Gillanders and Stirton

David Gillanders and Brent Stirton

The course notes towards the end of each section provide a list of photographers who, I assume, are active in the field/genre of the area of study coming to a completion and in this case Documentary. I’ve decided to focus this post on ways in which a similar subject has been covered by both the aforementioned photographers. The object isn’t to say which photographer did a better job, more compelling, worth more, just to compare the different approaches in both aesthetics of production and what ‘I’ sense as the underlying contextual narrative. Both have looked at the effect of poverty, AIDS and the misuse of drugs in the Ukraine. Their approaches, both visually and physically, have been very different from each other, but both sets provide compelling imagery that brings awareness to these western eyes.

David Gillanders’ approach street children of ukraine is, seemingly, more personal to the subjects. He prefaces the work with this statement

In 2000 I was travelling through Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union developing a project on the transmission of HIV through intravenous drug use. I stumbled upon a group of young kids who were being chased from a McDonalds restaurant by a very aggressive restaurant manager. I intervened to prevent the manager beating the kids on the street. The kids had been removing leftovers from empty tables. This act led me into an underground world where young children live and die in the most squalid and horrible conditions I have ever experienced. Orphans, runaways, wee broken souls fending for themselves in a cruel and unforgiving world.”

The images are ‘clicked” on by the viewer to scroll them through and no other text is provided. The narrative needs to be developed by the viewer using the preface to situate the work and the image narrative to inform it. The first five images aren’t particularly alarming, pictures of boys who have a ‘place’ that is seemingly underground; reached by a manhole cover, dark and gritty images with compressed monochrome tones. It isn’t until the sixth shot that we notice something to concern the viewer. Three boys, one is exhaling and we can’t see what it is; the exhaling boy is in a state, apparently of grace. The next shot is of a boy outside, slightly older, maybe twelve or thirteen, but just a boy. We see him next shot in between – on the right of the photograph some hypodermic syringe paraphernalia and on the left hand side, some phials or bottles of medicinal products. This boy is bare chested and has a bandage or dressing on his arm above the elbow joint. We are now situated in a much darker place than we were when we started the series and the rest of the thirty six or so (a roll of 35mm film?) later gets darker and darker.

Gillanders has found a way to, seemingly, embed himself with these street urchins, who are, we learn later, slowly but defiantly killing themselves. These boys and girls, outside of a society that a generation ago would have had some form of safety net under the socialist regime in place, now find themselves with, apparently, no hope. Gillanders takes us to that intimate place; there are no watchers – we are watching their destruction, witnesses to their predicament, we are being challenged to consider our position

Brent Stirton starts his series Aids, Drugs and Uncertainty: Ukraine with, what one can only assume is a sufferer of AIDS. The series title situates all those inside this body of work as either a sufferer, at risk of suffering, or part of any support system around the condition of AIDS and Drugs. This series, as distinct from Gillanders, is seemingly  slightly detached – but not by much.

Stirton uses colour; beautiful colour, to render these quite awful, tragic, grotesque images transgressively. There are no words to accompany the images. All the depravations associated with the appalling conditions that these sufferers live in, their medical conditions, their sores, their depravity is at the other extreme of the beautiful rendering afforded to each image. The first shot situates the series, the viewer isn’t in for a pleasant ride, the head and shoulders portrait has the subject in a landscape pose, flat on what can be easily discerned as a hospital bed, one eye almost closed the other staring blankly; he could be dead, or at least, as my mother might have said ‘dead to the world’ – trancelike. The images from there on in generally get more explicit in nature, the depravity more grotesquely pictured and by image fifteen we have what we can only assume is a young woman, fellating a customer. That we see the customer from the rear and without any recognizable features and that we see the girl’s face in the act denotes that she doesn’t or cannot afford to care, her need for money overcomes any sense of shame she might have in being depicted as she is, in glorious colour.

These events, and peoples, are a million miles from where I am, their lives, their pitiful lives bare no relation to who or what I am, nor I suspect to the vast majority of the reader’s of these images wherever they appear. I have however an inner belief that this work is of value. I posted this on the student site

“This image by Brent Stirton was a category winner in the world press photo awards this year. The photo information as supplied by the awards is: “Maria, a drug-addicted sex worker, rests between clients in the room she rents in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine. The country has the highest incidence of HIV/Aids in Europe and, according to a Unicef report, one in five sex workers is living with HIV. Maria says she remains HIV negative.”

I was concerned about the use of a single image being served up to win a prize – which it did. The general reaction was one that echoed my initial thoughts, but it missed the point of the work, which was the work as a whole. Individualy the single image lacked an abundance that the series carries so much better. In the series there aren’t that many ‘young objectified women’ ‘Maria…’ is one of a couple and the other image in the same pose is far more disturbing for other reasons. If it takes shock to shock the viewer into action then Stirton succeeds, if it doesn’t there is no help for Maria. That her name is Maria in a avowedly orthodox society is perhaps also an interesting choice to use her as opposed to any other image.

I wonder what the contributors to the blog post think now, whether the work as a whole has changed their minds as regards Stirton’s work.

