United Artists Theater, from the series The Ruins of Detroit, published by Steidl. Image © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre.
As the recession has hit home, documentary photographers have chosen to report from the frontline - showing the social consequences of the global economic meltdown.
Author: Lucy Davies
02 Feb 2011
The world of just a decade ago, flushed with infinite possibility, is well and truly punctured. Toxic debt, bloated bureaucracies, dry fiscal pockets, population haemorrhage, industrial demolition, over production, the sucking dry of natural resources... the consequence of unchecked economic prosperity and greed has come back to bite us.
While developing economies have accounted for nearly 70 percent of world growth over the past five years, the migrant workers who fed it have rarely prospered. And now that the West is feeling the brunt of economic collapse, the recession has opened our eyes to the realities of unfettered growth. Documentary photography - the unfashionable kind, driven by social concern and the call for change - has become vital once more, filling the blanks left out by cold statistics and posturing politicians.
In the words of Sebastião Salgado, whose homeland of Brazil is one of the few success stories of the past decade, "Everything in the world must be shown, and people around the world must have an idea of what's happening to the other people around the world. This is a function of the vector that the documentary photographer must have - to show one person's existence to another."
Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Image © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre.
Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre's study of Detroit, a city seemingly poised in transition from galactic metropolis to dust and prairie, is one of a welter of recent photographic projects worldwide to posit ruins as small pieces of history in suspension. Theirs is an exceptional example of the genre, taking the story of this modern-day Pompeii, in which all the archetypal signs of the American dream - movie theatres, dance halls, a grandiose train station, libraries, schools, housing projects - have been abandoned in the wake of the collapse of the motor industry over the course of five decades.
"We live in a short-term profit economy, and the direct result of this is that it makes short-term cities," says Marchand. "Landscapes are moving as fast as the economy. Viewing the events of the last two years of history, we see that human destiny has never been so tied up with consumption. Ninety percent of manufacturing and consumer goods are made in emerging countries. Detroit is no new story. It is the dramatic result of the transition from local production capitalism to a globalised market. The manufacturing belt of America has been facing an economical and urban crisis for 50 years. But in some American cities, such as Buffalo or Saint Louis, it began even earlier, and these cities now have less inhabitants than they did in the 1900s. It's due to economy, but also to demography. People just changed their way of life."
For five years, the two French photographers foraged among the spoils. Their photographs show rotting hulks of buildings standing as depraved ghosts on melancholy boulevards. Flocks of pheasants and packs of deer keep company with scavengers, who pillage the buildings for scrap metal. "They would work alongside us," says Meffre, "swinging their axes into the corpses of these buildings for the few remaining pieces of metal left."
Their images show relics of the past lying embalmed in dust and cobwebs- a sodden chasuble, mouldering books, anatomical models, dresses in a closet, a typewriter, a doorbell inscribed "Bless this our home", jumbled piano keys, their strings flayed wild as lightning. One of the most unsettling links to the past is discarded evidence in the cellar of a police station, the names of murder victims inked on labels attached to blood samples and pieces of cloth - Vickie Truelove, Valerie Chalk, Debbie Ann Friday...
"Seeing these once-sturdy buildings crumbling around us made us wonder about the permanence of everything," says Meffre. "Ruins epitomise our human ability to create and self-destruct at the same time; the way in which we are trying to achieve immortality by believing, creating, possessing and consuming. The waste of it choked us. We hope people who look at the pictures will feel the same way we did when we were there - moved by all this history and also wondering what happened; how could we do that to history, to a whole city? We learnt a lot about our behaviour as consumers, and about human nature itself."
The Ruins of Detroit is published this month by Steidl (ISBN: 978-3-86930-042-9), priced £78. www.steidlville.com
Image © Ian Teh.
China's Northern Provinces, by Ian Teh
China's emergence as a new world power, and the tide of anxiety that has attended its industrial bulge, has proved irresistible to a flurry of photographers keen to document history, and even geography, in the making. British-Malaysian photographer Ian Teh has been visiting the country to document its people and places since the mid-1990s, and can lay claim to a study of epic - in the truest sense of the word - scope.
His chief achievement has been his capture of size, both in terms of sheer land mass, and an intense, irrepressible industrial creep. He sees his work as a sustained study, and each project as a "chapter" in an ongoing story. "Who knows what else I will find?" he says.
Traces, which seeks out the ravaged landscapes of the Northern Provinces to describe the pattern of abuse, continues a plot he first teased out in series such as Dark Clouds, a portrait of life among coal miners, Tainted Landscapes, which pictured the area around Linfen - "known in the 1980s as the ‘Modern Fruit and Flower Town' but now better known as China's most polluted city". It also carries on from The Vanishing, probably his best-known work, which documented the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the 2km long edifice that formed a reservoir submerging 13 cities, 400 towns and 1352 villages to underwater oblivion.
