|Written by Max Houghton|
|03 Dec 2009|
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When is a photo book not a photo book? Maybe when it’s a love letter from President Saakashvili to the EU, touting for membership.
Forgive me for being overly cynical here. Georgian Spring, a work of unparalleled beauty and no mean budget, featuring photo essays and written contributions by 10 Magnum photographers is of course a photo book, an exquisitely produced one at that. Furthermore, it makes no secret of the fact that it was created at the express invitation of the Georgian Ministry of Culture, a result of a unique friendship that has flourished between Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak and Saakashvili (resulting in a Georgian passport for the former). But this explicit acceptance of the fact that people may, to borrow Dworzak’s phrase from his preface, “scream propaganda” is still at odds with the presentation of the work as an independent artistic project, free from the kind of branding that would make its true purpose the clearer.
The book’s most pervasive message appears to be the familiar one that Georgia is a brave little country that’s done well to escape the evil clutches of big bad Russia. Its emphasis on feasting, beautiful women and intriguing landscapes reveals little about the complex internal politics of a country that a year ago was at war over the disputed territory of South Ossetia. Moreover, a recent EU-sponsored report found Georgia to be not only every bit as culpable for its acts of aggression as Russia, but was deemed to have started the war. The smiling president, hagiographically portrayed by Dworzak in the book’s only really pointless essay, behaved in a criminally irresponsible manner towards his own citizens. According to the EU report, 850 people died in the attacks, and more than 100,000 fled their homes, some 35,000 of whom are still believed to be unable to return there. The dead are not documented in this book.
So… was it censorship? Did the 10 fearless photographers unearth stories that would blow government attempts to appear terribly civilised out of the water but were halted in their investigative tracks? Not at all, says Chris Boot, publisher of the book, as well as the project’s independent editor, appointed by Magnum as a condition of taking on the proposal. Boot cites the speed of the project’s trajectory from conception to completion (seven weeks) as one practical reason why there wasn’t more editorial intervention. The book’s title, with its rather questionable nod to the Prague Spring, also refers to the time span of the project, which began in earnest in late February and ended in April 2009.
Boot’s involvement was instrumental in that he chose the photographers and worked with them, as per his brief, to settle on an idea and bring it to fruition. His first decision was to go with Dworzak’s peer group: Paolo Pellegrin, Alex Majoli and Jonas Bendiksen; Alec Soth as Magnum’s current “big name”; then to include Martin Parr and Mark Power, as they were expressly requested by the Georgians; Martine Franck because of her long history with the country she visited with Cartier-Bresson and where she has retained many connections, making links between past and present; Gueorgui Pinkhassov, presumably at least in part because he is Russian; and, at Magnum’s persistent suggestion, Antoine D’Agata. Boot, a former bureau chief at Magnum, had no previous connection with D’Agata and was initially resistant to his inclusion.
“I wanted to do a piece of work which describes Georgia – a book with real content as opposed to what has sometimes been the case with these group projects, where photographers do their personal thing but it doesn’t mean much. I wanted this to be an informative book for the reader, for people to really learn about Georgia. I wouldn’t have chosen D’Agata. I had a suspicion about his work as an indulgent kind of egotism. But actually having met him, I’ve completely changed my view. I’m a fan.”
D’Agata’s work is exquisitely rendered, as ever, and was created to fit exactly into the space allocated to him in the book. It’s a visceral, haunting essay, which might be drawn from anywhere, though his connections with regional myth are vivid. Only D’Agata could make a Soviet-style car, bonnet and tailgate agape, look like a violated woman. There’s a phrase he uses in his extraordinary accompanying text: “I’m scared of myself… I’m scared of you… we fucked without condoms” that Boot seizes upon as a metaphor for the whole project. “It’s in this line that the whole point of the book rested: to allow independent photographers to freely describe a country in words and pictures. If that’s propaganda, it’s very 21st century!
“Actually, I think propaganda is too strong a word,” Boot continues. “We use the term in relation to communist countries or the right wing – they do propaganda. Everyone else does something gentler. All photojournalism is propaganda, all photography is too, even your family snaps. It’s all motivated.
“Yes, Georgian Spring has got a slightly promotional intention. But it’s not sinister. It’s not like doing a piece for Israel, for example, or apartheid South Africa. I don’t know if the [Georgian] president made an error of judgment [with South Ossetia]. This book doesn’t attempt to deal with that and it isn’t an apology for it, nor is it a political analysis. It’s just a bunch of photographers freely observing a small country. After all, what is its propaganda purpose? Georgia wants people to know about it.”
Surely it’s a begging letter to the EU? “They do want to join, sure. you’re fundamentally right – that’s part of it. One of the things the president did is to design a new flag. Whenever it’s flown it has to be flown with EU flag at same time. That is what it’s about. They see themselves as European but they feel very isolated wedged between Turkey and Russia. They want people to register who they are. What the Georgians wanted described was modern Georgia – if there was one thing they asked for that was it. And on that level, they didn’t get it. The photographers denied them. Mark Power does deliver the modern Georgia – but he can’t resist the past – the ‘astonishing beauty’ of the Soviet frieze in his words. He might well have come under pressure to ‘disclude’ that picture but he was determined.”
Power’s work stands out in this book, for its engagement with past and present, as much as for the descriptive landscape style he has made his own, as does Majoli’s powerful essay, which takes him to the borders of South Ossetia. While the sombre, desperate mood of the photographs is informed by war, there’s no suggestion that Georgia was in any way culpable for its devastating effect. The circus image, the last in the sequence, offers a subversive interpretation at least.
