of the ongoing scene. This image awakens brutal memories of black bodies in the American South’s past, one where, in Alabama alone, it has been recorded that over 300 black people were lynched from 1877 to 1943 during the Jim Crow era. By draping herself from this tree, this young girl becomes one of the strange fruits as sung by Billie Holiday, forming a peculiar sight in a yet all too familiar setting.

With this latter image, Ross reminds us that, in its simplest form, a tree is not a symbol of terror. And in this scene, this girl is arguably creating her own sense of joy through play. As with the girl in the previous image, she is simply existing, a state that Ross is able to permit through his lens. It is in her imagination and desire to play that Ross captures what it means to reproduce images of black bodies within such landscapes. Ross creates an unease in his photographs that touches on racial history and violence through a blunt approach to image-making. In these ways, Ross positions his characters in an ontological plurality that so much of black life exists within, between past, present and future, living in an abstraction that lends itself to an inverted understanding of documentation. Ross forces his viewers to question the production of images that they are used to observing of the American South, and defends his right to abstraction, creating an expressiveness and lyricism that goes beyond documentation.

Moving towards various mixed-media and writings, Ross’ poetic works are scattered throughout the book. In Ross’ later poem, titled “Slangness”, we observe the interplay between what is textual and what is visual, his words becoming beacons of speech, yielding to the sling of his dialect, stripped to its bare rhythm. Ross’ playful words mirror the writing of poet and theorist Fred Moten, whose poetic verse and approach to black radical theory reopens wounds of blackness in its ontological form, allowing readers to consider what it means to strip blackness to its barest form. This creates space for transformation and transition, as something which exists in between various co-existing spaces and places.

Similarly to Moten’s style of poetic languaging of black social and cultural contexts, Ross uses his images and words to question what it means to exist in both the past and present as a black Southern body. Much of Moten’s work around the making of blackness is concerned with the specific conditions that form what we know as the black body. Looking into and beyond ideas around blackness in its bodily form, Moten is a writer concerned with the ways in which form and formlessness may be co-opted as tools to suggest alternative ways of viewing and understanding black life as it exists in the present. In this, Moten uses a form of voice composed of fragments, scattered across long sequences and varying shapes, a purposely abstracted form. His words draw you in, and ask you to read through the lines, with language serving as a means to both disrupt and resist expectation.

Ross’ words and imagery are activated through a vortex of abstraction, both in its formlessness and its form, as he allows words to take on new meanings within readings of his work. Similarly to Ming Smith and Roy DeCavara, photographers who leaned into abstraction to create images that enact the constellation of black life that surrounded them, and much like Moten in his writing, Ross uses language to create an inseparable dialogue that meditates our understanding of blackness in the American South. Most aptly seen in his “Black Dictionary (aka RaMell’s Dictionary)”, Ross uses abstraction to resist the system of capture, both linguistically and visually, recognising the role of the linguistic historical subjugation, and freeing them through a lively interplay of idiolect and dialect.

What is it that a black object does? What is blackness able to do in its abstraction? In Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body, Ross testifies that it can reclaim and free you. Occupying the chapter “Practice” is a documentation of Ross’ film Return to Origin (2021), a remarkable conceptual work in which the artist freight ships himself into a 4 x 8 ft box, a reference to Henry Brown who shipped himself to freedom in 1849. In this re-enactment, Ross uses historical references and filmmaking to create a conjunction between the past and present. In turn, Ross challenges us to reorient our understanding of “black objects”, and how through material, method and ways of being in the world, we may build our paths to freedom.

There is an argument that the mass volume of works included in this book causes it to wander at points, and in places risks losing its sense of narrative. However, it is through this abundance of material that we see the gravity of what it means to carry such an archive of black visuality. Ross’ work positions itself as a vital visual reminder of the history of black American life, a kaleidoscope of lyricism, and visual and narrative abstraction. ♦

All images courtesy the artist © RaMell Ross.

Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body is published by MACK.

Pelumi Odubanjo is a curator, writer and researcher based between London and Glasgow. She currently works as the Assistant Curator for Glasgow International, having previously held positions as a Curatorial Assistant at the Serpentine Galleries, London, and as Studio and Programmes Assistant at V.O Curations, London. Odubanjo has curated for festivals and institutions including Photo50 at the London Art Fair, Photo Oxford, Tate Exchange at Tate Modern, London, Brighton Photo Fringe and the Black Cultural Archives, amongst others. Her writing on contemporary photography, art and culture has appeared in Magnum Photos, New Contemporaries, Artillery Magazine, Photoworks and Photo Fringe.


1-RaMell Ross, “Open”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2012–14), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

2-RaMell Ross, “Man”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2018–22), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

3-RaMell Ross, “Ladrewya and Michelangelo”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2012–14), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

4-RaMell Ross, “Tomb 76: Catch”, from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

5-RaMell Ross, “Here”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2012–14), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

6-RaMell Ross, “Light in the Attic”, from Earth, Dirt, Soil, Land (2021), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

7-RaMell Ross, still from Return to Origin (2021), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

8-RaMell Ross, still from Return to Origin (2021), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

9-RaMell Ross, “Flag Case Black”, from Earth, Dirt, Soil, Land (2021), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

10-RaMell Ross, “Dakesha and Marquise”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2012–14), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Paris Photo 2023

Top five fair highlights

Selected by Alessandro Merola

Paris Photo has returned to the Grand Palais Éphémère with a diverse line-up of ambitious solo, group and thematic gallery presentations. Amongst the highlights, contributions by artists working across mixed-media make for some of the most memorable viewings. Here are five standout displays from the fair’s 26th edition – selected by 1000 Words Assistant Editor, Alessandro Merola. 

1. Bruno V. Roels, Gold Giants

There is no shortage of fascinating flora at this year’s edition – from an Anna Atkins’ cyanotype all the way through to Hanako Murakami’s thermographies – but the cranked-up, sci-fi-esque palms of Bruno V. Roels are utterly hypnotic. Each of the works presented across an eight-metre-long, old rose wall at Gallery FIFTY ONE has its own character, mood and texture, yet all are interrelated and function as variations on one image. Nearby, the warbly ripples of distortion in “Magic Lantern (Palmographs)” are filled with anxiety and encroaching dread, whilst the squiggle-painted “Figura Serpentinata (Demeter)” has an air of sinful artificiality. Through this series of unaffected, unsentimental gestures of dissolution ­– stretched to infinity with deadpan irreverence – Roels loops us back to the ways in which we continually seek out familiar shapes and icons. Of course, these ventures comprise only the latest chapter of Roels’ playing with paradise. One feels he isn’t far off repeating it to the point of emptiness. 

2. Marguerite Bornhausser, When Black is Burned
Carlos Carvalho

Marguerite Bornhausser is becoming a fixture around these premises, not least for the fact she is currently completing a residency exploring the Grand Palais’ renovation. Unveiling reworked negatives – painted or coloured – from Bornhausser’s new series, When Black is Burned, the two walls at Carlos Carvalho are a reminder that the French artist’s penchant for the experimental – not to mention her taste for deep hues – is only intensifying. This sharp and splashy selection draws on the ways in which light and shadow can unlock the imagination. Indeed, Bornhausser renders what she dreams and not what she sees, not so much confronting but reactivating – or reinventing – sensations through visions outside of time. Also available here is her freshly-printed, hard-back book with Simple Editions, a wholly captivating and riotous object in which the convergence of natural elements and artificial matter suggests that meaning can drift in on a current of air and alight itself on just about anything. If Bornhausser has a crush on beauty, then it is as much for its mystery as for its surface appeal.

3. Hassan Hajjaj, 1445 in Paris
193 Gallery

Hassan Hajjaj’s solo booth at 193 Gallery is as bold as can be, with vibrant camel-print wallpaper and flooring comprising the scenography to the Moroccan’s mixed-media works, which are hung in custom frames made of stuffed olive tins, Arabic alphabet blocks and tyres. They belong to celebrated (and celebratory) series such as My Rockstars and Dakka Marrakchia, and are themselves melting pots, remixing photography with fabrics, commerce with tradition and heritage with globalism. Although unrepentantly decorative, Hajjaj’s works are also critical in that they batt off orientalist clichés, all the while confronting the consumerism that has transformed traditional craft production in the Arab world. Yet, ultimately, it’s the unmistakable, uninhibited sense of rootedness that is Hajjaj’s hallmark. Moroccan mint tea ceremonies and sweets can be enjoyed at the booth, making it the place to be for cross-cultural exchanges (as further emphasised by the exhibition’s title, which invokes the current year in the Hijri calendar). This is Hajjaj’s world of today.

4. Daido Moriyama, ’71, NY
Daniel Blau

At Daniel Blau, the unstoppable Daido Moriyama is represented by 22 staggering new paintings, each splicing consecutive exposures – that is, back-to-back snaps of the same scenes – taken during the photographer’s first trip outside of Japan in 1971. The influences of Andy Warhol and William Klein are there to see in Moriyama’s New York: an overwhelming and chaotic chronicle bestowed, in black and bronze, by a narrator whose finger seems to be as firmly on the city’s pulse as the camera’s shutter release. What is at stake here is a kind of unveiling in which Moriyama seeks to grasp what is lurking, hidden beneath the surface, or in-between the negatives. By juxtaposing different perspectives, ruptured in time, he delves into his memories, confronting them – like a mirror – with the materiality of the world. The stand, simultaneously, blasts us into space with a curious selection of photographs derived from galactical missions in the 1960s and 70s, including Friendship 7, in which John Glenn became the first man to orbit the earth. He did it solo, and has a dazzling shot of space particles to show for it. You can’t help but feel his was a quest for truth not unlike Moriyama’s on earth.

