I’ve been collecting snapshots of “things that surprise me” since I’m back in France, and this image remind me of something thats been on my mind for a while: please stop asking me to “respect your religion”, unless you’re willing to “respect my atheism”.


To be absolutely clear, I truly, really and absolutely don’t give a fuck what your religion is. I will respect you by default as a human being, and continue to do so as long as you’re not an asshole to me or people I care about. I will engage in philosophical or historical debates on the nature of faith and the teachings of your particular flavor, and probably enjoy it. I will even entertain discussions of how humans are (not) inherently religious, or how religion is the only way for us to have morals (hint: I disagree).

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Simplify that sh*t is a weird UFO.

Very little contemporary art touches me. Mostly because most of it is pompous crap made for a market of useful idiots. I’m actually ok with that: as I understand it, it’s been that way for most of history, and we have to let the filter of time do its work to realise what is worth anything.

Conversely, I like things that make fun of the pomposity and the stupidity —
the Arty Bollocks generator is a constant source of joy and amazement.

As shifting derivatives become frozen through emergent and critical practice, the viewer is left with an epitaph for the edges of our existence.

Simplify that sh*t takes this to a higher level. At first it’s Artist Statement made me think these guys were completely serious, yet trying to be hip with a crass sounding name. And they have limited edition prints of “simplified” Mondrian, Rothko, Van Gogh … and Groening. Wait, what, Groening?
But playing with their “simplify that sh*t” generator, I’m thinking it’s maybe not art, but at least a very good way to think about art: structure, colors, composition. I just wish we could play around with the algorithm – and we know how serious these guys are!

Literacy in the electronic age.

An interesting take on literacy and attention span by Mark Bernstein, creator of Tinderbox in the electronic age.

Every teenager has read the seven volumes of Hatry Potter; Buffy may not aspire to high art, but it’s a coming of age story designed to span 7 years in hundreds of volumes

Around minute 47 of his interview at sources and methods

Context is everything

Over on instagram, @donaldweber, a member of the vii agency, posted a nice photograph of the sunset prayer during Ramadan in Al Ain, UAE. It’s a straight-on shot of a group of men and boys at prayer, in traditional Middle Eastern garb, in a fort, in front of a canon.

In the Middle East, and I believe in Maghreb as well, it’s traditional to sound the canon to mark Iftar, the end of the daily fast. Iftar is eagerly awaited by Muslims, especially in the summer months where temperatures soar to 50°C. It’s a joyous occasion for family and friends to gather together; and because it’s not easy to tell when it starts (try figuring out the exact moment of sunset on your own), the cannon used to play the role of the bells in Christian Europe (it’s sound carried much further than the adan – the call to prayer).

When I look at the picture, this background context comes immediately to mind: I’ve lived in Muslim countries for 7 years, and it’s the middle of Ramadan right now; Al Ain is a place where I’ve been more than a few times and I’ve taken countless pictures in that same fort.

But if you read the comment stream on the picture, you’ll see that to some people, this context was lacking, or utterly mangled. They see “Muslim praying in front of a canon” in the context of the ongoing strife in the Middle East. While they don’t come out and say it explicitely (although “it’s part of the problem” is pretty clear), the subtext is about condemning the photographer for promoting images of a violent Islam.

@donaldweber’s rejoinder is very direct: “you’ve assumed my cultural stereotypes, but you’ve projected your own thoughts”.
I tend to agree with him that the implicit criticism is wrong. However he writes two contradictory things that make me a little uncomfortable. On the one hand, he wants to viewer to “enjoy the picture for what it is”, yet he berates commenters for not taking the time to do their due diligence.

You can’t really have it both ways: it’s not a simple picture if you need to dig for context; it’s only a simple picture if – like me – you’ve internalized the context. And even then, there’s nothing really simple about the interpretation process. This of course harks back to the classic question: can you enjoy art without context? Mostly, its an academic exercise. The fact that to my mind Buren and Klein are intellectual frauds and Duchamp is a genius doesn’t hurt anyone. And the question was initially biased because European art criticism is informed by a very deep and mostly implicit set of common references.

