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.

Laia Abril

On Rape: And Institutional Failure

Book review by Jilke Golbach

On Rape: And Institutional Failure, Laia Abril’s latest instalment in her ongoing History of Misogyny, uses text and image to offer a carefully orchestrated, rigorously executed journey of photographic investigation into the omnipresent threat of rape, and violence against women in broader terms, writes Jilke Golbach. The Catalan artist currently presents her broad-ranging, research-based work at C/O Berlin until 21 May 2024.

Disbelief. It leaks from the pages of Laia Abril’s book On Rape: And Institutional Failure, published by Dewi Lewis, lingering in the air like a horrid smell. Disbelief, not because the countless stories of rape recorded here are unfamiliar (hardly so) or the facts fail to be loud enough, but because they lay bare, page after page, the nauseating extent to which practices, materialities and cultures of rape pervade societies whilst rape victims continue to be discredited and disputed.

An involuntary question, close to denial, keeps popping into my head as I process the most archaic, most barbaric forms of sexual abuse and silencing made visible here: surely, not still? To which the answer is: yes, still. And all the time, everywhere.

The day I write this, accounts of rape emerge from war-torn Ukraine, the London metropolitan police and Iran where, horrifyingly, virgins “must” be raped – in the name of religion – before being executed for protesting in the streets. If Abril’s project makes one thing clear, it is that rape, and violence against women in broader terms, is an omnipresent threat, not confined to borders or circumstances, and one which is to a great extent internalised by 51% of the global population. A frightening UN statistic asserts that as many as ‘one in three women will suffer domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime’.

Covered in bloodred cloth and printed on ink-black paper, this latest chapter of Abril’s ongoing History of Misogyny is a carefully orchestrated, rigorously executed journey of photographic investigation. It was sparked by the Manada, or Wolfpack, story in Spain, Abril’s country of birth: a widely publicised case of the gang rape of an 18-year-old woman in 2016 that mirrors many of the issues Abril uncovers: extreme brutality against women, video-recordings of rape, toxic masculinity, victim-blaming, questions of evidence and consent and a lack of justice for survivors – but also glimmers of hope in the form of feminist protests, the reform of sexual assault laws and ultimately increased sentencing for perpetrators.

‘Why do we still have a society that rapes?’ asks Abril in a conversation with Joanna Bourke, author of Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence (2022); a crucial, momentous question that drives the project. Through image and text, Abril seeks answers, all the while unravelling a web of myths and misconceptions, tracing the ancient and historic roots of present-day narratives about women, women’s bodies and what can be done to them. There is the persistent myth of the ‘broken hymen’, the ‘two-finger test’ to assert ‘vaginal tightness’, the fable that rape eroticises women and the excuse that ‘boys will be boys’.

Rape does not only happen to women and girls, but they do constitute the vast majority of victims. The crux of On Rape, following Abortion (2016) and preceding Mass Hysteria, resides in its powerful subtitle: institutional failure. Integrating materials ranging from biblical maps to WhatsApp groups, the work demonstrates that rape is systemic; symptomatic of patriarchal cultures in which male bodies can be weaponised and female bodies subordinated. Rape finds fertile ground in unequal societies and their long male-dominated institutions, where gender violence intersects with class, race and sexual orientation. ‘For centuries, men have made the rules’, notes Bourke, and our laws (as well as criminal and medical protocols) thus fail to protect women. Rape, domestic abuse, murder and forms of institutional misogyny are all leaves from the same book of gender violence.

Nowhere does this become more obvious than in Abril’s testimonies of survivors of rapes which took place in institutional settings (school, the army, a convent), presented alongside black-and-white photographs of the victims’ items of clothing. Modest on the page but displayed life-size in gallery contexts, as the recent Photoworks / V&A Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project exhibition at London’s Copeland Gallery demonstrated, these forensic-feeling images leave the viewer in no doubt about the confrontation with a real human body.

Rape constitutes bodily harm, but its most grievous effects are the result of psychological trauma; trauma that might cause a lifetime of suffering or may be perpetuated over time, even becoming transgenerational by causing pregnancy or taking place within marriage. In the words of Lluïsa Garcia-Esteve, a doctor of psychiatry specialised in women’s mental health, the trauma of sexual violence constitutes ‘a crack, a rupture in the biography’.

This rupture, Abril shows, has long been pitted as a kind of robbery, as stolen virtue, lost purity; rooted in patriarchal conceptions of women as property. In many societies, rape victims are punished or even killed for bringing ‘disgrace’ to their communities. In certain places, marry-your-rapist laws continue to be legally practised. And yet, only a few years ago, two women in India had their hair shaved off for having the guts to resist a sexual assault by a group of men.

Guilt and shame are powerfully intertwined with sexual abuse and often coerce women into silence. Victim-blaming and victim-shaming are amongst the main reasons why most rapes do not get reported, let alone convicted. On Rape documents a dizzying array of excuses that seek to discredit or delegitimise those who speak out against rape, many of which are so ridiculously mad they’d be laughable if it was not for such a deadly serious subject: ‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down’… ‘If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you’. She had to be corrected for being a lesbian. She was wearing a lace thong. She had a few drinks. She had her eyes closed.

Silencing women is integral to rape culture. In The Mother of All Questions (2017), Rebecca Solnit writes how it maintains that ‘women’s testimony is worthless, untrustworthy… that the victim has no rights, no value, is not an equal’. And thus, ‘[h]aving a voice is crucial. It’s not all there is to human rights, but it’s central to them, and so you can consider the history of women’s rights and lack of rights as a history of silence and breaking silence.’

Abril follows in a lineage of women artists chipping away at the silence over sexual violence, alongside Zanele Muholi, Ana Mendieta, Tracey Emin, Kara Walker and Margaret Harrison. This work – to make public, to make visible, to make literal, to make undeniable – is an act of resistance, a refusal to cower in the face of oppression and control. On Rape’s remarkable power (and empowerment) resides in accumulation: by laying down the facts, counting the numbers, assembling the pieces, Abril has built a fortress of voices, and it leaves no space for disbelief. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis © Laia Abril

Laia Abril: On Rape – And Institutional Failure now runs at C/O Berlin until 21 May 2024.

Jilke Golbach is an independent curator specialising in photography. She was previously Curator of Photographs at the Museum of London. Alongside her curatorial practice, she is completing a PhD project at University College London on the subject of heritage, neoliberal urbanism and the right to the city.