5. Rebekka Deubner, Strip
Espace Jörg Brockmann

The valedictory photograms on display at Espace Jörg Brockmann constitute the most poignant and affecting work at this year’s Curiosa. Convening various items from the wardrobe of Rebekka Deubner’s deceased mother, what Strip offers is no mere catalogue, but, rather, a kind of séance. The mosaic-like hang heightens the disembodied and untethered quality of the photograms, whose shifts in scale – often zooming into tiny tears and frays – evoke the yearning for physical closeness to the departed. Although the tight crops teeter towards abstraction, Deubner never compromises her concern for detail and texture. The presentation of a video work in which the artist interacts with her mother’s old items – she ties her laces, applies lipstick and pulls out a tissue from a pocket – creates an intriguing tension with the ethereal and ghostly photograms. After all, it is by way of Deubner’s cameraless approach that she resists any sense that she is fighting against evanescence. Instead, she evokes the nuanced, unresolved conflict between holding on and letting go; between what can be touched and what can only be felt. ♦

Paris Photo
 runs at the Grand Palais Éphémère until 12 November 2023.

Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.


1-“Unfinished Landscape” (2023) © Bruno V. Roels. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery FIFTY ONE.

2-“Gold Giant #3” (2021) © Bruno V. Roels. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery FIFTY ONE.

3-“Also Protected By Sharp Spines And Needles” (2023) © Bruno V. Roels. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery FIFTY ONE.

4-“Untitled” from When Black is Burned (2023) © Marguerite Bornhausser. Courtesy of the artist, Carlos Carvalho and Simple Editions.

5-“Untitled” from When Black is Burned (2023) © Marguerite Bornhausser. Courtesy of the artist, Carlos Carvalho and Simple Editions.

6-“Garage Hajjaj (BW)” (2003/1424) © Hassan Hajjaj. Courtesy of the artist and 193 Gallery.

7-“n.t.” from ’71 NY (1971/2023) © Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation. Courtesy of Akio Nagasawa Gallery.

8-“Fireflies Outside Friendship 7: First Human-Taken Photograph from Space” (1962) © NASA/John Glenn. Courtesy of Daniel Blau.

9-“#11” from Strip (2022–23) © Rebekka Deubner. Courtesy of the artist and Espace Jörg Brockmann.

10-“#48” from Strip (2022–23) © Rebekka Deubner. Courtesy of the artist and Espace Jörg Brockmann.

Daido Moriyama

A Retrospective

Exhibition review by Mark Durden

Presented on four floors of The Photographers’ Gallery, London, Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective has been deftly curated by Thyago Nogueira of São Paulo’s Instituto Moreira Salles to offer an anti-modernist, Pop, all over display of pictures that extends the montage aesthetic of print media to the gallery wall, writes Mark Durden.

What does it mean today to show Daido Moriyama at The Photographers’ Gallery? In 2012, in an effective and revealing exhibition, Tate Modern presented Moriyama’s photography and silkscreen print variants, books and magazines alongside films, photography and paintings by William Klein. The pairing was significant, for Klein was an important influence through his grainy, blurry out of focus way of rendering the city in his 1956 book Life is Good and Good for You in New York. Can this new show of Moriyama say anything new? Curated by Thyago Nogueira and accompanied by a substantial new book, Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective has toured via Europe from São Paulo’s Instituto Moreira Salles in 2022. Presented on four floors of The Photographers’ Gallery, photographic images are everywhere, framed in grids, pasted on walls, on video screens, projected and in books and magazines in vitrines. The Tate Modern display of Moriyama was more modernist and restrained in comparison.

Perhaps the curatorial approach at The Photographers’ Gallery is more in keeping with Moriyama’s approach to photography. The often-made point is that Moriyama is a photographer for print-reproduction, that the book is his primary format. This anti-modernist, Pop, all over display of pictures is in keeping with this, extending the montage aesthetic of print media to the gallery wall.

The show begins on the top floor, accessed by a lift, its interior pasted with repeated images of a mascaraed eye, an appropriate cue to the image glut that awaits. Moriyama’s aesthetic or vision is defined in relation to the US, with Andy Warhol as well as Klein big influences. Warhol was encountered aptly through reproductions, by way of the exhibition catalogue of his 1968 Swedish retrospective at Moderna Museet. But his work also needs to be seen in terms of the destruction and defeat of Japan – Moriyama was seven when atomic bombs obliterated Nagasaki and Hiroshima – as well as its occupation by US forces after 1951 and its transformation by American consumer culture.  

The exhibition begins with his 1968 book Japan: A Photo Theater in the form of both a grid of selected photographic images and a video screen presentation of the book. As the text panel highlights, the point is that the book is assembled from photographs recomposed from earlier editorial pictures in magazines, a deliberate break from the sequencing and clarity of the picture essay, treating photographs as “fragments” according to Moriyama. Disjuncture and discordance characterise the pictures, many of them grainy, blurred and taken off-kilter. They detail the collisions of a Japan in transformation, the miraculous and bizarre worlds associated with Kabuki performances and the avant-garde theatre troupe Tenjō Sajiki, mixed in with observations of life on the street: a shaven-headed man on all fours, two upright and smartly dressed young Japanese shoppers, a woman fearful behind her partly opened but chained door, two women in traditional Japanese dress, the big tail fins of an American car. The lopsided photograph of a television screen with the fragmentary cartoon image of female lips and teeth, in its cheery but plastic expression, accords with the general unsettling of human values and expressions in the series. The book closes with a series of human foetuses in formalin, one of which is included in the grid display of pictures: a life still born, an allegory of photography itself.    

The top floor defines what is now his signature aesthetic. The analogue process is evident throughout – grain, blur and deliberate high-contrast. In a feature for Asahi Camera, the oiled flesh of overcrowded beachgoers seems irradiated, pleasure is linked with death. Bleached out figures recur, with light as a destructive force. A series of blow-ups from a traffic poster from National Police agency showing a graphic car crash makes a homage to both Warhol’s Death and Disaster silkscreens (1962-65) as well as Weegee. Another series includes a fuzzy broadcast image of Bill Eppbridge’s well-known photograph of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. The fourth floor closes with his photography for Provoke magazine, his features about sex and commodities in two of its four issues. In a display drawn from his series Eros (1969), a sequence of blurred images of an anonymous naked lone female in a hotel room is framed by an explanatory wall text referring to the issue’s critique of ‘capitalism’s suppression of individual desire through which real feelings were progressively repressed and replaced by the consumption of images.’ Moriyama’s photographs of displays of supermarket products represent a degraded Pop aesthetic – the image deterioration or break-up through reproduction becomes integral to the picturing, a counter to the fetishism of commodities.

The third floor begins with a grid of colour photographs, dating from the late 1960s, and on a facing wall, a colour vinyl print blow-up of one of them. It shows Moriyama behind the camera, reflected in a mirror, which also shows the face of a young Japanese woman, slightly out of focus and looking at the photographer and us. For all the ambiguities set up through the mirror, like Eros, it is an all too familiar dynamic. Women are a constant in his street photography – among the block of colour images is his memorable and often reproduced flash-lit photo of a woman running away from the camera barefoot over rough and sharp-looking debris in a back alley in Shinjuku. The picture makes explicit the predatory menace we are invited to assume is allied with the photographer. Of course, the predatory male photographer was, and still is, part and parcel of street photography: Lee Friedlander ironicised it brilliantly in his 1970 book Self Portrait, whilst Garry Winogrand both indulged and joked with it in his celebratory 1975 book Women are Beautiful.

Amidst the glut of images, one almost loses the radicality of his book Farewell Photography (1972), his goodbye that certainly marked an existential crisis but was never in the end a goodbye. The complete layout from Farewell is presented as a wallpaper installation, in sequence. Not that sequencing makes much difference. On the wall, the pictures are less abrasive than in book form. Whilst the book is lost among other books and magazines in one of the vitrines, the whole book is shown on a video screen in the reading room on the second floor. The wall text includes his remark about how it was made against the ‘naivety to think that you could try and create masterpieces.’ It is of course ironic now that the book is unequivocally a masterpiece. Many of the images are drawn from the growing images he had amassed and accumulated. For Japan: A Photo Theater, he reshuffled pictures to break sense, but here he goes further as the pictures are so degraded – some were printed from negatives picked up from the darkroom floor. There are blanks and voids, grainy fields, solarised images, analogue noise and blur shrouding and obscuring what images remain discernible.

Towards the end of the show, there is a wall-sized blow-up of a photograph of a female mannequin head, adorned with mirrored sunglasses, one lens reflecting a woman from the street and the other the photographer. It is part of a recent work called Pretty Woman, an all-over wall installation of pasted photographic images, both colour and black-and-white, which, according to the captioning text overlaid on the wallpaper of images, ‘offers a garish immersion into urban consumerism through the trope of the female figure, in all its forms.’ The show invites us to see a shift in the work – a clear move from Farewell, which was dominated by disfiguring or the ruination of representation to a photography of the world, the streets of Japan and other cities, beginning in the early 1980s. But with this embrace of what the curator refers to as “the visual lyricism” of street photography, the thematic is the same – the link between commodities and woman in Pretty Woman is a variant from his two series in Provoke, but now played out also using colour and in response to urban spaces choking with images. A generous reading might say there is a critique in the emphasis on vacuity, for example, the mannequin female head. There is a deathliness to photographic reproduction in Farewell and it is also here. Moriyama once referred to the all-over display of photographs as akin to a menu from which the spectator could choose pictures – but we are spoilt by choice. There are too many images. The show began with the re-assembly of photographs as fragments for his first book. It ends with a three-screen projection (with an accompanying soundtrack) from his ongoing magazine Record, which initially ran in 1972-73 and was relaunched in 2006 with more than 50 editions, in turn becoming a regular way of publishing his photography.

This is a very thorough, comprehensive and well-curated show. It does open up new insights into his work and one does get the sense it brings us closer to what, for better words, one might call Moriyama’s vision. In a recent documentary video included in the show, Moriyama refers to how “the world is erotic”. It links with earlier remarks about street photography in a film made for the Tate, where he remarked how “cities are enormous bodies of people’s desires”. For all the understandable buzz and excitement over this blockbuster show, such remarks are troubling when his street photography is so clearly centred on women. Whether the figure of the woman is a trope for consumerism or not, it does not matter. The world has moved on but Moriyama’s art has not. ♦

Images courtesy the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery, London © Daido Moriyama

Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective runs at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 11 February 2024.

