Change the world

I am doing a very brief audio piece tomorrow. It will be part of a podcast. Fear not, I have no aspirations to board the good ship Radio Caroline to do pirate podcasts from the South China Sea. This will be a short interview about photography. I had to pick five themes that attract me about it. One of those will be its value as a record of events, those of historical significance, memorable images that speak to us and need no caption. I have on my book shelf a book that seems to fit that category perfectly. It claims to be a portfolio of Photos that Changed the World.

I had already scribbled down a few of my own examples but I wondered what had made it to the published version. It claims that these images are etched in our minds forever. Now I am not quite old enough to have been around when the first choice of photograph was made – 1906 since you ask – The San Francisco Earthquake. No, I don’t recall this one. Let’s try number two. Child Labour in the United States. No, I don’t recognise that one either and we have already moved ahead to 1908. Ah! Number three – The Wright Brothers’ Airplane. I certainly recognize this one or one similar. And flying changed the world beyond doubt. So I’ll give them a tick for this one.

If I went through each of the 100+ photographs I would probably end up with tendonitis and you would be snoozing gently before we had passed 1920. As I lurch randomly ahead I start to recognise more of the photographs and the photographers who made them. Robert Capa, Death of a Spanish Militiaman; Margaret Bourke-White, Ghandi and the Spinning Wheel, Matthew Zimmermann, Marilyn Monroe; Nick Ut, Napalm Attack.

The problem I have is that I challenge whether these photos really changed anything. By and large the collection is a very fine record of historical events. Perhaps I would be more comfortable if the claim had been less definitive, sensational even. There are images that record moments of world-changing events – a plane hitting the Twin Towers is one. Bombing Hiroshima is another. But Pele at the World Cup? The wedding of Charles and Diana? Woodstock? There is a picture of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston immediately following a photograph of the assassination of JFK. Neil Armstrong standing on the moon. And Jeff Widener’s Tank Man precedes the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

One of my debates with myself for the podcast was whether a single image is stronger than film or video. Which is higher impact, a single image of Ali standing over Liston or the beauty of watching him float like a butterfly, sting like a bee? Is the moment in time when Armstrong sets foot on the moon stronger than watching the entire sequence? What resonates more deeply with us, a photo of four perky, clean-cut young Liverpudlian faces or listening to the Beatles music? Why choose Louis Armstrong, The Beatles and Elvis but not The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix or Joan Baez (I can’t be doing with Dylan). I don’t have a simple answer. My personal response differs across the spectrum.

Looking through the collection I came to the conclusion that the strongest photos are probably single moments in war. Sport and politics are simply alter-egos of war. Entertainment is balm for the troubled soul. The problem with sitting here critiquing the selection is if I turn the question on myself and try to choose my own. Whether an event actually changes the world is in itself a problematic framing. When the Berlin Wall came down the last rites were performed for the Cold War and the Soviet Union. Fast forward to 2022 and we find ourselves at risk of a new cold or even hot war in Europe. How much time has to elapse before we can determine the world has changed? Did Martin Luther King’s peaceful protests precede the demise of racism in the USA? How much impact did the Mexico Olympics black power salutes have over time? History, said Mark Twain, doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.

So I do not feel qualified to judge. What is significant to me may not be so to you. Perhaps I am moved as much by sport as I am by war and as much by where I have lived my life. If I said a photo of Aberfan could move me to tears if would mean nothing to most people. Or a photo of the late Nobby Stiles jigging about on the Wembley pitch, his front teeth out, after England won the World Cup in 1966 (the same year as the Aberfan disaster). A photograph of my parents wedding is more important to me than the picture of Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima. They were taken within a few years of one another. Nevertheless I picked out a few photographs for the podcast but to learn which ones, you will have to follow Photography Daily with Neale James. More immediately I need a photograph of my own to end with.

Lunar New Year Lantern
Chinese New Year Lantern at the entrance to a housing estate.

We are close to the lunar new year and everywhere the decorations are out. We are still looking for some tou faa (pear blossom) to decorate the home but hopefully we will find what we need in the next day or so. And in the meantime I wish you a happy new year of the tiger.

