Saturday, 10 September 2011

10 years after 9/11

It’s the ten year anniversary of 9/11. We all remember exactly where we were when it happened, don’t we? It’s like John Lennon or JFK or the Berlin Wall was. 

I was in PE. It was 2 days before a musical event that me and some mates were putting on, in an old church. We’d spent three months working on it: making film projections (with actual old 16mm film, clips from 1950s Austrian newsreels my mate Graham had found on an Ostrich farm in Malmesbury), organising bands, building a stage-set on the alter using bits of the old Swartkops Power Station as props. Man… you had to be there: PE’s best-ever band, Strange Little Man, fronted by Kendall Beadon, brother of Fletcher from African Dope in Cape Town, and a host of other musicians. Pete Badenhorst flew in from Cape Town for it. Hagen Engler was there. Yeah… it was a hell of a thing. And for one night only! Haha! What the fuck were we thinking?

And then 9/11 happened. Man, it threw us for a wobbly. Grant Bain (the lead act, a genius guitarist but unstable at the best of times) in particular went totally mental. And Anthony Panniotti… mad Greek drummer, burned the US flag on stage. Hell of a thing…

But I’ll never forget me and Grant Bain driving that night the towers fell, to Donald Woodhead’s house to fetch something, I forget what. A sheet to use as a screen or something. Man, there was NOBODY! The streets were dead. Never before or since in all the years I’ve lived in PE have I seen anything like it. Not a soul on the streets. Everyone at home in front of the TV: Armageddon. Finally it was here.

But we couldn’t stop. The show must go on… It was a Helluva thing. I’ll never forget.

But now it’s ten years down the line. I’m older now. More clinical, more rational. Head no longer up my own arse. No more belief in magic and fairytales. Just cold hard facts. And if you can’t deal with them and want to make up fairy tales then don’t be surprised when they get shot down.

Facebook is already overflowing with comments, and links to sites peddling dubious conspiracy theories. What seems to be lacking in all this is a sense of understanding of the real working world of journalism. If I as a journalist uncover evidence that Americans themselves engineered the attack, why are my findings only viewable on dodgy websites and videos that are passed from person to person on the net, self-published books and the like? There are more than enough newspapers in countries outside America that are not controlled by American multinationals and that would pay me very handsomely if I presented them with irrefutable proof that there was nobody on those planes, that the whole thing was engineered so as to have an excuse to invade Arab countries with oil. (That it was later used as one is beside the point.)

The truth is, there is no such proof. The cold hard facts are as follows: There were real live people on that plane that went down in Pennnsylvania. Just ask the director of United 92. He spoke to their loved ones. They told him exactly what their wives and husbands had said in phone calls minutes before they died. There were funerals. Photographs. Cold hard facts. Yes, history is a construct. But certain things are irrefutable: The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and not Porto’Spain. Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not Nairobi and Hellsinki. Simple, documented fact. It was a plane that hit the Pentagon, not a rocket. Those people on that plane all died. Their families know that. Unless… what? The US government rounded these people up, took them off into the desert in Nevada and disposed of them, and then sent the planes off to their fiery doom? Without anyone spilling the beans? Despite any informer knowing that spilling the beans would make them a multi-millionaire?

When I learn that a third of Americans are running around believing this nonsense, I am not that surprised. Creeping into Hollywood films of various genres in the last 20 years has been a deep mistrust of the state, especially the FBI and the CIA. A deep paranoia seems to have gripped many in America that the state is undermining their freedoms and wants to take their guns away. Government is increasingly viewed as a meddling Big Brother, ready to pounce and close down churches, strip people of their freedom of speech and remodel the country into some kind of politically correct, multicultural gulag.

  The conspiracy theories in response towards 9/11 that this mindset has encouraged would all be laughable were they not so deeply narcissistic.  There has been absolutely no credible evidence whatsoever to suggest that the Pentagon was hit by a missile and then bits of a plane placed on the scene. Thousands of people, from rescue workers to witnesses, would have to have been involved in a cover-up so vast it boggles the mind. Not to mention the logistics of taking those bits of dead passengers still strapped to their airplane seats and placing them strategically amongst the rubble (after first killing and mutilating them in Nevada, remember?). All without anyone seeing or spilling the beans. Not one person involved in this had the slightest inkling of guilt in slaughtering his fellow-Americans? Right…

What makes this narcissistic (and deeply offensive to many of us non-Americans) is the fact that the US government (and specifically the CIA) has been involved in a litany of dirty deeds across the globe - specifically in little South American states conducting harmless little experiments in socialism - since the start of the Cold War. These have all been documented extensively, and hundreds of thousands if not millions have been left dead their wake. Everybody here in South Africa knows the CIA assisted the SANDF in our little escapades in Angola.

