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Jean Baudrillard

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Teresa Cos

I Was There – Observations on “The Society of The Spectacle”

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“I Was There” is the first chapter of a long term (lifetime) project which explores western society and its obsession with success. I started by depicting the worlds of art, fashion and culture, where anxiety and struggle for success, together with the desperate need for recognition and approval are ubiquitous; where people live with the constant fear of being considered losers. The images have been taken in 2010 at Venice Architecture Biennale, Venice Film Festival, Milan and London Fashion Weeks, Frieze Art Fair in London and Paris Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC).

I chose these events because they are globalised examples of a bubble (for instance the art industry) that is on the verge of explosion. As wrote Jean Baudrillard: When one looks at the emptiness of current art, the only question is how much such a machine can continue to function in the absence of any new energy, in an atmosphere of critical disillusionment and commercial frenzy, and with all the players totally indifferent? If it can continue, how long will this illusionism last? A hundred years, two hundred? This society is like a vessel whose edges move ever wider apart, and in which the water never comes to the boil.

If one substitutes current art with current society the equation doesn’t really change, does it? And who are these indifferent players, if not us? I want to keep on exploring and understanding photographically the Hyper reality created by consumerism, where people aspirations are dangerously confused with the models of living that the society of the spectacle is constantly selling us and where need has become desire and admiration envy.

To me, it is fundamentally important to understand these social dynamics because, by creating the idea that through a selfish individualism everybody can finally reach extreme forms of wealth and success, one drastically contributes to the social and economic disparities in this world.

 

Bio

I was born and grew up in a small town called Latisana, in the North East of Italy, a one hour drive from Venice, where I ended up living for six years as an architecture student. It is thanks to architecture that I discovered photography, because it taught me to look at the world through different eyes.

After graduating in 2008, I was in the Italian team of architects and urbanists in the international table of consultation wanted by the French government to produce ideas for the future of Paris. I lived for seven months in the suburbs of the French capital, producing my first important body of work, Banlieue 08/09, that allowed me to be accepted last year onto the Photojournalism & Documentary Photography MA program at London College of Communication, where I graduated with Distinction.

I live and work in London and I am also part of the photography collective Five Eleven Ninety Nine.

 

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Teresa Cos

Collective Five Eleven Ninety Nine

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The rotating gallery features the work of an emerging photographer as well as an interview with him/her, and will change every Wednesday. The gallery is based off ‘collective curatorship’, where the photographer from week 1 chooses and interviews a photographer for week 2, week 2 chooses/interviews week 3, etc. There is only one stipulation to the process: Next weeks photographer has to be someone he/she has not had direct contact with yet. Ideally, this will take the gallery on a linked tour around the Internet, and exploring and unearthing new photographers as it goes.

This week, Tricia Lawless Murray interviews Shimpei Shirafuji.

Tricia Lawless Murray. I was recently introduced to your work through a mutual friend, Michael Tummings, who is doing a residency in Syracuse now. He didn’t preface the work with anything except that he thought you were doing interesting things and that I might like it. I noticed that you show your work from the series Thank You For Your Hospitality as an installation of prints that vary in size and placement on the wall. I too play with this way of presenting work and am interested to hear how that form of presentation works for you to get your message across and what you are trying to tap into by this sort of visual play?

Shimpei Shirafuji. I find that the conventional practice of displaying photographs uniformly and in a linear sequence over simplifies the psychological space I am constructing. Each image in the space I create represents experiences, perceptions, and preconceived notions about the US. Since I was very little I have thought of this country as representing individualism, freedom, power, wealth and leadership. To a small child who grew up in Japan in the 80’s and the 90’s, the US seemed to be the center of the world politically and culturally. In the process of developing my own identity as a Japanese man while growing up, thinking about the US was inevitable. I could only think about my country in relation to the US. These preconceived notions are still somewhat true and some are changing. However, these preconceived notions are as real and as important to me as my experiences and perceptions of the US. In this psychological space that I’m creating, my preconceived notions, experiences and perceptions are closely integrated together and they are somewhat undistinguishable. Each image in the series holds equal value. I do not want to imply any hierarchy in the work. The space is very subjective and fluid. My method of installation creates rhythm and movement.

TLM. I spent some time going back pages in your blog and I learned that you had come across this Anders Petersen and JH Engstrom book. I recently participated in an Insightsproject workshop that the two of them led in the Canary Islands and found them very inspiring. I am wondering how this book has entered into your thought process and your work?

