Monday, 2 March 2009

The G-man cometh.

Pronouncing Geert Van Kesteren's name is damn near impossible unless you have bad chest infection or a forty-a-day Capstan habit! For this reason he quickly became known as "the G-Man" to the US soldiers he was embedded with in Iraq over the course of 2003/4.

But a tricky name is not the only challenge that Geert presents us. He is a formidable photographer sure, but then so many are. 

The problem with Geert is that he's a believer.

Last week saw Host Gallery packed to bursting point for an evening of discussion between Paul Lowe and Geert about his two books Why Mister, Why? and Baghdad Calling. The former was critically acclaimed for its visceral, down to earth portrayal of the time after Saddam's fall seen from a wide variety of viewpoints. Printed bilingually (English/Arabic) it set out to be the antithesis of "Coffee Table Books" printed on paper that had the feel of newsprint with feathered edges. One of the interesting features was that many of the double page pictures had the bilingual text bound into the middle of the spread. This meant that to see the full picture one had to hold the text paged vertically rather like and old-fashioned stereograph. This physical interaction with the book was part of what made it so powerful. As a reader, you had to put your own effort into its appreciation and the pictures and text stayed with you for that reason.

Conditions in Iraq deteriorated in 2005 to the point where Geert felt he could no longer cover the story in a balanced and equitable fashion without getting killed. He turned his attention to the communities of Iraqi refugees that had fled the fighting into neighbouring countries. However he soon ran into problems in documenting their lives. He observed that the pictures he took did not adequately describe the feelings of distress and displacement that his subjects felt. So much of their pain was bound up in the suffering that their relatives who remained in Iraq were enduring.

Geert said, "One of the women showed me a picture on her phone from a relative and I realised that this is what I needed to photograph but of course it was not possible."

Over the course the next two years Geert started collecting pictures of everyday life from inside Iraq taken by ordinary people, most often on their mobile phones. They range from the heart-breaking and dreadful to the upbeat even funny as they span the gamut of everyday life during the time when photojournalists were struggling to portray the realities of Iraq. 

Through them we get a glimpse of what had happened to society. The fears and anxieties born out in simple photos that were exchanged as a means of communication between friends both inside and outside the country. A picture of an empty street takes on a different significance if you learn that it was taken to inform friends and neighbours that a militia roadblock had been removed or perhaps that the road was too quiet and to avoid this route. In this way, photographs became a powerful shorthand for warnings of risk in a way that I suspect has not been seen before.

Baghdad Calling was published in late 2008 and as I sit here with my copy next to me on the desk, it's importance as a document of the unseen war in Iraq seems to grow. It has a similar construction and feel to Why Mister, Why? although most of the cell phone images lack the resolution to really hold up on a double page.

Context is everything; ordinary, even mundane images come to life when you read the significance attached by their authors. An out-of-focus street in Baghdad at night might look like a mistake until you read the caption explaining that normally during the celebration of Eid it would have been teeming with life and is now deserted; with people having to drive past out of fear.

Geert's own Photos in both books have a compelling immediacy that puts the viewer right there in front of him at the scene. Sometimes criticised by his fellow photographers for "untidy" pictures, his work reflect how the world is rather than the beautified vision of many photojournalists. Of course they are different but complimentary skills and I would not choose to forego contributions of any kind. 

But in comparison with most of his peers, Geert's pictures are the difference between cinematic violence and being in a fight, between a screen siren and a first kiss, between the world as advertised and the one that actually surrounds us.

In Baghdad Calling he has ceded all ego to the power of the story. His pictures in the book are few and printed smaller. Of course, compositionally they ring out over the other images but never diminishing the real focus. In pulling off this feat of communication he has made us re-examine the role of the much maligned (often by me!) concept of  Citizen Journalism

Ultimately what I have drawn from the book is that the Citizen Journalism can only be effective if allied to strong, rigorous editing by a trained journalist. Geert went to great lengths to establish the source, credibility and accuracy of the images he published. Sometimes he was sent pictures that had been taken by a wire-agency photographer and just passed around. In all instances he made sure that the picture would be safe to publish for subject and author. 

Additionally he went out of his way to prevent anyone shooting pictures specifically FOR the project. It is this key distinction that has given the work its veracity and ultimately made all the difference. 

Geert is challenging us to put the story's integrity ahead of our ambitions as photographers and we could do with a lot more like him in our business.

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