Michelle Dizon & Việt Lê

White Gaze

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

At the end of Señorita, a music video by rapper Vince Staples, the camera withdraws backwards from a street scene, through a window and into the ground floor of a house to reveal a white, affluent North American family looking out, smiling at what they have witnessed. This scene is effectively an urban prison. As the song unfolds, its socially diverse characters — working class black, latino, ‘white trash’ men (berating Staples as he walks by), a homeless man and two sex workers — are either celebrated, ridiculed or shot one-by-one by gun surveillance turrets above.

The video’s narrative is a metaphor for contemporary America: bourgeois whiteness reigns supreme at the expense of an underclass, comprised largely of people of colour and those Trump-voting white folks left behind by their middle-class counterparts. The window through which the camera withdraws frames the ‘disturbing’ scene outside for the ‘perfect’ white family to watch from a position of comfort; allowing them to look out both protected by, and in possession of, a ‘white gaze’. This underclass is mere spectacle or entertainment to that gaze. The camera, which tracks the narrative of the video is an extension of this form of ‘white sight’, eventually reclining to safety within the house. As George Yancy writes, ‘It is the social world of white normativity and white meaning making which creates the conditions under which black people are always already marked as different/deviant/dangerous.’ It is this precise sense of difference and danger Staples engages in his video.

Whiteness, which in this instance takes the form of monstrously bearing witness to from a position of safety, is reflected in a system of class dominance maintained by a violent, colonial prison state more commonly referred to as the USA. Cameras and guns conflate to form a single technological and militaristic entity that protects the hegemony of white power at all costs. Whiteness – which desires to track violence outside itself – is ignorant to the fact that the real source of violence lies within its own house. Whiteness, it might be said, is the root, the provenance and the source of social barbarity from its invention in the early 17th century to its present-day murrain. As Richard Seymour notes in his essay on Salvage, ‘whiteness is a plague.’

In a poem by Viêt Lê with an accompanying image by Michelle Dizon, whiteness gazes on in the form of a gesticulating white woman standing above three crouching black men. The image suggests she has something to explain; that her knowledge – her performance of a certain kind of education – must be articulated both verbally and physically ‘above’ – thus gazing down upon – the bodies of people of colour. The accompanying poem reads:

Eyes wide
in class
the British university
was also a technique
of pain
of the deserted
of painting
the raw desert
of humanity
of the humanities
in automatic shackles
Return to the colonies
of the mind.

Here, whiteness takes power as a form of European knowledge, the all-seeing and knowing eye of white sight manifest in the gestures of the white body and the utterances of the white mind. Here the white gaze offers – incognizantly, tediously, repetitively – its intellectual fruits to people of colour on their own land. In a different form of education-as-violence than the colonist Sir Thomas Dale promoted when starting a college along the Powhatan River to ‘educate the natives’ in early 17th century British America, this anonymous white woman professes her ‘unsurpassable’ knowledge to those she deems to be below her cultural imperialism. Criticised directly in Lê and Dizon’s image/poem intersection, the elite British university system is the network of institutions that socialised and educated elites who paved the way for the formation of the earliest inventors of whiteness – a group of governing individuals named the House of Burgesses (a word which is aptly derived from ‘bourgeois’) who, in 1619, forced the first group of twenty African slaves into servitude in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

Across multiple images and texts, and spanning various periods of colonial rule by different nations, Lê and Dizon’s White Gaze reveals page-by-page the way in which those socialised white often unconsciously experience – and therefore gaze upon – the world around us. Named after both a philosophical theory and the practice of one of the most violent forms of seeing, this book stands as a potent visual and poetic affront to whiteness.

Central to the idea of the gaze is the notion of desire. ‘In the beginning… desire is always competitive,’ writes Peter Wollen in his essay On Gaze Theory, which traces the genealogy of human desire in the form of looking and wanting from G.W.F. Hegel to Laura Mulvey. The desire of one human portends to the desire of another: I may want what you desire, I may shadow or mimic your desires, and it’s in this kind of relationship that human history might be thought as the ‘history of desired desires’, remarked Alexandre Kojève in a 1947 lecture on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In this way, you and I are constituted as truly human only when we focus our desire on the desire of an “other”, and, that in this instance, according to Wollen in his reading of Kojève, becoming human is somehow about being self-consciously in competition with an “other” via the gaze as a form of shared desire (because I desire what you desire above all else). I want not exactly what you want, but more precisely I yearn to be within the throes of that which you desire.

