Week 4 – Contextualising Work

Since the beginning of the MA course, the Cromarty Cohort has had a very active and useful WhatsApp group that has been a great source of support and discussion.  I have learned perhaps as much from the interactions with my cohort as I have from the formal coursework.  It has been a place of inspiration, mutual support, friendship and quite often sanity preserving humour.  I truly treasure these relationships.

Quite often, we have had extraordinary debates on wide ranging topics and just as often we lean on each other for advice, critique and the knowledge that comes with experience.  I have not been particularly good yet at critiquing my own work and I attribute that in part to not yet being entirely certain of what I want to do.  But the course, my independent reading, and the interactions with my peers has given me a new base of knowledge, a new vocabulary, and a basis for applying the critical thinking skills honed over 40 + years of working to begin better contextualising photographic work.

What follows is a discussion with Mick Yates about his work currently underway in Cambodia.  We had talked a length before the trip about his goals and concerns.  After his second day of shooting he posted a couple of photos from the day’s work on our WhatsApp forum.  With Mick’s permission I am posting the main bits of our ‘conversation’ which proved useful for us both I think.  I find it easier to have this discussion about someone else’s work than my own, but I know when it is time to talk about mine, I know my cohort will be there for me.  In the meantime, it was enlightening to talk about Mick’s challenges all the while realising I needed to be thinking, not the same things, but in the same way.

At the very outset there were a few comments by others in the cohort, and there were a few asides that were not directly relevant to the thread that have been edited to enhance clarity.  What follows though is the main conversation between Mick and me in its entirety.   The photographs are all Mick’s work taken with an infrared camera today in Cambodia.

[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: May they rest peacefully

Yates 2019 IR_01
Mick Yates Feb 2019

[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Cheoung Ek, the Killing Fields

Yates 2019 IR_02
Mick Yates Feb 2019

[06:42, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Too pretty?

[08:42, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It depends on whether your story is about the genocide or really about the people who survived it and what Cambodia is today.  Are the Killing Fields sources of hope that horror can be overcome, or are they an ever present pall of death that no one in Cambodia can ever escape? These may not be the right questions, and they are certainly not the only questions, but I believe they may be the kind of questions you need to be asking before you exhaust yourself physically and emotionally taking photos that you that either do not meet your needs or actually work against them.

[08:43, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Very fair

[08:44, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think it does depend on the audience. In Cambodia, it must be about hope. But in the West, whilst it is hope, it’s also fundamental education, with all the horror that entails

[08:54, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It is hard to see horror in any of the landscapes you have taken.  Nature has taken it back, covered it up and erased it from the possibility of discovery by anyone who hasn’t been through what happened there.  There is horror inn the museums.  You would perhaps have to go Jo Hedwig Teeuwisseor or Sergey Larenkov to convey what happened there to Western audiences

[08:54, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I don’t know them – will look. Thanks

[08:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I really don’t like the Museum stuff

Yates 2019 IR_03
Mick Yates Feb 2019

[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Boring ..

[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Nature never gave it up so reclaiming is easy. Humans are just a temporary thing

[08:57, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Agree and it has all been seen before.  Larenkov and Teeuwisseor both did Ghosts of WWII series superimposing old images on modern scenes to show what happened there

[08:57, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Though interesting how IR takes out shades and details

[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think there may be more horror in the negatives

[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The problem of aftermath

[09:07, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Even Sophie Ristelhueber, who I love and who ‘invented’ aftermath is almost forensic. No emotion

[09:11, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Yes, and that begs the question, where is Cambodia now, and where does what happened factor into today.  Every day people who were there are dying.  More and more of the population knows of it only second hand.  Is the point to get past it or is the point to hang on to it or is the point that there are forces that want to shackle the younger generations to their inescapable past? Is there something in the Cambodian psyche that suggests this could happen again at any moment or is this something that people think can never happen again?  Is there a shift in mindset between Sarath’s generation and his grandchildren’s? Is this an aftermath story that is far enough removed from the event that the horror can be treated lightly, almost in passing as you focus on Cambodia today, or are there dark forces still at work to whom the past is closely tied that are getting in the way of the current generations progress and escape from the past?  So many questions, but all key to framing the story and guiding your shooting.

[09:11, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: All good Qs, Ash. Very good

[09:14, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I guess a similar logic might apply to the Holocaust. Maybe we should all just forget it?

[09:27, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: I did not mean to suggest the past should be forgotten, but in fact many have.  It begs the question of where is the balance between remembering the past and how it affected where we are today and dwelling in it? Does that balance shift over time?   I am not naïve enough to think genocide can’t happen again, but I would like also to think that it couldn’t go on for the length of time the Nazis did without the world knowing and reacting.

[09:28, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Ironically, as I have discovered in reading, the world actually did know, but the UK and US governments chose not to believe the Soviet/Polish propaganda. Another story

[09:29, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Your point stands, though

[09:30, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: One of the Cambodian challenges is that there was no ‘other’ so it was like the Chinese Cultural Revolution

[09:31, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Self-Genocide in fact

[09:35, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And I can’t imagine that isn’t a bit frightening at least to the older folk who experienced it.  The thought that your neighbour was involved in slaughtering thousands for no good reason.  Zealots and ideologues are scary people.  And that undercurrent is resurfacing in many places in the world.  Does this suggest a cautionary tale?  Does the current flavour of KR harbour any allusions of the past?

[09:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Agree. The vast majority just want to move on. But as I have discovered time and again, a simple conversation leads to all kinds of memories and questions. Every day I am here

[09:38, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Maybe I am the one that needs to let this go

[09:43, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is there an element of outsider gaze tied to your history that affects your current perceptions and has the fact that you had a wee break from the heavy involvement meant that you missed a subtle shift in where Cambodia is today compared to say 15 years ago?  Not meant to be in any way disrespectful, just a question.

[09:48, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: It’s a great question. I think that when we started this, 20 years ago, there was def an outsider gaze. I mean, we paid for schools that the country couldn’t afford. Imperial, what? But we never saw it that way ofc. We did try to learn and be part of the whole, though it was hard.

Now, I find myself deeper. When the people I am working with no longer know all the answers – and in fact find new things because of this activity, it’s become even more personal.

Is there a shift here? Sadly, no. This is all buried and has been for a long time. The closest parallel is China I think

[09:52, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is that parallel to China in some way an angle from which to approach the story?  And if so, why does that similarity exist? Is it political, deeper cultural similarities, etc?  Sorry if I am droning on too long.  I am sure you must be exhausted, and my day is only beginning.  Lots to do before I get on a plane Monday morning.

[09:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The parallel is the Cultural Revolution – The KR executed it on steroids. The disconnect is that Deng Xiaoping saw that prosperity for all was key – and consigned the Gang of Four to the trash can of history. Neither have really happened here, so no release

[09:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: No closure and a very uncertain future in other words

[09:59, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And that perhaps is the heart of the story and how today is affected by the past. That comparison to China may be useful as a foil to show how Cambodia has become mired.

[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Well, yes, though this is an MA not a PhD

[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Not making light of your comment – it’s totally right

[10:37, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And it is a practical degree not a dissertation project.

[10:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Also true

 

Thank you to Mick for the conversation, and for permission to post it and his work to my CRJ.  This is merely one example in a year’s worth of great conversations, debates, and discussion between us that has made my experience on the MA all the richer.

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