May 19, 2017 @ 9:32 GMT

Dear Ivan,

This morning here in London I walked and watched and thought for a while. Rain was predicted but sun was still shining so there was an uplifting atmosphere of enjoy it while it lasts. I suddenly profoundly realised that I’d been spending most of my time trying to contextualise my own work, literally, as in finding the right context to show the work. And while I know this is crucial, I also felt the absolute urge to concentrate on making work again. They shouldn’t be polar opposites, on the contrary, but for a minute they felt that way.

Your image reminds me of the issue of trauma photography, that Ulrich Baer has incisively written about. How an empty landscape image can talk about trauma that has previously taken place. Yet at the same time, as a viewer, one is forced to see that there is nothing to see. In many ways this is exactly the opposite of the image of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, which is literally there, at that precise moment of trauma, that exact slice of time.

Of course, an image is by definition always a slice of time. Photography’s everlasting crux. But this time the image’s slice of time is deliberately - or necessarily - disconnected from the trauma itself. This disconnect forces the viewer to think about the issue in a different way, introducing the concept of time, memory, and most crucially: forcing us to face our own position on the matter.

Roger Fenton immediately comes to mind, avoiding to directly photograph the bodies of the Crimean war but instead choosing to capture the landscape of Sevastopol. The charge of the Light Brigade in the valley of the shadow of death made immortal, now not only by Tennyson.

But also in his case, the photographer as a witness participates. We have two nearly identical images of the valley, one with cannonballs on the road, and one without. And as Errol Morris presented not so long ago, the latter was made first. The voice shifted from the image to the artist.

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

May 10, 2017 @ 12:07 EST

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Dear Anton,

Were we to plot on a graph a case for an ethics of the depiction of violence, we might arrive at a recipe for action, and even an aesthetically pleasing image. Perhaps a cartesian chart in which each decision falls into the appropriate quadrant, based on our metadata.

Though we know that to create a geometry of ethics we first should settle some underlying principles. Executions once required publics for their validation, to revisit Foucault’s old stomping ground. Depictions of killing, as with the casting of death masks, was a part of the spectacle. Yet in other contexts, especially in modern war, witnessing can be a crime.

In any case, a debate about ethics doesn’t seem to touch upon the many ways images of violence work upon us. For instance, years ago in Kazakhstan a local TV station broadcast a story about a woman who had allegedly murdered her infant, and then thrown the corpse out of the window into the snow. The station chose to show a close-up of the body, bruising and blood visible, and a wire wrapped around the neck. I don’t know whether the choice to show these images was based on a conviction that the crime needed public witnesses, or simply spectacle. But I can say that the image of the infant in the snow has stayed with me for years, and it has worked on me in ways I’m still trying to understand – an undercurrent of blood and emotion that feels like a prophecy.

I also wonder at how that image oddly repeats the gestures of another, famous photo of death in the snow, of the Soviet partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, who worked behind German lines near Moscow in 1941. Zoya was captured, tortured and hung. In the image her corpse lies naked, her torso partly mutilated, the rope still around her broken neck. Zoya was one of the most famous partisans of the war, celebrated and mythologized in the USSR with songs and statues. Although the details of the story and her actual identity remain contested, this photo of brutality is bound up with and inseparable from her fame.

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

Apr 29, 2017 @ 12:16 CET

Dear Ivan,

One’s moral duty, one’s responsibility is easy to understand on a micro level: do not do upon others. But our context has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. How can we factor in the right of future generations to be born, the safety of an entire planet, and hold ourselves accountable to a current ethical standard that also reasonably must include them?

Plato makes me think of the Problem of Knowledge and Karl Popper’s critique of Plato’s vision. Our struggle with the meaning of justice makes me think of Rawls’ reflective equilibrium. We should continually be aware of, reflect upon and be prepared to update our moral position.

It was a long time ago, and probably I understood too little, but the main thing I took away from all this is the difference between believing that one can find - and describe - absolutes in morality and philosophy and political thinking, versus the approach that time and context is a factor as well, and everything is by definition in a constant state of flux - also our thinking and our morals and ethics.

Immanuel Kant died before Charles Darwin was even born. Defining a Categorical Imperative without the context of On The Origin of Species?