In Hegel’s view, during the early 19th century the gaze as a form of power was a struggle between two different kinds of unequal human: the master and the slave. The slave desires to take the position of the master and the master desires the acknowledgement of their power over the slave. At this point we would do well to remember Hegel’s immensely ignorant words on the “Negro” which, as Achille Mbembe reminds us in his On the Postcolony, are ‘an example of animal man in all his savagery and lawlessness.’

This interpretation of the gaze puts emphasis on, as Wollen continues, ‘the possibility of struggle’. In a simple sense this demonstrates that it is entirely possible to desire an object or thing – to struggle to obtain it – because others around us also desire it, not because we actually want it. When we desire things – for example whiteness, to be white, to act white – what form of power dynamics are at play as we do so? When we unwittingly project our white desires onto others, who are we in “competition” with? Might it also be said that we thus desire at the expense of others supposedly unlike ourselves? These are not the only relevant questions in the case of Lê and Dizon’s White Gaze, which begins to ask what the relationship between a certain form of white desire and photographic images might be?

Much like the way in which Vince Staples’ video seeks to metaphorise White America as a form of racialised power – the final scene literally framing the world of people of colour as an urban prison apart from the white familial space of comfort – Lê and Dizon’s project demonstrates that the history of photographic images and the camera itself equally reflect forms of deeply violent white sight. In my view, the importance of White Gaze is that it uses photography and poetry to ask white people to feel less comfortable in our whiteness (and for an increasing number of us, our new-found ‘wokeness’) and instead find ways to meaningfully resist our own white subjectivity. As George Yancy quite rightly suggested at a symposium in response to the question what should white people do? – and we white people might think of this book as a catalyst for the same action – “I want them to confront their own whiteness. That’s the kind of honesty I’m looking at; the kind of humility I’m looking at. That fearlessness to be torn apart… White people should go home tonight, get naked, look in the mirror and ask themselves, what’s so special about me?”

All images courtesy of the artists and Sming Sming Books. © Michelle Dizon & Việt Lê

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is Lecturer in Historical & Critical Studies in Photography, School of Media, University of Brighton; Visiting Tutor, Critical & Historical Studies, School of Arts & Humanities, Royal College of Art and Online Editor, Viewpoints at The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

Louis Quail

Big Brother

Book review by Alice Zoo

An aptronym is a name that is amusingly suited to the person who wears it. For example: Justin Quail loves birds. A keen birdwatcher, he spent his adolescence hitching and twitching up and down from south England to Scotland, only to turn back again as soon as he’d seen and marked the bird he was searching for. But then: he also practices yoga and meditation, writes poetry, has a long-term girlfriend called Jackie, and is the subject of his brother, Louis’ debut book: Big Brother. Justin is an adult living with paranoid schizophrenia. As the photographs show, this condition is far from the whole story; like a name, one detail about a person can only reveal so much.

Louis Quail has spent the past eight years documenting Justin, the way he lives, his rhythms and his interests. The result is a book that sets out this study, interleaved with Justin’s own poems and artwork, dialogue between the two brothers, and inserts that range from birdwatching documentation, to social workers’ case notes and police reports. In one of the book’s few close-up portraits, a weary-eyed Justin looks up towards us from the end of a sofa. The colours are muted, and the light soft enough to give the image the gauzy effect of a painting: Justin, uncannily, resembles Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the age of 63, that famous picture of human frailty. His expression is gruff, tired, almost intolerant; it is rare that photography is able to capture this kind of gaze, or that a photographer has the requisite intimacy with their subject – the requisite boldness – to record it on film. Quail’s tones throughout, in fact, recall Dutch Golden Age paintings, with warm, brick-like reds and yellows often throbbing in the frame. The approach is dignifying: Quail’s project demonstrates, again and again, that his brother and his brother’s partner are important subjects, worthy of sustained representation.

Justin’s girlfriend Jackie is depicted throughout the project, not as an accessory to the narrative, but as a full-blooded subject in her own right: her home, her elaborate, carnivalesque make-up, her drinking, smoking, and her shared experience with schizophrenia. Together, Justin and Jackie almost resemble one another: their dishevelled ease in one another’s company, and their reciprocal tolerance of the other’s caprices. Their twenty-year relationship has caused problems for both of them, to the point that, more recently, Justin has been incarcerated for various altercations after Jackie has called the police. Despite this, Quail asserts that Big Brother, at heart, is a love story – a portrait of two people’s bond, their “need to love and be loved.” The book follows them as they go on holiday to visit Jackie’s family in Ireland, and pictures of the couple are interspersed with gorgeous natural vistas, clean air, and archive pictures of Jackie as a young girl.