But none of this matters really, because we in the Third World are expendable. No real live Americans were harmed or injured in any way in the making of those little films.

It would be nice if those Americans who so mistrust their government started looking seriously at the discord and dirty deeds that government has been sowing and perpetrating outside of its own borders for the last 50 years before they start cooking up laughable narcissistic theories about 9/11. But to do that they have to first take their heads out of their own arses, and realise that we’re just like them: when our loved ones die we also grieve, and we also want answers. Some even want retribution.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Fuck Oprah for Endorsing Such Crap.

  Now this is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Now that I’m a blogger I can. And now that The Secret has been out for a while (on the shelves, I mean) I don’t have to waste my time giving you the lowdown on what the book and film is all about. You surely all know its basic premises by now: that our reality is somehow, kind of magnetically, a manifestation of our thoughts.

  Where to begin? Let’s begin with the scientific. In my limited, layman’s understanding of quantum physics, it is a big leap, in fact, a total abandonment of scientific thinking, to say that because things behave in such and such a manner on a sub-atomic level, then that’s how the world of human affairs behaves, especially when it comes to who gets what. That, after all, is what The Secret is all about isn’t it? “With, without…And who’d deny it’s what the fighting’s all about?” as Pink Floyd said. We’re all just squabbling over stuff. In our simian past it was foodstuff, now it’s plastic and shiny metal stuff.

  But the secret would have us consign the effects on humanity of the complex machinations of complex economic systems to meaningless footnotes in a non-judgmental, non-threatening fairy tale of how the rich got rich and the poor became poor. A fairy tale that absurdly implicates no-one except (and this is rich) the poor themselves!

  It would have us turf colonial expansion and the long, tragic history of exploitation by the technologically advanced over the inferior to the dustbin, and reduce everything down to ‘visualising success’. So then…what? Belgium is full of lovely grand palaces because King Leopold visualized it and willed it to be so? No, you fools! Belgium is full of lovely grand palaces because King Leopold in his lust for ivory and rubber  actively engineered the largest genocide since the Spanish and Portuguese in South America!

  This is essentially one aspect that has given The Secret such impetus and so many followers: Our need to explain human evil. All religions, every single one, have sought to do this, often with disastrous consequences for humanity, for example, for Jews (ever since the death of Christ), and for women, during the Inquisition.

  The Secret’s solution to this age old conundrum is that (and this I find offensive to the point where I would like cause injury) the poor, the downtrodden, the fucked over, the dispossessed, hell, even the victims of earthquakes and the like, have all attracted this to themselves. Rhonda Bhumm or whatever the fuck her name is seriously wants us to believe that it is impossible for bad things to happen just out of the blue, or because of something as complicated and inconvenient as history (or tectonic plates, for that matter). We have attracted it to us with our thoughts. This kind of delusional insanity (it is a hallmark of the clinically insane to believe their thoughts can be read by others, their thoughts can alter the course of events and a whole host of other miraculous powers they attribute to those thoughts) could only exist in a prosperous first world country where very little bad stuff happens to people, and you have a very high expectation of reaching old age, with all your stuff still in your possession and still intact.  

  Well lemme share something with you, Rhonda, you delusional first-world cow: SHIT HAPPENS!!! And I’ll tell you a little story from my life to illustrate, for that is the only proof you can offer for your outrageous theories in your book: unsubstantiated anecdotes.

  I live in a city in Africa where the majority of people probably only own one pair of shoes and live in corrugated iron huts that wash away when it rains. I’m lucky though. I was born white. We’re all quite rich here, comparatively speaking, us whites. Our forefathers were great thinkers: lots of very positive thoughts went into the building of our wealth. Anyway, let me reign in the sarcasm and tell you about me.

  I’m one of the most negative shits you’ll meet here. I sneer at the way people flaunt their wealth around. I have little or no faith in the future of this country. I hate the government and its vast army of corrupt civil servants. I hate the arrogant, brutal, thuggish police force. I think it’s futile to try to build anything of permanence on this continent. Only the pyramids prove me wrong, and fuck alone knows how they were built. I always watched over my shoulder, in the suburb I lived in when my story takes place, always expecting the worst. (My girlfriend never watched, and sure enough the worst happened.) In short, in most regards mentioned above, I am the same in outlook as I was under apartheid: mistrustful of the State, negative, and cynical. Except in those days I was constantly depressed. Now I don’t care. People must mos carry on.

