ethica incognita

Thames & Hudson used to publish photobooks; wondering if they still did, I surfed around their site and arrived at a book by one Sasha Gusov (Саша Гусов). What little I could see of it was interesting enough to have me duckduckgo for more, whereupon I learned of a (non-Thames-or-Hudson) book enticingly titled Belarus: Terra incognita. Photos from this aren’t obvious anywhere in Gusov’s website. The book’s page at Hurtwood Press (which prints and publishes what some body pays it to) also gives no samples, but does say it’s:

a collection of celebratory photographs of ordinary people living their lives in freedom, peace and happiness. […] The book has an introduction by Lord Bell and gives the lie to the western perception of this beautiful country as an autocratic dictatorship.

Oh? I hadn’t been thinking of autocracy or dictatorships. But since they were mentioned. . . . With no photos to look at, there wasn’t much to go on other than the unfamiliar name “Lord Bell”. Who might he be?

Well known in the context of Belarus, it seems. “The [Belarus] regime recently hired a UK spin doctor, Lord Timothy Bell, to polish its image abroad” (No breakthrough: Another dodgy election in Belarus, Economist, 2 October 2008). There’s more on his relationship with Belarus in ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ gets Western PR makeover (AFP, via Google, 29 November 2008).

Could Bell perhaps be some worthy, ennobled for philanthropy, whose spin-doctoring for Belarus was fully consistent with a disinterested love of that nation and appreciation of its regime? Time to investigate further.

In December 2011, Bell was the chairman of Bell Pottinger, a PR company whose employees “talked openly about the work the firm had done with other regimes with questionable human rights records including Sri Lanka and Belarus”. They were happy to be paid to fend off pesky questions about Uzbekistan, and claimed to be able to stitch up Wikipedia articles (Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM, The Independent, 6 December 2011). The claims about Wikipedia have been verified (Wikipedia founder attacks Bell Pottinger for ‘ethical blindness’, The Independent, 8 December 2011).

In 2006, “veteran fixer Tim Bell” agreed with the Saudi regime that an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into “allegations that huge Saudi bribes had been paid by arms group BAE Systems to get weapons deals” was not necessary (Brutal politics lesson for corruption investigators, Guardian, 16 December 2006).

Bell Pottinger has done much work for the Bahrain regime (PR watch: Bell Pottinger Private, Bahrain Watch).

Hard to avoid the suspicion that Bell is happy to shill for anyone. But as he points out, while he’s not a priest, he does know the difference between right and wrong (Professional liar Lord Tim Bell with a fawning Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight). That’s good to know. Indeed, “he would not work for the Labour Party because he would lack the conviction to do so, and so believes he would do a bad job.” Though he did have the conviction to work for Pinochet, the South African National Party, and the mysteriously affluent Mark Thatcher (Godfather of spin with his fingerprints all over history, The Observer, 17 December 2006).

Bell signs the “Introduction” (preface) to the book “Lord Bell” — I’d thought plain “Bell” was good form for somebody who’s not a screaming lord — and unashamedly describes himself as “Former political advisor to Margaret Thatcher”. He was variously indiscreet in his youth (Do unethical lobbyists feel any pain at the dirty, seedy role they play in politics?, The Independent, 7 December 2011) — was the Thatcher association merely another such indiscretion? Back in 1994, when he “[had] a splendid house in Belgravia and [drove] a Bentley”, he was asked “Is Lady Thatcher still your heroine?” and responded:

Certainly. I have met some remarkable people in my life, but she was the greatest. She was in touch with the mood of the people more than any PM has ever been, and she freed the people from the burdens of the state.

(Just don’t mention the Spam fritters, The Independent, 24 May 1994)

For both instances of “the people”, read “the people living splendidly in Belgravia”, and Bell’s observation starts to make sense.

But back to the Belarus book. Further digging reveals more photos from it: some here at the book’s designer, others here (not obviously an organ of Fox “News”). These have a childish kind of humour and aren’t bad. On the cover is a leafy figure that you might momentarily take as a character from some pagan festival — until you suddenly notice his large weapon. The book then starts with a preface full of truisms, non sequiturs and falsities by a professional propagandist who has publicly succeeded in deluding himself. I can only infer that after taking the money for the book, Gusov did his best to turn it into a joke. Smart move.