Photographers often turn to their families to make work, and projects documenting mental illness or personal strife are not uncommon. When making work of this nature, there can be a danger of falling too close to one of two poles: exploitative at the one end, or overly gentle or romanticising at the other. Quail is at risk of neither. The project is deeply tender and respectful, whilst at the same time presenting the chaos of his brother’s health without flinching or sensationalism. One image, for example, depicts Justin’s flat, the floor invisible beneath clothes, papers, other detritus. It takes a while, or a glance at the caption, to realise that Justin is there too, on the bed, his face obscured by a book he’s reading. He’s a part of the mess, which seems to grow out of him. An image that could be shocking instead becomes a picture of a person at leisure, surrounded by their environment. It is still disquieting, but the picture is anchored in a sense of reality and of personhood. A picture of Justin’s feet, each one wearing a different shoe, strikes the same careful balance: it is funny, sad, tender.

One reason for Quail’s documentary assuredness is his regret that he hadn’t photographed his mother, who also had schizophrenia, before she passed away in 2010. Photography throws up questions about power dynamics and vulnerability. Is it right to photograph somebody whose boundaries are blurred, who might, at times, be unsure of what they are consenting to? Ultimately, Quail explains that he is now “inclined to think that being ignored is worse than being intruded upon.” And what function does ignorance serve, in any case? Only a society that turns away from those who don’t meet its expectations, that gathers them all in a monolith of non-functionality. Besides, Big Brother is a collaborative work. The book is peppered with Justin’s commentary on the images; his consent, input, and active engagement are writ large, not least in the inclusion of his own artwork: watercolours and pencil drawings of himself, the birds he loves, a man who had him arrested. And Justin instigates boundaries where necessary. At one point, he won’t reveal the age he lost his virginity, “cos it’ll end up in the book.” In all these ways, Quail walks a confidently sensitive line throughout.

Another of the great successes of the work is its sense of humour. Quail’s inclusion of his own voice, in dialogue with Justin and Jackie, is indicative of the good-natured kind of teasing common to any sibling relationship. At one point, Justin describes being “good at the lottery,” having won £5 from £20 worth of scratch cards. Louis responds: “That’s not really that good though is it, Justin?” The photographs often have the same lightness of touch. In a picture at the doctor’s, Justin’s hands are over his face; we take in the quiet drama of the scene for a moment, before we notice that a small top hat is perched on the table next to him, unexplained.

The book moves neatly through Justin’s childhood and adolescence, to the revelation of his mental illness, then his hobbies, his relationship, a holiday, and the crisis point of his self-harm and string of arrests. At times, I wonder if the structure is too neat; if it leans too close to the temptation to narrativise a life which is still ongoing, to organise it into some kind of arc. One thing that Justin’s story demonstrates is how chaotic life can be, how hard it is to make it fall into a pattern – mental health conditions aside – and I wonder if the structure of the book might be strengthened if it reflected this, if it were less straightforward. Despite the tidiness of its storied presentation, though, it is not simplistic: it doesn’t suggest easy answers to the governmental and structural failures that worsen or problematise the lives of people like Justin and Jackie, instead provoking questions about the ways we discuss mental illness, support for the vulnerable, and the balance to be struck between ‘care and control,’ as Quail puts it in the epilogue.

We’re told the book is a love story. Quail depicts his brother’s love for his girlfriend, for his health, for the birds he watches, for nature. All of these things, heaped together over time by the camera, tell us so much more than Justin’s name or his diagnosis could; years spent together coalesce into a rich and aptly fragmentary story of a person in his fullness. However, one thing to which Quail does not draw explicit attention, and which is, perhaps, the most striking kind of love of all, is that fraternal love evidenced by the photographer’s documentation itself. Quail’s concern for his brother, and his dedication – not only to Justin’s support and survival but his enjoyment of life, his ability to live well and fully, and his wish to tell his story – underwrite the narrative. All the while, Quail is there, watching over him. In the last photograph in the book, Justin strides out across a field with his binoculars, hunting for a glimpse of the birds he loves so much, and reaches a hand out behind him for Jackie, who follows him. A short way back, Quail is there too, taking pictures of it all, committing the life of his brother to film, and saving it up for this labour of love: a book.

All images courtesy of the artist and Dewi Lewis Publishing. © Louis Quail

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London, working with national and international publications such as BBC News, the British Journal of Photography, and the Washington Post. She is also a freelance photo editor at the FT Weekend Magazine, and co-founder of Interloper magazine.