  On the other hand, I laugh a lot, and have tons of great friends. One of these friends is a guy called Joe. Joe lived two houses away from me. Joe is the most positive person I have ever met. Joe gets along with everyone. Seldom a negative word to say about anyone. He is like a poster boy for your book. If anyone should attract good things to them, it’s Joe, and on the whole he does. But then he had a minor break-in. Some kitchen stuff taken and some washing off the line. Par for the course in Africa. He had good burglar bars and all that. Then they tried to steal his car. He woke up and chased them away. Then they did steal his car.

  In all this time (twice this length of time actually) I sit in my house two doors down, festering in my cloud of maudlin negativity, writing gloomy songs, complaining about how every second person in this country is on the lookout to see what they can steal or how they can screw you over. But I have no burglar bars or security gates. In fact I would go out for spells and leave the front door wide open. If I was out for the whole day, the back door would be wide open. Never once did anyone even attempt to steal from me. You know why Rhonda? BECAUSE MY SHIT WAS PROTECTED BY A FUCKING DOG THE SIZE OF A SMALL HORSE!!!

  That’s how it works: bad shit happens because we’ve always been squabbling over shit, and if you live in a place where very few people have lots of shit, and a great many have almost fuckall, Bad Shit is going to happen, in all likelihood to you, no matter how positive you are. Our hominid-like ancestors killed each other in squabbles over yams and mammoths. We kill each other in squabbles over cell-phones and wallets. And this, Rhonda, is the nature of evil. There were tons of other types of hominid-like creatures running around but we’re here and they’re extinct because, in the fight for resources, we were the best at killing. Not so complicated at all, is it?  Being brutal is in our genes. Being evil is in our blood. Were it not so we would be extinct.

  The Secret is nothing more than a new religion for the age of rampant, conspicuous consumerism, this drive for Stuff. A new religion comprised, it must be added, of cobbled together bits of New Thought transcendentalist teachings that arose in late 19th century America.

  “Among those giving birth to New Thought in America were Mary Baker Eddy, founding mother of Christian Science, Emma Curtis Hopkins, Ernest Holmes, and Charles Fillmore. What was "new" about New Thought at the time of its inception was its departure from Calvinistic, shame-based Christianity which taught the inherent sinfulness of man, proclaiming instead man's innate goodness and perfectibility through the use of the Divine Mind which the transcendentalists believed resided at his core,” says Carolyn Baker in her critique of this book.

   Baker’s critique is most interesting in how it shows this crazy belief system to be a quintessentially American thing, so I won’t repeat what she writes. Let me instead share with you some pearls of wisdom from this daft book.

  “You cannot “catch” anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought. You are also inviting illness if you are listening to people talk about their illnesses.”

  So all those millions and millions of people who were wiped out by the new germs the colonisers brought with them to Africa and South America died because they sat around talking about it? Right… And when we discovered germ theory, and invented cures? What? That sudden drop in deaths was because… Help me out here Rhonda…

  Let’s face it: the only thing you can catch by not thinking is stupidity.

  Here’s another one

  “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts. Every negative thought, feeling, or emotion is blocking your good from coming to you, and that includes money. It is not that the money is being kept from you by the Universe, because all the money you require exists right now in the invisible.”

  I wonder what an economics professor would make of that last statement: it all exists right now in the invisible… What are we dealing with here? Tuppenny Feefo and Jinks by Enid Blighton?

  In the DVD there is footage of a little boy visualizing his new red bicycle and… presto, there it arrives. I recall one of the people interviewed saying something to the effect of “You want that new job? Visualise it. You want that new car? Put that thought out there in the Universe.”

  Well let me assure you: that poor bastard working slave wages in Korea or India making that new car, for you in the developed world, will never, no matter how much he visualizes it, own that car, or get that dream job. He can put as many shiny new red bicycles out into the universe as he likes but his kid is always going to walk to school. If the kid is lucky and both parents are working two jobs in order to send him to a better school than other kids, then maybe he has a chance in changing his material circumstances. It’s got sweet fuckall to do with visualising.