The pure and existential question “what should we do” as an imperative, and we look to philosophy to provide us with a reasonable answer, or at least a frameset for thinking. I struggle too… but the seeker will not find solace, because there is no end point, not even a direction, there is only a journey with glimpses of the larger whole. What should we do? Do universal values exist? Is it possible to strictly separate factual observations from value judgements? Is mankind predictable or free? As long as we do not stall, atrophy, and become a pillar of salt.

Imagine Nicolaus Copernicus, staring out the window at the stars above, wondering whether to publish his manuscript with comments on the revolutions of heavenly spheres, or to just let it be. Everybody was going to make a fuss about it anyway.

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

Apr 22, 2017 @ 11:31 EST

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Dear Anton,

I’m reminded that it is an anecdote about the witnessing of corpses upon which Plato’s definition of justice pivots. This is the famous story of Leontius coming upon bodies from a public hanging, and then arguing with himself about whether to look at that “fine spectacle.” He is torn between the desire to see, and an aversion – a rational rejection of the scene. Desire wins, he rushes to the bodies to get his fill, but at the same time calls his eyes “wretches”.

For Plato, the root of justice is in maintaining a balance within each of us between rationality, desire, and spirit. Plato wants the rational mind to lead and control desires, and for spirit to work in the service of the rational, like good soldiers serving the state. A just person is one who keeps these three forces playing their respective roles. Plato thus models justice on the ideal city, in which guardians, soldiers and craftspeople are also assigned their roles, and stick to them.

Not that I’m a Platonist – his ideal republic requires a stultifying class system, after all. What’s interesting is that for Leontius, witnessing a public execution is spectacle, a base desire, rather than a rational, moral act. I suspect that’s because the killing was done by the state, and in Plato’s universe, that means it’s almost necessarily good. The implication here, as with the story of Lot’s wife, is that witnessing a just killing is immoral, and somehow decadent. Why else would Leontius castigate his eyes as “wretches”- a term loaded with judgment.

All this is a moral thicket. Of course states assert they are primary arbiters of justice, yet we know that claim is provisional and flawed in practice. What emerges is that the question of witnessing death somehow precedes the formation of our ethics. As if our struggle with the meaning of witnessing is our struggle with the meaning of justice.

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

Apr 16, 2017 @ 9:30 CET

Dear Ivan,

Maybe E was looking back to see if her daughters were following, and then inadvertently witnessed the destructive divine power. Being punished for simply witnessing.

The tendency to limit others witnessing one’s actions indeed seems to be more of concern than justifying those same actions to said others. As you can imagine, it’s not a very encouraging course of action, and it strengthens my belief that bearing witness is one of the most powerful moral things one can do.

On a personal level, avoiding public shame and the fear of separation from the group has been engrained into us since the very beginning of humankind. The basic need to be accepted by others, purely for survival. Being cast out literally meant being left alone to die, and it is thought that this biological trigger is still present today.

We walk in society staying inside our own cocoon, hoping that we don’t get singled out for whatever reason, and we interfere in nothing out of fear of reprisal, to the extent that we avert our eyes to even deny a moment the right to be witnessed. And for the transgressor, being witnessed upon and called out - or not - has now become the yardstick.

Everything screams “dastardly” and “cowardly”, and we're equally dismissive of both sides: the people who try to act without witnesses vs. the people who try not to bear witness. But I suspect things aren’t that simple. Maybe it’s about the way you choose to live, not about the results you wish to achieve.

The absolute pacifist, considering it unethical to use violence to help an innocent person who is being attacked and may be killed. Yet at the same time, human beings have been fighting each other since prehistoric times... an uncomfortable moral position. The debate of a Just War is an extraordinarily hard one... we must keep talking.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies Homo Sapiens as “LC - Least Concern” for extinction, only rivalled in their scale of world domination by ants.

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

Apr 09, 2017 @ 10:13 EST

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Dear Anton,

Your story of the forced witnessing of the dead seems biblical in scope. Punishment for willed ignorance, is that what’s behind the photographic impulse to depict atrocity? What do we expect will come of this – an acknowledgment that not looking is a form of complicity, or a more fundamental transformation in which the future doesn’t reflect the past?

Whether the punishment is looking, or for looking is all about context. I’m thinking of the parable of Lot’s wife. Edith’s crime is often thought to be sympathy for the ways of Sodom. But I’m drawn to another interpretation, that she witnessed the “brimstone and fire” of God’s attack on Sodom, and for this is punished.

In this reading, even though the attack is just, or maybe because it is just, witnessing God’s might is itself a crime. Perhaps this is the root justification for our contemporary military censors – the battle over whether war is ethical. A just war must not be seen; an unjust war must be.