1-‘Ala Kachuu’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

2-‘Military Rape’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

3-‘Mulier Taceat in Ecclesia’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

4-‘Merkin’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

5-‘Shrinky Recipe’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

6-‘School Rape’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

7-‘Penis Truth’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

8-‘Rapist Brain’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

Top 10

Photobooks of 2020

Selected by 1000 Words

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from the tumultuous year that was 2020 – selected by 1000 Words.

1. Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass

Readers of 1000 Words will recall last year’s feature on Known and Strange Things Pass. Now published in book form by Skinnerboox, Andy Sewell’s meditation on the complex entanglement between technology and contemporary life seems more apposite than ever given the socially-distanced times in which we exist – not to mention the illusory propinquity of screen-based connection. Within a kinetic, non-linear sequence of images that aptly push and pull, ebb and flow, cables – carries of immeasurable quantities of data – weave across the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, and resurface on either side in alien concrete facilities; so rarely seen, these are the material infrastructures that both literally and metaphorically underpin our hyper-connected world. Ambitious, understated and fleeting, Known and Strange Things Pass explores the ways in which the ocean and the Internet speak to each other and speak to us, whilst probing photography’s ability to render visible such unknowable entities, infinitely vaster than we are.

2. Poulomi Basu, Centralia
Dewi Lewis

It has been quite the year for Poulomi Basu, whose docu-fictional book Centralia has earnt the artist the Rencontres d’Arles Louis Roederer Discovery Award Jury Prize, and a place on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. Beneath its blood-red, sandpaper-rough cover, Basu takes us through the dense jungles of central India, where a brutal war between the Indian state and Maoist insurgents over land and resources has waged for fifty years, in turn casting light on the woefully-underreported horrors of environmental degradation, indigenous and female rights violations and the state’s suppression of voices of resistance. Embracing a disorientating amalgam of staged photography, crime scenes, police records and first-person testimonies – all punctuated by horizontally-cut pages and loose documents – Centralia traces the contours of a conflict in which half-truths reign over facts. Though not for the faint-hearted, this open-ended account of an ongoing war affords us space to reflect on what we have seen, and to choose what we believe.

3. Buck Ellison, Living Trust
Loose Joints

A worthy winner in the First PhotoBook category for the 2020 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards, Buck Ellison’s Living Trust, published by Loose Joints, requires us to study the visual iconography of privilege as embodied by white, upper-middle class lives – or W.A.S.P. – in the United States. In these carefully constructed and performative photographs, insignia such as wooden cheeseboards, organic vegetables, acupuncture bruises, car stickers, lacrosse gear and even family Christmas card portraits examine how whiteness is exhibited and ultimately sustained through everyday structures, internalised logic and economic prowess. Deftly drawing on the language of advertising and commercial photography, Ellison conjures an uneasy world where the “whiteness project” manifests itself over and over again all the while perpetuating deadly inequality both in material and ideological terms.

4. Antoine d’Agata, VIRUS
Studio Vortex

As the title suggests, this book squares up to our present moment amidst the global health crisis with an unflinching intensity characteristic of the famed Magnum photographer. As soon as Paris entered a lock-down in March, Antoine d’Agata took to the emptied streets with his thermal camera. Here, civilians, medical workers and hospital patients are rendered as spectral, flame-tinged figures that flash across the pages. With temperature the only marker differentiating each pulsating body from the next, d’Agata proffers a haunting yet visceral mood piece laden with an existential dread that is befitting of our times. Beyond the limits of reportage, VIRUS is ultimately borne out of an impulse to get to the heart of things, to make sense of the incomprehensible and to visualise what the naked eye cannot: an invisible enemy, at once everywhere and nowhere. A dystopian masterpiece, these images refuse to be shaken off quickly.

5. Lina Iris Viktor, Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter

Although there is no equivalent experience to witnessing the allure and intricacy of Lina Iris Viktor’s paintings up close, her debut monograph more than makes up for it through its fittingly-regal design. Published to accompany her solo show at Autograph in London earlier in 2020, it takes us into the British-Liberian artist’s singular world, embellished with luminescent golds, ultramarine blues and the deepest of blacks. Drawing from a plethora of representational tropes that range from classical mythology to European portraiture and beyond, Viktor’s practice playfully and provocatively employs her solitary body as a vehicle through which the politics of refusal are staged, and the multivalent notions of blackness – blackness as colour, as material, as socio-political awareness – come to the fore. Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter is a spelling-binding survey of an artist who is paving the way for new and unruly re-imaginings of black beauty and brilliance.

6. Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth, Tree and Soil
Hartmann Books

The intrinsic splendour of the natural world takes centre stage in Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth’s first book since their highly-acclaimed Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin (2012). Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Dutch duo set out on a five-year-long project to examine the devastation wrought on the region’s biosphere. Expertly edited by curator Iris Sikking, Tree and Soil combines photographs depicting nature’s reclaiming of the deserted spaces with repurposed material from the archive of German explorer, Philipp Franz von Siebold, which includes a collection of botanical illustrations, animal specimens and woodblock prints amassed during his trips to Dejima, a Dutch trading post, in the early 19th century. The result is an enigmatic yet radical dialogue between two distinct histories – the post-colonial and the post-nuclear, respectively – which speaks of the hubris of humankind and the value of nature, in the process ruminating on the disturbed relationship between the two.

7. Amani Willett, A Parallel Road

Another book of first-rate investment in narrative forms of photography comes from artist Amani Willett. Chronicling the oft-overlooked history of black Americans road-tripping, A Parallel Road deconstructs the time-worn myth of the ‘American road’ as a site in which freedom, self-discovery and, ultimately, whiteness manifests. The book’s direct point of reference is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), a guide which provided newly-roving black road-trippers tips on safe spots to eat, sleep and re-fuel at a time when Jim Crow laws subjected them to heightened oppression, hostility and fear of death. Whilst maintaining the original’s scrapbook details – from hand-held dimensions to sewn binding – Willett has adroitly juxtaposed archival material with photography, media reproductions and Internet screenshots from the present day to lay bare the ongoing realities of systemic racism in the United States. A harrowing yet urgent title in a year in which the dangers posed to black people when out-and-about have been undeniable.

8. Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara

In yet another dazzling year for Aperture’s publishing arm, with Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures and Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph amongst notable releases, perhaps the standout is Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara. Here, the Armenian-American photographer reimagines her mother’s leap of faith as she abandoned her husband in post-Soviet Russia to start a new life in the United States with her children. Family snapshots, film stills and re-enactments by actors play out alongside a script written by the original screenwriter of the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara, which, for a generation of regime-weary Russians tuning in through their television sets, embodied the promises of the American dream. For all its experimental edge – rigorously merging fact and fiction – this book retains its deeply intimate take on the themes of migration, memory and personal sacrifice. With the project slated to show at the SFMOMA in early 2021, Markosian’s work continues to enthral audiences.

9. Yukari Chikura, Zaido

Also excavating personal histories is Yukari Chikura in this strong contribution to the year’s offerings. Shortly after his sudden passing, Chikura’s father appeared to her from the afterlife, imparting the words: “Go to the village hidden deep in the snow where I lived a long time ago.” Committed to honouring this wish, Chikura embarked on a voyage to the remote, winter-white terrains of north-eastern Japan. The resulting publication documents what she found: Zaido, a good fortune festival dating back to the 8th century. Printed across an exquisite array of papers under the direction of Gerhard Steidl, images imbued with magical realism reveal costumed villagers gathering before shrines and performing sacred dances. Whilst the accompanying ancient map and folkloric parables lend this book an ethnographic feel, there is something more incisive at work too. Intertwining the villagers’ spiritual quests with Chikura’s own journey through the darkness that pervades mourning, Zaido is a tale of collective soul-searching that seamlessly traverses cultures as well as centuries.

10. Raymond Meeks, ciprian honey cathedral

No annual ‘best of’ book list seems complete without a monograph from skilled book-maker, Raymond Meeks. Characteristically poetic and perceptive, his new release with MACK invites readers into the domestic world shared between he and his wife, Adrianna, during a period in which they were packing up their home. Opening with a flurry of photographs which depict Adrianna asleep, bathing in the soft, early morning light, both the tone of imagery and its rhythms sets forth an experience that is akin to a waking dream. What follows is an intercourse of image and verse that pairs the quiet, quotidian rituals that populate each passing day with topographical observations of a house laid bare: mounted stacks of dishes, cracked walls and overgrown tendrils. Herein lies the melancholic undercurrent which vibrates throughout ciprian honey cathedral, a bittersweet evocation of the things memories cling to, and the things we leave in our wake. ♦

Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth UniversityHe lives and works in 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.

Paddy Summerfield

Empty Days

Book review by Gerry Badger

Empty Days is Paddy Summerfield’s third book for Dewi Lewis, but the first I can review, because I wrote texts in the other two. So this is hardly an impartial view, I have known Paddy and admired his work for decades. I am pleased, however, that the books have begun to bring him the wider recognition he deserves after being one of British photography’s hidden gems for so many years.

One reason I think, why his light has been hidden under a bushel apart from a natural disinclination to push himself outside Oxford is because his work is difficult to classify. He is neither an obvious documentary photographer nor an art photographer; neither surrealist nor diarist, but a combination of all these things. In three pages of notes he once sent to me, he refers to himself a documentary photographer, but one who, in Empty Days, ‘weaves the images into a personal document, a subjective story where everything is tragic, but there is also hope.’

He is no doubt a singular photographer. Each of his books is different, yet linked by an absolutely distinct voice. One might say that it’s an odd voice, and it certainly is, although I do not mean that in any pejorative sense – quite the opposite. I have often thought that Paddy Summerfield was a kind of British Ralph Gibson, but much less calculating or mannered. His ‘oddness’ is the real deal.

This is clear, I think, in Empty Days, which by Summerfield’s own admission explores the darker side of his psyche, encompassing religion, depression, sex, alienation, and Rock n’ Roll (in the shape of his beloved Beatles) but you hardly need to know him to get a clear sense of this. The book explores aspects of the human condition, of a troubled soul, in a beautiful series of always surprising and quirky images, chosen from fifty years of work. It can be regarded therefore as an autobiography, or a fragment of an autobiography, because all Summerfield’s work is essentially biographical – as, essentially, is most photography – and the other two books, Mother and Father (2014) and The Oxford Pictures (2016), which are quite different from this new work, show other sides of his personality.

As I have intimated, his aim in Empty Days is quite clear: ‘I show the sadness in the world – I don’t know if I show it to push it away or hold on to it.’ If that sounds excessively gloomy, remember that this is a work of photo-literature, not a stream-of consciousness confession to a therapist. These are photographs, woven into a loose, suggestive narrative, and both their formal and symbolic qualities are there to be enjoyed. The imagery covers a number of photographic genres, from landscape to portrait to nudes to still-lives to Paddy’s inimitable ‘street photography’, which is usually done on a beach, and unlike the work in the recent show of British beach photography at the National Maritime Museum, London, which he would have graced, generally features single figures, which only shows he doesn’t go to the beach on Bank Holidays. The single figure shot is a striking feature of the book. Frequently, although he gets close, their facial features are indistinct, turned away from the camera or photographer’s gaze, so the sense of sadness and alienation is underscored. Indeed, Summerfield may well be one of the best photographers of loneliness around.

Summerfield also tackles religion, though whether he sees this as solace or a cause of our modern ills, is, like much in his work, left tantalisingly open to question. ‘In the book,’ he writes, ‘beneath the surface there’s a strand of spirituality implied, a layer of religious symbolism.’ It’s hardly beneath the surface. We begin with a cross tattooed on an arm, and progress through a stature of Christ, a child lying in a crucified position to another cross in a cemetery. His attitude to sex is also far from clear. There are a number of sexualised images, nudes or semi-nudes, but again, it would seem that, in a manner similar to religion, sex leads only to melancholy and disappointment rather than ecstasy or fulfilment. These figures seem to find little sense of connection in what should be the most connective act of all.

This all sounds like an incessant catalogue of gloom, but there are many consolations in Empty Days. Firstly, many photographers make diaristic books, but much of them are superficial, narcissistic views showing little self-awareness or questioning – neither exploring an inner life nor the potentialities of the camera. If Empty Days is diaristic or biographical, it is not in a me, me, me onanism, and one gets the impression that, although the story is important, so too was the making of the images. Summerfield gets his own joy and consolation from making striking and distinct photographs, and so can we. It is so good to see a photographer concerned with photographic picture-making in the basic sense. Engaging his eyes with the world, and making elegant, simple photographs that, when put together using a keen brain, are not as simple as they look. Empty Days is not so much documentary or diaristic or whatever but a visual poem of great beauty and useful meaning.

