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What are ‘ghosts’?

Things that don’t actually exist?

Ghosts © Ralph ZIman

Ghosts © Ralph Ziman

I came across these striking pictures this week. The work of African born but USA-resident Ralph Ziman, showing brightly coloured AK47 rifles made from beads and wire. The header of the piece proclaimed:

Ghosts: AK-47 guns made from beads and wire – in pictures

New art installation of replica AK-47s from wire and beads, made by Zimbabwean craftsmen, offers powerful comment on South Africa’s continuing obsession with guns.

I was intrigued. I’ve visited and traveled in Southern Africa a few times and have been fascinated by the ingenuity with which people recycle and manipulate materials to create toys and functional items – making work that is quite often hugely artistic, despite having been born out of necessity.

I worked for many years (in Social Work) with a (white) Kenyan man who had been raised in Kenya, living there for over forty years before moving to Scotland, and he brought with him a fantastic creative impulse that manifested in striking representations of African birds and animals fabricated from what we would simply dismiss as ‘rubbish’, scraps of wood, beads, wire, string, plastic bottles. This ‘skill’ was obviously one that had strong cultural roots and was a fundamental part of his life. His work, and the work of other similar people I worked with fostered in me a lasting interest in ‘outsider art’, the wonderful creative force that exists and thrives on the far fringes of most societies, often proving to be more insightful and politically powerful than the work of the more mainstream creators.

So, looking at Ziman’s striking images of hooded, sunglassed and decorated men with these fantastic confections I was fascinated, both by their form, and to find out more about the creative forces that drove their fabrication. The leader text stating it offered a “powerful comment on South Africa’s continuing obsession with guns” warranted further investigation. Although I’ve seen several painted/decorated AK47′s in Africa (and some from the UK) I’d not come across such artistic ‘replica’ work before coming out of Africa and was really intrigued by it.

I followed the link to an interview with Ralph Ziman, and was rather perplexed to read:

Ziman says he had always loved the brightly-coloured beaded tourist trinkets made by men at the side of the road in Johannesburg. Last year, driven by the idea for Ghosts, he stopped his car one day and approached some of the craftsmen, asking them to make him a replica of a Kalashnikov.

“They thought I was crazy,” he said. “They laughed at me a lot, but they made it, and eventually they were making 10 or 12 a week for six months.”

So in fact, until Ziman ‘commissioned’ the work, there had been no bead and wire AK47′s in existence. I think it says more about their creation that until Ziman requested one be made for him, there was no need to make ‘fake’ ones as the real thing is so ubiquitous and easily available across the continent. So, are they indeed ‘powerful artistic comments’ or quite simply another “brightly coloured beaded tourist trinket”?

I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the images, all portraying black men, some in balaclavas, eerily lit, edgy, exuding danger and altogether intended to intimidate. They play to so many stereotypes it’s really quite remarkable. Why no image of Mr Ziman wearing a suit and carrying one of his decorated AK’s?

Strikes me it’s rather disingenuous to suggest these items were born out of South Africa’s obsession with guns; they might be born out of Ziman’s relationship with guns, but are in fact born out of, indeed rooted firmly in an artistic and creative tradition that although sometimes may reflect colonial manipulation and exploitation, most often manages to transcend and reinvent the ugly realities of conflict in the way that only art can.

Lest I be accused of a lack of balance in my view of the iconic status of the AK47 as a ‘confection’, you might want to consider this AK47 cake decoration. It’s really heartening to learn that it’s safe for egg and nut allergy sufferers. No dangers from THIS particular AK47 then. Just goes to prove you CAN have your cake and eat it in the world of (decorative) assault rifles.

For me Ziman’s work is less about a continent’s fascination with guns and more an unintended and oblique comment on creativity and need.

Striking though these images are, they are indeed ‘ghosts’.

I’ll leave the last, insightful, observation to RogerJolie in the comments section of the original interview:

ziman comment

Tim Hetherington reclaimed as the war photographer he never wanted to be

Today marks three years since the death of Tim Hetherington. I published the following post not long after, but it still feels relevant today …

Yesterday I received the following email from a photographer and thinker whose work I really admire (not someone who has anything to prove). The subject was ‘Hetherington’s last photos’ as recently published in the Guardian.