Poulomi Basu


Essay by Emilia Terracciano

Fields smoulder at night. Through a forest clearing a teenage girl walks with her rifle. Half dressed bodies lie by an upturned truck surrounded by mobile cameras. A spray-painted man poses in the guise of a metallic Gandhi at a party, perhaps in a village. Men and women gather comically for a selfie on a raised patch of land, a tiny drone hovers above them. Forests blaze. In her latest photo-documentary Centralia, Poulomi Basu presents a deranged journey that leaves one giddy, slightly sick. Often shot at night, in pitch darkness, Basu uses bright colours, high shutter speeds, low aperture and shallow depth of field, creating a centrifugal, film-like atmosphere.

Centralia takes its name from a near-ghost mining town in Pennsylvania, US. Bought up by colonial agents from native American tribes in 1749, the mineral-rich borough became a thriving mining hub up until the world war years and global depression. Declared uninhabitable in the aftermath of a subterranean fire and the spread of toxic methane gases in the 1960s, Centralia’s residents were forcibly evicted by ‘eminent domain’ in 1992. Virtually a non-place – Postal Services suspended its zip code in 2002 – the creepy municipality is mined today by horror film crews.

Basu dislocates space-time expectations, connecting the shrinkage of mining in Centralia to the expansion of these extractive activities in the global south: central and eastern India. For Basu, the collapse of this little-known US town – with its hellish sinkholes, toxic vapours, rubble homes and melting asphalt – could prefigure the destruction of the mineral-rich areas of India. Seemingly removed from the economic and political realities of Centralia, these regions are the focus of Basu’s hallucinatory reflection – one that ponders the process of corporate mining and the violence that accompanies the extraction of minerals from the soil. ‘Centralia,’ Basu writes, ‘is the future.’ Economic booms and busts of the global economy may drive Centralia but the subject of the project is the protracted war waged by the Indian military-corporate complex against tribal communities (Adivasi) over lands and natural resources. Basu exposes the violence that accompanies bipolar development narratives in India: between those who endorse the project of corporate industrialisation and those who oppose it.

Murky and complex, the portrayal of the Maoist insurgent group People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) divides academics, critics and artists in India. Outdated authoritarian ideologies and rigid hierarchies certainly structure the guerrilla group, whose commitment to a ‘protracted people’s war’ against the state and the enclosure of the commons has caused an escalation of violence against civilians. PLGA’s mimetic warfare strategies, following the Maoist dictum that the guerrilla must move amongst the people as fish swim in the sea, formidably pits innocent civilians against the paramilitary. The latter retaliates and destroys villages, performs extra-juridical killings, torture, rapes and arrests. Bodies are dressed up in military fatigues: identities become blurred on both sides of the divide. ‘Even if you cover this honestly, there are so many things you don’t know. The Maoists won’t tell you about them, the police always lie. The villagers don’t tell you anything. So how well can you really cover this?’ writes a local journalist interviewed by Basu.

Basu elevates obfuscation to a formal strategy, an approach that enacts a deliberate breakdown of ordinary vision and of knowledge bound to storytelling. Here, the possibility for visibility and transparency, myths that are fundamental to political and legal Euro-American discourses (and documentary photographic processes), are repeatedly questioned. Basu performs the theatrics of forensic documentary tropes on crime scenes but also inserts clues that appear to have been meddled with for and before the camera. Here the bloody, severed head of a baby goat, there the ghostly remains of a camp.

Centralia withholds the possibility for lyricism when figuring the PLGA’s armed resistance. In so doing, she does not abdicate critical questioning about insurgents’ political intentions, and the horrific consequences of their revolutionary politics for civilians. Moving through gorgeous forests, Basu resists the conventions of pastoral framing. Nature is militarised, trees offer makeshift shelters to humans and their weapons: rifles rest against trees before pujas (acts of worship) in eerie surroundings. Basu dislikes the term ‘embedded’ to describe her personal engagement with the guerrilla groups over the years. She prefers the term ‘immersed’. For sure, Basu has enjoyed the protection of Maoist units in gaining privileged access to inaccessible conflict zones but refrains from identifying with the insurgents. Intimacy and proximity are not available to her and she remains a stranger amongst these unlikely, camouflaged comrades. Such distance can be gleaned in the way she includes yellowing, gimmicky images that appear static and calmly classical in their staging. Basu, who has devoted her career to documenting the resilience of women (To Conquer Her Land, A Ritual of Exile and Isis Mothers), does share with us the militancy of PLGA’s women. She includes pixelated mugshots of deceased militant female martyrs as well as portraits of women in uniforms bearing old rifles. Such an approach suggests empathy for a way of life that resonates with Italian-American feminist Silvia Federici’s understanding of ‘a joyful militancy.’ This account of female resistance can resonate with more historically iconic examples: think of Vietnam or the Sandinista guerrilla fighters in Nicaragua. Women did play significant roles in these guerrilla fights, operating in jungles against powerful imperialist powers; social revolution was a genuine possibility and armed conflict no mere defensive strategy. It is difficult to gauge the extent to which Basu may identify with her characters. A strong sense of sympathy transpires from her shots but only a brittle heroism can be sensed. Male and female comrades appear fragmented in the fight, perhaps isolated. Moreover, it is the men who handle whatever primitive technology is available, for example, a radio. Basu limits camaraderie and its idealisation to one shot of a man and his dog.

