Sergey Ponomarev’s ‘A Lens on Syria’

Sergey Ponomarev’s A Lens on Syria at The Imperial War Museum

On a brief trip to London, I went to the Imperial War Museum to see the exhibitions on Syria.  One was Syria: Story of a Conflict, a collection of objects, personal stories and a video installation that gives an idea of how the country became ruined by the conflict going on between Government forces and the retaliation of rebels.  The other was A Lens on Syria by Russian photographer Sergey Ponomarev, again in two parts with a series of images, Assad’s Syria, and a slide show film The Exodus that illustrates the lengths that people went to to escape the regime and try to get a better life for their families in Europe.

The Syrian conflict began in 2011 and although we are aware through news reports that many thousands have fled to other parts of Europe, many have stayed behind in Syria whether in the cities or in camps outside the cities.  The devastation of buildings is immense and some of them were thousands of years old, part of all of our heritage and irreplaceable.  I had not realized how many people have died over there – nearly half a million – or how many have been displaced – millions rather than thousands.

Syria: Story of a Conflict was a film installation that had clips of news footage that tried to tell both sides of the story as well as the history.  Around the walls were photographs of Syrian people and their stories.

A Lens on Syria was a more direct approach to the issue with large vividly coloured images of the devastating effect that the conflict has had on the cities in Syria, particularly Homs.  I admit that I have a tentative personal connection here in that my uncle is Syrian and is from Homs.  His family were flour millers and owned a mill that provided income and a living for them.  He left the family business to live in Beirut in Lebanon with my aunt, but had to leave there in the 1970s through conflict, ending up in Canada where they still live.  I was interested to see if seeing photographs of the aftereffects of the conflict would open my eye, understand better or simply be an exercise in looking at clear photographs.

I have seen other photographs of some of the destruction (see 3) but this was also concerned with the effect on the people and how they still go about their lives amid rubble and fires.  The size of the images is big enough to grab the attention but not to overwhelm it.  They are vivid in colour which is to be expected given that they are about war and destruction, but also because the skies he shoots under are sunset, twilight or sunrise so adds a softer quality to them.  There is a pathos but also a dignity of the people.  There is little of the sky and at times they can feel a little claustrophobic as they are in cramped areas where there is rubble, or in a prison or street, or at night.

Sergey Ponomarev

The photographs tell a story of carrying on in spite of the damage and the bombings.  My uncle’s family moved a few miles out of Homs, there is no running water and sporadic electricity but they stay because it is their home and they would prefer to stay there rather than leave altogether.  I reacted to them through the slight knowledge that I have but also because they present an alternative view of what is going on rather than the one we are always resented with through the media. In addition, they are very clear and the viewer can spend time searching the whole frame for other things and look to the horizon.

Sergey Ponomarev

The one that particularly caught my eye is of a burnt out, partially destroyed building that still  has a poster of President Assad attached to it.  The pale orange sky of sunrise emphasises the pale concrete of the building and on closer inspection, it is a myriad of bits of metal with the sattelite dish to the top left hand corner standing out.  There is a symmetry with two halves of the building but then one collapses downwards and draws the eye away from it.  The poster is in stark contrast to the building as though it is stamp claiming it for the President.  Maybe it is.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014, from the series ‘Assad’s Syria’ © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times


In contrast Exodus, the video is quite an emotional watch.  It has no soundtrack, just a looping slideshow of photographs taken of refugees as they travel on their way to what they believe will be a better, safer life.  There are heart wrenching images of desperate people in their thousands, walking in long columns (reminiscent of scenes of WWII when people had to leave their homes or of prisoners or, worse, of the Jews being led to their deaths), in boats, standing crying on the shore when they reach safety after trips in overloaded boats and clashes with security at borders.  The viewer is drawn in to the unfolding story while looking on from the safety of the room.

Having been to all these places, does Ponomarev think photography can change the world? “No,” he says. “We are now so overwhelmed with visual information, it’s always around us.” However, he does think his pictures might “disturb people from living in their normal, cosy lives and probably encourage them to take action”. This could be making a donation or volunteering.’ The Guardian.

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There is a sense that this is an impossible task to resolve while being amazed at the resilience of the human spirit, but wondering how long it can keep going. I also felt a bit hopeless, that there is nothing that I can do to change any of it, help these people.  But maybe that is what he is aiming at in that by seeing that these are people, men woman and children who see Europe as being the place that they will be safe, that we will be spurred on to doing something even if it is only buying a blanket to keep them warm in the winter.

It was a sobering exhibition while also being one that captured my imagination and interest.







