Photographic interpolation of projected 16mm film, “Ác-mộng Mười Năm, 1954–1964” (Nightmare Ten Years Long, 1954–1964), Vietnam. Ivan Sigal, 2019.

Photographic interpolation of projected 16mm film, “Ác-mộng Mười Năm, 1954–1964” (Nightmare Ten Years Long, 1954–1964), Vietnam. Ivan Sigal, 2019.

This fall, Philadelphia’s Slought Foundation — an organization dedicated to engaging publics in dialogue about cultural and political change — hosted The Potemkin Project, an exhibition exploring the “falsification of reality in media and new frameworks for civic integrity.” In conjunction with the show, Slought brought Sam Gregory and me together for a gallery talk, “Weapons of Perception,” on November 1, 2019.

Slought had invited me to organize and curate the show, and also show images and films from my stint as Kluge Fellow in Digital Studies at the Library of Congress. This series, titled “Into The Fold Of The True,” features mixed media montage, collage, video, and code-based installation, composed from rephotographed and manipulated war propaganda taken from film and photography collections at the Library of Congress and other museum collections of war and conflict.

Gregory, the Program Director of WITNESS, exhibited materials from his human rights organization’s research into synthetic media and deepfakes. An expert on new forms of misinformation and disinformation as well as innovations in preserving trust, authenticity, and evidence, Gregory leads WITNESS’ global activities — in coordination with technical researchers, policy-makers, companies, media organizations, journalists and civic activists — aimed at building better preparedness for deepfakes.

This post was originally posted on Immerse, a  platform for creative discussion of emerging nonfiction storytelling, hosted by the MIT Open Documentary Lab and the Fledging Fund.

Below, we present our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

SIGAL: I’ve been interested for many years in the question of how we represent violence. In 1996, I was a documentary photographer based in Russia, and I ended up photographing the Chechen war in Grozny. Over the next 20 years, as I covered and studied violent conflict and worked in news media, I noticed that editors often seek to use images familiar to their viewers. They seek images that respond to specific tropes that they had already predefined as part of their editorial policy. If you made images or suggested stories or narratives that didn’t fit within those preconceived ideas, they tended not to make it into the media.

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30 October 2019
Detail: Newsreel, Nippon News No. 1, 1940, The Captured Collections, Library of Congress.

Detail image: Newsreel, Nippon News No. 1, 1940, The Captured Collections, Library of Congress.

To accompany the exhibition The Potemkin Project, at the Slought Foundation, Sam Gregory of Witness and I are holding a discussion titled “Weapons of Perception,” on Friday, November 1, 2019, from 6-8pm. The event has been organized in partnership with the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania, and is part of Slought’s ongoing Photographies of Conflict series.

The Potemkin Project  is an exploration of the falsification of reality in media and new frameworks for civic integrity, on display at Slought through November 1, 2019. The exhibit includes Into The Fold Of The True, work which I made while a fellow at the Library of Congress, alongside installations by WITNESS, on synthetic media and deep fakes; Global Voices, on threats to online expression around the world; Bellingcat, on the online forensic investigation into the downing of MH17 over Ukraine in 2014; and projection artist Robin Bell, on the people who work in the power structures that govern us. These works and projects share a common inquiry into the many media forms that assert authority over our perceptions, and of the logic that underpins those claims. They explore how media events drive and shift real-life events, from the history of war propaganda to current obsession with disinformation; from the hype surrounding virtual reality to the effects of so-called deep fakes and synthetic media.

This event will explore the enduring fascination with images in relation to mechanisms of control, surveillance, restrictions on rights, and misinformation by governments and their agents as well as technology companies. We will focus on likely scenarios for the future, and lines of tension and conflict in the use of imaging as a means of influence, control, and creation. We will also discuss projects and ideas for retaining and expanding integrity and trustworthiness in civic life. How can we use imaging technologies ethically and creatively? How can we read images critically in an era of easy manipulation and the discrediting of authenticity? How can we retain our privacy, autonomy and rights to expression?

These Are Clear Proofs, 2019. Photographic interpolation and audio of projected 16mm films, “Ufa-ton-woche No. 204,” August 1, 1934, “In New York, the 7th infantry regiment practices with tear gas bombs and machine guns against Communist strikes,” and “Ufa-ton-woche No. 195,” May 30, 1934, “25,000 German-Americans protest against the boycott of German goods: the enormous rally in Madison Square Garden in New York.” Video Installation, Slought Gallery, 2019, Philadelphia PA.

These Are Clear Proofs, 2019. Photographic interpolation and audio of projected 16mm films, “Ufa-ton-woche No. 204,” August 1, 1934, “In New York, the 7th infantry regiment practices with tear gas bombs and machine guns against Communist strikes,” and “Ufa-ton-woche No. 195,” May 30, 1934, “25,000 German-Americans protest against the boycott of German goods: the enormous rally in Madison Square Garden in New York.” Video Installation, Slought Gallery, 2019, Philadelphia PA.

The Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, one of the sites of coordinated bombings that took place in the country on April 21. Photo by AKS.9955 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, one of the sites of coordinated bombings that took place in the country on April 21. Photo by AKS.9955 via Wikimedia Commons.

As the tragedy surrounding attacks on churches and hotels unfolded in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the Sri Lankan government took the unusual step of preemptively blocking a range of social media sites.

The president’s office announced a block of Facebook and Instagram, reasoning that they could be used to spread misinformation. Internet censorship research group Netblocks reported evidence that WhatsApp, YouTube, Viber, Snapchat and Messenger were down as well.

Shutdowns like this are a clear violation of international rights to free expression and access to information. The protection of these rights is especially important in emergency situations, where people may need to call for help or communicate with family and friends to ensure their safety. While internet shutdowns are increasingly used as a tactic by governments to control online expression, pre-emptive shutdowns are quite rare. For instance, Bangladesh justified a block of Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp in 2016 as as a public security measure.

 

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Into the Fold of the True is the working title for investigations into archives of war and conflict at the Library of Congress, where I’ve been a fellow in digital studies in 2017-2018. This talk in October 2018 at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab is my first public discussion of the initial research and working method, with initial images and a prototype digital installation, and a conversation into the use of archives as material for creative expression.

Profile pictures from a large network of pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

Profile pictures from a large network of pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

With the F.B.I. indictment of 13 Russians for interfering in 2016 United States presidential elections, Global Voices revisited its extensive research into Russian online interference, underscoring the importance of open-source data and research to understand its impact.

RuNet Echo, a Global Voices initiative, began covering Russian automated bots, trolls and paid bloggers seeking to influence online news, conversations, and political campaigns as early as 2011. RuNet Echo’s main purpose is to “expand and deepen understanding of the Russian Internet (RuNet) and related online communities.”

GV was the first to publish evidence of the existence of networked trolls and bot farms operating in a coordinated fashion to distort public discourse, setting the frame for much of the reporting that followed.

Through the research of Lawrence Alexander, Global Voices was the first to demonstrate, using open source tools like NodeXL and Gephi, that specific bot networks existed on Twitter linked to the Russian troll farm run by the Internet Research Agency (I.R.A.) operating in a coordinated fashion to and from a specific location, and tied to specific accounts to disrupt and influence online discourse.

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16 August 2017

Dear Anton,

Whether we are in amusement parks visiting imaginary cities and castles, or in the museums and gardens that commemorate those who died in war, the carriage of our bodies is the same. We stroll, we turn and gaze, we sit and watch films or explore interactive displays, we reflect on arrangements of stone and metal, statues of men on horseback, or flowers and trees. We watch each other, confused about how we should feel, and what we know.

I’ve been thinking about your repeated expressions of guilt, of feelings of helplessness and frivolity while others suffer. This reaction is understandable, yet it’s occurred to me that something else is at play. There is the guilt of survival, which memorials, parks, and even preserved concentration camps evoke. But this guilt means not only “I lived while you died” but “I experienced your death as a spectator, a visitor,” and felt the distance between the loss we knew and its public remembrance.

While in Hiroshima a few months ago I learned about the hibakujumoku, the survivor trees that withstood the nuclear blast: weeping willow, black locust, oleander, fig, palm, gingko, and others. I’ve long been fascinated by the gingkos on the street where I live, both for their bright yellow autumn foliage, and for the perspective they offer, back 190 million years, a living fossil unchanged since prehistoric time. Perhaps they offer us another way to confront our losses – not as figures looking back and contemplating the wreckage of the past, but as survivors growing out of it. Damaged, resilient, and turning towards the sun.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

A few nights ago I was on a ferry, crossing a shallow sound below a sky set with stars. The ferry navigated a narrow channel between sandbars and small islands, its way marked by red and green buoys, and lit by a spotlight on its roof to identify upcoming landmarks. It was nearly empty and the wide metal deck vibrated to the rhythm of the big diesel motor in the hull, and sometimes the whole boat shuddered as we turned into the current. The night was calm, and the water’s surface was disturbed only by our passage.

For the past decade I’ve had possession of an oil painting of what I’ve come to think of as a night battle at sea. It was made by a German expressionist who once had modest fame and was a family friend. The painting is extraordinarily theatrical, capturing physical and emotional tension through slashing diagonal lines, starbursts and aggressively applied strokes of white paint over a black field. At the same time, it’s a subtle and complex composition. Pockets of calm exist on its margins, and finely drawn details of what I take to be the path of burning shrapnel, telecommunications lines and radar towers and space-age flying spheres.

Under the monochrome surface is a base of red, yellow and blue pigment, and with close analysis it seems that there might be a second, colorful image obscured by the battle scene. I sometimes wonder if the artist completed a first work, and then concealed it with another, darker and more violent. Unfortunately I’m unable to ask him, as he took his own life when I was young, leaping off a roof in Manhattan.

On this new-moon night, the water’s surface slick with light before us, turbulent with the froth of the propeller behind, and underneath the faint sparkle of phosphorous. The painting, with its webs of power lines, its arcs of heat trailing into the distance, its roiled seas, a rocky mass that could be a jetty, and its tantalizing hints of color that suggest instead a golden beach, a crimson umbrella, and the deep, azure-blue sea.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

sigal_Jul03_2017

Dear Anton,

I’m in rural Pennsylvania, sitting by a window in a fieldstone cottage, in a hollow deep in the woods, in the precise location where my father died, seven years ago to the day. I’ve not been back here on this date since, and last night I woke wondering if there might be something to theories of seven-year cycles of life, if I’d unintentionally stayed away, and only now returned.

Looking at your photos of white marble and black granite quarries, I understand that they are images of absence. In depicting spaces of removed rock, you show voids, not remains. This is only apparent by comparison: they are the same image.

Commemorating, or moving on, and what meaning we find in objects or absences. After my father died I made a photo of his body. I don’t think I could have said why, other than that it was something I did in a blur of sorrow. Now that act feels somehow transgressive. A death mask used to be a necessary form of commemoration, a way of signaling completion by abstracting death into plaster or stone. But its modern photographic equivalent seems atavistic.

I’ve only looked at that image once, just after I took it, and I’ve never mentioned that it exists, and now it is buried under seven years of image files. Last night I began wondering where it might be and if I could stand to look at it again, and if simply knowing of its existence might be keeping open a conduit to the past, even if that opening is painful. And then I remembered Brecht’s famous line in the Threepenny Opera, “first comes the devouring, then comes the moral.” We act, sometimes without knowing, sometimes in grief, and only later give our acts meaning. And then I thought again of Plato’s story of Leontius coming upon corpses, and allowing his eyes to devour the scene, and then feeling ashamed. And I realized that we gorge upon images with the animal hunger of the undernourished. Only once we’ve eaten our fill do we ask what it is we’ve consumed.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

 

Sigal_Jun25_2017(2)

Dear Anton,

Of commemoration strategies, the Ise shrine suggests an algorithmic approach. Create a code for us to reenact and embody, in the way of the pilgrimage or the ritual. The instructions are the monument, and the artifacts they describe become symbols offering us paths to meaning.

Recently in Budapest I spent some time at the Archivum, a large collection of materials from Central Europe’s Communist era. Here commemoration takes the form of a system: organization by category, typology, geography and era to enable research, interpretation and intervention.

The core of this archive is Radio Free Europe documents, including yellowed texts of period newspaper clippings and carefully sorted reports typed on Hungarian, Czechosloviakian and Polish typewriters. Yet it is the graphic and visual materials and ephemera that make this collection unusual: black and red posters from the Polish underground; metal canisters of films from the Hungarian Interior Ministry that demonstrate how to conduct surveillance and disrupt demonstrations; color photos of mass grave exhumations in Bosnia-Herzegovina together with associated forensic artifacts; a selection of newspapers published by post-Soviet ethnic minorities such as Dagestani and Tatar; Hungarian samizdat journals and gallery proofs, together with the squeegees and silkscreen frames used to produce them.

Of all these objects, I was most drawn to the unidentified and unsorted materials. The haphazard stacks of large, beat-up, black-and-white photos of tanks entering what might be Košice, Czechoslovakia, or the many rolls of uncut, unidentified photographic prints salvaged from the main photo processing lab in Budapest in the 1980s. These rolls, kept in gray archival boxes, show unidentified people standing around campfires, sitting uncomfortably on hard sofas, or smiling in their undershirts. They show toy trucks in a yard, chickens, a blurry dog or lamb. They show clouds. They show a blue sky.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, I'm staying in a rickety long-term occupancy hotel in Montreal, a room with walls painted too many times, a stink of tobacco, and obscure violence done to the electrical outlets. These streets are filthy in the way of American cities, piles of trash, cigarette butts and a sticky residue of beer on the sidewalks. Recently I spent a week in Japan, a country of few trashcans and yet spotless public spaces. People will carry their waste with them all day rather than toss it in the street. A discipline that is perhaps born out of a willingness to internalize rules, with many self-reinforcing cues, penalties and rewards. Of the rituals in Japanese public life we can count the visit of children to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Tour leaders organize their charges, dressed in dark trousers and skirts and white shirts and red or yellow caps, in neat ranks on the plaza, or sheltered under the raised concrete shell of Kenzo Tange's famous building. The children sing mourning songs and take photos in front of the ribs of the dome of the Hall of Promotion, ground zero for the nuclear blast, which bears a plaque stating "The ruins shall be preserved forever," apparently unaware of the irony. Inside the museum, we perform venerations to objects of memory in photographic and virtual form. We crowd around images of clocks stopped at 8:15, mushroom clouds, blast shadows, and atomic wind. I spend most of my time watching an animation of the descent of Little Boy. The projection plays out upon a topography of ruin, the visitation of the bomb in long zoom, riding down into Hiroshima like Dr. Strangelove, the shattering of the world in technicolor, fading, as clouds lift, to a black and white aerial photo of a destroyed city. Many of these photos are sourced from the US military. The images of Hiroshima's destruction are a piece of victor's justice, and it seems to me that they impart seemingly contradictory lessons: both of the innocence of civilians killed, and a warning about the consequences of disobedience. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters ///

Dear Anton,

I’m staying in a rickety long-term occupancy hotel in Montreal, in a room with walls painted too many times, the stink of tobacco, and obscure violence done to the electrical outlets. These streets are filthy in the way of American cities: piles of trash, cigarette butts and a sticky residue of beer on the sidewalks.

Recently I spent a week in Japan, a country of few trashcans and yet spotless public spaces. People carry their waste with them all day rather than toss it in the street. A discipline that is perhaps born out of a willingness to internalize rules, with many self-reinforcing cues, penalties and rewards.

Of the rituals in Japanese public life we can count the visit of children to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Tour leaders organize their charges, dressed in dark trousers and skirts and white shirts and red or yellow caps, in neat ranks on the plaza, or sheltered under the raised concrete shell of Kenzo Tange’s famous building. The children sing songs of mourning and take photos in front of the ribs of the dome of the Hall of Promotion, ground zero for the nuclear blast, which bears a plaque stating “The ruins shall be preserved forever,” apparently unaware of the irony.

Inside the museum, we perform venerations to objects of memory in photographic and virtual form. We crowd around images of clocks stopped at 8:15, mushroom clouds, blast shadows, and atomic wind.

