Jack Latham, Beggar’s Honey

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2023 by Images Vevey (here) and Here Press (here). Softcover, 170 x 210 mm, with printed cover/dust jacket, with list of plates inside (4 jacket options). 134 pages, with 20 foldouts, and 100 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Shawn Sobers. In an edition of 750 copies. (C0ver and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Photobook reviews hardly ever need spoiler alerts, but Jack Latham’s recent photobook Beggar’s Honey offers such a smart level of misdirection when you first engage with the book that I’m reluctant to spoil the fun of initially realizing what is going on for those that have yet to flip through it. So if you want the unmediated experience of puzzling it out for yourself, stop here and go buy a copy of Beggar’s Honey and then come back to wrestle with its ideas later.

If you’re still with me, I’ll start by trying to recreate my own reaction to picking up a copy of Beggar’s Honey for a quick browse at a photobook fair last fall. It turns out that Beggar’s Honey comes in several different cover configurations, but the one I looked at (and bought) had a blurry nearly abstract image of what looks like the orangey yellow patterned feathers of a peacock on the front, and a slightly more recognizable (but also decently pixelated) image of a different blue and green peacock on the back. The title and artist’s name are placed only on the spine, in relatively tiny text, with no other identifying information, so the mystery begins with these two images.

Inside, the approximated aesthetic continues throughout the photobook, with various color images cropped, blurred, flared, shimmered, and fuzzed to the point of softness, almost like essences or memories rather than specifics, where a squint of the eyes might help resolve the images into something approaching recognizability. The parade of images seems altogether random, not unlike a social media feed but with almost no algorithmic tuning or personalization – it seems like the feed of an aggregated anonymous TikTok user. There’s an image of a drone strike, then a fingernail design tutorial, a vial being crushed, a rocket launch, a man riding a tiger, another man trying to get out of handcuffs, followed by some swimming koi fish, a woman on a fashion catwalk, a burning church steeple, some jet contrails, and a curvy woman in a red bikini. This is just the first few page flips, but this kind of imagery plows on for dozens and dozens more pages. I think it’s safe to say that the question bouncing around in my head was “what could possibly connect all these pictures?”, with an initial guess being Latham’s seemingly deliberate blurring of the source material – maybe this was some kind of exercise in photographic process or appropriation?

As I was turning the pages, I noticed that every few spreads, the pages seemed loose at the bottom, and soon I discovered that there were hidden images (crisp and clear, instead of blurred) folded inside some of the spreads. The first one I opened folded out to reveal an image of a papered over, closed up storefront in Hong Kong. The next one offered a stack of smartphone batteries on a workbench, and the one after that was a night view of some tall apartment blocks, in again what looked like Hong Kong or somewhere else in Asia. It takes quite a few more openings and closings of these hidden photographs for a pattern to emerge. Gangs of smartphones are wired together in steel racks, or set on desktops in dense arrays like purpose built servers. Boxes of smart phone components are strewn around empty rooms, and eventually Latham pans back just a bit to show us perplexing desk setups with computers and wall-sized phone arrays all linked together. We must travel a long way through these mysterious sites of technology before the first human appears, a young Asian man in shorts and a t-shirt working at one of these setups, seemingly directing the massive installation of black boxes, flashing lights, and tiny screens in some way.

I’ll admit that at this point, I still hadn’t entirely worked out the connection between the blurred images and the arrays of phones, but several interleaved lists in tiny type, bound in on narrower paper, helped to connect the dots. One page offers a list of social media followers, each line providing the notification that someone “started following you”. Every one of the userIDs for these followers had the word “honey” somewhere in the name: @SecretGlowHoney, @BreezyHoneyPulse, @nectar_da_honey, @honeykiss, @honeyvelvetsky, @HoneyComb_DaisyDream, @cascadeof_honey, and so forth. The next list was a list of users that “liked your post”, and further along it was a list of users who commented, again all with honey userIDs, many the same as the ones in the earlier lists. On the backside of these lists were single line prices: 1000 followers $59.99, 1000 likes $10.49, and 1000 quality comments $165.00.