But in this case, the exercise is coming dangerously close to brutal reality. It reflects on people being killed daily in Palestine and on the perception of Muslims in the modern world. It shows us that we don’t share the same set of implicit references, however much we’d like to think “American TV shows” = “culture”.
If the simple fact of posting this picture is problematic, we probably need to rethink our notions of context and references. We can’t afford to hide behind the illusion that there are “simple pictures” anymore.

That said, I still think the commenters are mainly wrong or at least acting entitled, even if I wish @donaldweber hadn’t been so offhanded in his dismissal. As much as artists need to explain context, audiences need to assume trust and do due diligence: if the picture is published through VII, and if you follow VII on Instagram, then you should know what VII stands for and what they post before calling them on some illusory bias.

In the end, I firmly believe that the context enriches my experience of the picture. And because it was implicit, my experience was more immediate. If he had been showing me an East Asian religious ceremony, I would’ve been less in touch with the feelings and emotions, and more analytical in processing the image. It would have prepared me for a next time, when I’d have been closer to the emotional relationship. Ultimately, that’s the reason for art: to make us grow as human beings.

“By Tuesday, you’ll hate me”

These are the first words I remember from DAH when I introduced myself the day before class. I remember thinking that it was hype and bluster. How hard could it be?

By Tuesday I was hating him, photography, Dubai, myself and the world.

But let’s get one thing out if the way first: I don’t recommend you take this course.

Yes: It’s the best course I’ve ever taken in my life. But I don’t recommend you take it.

Look, I don’t know you. I don’t know if you have what it takes. Hell, I didn’t know myself if I had what it takes. So on this one, you’re on your own. You’re going to have to take an adult decision. Do you feel you have what it takes? Then go do it. The question, of course, is what does it take?

So what happens during these mysterious sessions?

For the most part, I was trying not to fall asleep, because I’d been up shooting and editing late (yes, partying was involved, but any good GPPer will tell you it’s part of the process.) For another part, I was fascinated and terrorized by my classmate’s portfolios. They were better than me technically. They were more creative. They had better access or better gear. Anything to feed the self doubt.
And then of course, there were the minutes when my own pictures were up on that wall. Typical aphorism: “Your bad pictures are closer to good than your good ones.”
So from the outside, all that happens is that David spends his time looking at our stuff, commenting on it and editing it (as in “no, no, no, no, maybe, no, no …”) And he spends time in between telling us to get an education on photography.
So on the face of it, not much happens.

Okay, but what really happens?

The worse for me was the lack of structure. No guidance, no chapters. Just: “Find a subject”, “Find a place”. “Go shoot.”
But just like in real life the journey matters more than the destination.
And the journey is simple: Find a subject, try to shoot it, show your pictures, go shoot again. Rinse, Repeat.
The trick, of course, is when it fails. That’s where you learn.

As Sara Lando put it in a tweet to me when I was feeling particularly down:

@TSWDAH he’s busy tearing you apart. The beer will come later, when you’ll staple the pieces back together.
And she was absolutely right.

Frankly, I wanted to believe her, but I don’t think I could.
It took three days of me failing.
In the end, David sat me down and told me that I was biting too much, that I wanted to say too much:

“Not everything you can articulate is easy or worth shooting”.

“Find something small and shoot it. Anders Petersen shot the same cafe for three years. “

As frustrating as it was, this was the turning point of my week. Kaya, a Burn editor and David’s assistant, mentionned a fisherman’s accomodation in the middle of Dubai she thought was worth shooting. I grasped at that idea like a lifeboat, and ran with it.