Mark Durden is an academic, writer and artist. He is Professor of Photography and the Director of the European Centre for Documentary Research at the University of South Wales. He works collaboratively as part of the artist group Common Culture and, since 2017, with João Leal, has been photographing modernist architecture in Europe.

Sheida Soleimani

Birds of Passage

Exhibition review by Gem Fletcher

Gem Fletcher visits the latest exhibition at Denny Gallery, New York, Sheida Soleimani: Birds of Passage, an ongoing collaborative project which sees the artist work with her parents Mâmân and Bâbâ – two Iranian pro-democracy activists and refugees – to translate their traumatic experiences of political exile leaving Iran in the 1980s via densely layered images that half-document, half-mythologise family lore.

Spring 2023: I am at Edel Assanti, London, where a hand-drawn map, embedded with photographs, covers every inch of the gallery’s walls as part of Sheida Soleimani’s ambitious series Ghostwriter. The interplay between image and sketch, combined with the map’s lack of perspective, creates a subtle sensation that the ground is moving beneath my feet. The feeling is overwhelming, unexpected and seemingly involuntary as the map pulls me in. It recalls the city-bending scene in Inception (2010) when Ariadne (played by Elliot Page) rebuilds the landscape of a Parisian street with her imagination without being bound by the laws of physics. Whilst Solemaini’s map in Ghostwriter is more rudimentary – the frenetic and urgent blue mark-making feels more akin to something you might scribble privately on the back of a napkin for a friend – it is nevertheless effective in creating a disorientating spatial sensation that defies gravity.

Experiential storytelling is the driving force of Ghostwriter. In the ongoing collaborative project, Soleimani works with her parents Mâmân and Bâbâ – two Iranian pro-democracy activists and refugees – to translate their traumatic experiences of political exile leaving Iran in the 1980s. The duo opposed both the Shah government and the Ayatollahs’ totalitarian regime. Bâbâ went into hiding as Iran began to tighten its response to political dissent before eventually fleeing on horseback. At the same time, Mâmân endured solitary confinement and worse before finally reconnecting with him in the US.

The map at Edel Assanti, drawn by Bâbâ, traces his escape route through Iran, coming over the Zagros mountains into Turkey. Situated within it are Soleimani’s photographic assemblages – densely layered images half-documenting, half-mythologising family lore—which act like map keys unlocking specific scenes and information about their stories. For Soleimani, the gallery is a portal, a theatre of ideas to engage with the complexity of surviving political exile.

Autumn 2023: I am at Denny Gallery, New York, standing in Soleimani’s latest iteration of Ghostwriter, Birds of Passage. On this occasion, the map doesn’t pull you in but instead drops you, like Google Street View, into Mâmân’s detailed sketch of Namazi Hospital in Shiraz, Iran. The location is significant. It’s not only the site in which the couple first met in 1975 and their place of work (Bâbâ was training to be a doctor and Mâmân a nurse), but was also a site of resistance during the revolution. As surveillance increased for activists, Mâmân and Bâbâ began holding dissenter meetings in the operating theatre to avoid detection.

Birds of Passage is the third installation in the Ghostwriter continuum. Each chapter jumps through time, weaving together emotional truths with larger socio-political issues in a labyrinthine journey. The first chapter, On the Wall, presented in Providence College Galleries in 2022, was set on a map of the courtyard of Mâmân’s childhood home, where Bâbâ went into hiding for many years. In contrast to the second chapter at Edel Asanti, which offered a macro view of her parents’ lives predominantly focused on Bâbâ’s escape, Soleimani utilises the smaller square footage at Denny Gallery to present a concise micro-chapter on her mother’s psychological experience at the hospital and later in solitary confinement before her escape in 1976.

Like all the images in Ghostwriter, the complex stagecraft in Birds of Passage is informed by Dada collage, magical realist texts, political puppetry, propaganda poster design and feminist craft practices. Soleimani chops, collages and sculpts images to set the scene in her theatrical three-dimensional tableau. Objects, drawings, prints and fabric, sourced and crafted by the trio, are vessels for the story, set against a flaunting of fantastical shapes, colours and textures that create unique visual codes, networking the different chapters together.

One of the most significant codes in the series is taken from an ancient Persian game of Snakes and Ladders. The grid – which sometimes appears only subtly as a motif in the background and other times dominates the entire narrative of the image – alludes to the games immigrants are forced to play to survive as well as the elements of chance, risk and reward involved in the process of her parents’ journey. Soleimani plays with these contractions to build atmosphere and tension, shifting between beauty and peril, the alluring and the unnerving, holding us in limbo.

Ghostwriter is the first time Soleimani has turned the camera inwards. For the last decade, the artist’s practice has centred on geopolitics in the SWANA region, focusing on human rights violations and how governments fail to provide for their people. Now, we see the artist explore these themes through a personal lens in an attempt to retrieve, index and preserve her family’s story whilst examining the consequences of political systems reducing citizens to “abstractions”.

Time is not always linear in Ghostwriter as the artist grapples with how these stories have been told throughout her life. Since Soleimani was an infant, her parents, who didn’t believe in therapy, used storytelling to manage their PTSD and metabolise their traumatic displacement. At first, their experiences were shaped into a kind of autofiction – retold through protagonists like Mr Jones and his dog Bill over tea, on long car journeys and at bedtime – but as Soleimani and her sister got older, the stories became less censored and more matter-of-fact. “My parents didn’t want me to grow up and think of the world as an idyllic place,” she says. “They wanted me to know the truth.”

A commitment to ‘deep listening’, coined by the late American avant-garde composer and scholar Pauline Oliveros, shapes Soleimani’s life and practice. Oliveros distinguished hearing and listening – the latter a corporal experience that involves an acute awareness of the external and internal, spoken and unspoken, whilst paying attention to the multiple realities at play. Deep Listening embodies the trio’s co-creation process in Ghostwriter. Together, they patchwork different perspectives, memories and emotions from their collective past, dismissing the notion of singular truth and instead holding space for how trauma and the passing of time allow for new modes of (mis)interpretation.

Despite the shielded identity of her protagonists to limit the threat of ongoing persecution, there is a relational quality born from this work and how Soleimani unfolds the intimate geography of their lives. We become invested in them and their story. In theory, Ghostwriter’s biggest threat is becoming sentimental, a saccharine ode to the artist’s radical parents. However, Soleimani’s bold and imaginative narration goes beyond negotiating her family history and offers a conduit for a new way of seeing and feeling.

After experiencing Birds of Passage, I realised the difficulty of isolating these exhibitions. Whilst they are successful as their own entities, the work’s real draw is born from the visitor’s engagement with the work through its constant iteration. She may not admit it, but Soleimani rewards our loyalty. Her provocation to us as viewers is to code-break. Pay attention. Notice every detail and how they build, shift or morph over time. To remain committed to deep listening. ♦

Images courtesy the artist, Edel Assanti, London, and Denny Gallery, New York © Sheida Soleimani

Installation views of Birds of Passage, at Denny Gallery, New York, from 5 September – 7 October 2023.

Gem Fletcher is a writer and host of The Messy Truth podcast, a series of candid conversations that unpack the future of visual culture and what it means to be a photographer today. Her writing has been published in Foam, Aperture, British Journal of Photography, Creative Review, It’s Nice That and AnOther.


1-What a Revolutionary Must Know, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

2-Noon-o-namak (bread and salt), 2021 © Sheida Soleimani

3-Crying Quince, Laughing Apple, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

4-Khoy, 2021 © Sheida Soleimani

5-Agitator, 2023 © Sheida Soleimani

6-Panjereh, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

7-Remorse, 2023 © Sheida Soleimani

8-Behind the Door, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

9-Safar, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

10-Field Hospital, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

11>13-Installation views of Birds of Passage, at Denny Gallery, New York.

Lina Pallotta


Book review by Mariacarla Molè

An exhibition at Centro Pecci in Prato, Italy, and accompanying book published by Nero brings together nearly three decades of work from Lina Pallotta centred on the artist’s friendship with Italian trans activist Porpora Marcasciano. What emerges is a family album shaped by alliances, complicit looks and shared visions; a newfound space of fabulousness, writes Mariacarla Molè.

“Among the roses and the violets” is the title of a nursery rhyme that little girls used to sing whilst playing “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” in kindergarten. A sweet image that turns bitter in Porpora Marcasciano’s memory of a little child rebuked by nuns, mocked by other children for being a little boy in the circle of girls and thus forced to sing alone and dream in the privacy of the bedroom. And among the roses and the violets seems to have bloomed the lilies, such as in the first image of Porpora by Nero, a project that collects black-and-white analogue photographs that Lina Pallotta has taken of the Italian trans activist Porpora Marcasciano between 1990 and 2018, with text contributions by Porpora herself, Kae Tempest, Raffaella Perna and Allen Frame. The story’s flow slowly reveals her face, and, before it is fully disclosed, identifies a barely hidden profile, some home interiors and the apostles on top of the Church of San Giovanni Laterano in Rome, one of the cities in which the friendship between Porpora and Pallotta emerged. It has been nourished by revolutionary dreams, irreparable losses, class consciousness and euphoria.

Porpora lived in Rome for 17 years but founded, in 1979, the first gay collective Il narciso in Bologna, where she contributed to the birth of the movement Movimento Identità Trans (MIT), of which she is now president. In New York, where Pallotta went to study at the International Center of Photography (ICP) and lived for many years, she had many visits from Marcasciano, as well as in San Bartolomeo in Galdo (Porpora’s hometown), and in San Salvatore Telesino (Pallotta’s hometown), both in the same southern Italian province of Benevento in the Campania region. It is the geography of a history of activism, of a life, of a friendship told through images without following a chronological order. It’s a story with a slow and recessed beginning, that narrates a material presence, a tenacious presence, proving an existence, even in the flowers, reflected in other people, in the empty streets, in Rome’s 2011 Europride crowd, in the flooding Tiber River and in the wide landscapes of Benevento. We see Porpora blurred in the foreground, looking at the camera, looking elsewhere, melancholy and barely visible in the grainy dark. The darkness and grittiness of the photographs, exalted by the porosity of paper, are due to the missed use of the flash and of the long exposure, in order to capture the movement in the images.

