Not Natasha – Dana Popa

Apologies for the late posting about the opening of on this show 23 July – but it does continue at Photofusion in Brixton until  18 Sept 2009, so you still have plenty of time to go and see it. I’ve been away for a week with no computer in a remote corner of Essex, and didn’t manage to complete it before I left home.

Thursday I wasn’t feeling great. I’d tweeted and put yesterday’s protest – a rather dull affair visually about something rather important – green jobs disappearing at Vestas Blades UK  – on to Indymedia and Demotix and improvised a shortish piece on this blog about some of my frustrations in particular the kind of photo-op that just isn’t photographable, but then hadn’t been able to get down to serious work, getting tied up with Googling about the Poet’s Tree, Josephine Avenue and the Effra, some fascinating stuff, ancient maps, Lord Loughborough of the junction and more, but then I get a call on my mobile and have to rush to find the trousers I was wearing yesterday on the floor in the bedroom where my phone is still hiding and it’s Paul reminding me we are meeting at Photofusion, get there early he says, six fifteen, and I think its a very good idea as I can see the show before everyone arrives as its supposed to start at six thirty, people don’t really look at the pictures at openings, but stand around talking in groups so that other people can’t see them, but more importantly he says the bar will be open and drinks are free until seven thirty, he’s bought a new (secondhand) car today and I say that’s bad, but see you there then, and I get on the train to Clapham Junction, not feeling to well, partly because I’ve eaten too much for lunch but I still eat some sandwiches on the train and then get a 35 to Brixton, I like travelling by bus, looking out the windows on London and people and it saves me buying a Travelcard which costs another three quid.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

And its good to walk round Brixton a little soaking up the atmosphere on my way to Photofusion and I get there around six fifteen which does give me a good chance to look at the work before the gallery starts to fill up. And I’m pleased I’ve come because this is one of the better shows at Photofusion, its an important subject – trafficking of women – and treated in a distinctive and interesting manner. There is a longish text by Mark Sealy on a couple of panels in the gallery, largely similar to his essay ‘Dana Popa Beyond The Lens’ published in Foam Magazine earlier this year. To me it reads as very much kind of thing written to gain grants that only connects peripherally with the images and ideas behind the work. But then I haven’t done a course on writing stuff like that, which seems to be what some photographic courses spend most time teaching their students.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

In ‘Not Natasha ‘ (the show gets its name from the generic used for female sex workers from Eastern Europe – which they mostly resent) Dana Popa appears to illustrate and dramatise the story from three different viewpoints; her images about her view of the women themselves, her pictures of their families – both parents and children, and, another section which is more about the women’s own perceptions and feelings.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

Although I occasionally found myself wishing that small details had been different, I think that overall this is powerful work on an important subject and is certainly worth a trip to see, although it may possibly work better in the more intimate setting of a book than on a gallery wall (and there is a small book available.)  But Dana is certainly also a colourist, which is no bad thing.

Mark Sealy writes “Her use of colour is a deliberate turn away from the gritty and distant realism associated with black-and-white documentary photography.” This statement might have been worth making thirty or ten or perhaps even five years ago, but the situation has changed dramatically and I wonder where he has been. Documentary photographers have certainly been working increasingly in colour since the 1980s and with the almost universal switch to digital it is surely now the norm. Although some photographers still work at least occasionally in black and white to great effect, most of what I see now in black and white is simply an affectation among a few who think it somehow makes their work more authentic but have usually failed to master the different syntax of monochrome. You have now to have a reason to work in black and white – and also unless you grew up with film you need to study how to do it. Learning to convert your images in camera or Photoshop isn’t enough. The fact that Popa uses colour as most documentary photographers do today hardly merits a mention, though she does use it well.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

Popa’s work was largely taken in Moldova, formerly part of the Soviet Union and now the poorest country in Europe, where around a quarter of the population live on less than 2 US dollars a day. She worked there in 2006 with the International Organization for Migration Shelters and Winlock International and was given access to 17 women who had been trafficked. In 2008 she got a commission from Autograph ABP to return to Moldova and photograph “the families, the homes and in some cases the children who have been left behind.”

Reeturning to the UK she was also able to photograph some of the Soho brothels where trafficked women from Moldova work. Trafficking is currently being used as a reason for reforming UK law on prostitution to criminalise paying for sex. It’s a move which is opposed by the English Collective of Prostitutes who say that it will drive the sex trade underground, making it more dangerous for sex workers, and was one of the reasons for their recent Masked Parade in Soho which I photographed a few days before going to see this show.

© 2009 Peter Marshall.

Dana was one of the five winners of the Jerwood Photography Awards 2007 for her work on trafficked women in Moldova in 2006. You can see some of  her other work on Gallery4Arts.

As always, openings are good for the people you meet as well as the work that you see, and as well as Paul (who made sure I always had a full glass) it was good to meet a few old and new friends, although many are away on holiday at this time of year. Among those who did make it were Crispin HughesErmiyas Mekonnen and Vanessa Winship and if there were others I’ve forgotten, blame Paul and the wine – also responsible for the even more rambling than usual second paragraph above!

My photographs from the opening at Photofusion, with Dana Popa in yellow. Now I’m rushing to watch a film.

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