  But let's suppose it does, just for a minute. Let’s suspend disbelief here, and say that hypothetically, this is the way the world works. Now let us say, hypothetically, that every adult in the world reads The Secret. Let us say, for the sake of our argument, that they all decide they want cars. And they all visualize it correctly, fulfilling the requirements of this benevolent Universe, whatever those requirements are.  So now what? Who is going to make these cars? Where is the metal going to come from to make 4 billion new cars? Probably more, because, well, I’m not going to be happy with just one. I’d like two or three, because, you know, things get stolen a lot here in Africa, and since it’s all so easy…. Do you see how absurd and physically impossible this is? Once the steel is finished the steel is finished.

  I’m now finished too. I’ve devoted enough of my precious magical, magnetic thoughts to this absurd kindergarten fairytale of a book. Anyway, I’m visualizing breasts right now…

For Ms Baker’s critique go to http://jwlsweblog.blogspot.com

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


If you wish to find more about the weekend photography workshops run by Tim and Marc Pradervand, please send an email to photogetaways@gmail.com and Marc will send you the information.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Hipstamatics and Melancholy Objects


                                          Hipstamatics and Melancholy Objects

  The last 30 years has seen a glut of philosophical writing about photography emanate from the art industry, or, to twist Eisenhower’s phrase, the Art-Industrial Complex. Every issue of every high brow art magazine one picks up will have at least one essay by an art theory lecturer writing about photography, and the nature of the photographic enterprise. Some are insightful, but most are simply verbose. Now and again one of them will make up a new word, patting themselves on the back while foolishly believing they have added a new idea; some are indecipherable and get bogged down in the murky depths of Wittgenstein or Derrida, their turgid and not terribly original concepts understood only by a tiny select few. Most love to quote Roland Barthes and his mundane ramblings on photography, ramblings that reveal more about his obsession with his own eventual demise and his slightly alarming devotion to his mother, than they do about the nature of this thing that has so radically altered humanity in a little over 150 years.

  They especially like his word that he made up: punctum. They will toss it in here and there in their essays, and probably do so at dinner parties too (although I have never had the misfortune of having to sup with any of these elegant operators on the lower slopes of postmodern theory). And secretly and fervently they hope that one of the words they themselves have made up will be added to this great theoretical canon that is understood by so few and ignored by so many.

  You see, there is really only one thinker who has nailed down this thing called photography, and she did it in such an emphatic way that, even though she drew on what others before her had written, comparatively little of great substance has been added since, because, frankly, there’s not a hell of a lot left to say.  

  So when I get asked to write something on cell phone photography, and specifically, Hipstamatic images, I know that all I have to do is go back to Susan Sontag’s On Photography and I will find more than enough threads in what she wrote: threads that suggest similar threads, threads that can now be followed further, technology now being so much more advanced than when she published (1979), and threads that now find themselves in the vast virtual worlds of Facebook, Google Earth and the like.

  Before we start wondering what Sontag would say about something like Facebook if she were alive today, it would be a good idea to briefly explain the chapter of Sontag’s book that I will be drawing on most heavily, the chapter dealing with Surrealism and photography, entitled Melancholy Objects.

  Surrealism was the most revolutionary and idealistic of all art movements of the 20th Century, which is not surprising as it morphed out of Dada, the most reactionary and angry (and influential) of them all.  Indeed, it seems to me that the ripples created by Dada were no longer discernable in the world at large only when the surviving members of the great Punk band, The Clash, began appearing in fashion magazines a few years back wearing Armani suits and Gucci loafers. Fortunately Joe Strummer was dead by then.

  Amongst Surrealism’s aims, which were grandiose to say the least, was a “takeover of the Modern sensibility.” This came about through an erroneous Freudian belief that the unconscious produced images that were “timeless as well as universal,” and that if their art could tap into that well of images they would produce a discourse in a language of symbols that would not only be universally understood, but also force a rupture of class, morality and politics, a reality that would supersede and overthrow our own mundane visible reality, and our middle class morality (the Surrealists were all from the middle and upper-middle classes themselves). In short, they were, to quote Robert Hughes, “the last group of artists naïve enough to believe that art could change the world.” Of course, they failed, leaving behind a mere “perfume of revolt” and left us on the threshold of a “…liberty on which, in principle, nobody acts.” (1)

  Hughes, however, makes the mistake of ignoring photography completely in his analysis of 20th Century art, and this is surprising for so insightful a man, for it is photography that has succeeded in so completely infiltrating our lives and our society, and in so doing has engineered a subtle (but ultimately hostile) takeover of our sensibilities in ways that Andre Breton and the other Surrealists would have found spectacular and triumphant, for photography is, as Sontag suggests, the most 
surreal of all art forms.

