Posts Tagged 'image'

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.

Shoot

Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.

Viral

The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.

Share

Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.

Confront

Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.

Empathize

But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.

Impact

Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”

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Staring at the big picture

Image

By Harry van Versendaal

Photo-sharing app Instagram last week announced it had reached the 100 million-user milestone. Jennifer Trausch is one of them. But the Berlin-based artist much prefers to make her instant photographs using a refrigerator-sized vintage Polaroid camera.

Trausch, 36, can normally be found operating one of the five such machines, built in the late 1970s by the former US tech giant, at her studio in Berlin, where she moved this January after spending a year in Paris.

Before moving to Europe, the Ohio-born artist lectured and made photographs at the 20×24 Polaroid studio in Manhattan, where she was director of photography for about eight years. In a daring project that spanned from 2006 to 2011, Trausch, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, took the vintage camera out of the comfort zone of the protected studio environment and onto the rural roads of the American South to shoot poster-size, black-and-white pictures of fairs, auctions, bars and rodeos – a project that gave birth to her well-received “Touching Ground” exhibition.

From Germany, Trausch is currently trying to spread the love for instant photography, putting much of her time and energy into Impossible Works, a Berlin-based nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, a company that manufactures new instant film for Polaroid 600 and SX-70 cameras. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films.

Trausch was recently invited to Greece to participate in the jury of the 4th Cedefop Photomuseum Award – a 5,000-euro prize granted to photographers from all over the world by the EU’s European Center for the Development of Vocational Training and the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography in the context of its PhotoBiennale.

During her stay in the northern port city, Trausch delivered two two-hour workshops at the museum on the basics of working with Impossible Project instant films with a variety of cameras and film types.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Trausch discussed her love for large-format photography and the particularities of her work in the digital era.

What drew you to large-format photography? What do you think is special about the 20×24?

I started out in photojournalism / documentary photography, so I really began my career shooting with small- and medium-format cameras. In 2001, I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to use the 20×24 Polaroid camera, and I have been working almost exclusively on large format ever since. I like how laborious shooting with big cameras is, how much attention you end up giving to each image.

Large cameras, especially the 20×24, also demand much more out of their subjects. The 20×24’s grandiosity makes people look into it in a different way, perhaps because it commands a certain kind of respect as a human-scale object. With the 20×24, there’s always a limited depth of field, and the way the world falls off behind the focal plane can be quite surreal, soft and graceful.

The 20×24 instant prints also have a material, painterly quality that is all their own; it is the sharp detail of a 20×24 negative in a contact-print, mixed with the softness of a print made by the diffusion transfer process.

How are you able to carry around and work with such a big and heavy machine that was meant for indoor use? Is it a hindrance?

The 20×24 Polaroid cameras – there are five original units built in the late 1970s – each weigh 105 kilos, so I had no choice but to find a way of working that was relatively easy. For my “Touching Ground” project, I chose B&W film since the film is fast enough that I could work in most conditions without extra lighting or equipment. I tried to simplify the shooting process so that it was just the camera, film, black cloths to keep the light out, and my assistant Kimberlee Venable and I.

I tend to not like when too much credence is given to the technical side of photography, as in what equipment or techniques were used for a certain effect, but I have to admit that in this case the camera had a huge influence over what we could and couldn’t do. Sometimes it held us back as the camera couldn’t always go where we wanted it to go (on a rooftop or on an oil rig) and other times it was exhausting to push it up muddy hills or to lift it over train tracks. Taking the camera out and setting up always took a lot of effort, which added a certain pressure on each shoot to get things right.

This also meant that when I didn’t “get the shot” I hoped for, it felt much more devastating because of the extreme physical effort it took to set it up in the first place. Perhaps if I had had more hands to help we wouldn’t have felt this pressure and disappointment so much, but I really preferred to work without a giant crew so that the process with my subjects could be intimate.

What are your favorite themes? What kind of things do you like to photograph?

I am interested in the idea of place, the culture and traditions surrounding a particular place at a particular time, and whether I can take you there to feel it.

For me this is always a mix of portraits, landscapes and activities that are indicative of that place. Sometimes it is specific to one environment, such as my “Skateland” series, or in the case of “Touching Ground,” it’s about a much broader portrait of regional American culture.

