Sep 25, 2016 @ 20:42 CET

Dear Ivan,

For the longest time, something didn’t sit right with me about those slippers on the porch of that abandoned house in Kyushu. Why were they there in the first place? And why were they still there then? it made no sense. Only much later did it occur to me that it was a subtle yet powerful statement of powerlessness.

It must have been a final gesture. And that gesture must have been understood by every curious visitor after: that abandoned house, torn down by the elements for years, slowly falling apart, and yet the slippers stayed there, untouched on the doorstep, left in peace, a metaphor for something I didn’t fully understand.

The meaning of the wooden entrance sill, the agarikamachi, was always subtle but crucial. It was the precise intermediate threshold where one stepped up onto, up from the kutsunugi-ishi (the shoe-removing stone) and then moved on to the raised wooden board floor of the room. The entrance sill, a symbolic delimiter between two boundary spaces; there’s no way that these slippers were a coincidence.

They resonated with me that morning. I managed an image, but it seems impossible to express the full depth of this final act of leaving one’s slippers behind to almost imperceptibly express an uncertain future. Maybe I should invent a new language like the Voynich manuscript you mentioned, or Xu Bing in his Tiānshū and Dì Shu books: a book that nobody can understand, followed by a book that everyone can understand. What a feat.

I would have loved to be there with the couple on the day that they were leaving, and sit together. Have a final cup of tea, open the sliding shutters of the veranda, and stare into the distance together. The impermanence of a moment of perfect symbiosis between the inside and outside world. The Imagism of Ezra Pound comes to mind, stripping to the barest essence in the same way:

“Do not move
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀Let the wind speak. ⠀⠀
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ that is paradise.”

I’m sure the birds sang beautifully that morning.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Sep 21, 2016 @ 17:19 EST

Dear Anton,

A few days ago I visited the Beinecke Rare Book Library, at Yale University. The building is an opaque cube, as the architect used thin sheets of Vermont marble in place of windows. Light filters through the marble, creating a subtle external pressure, and a cool glow that triggers a sense of activity outside the silent archives within.

The books are housed in a multi-story, climate-controlled glass casing, a second hermetic barrier to protect the collection. While the  library is famous for its Gutenberg Bible and its Audobon’s Birds of America, I was drawn to the documentary ephemera of artists, writers and historical figures. The building is metaphorically a marble skull which preserves jostled and careworn scraps of thought, layers of stone and glass to mimic bone and myelin. The objects here include sketchbooks, handwritten memoirs, letters, engravings, music manuscripts, film and glass plate negatives, lantern slides, photographic silver prints, ambrotypes, tintypes, daguerrotypes, autochromes, holographs, posters, pamphlets, maps, codex, ledgers, illustrations, stamps, papyri, tankas, tarot cards and many other artifacts.

A quick scan of the catalogue reveals the letters of O’Keefe and Stieglitz, the handwritten memoir of a “haunted convict”, court sketches of the Black Panther trial, glass stereotypes by the photographer Carleton Watkins, the letters of Ezra Pound, the scrapbooks of the Italian futurist Marinetti, a syllabary in Cherokee, and the infamous Voynich Manuscript. The library has thoughtfully created hi-res digital scans of that book, filled with watercolors of unknown botanicals, astral diagrams, progressions of nudes encased in womblike spheres, cosmologies, drawings of medicinal herbs, and an undeciphered, looping handwritten text. As I was drawn into its riddles, I began to see this book, focused on the vegetal, the sexual, the metaphysic, as something wild, captured by the Beinecke’s platonic proportions, as a rational mind resists the improbable.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Sep 14, 2016 @ 20:30 CET

Dear Ivan,

Incipient age indeed… maybe we should measure our age, not in years and the expectancies that come along with them, but in the frequency of irreversible things happening to our bodies and minds, the little resignations we make along the way, subconsciously stacking one on top of another until suddenly we realise and wonder.

This year was one of them. Three different mechanical defects. On three separate occasions a physician told me there wasn’t much else to do but to accept. A too early decay. Nothing life altering or life threatening or anything like that, but large enough to have to make adjustments. And so it goes.

