Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lifestyle Tourism

The crowds that crammed into Westfield Stratford City last week appeared to confirm the owners’ press release description of the shopping complex as “a new lifestyle destination for East London”, behaving more like tourists than serious consumers. They certainly weren’t buying very much. Primark was doing a reasonable trade, but it didn’t seem like enough to pay a return on the £1.8 billion spent on construction, or keep the 10,000 new staff in secure employment.

With money scarce on the east side of town, the largest urban shopping centre in Europe is more of a hang-out than a place to spend hard-earned cash. Except the “gateway” to the London 2012 Olympic Park is private property and crawling with security guards, and after the benevolent free-for-all of the opening week, the welcome to all and sundry (including photographers) is likely to wear thin quite quickly.

As the largest regeneration project ever undertaken in the UK it raises a lot of questions. The most obvious is - what will it actually contribute to the economy? Its 250 shops are not making anything, just selling stuff that used to be sold somewhere else. The UK’s largest casino, due to open later in the year, will move money from the pockets of the punters to the pockets of the owners, creating nothing. The new jobs, however close to the minimum wage, will probably benefit those who get them, but only at the expense of those who used to do them elsewhere. And if there are any profits, they will accrue to the joint owners in Australia (Westfield), Holland (APG) and North America (the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board).

Will people buy more than they did before? I doubt it. And what will happen to the jobs and businesses in the Stratford Centre, the down-at-heel concrete mall directly opposite the new development?

Unless European economies are thrown totally off-kilter by a Greek default, Stratford City will doubtless do well when the Olympics come to town next summer. But after that? We must wait and see.

More pictures here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

263 CDs

Tala Skari, Director of Photography at the International Herald Tribune, was at a loss to explain the number of Italian photographers queuing to show her pictures of Gaza at this year’s Visa Pour L’Image. Festival Director Jean-Fran├žois Leroy was in despair after receiving 263 CDs of Tahrir Square photographs as exhibition submissions. Rubbernecking in the areas set aside for portfolio reviews by agencies and editors during the professional week of the annual celebration of photojournalism in Perpignan suggests that to maintain your street cred, you really do need to have a set from somewhere in the Middle East, preferably Libya. I exaggerate – but not much.

The narrow range of subject matter on show was striking. Of the 24 exhibitions hung in churches and other buildings in the old city centre, 19 were on third world subjects. The remaining five included a group show on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, a very fine B&W essay on the devastating effects of gang warfare in Los Angeles, and two on UK subjects: a comic Martin Parr-style take on the English by Peter Dench, and a set on an East End gangster family by Jocelyn Bain Hogg. And there were the fish – a wonderfully colourful show of 30 years of underwater photography by Brian Skerry that stood in complete contrast to everything else, presumably selected to offer a little light relief.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with third world subjects. Fernando Moleres’s photographs of children in African prisons, for instance, together with his campaigning work around the issue, are totally admirable. Many of the other exhibitions were very powerful, often shot with great sensitivity. I particularly liked Jonas Bendiksen’s essay on climate change in Bangladesh, which captured the great dignity of his subjects. But there was nothing on the global economic crisis. Or anything much at all of real significance about the so-called ‘developed’ world: the enormous changes in working lives; the staggering contrasts of wealth and poverty; the pressing social issues.

Why is that? Why such extensive exploration of third world problems, and none of our own? Perhaps photographers (almost exclusively from the industrialised countries) are being realistic when they go for the ever more exotic or violent. Publishers have their own priorities, and this is what sells. Or perhaps photographers are just not looking hard enough at what is going on around them.

In fact, there are photographers working on other issues, but their work rarely appears in the high profile publications whose editors are so eagerly sought out by aspiring globetrotters in Perpignan. Visa Pour L’Image is a great institution but, although it sees itself as the standard-bearer of international photojournalism, it really only represents one, rather limited, sub-genre.