I spend most of my time watching an animation of the descent of Little Boy. The projection plays out upon a topography of ruin, the visitation of the bomb in long zoom, riding down into Hiroshima like Dr. Strangelove, the shattering of the world in technicolor, fading, as clouds lift, to a black and white aerial photo of a destroyed city.

Many of these photos are sourced from the US military. These images of Hiroshima’s destruction are a piece of victor’s justice, and it seems to me that they impart seemingly contradictory lessons: both of the innocence of civilians killed, and a warning against the consequences of disobedience.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, This past week I've been in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It's been about a decade since I was last here, and in the interim the country has concluded a nasty war against the LTTE , the Tamil independence movement, and a new, fragile reconciliation government has come into power. So naturally I've been thinking about the war, its aftermath, and inevitably how it was depicted. The images that come to mind are neither the genre war photos of soldiers discharging guns, nor the social landscape imagery of silent battlefields, such as the Roger Fenton image of the Crimean War. Instead I primarily recall satellite images, of the last remaining territory controlled by the LTTE, on the Northeast coast. Provided by the UN agency UNOSAT, for sale from commercial satellite operators, and also visible in Google Earth at lower resolution, these images show houses, schools, hospitals, roads, first intact, and then destroyed. As the war drew toward its conclusion, in May 2009, a civilian population living in Mulattivu District collected in a protected "Civilian Safety Zone." A comparison of satellite images subsequently showed intense bombing of that area, with visible craters, damaged buildings, and over 1300 grave sites. These photos are evidence of the location of shells falling, buildings targeted, populations shifted. There are extensive, detailed published analyses of these images and their meaning, pointing to possible war crimes. We typically claim to find meaning in these images for their forensic value, and their descriptive power primarily evidentiary, not aesthetic, or narrative. And yet, just as with images of bodies holding guns and moving through space, or of images of fields, forests plains and mountains that became battlefields for a time, these indistinct, degraded and often blurry depictions of the earth's surface, gridded over with lines of longitude and latitude, elaborated with arrows, demarcations, and notations, also lay claim to our imagination. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

This past week I’ve been in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It’s been about a decade since I was last here, and in the interim the country has concluded a nasty war against the LTTE — the Tamil independence movement — and a new, fragile reconciliation government has come into power. Naturally I’ve  been thinking about the war, its aftermath, and inevitably how it was depicted. But the images that come to mind are neither the genre war photos of soldiers discharging guns, nor the social landscape imagery of silent battlefields, such as the Fenton image of the Crimean War.

Instead I primarily recall satellite images of the last remaining territory controlled by the LTTE, on the Northeast coast. Provided by the UN agency UNOSAT, for sale from commercial satellite operators and also visible in Google Earth at lower resolution, these images show houses, schools, hospitals, roads, first intact and then destroyed.

As the war drew toward its conclusion in May 2009, a civilian population living in Mulattivu District collected in a protected “Civilian Safety Zone.” A comparison of satellite images subsequently showed intense bombing of that area, with visible craters, damaged buildings and over 1,300 grave sites. These photos are evidence of the location of fallen shells, targeted buildings, shifted populations. There are extensive, detailed, published analyses of these images, pointing to possible war crimes.

We typically claim to find forensic meaning in these images, and consider their descriptive power to be primarily evidentiary. And yet, just as with photos of bodies holding guns and moving through space, I find myself drawn to the aesthetic and narrative qualities of these degraded and often blurry depictions of the earth’s surface, gridded over with lines of longitude and latitude, elaborated with arrows, demarcations and notations. These fields, forests, plains and mountains that once were battlefields.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Sigal_May102017

Dear Anton,

Were we to plot on a graph a case for an ethics of the depiction of violence, we might arrive at a formula for action, and even an aesthetically pleasing image. Perhaps a cartesian chart in which each decision falls into the appropriate quadrant, based on our metadata.

We know that to create a geometry of ethics we first should settle some underlying principles. Executions once required publics for their validation, to revisit Foucault’s old stomping ground. Depictions of killing, as with the casting of death masks, was a part of the spectacle. Yet in other contexts, especially in modern war, witnessing can be a crime.

In any case, a debate about ethics doesn’t seem to touch upon the many ways images of violence work upon us. For instance, years ago in Kazakhstan a local TV station broadcast a story about a woman who had allegedly murdered her infant, and then thrown the corpse out of the window into the snow. The station chose to show a close-up of the body, bruising and blood visible, and a wire wrapped around the neck. I don’t know whether the choice to show these images was based on a conviction that the crime needed public witnesses, or simply spectacle. But I can say that the image of the infant in the snow has stayed with me for years, and it has worked on me in ways I’m still trying to understand – an undercurrent of blood and emotion that feels like a prophecy.

I also wonder at how that image oddly repeats the gestures of another, famous photo of death in the snow, of the Soviet partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, who worked behind German lines near Moscow in 1941. Zoya was captured, tortured and hung. In the image her corpse lies naked, her torso partly mutilated, the rope still around her broken neck. Zoya was one of the most famous partisans of the war, celebrated and mythologized in the USSR with songs and statues. Although the details of the story and her actual identity remain contested, this photo of brutality is bound up with and inseparable from her fame.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///
22 April 2017

Dear Anton,

I’m reminded that it is an anecdote about the witnessing of corpses upon which Plato’s definition of justice pivots. This is the famous story of Leontius coming upon bodies from a public hanging, and then arguing with himself about whether to look at that “fine spectacle.” He is torn between the desire to see, and an aversion – a rational rejection of the scene. Desire wins, he rushes to the bodies to get his fill, but at the same time calls his eyes “wretches.”

For Plato, the root of justice is in maintaining a balance between rationality, desire, and spirit. Plato wants the rational mind to lead and control desires, and for spirit to work in the service of the rational, like good soldiers serving the state. A just person is one who keeps these three forces playing their respective roles. Plato thus models justice on the ideal city, in which guardians, soldiers and craftspeople are also assigned their roles, and stick to them.

Not that I’m a Platonist – his ideal republic requires a stultifying class system, after all. What’s interesting is that for Leontius, witnessing a public execution is spectacle, a base desire, rather than a rational, moral act. Perhaps that’s because the killing was done by the state, and in Plato’s universe, that means it’s almost necessarily good. The implication, as with the story of Lot’s wife, is that witnessing a just killing is immoral, and somehow decadent. Why else would Leontius castigate his eyes as “wretches”– a term loaded with judgment.

All this is a moral thicket. Of course states assert they are primary arbiters of justice, yet we know that claim is provisional and flawed in practice. What emerges is that the question of witnessing death somehow precedes the formation of our ethics. As if our struggle with the meaning of witnessing is our struggle with the meaning of justice.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, Your story of the forced witnessing of the dead seems biblical in scope. Punishment for willed ignorance, is that what's behind the photographic impulse to depict atrocity? What do we expect will come of this - an acknowledgment that not looking is a form of complicity, or a more fundamental transformation in which the future doesn't reflect the past? Whether the punishment is looking, or for looking is all about context. I'm thinking of the parable of Lot's wife. Edith's crime is often thought to be sympathy for the ways of Sodom. But I'm drawn to an alternative exegesis, that she witnessed the "brimstone and fire" of God's attack on Sodom, and for this is punished. In this reading, even though the attack is just, or maybe because it is just, witnessing God's might is itself a crime. Perhaps this is the root justification for our contemporary military censors - the battle over whether war is ethical. A just war must not be seen; an unjust war must be. Is it that witnessing should be reserved for gods alone? By analogy, our militaries claim moral authority to determine what is just. What matters, it seems to me, is that the contemporary state seeks to control the witnessing of violence - when, how and what we may see, even as the moral codes we use to judge what's right keep shifting. Which brings us to the spectacle of the public execution, in which witnessing is meant to educate and warn. Public witnessing of executions continues to be contested ground. Some executions are now shielded from public view, as recently occurred in Oklahoma, even as moral consensus grows that they are unjust. All this to me, is deeply strange, for I think of the witnessing of death less in moral than in corporeal terms - as a physical reaction in which we foresee our own deaths. The gesture of your witnesses is precisely that: of mortification, the physical manifestation of shame. But also, a little death, in which the tissues are drained of blood, and we, like Edith, become pillars of salt. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

Your story about forced witnessing of the dead seems biblical. Punishment for willed ignorance, is that what’s behind the photographic impulse to depict atrocity? What result should we expect – acknowledgment that not looking is a form of complicity, or a more fundamental transformation in which the future doesn’t reflect the past?

Whether the punishment is looking or for looking is all about context. I’m thinking of the parable of Lot’s wife. Edith’s crime is often thought to be sympathy for the ways of Sodom. But I’m drawn to another interpretation, that she witnessed the “brimstone and fire” of God’s attack, and for this is punished.

In this reading, even though the attack is just, or maybe because it is just, witnessing God’s might is itself a crime. Perhaps this is the root justification for our contemporary military censors and the debate over whether war is ethical. A just war must not be seen; an unjust war must be.

Should witnessing be reserved for gods alone? By analogy, our militaries claim moral authority to determine what is just. What matters, it seems to me, is that the contemporary state seeks to control the witnessing of violence – when, how and what we may see, even as the moral codes we use to judge what’s right keep shifting.

Which brings us to the spectacle of the public execution, in which witnessing is meant to educate and warn. Public witnessing of executions continues to be contested ground. Now some executions are by law shielded from public view, for instance in Oklahoma, even as moral consensus grows that they are unjust.

All this to me, is deeply strange, for I think of the witnessing of death less in moral than in corporeal terms – as a physical reaction in which we sense our own deaths. The gesture of your witnesses is precisely that: of mortification, the physical manifestation of shame. But also, a little death, in which the tissues are drained of blood, and we, like Edith, become pillars of salt.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///
19 March 2017

Dear Anton, In the arena where our champions fight, everyone watching is now also bearing witness, and with a recording device. We have flipped the ratio of watchers to watched. Your photographer is no longer a solitary self astride a landscape, with all of the problematic power relations that formula invites. Instead, documenting is now evidently a social act, in a way that was once harder to see. Bearing witness: the self-assigned moral stance of the documentarian, the conflation of presence with virtue. That debate once seemed to matter. Now that seeing and documenting are nearly aligned, now that we all clamor to record, it is clear that the meaning of witnessing depends upon the context of the act. Armies watching champions, or armies watching armies. It is all the same. Tie this to cameras to map, predict and project violence: the development of sighting devices to facilitate the aim and accuracy of our weapons. What it means to see like a gun. What we mean when we say - the violence of the gaze. We feel watched, and that changes our behavior. This is the essence of surveillance, and also of force control. In such an atmosphere, witnessing can also be a form of control, or a warning: a shot across the bow. In my misremembered version of the Goliath story, the parable is all about aim and sight. About the startling accuracy of the stone's trajectory. I somehow recall Goliath was blinded by the blow, and that without sight, he is unable to fight. But no, that is the story of Ulysses and the Cyclops. Goliath was struck on the forehead, his seat of power, his third eye. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

In the arena where our champions fight, everyone watching is now also bearing witness, and with a recording device. We have flipped the ratio of watchers to watched. Your photographer is no longer a solitary self astride a landscape, with all of the problematic power relations that implies.

Instead, documenting is now evidently a social act, in a way that was once harder to see. Bearing witness: the self-assigned moral stance of the documentarian, the conflation of presence with virtue. That debate once seemed to matter. Now that seeing and documenting are nearly aligned, now that we all clamor to record, it is clear that the meaning of witnessing depends upon the context of the act.

Armies watching champions, and armies watching armies. Cameras that map, predict and project violence: the development of sighting devices to facilitate the aim and accuracy of our weapons. What it means to see like a gun. What we mean when we say – the violence of the gaze.

We feel watched, and that changes our behavior. This is the essence of surveillance, and also of force control. In such an atmosphere, witnessing can also be a form of control, or a warning: a shot across the bow.

In my misremembered version of the Goliath story, the parable is all about aim and sight, and the startling accuracy of the stone’s trajectory. I somehow recall Goliath was blinded by the blow, and that without sight, he is unable to fight. But no, that is the story of Ulysses and the Cyclops. Goliath was struck on the forehead, his seat of power, his third eye.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

This story was originally published on Global Voices.

Protesters fly a flag upside down as a signal of distress outside the offices of The Washington Post in Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. Photo: Ivan Sigal.

Protesters fly a flag upside down as a signal of distress outside the offices of The Washington Post in Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. Photo: Ivan Sigal.

In his recent manifesto, Mark Zuckerberg asserts that the response to our dysfunctional and conflict-ridden politics is to build a stronger global community based on ubiquitous interconnection. We know of course that Facebook stands to profit from this utopian vision, and we should be skeptical of the motives underlying Zuck’s position. But it’s worth taking a second look at the idea of working on underlying economic and political issues in our societies, rather than focusing on the effects of online expression—particularly in the context of the moral panic over “fake news.”

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25 February 2017

Dear Anton, I've been traveling again, and as sometimes happens, through the long hours tucked into seats on airplanes, buses and trains, or queuing in passport controls , boarding zones, and platforms, time slips and I fall into muteness and waiting. Were we on a stage, we would feel a stubborn quiet before the world, and all abstractions would seem repellent. We would be anticipating some event, yet momentarily powerless to affect it. And as with your image of boy standing before a crowd, we would break this feeling not by thinking our way through it, but first by moving - a finger, an arm raised, a step. And only later would we reflect, for thought follows motion. I've been trying to find words to respond to your last image, the form of a body uniformly lit, so that he resembles a space cut out of darkness more than something solid. I keep hearing the words "blast shadow", as if the spotlight had rendered him insubstantial. And yet you speak of him as a statue, which implies weight and mass. And I wonder what he stands in opposition to. In his frailty I suspect he is preparing to confront a goliath, or perhaps a cyclops. But in your image there is no singular giant, but instead an audience. And I am reminded that even as a contest between two champions is occurring, it is the public that stands in judgment. Perhaps it will turn out that those we think of as antagonists are simply ourselves in some other aspect, and crowds, or how we become when we join crowds, are our true adversaries. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

I’ve been traveling again, and as sometimes happens, through the long hours tucked into seats on airplanes, buses and trains, or queuing in passport controls, boarding zones and platforms, time slips and I fall into muteness and waiting.

Were we on a stage, we would feel a stubborn quiet before the world, and all abstractions would seem repellent. We would be anticipating some event, yet momentarily powerless to affect it. And as with your image of a boy standing before a crowd, we would break this feeling not by thinking our way through it, but first by moving – a finger, an arm raised, a step. And only later would we reflect, for thought follows motion.

I’ve been trying to find words to respond to your last image, the form of a body uniformly lit, such that he resembles a space cut out of darkness rather than something solid. I keep hearing “blast shadow.” And yet you speak of him as a statue, which implies weight and mass.

And I wonder what he opposes. Perhaps in his frailty he is preparing to confront a Goliath, or a cyclops. But in your image there is no singular giant, but instead an audience. And I am reminded that even as a contest between two champions is occurring, it is the public that stands in judgment. Perhaps it will turn out that those we think of as antagonists are simply ourselves in some other aspect, and crowds, or how we become when we join crowds, are our true adversaries.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

This story was originally published on Global Voices.

 Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

The residents of Washington D.C. came out of their houses and apartments last Sunday morning. They walked, biked and took buses down to Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, for a spontaneous demonstration, in tandem with other protests across the United States against Trump’s Executive Order banning entry to the U.S. for immigrants, visa holders and refugees from seven countries.

Perhaps 5,000 people, seemingly unaccustomed to protest. In a tightly-packed space between left-over fencing from the previous weekend’s Presidential inauguration, the event began with the same improvised spirit in which it was organized—through a Facebook page, then rippling across social media into the flesh-and-blood world.

In the absence of a stage or a clear leader, people in the crowd looked to each other for cues. They were less a mobilized march than a collection of individuals deciding, on the spot, how they should behave. Here were people coming out of their social media shells, out of communities defined by work or school and into a fully public civic space. There were rumors that political leaders attended, but they were not visible or audible from any of the vantages I achieved. Instead, people negotiated with others nearby, for space, for direction. And perhaps because this crowd was not united by any organizing principle other than the need to demonstrate resistance, those negotiations took place mostly in silence, with looks and nods and occasional gestures.

 Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

Perhaps they were angry, or determined, but the chants and calls of “Shame”, “No ban, no wall” and “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here” rose in restive pockets within the crowd, never reaching a volume or pitch that could be mistaken for aggression. As the crowd packed into the space from the rear, some took the initiative to announce a march along Pennsylvania Avenue, to the Trump International Hotel, and then onward to the Capitol. The jam broke, and we started moving.

 Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

28 January 2017

Dear Anton, What happens to us when we can no longer trust the curators? We know that, in our webs of perception and interpretation, we necessarily apply our own filters, and we misguide, for truths are difficult to find and slippery to hold. As curators and editors we are fallible, and we struggle to compare the visions we have to all the others we encounter. And then there is the issue of intent. While we are wise to our frailties, our failures of vision, some realize that they can benefit by manipulating others. And because each of us is granted only a peephole through which to see, we cannot clearly perceive the manipulation surrounding us. This is the situation we find ourselves in today, and it leads to the corrosion of trust of our networks of perception, and then of each other. This corrosion undermines our attempts at collective action. It is precisely this moment that leads to isolation, frustration and confusion, and that cracks communities. For even after a day such as the Women's March, in which millions peacefully disavow the rising fascism of our current authorities, the next choice will be harder. Some will opt for appeasement, which will shift the norms of acceptable behavior. Others will chose violence, and argue for its justification. Either path might lead to further restrictions, such as the shameful controls on asylum and migration we are everywhere seeing, and the criminalization of protest, and checks on the use of public space, and the pervasive surveillance of our communications networks, all of which only accelerate mistrust. Yes, we force meaning onto reality, as you say. And already, and always, those meanings shift our futures in ways wondrous, consequential, and sometimes devastating. Even as we debate and argue over whose vision will dominate, we know that no one truly is in control, and that our struggles will play out between conflicting visions for how we should live. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

What happens to us when we can no longer trust the curators? We know that, in our webs of perception and interpretation, we necessarily apply our own filters, and we mislead ourselves, for truths are difficult to find and slippery to hold. As curators and editors we are fallible, and we struggle to compare the visions we have to all the others we encounter.

And then there is the issue of intent. Even if we are wise to our frailties, our failures of vision, some find that they benefit by manipulating others. And because each of us is granted only a peephole through which to see, we cannot clearly perceive the manipulation surrounding us. This is the situation we find ourselves in today, and it leads to the corrosion of trust of our networks of perception, and then of each other.

This corrosion undermines our attempts at collective action. It is precisely this moment that leads to isolation, frustration and confusion, and that breaks communities. For even after a day such as the Women’s March, in which millions peacefully disavow the rising fascism of our current authorities, the next choice will be harder. Some will opt for appeasement, which will shift the norms of acceptable behavior. Others will chose violence, and argue for its justification. Either path might lead to further restrictions, such as the shameful controls on asylum and migration we are everywhere seeing, and the criminalization of protest, and checks on the use of public space, and the pervasive surveillance of our communications networks, all of which only accelerate mistrust.

Yes, we force meaning onto reality, as you say. And already, and always, those meanings shift our futures in ways wondrous, consequential, and sometimes devastating. Even as we debate and argue over whose vision will dominate, we know that no one truly is in control, and that our struggles will play out between conflicting visions for how we should live.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

10 January 2017

sigal_jan10_2017

Dear Anton,

It seems to me that our information age has entered a period of profound nostalgia. With the growth of digital networks overlaying our societies, we have the ability to communicate with any individual or group, and we have bypassed the imagined sense of a center fostered by our previous, mass communications structure. While the disequilibrium accompanying our networked communications is a powerful force in the structuring of our societies, in our discourse we often see a longing for a time with less complexity, and moral clarity.

This time is marked with a sort of hysteria around our perception of events, how they seem to be accelerating and compounding at rates beyond our ability to understand. As if every story we tell is overwhelmed by the clamoring of millions of other voices.

Our diagnoses of this phenomenon often seek to narrow and name causality. We blame technology, or monopolistic companies or industries, or foreign powers, or intelligence agencies, or deceptive advertisers, or vigilante mobs, or mainstream news media. Each effort of analysis may be narrowly true within the frame of a specific argument, but zoom out to examine the larger arc of our discourse, and we see instead our moral anxieties; it turns out that our diagnostics themselves contain pathologies.

In response, we double down on easy truths. We idealize the storyteller, the truth-seeker, the investigative journalist, the ascetic living in a tiny apartment. Anyone who seems to have the qualities of a seer, who can penetrate our abstractions and complexities. The idea that one true story might change a life, that we might transform or actualize ourselves.

And what might be the alternative? If abstract analysis leads us to blame impersonal forces, and individual stories and details seem irrelevant? All I know is that I woke this morning to a voice in my head, life is a dream, life is a dream. And then I thought, what then, is a dream? And then I fell asleep again.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

 

29 December 2016

Dear Anton, As I think about your cranes and presses, of their finely tuned efficiencies, and how we contort ourselves in order to operate them, it seems to me that the machines we build have become engines for our moral ordering. Maybe they are the embodiments of our inner Victorians, and that would make sense, for it was among the products of 19th century industry, the great iron arcades and train stations, that the Victorians worked, wandered and played. And it was also the Victorians who took early colonial systems and mechanized them, from the building of railways across India, to the rational cities that signified colonial authority. The British built the ordered ranks of Civil Lines, neighborhoods for their expatriated, and then New Delhi, a new governmental center planned with geometric precision in the model of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, perhaps the epitome of the rational separation of work from living. Today we aim our models of efficiency at ourselves, not only our time-saving tools but our stratagems to enforce a pace of work, or to deny ourselves access to our endorphic pleasures. We have apps that sound alarms if the user falls below a certain word count, or cause earlier writing to vanish, melding efficiency with fear of failure, and creating a particular sort of moral panic. And yet we find that our non-ordered selves leak out of our systems; the more we enforce discipline for a time, the more difficult it is to maintain control later - we binge, sleep, drink, fight, dream. I wonder, in all this, how the idea of wisdom even fits. And I start to think that the kaleidoscopic visions that we celebrate for their seeming ability to shift our perspective might also be a kind of trick we play upon ourselves. Maybe they are just another mechanism to we employ to enforce a kind of order upon our atavistic selves, as light is broken into fragments and shards, and then reconstructed into something we can see and name. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

As I think about your cranes and presses, of their finely tuned efficiencies, and how we contort ourselves in order to operate them, it seems to me that the machines we build have become engines for our moral ordering. Maybe they are the embodiments of our inner Victorians, and that would make sense, for it was among the products of 19th century industry, the great iron arcades and train stations, that the Victorians worked, wandered and played. And it was also the Victorians who took early colonial systems and mechanized them, from the building of railways across India, to the rational cities that signified colonial authority. The British built the ordered ranks of the Civil Lines, neighborhoods for their expatriated, and then New Delhi, a new governmental center planned with geometric precision in the model of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, perhaps the epitome of the rational separation of work from living.

Today we aim our models of efficiency at ourselves, not only our time-saving tools but our stratagems to enforce a pace of work, or to deny ourselves access to our endorphic pleasures. We have apps that sound alarms if the writer falls below a certain word count, or cause earlier writing to vanish, melding efficiency with fear of failure and creating a sort of moral panic. And yet we find that our non-ordered selves leak out of our systems; the more we enforce discipline for a time, the more difficult it is to maintain control later – we binge, sleep, drink, fight, dream.

I wonder, in all this, how the idea of wisdom even fits. I start to think that the kaleidoscopic visions that we celebrate for their seeming ability to shift our perspective might also be a kind of trick we play upon ourselves. Maybe they are just another mechanism we employ to enforce upon our atavistic selves a kind of order, as light is broken into fragments and shards, and then reconstructed into something we can see and name.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

syria-liveuamap_aleppo_2016-12-07

This story was originally published by Public Radio International.

Listen to this story on PRI.org »

We follow the tweets of 7-year-old Bana Alabed and her mother; the last messages of activists and fighters waiting to surrender or die; and seek to verify chemical attacks or conflicting stories about the bombings of hospitals. And at the same time, we struggle to understand whether this information fits into our existing worldviews, or upends them.

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8 December 2016

Dear Anton, Something about flying makes us feel vulnerable. Perhaps it’s obvious - the effects of speed, of altitude, of proximity to others. Recently on a flight I watched a documentary about the making of Steve McQueen’s gorgeous, doomed film about Le Mans. McQueen was obsessed with capturing the feeling of speed, and devised unusual technical solutions to mount cameras on cars. Watching his sequences of the jittery blur of the guardrail, the rhythmic flash of road markings, the swooping curves, intensified by the shaking and whine of the flight, I felt myself almost overcome. The theorist Paul Virilio describes this condition as dromographic, an unsettled euphoria triggered by the sight of static landscapes while moving at speed. This is the perspective of the passenger, of the voyeur, of the driver and the pilot, and creates in us feelings of attraction and loss that lead to emotional catharsis. In Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto he asserts that “a racing car… is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” referencing a statue of the Greek goddess Nike. It is the Futurists who show us how to perceive speed by displacing the sequential narrative with the shifting perspective of the viewer, or the camera, or the pilot. I read recently that Mussolini’s son Vittorio flew bombers in the Abyssinian war. He describes an attack: “I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the centre, and the group opened up just like flowering rose.” It’s an extraordinary cinematic evocation: the propeller’s hum, the bomb’s long arc, the bloody scattering of victims, the plane’s onward course, and the fragrant, corrupting equivocation of killing and blossoming. And this brings to mind a film I saw recently, of a Syrian boy whose community was a target of a bombing. He’s being interviewed, the camera shakes and pivots, he speaks of his dismembered grandmother, gestures to the rubble, to the sky. And then he inverts Vittorio’s line. Of his family, he says, "all of them were so beautiful, they gave off the scent of musk." /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram

Dear Anton,

Something about flying makes us feel vulnerable. Perhaps it’s obvious – the effects of speed, of altitude, of proximity to others. Recently on a flight I watched a documentary on the making of Steve McQueen’s gorgeous, doomed film about Le Mans. McQueen was obsessed with capturing the feeling of speed, and devised unusual technical solutions to mount cameras on cars. Watching the jittery blur of the guardrails, the rhythmic flash of road markings, the swooping curves, and intensified by the shaking and whine of the flight, I was almost overcome by vertigo.

The theorist Paul Virilio describes this condition as dromographic, an unsettled euphoria triggered by the sight of static landscapes while moving at speed. This is the perspective of the passenger, of the voyeur, of the pilot, and creates in us feelings of attraction and loss that lead to emotional catharsis.

In Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto he asserts that “a racing car… is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” He is referring to a statue of the Greek goddess Nike. It is the Futurists who show us how to perceive speed by displacing the sequential narrative with the shifting perspective of the viewer, or the camera, or the driver.

I read recently that Mussolini’s son Vittorio flew bombers in the Abyssinian war. He describes an attack: “I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the centre, and the group opened up just like flowering rose.” It’s an extraordinary cinematic evocation: the propeller’s hum, the bomb’s long arc, the bloody scattering of victims, the plane’s onward course, and the fragrant, corrupting equivocation of killing and blossoming.

And this brings to mind a film I saw recently, of a Syrian boy whose community was the target of a bombing. He’s being interviewed, the camera shakes and pivots, he speaks of his dismembered grandmother, gestures to the rubble, to the sky. And then he inverts Vittorio’s line. Of his family, he says, “all of them were so beautiful, they gave off the scent of musk.”

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

20 November 2016

Dear Anton, The snow has arrived early in northern New York, near the mountains, where I am now. All the tropes of wintry comfort are here: the hissing fire, the hush, the spindrifts, the weighed branches embowering us in the forest, the glowing windows of distant neighbors. I would like to say that I am slowing the tempo of my mind, and that with the cold we could adopt the seasonal pose of rest and darkness. Though now does not seem the time for hibernation. The frenetic claims and accusations in the registers of our civic life, the smug victors, the sorrow and recriminations of the defeated. In all this we may read too much meaning into the results of our flawed politics, of our imperfect systems for choosing our leaders. For we are less empowered in our elections than we would like to believe. A vote is an imperfect proxy for our hopes, or for bridging the gap between needs we perceive and the systems we create to address them. Saying this does not mean the possible effects are less drastic; that the decisions we’ve taken won’t pull apart the current world order. We have seen societies break too many times to delude ourselves that some abstract historical force will guide us to safety and progress. To your point about the next wave of categorizations of what some perceive as a new demographic, I read recently that the Latin root of colonization - colere - is to cultivate, classify or order. And it seems to me that we don’t just build categories and systems for our societies in order to subdue and manage them, but that we colonize ourselves with our rationalizations and plans. That we worry and rub our edges, and fit ourselves into the descriptions we receive, or create for others. And what of the people who refuse categorization? Will they be broken? And then the counterpoint, we humans as animals in our burrows and warrens, seeking warmth and safety, twitching and sighing in our dreamy sleep. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

The snow has arrived early in northern New York, near the mountains, where I am now. All the tropes of wintry comfort are here: the hissing fire, the hush, the spindrifts, the weighed branches embowering us in the forest, the glowing windows of distant neighbors. I would like to say that I am slowing the tempo of my mind, and that with the cold we could adopt the seasonal pose of rest and darkness. Though now does not seem the time for hibernation.

The frenetic claims and accusations in the registers of our civic life, the smug victors, the sorrows and recriminations of the defeated. In all this we may read too much meaning into the results of our flawed politics, of our imperfect systems for choosing our leaders. For we are less empowered in our elections than we would like to believe. A vote is a weak proxy for our hopes, or for bridging the gap between the needs we perceive and the systems we create to address them. Saying this does not mean the possible effects are less drastic; that the decisions we’ve taken won’t pull apart the current world order. We have seen societies break too many times to delude ourselves that some abstract historical force will guide us to safety and progress.

To your point about the next wave of categorizations of what some perceive as a new demographic, I read recently that the Latin root of colonization – colere – is to cultivate, classify or order. And it seems to me that we don’t just build categories and systems for our societies in order to subdue and manage them, but that we colonize ourselves with our rationalizations and plans. That we worry and rub our edges, and fit ourselves into the descriptions we receive, or create for others. And what of the people who refuse categorization? Will they be broken?

And then the counterpoint, we humans as animals in our burrows and warrens, seeking warmth and safety, twitching and sighing in our dreamy sleep.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

14 November 2016

kusters_nov10_2016_2

Dear Ivan,

In light of yesterday’s events, there is undoubtedly a lot to say.  I was silent for an entire day yesterday, thinking. I had hoped that the worldwide trend towards nationalism and isolationism would not manifest itself powerfully enough to claim the 2016 US presidential election.

Yet, I had resigned myself to the realisation that if this did happen, reality would be completely ignored by the victor. In hindsight, it seems like this might be the only possible wake up call.

I do not know what to do with this realization. I have many ideas of course, but achieving them with our politics seems impossible. And yet I still believe, even if this becomes a darker age – which I somehow doubt, but then again – that whatever is happening can benefit  to society in the long run. The pendulum swings.

My fear is that political organisations are making the same mistake, frantically working to accurately describe this newly found demographic , that they then can at best connect to, or at worst electorally exploit.

This new demographic will be analysed and understood, the people quantified and characterized. A new definition will be created, cutting through traditional lines of income, gender, race, sexual orientation, and class. And yet the feeling of someone proclaiming they understand you might be the very reason for the uprising.

What if we stopped trying to categorise, for a little while.

