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Interview with photographer Emeke Obanor

Ladi is 16, born in North East Nigeria.  © Emeke Obanor

Emeke Obanor is a Nigerian photographer whose series of portraits is featured in this month’s issue. His series “Heroes” is centered around a group of girls who were abducted by Boko Haram militants operating in northeast Nigeria. Some of these girls gained their freedom after the camps where they were held were raided by military troops, while some other girls sought help from authorities and escaped when they were forced to act as suicide bombers by Boko Haram. The intensity and hardship endured by those girls in captivity is contrasted by striking portraits of the girls standing in front of blackboards, holding books or school supplies. Their hopes for continuing their education and embracing learning are the antithesis of Boko Haram’s attempts.

The girls’ stories are the most important part of what Obanor strives to communicate.  I asked him about what obligations he has to his subjects. “My obligation is to be sympathetic towards the oppressed…” he says, “and draw the attention of the world to issues of concern. My obligation towards the people in my photos is to tell their stories, and protect them at the same time.”

Obanor is also working on projects to draw attention toward the issue of global climate change, and migration as a direct result of social problems. His series “Shades of Grey” explores the sense of loss and psychological trauma by Nigerians, especially children, who don’t know what happened to missing family members who left Nigeria and tried to reach Europe by crossing the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Many of those migrants never reached the better conditions they attempted to find, and they are feared dead. Emeke says it is difficult to work on projects that involve people in need. “Yes, it is always difficult to undertake a project of people in need here,” he confesses. “One reason is that people do not always want to be involved because of fear of exposure and becoming stigmatized. Consequently,” he continues, “accessing the people and/or community involved could be challenging. Trust is another reason why it is difficult. Poor level of security for locals, and the past victimization of others create fear. It takes a lot to gain the trust of new victims regarding anonymity.”

That said, Emeke still says he is driven to photograph because it has the power to make changes, sway emotions, and even possibly change peoples’ world view. I had the chance to ask if it is difficult to work and be a photographer based in Nigeria. He says, “I believe it is difficult to be an artist in Nigeria because, professionalism is not highly appreciated here. For instance, a lot of people would rather publish any picture taken with phones or other devices without giving consideration to professional details like, artistic quality and so on. The lack of interest for quality photos significantly affects patronage negatively, and this can be discouraging. Additionally, there are very few photographic practitioners like curators, operators of photo galleries and photo magazines where photographers can showcase their jobs and gain exposure; this greatly contributes to the slow growth of progress as a photographer.”

A quote by the British documentary photographer Daniel Meadows came to my mind while thinking about Emeke’s work. “Just because people don’t have a voice,” Meadows says, “doesn’t mean they don’t have stories.”  With this quote in mind, I ask if Emeke considers his own work as documentary or portrait photography. “Documentary,” he states. “Documentary photography is a form of art aiming to chronicle the action and the environments in order to tell a story and convey a message. For me, the goal usually is to tell a story, and I decide the appropriate style or approach.”

In closing, I asked if Emeke takes on assignments for news agencies or if he is solely independent. “Right now, I do not work for any agency, but I look forward to working with one or more in the near future to provide a wider audience and gain more attention for these important stories. I would like to work on new projects when there is potential to improve humanity, and when projects have received little or no attention” he concludes. “I believe this can give those people a voice.”

From “Shades of Grey” © Emeke Obanor

 

From “Shades of Grey” © Emeke Obanor

 

From “Shades of Grey” © Emeke Obanor

 

Balarabe, 17, was raised in North East Nigeria, brainwashed by Boko Haram to hate western education. She enrolled in a school after she regained freedom. She plans to become a nurse like her sister. © Emeke Obanor

 

Aisha, 16 years old, in North East Nigeria, was kidnapped by Boko Haram when she was 13 years old and trained to be a suicide bomber. Before she was abducted, her father didn’t send her to school. She teaches herself letters and words at home as her poor father couldn’t send her to school. She wants to become a teacher. © Emeke Obanor


