An interview with Swiss artist Lea Schaffner about her focus on mass media images, how people react to them and whether the media uses them to manipulate or influence the viewer.
Lea Schaffner is an artist from Switzerland. Her current focus is on mass media images, how people react to them and whether the media uses them to manipulate or influence the viewer. Schaffner also works with the media and art collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik. In this interview, she talks about four of her projects which all focus on switching perspectives and counter narratives.
Could you talk us through your most recent work?
I found an image online during my research into the Islamic State. The video had an Arabic title and a friend of mine translated it for me. The title in English is “The moment when soldiers of the YPG were killed (or targeted) by Hawn mortar shells in the Islamic State”. I was really interested in this video as it was filmed diagonally from above. It was filmed from a long distance away, as the people you could just see in the video were very small and pixelated. It was just a kind of weird perspective and that's why I started to become interested in it. It's a war scene where two people are targeted and two other people took them with them in order to keep them safe.
Then when I really started to work with the material, I began to realise that the sound of the file is much more interesting than the picture. You really can hear that there are war sounds, bombs and shooting but it sounded a little bit quieter, like it's orbiting through a wall or something like that. At first sight I just thought it was filmed from hill, but then you can hear these inside sounds, doors and whispering voices and also a clicking of the camera the way you do when you take hundreds of pictures at once. It really changed the situation because before you just had this view of the camera with the people moving, and then because of the audio, it really starts to become this 360-degree perspective.
That, I thought, was very interesting because I began to think about what kind of people could be in this room and what kind of people were taking these pictures. My first impression was that it must be journalists because of the camera. It sounds like a very high-tech camera. But I started to think about it and it reminded me a lot of these hotels in crisis areas where photo-journalists stay and deliver different countries images of a war. I found this idea very interesting and it also brought the whole situation back to me. These pictures were perhaps taken for me, but it's not clear and the video has been removed from YouTube.
Stills taken from the YouTube video "The moment when soldiers of the YPG were killed (or targeted) by a Hawn mortar shell sent by the Islamic State". The original YouTube video has been removed.
What caught your attention about this video compared to other videos you have seen?
It was the fact that the perspective was neither from an aeroplane nor from a drone. We can determine that the pictures were taken from above but not in the way we are used to seeing them. As an audience we are familiar with images taken from an aeroplane or a drone. Just as we are familiar with the types of images made on mobile phones in the middle of a crisis; they are very close up and the viewer is somewhat in the situation, or from the perspective of a drone or aeroplane, you're somewhat above it. The perspective in this particular video was very different because it was taken at this huge distance but at a very strange angle which meant I couldn't 'classify' how it was taken. This is why I really started to become interested in this video.
Due to the sound in the video, you said you had a 360 degree view?
When we're looking at videos or images in the media, we always have this clear view of the camera and through the sound it was filling up the room. There are two people, maybe more because you heard a conversation. There was also a movement so you start to really think about the rooms, the spaces. So, actually, you also start to change your positions. You're the viewer in front of the laptop or whatever; then you have the positions of the people who are fighting, that's what you see first. Then you start to realise, “Okay, there are a lot of other people in this whole situation too”. So, that was very interesting to think about.
I wrote a text for the performance about these camera clicks that you can hear in the video. What are these clicks and what is the meaning of the constant clicking? The moments are all in these clicks and I was really thinking about these moments. The video is also called 'The Moment When' and it has this situation, these moments, and also the moment of this video is a moment for so many different people, which is why I found it very interesting.
It wasn't just the perspective you were interested in but also the fact that it was taken in a crisis situation. You're very interested in war zones.
I was researching the Islamic State. I did a lot of research about different kinds of pictures. I was not really interested in the pictures the media shows us everyday because they're very terrifying and manipulative. So I was searching for pictures that are completely different to what we are used to seeing. And that's why I stopped on this one.
I am often struck by pictures of crisis zones and reflect on how these pictures are made to give us an impression of a situation we don't know. I try to find other ways of looking at these pictures or to find other views to analyse them. Since the beginning of photography, mass media has been trying to portray images of war. The way pictures are produced has changed since then, but the intention, or perhaps the phenomenon, is probably still the same.
How different were the pictures you were finding to the pictures that mass media was showing you?
Very. YouTube has all these mass media images too. So, a lot of images were just filmed from the TV and put onto YouTube. There were a lot of propaganda videos. There are these videos you find and you have no clue where they are coming from and why the people are filming the situation because you can't see anything. I think that's also very interesting point about the video I mentioned above. I don't know why these people are there, but I think they tried to film these scenes to prove something, but the picture actually proves nothing because you can't see anything.