I’m leaving for Amsterdam now. Visiting dear friends, and looking to purchase a bicycle with a good personality.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

3 November 2016

Dear Anton, It’s early, today in New York. I woke thinking about velocity. The speed of a pulse, of a neuron firing, of the city’s oscillating hum, of jet engines, their comforting whine. The tempo of each could be a measure. It’s been a month of travel: Madrid, Barcelona, Carrara, rural Pennsylvania, New York, soon, California, which is to say, a month like others. I’m in one of my favorite New York rooms, a cavernous brick space with high ceilings and a constellation of lightbulbs above, in a building where I worked years ago, when it housed New York’s public television station. It just occurs to me that this might have been a studio. The reconstruction of this building its own wave pattern, a slower oscillation, the rise of cities, their crumbling. I was thinking about your comparison of the pace of a relationship with other rhythms: of your work, of the body’s decay, of cesium-133. And here, a giant flickering screen in a corner of the room, and on it appears an old friend who’s running for Congress. Her politics ask us to slow down, to consider the local, to prioritize the human. It occurs to me that despite our differences, most people still follow a common human rhythm built upon relationships, even in extreme circumstances. I wonder whether the ideologues we’ve been discussing admit friendship in their lives, whether the techno-social dreams they’ve pursued sustain relationships, or shred them. In all this, I've realized that the last image I sent was precisely of velocity. I had been thinking of it as a tunnel with no light. Even as I was writing about speed, I was blind to the evident presence of speed. Another wave, another tempo, this one subconscious. And nearby, in the periphery, the giant screen, the flickering and pulsing of our politics, the jump cuts blindingly fast, in reds and blues, television hosts shouting us into submission, their skin orange, their teeth chemically white. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, 

It’s early, today in New York. I woke thinking about velocity. The speed of a pulse, of a neuron firing, of the city’s oscillating hum, of jet engines, their comforting whine. The tempo of each could be a measure. It’s been a month of travel: Madrid, Barcelona, Carrara, rural Pennsylvania, New York, soon, California, which is to say, a month like others. I’m in one of my favorite New York rooms, a cavernous brick space with high ceilings and a constellation of lightbulbs above, in a building where I worked years ago, when it housed New York’s public television station. It just occurs to me that this might have been a studio. The reconstruction of this building its own wave pattern, a slower oscillation, the rise of cities, their crumbling.

I have been thinking about your comparison of the pace of a relationship with other rhythms: of your work, of the body’s decay, of cesium-133. Here, a giant flickering screen in a corner of the room, and on it appears an old friend who’s running for Congress. Her politics ask us to slow down, to consider the local, to prioritize the human. It occurs to me that despite our differences, most people still follow a common human rhythm built upon relationships, even in extreme circumstances. I wonder whether the ideologues we’ve been discussing admit friendship in their lives, whether the techno-social dreams they’ve pursued sustain relationships, or shred them.

I’ve just realized that the last image I sent was precisely of velocity. I had been thinking of it as a tunnel with no light. Even as I was writing about speed, I was blind to the evident presence of speed. Another wave, another tempo, this one subconscious. And nearby, in the periphery, the giant screen, the flickering and pulsing of our politics, the jump cuts blindingly fast, in reds and blues, television hosts shouting us into submission, their skin orange, their teeth chemically white.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

20 October 2016

Dear Anton, Manifestos, it seems to me, tend to close off dialogue. Commandments, cut into stone. Declarations of intent, of ideology, of scope which say: the thinking is settled, and now it is time to act. I wonder if it is possible to construct a manifesto that admits continued discussion of its fundaments. That might be a solipsism, or a snake eating its tail. We could for instance consider the implicit structure of a conversation, and seek to make it manifest. As an inductive or incremental search for meaning. As layers or accretions of thought. As actions which then lead to ideas, rather than a grand statement, and then action. Precedent for this approach exists, though it, as with so much else, with political associations. For instance the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo posits the idea of “weak ontology” or “fragile thought,” which proceeds in steps. Vattimo’s also a Marxist politician seeking to reclaim communism from the Soviets, and willing to advocate for political violence, for instance in his support for Hamas. Others, perhaps less troubling, include Antonioni’s fragments, passages, and weak narratives. Or the tempo of slow food movement, started by another leftist Italian, Carlo Petrini. Curiously, and in opposition, Futurism’s violence against the past is expressed as speed: "We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” I guess it’s no surprise that the dueling manifestos of the Italian Communists and Fascists should seek opposing metaphors. More interesting that some on the left have moved away from grand narratives - after all, industry and speed are also hallmarks of Soviet Communist imagery. And of course, "eternal speed”, like endless space, can’t be measured, as it exists without time. For we use time to measure distance - the rotation of the earth, its orbit around the sun. Odd then that we experience time as a progression towards the unknown, as distance that can’t be measured, because we only know its length in hindsight. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

Manifestos, it seems to me, often hinder dialogue. Declarations of intent, ideology, scope which say: the thinking is settled, and now it is time to act. I wonder if it is possible to write a manifesto that admits continued discussion of its claims.

We could for instance consider the organic structure of a conversation, examine its logic, and then iterate. As an inductive or incremental search for meaning. As layers or accretions of thought. As actions which then lead to ideas, rather than a grand statement, and then action.

Precedent for this approach exists, and it, as with so much else, has political associations. For instance the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo posits the idea of “weak ontology” or “fragile thought,” which proceeds in steps. Vattimo is also a Marxist politician who aims to reclaim Communism from the Soviets, and has been willing to advocate for political violence, for instance in his support for Hamas. Other approaches include Antonioni’s fragments, passages, and weak narratives. Or the tempo of the slow food movement, started by another leftist Italian, Carlo Petrini.

Curiously, and in opposition, Futurism’s violence against the past is expressed as speed: “We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” It’s no surprise that the dueling manifestos of the Italian Communists and Fascists should seek opposing metaphors. More interesting that some on the left have moved away from grand narratives – after all, industry and speed are also hallmarks of Soviet Communist imagery.

And of course,eternal speed, like endless space, can’t be measured, as it exists without time. For we use time to measure distance – the rotation of the earth, its orbit around the sun. Odd then that we experience time as a progression towards the unknown, as distance that can’t be measured, because we only know its length in hindsight.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

30 September 2016

Dear Anton, As with your imagined farewell in Kyushu, the Russians sit in silence prior to leave-taking. I have often sat that way, on suitcases or on the edges of chairs, near the doorway. I wonder about your absent couple and their memories, the outward-pointing slippers suggesting a departure, and whether they even recalled that gesture, years later. Something about the wash of light in your image of their house reminds me that forgetting can bring relief. You may know that Ezra Pound wrote many of the Cantos in Rapallo, on the Liguria coast. It wasn’t long after he moved to Italy that he dedicated himself to Mussolini, and I was reminded, reading his stanza in your last note, that the Italian Futurists both influenced and were inseparable from fascism. Marinetti, the author of the Futurist Manifesto, wrote "art...can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice," and in this he was expressing approval, for he also described war as “the world’s only hygiene.” At the same time, the fractured assemblages of futurism cracked the pictorial approach to images, just as the many-voiced narratives of modernist poets taught to view history prismatically. How it is that the glorification of the future by these artists is attended by support for mass violence is an enduring puzzle. For in principle I also approve of the shattering of received narratives. Perhaps the problem is not modernity, but the nature of its glorification. It is one thing to observe the slow degradation of memory or the collapse of wooden buildings into ruins, as with your rural villages in Japan. It is another to actively seek their destruction, to forcibly erase memory. Though it is hard for me to not see nostalgia in an image of a wooden village decaying in the woods. And Pound, captured after the war, going mad after being held for weeks in an outdoor American prison near Pisa, in a steel cage that prefigures Guantanamo Bay. I imagine him there, half-feral, decanting his verse to the open sky. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

As with your imagined farewell in Kyushu, the Russians sit in silence prior to leave-taking. I have often sat that way, on suitcases or on the edges of chairs, near the doorway. I wonder about your absent couple and their memories, the outward-pointing slippers suggesting a departure, and whether they even recalled that gesture, years later. Something about the wash of light in your image of their house reminds me that forgetting can bring relief.

You may know that Ezra Pound wrote many of the Cantos in Rapallo, on the Liguria coast. It wasn’t long after he moved to Italy that he became a follower of Mussolini, and I was reminded, reading his stanza in your last note, that the Italian Futurists influenced and were inseparable from fascism. Marinetti, the author of the Futurist Manifesto, wrote “art…can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice,” and in this he was expressing approval, for he also described war as “the world’s only hygiene.” At the same time, the fractured assemblages of futurism cracked open the pictorial approach to images, just as the many-voiced narratives of modernist poets taught us to view history prismatically.

It is an enduring puzzle that the glorification of the future by these artists is attended by support for mass violence. For I also approve of the shattering of received narratives. Perhaps the problem is not modernity, but the nature of its glorification. It is one thing to observe the slow degradation of memory or the collapse of wooden buildings into ruins, as with your rural villages in Japan. It is another to actively seek their destruction, to forcibly erase memory. Though it is hard for me to not see nostalgia in an image of a wooden village decaying in the woods.

And Pound, captured after the war, going mad, held for weeks in an outdoor American prison near Pisa in a steel cage that prefigures Guantanamo Bay. I imagine him there, half-feral, decanting his verse to the open sky.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

21 September 2016

Dear Anton, A few days ago I visited the Beinecke Rare Book Library, at Yale University. The building is an opaque cube, as the architect used thin sheets of Vermont marble in place of windows. Light filters through the marble, creating a subtle external pressure, and a cool glow that triggers a sense of activity outside the silent archives within. The books are housed in a multi-story, climate-controlled glass casing, a second hermetic barrier to protect the collection. While the library is famous for its Gutenberg Bible and its Audobon’s Birds of America, I was drawn to the documentary ephemera of artists, writers and historical figures. The building is metaphorically a marble skull which preserves jostled and careworn scraps of thought, layers of stone and glass to mimic bone and myelin. The objects here include sketchbooks, handwritten memoirs, letters, engravings, music manuscripts, photo and glass plate negatives, lantern slides, photographic silver prints, ambrotypes, tintypes, daguerrotypes, autochromes, holographs, posters, pamphlets, maps, codex, ledgers, illustrations, stamps, papyri, tankas, tarot cards and many other artifacts. A quick scan of the catalogue reveals the letters of O’Keefe and Stieglitz, the handwritten memoir of a “haunted convict”, court sketches of the Black Panther trial, glass stereotypes by the photographer Carleton Watkins, the letters of Ezra Pound, the scrapbooks of the Italian futurist Marinetti, a syllabary in Cherokee, and the infamous Voynich Manuscript. The library has thoughtfully created hi-res digital scans of that book, filled with watercolors of unknown botanicals, astral diagrams, progressions of nudes encased in womblike spheres, cosmologies, drawings of medicinal herbs, and an undeciphered, looping handwritten text. As I was drawn into its riddles, I began to see this book, focused on the vegetal, the sexual, the metaphysic, as something wild, captured by Beinecke’s platonic proportions, as a rational mind resists the improbable. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

A few days ago I visited the Beinecke Rare Book Library, at Yale University. Gordon Bunshaft’s building is an opaque cube. Outside light filters through thin sheets of Vermont marble, creating a cool glow that triggers a sense of activity outside the silent archives within. The books are housed in a multi-story, climate-controlled glass casing, a second hermetic barrier to protect the collection.

The library is famous for its Gutenberg Bible and its Audobon’s Birds of America, but I was drawn to the documentary ephemera of artists, writers and historical figures. The building is a marble skull that preserves jostled and careworn scraps of thought, layers of stone and glass to mimic bone and myelin. The objects here include sketchbooks, handwritten memoirs, letters, engravings, music manuscripts, film and glass plate negatives, lantern slides, photographic silver prints, ambrotypes, tintypes, daguerrotypes, autochromes, holographs, posters, pamphlets, maps, codices, ledgers, illustrations, stamps, papyri, tankas, tarot cards and many other artifacts.

A quick scan of the catalogue reveals the letters of O’Keefe and Stieglitz, the handwritten memoir of a “haunted convict”, court sketches of the Black Panther trial, glass stereotypes by the photographer Carleton Watkins, the letters of Ezra Pound, the scrapbooks of the Italian futurist Marinetti, a syllabary in Cherokee, and the infamous Voynich Manuscript. The library has thoughtfully created hi-res digital scans of that book, filled with watercolors of unknown botanicals, astral diagrams, progressions of nudes encased in womb-like spheres, cosmologies, drawings of medicinal herbs, and an undeciphered, looping handwritten text. As I was drawn into its riddles, I began to see this book, focused on the vegetal, the sexual, the metaphysic, as something wild, captured by the Beinecke’s platonic proportions, as a rational mind resists the improbable.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

10 September 2016

Dear Anton, I realized this morning that we in this hemisphere sit on the shoulder of a season, and that as with other phase shifts, turbulence is likely. Your prismatic energy at the end of your most recent trip reminds me that passions without objects scatter and dissipate. They are what we exhale, what we have exhausted. Perhaps this makes space for what comes next, but letting go can leave us bemused. In like manner, a few weeks ago, without warning, a tooth chipped. Then the next day, my jaw displaced, a disc sliding forward and leaving me unable to align my teeth, or chew. A common ailment, but this time they didn’t realign, and this felt somehow significant, as if I had reached some juncture. I recalled the common reading of dreams about crumbling teeth symbolizing loss of control, decay, incipient age. And then I noticed that it was almost autumn and I had seen the first wooly caterpillars of the season. After some time I visited an oral surgeon, who made a panoramic X-ray of my jaw and skull. For this, he used a type of rotating digital imaging system known as a pantomogram, which encircles the subject’s head and creates a tomographic composite, which is then flattened into two dimensions for diagnostic analysis. Tomography, or imaging by sections with a penetrating wave, allows us to see the structural underpinnings of objects. I started thinking about our mountain of marble in Cararra, and how we might X-ray an entire topography, what devices or approximations would allow us to see inside that scarred, dissected hillside. The X-ray showed, among other things, a wearing of the edges of my jawbones from use. And with that I remembered that I had preserved a fig leaf that I used to make a photogram several months ago. I had been watching its progression as it dried and curled, yet retained its chlorophyll. Its surface now marled, its veins climbing the ridges formed by its desiccation. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

I realized this morning that we in this hemisphere sit on the shoulder of a season, and that as with other phase shifts, turbulence is likely. Your prismatic energy at the end of your most recent trip reminds me that passions without objects scatter and dissipate. They are what we exhale, what we have exhausted. Perhaps this makes space for what comes next.

In like manner, a few weeks ago, without warning, a tooth chipped. Then the next day, my jaw displaced, a disc sliding forward and leaving me unable to align my teeth, or chew. A common ailment, but this time it didn’t realign, and this felt somehow significant, as if I had reached some juncture. I recalled the common reading of dreams about crumbling teeth symbolizing loss of control, decay, incipient age. And then I noticed that it was almost autumn and I had seen the first wooly caterpillars of the season.

After some time I visited an oral surgeon, who made a panoramic X-ray of my jaw and skull. For this, he used a rotating digital imaging system called a pantomogram, which encircles the subject’s head and creates a tomographic composite, which is then flattened into two dimensions for diagnostic analysis. Tomography, or imaging by sections with a penetrating wave, allows us to see the structural underpinnings of objects. I started thinking about our mountain of marble in Carrara, and how we might X-ray an entire topography, what devices or approximations would allow us to see inside that scarred, dissected hillside.

The X-ray showed, among other things, a wearing of the edges of my jawbones from use. And with that I remembered that I had preserved a fig leaf that I used to make a photogram several months ago. I had been watching its progression as it dried and curled, yet retained its chlorophyll. Its surface now marled, its veins climbing the ridges formed by its desiccation.

// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

29 August 2016

Dear Anton, I have difficulty with the perspective of middle distance. We privilege urgency of detail, the proximate or immediate, or we reflect and abstract, considering scale and distance from a remove. What falls between feels like blindness. It may be the incessant claims of a present-driven Internet, in which even the strongest ideas and images are shoved aside by an effusion of immanence. It may be the narrow, reflex-like seeing of the cyclist, spotting potholes, wet leaves, a deer poised to spring across the road. And then, it may be our need to simplify, to compare and sort, to put to rest the nagging complexities that fill our days. It may be the longing that arises when looking at maps, at globes, at mountain landscapes, at horizon lines. There is the middle ground of a long project, a career, a relationship. Far enough away from the beginning that the origin myth is dim, too far from the conclusion to clearly see its contours. The middle ground is both a description of scenic space in images, an area of compromise, and a logical fallacy, in which we confuse the middle position for the correct answer. If big data is the obsession of every entrepreneur lusting for exponential returns or world-ordering social scientist, there is also the realm of small data, of the designers of human experience, of the granular examination of our intimate patterns, of historians and deep readers. And curiously, the aspect ratio of most photographic lenses privileges precisely this space, for the middle ground is also human terrain. The ubiquitous smartphone lenses that create the distorted faces in our selfies are more suited to capturing theatrical space - from an embrace or a strike, to a conversation, or a dinner party. This morning, I thought to send you an image of crease marks on skin, and then, of the lines of my hand, and then, a photogram of the mottled, late-summer leaves of my dogwood. Instead, I am looking for a limping stride, for an upthrust chin and a turned head, for the grip of a hand on an arm. // #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters

Dear Anton,

I have difficulty with the perspective of middle distance. We privilege urgency of detail, the proximate or immediate, or we reflect and abstract, considering scale and distance from a remove. What falls between feels like blindness.