Face2Face at Torre Abbey, Torquay

From the website advertising the exhibition.

Having recently met two other OCA students that live in Torbay, we met up to look at this exhibition and talk about the works together.  Alongside the usual works of art that hang in the Abbey, there were 30 mainly photographic works on display and scattered throughout the rooms.  It made an interesting discussion as to the curating of the work, where to put them and the decisions that had been made as to why certain works were in seemingly strange locations.  This is where the interaction with other students was helpful as they offered alternative ideas to mine, and while we can’t be certain our theories were correct, it made sense when looking again at the images in question.

There were works by people I had heard of and a lot that I hadn’t but then I vaguely recognised when seeing the images.  There were very large prints and some smaller frameless prints, some on acrylic, some black and white.  It was a treasure hunt trying to track them down among the permanent collection and some were in places that made you wonder why they had put them there.  There were three colour photographs that were quite small in size, all placed close to the ceiling in a room that had very high ceilings so the viewer has to crane their necks to be able to see them.  They were placed in a dining room decorated in late 19th century style while the images were modern – Sue Tilley posing in Lucien Freud’s Studio by Bruce Bernard being one of them.

At a time when I am studying about portraits and different ways of setting them up, this exhibition drew on ideas of self-portrait in work by Sarah Lucas and the family members by Richard Billingham caught seemingly unaware of the photographer, to Chris Killip and his black and white portraits of everyday work and people.  There were also some portraits of punks by Steve Johnston that I really liked as to me they set a time and place that could only be the late 1970s, early 1980s with the clothing hair and makeup.  We had a discussion about how strongly we could identify the period and how shocking the look was at the time, and how it still appears quite radical today in an era of highly sexualised and ‘one look’ that many young people adopt.  In one image of two girls, one was wearing fishnet tights and a jacket with spiky black hair and the harsh heavy makeup of the era.  There was a political message in the approach that I remember as being a way of sticking up two fingers to the establishment, it was anti-establishment, not-conforming to previous ideals and a way of shocking the older generation.  In another, a young man wears a swastika armband that would have been definitely something offensive to the generation that had fought in WWII, and even today appears as something that has connotations of something evil.  Interestingly, this image was in the same setting as another one called Our limit is that of the desire and imagination of the human mind (1996) by Michael Landy.  It is of a refuse worker dressed totally in red with black boots picking up paper people: “It was the artist’s response to the then government’s approach to the homeless and jobless in society, but coincided also with the wide emergence of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the context of the war in the Balkans”. (from the accompanying bio on the wall)  Our thoughts were that the colouring in the photograph of red suit, black boots on a white background had connotations of the swastika colouring as well as having general suggestions that that colouring often suggests power.  The link between the actions of the Nazis in 1940s Germany and those of the Bosnians in the Balkans could also be read into the pairing of these two.  It’s possible that we overthought the whole thing but it was interesting just to discuss ideas.

Sarah Lucas’s work was not known to me but I was intrigued by it.  They were spread throughout the exhibition but the one that struck me most was Fighting Fire with Fire (1996) in which she has a defiant look that is very masculine as she smokes a cigarette.  However, she claims “she had one clear idea for this work, which was ‘to get a long ash’, rather than trying to look ‘defiant’ she wanted to convey a more natural look.”  It is an interesting take on the gaze that looks straight at the camera.  I found it amusing that her aim was to smoke the cigarette to a long ash and reminded me of my childhood where my friend’s mum used to permanently have a long ash on her cigarette. It explained the look that could be seen as defiant when maybe she was just concentrating really hard.  Two of her other works from this series were also on display: Eating a Banana (1990) and Human Toilet Revisited (1998).  These are two different images with the first being another stare at the camera in tough stance and the latter being a more unguarded moment, relaxed, contemplative in nature.  She appears to be thinking while sitting on the toilet seat lid in an unglamorous location of the bathroom.  She is an interesting artist and I will be looking more at her work.

There was one photograph that really caught my eye, a black and white image of a young man with tattoos on his face by Derek Ridgers.  I tried tracking it down online and it came up as a colour image which really changed it.  The black and white image had a beauty in the design of the tattoo that covered his face; the colour added a more aggressive feel to it as it was clearer that he was a skinhead.  I believe it was called Bonner, Kings Road Chelsea, 1982.

He has the barest hint of a smile and looks directly into the lens, which changes the feeling and softens it but the black and white one doesn’t show this so clearly.  The artistry of the tattoo is intricate and he has ‘skinhead‘ tattooed on his neck yet wears a paisley patterned scarf round his neck which I think is more allied with the Mods movement.  Maybe that is the point of punk, to take bits and pieces from other places and build it into a new identity and meaning.