It would be fascinating to x-ray an entire mountain. I picture a mountain like a head, the quarry like a mouth, the marble like a chipped tooth. Surveyors have had a difficult time estimating the remaining marble left inside the Carrara mountain because of all the rubble, but consensus is that at the current rate of approximately a million tonnes cut away every year, there still is marble left for several centuries to come.

And of course your fig leaf makes me wonder what’s behind it. Fig leafs seemingly block our views and paths, but this is actually only true because we always feel the urgency to know what lies ahead. But having a perfect view of our future path won't make us calm down. It'll only make us want to change that path, because we’ll never be content with it anyway.

Maybe it’s the general attitude of walking towards something instead of walking away from something that resonates with me. Again, the difficult balance between history, present and future. Memory, feeling and hope working together intricately. Who we are and who we want to be, and how desperately we cling on to the image we have of ourselves and the path we want for ourselves.

The changing of a season. Accepting myself, not so perfect as I imagined, having turned my lensless eye on myself. Walking.

// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Sep 10, 2016 @ 13:58 EST


Dear Anton,

I realized this morning that we in this hemisphere sit on the shoulder of a season, and that as with other phase shifts, turbulence is likely. Your prismatic energy at the end of your most recent trip reminds me that passions without objects scatter and dissipate. They are what we exhale, what we have exhausted. Perhaps this makes space for what comes next, but letting go can leave us bemused.

In like manner, a few weeks ago, without warning, a tooth chipped. Then the next day, my jaw displaced, a disc sliding forward and leaving me unable to align my teeth, or chew. A common ailment, but this time they didn’t realign, and this felt somehow significant, as if I had reached some juncture. I recalled the common reading of dreams about crumbling teeth symbolizing loss of control, decay, incipient age. And then I noticed that it was almost autumn and I had seen the first wooly caterpillars of the season.

After some time I visited an oral surgeon, who made a panoramic X-ray of my jaw and skull. For this, he used a type of rotating digital imaging system known as a pantomogram, which encircles the subject’s head and creates a tomographic composite, which is then flattened into two dimensions for diagnostic analysis. Tomography, or imaging by sections with a penetrating wave, allows us to see the structural underpinnings of objects. I started thinking about our mountain of marble in Carrara, and how we might X-ray an entire topography, what devices or approximations would allow us to see inside that scarred, dissected hillside.

The X-ray showed, among other things, a wearing of the edges of my jawbones from use. And with that I remembered that I had preserved a fig leaf that I used to make a photogram several months ago. I had been watching its progression as it dried and curled, yet retained its chlorophyll. Its surface now marled, its veins climbing the ridges formed by its desiccation.

// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Sept 04, 2016 @20:07 CET

Dear Ivan,

The potholes you describe, that reflex-like looking at only the moment, is exactly what I’ve been forced to do, having relentlessly driven 16,000 kilometres in the last month alone. The point gets hammered in pretty well along the way.

And I hate it. I hate seeing everything constantly passing by before my eyes, and failing to capture it. It pains me. Then I imagine having a thousand photographers, writers and videographers with me on the road. Then I imagine the depth, the breadth, the ocean of information that also they will fail to capture. 

I calm down. I remind myself it is better to choose wise and slice thin, but deep. As long as my memory holds.

But three years in and almost eight hundred camps later, things are blurring heavily. Pinpoint the next location, drive, arrive, step out of the car, photograph the blue sky, step in the car, continue to the next location. Tyres wearing out. Pain in my bones. I’m tired, my friend. An ever repeating circle. My mind plays tricks on me. Are it thousand seventy-four journeys? Or a thousand seventy-four destinations? I arrived at the same destination twice for the first time.

Maybe this blurring is supposed to happen. Maybe this relentless grinding is the understanding that is offered me. Or maybe it’s a sign that nothing will ever come. Grind all you will. I just don’t know anymore.

I make triggers along the way in any way I can, and I hope that they will spark my memory later. And already, at home now, just forty-eight hours later, I already need these triggers to make me remember what I’ve seen. I’ve forgotten. I’m blurred. And I find myself reliving moments seemingly for the first time, physically divorced from the places I was just days ago. It scares me. How is this even possible? Am I broken?