Teh's latest images depict scenes in the countryside where much of China's industrial revolution has been played out - "the backbone", says Teh, "to China's economic engine". "Ultimately, the brilliant glare from China's metropolises can be traced back to the hinterland and its migrant workers. There, as in all of China, I see the dream of a rising nation and the cost that is being passed to present and future generations, in order to grasp what is tangible now."
For some time, Teh has been toying with different narrative structures. "When I began work on Traces, I found the quiet of the places I travelled to disconcerting. I was trying to continue as I had been in my previous series, photographing the daily life of the people. At some point in my frustration, something clicked, and I remember being really excited. I realised I could express a very different aspect of what I was concerned about, by concentrating on the landscapes."
Teh says his inspiration came from John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which he'd read a long time ago. "I remember being struck by how Steinbeck had structured his story. First there was the intimate, where the daily realities of the families were narrated; second he came at the story from a distance, with a kind of dispassionate perspective. It was this god-like view of events unfolding below that I tried to capture.
"When you see Traces alongside the other works, the stories interlace with each other, just as Steinbeck interlaced his chapters - one intimate, one humanist. The contrast opens everything up, and this ambiguity creates a pause, and hopefully allows the viewer's mind to wander beyond what they see, to question or even to create their own narrative. From the macro to the individual, I hope these series inform one other, with Traces offering a series of larger questions that isn't necessarily specific to China alone, but more about us as a global community, our impact and the marks we leave behind.
"A society that is socially aware is a stronger and kinder society to live in," he says.
Traces is on show at Flowers East gallery in London from 05 May. www.flowersgalleries.com
Ireland's Housing Bubble Bursts, by Kenneth O'Halloran
Image © Kenneth O'Halloran.
It was a chance thumb through a friend's copy of Chris Killip's In Flagrante that first set Kenneth O'Halloran on his path, its unsentimental images of ordinary despair in Thatcher's Britain seemed a revelation to this Irish photographer who had tired of the daily grind of his job at the Irish Independent. "I began my career believing some of the images I took might end up making some difference," he says, "but the excitement and substance of my early years, when I covered civil unrest at home and war abroad, had gone. Increasingly we spent our time doing ‘at home' feature photographs and red carpet celebrity. When I saw Killip's work, I felt inspired to apply the same point of view - that dark, pessimistic journey that Gerry Badger called it - to my own community".
An undertaker's son from a small village in the west of Ireland - "the type of place where everybody knew everybody" - O'Halloran had moved first to Limerick then Dublin, before living in Madrid, then a career jetting in and out of Rwanda, Afghanistan, East Timor and Kosovo followed, before he found his subject. And he found it in his own backyard.
"I had begun to feel that something seismic was happening," he says "For 10 years, house prices had been rising without a break, pumped with cheap credit and plenty of it. No dinner party was complete without discussing how much your house had increased in value or how many apartments you owned in Bulgaria and Budapest. No village was complete without a new housing development skirting its edge. Property developers flew around in helicopters and thought nothing of buying off plan. We were almost drunk on money."
A combination of unease and curiosity took him to property expos, show home openings and construction sites, piecing together his story. He was shocked to find that the Ireland he was familiar with, all rural country fairs and birds wheeling over sheep-stippled fields, had morphed to reveal weather-bitten, scowling estates left half-finished and stranded in the wet and mud. "Everywhere I went, I saw these monuments to our madness and our greed," he says. "Elevated cranes leaning carelessly; the land blemished and washed-out.
"Looking at the photographs now, it seems like another country, another time. Sometimes I think it feels too soon for Irish people to have to see their folly reflected back at them. I don't want them to be a moral lesson. It's not my job to preach to people. It's just a record of history".
Facing Change in America
Image © Anthony Suau/Facing Change.
Comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s have been mouthed frequently since the first of the foreclosures that have dominated landscapes physical and economical in the US. So it was only a matter of time before someone instigated a modern-day version of the Farm Security Administration's documentary programme, the legendary initiative that sent photographers and writers out across America to hold a mirror to their times, capturing the fallout for subsequent generations.
Billed as a resource that "raises social awareness and expands public debate", Facing Change has stepped into the breach. A non-profit collective, it was founded during the early days of the Obama administration to show America to Americans, covering aspects of daily life that might ordinarily have slipped under the radar. "There is a huge frustration with traditional media" says co-founder Anthony Suau. "I hear it constantly when I'm working in the field. We felt we were going out and seeing things that were not being reported, or not being covered in the way that we felt was appropriate. More than that, it's no longer necessary to communicate down to the audience. Facing Change intends to communicate laterally."