This really frustrates me.

The ‘cult of the war photographer’ perfectly illustrated, exactly as raised on your blog post.

The photos are not that good (with the exception of image 8 and maybe 9). Why does the critic write about them as if they are?

Image 10 – shocking exploitation. Use a picture of an anonymous dead body (with no background contextualisation) as a means of enthusing about a photographer.

I started to wonder why is this such a sacrilegious point of view? (it’s worth pointing out the photographer is an admirer of Hetherington’s work. This post is about the presentation of the photos)

Here is image 10

We don’t know this man’s name. We don’t know his story. We don’t know how he lost his life (though chances are his family will have been alerted to this image). He’s merely an extra in a different story; the one about what a great war photographer Hetherington was.

The caption perfectly captures a different kind of conflict at the heart of much modern photojournalism.  This image, it’s claimed, encapsulates the ‘essence of Hetherington’, which enables us to ‘not only look, but see’.  But surely the more we see the hand of the photographer the more the stories of the people in the images become obscured?

It was this picture and caption that really made me think:


Hetherington’s comprehension of the condition of war was profound, and in losing him we understand less about war and what motivates young men to wage it. ‘

There’s no doubting Hetherington’s understanding of conflict and all the questions it raises, but do these photos, shorn of any meaningful context, really help us to understand the Libyan war any better? For me its a bit like suggesting that looking at a sequence of pictures of a woman giving birth means that you can somehow ‘understand’ what it is to give birth.

The photo above would, I think, have fallen foul of Hetherington’s own critique of much of the photography that came out of Libya, which he expressed to his friend Michael Kamber shortly before his death

He was upset at how some photographers presented the rag-tag rebels as heroic fighters, when in fact they were sometimes “kind of a joke.” Those pictures, he said, might win prizes, but not his respect. “We have to fight making propaganda,” he said to me one night at dinner. “The media has become such a part of the war machine now that we all have to be conscious of it more than ever before. ”(NYT LENS BLOG)

Infact the photo of the man above could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie. Young, fearless, good looking and toting a big gun. Remind you of anyone else?


In another interview published on the New York Times Lens blog last year Hetherington was asked by Michael Kamber if he still considered himself to be a photographer?

If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.

Hetherington was wrong in stating that photography is no longer a form of mass communication, but I think his comment reflects his own understanding of  what his photography on its own could or couldn’t achieve. He was searching for better ways to tell the stories that he cared about, to challenge new audiences, which is why its so sad that the presentation of his images in this way seems part of a strategy to place Hetherington back into a world he’d seemingly moved on from.

In the film Restrepo, Hetherington, working alongside Sebastian Junger, was able to achieve something that the hundreds of thousands of photos from the Libya conflict were never able to do. Give voice to a group of men. That’s because Hetherington understood that the most profound, the most affecting stories are almost always told by the people that lived and experienced them. Maybe it’s for that very reason that we seem to have reached the point that the war photographer themselves have become an easier story to sell than their photos. And that’s how we’ve ended up with the photo of a dead man in a fridge ‘as a means of enthusing about a photographer.



There seems to be a small minority of people in the photography world who feel threatened by criticism of the cult of the war photographer.  But is it not possible to agree that photography published in national newspapers, referencing a recent and ongoing political situation, of which the UK played a significant role, and in which up to 25000 people died, must be open to critical debate, irrespective of whether the photographer is alive or dead?

To say otherwise seems to me to be a claim that Hetherington was not involved in journalism, that nothing he did was open to interpretation and that the value of a photographer should be measured in the number of backslaps they can acquire.

I didn’t know Hetherington, but I’m pretty sure he was better than that.



Twenty years after the genocide, the NYT has some compelling portraits of Rwandan Tutsi survivors and the Hutu individuals who perpetrated ‘the unthinkable’ on them and their families. The images by Pieter Hugo are direct and powerful. The story they tell is hopeful.

Image © Pieter Hugo

Image © Pieter Hugo


But requests for forgiveness come from other places too. Journalist Bartholomäus Grill writing in Spiegel Online reflects on his role in ‘A reporter revisits his ‘Shameful’ coverage of Rwanda’ and concludes:

“Where was God in those days of murder? “He was here, or else we wouldn’t have survived,” says Nyirabazungu. And then she asks, in return: “Where were you? Why didn’t you help us?”

