Reflection: Where does documentary end and art begin?

Posted on by Ben Hodson

In understanding my practice I have had to ask questions such as where does documentary end and art begin? This question was easy to answer several years ago, but no I find myself flirting with these two distinct areas in different ways.  Artists such as Luc Delahaye blur the distinctions further (interestingly his work is one of my personal favourites).  I personally think that as I regularly interact with the space in front of the lens, then my practice fits more comfortably within an art context, however, I mostly present a documentation of what I have been performing/constructing etc, so the relationship is inherently more complex.  When you document something there is an implied relationship to the truth, although this can be heavily scrutinised in an era where “to photoshop” is a verb.  This uncomfortable association with the notion of truth is one of the defining practices of documentarians, where as artists seem skilful and intentional at lying or bending the truth to suit their aims and objectives.  

Luc Delahaye, further thoughts

Posted on by Ben Hodson


In understanding my practice as someone who uses photography and video, I have had to ask questions such as where does documentary end and art begin? This question seemed easy to answer several years ago, but now I find myself dipping into these two distinct areas in different ways.  Artists such as Luc Delahaye blur the distinctions further (it is worth noting his work is one of my personal favourites). “Delahaye's big pictures ask more questions than they answer about the increasingly blurred line between reportage and art, the importance of scale, and the tangible sense of detachment that characterises a certain strand of contemporary photography.” Sean O'Hagan, Tuesday 9 August 2011 09.00 BST

The Deutch Borse prize winner is a photojournalist and artist. His large format   works blur the lines between reportage and fine art. I find both how he has been accepted in the art world and the scale of his work interesting. Delahaye has long crossed the line between photojournalist and artist. The scale at which his prints are reproduced and the high quality result that he obtains from the medium/large format photography gives the viewer a reaction which is more profound then the usual journalistic image. His work makes me start to question the nature and genre of my own work.  


Reflection: Cross medium like Jimmy Robert?

Posted on by Ben Hodson

The majority of the final major project lies in a more performative space.  The act of going to Iraq and putting on an exhibition is more important to me then the actual content of what I exhibited or the shots of the installation.  The act of painting messages of peace on the side of an Iraqi mountain is more important then the brush strokes themselves or the images and video which show the event.  I don’t consider myself a performance artist, however, I do take inspiration from artists, like Jimmy Robert, who also work across mediums, using photography, film, collage, video and performance. He is big on layering and the re-appropriation of other artist’s works, which in itself becomes another layering technique.  His work can be read on many levels and as the artforum writes: “mercurial practice resists speedy parsing”. Editor, ArtFourm 2012.  As my practice develops I find myself developing the concept first and deciding on the medium second.

Truth or Lie? Art or Documentary?

Posted on by Ben Hodson

As I regularly interact with the space and people in front of the lens, my practice fits more comfortably within an art context. However, I mostly present a documentation of what I have been performing/constructing etc, so the relationship is inherently more complex.  When you document a subject there is an implied relationship to the truth, although this can be heavily scrutinised in an era where “to photoshop” is a verb.  This uncomfortable association with the notion of truth is one of the defining practices of documentarians, whereas artists seem skilful and intentional about their bending of the truth to suit their aims and objectives.  Although connected to the truth my work manipulates and redefines the reality around it to touch on deeper and important truths.  Such as “it is better to live in peace”.

Video: Installation of Iraq: Amna Suraka

Posted on by Ben Hodson


Iraq: Amna Suraka is a project I have completed off the back of a recent trip to Iraq.  Amna Suraka is the name of one of the ba’athist regimes prisons and torture chambers in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah. I spent an extended time documenting the inside of the worst place I have been in my life.  The buildings themselves are littered with bullet holes and grenade damage. These mark the battles during the uprising when local Kurds in Iraq took control of the prison. Old tanks from the Iraqi military line one wall of the courtyard. The buildings have not been restored, remaining as a museum memorialising the cruelty of Saddam’s regime. There is no official museum text to welcome you; the prison is left almost exactly as it was when it was liberated. I was taken to the secret prison, where the Baath regime had interrogated, tortured and killed Kurdish prisoners. We walked through rooms where women experienced torture and rape. The bedding and plates had been left exactly as they were when the captives were set free.  I was confronted with solitary confinement cells where prisoners wrote or scratched messages, drawings and poems into the walls. The cells seemed too small to stand up or lie down in, its then that I realised that the place was designed for evil.