And on top of that, other fears blocking me from moving forward, afraid to make mistakes instead of just making them. And then the largest fear of all: standing still and losing an open mind.

Aug 29, 2016 @ 10:50 EST

Dear Anton,

I have difficulty with the perspective of middle distance. We privilege urgency of detail, the proximate or immediate, or we reflect and abstract, considering scale and distance from a remove. What falls between feels like blindness.

It may be the incessant claims of a present-driven Internet, in which even the strongest ideas and images are shoved aside by an effusion of immanence. It may be the narrow, reflex-like seeing of the cyclist, spotting potholes, wet leaves, a deer poised to spring across the road.

And then, it may be our need to simplify, to compare and sort, to put to rest the nagging complexities that fill our days. It may be the longing that arises when looking at maps, at globes, at mountain landscapes, at horizon lines. 

There is the middle ground of a long project, a career, a relationship. Far enough away from the beginning that the origin myth is dim, too far from the conclusion to clearly see its contours. 

The middle ground is a description of scenic space in images, an area of compromise, and a logical fallacy, in which we confuse the middle position for the correct answer.

If big data is the obsession of every entrepreneur lusting for exponential returns or world-ordering social scientist, there is also the realm of small data, of the designers of human experience, of the granular examination of our intimate patterns, of historians and deep readers. 

And curiously, the aspect ratio of most photographic lenses privileges precisely this space, for the middle ground is also human terrain. The ubiquitous smartphone lenses that create the distorted faces in our selfies are more suited to capturing theatrical space – from an embrace or a strike, to a conversation, or a dinner party.

This morning, I thought to send you an image of crease marks on skin, and then, of the lines of my hand, and then, a photogram of the mottled, late-summer leaves of my dogwood. Instead, I am looking for a limping stride, for an upthrust chin and a turned head, for the grip of a hand on an arm.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Aug 23, 2016 @ 16:02 CET

Dear Ivan,

Yes, often the cinematic feeling is paramount… and I must confess it’s something I too strive for – even in my still images. And now I’m wondering. I’ve actually never been able to put my finger on it, only being able to recognise being pulled by it. Tokyo Story, The Mirror, Inception. Vastly different films, different eras, different cultures, different industries, different everything, all pulled me in completely.


It feels like there’s more of a bright future for AR and MR than for VR. The key is the mobile phone with the person in real life used as a means to do things. VR kind of diametrically opposes that, it presumes exiting real life, going literally inside a virtual world instead; basically using the technology as “an end” instead of as “a means”. I think that might be why there’ll always be that gap that you described, impossible to bridge. That context has to be broken out of, lest VR were to stay as a too specific – yet extremely immersive – tool.


Since what seems forever I’ve had trouble “thinking about” while experiencing, and I chalk it up to the fact that I’ve always thought I was pretty naive, and therefor easily completely pulled in. Even now still I can – and constantly do – lose myself in good cinema, art, books and what not, often afterwards recalling “being taken along for the ride” more than my critical thinking. So much that I regard my being swept away as a yardstick for success.

Of course I know this holds no ground. But I can’t help myself. Maybe I’m not cynical enough. I’m imagining that “swept away” thing as something elusive that can’t be created directly, instead only by successfully making the elements that it’s composed of, and then intricately balancing them, never fully controlling them. Storytelling. Structure. Narrative. Connections. Depth. Aesthetics. Timing. Relevance.

Imagining this, gives me some solace. And damn, I totally missed that Perseid meteor shower, even though I knew it was coming.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Aug 18, 2016 @ 10:52 EST

Dear Anton,

Virtual reality has been a persistent idea underlying our conversation – an image field that completely covers our sight, and all sound and movement, functioning as a totalizing force over our perceptions. As with your images of blue skies, or our color fields, lensless eyes and cameras. The current version of VR we’re offered by the market, it seems to me, asks us to surrender our awareness, to allow our senses to be occupied by the apparatus. It’s a delicate moment, or should be, because we are required to place trust in the device and in the producers.