These kinds of questions still shame me today. It wasn’t just the UN, the West and other African nations that failed; it was also journalists, like me. We ran after the big story in South Africa, paying little attention to Rwanda or merely spreading clichés about the country.

On April 15, when the massacre in Ntarama was in full swing, my quickly written remote analysis was published in Die Zeit. I told tales of the “gruesome tribal war” in the heart of Africa, where everyone was fighting against everyone else. Bellum omnium contra omnes — the Latin phrase always fits when you know little about what is actually happening.

At the end, I wrote that foreign intervention was probably pointless. That report contains the most unforgivable mistakes I have ever made in my professional life.”


A grain of wheat

It is a sad day for journalism with the loss of a very fine photojournalist.

You’ll hear a lot about what others felt about Anja Niedringhaus in the coming days, and what precisely her loss represents to them.

But you might learn even more about Anja by reading what she had to say about someone she encountered in the heat of conflict. And met again some time afterwards. With a grain of wheat.

Saturday, June 4, 2011 photo, U.S. Army Chief Spc. Jenny Martinez holds the hand of injured U.S. Marine Cpl. Britt Burness  onboard a medevac helicopter © Anja Niedringhaus

Saturday, June 4, 2011 photo, U.S. Army Chief Spc. Jenny Martinez holds the hand of injured U.S. Marine Cpl. Britt Burness onboard a medevac helicopter © Anja Niedringhaus

He saw me and that warm smile crossed his face again. He hugged me. Like that day in the helicopter when I held his hand, it seemed he did not want to let go. He kept repeating: “Oh man, it is so good to see you.”

In his room, his dark brown eyes sparkled and he tried to tell jokes. He explained what he had been through since we had last seen each other.

Doctors put him into a coma for a month and when he woke up, he was he was at the hospital in Virginia.

He had just started to regain his speech, working his way back from months of “thumbs up, thumbs down conversation,” says his 22-year-old wife, Jessica.

He will undergo more surgeries next year to rebuild his skull.

Sitting on his bed, he looked at me and asked: “Did you bring some pictures with you?” He wanted to see those moments in the helicopter.

He studied each photo. When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes. “Thank you so much,” he said.

Text @ Anja Niedringhaus

This is why photography matters, and why ‘good’ photojournalists deserve our utmost respect; in life, and in death.

Kill tradition

Getty has announced its latest set of grants. Here’s what Aiden Sullivan, vice president of photo assignments, told BJP:

In these difficult financial times, where it has become something of a rarity to obtain funding from traditional sources, this grant offers something of a lifeline.”

Photojournalism is always going to be a glass half empty whilst it laments the loss of ‘traditional sources’.

How about just dumping the word ‘traditional’ and reflecting what is out there right now?

The greatest set of tools we’ve ever had to tell stories. The largest number of possibilities to tell those stories. Audiences that we can only have dreamed of reaching before. Spaces where authentic voices are prized over agency ones. New revenue streams opening up and more importantly being opened up by visual journalists/storytellers.  Those hungry now.

Is it possible that some of the (traditional) grants that exist are a part of the problem?

A small number of gatekeepers with very traditional thinking on photography (stuck in a timewarp), on audience engagement, voting for each other, funding work that often can’t even be given away to magazines for free but will be admired online by the same group of people, or end up in a vanity book and then replicated by the next round of photographers (in medium format).  You have to ask yourself is that a tradition that needs saving?

It’s good to see Getty at least starting to nudge away from funding projects that do little more than celebrate the art of photography and push stereotypes around poverty and race.

The pace and the pulse  is set elsewhere. By people who respect tradition but ain’t going to let the mentality that goes with it kill the amazing possibilities that exist right now (Humans Of New York anyone).

“Loss and Truth”

I’ve seen two dramatic video pieces this week, in which the central character is a photojournalist, and the subject is conflict. Each piece was about what individuals are compelled by conscience to do, to strive to achieve. Both were an ‘uncompromised portrait’, one being labeled as such by it’s creator.

But they were profoundly different.

One was intended to sell German cars, and was unsettling. But if I’m honest, it was rather ill-judged given the back story to the event portrayed and the manner of its portrayal. Enough has been written about this elsewhere if you’re at all interested.