See Emeke Obanor’s work on Facebook or Instagram


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Book Review: Extinction Party by Jonathan Blaustein

Yellow mask and yellow plastic tablecloth © Jonathan Blaustein

Photographer, conceptual artist, and writer Jonathan Blaustein has been steadfastly working over ten years on a related series of projects that explore overconsumption absurdity, environmental disregard, all the while peppered with satirical comments on extinction-level problems. His photos, whether it’s of a row of tomatillos, or a clump of turf, are photographed against a plain background – the repeated mask motif is especially powerful. Each item is photographed in a style akin to slick Madison Avenue pops of color, form and line, or either artfully-lit, detailed museum catalog quality photographs. But while many of the objects are bright or jovial, the undertow in Extinction Party evokes the feeling that something underneath the surface is wrong. “Sure the ocean looks pretty,” Blaustein writes in his introduction, “but we’re eating all its fish, and replacing them with plastic toys and toxic chemicals. C’est la vie.”

Images from his acclaimed series The Value of a Dollar are included, where Jonathan chose to photograph food from around the world. The project was published by the New York Times in 2010, and subsequently went viral and seen by millions of people around the world. The project creates dialogue about the manner in which food represents deeper issues of wealth, class, power, health, and globalization – all at a time when the U.S. experienced the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression (until now). The series crafts a visual language of equivalents equal in monetary value to each other. In a pair of images, one beautiful, plump, sun-like, yellow grapefruit is contrasted to four, dingy grapefruit from the bargain grocery. While each choice cost one dollar to purchase, one could wonder if the smaller, less appealing grapefruit tastes as good, or contains more toxic chemicals, therefore the choice between them speaks to issues of consumerism.

Extinction Party consists of images culled from four conceptually related projects – each featuring items presented for our careful consideration.  In addition to the aforementioned The Value of a Dollar project, images from MINE presents objects gathered off his property in New Mexico, Recycling My Junk showcases years worth of semi-discarded trash in his former studio, and natural-resource-depleting party supplies from Party City is the Devil.  Anyone for beautiful tongue-in-cheek conceptual photos about over consumption absurdity leading to inevitable extinction level events? Yes, please. 

At the time Extinction Party released in March of 2020, the world grappled socially and politically with the impact of climate change; and then added a global pandemic and a gigantic economic free fall to boot. When we talked about the book in a larger sense, Jonathan reflected on making art at a certain time in one’s life, asking the big questions about our legacy for our children and the planet, and the natural progression one makes in a life in the arts. In thinking about his first book in his career, he remarked that the timing was right and it was only natural that his creativity would evolve from image making into other avenues as well, and that his interconnected projects would culminate in book format.

The idea of Value and its implied meanings, carries across all the included work. We had a conversation about the question of how value is decided, who decides and why? “What we care about has a lot to do with the place where we were raised, and the time in which we’re raised,” Jonathan said. The consistent message is that the value we choose to assign to items “is really more engrained than chosen. People make decisions based on their cultural influences, who their parents are, or the place they grow up… but it’s also about what we care about and what we’re willing to spend.” Jonathan expanded on this idea by saying, “A big part of the way I looked at this larger project was through economics. A tenet of capitalism says the way to create growth is to maximize the value of your existing resources.” As in his project, MINE, items on Jonathan’s property that he owns, can be exploited and then sold to create wealth. “And with The Value of a Dollar, you could buy the ‘thing’ for a dollar – or you could buy a picture of the ‘thing’ for one-thousand dollars. It’s a game in a sense… I’m using the structural metaphors of capitalism to comment on it,” Jonathan explains.

