We asked the four panellists at this roundtable to summarise their reflections on the exhibition for the 10 Gower Street Blog. The discussion forms part of the Politics Department series on London’s Housing Crisis ,organised in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life and the Birkbeck Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies.We are very grateful to Carlos Reyes-Manzo for permission to reproduce his photograph on this blog.
Carlos’s wonderful black and white photographs, taken over several decades across various continents, invite us to reflect on themes of shelter, housing and dwelling.
The exhibition is introduced through reference to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But in what sense can housing be considered a right? Is it a basic entitlement as a condition of survival or is it – like other socio-economic rights – merely aspirational? In which case, what is added by thinking about it as a right? The Article relates provision to an adequate standard of living adequate for health and well-being. This suggests something more than sustaining bare life (to borrow Agamben’s term), with its connotation of mere existence: a standard commensurate with the norms of one’s society and with human dignity. Carlos’s pictures show just how variable this standard might be and how fragile its achievement remains.
What is housing/to be housed? Within a biophysical survival kit that includes food and clothing, shelter is classified among humans’ basic bodily needs. Carlos’s photographs remind us how precarious sheltering – protection against the elements, security – may be for those who live among society’s detritus, vulnerable to poverty and predators. Relatedly, housing is associated with everyday activities that reproduce human flesh on a daily and intergenerational basis. The architecture of our homes reflects gendered notions of private versus public space; a sexual division of labour in which the home may equally become a stifling, violent domestic enclosure or a place of family and friendship. Do life’s functions need to be satisfied within the home? A striking photograph captures Bedouin riding their tented camels; it is resonant of nomadic lives at-home in the desert. But what of houses transformed from use- to exchange-values: buildings to be traded for profit? Or homes that become vehicles of our identities: artefacts we design and decorate to express ourselves and impress others? A distinction running through these possibilities suggests that a house is not the same as a home, as a space of belonging where we are at-home.
This is the theme of Heidegger’s 1951 essay `Building Dwelling Thinking’. Written in the context of Germany’s post-war housing crisis, Heidegger maintains that however `hard and bitter’, modernity’s plight is irreducible to this lack because building as engineering and construction do not guarantee being at-home: an existential condition of dwelling as a mode of being-in-the-world. Having forgotten how to dwell, we may find ourselves homeless even when we secure lodgings. Contrary to houses as shelters for bare life, temporary constructs for migrant drifters or tradable investments, he speaks evocatively of the fourfold: the oneness of earth, sky, divinities, mortals. He illustrates it by the peasant cottage: sheltered from the wind and close to the spring, its sloping roof yielding protection from storms; inside, the altar corner, the childbed, the coffin. Today we might parse this as a sustainable home suited to its ecological surroundings, resilient to the elements, embedded in generations that have lived and died there, still present in memories and rituals. This is not bare life but a dwelling, its inhabitants at-home with their mortality, on the earth, under the sky.
In his influential, yet unfinished, study, The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin quotes one commentator, who observes how, in the modern era, the streets become a dwelling for many: In 1857, Adolf Stahr’s survey of the Second Empire Nach Fünf Jahren illustrated in a vignette the Parisian technique of inhabiting the streets. Men are repairing the pavement and laying a pipeline. An area in the middle of the street is blocked off, but covered with stones.
On the spot street vendors had immediately installed themselves, and five or six were selling writing implements and notebooks, cutlery, lampshades, garters, embroidered collars, and all sorts of trinkets. Even a dealer in second-hand goods had opened a branch office here and was displaying on the stones his bric-a-brac of old sups, plates, glasses, and so forth, so that business was profiting, instead of suffering, from the brief disturbance.
We see here how trade thrives in city disorder. Spaces of commerce and intercourse open up in the turmoil of the streets, and temporary sites of transaction emerge alongside the latest dazzling rows of shops with plate glass windows, vitrines, mirrors and artificial lighting (which allowed shops to open late into the night). This is the business of the city.
In a related, but differently angled move, Benjamin is keen to pinpoint nineteenth-century accounts of Parisian life which reference the street as interior, where glossy enamelled shop signs function as wall decoration, newspaper stands as libraries, mailboxes as bronze busts, café terraces as balconies and the sections of the railway tracks where rail workers hang up their jackets as vestibules. This is an exploded interior, for it is not an isolated shelter for privatised domestic bliss. The flâneur is the tenant most at home in this city as house, a world turned inside-out, where privacy is sneered at in favour of the life in the mêlée:
The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the façades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls. To him the shiny, enamelled signs of businesses are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to the bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; news-stands are his libraries and the terraces of cafés are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done.
Our houses form us and we form our houses. Our dreams, the ghosts of our past, and our things are stored in us and in our houses. This process is not simply an individual one, but a collective act, and it is subject to historical pressures. The pressures of the present drown out the individual. The German word Bildung means formation, education. It was the special possession of the liberal progressive bourgeoisie. The sound of the word echoes the English ‘building’. In fact, of both it is claimed that they have a common origin in the proto-Indo-European verb ‘to be’, ‘to exist’ or ‘grow’. Across languages, inner worlds and houses intermingle, but the lesson of modernity is that city environments cut across this relation. The street cuts through the self and its houses.
Dwelling: to lead astray, hinder, delay (Old English); to tarry, remain in a place (Middle English). Oxford English Dictionary.
Perhaps we can use Carlos’s photos to ask broader questions about the changing nature of photography; has the digital onslaught of recent decades changed the impact of images of inhabitants from far-off places?
Put simply, my argument is that Carlos’ images here represent an “old” way of seeing the world. Our own imaginings of peoples elsewhere in the world, and those in poverty around us, were largely premised on images such as these. Can we schematically use these photos to contrast now with ‘then’, by which I mean an essentially celluloid, analogue world of static and powerful photographic imagery which shaped our late 20th century?