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The Waiting Room

Independent photobooks, yes please! After all, who’d condemn photobooks to dependence or serfdom? And hooray for The Independent Photobook, an excellent browse. But all too often I read its descriptions of new publications merely for the unintended humour. The current top four:

a re-exploration of Penn Wood, Buckinghamshire and a journey back to a vivid childhood fantasy. Working at dawn, dusk and night blending natural and constructed lighting techniques in conjunction with elements from the landscape, the betwixt, large-scale images lie in a place that is somewhere between realities, as if you have stumbled upon a happening £20.00
the whirlwind relationship between the young Japanese photographer and a young mother of two in a series of intimate color photographs $75
A brief summery of my first year in Los Angeles after leaving Philadelphia. Installing other peoples art, making friends, seeing shows and surfing. $10
Regarding photography as visual expression, I attempt to capture impression of experiences, a result of my visual influence on it, by realizing elements as it can be interruption of sight ¥1500

Some of these may be good, but I wouldn’t know because I didn’t look: the very blurb somehow managed to make each sound no more whelming than does the modish mainstream. But the other day among all the art-school stuff there appeared:

The Waiting Room is a ten-year documentary project, taking a look at this unique country squeezed between Europe and Russia. The main focus is on daily life, atmosphere, and questions of post-Soviet identity, not politics or Chernobyl. $25

The Waiting Room (Bill Crandall)“This unique country” being Belarus.

At last, somebody (Bill Crandall) who actually spent time and effort trying to get the best photographs of something. Most refreshing. A quick look at the photographs to which this linked confirmed the good impression. Minutes later, I ordered the book. And a very few days afterwards, it arrived. Read the rest of this entry »


a little Minsk bookshelf (iii)

Belarus Press Photo 2010BPP 2010 Belarus Press Photo (Прэс-фота Беларусі 2010). Kaunas: Arx Baltica, 2011. ISBN 978-9955-39-116-6 (Worldcat). In Belarusian, Russian and English. (And no, not Lithuanian. Worldcat has got that wrong.)

This runs to 144 excellently printed pages. About half of it is devoted to gags, lovable dogs, fashion shots, sports moments, and so forth; but even if you’re as little interested in these as I am, and if you discount some repetition elsewhere — perhaps there are a few too many photographs of border guards and would-be members of crack police/military units undergoing training or tests — you still get a lot of worthwhile photography for your money. If you thought Grimaces of the Weary Village was surreal, how about (on p.59) a masked, white-clad employee of the Palessie State Radiation Ecological Reserve monitoring radiactivity just metres away from the farmer holding a blowtorch to a dead pig? This masterpiece is one of several by Viktor Drachev (of AFP), some of whose work you can see on this page. Among the other photographers is Andrei Liankevich, on whom see below.

All of this is the result of the first Belarusian press photo competition, with a mostly Russian and Lithuanian jury but organized by Belarus Press Photo. The organizers hope that it will become an annual event. The photographs in this first volume go back to 2006 or so, so this time we’re looking at the best in roughly four years. If I guess the meaning of the colophon correctly, there are just 1000 copies; get yours and thereby help finance “BPP2011”. I bought my own copy at Logvinau but here it is at MIPP, for example.

Focus on BelarusAndrei Liankevich. Focus on Belarus: Andrei Liankevich, Fotografien / Photographs / Фотаздымкі. Leipzig: Swen Steinberg and Daniel K. W. Trepsdorf, 2008. No ISBN; not in Worldcat.

You can read about the exhibition by Andrei Liankevich (Андрэй Лянкевіч, Андрей Ленкевич) of which this is the catalogue here (it was part of Focus on Belarus: Terra Incognita), see some of the photographs here, here and in this PDF, and see the book here.

A variety of scenes of Belarus. There are just 38 photographs, but none of them is filler and they’re all excellently reproduced. The informative captions are in German, English, and Belarusian. There’s an introductory essay by Ingo Petz that’s enthusiastic but (perhaps due to deficiencies in translation) is so to an absurd degree.

“Idea, conceptual design, compilation” are credited to Steinberg; the book is “issued by” Steinberg and Trepsdorf.

The book is not easy to find. No library obviously possesses a copy. Anzenberger used to have signed copies for $35 but now has unsigned copies for $60.

Liankevich’s later book Pagan is very different. (As it happens, I like them both.)

Fotografie aus MinskFotografie aus Minsk: Uladzimir Parfianok, Igor Savchenko, Galina Moskaleva, Sergey Kozhemyakin, Vladimir Shaklevich. Berlin: ifa-Galerie Friedrichstraße, 1994. No ISBN; OCLC 214607452 etc; here (and elsewhere) at Worldcat.

A well-printed but slim exhibition catalogue whose text is in German only. I got it from ABE as the title sounded intriguing and the price was low. It turns out to be less photography than artists doing arty things with cameras and found photographs (or their own photographs made to look found): all worthy no doubt, but to me unexciting. The content, all monochrome or approximately so, is by Uladzimir Parfianok (Уладзімір Парфянок, Vladimir Parfenok, Владимир Парфенок), Igor Savchenko (Игорь Савченко), Galina Moskaleva (Галина Москалева), Sergey Kozhemyakin (Сергей Кожемякин) and Vladimir Shaklevich, each of whom gets a text introduction and also a CV. If I could read German I might then be enlightened by the texts and find the work fascinating, but I doubt it. Yet several of these photographers exhibit other, more interesting series on the web, so don’t rush to discount them. And as for what’s in this catalogue, your sensibilities may of course be artier than mine.

