Above: A (cropped) still from Human Flow. Credit: Ai Weiwei Studio.
There are some photo-subjects which seem to invite-on cliche and a reliance on stereotyped responses. The naked female body ... orca whales ... a beach in the Maldives ... When modernists wage their "War on Cliche" it is this resorting-to-the-well-worn (lazy thinking, lazy writing, and lazy photographing) that they are they seeking to attack and destroy. It is an ongoing and continuous battle. One recent example of this endless exasperation of the modernist-literate is described by Matthew De Abaitua in his Self & I: "After pints of Adnams [beer] with whisky chasers, we push on. Not a pub crawl but a pub stride. I feel like he [novelist Will Self] is outrunning me. The faint aura of Leiston [Suffolk, England] on the horizon. [Tall electricity] pylons straddle the blue plain. I suggest an image of sentinels marching hand-in-hand across the landscape. "Marching pylons is a cliche, snaps Will. "From an advert."
The more a subject is baked in cliche the greater the challenge to the photographer. One recent example of a visual artist taking on such a challenge is Ai Weiwei's Human Flow. He takes on a subject matter that is rife with abounding photo-visual cliches: refugees. But the film never resorts to visual platitude (with the exception of the final annoying and ponderous pull-back-to-reveal shot).
The genius of the film is its quality of effortlessness in depicting a well-worn subject matter with truly fresh eyes. Technically, the film's effect of movement, air, and space, is achieved through the use of many drone-cam-shots. The credit roll includes mention of at least ten drone-cam operators on the crew--Rizwan Ahmad, Murat Bay, Mahbub Hassan, Ali Saad, Mahmoud Shakir, Sarhank Yosif, Xie Zhenwei, Rahme Veziroglu, Jorge Vila, and Jose Marin Urias.
Recently available inexpensive flying drones allow for many shots that, say, five-years-ago, would have cost tens-of-thousands of dollars each--using a helicopter-mounted camera. But, in fact, a helicopter juddering ominously and alarmingly overhead is not in any case entirely comparable to drone-shot footage: a chopper will cause many to look up and change their behaviour--a helicopter is a disturbance, an intrusion. Whereas, many below hardly notice a tiny drone-copter buzzing by. So it is more accurate to claim that the film could simply not have been realized before the recent emergence of drone-cams.
Human Flow is a film which puts under harness drone technology in the ongoing War on Cliche. A war which, just like the War on Terror, can never be won once-and-for-all.
(25 April 2018)