Should witnessing be reserved for gods alone? By analogy, our militaries claim moral authority to determine what is just. What matters, it seems to me, is that the contemporary state seeks to control the witnessing of violence – when, how and what we may see, even as the moral codes we use to judge what’s right keep shifting.

Which brings us to the spectacle of the public execution, in which witnessing is meant to educate and warn. Public witnessing of executions continues to be contested ground. Some executions are now shielded from public view, as recently occurred in Oklahoma, even as moral consensus grows that they are unjust.

All this to me, is deeply strange, for I think of the witnessing of death less in moral than in corporeal terms – as a physical reaction in which we foresee our own deaths. The gesture of your witnesses is precisely that: of mortification, the physical manifestation of shame. But also, a little death, in which the tissues are drained of blood, and we, like Edith, become pillars of salt.

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

Mar 28, 2017 @ 22:45 CET

Dear Ivan,

This weekend I was carrying around a much too heavy backpack on my shoulders stuffed with things I wanted to show to others. Eager to show what I was about. To the point of physical pain not willing to give in for fear of forgetting, I walked from one place to the other, relentlessly carrying as if the solution, the truth, the completeness of everything I was were packed inside. And by all accounts, it could technically be considered correct that all was inside. Certainly the pain in my neck and shoulders would have testified to that.

In the afternoon of May 2nd 1945, the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division liberated the SS concentration camp of Wöbbelin in Germany. The next day, General James M. Gavin ordered the citizens of the neighbouring towns to walk an inspection tour through the camp, forcing the people to witness, and to acknowledge what they had let happen: a thousand bodies, starved to death in barely 10 weeks, unburied.

An audience watching a horrifying scene of an audience watching a horrifying scene. The gasp. The hand on the heart. If ever there was emptiness after. I cannot help but wonder how this forced social act of witnessing would look like today, seventy-two years later, if it ever were to repeat itself. The camera as a gun, the violence of the gaze, witnessing the witnessing.

Silence.

I ended up never even opening my backpack. What mattered was small and light and in my inside jacket pocket all the time, a single image with no visible context except the one I had chosen to give. I felt liberated as never before, at the same time acknowledging the weight I chose to carry, and knew I would continue to bear.

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

Mar 19, 2017 @ 8:35 EST

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Dear Anton,

In the arena where our champions fight, everyone watching is now also bearing witness, and with a recording device. We have flipped the ratio of watchers to watched. Your photographer is no longer a solitary self astride a landscape, with all of the problematic power relations that formula invites.

Instead, documenting is now evidently a social act, in a way that was once harder to see. Bearing witness: the self-assigned moral stance of the documentarian, the conflation of presence with virtue. That debate once seemed to matter. Now that seeing and documenting are nearly aligned, now that we all clamor to record, it is clear that the meaning of witnessing depends upon the context of the act.

Armies watching champions, or armies watching armies. It is all the same. Tie this idea to cameras that map, predict and project violence: the development of sighting devices to facilitate the aim and accuracy of our weapons. What it means to see like a gun. What we mean when we say – the violence of the gaze.

We feel watched, and that changes our behavior. This is the essence of surveillance, and also of force control. In such an atmosphere, witnessing can also be a form of control, or a warning: a shot across the bow.

In my misremembered version of the Goliath story, the parable is all about aim and sight. About the startling accuracy of the stone’s trajectory. I somehow recall Goliath was blinded by the blow, and that without sight, he is unable to fight. But no, that is the story of Ulysses and the Cyclops. Goliath was struck on the forehead, his seat of power, his third eye.

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

Mar 5, 2017 @ 16:27 CET

Dear Ivan,

I recognise the muteness you describe all too well… and I’m often not even traveling when it pops up. Yet either way, there’s not much else to do but wait until one arrives. I guess that’s meant to be the point. It drives me crazy, every time again.

Your image could literally be the other view of my image: the gaze of the audience, the seemingly all seeing eye that looks at us, unflinching, and we’ve nowhere to hide. We feel watched, and that changes our behaviour profoundly.

The audience might indeed be the key. They are the witnesses, the judges. They do the interpreting, they are the context, and without that context and interpretation the act itself becomes meaningless. A tree falling deep in the woods.

Yet the audience is not on the stage, and therefor the context and the judgment it imposes upon the act is by definition incomplete, shortsighted, relying solely on extrapolation of past experiences. They’d have to have switched places, like Damocles with his king Dionysius, to understand a context unimaginable before.

