Tom Sutcliffe: Is this really a true picture of Britain?

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The Independent Online

We are, it seems, obsessed with caravans, floral wallpaper and scenes of bleak urban banality. Or at least that's the conclusion you might draw if you were inclined to treat Tate Britain's shortlist of pictures submitted by the public for their photographic exhibition How We Are as a representative snapshot of the nation. And, however wary you might be about the methodology of such an exercise, isn't that what that title invites you to do?

The implication is that photography is a diagnostic medium, a way of pinning down on paper the fugitive nature of a society ... and although a kind of encyclopediac inclusiveness has always been part of the photographic aesthetic, this sifting of just 40 images from nearly 8000 submitted through the Flickr photo-sharing website necessarily suggests a kind of distillation. You want to know how we are now? Then start by looking at these.

The Tate Britain press release announcing the finalists - which will be displayed alongside the work of professional and fine art photographers - claims that "a huge range of subjects and styles emerges from the selected photographs" but what struck me on looking at them was the remarkable consistency of tone many of them displayed.

That and the odd repetitions. A lot of Britons like caravans, I know, but who would have predicted that these bathetic idylls would have figured three times in the final line-up, with two of the pictures virtually identical in composition? Did the jury find themselves in deadlock over which squared-off picture of the back end of a caravan was best, and compromise by letting both through, one in the Landscape section and one in Documentary?

What's with all the floral prints too? No less than five of the pictures here feature floral prints on various surfaces - in all cases carrying a faint charge of kitsch. You could legitimately argue, I suppose, that, while floral patterns don't appear much in colour supplements or style magazines these days they still provide a popular benchmark for decorative enhancement - but it still seems excessive ... as if the selection is striving for something downbeat and démodé.

A similar repudiation of conventional beauty is to be seen in the landscape section, with the majority of the pictures focusing on the drab or the unremarkable. There's a picture taken inside a derelict abattoir, a crumbling wall in Deptford and a studiously banal suburban driveway. The overall effect is run-down or somehow compromised; even a lovely picture of the Lakeland fells under a light dusting of snow foregrounds a heap of silage bags and old tyres.

You'd be hard pressed to deny the truth of these pictures, particularly several in the documentary section - there's a fine shot of a BMX rider, stripped to the waist to reveal a tattoo across his kidneys reading "Life is a choise" and a cameraphone image entitled "davepuking", both of which capture contemporary realities with a Hogarthian brio. But are we really, as a people, quite as glum, or as disillusioned as this collection suggests? I suspect we're not ... and that what it accurately reflects is not a public view of British life, but a curator's view of photographic aesthetics. Looking at these pictures you think of names like Wolfgang Tillmans and Nan Goldin. You think, above all, of that poet of the dog-eared and the overlooked, Martin Parr. It isn't a snapshot of How We Are, in short, but of Photography As It Is.

A country shaken by hand

The news that Iran's Mohammed Khatami's presidential bid had been derailed by images of him apparently shaking hands with a woman during a visit to Italy was a depressing reminder of the sexual terror that passes itself off as morality in some sections of the Muslim world. But I was intrigued to see that the incriminating footage had been partly disseminated with a posting on YouTube, not a medium it's easy to associate with zealous repudiation of the flesh. Among highlighted YouTube videos when I last checked were FHM's Foreign Barmaid of the Month and a comedy animation called How to Kiss. If hand-shaking is taboo shouldn't mouse-clicking be on the forbidden list too?

* I wouldn't want to detract from the achievement of the amateurs who took part in the weekend's London triathlon - my own endurance challenge on Sunday extending to just two lengths of Hampstead's mixed swimming pond. But I suggest any who have caught the bug consider the example of Paul Clavey before they plan their next entry.

He recently celebrated his 40th birthday with a bespoke triathlon. He began by swimming the length of Coniston Water (5.5 miles), climbed onto his bike to ride the Fred Whitton Challenge, a 112-mile route which takes in the most-gruelling Lake District passes and then finished off by running the Bob Graham Round, a 66-mile circuit which links 42 Lakeland peaks and involves 27,000 feet of ascent.

He did all this in just over 43 hours ... and who can doubt that someone will already be thinking about trimming his time. That's the problem if endurance is your drug. There's always a harder form available.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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