In Pallotta’s photographs, there’s nothing it is not in reality, no composition, no additional light, no static objects. Indeed, Pallotta places an absolute identity between the image and the movement, with the intention of catching the eternal and incessant modulation of a reality that changes infinitely. Images are restless, considered as parts of the eternal march of time. The photographs thus are dirty, grainy and chaotic because reality is dirty, grainy and chaotic. And any form of overlapping images is not an effect of post-production but the result of errors, unforeseen events with the camera that have been accepted within an artistic practice, as they were parts of reality. That is the case with two photographs taken in Bologna in 2015. In the first, Porpora is in the centre of the frame, and nearby her right shoulder seems to have opened a window onto another view, with another light, orientation and subject. In the second, even more chaotic, it is possible to identify an overlapping vehicle, one issue of Babilonia on the ledge – one of the most important gay Italian periodicals – a window, Porpora sitting in front a little mirror that looks like a little inflatable pool, some branches or maybe just their shadows, some clouds or maybe just their reflection. What emerges is how Pallota’s cinematographic approach is able to move things from their statis and return them to their multifaceted reality precisely by virtue of the camera.

Pallota manages to show the artificiality of the static nature of the subject-object relationship and transform it into something closer and intimate. At this level, it is not even possible to speak of “portraits”, “intimate shots” or “engaged photographs” because it is as if everything were a world of universal variation, universal undulation, universal lapping: there is no genre, no themes, no chronology, no beginning, middle nor end, and, in turn, no chance at all of nostalgia. It is a story that does not have a privileged point of view, which seems to have come from behind the scenes; a story sometimes opaque which gradually opens up to welcome other people inside, such as loved ones, friends, activists – and above all Marcella Di Folco, the Italian gay rights activist, actor and politician. The public dimension then spreads in the book session dedicated to the material archive linked to the history of the LGBTQ+ Movement, in the same spirit in which Porpora collects oral sources and documentation for the reconstruction of a trans story. A book that has only a name on the cover, Porpora, cannot tell a story by the voice of a single narrator, not even that of a long-lasting friend such as Pallotta. In the last photograph, indeed, the only one taken by a common friend on a rooftop in New York in 1996, we see Lina and Porpora very close to each other. Lina is looking straight into the camera with her head on Porpora’s shoulder who, in turn, points a camera at the lens and seems to look us through the camera lens, making us part of the story.

This idea extends to the exhibition at Centro Pecci, Prato, Italy, Volevo vedermi negli occhi, the first solo exhibition in an Italian public institution of Pallotta, curated by Michele Bertolino and Elena Magini: the desire to see yourself reflected in others’ eyes, and again we are part of a story that can only be multiple beginnings, multiple points, multiple times. In the curved and organic space of Pecci, Porpora’s photographs progressively unveil the material presence of the photograph. The large format prints placed on the floor supporting one another, together with the small format ones hanging on the wall, create multiple paths and different readings. The exhibition is thus palindromic, the idea behind it being the loss of a privileged perspective, moving the only way forward. Owing to the fact that movement is the core of Pallotta’s photography, whilst in Porpora’s experience trans is meant as moving, in transit, releasing the tension between the two poles of the gender binarism. Freestanding photographs are witnesses of a life of militancy which has gone through attempts of removal and the research of a vocabulary, to reclaim their own existence, but also through what Porpora calls “fabulousness”. One image in particular seems to contain all this richness, the one taken in Rome in 2011 in which Porpora is behind the glass putting up a poster of Divergenti, an international festival of trans cinema, conceived by MIT in Bologna. Reflected in the glass vehicles and palaces, the flowing city, beyond the glass, Porpora’s face is looking down, focused on what hands do: to project her vision on the entire city. That is an image of one of many little moments travelling in the stubborn direction to create other worlds, other visions, and not only in terms of cinema.

It is almost impossible to give an univocal interpretation to Pallotta’s photographic narrative of Porpora, as much as it is difficult to give a definitive reading to the scenes taken by her. Some will read this path as a diary of a collective body. Others will see in it a single story of a single person. I prefer to read it as a family album, a family shaped by alliances, complicit looks and shared visions, a family meant as a newfound space of fabulousness. ♦

All images courtesy the artist, Nero and Centro Pecci, Prato, Italy © Lina Pallotta

Porpora is published by Nero. Volevo Vedermi negli occhi runs at Centro Pecci, Prato, Italy, until 15 October 2023.

Mariacarla Molè is an art writer based in Turin.


1-Lina Pallotta, Piazza San Giovanni, Roma, Europride, 2011.

2-Lina Pallotta, San Salvatore Telesino, 2000

3-Lina Pallotta, Bologna, 2015

4-Lina Pallotta, Porpora and Valerie, 1994

5-Lina Pallotta, Roma, 1990

6-Lina Pallotta, New York, 1993

7-Lina Pallotta, Roma, Tevere, 1996

8-Lina Pallotta, Terranova Bracciolini, 2008

9-Lina Pallotta, Porpora, Roberta and Lucrezia, 1990

10-Lina Pallotta, Roma, Cattedrale di San Pietro, 1996

11-Lina Pallotta, San Bartolomeo in Galdo, 2018

Felipe Romero Beltrán


Book review by Tanvi Mishra

The Foam Paul Huf Award 2023 and 2022 Aperture Portfolio Prize winner Felipe Romero Beltrán has released a new book with Loose Joints titled Dialect. Presenting the temporal dimension of the period of asylum which a group of nine young minors from Morocco navigate as they wait to be validated as documented citizens of Spain, it offers a possibility of restoring a personhood to the immigrant body, writes Tanvi Mishra.

Borrowing from the structural divisions of theatrical works, Felipe Romero Beltrán’s image-based series Dialect unfolds over three acts. Balancing between reality and recreation, it lies in the interstitial space of speculation. The photographs are not made in service of representation, but to gesture at the pace of a time. Flanked by two companion pieces – Recital and Instruction – which serve as prologue and epilogue, Dialect intersects with other theatrical forms of performance, choreography and film. Bringing these multiple pieces together, the book presents the temporal dimension of the period of asylum which a group of nine young immigrants from Morocco navigate as they wait to be validated as documented citizens of Spain.

The photograph has played a central role in the context of the recent migration to Europe and the refugee crisis. At certain times, to showcase its precarity – countless visuals of inflatable vessels at sea carrying tightly packed Black and Brown bodies. At others, its eventuality – images of people docking on the shores of Italy, Turkey and Spain, only to be confronted with the fortified system of border control. And this is with reference to those that make it alive. It is not just the photojournalistic image that has presented us this reality. Artists have staged the horror of bodies washed ashore, with an apparent motive of raising awareness. In these repeated acts of “bearing witness” or stirring a public conscience, there has emerged a surplus – thousands of images of groups of people in overloaded boats, in never-ending queues, in overcrowded refugee camps. They are not afforded names, nor any individuality, only pictured at the edge of a land that supposedly bears promise. Whilst the photograph no doubt serves to makes an incident visible, its repetition creates a numbness. Catalysed by this anaesthetisation, and depersonalisation, a public sentiment takes shape – the imminent “threat” associated with the immigrant from a foreign land.

In this archive of excess, the narrative often ends at the physical border. The immigrant is rendered nameless, but racialised. The border itself is imagined as the line that separates political boundaries, not one that extends far beyond it into detention or asylum centres or what Caterina Borelli refers to in her essay in the book as the ‘documentation regime’ that confronts every refugee. Beltrán’s commentary is located within the “custody and control” exercised by this extended border system, and the State’s desire – either by physical force or bureaucratic procedure – to organise the bodies that enter its territories. Both spatially and temporally, Beltrán expands the image archive beyond the repetitive documentation of the transgression of geographical boundaries.

Beltrán’s three-part act situates itself in an internment house in Seville, where a group of minors who have illegally crossed the border into Spain are housed until they reach adulthood and wait for their immigrant status to be shifted to naturalised citizens. It opens with, and periodically returns to, the impermeability of this edifice. All walls leading to a corner, the irony of doorways permanently sealed shut: serving as reminders of the futility of escape and the inevitable acceptance of the wait. Sociologist Pierre Bordieu recognised the act of making people wait, especially in anticipation of a favourable outcome, as an act of power and dominance. Youssef Elhafidi, one of the boys Beltrán photographs and author of one of the book’s essays, speaks about the desire for economic opportunity that motivated him to leave his family in Morocco and jump aboard a boat headed for the cold, dark Mediterranean in the dead of the night. It is this desire that is capitalised by the State as he enters its borders. The currency here is of time, or the ‘interlude’ as Albert Corbi refers to in his accompanying essay, which migrants must pay with to earn themselves a place in society. ‘[Illegal migrants] are exposed to an Interlude in which the language of the law and the language of Otherness are indistinguishable,’ Corbi states, referring to the limbo of one to three years that minor immigrants must endure once they reach adulthood in order to achieve a change in citizenship status. This process of waiting in and of itself, and the ‘strategy of delay’, serves to maintain the racial hierarchy of society[i].

Limbo, as an intermediate state, does not offer “incidents” to be photographed. It is in waiting, for the next condition that holds the prospect of movement, and freedom. In focusing on this period of suspension, Beltrán’s images oscillate between banality and theatricality. Mixing classical reportage with re-enacted scenes recalling the young men’s journey to Seville, the image-sequences allow us to speculate upon the documentary image, and the futility of these binaries imposed to evaluate its “truth” value. Moving through the three acts, the aesthetics deployed amplify the mundane – a pale colour palette, centre-weighted frames, often men looking back into the camera, reminiscent of images purposed for biometrics. In others, they are seen performing banal rituals of daily life. Unlike the theatre of the European coast, there is no drama in the images of the asylum walls, the unmade beds or the decaying fruit.