Open-ended, Centralia offers a nightmare account of an ongoing war. Basu ultimately offers no release from this nightmare and opens up her lenses to the shelter of the night sky.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Poulomi Basu

Emilia Terracciano is an academic and writer based in London and Oxford. She is a postdoctoral Leverhulme Fellow at Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, where she teaches the course Globalisation, Photography and the Documentary Turn. Her research interests lie in modern visual art and photographic practices with a focus on the Global South. Her book Art and Emergency: Modernism in Twentieth-Century India was published by I.B. Tauris in 2017. Terracciano also writes for The Caravan, Modern Painters and Frieze. 

John Gossage

Looking Up Ben James – A Fable

Book review by Gerry Badger

This is John Gossage’s ‘English’ book, although some of it was shot in Wales, and the title has Welsh connotations. Ben James was a Welsh miner photographed by Robert Frank when he came to Britain in the 1950s. Those British images prefigured the style of The Americans, and as an aside, I remember looking with Gossage for the location of another famous Frank picture, the London hearse, which was taken not in Belsize Crescent – as is sometimes alleged – but in Kentish Town, where I live. Alas, it had vanished during the rebuilding of a goodly portion of the area in the 1970s. What became of Ben James is also unknown, although in the book’s short text, Martin Parr imagines he and Gossage running into the miner’s descendants and being offered some Frank prints for £25 each.

Gossage made the book when he visited Parr in Bristol in 2008 and the pair made a trip around the country, getting as far as Cumbria, where he made a splendid double portrait of photographer Graham Smith and his wife Joyce. This is a very personal trip, a visual travel diary. There are pictures of Martin, and Martin’s mother, and of his sadly departed dog, Ruby, familiar to the many visitors to his Bristol home. So this is firmly in the diaristic mode, an extremely popular, almost ubiquitous trope in contemporary photography. Some would say it is too popular, often coming into the ‘who gives a fuck’ category of so much social media culture. And it can frequently seem a little arch, a bit too knowing, especially when famous photographers photograph each other. There are odd references, for instance, to Martin’s well-known collecting habit, which might be regarded as an ‘in joke’, but Gossage always knows when not to push it. This is an exceptional photobook, for two reasons.

Firstly, the design and production. It is the finest that Steidl is capable of, with the master printer Gerhard Steidl challenged to produce sensuous black and white printing that equates to that silky gravure that was such a feature of photobooks in the 1950s and 60s. And the book is large, with a number of inserts in overlaid colour monochrome. The size, one might say, is antithetical to the intimate subject matter, but in this case it works.

Second is the sheer quality of the images. Gossage has long said that the first criterion for a great photo book is great photographs. Too many, I believe, ignore this basic principle and imagine that complicated design and cute production results in a great photo book. More often than not it simply results in complicated design and cute production trying to inflate empty photographs. Not that design is ignored here, but it is not privileged at the expense of the photographs. Indeed, Gossage is also a qualified designer, and not adverse to pushing the envelope in both design and production terms. He likes the odd design twist – a small red point on an overlay picks out a flare spot in the picture beneath – but again, he has an innate sense of when to stop.

This is a book of photographs first and foremost, by an endlessly experimental photographer. He is essentially a street photographer, a flâneur with an emphasis upon the urban landscape, although that does not begin to describe the range or depth of his practice.

Gossage has developed into one of the most recognisable photographic voices over the years, and that can mean resorting – quite naturally, all artists do it – to a repertory of stylistic and contextual devices, that go to make up his distinctive voice. I know his work intimately, so I am very aware of his little strategies and visual foibles, but I can also say that, like a good jazz improviser, he is always trying to surprise himself, and come up with a picture that one has never quite seen before.

Here, as Parr says in his text, Gossage never courts the obvious but works around the edges, or around the back, sniffing out pictures like a dog sniffs out smells. In this trip, he was nearly always looking for the oblique angle, entirely appropriate for a society which so frequently presents a facade, or even a series of facades. His Britain is a land of walls and doorways, both of which define boundaries yet lead to places. In Gossage’s hands, the outcome seems ambiguous, although this is an affectionate rather than a critical look at our island.