I also am interested in the idea of sensations in photography – whether images can elicit the physical sensations of being there for the viewer standing in front of the final print. It is always my goal to make images where you could almost feel the heavy humidity on your skin, hear the leaves rustling, or taste a swamp’s scent wafting through the air.

Could you tell us a few things about the Impossible Works project?

Impossible Works is a nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, the main manufacturer of instant films today. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films. We accept proposals from anyone looking to use and challenge the instant medium.

How does it feel taking photographs with a huge, slow and hard-to-move analog camera in an age when people upload thousands of pictures a second on social media that it takes them all of a second to frame, and their friends all of another second to “like”?

The process of working at 20×24 definitely creates a different kind of image, in the attention that you and your subjects inherently end up giving during a shoot.

The final prints can be shared as you work, in all of their incredible scale and detail, which transforms the building of an image. While this can partly be equated to sharing digital files online or during a shoot, it’s pretty easy to lose the fine, subtle details of an image looking at it on a glowing screen or on the back of a digital camera.

I do share some of my images online in similar ways to many digital photographers, but only as a teaser, not as an end to themselves – I don’t think you can really experience the work until you’re in the room with the original full-size prints.

Do you own any smaller cameras, and, if so, do you like using them?

Yes, quite a few. I use them mostly when I am traveling, which these days is quite often. When I am traveling, I test a lot of Impossible Projects small-format materials on Polaroid SX-70, 680, and 110B cameras, mostly for sketching out ideas.

But in general I’ve gotten quite accustomed to working on a larger ground glass and seeing my images upside down. I think this is the way my brain is wired these days.

Photographer offers glimpse into Lebanon’s paradise lost

By Harry van Versendaal

Two black IKEA-style chairs sitting empty on a balcony overlooking a bombarded apartment building, a black Mercedes, partly covered by a tablecloth in an empty lot next to a derelict building, a tangle of trees sprouting through the floorboards of a bullet-riddled church.

Demetris Koilalous does not pretend to be a documentary photographer. “My style of photography is intrinsically connected to the way I see the world. A beautiful landscape, for example, does not interest me — I don’t even lift my camera,” he says, sitting on the sofa of his colorful apartment in the northern Athens suburb of Halandri.

This jagged juxtaposition of the mundane with the war-torn is what the 50-year-old photographer seeks to bring out in his photo exhibition of present-day Lebanon currently on display at the Museum of Photography, located in a former warehouse designed by Eli Modiano in the northern port city of Thessaloniki and the only Greek institution exclusively dedicated to the medium.

Koilalous spent 18 hectic days last year in the Land of the Cedars on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. He was on a photographic assignment commissioned by the museum which sent five professionals to the Middle East as part of a Greek Culture Ministry program. Featuring some 200 images shot in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Qatar, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, “Oriented and Disoriented in the Middle East,” will run through May 13.

Intrigued by the delicate balance found in Mideast societies, Koilalous went to Lebanon intentionally seeking out places that would illustrate a country on the brink — “a rather European preconception,” he admits. Carrying a Canon DSLR camera, he looked for places where battles took place, where massacres occurred, where people were driven out of their homes, places that formed the border between different minorities.

“At some point during the second day, I was in the center of Lebanon and I happened upon this church that was totally pockmarked by bullets; you know Beirut, it’s all cement, ruins, torn-down houses, rebuilt houses, there are really modern buildings and not much green at all. And so suddenly I see this incredible anarchic greenery. It was an old church, it didn’t have a roof, and when you walked inside it was like walking through a forest. And that’s when I remembered another photographer’s project called ’Paradise Lost.’ And it just kept going through my mind that there is a lost paradise over there. This country that’s living its very own anti-paradise,” he says, explaining the inspiration behind the somewhat awkward project title.

Conflict-prone Lebanon is split along sectarian lines that dictate not only politics but also living arrangements and standards of living. The 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 cost an estimated 150,000 lives while many more were wounded or displaced. Originally fought between Christian militias and leftists allied with the Palestinians, the conflict triggered a wide array of clashes as Syria, Israel and others stepped into the fray. Social peace remains fragile and contemporary events are so disputed that school history books stop at independence from France in 1943.