But the placid tenor of the edit is routinely disrupted by images charged with a speculative tension. A young man attempts to release two hands that grab his neck; two young men carry a third on their shoulders; another points two fingers to the right as if to aim fire. In these scenes of seemingly violent situations, the threat, however, appears to be muted. One of the two hands that grabs the neck holds the back of the head with care; the apparently collapsed body is carried against the backdrop of the familiar asylum walls; the hand that points beyond the frame has no weapon to hold. In collaboratively restaging experiences from the boys’ journeys to Spain, Beltrán places the record of waiting in the asylum in ‘dialogue with the crossing.’[ii] It is this dialogue, perhaps, that may offer a cathartic potential. Academic Zoé Samudzi refers to revisiting trauma as a space of potential knowledge production. In rejecting its ‘performative reiteration as a kind of re-wounding’ she advocates for a possibility to imagine healing ‘by learning how to refuse to reproduce it.’[iii]

The three works in the book borrow from reality, however, do not claim to be representative. Drawing from the experience of the body, each work elicits specific temporal characteristics of the immigrant ordeal. In positioning Recital as the precursor to the opening act of Dialect, Beltrán locates the narrative within the monotonous drone of bureaucracy and the legal system. Presented as a grid of screengrabs of three young men reading the first four pages of the Spanish immigration law, the book’s translation of the videos reinforces the repetitive burden and the simultaneous struggle to navigate a system built on the language of othering. Here, time acquires a circular characteristic, offering only an illusion of moving forward. Progressing from here to the three acts of waiting that follow, circular time mutates to dead time, and comes to a halt.

In choosing Instruction as the epilogue piece, Beltrán takes us back to the point of crossing, as if to initiate a recall to the initial point of rupture. Unlike Recital, the repetition of its frames is frenetic, and the pace charged. Performed by two dancers – one of whom, Bilal Siasse, is also one of the young immigrant men Beltrán photographs in Seville – the choreographed piece maps the movement of the body in response to an external destabilising force. Drawing from Siasse’s actual experience of crossing the border, Instruction is described as a ‘gesture performed within the jurisdictional limits of the State.’ In its visuality, however, it is reminiscent of the unpredictability of a body at sea and the surrender to its chaos through involuntary somatic responses. Whilst the legal border may begin near the shore, the impact on the body precedes its arrival on land.

In the description of this final piece lies the core inquiry of the work: how to translate a body? In contemplating this with respect to the performance, and the translation of Siasse’s visceral experience – for the choreographers and the dancers through the Stepanov notation [iv] – Beltrán acknowledges the impossibility of its complete representation. The book, then, can be seen as a compendium of praxis that records the movement across, and within, the border on multiple tenors. Piecing them together, Beltrán offers a possibility of restoring a personhood to the immigrant body that has for long been dispossessed – of the complexity of its identity, the dignity of its humanity and of the faith in the validity of its imagination.

All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints © Felipe Romero Beltrán

Dialect is published by Loose Joints.

Tanvi Mishra works with images as a photo editor, curator and writer based in New Delhi, India. Mishra has served as the Creative Director of The Caravan, a journal of politics and culture. She is part of the photo-editorial team of PIX, a South Asian publication and display practice. She works as an independent curator and has recently curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award for the 54th edition of Les Recontres d’Arles (France). Mishra has also been part of the curatorial teams of Photo Kathmandu (Nepal), Delhi Photo Festival (India) and BredaPhoto (The Netherlands). 

Her writing on photography has been published in various platforms including Aperture, FOAM and 1000 Words. She has served on multiple juries, including World Press Photo, Chennai Photo Biennale Awards and the Catchlight Global Fellowship, and is currently part of the first international advisory committee of World Press Photo.


[i] Shahram Khosravi, “Waiting bodies in dictatorial and bordering regimes” in The Funambulist (2021), available at thefunambulist.net/magazine/they-have-clocks-we-have-time/waiting-bodies-in-dictatorial-and-bordering-regimes, accessed 1 September 2023.

[ii] Felipe Romero Beltrán, “Stepanov Notation for the piece Instruction” in Dialect (Loose Joints, 2023).

[iii] Zoé Samudzi in conversation with Noor Asif, “Breath Back: An epistolary introduction to reparation and repair” in Parapraxis (2022), available at parapraxismagazine.com/articles/breath-back, accessed 1 September 2023.

[iv] Developed by the Russian dancer Vladmir Stepanov in the late 19th century, the Stepanov notation is a way of recording dance or body movement based on musical notation. By doing an anatomical analysis of movement, it deconstructs complex movements into elementary ones performed by individual body parts, identifying each of these moves as notes.

Monika Orpik

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road

Essay by Natasha Christia

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road is the new body of work by photographer Monika Orpik set in the Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site at the frontier of Poland with Belarus. Transcending the dramatic twists of the ongoing political actuality in Eastern Europe, it is a stark political statement that calls attention to the ethical double standards currently applied to asylum seekers, depending on political agendas and a refugee’s place of origin, writes Natasha Christia.

     Imprisoned by four walls
     (to the North, the crystal of non-knowledge
     a landscape to be invented
     to the South, reflective memory
     to the East, the mirror
     to the West, stone and the song of silence)
     I wrote messages but received no reply.

     Octavio Paz, ‘Envoi’

The borderland as an enclave of limbo, uncertainty, freedom and political oppression is the subject of Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road, the new photobook that Polish photographer Monika Orpik has edited with Łukasz Rusznica. Based on Orpik’s own photographs and a series of recollected testimonies, Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road takes the reader through the frontier of Poland with Belarus, where Orpik found herself in 2020 on a volunteer assignment for an NGO. In the course of three and a half months, she travelled through the Białowieża Forest, which straddles the border as an interterritorial natural boundary that separates and, at the same time, merges the two countries into one.  

The Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site described as Europe’s last remnant of primeval woodland, was by no means unfamiliar to Orpik. For her, as for the generations born and raised after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it has been associated with long, carefree childhood summers. However, nowadays, few of these nostalgic memories remain intact.

As luck would have it, a chain of tumultuous events started to unfold upon her arrival to the area, with the situation deteriorating further ever since. On 9 August 2020, the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus sparked a wave of civic protest against the Belarusian government and President Alexander Lukashenko. The brutal suppression of the demonstrations led to an exodus of members of the opposition. Belarusian dissidents found themselves stranded at border crossings between Belarus and Poland, alongside thousands of refugees from the Middle East. The Belarus–European Union humanitarian crisis in 2021 resulted in severe ill treatment and unlawful “pushbacks” of asylum seekers by border guards on both sides. The Polish government declared a state of emergency, establishing a militarised no-go zone along the border with Belarus. In January 2022, it initiated the construction of a €353 million wall aimed at deterring refugee crossings. The wall was completed in July 2022, five months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, purportedly as an element of the “country’s fight against Russia”, in the words of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

‘Place is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth’, writes Lucy Lippard in The Lure of the Local (1997). Orpik’s narrative impetus seems to acknowledge this intersubjective width and length, that is, the way in which the territory she explores is directly lived in by its inhabitants and temporal users. To start with, it articulates how a supposedly nourishing and untouched natural reserve is relegated by jurisdiction to a national boundary, and an in-between no man’s land. It bluntly exposes how the millenary trees, the brushwood and the fallen leaves of a forest become the living tissue of a ghastly past of deportations, ethnic cleansing and Cold War dystopia – a past which, up until seemingly yesterday, Europeans considered consigned to a bygone era. What once stood as a cradle of hospitality, harvest scents and folk tales is now, in the best-case scenario, a temporary shelter to those who are waiting to move forward or recover their homeland, and, in the worst, a literal graveyard for those who are left to perish.

To decipher the unspoken histories of the Białowieża Forest and its neighbouring region, Orpik turns to the specific and vivid life experiences of two of the communities that currently inhabit it: asylum seekers fleeing from Belarus, and the remaining local Belarusian minority, whose ancestors endured, after the Second World War, oppression and linguistic discrimination by the Communist regimes of Poland and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. These are the protagonists of her narrative. Their stories are told in the first person, and together with hers, they orchestrate how they wish to be represented in front of the camera: with the exception of a few isolated scenes of gatherings or people engaging with the environment around them, primarily via the landscapes, domestic spaces and objects that surround them on a daily basis, and all of this in place of straightforward portraits that could potentially expose them to the Belarusian regime.

The forest as literal passage (to freedom or to exile) is the leitmotif of Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road. What was meant as a sentimental journey to the land of ripe apples turns into a murky psychological hinterland. The passage is invested with an encroaching greyish veil that seems to eclipse nature’s exuberant wealth and taint the soul with disorientation. There is no wanderer’s song; the wanderer does not know on which side of the border they stand.

It is difficult to conceive how violent the encounter with nature can become when one is forced to undertake a clandestine route on foot that may last for days, or even weeks, through dense vegetation, in the hope of eventually making it to the other side. In her visual recreation of such an experience, Orpik takes into account her condition as an outsider, and avoids making a spectacle of it. She instead chooses to insert in her narration a series of jump-cut spreads that feature sequences of horizon shots, taken mostly from the window of her car. As if suddenly reaching a clearing, or hinting at a path or a road, these intervals condense and accentuate a gaze unfamiliar with its environment, and its frantic quest for the correct coordinates – a way through and out of this prison.

As Orpik drives around and engages in conversations with locals, her lens obsessively attends to the minutiae of interiors and exteriors where time feels stagnant and inescapable. Once more, we are given only occasional points of reference. Half-built structures, decayed surfaces and industrial ambiences appear abandoned in a precipitate manner; others seem to overcome this palpable sense of weariness and confinement, welcoming anew a domestic warmth. Wood resurfaces persistently, in tree branches, architecture, library interiors, book pages and rolls of typewriter paper. It comprehends, as a living rhizomatic organism, past uprooting next to a legacy that can sustain the promise of a solidary and peaceful coexistence in a new homeland. For the ‘universal story of migration is not only about leaving a space’, maintains Orpik. ‘It is about entering one too.’

