ISSUE #2 THE SQUARE, SPRING 2013
REVIEWS AND CRITIQUE
Times Haven't Really Changed
The Protest Box (2011)
Edited by Martin Parr with an essay by Gerry Badger
Includes the following books: Algerien/ L’Algerie by Dirk Alvermann; Sanrizuka by Kitai Kazuo; Para verte major, América Latina by Paolo Gasparini and Edmundo Desnoes; América: un Viaje a traves de la injustica by Enrique Bostelmann and Immagini del No by Paola Mattioli and Anna Candiani
Steidl Verlag, $500.00
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In Steidl’s lavishly produced The Protest Box (2011), photo-historian Gerry Badger identifies two images emblematic of modern protest. The first, captured by college journalism student John Paul Filo using a Nikkormat camera with Tri-X film, pictured an anguished runaway teenager Mary Ann Vecchio hysterical over the body of twenty-year-old Jeffery Miller, who was shot by National Guardsmen during the 1970 anti-Vietnam War demonstration on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio. The second, in a video that went viral after its initial posting on Facebook, documented the dying moments of twenty-six-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, gunned down by a pro-regime Basiji supporter in Tehran. Neda and her friends were disputing the outcome of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections. Filo’s photograph and the anonymous internet video clip illustrate that despite advances in technology, the struggle of the weak against the powerful has not significantly changed in forty years.

Ironically, Martin Parr, who is a Magnum photographer, renowned photography collector, and the editor of The Protest Box, is deeply suspicious of all photographs. Parr’s own work is garish: highly colorized, oftentimes fly-on-the-wall pictures of mainly European rich and poor. He is a prolific British photographer and author of compendiums that feature his own sometimes kitsch work. Yet he maintains that the plethora of images in an increasingly visual world is tantamount to “propaganda.”1

He is in good company. Susan Sontag, too – as quoted by Badger in his essay, “The Times They Were A-Changin’,” in the box set’s accompanying book of essays and English translations – is also critical of the unreliability of the single image: “The camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses ... Photography both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates.”2 At the same time, Badger readily acknowledges the “evidential” function of the photograph.

For too long the problem of the single image’s unreliability has dominated the history of photography. Parr’s and Badger’s first attempt to redress the balance was the two-volume collection they coedited, The Photobook: A History,3 which surveyed early examples of the photographic book from its nineteenth-century inception to present-day artists’ books. As Parr states in the prologue to The Protest Box, “One of my long term aims is to piece together another history of photography by placing the photographic book as the central player in this revisionist history.” He and Badger believe it is the photobook, not the single image, which has provided a creative space for photographers to develop and explore ideas. Despite the one-hit power of a widely disseminated picture, the distribution and availability of photobooks gives visual concepts a longer lasting appeal. Their fuller context somehow ameliorates the consumerist and advertising aspects of photography and allows for a more complex form of investigation and excavation.

It was from this research that Parr curated more than edited the five “exemplary photographic protest” books for inclusion as facsimile editions that Steidl obtained copyrights for, scanned, and published in the limited and unique edition, The Protest Box. In his selection, Parr was making a clear distinction between propaganda and protest. Photobooks in the former category provide the justification and support – in argument and imagery – for the status quo, while the latter are oppositional in nature. However, within the second category two distinct types emerge: Firstly there are those photobooks that bear shocking witness and outrightly condemn, such as KZ: Bildbericht aus Funf Konzentrationlagern (KZ: A Photographic Report from Five Concentration Camps), published by the Allies after World War II.4 Then there are those which chronicle the life of a lengthy political struggle, and by doing so the narrative becomes an indictment – a powerful protest – in its own right. It is documentation as dissent. Parr’s choice of rare photographic books of iconic black-and-white images about independence in Algeria, land expropriation in Japan, poverty in Central and South America, and the Italian feminist movement which rejected the repeal of the country’s divorce law, cuts across international and aesthetic lines.

Algerien/L’Algerie (Algeria), first published in 1960 by the German photographer Dirk Alvermann, is an exploration of bitter colonial struggle in a fast-paced photomontage of mainly intimate portraiture of both Algerians and colonial suzerains, the pieds noirs and the French army. Influenced by the fractured narrative of avant-garde Russian films and propaganda posters, many of the dramatic 1950s images, bled to the edge or at times covering double-page spreads, give a stark, dramatic immediacy to the imbalance between the two sides. The sometimes barefoot, for the most part agrarian people in many of Alvermann’s photographs appear simply stunned by the enormity of the task that confronts them.