  Before you begin imagining ‘surreal’ photographs like Pink Floyd album covers, let me point out that this is not what Sontag is referring to here. Quite to the contrary, looking back, says Sonatag, it is work like this that looks least surreal:

  “A Surrealist manipulation or theatricalization of the real is unnecessary, if not actually redundant. Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naïve - the more authoritative the photograph was likely to be.”

  That last sentence is not relevant here but is key to what we will find when we begin to discuss Hipstamatic images. What is relevant here is that photography has created a duplicate world (in effect, a virtual world, but for 160 years in analogue form), heightened in drama and intensity, infiltrating our consciousness, and in doing so has fulfilled this aim of the Surrealists.

  Not only this, but the very act of photographing is in itself an act closely following the Surrealist programme, or modus operandi:

  “Surrealism has always courted accidents, welcomed the uninvited, flattered disorderly presences. What could be more surreal than an object that virtually produces itself, and with a minimum of effort? An object whose beauty, fantastic disclosures, emotional weight are likely to be further enhanced by any accident that might befall it?”

  The Surrealists were fascinated by art that ‘made itself’. Sentences would be torn up, tossed on the ground, and re-arranged randomly to make poetry. Artists would deprive themselves of sleep for long periods in order to be able to operate on auto-pilot, with as little conscious decision making as possible guiding their actions. 

  “Unlike the fine-art objects of pre-democratic eras, photographs don’t seem deeply beholden to the intentions of an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to the loose co-operation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject – mediated by an ever simpler and more automated machine, which is tireless and which, even when capricious, can produce a result which is 

  Looking back through nearly 2 centuries of photography, it is what is “…most local, ethnic, class-bound and dated…moments of lost time, vanished customs…” that appears to us, now, as the most surreal. “The Surrealists misunderstood what was most brutally moving, irrational, inassimilable, mysterious – time itself,” and it is this, says Sontag, that lends photography such, at times, unbearable pathos, and prompted Barthes to make up words like punctum (that element within the photograph which punctures, or wounds, the heart of the viewer), without realising that it is something inherent in the very nature of any photographic image that has aged, regardless of whether his mother is the subject or not.  More often than not, a photograph taken of a person yesterday simply has no punctum, unless its subject got hit by a taxi last night and is now, like all those hundreds of thousands of Cambodians that stare out at us from the little i.d. pictures taken by Polpot henchmen, gone.

  It is not only the nature of the photograph that is surreal, argues Sontag, but also how we photograph: what we choose to photograph. Surrealism was always a bourgeois disaffection with the bourgeoisie itself, says Sontag.

  “As an aesthetics that yearns to be a politics, Surrealism opts for the underdog, for the rights of a disestablished or unofficial reality… Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentarists…prefer the latter. For more than a century, photographers have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence – with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them.”  

  “Travelling between the degraded and glamorous realities is part of the very momentum of the photographic enterprise…” says Sontag, and although neither poverty nor glamour are surreal in and of themselves, what is surreal to the middle class photographers and viewers is the bridging and/or rupturing of this social class-distance that the photograph appears to engender. 

  What is interesting here (and this has been picked up by a number of media theorists) is that, because the middle classes have usually been the ones doing the photographing, it is they who have been photographed the least, for after all, their own world is the least exotic, the least dangerous, to them. And by dangerous I don’t strictly mean the danger of wandering into Thokoza, or a favela in Rio at night with a camera. The notion that photography could be dangerous to the psyche, to one’s
mental-health, was something that Diane Arbus, the flâneur of the marginalised, the maimed and the hidden, first voiced, and is written on at length by Sontag.

  The wealthy upper classes have, on the other hand, acidulously and meticulously managed their visual image, ever since the advent of photography. Indeed, at the start it was only they who could afford to be photographed. The photographers of the wealthy are no different to the Court painters during Europe’s era of monarchy, obediently rendering a flattering portrait of their subjects, very few being able to rival Goya in his ability to puncture this veneer while still keeping the subjects happy.  But whereas before all they had to contend with outside of this was the paparazzi, cell-phone cameras in the hands of almost every middle-class person have turned the rarefied lives of the upper classes into a living hell in this regard.
   The poor, on the other hand, simply obey and cooperate with the photographer. Very seldom do they refuse to be photographed, as is the case with the middle class. Try stopping people arbitrarily on the street in London and ask if you can take their picture. Nine out of ten will say no, despite the fact that the average Londoner will be photographed on average more than 500 times every day by surveillance cameras.