Text is a substantial component of the book. Reminiscent of the ‘wall of language’ intersecting Michael Schmidt’s Waffenruhe (1987), it contributes to the intensification of the overarching narrative experience. Extracts from recorded conversations with 15 people – devoid, to a great extent, of specific geolocations and ethnicity terms – are edited into a collective voice. The voice in question speaks in two languages: whereas English is clearly employed for reaching out to a wider international audience, Belarusian takes on symbolic and political connotations. Its insertion is equivalent to the restitution of a language that has been consistently suppressed over decades on both sides of the border, and is currently vulnerable to extinction.

It was pivotal for Orpik and Rusznica to produce a timeless body of testimonies, beyond the dramatic twists of the ongoing political actuality in Eastern Europe. Their stark political statement calls attention to the fact that this is only the beginning – forced migration will remain on the frontlines in the face of political unrest and climate change – whilst acknowledging the ethical double standard currently applied to asylum seekers, depending on political agendas and a refugee’s place of origin.

Dense and misty, the forest denies a reply to the wanderer. The forest is made to obey the law of the border and its spectral tentacles. In Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road, these tentacles are personified by the sequence of the orchestra conductor’s hands. The hands cut the book into two halves and establish a tempo of ambivalent gestures. And yet, in light of resurfacing division on European soil, the dim veil that enfolds them seems to slide towards the darkness of totalitarianism. The tentacles are infused with isolation and fear. Fear, above all – for even when the border and the regime eventually dissolve, the fear will not. From the Evros River in Greece to Spain’s Melilla border fence in North Africa to the militarised Polish border zone, the natural landscape – now tamed as a claustrophobic confined territory, a no man’s “zone”, or what Giorgio Agamben calls the biopolitical paradigm of the ‘camp’ – seems to offer no way through. ♦

All images courtesy the artist © Monika Orpik

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road is published by Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych (OPT).

Natasha Christia is an unaffiliated curator, writer and educator based in Barcelona. She holds a BA in archaeology and art history from the National Kapodistrian University of Athens, an MA in modern art and film from the University of Essex and a postgraduate diploma in publishing from the University of Barcelona. Ηer curatorial research and writings focus on the way photography, archive, film and the photobook interact with the 21st century artistic avant-garde.

Carrie Mae Weems

Reflections for Now

Exhibition review by Jermaine Francis

Carrie Mae Weems’ work has long questioned how the representation of the Black subject has historically reproduced racism and inequality. On the occasion of Weems’ first major UK solo exhibition, Jermaine Francis considers her distinguished opposition to racial violence and all forms of oppression to engage us in a dialogue about the Black experience and narratives of resilience in the US.

Reflections for Now, at the Barbican, brings together a collection of installations, film and photography by the artist Carrie Mae Weems. For over 30 years, Weems has employed the use of multi-visual disciplines to interrogate the image and its effects on the contemporary Black American experience. Furthermore, the exhibition asks us to consider the work beyond reductionist readings of identity, as Weems has herself written: ‘There are so many avenues of exploration in the work. […] There are ideas about beauty, how beauty functions in the work.’

The exhibition opens with a series of abstract images in Painting the Town (2021), made in the aftermath of the protests that erupted after the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis in 2020. Large-scale and tightly-framed, the photographs of boarded buildings appear to resemble the visual language of abstract expressionism, but flipped on its head, once the context is revealed. The colour blocks demonstrate to the audience an act of erasure: the removal of the evidence of the protesters’ words, which in turn serves as a metaphor for a wider denial. In addition, Weems also suggests another subject of erasure: Black abstract expressionist painters, such as Mary Lovelace O’Neal, whose contribution to the discourse of painting and wider culture have often been overlooked.

The gallery space becomes the battleground in which the agency of the Black woman is asserted. Whether she is in front of the camera or behind the camera, Weems, in the words of Hilarie M. Sheets, ‘us[es] herself as surrogate for all possessed women, controlling narrative both subject and photographer.’ In Roaming (2006), which ends the show, a solitary Black silhouetted figure appears engulfed by institutions, museums, galleries and architectural structures, made even more poignant by Weems’ evocation of Benito Mussolini’s Rome, a reminder of the aesthetics of fascist desires.

Kitchen Table (1990) is an epic series that flows through two rooms, disrupting the one-dimensional representation of the Black woman through the presentation of an unapologetically complex set of narratives by the sophisticated incorporation of performance, construction, text and the self-portrait. In these photographs, Weems is centre stage, presenting her own story. Unlike so many historical depictions of Black women, she demands agency from the viewer, whilst engaging us in a rich dialogue about relationships, race, misogyny, sex and camaraderie.

The amplification of the presence and resilience of Black women is everywhere in this exhibition, and felt no more powerfully than in the installation Case Study Room The portraits of Black Panther members such as Angela Davies and Kathleen Cleaver are presented equally with their male counterparts, their contributions celebrated.

The exhibition takes us on another journey, one of dissonance and erasure that more directly addresses the issues around photography’s distribution and historical use. From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96) is a deeply moving and emotional work which deals with the concept of what Mark Sealy refers to as ‘racial time’. Weems asks us to consider ‘the photograph’s function as a sign within the historical conditions’ and how Black people have been historically represented.

The controversial Harvard daguerreotypes of Black slaves, now recontextualised with overlaid titles, proposes the process of dehumanisation, the photographs being complicit in the reinforcement of racial ideologies. It is further into the sequence that we are presented with the Gary Winogrand image of a white woman and a Black man, a couple, holding two chimpanzees. Some Laughed Long & Hard & Loud (1995–96) is the title, and Weems is asking us to consider this and the other images in the room in the context of ‘racial time’. It also calls to mind Jean-François Lyotard’s ideals of the sublime – ‘presenting the unpresentable’ – as well as the work of Alfredo Jarr, which employs aesthetics to unpack social injustices.

These avenues of exploration are what we are constantly asked to engage with throughout the exhibition. Articulating these overlapping themes and strategies most powerfully is The Shape of Things: A Film in Seven Parts (2021), a 45-minute-long panoramic video piece taking the viewer on a nonlinear journey through the history of the USA. Comprising a rich mosaic of archive material, news footage, noir, sound and soft monologues, it gives me a sensation similar to one I felt hearing Larry Heard’s Waterfall (1987). The panoramic screen dominates not just the room but also our eyeline, conjuring parallels to Weems’ protagonist in Roaming. There are particular scenes that are distinctive, a sumptuous frame of a Black woman fixing her gaze towards us, while papers, documents and newspapers cascade around the figure. The appearance of multiple female figures, and one male who dances in the rain, can be read as a sense of defiance but also healing. Early on, we experience a sensation of dissonance, with the screen split vertically to project repeated 1960s archival footage of a Black protest. On the right, a white crowd directs their anger to the image on the left, where a Black man verbally retaliates. A monologue in a male voice informs us that, in the end, they stopped trying because some people cannot be convinced to change.

From the multi-image work, The Push, The Call, The Scream, The Dream (2020), certain images haunt my mind. The first is a portrait of two women side by side, one young and Black, the other white and wearing the uniform of the Ku Klux Klan. The other is of a young boy crying at a funeral, which takes me to a place where I contemplate various events that have happened, and continuous cycles of hate.

We are presented with scenes of modern tragedies in which desperate people attempt to flee wars, famines and droughts: news footage of Afghani families trying to board the disembarking planes, refugees fleeing on boats, combined with ladies of leisure drinking tea from a bygone era; archival films of old comedy circus performances, devious clowns, alongside views of the Capitol riots. These are the consequences of this modern day pantomime and Weems asks us to reflect on America’s polarisation and the collateral damage being the Black demographic. This is reinforced by a scene in which a Black man runs in front of three clocks all set to three o’clock, whilst a voice undulates the dream-like sequence: “commemorating all who have fallen, and all those who have endured, commemorating every Black man who sees age 21…

The words speak of the other reality; of the Black and brown victims, repeatedly killed at the hands of those in positions of authority, who wear the same uniform as Goodman. In the hypnotic darkness of It’s Over – A Diorama (2021), an installation which I would describe as a memorial to the fallen, Weems presents a sense of hope. We are given propositions by a male voice whilst a camera sweeps over illuminated individuals in a crowd. A kind of manifesto exploring how citizens in the US can maybe find a better way of living, the film ends with the image of Weems swinging to the Jimmy Durante song, Make someone happy. Reminiscent of circus acts, it all feels appropriately bittersweet.

I often found myself questioning whether the wall texts need to be so descriptive of Weems’ intentions, yet this is a criticism that could be levelled at any exhibition. Maybe I wish it was left more to the viewer than some institutions might like to imagine, or maybe what’s most important is to experience a journey, one that tries to engage us in a dialogue about the Black experience and resilience in the US. In a world in which dialogue appears to be under attack, maybe we need this more than ever. ♦

All images courtesy the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York / Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin and the Barbican, London © Carrie Mae Weems.

Carrie Mae Weems: Reflections for Now runs at the Barbican, London until 3 September 2023.

Jermaine Francis is a UK born and London based photographer and visual artist. Originally from the West Midlands, his work explores power, space, identity, social and political issues. He has exhibited at the ICP New York, Photo Oxford, Saatchi Gallery, Galeriepcp, and the Centre for British Photography. He co-curated Notes on a Native Son at Peckham 24 2023 together with Emma Bowkett.