Understandably, time pressure was not the only problem Koilalous had to deal with. Security guards were constantly monitoring his movements and the photographs he was taking. He was armed with documents from the Greek Embassy in Lebanon, the Museum of Photography, and Greece’s Culture Ministry. He also had written permission from Lebanon’s Information Ministry, police force and military to take pictures in public spaces. But often he would find out these were not enough.

“There’s this hotel called the Monroe with a great view of the sea where I wanted to take a shot. So I showed them all my papers. The guy responds that the paper says I am allowed to take pictures inside Beirut but nothing about overhead shots,” he says, explaining that it was not army officials but private security guards that would give him the most trouble.

“If I were his cousin he would have let me in — just like in Greece. But because I took the legal route he wouldn’t let me. Some people find an excuse to exercise the little power they have left. A security guard trying to impose his own interpretation of a ministry document in order to legitimize his position.”

Born in Athens in 1962, Koilalous initially studied urban planning in Edinburgh and geography at the London School of Economics before gravitating to photography. It was only after he started to teach the craft about 10 years ago, he says, that he began to take good photographs. First noticed thanks to the dreamlike quality of the black-and-white panoramic landscapes of “Deja vu,” showcased in the 2008 PhotoBiennale, Koilalous has steadily evolved with more sharply focused work. His open-ended “Growth” project, a rather lyrical commentary on the changing landscape along Greece’s national highways, has shown him to be a good master of color and symbolism.

Koilalous keeps no secret of his wide range of influences — from the activist photojournalism of Sebastiao Salgado and the iconic images of Magnum master Josef Koudelka, to outsider photographer Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin, to Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth of the Dusseldorf school. “It’s a lot of contrary things. But I gradually came to appreciate the simplicity of photographers like [Andre] Kertesz.”

However, as his experience working as a teacher has shown him, no amount of quality influences and hard work can match a generous dose of talent. “The outcome is a matter of hard work, but instinct is a question of talent. There are people out there who can see through walls. It’s incredible. Some things can be cultivated, particularly some stereotypes — but instinct cannot.”

Skeptics often complain that contemporary art, particularly its conceptual genre, has lowered the bar to the point where actual talent is made redundant. If you want to succeed, the argument goes, make sure you have good market connections. The argument seems to strike a rather emotional chord with Koilalous, who is ready to defend his more conceptual counterparts.

“I am not denying the fact that the market defines things to a certain extent, but it’s bulls**t to say that art is determined by curators. The price of an artwork is one thing, its value however is quite another. It’s good that a photograph can sell for a lot of money. The more people want a photograph, the more its price will rise. Something that nobody wants to buy will never sell,” he says before going on to deconstruct a couple of Gursky photos from a Dusseldorf school photo book.

The German artist’s “Rhine II,” a picture of the gray river under gray skies, last year fetched a record 4.3 million dollars at a Christie’s auction in New York. The image, described by Gursky as “an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are,” was digitally manipulated to leave out elements that bothered him. Many found the photo “overrated.” Writing for the Guardian, Maev Kennedy called it a ”sludgy image of desolate, featureless landscape.”

“It’s immature to say that Gursky, whose works hang in MoMa, Berlin and the Tate Modern, is a creation of marketing. Only someone with an inferiority complex would claim that.”

It’s not easy being a pioneer. If you want to use photography to talk about new things, Koilalous suggests, you have to overcome the huge obstacle that is reality. As a photographer who is an artist, you have to make use of what is commonly perceived as reality and illustrate it in a subjective way, but still communicate it to the audience, he says. “This is an important part in photography that you need to get used to.”

One of the “anti-paradise” pictures depicts a pair of empty armchairs flanking a little round table with decorative objects — including a statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle. His intent, Koilalous explains, was not a comment on religiosity or kitsch, but rather an allegory on the absence of dialogue in the divided country. “This is what I am trying to say. I am not sure if this will resonate with the audience at all. But I want my images to make people think twice.”

Venus in the dock


By Harry van Versendaal

Klaus Boetig set foot in Greece for the first time on Christmas Day of 1972. He came on a train from Germany and spent the night at a cheap hostel in Plaka. Since then, the 63-year-old Bremen-based author has visited Greece almost every year and written more than 70 travel guides on all parts of the country. Many of these have been translated into more than 10 different European languages and three have been published in Greek. His travel pieces have appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines and information brochures, including a German publication prepared by the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO).

Ironically, Boetig tries to avoid Greece these days. Two years ago, his name was embroiled in a controversy that still lingers.