Copyright of the cover images above of course belongs to the respective publisher or photographer, not to me.


a little Minsk bookshelf (ii)

Two more worthwhile books (in addition to these), and other tips.

Minsk: Yesterday and today

Vassili Kaleda (Василий Каледа). Minsk Yesterday and Today (Мінск. учора і сёння / Минск. вчера и сегодня / Minsk hier et aujourd’hui / Minsk gestern und heute / Minsk ayer y hoy). Minsk: Belarus, 1989. ISBN 5-338-00273-6 (Worldcat, Open Library).

A collection of photographs (as well as a handful of engravings) of Minsk. By today’s standards, the quality of the binding, paper and printing is mediocre, and at first glance this is succeeded and surpassed by Minsk: A Journey through Time (2008). But the older book has a much greater variety of photographs than the newer one, and despite being in each of six languages — Belarusian, Russian, English, French, German and Spanish — its captions are much more informative.

I found my copy at AbeBooks, which has a good supply of these at very palatable prices.

Bradt Belarus 2nd ed

Nigel Roberts. Belarus. 2nd ed. Chalfont St Peter, Bucks: Bradt, 2011. ISBN 978-1-84162-340-5 (Worldcat).

If you’re familiar with Bradt guidebooks, then this one is much as you’d expect; although the author is (via WOVA) involved in Belarus to an above average degree, and Belarus is more than averagely productive of anecdotes (by the author and others) that you’ll want to read and reread. Only a fifth or so of the book can be devoted to Minsk; the coverage doesn’t and can’t go very deep. But though I didn’t venture beyond Minsk, I got my money’s worth.

In summer 2011 I didn’t notice this in any Minsk bookshop (though as I already had a copy I wasn’t looking for a second). If you’re thinking of going to Belarus and wondering whether or not to buy a copy, don’t assume that you’ll be able to do so after you arrive.

Minsk in Your PocketMinsk in Your Pocket.

I’ll skip the bibliographical palaver for this one as you have at least three simple ways of viewing it almost immediately:

  • spread over a website (here)
  • as a Scribd iPaper (conspicuously linked from the above)
  • as a (7 MB plus) PDF (here)

In printed form, it’s in any of various Minsk bookshops.

If you’ve already been anywhere for which there’s a [wherever] in Your Pocket, then you’re probably familiar with it; and if you haven’t or aren’t, then take a look at the list of destinations. There are eight in Albania alone . . . though admittedly only one in Belarus.

Nagel's Encyclopedia-Guide U.S.S.R.Bradt’s guidebooks (and Lonely Planets and so forth), and the “In Your Pocket” series, are all very well, but sometimes I want the detail one gets in a real guidebook. Alas there will never be a Minsk and Its Lagoon: Historical-Artistic Guide, but there does exist Nagel’s Encyclopedia–Guide U.S.S.R., whose 5th edition (ISBN 2-8263-0796-7) is as recent as 1986. I haven’t seen it but learn that it runs to over a thousand pages; and others in the series that I have seen suggest that each page will be packed with information. Used in conjunction with something newer, this book could reveal much that’s not obvious. (Cf Ian Johnson’s account of his use in 1984 of what sounds like the 1968 edition of Nagel’s Encyclopedia–Guide China.)

Copyright of the cover images above of course belongs to the respective publisher, author or editor, not to me.

next in the Belarus series


a little Minsk bookshelf (i)

Here are some books that I recommend.

Opening the Door?Julija Fomina and Kęstutis Kuizinas, eds. Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today. Vilnius: Šiulaikinio meno centras / Contemporary Art Centre, 2010. ISBN 978-9986-957-48-5 (Worldcat).

The book to accompany an exhibition of the same name held at ŠMC/CAC in 2010–11. Four texts, and brief introductions to the work of each of eighteen Belarusian artists (or pairs of artists, etc). Despite its single English title, it’s trilingual: English, Lithuanian and Russian.

I bought my copy at ŠMC/CAC, which lists its publications but doesn’t obviously state how they may be ordered.

Minsk: The City and PeopleVadim Kachan (Вадим Качан). Minsk: The City and People (Минск. Город и люди). Minsk: Artia Group, 2011. ISBN 978-985-6893-29-5. (This should find it in Worldcat, but at the time of writing does not do so.)

A book of black and white photographs by Vadim Kachan of Minsk, with captions and short texts in both Russian and English. It’s affectionate but not too postcardy — it’s the kind of book of which Prague provides many examples. Reproduction quality is serviceable. You can see the book, or an exhibition of the work it contains, here, here, and here.

