Communication breakdown

Written by

Andrew Millar


September 4, 2008

Towards the middle of a week that already sat heavily on my chest, a book was lobbed onto my desk that did little to raise my spirit.

The book was so full of isolation, threat, despair and decay that I could only manage to flick through it before closing it and hiding it under a pile of job bags.

No, it wasn’t my bank book….

It was Communication Arts Photographic Annual 49.

The first image I encountered was on page 8. It is meant to be an inspiring image of the celebration of triumph. Instead it comes across as an aggressive moment of group violence against an unseen individual. Next to it on the spread is an image of a newspaper reading person sitting in a caravan. Others surround the van in a treeless, lifeless place. It is cold, bleak dreary and lonely.

The following pages contain lifeless portraits of people with hollow unseeing eyes and skin so pale and devoid of colour it could very well be a chronicle of the moment seconds after the soul has left the body. Photos of the freshly dead abound in this edition. It seems to be a fashion.

As in past years, there is the usual amount of exploitation of bewildered old/poor/disabled people. The captions usually justify the photos as ‘daily lives… focus on the surreal reality… both ordinary and austere…’ These images remind me of the work of the American photographer Diane Arbus. She had a voyeuristic approach to exploiting and demeaning her subjects – though she called it photojournalism. And in the end became so obsessed with the ‘unconventional side’ of life that in the end she took a massive dose of barbiturates and then slashed her wrists. If I lingered a lifetime with these hopeless images I’d be tempted to overcome my fear or razorblades.

I thought I’d found a bright little image on page 48. Some respite perhaps? Not so. The image is of a girl whose father died in a ‘flash of catastrophic bad luck…’ The image leaves you feeling hollow. It is as though she is being swallowed by the wilderness that killed her father.

Next, a chilling and charmless image of Vladimir Putin. The look in his unfeeling eyes is textbook psychopath.

More decay follows under the heading of ‘Editorial Imagery’. It should be ‘Editorial Misery’. I don’t know which I found more disturbing…: soldiers dying in the streets or a gaunt horse suffering the same fate… – all dark, oppressive, shadowy images. If it is not Palestine or Afghanistan, it’s Burma or Pakistan. Even a simple series of portraits of harmless animals is distorted and grotesque.

It’s a depressing volume.

They say the eye is a reflection of the soul. So by the same definition, the camera is merely an extension of the soul’s interpretation of what it sees. Is the world this fucked up? Consensus seems to think so. After all it is our thoughts and feelings that frame the scene and push the shutter release. If this photo album is a fair snapshot of the way the world is thinking, we need some time in the sun or at least a prescription for Prozac.

Me, I prefer a Marx Brothers film or a good walk with the dog. This book will put both to the ultimate test.