SS. I’m interested in how a subjective view can be more real than a conventional documentary approach to understanding people or places. I think Engstrom and Petersen both take a very subjective approach to photographing in order to convey a sense of the place that they come from in the book. Moreover, I’m interested in collective story telling. I’m fascinated by how collective subjective views can capture something real about a place or time that conventional documentary media cannot. Since moving to the US, I’ve had countless conversations with many different people, all with unique perspectives. These people come from various regions and different classes. Many of them conflict with each other in their opinions. I want to gather all of these people’s perspectives, stories, and lifestyles in my work while simultaneously inserting my own viewpoints and perspectives. I want to photograph not only as an observer, but also as a participant. It is very difficult to incorporate all these perspectives in the photos, but I want to push my work in that direction now. I’m planning to start by spending more time with certain groups of people such as elderly people in rural regions and teenagers in metropolitan cities and inserting myself into those lifestyles and stories. I think that this collective viewpoint that I strive for adds a sense of complexity and fluidity to the photographs that the traditional documentary style of photography often lacks.

TLM. I was a bit obsessed with JH Engstrom’s work and loved the way he placed really raw black and white photos next to color ones. I am wondering how mixing things up like this works for you and whether it tends to accentuate one work over another?

SS. I like how he mixes black and white photos with colored ones, too. I think of this project, Thank you for your hospitality, as a conversation with the artists that I’ve learned a visual language from. I am using the photographic language that past masters such as Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston and others have developed. By adopting this photographic language, I was enabled to recognize what my America was. Through this language, I learned that certain things look better in B&W or color.  Different tones of black and white images and various color palettes of colored images that I mix up in the series are references to different photographs of the past. They work as sort of a vocabulary along with the motifs that I photograph such as cars, storefronts etc. They remind me of how America was previously seen and where we are standing on the extension of time.

TLM. I know that the work of Daido Moriyama has influenced you. I wonder if you could speak to what specifically in his process intrigues you and whether not a bit of the stalking quality of Calle’s work might be part of this process?

SS. I was drawn to Moriyama’s process of wandering around and collecting a large amount of images. It was very helpful for me learn the way he shoots reflectively and subconsciously, analyzing the collected images later. It is a process of getting lost in the place and understanding the situation. My obsession and fascination with America do have somewhat of a stalking quality. I’m not following a particular person but I am stalking America to find out what it is.

TLM. I find Moriyama’s work to be fairly erotic and am drawn to that element in his work. Some of your photographs have that sensibility although they aren’t quite as aggressive. I’m wondering if you feel as though you have to play things safe for now as you find your way in this culture that has fascinated and welcomed you? I mention this because I see a few moments that push towards charged situations, but feel as though you temper them.

SS. I was definitely drawn to the gritty expressionism of his photographs. I liked the sense of violence and eroticism I found in his images of downtown Tokyo. These qualities actually matched the preconceived notions about America that I had. Therefore, the earlier stage of my project had a lot of Moriyama-like photographs. The gritty, high-contrast, grainy expression matched my preconceived notions of sexy and dangerous America. However, as I spent more time in the states, I found myself habitually emulating Moriyama’s style without thinking too deeply about how that aesthetic was working to convey my vision of America. I felt a gap between my perceptions of everyday life and the images I was making. The solution I found to fill this gap was to use more muted and subtle symbolism, which is emphasized or played up by the installation. To be honest with you, I constantly think of ways not to exploit people while I’m photographing them. The more muted tone I adopted in my work is much less aggressive than Moriyama’s work, but I see it as a more accurate and honest representation of my perceptions of the US, at least for now.

TLM. According to your blog, another suggestion that was offered to you was to look into book done with imagery by Sophie Calle and text by Jean Baudrillard. While I haven’t read the book, from what I can tell, it discusses the role of the flaneur and in this case the person is Sophie Calle. Historically the flaneur was a Parisian bourgeois man who was able to transgress all levels of society. I am wondering how your identity as a Japanese male foreigner wandering through America with a camera relates to this figure of the flaneur? Do you perceive yourself as someone who is secretly “stalking” certain people like Calle did?

