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