The other video was more than a little unsettling also.

And whilst sometimes violent, it was also strangely life-affirming, in places upbeat, insightful and, in the end it left me filled with respect for the subject, and profoundly sad that such a life had been so prematurely ended. If you’ve not seen the Storyville documentary about photojournalist Tim Hetherington, you really should watch it: Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.


Hetherington 1

Screenshot © BBC4 iPlayer


The reflection of his worth and his integrity, as glimpsed through the reminiscences of those who knew him: his friends, his colleagues, his parents and his lover, painted a remarkable picture, and is a touching and appropriate testimonial to his humanity. It reveals his overwhelming desire to try to make a difference, even if only in small personal ways. It is worth watching just to hear Sebastian Junger’s final, heartfelt observation about ‘loss’ and ‘truth’ in the closing moments.

Tim Hetherington obviously touched people in life, and in death he touched me too, late last night alone in my living room.



“I know there is strength in me”- Can it get tougher for a parent than this?

It takes an incredible strength to choose to put yourself in front of the camera and tell the world you are HIV positive.

Especially when the world  has already thrown more crap at you then most of us face in a lifetime.

That’s exactly what young Ethiopian Mum Momina does in this film. That Time tells the story of  how she is forced to make one of the most difficult choices any parent could face.

For me it’s our best work. Please watch and read below how you can help us honour Momina and give something back.

Please Help Us

We need your vote to get us through to the final round of the Sony Production awards. We want to win this award so can bask in the glory but much more importantly it comes with a very valuable prize (a Sony FS-700). We already own one of these.

If we win we will auction it and use the money for the support and counselling of vulnerable children and young people. As someone whose life was literally turned around by this kind of support this is a great way of honouring Momina and making sure other vulnerable young people are helped.


This film was commissioned by the wonderful people at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance


Filmed/Directed/Produced/Translated: Benjamin Chesterton/Sheikh Rajibul Islam/Ann Noon/Oli Sharpe/The Skipper/Tsigereda Fedlu/Solomon Amare

Music Credits:

Julsy Cocq: Shift, A Robot’s First Love Pietari Kassineri: Emma’s World, Whatever Is Left Of Me Ghosts For Hire: Tunnel Rat Stephen O’Brien: Prelude 1  The OO-ray: Silhouettes

Living on Scrap

I’ve got to say a short doco about kids collecting scrap is not a very appealing prospect for a Saturday morning.  Rubbish dump shots in developing countries are ten a penny on ‘concerned photojournalist’ websites.  Putting my skepticism aside I clicked on Chris De Bode and Steven Elbers short doco, Living on Scrap.

The film does everything these photos can’t.  Asks us not to pity the children but respect them. Compelling, sensitive work.


Dying for a photograph (and an Audi A3 advert)

‘From the pickup, Lynsey saw a body outstretched next to our car, one arm outstretched. We still don’t know whether that was Mohammed. We fear it was, though his body has yet to be found.

If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for.

No article is, but we were too blind to admit that.’ Lynsey Addario, Anthony Shadid, Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks, March 22 2011, New York Times 

The driver’s  name was Mohamed Shaglouf. He was executed.  Turns out he didn’t just die for an article but also an Audi A3 car advert.   Hope that  helps relieve the ‘burden’.

A Heart in the Land

Roger May

I’ve just read a beautifully insightful interview with Roger May on APAD (A Photo A Day). 5 Questions for Roger May.

Roger’s work from Appalachia has always impressed me, with its intelligence, and with it’s subtle, quiet beauty. It’s work that does not shout, needs not to shout to deliver the impact it does.

You’ll learn a lot from Roger’s words, about the craft of documentary photography and the integrity required to do it well. Not least about the investment of self that is so important in making good work, the long term investment in place and people that is both a leap of faith and a commitment to collaborate.

“Photographs are so powerful, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. We have to get out from behind our cameras and have conversations. It’s really only then that we can work to foster any sort of understanding about people and place and often we come away having learned more about ourselves than anything else. It takes work, though. And often the photographs that are made in Appalachia are of the drop-in variety, or so it seems to me. That’s why it’s so important to understand the history of a place and why I’m so sensitive to photographs made there.”               

Roger May