Gossage, like all great photographers, is a master at making the familiar seem newly minted. A few pages in, we come across some milk bottles on a front doorstep, an ultra-ordinary scene which yields a great picture. A mill and mill chimney are presented out of focus, so it is a mill as you’ve never quite seen it before. We then come to a Gossage – and British – speciality, the garden, in six pages of fecund, exuberant plots. We move on to more steps, garden sheds, doors, gates, and gate posts. There is a startling view of a fox walking down a path, and a glimpse of ‘historical’ Britain, in a framed picture of an ocean liner from when Britannia ruled the waves (and rammed icebergs). And there are stains. Only Gossage, I think, can make interesting pictures from stains on the pavement.

This book is not, primarily, about Britain, or even a travel diary, although of course, it encompasses these objectives. First and foremost, it is about what photographers do. That is, make pictures about touching the world. When Gossage was a teenager, his teacher, Lisette Model, advised him to go and look at the work of an old, half-forgotten French photographer called Atget if he wanted to learn how to put a photograph together. I would say to today’s teenage photographers, if you want to learn how to put a picture together, you couldn’t do much better than study John Gossage.

Looking Up Ben James – A Fable is a sheer pleasure, a beautifully crafted and well put together book that above all, contains photographs of the very highest quality.

All images courtesy of the artist and Steidl. © John Gossage

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Chloé Jafé

I give you my life

Essay by Emma Lewis

The women in Chloé Jafé’s I give you my life described to her their motivations for getting their tattoos and they’re mostly about love and strength – being in love, falling out of love; feeling strong, needing to feel strong. “I want to live like the man I’m in love with,” says Anna, “I don’t regret anything. In one word, I think they’re really cool!” June got hers at forty because the man she was with had them and “looking at my naked body without any tattoos made me feel weak.” Yuko was thirty-eight, divorced, and she saw them as a way to mark her independence and “discourage certain guys from approaching me […] For the remainder of my life I’ve decided I want to live independently.”

The men to whom these women refer are members of the Yakuza, the international crime syndicate that originated in Japan some four centuries ago and today has around 100,000 members. You’ll have seen these men in photographs: with distinctive tattoos that extend from the neckline down to knees and wrists, they are as photogenic as they are intriguing. Not surprisingly, the organisation and the subculture that surrounds it also make compelling subject matter for film – the Yakuza genre is almost as old as cinema itself.

Despite this pop-culture representation, women’s association with the Yakuza seldom features in any meaningful way. In part this is because, historically, and unlike some other criminal organisations, very little has been known about what their lives are like – though recent memoirs by wives and daughters have gone some way towards lifting the veil. The acclaimed Yakuza Moon by the daughter of an oyabun (family boss), Shoko Tendo – the first autobiography of it is kind to be translated, in 2007, to English – even inspired a glamorous, if wildly inaccurate, movie series.

In 2014, the criminologist Rie Alkemade addressed this lacuna in knowledge with the publication of her study on the wives and girlfriends of the Yakuza, Outsiders Amongst Outsidersto which she refers in her essay for I give you my life. In her research she found that, with few exceptions, the idea of a Yakuza ‘lady gangster’ is a fiction: their role takes place behind closed doors, managing finances and acting as peacekeepers and mother figures. The term she uses is ‘glue’. To the wives and girlfriends, this work is integral to the running of the clan. But to the men, it is peripheral – and so too are the women.

Throughout I give you my life, Jafé highlights this disconnect between how the women perceive themselves and how they are perceived by men. Interested less in the gangster stereotype than the day-to-day life of the clan (who live together under one roof), she shows us scenes to which we are privileged to be privy, but which remain opaque. A group of men, seated and serious. A mealtime, the women in the kitchen. A group of men again, bowing to a man in the back seat of a car. Where mixed groups appear, the women appear to be – as indicated by body language or proximity – subservient. One exception is a photograph taken at the beach, where an ane-san (boss’s wife) is front and centre, tens of tattooed men standing behind her. The hierarchies between a wife and their husband’s subordinates can be complicated.

In this portrait, as in those of the tattooed women – intimate, nude studies and pairs or group shots taken at a traditional festival, where their designs can be seen creeping beyond their clothing – ‘subservient’ and ‘peripheral’ are hardly the first words that come to mind. These women appear self-possessed, independent, formidable even. As Alkemade points out, to tattoo their bodies takes courage not only because in conveying an allegiance to the Yakuza they place themselves outside of mainstream society, but also because the Yakuza men will never truly accept them as members. If her title Outsiders Amongst Outsiders highlights this limbo, then Jafé’s I give you my life begs the question: and for what?