The work is not intended to be political, however, anything engaging with the subject of Iraq cannot avoid the political and historical context.  In the midst of our political posturing about the rights and wrongs of the war, we seem to miss the people and their stories.  Out of all my experiences in Iraq, it was the people who impacted me the most.  The beauty, humility, hospitality and the genuine desire for peace.  The exhibition contains a series of portraits showing our common humanity and the beauty and dignity clearly found in the Iraqi people.  

The work does not claim to make any bold statements, rather I would prefer you to view the work and make your own conclusions.  I went to Iraq assuming I would have my political perspective clarified, what I experienced only brought more confusion.  I am a pacifist.   History shows us, that violence doesn't stop violence.  One of my friends who works in Iraq wrote a song with the lyrics: 'Waging a war for peace, is like raping a girl, because she wants a baby'.   I agree with this statement, however, what I witnessed in Iraq made me also realise that it seems right that the dictator Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.  My hope is that the project goes beyond a political position, and confronts you with a reality that allows you to identify with the people we met and photographed.

The project depicts three main series of work; the first is a collection of portraits showing the common humanity, including the beauty and dignity clearly found in the Iraqi people.  

You change from personal/first person language to second person  the artist etc – you also repeat a lot of information. So I’ve changed things back to frist person and taken out repeats (I realize you may have done this for a reason)

The second is a series of large format prints depicting the inside of Amna Suraka, a Baath Regime prison in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah.  I spent extensive time on my own documenting the inside of “the darkest place I have ever been to”.  We were told torture, rape and death had been perpetrated in this place on a daily basis. The trip and specifically this experience has affected me profoundly and as a result has become a focus for this series of work.  

The third, a video installation created in one of the cells from Amna Suraka from 3,000+ photos.  At one point the electricity failed and I was left in complete darkness, it was emotional. My aim is for you to experience some of those feelings  - I want the work to reveal this space to you. However, the restricted view a single image gives you only allows you to view small areas at a time. So I produced this video to try and capture the way my eyes darted around the space, with the hope that it will force you to slowly see every inch. 


For a recent exhibition in the UCMK Gallery I created a large (6m x 3m) photo-montage for the upstairs space in the gallery.  The thousands of prints were cut and attached directly onto the wall. This 360° distorted the panorama and allowed the piece to envelope the viewer in the space. It had a curious fusion of beautiful but sinister, it connected to us with the truth yet was somehow surreal as it took on a ‘painterly(or painted) form. 


I went to Iraq with a photographer and social entrepreneur friend Ian Rowlands.  We went for a number of reasons;  Firstly, we went to help an incredible organisation called the Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC), which exists to eradicate the backlog of Iraqi children waiting in line for lifesaving heart surgery and also pursue helping to bring peace between communities at odds.


Secondly, I am a member of the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers (IGVP).  Which was created to build bridges of peace across ethnic, cultural, and religious lines through visual communication that is both accountable to an ethical standard and created by those who authentically care about people. Being a part of the IGVP inspires me to use my camera to try and make a positive difference in the world.


I am interested in art's ability to bring about positive change.  My interests, research and time is caught up with this notion.  I am also interested in ideas of story telling, narrative, place and location.  These are some of the other reasons why I went to Iraq.  I went looking to explore the story of the Iraq still unseen, to engage with the lives, questions and challenges the media has been ignoring. Though I wanted to tell their story, I soon realised that I could not do this as well as the Iraqi people themselves. I have subsequently co- curated with Ian Rowlands and the PLC; an exhibition of art work by Iraqi people which is currently touring here in Europe. “Iraq: The Forgotten Story” gives the Iraqi people an opportunity to have their own voice.  In my own work I have tried to show my perspective of the place and I want to convey some of the highs and lows of the experiences in Iraq. I am not a photojournalist, I do not hunt down the headlines or stop myself getting involved.  I am interested in the people, their lives and their stories.  

After connecting with PLC, we got them to connect us to other photographers and artists in the region.  We then went through the trouble of working out visa’s and all the paper work.  This was a lot easier than we had originally thought.  We then planned the trip, raised support for the charity and packed our bags and hoped for the best.


We were in Iraq for only a couple of weeks and it meant long 16+ hour days shooting as much as possible.  We created over 100GB of digital photos, 20hrs+ of video and audio, 16 rolls of medium format film (120 645) and collected lots of stories and first hand accounts of the dramatic events. 


We were made to feel so welcome. I have travelled a fair bit, including other middle eastern nations and I have never felt so welcome.  I don’t think we paid for a single meal, everyday people invited us to their house for tea or food.  Occasionally when we went to places to buy food they would refuse payment and insisting on covering the cost themselves - to them it was an issue of honour, as this was our first time in their nation.

