Imagine ‘Salzburg, Austria, in the last golden days of the thirties’ we are told in the open scenes of The Sound of Music, just after the bit where Julie Andrews is warbling and frolicking in the mountains. To me Salzburg looked a lot like a place which had started life in a fairytale and somehow hatched into a real town. An improbably picturesque town nestled in the Alps, birthplace to Mozart and home to some wedding cake worthy iced baroque and renaissance buildings, Salzburg was a sweet little stop on my journey.
On my first short walk (Salzburg is quite small) around town I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Every single street I wandered down, square I turned into, alleyway I cut through was the most charming, attractive, fairytale-esq thing I’d ever seen. If there was a place I could stand in the historic centre and not take a beautiful photograph, then I didn’t find it – everything here was gorgeous. I think something that might prove my point best would be this photograph of a Mc Donald’s sign:
This photograph was taken on the historic shopping street Getreidegasse where each shop was obviously under strict orders to comply with rules about appearance to keep it looking like a dream. On a whim I sent this photograph to my friend who promptly informed me that Salzburg has a high suicide rate; it’s so beautiful in comparison to the mundane drudgery of everyday life that it makes people want to kill themselves, apparently*.
While I was wandering around it occurred to me that historic Salzburg can’t look that different to how it did in the 1930s, from the horse drawn carriages and the ornate signs to the well heeled bourgeois tourists planning to go to evening Mozart concerts, Salzburg is a perfectly preserved pearl. If you want to maintain the illusion make sure you don’t go anywhere near the train station a.k.a the ‘real’ part of town which I arrived into. I kind of already knew this anyway, but my rail travels in Europe have confirmed the fact, that train stations are almost always in seedy parts of town (and this is an absolute guarantee if you are arriving after dark, alone, or in a place you have never been to before). Salzburg was no exception with it’s ugly modern blocks of flats and train station drunks, but that’s ok, because these things are what make a place real – not just some sickly sweet illusion of a town.
I was only compelled to photograph the good stuff on this occasion though, so here we go:
I have to give a shout out to my hostel here for playing The Sound of Music every single night at 7pm, every single time to a rapt audience in a packed room. I don’t know if there was something rewarding about spotting the sights we had been rambling around during the day on a big screen, or if it was the tunes, the universality of the (historically inaccurate) story amongst an international crowd . . . but it was thoroughly enjoyed by all present, and not in the least an amusing prelude to schnapps in bar.
*I’ve just done a little googling on this subject out of curiosity and I came up with this excerpt from ‘The Voice Imitator’ by Thomas Bernhard which suggests that, ‘As is well known, Salzburg has the highest suicide rate among schoolchildren in the world. The more highly thought-of the beauty of a city is . . . the higher the suicide rate, and not, as previously assumed, the reverse.’ Beauty comes from within, it seems.
War photographers have a thankless job to be sure. Gaining entry into some of the most dangerous parts of the world armed only with a camera and their intuition they experience life on the raw edge. They have that rare position as an impartial spectator, neither unlucky civilian caught in the cross the fire nor rebel, nor soldier armed to the teeth, the war photographer is a rare breed. Is it narcissism, to enter such a world for own your kicks? To advance your career and win a Pulitzer Prize, to make money at the expense of man taking his last breath, or a rotting corpse stuck to the roadside? Is it the ultimate sacrifice to brave an interminable amount of pain and suffering to deliver a message to the outside world, let them know what a war is really about – and see if they can stand it?
This weekend I watched the documentary ‘McCullin’ about British war photographer Don McCullin. Growing up in blitz devastated London in the 40’s and 50’s McCullin was born into a landscape ravaged by war, and he began by taking photographs of gangs and slums, the impoverished and hard working. After successfully selling a few photographs of gang members he had grown up with to the Observer McCullin went to Berlin to watch the wall go up, and then on to Biafra, Vietnam, and Northern Ireland.
His photographs capture the essence of all it was to be at war in the late twentieth century. The shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam, who looks as if he has his eyes fixed permanently on a horror he cannot forget. McCullin said the soldier never moved, or even blinked, while he was taking the photograph. It has been observed that in Vietnam almost none of the most well known photographs were posed – a poignant fact from a televised war.
It wasn’t the corpses or smashed in faces that affected me most while watching this documentary, but brief footage of some kwashiorkor bloated bellied, toothpick legged children of Biafra struggling to climb a single step. The kids were naked, anonymous, just hours from dying in the dust – and it was painful to watch. When there are so many it is difficult to remember one individual, but Don McCullin spoke of one albino child who approached him out of the crowd and tried to hold his hand.
Biafra brings me on to my next point – following the theme this weekend I also watched ‘The Bang Bang Club’. This film is based on the true story of several young photographers in South Africa who captured images of violent clashes between the ANC and IFP in the early 1990’s.