It may be the incessant claims of a present-driven Internet, in which even the strongest ideas and images are shoved aside by the immanent. It may be the narrow, reflex-like seeing of the cyclist, spotting potholes, wet leaves, a deer poised to spring across the road.

And then, it may be our need to simplify, to compare and sort, to put to rest the nagging complexities that fill our days. It may be the longing that arises when looking at maps, at globes, at mountain landscapes, at horizon lines.

If big data is the obsession of every entrepreneur lusting for exponential returns or world-ordering social scientist, there is also the realm of small data, of the designers of human experience, of the granular examination of our intimate patterns, of historians and deep readers.

There is the middle ground of a long project, a career, a relationship. Far enough away from the beginning that the origin myth is dim, too far from the conclusion to clearly see its contours.

The middle ground is a description of scenic space in images, an area of compromise, and a logical fallacy, in which we confuse the middle position for the correct answer.

And curiously, the aspect ratio of most photographic lenses privileges precisely this space, for the middle ground is also human terrain. The ubiquitous smartphone lenses that create the distorted faces of our selfies are more suited to capturing theatrical space – from an embrace or a strike, to a conversation, or a dinner party.

This morning, I thought to send you an image of crease marks on skin, and then, of the lines of my hand, and then, a photogram of the mottled, late-summer leaves of my dogwood. Instead, I am looking for a limping stride, for an upthrust chin and a turned head, for the grip of a hand on an arm.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Over the past few months, I’ve been in conversation with the photographer Anton Kusters, on Instagram and on our respective websites, under the hash #image_by_image. The dialogue has taken shape as a curious collaboration, now with some 40 posts and going strong. The posts are public but we have not been actively promoting the work. Our original idea was simply to write to each other in public, with a few constraints, and see what might happen.

image_by_image-1

By Ivan Sigal. Read full post.

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18 August 2016

Dear Anton, Virtual reality has been a persistent idea underlying our conversation - an image field that completely covers our sight, and all sound and movement, functioning as a totalizing force over our perceptions. As with your images of blue skies, or our color fields, lensless eyes and cameras. The current version of VR we’re offered by the market, it seems to me, asks us to surrender our awareness, to allow our senses to be occupied by the apparatus. It’s a delicate moment, or should be, because we are required to place trust in the device and in the producers. Most recent VR experiences I’ve seen try to exploit the functions of the technology to expand control over the user. I have yet to see one that seeks to hack the technology, to expose some critical distance between giving up sensory control to the apparatus, and how we think about what’s happening to us while we’re enveloped. Instead, the critical thought, if there is one, comes sequentially, with reflection after the experience. This gap we can term the conceptual gaze. It is, in short, the difference between what we are looking at, and what we are seeing. There is something either naive or manipulative in the push to make sensation the primary measure of a filmic experience. In aspiring to make looking and seeing the same thing. The end game is a sensory deprivation tank, or a cell for solitary confinement. And indeed, someone has already made a solitary confinement VR - which is either the height of manipulation, or perhaps, if done properly, the conceptual gap that we seek. I spent last week on Lake Michigan, and some time lying on my back on a dock in a lake, the water below me casting an underglow onto the sky above. For a moment, or a while, I felt as if I were floating unmoored in a field of blue, and I lost my sense of time. Later that night, in the same position, I searched the sky for traces of the Perseid meteor shower, for the light that reportedly comes from 1079, 1479, 1862, those burning bits of rock, our evidence of time. /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

Virtual reality has been a persistent idea underlying our conversation – an image field that completely covers our sight, and all sound and movement, functioning as a totalizing force over our perceptions. As with your images of blue skies, or our color fields, lensless eyes and cameras. The current version of VR we’re offered by the market, it seems to me, asks us to surrender our awareness, to allow our senses to be occupied by the apparatus. It’s a delicate moment, or should be, because we are required to trust both the device and the producers.

Most recent VR experiences I’ve seen try to exploit the functions of the technology to expand control over the user. I have yet to see a hack of the technology, to expose some critical distance between giving up sensory control to the apparatus, and how we think about what’s happening to us while we’re enveloped. Instead, the critical thought, if there is one, comes sequentially, with reflection after the experience.

This gap we can term the conceptual gaze. It is, in short, the difference between what we are looking at, and what we are seeing. There is something either naive or manipulative in the push to make sensation the primary measure of a filmic experience, in aspiring to make looking and seeing the same thing. The end game is a sensory deprivation tank, or a cell for solitary confinement. And indeed, someone has already made a solitary confinement VR – which is either the height of manipulation, or perhaps, if done properly, the conceptual gap that we seek.

I spent last week on Lake Michigan, and some time lying on my back on a dock in a lake, the water below me casting an underglow onto the sky above. For a moment, or a while, I felt as if I were floating unmoored in a field of blue. Later that night, in the same position, I searched the sky for traces of the Perseid meteor shower, for the light that reportedly comes from 1079, 1479, 1862, those burning bits of rock, our evidence of time.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

8 August 2016

Dear Anton, It’s probably not a good idea to read about the Holocaust before bed. I had thought to shift to a lighter topic today, but I dozed off reading the following passage (Snyder again), and it’s too relevant to your last note not to share: "Our contemporary culture of commemoration takes for granted that memory prevents murder…The dead are remembered, but the dead do not remember. Someone else had the power, and someone else decided how they died. Later on, someone else still decides why. When meaning is drawn from killing, the risk is that more killing would bring more meaning." Not to say that your project, which is clearly about memory, is making any kind of definitive claim to commemoration, If anything it’s contesting standard representations: war museums, statuary, and their uses as instruments of history. And I like that you are noting, as you travel, the narrow particulars of place, the gravel underfoot, a painted metal picnic table outside the highway rest stop, the yellow flowers in the car park. This morning I woke thinking about categories and why we make them, about how they were used to such devastating effect by the Nazis, and by the Soviets. Stalin both insisted on classifications of individuals within society, and continually shifted and blurred the lines between those categories. Affiliation with a class or later on, an ethnicity became both profoundly important and dangerous, for too great an attachment to one form would condemn you at the next phase shift, when you suddenly found yourself cast out of a protected class, or when your class was simply exterminated. As to why that’s relevant: I suppose I’m wondering how it is that categories sit so uneasily with us. That you are cutting across genres and practices with this work. Affiliation with a category still poses mortal threats for many in this time, as for others in the recent past. /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

It’s probably not a good idea to read about the Holocaust before bed. I had thought to shift to a lighter topic today, but I dozed off reading the following passage in Bloodlands, and it’s too relevant to your last note not to share: “Our contemporary culture of commemoration takes for granted that memory prevents murder…The dead are remembered, but the dead do not remember. Someone else had the power, and someone else decided how they died. Later on, someone else still decides why. When meaning is drawn from killing, the risk is that more killing would bring more meaning.”

Not to say that your project, which is clearly about memory, is making any kind of definitive claim to commemoration. If anything it’s contesting standard representations: war museums, statuary, and their uses as instruments of history. And I like that you are noting, as you travel, the narrow particulars of place, the gravel underfoot, a painted metal picnic table outside the highway rest stop, the yellow flowers in the car park.

This morning I woke thinking about categories and why we make them, about how they were used to such devastating effect by the Nazis, and by the Soviets. Stalin both insisted on classifications of individuals within society, and continually shifted and blurred the lines between those categories. Affiliation with a class or later on, an ethnicity became both profoundly important and dangerous, for too great an attachment to one form would condemn you at the next phase shift, when you suddenly found yourself cast out of a protected class, or when your class was simply exterminated.

As to why that’s relevant: I suppose I’m wondering how it is that categories sit so uneasily with us. That you are cutting across genres and practices in your work. Affiliation with a category still poses mortal threats for many in this time, as for others in the recent past. 

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

4 August 2016

Dear Anton, I read today that Hitler proposed to kill "anyone who even looks at us askance” (Snyder, Bloodlands), and suddenly understood something else about your project to photograph the blue skies above Nazi camps. Your choice to photograph obliquely to your subject is also a kind of askance view, a side-glance. In that, you are performing the inverse of Hitler’s threat, looking with suspicion upon your subjects by refusing to look at them directly. It’s no surprise that in the vacuum created by the space between your subject and the direction of your gaze you would find something akin to silence. While in Ukraine a few weeks ago I was told a story. When the Malaysian airliner MH17 was shot down by the separatists in November 2014, its parts spread out over kilometers. The story goes that many of the pieces fell into fields of sunflowers, which are ubiquitous in that part of Ukraine. People hacked through fields of flowers searching for the wreckage of the flight. I photographed many similar fields, both because they were visually compelling, and because they were conceptually all that remained of the wreckage, a yellow blanket that hid the remains of a crime, at least for a time. Now, when I look at those pictures, I struggle with what feels like a too-easy displacement of one object for another. And when I looked online for images of the crash, I found few that featured flowers, and none prominently. Perhaps the presence of flowers grew in the mind of the storyteller, until they acquired symbolic value. Thinking now, about their long necks and inclined heads, perhaps we should imagine nothing other than a need for sunlight. /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

I read today in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands that Hitler proposed to kill “anyone who even looks at us askance,” and suddenly understood your choice to photograph the blue skies above Nazi camps. This is also a kind of oblique view, a side-glance. You are performing the inverse of Hitler’s threat, looking with suspicion upon your subjects by refusing to look at them directly. It’s no surprise that in the vacuum created by the space between your subject and the direction of your gaze you would find something akin to silence.

While in Ukraine a few weeks ago I was told a story. When the Malaysian airliner MH17 was shot down by the separatists in November 2014, its parts spread out over kilometers. The story goes that many of the pieces fell into fields of sunflowers, which are ubiquitous in that part of Ukraine. People hacked through the flowers searching for the wreckage of the flight. I photographed many similar fields, both because they were visually compelling, and because they were conceptually all that remained of the wreckage, a yellow blanket that hid the remains of a crime, at least for a time.

Now, when I look at those pictures, I struggle with what feels like a too-easy displacement of one object for another. And when I looked online for images of the crash, I found few that featured flowers, and none prominently. Perhaps the presence of flowers grew in the mind of the storyteller, until they acquired symbolic value. Thinking about their long necks and inclined heads, perhaps we should imagine nothing other than a need for sunlight.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

 

1 August 2016

kusters_aug2_2016

Dear Ivan,

Today, on the first day of my next Blue Skies journey to the Buchenwald and Flossenburg concentration camp clusters, I’m yet again traveling through history within the present.

As with your empty seabed, I am struck each time, by the silence. It’s not absolute, but there’s always a felt absence. Walking the grounds of the main camps that are now memorials, one hears only one’s own steps, the crunch of gravel, loudly pulling my thoughts into the present, cutting me off from history and hope alike.

Seldom have I felt such a vivid sense  of being alive as in those places; seldom have I sighed so deeply as in those places; seldom have I doubted  my existence; seldom have I felt so present. Following your advice I try to speak my thoughts into a voice recorder. But all I can manage is this silence. Maybe it’s what I’m meant to record.

Night is falling. At a former camp in Stulln I turn my car to head back to Nürnberg for the night. Out of nowhere, huge yellow flowers appear in front of me, reflected in my bonnet, my headlights illuminating the gates. The church bells toll in the distance. The sun has just disappeared behind the horizon.

I take it as a good omen, even though on the way back I flat a tyre.

Nürnberg, the city of the rallies; and, fittingly, the city of the trials.

I really shouldn’t be making these journeys all by myself.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, The mural of the boy with the carbine rifle comes from a museum in a small town in western Kazakhstan called Aralsk. It was once a port town on the edge of the Caspian Sea, until the Soviets drained the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, beginning in the 1960s, to irrigate cotton fields at an industrial scale. The sea in the past 50 years has shrunk by 90%, and when I last visited, more than a decade ago, the waters had receded some 100km from the town. You have probably seen the cliched images of boats resting in the desert. It may be obvious, but the consequence of the fervor represented by that mural turns out to have been the destruction of an ecosystem. Not that it was a foregone conclusion; history is all effects and no causes, to paraphrase Joseph Brodsky. Along with the salt flats, cracked mud and sand of the lakebed you can find hillocks of calcified and desiccated shells, moved first by water, then by wind and time to form their own dusty waves. Over geologic time, perhaps those may sift and pack to form limestone, and eventually marble. The stonecutters of Carrara will whittle their mountains of marble down to the sea, even as the Kazakhstani steppe turns to stone. I’ve visited the Aral Sea several times, arriving from both the north to Aralsk, and from the south, to the Uzbek town of Moynack. Each time I’ve taken a walk on the lakebed, away from the towns, the beached ships, the deep channels cut into the sea bottom in desperate attempts to keep the ports open to the sea, in the face of its retreat. Far enough out, there’s the wind, the sun, the dried mud and scruffy grasses. There you can sit, and squint, and listen, first to the wind, then to your breath, then maybe to your pulse. It isn’t silence that you’re hearing, exactly, but it isn’t anything else either. /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

The mural of the boy with the carbine rifle comes from a museum in a small town in western Kazakhstan called Aralsk. It was once a port town on the edge of the Aral Sea, until the Soviets drained the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, beginning in the 1960s, to irrigate cotton fields at an industrial scale. The sea in the past 50 years has shrunk by 90%, and when I last visited, more than a decade ago, the waters had receded some 100km from the town. You have probably seen the cliched images of boats resting in the desert. It may be obvious, but the consequence of the fervor represented by that mural turns out to have been the destruction of an ecosystem. Not that it was a foregone conclusion; history is all effects and no causes, to paraphrase Joseph Brodsky.

Along with the salt flats of the seabed you can find hillocks of calcified and desiccated shells, moved first by water, then by wind and time to make their own dusty waves. Over geologic time, perhaps those may sift and pack to form limestone, and eventually marble. The stonecutters of Carrara will whittle their mountains of marble down to the sea, even as the Aral Sea turns to stone.

I’ve been to the Aral Sea several times, arriving both from the north to Aralsk, and from the south to the Uzbek town of Moynack. Each time I’ve taken a walk on the seabed, away from the towns, the beached ships, the deep channels cut into the earth in desperate attempts to keep the ports open, in the face of the sea’s retreat. Far enough out, there’s the wind, the sun, the dried mud and scruffy grasses. There you can sit, and squint, and listen, first to the wind, then to your breath, then maybe to your pulse. It isn’t silence that you’re hearing, exactly, but it isn’t anything else either.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, The MIT Media Lab presents an architecture of light and transparency. Glass curtain construction and inside, open floor plans and walls of glass allow visibility into its workings. The closed and locked doors are at the perimeter of the labs, and the secrets are in the construction of the technologies themselves, concealed by patents and I.P. laws. It is a temple for Moore’s Law. I was there a few days ago for a conference on the topic of forbidden research. Ed Snowden was a headliner, and Steward Brand, and a researcher who created a pirate site for free access to academic journals. The event was a wrapper for an argument for the necessity of disobedience. By coincidence that week I was reading about the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, and the threshold of disobedience that led the Jews to fight back. Interestingly, in Warsaw there wasn’t a single heroic act of resistance, but an environment of competing priorities within factions, a gradual acceptance that resistance was necessary, a strategy for obtaining weapons from the Polish underground, and a halting, coordinated response. To your point, some time ago, about the human urge to conform and be part of a group: even disobedience benefits from the support of cultural norms. Disobedience, like disruption, innovation and other buzzwords of the entrepreneurial class, is a tactic. It is not in itself a value but rather a path or process. I mention it here because this might offer us a way to see history as something other than an endless series of calamities. How do we resist the feeling that our time has become one of escalating violence, that we are helpless to intervene, and that intervention might simply add another layer to the multiplicity of causes of violence? What to do with my urge to tear the images before me, an act of transgression that requires that something be rent. As with your last, small act of photography, an accidental flash that disrupted a dream, that broke one thing to make another. #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

The MIT Media Lab presents itself as an embodiment of light and transparency. Glass curtain construction, open floor plans and internal glass walls offer visibility into its workings. But closed and locked doors sit at the perimeter of the labs, and there are secrets in the construction of the technologies themselves, concealed by patents and I.P. laws. I was there a few days ago for a conference on the topic of forbidden research. Ed Snowden was a headliner, and Stewart Brand, and a researcher who created a pirate site for free access to academic journals. The event was an argument for the necessity of disobedience.