I end with a musical analogy (not the Beatles I’m afraid). Ludwig Van Beethoven had an extremely difficult life, his renowned deafness being only one aspect. He was in constant pain and was increasingly isolated towards the end of his life when – completely deaf – he composed his late string quartets. In these searching, elegiac works, there is every emotion, from bubbling joy to profound sadness, except one – there is never despair. While hardly seeking to equate him with Beethoven – John Lennon is enough – the same could be said about Paddy Summerfield. He makes sure to end Empty Days with two images of hope – a bird wheeling and dancing in the sky. As I have said, this is not a wholly impartial review, but this has to be a strong contender already for one of the best photographic books of the year.

All images courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing. © Paddy Summerfield

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.

Simon Roberts

Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies of a Small Island

Essay by David Chandler

Imagine walking along a crowded street in any British city. It is morning, and the people around you are in a hurry. Most will be on their way to work and have a purposeful stride and an air of thinking ahead about them, and most are looking at their mobile phones. Some are smiling as they work their fingers across the handsets; others are talking loudly into the morning air, spoken names, places, and events conjuring that fleeting sense we all know so well of multiple lives – instantly recognisable but remote – colliding briefly with our own. Now imagine being in a shopping mall. It is later, maybe the weekend, and the pace here is less frenetic. People are ambling with their bags, looking in shop windows, lingering, waiting around and relaxing (retail having long since been resold to us as a space of recreation, as a kind of therapy). Many of the shoppers are also using phones, involving those elsewhere in their leisurely acts of looking and choosing. And all around, the amblers hold long, remote conversations as they move slowly through the mall, waving their arms in exclamation, making open demonstrations of their connectedness, as if being connected was an expression of their well-being and their relevance.

We have become accustomed to this distractedness, and it is a central paradox of our public experience that those drawing most attention to their physical presence on the street or in the mall are often openly declaring an absence of mind. Being there but not there, being explicitly detached, would seem to be a common sign not only of an increasingly affectless public realm, but also of fundamental shifts in the way we understand and value communal experience. It would be tempting to assert, as many have done, that new technology has begun to radically alter our behaviour, diverting us away from physical contact with others towards immobile screen-based forms of communication in a digital space where constant competition for our attention undermines our ability to concentrate, and dissolves or complicates the distinctions we make between what is public and private, social and intimate. Whether or not this is true, it is becoming clear that we now inhabit a plurality of publics and communities, manifest in overlapping physical and digital spaces that have reconditioned our senses of belonging as well as changed our patterns of social interaction.

The nature of public, communal experience has been an implicit theme of Simon Roberts’ photographic work of the last ten years or so. Since he embarked on his project We English in 2007, he has documented events and places across Britain that have drawn people together, all the while compiling evidence that the desire for common presence and participation, for sharing a sense of being ‘in place’, not only endures but might also harbour something distinctive about our national character and identity. That these gatherings are also set in specific landscapes and are embedded in unfolding social histories of place has been a distinguishing feature of Roberts’ investigation, one that has enabled him to critically conflate elements of a British landscape tradition – in which the land is seen as central to the idea of a national culture and identity – and those of social documentary photography in this country, drawn at particular moments in its history to exploratory national surveys. Roberts’ work presents the viewer with complex relationships between people and places, and incongruous juxtapositions of history and contemporary culture that create gentle ironies and underlying tensions across the images. Played out through particular local and regional contexts, it is these tensions that ultimately deny any consistency of mood and resist the coherent, and possibly seductive sense of binding national characteristics.

This decade of work has reflected debates in art and cultural geography that understand landscape not simply as territory or a mode of representation but as an active process, shaped over time by politics and economics as well as by geological and environmental forces. This process is largely one of incremental change, manifest in different ways and at different speeds across diverse spaces, and, in Britain, Roberts interests have gravitated towards evolving patterns of leisure, the consumption and commodification of history, militarisation, and to lines of demarcation and exclusion in the landscape. But in parallel to this, he has also chosen to photograph events and places that have a more immediate, topical significance in the turning of Britain’s recent history, and which – again summoning the sense of a national survey – might collectively offer a form of pictorial chronicle of these times. It is these particular photographs that provide the structural focus and thematic substance of this book. 

Merrie Albion ranges across various projects, both commissioned and independently produced over the last ten years, from single photographs made around the time of We English, to Roberts’ subsequent photographs of the General Election of 2010, his series The Social: Landscapes of Leisure (2013) and National Property: The Picturesque Imperfect (2013–15), and his photographs from the 2012 Olympics in London. The book also registers a distinct shift in approach, and tone, from We English. In Merrie Albion, Roberts has exchanged the element of discovery and revelation that came from his prior speculative journeying around England to many new and, for him, unknown sites, for a form of ‘reporting’, where he has responded to subjects and places that have already entered the public consciousness and can be seen as defining locations in the recent national story.

Roberts’ work on the 2010 General Election can be seen as representative of this change of emphasis, and its photographs assume a pivotal role in Merrie Albion. Importantly, they distinguish Roberts’ particular manner of recording events from that of the photojournalists and reporters who often appear in his pictures, as one not primarily concerned with capturing newsworthy aspects of the election but with observing what might be called the broad and multifaceted choreography of the electoral process as it unfolded in British social space. One abiding effect of this approach is that the photographs undercut the sense of politics constructed for us by the media, both by revealing that process of construction taking place and by giving equal status to scenes that would be deemed un-newsworthy, affording a monumental quality to the prosaic drama of the election embedded in the everyday fabric of British life. As Roberts steps back with a large-format, five-by-four-inch camera to take up his customary elevated, detached viewing position, the activities and incidents of the election, the jostling, walking, waiting groups of people, are not simply diminished in scale by the expansive space surveyed by the camera lens, they appear now as figures set against a much broader arc of social time, that slower course of history within which the towns and villages they live in – the housing estates, the communities, the streets, pathways and networks of communication – have developed into the familiar landscape of this country. This is the dialectical space/time of Merrie Albion’s social panorama.

