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Book Review: MAGNUM 2020 by Magnum Photographers

©Raghu Rai, Delhi, 2020

“Was it (2020) the end of something? The start of something else? Or merely a blip in an increasingly chaotic and fast-changing world?” asks Magnum President Olivia Arthur in her foreword. “The jury is still out,” the press release says. “But this book commits the year to paper and offers a means for us to try and make sense of it.”

This book commits the year to paper? Really? I don’t think so for that is impossible. What it does instead is to offer personal views of photographers that belong to the Magnum co-operative that has made itself a name covering many of the world’s major events and personalities since the 1930s. In documentary photography, to be a Magnum photographer is considered a badge of honour.

The views presented in this tome are very varied. And, as it is customary in documentary photography, sometimes the words that accompany the pictures are more important than the pictures because without them you would often not know what you are looking at.


©Alessandra Sanguinetti’s daughter Catalina

However, at times a caption is so utterly confusing that, sadly, it isn’t of much help. Take Antoine d’Agata’s shot of the silhouette of a mask wearing person (I’m not sure whether it shows a man or a woman) laying on the ground, followed by many very small photos that supposedly show medical personnel treating patients. The series is entitled VIRUS, so I assume that these must be Covid-19 victims I’m looking at; the caption lists numerous places from Maison de Santé Protestante de Bordeaux – Bagatelle to Clinique Mobile, Mission France – Médecins sans Frontières – Paris. I presume these are the locations where these shots were taken. As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t exactly a convincing way to illustrate what Covid-19 is doing to us for it leaves too much to our imagination and interpretation respectively. I was much more impressed by Nanna Heitmann’s “Hospital 52, Moscow, Russia, 2020” that compellingly demonstrates our helplessness.


©Nanna Heitmann, Hospital 52, Moscow, Russia, 2020

We want to know what we are looking at. Moreover, our curiosity demands information that a picture alone often cannot provide. Just to inform me where some of the pictures in this book were taken, simply isn’t enough. As Harald Evans once wrote: “The wordless pictures story may have an aesthetic rigour but words can enhance both emotional and cognitive values: They are not competitive, they are complementary.”

Quite some pictures in this tome strike me as utterly unimpressive snapshots that anybody could have taken. From Magnum photographers I would have expected otherwise. This said, let me make it clear that I do find this book a most compelling document that makes visible the complexity of our times. This is due to the variety of topics addressed – from water to climate change to the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, from asylum seekers on Lesbos to the US-election to playing football in front of pagodas at Inle Lake, Myanmar. It is however also due to the personal statements of the photographers who describe how they are coping but interestingly (and much to my surprise) not because of the quality of the photographs.

And while I’m aware that the pics that I like might not be the ones that others will like (I do not, and cannot, know why I like what I like – and my rationalisations [in hindsight!] do not really convince me), let me introduce some that truly impressed me. Raghu Rai’s wall for instance, to which he contributed an enlightening text (“Confessions of a wall. 45 years ago … and now”). Also, Christopher Anderson’s photograph of his daughter Pia (that was already made but that he edited for a book). “The book did not become a tale of 2020 but its presence is certainly felt.” Last but not least, there’s Alessandra Sanguinetti’s pictures of her daughter Catalina “and her entering her teens in isolation.”


©Christopher Anderson’s daughter Pia

Needless to say, I do not only have favourite photographs, I also have favourite texts and among them Stuart Franklins account of his three weeks inside the Covid-19 wards of one of Britain’s busiest hospitals. Also, Bieke Depoorter’s “observing those who observe the stars” as well as Jacob Aue Sobol’s falling “into a black hole of anxiety and depression with no tools to pull myself out.”

Rest assured, there is much more to discover in this most formidable tome that not only inspires you to relive a most extraordinary year but that also helps you do what pictures invite you to do. In the words of Alec Soth: “I tend to think about photography more than I take actual pictures.”


A book by Magnum Photographers

Book is available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/shop/collections/books/magnum-2020/

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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