  Sontag devotes the rest of the Chapter to discussing the work of August Sander, who spent the years between the wars compiling a vast, vast catalogue of images of German people from all walks of life, in as democratic a style as he could manage. And yet, even here, the rich are able to manage their image: usually, Sontag points out, they are photographed in their own homes, at ease, while the working class are merely defined by whatever work they do.

  This almost scientific cataloguing of specimens was also a Surrealist venture, Joseph Cornell being its primary practitioner, outdone in more recent years by Candy Jernigan.  Whereas these two artists collected actual specimens, found objects, photographers like Sander, Walker Evans and a host of others subsequent merely use their cameras. In fact, anyone who puts together a body of photographs in the fine art realm ends up nowadays cataloguing specimens, which together form a kind of visual synecdoche of the overall subject itself. Sometimes, it must be said, a rather bland synecdoche, but that is the subject of another essay, involving the New German Realism and our august friend Mr. Sander.

  So what has changed since Susan Sontag wrote all this? I have never seen any of her observations adequately refuted. What she wrote about photography I have only briefly touched upon, but it all still sounds profoundly plausible. What has changed is technology, the availability and spread of technology, and the art industry itself.

  With the advent of cellphone cameras, our lives have become saturated with images. No longer is it the trained photographer who documents the world, but we ourselves: the middle classes in developed countries. There is no longer any need for a newspaper to fervently hope that there is a photographer on the scene when bombs explode on a train. Those caught up in these events will all be armed with cameras, and their images are quickly made accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

The event is linked with the photograph, says Sontag in an earlier essay. “Any event … should be allowed to complete itself – so that something else can be brought into the world: the photograph,” and in so doing, join the “image world [that] bids to outlast us all.” Photographing, as she sees it, is essentially an act of non-intervention, and when we are all armed with cameras, no-one intervenes. The famous anecdote from the 80’s of Peter Magubane putting his camera back in his bag and successfully intervening to prevent a group of thugs from necklacing a woman seems, from our perspective now, like something from a different generation.  A similar situation today may well see such a person restrained by a mob armed with cellphones, itching to have a smash hit on YouTube. 

  At the same time, the sheer quantity of photographs that now exists in cyberspace, due to the proliferation of cell-phone cameras, is something Sontag could not possibly have imagined in the Seventies. Everyone on Facebook has moments from their lives posted for hundreds to see, and these billions of photographs form the largest image bank of the middle classes in developed and developing nations ever compiled. The only image bank, in fact, middle classes private-lives having been hitherto considered unworthy of being photographed by serious photographers, and the photos the middle class took of themselves hitherto remaining in the private realm.

  One of the most fascinating South African photographers, to me, has always been a Cape Town photographer called Graham Abbott. Abbott has produced a prodigious amount of photographs of his own life. He is the only photographer I know who literally cannot go anywhere without his camera. In 2 days in New York recently he took 14000 images. He has photographed almost every single person who has ever attended any of the annual Mother City Queer parties, and has photographed every single event in his busy social life. Back when we were students, he rolled his car onto its back and was filming his bewildered friends clambering out before the wheels had even stopped spinning. He has made perfunctory attempts to produce bodies of work in a more arty mould, mainly nudes, but it is really these images from his everyday life, and the beautiful ‘decisive moment’ images from his early career, that form the most fascinating body of work, making Abbott the ultimate photographic voyeur of his world and of a large segment of middle and upper-middle class Cape Town.

  But now I see Abbotts everywhere, and while the real Abbott’s whole enterprise seemed charmingly free of narcissism, the same cannot be said of these others. Many people no longer live in the moment, but experience it, via their and other peoples cameras, as something whose ultimate aim is to exist on Facebook, and seem constantly to be engineering moments in order to document them, Facebook them and in so doing validate them. They are overtly conscious of how they look, and “Don’t forget to tag me!” is a common cry. “Everything exists to end in a photograph,” wrote Sontag. Today, it seems, everything exists in order to end on Facebook.