Roberts’ apparently quiet, detached chronicling of the events and public atmospheres of Britain’s recent past – charting the mood swings of a diverse national culture – is also a discreet opening up of a set of complex ideas about places and their histories, and about the abiding influence of the country’s past on its present. In his comparative observations and contextual annotations Roberts provides his own form of narration here, and invites us to look with him, to think again, and maybe to think differently about Britain at a time when ideas of our national identity, our national culture and our international relations have never been more fiercely contested.

The world of Merrie Albion is a subdued, anti-theatrical space, with its slower time and sometimes daydreaming sense of duration, and its social panoramas displaying the consciously style-less, apparently detached and indifferent attitude that declares the photographer’s sociological interest as he journeys through the landscape of Britain over the course of its recent history. Yet, as this book so quietly suggests, this history is one of dramatic change and extreme social contrasts, and it is precisely that drama, the drama of difference and upheaval, matched against Roberts’ dispassionate recording of its representative events, places, and social gatherings, which gives his photographs their distinctiveness and unique value.

In many ways these marked shifts of place, culture, and atmosphere create, in themselves, 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. At its heart Roberts’ work seeks to quell the visceral drama of events. He does not thrust his camera into the action, but steps back to see the wider picture, to create photographs that embody a kind of weighing up of complex tableaux of comparative information – whether that be a political rally winding away down a city street or a family on a beach, pausing for a moment to stare out to sea. Merrie Albion is a partial account; it is selective and subjective; but Roberts’ pictures draw us into the slow unfolding of social time and provide points of connection that encourage us, from one image to another, to think not only about the varied scenes as part of a unified historical process but ultimately to reflect on our own place in that history.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Simon Roberts

This essay is adapted from one of the accompanying texts for Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies of a Small Island, published by Dewi Lewis and has been reproduced with kind permission. An exhibition of the works runs until 10 March 2018 at Flowers Gallery, London.

David Chandler is a Professor of Photography at University of Plymouth. Since 1982 he has held various curatorial roles in museums and galleries, including the National Portrait Gallery, London (1982-88) and The Photographers’ Gallery, London (1988-95). Now he works principally as a writer, editor and curator, in the fields of contemporary photography, photographic history and the visual arts. He was also Director of Photoworks, Brighton (1997-2010).

Piotr Zbierski

Push the Sky Away

Book review by Max Houghton

My eyes deceive me sometimes. I look at an image and see only the negative space, or decipher a creature or shape that it is not really ‘there’. I like to think my perception is enriched by the play of this optical unconscious, and that my sustained impulse towards the image is borne of such mis-looking.

The images created and sequenced by Piotr Zbierski amplify these visual glitches; his preference is for cameras that in some way distort the image. The ensuing instability of the image is used as a strategy here, to transport the viewer into the realm of the senses or emotions; to fold us in. Photography permits special access to this non-geographical place, Zbierski believes, and with Push the Sky Away, an ambitious book published by Dewi Lewis, he shows us the magic of the image. Or, at least, how the image can help us connect to such concepts, and to ritual, myth and the stories that bind us.

The title of the collection is shared (coincidentally, I imagine) with an album by Nick Cave, whose music mines the uttermost reaches of the soul. So if we Push the Sky Away, what’s behind it, above it, beyond it? Without the celestial, how would we comprehend our earthliness? What would happen if the sky was no longer our limit, and instead, we dwelt in a house without a roof? For Hamlet, famously, ‘This brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with gold fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’

Zbierski to be sure sees more than pestilence. He focus is towards being (as opposed to not being) and he has pushed on our behalf, to reveal our raw, unfettered selves. His is a play of three acts, or a triptych, which follows an unfamiliar rhythm, as though from a half-remembered dream. He collects fragments from a brutal though sensual present, which he seems to want to connect to a wilder, more spiritual past. He is a wanderer, a photographic Odysseus, collecting images from the wide, wide world. His accumulated knowledge has taught him that images alone vanish from our tenuous grasp, and this book’s power arises from the sequencing; that is its logic. It is as though Zbierski is trying to impart something urgent, using non-verbal language, to those who look.

Dream of white elephants, the book’s first section, is populated by black and white images, the first of which is a child, emerging from water, eyes closed – perhaps to symbolise how, wet and alone, we enter the world. Further images flit between playful and perturbing scenes, enticing the viewer to enter to find out more, accessing a space at once strange and familiar. The palette extends to incorporate colour in the second section, Love has to be reinvented. Bodies merge with the landscape; the domestic cat of section one has metamorphosed into a leopard, a cut-out dove floating benignly above its head (unless my eyes are playing tricks). Dogs nuzzle each other, rivers flow, the piper plays his tune. The distinction between people and animal blurs.

Zbierski’s vision becomes increasingly anthropological as the book unfolds, in that images of ritual, of holy men proliferate in the third section, Stones were lost from the base, alongside much more mysterious, fragmentary imagery. An image encased in a circle depicts an inosculation, or an en-kissing, as Robert Macfarlane recently described it, in which tree branches grow into each other. This, and the cover image, also featured across a double-page-spread, operates as some sort of key to this complex work. The cover image looks like an ancient settlement, but is in fact located in his native Poland, and the tents are hewn from local canes and palms. The emulsion on the negative was somehow damaged, resulting in rents swirling across the image, rendering it one of a kind. This kind of play between difference and similarity is also a hallmark of the work, and attests to its unsettling power. Zbierski appears to be reaching beyond religious and scientific interpretations of the world, to a more animistic view, in which everything in the universe possesses a soul.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud brought together animists, obsessional neurotics and children, describing their ‘omnipotence of thoughts’, which, combined with ritual, led to magical beliefs about the impact of their thoughts in the world. He might have included artists into this category, but instead it formed the basis of a later paper on narcissism. This observation is not of course a swipe at Zbierski, but might offer insight into the drive to create per se.

