Lucy Bentham on England / Brussels. Published by Photograd, 2019.

The parcel arrived wrapped in delicate brown paper, but adorned with FRAGILE tape in such a way that immediately suggested what was inside was going to be FRAGILE beyond its materiality. There are no words to accompany this zine; no indication of what we are about to look at and not even a hint of who has made the work until the end. Then a handwritten note on a scrap of lined paper falls out from the packaging:

Hands with money
and a fair society
what a wanker! suits on the phone
old hands hold tighter

10/19 C. Mear

Both front and back cover images depict men in suits, ignoring the camera, the photographer, everyone else. Presumably the suits on the phone are those Mear mentions in his note. The results of photographing people from behind gives me a sense of distance from their company, forever left out. Alternatively, considering how the subjects might feel, Susan Sontag talks of photographing people as ‘violat(ing) them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically posessed.’ 1 Is this how Mear feels? Is he exposing them? Does he want them to see who they are outside of their own constructed personas? What part do they play in this narrative? As it turns out, they play the lead role.

Briefly perusing the zine for any text reveals the longest sentence, and the biggest clue, at the end:

These photographs were made between England and Brussels (Belgium), between 2016 and 2019.

A fact. Placing the work, and nothing more (unless, of course, you may have heard about the EU situation?).

The narrative begins with a high-contrast monochrome photograph of three hands, each holding two coins (one from each nation), the ‘Hands with money’ from Mear’s note. Begging? Demonstrating all they have? Offering? Perhaps this is symbolic of their journeys between the two places, that they belong in both places, that the places are not so different from each other. Then, we are plunged into four pages of darkness. There is already a strain here, between the men in suits and the others. The men in suits symbolically represented in the light, the hands with the coins in the darkness.

The first image of a ‘man in a suit’ is strewn with indicators of his persona: a plastic bottle of water to be drunk from a plastic cup (this man does not drink from the bottle or care about the environment), a mouse connected to his laptop (nor does he use his track pad), his outfit a stiff suit (to be completed by the casual bucket hat in case of inclement weather), and his phone charging (presumably he’s been on it all day talking about particularly crucial issues). He is thoughtful and concerned. Elsewhere, other men in suits are holding their phones, two are almost holding hands. They clutch paperwork, briefcases, umbrellas, their own chins to help them think, their own importance. 

Those on the other side, in the darkness, hold onto coins, beers, hope, bags for life, and their empty pockets. Hide under hoodies and show their cool, they’re cool, with hand gestures that call the men in suits all wankers. They travel around, staring out of windows on public transport at the landscape that is being changed, they don’t know why or how much profit is in it for the men in suits, but that’s not for them to know. That’s up to the wankers.

Are we witnessing an interplay of class and power distribution? The men in suits are boldly trying to sort out everyone else’s lives while everyone else bumbles around, gets bossed around, struggles with their coins and the shopping, under the control of the ‘men in suits’, the men in power with their briefcases and significant phone calls, playing their lives like a game of The Sims, ending in disaster.

With so much reference to men, I cannot ignore the fact that the majority of people depicted in this zine are men, if not purely because, from the words of John Berger:

‘A man’s presence is dependent on the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence.’2

That these men in suits rarely fill a majority of the frame suggests that their promises are weak, defective, and yet they hold the power. Paradoxically, the ‘other’ men fill more of the frame, with their bellies, their attitudes and the sense of presence emanating from the older man standing outside of a charity shop. The suits have their backs turned, are ignorant, too busy. The others are questioning, direct eye contact, defending, piercing.

In Mear’s work, there is little sign of the photographer himself. He is positioned at a distance from the men in suits, framing them in the light that surrounds them and, yet, his proximity to the others is close, investigative and involved. One image of a man in a suit is particularly striking, he’s made eye contact with the lens – is he happy about it or too busy to care? To me, the look is penetrating and I wonder if Christopher feels comfortably distant enough to not be hit by it. An additional sense of his presence is that of something being said, and in rather a definitive manner; it seems quite clear on whose side he is.

To finish, the zine plunges us into darkness again before a black crow completes the series and asks ‘am I bad luck and death, or good fortune and prophecy?’. It is for the viewer to decide with whom they stand, on which side of this FRAGILE channel they reside.

1 Sontag, S. (2008). On photography. London: Penguin Books, p.14.
2 Berger, J. (2008). Ways of seeing. 2nd ed. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, p.39.

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