Overall it was a good look at different styles of portraits and by different artists.  It helped having other students to talk to about the work and to make connections about what we like or dislike in photography. The siting of the images was a bit strange, being mixed in with paintings from other eras rather than the traditional gathering of all images in one place on white walls and subdued lighting.  It worked in one way but missed on another as it was quite hard to find them.  It also made a really nice change not having to fork out for the train fare to London to see it.




Seeing Exhibitions

Exhibitions of photography generally don’t come to the south west and so I need to travel to catch big well known exhibitions, something that has not been possible in the past.  Back in February I went to The Radical Eye at Tate Modern in London as well as the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition at the same place.  I was finishing off my work for Context and Narrative, and it was a welcome change from seeing images in books or on television. Radical Eye had been open for some time and it was fairly quiet so there was plenty of time and space to consider the exhibits there.  Dorothea Lange was on show and having spent some time studying her in previous modules, it was interesting to see the photograph up close.  I also liked the portraits by Irving Penn and Edward Steichen, and the work of Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) and Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971).  All in black and white, there was pathos and beauty in the work that stood out.   Overall though, I felt that I couldn’t really connect with the way that it was presented, low tones and subdued lighting were overwhelming but I understand the reason for the lights in order to preserve the prints.

The Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition was completely different in terms of light, space, framing, hanging and approach.  The first time that I saw it was a few days after it had opened and it was busy with lots of people of all ages packing the rooms.  In contrast to the hushed reverence of The Radical Eye, there was a lot of chatter and conversation as people looked at the exhibits and discussed what they were seeing.  I enjoyed wandering around and looking at the images, from huge prints hanging from bulldog clips to tiny prints apparently blu-tacked onto the wall.   Photography was allowed in these rooms and I snapped some of the ones that appealed to me most with my phone camera, more of an aid to memory than to put on a wall or in an album.  The one below caught my eye because of the striking colours of the orange umbrella against the muddy brown water and bright green lily leaves.  This image was, I would think, a 6×4 print as it was tiny on the huge wall and dwarfed by other images with there was a lot of space around it.

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Leaf for Architects, (2013). Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

I was interested by the tables of information in the middle rooms with the juxtaposition of printed sheets, sheets torn out of newspapers or printed out, and the almost confusing linkage of the items together.  The ‘fake news’ stuff was really interesting and Tillmans commenting on the human psyche through this made me think more about the theme.

I revisited again last week, just before it closed, and had another look at the work this time without the crowds and noise.  It changed the feel of the exhibition for me as though somehow it is meant to be viewed surrounded by lots of people in order to make it more relevant.  This time, I also read the accompanying booklet which is something I often don’t do as I prefer to look first and think about it afterwards, or get an explanation for something in particular.  I was interested in seeing whether the same images stood out for me as last time, given that I had more time and space to see them and I think that I consciously looked for a couple.  The image of the car below, Fespa Car (2012) was one of the large prints, and I was drawn to it because of the colours – red, yellow, orange – as well as the black of the plastic. There is movement in the background of it and gives more of a sense of where the car is (at an exhibition, in a showroom?).  This time, I was more drawn to the Headlight (2012) but I believe it’s probably because it was referred to in the booklet.  The up close and personal view of the light was predatory, like a large eye watching you, especially with the red paintwork like a warning.

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    Fespa Car (2012) Wolfgang Tillmans
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Headlight (2012) Wolfgang Tillmans

However, I still liked the very large prints of abstract things – the dirt from the printer rollers on exposed paper, the folds of paper, and the sky images at the very end of the exhibition.  The printer ones tied in with the images of his office, and printer in pieces and touches on the production of photographs in that they go from something he sees to something printed on paper, but it can be changed by dirty rollers, incorrect settings and so on.

“What exactly are photographs? That’s a question that preoccupies David Hockney and there are signs that it intrigues Tillmans too. The darkroom equipment and materials can be used to do almost anything.”(  This rings true because I went to the Hockney exhibition in April and was intrigued by his paintings and especially the montages of multiple images of the same thing to make up a whole that can be seen when you stand further away.  Usually I want to get closer to see parts of the whole but in this instance I stood back to get the overall picture before getting really close and seeing what he had captured in each individual one.

So that’s my take on two exhibitions.  I have been fortunate enough to see the David Hockney exhibition at the Tate Britain, Giacometti at Tate Modern, Wolfgang Tillmans twice at Tate Modern, The Radical Eye at Tate Modern and the Pink Floyd “Their Mortal Remains” at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Quite different but all interesting in their own rights.