It is surprising in a book of images in this realm to see so much text. The first is a poem by Patti Smith, which I am predisposed to like. Its dedication reads ‘-for Piotr’, leaving my imagination to ponder the nature of the relationship between photographer and high priestess of rock poetry, which would be idle conjecture, or between image and text, which I am better placed to pursue. The poem is pure dreamspeak; conjuring oneiric visions from the depths by locating mental images, and positioning them as links in a chain. In this way, poet and photographer are one. The book also hosts an excellent essay by Polish academic Eleonora Jedlinska, which takes the reader on a philosophical journey through Zbierski’s images, in order to contemplate, among other things, what comprises the sacred, and, equally importantly, what constitutes the profane. Since David Campany created the removable essay, in his outstanding work a Handful of Dust, it seems desirable for all works to have the with/without option. This essay does enhance the experience of the extended photowork, but (how could it be otherwise) also points the reader in certain directions, sometimes away from, the flow of the image. Zbierski’s own introductory essay is thoughtful and interesting, but offers up a doubling with the ensuing chapters of images. As I suggested earlier, he is developing a different kind of language, without words, and must now apprehend his own authorship. Zbierski asks if such elements as pain or ecstasy can be tamed by a photograph. He makes his own question redundant by unleashing the wildness of the image with every turn of the page. After much looking, I am still not sure what it is that I have seen. It makes me want to look again.

All images courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing. © Piotr Zbierski

Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.

Matthew Finn


Essay by Elizabeth Edwards

How does one comprehend a life photographically, and the experiences that make it? Matthew Finn’s photographs are an account of a life, that of his mother in Leeds, its slow transformation, its slow retreat from the shape of the everyday – an everyday marked by things, relationships with things and people, which make up an experience of the world. The photographs are not portraits in the usual sense of the word, yet they are an account of a life, a deeply humanistic response to a set of human circumstances. In this brief essay I want to use his photographs from the Mother series as a springboard to think about what we find in photographs at a human level and, briefly, how we might characterise our curiosity – that desire, through engagement with the communicative potential of photographs, to find and understand.

These are ideas which have preoccupied me for a while, and they informed the conversations we had as he developed this work as part of the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards. We come to these matters from very different directions. I found these photographs very good to think with, because they transferred ideas that I had developed in historical anthropology into the field of contemporary documentary photography. Conversely I hope our conversations also gave Matthew another analytical position through which to inform his practice. Because at base we had identical concerns: how can photographs articulate experience? What it is to live through a moment, and, reflexively, our relationship with the desire to understand that moment?

Some historians are very wary of experience as a category of historical analysis, arguing that experience is simultaneously too embedded in unproblematised and ahistorical notions of the individual, too objectifying and too fleeting to be held and be subject to critical analysis. But this, of course, is exactly what photographs do rather well, they hold the atomic structure of experience. They can expose it in all its dialects – experience, social being and presence – in ways that go beyond mere representation. The photographs track an experience generated and articulated through material life, and map a social being that determines social consciousness or experience. This process does not aim to create new forms of empirical understanding around photographs, but rather to undertake a kind of experiment – a sensitisation to a space in which the trace of experience might be located.

The concept of ‘presence’ is of particular pertinence here, and in relation to photography more generally. The philosopher of history, Eelco Runia, has attempted to track the shifts in historiographical desire from meaning to experience. He argues that while we search for understanding of mechanics of meaning (with photographs the fixation with linguistically- derived semiotic models perhaps), what we are actually searching for is something else, and that thing is ‘presence’. He writes “presence is being in touch, either literally or metaphorically with people, things, events and feelings that made you the person you are.” It is the “desire to share the awesome reality of people things, events and feelings, coupled to a vertiginous urge to taste the fact that awesomely real people, things, events and feelings can awesomely suddenly cease to exist.” And in many ways it was this statement that made, for me, the connection with Matthew’s work – because the photographs track a person who gradually ceases to exist in the way that they have been known for so long. His photographs cogently, and indeed poignantly, map the shifting marks of people on space and the shaping of people by space.

Further, presence is traced into the very materiality of photographs, into its chemistry and now its electronic pulses turned into pixels. It is the ontological scream of the medium. That is its power and its symbolic significance. In particular a photograph is a moment, positive or negative, especial or banal, happy or terrifying, that someone lived through, their being, their presence, their standpoint, literally a standpoint is traced in the image. As Ulrich Baer puts it, “each image has the potential for disclosing the world – as a setting for human experience”, a rippling out from the image itself.

Presence is, of course, part of the idea of representation – to make something present again, a substitute for the absent. The most fulsome articulation of such a position in relation to photographs is Roland Barthes’ famous contemplation of the photograph of his mother as a child in the Winter Garden. With its deep subjectivity it brings us closest to the sense of presence which I have in mind. The photograph Barthes describes stabs and wounds him because of the intensity of the photograph’s rendering of his mother’s presence. He describes the failure of other photographs to connect as a failure of ‘presence’: “I never recognised her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that I therefore missed her altogether”, whereas the Winter Garden photograph achieved, utopically “the impossible science of unique being.” That is, we might surmise, both the presence of the individual and the social presence of that being, laminated together.

But why do we want to know this? Why do we want this sense of a person’s presence and experience? As humans we are naturally curious, perhaps a defining characteristic of human existence. But such desire becomes subject to psychoanalytical models with their emphases of spectatorship and desire, and has been conflated with ideas of power, gaze and the fetishistic. This is certainly so at one level. But, arguably, curiosity also means an expansive wish to understand and relate. Michel Foucault expressed this well: “Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science” but it is also, as in Matthew’s photographs with their gentle combination of curiosity and presence, that curiosity “evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain readiness to break up our familiarities.” Thus, in this reclaimed form, ‘curiosity’ comes to mean a ‘world-openness’, even wonderment, a form of epistemic and conceptual inquisitiveness which opens up multiple meanings that stem from a consciousness of ignorance and the capacity for interest. Analytically there has, perhaps too often, been a slippage between the human relations of curiosity and the ideologically-determined gaze. This is not to elide the politics of either, but if we hold these concepts apart analytically, we might find a space in which the gentle desire for human understanding, such as represented in Matthew’s photographs, might find an interpretative resting place.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Matthew Finn
This essay was originally commissioned for Matthew Finn, Mother, due to be published by Dewi Lewis and has been reproduced with kind permission.

Elizabeth Edwards is a visual and historical anthropologist. She is Andrew W.Mellon Visiting Professor at the V&A Research Institute (VARI), Emeritus Professor of Photographic History at De Montfort University, and Honorary Professor, Department of Anthropology, UCL. Specialising in the social and material practices of photography, she has worked extensively on the relationships between photography, anthropology and history. Her monographs and edited works include Anthropology and Photography (1992), Raw Histories (2001), Photographs Objects Histories (2004), Sensible Objects (2006) and The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination 1885-1912 (2012). She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015.

