Whether it was terrorism or financial collapse, the crises we faced this decade took on worldwide proportions. Photographers have responded with projects on globalisation but, says Paul Wombell, there's also a counter trend towards the local, which defies the logic of international homogenisation
Anchor and hope, 2009 © Tom Hunter
A new decade and century might have been announced at midnight on 31 December 1999, but the world we now live in was inaugurated sometime later. Two key events mark the beginning of the twentieth-first century: 9/11 and the current financial crisis. Will photography change in response to these events? I think the answer is yes.
The late 21st century
The first key date was 11 September 2001 and the attack on the World Trade Centre. For me there is only one artistic response to this event that merits any mention, and fortunately it's photographic. Here is New York: a democracy of photographs was started in two storefronts on Prince Street, New York by Alice Ross George, Gilles Peress, Michael Shulan and Charles Traub, conceived of as an exhibition in which anyone could add their images from the fateful day and the following days and weeks at Ground Zero.
Each image was digitally scanned, printed a standard size and displayed without a frame, hung from wire strung on the walls and across the rooms. No captions or names were used, so the photographs were displayed anonymously. Shulan called the display 'a physical website' due to the thousands of photographs on show, and because of the extraordinary response to it, the project resulted in a major international touring exhibition, website and publication.
Three aspects from this project are worth considering. First, the rise of the citizen reporter. Here is New York could not have been such a powerful visual statement without the involvement of so many people, including both professional and amateur photographers. This was a photographic project in which New Yorkers could tell their own photographic story, their own way, about 9/11. This could not have happened without the second point - the fundamental change that has taken place in the taking, printing and dissemination of images due to digitisation.
Both in the book and online, the Here is New York organisers explain in detail what software they used to access contributors' images, and how they scanned analogue prints and produced inkjets. This, coupled with the development of the inexpensive digital camera and the integration of the still camera into the mobile phone, meant that everyone in New York was a photojournalist, and they could make their images readily available to be viewed. Here is New York articulates these changes in photographic technology, but it was also something more, and this is my third point. It was a local photographic project about a particular place and time.
It's difficult to pinpoint the precise date of the second big event of this decade, the ongoing financial crisis. In around August 2007 the housing market started to collapse in North America, and by November the rest of the world had woken up to sub-prime loans and the fact that these loans had been repackaged and sold to financial institutions outside North America. As people started to fail on their mortgage repayments the loans turned into toxic assets, which had repercussions around the world and precipitated the credit crisis we are still living through today. If we need a date then may I humbly suggest the 06 June 2007, now known as 6/6. On this date Local, The End of Globalisation, a group exhibition involving eleven photographers that I curated, opened to the public in Madrid.
For some time writers such as John Gray, the political philosopher, John Ralston Saul, the essayist, and Joseph Stiglitz, the economist, had raised questions about the limitations of the free market financial system that underpins globalisation. Over the last two years we have seen a re-evaluation of the Anglo Saxon banking system which has become so powerful since the 1970s, and which is defined by hedge funds and light touch regulation.
Globalisation implies that money freely moves around the world, a world with no boundaries and in which where you live is not important. In fact globalisation gives the impression that each town and city looks the same, that we wear the same clothes, watch the same television programmes. The rhetoric of globalisation is like a blanket that smothers difference and hides complexity.
The cultural effects of globalisation can be seen within photography, in particular in fine art photography. Over the last 20 years global photography has become very visible in museum exhibitions and at international art fairs, and has sold very well in the art market. Sebastiao Salgado's two large scale projects Workers; An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993) and Migrations (2000) epitomises the totalised view of the world with no boundaries.
But I think the key artist of global photography is Andreas Gursky, who has created large-scale images of banks, trading floors, hotels, and sport - the service industries that have defined globalisation - over recent years. Other photographers who have ploughed a similar furrow are Candida Hofer, Martin Parr and Thomas Struth. All allude to a world seemingly without boundaries and although they don't necessarily celebrate globalisation, their work does seem to me to be formed by the process of globalisation, financially, technologically and culturally.
There are now clear signs that the form of globalisation we have witnessed since the mid-1970s is in decline. Our worldview is changing, and not just because of the financial crisis - we are also recognising that we are depleting resources such as oil and climate change is taking effect. Religion is also increasing its presence. Against this background local concerns about place and community will become more important in future, if they haven't already done so.
In contemporary photography 'the local' is often discussed in terms of 'the otherness' of photographers from non-Western countries. In fact the local has always played a central role in defining how we understand photography - just think of Eugene Atget and August Sander. Where any photographer, from any part of the world, takes their photographs, is central to the medium. In fact photography may be the medium of location, because where you stand, where you place yourself in the world, is so central to the photographic process. The significance of location can be seen in some of the major figures in photography today, but I will focus on just a few.
Tom Hunter was one of the photographers included in my exhibition Local, The End of Globalisation. He lives in Hackney, East London, and has done for more than 10 years. His series Living in Hell and Other Stories is based on headlines from his local weekly newspaper, the Hackney Gazette - with the help of friends he takes these lurid tales of murder, sex and assault and re-crates them, as near as possible to the actual location. The gestures and positions of the people acting out the stories are based on historical paintings, so Hunter's large colour photographic prints reference other stories from the past.
The work of the Berlin photographers Gabriele and Helmut Nothhelfer isn't so well known in the UK but they started working together in the 1970s, shooting people attending public events in Berlin. They have continued working together on this singular and exceptional body of work ever since, using a 35mm camera with available light and producing (by today's standards) small black-and-white prints. When they started working Berlin was split into two halves, East and West. Today, after reunification, the city is one. Their charged portraits focus on the top half of the body, and the way people dress for public occasions tells the story of a city that has undergone both political and psychological changes.
David Goldblatt has lived and worked all his life in South Africa. Inspired by the Farm Security Administration photographers such as Walker Evans, Goldblatt set out to document life under apartheid. His photographs were not in the style of what was called 'struggle photography', which depicted the physical violence of the apartheid regime. For Goldblatt there was no easy way to represent apartheid because it was such a complex social and legal structure, and because it was both visible and hidden. His recent work Intersection Intersected continues his visual investigation by juxtaposing photographs he made in black-and-white in the 1960s to the mid-90s, with colour photographs made over the last 10 years.
Like Hunter and the Nothhelfers, Goldblatt presents the past and the present in one defined location. This approach gives their work a richness and depth that can only come from an engagement with place over time. These photographers understand very clearly the problems but also the possibilities that exist in producing work within the constraints of the local. They suggest a different way of working that directly questions the concept of a world with no boundaries.
John Cassidy, writing on globalisation and the earlier speculative boom of the 1990s and reflecting on 9/11 in his book Dot.com the greatest story ever sold, wrote that the promise of globalisation and new technologies was not just technological, 'it was also ideological. Once digital networks had liberated them from the confines of tradition and physical location, human beings would come together and transcend division: tribal, religious, racial and economics'. He ends with a sobering pronouncement: 'After September 11, it seems ludicrous to speculate about an escape from history or geography.'
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Freelance curator Paul Wombell was director of The Photographers' Gallery from 1994-2005 and subsequently took over as director of the Hereford Festival. He has written several books on photography and curated the Local exhibition at Photo Espana in 2007.
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