Dworzak’s own essay, however, is wildly partisan. Endless photographs show a thrusting young Twitter-friendly politician, gleaming with the kind of zeal reminiscent of Blair circa 1997. Dworzak’s friendship with “Misha” granted him frequent though less than illuminating access to the president.
“If you want an objective assessment of Misha’s presidency, you probably wouldn’t look to Thomas to do that,” concedes Boot. “When I saw the photography, I needed to know how to make sense of it; I argued that it needed a conclusion. So we came up with the idea of using his [Saakashvili’s] own words. I thought it would be really revealing and I think it is. You can argue on one level that it’s hagiographic, but to find out what he thinks are the most important things he’s done and how Georgia’s changed since he’s been in power… it’s open in that you’re able to investigate it yourself.”
Among Saakashvili’s soi-disant achievements is the transformation of the army, who five years ago were without food or shoes. Now the army is “one of the most trusted institutions in the country and a source of great pride,” he declares. He also cites the fact that he rid the nation of the corrupt criminal gang that operated as its police force. This is indeed a laudable achievement and a fascinating one, but no mention is made of how he did it, or what has happened to these men, now presumably unemployed. I can picture an Anna Funder-style investigation of these Soviet throwbacks, encountering them lurking in cafés, nursing strong coffees and stronger grudges.
There are further surprising omissions from the book – not a single image of Gori’s infamous son appears, though he is referenced in the text. The archive section is notably incomplete – there are no pictures from the civil war in 1992-93, or of the violent coup against President Gamsakhurdia. Boot says that Magnum didn’t have anyone working in Georgia between 1972 and 1989, and bar the occasional picture of baths by Pinkhassov from that period, the cupboard is bare. One of the most contentious geopolitical issues in the world – the pipeline running from the Caspian Sea through Georgia is also invisible, for reasons surely not solely due to its subterranean location. And the tens of thousands of protesters outside government buildings on the streets of Tbilisi in April 2009, demanding the resignation of a “tyrant” is a key event of the Georgian Spring that has been overlooked.
It doesn’t take much research to discover that organisations like the CPJ and Radio Free Europe are questioning Saakashvili’s tightening grip on the media (comparing it to Putin’s), or that his regime is detaining as many as 100 political prisoners. If scrutiny of the Georgian political regime yields such results, I would question the integrity of an “independent” photographer who fails to carry out similar research when their very subject matter is the presidency. Admittedly, in a collection of essays, each and every one does not have to be infused with the political – surely this is why D’Agata and even Pinkhassov were included. But when the darker side of the “jolly men feasting” trope remains hidden throughout, such omissions start to weigh heavily. And if critical responses would not have been able to appear in a publication like this, then one has to question the validity of the enterprise. There’s a prevailing feeling in the book that everyone likes the Georgians because they are fundamentally “people like us” and it’s precisely this liberal whitewash that renders the purpose of this gorgeous-looking book ill-defined.
The PR machine for this joint venture has been in full swing. The very first hand bound copies were given to US Vice President Biden, in a ceremony that can also be enjoyed on YouTube. It’s a big beast in the photography book publishing world, though how big, I can’t say for sure…
“I’m afraid I won’t be called on the budget or exact print run,” said Francesca Sears, Magnum London’s editorial director. “Suffice to say multiple thousands of copies were printed in four languages with co-publishers of Boot, including Kehrer in Germany, RM Editorial in Spain (published out of Mexico), and Textuel in France. The Georgians also have several thousand copies to use for promotional and diplomatic purposes in country and on the political world stage.”
While Magnum has always undertaken work of this kind (it has produced books for South Korea, Greece and Turkey among others), this mega-production from the prestigious House of Boot seems a reflection of the times that in order to generate income for its photographers, it has to crawl rather closer to power than is comfortable, power that some of it members would once have sought to scrutinise. I wonder if Philip Jones Griffiths would have had any truck with Georgian Spring.
Boot cites the lack of editorial interference, and believes this project allowed photographers more freedom to work that any magazine ever could. “It was an open brief for photographers to discover somewhere on their own terms; a really rare opportunity.” Beyond a photograph by Parr – of a grumpy man selling potatoes out of a car boot – that Dworzak wanted removed (he got his way but it stayed in the accompanying exhibition that has so far been seen in Berlin and Madrid and is at the time of writing looking for a London venue) and a sentence the Georgians objected to (which stayed), the only “state control” imposed was the inclusion of the postcard section that precedes the main content. I – wrongly – interpreted them as a Parr-style ironic intervention. Their inclusion came about because the Georgians wanted to see their beauteous landscapes represented, and their add-on status is apparently a not untypical Georgian method. “Thomas says that if a Georgian is buying a house and there’s an aspect they don’t like, they won’t change it or pull out but will add on something new. The postcard section is our Georgian balcony,” says Boot.
Readers will be charmed by the postcards of the Gelati Monastery, by Tusheti and Khevsureti, and indeed by this book, as everyone who has ever been to Georgia is charmed by the supras, the women and the vistas of this “plucky little country”. None of us is immune to the power of enchantment. But as Camus noted: “Charm is a way of getting the answer yes without asking a clear question.”
Max Houghton asks Chris Boot about propoganda, book commission and charming the reader. Listen to their recent conversation at HOST gallery.
Download the full audio mp3 by click saving this link
Georgia Spring: Max Houghton speaks to Chris Boot
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