Euro Agbo Photo Journo 5: Fotografiska Museum

Visited Stockholm Fotografiska Museum.

It is like the Photojournalist's "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" in Sweden.  Photos are displayed both as works of art, and as important and beautiful storytelling.  The museum is in a retrofitted brick railyard building, with 3 floors. Lovely interior design, best restaurant and coffee shop ever seen.

There were 4 themes (These change year to year). Horses, Irving Penn, Scribbled on woman heads (skip it), and South Korean clone labs.

Upon entry, the first theme was "Like a Horse". Many new artists, but also vintage historical photography of horses.  Some blond haired, blue-eyed white children in Texas. Horse poop, spray-painted gold. Little bottles of 'horse odors' you can sniff for multi-dimensional effect (did not see many attendees take the advantage).

Exotic. Some African American horseback riders in urban Philadelphia. Celebrity. Young Patrick Swayze, and Richard Gere on horseback.  The biography of one of the photographers explained he would never have been "discovered" if he hadn't been pals with Richard Gere before the actor was famous. The timing was right - the star of Pretty Woman on horses got the photographer in with a magazine, which led to a career.

Women, eyes, motion studies... you can find whatever you want, as long as it's Horses!

Three other sets included a kind of throwaway wall size photo section of Swedish women with their faces scribbled upon art, a large and impressive multi-decade tribute to Vogue photographer Irving Penn, and the section devoted to the "2017 Young Nordic Photographer of the Year" Awardee Akseli Valmunen, "The Same New Pet".

I found Irving Penn's the most interesting, and spent the most time there.  More on that to follow.  His photo of Miles Davis's hand was spooky cool.

The "Same New Pet" series was taken by Akseli Valmunen at a South Korean pet cloning lab.  The artist's opening quote is the same as on his webpage - a story about the remains of a missing child which could only have been found by a famous tracking dog.  The dog's sense of smell is immortalized by the cloning lab... South Korea Balto lives!

The heroic story of the South Korean Dog no doubt gave the young photographer a sense of relief from the sense of intrusion we, as photographers (I am one) all deal with.  We have to make very quick decisions where to point our camera, and sometimes the ones that are the most in the face obtrusive produce the best art.  If there is a greater breaking news story of interest, all the better for the award committee. Any criticism of intrusion strikes photographers at their core.

But you can come to a museum and discuss the themes of photography as both art and "photo-journalism". That's where my 1000 words come in.

Celebrity. Exoticism. Breaking News. A Story.

These can make or break a professional photographer.  It's their fortune at stake.

20th Century stalwart Irving Penn was clearly benefitting from celebrity (rock musicians, actors and artists, often in arrogantly staged poses), and also from exoticism. He had a fair share of exotic African tribal photos - nude, tatooed, and provocatively posed. Out of his total sample, the African village had a kind of kinky overpresentation.  But he kind of earned a pass.

Penn's Africa photos, in fairness, documented African cultural practices now lost.  Moreover, I saw that his famous models from Vogue were also exotically dressed and posed. I wondered which women an alien, or midwest housewife, would find more bizarrely exotic?   But perhaps I give the Irving Penn series a pass because he was NOT trying to be a "journalist".  His art was art, his subjects knew they were being gazed upon, and often had something to gain themselves.  He was not adding "a story" to boost his photos relevance, he was not screaming "won't someone please think of the children". The pics said what year it was taken, and who was in the photo, and sometimes where.

What are the environmental policy lessons we can draw from Penn's Fotografiska exhibition?

What we need is more photographs of European models and known actors and actresses surrounded by "e-waste". If you are going to set a Chinese kid's butt on a pile of circuit boards, or a Ghanaian water-girl on top of a CRT monitor, then pose your own people on top of them as well.  And hold the fake news story.

If the entire museum was only African Americans on horseback in Philly, and only Irving Penn tribal dancers, and all black women with doodles drawn on their faces, the museum would be instantly over-the-line cringeworthy. We can take exoticism if it's distributed fairly.

Penn used his own wife in several exotic shots.


Africans in Irving Penn's gallery are as exotic as we are. If everyone is exotic, then no one can be.

Fair enough.

Africans generate e-waste the same as we do.  They watch Manchester United play Chelsea in league football (soccer), just as my kids do. Their daytime TV is filled with Nigerian (or Cameroonian) soap operas.  If your entire collection of "e-waste" photography is all "third world children", you have a moral and perhaps legal (false claims act, when legislation and legal enforcement are invoked) obligation to either show Africans also posed in Tech Sector and Consumer oridinary-ness, or to show all kinds of people (like Horses and Penn-subjects) in the same light (or dark).

Africans rarely if ever wear exotic headdresses.  They are brought out for special occasions and holidays.  And they don't use their VCRs any more, the VCRs are in a back room, the same as yours and mine.