Collectively these projects create a larger visual language of equivalents for us to examine, explore and question. Jonathan explores these concepts and translates them into a vocabulary of forms with a universal syntax. During our conversaton, he made a strong analogy to Chinese landscape paintings, and I would add Zen calligraphy. Jonathan’s practice is greatly influenced by his art history courses concentrating on Chinese landscape paintings. “There is a lot of influence from my art history background… I looked at food as a language – as a symbol set, and the way I wanted to treat it was really inspired by these 800 year old silk scrolls that really communicated that hyper-seeing, Zen way of looking. That’s where the object in the middle of the white negative space came from… I was using it as an intentional concept. Like a Zen Buddhist monk creating the perfect little persimmon…” 

The collective concept is encompassed by the idea of the “perfect isolated mark on the paper.”  While a smooshed cheeseburger is far from being an idealized form, the iconography of burgers, candy necklaces, snowballs, dead mice, tin foil, or a deer paw all breathe with the vitality of eternal experience. With Zen calligraphy, the art implies that the artist’s brush is moving long before it ever hits the paper. The mark left on the paper is a trace of the motion only where, and why, it needs to be seen. In this sense, the measure of quality in a piece of Zen calligraphy, the perfect little persimmon, or a Halloween mask is not what it shows you about the artist – but what it shows you about yourself.


Blue streamers and red plastic tablecloth © Jonathan Blaustein

 

One dollar’s worth of double-cheeseburger from McDonalds © Jonathan Blaustein

 

My deer head © Jonathan Blaustein

 

My icicles © Jonathan Blaustein

 

Don’t worry everything is going to be OK? © Jonathan Blaustein

 

My snowballs © Jonathan Blaustein

 

One dollar’s worth of tomatillos from Mexico © Jonathan Blaustein

 

No one’s hands are clean © Jonathan Blaustein

 

Yellow plastic fedora and yellow plastic tablecloth © Jonathan Blaustein

 


Extinction Party
by Jonathan Blaustein

Essay by Kevin Kwan
Designer: Caleb Cain Marcus

Hardcover, four variations 10 x 7.5 inches
96 pages, Edition of 400

Published by Yoffy Press. Released in March, 2020


Jonathan Blaustein is an artist, writer, and educator based in Taos, New Mexico. He has exhibited his work widely in galleries and museums the US, and in festivals in Europe as well.

His photographs reside in several important collections, including the Library of Congress, the State of New Mexico, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Jonathan is a weekly columnist at the popular blog A Photo Editor, and spent six years as a photo critic at the New York Times Lens blog as well, with previous bylines online for The New Yorker, VICE, and Hyperallergic. He taught photography at UNM-Taos for many years, and recently founded the Antidote Photo Retreat at his family horse farm outside Taos.


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International Festival on Experimental Photography Barcelona – 15-17 Jan 2021

Image: justin quinnell

International Festival on Experimental Photography
Barcelona – 15-17 Jan 2021

Registration from June 1st

“The time has come to put the experimental as an attitude in the centre of photography.”

For more information: https://en.experimentalphotofestival.com/


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Distanced Perspective @ Colorado Photographic Arts Center (online)

4/6/2020 Supermoon from my Backyard by Frank Varney

Distanced Perspective
May 29 – June 27, 2020

Online: https://cpacphoto.org/distancedperspective2020/

“Photography can be an important tool for documenting the world around us – even more so during a crisis. Distanced Perspective asked local photographers to capture their visual responses to living in Colorado during the COVID-19 pandemic. Curator Samantha Johnston, Executive Director of CPAC, selected 32 images for the exhibition from a pool of 91 entries.”


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Shirley Baker @ James Hyman Gallery (online)


Shirley Baker: A Different Age
22 June to 24 July 2020

Online: http://www.jameshymangallery.com/

Shirley Baker, once writing of her motivations, expressed a world of street life that seems like a distant memory: “I love the immediacy of unposed, spontaneous photographs and the ability of the camera to capture the serious, the funny, the sublime and the ridiculous. […] I feel that less formal, quotidian images can often convey more of the life and spirit of the time.”