This act of bearing witness, especially to trauma, is something that touches me deeply. And in a way, photography could be considered exactly that: bearing witness. As in not only seeing, but more crucially: interpreting, and then representing.

But how can I possibly bear witness to a trauma that I haven’t experienced? How can I add my interpretation to this immense absence? Do I even have the right to do so?

The slingshot, the falling of goliath, but also: two armies watching their protagonists fighting, both armies as an audience providing context, each side ready to surrender and accept a new reality based on the outcome before their eyes, mere seconds away. The fate of nations decided, the sword hanging by the hilt above their leaders from a single hair of a horse’s tail.

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

Feb 25, 2017 @ 10:15 EST

Dear Anton,

I’ve been traveling again, and as sometimes happens, through the long hours tucked into seats on airplanes, buses and trains, or queuing in passport controls , boarding zones, and platforms, time slips and I fall into muteness and waiting.

Were we on a stage, we would feel a stubborn quiet before the world, and all abstractions would seem repellent. We would be anticipating some event, yet momentarily powerless to affect it. And as with your image of a boy standing before a crowd, we would break this feeling not by thinking our way through it, but first by moving – a finger, an arm raised, a step. And only later would we reflect, for thought follows motion.

I’ve been trying to find words to respond to your last image, the form of a body uniformly lit, so that he resembles a space cut out of darkness more than something solid. I keep hearing the words “blast shadow”, as if the spotlight had rendered him insubstantial. And yet you speak of him as a statue, which implies weight and mass.

And I wonder what he stands in opposition to. In his frailty I suspect he is preparing to confront a goliath, or perhaps a cyclops. But in your image there is no singular giant, but instead an audience. And I am reminded that even as a contest between two champions is occurring, it is the public that stands in judgment. Perhaps it will turn out that those we think of as antagonists are simply ourselves in some other aspect, and crowds, or how we become when we join crowds, are our true adversaries.

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

Feb 04, 2017 @ 12:07 CET

Dear Ivan,

The boy stands on the stage. Silent. Mute. He cannot speak, yet he has a world to say. His arms limp beside him like a shirt hanging to dry on a day too hot with no wind, the sun beating down making everything heavy even that one white linen shirt that always moves in the slightest of breezes like little ripples in a pond now stays still as a statue commemorating, contextualising present with past. The spotlight blinds him.

The audience disappears before his eyes. He is alone now. Inside himself. Time slows down until things barely seem to move at all. The audience caged captured. This very instant, this microscopic moment in time, in these too young and powerless arms, in these blind eyes, in this mute voice, the boy holds an impossibility. Breathing halts.

Then he begins. Carries and shapes the weight of an entire world. For what he feels. The audience resists, unwilling to hand over what they remember once shaping carrying in the same way. They see reflected their own blindness, their own powerless arms, their own mute voices. They see the boy fighting like they fought. With everything he’s got. They see he gives it all.

The boy stands on the stage. But he does not wait to be given to. He has already taken what is his. He is already speaking. He can already see. His arms are already powerful, already shaping the world to come. It is the only way. Standing on many shoulders, he trusts with his life, and demands the same.

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

Jan 28, 2017 @ 11:35 EST

Dear Anton,

What happens to us when we can no longer trust the curators? We know that, in our webs of perception and interpretation, we necessarily apply our own filters, and we misguide ourselves, for truths are difficult to find and slippery to hold. As curators and editors we are fallible, and we struggle to compare the visions we have to all the others we encounter.

And then there is the issue of intent. While we are wise to our frailties, our failures of vision, some realize that they can benefit by manipulating others. And because each of us is granted only a peephole through which to see, we cannot clearly perceive the manipulation surrounding us. This is the situation we find ourselves in today, and it leads to the corrosion of trust of our networks of perception, and then of each other.

This corrosion undermines our attempts at collective action. It is precisely this moment that leads to isolation, frustration and confusion, and that cracks communities. For even after a day such as the Women’s March, in which millions peacefully disavow the rising fascism of our current authorities, the next choice will be harder. Some will opt for appeasement, which will shift the norms of acceptable behavior. Others will chose violence, and argue for its justification. Either path might lead to further restrictions, such as the shameful controls on asylum and migration we are everywhere seeing, and the criminalization of protest, and checks on the use of public space, and the pervasive surveillance of our communications networks, all of which only accelerate mistrust.

Yes, we force meaning onto reality, as you say. And already, and always, those meanings shift our futures in ways wondrous, consequential, and sometimes devastating. Even as we debate and argue over whose vision will dominate, we know that no one truly is in control, and that our struggles will play out between conflicting visions for how we should live.

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

Jan 18, 2017 @ 09:22 CET

Dear Ivan,

We need life curators to survive. We trust them to pre-process that part for us from raw data to information to meaning, so we can spend less energy having to do it ourselves. And vice versa, we fulfil this role in certain ways for others, too. It’s a simple and effective survival system which saves time and energy, and scales well. We give our trust to others because we need to, and we will do so time and again, because it works.

Life is indeed a dream. Only once in a while we get the chance to stand in our treetop, push that fig leaf aside and have a clear view of our true context and reality. All other times, we’re wading through the molasses of reality itself, with never a full sense of the complete context surrounding us. But then again, it would be impossible to be fully aware all the time. It would be intolerable, impossible to process. We’d be stifled by the thought of every possible catastrophic butterfly effect we’d set in motion. We’d be essentially rendered still, immobilised and impossible to move, for fear of future history.

So our mind unfreezes us by turning a blind eye to realities that we know are there, but that take up too much processing time to continually keep on our foreground. We learn to guesstimate the boundaries within which we wade, and our awareness of overlapping contexts, our ability to think inside a different one and our willingness to do so, defines us.

We could conclude that we’re continually in a dream of sorts inside this reality. Like a kaleidoscope we apply our Personal Great Filter to everything we see. We force meaning onto reality with great ease, changing and colouring it along the way, shaping ourselves subconsciously over a lifetime, continually adding to or subtracting from the weight we carry, giving us wings or chaining us to the ground.

No reality will stand between us and what we want to see.

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

Jan 10, 2017 @ 11:24 EST

Dear Anton,

It seems to me that our information age has entered a period of profound nostalgia. With the growth of digital networks overlaying our societies, we have the ability to communicate with any individual or group, and we have bypassed the imagined sense of a center fostered by our previous, mass communications structure. While the disequilibrium accompanying our networked communications is a powerful force in the structuring of our societies, in our discourse we often see a longing for a time with less complexity, and moral clarity.

Our current period is marked with a sort of hysteria around our perception of events, how they seem to be accelerating and compounding at rates beyond our ability to comprehend them. As if every story we tell is overwhelmed the clamoring of millions of other voices, and we can no longer hear ourselves.

Our diagnoses of this phenomenon often seek to narrow and name causality. We blame technology, or monopolistic companies or industries, or foreign powers, or intelligence agencies, or deceptive advertisers, or vigilante mobs, or mainstream news media. Each effort of analysis may be narrowly true within the frame of a specific argument, but zoom out to examine the larger arc of our discourse, and we see instead our moral anxieties; it turns out that our diagnostics themselves contain pathologies.

In response, we double down on verities. we idealize the storyteller, the truth-seeker, the investigative journalist, the ascetic living in a tiny apartment. Anyone who seems to have the qualities of a seer, who can penetrate our abstractions and complexities. The idea that one true story might change a life, that we might transform or actualize ourselves.

And what might be the alternative? If abstract analysis leads us to blame impersonal forces, and individual stories and details seem irrelevant? All I know is that I woke this morning to a voice in my head, life is a dream, life is a dream. And then I thought, what then, is a dream? And then I fell asleep again.

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

Jan 05, 2017 @ 11:39 CET

Dear Ivan,

I’ve often fallen victim to this moral anxiety as well, fruitlessly trying to be efficient and “organised”, with the myth being that one can be in control by doing so. It seems to be closely related to the recent adage of “being busy” that people use. I often catch myself feeling that same anxiety whenever I can’t display a kind of “busy-ness” I see others displaying.

But “being busy” isn’t a statement of an actual reality, rather a wish to be perceived a certain way. It is unfortunately a most meaningless statement, at best masking other things, basically trying to avoid social disproval.

Again that “wish to be perceived in a certain way”, made clear by our hopeful actions to achieve status within the group, historically literally the group of people physically around us, now effectively a worldwide group of billions on social media. Yet it seems that our continuous and superfluous attempts at constructing a reality around ourselves haven’t evolved in the same way as the complexity and magnitude of the context we’re communicating in.