In many ways, Jafé’s is a project about access – how the photographer found her way to her subject, and the dynamics that played out when she got there. When she arrived in Tokyo, she didn’t speak the language or have a fixer, only the determination to reach the women who orbited the world that she had watched in so many films and read about in Yakuza Moon. She also knew that because women aren’t permitted to invite guests into their home, she would have to go through the men.

Jafé began her journey in the city’s red-light district, where she met men who were low down in the syndicate’s ranks and to her, felt more dangerous than useful. There were introductions and tip-offs from friends and acquaintances – a tattoo artist, a hairdresser. She got a gig as a hostess in a bar, the only non-Japanese person to work there, but had her bag stolen, didn’t feel safe. Two years down the line, it was a chance meeting at a festival that led her to the oyabun. Gradually, Jafé was allowed access to his inner circle and then, only when she gained his trust, she was granted access to his wife.

In a project where gender disparity appears to be so acute, it is interesting to consider the ways in which the photographer’s relationships with the men and women differed. To access the upper echelons of a Yakuza clan is no mean feat, but you sense there was a vanity involved on the men’s part. Jafé must have amused them. She had to be charming, deferent, and harmless. Yet to the ane-san, this young, foreign, woman that her husband was taking to dinner wasn’t necessarily such a benign presence. Aware that the wives and girlfriends viewed her with suspicion, Jafé worked her way in carefully, making friends and navigating through a very particular set of social codes and cues. The portraits that result from this gradually built trust are sensitive, considered and, importantly, they feel collaborative. “You work on luck,” she says, reflecting on that chance meeting with the boss at the festival. But of course, there’s more to it than that.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Chloé Jafé

Emma Lewis is an Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, where she organises exhibitions and displays and is responsible for researching acquisitions for Tate’s photography collection. Her book Isms: Understanding Photography was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Dafna Talmor

Constructed Landscapes

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

Peter Geimer’s remarkable study of photography’s pre-history and its history of accidents, titled Inadvertent Images: A History of Photographic Apparitions, opens with an important photograph: André Kertész’s Broken Plate of 1929. Kertész’s image, Geimer reminds us, could have held a caption ‘Paris’ or ‘View of Paris’: it began its life as a depiction of a sharply descending Parisian street in the 18th arrondisement, with a view over to the spire of Notre-Dame de Clignancourt. Somewhere in advance of its printing, the glass plate was broken – a forceful but precise wound ruptures its surface on the left of the image, the whites of shattered glass spraying from a new dark centre. It is unclear whether this alteration was intended or entirely accidental – Kertész was a participating Surrealist, but also a working photographer – but after the event of its rupture, the image no longer exists solely as a view of the city: it draws attention to its materials and surfaces, equal to or greater than its subject. The illusion of photography is shattered.

Geimer purposefully weaves a ‘pre-history’ of photography with accidents and abstractions, showing them to be core to how photography functions: these had been written out of the familiar history of the medium in favour of a narrative that claims to come into being not by the gradual development of ideas, trial and error, and unintended consequences but in the instantaneity of authored invention. Such a narrative is convenient, Geimer reveals, because it plays to the reinforcement of multiple orthodoxies, including a clean and uncluttered history of photography itself. His purpose here is not just the demystification of invention as a moment of spontaneous genius, however, but to make a well-made but controversial argument as far as photography’s essential properties are concerned: that depiction did not come to photography before abstraction. Geimer shows that visibility and representation emerged from within the haze of photography’s abstract traces. Abstraction and fragmentation were always part of the image, and not the late inventions of art: in fact, any conception of photographic truth needs reconfiguring to include the role played by the camera operator.

Against this background, the photographic landscape or ‘view’ is revealed to be a complex ensemble, made of studies, tests and alterations, and not as an object of contained romantic sublimity. In her ongoing series Constructed Landscapes, Dafna Talmor tackles the difficult task of depicting a view in both direct and complex layers. Her images are at first overt as disassembled exposures, but they resist completion in their reconstruction, opening out to larger questions about the landscape image, its history, and its place in our conceptions of nature. From its initial formal fragmentation, Untitled (LO-TH-181818181818-1) slowly reveals a variety of surfaces that blend and diverge from one another. Patches of rippling water echo with the dappled surfaces of the ground. We have nothing to assure us that this isn’t one location, and so we attempt to recompose it, to understand its multiple positions. We quickly give room, albeit unconsciously, to a multiplicity of parts from which the landscape springs.

