The Forensic Turn and the thingness of the photograph – Dr. Paul Lowe

Images of atrocity are deeply problematic, in that they potentially create a tension between form and content and are often accused of re-victimisation, aesthetisation of suffering, compassion fatigue and exploitation. As an alternative, therefore, there is considerable potential in examining images associated with atrocity that do not depict the actual act of violence or the victim itself, but rather depict the material presence of the spaces and objects involved in such acts. Images of the absence of visible violence can lead the viewer into an imaginative engagement with the nature of atrocity, and the nature of those who perpetrate it. In exploring this absence, Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ (1963), can be taken to mean that the spaces in which atrocities take place are often nondescript, everyday and banal, and that the items used in such violence too are often nondescript. Photography, with its optical -mechanical process, is adept at recording such banal facts of the scene, and by inviting the viewer to scan the image for minute details, often generates a tension between such mundanites and the audiences’ knowledge of the potential import of the situation garnered via a caption. This strategy of the aesthetics of the banal has become a common one in contemporary photographic practice, however, the idea that an image that appears on the surface to be of an ordinary situation, but which the viewer then discovers contains another, deeper and more imaginative reading, is one that has long been effective.

The media coverage of conflict, disasters and human suffering is full of ethical problems, and the risk of victimisation or exploitation of the subject’s distress is real and present. Whilst such claims are disputable, as an alternative to graphic images of violence an approach to documentary photography has emerged that focuses on the traces of war and conflict rather than its direct effects on the human body. Photographers such as turn their attention to the objects, detritus and spaces it produces. By photographing these ‘still lives’, and deploying an aesthetic drawn from human rights investigation and police forensic images, they deal with the complex issues of the ethics of representation whilst simultaneously opening up an imaginative space in which the viewer is invited to engage in a performative interaction with the situation. They also explore alternative vehicles for the dissemination of their work, including books, exhibitions and the web. By exploiting the presence of absence in objects, they offer an alternative and powerful route to the documentation of violence. This paper explores the work of Gilles Peress, Gary Knight, Simon Norfolk, Zijah Gafic, Edmund Clark, Ashley Gilbertson, Shannon Jensen and Fred Ramos amongst others in this context.

Panel One
Housing Issues – Tom Hunter

Over the last 25 years I have been engaged in community housing projects in inner city London. This began with my project ‘The Ghetto’ which documented and campaigned to save a squatting community of 100 people facing eviction from developers and the council in Hackney. This project took the form of a 3D photographic sculpture which is now on permanent display at the Museum of London. This set me on my path as community activist and documentary maker in the urban environment. Since then I have gone on to document the residents of the much-maligned Holly Street estate during the transition and rebuilding of the estate. And more recently the Woodberry Down estate, where I was commissioned by the Serpentine gallery to work in partnership with Age Concern to make a film ‘A Palace for Us’. This film not only documented the lives of the elders from the estate but also told the history of social housing from the second world war to today’s council housing sell-off.

In all these projects I have interwoven documentary, social issues and different artistic approaches to create works which champion the residents of social housing and give them a voice in a wider national housing debate.

Coventry Ritz Cinema – Dr. Nirmal Puwar

Emphasizing the haunting remnants of emptied out architecture and unused spaces, Coventry Ritz listens to the days when social scenes were produced in the British post-war period by South Asian workers who bought and programmed cinemas. Voices of people remembering are layered with archive images and a visual portrait of the crumbling Ritz as it stands today (before being demolished) to etch, in our imagination, where life, politics and film once mingled. This film is a reflection on the methods of looking back ‘now’ to ‘then’.

The Oxenham House Neighbourhood Project: how can photographic research be used to facilitate community among neighbours? – Anita Strasser

This participatory photography project in a block of flats in Deptford set out to create a shared dialogue and active community among neighbours. Neighbours had been complaining about the lack of neighbourly contact and community spirit, and the inability to collectively try and get the council to repair this building that suffers from years of decline and neglect. This project engaged neighbours in building up a shared dialogue through repeated collective activity such as beautifying communal spaces, having tea and cake together, and information sharing about issues related to the building. The project utilised photography as a researching tool, with the understanding that the process of collaborative image-making and text-writing, photo-elicitation, and the sharing and gifting of generated material has the potential to develop the visceral experience of community such as trust, familiarity and belonging. The repeated encounters with neighbours generated through this participatory process, including a booklet with images and texts for people to take home, helped facilitate recognition, small-talk and regular contact among some, and has transformed strangers living alongside each other into neighbours who engage in collective action. Although the complexity of social bonds in such every-day banalities is invisible, the impact on individual lives is significant.

Panel Two
Marshlands – Tanya Houghton

London’s Marshland; an expanse of over 10,000 acres that stretch from the east end up to the north east of the city of London. An intricate network of waterways and protected marshland, they are home to many of the city’s boating community, dog walkers, and urban ramblers. Once combined these users create an intricate web of unseen paths with hints that they were once there scattered across the landscape.

The resulting body of work is an exploration of these urban-rural spaces. Created through a series of walks, Houghton follows trodden desire paths and wanders through hidden pockets of the Marshland. Photographing the landscape as she moves through it, she collects man made items and local flora to be reworked into sculptural still lives in the studio. The work is a collection of painterly landscapes and delicate still lives that act as testimony to the human interaction within these green spaces and the traces they leave behind.

Walking the Leaway –  Anthony Palmer

The Leaway is a walking and cycling route along the Lower Lea Valley that, when complete, will connect the London Olympic Park to the River Thames. Passing through a previously industrialised landscape the Leaway will add bridges, pathways and other design interventions to unlock inaccessible parts, create new urban green space and provide a sustainable and car-free transport route. Through improved connections, the Leaway is also the catalyst for future urban renewal and development.

In the spring of 2016 I made a short photography project about the Leaway that intended to show the ‘spirit of place’. In trying to depict this urban landscape as more than a view, I used a method of paying attention to the other senses during repeated walks. In Walking the Leaway, I will discuss some of the ideas behind the project and present the images.

Tracking – down by the railway – Jennifer Roberts

In August 2017 I attended the two week International Urban Photography Summer School at Goldsmiths College, where my final course project focussed on the process of practising photography using a phenomenological methodology.

The phenomenological, sensory approach resonates with my previous training as an integrative psychotherapist, and in particular with my experience of using Gestalt therapy. I also relate it to ideas from the new geography regarding the immanence of the landscape.

I walk when I take photos, usually without any conscious plan in mind. I try to allow myself to be embodied and embedded in the landscape. Sometimes a theme emerges, sometimes not. Any significance in the images may not be immediate.

This walk was down by the railway in Deptford, along a kind of edgelands where large scale infrastructure renewal has made it necessary to close off part of the area for several years. Now it is re-opened, but there are many high, chainlink fences. Nothing is visible directly through them. Everything is fuzzy. You can’t touch what is behind, or easily take photographs through them. As I walked, a theme of invisibility, the hidden, erasure and exclusion began to emerge.