Most recent VR experiences I’ve seen try to exploit the functions of the technology to expand control over the user. I have yet to see one that seeks to hack the technology, to expose some critical distance between giving up sensory control to the apparatus, and how we think about what’s happening to us while we’re enveloped. Instead, the critical thought, if there is one, comes sequentially, with reflection after the experience.

This gap we can term the conceptual gaze. It is, in short, the difference between what we are looking at, and what we are seeing. There is something either naive or manipulative in the push to make sensation the primary measure of a filmic experience, in aspiring to make looking and seeing the same thing. The end game is a sensory deprivation tank, or a cell for solitary confinement. And indeed, someone has already made a solitary confinement VR – which is either the height of manipulation, or perhaps, if done properly, the conceptual gap that we seek.

I spent last week on Lake Michigan, and some time lying on my back on a dock in a lake, the water below me casting an underglow onto the sky above. For a moment, or a while, I felt as if I were floating unmoored in a field of blue, and I lost my sense of time. Later that night, in the same position, I searched the sky for traces of the Perseid meteor shower, for the light that reportedly comes from 1079, 1479, 1862, those burning bits of rock, our evidence of time. 

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Aug 12, 2016 @ 09:38 CET

Dear Ivan,

I stood at Flossenburg recording the silence at the grounds of the former concentration camp, like I've slowly been doing all along. After I was done, in the distance, I heard the sound of children playing. I didn't make much of it, until I realised that many post war houses are built literally on the former camp grounds here. Families. Life going on. The camp is of course monument, remembrance, as it should be. But those houses are maybe the single most powerful statement to be made in light of this all: here is life, and it chooses to go on. The simple act of living being the deepest ‘acte de défi’ possible to what this camp represented: the act of destructing life.

But indeed, on to lighter thoughts.

As per your advice I started reading “Tokyo Year Zero” by David Peace, and – the heavy topic aside – I’m very much taken by the style in which he writes. He seems to capture things that I've encountered many times on my travels to Japan, in a very unique and refreshing way. His novel also made me think of Watabe Yukichi’s wonderful book “A criminal investigation”, which verses the same subtleties of post-war Japan, but through images.

And of course, my mind now makes connections between the two... How can I not see Yukichi’s investigator as Peace’s detective Minami. Both set in Tokyo. Both about a criminal investigation in post war times. Both are crucial to better understanding a reality. That relentless inner voice.

Understanding becomes vividly different when actually immersed in the reality of what one wants to understand. And oddly enough, virtual reality is an incredible tool for this. How it feels to stand in a refugee camp with no context other than you’re running from a war. How it feels to be led into a concentration camp to be worked to death without hope. How it feels to walk through the ruins of a firebombed city in search of sanity.

Most probably I myself can’t help categorising either. But maybe simply knowing I’m doing this is enough?

Aug 08, 2016 @ 09:03 EST

Dear Anton,

It’s probably not a good idea to read about the Holocaust before bed. I had thought to shift to a lighter topic today, but I dozed off reading the following passage (Snyder again), and it’s too relevant to your last note not to share: “Our contemporary culture of commemoration takes for granted that memory prevents murder…The dead are remembered, but the dead do not remember. Someone else had the power, and someone else decided how they died. Later on, someone else still decides why. When meaning is drawn from killing, the risk is that more killing would bring more meaning.”

Not to say that your project, which is clearly about memory, is making any kind of definitive claim to commemoration. If anything it’s contesting standard representations: war museums, statuary, and their uses as instruments of history. And I like that you are noting, as you travel, the narrow particulars of place, the gravel underfoot, a painted metal picnic table outside the highway rest stop, the yellow flowers in the car park.

This morning I woke thinking about categories and why we make them, about how they were used to such devastating effect by the Nazis, and by the Soviets. Stalin both insisted on classifications of individuals within society, and continually shifted and blurred the lines between those categories. Affiliation with a class or later on, an ethnicity became both profoundly important and dangerous, for too great an attachment to one form would condemn you at the next phase shift, when you suddenly found yourself cast out of a protected class, or when your class was simply exterminated.

