Ruins and remains of our lives and built environment

Filth © Ismail Lagardien

Scanning through the photographs on my storage drives I was struck, recently, by how often I have made pictures of ruins and ruination. There are pictures of rubble among them, but it is mainly ruins; structures that have broken down, or that have been allowed to break down, and places and spaces that seem to have lost their use-value. The pictures I made are often about places that have been vacated, voluntarily or involuntarily, as well as material structures, ruins, and rubble that have amassed over time, and for which there seems to be no further use, other than being prepared for disposal. Or it is simply neglected for no particular reason…. Whether it is rust or simply disrepair, I seem to have developed, unwittingly, an interest in capturing spaces of decrepitude and decay.

Rust © Ismail Lagardien
Broken © Ismail Lagardien
Shoes © Ismail Lagardien
Decrepit © Ismail Lagardien
Abandoned © Ismail Lagardien

These pictures have no aesthetic value. At least I don’t think so. They’re made more out of habit – I have acquired because it makes for interesting pictures. What I have done, since I became interested in cities – from a political economy or sociological perspective, and especially the history and semiotics of structures and buildings – is look at some of the literature on ruins, and on cities, in general. I should say, with some haste, that I have no scholarly background or interest in these issues to the extent that I have anything significant or ground-breaking to add. I treat the entire process as would a flaneur with a camera.

What draws us to ruins

This fascination with ruins, and I should not be disingenuous, is a retrospective appreciation, in the sense that I never really set out, purposefully, to photograph ruins, rubble or urban spaces that have gone to waste. At least I think so. Perhaps it is successive visits to Istanbul that sparked my interest in what has been described as “the melancholy of ruins”. Although I can’t be sure of that. I photographed ruins and rubble in Georgetown Guyana, before I made pictures in Istanbul or Dubai much later. All of this notwithstanding, looking through my photographs, I saw a pattern running through the thousands of pictures I have made over the years, and that are, now, stored on my external hard drives.

In October 2019, while walking through Dolpadere in Istanbul, I realised, how often I photographed things, and they never see the light of day again (so to speak), when they are “stored” on my computer or one of the external hard drives. 

Between the Silences of Images

Late night in Fatih – Sultanahmet. By Ismail Lagardien (Copyright)

I recently spent about a week in Istanbul. Most of my time was spent visiting installations of the Istanbul Biennale, and two or three other places and art galleries. My favourite gallery, the Istanbul Modern, is being rebuilt, and temporarily housed elsewhere, in Beyoğlu. I am on some deadlines, and in the middle of an especially tough period, but once I emerge, I will collate my thoughts and present them in an essay, with photographs. I will focus, in particular, on some of the ways that art spaces have been inserted into working class areas, and have been part of gentrification – which places inordinate pressure on the poor, refugees, and immigrants. Please check back or sign up for updates. That way you will be notified when the essay is posted.

Istanbul Bread Seller

First published in 7 June 2018. He arrives early in the morning, balancing a load of bread on his head. He sets up a makeshift stall on the banks of the Bosporus. If you get there early, you would get a fresh piece. We sat, and spoke for a while. I spoke no Turkish, and he spoke no English. The bread tasted sweet.

The bread seller 

BELOW Added on 25 November…. I should write about the bread sellers of Istanbul when I get a chance. Below is a photograph I took in October. See article on my visit, here.

Funnies: They are everywhere, begging.

Watching the sun set on the Aberystwyth seafront

By Ismail Lagardien

15 February 2018. They are everywhere. Always there. On the beach. On the promenade. In the parking lot.They are there when you arrive. They stand around. Waiting. Hustling. One step forward. Two steps back. They circle around. They make sure not get too close. Well, not always. They’re quite gutsy. Persistent. Annoying.

You sit on a bench. They are there, always. Waiting. One step forward. Two steps back. Another one arrives. They joist gently, but with purpose. The dominant ones often get their way: “I was here first. He is mine.”

They are interested in your food. They will take any morsel. You were warned not to give them any food.

“It just encourages them,” a woman said.

You sit. Eat fish and chips. You try to ignore them. You know it’s not fair. You turn your back to them. One slips into view, again. One step forward. Two steps back. Standing still. Looking woeful. You wave them away.

“It’s no use,” the woman said, “they are here everyday”.

They are supplicants, scavengers. They’re everywhere the same; from the beach to the Red Light District. They are everywhere, these pesky gulls.

Lookout in the Red Light District

PHOTOGRAPHY: Seeing Simple Scenes Differently


Cafeteria Seating at Schipol

By Ismail Lagardien

16 August 2017. There are times when the simplest, the most every-day scene, stands out, and presents itself – intact. There were any number of these arrangements (above) at a cafeteria at Schipol Airport.

What makes photography special is that the most ordinary, the most banal scenes almost create themselves, and present themselves intact in the photographer’s mind. This, surely, is the power that lies where the creative impulse and the gesture of photography intersect, and when the photographer captures something that everyone looks at every day, but sees it differently and does something more than.

Brutalist architecture of the University of Johannesburg.

On the beachfront, were I live in Port Elizabeth, there are everyday scenes that, when isolated from its surroundings, photography thrives, as much as it does, on decontexualisation. This is one of the reasons why photographs often need a good caption. Below is an everyday scene on the beachfront in Port Elizabeth.

Backstories of a Picture: Morning in an Istanbul Bar

5 January 2017. I recently read a story on the power of a single photograph, published by Time Magazine. The Time story was inspired by an exhibition, One Image, described as a pièce de résistance, featuring just one photograph, a seemingly inconsequential, blurred image of a young girl sat on a deck chair. It recounts how, with the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, we are swamped, daily, by hundreds of images. The writer presents the one image, this particular case, as an experiment to force us to look at one image, and push us to look more closely at the back story of the picture. One Image was part of a larger exhibition, Podróż do nieśmiertelności fotografii: Photography Never Dies (The Journey to Immortality: Photography Never Dies) held at the Main Railway Station in Wroclaw, Poland.

The story drew my attention to the very many pictures I have made over the years, and especially, to the ‘back story’ of each picture or set of pictures. It also reminded me of the way that I have drifted away from photography, the act of making pictures, towards the philosophy and sociology of photography. I want to share, then, short stories on some of the pictures I have made in places around the world, as a way to give greater meaning to what I originally considered to be the time and spaces between photographs.

Notwithstanding the catchy idiom that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ (Read a piece on this meme, here) there are times when a caption, or a short story on the context of a photograph tells us more than what is depicted in the image. Sometimes, as with the photograph, below, it simply tells a story. This, then, is the first in a series of short takes on the back stories of pictures, and short takes on photographs.

Morning in an Istanbul Bar

I was sat deep inside a bar in Istanbul drinking coffee. The entire front of the bar was open to the street. A tram line ran along the front edge of the bar. It was a cold December morning. A man walked into the bar. He was bundled in a red parka. He sat down, ordered a beer and lit a cigarette. He took a sip of beer. A toke. A picture of Kemal Ataturk on the back wall of the bar flickered in pink fluorescent light. He took another sip. A toke. A tram sped by, barely two metres from the man. He did not flinch. Nobody flinched. There were three of us in the bar. The barman was arranging glasses on the counter. The man was lost in reverie. He took a sip. A toke. Kemal blinked in pink luminescence.