In fact, Algerien/L’Algerie opens with a few forceful pages written in German, including a citation from an 1833 French Parliamentary Commission on Algeria:

We defiled temples and graves as well as the interiors of [Muslims’] houses … we have massacred people who had been guaranteed safe passage, we have had entire segments of the population slaughtered on mere suspicion and whose innocence was later proven. We have placed respected persons before trial, honorable men admired for having the valor to subject themselves to our rage, to stand up for their despondent countrymen.

Independence came to Algeria two years after Algerien/ L’Algerie was published. However, Alvermann, who had only been able to get his book produced in then Communist-held East Berlin, moved to the GDR after a second book ran afoul of his commercial West German publishers.5

Parr considers this recovered classic a forerunner of the protest books that characterized the heyday of this kind of publishing in the 1970s. Japan was the country which produced the greatest number of protest books in the 1960s and 1970s. This was in part due to the simmering anger of subsequent Japanese generations about the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Also, a cloyingly symbiotic post-war relationship between Japan and the US meant that Japanese youth who were critical of US politics were also susceptible to the sociological and generational changes that were taking place in 1960s America, such as the rise of the rebellious teenager and the vociferous anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1968, riots took place outside Shinjuku Station, in Tokyo, to protest the transportation of fuel to US forces. The militant group Japanese Red Army mirrored violent radical groups like the Weather Underground in America and the Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany.

Outside of Tokyo, the construction of Narita airport after a prolonged twelve-year struggle that ended with the destruction of rural villages and compulsory land purchases unified angry farmers, student activists, trade unionists and militant radicals alike. Sanrizuka, a photographic book by the renowned Japanese photographer Kitai Kazuo, was published in 1971. Named after one of the threatened villages, the book opens with grainy, high contrast photographs showing innocent rural village life – springtime, harvest, and Buddhist meetings – which is slowly invaded by destructive forces: the bulldozer and the army. By the end of Sanrizuka, the village has been destroyed and Kazuo writes, “Ghosts, mad men, frozen bodies, corpses of policemen. It is as if countless pieces of heavy machinery had been besieging the villages constantly, like tanks on a battleground … How to sow the thoughts of these murdered villages and their vengeful spirits into this very earth?”

For the books in The Protest Box published in the 1970s, Badger provides what he calls a “general background.” But his truncated timeline, featuring civil rights and anti-war protests in America and Japan, which he believes shaped worldwide dissent and an era of global protest, seems too Western-centric in its scope. For people living in Central and South America, it was the ongoing revolution in Cuba coupled with the repressiveness of Latin American dictatorships6 which laid the groundwork for critical dissent. Para verte major, América Latina (To See You Better, Latin America) by Venezuelan photographer Paolo Gasparini and Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes and América: un Viaje a traves de la injustica (America: A Journey through Injustice) by the Mexican photographer Enrique Bostelmann explore the disparities of wealth between the haves and the have-nots. Neither book documents a political protest movement as such; instead each gives an insider’s view of the lives of indigenous people under the yoke of capitalism and repression. Brashly laid out and published in 1972, Para verte major marries bold typography with groupings of Gasparini’s photographs, which show people, posters, advertising, statues, buildings, and high and low life from Panama City and Rio de Janiero to Guatemala City and Havana. Many years later, Gasparini wrote in an email to Badger that he had been photographing architecture for a UNESCO project when he noticed that the slums were out of sight of the monuments, or as Badger surmises, “the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing.”

In his essay in Para verte major, Desnoes blames the fragmentation of a continent less on national divisions than on the great chasms of class, language and opportunity, in what he calls the wide view of a “battlefield” or a “Tower of Babel.” He also cites the vicissitudes of the continent’s shifting history, from the “error of a Genovese Jew” (Columbus) to “bottles of Coca Cola, the hammer and sickle.” The book’s conceptual approach is emphasized by its picture captions in large font sizes. One, next to a photograph of shabby men in suits milling around a busy plaza major (main square) in Quito, Equador, reads: “The market economy is slowly starting to lap against them: they now buy and sell, they understand the coins with the white national heroes on them. They can scarcely get their mouths around Spanish, they articulate ideas awkwardly. Without the incorporation of these men into society, Latin America is a shame to us all.”