As to why that’s relevant: I suppose I’m wondering how it is that categories sit so uneasily with us. That you are cutting across genres and practices with this work. Affiliation with a category still poses mortal threats for many in this time, as for others in the recent past. 

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Aug 06, 2016 @ 22:46 CET


Dear Ivan,

Yet again in a lone hotel room on my travels. Glad they exist of course, but sometimes one longs for a little change.

I started The Blue Skies Project to try and understand. I went to Auschwitz four years ago, trying to comprehend what my grandfather would have faced if he wouldn’t have escaped the SS raiding his house that night. There in Oświęcim that winter morning between the camp barracks, the snow barely covering the earth below, a thin veil not hiding, a thin cloak not sheltering, I looked up at a cold blue sky.

Many must have looked up at that same sky, without hope. But what if the perished were still up there. What if I photographed that sky, full of them, what would the chance be that I’d have literally photographed every single victim? Impossible, of course. Yet I already felt their presence.

Since then, I've been traveling. Experiencing the reality down here, the memorials, the houses, the streets, the fields, the forests. 1075 camps. The life that goes on below. And every time I look up, standing on that very ground, and look directly at every victim. Tiptoeing and reaching does not bring me closer, yet I catch myself doing it, every time. Days of silence.

We have the benefit of hindsight, of course. That’s why the film “Son of Saul” is so gripping to me. Choosing that particular camera point of view, over-the-shoulder, extremely narrow, exactly as it was for the deported: nobody could understand the broader context of what was happening. László Nemes powerfully makes that clear to us, forces us to look and understand as the victims did. Without hope.

I bought a chair yesterday. A chair to take with me, so that when I see a place with a distance I can stop, sit, and stare into it. Sitting and staring into the distance once in a while, is a good thing to do. I think I’d like to sit and stare into one of your sunflower fields someday.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Aug 04, 2016 @ 14:21 EST

Dear Anton,

I read today that Hitler proposed to kill “anyone who even looks at us askance” (Snyder, Bloodlands), and suddenly understood something else about your project to photograph the blue skies above Nazi camps. Your choice to photograph obliquely to your subject is also a kind of askance view, a side-glance. In that, you are performing the inverse of Hitler’s threat, looking with suspicion upon your subjects by refusing to look at them directly. It’s no surprise that in the vacuum created by the space between your subject and the direction of your gaze you would find something akin to silence.

While in Ukraine a few weeks ago I was told a story. When the Malaysian airliner MH17 was shot down by the separatists in November 2014, its parts spread out over kilometers. The story goes that many of the pieces fell into fields of sunflowers, which are ubiquitous in that part of Ukraine. People hacked through fields of flowers searching for the wreckage of the flight. I photographed many similar fields, both because they were visually compelling, and because they were conceptually all that remained of the wreckage, a yellow blanket that hid the remains of a crime, at least for a time.

Now, when I look at those pictures, I struggle with what feels like a too-easy displacement of one object for another. And when I looked online for images of the crash, I found few that featured flowers, and none prominently. Perhaps the presence of flowers grew in the mind of the storyteller, until they acquired symbolic value. Thinking now, about their long necks and inclined heads, perhaps we should imagine nothing other than a need for sunlight.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Aug 2, 2016 @ 00:54 CET


Dear Ivan,

Today on the first day of my next Blue Skies journey, to the Buchenwald and Flossenburg concentration camp clusters this time, I’m yet again traveling through history within the present.

One thing that strikes me time and again, like your empty lakebed, is the silence. Indeed, it’s not an absolute silence as such… but conversely there's always a clear absence to be felt. Walking the grounds of the main camps that are now memorials, one only hears one’s own steps, the crackling of gravel underneath, that unstoppable grinding, loudly pulling my thoughts into the Now, brutally cutting me off of history and hope alike.

Seldom have I felt such vivid moments of being alive as in those places; seldom have I sighed so deeply as in those places; seldom have I doubted as much my very existence as in those places; seldom have I felt so present. Following your advice I try to speak my thoughts into a voice recorder. But all I can manage is this silence. Maybe it's what I’m meant to record.

Night is falling. At a former camp in Stulln I turn my car to head back to Nürnberg for the night. Out of nowhere, huge yellow flowers show up in front of me, reflected in my bonnet, my headlights illuminating the gates. The church bells toll in the distance. The sun has just disappeared behind the horizon.

I take it as a good omen, even though on the way back I run a flat tyre.

Nürnberg, the city of the rallies; and, fittingly, the city of the trials.

I really shouldn’t be making these journeys all by myself.

 /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Jul 29, 2016 @ 21:10 EST

Dear Anton,

The mural of the boy with the carbine rifle comes from a museum in a small town in western Kazakhstan called Aralsk. It was once a port town on the edge of the Caspian Sea, until the Soviets drained the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, beginning in the 1960s, to irrigate cotton fields at an industrial scale. The sea in the past 50 years has shrunk by 90%, and when I last visited, more than a decade ago, the waters had receded some 100km from the town. You have probably seen the cliched images of boats resting in the desert. It may be obvious, but the consequence of the fervor represented by that mural turns out to have been the destruction of an ecosystem. Not that it was a foregone conclusion; history is all effects and no causes, to paraphrase Joseph Brodsky.

Along with the salt flats, cracked mud and sand of the lakebed you can find hillocks of calcified and desiccated shells, moved first by water, then by wind and time to form their own dusty waves. Over geologic time, perhaps those may sift and pack to form limestone, and eventually marble. The stonecutters of Carrara will whittle their mountains of marble down to the sea, even as the Kazakhstani steppe turns to stone.

I’ve visited the Aral Sea several times, arriving from both the north to Aralsk, and from the south, to the Uzbek town of Moynack. Each time I’ve taken a walk on the lakebed, away from the towns, the beached ships, the deep channels cut into the sea bottom in desperate attempts to keep the ports open to the sea, in the face of its retreat. Far enough out, there’s the wind, the sun, the dried mud and scruffy grasses. There you can sit, and squint, and listen, first to the wind, then to your breath, then maybe to your pulse. It isn’t silence that you’re hearing, exactly, but it isn’t anything else either.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Jul 28, 2016 @ 9:59 CET


Dear Ivan,

It’s indeed very hard to resist a fatalistic approach to what’s happening to mankind nowadays. I should stop lamenting this, and thank you for the way out. I sure wish I was there for the conference at MIT Lab, discussing the necessity of disobedience.

My mind is now making connections between realities and their depictions. The borders of the Warsaw ghetto constantly being adjusted. The secret mapping so crucial to the ZOB for their reality, their plans, their hopes. Conversely, the public mapping crucial to the nazis. Reality defines the map. The map defines reality.

Your image of a revolutionary sends me a powerful disobedience message. But also the person in arms strikes me as being a child, forced to be too old for his age. A depiction of a singular heroic moment, filled with the purity of anger. Hope, the opposite of History. What we wish for, connected to what we cannot escape. Both shape us more than we can imagine, disobedient or not. The powerless angel yet again.

What would it take for me to be up in arms? What if it were astonishingly little. We all know civilisation is a very thin layer for all of us, and we resent that, but imagine there were to be a call to arms right here right now. A Revolution. You are required. I’d be ashamed if I were a coward; embarrassed if I were a fanatic.

Are we the mountain that gets carved out piece by piece, dying the death of a thousand cuts, pieces from us scattered over the globe like a diaspora? Or are we instead each a single marble block cut from the mountain, true form slowly appearing, chipped away turning into a sculpture holding history, standing in front of next generations, looking towards hope?

On a recent radio interview I got asked if I ever doubted any decisions I made, creative or otherwise. At least fifteen times every single day I’m filled with an unbearable doubt. Haunted to my very soul. And the tiny victory every time, an invisible, necessary, personal act of disobedience to my self.

