the dan milner photography blog: tales of an adventuring photo chimp

August 6, 2011

Retrospective no. 2: Out of Context 1989-2006.

Filed under: outdoors, photography — Tags: , — danmilner @ 1:45 pm

A few years ago I pulled this exhibition together in Chamonix, France, based on the idea of showing 17 images that were shot over a 17 year period. While I’d like to say that the “17” thing was its raison d’etre, it wasn’t, but instead merely an excuse to try to inject a little art and culture into a ski town that too often lacks anything other than testosterone-fuelled jock chit chat. It so happened that the first image I wanted to show in the collection was 17 years old, shot in the 1980’s, so I settled for 17 images.

At the heart of the collection of “street” photography was the theme that in each image there is something that doesn’t sit comfortably with either the subject matter, perhaps a detail that is juxtaposed with the overall image theme, location or popular perception of the location. Hence “Out of Context”.

To best understand why I shot and collated these images as a single entity it’s worth reading the intro that follows. If not, just scroll through and look at curious pictures and make your own judgments.

INTRO. While commercial photography of mountain sports earns me a living, it is often the unusual and unexpected that I find most captivating around me: people going against the grain, paradoxes, querky scenes that contain contradictions within themselves, simple artefacts that sum up a whole nation’s psyche. Really, anything that challenges the stereotype of normal. The curious appeal of many such daily spectacles is often unnoticed by the subjects of the scene themselves, or by the people in whose daily lives the artefacts play a role. Yet these same spectacles when seen and photographed by an outsider can provide an insight into ‘human nature’ (sic) and the ways we interact with each other and our environment alike. The resultant images can be subtle or brash, appear purely observational or as satirical commentary.

Driven by a deep social and political conscience and a need to ask ‘why?’ all too often I have found myself entangled in the inane, the wonderful and the sometimes baffling, but each situation has rewarded me with further insight into the invariably eclectic but enigmatic world we live in. So often the impact of a scene lies in the detail, the energy or an apparent cliche. This is a collection of images all shot “from the hip” as I passed by a scene, with nothing posed or formulated. To me some of the results are uplifting, some disheartening while others just plain puzzling.

Photographing scenes and rendering them 2-dimensional snapshots of life seems to amplify the obscurity of the subject that initially drew my attention through the viewfinder, particularly when the image is  subsequently framed and hung elsewhere, far from its original setting where it may (or may not) have made sense.

Poll Tax riot, Trafalgar Square, London 1991. Camera: Olympus OM1.

The unpopularity of (then) Prime Minister Thatcher’s domestic policies came to a head in 1991 with the contraversial ‘Poll Tax’. The enormous demonstration that took place in central London in April that year came to a climax when the police tried to force the  crowd to disperse. This was also a time when South Africa was still under the racist apartheid system, and its embassy, located in Trafalgar Square, became an instant target for people’s anger and frustrations. Although later called ‘unBritish’ by the nationalist The Sun newspaper, the use of one of the demonstrators of the ‘two fingered’ salute here is about as British as Trafalgar Square itself.

Click the ‘more tab’ below for the other images…

Ice cave and tourist, New Zealand, 2004. Camera: Contax G2

The Fox glacier in Southern New Zealand is perhaps the most tourist-accessible mass of ice in the southern hemisphere, attracting thousands of tourists annually from Asia and the Pacific Rim. Few have seen a glacier before.

Sea ride sign Tenby, Wales, 1998. Camera: Contax G2.

Nowhere seems to capture the heart of a nation’s identity quite like a seaside resort. This chalkboard sign, a lingering echo of warmer weather, seemed strangely out of place on a November day, but it still hung at the entrance to the deserted beach.

Sledges, Indian Kashmir, 2004. Camera: Canon EOS 1N.

Despite its location in a previously war-scarred region, the ski resort of Gulmarg is a place where Kashmiri locals cater for the needs of visitors from Bombay, many of whom have never seen or touched snow before. One line of business is to rent homemade sledges to the tourists, charging for each ride down a ten-metre slope. Each sledge owner decorates his sledge in his own style, but stickers of World Wrestling Federation stars -artifacts from a world far removed from Kashmir life- proved universally popular.

Road side diner, California, USA, 2002. Camera: Canon EOS 1N.

This roadside diner, once the symbol of cheery functionality and optimism now sits derelict, a ghost of an earlier, more successful era in US history. Meanwhile US obesity is growing, with  33.8% of its citizens clinically obese.

Soldier, 4200m Deosai Plateau, Pakistan, 2006. Camera: Canon EOS 1N.