Having raised its start-up funding from the Soros Foundation, the founders built a contract for those involved that Suau likens to "reinventing the wheel". Added to Suau's experience as photographer for Time magazine and co-founder Lucian Perkins' expertise as staff photographer for the The Washington Post, they added David Burnett's know-how as founder of Contact Press Images, and Stanley Greene, one of the original members of Noor, creating an agreement that took copyright, archiving and, of course, financial reward into consideration. "It's set up so that no-one can get rich on this project," says Suau. "Everyone is going to make a certain amount of money, and that's it. The rest will be ploughed back into the collective project. It's a very socialist system of operating. None of us have ever worked in this way before, but we felt that what was happening was so important to document, that we would have to forego some of the ideal situations that we have enjoyed in the past." Facing Changes' contribution to the journalism landscape is also remarkable for its reciprocal approach. "The idea is not to go out on assignment and spend 10 days watching people and photographing them in their very hard times and misery and then move onto the next story. We aim to create contact. We will bring the work back to the people we were photographing, and allow them to have a voice in the production of that story. And then we'll go back again and again, and keep that line of communication open."
The stories already up and running on their site include those one might expect: foreclosures, the BP oil spill, images of the Rust Belt. But there are also some that startle: a rally by comedians to "restore sanity" to the politically disenchanted, for example, and a beautifully plaintive take on the Arizona Immigration Bill. The hit-rate on the site has been high; the response in the field overwhelming. "A lot of photographers and writers have written saying they want to join the project, and we're not turning anyone away, but at our main priority is getting our initial group of photographers and writers funded. Once that's moving more fluidly and there is more funding, we're happy to bring more people along. I‘d love us to be the National Public Radio of photography."
Power Elites in the Nigerian Delta, by Christian Lutz
Image © Christian Lutz.
Tropical Gift, Christian Lutz's plunge into the dark heart of the Nigerian oil industry, is part two of a triptych of works examining power. The first chapter was the acclaimed Protokoll, which pictured what he calls "the theatre of politics... the different settings that politicians use to express their power", shot mainly while travelling abroad with various delegations of the Swiss Federal Department of Internal Affairs. The highly orchestrated hierarchies he witnessed informed his work in Nigeria, with its complex power strata and exploitation of natural resources, both among the local population, and foreigners working for multinationals.
Light Nigerian crude is considered the caviar of world oils, and forms almost half of the total imported by the US, the largest consumer of oil worldwide. The fallout of this industry, which began in earnest in the Niger Delta during the 1960s, has been a wrecking of lives and land.
"In the beginning, the local Nigerians were not aware of what was going on beneath their noses," says Lutz. "But gradually, they began to find ways of taking advantage of what was happening. They went away to study in England, they came back to Lagos or Abudja, and the system took them in. They bribed their own governments. The system became more and more complex."
For Lutz, the draw of the story was how his own need for gas and oil was part of the consumer demand driving the market. "We are all responsible," he says. "We take the oil but we don't know how it came to us; we don't know how the dealers operate." His pictures thus follow the oil as it travels, figuratively, through the hands of every person in the transaction. There are as many suits and briefcases as there are poorly shod children and plumes of fire.
"I thought it would be more expressive if I underscored that side of the story," explains the Swiss photographer. "I was a wealthy white in Nigeria, and I used this to get mixed up with the community. I ate fresh sushi that cost $150, and swam in their pools and drank some great South African wine, but I could hardly stand it. It made me sick. I never want to go back. How can we eat sushi in West Africa when the fish for the local population have been annihilated by the oil spillage? The population split in Nigeria is so extreme, it becomes surreal."
Lutz, an avid fan of documentary filmmaking for its capacity to transmit the voice of an auteur, found the only way he could convey his message was to make the surreal feeling he encountered his subject. "It felt like a scenario, like it had been set up. I thought, ‘Let's use that'." At the time, he says, he was focusing on just taking the pictures. "Nigeria is not a place where photography has a cultural role. There are no street photographers; I encountered a lot of suspicion. It was only afterwards that the story really emerged, in the edit; the selection of and tension between the images. It became like a thriller, with good guys and bad."
For Lutz, the story of the Nigerian oil industry "is the same as the story of gold or diamonds", and he finds it revolting. "It's a base, animalistic, rough type of capitalism. It's like a huge motor, a big game in which everyone has chances, and you can't make it stop. It's really disgusting - I'm not ashamed to use that word - it's a disgusting criminal business."
Tropical Gift, Gold winner of the New German Photobook Prize 2011, is published by Lars Müller (ISBN: 978-303-778-226-2), priced £35. www.lars-mueller-publishers.com
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