It could be us just running around in a place anywhere. I mean, you really can't see anything. You can say, “Okay, look. Here is a house. It's proof that we are here and here”. So, I don't know. I think the motivation to film seems to be that journalists or other people prove something, and here actually the sound is clearer than the picture. I don't think that was apparent to the film-makers or the video-makers, and that's a very nice point and turns the whole thing around.
Did you find other examples that also have this flip of the audio being more useful than the visual?
I didn't actually. No, the other videos are clearer. And I think these people who uploaded the video really didn't think about the audio. So that's also very interesting.
Did you find cases where the audio was cleaner than the image?
This video is one of those. Because it was filmed inside, the audio is pretty good. It's not super good. I think it's captured by the camera microphone, but it's better than the picture. The audio is clearer than the picture. The camera person really didn't realise that.
Could you tell anything from hearing that particular audio? Because you said it was an inside space and that the camera that they were using was probably a good camera. Is there anything else that was interesting from the sound that you heard?
Yes. You really feel that people are moving about. I also had the feeling that it was a fraught situation. That's just a feeling because there was whispering and then steps and then a door opening or closing, and then whispering again and then the clicking. Also the room, it sounds unfurnished. It had this feeling of, “Okay, we are here, we are filming to prove something, and afterwards we are going away again”. That was my impression.
You said it sounds unfurnished. Is that because there's an echo in the room?
In terms of working these things out, did you use a particular software, or did you just listen to it over and over again?
I'm not interested in using tools or software to prove something or verify a fact. I'm interested in finding other views, details and turning points into the pictures. Seeing the pictures again and again and working with the videos as a material, I try to ask different questions than the ones that have already been asked. I never try to answer questions. I'm searching for new ones and comparing them.
So finding out the positions through the details, I was not trying to prove anything. With this work, I really just put all the things together, make a kind of assemblage. I just wanted to bring this all together, and thought that something new might happen. That was the goal of the whole thing. I mixed up different perspectives, and my own perspective too.
I'm a female artist from Switzerland, that's a fact. But what does it mean to work with pictures like these? What's my position in this whole setting? It's important to think about that and make it part of the work and the discussion.
How did you present this work?
I did a screening of a hotel room in Switzerland in the exhibition space. When people come into the room, they see the hotel room with the sound of the video, the war scene. (“The Moment when soldiers of the ....”). After 5-10 minutes, I start the second, smaller projection in the same room with the video. The visuals are on two different walls. Then I sit down diagonal to the screenings, creating a triangle and read a very subjective written text about the clicking in the audio, what it is to be a witness, to be a camera person, to be a journalist, to be myself and about these moments, when something happens. (You can see the set-up on my homepage). The visitor finds themselves in a performance set-up with all the different views, perspectives and the performer. Even though the sound of the war scenes and the picture of the hotel room don't fit together, it starts to become real.
Screenshot taken from the video created by Lea Schaffner. The hotel room is on the left, stills taken from the YouTube video “The moment when soldiers of the YPG were killed (or targeted) by a Hawn mortar shell sent by the Islamic State” is on the right.
Was the idea of having the hotel room, the very European hotel room, juxtaposed with the audio so that people start thinking about the audio in a more European hotel room setting and then they realise where the audio is from?
No, it's actually very clear that the sound couldn't be coming from the pictures of the hotel room. But through the background sounds, the whispering, the voices, it starts to become clear that we are in a room and the hotel room we are in is just the idea of a room. It's the idea of the hotel rooms in war zones where journalists can stay to take their pictures. What kind of hotel room it is is not the point. And it's a Swiss/European one because I'm here and not there.
Why were you interested in this as a subject area?
It's the question a lot of people ask me. “Okay, you're white, you're a girl, you come from Switzerland”. But I think these pictures and the whole mass media thing is really, really important for us to think about it and especially in relation to the Syrian crisis: is the whole media really manipulating us with pictures? It's not just the war zone conflict or whatever, I also did work in Oslo around the Breivik shootings with helicopter images recorded during the shootings. That was also a very mass media kind of phenomenon, how these pictures are produced or were produced and should really touch us and impact us emotionally. It's a very interesting point to work with certain pictures.
In that case, it was more about the perspectives because there were some videos filmed from a helicopter. The helicopter was just checking the whole area and it looked like it was asking, “Are there more victims?” In this search and all of the videos you could find online, the footage was shaky and not really showing anything and they were really, really bad quality - really pixelated, and the resolution was also very bad.