 /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Jul 24, 2016 @ 22:39 EST

Dear Anton,

The MIT Media Lab presents an architecture of light and transparency. Glass curtain construction and inside, open floor plans and walls of glass allow visibility into its workings. The closed and locked doors are at the perimeter of the labs, and the secrets are in the construction of the technologies themselves, concealed by patents and I.P. laws. It is a temple for Moore’s Law. I was there a few days ago for a conference on the topic of forbidden research. Ed Snowden was a headliner, and Stewart Brand, and a researcher who created a pirate site for free access to academic journals. The event was a wrapper for an argument for the necessity of disobedience.

By coincidence that week I was reading about the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, and the threshold of disobedience that led the Jews to fight back. Interestingly, in Warsaw there wasn’t a single heroic act of resistance, but an environment of competing priorities within factions, a gradual acceptance that resistance was necessary, a strategy for obtaining weapons from the Polish underground, and a halting, coordinated response. To your point, some time ago, about the human urge to conform and be part of a group: even disobedience benefits from the support of cultural norms. 

Disobedience, like disruption, innovation and other buzzwords of the entrepreneurial class, is a tactic. It is not in itself a value but rather a path or process. I mention it here because this might offer us a way to see history as something other than an endless series of calamities. How do we resist the feeling that our time has become one of escalating violence, that we are helpless to intervene, and that intervention might simply add another layer to the multiplicity of causes of violence? What to do with my urge to tear the images before me, an act of transgression that requires that something be rent. As with your last, small act of photography, an accidental flash that disrupted a dream, that broke one thing to make another.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Jul 21, 2016 @ 11:02 CET

Dear Ivan,

I’ve been driving non-stop the last two days. The heat seemed to have made its way from you to me, we’ve had the two hottest days since a long time here in Europe. Storms predicted, and also, none came.

As you know, the journey I’m currently undertaking isn’t the happiest one. Time and again, I look for traces in stone, bronze, film, paint or words for reassurance that all will be fine after this machinery of annihilation 70 years ago. Is it even possible. And what about the other side of the spectrum, the serenity, the beauty, the positive? Hope? Are we a self fulfilling prophecy?

Am I looking too hard? Am I burdening with meaning?

The powerless angel, and the connection of past, present and future through Paul Klee’s painting. Unable to learn throughout and from history, piling mistake upon mistake, violence upon violence, destruction upon destruction. Ruin upon ruin.

Cataclysmic events happen at an ever greater speed and size. Maybe there should be a Moore’s law for humanity as well, defining that the cycle and magnitude of historical events halves and doubles in each generation.

But to me it will always be the little things. Amidst all this calamity, I always still see our greatest power, our humanity, seeping through. In spite of, one may say, and that may well be so.

And you’re right, seeing can not make us complicit by default. I was too harsh. We can’t fully understand. Luckily, once in a while the veil is lifted, the fig leaf pushed aside to offer us a glimpse. We can’t understand and we can’t know. But we do get our glimpses, right?

Pia just had woken up and didn't have the slightest interest in having her picture taken. Day breaking, the grogginess of her sleep visibly slowly leaving her, my flash fires by accident entirely. An angel.

What would she have dreamt about.

 /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Jul 17, 2016 @ 21:25 EST

Dear Anton,

All day we were hammered flat by the heat. Toward evening the wind arrived, and tossed and bent the bamboo behind the house. I hurried to finish my work in the garden as the sky spat. A single crash of thunder, the peaty scent of ozone, and then, nothing. The night arrived and the heat stayed, with no rain to give us relief.

Today I am writing from a teahouse. Every table is full and the voices and laughter of the patrons rub together to create a kind of aural heat. I’ve been thinking about the distances you’ve been traveling in time, backward to the Medici, and then looking back at our time from a distant, imagined future. It has compounded a feeling of stuckness I’ve been struggling with lately, these scales of time you’re playing. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history being blown into the future, looking back, is the obvious reference, and I wasn’t going to mention it, but lately I’ve come to wonder if his angel was helpless and terrified, or detached and bemused, or something else. Maybe Benjamin’s conceit is inadequate to our needs in relation to the events we’ve been discussing. 

