I arrived late thanks to my reliance on Southern Rail’s Saturday timetable, and so missed most of the first part of the tour with the Whitechapel’s guide, but that allowed me to form my own opinions of Bhimji’s work. I soon established a connection between her work and that of Jim Goldberg, winner of last year’s Deutsche Börse prize (1) which proved to be mistaken, but I wandered around thinking about the connection before watching her videos.
At the Deutsche Börse show a tutor suggested that Goldberg may have been guilty of a little cultural imperialism by showing how harsh conditions were outside the USA when equally horrific scenes were apparent within the USA. This initially seemed to be the case with Bhimji but was different in that Bhimji had a personal relationship with the sudden expulsion of Asians from Idi Amin’s Uganda. I was impressed both with her treatment of the available subject matter and with her ability to gain access to the sites.
I felt that I should be ashamed that I had also been to several of these countries, including Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and had chosen to ignore the obvious poverty around me. I also lived in apartheid era South Africa, in the “homeland” of Bophuthatswana and I also chose not to go off piste and explore the horrendous conditions that people had been forced into. In Bophuthatswana I was working for a corporation who fronted a story of how the homeland was good for its peoples, and while travelling through the Horn of Africa I was working for another corporation who would have been severely embarrassed if I had taken any interest in anything that was not in accordance with the official view of the situation. Professional photographers made a living risking their lives, but I didn’t see it as my concern. The Bang Bang Club (2) reported their exploits in detail, and that isn’t something I had any interest in at the time, and I doubt that would have been the case even if I was South African. I grew up in Northern Ireland in the middle of the Troubles and the only interest I had in that situation was how to get out of it at the first opportunity. I met my second wife in Bophuthatswana, a liberal Cape Townian who forced me to vote in every election since we returned to the UK, and her view was that you had to keep opposing the regime and change would be inevitable, as it was when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, the year after we left. However I felt no shame then and I feel no shame now, it is what it is.
Having distanced myself from my own realities, I can see what a wonderful display it is that Bhimji has confronted us with. That the photos and videos are not technically perfect is irrelevant, her message is clear and uncompromising. I was particularly taken with how she overlaid such evocative audio over the video. The audio lifted the video to a different time and place, a little gimmicky in some eyes, but an incredible example of the difference that audio can make. Was it truthful? Yes in this case, but some awareness is needed of potential misuse.
I was very impressed that Bhimji had gained access to these locations, and I think that a similar work could be achieved here in the south-east of England. There is latent poverty already and this is likely to worsen as the governments anti-welfare policies take hold. It is essential that this is documented to show clearly how capitalism is a failed system as applied by an upper-class privileged regime.
Perhaps this is a potential study for my third year course in the OCA, I will certainly consider how this work could be approached.
All this from just a few hours on a study trip, I feel my fees have been well spent..
(1) British Journal of Photography (26th April 2011) Jim Goldberg wins Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2011 [WWW] Available from http://www.bjp-online.com/british-journal-of-photography/news/2046023/jim-goldberg-wins-deutsche-b-rse-photography-prize-2011 [Accessed 13th February 2012]
(2) MARINOVICH, G. and SILVA, J. (2001) The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War. UK: Arrow Books