Mimi Mollica

Terra Nostra

Book review by Gerry Badger

In what might be one of the most heartfelt moments on British television, in the middle of a feelgood programme about art and food in Sicily, star Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli took art-critic Andrew Graham-Dixon to a hillside outside Palermo, overlooking a motorway. He proceeded to talk about how the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, murdered the anti-mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone, in 1992. This is “the hole in the heart of Italy,” he said with great feeling.

This is the subject of Mimi Mollica’s book Terra Nostra, published by Dewi Lewis. The hidden subject, because although the mafia is everywhere, its impact is felt rather then seen. It is woven into Italian society. In September 1987, the then Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, head of the Christian Democrat party that ruled Italy for decades, was alleged to have had a secret meeting with the ‘capo dei capi’ of the Cosa Nostra, Salvatore Riina. The fact that Andreotti was later absolved of any mafia association does not alter the fact that, as Peter Robb has written, the mafia was (or is) a state within a state, a “state that maintained relations with professional, political and judicial representatives of that other state, the Italian republic.”

The most notable body of work about the Sicilian mafia previously has been the photojournalism of Letizia Battaglia, who worked for the anti-fascist newspaper L’Ora, and photographed the results of the high years of mafia violence from the 1970s to the 90s. Firstly, she photographed the bloodied corpses on the streets, and then the mafiosi themselves, kicking and spitting at the photographer as they were taken to trial. A photograph in her files of the aforementioned Andreotti meeting mafia boss Antonio Nino Salvo, helped frame the indictment though it did not secure the conviction. And of course, though it is not Sicily, but most definitely related, Milanese photographer Valerio Spada photographed the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, making portraits of young mafiosi in the notorious suburb of Scampia.

But that is not Mimi Mollica’s way. Terra Nostra is much more indirect. There is not a young thug or a bloodied corpse to be seen. In a series of landscapes and street portraits, we see Sicily as one might see it as a visitor – an attentive and knowing visitor at least – or as a resident sees it every day. In short, Mollica is photographing the surface, that which you can see, which is all any photographer can do, but like any good photographer, is suggesting this recent history with metaphor and symbol. So there are images that suggest violence, others that suggest suspicion and secrecy, some that suggest great beauty, some that suggest ugliness and environmental degradation.

This book tells its tale in an oblique way. But one thing is clear. Sicily is an island apart from Italy, part of the country and yet not part of it. And there are different parts of Sicily. Mollica is dealing with the western part, from Palermo in the north, round the west coast to Agrigento in the south. The eastern part of the island, and cities like Catania and Syracuse, are somewhat different.

In a way the book begins at the end. Two signs on a wall read ‘uscita’ (exit) though the way out is not clear. The first metaphor. Then the final image is a barred gate, as if to say once Sicily takes hold of you it will not let go. Or is this a circular narrative? Are both images asking whether there is a way out for Sicily. As Mollica says, Sicily seems caught between “paradise and hell.”

The book’s portraits are also very strong. As Sean O’Hagan remarks in his text, they have this insidious sideways glance quality. And far from displaying Mediterranean exuberance, which is something of a myth anyway, many exude an air of self-containment that amounts to suspicion – and this in photographs that were taken more or less on the fly. The cover picture, of a scarred, gaunt old man standing at a vandalised bus-stop, clutching his briefcase like grim death, says it all. John Szarkowski once said of a Brassai portrait that it was “full of wormwood.” Of course he never saw this one. ‘If looks could kill’ was never more appropriate.

There is something terrible implied in this image. Elsewhere, the symbols of violence and machiavellian plotting are more overt. A wreath lies in a road. A group of politicians huddle together in a conspiratorial group. A price tag skewers the eye of a tuna on a market stall. And a man who seems to taking a picture on a mobile phone is crouched in the position they teach at gun school.

But the most obvious damage is perpetrated upon the landscape. The legacy of the mafia in the 1970s and 80s was a rampant boom in unbridled real estate development, much of it unchecked and yet funded by development grants. Little was finished, so Sicily, especially in the west of the island, is littered with abandoned, half-built construction sites. One particularly memorable image in Terra Nostra, of unfinished villas littering a hillside, looks like an aerial shot of the ruins of Hiroshima. And the jewel in Sicily’s tourist crown, the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, is not quite what it seems in tourist posters as a result of encroaching development.

This construction, so wasteful and unsightly, scars the landscape, the last invader to make its mark upon this much conquered island. It is so unnecessary, as so much Sicilian real estate has the ‘vendisi’ (for sale) attached. For instance, last year I saw three beautiful Baroque palazzi side by side, requiring attention on a grand scale, awaiting offers in the beautiful historic city of Noto, as well as many other time-worn properties both large and small.

There is a lot of explanatory text in Terra Nostra, essays by Roberto Scarpinato and Sean O’Hagan as well as captions to the pictures. This is necessary to fill in a complex political and social background. Nevertheless, Mimi Mollica’s photographs certainly stand by themselves. They are eloquent and poetic, and in an era where so much photography is trite and shallow, dense enough to feed both mind and eye.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Mimi Mollica

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 30 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.

Top 10

Photobooks of 2016

Selected by Tim Clark

An annual tribute to the most exceptional photobook releases from the year that was – selected by our Editor in Chief.

1. Gregory Halpern: ZZYZX

Once the hype subsides, and you let Gregory Halpern’s images bathe you in glorious California sunlight, it’s clear to see why ZZYZX was named Photobook of the Year at The Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards. MACK’s production is sumptuous and as far as photography goes Halpern’s is of the highest order.

The book takes us on a journey, starting at the desert east of Los Angeles, across the city and up to the Pacific Ocean but seen through the filter of Halpern’s ineffable vision, it is in fact more akin to somnambulation. Images depict odd characters and quiet moments – things observed, rendered through description and suggestion – which on accumulation build up a picture of a sort of Babylon on the brink of collapse. With an untold narrative, contained but concealed, we slowly feel the burning desire for a place; a dreamed-of place since, as Italo Calvino one wrote, “desires are already memories”.

2. Edmund Clark and Crofton Black: Negative Publicity
Aperture/Magnum Foundation

Part research document, part exhibition catalogue and part dossier, Negative Publicity presents a complex and multi-layered reflection on the CIA’s programme of ‘extraordinary rendition’. Clark has turned his camera to spaces and surfaces that contain a hidden, violent tension, those which stand in for the countless people who have disappeared into a mysterious prison network – the vanishing point for the law. Yet no drama is pictured here, just the drama of a picture. Collaborating with counter-terrorism expert Crofton Black, he has paired images and redacted documents to interrogate the nature of contemporary warfare and invisible mechanisms of state control. A book that really matters.