By coincidence that week I was reading about the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, and the threshold of disobedience that led the Jews to fight back. Interestingly, in Warsaw there wasn’t a single heroic act of resistance, but competing priorities within factions, a gradual acceptance that resistance was necessary, a strategy for obtaining weapons from the Polish underground, and a halting, coordinated response. To your point, some time ago, about the human urge to conform and be part of a group: even disobedience benefits from the support of cultural norms.

Disobedience is a tactic, like disruption, innovation and other buzzwords of the entrepreneurial class. It is not in itself a value but rather a path or process. I mention it here because this might offer us a way to see history as something other than an endless series of calamities. How do we resist the feeling that our time has become one of escalating violence, that we are helpless to intervene, and that intervention might simply add another layer to the multiplicity of causes of violence? And what to do with the urge to tear the images before me? As with your last, small act of photography, an accidental flash that disrupted a dream, that broke one thing to make another.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, All day we were hammered flat by the heat. Toward evening the wind arrived, and tossed and bent the bamboo behind the house. I hurried to finish my work in the garden as the sky spat. A single crash of thunder, the peaty scent of ozone, and then, nothing. The night arrived and the heat stayed, with no rain to give us relief. Today I am writing from a teahouse. Every table is full and the voices and laughter of the patrons rub together to create a kind of aural heat. I’ve been thinking about the distances you’ve been traveling in time, backward to the Medici, and then looking back at our time from a distant, imagined future. It has compounded a feeling of stuckness I’ve been struggling with lately, these scales of time you’re playing. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history being blown into the future, looking back, is the obvious reference, and I wasn’t going to mention it, but lately I’ve come to wonder if his angel was helpless and terrified, or detached and bemused, or something else. Maybe Benjamin’s conceit is inadequate to our needs in relation to the events we’ve been discussing. I’ve been reading a history of Central Europe in the 1930s and 1940s that analyzes, in great depth and with considerable precision, the mechanisms of mass death invented by Stalin’s NKVD and Hitler’s SS. Of course, Benjamin was contending with that time. His helplessness in the face of the forces that killed him and so many others is understandable. To the point: I implied recently that seeing might make us complicit in the acts we witness, but seeing is not knowing, much less understanding. Perhaps we burden sight and the images we make with meanings they cannot carry. Instead we have our glances and glimmers, the latent or suggestive, as the arrows on the road in your last image, which might urge us onward. // #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

All day we were hammered flat by the heat. Toward evening the wind arrived, and tossed and bent the bamboo behind the house. I hurried to finish my work in the garden as the sky spat. A single crash of thunder, the peaty scent of ozone, and then, nothing. The night arrived and the heat stayed, with no rain to give us relief.

Today I am writing from a teahouse. Every table is full and the voices and laughter of the patrons rub together to create a kind of aural heat. I’ve been thinking about the distances you’ve been traveling in time, backward to the Medici, and then looking at our time from a distant, imagined future. It has compounded a feeling of stuckness I’ve been struggling with lately, these scales of time you’re playing. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history being blown into the future, looking back, is the obvious reference, and I wasn’t going to mention it, but lately I’ve come to wonder if his angel was helpless and terrified, or detached and bemused, or something else. Maybe Benjamin’s conceit is inadequate to our needs in relation to the events we’ve been discussing.

I’ve been reading a history of Central Europe in the 1930s and 1940s that analyzes, in great depth and with considerable precision, the mechanisms of mass death invented by Stalin’s NKVD and Hitler’s SS. Of course, Benjamin was contending with that time. His helplessness in the face of the forces that killed him and so many others is understandable. To the point: I implied recently that seeing might make us complicit in the acts we witness, but seeing is not knowing, much less understanding. Perhaps we burden sight and the images we make with meanings they cannot carry. Instead we have our glances and glimmers, the latent or suggestive, as the arrows on the road in your last image, which might urge us onward. 

 /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, Thinking about your mountain of Italian marble, both its physical mass and the historical burden we’ve asked it to bear. An image for you in response, something playful, perhaps an antidote. At the Imperial War Museum in London recently I spent some time with a newsreel of the battle of Stalingrad, including an image of the famous Barmaley fountain, of six children dancing around a crocodile. You might have seen the famous picture by the Soviet war photographer Evzerikhin, which has also made its way into pop culture - Clockwork Orange and other films use it as a symbol of innocence amidst war. It’s didactic and kitsch of course, and we’re talking about Stalingrad, and come to think of it, the story that it’s modeled on is a Russian poem by Chukovsky that’s sort of racist: “Little children, for nothing in this world, do not go to Africa.” Maybe it’s not an antidote after all. Once out of the imposed distance of conflict of eastern Ukraine, it only takes a day or so to go, in this case, from Mariupol to Dnipropetrovsk, a flight via Vienna to London, then Washington DC, and soon New York. I’m presently traveling by train along the Northeast corridor, looking at the decaying backside of North Philadelphia, the miles of row homes, factories and warehouses. Here there’s the summer overgrowth of English ivy and the tree of heaven, the ailanthus, an urban weed tree everywhere in the world. I saw an abundance of ailanthus in Mauripol in the old town, also filled with elegant, shabby pre-revolutionary houses. This neighborhood was the city’s old commercial center, decayed because the proximity to the then-new factories and the toxic air, overtaken by industry. And I’m reminded of something else - the Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians, and Jews who left Ukraine in the late 19th century often ended up here in eastern Pennsylvania, in the coal towns of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, and the steel town of Bethlehem, where my father’s family landed after fleeing Ukraine in the 1890s. /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

Thinking about your mountain of Italian marble, both its physical mass and the historical burden we’ve asked it to bear. An image for you in response, something playful, perhaps an antidote. Recently at the Imperial War Museum in London I spent some time with a newsreel of the battle of Stalingrad, including an image of the famous Barmaley fountain, of six children dancing around a crocodile. You might have seen the picture by the Soviet war photographer Evzerikhin, which has also made its way into pop culture – Clockwork Orange and other films use it as a symbol of innocence amidst war. The fountain is kitsch of course, and we’re talking about Stalingrad, and come to think of it, the story that it’s modeled on is a Russian poem by Chukovsky that’s sort of racist: “Little children, for nothing in this world, do not go to Africa.” Maybe it’s not an antidote after all.

Once out of the imposed distance of conflict of eastern Ukraine, it only takes a day or so to go, in this case, from Mariupol to Dnipropetrovsk, a flight via Vienna to London, then Washington D.C., and soon New York. I’m presently traveling by train along the Northeast corridor, looking at the decaying backside of North Philadelphia, the miles of row homes, factories and warehouses.

Here there’s the summer overgrowth of English ivy and the tree of heaven, the ailanthus, an urban weed tree everywhere in the world. I saw an abundance of ailanthus in Mauripol’s old town, also filled with elegant, shabby pre-revolutionary houses. The neighborhood was the city’s old commercial center, in decline due to its proximity to the toxic air of the factories. And I’m reminded of something else – the Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians, and Jews who left Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often ended up here in eastern Pennsylvania, in the coal towns of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, and the steel town of Bethlehem, where my father’s family landed after fleeing Ukraine in the 1890s.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, I’ve been watching the football in the hip bars and steakhouses of Mariupol. Microbreweries, craft hamburgers, bearded and coifed patrons, tattoos of flowers, Chinese characters, other markers of global fashion. Some of the cafes are run by IDPs from Donetsk. They have families across Europe and North America; some receive international development funds. They are all on social networks, of course. When we think about war, we often imagine it as remote and unreachable, but it is woven into the fabric of our global lives. The trope of the faraway war leads us to misunderstand modern conflict; distance is strategic, not romantic. We create physical distance to the front by the suspension of flights, by the checkpoints that slow passage into the border zone. We create social distance by the language we use to describe war, by the legal regimes we impose on the people caught in it, by the conditions we place on reporting and the depiction of violence, by our own need for psychological distance from violence. In other words, the romance of distance is itself a strategy that allows us to not implicate ourselves in war. Mariupol, a city of half a million, has factories that pump out steel for the global market, financed internationally since their inception in the late 19th century. The city is still more production than consumption, and the steel workers bring their own fashions, the safety clothing of factory workers everywhere, gardening shirtless in small dachas, old army pants, colorful prints, canvas shoes and tattoos from military service, shoulders adorned with lions, bears and other predators. The militias are the third presence here; less seen than felt. Men buff, groomed, also often bearded, and jackbooted. Their tattoos are obscure, engorged with action, and narrating the lives of their possessors. It is difficult to see these men. They operate in the periphery of our vision, for a direct gaze might make us their accomplices. /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

I’ve been watching the football in the hip bars and steakhouses of Mariupol. Microbreweries, craft hamburgers, bearded and coifed patrons, tattoos of flowers, Chinese characters, other markers of global fashion. Some of the cafes are run by people who fled Donetsk. Some of them receive international development funds. Many have families across Europe and North America; they are all on social networks, of course.

When we think about war, we often imagine it as remote and unreachable, but it is woven into the fabric of our global lives. The trope of the faraway war leads us to misunderstand modern conflict; distance is strategic, not romantic. We create physical distance to the front by the suspension of flights, by the checkpoints that slow passage into the border zone. We create social distance by the language we use to describe war, by the legal regimes we impose on the people caught in it, by the conditions we place on reporting and the depiction of violence, by our own need for psychological distance from violence. In other words, the romance of distance is itself a strategy that allows us to not implicate ourselves in war.

Mariupol, with a population of half a million, has factories that pump out steel for the global market, financed internationally since their inception in the late 19th century. The city is still more production than consumption, and the steel workers bring their own fashions: the safety clothing of factory workers everywhere, gardening shirtless in small dachas, old army pants, colorful prints, canvas shoes and tattoos from military service, shoulders adorned with lions, bears and other predators.

The militias are the third presence here, less seen than felt. Men buff, groomed, also often bearded, and jackbooted. Their tattoos are obscure, engorged with action, and narrating the lives of their possessors. It is difficult to see these men. They operate in the periphery of our vision, for a direct gaze might make us their accomplices.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

 

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Dear Anton,

In Mariupol I’ve been avoiding the mid-day sun. The light refracts off the Sea of Azov, harsh and clear, unless the wind blows haze over the city from the Illich and Avostal steel plants. Which has led me to a belated realization: when you speak of finding your sunshine, you don’t mean it only as a conventional metaphor for happiness, or as literal heat and light. You mean it as a concept, in which sunshine stands for emptiness, or, to be more precise, for something sparse and enduring.

Perhaps you have other words. To your point about the limits of language, and context. The past few days I’ve been trying to make images that create an idea about Mariupol that I’m also having trouble naming. This is a city under pressure, an object of interest for both Ukrainians and Russians, and many versions of what that means. Yet it has mostly avoided the destruction visited upon other towns. The residents are keeping their heads down. Reticent comes to mind, as does fugitive. But I’m not sure that’s right. Maybe that’s how I’m feeling.

I keep trying to find the space to tell you a story about something that happened last week in London. I was having a quiet drink with a friend. Sitting next to us were three men, and one began jew-baiting us. For 10 minutes he explored every grammatical form of jew available in English, mumbling jewy jew jews jews, jew and so on. I usually ignore this kind of provocation, as acknowledging it leads to escalation. Yet saying nothing grants impunity to the abuser. Shift this to the social scale, and we arrive in our current situation, the veiled rhetoric of bigotry allowed more and more public space, until it becomes the norm, and blooms in political upheaval, in public violence.

In any case, it’s unclear to me whether laying low is the right strategy for Mariupol, or what the alternative might be. There is near-daily shelling 20 km from here. We can hear it when the wind blows west.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///
5 July 2016
Tetrapods, normally used to build piers, have been used in Mariupol's defense, and today are found around the city painted with Ukrainian folk symbols. Mariupol, Ukraine, July 4, 2016. Photo: Ivan Sigal

Tetrapods, normally used to build piers, have been used in Mariupol’s defense, and today are found around the city painted with Ukrainian folk symbols. Mariupol, Ukraine, July 4, 2016. Photo: Ivan Sigal

The Ukrainian city of Mariupol sits 20 km from the front line between separatists and the Ukrainian military. It is a city at peace, but close enough to hear the war. Fighting between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military has escalated over past months, and residents in Mariupol hear mortars and rocket fire when the wind blows from the East, from the front-line towns of Shyrokyne and Novotroitske.

The Ukrainians have made defense of Mariupol their line in the sand: it is a port city with crucial transport infrastructure, access to the Sea of Azov, and two huge steel plants as well as assorted other heavy industries. It is also the city the Russians would need to capture in order to build a land bridge to Crimea, which would secure the strategic viability of their claim to that territory.

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Dear Anton, I’m on a train south from Kyiv. It’s early, I'm drowsily scanning the fugitive patterns in the worked and ordered land. The scrubby forest, the sandy tracks that snake through the trees, occasional stands of fir. Villages with wooden homes, dachas, and ubiquitous concrete-clad apartment buildings. The megaliths of Ukraine’s industrial heartland, the factories that stretch for kilometers along the Dnieper River. I’ve been on the move, and approaching by steps Europe’s newest border, between Ukraine and its separated eastern territories, the Donbass. Yesterday in Kyiv I decided to compare the Soviet treatment of Europe’s wars to that of the French, and spent a few hours in the memorial formerly known as “The National Museum of the Great Patriotic War,” renamed since the separatist conflict as the "Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II." The museum occupies the plinth of the famous statue of “Motherland,” which at over 60 meters dominates Kyiv’s skyline. The whole complex is a manifestation of the cliche we call the weight of history. Soviet-era exhibits didactic and unsubtle - ranks of machine guns, flame-filled panoramas, dioramas displaying the personal effects and official documents of martyrs and heroes, maps in extruded metal showing advances of armies westward, a noose lit by a spotlight to dramatize death in Nazi camps, a hall of thousands of portraits of the dead. In the museum’s foyer a new exhibit memorializes the heroes of the Donbass war: dioramas of the artifacts of fallen men that roughly mimic the Soviet encasements: keys, watches, religious icons, guitars, handwritten letters, photos of children. In truth, I thought I’d perceive these exhibits as musty, laden kitsch. But our talk of systems and industries has led me to consider our systems of memorialization. Individuals, then lists of names, then iterations of image, then data and patterns, the cumulation of which leaves me in a sort of conceptual turmoil. Perhaps, underlying all this, stands an accusation. /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

I’m on a train south from Kyiv. It’s early, I’m drowsily scanning the fugitive patterns in the worked and ordered land. The scrubby forest, the sandy tracks that snake through the trees, occasional stands of fir. Villages with wooden homes, dachas, and ubiquitous concrete-clad apartment buildings. The megaliths of Ukraine’s industrial heartland, the factories that stretch for kilometers along the Dnieper River. I’ve been on the move, and approaching by steps Europe’s newest border, between Ukraine and its separated eastern territories, the Donbass.

Yesterday in Kyiv I decided to compare the Soviet treatment of Europe’s wars to that of the French, and spent a few hours in the complex formerly known as “The National Museum of the Great Patriotic War,” renamed since the separatist conflict as the “Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II.” The museum occupies the plinth of the famous statue of “Motherland,” which at over 60 meters dominates Kyiv’s skyline.

The place  is an embodiment of the cliche we call the weight of history. Didactic, unsubtle Soviet-era exhibits dominate: ranks of machine guns, flame-filled panoramas, dioramas displaying the personal effects and official documents of martyrs and heroes, maps in extruded metal showing advances of armies westward, a noose lit by a spotlight to dramatize death in Nazi camps, a hall of thousands of portraits of the dead.