SS. My obsession and fascination with America might have a stalker quality to it, but I see myself as a flaneur rather than as a stalker in my process. My personal history and my identity as a Japanese male who was born in the early 80’s has a lot to do with my obsession and fascination with America. However, speaking to the contents of the project, I am aiming to be just a person crossing over different levels of society. Although I am interested in subjective vision, who I am is less significant than I expected for this project. I take a more neutral position as a photographer in this project. I can step in and out of different levels of society, and because of this, I’m not a typical outsider photographing America. I’m a foreigner but I have been in the US for a long time. By taking a more neutral position as a photographer, my vision becomes looser, more complex and less judgmental. Of course, I acknowledge that I cannot totally erase myself from the project, (my preconceived notions about America remain consciously and subconsciously) but I want to loosen up the borderline between me and other people. I want to mix myself up with the things and stories I collect while I’m walking. My interest in collective subjective vision that I mentioned with Petersen and Engstrom’s book speaks to this desire of blurring the lines between individuals. It is important for me to keep things open. I walk around to increase the chance of something revealing itself to me but I do not go out to look for certain things. I would say that this is more the attitude of a flaneur than a stalker.

TLM. I understand that Robert Frank’s The Americans is a source of inspiration and that much like him, you are a foreigner doing a project on America. How has his understanding of Americans influenced your own? Are there specific images of his that you find yourself remaking? Frank’s work was done over fifty years ago. How might you differentiate your project from his?

SS. Stylistically, Frank is the one who influenced my work the most. His view of America was much darker, harsher, sadder and more judgmental than mine. It was more focused and confined. I’m more interested in multiplicity and complexity, not only the multiplicity and complexity of America, but also of the subjective viewpoint. Through my experiences in this country, I have found conflicts in interests, opinions and lifestyles. I want to include all these different perspectives in my work. For example, there are people who hold anti-militaristic sentiments and participate in protests against wars both nationally and internationally. On the other hand, there are families whose lifestyle and history is built around being in the military. For example, to me, the photograph of the woman in a military uniform in the back of a car speaks to the ideas of power, authority, individualism, masculinity vs. femininity, and public vs. private spheres. For this image, I’m more of a participant in the situation than an observer. I’m close to her family and friends and hold the viewpoint of a friend and participant rather than a foreigner or outsider. My work is subjective and I like to keep it open enough that I do not become judgmental. I’m not criticizing America, but studying it.

I get criticism for being open and loose but I do not believe in claiming absolute truth. Too many people tend to favor concrete statements but I think that is too simplistic. It is easy to take photographs of postindustrial cities saying that America is collapsing. However, the reality is that there are areas like that and there are areas that are not like that.  If I just photographed shutdown car factories that would be a false representation of America and my perception of it. For me, open research is more honest than criticism. I believe that it may not be obvious at first glance, but there are certain perspectives in my work. At the very core, my perspective is somewhat in favor of the US. My effort to be open, neutral and nonjudgmental comes from my love of this country. However, while I love this country, I am not afraid to show all sides of it. The challenges of this project are to stay honest and open to my own and other people’s subjectivity and to reflect that onto photographs without falling into binaries. Frank’s view of this country was shocking to many Americans because it was opposite to how other media represented America at that time. As a person who lives and works in the 21st century, I want to create work that requires the sensibility to detect subtle atmosphere as opposed to news media trying to draw attention to certain things by in-your-face expressions or shock value. I want my audience to look more deeply into my images and look for symbolism on an intellectual level. I also want them to insert themselves into my psychological space and experience it.

In terms of remaking images of his, I have several references to the photographs that are important to me from the history of photography. For example, the photographs shot in a car showing an older man and woman driving is a direct reference to Robert Frank’s Hitchhikers leaving Blackfoot, Idaho towards Butte, Montana, 1956. It is important because it represents the vast open roads of America and the intense energy that is essential to exploring the land.

TLM. His project was done during the age of McCarthyism and paranoia about Communism infiltrating the American Psyche. Is there a political agenda underlying your project? Or do you feel as though you are merely chronicling your experience of living in America?
SS. The political world is one that revolves around binaries. I see a lot of political work as being very one-sided in order to push a specific agenda. This seems somewhat dishonest. I have no agenda other than to convey how America looks and feels at this point in history. I want my project to reflect the atmosphere of contemporary America, and only in this sense can it be considered political. I find symbolism within everyday scenes and emphasize certain issues about America through the installation of my images. For example, the image of a photograph of an employer of the month juxtaposed with a John Wayne cutout speaks to the idea of the death of the American Dream and issues of migrant workers. Also, the image of a brick wall collapsing represents the US’s decline in the international arena and the financial collapse. I try not to portray these issues in a positive or negative light. I show them because they are real issues in America today, not because I have a certain opinion about them that I want to push on others. I do not scream these things out like the news media does. I want my audience to see the photographs as representations of the atmosphere of the time, and view them as an honest portrayal of my America shown though my perceptions and experiences of this country.