Composed from multiple negatives – so that images, views, and perhaps even places are intermingled – her images balance between a pictorial space constructed by fragments and the logics of a disciplinary photographic frame that seeks a completed image. Untitled (BR-1414-1) hovers between one and what seems to be two images, comprised as it is of oscillating tonalities that may or may not merge together. Each contains rupturing black and white flashes which reveal the construction of the negative as a cut, splintered, taped and crafted object. White flashes arise from overlapping parts of the negative, whilst black spaces – which sometimes appear to be both deep and impenetrable, but also sit at the surface as a flattened foreground, like Kertész’s shattered plate – are produced from empty spaces between pieces of film. Untitled (EA-131313-4) is both broken and joined by black lacerations. Its cliff surfaces stacked at destabilising angles, which reveal their assembly whilst building a perspective which threatens perceptually to collapse upon itself. The negative is an object from the beginning of Talmor’s project: this does not collapse the notion of her photographs as landscape images in a tangible, legible sense. Nevertheless, it forces us to call into question quite what we understand by landscape as a descriptor.

An aspect of this disassembly of landscape comes from Talmor’s reading of the history of the genre, and its involvement, as Geimer also shows us, with technological limit and the gradual problem solving that leads towards representation as we know it. The challenges of depicting the landscape were revealed in the early histories of photography, as wide angles and variation in light necessitated the invention of multiple exposures and combination printing. Blown out skies and darkened landscapes blighted the painterly aspirations of early practitioners, and Talmor is quick to identify the combination print as a rarely considered object and construct in the overcoming of photography’s raw qualities. Her earliest Constructed Landscapes use the quasi-empty space of the landscape as a site for overprinting, with ghostly impressions emerging in the skies of many of her photographs. Such is the significance of this capacity – to print and adjust the sky alongside the content of the land – that we are forced to reconsider what it brings into being. Can we imagine for a moment what the history of photography would look like without dodging and burning, multiple negatives and the craft of the darkroom? Such a history would surely give rise to a thousand, a million abstract photographs. Certainly, at the very least, such conditions abolish romantic conceptions of immediacy. Talmor places the making of the image in the darkroom as a central gesture where it is often downplayed. In place of the singular image – the persisting myth of the event as captured solely within the compression of the shutter – the picture’s multiplicity comes forth. And Talmor reminds us also that multiplicity is more than just the reproducibility of a print: it is embedded in the stitched, collaged and montaged techniques that span Pictorialist abstractions right through to the labour of Rejlander’s Victorian tableaux.

Whilst Talmor produces assemblages peppered with marks, punctuations and clues to the images’ making, her initial photographs of subtly significant and undulating spaces are not quickly graspable, and are not spaces of rapid digestion. They are images that Talmor herself claims cause a certain doubt upon initial inspection: are they interesting or revealing enough within the contexts of our current image world? Do they contain sufficient traces or semblances of event or narrative? That is to say, they are sites which do not give up their sense of specific place quickly, being neither romantically overblown nor documentarily dramatic – which is also to say, they are like most spaces, the many rather than the very few. Instead, they require time and an uncovering of the layers that reveal the histories of place. Talmor’s assemblage of images constructs a more complex condition of presence, and a viewership that is necessarily, as a response to the sealed presentation of most landscapes, deconstructive or archaeological.

Much could be made of the specifics of place and the locations in which Talmor photographs, though this seems like a red herring liable to being over-interpreted in a search for hasty completion. In fact, Talmor makes no clear reference to their location, titling her works with the encoded system of negative parts which comprise the images, and consciously omitting by cropping or cutting, manmade objects that might enable recognition. It seems fruitful to hold our desire for certainty within the image at bay for at least a moment. We are liable to place the landscape at a remove, to see it as natural – beyond us, or affected by mankind – i.e someone else, both of which concoct a distance that permits our indifference. Images of specific, far away landscapes and events place us at just such a remove, as many critiques of documentary have evidenced. Talmor instead positions the viewer as a constructor of the landscape, a contributor to space: the photograph may appear flat, but the image becomes tangible and animate in Talmor’s actions and the constructive gaze it calls upon. The landscape is non-descript, but it is formed and conditioned by human actors. The spaces of Talmor’s photographs do not need to be identified, precisely because they take as their subject not a place that we can distance ourselves from, but somewhere larger, beyond place: a landscape always already constructed and contested, that we are part of, whatever our connection to it. We must piece the landscape together in order to understand it. We’ve made it that way, after all.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Dafna Talmor

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and Course Director of Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. He writes regularly for Artforum, Art Monthly and Elephant. In 2011 he curated the exhibition Anti-Photography at Focal Point Gallery, and in 2014 John Hilliard: Not Black and White, at Richard Saltoun, London.