  The difference here, however, is that nothing actually exists in cyberspace except binary code. Nobody actually prints the images they put on Facebook. They go straight on almost the minute they are taken. Abbott’s images, and all the images from our pre-digital lives, exist as physical objects (in Abbott’s case a pile of neg sleeves three metres high). There was always a certain pleasure to be had in sitting down with a friend, or a new lover, and hauling out old photo albums to show them pictures from our past. This is something that our lives are steadily being deprived of. All our images of ourselves now exist on Facebook. Chances are your new lover has already seen them all. Indeed, chances are those images has helped form (and inform) his or her desire for you in the first place. But you will never be sure.

  Ultimately, however, the most lamentable aspect of this situation is the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived in this act of sharing our images. We don’t know who has been looking at them, unless they choose to indicate so, and we derive no pleasure from their looking. “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability,” wrote Sontag. And it is for this reason that we derived not so much pleasure, perhaps, but rather empathy, when we shared our images face to face with our friends and loved ones. But now, the amusing anecdotes we had to go along with certain photos are redundant, the tenderness or sadness that would enter our voices when showing other photos, unheard. A little icon of a thumbs-up is a pithy replacement for the complex range of emotions these moments used to confer upon us.

  Given Sontag’s very plausible contention that photographic images, and the act of taking photographic images, gives people “an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, [and also helps] people take possession of a space that is insecure,” (she sites the phenomena of hordes of picture-taking tourists as evidence), one can only but wonder what sort of rupture would take place in our lives were all these virtual images to suddenly disappear, what kind of gap would now exist in our lives between us now, and the days of actual film? The photographer Marc Shoul threw up his hands in horror when another photographer told him he was thinking of destroying all his old negatives because they had all now been scanned.

  Nevertheless, cell-phone cameras and the glut of images they have given rise to, are what we now have, and of all cell-phone images, it is the Hipstamatic application that most accurately meets the requirements of the Surrealist manifesto.

  The Hipstamatic is an application for i-Phones which is based on the look and feel of old, film-era point-and-shoot cameras that used mainly 120 roll-film and produced square images, a digital version of the Holga, Diana and Lomography crazes that swept through the professional photography world some years back. Referring back to Sontag, if any cameras could be termed “capricious” it was these. Cheap plastic lenses that would flare in arty ways when hit by the sun, leaky film backs, and a manual winding mechanism that allowed for the overlapping of frames, all added up to a camera whose inherent property was that of the photographic mistake. Now, on the Hipstamatic application you can get all of these without the hassle, and get, obviously, instant results. You have a choice of eight different lenses and ten different old films, all based on old stuff that was around for these Holga-type cameras, as well as a choice of various types of flash. A further feature of this camera app is that you can shake the phone and the app will randomly select a combination of film and lens, each time different, and unpredictable. Furthermore, you can set the viewfinder to give randomly imprecise framing, so that what you frame is never quite what you get: the ultimate Surrealist tool now in the hands of the (photographically) naïve. Even in his grave Breton must have a half a hard-on.

  If all this adds up to these images being more “authoritative” as Sontag suggested, it is not a situation that has come into being solely due to the naïve, amateurish nature of these camera-phones and their users. Professional commercial photography has become, after more than a decade of Photoshop, so manipulated, doctored and riddled with photographic lies that anyone with half a brain now finds the images taken by amateurs on their phones - candid, unposed, with an air of innocence, and unmediated - to be the only thing resembling the nebulous notion of believable photographic truth. These images serve as an antidote (on both a technical level and in the realm of content) to the glamorous advertising and fashion images we are swamped with, and this was bound to happen. The pendulum always swings, as it had already begun to do when the professional photographic world began to embrace the Diana and the Holga. But then again, this is something that Sontag had also written about: one of the driving forces of photography being its hovering back and forth between the bi-polar worlds of degradation and upper-class glamour. Many photographers (she gives as examples Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt, Steichen and Cartier-Bresson) made this back and forth transition, but none abandoned the world of artifice as represented by the glamour and fashion industries so spectacularly and completely as Diane Arbus, and her death by suicide has made her “fuck Vogue, fuck fashion” stance all the more believable, much as the voices of Kurt Cobain scream and Nick Drake whisper to us from beyond the grave, more insistent, believable and authoritative now than when they were living: “I really mean it, man.”

