The theme of 'Borders' is part of my presentation to the 2010 Reflexions Masterclass in Basel. Each participant was asked to approach notions of ‘Borders’ in Photography. The following blog-post contains some musings on how my work to date may have dealt with borders. I like the idea that I can revisit old work (even some I really do not like to acknowledge or necessarily want to share) and re-contextualize it within a chosen theme. Maybe I can learn about what kind of photographer I am from such a practice.
On Defining Borders
Borders define certain spaces. They immediately give notions of demarcating geographic boundaries - separating nations, cultural entities, economies and peoples. They signify division - conflicted or contested landscapes, either side of a divide, which are forced into duality and opposition. In this regard, a border represents history drawing lines in the sands of geography. It is the definite entity inscribed into a landscape - the ‘place’ where there is a union, a contact-point, a barrier or a separation.
On Border Experiences
Yet, every border is equipped with its own set of conditions. Personally, I think of my trips through-out South-East Asia and the various crossing-points between countries: the 5ft wide river that separates Burma from Thailand in Tachilek and the stark differences between the two places; the presumably unauthorized border control I encountered while entering Cambodia from Laos on a small wooden boat – where an ‘officer’ dressed in army gear from the waist up and Bermuda shorts from the waist down stamped my passport before I was swindled out of 5o dollars to retrieve my backpack, which had been anchored off shore in a boat by three local grifters. I think of Laos itself – a country defined from a buffer zone to keep waring factions apart. I think of the time I mistakenly entered into American soil from the Canadian side without my passport (just trying to take a picture, stupid kid, of where they both meet) and suffered the humiliation of hyper-strict border controls on both sides. I also think of the boat crossing between Tarifa in Spain over to Tangiers and the distinct cultural differences between North Africa and Southern Europe.
Tachilek, Thai/Burma Border. 2005
Interzone. Tangiers. 2002
On Conflict and Duality
On Borders Within the Image
A constant physical and psychological ‘border’ within all photography is the barrier(s) which exist between the photographer and the world photographed. Just by looking at my image from Tangiers, for instance, we can identify this to a degree. This image fell out of two-three rolls of film I shot whilst I approached the coast of Tangiers from Spain. This was my first sight of North Africa and was a visually stimulating couple of minutes and the image is amongst my favourites from my work to date. But, briefly, and in a critical way, we can suggest three borders which inhabit and are enclosed within the image itself – apart from the obvious border photographed between North Africa and Europe. Firstly, the border between my own subjective perspective and the physical surface of the world I am looking at. Secondly, the glass of the docking boat which adds to this sense of distance between inside and outside and maybe adds to the ‘being-there-ness’ quality of the image. And, finally, the actions of the camera itself - focus, use of depth of field, blur, etc - which reinforce that distance and emphasize that boundary between inside and outside worlds, between subjective and objective perspectives. The camera makes each invisible to an extent. When Susan Sontag suggests that images “hide more than they reveal” she is partly referencing this very notion. The photographer tries to naturalize the images true-to-nature views and hide the construction beneath the seductive surface of the image. Here it is evident. I wanted the viewer to share my visual experience of that moment of that scene as it opened up in front of my eyes. Similarly, the below images of a morning in a hotel in Marseille and the water seperating North and South New Zealand try to share the sense of visual experience and share my sense of zest for that subjective moment.
I remember one of my tutors in IADT, Mick Wilson, telling me that there was always a suggestion of ‘conflict’ within many of my images that was, maybe, a bit too ‘obvious’. True, much of my photography at that point seemed to work directly at times on a type of duality between two opposite objects or ideas within the image – for instance a lot of work I did placed a direct relationship between the ideals of the advertisement billboards of the Celtic Tiger against the ‘reality’ of the surrounding environment. Or the below image of the prosperity of Bangkok against the poverty of the city. Barthes in Camera Lucida had suggested that many images - or messages, to be more appropriate to his argument, seem to work in this way. I think I was trying to create ‘messages’, or something to that effect. But, I feel that these images were stepping stones in my development, and were a way of both looking at the world critically through the camera and trying to make my images more than just ‘pretty’ pictures; ones that maybe were making statements about the world I knew. Over the years I have tried to be a bit more subtle in this approach, maybe more suggestive.
Future Projections. Napoli. 2001
New World. Wellington, NZ. 2004 On the Theme of Urban vs Nature
A common motif, however, running through-out my work, is one which references an ‘urban vs nature’, or ‘human development vs nature’ approach. Informed, to a degree by legacy of Atget, or the work of the New Topographics, this is evident in the very early work from the midlands project – a very definite theme which dealt with the increasing development of housing estates and industrial estates in small rural towns. The below image, for instance, displays the almost violent rupture of nature with such development. While the image on the right references the ongoing struggle with an unruly nature – someone has painted over the moss on the wall. (Note to self: what is interesting in this image is that I had started to think about referencing landscape traditions, or maybe subvert traditions, by making spaces look like broader landscape compositions, etc. This is something I have carried on throughout my practice over the last few years).
On Undefined Borders
Part of the Midlands work, in essence, dealt with the notion that while many areas have demarcation points, the ‘midlands’ was essentially an undefined entity – a non-geographic, non-place which was under constant construction and redefinition at the height of the development. The work suggested and described the ‘porosity’ of the sorts of borders that existed in both rural towns due to suburbanization and the conceptual expansion of the midlands region. It was difficult to identify any definite border which demarcated where the midlands began and where it ended. I remember seeing shop units and commercial paint vans in Wexford and in Mayo, for instance, which proclaimed their business as ‘Midlands Electrical’ or ‘Midlands Paint Contractors’. Thus, maybe part of the project suggested that the Midlands was partly defined through commercial desires to break out of the limitations of ‘the local’. (Sidenote: An underlying theme of the project showed the effects of globalization, maybe, and economic ‘liberalization’, or speculative lassie-faire economic policies, which have made traditional borders increasingly impermeable.)
On the Subjective Border
Photography can also explore borders from an autobiographical perspective according to subjective perception. On a deeper level, a border can relate to an opposition between an inside and an outside world – between subjective and objective or between what is intimate and what is external. My recent ‘Sketches From Home’ series is about the relationship between my rural background and my photographic work – a reflexive body of work which tries to explore, in a real way, the sense of guilt, the sense of ambivilance to breaking family lineages, maybe(?). With this project there is a direct attempt to explore the tension between two impulses – tradition vs artistic. The camera can, in this regard, bring together two worlds for a clearer understanding of both.
With this on-going work, there are also vulnerabilities. To allow others to visually trespass into my inviolable space (again, crossing my own personal boundaries). Here others can view how I negotiate my own nature through photography - a medium that has opened up new worlds and perspectives to me. Hopefully people will understand that I try to explore my nature in an open and honest way. I feel that much of the works I have seen of this theme of ‘lost traditions’ when it comes to rural life is documented by outsiders who naturally promote a strong sense of ‘loss’ or demise (of culture, or tradition, or whatever) or a highly emotive sense of pathos. The real conditions of rural life to the outsider is mis-understood. I want my work to be as subjective as it can be – to explore the real conditions of my own relationship with rural life. I no longer live in rural Ireland, but it is very much a part of who I am. I feel that each time I use the camera, I force a new understanding of my life, my culture, the landscape, and the medium of photography itself and how and why I use it.