The same problem existed in The Great War of 1914-1918: the (then) new weapons of destruction introduced a new previously unimaginable scale and way of killing, and we simply did not know how to cope. Our strategies and tactics were ancient by comparison, reminiscent of the ways we used to wage war long before that. They hadn’t evolved in the same way. I found it very interesting to learn that this massive discrepancy between weapons and tactics is one of the principle reasons for the death toll in World War I.

We refuse to accept that we actually have no clue what we’re doing. Maybe wisdom is just that: not knowledge by itself, not that elusive Homo Universalis last embodied by Michelangelo, but the understanding that we are extremely limited in our knowing. Wisdom might be a sensitivity of understanding not things, but the why of things.

I’m having coffee and staring at the tablecloth pattern before me.

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

Dec 29, 2016 @ 12:58 EST

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Dear Anton,

As I think about your cranes and presses, of their finely tuned efficiencies, and how we contort ourselves in order to operate them, it seems to me that the machines we build have become engines for our moral ordering. Maybe they are the embodiments of our inner Victorians, and that would make sense, for it was among the products of 19th century industry, the great iron arcades and train stations, that the Victorians worked, wandered and played. And it was also the Victorians who took early colonial systems and mechanized them, from the building of railways across India, to the rational cities that signified colonial authority. The British built the ordered ranks of Civil Lines, neighborhoods for their expatriated, and then New Delhi, a new governmental center planned with geometric precision in the model of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, perhaps the epitome of the rational separation of work from living.

Today we aim our models of efficiency at ourselves, not only our time-saving tools but our stratagems to enforce a pace of work, or to deny ourselves access to our endorphic pleasures. We have apps that sound alarms if the user falls below a certain word count, or cause earlier writing to vanish, melding efficiency with fear of failure, and creating a particular sort of moral panic. And yet we find that our non-ordered selves leak out of our systems; the more we enforce discipline for a time, the more difficult it is to maintain control later – we binge, sleep, drink, fight, dream.

I wonder, in all this, how the idea of wisdom even fits. And I start to think that the kaleidoscopic visions that we celebrate for their seeming ability to shift our perspective might also be a kind of trick we play upon ourselves. Maybe they are just another mechanism we employ to enforce a kind of order upon our atavistic selves, as light is broken into fragments and shards, and then reconstructed into something we can see and name.

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

Dec 14, 2016 @ 11:31 CET

Dear Ivan,

The crane in the distance turns slowly, delivering its load. I’ve always been partly perplexed by cranes, not because of my youthful wish to be a cool crane operator, but because they just never seem to actually be in operation all that often. You see them move once in a while, on some days, and even then they move quite slowly. Observations from a distance of course, we know that the efficiency of using a crane is many factors larger than continually hauling things by hand.

I used to work at a printing press as a pre-press operator and graphic designer. The sheetfed offset presses in the next room had in my mind a much simpler efficiency gauge: they needed to be kept running 24/7. every minute a press didn’t run, one could tell exactly how much money we were losing. We quickly learned not to make any typesetting mistakes.

The huge presses up close with their deafening sounds churning out 12000 copies per hour, or the tiny crane in the distance moving slowly, seemingly lazily. Both equally fulfilling their efficiency potential, the difference only being my coincidental – and one could say ignorant – viewpoint. So it's all about my perspective then, how I look at things, from which distance I look at things, where I come from, where I’m going, who I am.

Cranes and presses are easy. But what about people, society, culture, family, history? The unavoidable conclusion is that there’s no possible way that I could be looking objectively at anything at all. I myself am by definition subjective, a complex ever-changing aggregate of the influences bestowed upon me since birth.

I fly through my reality with much the same sensation of speed, connecting, asking questions all the time, trying to understand, all the while bombing with my judgements, and that incessant worry that I am not as wise as I should be. 

In the cockpit the sun blinds me. I press the shutter and release another bloody blossom maker, and hope for salvation.

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

Dec 08, 2016 @ 16:22 EST

Dear Anton,

Something about flying makes us feel vulnerable. Perhaps it’s obvious – the effects of speed, of altitude, of proximity to others. Recently on a flight I watched a documentary on the making of Steve McQueen’s gorgeous, doomed film about Le Mans. McQueen was obsessed with capturing the feeling of speed, and devised unusual technical solutions to mount cameras on cars. Watching his sequences of the jittery blur of the guardrail, the rhythmic flash of road markings, the swooping curves, intensified by the shaking and whine of the flight,  I momentarily lost my balance.