Amongst them was Kevin Carter, the first photographer to capture the gruesome execution method of ‘necklacing’ whereby a tire is placed around the victim’s neck and set alight. However, it is Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a little girl dying in the Sudan while a vulture looks on that really caught my attention. I first became aware of this photograph in a round about way while reading Mark Z. Danieleweski’s ‘House of Leaves’. One of the main characters is a photographer based on Carter who took a ‘similar’ photograph of a dying girl. In the book, the character is haunted by thoughts of the little girl he did nothing to help and when he becomes lost in his labyrinthine house it is not the Minotaur, but the girl who stalks his uneasy mind.
In real life Kevin Carter too was stalked by his subject. He was unable to answer questions about what happened to the girl, although he later claimed to have picked her up and carried her to a feeding station. It’s possible to argue that there were two vultures present – the one in the photograph, and the one behind the lens. In the moments that Carter was photographing death, could he have been doing something to prevent it? Or was exposing this scene to the world enough? Undoubtedly the weight of this debate contributed to Carter’s suicide in 1994.
Don McCullin also mentioned being criticized for merely profiting from the pain of others, although he attests that he did help of course – as any human being would have. Moving around from atrocity to atrocity must surely take its toll though. Like that story of a girl little girl walking a long a beach covered in hundreds of starfish and throwing them back into the sea one at time – it’s impossible to save them all. Don McCullin comes across as a very calm, measured and somber person on film and I’m inclined to think this is a temperament either developed as a result of exposure to war, or else well equipped to deal with it. Nevertheless he openly states that he was a ‘war junkie’, chasing the immediacy of life and that it eventually wrecked his marriage.
In ‘The Bang Bang Club’ the photographers are constantly drinking, smoking, chasing girls, attempting to make the most of every precious second of life, and blot out the atrocities of the day. The photographers chased ‘bang bang’ until it took away everything they had. Ken Oosterbroek was killed in Thokoza township fighting in 1994, Greg Marinovich was received a gunshot wound in the same clash and has since been shot several more times, Joao Silva lost both legs below the knee in Afghanistan in 2010 – and Kevin Carter never made it that far. Whatever fame or glory a war photographer receives, he certainly pays his dues – one way or another.
Even growing up in relatively ‘normal’ household can be a psychological and emotional minefield, from which few can claim to have escaped unscathed (aren’t we all harbouring a few traumas and idiosyncrasies left over from childhood?) For Alison Bechdel, author and illustrator of the autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home, these oddities are drawn out in a series of funny and often painful memories that punctuated her steps to adulthood.
Bechdel grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where her father worked as both a high school English teacher and a funeral director. He was also an ardent restoration enthusiast, painstakingly restoring their crumbling gothic revival mansion to its former glory. This set up is both darkly amusing and faintly absurd, indeed Bechdel suggests that, ‘It was somewhere during those early years that I began confusing us with the Addams family . . . on warm summer nights, it was not unusual for a bat to swoop through our living room.’
The real story here, however, is how Bechdel’s identity and sexuality become entangled with the story of her father’s life and eventual suicide. Poignantly Bechdel depicts the heady summer of 1972. America is in the throes of the Watergate scandal, a teenage Alison gets her period and her father goes on trial for providing a minor (young male) with alcohol, with the other implications of this being hinted at but never specifically named. Bechdel’s mother is also rehearsing for The Importance of Being Earnest; the play that received great success at the very time Oscar Wilde was put on trial for sodomy, an irony that is not lost on the adult Alison. The message of this summer was clear: America was changing, in attitude, politics and ideals – there was going to be a generational shift away from the nuclear family and traditional American Dream.
Years later when Bechdel goes to college and comes out to her parents she reflects on her father and his own closeted sexuality. Ultimately trying to conceal such a massive part of his identity has put a massive strain on his family and his own well being.
After reading Maus a few weeks ago and discussing it with a friend, he strongly suggested that Fun Home ought to be the next graphic novel I read (admittedly we’re just reading our way down the New York Times bestseller list here – but nothing wrong with that). I was so sucked in by Fun Home that ended up polishing it off in just a single day, although I’ll be thinking about it for a lot longer, and will no doubt return to it. The illustrations are top notch – apparently Bechdel used the painstaking process of photographing each pose to get the figures right, a technique that certainly pays off. The colouring was also fantastic, something I really appreciate having read the monochromatic Maus and Persepolis so recently. And of course the storytelling drew me in, Bechdel narrates in a meandering way, following a circular narrative that mirrors the way you would normally think or remember. She begins a sketch, is distracted by another event and then returns to complete the sketch later. This might sound a little confusing, but for an autobiography it works well. Both of Bechdel’s parents were English teachers and Bechdel herself has a love of reading so this book is stuffed with literacy references from the misadventures of Scott and Zelda to Joycean meanderings; so if you’re a lit chick (like me) you’ll probably get a big kick out of this. If not then you might miss a few jokes, but there are enough other things going on (the narrative, the illustrations) to keep you hooked.
Alison Bechdel also illustrates Dykes to Watch Out For which I’ll probably be looking into at some point. Original artwork for Fun Home and some of her other books are also available to buy here. Kind of wish I hadn’t seen that though because I obviously really want some but can nowhere near afford it!