It is at roughly this moment that the lightbulb went on above my head and I realized that what Latham was documenting was the click farms that sell clicks, follows, likes, and such for a fee. The nuances of these shadowy influence peddling operations are detailed a bit further in the essay near the back of Beggar’s Honey, but it isn’t entirely surprising that these illegal machinations aren’t entirely automated, but are staffed by an army of laborers (largely in Asia and South America) who are paid as little as a penny per click to build artificial interest in whatever someone wants to boost.

With the mystery now clarified (a bit), what this photobook asks us to consider are the social and cultural byproducts of the pervasiveness of social media, including the need for people (and brands/businesses) to build “influence” or “cultural capital”, as measured by engagement metrics. This insatiable thirst for an audience and for “driving traffic” (whether as a celebrity, a politician, an organization, or a would be monetizer of some kind) has inevitably led to the demand for artificially inflating tabulated influence rather than building it organically. And so the click farms have sprung up to meet this need, clandestinely offering improved metrics at a la carte prices.

The images inside the foldouts provide a short form photographic exposé of the international click farm industry. The Hong Kong locations and apartment blocks represent registered business addresses and more importantly backtraced IP addresses for these farms, and the interior pictures show us various workstations, desks, assembly lines, steel scaffolding, and box farms. Aside from the one image of the man working at his desk, there is only one other portrait included, of a man covered by a silvery blanket that obscures his identity, standing on a shag rug near a foam pillow, which may imply that he sleeps in the office, or at least works round the clock shifts of some sort. The workrooms are all seen with precision and attentive curiosity, like examples of a very specialized kind of scientific lab.

Which ultimately brings us back to the primary stream of blurred and screenshotted images in Beggar’s Honey, which turn out to be examples of the pictures that these click farms have been paid to amplify. When seen as a group, the subject matter of these images runs across the wide ranging tastes of human curiosity, with the underlying logic for why the influence of any one of these pictures (or videos) needed to be boosted becoming quite a bit less obvious. There are nudes and sexy images, conspiracy theories, pictures of nature and natural disasters, concert and crowd footage, how-to images (for makeup application, window cleaning, making sushi, cutting hair, and spotting Rolex fakes, among others), pictures of protests, rallies, and marches, and a whole host of oddities like a fish in a sewer, a boy riding a chicken, a jello-molded watermelon, a snake in a Coke bottle, and a cloud in the shape of a butterfly. Seen as one integrated flow, these images seem like an endless parade of potentially enticing distraction, catering to whatever individual tastes we each might have, every picture aggressively pushed before us to (hopefully) provoke a reaction.

There is something vaguely vapid and seductively ridiculous about all of this, that is of course, until the fakery and manipulation of influence turns more serious, amplifying propaganda and disinformation, confusing consumers, and tipping elections. Latham’s aesthetic approach turns the clickbait images into expressive snippets of communication, visual one liners that can be pattern matched and turned into symbols or messages, further reduced until they are simplified stand-ins for reality that flow over us like a gentle wave. Even the strangest (and most controversial or provocative) of pictures is somehow defanged by this process, allowing mushroom clouds and softcore porn to easily intermingle with bunnies eating raspberries and heart shaped-lakes, and it’s this passively uneasy blending that feels most dissonant when thought about more actively.

In this way, Latham’s photobook comes at the power of authenticity from the back side, showing us instead how that very same truth we expect (or seek) is being undermined by the artificial gaming of influence, where whatever we think may be most popular or “truthful” may just be what bought that place in the standings.  Latham has similarly explored layers of false and deceptive narratives in his earlier photobook projects, Sugar Paper Theories (from 2017, reviewed here) and Parliament of Owls (from 2019), so Beggar’s Honey becomes the third part of a loose trilogy exploring the subtle contours of inaccuracy, omission, and distortion.

I think there is natural tendency to want to quickly explain that Beggar’s Honey is “about” click farms, to dispel that initial moment of confusion or misunderstanding that a new viewer might be having when encountering the photobook. But for me, that first period of grasping exploration made “figuring out” what was being presented in Beggar’s Honey that much more memorably powerful. It was a reminder that a little friction and misdirection in photobook design and construction is a good thing, and that making the viewer work a little for the payoff of artistic ideas is actually useful in creating a more durably engaged interaction.

Collector’s POV: Jack Latham does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Jack Latham, Here Press, Images Vevey

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