It all began when the German weekly news magazine Focus came out with the now-infamous cover depicting the iconic Venus de Milo statue draped in a Greek flag and showing her middle finger. “Cheats in the Euro family,” read the headline. The cheats, of course, were the Greeks.

The publication, which was published on February 22, 2010, prompted a group of Greek lawyers to sue a dozen staff journalists at Focus as well as Boetig, a freelancer, for defamation and libel. Boetig, the prosecutor said at the time, consciously misguided readers about the character of the Greek people.

Boetig’s article was headlined: “Culture shock: Can the Greeks be understood?” A court summons summed up the author’s alleged claims: “The Greeks live off borrowed money; they maintain clientelistic relations with the country’s politicians in order to protect their illegal homes; they make rules only to break them; they use their religion to solve all their problems; they don’t know how to read; they do not respect their working hours and, finally, they use the European Union’s tourism funds to build private residences.”

Katerina Fragaki, one of the Greek lawyers who filed the lawsuit, slams the article as “an insult to our honor and integrity.”

She says the authors made and distributed false claims about the Greeks while knowing that those claims were false. Moreover, Fragaki adds, the cover and the articles carried comments and opinions that, directly or indirectly, vilify the Greek people, their history and their culture. “These articles in effect put in doubt the social and moral value of Greek society and disparage its integrity,” she says.

Lost in translation

From his home in Germany, Boetig claims it’s all a big misunderstanding. He describes how he was contacted by the online edition of Focus to contribute a story for the website’s tourism section. “I was told it should be witty, funny and even ironic like the other articles for these series before. I agreed.”

Unfortunately for Boetig, around the same time, the print version of Focus released the controversial issue which did not include his article. To make matters worse, he says, the editors decided to put the opening lines of his article, together with his name in big red letters, on the site’s homepage next to a picture of the cover, “something I did not know beforehand and was never asked to approve.”

The misunderstanding appears to also have a more literal dimension. “Those Athenian lawyers that took me to court do not speak and read any German at all, or not enough to understand a funny and ironic article,” Boetig says.

Monika Freude, Boetig’s lawyer on the case, says the prosecution tried to ground its allegations on a translation of the piece prepared by one of the Greek lawyers involved in the case (lawyers in Greece have the right to make official translations). This lawyer, Freude says, basically copied an inaccurate and incomplete translation making the rounds on the Internet. Freude, an Athens-based lawyer from Germany, said the defense had to make sure a new official translation by the Foreign Ministry was made available to the court.

A German speaker who is not connected to the case and who was consulted by this newspaper believes Boetig’s article is written in a thinly veiled ironic tone. Satirizing people’s egoism, tolerance for corruption and aversion to rules, the article brims with cliches and generalizations that seem to mostly describe provincial and mostly outdated attitudes and habits, like suggesting that streets have no names or that Greeks are too attached to their Orthodox saints.

Boetig claims to have received different feedback. “Most German readers of the article loved it, because in all the words they felt my love for Greece,” he says, adding that several philhellenic groups outside the country had asked permission to reprint his story. “Also many German-speaking Greeks in Germany assured me that they felt neither embarrassed nor offended by my article,” Boetig says.

He is less willing to defend the cover. “It was unfriendly, but no matter for the courts,” says Boetig, who is not represented by the Focus legal team.

Distasteful? Yes. But punishable?

However, upsetting as the cover or the article may be to some people, legal experts say their publication was not a punishable offense.

The Greek law in this case must be read in the light of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Drafted in the framework of the Council of Europe, this multilateral international treaty enjoys primacy over national law.

“If the Greek courts condemn the author of the article at issue, the victim will eventually bring a case against Greece before the European Court of Human Rights,” explains Vassilis Tzevelekos, a lecturer in public international law at the University of Hull.

The Focus case is a special one as the alleged insult does not target a specific individual, or group of individuals, but rather the Greek people as a whole. However, the ECHR does not protect national pride as such. This makes this case different to, for example, the Mohammed cartoons controversy in Denmark, where religious freedom is pitted against freedom of expression.

The prosecution could claim that the right of free expression was abused — something that the ECHR prohibits.

“Freedom of the press goes as far as where one’s personality is offended; this is a fundamental rule of the journalistic code of ethics,” Fragaki insists.