  That cell-phone images (in general) are authoritative is something that has been noticed in the developing world in the struggle of their citizens to rid themselves of decades-long dictatorships. The days are limited when the African state can send in its uniformed thugs to arbitrarily crush dissent. The state was simply unlucky that there happened to be a professional photographer and a TV crew on hand during the murder of Andries Tetane, but in years to come they can hope for no such reversal of fortune. The gradual ‘informal redistribution of wealth’ coupled with the fact that contract customers regularly get free phone upgrades and dispense with their old ones, will ensure that many urban poor South Africans will have, in the not too distant future, phones with very adequate video and picture-taking capabilities, to document the actions of our increasingly thuggish and brutal police-force.

  But to return to the Hipstamatic: if it is the ageing of a photograph that makes it more and more surreal with the passing of each year, and in so doing, turns it into art (“Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art,”) then the Hipstamatic can be said to accelerate and telescope this process. Many if not all of the lens and filmsettings speak of a bygone era, with their sometimes-leaky light blotches, warm saturated colour tones that recall faded prints and slides, and uneven borders. But to re-iterate, this began happening in the late nineties with the resurgence of the Holga family of film cameras, and it happened just as the dominant style in art photography of that decade, the narrative tableaux as exemplified by photographers like Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, was beginning to lose its impetus. Rather than open the floodgates and let in the barbarians armed with their Holgas and Dianas, the art industry turned to Germany and found there a school of photography fostered by Berndt and Hilla Becher, and having its roots in the work of August Sander and Walker Evans. But the rise to prominence of the deadpan aesthetic and the New German Realism is a topic outside the scope of this essay, and has much to do with photography’s uneasy relationship with modernism’s underlying essence as outlined by Jeff Wall: that it was a reductivist programme fixated on the myth of the avant-garde.

  This was a brilliant strategy on behalf of the gate-keepers of the art world, and along with the requirement that has gradually taken hold over the last 40 years or so: that you must have a degree in Fine Art (preferably an MFA) to participate, it now meant that the dominant style for the first decade of the 21st Century has been a highly exclusive one. The requirements to join include expensive medium to large format camera equipment, massive prints at prodigious prices and concomitantly enormous framing costs. “Scale as a substitute for invention, Chihuahuas masquerading as Great Danes,” as the critic Vicky Goldberg put it. (2)

  At the same time, there began to be an increasing insistence that the work of photographers deal with the issues the art industry had deemed important: identity and gender issues (relating often to power relationships in society) gleaned from the writings of a few dead French post-modern theorists like Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard.

  Foucault’s work deconstructed and critiqued the power of the state, and how that power is maintained and abetted by such things as the design of prisons, the functioning of mental asylums, and surveillance by cameras. But anyone who still thinks it is governments running the world should watch Sydney Lumet’s 1976 film, Network (more relevant now than ever before), and pay careful attention to the marvellous and hilarious monologue of Mr. Jensen, the Chairman of the Board.

  And so the thing which threatens our planet and our existence the most, unfettered global capitalism itself, never really gets critiqued in the art industry, now so tied to the umbilical chord of this economic system: art as investment, corporate funding for biennales, and huge art prizes funded by the corporate world. "Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage ..." said the feminist writer Adrienne Rich.

  Don’t go banking, then, on these cell phone and Hipstamatic images battering down the doors of the upper echelons of the fine art industry. The mere fact that their means of production is so accessible to everyone is anathema to this industry, which thrives on rarity, exclusivity and stratification of artists along dubious, agenda-driven lines. But be assured: they will proliferate at a prodigious rate all over the world, and become, for the first time ever, an art that is democratic and global, in part (but not quite) what Walt Whitman had wished American art and poetry to become, what the Surrealists had, in their way, wanted (once again also only in part), and what Sontag had hoped would some day be reigned in. She worried in her closing chapter about photographs stripping us of our ability to contemplate reality and “distinguish between images and things, between copies and originals… Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and making it obsolete.” She worried too that because they are an essentially unlimited resource, and proliferate at such an alarming rate, they will never run out and in so doing spare us, finally, their negative after-effects, like, say, oil will.

  “If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.”

  Her closing statement here brings to mind a Leonard Cohen line, from The Future: “The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold, and it’s overturned the order…” well, maybe not “of the soul,” in this case here, but something… definitely something.  We won’t see from where we stand here, now. It was 150 years before someone like Sontag came along and really saw.


All quotes from On Photography, Susan Sontag; New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. 1977, except:
(1): The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981
(2): Light Matters, Vikki Goldberg; New York: Aperture Foundation, 2005