Photography Themes and Issues Essay
Describe how a greater understanding of the social and historical context of a body of photographic work can be useful in interpreting its meaning. You should refer to the work of an individual photographer, or of an organisation using photography, to justify your argument.
In this essay I am going to look at the photographic work of Craig J Barber and his unique approach to post-war Vietnam and Havana, Cuba using the medium of pinhole photography. I will explore how Barbers approach to photographing Vietnam through the use of pinhole cameras, tells a unique story of its own in terms of post-war Vietnam, the atmosphere and life after the war and also the alternative route he has taken compared to the work of other photographers who have looked at Vietnam as a subject. I will also look at Barbers view of a modern day Havana and how the countries past issues with politics has shaped Havana and how its future is deconstructing the Socialist ideal.
The Vietnam War began in 1959 and continued until 1975, the war was fought between the Northern Communists and the Anti-Communist South. The Vietnam War had a profound impact not only on the country’s political shift but also on the surviving population as the death toll reached over 4 million Vietnamese dead by the end of the war. The Vietnam War was well documented photographically and produced some of the most iconic images of war of the past 100 years, most notably Nick Ut’s famous image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc as a young girl, running towards the camera whilst screaming in pain due to injuries sustained from a napalm attack by Southern Vietnam. Another iconic image of the Vietnam war was Eddie Adam’s ‘General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon’ depicting a Vietnamese police chief executing a war prisoner in a street. Both of these famous images are stark statements of the brutal and inhumane nature of war and symbols that helped boost the anti-war movements during that period and subsequent periods of conflict.
Craig J Barber served as a marine in the American armed forces during the 1960’s stationing him in Vietnam during the war at the age of 18. Thirty-five years later, Ghosts of the Landscape: Vietnam revisited is Barbers attempt to re-visit and document the aftermath of the devastating war and the country that so deeply affected his life forever;
“This was an opportunity to be able to revisit a land that had a profound effect upon my life and to be able to come to terms with it. I always remembered it as a beautiful land that I wanted to return to.”
The pinhole photography of Ghosts of the Landscape is a very different account of the country compared to the photojournalistic style that covered the war itself. Due to the nature of the pinhole camera, the images are given a softer focus that feels like the landscapes of Vietnam are nothing but memories left over from before the country experienced such devastating bloodshed.
Another characteristic element of pinhole photography that has helped to separate Barbers work from the likes of Adams and Ut is the longer exposure times for each image. Working with pinhole allowed Barber to observe his subject more closely helping him forge a working relationship with the subjects while he waited and observed;
“For me it is important to get to know a place in an intimate way. When I work I am very slow, I like to look around the corners and behind the doors at the small, quiet details that make up the cultural landscape.”
A standard SLR or medium format camera used by many photojournalists will decrease down to f22 in aperture size, whereas when working in pinhole the aperture can take an f-stop down into the hundreds. In many of Barber’s Ghosts images, he has chosen to include a human presence, often that of children (Plate.2 and Plate.3) which then gives these images a distinct difference in meaning to the desolate landscapes in his other images. When we see a post-war Vietnamese village, obviously populated, but with its inhabitants obscured and blurred almost into the background itself, it starts to invoke thoughts of the aforementioned ghosts and memories for Barber of the country he first saw in his youth.
The inclusion of children in these images then provokes thought at whether or not this is an homage to the dead or perhaps something deeper, for example this could be Barber’s way of telling the viewer that the people who live in Vietnam today are still plagued by the after-effects of war and that pride, hope and dignity is still yet to make its way back into the lives of every Vietnamese person. It would be worth noting that during the Vietnam war, The US inflicted a deadly toxin ‘Agent Orange’ onto Southern Vietnam resulting in 400,000 deaths and subsequently causing half a million children to be born with such birth defects as; cleft palate, mental problems, hernias and extra toes and fingers. So Barber’s inclusion of children as blurred semi-human shapes could also be a message to the world about the continued suffering and miserable conditions that are a day to day occurrence in this country. If Barber had used standard photography equipment, he would have needed to document this aftermath either literally or by including a body of text with his image to give clarity to the viewer, whereas pinhole has given him freedom to simply create his image and let it speak its own story through stripping away individualism and showing that it is not just an isolated problem to any one group of people.