However, experts unrelated to the case say neither the cover (Boetig does not face charges about this) nor Boetig’s story was abusive. Tzevelekos says Focus should be allowed to send the message it wants to send, using the means it considers appropriate for that purpose.

“Freedom of expression is a vital condition for pluralism and polyphony within a democracy. Everyone, and especially the press, shall be free to make value judgments regarding questions of public interest. Offensive or even shocking as they may be, they must be tolerated. This is the essence of democracy,” he says.

Holding Germany responsible for much of the austerity measures imposed on the country in the last couple of years, Greek media and political satirists on TV and radio have often verged on politically incorrect territory. The sight of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform is not an uncommon one. An Athens radio station was recently fined 25,000 euros by Greece’s radio and television watchdog after one of its journalists, Giorgos Trangas, verbally abused Merkel last year.

In principle, Greek courts can lawfully restrict the freedom of expression. But for an intervention to be legal it must be prescribed by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be “necessary.” This last clause suggests that the limitation will be proportionate, meaning that a fair balance is struck between the aim of the limitation and the means used by the state for that purpose — in this case the sanctioning of Focus.

“I really find the picture [of the Venus de Milo] at issue to be in bad taste, not to say cheap,” Tzevelekos says. “However, the fact that I disagree with it or that I see it as ‘trash-press’ does not mean that the editors should be deprived of their freedom of expression,” he says, adding that he sees absolutely no reason why the Greek courts should interfere with the freedom of expression of the foreign press to protect national pride.

If Greek courts are really interested in protecting national pride, Tzevelekos says, they will have to prove how much they value freedom of expression.

“National pride is not protected in court,” he says.

Life goes on

The statute of limitations has expired for offenses which carry a prison sentence of up to one year, as long as the crime was committed before 31.12.2011. This concerns the charges of defamation, which foresee penalties of up to one year. The charges for libel however foresee penalties of at least three months’ imprisonment and up to five years. The next hearing at the Athens Misdemeanors Court is on Friday.

Meanwhile, back in Bremen, Boetig says the controversy has not really affected his life. “I got many friendly letters from all over Greece and Germany. Some friends in Greece wanted to ask the mayor of their village to name a ‘plateia’ (square) after me, some others wanted to collect money to pay for my lawyers,” he says. Because of burgeoning legal expenses and the slow pace of proceedings, Boetig is concerned the trial will leave a hole in his bank account.

“Nevertheless, some money hopefully will be left at the end to pay for my daughter’s wedding in July.”

Girls on film

By Harry van Versendaal

A Korean schoolgirl is about to lose a finger in a cruel initiation rite; a line of marching students willingly commit mass suicide wading into the waters of a river; two girls brace for a duel on a rooftop.

These are snippets from “Girls in Uniform,” an art project crafted by Hyun-Jin Kwak, part of which went on display this month at the Technopolis cultural complex in Athens.

Enigmatic and captivating, the images seem to capture the tension between the individual and the collective, the interaction between the subject and the structures of power that come to shape the former’s norms and behavior.

Kwak’s schoolgirls are subjected to systemic power. But, operating from inside the cracks in the system, they too get a chance to exercise their own power on others. Depicted are acts of sexual experimentation, cryptic rituals and psychological and physical violence.

The uniform, tightly wrapped around the body as well as the mind, becomes a tool and symbol of constraint — yet, at the same time, also a shield offering that cozy sense of belonging. This is, after all, a paradoxical world that we live in.

Born in South Korea in 1974, Kwak now lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden. Launched in 2003, “Girls in Uniform” is an ongoing project that includes series of photographs, sculptures, installations and video works, some of which are still in the planning stages. Shown in the context of the Athens Photo Festival at Technopolis, a former gas factory on Pireos Street, Kwak’s exhibition was organized by the Swedish Institute in Athens and curated by Jan-Erik Lundstrom.

Kwak spoke talks here about the allegorical universe of her girls in uniform.

The images of your “Girls in Uniform” project are beautiful but unsettling. They could be read as an attempt to capture the tension between the individual and the collective, between free will and control. What message are you trying to get across?

