Morgan Ashcom – Open
Photography doesn’t change the world, or so the pessimists will contend. Yet photographers are often amongst the first to be targeted by wrongdoers, authoritarian regimes, and others seeking to elude responsibility for their actions. Overt censorship has existed in lockstep with the medium since at least the 1853 to 1856 Crimean War, where journalists including Roger Fenton, often celebrated as the first conflict photographer, were subject to a range of restrictions as a precondition of their presence on the battlefield. It also frequently exists in more covert and nebulous forms, for example in the contemporary practice of embedding media with militaries, or in what is sometimes termed ‘anticipatory compliance’ or self-censorship by photographers themselves.
Pushing back directly against censorship imposed by hegemonic organisations like governments and militaries rarely works – the power imbalance is often simply too great, the opportunities for alternative access to sites like battlefields or occupation zones too few. Instead in recent years photographers have often taken quite a different approach. Like a boxer rolling with a punch or a judo player using their opponent’s momentum against them, one approach to censorship and reporting restrictions has been to attempt to turn those practices back against those who apply them, by using the conditions imposed to critique and draw attention to the exact thing they are meant to hide.
Such strategies have had varying success. Tim Hetherington’s intentionally close journalistic focus on the lives of the American soldiers he was embedded with during the 2001 – 2021 occupation of Afghanistan left him open to claims that he had played into the hands of military efforts to hide the consequences of the conflict for Afghans. At the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s highly conceptual 2008 response to military embedding with the British Army in Afghanistan (a response which bears some technical similarities to Ashcom’s work in its use of analogue photography) drew ire from some critics who saw the duo as exposing themselves and others to risk in the service of an abstract art project.
… one approach to censorship and reporting restrictions has been to attempt to turn those practices back against those who apply them, by using the conditions imposed to critique and draw attention to the exact thing they are meant to hide.
Open by Morgan Ashcom lies artistically speaking between the two poles, and is also a little different to them both, as an accident later repurposed as a commentary. In 2009 Ashcom was making photographs of daily life in Palestine under Israeli occupation. On his departure his films were opened by Israeli security forces – ruining them in the process, as he assumed – and they sat unused for more than a decade until he revisited them in 2021 and developed them into book form. As an object the resulting book is beautifully conceived, arriving sealed in a box bound with tape warning: ‘OPEN IN DARKROOM ONLY’. Inside is a passport style volume, containing reproductions of the destroyed 4×5 negatives. In many cases, however, the destruction is not entirely complete, and fragments of the images remain, fading into the bright yellows and reds imposed on them by their premature exposure to the light.
The photographs themselves appear not particularly remarkable, indeed at times overly familiar images: some show propaganda posters of dead fighters, repeated images of olive tree leaves, a dark street at night, portraits of various people Ashcom met during his time in Palestine. It’s somewhat ironic then that the attempted destruction of the images elevates many which I suspect might not otherwise have made it into a finished book. One often has to strain to discern what one is looking at, and sometimes only a small fragment of the original remains visible, like the bright light of outdoors shining through a tiny window, stranded in a sea of maroons and blacks.
… erasure as an act almost always leaves a trace, one which can sometimes be more damning than the original accusation …
These negatives are imposed over a series of highly fragmented texts, code elements extracted from communications between the photographer, Wajdi Yaeesh (the founder of a Palestinian charity that Ashcom worked with) and international financial organisations. They constitute a back and forth attempt to transfer money raised for the charity by Ashcom through print sales, one ultimately foiled by the Israeli authorities who denied Yaeesh the documentation needed in order to actually receive the money.
Although the design implementation of these texts is a little distracting from the often quite beguiling imagery, they do very effectively introduce another narrative strand to the project for anyone patient enough to actually read and decipher them. The story they relate cleverly illustrates the way that occupation today is no longer just a matter of walls and borders, but also one that permeates into the electronic sphere of communications and transactions, and the ephemeral sphere of international laws and regulations, implicating organisations overseas who themselves speak in a language of ‘compliance’ that has unnerving resonances with the terminology of military occupation.
The fantasy of censorship and the dream of the censor is that offending media can simply be removed, and in doing so its criticisms nullified. But erasure as an act almost always leaves a trace, one which can sometimes be more damning than the original accusation because it reveals that the accused are also aware that the accusations being made require some response from them. Open is an intriguing example of this, a book of photographs that might have garnered far less interest, at least from this reviewer, if an anonymous Israeli security officer had simply let them be.