High as a kite

When I got to the warf I was determined to get the shots, and not move until I got them. So I stayed for 3 hours in a space not much larger than my bedroom. And shot, and talked to the guys, and shot again. At the end, I didn’t know if I had a good shot, but I had a new facebook friend who was calling me “photoman”. And I had a sense of the place that allowed me to capture it much better. On the contact sheets, I feel I can see the pictures becoming better and better.
And this waiting through the “bored” state is when I almost hit paydirt. At prayer call, the fishermen were wrapping up their day, we started saying goodbye – and in a reflex, I asked if I could see their accomodation. They were more than happy to oblige, and we started going in. Unfortunately, because it’s a government building, there’s a guard there who was kind of surprised to see me. After some palaver, he agreed that I could go see a room … but balked at the camera.
Yet that night, I was so sure I had something that I put together a slide show with some music (my wife can be your sound designer too, for a fee). When at the next morning critique David turned to me to say “You got it …”, I can’t tell you the sense of elation I felt then and there – until the “… but go get that shot of their room – without it, you got nothing” …. aaaaaaand crash.
That afternoon, the last day of shooting, I was pumped out of my mind. I had an Instax (thanks Fujifilm) so I wanted to give my new friends some snapshots. That alone was an awesome feeling, of giving back something instead of always taking.
Again, I spent hours shooting the scene. And this time, at the end, struck gold – by well prepared luck: I found that I could go in their kitchen, and it was a photographer’s dream. Absolutely no light save the cooking gaz and small LEDs they keep on their wrists. Jackpot.

As I was walking back towards the main road to get a taxi, I stopped because I was feeling weird. Then I realized: I was high. High on adrenalin, high on serotonin. Just plain happy.

The irony is that, for all this work, the shots I like best in the essay (the first and the last one) where almost pur luck. I took the first one thinking it was a snapshot of a guy dozing off, until I realized at home that his arm and the boat were just so. I staged a picture with an Instax in it, which I took many times until I got it absolutely right. In reality, it’s really bad. The one that works I took as I was passing by a net, for fun. But this would not have happened had I not failed spectacularly for three days, and worked the people and the location like a maniac.

Should you do it?

Breaking people to pieces to rebuild them is a classic technique. I guess I was ready to be broken. I’m sure some people aren’t. Or don’t like it. Or don’t want it.
It’s also a dangerous process, and David gets absolute credit for keeping our twelve individual stories and evolutions in his mind. I don’t think he pushed any of us too hard (but again, I can’t speak for the others.)

This is where you have to make your own mind. Are you ready to be run gratuitously through brutally honest critique every day (to be clear: never ever mean spirited – just no holds bared)? Are you ready to subject yourself to a “freeform” exercise where David will guide you, but not impose technique or subject in any way? Are you ready to be left to your own devices, find your own way, at the risk of getting absolutely nothing on the fifth day? If the answer is yes, then you’re in for the experience of a lifetime. If no, then try to work up the courage to do it one day. You owe it to your photography.

” I want to, but I’m not good enough.”

Pretty much everyone I met at GPP wanted to know how it was, and then immediately told me “oh, I couldn’t do it, I’m not a good enough photographer”.
To which my reply would be to laugh: I can’t light my way out of a paper bag, and I have a hard time remembering that f/2 is wide open.

Now, I’m not angelic.
There are good and bad photographers. There are people who will never get out of auto mode. But there are also people who will nail a shot with razor sharp focus every time, with the key light in the butterfly position and a 5/4 CTO gel (did I tell you I know nothing about light?) yet they will say absolutely NOTHING with their pictures. (Another Harveyism for you: “Yeah, it’s a picture, but it’s not a photograph”)

You can’t think of this class in terms of “technique”. I suspect if that’s the way you approach it, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you think you have a story to tell, I think you owe it to yourself to think it through long and hard. It just might be worth it.

Why we need “The Society of Good Stuff” (and Dedpxl)

Zack Arias is a cool dude. He’s a photographer and educator with a great sense of humor and self-deprecation. He’s also one of the first photographers to figure out this “social media” thing.

He’s so good, he can even take time off of the internet for a month every year and not be forgotten!

A few months ago, after running a 1500 question Q&A tumblr [1], Zack announced he was going to create a new site called Dedpxl [2]. And today, it’s finally live.

I haven’t had a chance to look at it in detail, but what I’ve seen has already convinced me that Zack (and his wife Meg) have done a very good job of it.

There is an introductory article to the site, and it’s pure ZA: a trip down memory lane to remind us of why we do this photography thing. If you’ve ever been to one of Zack’s classes, or follow him on ze interwebz, you’ll be right at home: he uses his personal experience to connect to us. And that’s what sets him apart. I’m pretty sure he’d be the first to admit that he doesn’t teach rocket science or mind blowing techniques – what he’s really good at is making it accessible: “if a shmuck like me can do it, so can you.”