In March 2006 I had the opportunity to photograph a ski/snowboard session held high up on the snowbound Deosai Plateau at 4200 metres altitude. Our safety was overseen by Pakistani soldiers stationed on the barren plateau for six-month postings and they seemed genuinely pleased at the diversion created by twenty Europeans descending on their remote slice of the world. To protect against the elements the soldiers are issued with odd-looking eyewear. They are free to choose their own head attire though.

Roadside tree, New Zealand, 2004. Camera: Contax G2.

What came first, the barrel or the tree? Originally placed around the sapling to protect it from the attention of sheep, the tree has now outgrown its protection, the latter becoming a hindrance that will eventually cause its death.

Protestor and tear gas, Ecuador, 1989. Camera: Olympus OM1.

Ecuador in the 1989 was politically stable and had escaped the military coups that had ravaged much of South America during the 70s and 80s, but drastic domestic policies gave rise to varied civil unrest throughout the country. This riot unfurled in Quito one night, with protest against cuts in education funding. Cops at one end of the street fired tear gas canisters at the protestors, who picked up the canisters and threw them back at the them. In this almost abstract and colourful shot a student bends to pick up a gas-spewing canister, illuminated by an overhead streetlight.

Aurecaria tree, Chile, 1999. Camera: Canon EOS 1N.

The dirt road that crosses from Southern Argentina to Chile leads through a spectacular region of volcanoes. In a snowstorm the two black lines of volcanic grit uncovered by a passing vehicle’s tyres is pretty much all there is to follow to keep you on course. One day no doubt ‘progress’ will mean this road is surfaced and sealed and this tree felled to make way for it.

Street cricket, Indian Kashmir, 1994. Camera: Canon EOS 1N.

Kashmir is a region torn apart by 50 years of India-Pakistan conflict. Yet for the inhabitants of the region daily life continues unabated, not least the game of cricket which plays a large part in their lives. It was nearly dark on a chilly March evening, but this young boy was playing cricket in the street, concentrating fiercely and wielding his makeshift bat. India and Pakistan signed a peace accord in 2003 and played their first international test game against each other for over a decade during my visit to Kashmir.

Firewood collectors, Atlas Mountains, Morocco, 2006. Camera: Contax G2.

Morocco is only a 3-hour flight from Geneva, the banking centre of Switzerland. These two girls, about thirteen years old and dwarfed by their enormous bundles of twigs, regularly walk miles from their village in the High Atlas mountains to collect firewood.

Housing estate, East London, 2004. Camera: Canon EOS 1Dmk2N.

The fact that you cannot skateboard in a parking lot, but you can sit inside all day and watch satellite TV is a poignant comment on today’s society.

Chalk hand prints, bouldering area, France, 2000. Camera: Canon EOS 1N.

Disembodied and in a deserted location, these climber’s  ‘warm up’ hand prints adopt an almost eerie quality. They will last only until the next rainfall.

Karakoram Highway, Pakistan, 2006. Camera: Canon EOS 1D mk2N.

The Karakoram Highway in Pakistan runs from Islamabad to Skardu and onwards to the Chinese border to the North. It’s a two to three day journey by bus to Islamabad from this sign, depending on road and weather conditions. The road sees dozens of deaths each year. The sign is unambiguous.

Chip shop, Haast, New Zealand, 2004. Camera: Contax G2.

Haast is a pretty remote village in the South of New Zealand’s South Island. It has a beach and, proudly, a chip shop.

Military base, Skardu, Pakistan, 2006. Camera: Canon EOS 1D mk2N.

The town of Skardu is about as North as you can go before crossing into China. Surrounded by historically contested borders a military posting here is not an easy ride and officers see to it that mental encouragement is not short in coming. This slogan, painted like a brash advertising campaign, is just one of many around Skardu.

Kids, Managua, Nicaragua, 1989. Camera: Olympus OM1.

The 1980s were a time of heady change in Central America. In 1989 I had the opportunity to work on a voluntary project in Nicaragua, a country that, in 1979 had toppled a right-wing, US-backed dictatorship and replaced it by the left-wing Sandinistas (FSLN) party, led by Daniel Ortega. Out of all the images I shot during my time there, this one -of two school girls sitting outside their impoverished barrio in which I was working- seemed to me to capture the feeling in the region at that time: one of hope but also fear of something lurking, a storm brewing in the wings. Then Nicaragua was encircled by US military intervention and was kept on state of alert. Neighbouring country Panama’s main airport was bombed only 2 weeks after this photo by US forces. Finally embargoed by the US and impoverished for 11 years, the Nicaraguans eventually voted out the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections. Interestingly, still led by the same Ortega, the Sandinistas were re-elected in 2007.


1 Comment »

  1. To be able to capture such beauty at this magic moment, is beyond description of my words. Thank you for sharing your wonderful work.

    Comment by lindayoga — August 6, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

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