1- Carrie Mae Weems
, Untitled (Woman Standing Alone) from Kitchen Table Series, 1990

2- Carrie Mae Weems
, Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Make Up) from Kitchen Table Series, 1990

3- Carrie Mae Weems
, You Became A Scientific Profile; A Negroid Type; An Anthropological Debate; and & A Photographic Subject from From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-96

4- Carrie Mae Weems
, If I Ruled the World, 2004

5- Carrie Mae Weems
, The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm and Martin from Constructing History, 2008

6- Carrie Mae Weems
, Still from Cyclorama – The Shape of Things: A Video in 7 Parts, 2021

7- Carrie Mae Weems, 
The Louvre from Museums, 2006

8- Carrie Mae Weems
, Philadelphia Museum of Art from Museums, 2006

9- Carrie Mae Weems
, When and Where I Enter — Mussolini’s Rome from Roaming, 2006

10- Carrie Mae Weems, 
The Edge of Time — Ancient Rome from Roaming, 2006

11- Carrie Mae Weems
, Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me — A Story in 5 Parts, 2012

Nadège Mazars

Mama Coca

Essay by Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo

In the context of a trio of research-based photographic exhibitions built around the idea of self-governance for Fotofestiwal 2023 in Łódź, Poland, curator Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo focuses on Mama Coca by Nadège Mazars, a documentary project which tells the story of the Nasa people of Cauca, southwestern Colombia, indigenous tribes who came into conflict with the Coca-Cola corporation – a canny reminder that rejecting the consumerist spiral and questioning the dogma of growth is one way we can rediscover our connection with the earth.

The Nasa people of Cauca, southwestern Colombia have a long-standing tradition of indigenous activism. To support their territorial and political autonomy, they established the Indigenous Guard (Kiwe Thegnas or Kiwe Puya’ksa) more than two decades ago as an organisation dedicated to preserving and passing down indigenous culture, including the traditional use of coca leaf, to younger generations. The indigenous guards carry symbolic batons that represent their responsibility to the community, as opposed to being used as weapons. Comprised of women, men and people of all ages, including children, the indigenous guard courageously confronts the violence and actions of armed actors involved in the expansion of illicit crops, such as cocaine. They risk their lives to protect their territory from the disharmony caused by these crops, which disrupt socio-economic relations and contaminate water sources with harmful substances. Cue Nadège Mazars, whose powerful documentary project, Mama Coca, explores the diverse methods employed by the indigenous guard to educate their community about their political and spiritual responsibilities with the view to fostering respect for their traditions among Colombians and Americans alike.

Coca leaf products have deep cultural and medicinal significance in Andean communities. Whilst coca is the source of cocaine, it is also believed to possess healing properties and amongst the Nasa people in the Colombian Andes, chewing coca leaves is a vital part of their rituals, symbolising harmony and reverence for the land. The use of coca leaves has a long history, made evident in pre-colonial stone statues and the spiritual practices of Nasa healers. In the Amazon, coca leaf flour aids in meditation and wisdom-seeking. Socially, the “mambear”, chewing coca is practiced in communal spaces, fostering collective knowledge. In the Inca Empire, coca was sacred and restricted to the elite, used for anesthesia in surgical procedures. As recent studies have shown, coca plantations date back more than 8000 years. Balls of coca leaves were even found in the mouths of pre-Columbian mummies.

Today, coca is of course primarily associated with the production of cocaine, leading to its prohibition along with the drug itself. The stigmatisation of coca traces back to the arrival of the Spanish in the Abya Yala continent, where it was demonised and banned due to its perceived association with the devil and regarded as a hindrance to Catholic conversion. However, there was a contradictory approach to coca during colonisation, as it was also promoted by colonial elites to enhance the productivity of indigenous workers in harsh mining conditions. This history of moral stigmatisation during colonisation has had a detrimental impact on the culture and social cohesion of indigenous communities and, consequently, the contemporary valorisation of coca as a sacred plant with significant cultural importance plays a crucial role in the indigenous struggles in the Americas. It speaks to ideas of autonomy, ancestral territories, distinct culture and spirituality for indigenous peoples, reaffirming their identity and resisting the destructive effects of colonisation.

The conflict between multinational company Coca-Cola and indigenous Colombian company Coca Nasa revolves around the use of the four letters that represent the plant’s name. The Nasa people have been cultivating coca leaf for centuries in the Colombian mountains, making various products derived from legal processing, including food, beverages, herbs and natural medicines. In late November 2021, Coca-Cola demanded that Coca Nasa remove a beer named Coca Pola from the market, claiming it to be a case of plagiarism. In February 2022, representatives of the Nasa and Embera Chami peoples sent a letter to Coca-Cola expressing their concerns. They argued that the use of “coca” without consulting indigenous peoples is an abusive practice, violating national, Andean and international human rights norms. The letter demanded explanations and threatened to ban the sale of Coca-Cola products in indigenous territories. Since then, Coca-Cola has remained silent, potentially due to the fear of being implicated in the appropriation of traditional indigenous knowledge and facing a scandal. The legal battle remains unresolved.

Throughout its history, the original recipe for Coca-Cola is said to be one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world. However, in 1988, one of the company’s leaders acknowledged the presence of coca in the beverage. In an advertisement from the Scientific American magazine dated 7 July 1906, a photograph of two natives of the Andes region appeared alongside the caption: ‘These people endure their hardships more easily by chewing Coca leaves daily.’ It is believed that, for many years, Coca-Cola imported coca leaves, which were likely decocainised before use. The company seemingly obtained a special permission that allowed them to legally bypass international anti-drug laws, which restricted the sacred Inca plant within the borders of its native countries. This created an international monopoly on the use of the coca plant, whilst small indigenous companies like Coca Nasa face strict prohibitions on exporting their coca-based products.

However, within the concept of self-governance, a refuge of hope becomes apparent. Three separate, but linked, exhibition presentations at the recent Fotofestiwal 2023 in Łódź, Poland this summer bear witness to this model and are all driven by the following question: how are new forms of self-organisation practically structured in conjunction with political and legal autonomy in tandem with traditional and natural authorities to control the implementation of developmental projects?

The model of self-governance continues to be the subject of numerous theoretical debates but here the intention was to examine just three isolated cases within a broader range of issues present on the continent: the complex process of building a collective that has evolved over 40 years following the failure of Werner Herzog’s filming of Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the Peruvian region of Alto Marañón, as investigated in Ipáamamu – Stories of Wawaim by Eléonore Lubna and Louis Matton; a rebellion initiated by a group of Purepecha women to protect the Uauapu ritual, resulting in the expulsion of one of the most dangerous drug cartels from the city of Cherán which forms the basis Oro Verde by Ritual Inhabitual, and of course Nadège Mazars’ Mama Coca.

To comprehend this model, it is necessary to understand the key factors that have ancestrally contributed to preserving the activities of each community, identifying their customs, problems, adaptations and current situation. In these countries, the communities are surviving despite the lack of recognition and interest from different companies and state entities, despite national and international legislation protecting their rights and heritage. Therefore, the purpose of these exhibitions is not to shed light on the current context of the respective communities’ everyday activities and lives, but to demonstrate how they have survived and what methods of defense they have employed against various threats, such as the arrival of foreign film productions, the advent of the avocado industry, or the threat of a lawsuit from a US multinational corporation. Each exhibition offers a critical perspective on the concept of self-governance whilst underpinning an attempt to present the holistic nature of the research that allowed the photographers to comprehensively unveil the historical and ideological realities.

Ultimately, these events are part of a war against nature. Their magnitude and violence should not be underestimated. In this context, how can we restore peace, democracy and hope? The options are numerous: rejecting the consumerist spiral, questioning the dogma of growth and rediscovering our connection with the earth. All these commitments share a common ground: they are a response to a system doomed to failure. Each of these acts of resistance points us to the necessary paradigm shift in order to continue building a peaceful and resource-rich planet. However, beyond individual actions, how can we bring about a collective societal shift towards more sustainable lifestyles?

The hope is that we can emerge from this with our heads slightly bowed, our anthropocentric pride humbled, with greater respect for the fact that other cultures have been able to establish a wiser relationship with their surroundings. But for that, we must be willing to sacrifice something. What are you willing to lose? What is your hope? ♦

Fotofestiwal 2023 ran from 15 – 25 June 2023.

Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo is an artist, researcher, curator and author working both in Chile and abroad. Since 2016, he has curated exhibitions including Mapuche (Musée de l’Homme, Paris, 2017), Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation which has been on tour under his supervision and Geometric Forests (Les Rencontres d’Arles, 2022). He holds a PhD in Photography from the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie (ENSP), Arles. Valenzuela-Escobedo is also an artistic director and co-founder of doubledummy studio, a platform that creates a space for producing and showcasing critical reflections on documentary photography. He is a member of the jury for the Arles Book Award and a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). His writing has appeared in Inframince, 1000 Words and Mirà.


1>6-From Mama Coca © Nadège Mazars.

7>9-Installation views of Nadège Mazars: Mama Coca at Fotofestiwal 2023, Łódź, Poland, 5 – 25 June 2023.

Fotografia Europea 2023

Top three festival highlights

Selected by Tim Clark

1000 Words Editor in Chief Tim Clark reflects on the 18th edition of Fotografia Europea held in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia with a programme anchored in the theme ‘Europe Matters: Visions of a Restless Identity’, confronting the politics of inclusion and exclusion and the presence of history and culture in the present moment. Across 20 exhibitions, the curatorial proposition considers the relationship between conceptions of nationhood and democratic community, as well as the multicultural realities of European countries for the purposes of reconstruction, solidarity and alternative ways of existing together. We profile Mónica de Miranda, Simon Roberts and The Archive of Public Protests (A-P-P) – artists and collectives defined by their commitment to social change.

1. Mónica de Miranda, The Island
Chiostri di San Pietro

Upon entering the first floor at Chiostri di San Pietro, the vast sprawling 16th century monastic complex that serves as the hub for Fotografia Europea, visitors are confronted by an enlarged reproduction of the work from Mónica de Miranda entitled Whistle for the Wind. It figures the central protagonist from The Island series who is seen overlooking a vast expanse of water, sombre and subdued, as if expectant for answers. It leads into an exhibition of work comprising photographs, film and installation from the Portuguese-Angolan artist, known for her metaphysical investigations that unify postcolonial issues of geography, history and subjectivity related to Africa and its diaspora.

