Delivered to Stack subscribers in Nov 2020
Contra is not a particularly easy read. An annual publication exploring representations of conflict in visual culture, it features stories from some of the world’s most troubled regions and encourages readers to think again about issues they might ordinarily prefer to avoid. For this latest issue they focus on the theme of ruins, and the editor’s note begins by evoking the sort of images that, “have long been used to capture our fascination with the relics of lost moments in time, and to immortalise them as spaces for fear, wonder and imagination.” Images of conflict generally flash up in news reports and social media feeds and disappear just as quickly, but Contra slows everything down, pausing to understand these powerful pictures more deeply. Sometimes that involves a careful explanation of how the images were created, for example in Nick Brandt’s extraordinary pictures of elephants, lions and other animals in apparently close proximity to local Maasai people in east Africa. In his accompanying text, Contra co-editor Alexander Morrison explains how Brandt (the video director of Michael Jackson’s Earth Song) painstakingly constructed his images to highlight the plight of both the animals and poor rural communities in the face of Africa’s population boom.
In other places the images are presented as reportage, like David Shaw’s harrowing photographs of the extreme hardships suffered by people living in Gaza. His documentary pictures of personal suffering are powerful, and combined with his first-person account of political and environmental collapse in Gaza, they become almost impossibly bleak. But of course not everything in Contra is challenging. Danila Tkachenko’s photographs of the USSR’s technological ruins are particularly beautiful, their dilapidated grandeur standing as a nostalgic testament to the “perfect technocratic future that never came”. Meanwhile Francesca Cavallo’s survival manuals seem absurdly quaint; handbooks for disasters that never materialised, they become an oddly optimistic reminder that conflict can also be avoided. If you enjoy this latest instalment of Contra’s ongoing project, head over to contrajournal.com for more reckoning with conflict, including their first two issues, themed around displacement and protest.
Director & Co-Editor
What is Contra?
Contra is a not-for-profit magazine and arts organisation that explores the complex relationship between visual culture and conflict. Through printed publications, community outreach projects and an events programme, we aim to raise awareness of various forms of conflict while investigating the role of the image. We hope to establish a network of cross-cultural exchange, support young and emerging artists and promote dialogue and debate. We aim to provide a platform for marginalised voices, and help those who have been directly affected by conflict.
What makes it different to the rest?
Although our focus may seem niche, it allows us to provide comment on and research into forms of conflict past and present in a way that has rarely been done elsewhere. The way issues around conflict are handled in the mainstream media is often problematic, with the image used to project a specific point of view or story, and we try to open this up by investigating the power of the image and introducing as diverse a range of perspectives as possible. We also seek to make our content accessible to everyone, with clear, journalistic writing favoured over an academic tone, coupled with thoughtfully produced design. In this way, the magazine reflects our broader mission to engage with a wide audience, and in doing so to have as far-reaching an impact as possible.
Who makes Contra?
We’re a small team who’ve worked together for a long time and bring experience from various arts organisations, publishing, events, research, design, filmmaking and community outreach programmes. Each of us works in a voluntary capacity in our spare time to make Contra happen.
Who reads it?
We have a loyal following of readers all over the world. It’s always an amazing experience meeting the interesting and thoughtful people engaged with Contra at our events and book fairs. We don’t have the same size audience as some more established publications but our growing network of passionate readers make all the hours spent during evenings and weekends worth it.
Why do you work in magazines?
Independent print is a unique medium to explore issues in a considered and thoughtful way. It offers a chance to focus in on a complex individual story, and provides a break from the fast-paced world of digital media. It encourages us to pause and consider an issue we might not have previously come across.
Aside from the print magazine, what else are you involved in?
Since starting up around four years ago we have run an events programme alongside our print publication – with previous events ranging from film screenings to panel discussions in person and on Zoom. Going forward, we are aiming to significantly expand our community outreach programme, bringing together more people and providing further avenues for dialogue, debate and understanding around culture and conflict. One of the central aspects of the organisation that we are most eager to grow is to work with people who have been directly affected by conflict. In particular, once the event world gears back into action following the Covid restrictions (hopefully that level of normality is reached again soon), we are looking to carry out a series of workshops, discussions, performances and exhibitions.
What would you change about Contra if you could?
It would be wonderful to have a larger budget that could enable us pursue further avenues and programmes that would lead to the greatest level of impact within the remit of our broader mission. Given the current economic state of the art world and the difficulties of surviving financially in the independent print industry, we have to be realistic and do whatever we can with limited resources to make our aims a reality.
Where do you see Contra in five years?
As a wider and more complete organisation carrying out a more frequent and diverse programme of print, events and community outreach. The potential avenues that Contra can take are so varied and engaging; it will be exciting to see how it grows!
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