On BBC 2: Artsnight – Samira Ahmed – Photography

Gemma by Laura Pannack, who featured in the programme

I still mourn the loss of the Pearson/Parsons/Paulin three-way ‘discussion’ of things that I would never, ever, get to see and the rather vague and useless way Late Review changed from a forty-five minute in-depth evaluation of a few things into whatever-title-it-has-now covering goodness know how many things in 27 led me to the off switch.  So the creation of these Artsnight strands entirely passed me by.  Nearly my loss as Samira Ahmed used her time to showcase the work of a good handful of British documentary photographers.

Ahmed introduced the programme by saying that she was interested in British documentary photography because of its authenticity.  It’s a nice idea but it was undermined throughout.  Documentary photographers are no different to others and whilst they may not Photoshop in the same way as fashion togs there is still editing, cropping or plain posing to get through.  One of those featured, Richard Billingham, revisiting his scorching Ray’s A Laugh series was even using actors this time around owing to the deaths of his parents who were the original subjects.

We started with Martin Parr who, as always happens when Martin Parr is featured, was sent somewhere English and asked to take pictures.  It wasn’t a success.  He rather candidly admitted that on a good day one photo out of 350 might be quite good (I’d take that hit rate) but the ones they flashed up were like flickr attempts to be Parr rather than from the master himself.  The only truly memorable shot being a close-up of some weighty bull testicles.

In addition to Billingham, who came across well, we had three others and it was a nice selection.  To my shame I’d not heard of Vanley Burke before but his images of Jamaican life in Birmingham – captured in true British documentary black and white – were remarkable.  A mix of the personal, universal and political.  He showed us a photo of a black boy on a bike with union flag affixed (during a time of race riots) and then tell us he’d also photographed the funeral of the boy’s son, a victim of senseless violence.  Burke’s work is going to the Ikon Gallery and hopefully when I’m next in Brum it will still be there.

Giles Duley’s empathetic and inspiring work from warzones, in particular Afghanistan, was harrowing but beautiful in a terrible way.  The fact that he is now a triple amputee thanks to an IED hasn’t stopped him continuing to show all that is best and worst in humanity.  He himself seems quite incredibly calm about it all.

The final photographer was Laura Pannack who takes photos of West London teenagers.  The style is heading into the Dazed and Confused territory of posed shots of blank faces but it’s well done and I like that she uses film on vintage cameras.  I’d have liked to see a bit more from her and it’s a shame she only got a few minutes before the credits rolled.

All in all this was an excellent survey of some engaging and interesting photographers.  I doubt it’ll be enough to get me watching whatever the BBC are doing with arts review programmes again but it was a welcome find on the iPlayer.

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