Personally, I don’t think they are so disturbing. I guess it’s more about how actions and behavior deviate from what we expect from these young female subjects. On a more general level, I think the question of social relationships between individuals and their environment appears in quite different shapes in every society. My project is based on questions about the nature of social relationships between the individual and society, and how these are reflected in different social environments. I am interested in the sociological aspects of being and being formed as an individual, and in the question of identity.

I would assume that the uniforms worn by your characters in the pictures serve as a metaphor — the uniform in the mind, as it were.

Yes, that’s true: The girls serve partly as a metaphor for someone or something in transition; so it doesn’t have to be about age, it is also about time. These subjects are incomplete and unstable, but highly charged.

The uniform stands for uniformity, conformity and repression. At the same time, anonymity can give you a sense of security and be a driving force behind action.

There is a strong conflictual element between the two, but also a possibility to establish alliances in complicated conditions.

Why are there only women in your pictures?

I realized that I created a kind of group of alpha beings and there was no room or necessity for both genders in this project. Since I am one, I can fully grasp women as social and political beings and use this as a main subject and put it in such a context. I do not have the same confidence with men as such a subject.

Is your theme a bridge that connects your two backgrounds — East Asian and Northern European? Does the power to conform exist in both societies/cultures but merely in different forms?

There are different uniforms and codes of conduct that we all carry in any society and culture. The school uniform is a metaphor for a larger concept.

Meanwhile, the project is also a reflection of my biography. The methods and order I have used, the choice of location might say something about me. In the beginning, I tried to reconstruct the mental stages and patterns of behavior in Korean society. These were influenced by the relationship between rapid economic growth and ethics in recent Korean history. The first phase of the project relates to the South Korean educational system and the transition which occurred during the democratization of the country in the early 1980s. The Korean school uniform for girls allowed for an investigation into the processes of socialization, where different aspects of power structures, oppression, transgressions and an awakening sexuality were staged and made to confront each other. These aspects reflected, to varying degrees, the breaking points between the sternly authoritative and repressive system and the country’s recent openness at a time of strong economic and technological development, which also allowed for an individualistic consumer culture and an expansive cultural life.

As relations between the individual, the uniform (second identity) and society are not an exclusively Korean, or Asian, concern, the work acquired a new and expanded geographic and psychological meaning in its later phases. Even though school uniforms exist all over the world, and are actually more of a rule than an exception, their role within my project has become more and more metaphorical. This later part of “Girls in Uniform” also reflects my own biography, as my art is based in Sweden in order to explore environments in Europe.

In the photographs we see constructions of events/narratives that are parallel to the commonplace. Many of the locations/scenes in my works can refer to Heterotopia. These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental.

These choices of settings are central. I want the photographs to possess a theatrical quality at the same time as they refer to documentary (or psychological portraits). More and more, the project has developed into studies of elements in settings where the historical and architectural aspects are of considerable importance.

In my photographic staging at these locations, my use of models, props and the situations they are involved in are all employed in relation to the history of the site, for deeper relations between the story line and its visualization.

If your work is indeed a critique of conformity and identity formation in modern societies, I guess a counterargument would be that top-down identity-building provides some of that necessary glue that keeps a society together.

This is very true. As one who was born and raised in one culture while residing in a very different one, I may see more of these differences and problems. The very idea of this difference may be the starting point of the project.

I am not trying to say one is better than the other. Striking a balance between these seems quite a utopian idea at times.

But sometimes, what we may think as necessary glue to keep things together can easily turn into concrete that sucks you in and buries you.

Finally, it looks like you take a lot of time and effort in selecting your locations and staging your shots. Does that not contradict your message, in some way?

My choice of locations is carefully made, as you say. They do not only serve as a backdrop, but also help create certain emotions by using the atmosphere and possibly also the history of the site. I don’t think this can be done in any other way, nor is it contradictory. On the contrary, I believe it largely contributes to the theme.

Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

Orgasm Inc.

By Harry van Versendaal

Sales of Viagra, the famous blue pill used to treat male impotence, exceeded $460 million worldwide last year. Imagine how much money could be made from producing a pill for the other half of the globe’s population: women. It’s no surprise that the world’s pharmaceutical companies are locked in a race to come up with a pink Viagra.

