> Mishka Henner and the Boundaries of Photography

Marco Bohr / Mishka Henner and the Boundaries of Photography

September 2012

Mishka Henner belongs to a small but growing group of artists who, instead of purely using the internet as a promotional tool for their work, appropriate photographic images circulating on the world wide web to create innovative artworks that question a clear definition of authorship, ownership and originality. Born in Belgium and based in Manchester, Henner’s break-through project is No Man’s Land: an eerie collection of images appropriated from Google Street View which depict prostitutes apparently waiting for clientele on the outskirts of Spanish and Italian cities. In contrast to the luscious surroundings of the Mediterranean, the scantily clad women standing at the edge of the road allude to the harsh and repressive conditions of the sex trade. The prostitutes’ marginal socio-economic status is cleverly signified by their position in the landscape: on the edge of the road, on the edge of the city and on the edge of society. Perhaps because of the voyeuristic nature of the project, No Man’s Land took the internet by storm since it first came out as a self-published book in early 2011. This is one of the characteristics of a new breed of online savvy artists: for them the internet functions both as a source and as outlet for their art.

Similar to works by the German artist Joachim Schmid or, more recently, the Canadian artist Jon Rafman, Henner’s project raises an important question about authorship and ownership. Like Schmid and Rafman, Henner appropriates images which are produced by Google’s omnipresent cameras and then made available to the public via the various Google platforms. In other words, the initial production and eventual availability of the image – supposedly for the benefit of Google’s economic growth – is a precondition for Henner’s appropriation. The image would not exist if it wasn’t for Google’s investment; photographing, cataloguing and mapping virtually every street, road and highway in the industrialized world. Henner’s authority on the subject does not stem from producing the image, but rather, it stems from recognizing a pattern, collecting, assembling and publishing images that, in sum, produce a meaning that would have otherwise been lost in cyberspace. Here, Henner has more in common with a curator whose skill lies in identifying, locating, exhibiting and theoretically contextualizing images.

Since the images from Google Street View are freely available online to everyone with an internet connection, artists working with such images consistently encounter issues regarding originality. For instance, a photograph of a black woman in a bikini standing on the side of the road in the Italian countryside appears both in Henner’s No Man’s Land and also Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes – the title of which refers to the nine cameras mounted on top of Google’s cars that traverse up and down the country. Similarly titled ‘Italy, Controguerra, Abruzzi’ and ‘Strada Provinciale 1 Bonifica del Tronto, Controguerra Teramo, Italia’ respectively, and in spite of slightly different cropping and image coloration, it is unclear whether Rafman borrowed from Henner or vice versa. This case is perhaps less indicative of the universal availability of appropriated images than it is indicative of how these images are sourced. Rather than aimlessly traversing virtual roads and streets online, Henner’s methodology partially relies on other internet users making a discovery of the odd, the curious, or, in this case, the deeply voyeuristic image from Google’s image archive. In that sense, Henner sources the dynamics of the masses both in the sense that he is searching for individual images amongst an immeasurable mass of images, and also, that this search is facilitated by an anonymous mass of people unwittingly aiding Henner in his project.

Apart from collecting and appropriating photographs, it is important to note that Henner is a photographer himself. In his series In a Foreign Field, Henner photographed young music fans descending on the Spanish town Benicàssim which hosts the largest music festival outside the UK to target British visitors. Henner writes: ‘For four days in July, barren Spanish fields are turned into playgrounds of escape littered with casualties of excess.’ The photographs depict revellers passed out on the grassy fields, their physical disposition perhaps fuelled by the consumption of alcohol and drugs. These tranquil and unusually seductive nocturnal portraits are strongly reminiscent of Sleeping Soldiers – a series of portraits of Iraq-based American soldiers by the late war photographer Tim Hetherington. Other projects too, such as a portrait of post-industrial Oldham titled Borderland, pay acute attention to the social, political and ideological agency of photography and its histories.

As a result of Henner’s knowledge of photographic practices, his work is spiked with references to photography not only as a device to document social conditions, but also, as a cultural practice in constructing social conditions. In Collected Portraits, Henner produced short videos which shows portraits produced by well-known photographers of the 20th century – each video represents the work of one photographer. In these videos, Henner cleverly superimposed portraits so that the eyes, nose and mouth of the subjects match each other resulting in fascinating montages such as Forty-two portraits by Nobuyoshi Araki, Thirty-two portraits by Sally Mann and Forty portraits by August Sander. Apart from the different age, gender and race of Araki’s, Mann’s or Sander’s subjects, the project alludes to photography’s power in creating cultural stereotypes that inevitably inform historical processes: the submissive Japanese woman in Araki’s work, the innocent child in Mann’s photographs, or Sander’s typological investigation of a cross-section of German society during the Weimar Republic. Henner’s work shows that there is little doubt over photography’s impact on our perception of others, and, inevitably, our perception of ourselves.

Henner’s refreshing approach to photography alludes to a variety of related yet also disparate disciplines and methodologies: historical, technological, ethnographical, sociological and vernacular. Here, Henner consciously appears to push against the boundaries of documentary photography asking the viewer to (re-) consider his trust in the camera and modern technology. Looking at No Man’s Land, Henner’s collection of images thus confronts the viewer with a surprising question. What is more shocking? The crudity of the sex trade on the allegorical margins of our societies, or, the unstoppable invasion of the camera in every aspect of our lives spurred by financial interests. This question is further provoked by the vantage point of the Google camera, looking down on the subjects as they either avoid, not notice, ignore, or act for the camera. These differing reactions, as subtle as they may be, are a powerful reminder that our problematic relationship with photography is – informed by our historical understanding of the photographic apparatus – constantly in flux.


Recent work by Mishka Henner is on show in Rome until 28 October 2012, at the ‘Fotografia Festival Internazionale di Roma’ in an exhibition curated by Paul Wombell.