James Hyman Gallery


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Edouard Taufenbach Suddenly, Last Summer @ Elizabeth Houston Gallery online

Ragazzi di vita, 2019, Collage on Canson paper

Edouard Taufenbach: Suddenly, Last Summer
June 3 to July 31

“Suddenly, Last Summer culls images of LGBTQ leisure and pleasure from the collection of filmmaker Sebastien Lifshitz. Gathered over the course of three decades, Lifshitz’s more than 10,000 snapshots constitute an archive of international queer history, recording the intricacies of intimacy and desire against verdant, balmy backdrops. A femme in heels gazes skyward as she attempts to scale a tree. Sailors in speedos lounge side by side on the dunes. A woman wraps her arm around her partner’s dainty waist. The particularities of those photographs, already anonymous with the passing of time, are reshaped by Taufenbach’s hand into universal instances.”

Elizabeth Houston Gallery https://www.elizabethhoustongallery.com/edouard-taufenbach-suddenly-last-summer/


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In Sickness and in Health: Heather Agyepong, Anna Fox and Jo Spence @ James Hyman Gallery

Image: Heather Agyepong

In Sickness and in Health: Heather Agyepong, Anna Fox and Jo Spence
18 May – 19 June 2020

Visit http://www.jameshymangallery.com/exhibitions/2678/in-sickness-and-in-health-heather-agyepong-anna-fox-and-jo-spence

Originally conceived for the cancelled Paris Photo New York fair in March, the themes of this three person exhibition have taken on a new resonance in the present global health crisis. The opening is timed to coincide with the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week and 10% of sales will go to MIND, the mental health charity.

James Hyman Gallery


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Trump Revolution: Climate Crisis @ www.trumprevolutionbdc.org

A 16-year-old resident of Island View Drive wipes her tears, as she looks on at her family’s home destroyed by the Thomas fire, the morning after the fire started, in Ventura, Calif., on Dec. 5, 2017.© Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

Trump Revolution: Climate Crisis
Virtual exhibition launch SATURDAY, MAY 23

Visit online www.trumprevolutionbdc.org

FEATURING
Stacy Kranitz | Kadir van Lohuizen I Yuri Kozyrev | Katie Orlinsky | Bryan Thomas | Marcus Yam

Through photos, words and multimedia, the BDC exhibition, Trump Revolution: Climate Crisis, documents the current president’s overturning of decades of American environmental policy, and its profound effects on American society and our planet at large.

This is the second in a year-long series of Trump Revolution exhibitions examining America’s societal and political transformation, one whose speed, reach and consequences are unmatched in our country’s history.


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Primetime: A Virtual Photography Exhibition @ youngarts.org

Image Chiemeka Offor

Primetime: A Virtual Photography Exhibition
Opening Thursday, May 21 at 1 PM ET/10 AM PT on youngarts.org

RSVP https://www.youngarts.org/event/youngarts-spring-alumni-exhibition-opening/1017

Primetime is a virtual photography exhibition featuring the works of 11 YoungArts alumni that explores current affairs, disease, race and representation, body image and heritage. Originally intended to be on display at the YoungArts Gallery, it takes on new meaning as the world continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.


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(She) Her/Self @ Artworks Center for Contemporary Art

Image Credit: Amy Jorgensen

(She) Her/Self
Amy Jorgensen and Randi Ganulin
MARCH 13 – JUNE 27, 2020

Virtual Reception with Artist Talks is on Thursday, May 21st, at 6 pm Mountain Time via Zoom. Reserve your spot by emailing contact@c4fap.org

“The body as signifier of Self. The body as (She). Her body as evidence of the fundamental right to Herself.

Historically, women’s bodies have been a frequent subject of male artists’ works. Most of these historic images ignore the agency of the women portrayed. Women’s bodies serve as the object of the male gaze. As women reclaim their agency and turn away from the ways of objectification, female-identified artists are creating groundbreaking work that further shifts this paradigm to reflect women’s views, concerns, and Selves.

With self-portraits as the primary vehicle for Amy Jorgensen’s Body Archive and Inanna by Randi Ganulin, the artist’s performative acts of creation refer to the primary source of Self and the power of embodiment. _Hamidah Glasgow”

Artworks Center for Contemporary Art
Physical distancing protocols are in place, and masks are required.
310 N. Railroad Avenue, Loveland, CO 80537


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