In the museum’s foyer a new exhibit memorializes the heroes of the Donbass war: dioramas of the artifacts of fallen men roughly mimic the Soviet encasements: keys, watches, religious icons, guitars, handwritten letters, photos of children.

In truth, I thought I’d experience these exhibits as musty and laden with kitsch. But our talk of systems and industries has led me to consider our systems of memorialization. Individuals, then lists of names, then iterations of image, then data and patterns, the cumulation of which leaves me in a sort of conceptual turmoil. Perhaps, underlying all this, stands an accusation.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, The Esplanade des Invalides in Paris is scruffy and untended. Rutted paths lead under the lindens to the British Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to Napoleon’s tomb. Underneath it is a parking lot; at intervals throughout the territory narrow concrete stairs lead down to it, looking a great deal like the entrance to a bunker. As I was passing, every person emerging from those depths blinked and stumbled, disoriented by the light and by the similarity of the terrain in every direction. I was on my way to the Musée de l’Armée, intending to visit the dioramas of French star forts on the fourth floor. They are incredibly detailed miniatures of an ultimately misguided concept, as the construction standards of those forts didn’t keep pace with increasingly powerful artillery. By the 19th century the defensive response was to continually expand the perimeter walls to keep the guns further from the fort. This continued to the point of absurdity, the defense of entire nations with concrete and stone, at the same time as the nation became the nation state, with fixed borders and controls. The Maginot line might be the clearest expression of that idea; its failure revealed the flaw in the idea of sovereignty enforced primarily through walls and force. In the event, I spent most of my day watching old newsreels of the European wars. From the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the capture of Gavrilo Princip, to the Somme and Verdun, on to the German bombardment of London, to Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, El Alamein, to D-Day, the liberation of Provence, and the capture of Berlin. The footage looped fragments of events to make these battles into compressed narratives. I sat and watched them dozens of times, eventually no longer seeing the stories, but only the visual artifacts and distortions of time, the scratches and streaks and shadows. /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

The Esplanade des Invalides in Paris is scruffy and untended. Rutted paths lead under the lindens to the British Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to Napoleon’s tomb. Underneath it is a parking lot; at intervals throughout the territory narrow concrete stairs lead down to it, looking a great deal like the entrance to a bunker. As I was passing, every person emerging from those depths blinked and stumbled, disoriented by the light and by the similarity of the terrain in every direction.

I was on my way to the Musée de l’Armée, intending to visit the dioramas of French star forts on the fourth floor. They are incredibly detailed miniatures of an ultimately misguided concept. The thick walls of those forts could not protect against increasingly powerful artillery.

This 19th century defensive tactic continued to the point of absurdity: ever expanding layers of perimeter walls defending entire nations with concrete and stone. The nation became the nation state, with fixed borders delineated on maps. The Maginot line might be the clearest manifestation of the flawed idea of sovereignty secured through walls.

In the event, I spent most of my day watching old newsreels of the European wars. From the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the capture of Gavrilo Princip, to the Somme and Verdun, on to the German bombardment of London, to Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, El Alamein, to D-Day, the liberation of Provence, and the capture of Berlin. The footage looped fragments of events to make these battles into compressed narratives. I sat and watched them dozens of times, eventually no longer seeing the stories, but only the visual artifacts and distortions of time, the scratches and streaks and shadows. 

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, At night, lying in the dark I can feel my heart bumping in my ribcage and equally, the slow diminishment of myself. With time comes the desire to build memorials, even to the single life that I have. I think about how to depict or show this feeling, but every expression of it seems to emerge as sentiment, pretense or nostalgia. You share something simple with me, a thought about your stepson, an urge for sunshine. I marvel at this unfussy, stubborn idea you’ve presented. What’s true for you at the moment, or plainly in front of you. Doglike, in your language. Yet you hint at something unsettled, nearby. The red crosshairs in your image, and the human form next to them. I suddenly understand that we’re looking down the barrel of a gun. As images come I both want to share them with you and to hold on to them, in the fantasy that they might become something else, more durable or original. Something memorialized, or at least memorable. I try to let go of that impulse, for who knows if I will make something larger than myself, or if it is helpful to ask that question. Though I have also found that letting images sit, forgetting them for years, may skew their meaning in unexpected ways. This is the response, I think, to your question about whether I can act without concern for what the act reveals. I should mention I’m now in London. It’s late, I’ve woken suddenly. I’m in a hotel above Charing Cross. I can feel the thrumming of traffic, the continuous flow of night busses, the Tube deep underground. Nelson stands on his column, just out of sight in Trafalgar Square. The 4th plinth, for public art, stands empty. I may disown these words in the morning. /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

At night lying in the dark, I can feel my heart bumping in my ribcage and equally, the slow diminishment of myself. With time comes the desire to build memorials, even to the single life that I have. I think about how to depict or show this feeling, but every expression of it seems to emerge as sentiment, pretense, or nostalgia.

You share something simple with me, a thought about your stepson, an urge for sunshine. I marvel at this unfussy, stubborn idea you’ve presented. What’s true for you at the moment, or plainly in front of you. Doglike, in your language. Yet you hint at something unsettled. The red crosshairs in your image, and the human form next to them. I suddenly understand that we’re looking down the barrel of a gun.

As images come I both want to share them with you and to hold on to them, in the fantasy that they might become something else, more durable or original. Something memorialized, or at least memorable. I try to let go of that impulse, for who knows if I will make something larger than myself, or if it is helpful to ask that question. Though I have also found that letting images sit, forgetting them for years, may alter their meaning in unexpected ways. This is the response, I think, to your question about whether I can act without being concerned with what the act reveals.

I should mention I’m now in London. It’s late, I’ve woken suddenly. I’m in a hotel above Charing Cross. I can feel the thrumming of traffic, the continuous flow of night busses, the Tube deep underground. Nelson stands on his column, just out of sight in Trafalgar Square. On the fourth plinth, for public art, the skeleton of a horse in bronze, its sharp, serrated ribs.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, The inclination of your pensive, shadowed head. The figure may be human or stone, it’s impossible to know. Though it is rare for public statuary to assume introspective poses. We prefer those we put on pedestals to gaze at the horizon. The public figure on a plinth leads me to think of its counterpoint; specifically the efforts of those who elevated him. Or should I say, upon whose backs he was elevated. Though it is easy to traffic in generalities. We well know the cycle of elevation and desecration of past heroes, as their ideas come in and out of fashion, and the public contention and violence that results. In any case, your inclined head implies reflection, which in turn implies a response to an event or a gesture, a fragment of narrative. In choosing images for you, I‘ve been pulled between those that imply a story and those imply a concept. And when I choose I step away from reason and instead allow an image to arise in my mind. Once it has secured a place it begins to accumulate a weight that is difficult to resist. All this talk of groups and conformity, of statues and gazes, of empire and eternity. And you in Rome. It’s leading me to Tiberius, inclined to introspection, the “gloomiest of men” according to Pliny the Elder, but also conqueror of the Roman north, of the Germanic tribes. And the image that’s arisen in response, perhaps inescapably, is of the slaughterhouse. #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

The inclination of your figure’s pensive, shadowed head. It may be human or stone; it’s impossible to know. Though it is rare for public statuary to assume an introspective pose. We prefer those we put on pedestals to gaze at the horizon.

The public figure on a plinth leads me to think of its counterpoint; specifically the efforts of those who elevated him. Or should I say, upon whose backs he was lifted. Though it is easy to traffic in generalities. We well know the cycles of celebration and desecration of past heroes as their ideas come in and out of fashion, often with accompanying public contention and violence.

In any case, your bowed head suggests reflection, which in turn suggests a response, a fragment of narrative. In choosing images for you, I‘ve been pulled between those that imply a story and those that imply a concept. And when I choose I step away from reason and instead allow an image to arise in my mind. Once it has secured a place it begins to accumulate a weight that is difficult to resist.

All this talk of groups and conformity, of statues and gazes, of empire and eternity. And you in Rome. It’s leading me to Tiberius, inclined to introspection, the “gloomiest of men” according to Pliny the Elder, but also conqueror of the Roman north, of the Germanic tribes. And the image that’s arisen in response, perhaps inescapably, is of the slaughterhouse.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, At the base of the columns of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russian boys and girls lingered and flirted, while elderly women in long skirts exited the heavy wooden doors of the nave after prayer. That cathedral, if you’ve never been, spreads its columned arms along Nevsky Prospekt, the heart of the city. It is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Peter the Great also got the name; hence the city. Of course, it is Moscow rather than St. Petersburg that claims status of third Rome, the Orthodox heir. All these millennial aspirants, with visions of eternal empire. Between the stone column and the child’s wave. Between the concrete blast barrier and a dog’s shadow. The former establishes structure and requires obedience. The latter diverts the eye and requests a response. Of these options, I tell myself that I prefer the ephemeral gesture to the enduring commitment. Though you might argue that both stone and flesh are fleeting and it is only a matter of scale. In any case, I wonder, despite my partiality for closing eyes, the drawing of curtains, or the sweeping of brooms, why I continue to send you images of brick walls, concrete bollards, and granite pillars? ///  #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

At the base of the columns of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russian boys and girls lingered and flirted, while elderly women in long skirts exited the heavy wooden doors of the nave after prayer. That cathedral, if you’ve never been, spreads its columned arms along Nevsky Prospekt, the heart of the city. It is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Peter the Great inherited the name; hence the city. Of course, it is Moscow rather than St. Petersburg that claims the status of the Third Rome, the Orthodox heir. All these millennial aspirants, with visions of eternal empire.

Between the stone column and a child’s wave. Between the concrete blast barrier and a dog’s shadow. The former establishes structure and requires obedience. The latter diverts the eye and requests a response. Of these options, I tell myself that I prefer the ephemeral gesture to the enduring commitment. Though you might argue that both stone and flesh are fleeting and it is only scale that distinguishes them. In any case, I wonder, despite my partiality for closing eyes, the drawing of curtains, or the sweeping of brooms, why I continue to send you images of brick walls, concrete bollards, and granite pillars?

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

image_by_image

Dear Anton,

A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend in rural Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up. He had an old red Alfa Romeo convertible that he rarely drove. I opened a door to a shed where it was stored, the indraft of new air stirring motes of dust, of the scent of rodents and rest. The car was wrapped in a heavy, pale cover and partly obscured by boxes and lawn furniture stacked upon it. The last time I drove it was more than five years ago, with my father.

Our home movies, when I was a child, were shot on 8mm film and projected in the living room. We set up a portable screen or maybe we cast the images on a wall. The film canisters were robin blue and we wrote the date and subject on them with black permanent marker. While I’m sure those films covered the usual range of family activities – picnics, camping, sandcastles by the seashore, sturdy, stubborn children, the only images I recall now are of machines and movement – of me driving a tricycle again and again into a wall, or my father racing his rare yellow Porsche Elva up hills and around race tracks.

I should clarify. When I say I recall, what I actually mean is that there is a flickering in my mind of an image on the wall, and particular gestures. The wave of a hand, a flashed smile, the moment of impact and a child’s jerking head. The other details may not exist, at least not on film. Such as the time my father drove his car into a tree because his brakes had failed. In my mind I witnessed that accident. I can still see it.

As I’ve written this, casting about for more fragments of image, I’ve been fighting a sense of alarm and confusion. I’ve been mislead by the indistinct form of your shrouded vehicle. I’ve never driven my friend’s convertible, up and down the steep, shaded Pennsylvania hills, the narrow carriage roads and farm tracks, the lean of our bodies as we spiraled down into ravines, the rush of speed and flickering shadow.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, In the fair city that I currently inhabit, in early summer, a high canopy of trees conceals the row houses, bamboo invidiously creeps under fences, the English ivy over walls. The broad leaves of fig and hosta turn upward to catch the rain. Mornings the streets are skeined with movement. The boys and girls, hair still damp and shiny, rush to catch the bus to work or school. On the buses something seems to gather out of the collective health and cleanliness of the passengers, a sort of eagerness for the day that could be described by the word prosperity. We know, of course, that appearances are surfaces. I won’t dwell on the many ways rouge can disguise a bruise, or paint conceal rot. Instead it is the density of objects in space I want to point to, how a busy streetscape asks us to pick out geometries and details, to see a projection of human dramas. There is nothing sparse in this vision; there is no horizon line. When I sat down to write this morning I intended to respond to your question of surety. As you put it, acting without caring for consequence. Instead I’ve been led astray by another question, the one implicit in your image of the undercarriage of branches. ///  #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

In the fair city that I currently inhabit, in early summer, a high canopy of trees conceals row houses, bamboo creeps under fences, English ivy over walls. The broad leaves of fig and hosta turn upward to catch the rain. Mornings the streets are skeined with movement. Boys and girls, hair still damp and shiny, rush to catch the bus to work or school. On the buses something seems to gather out of the collective health and cleanliness of the passengers, a sort of eagerness for the day that is given to the prosperous.

We know, of course, that appearances are illusory. I won’t dwell on the many ways rouge can disguise a bruise, or paint conceal rot. Instead it is the density of objects in space I want to point to, how a busy streetscape asks us to pick out geometries and details, to project dramas upon those passing by. There is nothing sparse in this vision; there is no horizon line.

When I sat down to write this morning I intended to respond to your question of surety. As you put it, acting without caring for consequence. Instead I’ve been led astray by another question, the one implicit in your image of the undercarriage of branches.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, You speak of hope, but as I think about what you’re saying, it’s endurance that comes to mind. How you found yourself in that tree is something of a mystery, but I can imagine you up there, squinting through branches. It was early spring, the ground was wet and terrain flat. Maybe you felt a little bit exposed. What I want to know is, once you were there, did you find what you thought you wanted? Or did what you find become the image you then desired? Your animal, the flicked tail, its monumental shadow with its confounding, spindly legs. If it were sculpture it would be made of mottled iron. You start on a journey or down a route of exploration, perhaps full of hope and detailed plans, perhaps unsure but acting anyway. You take one step, then another. Soon, though, you’ve created a way of working, and a little while after that you feel as if you’ve always been that way. How do you ask whether it’s still what you need? Emotions come and go, it’s hard to get out of bed before sunset to capture a certain light. You might travel for days towards a particular atmosphere, enduring the tedium of the road and plenty of time to wonder whether you’re being clever or just bloodyminded. You go on anyway. Maybe you’ve created a program and it’s easier to follow it. Maybe back just isn’t an option, or a diversion elsewhere feels unmoored. Later you might come to find something you need in the the image you made, or the task you accomplished. Is it the image that has value? Does it seem to allude to something else, or do just let it be? Or Is it a marker for the journey, perhaps, the time you spent in that tree? //  #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

You speak of hope, but as I think about what you’re saying, it’s endurance that comes to mind. How you found yourself in that tree might be a mystery, but I can imagine you up there, squinting through branches. It was early spring, the ground was wet and terrain flat. Maybe you felt a little bit exposed. What I want to know is, once you were there, did you find what you thought you wanted? Or was what you found the image you then desired? Your animal, its flicked tail, a monumental shadow with confounding, spindly legs. If it were sculpture it would be made of mottled iron.

You start on a journey or a route of exploration, perhaps full of hope and detailed plans, perhaps unsure but acting anyway. You take one step, then another. Soon you’ve created a way of working, and after a little while you feel as if you’ve always been that way. How do you ask whether it’s still what you need? Emotions come and go, it’s hard to get out of bed before sunset to capture a certain light. You might travel for days towards a particular atmosphere, enduring the tedium of the road and plenty of time to wonder whether you’re being clever or just bloodyminded. You go on anyway. Maybe you’ve created a program and it’s easier to follow it. Maybe back just isn’t an option, or a diversion elsewhere feels unmoored. Later you might find something you need in the image you made, or the task you accomplished. Is it the image that has value? Does it seem to allude to something else? Or is it a marker for the journey, perhaps for the time you spent in that tree?