In Viaje a traves de la injustica, published in 1970, Bostelmann uses a reoccurring leitmotif of rough hands roped together. They belong to an unseen manual laborer being dragged against his will – like a donkey or a horse. Since the Spanish conquest of 1492, the Indian has remained the underclass in Mexico. The novelist and intellectual Carlos Fuentes (1928–2012) passionately observes in a hand-written prologue, which appears like a letter in the book: “What can economic studies tell us that [Bostelmann’s] images of women serving as beasts of burden – almost five centuries after colonization – cannot?” It is an all-encompassing visual argument, one that Parr and Badger would concur with: “a belief in photography as a specific and irreplaceable medium of documentation and analysis, capable of attracting the attention and bringing out the detail that the human eye cannot perceive and that words cannot translate.”7 Para verte major, América Latina and América: un Viaje a traves de la injustica were both published by Signo XXI Editores, an influential Mexican publishing house that produced few other photographic titles.

The final book in the box is Immagini del No (No Images) by Italian feminist photographers Paola Mattioli and Anna Candiani. Immagini is a visual unpacking of the “No” campaign that tried to repeal the Fortuna Law, which allowed divorce in Italy. The law, named after the politician Loris Fortuna who proposed it, passed on December 1, 1970 and came under fire from the Vatican and conservative political forces, which collected 1,300,300 signatures in an effort to revoke it. In the first referendum of its kind, held on May 4, 1974, there was a 90 percent turnout at the polls, with 59.3 percent voting against abrogating divorce in Italy. The book, a little larger than the palm of a hand, was published in 1974 as part the Magic Eye series by the Milanese fine art publisher, All’insegna del pesce d’ oro. More powerful than the images of the women, demonstrating sometimes sarcastically with that implement of cowed domesticity, the broom, Mattioli’s and Candiani’s repetitive photographs of the striking signage around the word “No” give a kind of typographical vibrancy to Immagini del No and is a precursor to the protest visual intervention, “A Thousand Times No,” by artist and Islamic art historian Bahia Shehab during Egypt’s January 25 Revolution.

The design of all five books in The Protest Box stands out, as Badger writes,“The formal strategies of avant-garde modernist art – cubism, constructivism, surrealism and so on – are utilized because of their inherently anti-bourgeois nature.”

Despite their rarity – these books were originally published in varying print runs, the largest being 4,000 copies – a dark irony persists at the heart of The Protest Box. All of their subject matter essentially addresses proletarian movements, yet the collection only appears in this limited edition of 1,000 copies priced well out of the reach of the ordinary reader.8 That these grou­­­nd-breaking ideas are “boxed in” – contained – is a reflection of the growing trend to commodify vintage political movements and visual material, repackaged for modern consumption. The trouble with art, from then until now, is that it has always been an elitist pursuit that requires patronage – the very thing that the people featured in these books have not only been denied but have spent most of their lives fighting against.

 

1 As identified by Thomas Weski, professor of Curatorial Cultures at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig, on Parr’s website. See www.martinparr.com.

2 Quoted by Badger from Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux Inc., 1977), 23.

3 Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, eds., The Photobook: A History, 2 vols. (London: Phaidon, 2004 and 2006).

4 Specifically, the United States Office of War Information, 1945.

5 In photographs taken from 1956 to 1961, Keine Experimente (No Experiments) critiqued growing consumerism after the liberalization of the West German economy. The book was published by Eulenspiegel Verlag, Berlin, 1961.

6 In the 1970s, when the Latin American books in The Protest Box were originally published, the number of countries in Central and South America under a dictatorship or on the threshold of entering a dictatorship is worth noting: thirteen, out of a total of twenty countries.

7 A description of Bostelmann’s technique by the critic Duilio Morosini in Paese Sera, translated in The Protest Box, 87.

8 Portal 9 purchased this copy of the box set for reviewing purposes.

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The Protest Box (2011), edited by Martin Parr with an essay by Gerry Badger.
Sanrizuka, photographer Katai Kazuo's indictment of the destruction of Japanese countryside during the 1970s, is one of five photo books included in The Protest Box.
  
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