Liz Canner joined the race in 2002. That was when the 42-year-old filmmaker from Vermont, in the USA, was recruited by Vivus, a small pharmaceutical company based in California. Her job was to edit erotic videos for women used as test subjects in the development of an “orgasm cream” designed to cure something called “female sexual dysfunction.” In the process, she discovered that “sexual dysfunction” was a catchall term with little scientific value. But there was little point in creating the drug unless the industry first created the condition. As a medical researcher says in the film: “We’ve come up with the drug. Now we have to come up with the disease.”

The fruit of her nine-year research, a 78-minute documentary called “Orgasm Inc,” exposes efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to medicate female sexual desire – from cosmetic vaginal surgery to Dr Stuart Meloy’s push-button orgasmatron – putting women’s health at risk for profit.

“Orgasm Inc” won the Best Feature award at the Vermont International Film Festival and Best Feature Documentary award at the Southeast New England Film Festival, while The Independent magazine last year named Canner one of the top 10 independent filmmakers to watch. The film will be screened at the Orpheas open-air cinema on Kos on Friday, September 3, at 8.50 p.m.

Canner spoke to Athens Plus about the industry of female pleasure.

How did you get involved in this project?

After over a decade of producing documentaries on human rights issues such as genocide, police brutality and world poverty, the violent images from my movies were giving me nightmares and making me depressed about the state of humanity. In order to change the script in my head, I had decided my next project would be about pleasure; specifically, the history of the science of female pleasure.

Then, strangely, while I was in the middle of shooting the movie, I was offered a job editing erotic videos for a pharmaceutical company that was developing an orgasm cream for women. The videos were to be watched by women during the clinical trial of their new drug. I accepted the job and gained permission to film my employers for my own documentary. I thought the experience would give me access to the secretive world of the pharmaceutical industry and insight into the latest scientific thinking about women and pleasure.

I did not set out to create an expose but what I uncovered at work compelled me to keep filming and investigating. This insider perspective allows the film to scrutinize the culture within the pharmaceutical industry, which has been perverted to place the drive for profit above our health. So much for pleasure…

How easy was it to make this film? What were the main obstacles you had to overcome?

It is not easy to make a documentary about the secretive pharmaceutical industry and the media’s collusion with it. It has been quite stressful.

You spent nine years on this project. Has it given you a new perspective on the issue of female orgasm – or lack thereof?

The biggest secret about orgasms is how rarely women actually have them during heterosexual intercourse. One of the women in my film, Charletta, underwent painful surgery to have an orgasmatron device installed in her spine. The only thing that it did was make her leg kick out uncontrollably. Needless to say, it did not work. It turned out that Charletta actually had no trouble climaxing but wanted it to happen during sex with her husband in what she considered a “normal” way. She was thrilled when I told her that most women don’t climax through intercourse alone.

According to Charletta, her idea about what her sex life was supposed to be like came from the movies. In our society, we’re constantly bombarded with images of fabulous sex in the media and the message that we should have orgasms every time. This is just not accurate. Researchers have found that 70 percent of women actually need direct clitoral stimulation in order to climax.

Charletta had been told by the doctor that she had female sexual dysfunction because she was not having orgasms during intercourse. The idea that there’s sexual dysfunction implies that there’s a norm. However, there is nothing that says what functional is. There is no norm — no medical study that says that women should be having five orgasms a month during intercourse or 10 sexual thoughts a day in order to be healthy. So this idea that you can be dysfunctional is problematic. If you create something that makes it appear that there is a function that women should be living up to, it’s quite dangerous. I think that all of us have complaints. I mean, who doesn’t want to have an orgasm whenever they want?

Your film contradicts past reports that some 43 percent of women suffer from sexual dysfunction. Do you think the figure is arbitrary?

All over the media you hear that a shocking 43 percent of women suffer from female sexual dysfunction. I first heard this statistic when I was working for the pharmaceutical industry in the early 2000s and it surprised me. If so many women had female sexual dysfunction, why didn’t my mother tell me about it and why weren’t my friends talking about it? In fact, I had not even heard of the disease until I took the job with the pharmaceutical industry.

In “Orgasm Inc,” I investigate the history of the 43 percent statistic. It turns out that it was taken from a sociology survey that was conducted in the early ‘90s to find out what people’s sex lives were like. It was never meant to measure the number of women with a disease. Using exaggerated statistics like that manipulates women. It also says to Wall Street that there is a large market for this drug.

Do you think this is a case of disease mongering, as it were, i.e. of the industry trying to convince people there is something wrong with them?