Who made me the referee?  Might as well be me, no one else is calling this out. And it really boils down to simple fairness. If you get over the emotionalism and the "shock stats" (80% of African electronics burst into flames within days of import!), any reader or view can tell if your story is balanced, the same as we can tell if a Horses exhibit is all about Philadelphia Negro Urban Cowboys, or if Penn never mixed in celebrities, NYC butchers, and his wife's gawdy wardrobes in his portfolio.

If everyone is the same, then the photographer who travels to Agbogbloshie no longer has, in @ItsSashaRainbow's quote of Brian Malko (Placebo) "balls of steel".  I cringed a bit at Irving Penn's photos of Africans. But he wasn't around to brag, and he had photos of New York butchers and Hell's Angels and two different shots of Miles Davis hands.  Everyone was treated equally.  If we are all exotic, none of us are.

And by corollary, for us to be exotic, we have to say we were somewhere, with someone, different. So very different. Others. Others. Others.  Not like butchers, not like motorcyclists, someone very very very DIFFERENT.   And some photographers show off their shiny balls of steel by teaching us lies.

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"Teach Me Lies"

Kevin McElvaney did not "hold a mirror" to society.  He took pictures of someone else's society, held it up to Europeans, and told them it was their junk, and their fault. The scintilla of evidence has been abandoned like a hot potato by Basel Action Network, and Mike Anane (who he interviews) is a citation laughingstock. Balls of steel.

Sasha Rainbow could have talked to me, politely, extended some courtesy.  But she too, is posed for glory, and corrections of Mike Anane ridiculouseness are inconvenient.  Balls of steel.

Search either via Google Images and their selfies launch at you. Their selfies declare the photographers "balls of steel".

They are candidates for Fotografiska. But they come to the judges bearing not a saving message to deliver Africans to "Eden".  They come bearing lies.

Poor Africans are "others" who are cheaper than celebrities.  The photographers get the same taste of exotic shock, but they don't need to go to the effort they'd need to for a series with Lorde, Beyonce and Pink and Justin Beiber, Eminem, and Lady Gaga, all posting with the older electronic equipment they inherited from their parents attics.  That exoticness would stem from celebrity, and be true.  That's what I saw in Irving Penn's showing.  DECADES this man worked, for living Decades Irving Penn built his way up from New York City street photography, to Vogue.  And he earned his way to photograph Woody Allen, Hells Angels, Grateful Dead... and in that context, late in his career, I'll grant him the pygmies of New Guinea.

- - -
Penn is saying, in a weird way, that we are the same. His photos of his wife - a middle aged woman, dressed in screaming NY 1950s fashion runway style - seemed to me every bit as exotic as his photos of African villagers.

Penn could take a picture of anyone with a used piece of electronic junk.  He was making a living off of the exotic, but nothing in the Fotografiska suggested he was telling lies, or cheating his way onto the viewers pallet.

Ordinary / Exotic.  Electronics are both.  Most of us cannot imagine how they work, or how in such a short time they go from an African's life savings to junk status.  Most of us know nothing more about our circuit boards than a villager pointing at a bird-plane in the sky.

Ordinary once exotic stuff.  THAT is the source of electronic scrap at Agbogbloshie. Africans who owned TVs 30 years ago enjoyed extreme pride, and kept the devices out of hope of value.  They have died.  Some in their 50s, 60s, or 40s, or 70s.  They died of old age and left VCRs behind.  And their kids sell the VCRs to city carters for a few nickels worth of copper.  The carters sell the "third hand" junk to scrappers in Agbogbloshie, who may repair some but largely manage them as scrap, because they are so very old.

It's kind of ordinary.

In Part 6 (maybe the conclusion), we will look at the European Agbo Porno Photo Journalism in Ghana, and how the psychology of young photographers, motivated by museum heros like Penn, succumb to celebritizing and exoticification and false importance. By the psychology, I mean what they must be going through as they try to scratch out a career in a field where they may not have met a Richard Gere, or Patrick Swayze.  They may indeed have chutzpah (an older term for 'balls of steel'), and a passion for "holding a mirror" to society to accomplish great good.

As I've said many times, McElvaney may be responsible for the $15M Ghana Agbogbloshie German e-Scrap factory announced (though if the Germans find out its another excuse to use bulldozers for uncompensated forced evictions on Old Fadama shantytown, they may wish they'd talked to someone with a longer resume).  A picture can stand in for 1,000 words.

Photojournalists must just use those "words" carefully.

Oh, and also in Scandinavia, here is how properly trained orange-jacketed Recycling Staff handle flat screen TVs.  Less primitive than pushcarts?

Yep, that's what it looks like. Film of the Bergen e-waste sideshow may not have burning tires flung by pink bicycle helmuted 25 year old strongmen, but it's definitely not "Tech Sector" either.

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