Though de Miranda has summoned an imaginary island to enact her fable, the reference is in fact the crudely named “Ilha dos Pretos” (Island of Blacks) – a denomination of oral tradition given in the 18th century to a community of people of African heritage that settled in the riverside area of the Sado River, southern Portugal; a place where the ghosts from Portugal’s colonial past intersect with the geological forces of deep time. Therefore, one might assume that what lies beyond in Whistle for the Wind are the vestiges of the past, those easily forgotten by a hegemonic system.

The creative and philosophical perspectives of alternate gazes, such as the queer gaze, the Black gaze and the female gaze, break with the idea of a white patriarchal heterosexual system – the many social clases that are ‘othered’ and too often treated as inferior – in order to find a new grammar or expression. They offer subversive counterpoints to the violence in the act of looking and consuming gendered imagery and ensuing reductive representations, whilst seeking beauty, empathy and valorisation of less prevalent experiences.

Political rebellion and resistance against the repression of a Black person’s “right to look” is what underscores bell hooks’ notion of the ‘oppositional gaze’. The late feminist, scholar and social activist first coined the term in her 1992 essay collection, Black Lives, to refer to a gaze that denies a spectator pleasure from looking, combating voyeurism and submits itself to a self-determined subject. It is not about scopophilia but defiance; looking as a form of communication, understanding and recognition. Therefore the ‘oppositional gaze’ affirms a right to identity and to see and document the world one knows or lives in. Perception can be a political act, as James Baldwin once ventured in a speech: “In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of five, six or seven to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”

Indeed, de Miranda commands a way of storytelling and coherent cultural memory as a means of empowerment. Holding up a mirror to project and reflect her model’s face, the four photographs entitled Mirror Me literally bring this into sharp relief: across the suite of images an assertive Black women is depicted wearing a captain’s cap, a cowboy hat and a horse-riding helmet. Costume and masquerade work together to form a protective mantle and the duality of the mirror allows us to discover a new system of reality. It evolves a possibility to imagine a different past, present and potential future – coalescing the women’s complex and multiple ideas of identity. There’s power, prestige and performance at work for these are portraits to dream in; an image gallery of internal visions and outward views, a ‘manifesting device’, a looking glass of self and otherness, an apparatus for transformation.

2. Simon Roberts, Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies From A Small Island
Chiostri di San Pietro

Simon Roberts’ Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies From A Small Island was first released as a monograph with Dewi Lewis in 2017 in the wake of the nationalist triumph of Brexit. Inside its pages, Roberts takes the temperature of the UK, offering insights into notions of identity, belonging and, specifically, what it means to be British at this significant moment in contemporary history. With his customary elevated perspective and tableaux style, we oversee views of places and the people that populate them to form a survey of a nation: on the one hand of the spaces and evolving patterns of leisure, the consumption and commodification of history, militarisation and to the lines of demarcation and exclusion in the landscape; and, in parallel, of subjects and events that have an immediate and enduring significance to Britain’s drastically changing trajectory of the past decade. As David Chandler has written in the book’s introduction: ‘[there is] an overriding sense of uncertainty and anxiety in Roberts’ national chronicle as it moves slowly towards the referendum and Brexit, and then culminates in the terrible iconic image of social inequality, injustice, and trauma formed by the blackened high-rise tomb of Grenfell Tower.’

Chandler goes on to point out that at its heart, Roberts’ work seeks to quell the visceral drama of events, not through immersing his camera in the drama of a scene but rather by stepping back. That way, the artist encompasses a fuller view of what’s unfolding, creating photographs that resolve into a multi-layered and nuanced array of comparative and linked information – tea parties, Eton College boat races, army recruitment stalls, Stonehenge, the London 2012 opening ceremony, the Royal Wedding, ‘Occupy London’ camps or trading floors of Lloyds Banking Group.

The cumulative effect of Merrie Albion is an offering; a poignant socio-political mood piece, the power and urgency of which never subsides with every year that passes amidst the continual calamities of the current UK government. Leading up to the exhibition installation, England football legend Gary Lineker was forced off BBC’s Match of the Day programme in a row over impartiality after comparing the vile language used to launch a new government asylum policy with 1930s Nazi Germany – the latest debacle in the so called ‘culture wars’, a clear distraction from the actual pressing issues facing the country today, chief among them: the cost of living crisis, wealth hoarding, inflation, energy bills, public health care systems at breaking point, criminalising the right to protest, taking away freedoms, multiple politician scandals and, of course, the failed and immensely costly project that is Brexit.

Roberts’ photograph Beachy Head, Seven Sisters Country Park, East Sussex, 24 March 2017, may serve as a useful coda here. Roberts says it best: ‘Taken in the very same week that the former UK prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, the start of the two year negotiation period to take Britain out of the EU, it shows ramblers exploring the chalk cliffs on the country’s south coast. An instantly recognisable symbol of Britain, the cliffs were recently voted one of the top 20 breath-taking views in the UK. But they also represent a boundary, between land and sea, high and low, the known and unknown, Britain and the outside – a potent symbol of Britain’s increasing isolation and political separation from Europe.’

3. The Archive of Public Protests, You’ll never walk alone
Chiostri di San Pietro

The Archive of Public Protests (A-P-P) was founded in 2019 by Rafal Milach, together with other photographers, academics and activists. Its mission is to examine social and political tensions in Poland from 2015 onwards, particularly among the young generation who have taken to the streets in great swathes with increasing regularity to demonstrate against the country’s leadership. A-P-P has now created a significant repository of work via its semi-open online platform and free newspapers centred on particular events or happenings. Dealing with the mounting complexities that define our troubled times, A-P-P’s stated aim is a “duty to archive” matched with a need to study the visual aspects of protest in the struggle against breaches of the law, discrimination and violence of various kinds. Its results articulate various states of ‘unfreedom’. Through a mix of raw footage, slogans used by protestors, bold design, sound and photographs, their exhibition You’ll never walk alone, as a biodimensional experience, is akin to being amongst a protest. It explores issues and inequalities long silenced by the Polish government, ranging from topics including state and police oppression, climate emergency protests, the LGTBQIA+ community, pro-choice Women’s Strike, Belarussian solidarity protests in Poland, the refugee crisis at the Polish-Belarussian border and anti-war and solidarity with Ukraine protests in Poland. The context is the Anthropocene, and histories unfold individually and collectively, at a hyper-local level but, of course, also resonating on the global stage.

Many members of A-P-P are active participants in the demonstrations whilst also observing the events with a critical eye, noting the shifting characteristics particularly around the use of language, which is said to have become more radical, vulgar even, given the levels of frustration and anger. And though the marches are peaceful, the message is always a bold one. The word “Wypierdalac” [Get the fuck out] is routinely shouted from within the crowds. This is combined with a distinct visual spectacle: people marching to the sound of drums and chants, banners hoisted high, flamboyant costumes as well as spontaneous performances throughout city streets and in front of monuments in the heart of Warsaw and beyond. The tools for intervention are both animated and artful. So too is the iconography, such as the symbol of a crimson-coloured lightning bolt that proliferates most notably throughout the Women’s Strike: as both face and body paint, projected onto building and even as fashion accessories. Similarly, red is the colour of choice: red ink, red clothes, red paint – the visual language of solidarity.

As a project dedicated to the relationship between archival practices and publication-making as a site of learning and solidarity (‘solidarity’ being the operative word as it was name of Poland’s first trade union founded in 1980), A-P-P is not interested in representing resistance or “going viral”. Instead, there is a strong desire to correct firmly established and outdated narratives that are propagated from the confines of mainstream media, the latter now almost entirely controlled by the state. Nor is it an attempt at objectivity, especially given the fact that the many far-right marches that frequent Poland’s streets and public spaces are not documented here. It is a partial account – selective and subjective. Yet A-P-P draws us into the efforts of those individuals and groups who are pushing back, those who are laying bare the ideological tactics of control and manipulation through a different kind of massification of images. Milach himself has explained in a recent interview: “By releasing the newspaper and creating this alternative circulation of images, we control the narrative and their usage. This is crucial, especially today – facing all the fake news or half-truths that influence our political and social life more and more. By creating a distribution channel – one of many – we can crystallise the message. It’s a coherent, closed document, which is manifesting certain clear ideas.” ♦

Fotografia Europea 2023 ran from 28 April – 11 June 2023.

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief of 1000 Words and Artistic Director for Fotografia Europea in Reggio Emilia, Italy, together with Walter Guadagnini and Luce Lebart. He also currently serves as a curatorial advisor for Photo London Discovery and teaches at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University.


1-Mónica de Miranda, Whistle for the wind, Portugal, 2022. © Mónica de Miranda, Commissioned by Autograph London.

2-Mónica de Miranda, The Lunch on the beach (after Manet), Portugal, 2022, 350 x 230 cm (6 parts of 115 x 116.50 cm) © Mónica de Miranda.

3-Mónica de Miranda, Double force, Portugal, 2022. © Mónica de Miranda.

4-Simon Roberts, Beachy Head, Seven Sisters Country Park, East Sussex, 14 March 2017. © Simon Roberts.

5-Simon Roberts, Equestrian Jumping Individual, Greenwich Park, London, 8 August 2012. © Simon Roberts.

6-Simon Roberts, Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 19 June 2008. © Simon Roberts.

7-Rafal Milach, Women’s Strike Protest against nearly total abortion ban, Warsaw, Poland, 22.10.22. © Rafal Milach, courtesy The Archive of Public Protests.

8-David Zieliński, Protest in defence of free media, Krakow, Poland, 12.08.21. © David Zieliński, courtesy The Archive of Public Protests.

9-Rafal Milach, Women’s Strike Protest against nearly total abortion ban, Warsaw, Poland, 22.10.22. © Rafal Milach, courtesy The Archive of Public Protests.