Almost all of the images included in Ghosts in the Landscape include views of rural villages made up of primitive wooden huts (Plate.5) and other areas of grand French architecture (Plate.16) Barber is documenting the lack of technology in some areas and the lack of change that has occurred since his first days in Vietnam in 1960. It shows the innocence among the people and stays true to the anti-capitalist ideals that they held. Barbers combination of the platinum process and his focus on documenting his own past and the past of the Vietnamese serve to take the viewer back to a time in history through a beautifully contrasted and toned path of desolation and despair.
Craig Barber’s pinhole work went on to a project ‘Havana Passage’ which looked at Cuba, a country that following a revolution in 1959 became a Socialist republic and has been under a trade embargo from the United States since 1962. Barber, perhaps unbeknownst to him, makes several connections between his Vietnam and Cuba photographic work; Both of these countries have been in conflict with the United States, both countries share the same radical political stance and both countries have experienced revolutions during the 1960’s and transitionary periods that have left the contemporary culture at a slight economic and social disadvantage.
“In the late 1990’s I ventured to Cuba for the first time and visited a land that has remained a forbidden mystery for most American citizens. Unspoiled by mass consumerism and global trademarks, Cuba remains a unique blend of Spanish colonial and 1950’s Americana with not a Starbucks in sight.”
Cuba began its revolution with Alberto Korda’s iconic image Guerrillero Heroico and ended up at Barber’s Cuban lament through a series of images depicting the final ghosts of Communism roaming the streets of Havana. Barber chose Havana as a subject for his pinholes because he wanted to document the fading culture of Cuba as it started to lose its revolutionary ideals.
Once again, pinhole manages to create mystery and despair through its long exposure times of Havanian streets and public spaces although this time we see well built Spanish architecture and people who are busily working at street stalls or having a moment to themselves. The photograph Cabbages tells Cuba that they are moving away from the world of the local grocery stall where there might be a friendly face, conversation and fresh produce and moving towards a corporate atmosphere where buying pesticide or genetically-engineered riddled produce will strip away the intimate moment of conversation and interaction with a local farmer or street stall-worker. The cabbages are forced into the eyes of the viewer pleading for the time when Cuba provided for itself, where the cabbage was grown with love from the farmer and for the country.
Memories is another photograph from the ‘Havana Passage’ set, this image depicts an outdoor bar in a beautiful setting. There is a distinct lack of human presence here, no bar staff and no patrons and it could even be considered a ghost town with its neglected paint work and no typical bar products in sight. Memories looks at the imminent loss of freedom, an outside bar is where people go to relax and socialise while enjoying the world around them, but with the Capitalism creeping in, these people might instead be stuck in their new office job miles away in the heart of Havana creating new areas of desolation among the beauty.
In juxtaposed, Barber creates a Fritz Lang style scene of Havana. The foreground consists of an almost empty street scene with subtle hints of neglect to the road and the paintwork of the buildings, there are some people dotted around in the foreground only, and they seem to be unaware of the looming Modernist building creeping up in the background. The photograph looks almost like a photomontage, there is such a contrast between the rough, textured neglected street scene and the smooth perfect curves of the new Modernist architecture. There is a car that contextualises Cuba’s lack of consumerism and Capitalism and lets the viewer see Cuba’s antiquated way of life in motion. It looks like a car from the 1950’s around the same time that Cuba underwent its revolution. The Modernist building is a direct symbol of the times moving forward, from the patchy street that contains a community, stories and families to the high rise apartment blocks for the wealthy and the sterile office environments.
Craig Barber shows the photography world that pinhole is so much more than just a niche for experimentalists, pinhole could be the next stage of documentary photography tailored specifically to documenting the slow demise of one country after another; perhaps employed by prospective government parties during elections to show the public where it is heading as a propaganda tool for their own ‘revolutionary’ office.
– Craig J Barber & Alison Devine Nordstrom (2006) 1st Edition Ghosts in the Landscape: Vietnam Revisited. New York: Umbrage Editions