Both Gillanders and Stirton seem to me to have a very clear objective, to bring awareness to some very very difficult issues. Their differing aesthetics and styles work equally well for me. I am hoping that they agree for me to host a few of the images into this post to make the reading easier


12 thoughts on “Gillanders and Stirton

  1. What to say; what to do? That sense of helplessness immobilises me and so I switch my brain off after a while because the cognitive dissonance is too great and this happens in too many places in the world. I ask myself has anything changed since these images were made or are they like King Lear’s words.

    • “What to say; what to do?” Gillander just happened upon this happening, I suspect that Stirton sought it out; either way it becomes part of a public consciousness now that it has been reported – by whatever aesthetic or medium. We might have suspected, we might suspect the photographers intention, but the conversation has been broadened now. And that is surely the right thing?

  2. The work of both photographers is shocking and powerful. But viewing the images just seems to leave me feeling uncomfortable and helpless. My discomfort arises in some measure from the fact that I am drawn to the images because of the their aesthetic qualities. This feels wrong and exploitative given that they depict people in extreme distress. Admittedly the images do draw attention to the issues and this may result in someone doing something about it….

    For me the bigger question is why is this happening. The tragedy of these people is a symptom of something wrong in the Ukraine. These images do nothing to point to or expose the likely root causes.

    • As in my reply to Catherine above, without it’s narrative becoming public, other questions, such as the wider issue of why would perhaps not have been asked, That one person more has asked the question validates the work?

  3. Having more than one image makes such a difference.
    but I don’t really know what to say…

    Martha Rosler btw, she wrote about photographers going to The Bowery and photographing drunks as a kind of “othering” of them. So that people could look at them from safety at home and congratulate themselves for being caring and concerned while the photographers got a name for being ethical and heroic.

    Something like that anyway, I am massively paraphrasing:-(

    She made some work that was photographs of the Bowery with words about drunkenness but no images of people.

    • The series makes a huge difference I agree, it was easy to be judgemental on a single image, mea culpa; but I suspect, quite cynically, that Rosler’s audience response is likely to be repeated, even with the people in this condition in the frame.

  4. For me the series doesn’t make that much difference. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t for a moment doubt the integrity of intention behind this work. However the comments above bring home one of the things that worried me about this type of approach – that it makes people turn away, not because they don’t care and don’t find the work painful, but because they do and feel there is nothing that can be done and can’t bear to keep looking helplessly at such pain.

    I do think that the work is a kind of “othering” of these people. One can’t completely disregard the fact that the picture of Maria was selected to be sent into a competition. I am not at all sure that it will in itself help them. You might argue that no photographic work ever helps people, or only rarely, and that may be true – but if so, why do it? Why show the world their pain, humiliation and trauma in this way? In saying all of this I don’t mean to suggest that there is a single easy answer or right way to make work. I ask why the pictures are taken this way but I don’t mean to suggest that we should ignore these people or their pain and not document it or try to hide it. It is profoundly difficult and I give credit to both these photographers for taking on such difficult subjects.

    I can see that Brent Stirton is very committed to exploring health crises such as aids and works for many international organisations and hope I am wrong in my assessment that his work won’t make a positive difference. I do think it is interesting to compare that approach to this work, by another photographer who has devoted much of the last few decades to exploring the Aids crisis. There is of course more than one way to explore any documentary project. But I know which of these approaches feels less like an exercise in othering the subject.

  5. Like you Eileen, I can’t say which is right or wrong. Instinctively I felt that the individual image was wrong, used as a competition entry I felt the process diminished whatever was left of Maria. However I am now not nearly so sure, given the scope of the work that Stirton and Gillanders have done. By comparison of course Gideon Mendel’s work is almost saccharine sweet and is ‘inclusive’ by bringing these people into, apparently, our society without the shock of, particularly Stirton. And I appreciate that your point wasn’t about the singular issue of Aids, but Gillanders and Stirton’s work isn’t a single issue; it’s clearly a multiplicity of issues in a society that, admittedly has major issues to deal with, is ignoring these people and the problems that have created them. Mendel’s subjects are all in treatment, a lot of Gillanders and Stirton’s are self treating! A lot of Stirton’s subjects are outside (others) and not inside, Gillanders’ are all ‘others’ are they not? I notice that Mendel – or the organisation – is planning to go to Kiev and it will be interesting to see how that work pans out.

  6. I think they look normal to me – surely they are only saccharine if you expect that people with HIV should be covered in sores? That said, I take your point that these people are in a different place to those documented by Gillanders and Stirton. But I am sure Mendel could have taken pictures of them focusing on their illness and daily struggles if he had been so inclined.

    • No, I don’t think that Eileen, I meant that by comparison Mendel’s treatment is much, much softer – on a subject that is very difficult to record. I think that all three approaches perhaps have their place, the strength of Stirton’s response is very difficult to engage with because of the way he renders the condition in those beautiful tones.

  7. Pingback: Thoughts on Documentary – McCullin and Rosler | John Umney - Documentary

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