So I was in Oslo and then I took the train to Stockholm. And this was really weird for me. I was on a family holiday and I took picture and made videos on the beach - the weather was really bad. And the pictures I took were very similar in the way they were taken. The movement of the camera is very similar; it's a searching view, searching for action or for something that is going to happen, but you don't know what. It's also a clueless view, just searching for a picture. Like the pictures people took during the whole situation there [in Oslo]. It was very interesting to see how these pictures were kind of similar. I made a montage and put this together. That was kind of interesting to see that sometimes you're not sure if there is... What kind of pictures are these? Or whatever. So, that was the point there, to really feel the camera or the camera was kind of narrative in its movements. That was the interesting point there for me.
Screenshot taken from Lea Schaffner's22/7/11 (2011). On the left is the image of her family on holiday in TheNetherlands**, on the right is an image from the news coverage of the Breivik shootings.
Both projects you've mentioned have an 'above' or a diagonal viewpoint.
That's more the point. The switching of perspectives. When you switch perspectives, it can change hierarchy. That's also something I did in other works. Just switched the position to make it something very different.
I did a project about Israel. I was there for an exchange and the Israeli military had just bombed the car of a Hamas leader. The footage was on television in black and white. You can see the car driving on the streets with a yellow circle around it and then it just explodes. The video must be from the Israeli military because it's filmed, I think, maybe from the aeroplane that shot the car.
Screenshot from the video compilation by Lea Schaffner entitled 14/11/12 (2013)
Then there was a lot of television footage that shows images from the television studio and behind it, there was Gaza city with the clouds from the bombings. I mixed these pictures up; images from above from the military aeroplane and the images from Israeli television that are kind of far away and show these beautiful clouds of destruction. Additionally for the montage pictures, I used videos filmed by people in the streets of Gaza who had filmed the smoking, destroyed car. But in the montage you never see the car exploding. I left the image of the car in, driving around, over and over.
I mean, that was weird because you make this connection, but the images were different. It was from the same time but the clouds weren't from the car. So, that's kind of weird then because I just mixed up stuff that has a connection to each other but does not really belong together. I also zoomed in more and more and more, until by the end, you just have pixels. So that's what I really like in this work or in this material. It's really this going from hierarchy to hierarchy to hierarchy, from the position of the powerful aeroplane and the guy who pressed the button to the people who are just talking about it and who are safe [in the studio] and then to the people who witness it. At the end it's actually pixels. The switch was very important for me in this work.
Why do you think that more people or projects are not using sound as an investigation tool?
I think it is the fact that visual thinking is just still much stronger. It's like a teaching situation of the mass media to just give us all this visible output to make it go directly into our brain. I think it's really far more difficult for people to remember information only from listening because we're not trained. We are not trained to hear and remember yet but we are trained to see and remember. I believe this came with television and other mass media, which resulted in people being more trained in reading and understanding visuals than other formats.
Could you explain briefly your project on the conference in Tripoli?
There was a press conference in a hotel in Tripoli, Libya. There was a woman who told the cameras that she was raped and tortured by the government. She used this press conference for European and also I think American media, to go into this hotel and to say what happened to her. It was crazy as there were so many cameras, and people had no idea what to do. This woman came in to tell her story in front of the camera, crying, screaming. People from the hotel tried to stop her and told her to shut up. They also wanted to take her away from the cameras.
I found a lot of different camera views on YouTube, and I could switch between the views, so the German press had one view, the UK press had another view and it was strange to have this option to switch the position and the angle. All the cameras were just on her, and she was sitting on a table on a chair, and crying, telling her story. The security staff were aggressive. All the women were very aggressive toward her and tried to take her away and make the situation undone. That was interesting to see. The situation was a bit of a black-out because nobody really knew what to do. One of the camera was pushed away by a security guard with the hand in the picture. It's also one of these example of cameras, and switching perspectives, and also what our ability to take these images from YouTube, and be part of it. I mean it's not clear because it's just the images and footage that were filmed from the television, and uploaded to YouTube. I put the perspectives of the different cameras together and try to get a new picture through a new narrative. Maybe it's like quoting with pictures, you bring two pictures together and get a new one, a third one.
Screenshot from a collection of videos of this event compiled by Lea Schaffner entitled 26/03/11 (2011)
Did you see anything interesting from the different perspectives apart from the security guard pushing a camera away?
I learned that situations like that are often manufactured for the journalist, for the pictures. I think she knew that and used this situation to try to get out of her own situation to tell her story. She was certain that she had found a way to relate what had happened to her and everyone was going to see it. The pictures were discussed in most of the Western press and after that a lot of people supported her to avoid the government. Maybe that action saved her life.