Artist: Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei

Posted on by Ben Hodson

One area that is worth considering is into whether an artist needs to actually go to a place, event, country etc. and/or be directly affected by the event, situation.  While looking at artists intervening a contemporary and relevant issue became apparent.  International Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been detained in China without charge.  Ai Weiwei has recently had a number of shows in London including his world famous ‘Sunflower Seeds’ installation in the turbine hall of the Tate Modern. As an artist he is quite out spoken against the communist government in China. World renowned British sculptor Anish Kapoor has come out to condemn this apparent abuse of his human rights. The authorities appear to be cracking down on all out spoken activists with in its borders.  The unrest and gradual move towards democracy in the Middle East seems to be causing some people to suggest that Chinese people should start similar protests.  The Chinese government appears to be trying to stop this from happening. Kapoor has organised worldwide closures of major art institutions and galleries.  He has also dedicated his recent Leviathan installation to Ai Weiwei’s cause.  On the surface you may question what this would do to the Chinese government, however, this single act has caused Weiwei’s situation to become a worldwide news story.  It shows how artists can intervene without actually knowing or directly experiencing a situation or problem. 

Anish Kappor dedicates art to Ai Weiwei:

Anish Kapoor appeals:

Audio interview: 

Visdeos about artist being arrested by Chinese government.

House arrest:


Artist stopped from boarding plane:

International pressure grows


His company accused of avoiding taxes:


Google news:

Writer: JG Ballard

Posted on by Ben Hodson

“I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic.” (JG Ballard, 2004) argued the British novelist James Ballard.  I have been researching in the with the assumption that this statement is true, namely that art is an important forerunner to social and political change.


If Ballard's statement is true; public opinion is a catalyst to political and social change.  This would certainly seem to be the case in democratically based governments.  The former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago suggested that; "Democracy, finally, rests on a higher power than Parliament. It rests on an informed and cultivated and alert public opinion." (Eric Eustace Williams 1938). 

Reflection on art and society

Posted on by Ben Hodson

To measure just the effect art has had on the world, there is a need to remove the surrounding forces, events, political, social and religious contexts.  Once all these variables have been removed, what is left is purely theory.  It is becoming apparent that it is impossible to separate art from its context.  It forces you to no longer look at art as a separate entity, but rather the herald, signaling the need for change.  Or perhaps the cheer leader supporting and even leading the movement of the social and political spheres.  An example of this would be the group of activist students and artists who took up residence in Ecole de Beux Arts in Paris 1968.  The Atelier Populaire (Popular Workshop) was formed and became famous for producing numerous posters which were intended as “weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it.” (Atelier Populaire, 1968) Their mandate was to support the large ground swell of social change in France.   Their free posters became “the battle standard” for the masses. Their art did not cause the civil unrest, although they did help to rally support.  

Malcolm Miles

Posted on by Ben Hodson

In Malcolm Miles’ PHD thesis Art & Social transformation he argues that art practice should work within the crevices of the dominant society “...insert[ing] its realisations and images like the strains of a virus into the wider society, allowing them to grow as they will. In this incremental approach power becomes de-centred” (Miles, Malcolm. 2000).  This idea of infecting society like a virus appears to be one of the conclusions he draws from his research as one of the ways art practice and theory can change society for the better.  Miles who is the professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Plymouth, writes books and papers linking society to contemporary art and urban change. Miles suggests that “artists, like all citizens, have three choices: to be complicit in the dominant society (as artists serving the art market's needs for commodities, or providing embellishment for urban development); to resist, as through direct action; or to work within the crevices of the dominant society” (Miles, Malcolm. 2000)  His research deconstructed a number of non-gallery based arts initiatives which directly tried to have positive influence on social and environmental issues.  The conclusions he drew from these examples showed how art (in its widest context) has given way to direct positive influence on society even in the last three decades. 

Research: Dadaism

Posted on by Ben Hodson

When considering art's reaction to events, you cannot avoid movements such as Dadaism.  The movement was really born out of a reaction to the First World War, its art focused on throwing away the established preconceptions.  Similarly the seeds for the cultural shift towards post-modernism were sown in the aftermath of the Second World War and accelerated by the war in Vietnam.  The artists began to feel that art had to be more than the modernist view of it being a purely aesthetic, rational or documentary experience, it needed to comment on the world to show people the truth and engage them emotionally.