3. Sara-Lena Maierhofer: Dear Clark; Portrait of a Con Man
Drittel Books

Sara-Lena Maierhofer has made it her business to tell the tale of a real-life imposter who went by the name of Clark Rockefeller, among other personas, having passed himself off as a scion of the wealthy family. Dear Clark pieces together remnants of his life, through material such as birth certificates, brain scans and family photographs alongside images that speak to key themes of multiplicity and transformation. The book’s material qualities are almost akin to installation with design touches like tipped-in images that perfectly heighten the searching quality of the project. Reality and fantasy, fact and fiction are masterfully at play here as Maierhofer makes tremendous art out of deception and the corrosive effects of lies.

4. Michael Hoppen Gallery: Evidence Case File
Guiding Light

This richly illustrated, cleverly designed book offers a small but brilliant insight into the collection of reknown photography dealer Michael Hoppen. In parallel to The Image as Question: An Exhibition of Evidential Photography, recently on display at the eponymous London gallery, it sets out to disturb the big claims of photography as ‘record’ or ‘proof’. A judicious selection of works harks back to the medium’s 19th century origins and also includes images from 20th century stalwarts as well as contemporary artists. The book empties images of their original evidential function and reconceptualises them in a new context and in a new time. Questioning what a ‘fact’ is a well-trodden area of investigation yet the presentation, editing, sequence and paper choices are very well-measured and all equally important to the publication as various parts separately. Rewards the curious.

5. Laia Abril: Lobismuller
Editorial RM/Images Vevey

Laia Abril is continually on the up and the photobook has always been an essential part of her output. Just recently-released, Lobismuller sees the Catalan artist produce a meditation in photography and text upon Spain’s first documented serial killer. The Werewolf of Allariz, known as Manuel Blanco Romasanta was originally named Manuela since it was initially believed he was a woman. This central figure was also dubbed the ‘Soapmaker’, owing to his habit of using the fat of victims to produce high-quality soap. Gender issues, psychology, landscape, mythology and folklore… the mesmerising story is wrapped upon layer of exquisite literary narrative. Between each image and each piece of text, a creepy affinity can be established, demonstrating Abril’s fluidity between medium and genre, which has come to characterise her practice.

6. Todd Hido: Intimate Distance

This is a lavish monograph befitting one of the most influential US photographers. Todd Hido’s unique brand of cinematic spectatorship is surveyed en masse in Intimate Distance, bringing together twenty-five years of photographs full of substance and thickness of atmosphere. The book tracks the development of a career via Hido’s overlapping motifs and preoccupations: disarming nudes, smudged landscapes and interiors or housing lit up as if glowing chambers, inviting us to consider his world-as-image and rethink his oeuvre from a fresh perspective. The need to know oneself and the fear of self-knowing find their beautiful expression here. His is an art of longing.

7. Francesca Catastini: The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

“Knowledge is not made for understanding, it is made for cutting,” reads the Michel Foucault quote that appears in the postscript to Francesca Catastini’s The Modern Spirit is Vivisective. It serves as a useful coda for considering the work. True to its title, this handsome book is an investigation into the process of studying human anatomy, combining the artist’s own photographs with vernacular images of old anatomy lessons, illustrations from Renaissance manuals, complemented with scientific, literary, and philosophical texts. Using chapters as its organising system – On Looking, On Canon Lust, On Touching, On Cutting, On Discovering – the book reveals a great capacity for sequencing images, and the possibility to conceive of them as a form of literature.

8. David Fahti: Wolfgang

Gathered on the pages of David Fahti’s Wolfgang are black and white photographs sprinkled with quotations from Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics also held responsible for a large number of unexplainable failures of equipment at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Countless accidents, surprises and flashes of unlikely beauty and absurd humour work to conjure up Pauli’s omnipresence despite his absence in the images. Skinnerboox enlisted celebrated book designer Ramon Pez to step in and around the project and the production is all the better for it. A sum of its wonders; art, design, photography, science and history collide and fuse together to powerful effect.

9. Tito Mouraz: The House of The Seven Women
Dewi Lewis Publishing

Misty forests, bemused animals, brooding portraits and delipidated out-houses are just some of the gothic-infused imagery on display in Tito Mouraz’s The House of The Seven Women. They are visual elements invoked to give material form to a myth of the Beira-Alta region of Portugal, where the photographer was born and raised – that of a house believed to be haunted by the ghosts of seven sisters, including one witch. Strange happenings were said to occur on the occasion of a full moon, namely the women would fly from their balcony to a tree opposite and seduce passers by. An eerie and enigmatic mood piece, the work translates brilliantly to book form, classical and full of craft.

10. Adam Golfer: A House Without a Roof
Booklyn Press

The complicated histories of founding the state of Israel and the subsequent violence and displacement of Palestinians as a result of military occupation serve as the subject for this debut book from photographer Adam Golfer. A House Without a Roof draws on his own personal past and familial connections to the place to form an interesting, first person perspective while foregoing any conclusion about its troubled present. This is not easily reducible or categorisable work and Golfer deftly blends Internet-sourced imagery, archival material and extensive use of text with his photographs of the ongoing conflict, as seen at ground level. At least, it transmits the disorienting sense of an outsider locating oneself within a historic ‘home’, constructed through both real and imagined narratives. 

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and editor. Since 2008 he has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words Photography Magazine. Previously Associate Curator at Media Space, The Science Museum in London, exhibitions he worked on included Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy (2015) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth (2015-2018), a major, mid-career touring retrospective. He has also organised many exhibitions independently, most recently Peter Watkins: The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery (2017) and Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers at Flowers Gallery (2014), featuring works he commissioned by Tereza Zelenkova, Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene and Henrik Malmstrom. Together with Greg Hobson he has curated Photo Oxford 2017, which featured numerous solo presentations by artists such as Edgar Martins, Mariken Wessels, Martin Parr and Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov from The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive among others. His writing has appeared in FOAMTIME LightboxThe TelegraphThe Sunday TimesPhotoworks and The British Journal of Photography, as well as in exhibition catalogues and photobooks. He is also a visiting lecturer on the MA in Photography at NABA Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano.