‘Please Demolish With A Kind Heart - Behind Christchurch's Red Zone' - by Glen Howey.
Reviewed by James Gilberd for Photography Matters II
PDWAKH is one of the few New Zealand books of personal photographs (let’s call them art photographs, because I think they are art at least as much as they are documents) that has been printed in large numbers and mass marketed. The market for a pure art photography book in New Zealand is so small as to make it unviable for a commercial publishing house to get involved. A recent publication that got around this by pitching to multiple markets is, ‘ANZAC – photographs by Laurence Aberhart’ (Victoria University Press / Dunedin Public Art Gallery) in which a photographic artist depicts WWI memorials.
The photographs in PDWAKH are good, all of them. Top marks to Glen on the way he’s captured the devastated homes, businesses and public buildings. His visual response, in physically difficult and hazardous circumstances, is a fine balance of the personal, the emotional and the informative. The selection only occasionally strays into pathos, such as the abandoned soft toys on p57. (The photo had to be taken, regardless, and I guess the editing and sequencing weren’t altogether controlled by the photographer.)
I have a small issue with the title book: the photograph at the beginning clearly shows the message left by a monk (a story nicely unearthed by Howey; more of these are wanted) to read ‘Please demolish with kind heart’. Yet when this is repeatedly referred to in the introduction, it insistently becomes, ‘Please demolish with a kind heart’. Maybe this is a finally the publisher's decision. Call me pedantic, but it grates.
As mentioned, I have no personal connection with Christchurch, but last night my wife Denise and I were at a party, the hosts of which were forced to leave Christchurch because of earthquake damage to their apartment. They were offered a mere three-hour window in which to enter their home and retrieve abandoned personal belongings before the CBD apartment block was demolished. Since they were living in Wellington by this time, they were unable to take this ‘opportunity’.
Upon first seeing the book, I tried to imagine how I might feel if the earthquake had been in Wellington and our home was pictured in similar circumstances. Our friends’ plight offered a perspective on that scenario.
This is a way of saying that, although Howey goes to some lengths justifying his photography and the role of the book as a historical record, I’m not that comfortable with the ethics of either. I wonder how others feel.
Soon after photographing, Howey gained significant publicity on TV, radio and in the press for his work. Here are some links:
The Press: http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/63996401/Man-risks-death-to-capture-quake-memories
Radio NZ: https://www.google.co.nz/search?q=glen+howey+earthquake+christchurch+photo&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&gws_rd=cr&ei=bZ3bVq-oL4Ou0ASjk4SIDA
TV# Newshub: http://www.newshub.co.nz/tvshows/paulhenryshow/breaking-the-rules-for-art-2014121023#axzz425YUy2n8
(There are no pics in this review because there are already plenty online. Also see links at the end of this post.)
I think that while this book contains a strong body of high-quality photographic work that is engaging and arouses empathy, and awe at the forces of nature and evidence of its surprisingly rapid process of reclamation, it is also a publication that raises many ethical questions about photography, trespassing, and personal privacy.
I’m an advocate for what is broadly and loosely termed ‘street photography’ and I’ve shown a fair bit of it in Photospace Gallery, by artists such as Peter Black, Julian Ward, Hans Weston, Gabrielle McKone, Camus Wyatt and others. The law in New Zealand, as it stands (by my understanding as a lay person), is that if you’re out in public you may be photographed without your consent. If you’re on private property and the photographer is looking in, it gets hazy and it’s better (I think) if photographers refrain from this. If the photos are to be used for commercial purposes, such as to advertise a product, then a release (conditional written consent from the subjects or property owners) is required. Ultimately, this is a small country; there have been but few legal tests of the law around photography and privacy; and if you want to have a career as a photographer you had better observe the Golden Rule.
For art and journalism, both of which PDWAKH is, then people in public, and the streets and buildings, are all legitimate subjects and no permission to photograph and publish is necessary. But what about entering private property (or formerly private property, or that which is officially declared off limits) to take the photographs? Howey explains that he went to a lot of trouble to obtain legitimate consent but kept hitting walls and so went ahead anyway, because the photographs needed to be taken in order for a particular record of the effects of the earthquake to be made and preserved. When I first read his introduction I found myself largely in agreement with his reasoning. A fortnight later, revisiting just the photographs, I’m left in some doubt over it.
In the publication, ‘Hawkes Bay “Before” and “After” – the Great Earthquake of 1931 – An Historical Record’ (Pub. The Daily Telegraph, Napier, 1st July 1931) we’re confronted by a collection of newspaper articles and monochrome, coarsely dot-screened photographs; a record indeed, but the photos are rather matter-of-fact, totally artless. Images by the NZ Police photographers in, ‘Christchurch 222: Beyond the Cordon’ (Hachette NZ, 2011) are much more immediate and arresting (pardon the pun), but are also quite impersonal. Howey’s photographs engage me for longer, at a deeper level, and my response to them is more emotional than to the reportage-type photos in the other Canterbury Earthquake books I’ve flicked through and considered buying, but have not. (I didn’t buy PDWAKH either, but definitely would’ve had not the review copy arrived.)
The book’s design is satisfying. It’s a nice size, not too hefty but with ample dimensions, length and reproduction quality to do Howey’s photography project justice. Some of the photos are printed full-bleed and across the gutter, and the scale and impact thus gained far outweighs the slight loss of information in the gutter area.
The two-page introduction by Tony Benny is sufficient to provide historical context for the photographs and address the photographer’s reasons for and process of working. The photo captions are mainly unobtrusive and provide useful information about the sites and the photographer’s experience of them. This is successfully a book of photographs; words are secondary, but not unnecessary.
Call PDWAKH Art meets Documentary Photography meets Urban Exploration, complete with all the disregard for the letter of the law, the self-declared rights and the personal risk-taking associated with Urbex. While the ethics of the author’s photographic actions are, at best, cloudy, at least the book is lent extra tension by his approach; and if he hadn’t crossed a few lines it would not exist. And if it is art, then it's not required to be comfortable, agreeable, or entirely ethical (although the powers that be of the university art schools may beg to differ on the last point).
On the other hand, PDWAKH is a commercial proposition, having been printed in a quantity that will likely make a profit for the publisher, the retailers, and the photographer (although his hourly rate will probably pan out somewhere below the minimum wage level, and still he has generously pledged a quarter of his royalty payments to NZ Red Cross).
But, in the end, I'm pleased to own a copy of this book. Perhaps PDWAKH did need to be made. I would love to hear your opinion, especially if photographs of your home, business or workplace are included in the book.
- James Gilberd, March 2016.
- A gallery of Glen Howey’s photos from Jesse Mulligan, Radio NZ
- Glen Howey’s website
- Publisher PQ Blackwell’s Facebook listing
Binding: Hardback with gilclear band
Publication: November 2015
Published by PQ Blackwell Ltd
Distributed by Bookreps/PDL
Available where all good books are sold