TLM. How might you describe your journey of photographing American culture? What images have the most elaborate or memorable back-stories for you?

SS. My journey is like collecting fragments of stories. These fragments are everywhere if you look carefully enough. The quality of America that motivates my travels and enables this project is the openness of the people and the land. I’m really grateful to people who share their beliefs, lifestyles and personal stories with me. Maybe it’s because I’m a foreigner and I’m not judgmental, but I find that people are often open to share things with me. It is the same with the landscape. Most of the time no one really cares about me walking around observing and photographing. The picture of the snake in particular represents how things become available to me. As I walked into a bar one day, a young boy turned around and asked if I wanted to see his snake and he showed it to me. The way he revealed this mystic creature is how America reveals itself to me when I’m photographing.

TLM. Robert Frank was quoted in Life Magazine in November of 1951 as saying that  “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” I feel as though there is a strong sense of the poetic in your work, especially because of the way you show it, and I wonder how you might describe your work as a form or visual poetry?

SS. I really like the quote from Frank. I think of my work as visual poetry. There are different threads that connect images on different levels and I definitely want my audience to feel the way Frank wanted them to. My audience is encouraged to confine themselves in the space of the installation to draw different connections at various levels. The way of presentation definitely suggests a more free form of reading and encourages the audience to discover that.

TLM. How do you decide what image follows another and does the placement of it on top of or below have significance for you?

SS. I go back and forth with visual play and play with meanings. First, I make groups of images by meanings, tones and subject matter. Then I shuffle the images around to see how meanings can be emphasized or changed by different arrangements. It is somewhat similar to doing crossword puzzles. Referring to the quote from Frank that you mention above, I want my audience to find different kinds of threads going through the installation. I want my audience to see how meanings change and feel how one image leads to another visually and sinks into their hearts.

TLM. One of the most memorable photographs in your series Thank You For Your Hospitality depicts a lion mounting a bull. Do these symbols of virility and power speak to something you experience in American society?

SS. These qualities seem to be highly valued in American society and I strongly associate them with America. That object being displayed in a gas station, which is also a very masculine and American environment, was such symbolic scenery to me.
When I stopped by at this gas station, there were many taxidermy animals besides these and I was immediately drawn to them but did not stay there too long. I took a few shots there but did not quite know what to think of them. After a few shots, I just moved on to photograph something else outside of the store.  It was only after I printed small proof prints that I started thinking what the image means. This is usually the case for me when I’m photographing. At the stage of collecting images, I’m active in more subconscious level. Only at the stage of editing, I come to find what images mean and how they work.

TLM. I see a lot of representations of suburbia in your work. Do you feel as though this has been the majority of your experience while living in America?

SS. No. I have spent most of my time in urban areas in the US. The reason I am attracted to suburbia is that it feels very real to me. Suburbia is real in the sense that it depicts how picture perfect ideals visually coexist with daily compromise. I like how houses and yards are perfectly spaced out and how some kid’s toys and a lawnmower are just laying around in the yards. The picture of the leftover watermelons on the table suggest similar thing for me. I think that picture perfect ideals of happiness are as real as daily necessities or real life physical/financial limitations. This coexistence of the ideal and the real is very attractive to me.

TLM. Have you considered how you might put this work together as a book or have you considered doing an Internet-based project that can in some way mirror the installation?

SS. I’m considering both an online presentation and a book presentation. It is very appealing that I can change sizes and move images around on the computer. Also, a computer-based presentation will allow me to insert short moving images (short video footage) along with stills. In terms of a book, I’m interested in doing an accordion book so that the viewer can focus on each image but spread a few pages out to explore the visual space in a different way.

TLM. Do you feel as though this project is complete? Or do you feel as though it could go on forever?

SS. It is definitely an ongoing project. I’d like to diversify the areas of society I’m photographing. The project could go on forever.

TLM. What is next on the horizon? Did some of the work lead you in another direction? If so, which works or experiences opened this path up for you?

SS. I’d like to keep going with this project, but at a same time, I’m interested in doing a project about immigration. I’m particularly interested in stories and experiences of Generation 1.5. The term Generation 1.5 refers to immigrants who were born in a foreign land and immigrated between the ages of 8-15. These people were presumably old enough to learn the language and customs of their motherland before being forced to adapt to the country they immigrated to. While traveling, I encounter many immigrants and I have already listened to many of their stories. It is very interesting to see how parents are different from their children. The stories of Generation 1.5 fascinate me and are the basis of my next project.

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