The book is labelled “Masters of the Belarusian Photography”, suggesting that it’s one volume within such a series. I didn’t see any other volume; perhaps some are on their way.

In summer 2011 this was available in Minsk bookshops.

Minsk in One DayChrystaphor Khilkevich (text) and Siarhei Plytkevich (photography). Minsk in One Day: Guide-book. 3rd (?) ed. Minsk: Riftour, 2007. ISBN 978-985-6700-55-5 (Worldcat).

Yes, this purports to be a guidebook for one day in Minsk. It would be an eye-opening, educational, but long and exhausting day. The text is intelligent, the photographs are good, and it’s all ingeniously indexed; but the format is too large to let it fit into any normal pocket. However, even if you don’t use this as a guidebook, it’s worth buying and reading. It’s in English only, but editions in other languages also exist.

In summer 2011 this was available in Minsk bookshops.

Minsk: A Journey through TimeVladimir Likhodedov (Владимир Лиходедов; Владімір Ліходедов). Minsk: A Journey through Time (Минск. Путешествие во времени / Мінск. Падарожжа ў часе). Minsk: Technalogia, 2008. ISBN 978-985-458-167-5 (Worldcat, Open Library).

A handsome, substantial book (height 32 cm) that pairs postcards of Minsk as it once was (before the Soviet period or anyway before the war) with photographs of it as it was around 2008. Captions and text are in Russian, Belarusian and English. An index would help, but the content is well organized.

My own copy emphasizes Russian on its front cover and spine (although its colophon is in Belarusian), but plenty of images of the front cover on the web are of a design that emphasizes Belarusian instead; I’d guess that there’s one book with a choice of covers.

In summer 2011 the book was widely available in Minsk bookshops (as were other similarly tempting books, which I didn’t buy, in the same series).

Book prices in Belarus are not fixed and the “list”/recommended price isn’t printed on the book — or anyway I don’t notice any price printed on or in any book that I bought there. This means that the price of a given book may be higher in one shop than in another, and inconspicuously so. But Belarusian books in either Russian or Belarusian (as well perhaps as one or more other languages) are priced distinctly low by US/British standards, and those that are only in English are priced reasonably too. Moreover, the prices for a particular book don’t vary much. So don’t waste your time “comparison shopping”, and don’t be offended when you discover you could have saved a small amount by buying in some other shop.

Copyright of the cover images above of course belongs to the respective publisher, author or editor, not to me.

next in the Belarus series


Russian vs Belarusian for dummies

Russian and Belarusian are the two official languages in Belarus. By all accounts Russian is far more widely spoken, both in Belarus in general and Minsk in particular. (There’s also a Russian–Belarusian hybrid, and Belarusian can be written according to at least two different conventions. But let’s keep things simple here.)

I’m frustrated that I don’t understand either language and at least I want to know which one it is that I’m hearing or reading. Hearing, I’ve no idea; but reading, it’s easy. Consider this bilingual sign on one building:

bilingual sign, Minsk

Which half is Russian, which Belarusian?
Read the rest of this entry »


Minsk Hero City

sign outside BelintouristPart of the appeal of Minsk is that although it may be intended to impress, it’s not intended to impress mere tourists. Unless you’re Russian (or perhaps from one of a small number of other nations), Belarus does not at first appear particularly welcoming: you need a visa, for which you must not only answer a lot of questions but also provide either an invitation from some institution or a set of hotel reservations. This was fine with me: I guessed that all this would deter the casual visitor, and nothing later contradicted this. Anyway, officialdom was polite and even helpful to me.

Once you’re at Minsk, things warm up. Belintourist is just behind Hotel Yubileiny (where I stayed) and very close to the Minsk Hero City monument. I didn’t go to Belintourist till late, when I bought my train ticket (to Vilnius) there. Very helpful ladies in Belintourist, and the background frieze in their office, representing every city (or oblast?) in the old BSSR, is stunning. I’m kicking myself for not having photographed that.

Hotel Yubileiny was fine, and I’d happily stay there again. It didn’t have a computer I could rent by the minute, but that was no problem because Hotel Planeta did, and this is just a short walk away . . . and handsome.

That was Hotel Yubileiny. Now for Planeta:

Hotel Planeta’s business centre was a pleasure to use. But let’s leave hotels and look around.

Minsk was a Hero City of the Soviet Union and here is the monument to this.

This wasn’t the first grand monument I saw; the first was the Mount of Glory, seen from the window of the taxi from the airport.

Here we start to see what we very rarely see in, say, what was previously the LitSSR: hammers and sickles. First a building (very close to Belintourist), and then a detail of it:

But capitalism does encroach:

Hewlett-Packard advertising

next in the Belarus series