The theorist Paul Virilio describes this condition as dromographic, an unsettled euphoria triggered by the sight of static landscapes while moving at speed. This is the perspective of the passenger, of the voyeur, of the driver and the pilot, and creates in us feelings of attraction and loss that lead to emotional catharsis.

In Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto he asserts that “a racing car… is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” referencing a statue of the Greek goddess Nike. It is the Futurists who show us how to perceive speed by displacing the sequential narrative with the shifting perspective of the viewer, or the camera, or the pilot.

I read recently that Mussolini’s son Vittorio flew bombers in the Abyssinian war. He describes an attack: “I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the centre, and the group opened up just like flowering rose.” It’s an extraordinary cinematic evocation: the propeller’s hum, the bomb’s long arc, the bloody scattering of victims, the plane’s onward course, and the fragrant, corrupting equivocation of killing and blossoming.

And this brings to mind a film I saw recently, of a Syrian boy whose community was the target of a bombing. He’s being interviewed, the camera shakes and pivots, he speaks of his dismembered grandmother, gestures to the rubble, to the sky. And then he inverts Vittorio’s line. Of his family, he says, “all of them were so beautiful, they gave off the scent of musk.”

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

Nov 27, 2016 @ 13:43 CET

Dear Ivan,

Time is indeed appearing to slow down. The deep Japanese “mono no aware” feeling of the cycle of life and acceptance of fleeting moments arrives in full force, gently nudging me to introspect and take stock.

This stock taking relies on the same rationalisation we use for the world around us, trying to make sense of it. We just turn it inside out upon ourselves and how we fit in. It’s a cue to climb up that tree we talked about a few times already, to see your path past and your hopes forward.

But this rationalisation suffers. We can only understand what we can describe with language, and we also have an impossible draw to move solely in those parts of the world that affirm our already existing beliefs. It is a circle not necessarily flawed but always in danger to be. Checks and balances, just like for those who govern us, are needed here too. Are we deluding ourselves in blind optimism? Or are we stifling ourselves believing to be powerless by outside factors only? However hard I try, I cannot simply choose to break out of the bubble of my own continually fluid reality.

And once in a while a tiny event pushes me momentarily out of my bubble and makes me see things differently. Those events are rare, and those moments offer to see an impossibly complex different take on reality as a whole, one seemingly more true, more balanced.

In those moments I can see the actual complexity of my reality, but I cannot hold on to it long enough to fully flesh it out, dissect it, take it in, learn. But then again, by doing that I would be using the exact same flawed rationalisation all over again which those moments dispel. So I learn to accept the gentle sadness of having recognised a moment soon to pass.

I can’t wait for the snow. I love the fleeting, equalising veil it lays down over reality. The colonised, the broken, the hibernating.

Oh, by the way: Hamilton or Rosberg? I like them both.

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

Nov 20, 2016 @ 13:29 EST

Dear Anton,

The snow has arrived early in northern New York, near the mountains, where I am now. All the tropes of wintry comfort are here: the hissing fire, the hush, the spindrifts, the weighed branches embowering us in the forest, the glowing windows of distant neighbors. I would like to say that I am slowing the tempo of my mind, and that with the cold we could adopt the seasonal pose of rest and darkness. Though now does not seem the time for hibernation.

The frenetic claims and accusations in the registers of our civic life, the smug victors, the sorrows and recriminations of the defeated. In all this we may read too much meaning into the results of our flawed politics, of our imperfect systems for choosing our leaders. For we are less empowered in our elections than we would like to believe. A vote is a weak proxy for our hopes, or for bridging the gap between needs we perceive and the systems we create to address them. Saying this does not mean the possible effects are less drastic; that the decisions we’ve taken won’t pull apart the current world order. We have seen societies break too many times to delude ourselves that some abstract historical force will guide us to safety and progress.

To your point about the next wave of categorizations of what some perceive as a new demographic, I read recently that the Latin root of colonization – colere – is to cultivate, classify or order. And it seems to me that we don’t just build categories and systems for our societies in order to subdue and manage them, but that we colonize ourselves with our rationalizations and plans. That we worry and rub our edges, and fit ourselves into the descriptions we receive, or create for others. And what of the people who refuse categorization? Will they be broken?

And then the counterpoint, we humans as animals in our burrows and warrens, seeking warmth and safety, twitching and sighing in our dreamy sleep.

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