Lost in space

The year is barely started but I am time travelling. Most of the time I seem to be in the late 70s and the 80s. I spent 5 years of my life in Germany (West Germany as it was then) and there were many ups and downs. I remember mainly the good times except for the day I took an almost incoherent call from my mother telling me my father had just dropped dead with a heart attack. She was distraught and it took me a while to understand what she was saying. He was 65 years old, a milestone I am about to reach. Music is taking me back. I am playing Nina Hagen, Udo Lindenberg, Nena and a few others who remind me of those hedonistic years. We had Uncle Bill and Tommy Vance on BFBS. Two songs played almost incessantly on the radio: Wuthering Heights and Baker Street. Each time I hear either song I am instantly transported back to the basement I lived in, teaching by day and heading off to the Altstadt by night. The Uerige was the place to go for brewed-on-site Altbier. Zum weißen Bär was the place for a game of pool and if you were so inclined, whatever illegal substances took your fancy. A hearty lunch at Zum Füchschen or perhaps Im goldenen Kessel. Those were the days. I remember going to watch Fortuna Düsseldorf play in the Rheinstadion when they were a top Bundesliga club. And I read a fair amount of German literature too. Probably less than I was supposed to but hey, I was a student. My second stint was when I had supposedly grown up and I had a real job. Two years back in Düsseldorf then off to Frankfurt for another two years. Nena was shocking people in Britain with her unshaven armpits and I was experimenting with culture. I had bought an Abonnement for the classical concerts and I don’t think I missed many. On the 17th March 1987 I went to see Alfred Brendel play. He was my father’s favourite pianist and he played Schubert (rather than pieces from his signature Beethoven repertoire). It was 5 months since my father had died and I remember sitting through the concert in tears, wishing he could have been there.
What sparked this regression was Angela Merkel’s decision to pick Nina Hagen’s Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen for her exit ceremony. I had quite forgotten this. It was actually released in 1974 but it was still played and at the time nobody would have foreseen the fall of the Berlin wall within 15 years. I remember going into East Berlin. We went through Checkpoint Charlie and had to change DM7 into Ostmarks. I think we came back through the Friedrichstraße U-bahn. It’s a bit hazy these days. Alongside the music I have started rereading some of the books on my shelf, kept through the decades. Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf was the latest and before that a bit of Kafka. If only I had been so diligent at the time. I had this weird idea recently that perhaps I should try to read the works of Thomas Mann. Studying German introduced me to Die Zauberflöte too. I remember sitting transfixed listening to the Queen of the Night’s aria and being completely blown away. I went out a bought a 3 cassette set of the opera and listening to it over and over again. I think my main exposure to Mann was Tod in Venedig, Death in Venice. That led me to Mahler and his 5th symphony when I watched Visconti’s gorgeous film. At the time I could never had imagined visiting Venice several times as I have done. Life is a strange journey at times.
I feel this strong urge to go back. I am sure everything is different today and doubtless I would be disappointed. Is this why I take photographs, to have my memories preserved like prehistoric creatures in amber? Why am I suddenly fighting my body’s determination to disintegrate at an increasingly rapid pace. Is it the fear of never being able to recapture what has gone? I was asked yesterday what photograph has a special meaning for me, has perhaps affected me profoundly. Just one. I gave an answer but I am not sure it was a good one and almost certainly not ‘right’. My mind now wanders across the years seemingly at random and beyond my control. I suppose being 20-something again is not bad as long as I don’t have to repeat all those exams. One of my concessions to modernity is a subscription to Spotify. My musical taste seems to have hit the wall around 1980-something so perhaps that is where I belong. Everything stopped when dad died. The few post 80s items in the collection are from my adopted home of Hong Kong (Anita Mui, Denise Ho and the woman with the voice of an angel, Faye Wong). Where will I go next, when Germany has finished with me? Or am I condemned to spend the rest of my life reading Goethe, Schiller and maybe even Nietzsche. It could be worse I suppose – I could be sitting through endless Wagnerian uproars.

How do I find a photo for this? Well I think an old photo of Venice will have to do as all my old German photos are in storage on slides / DIAs. I really ought to have them all digitised before it is too late. Sighs….