The second thing that I’m very happy with is The society of Good Stuff. Actually, I would probably read Dedpxl even if it was just that column. Zack’s enrolled his wife Meg to curate [3] “stuff” that would be of tangential interest to photographers.
It’s fully in keeping with the goal of Dedpxl: make photography fun again, spark those creative juices. And it’s a classic Zack move. He and Meg just figured out something missing in “social media”, and they’re filling the gap with what, in retrospect, is an obvious idea [4].

The web has allowed geek culture to flourish by providing meeting spaces and tools to cater for all sorts of niche / fringe interests. Photography didn’t necessarily need this – it was a rich and varied culture before the web came along. But the web did enable that culture to propagate when the digital revolution started making photographers of all of us [5].
Unfortunately, making so much knowledge available instantly has a killer side-effect: we tend to become single-subject idiot-savants instead of well-rounded individuals. Culture can be defined by wide-ranging interest in many subjects, but I think that’s as much an artefact of technique (manuscripts, then books, then film) than of psychology. In a scarcity-based economy, you can only feed the beast by having interests in many different subjects: the relatively difficult access to new knowledge forced us, as curious individuals, to branch out of our comfort zone
With the cornucopia of knowledge available now, the driver is gone. We can geek out on aperture, focal and pixel count all day and still only scratch the surface of the subject, without coming out of our comfort zone. Collectively, this turns us into a series of mono-cultures, very deep yet very narrow. Ultimately, it’s the death of photography as we know it. We loose sight of the reason we make images: create beauty and make sense of the world around us.
“The society of Cool Stuff” can be an antidote to this death: by flexing the “artistic muscles”, as Meg puts it, it can help recapture the simple sense of wonder beyond the technical layer. It’s not new – Meg herself, a musician, is doing for us something she’s done for herself for a long time. But because of where photography is and who photographers are today, it’s necessary that people like her shake us up a little bit and show us where the flowers are. And because she’s in love with a photographer, you can be certain she’ll show us things we’ll want to see.

So long life to Dedpxl and The Society of Cool Stuff, and thanks to Meg and Zack.

  1. which made it into a book  ↩
  2. tagline: more signal, less noise  ↩
  3. yeah, yeah, I know – it’s an overused, pedantic word, but I like it  ↩
  4. all the good ones are  ↩
  5. and we’re all still scratching our heads – which is why it’s a great time to be a photographer  ↩

Another one bites the dust

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It wasn’t as bad as this Rihanna concert, but Muse succumbed to the same syndrome a lot of these A- list players do: “*It’s a captive audience of idiots who live in the desert and have too much money – why would we get out our A game?*”

Well, for starters because we paid a an arm and a leg to come see you, and just because we don’t live in New York doesn’t mean we’re hicks.

And second, because it’s starting to show. Jay-Z is a top notch entertainer. I really can’t stand his music, but he’s an absolute pro at interacting with his public. The result? the largest audience my wife’s ever seen at Du Arena, and she had a blast even though she didn’t know his act. Muse, on the other hand, was the highest exodus of spectators we’ve ever seen at a concert here. despite the -admittedly impressive – pyrotechnics; I could’ve put the radio on a bit loud in my garden, and it would’ve been exactly the same – nice background music to have a chat with friends.

My theory is that, contrary to other venues, Abu Dhabi and Dubai probably offer very attractive packages to artists to perform – as an incentive to come to these untested waters. I’d bet they guarantee revenue even if attendance is low, or something like this. And some performers probably see this as an excuse to give a “relaxing” gig. The Grand Prix probably skews this even more, with the promise of a captive audience.

What I don’t get is how, in an age where album sales are increasingly irrelevant, and notoriety is built on interaction, bands can continue to take this short sighted view of things.

That said, judging from yesterday nights twitter feed, the die hard fans where really happy. But the fact that – arriving late – I managed to walk up with no effort to the middle of the stadium tells a different story: even Abu Dhabi fans are starting to tire of being fooled.

Here’s to hoping tonight’s Dépêche Mode concert is better.