In the 1970s and 80s we knew that the images in our newspapers were – literally – a very partial snapshot of somewhere else, be it Cambodia, Palestine or Namibia. To understand and engage with those portrayed you had two choices; either travel to meet people (as there was no other way to hear or see them), or simply give money and support to those presenting the images.
While most of the images here are not news or press images per se, they do I feel provide a particularly evocative representation of the principal way that people in metropolitan centres perceived those in Asia and Africa before the end of the Cold War; via high-quality, carefully selected and edited still photography. Such images were reproduced in mass by quality print publications; in the UK above all in the innovative colour supplements of Sunday newspapers, a genre epitomised by war and domestic reportage photography of those such as Don McCullin
Such imagery also came to be the stock in trade of charities and NGOs, including those involved in diverse forms of solidarity; agencies such as Action Aid, Oxfam, or the Catholic Institute of International Relations commissioned images such as those we see here from Carlos. If you were involved in solidarity campaigns in the 1980s – one went to a Press Agency, laboriously ordered photos from contact sheets replete with typed-labels. There were relatively few images, and they framed a fairly carefully constructed solidarity story.
Can that “then”- of the analogue, static images of the late 20th century – be contrasted with “now”? All of us are now surrounded by a hyper-profusion of digital imagery; both still and moving, replete with sound. Most is produced not by professional photographers, commissioned as Carlos was, to bring us the world. Rather everyone, tourists, migrants, kids in their own dwellings; anyone who has a mobile phone can stream images instantly and incessantly.
What does this new imagery mean for understanding, empathy and solidarities with those portrayed? How … if at all … does constant digital imagery lead to new forms of collective political action? Do more images, in colour with sound, produced by everybody, generate greater understandings, empathy and solidarity?
The evidence suggests otherwise; look now at Syria – live feeds of real-time attacks by all sides, the churning of lives; over 200,000 dead and 11 m displaced… The multiplicity of imagery leads to less, not more understanding, engagement and solidarities. What we see is distortion and dis-empowerment, diluted in a deluge of celebrity and instant, pixilated stimuli.
Here I’m talking about what used to be known as the “third world”. Yet the same questions and juxtapositions can be applied to poverty and homelessness in the UK. The “old” way of looking was illustrated poignantly by a photographic exhibition which closed recently at the Science Museum presented by homeless charity Shelter, who’s chief executive; Campbell Robb, spoke in Birkbeck at an earlier event in this series. Shelter marked its 50th anniversary with an exhibition of photos. Make Life Worth Living: Nick Hedges’ Photographs for Shelter, 1968-72.
In 1972 Shelter commissioned Nick Hedges to document Britain’s slum housing conditions. Looking back on his work, he said: ‘Although these photographs have become historical documents, they serve to remind us that secure and adequate housing is the basis of a civilised urban society. The failure of successive governments to provide for it is a sad mark of society’s inaction. Campbell Robb, Shelter’s chief executive, said:
‘Nick’s pictures were crucial to the early days of Shelter’s campaigning, capturing a stark reality that many people in Britain couldn’t even imagine, let alone believe was happening in their community. Many of the scenes that Nick captured are from places that have long since been regenerated, but conditions not a million miles from these exist in our communities even now, with poor housing, sky-high house prices, rogue landlords and a housing safety net that’s being cut to shreds leading three million people to turn to Shelter each year’.
While several of Carlos’ exhibited images here are also of homelessness and poverty in the UK, his work as a whole speaks to a broader shift in attitudes towards photography and other peoples’ lives.
The exhibition is framed within the context of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where housing is intimately connected to work, education, health care and welfare protection. I examine dwellings as housing and a social space from a national and global perspective. The relationship between classes and social spaces is important in society, as human beings we are part of a complex political and economic circle. The hegemonic classes determine the social hierarchy and the residence of people in the social ladder.
Class, profession, housing, education, determine whether one will have access to those exclusive circles where the elites dwell. Jobs with the minimum salary, zero hour contracts or unemployment will condemn a person or family to the vicious circle of poverty.
This elusive space we call home when we cross the threshold of a house or apartment has complex human and social meanings. It is a table with a bouquet of flowers when we return home after work. For the majority of people worldwide a room in a shanty town is a home, for others it is the corner of a dark street or a cardboard box.
The control of capital by multinational corporations and the managers of the neoliberal ideology is key for sustaining the new global class division. The philosophical concept of dwelling crosses the physical borders of the home as a collective or individual space, a home is a social boundary, it could be a refugee camp or no man’s land.
My role as a social documentary photographer is to challenge the political and economic establishment over social injustices. By establishment I mean international institutions, multinational corporations, and democratically elected governments who use the power of the state to set up economic policies to oppress or to protect the people who elected them.
Aesthetics and politics in social documentary photography has been much discussed. All art is political and ideological, the ideology of the photographer is embedded in the image. The ideology of the image is transformed at other stages, by commissioning editors and curators, by NGOs who use images for fundraising or informing, and by the audience who view an image through their own ideology. A social documentary photograph needs to provoke questions and cannot be the answer to solve social inequalities. The western media plays a role in silencing social injustices and disempowering marginalized people. In the context of representation in the discourse of Orientalism people are ‘otherized’ when western ideology is in control of their representation.
The juxtaposition of the image of a jug of water and bowl in Afghanistan with the photograph of Fatema and Shabana who both lost limbs in landmine explosions on their way to collect water for their families emphasises the interconnection between dwellings, gender discrimination, lack of water and sanitation, and security.
Dwelling in a philosophical sense is encapsulated in the landscape of the Atacama desert with Lincancabur volcano in the distance where people from Antofagasta and Calama were killed and disappeared by the Caravan of Death after the 1973 military coup in Chile.