The media talks about female sexual dysfunction as if it always existed — when in fact it was a term that came about in the late 1990s. When Viagra was released, it was such a blockbuster drug for men that companies like Pfizer began to think that there was also a big market for women. The problem was, in order to develop a drug, the FDA required that there be a clearly defined disease. Pfizer and a number of other drug companies sponsored the first meetings on FSD. In the end, 18 of the 19 authors of the definition of the disease had ties to 22 drug companies. This definition is extremely broad: Almost any sexual complaint you have, whatever causes it, will fall into this disease category.

It’s a bizarre disorder, because you have to self-diagnose and you have to be distressed by it. So in other words, if you never felt an iota of sexual desire in your life but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. If you never had an orgasm but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. There are real physiological conditions that can cause sexual problems such as hysterectomies and diabetes. I think we can’t ignore that. But for the most part, most of women’s sexual problems are caused by sociocultural conditions like past sexual abuse, relationship problems and stress due to overworking.

Could it be that men are simply looking for ways to make up for their failure to stimulate women?

In the United States, part of the problem is the lack of comprehensive sex education for both men and women. In most sex ed classes, the full genital anatomy is not taught. The clitoris, the most sensitive part of the female body, is not mentioned because it is taboo to talk about pleasure. It was surprising to me how many women and men do not know where the clitoris is.

While shooting your documentary, you witnessed the development of a number of treatments. Did any of them seem to work?

In “Orgasm Inc,” I followed the pharmaceutical industry over a period of nine years as they raced to develop a female Viagra. I kept hoping that they would discover a magic bullet but most of the products currently in clinical trials do not work much better than a placebo (sugar pill) and the side effects for many of them are quite horrific – including breast cancer and cardiovascular problems. Part of the problem is that sexual experience is really complicated and based more on context than biology.

In the press you read: “Men have their Viagra, women want theirs too.” I’d love to know which PR firm came up with this slogan, because it is very effective. The question is what do women need Viagra for? Most of women’s sexual problems are not caused by a physical medical condition but are the result of sociocultural issues. So, I think the only way that most women will be satisfied with their sex lives will be if they can take a product that makes them feel comfortable about their bodies; that ends sexual abuse toward women; that creates equality in the workplace; that creates equality in relationships; that gives women good sex education so they can fully know about the clitoris and about how their bodies function. Why can’t we take a pill like that?

Isn’t there a percentage of women, however small, that do suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction?

The thing about sexual experience is that our sense of satisfaction comes from our expectations. In other words, if women think that they should be having an orgasm every time they have intercourse, then a lot of women are going to believe they have sexual problems. If women think they should have the same libido at 60 as they had at 20, a lot of women are going to think they have a disease.

Right now, there is a cultural shift going on and medicine is changing our expectations but this is not a new phenomenon. In our grandmother’s time, women with low desire were said to suffer from frigidity. During the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, the pathologizing and medicalizing of woman’s sexual experience was challenged and resisted. Terms such as nymphomania and frigidity were no longer used. Recently, the clocks have been turned back. Low desire is now called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (a subset of FSD) and there are quite a number of drug companies racing to find a nose spray, pill, cream or patch to cure it. By the way, I find it very curious that they’re working on a desire drug for women. Would anybody think to develop a desire drug for men?

It is important to note that some women do suffer from a real physiological problem when they experience a lowering of their sex drive. Radical hysterectomies and some antidepressants affect libido. However, the majority of women do not suffer from a disease. For many of us, our libidos are influenced by everyday life experiences such as aging, our sense of body image, the health of our relationship, stress, and past sexual encounters.

You have taken your film to many film festivals. What has been the response to your work?

It has been exciting taking “Orgasm Inc” to film festivals. We have had many sold-out shows and received a lot of positive feedback. There have been quite a number of times when women have come up to me in tears after a screening and told me that they learned things about their sexual response that they did not know and they feel relieved to discover they are healthy and normal.

Have you had any reactions from the pharmaceutical companies?

When we showed “Orgasm Inc” at Lincoln Center in New York, a woman who works for the pharmaceutical industry stood up and denounced the film. The audience grew annoyed with her and booed her down. It was quite a tense moment.

Are you working on a new project?

My next project is finally going to be about female pleasure. It is called “The Hidden History of O.”


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