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton, Once we have learned to see shapes, it is most difficult to unsee them. In your image I struggle to see  two black dots as anything but eyes, and a shadowed slit as a mouth. During those cold travels with E (I’ll call her E), we discussed sight in its many permutations. As both an aid and impediment to understanding, as desire, as pain, as memory, as illusion. We spoke of the design of cities and towns, where one could live without eyes, and where one was rendeyred captive by the construction of buildings and streets, the availability of public transport, of sidewalks, of neighborhood shops and services. E mentioned that she lived in Russia because the cities could be navigated without sight. She lived in Yekaterinburg I believe, a city with a compact core, but she had come from a suburb, where she was utterly dependent on others for movement. We tried to find words to describe depth perception, how to interpret shape and form, what an image might be to someone for whom image is abstraction. We tried to find language that would approximate visual language – composition, space, and time, movement through a seen world. E described her perfect work of art as an image that fit her field of vision exactly, spreading over the visible until it covered everything, a screen, a sky, a color field. Her idea of making a work of art was based on the capacity for sight afforded by her lensless eye. She was struck by the idea of colors on a single plain, and their alteration. Which tells me, now, that even though her instrument for seeing is different than ours, her impulse to shape with that instrument is the same. /// is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Dear Anton,

Once we have learned to see shapes, it is most difficult to unsee them. In your image I struggle to interpret  two black dots as anything but eyes, and the shadowed slit as a mouth.

During those cold travels with E (I’ll call her E), we discussed sight in its many permutations, as both an aid and impediment to understanding, as desire, as pain, as memory, as illusion. We spoke of the design of cities and towns, where one could live without eyes and where one was rendered captive by the construction of buildings and streets, the availability of public transport, of sidewalks, of neighborhood shops and services. E mentioned that she lived in Russia because the cities could be navigated without sight. She lived in Yekaterinburg I believe, a city with a compact core, but she had come from a suburb, where she was utterly dependent on others for movement.

We tried to find words to describe depth perception, how to interpret shape and form, what an image might be to someone for whom image is abstraction. We tried to find language that would approximate visual experience – composition, space and time, movement through a seen world.

E described her perfect work of art as an image that exactly fit her field of vision, spreading over the visible until it covered everything, a screen, a sky, a color field. Her idea of making a work of art was based on the capacity for sight afforded by her lensless eye. She was struck by the idea of colors on a single plane, and their alteration. Which tells me, now, that even though her instrument for seeing is different than ours, her impulse to shape with that instrument is the same.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters.@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

 

This story was originally published on Global Voices and written with Tanya Lokot.

Luhansk_AbbeyRoad

“The Luhansk videos focus on the mundane. And that. . . is the point.” Screenshot from a dashcam video posted on YouTube.

A car revs and pulls forward. Volume cranked on the radio, out blares a Russian pop song from the 1990s, all static and drum machine. Streets, pavement, peripheral view of buildings, trees, kiosks, streetlights, pedestrians. Occasionally the driver remarks on something unseen in the landscape. It is a woman. It is a man. It is late spring and the poplars are shedding their white tufted seeds. It is winter and heavy wet flakes land on the windshield. The road is white. The route is through intersections, around corners, past monuments, gas stations, schools, apartment buildings, parks. It had no obvious beginning; it seems as if it could continue forever.

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Dear Anton,

I’ve been thinking recently about a person I traveled with some years ago, on buses and old turboprops around Kazakhstan. It was January and we traveled for several weeks, and in my memory we were never able to get warm. She was blind, or nearly so. Her eyes had no lenses; she could see only light and shadow. She carried a small magnifying glass and with this she was able to focus on shapes. She had acquired the magnifier as an adult, and was learning to understand what she was seeing image by image. For instance, she was able to see photos of her daughter, but could not read the expressions on her face. She carried those photos everywhere, and showed them to people we met, taking on faith that her daughter was cheerful and smiling in the pictures. During the time that we traveled together, to Shymkent, Aktau, Pavlodar, Semipalatinsk and other cities in Kazakhstan, along icy roads and in long, cold waits in bus stations and airports, we explored the difference between icicles and lamp posts, lamp posts and radio towers, streetlights and the full moon.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

This post was originally published in The Guardian as “Numaish Karachi: can art installations change this violent megacity’s image?” on June 5, 2015.

Photo by Humayun Memon. Used with permission.

Photo by Humayun Memon. Used with permission.

Karachi, a city known for intractable political conflict and as a shelter for militants from the Afghan wars, has difficulty escaping its reputation as the world’s most violent megacity. It has suffered some 13,500 killings in the past five years – a level of violence that has significantly degraded public safety and access to public spaces, and has instead encouraged the creation of sectarian, ethnic and political enclaves.

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5 May 2015

As with flock, herd, murder, or coven, blogs in their late maturity should finally receive a collective descriptor. Agony, denoting a sense of public contest, a chorus observing and commenting upon the affairs of the day, and extreme pain, feels appropriate, as it captures the current discord of our civic speech. These agonies are our struggles to create meaning for ourselves and to express them in the world. They exist both in the conversations we have amongst ourselves and in the structuring of speech through information technologies. They are the trolling battles in the comment sections of newspapers, the edit wars on Wikipedia, and the virtual armies assembling to attack and silence those they disagree with through DDOS attacks, data theft, and coordinated public shaming and hate. They are also the silences of our deserted personal blogs, comment sections empty and hyperlinks broken. They are the endless and numbing stream of our social media feeds. The agonies are our moments of agreement, consilience and humor, in those times we are fully present with our communities and friends. Our agonies, as with other choruses, require harmony, yet we clearly see that the creation of an agreeable group implies the exclusion of others, just as the success of one social media platform implies the demise of others. The iron law of attention leads to winners and losers, to the dominance of first movers, to the power curve of popularity. Our agonies are made and unmade by the same hand.

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KCR appeared at Harvard’s Fogg Museum as a nine-channel interactive on April 20, 2015, and a second time in July as part of the workshop Beautiful Data, a two-week course on interactive media to help curators and archivists “develop art-historical storytelling through data visualization, interactive media, enhanced curatorial description and exhibition practice, digital publication, and data-driven, object-oriented teaching.” It featured in the Lightbox Gallery, a space dedicated to digital installations in the new, Renzo Piano-designed addition to the museum. The installation was built in the programming language Processing, an open source project built to manage interactivity, nonlinearity, and graphic design. Coding help from Sands Fish and editing assistance from Robin Bell. Following is a sample clip of the installation:

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12 April 2015
KCR screening at Frere Hall in central Karachi, April 2015.

KCR screening at Frere Hall in central Karachi, April 2015.

A screening of KCR – a visual exploration of the Karachi Circular Railway – is part of Numaish Karachi, an exhibition of over two dozen art installations at Frere Hall in central Karachi, from April 6-22.

Karachi Circular Railway
Video installation
Filmmaker: Ivan Sigal
Material: Single-channel version

KCR is a multimedia installation that traces the path of the defunct Karachi Circular Railway. The film takes the viewer on a meditative journey through one of the world’s most complex and conflicted megacities, exploring its urban and human landscape through video, stills, text and drone footage. It is available for display in several formats. In Karachi it is a single channel video projected onto a large outdoor screen.

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This article was originally published in Building Peace Forum; it reflects upon the work of Global Voices support for online freedom of expression.

In 2013, a group of Ethiopian bloggers and journalists created a blog to express their interest in a more open, inclusive, and democratic country. They called the blog Zone9, an ironic reference to the eight zones of Ethiopia’s Kaliti prison; their collective writing intended to demonstrate the possibility of a more open civic life. They chose to publish their writing on the Internet both out of necessity—it was the only public venue easily available to them—and aspiration, as it connected them to a global community of writers, thinkers, and translators with similar ideas.

Given Ethiopia’s history of imprisoning journalists and intellectuals, they knew their work was risky. When eight of the bloggers and journalists were arrested in April 2014 and charged with a range of offenses under Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, they were not completely surprised. It was, however, a troubling turn that the evidence against them—and the reason they were legally charged with criminal intent—was that they had received training in the use of digital security and encryption tools from the Tactical Technology Collective.  The journalists remain imprisoned, awaiting trial, as of March 2015.

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This post was originally published in Foreign Policy as Karachi’s Killers, and is part of a project funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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KCR Footbridge in Nazimabad, Karachi, Pakistan, 2014.

On Sunday, June 8, militants brazenly attacked Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, and managed to control it for several hours. By the time the Pakistani military was able to end the battle, at least 38 people, including the attackers, had been killed.

While the attack has done little material damage to the port city, it inflicted a serious moral wound. It exposed the weakness of Pakistan’s security and revealed the ease with which armed men can brutally disrupt the lives of the country’s citizens — not that Karachi’s residents need to be reminded that the state’s hold on the safety of their streets and homes is extremely tenuous. They have endured this kind of dramatic political violence for years — from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on the city’s streets in 2007 to the bombing of a Shia religious march in 2009 to the 2011 attack on the Mehran naval base outside of Islamabad.

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The world is saturated with media content, and attention is scarce almost everywhere. The fact of saturation and the ease of production does not mean equitable access to attention, even for important and worthwhile content. What we call the caring problem for audiences is not a determined fact, but also of building communities, language choices, design, and social media tactics. In this talk Ivan Sigal — photographer, Berkman Fellow, and Executive Director of Global Voices — explores the effects of citizen media and social movements, within the lens of Global Voices coverage and activism, with an eye toward developing future editorial practices.

 

This story was originally published by Creative Time Reports.

The top of a mosque moved more than a mile by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as depicted in a poster displayed at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

The top of a mosque moved more than a mile by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as depicted in a poster displayed at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

Last year I visited Banda Aceh, a provincial capital located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra. The Indonesian city was the epicenter of the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami, which tore through communities from Thailand all the way to Somalia, killing approximately 230,000 people. While I had traveled to Sri Lanka to help right after the storm, I followed Banda Aceh’s story of recovery closely over the years. I wanted to see for myself the choices a community made in rebuilding and memorializing those lost in the disaster. What I discovered was both haunting and instructive, a monument to a past catastrophe and a harbinger of things to come.

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Summary: a joint post with Tim Davies reflecting on our learning from a recent Berkman Center Network Stories hack-day

There are hundreds of different digital tools for building online stories, and myriad ways to use them. Building stories online often requires creating alternative production and distribution paths for stories, in the context of networked, online communities.

The choice of tools affects the way a story is told and experienced. When starting a new project it can be challenging to work out which tools to use, how to use them and whether they work together.

Over the last few months the Network Stories group at the Berkman Center has been exploring different approaches to storytelling in digital media. This Saturday around 20 of us got together at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media for a full day, hands-on exploration of different digital storytelling approaches. We were a diverse group: coders, journalists, data scientists, theorists, filmmakers, scholars and artists.

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In June 2013, two sisters in the Chilas Vally in northern Pakistan were murdered by their step-brother, after a video of them dancing in the rain was shot on a mobile phone and circulated in their community.

The killing may have been sparked by an offended sense of honor, or possibly part of a plot to take the family’s property. While investigating the case and the trajectory of the video from creation to dissemination, my Global Voices colleague Sahar Habib Ghazi and I noticed that many of the hundreds of thousands of online videos tagged “Pakistani Dancing” are intentionally misappropriated and mislabeled images of woman dancing in private settings. These are personal videos that someone tags with terms such as “sexy” and “hot”, taking innocent images and adding a metadata layer of overt sexualization. Some of these videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

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23 October 2013

What shall we make of the flood of images and voices coursing through the Internet, and how shall we understand it? In our minds, the details of so much material overlap and overwhelm. On the Internet, we say, our attention is getting shorter, but our memory is improving. And yet, when I turn off my wifi, take off my glasses, and confront the flicker and hum of images in my own degraded memory, I know that the Internet’s recall will be as partial as my own. But, it seems to me, it will fail differently.

Human memories have half-lives. I remember seeing a video some years ago of two Russian football mobs clashing on a bridge. Red shirts versus blue, vicious kicks and punches, someone pushed into the water, the back-and-forth rush and blur of faces and bodies, all recorded by a shaky hand on a balcony overlooking the scene. I used to live in Russia, and I’ve been on those balconies; it could have been me standing on that slab of rotten concrete in the sky, camera in one hand, bottle of Baltika strong beer in the other.

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1 July 2013

Over 500,000 videos have been uploaded to the Internet from Syria during the past two years. Many document the course of protest and conflict, while others promote the views and perspectives of combatants, protesters, peace movements, and ordinary citizens who are witness to events. Despite this profusion of eyewitness perspective, the Syrian conflict has been poorly covered by media outlets worldwide. In part, this is because narrative descriptions of the war do not easily fit into a framework of good and evil, right and wrong. It is also because many videos that emerge are created with an absence of context, editing, or explanation.

While many of the uploaded videos are created by individuals, collectives and organizations have been active in curating, vetting, subtitling and promoting the content. Several groups function as virtual news agencies, both investigating and guaranteeing the sourcing of content, and syndicating the videos to mass media outlets and through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and especially YouTube, as well as livestream sites such as Bambuser and UStream. Emergent Syrian organizations distributing citizen video include the ANA New Media Channel and Shaam News Network. Syria Deeply tracks and organizes coverage of Syria, and also produces original analysis. Syria Untold documents the under-reported peace movement, which has continued despite the escalating war. Global Voices has ongoing special coverage of Syrian citizen media. The New York Times produces an ongoing compilation of material called Watching Syria’s War.

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New Directions in Visual Storytelling is a graduate-level seminar that focuses on alternative production and distribution paths for documentary, visual storytelling, and photojournalism in the context of networked, online communities. It explores the effect of technological change on the aesthetics, production methods, distribution, and social impact of visual storytelling. I taught this class in the master’s photojournalism program at Corcoran College of Art & Design in Washington D.C. in autumn 2012.

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21 February 2013

A partial list of interviews and reviews of White Road, the book and the show:

“White Road consists of a two volume set, one primarily text, the other pictures, that explores Ivan Sigal’s photographic work over a ten year period in Central Asia. The publication accompanied an exhibition of the same body of work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 2012 and 2013. The publication’s two volumes, beautifully produced, echo each other in text and image. The pictures function like little parts of speech, a noun here, a verb there, that collectively form a poetic interrogation of life in this part of the world. Sigal’s non-fiction text is comprised of fragments, much like his photographs, that form a kind of call-and-response to the images. Coordinated by Paul Roth, Senior Curator of Photography and Media Arts, this book and exhibition explore the role that photographic sequencing plays in the creation of narrative forms.” Russell Lord, Freeman Family Curator of PhotographsNew Orleans Museum of Art

Booooooom, November 17, 2014.

Interview on Too Much Information, on WFMU, July 1, 2013 playlist.

New York Times description and slideshow.

LeJournalDeLaPhotographie review and slideshow of the book.

The Guardian’s audio slideshow.

BBC News review and slideshow of the book.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty interview and slideshow of the book.

Eurasianet.org review and slideshow of the book.

Washington Post Express review of the exhibit.

Washington Diplomat review of the Corcoran Gallery exhibit.

Washington City Paper review of the Corcoran Gallery exhibit.

Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibit description and press release.

29 December 2012

Copies of White Road are now available from Steidl and the Corcoran Gallery bookshop. I have a limited number as well. If you are interested in a signed copy, get in touch. It is also available at online booksellers such as Amazon, but is backordered at many.

The book is two volumes, contained in a sturdy paper box. A book of photos and a book of writing.

IMG_5010

Book 1: 368 pages with 225 tritone photographs
10 x 7.3 in. / 25.5 x 18.5 cm
Book 2: 104 pages text
7.3 x 10 in. / 18.5 x 25.5 cm
Two books housed in a box

30 October 2012

An exhibition of White Road opens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. on November 3, 2012.

A brief description of the exhibit:

From 1998 through 2005, American photographer Ivan Sigal traveled through Central Asia, using his camera to record the unsettled lives of Eurasians in provincial towns and cities. Through nearly 100 photographs and accompanying text, White Road addresses an elusive question: What was left behind when the Soviet Union’s ideological superstructure was dismantled, eliminating the imposed meaning on people’s lives? Sigal’s first solo museum exhibition reveals a diverse population adapting in extraordinary times. The term “white road” means “safe journey” in Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek. These words are imprinted on road signs at the edges of Central Asian towns, wishing travelers well as they enter the vast and empty space.

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Support for Ivan Sigal: White Road is generously provided by the Family Alliance Foundation.

 

Printing at Steidl for the forthcoming book, White Road, available in November 2012.