I’ve been reading a history of Central Europe in the 1930s and 1940s that analyzes, in great depth and with considerable precision, the mechanisms of mass death invented by Stalin’s NKVD and Hitler’s SS. Of course, Benjamin was contending with that time. His helplessness in the face of the forces that killed him and so many others is understandable. To the point: I implied recently that seeing might make us complicit in the acts we witness, but seeing is not knowing, much less understanding. Perhaps we burden sight and the images we make with meanings they cannot carry. Instead we have our glances and glimmers, the latent or suggestive, as the arrows on the road in your last image, which might urge us onward. 

 /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal and @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Jul 15, 2016 @ 21:11 CET


Dear Ivan,

The children miraculously survived the devastation of Stalingrad, and indeed the only image I ever remember seeing was that of Evzerikhin, along with one other image of a man saving what I think I remember was a contrabas from a devastated building. Poignant. If not that, then what are we fighting for.

Just a few days ago I passed through Nice on my way to where I am now. I just heard about the terrible tragedy there yesterday, and it’s weighing on me. I find it difficult to write.

We keep trying desperately to put complex things into flawed reductive contexts. It feels like this time only distant retrospect will be able to explain and properly contextualise, and that we have no choice but to undergo, failing to understand why.

When the next history books are printed. When our era is added alongside all the others. Thinking forward that no matter what, we will be reduced to a simple chapter in history. A speck of dust in the scale of the universe. Our chapter could be terrorism alongside the human genome, internet, AI, climate change, migration, waste, and the depletion of fossil fuels. And Higgs Boson. I might miss quite a few here, I admit… I fail to even properly delimit in time.

How would history name our era? And what if we’d fictionally try to write this single future-past chapter, using the templates of how we describe our past? And of course, not without the obligatory quantities of Carrara marble sprinkled in here and there.

A Clockwork Orange had a serious impact on me when I first saw it at my university screening exactly 20 years after its initial release. Ultra-violence. I found it a disturbing and important film.

Clouds roll over the hilltops in the distance, south of Parma,  where I’m heading. Lighting strikes and heavy raindrops start falling. I hear no thunder. We both seem to be traveling a lot. My journeys pale in comparison to what I imagine the weight of the journey of your father’s family must have been.

 /// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters. @ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///

Jul 12, 2016 @ 17:36 EST

Dear Anton,

Thinking about your mountain of Italian marble, both its physical mass and the historical burden we’ve asked it to bear. An image for you in response, something playful, perhaps an antidote. Recently at the Imperial War Museum in London I spent some time with a newsreel of the battle of Stalingrad, including an image of the famous Barmaley fountain, of six children dancing around a crocodile. You might have seen the famous picture by the Soviet war photographer Evzerikhin, which has also made its way into pop culture – Clockwork Orange and other films use it as a symbol of innocence amidst war. It’s didactic and kitsch of course, and we’re talking about Stalingrad, and come to think of it, the story that it’s modeled on is a Russian poem by Chukovsky that’s sort of racist: “Little children, for nothing in this world, do not go to Africa.” Maybe it’s not an antidote after all.

Once out of the imposed distance of conflict of eastern Ukraine, it only takes a day or so to go, in this case, from Mariupol to Dnipropetrovsk, a flight via Vienna to London, then Washington DC, and soon New York. I’m presently traveling by train along the Northeast corridor, looking at the decaying backside of North Philadelphia, the miles of row homes, factories and warehouses.

Here there’s the summer overgrowth of English ivy and the tree of heaven, the ailanthus, an urban weed tree everywhere in the world. I saw an abundance of ailanthus in Mauripol in the old town, also filled with elegant, shabby pre-revolutionary houses. This neighborhood was the city’s old commercial center, decayed because of the proximity to the then-new factories and the toxic air, overtaken by industry. And I’m reminded of something else – the Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians, and Jews who left Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often ended up here in eastern Pennsylvania, in the coal towns of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, and the steel town of Bethlehem, where my father’s family landed after fleeing Ukraine in the 1890s.

/// #image_by_image is an ongoing conversation between photographers Ivan Sigal and Anton Kusters@ivansigal @antonkusters on Instagram ///