Those Who Hear the Ticking

‘Those who hear the ticking’ was a phrase used by Hannah Arendt in her 1968 essay, On Violence. It describes the first generation, those contemporary to the book’s publication, aware of the possibility of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war. As a child of this generation, I have always heard the ticking. It softened for a while, but today, it is louder than ever. 

Like many who work with photography, I am interested in photographs taken by others, mainly the anonymous “vernacular” photographs outside the photography canon. This category encompasses all photographs of the past outside the art market—the vast majority of photography. These photographs form a residue of global culture. They hold secrets, poetry, and stories but also reflect a flawed society. Together, vernacular photography forms a narrative about us, proposing how we arrived at the world we occupy today. 

Over the years, I have amassed a collection of prints and negatives, but I am particularly focused on the negative. In this age of “fake news”, political distrust, and an ever-encroaching AI, negatives of the past take on new meaning and significance. The negative offers a photographic ‘truth’. Unlike a digital exposure, no manipulation is possible between an exposure and the image formed in the grains of a negative, and there are no copies. The negative is a unique witness of a moment and a testament that what was pictured, existed. When I work with a negative of the past, I am not only using a matrix containing a photographic image; I am handling an artefact of the moment depicted. It was there.

My collection, an array of visual history encompassing roughly a century up to photography’s migration to pixels, regularly occupies my mind. Themes of identity, power, and representation are woven throughout. I continually think about the images and what they signify. On the morning of February 24, 2022, I sensed that we had woken up to one of those moments when everything changed. Having grown up with the traditions and culture of Ukraine, handed down from grandparents, Russia’s invasion felt close to home, with the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin, a denial of a part of who I am. Almost immediately, the disparate photographs within my collection began to coalesce, interconnect, and form new constellations of meaning. As imagery from the invasion flooded in, the monochromatic views of a grainy past from within the collection began to lose abstraction and distance –– pulled uncannily closer and present. It soon became clear that the collection together was a metaphor for the in-and-out conflict cycle of the world we continue to live through.

"", by William Mokrynski

Latest from the trays

2024 – My focus has returned to Those who Hear the Ticking, and the work continues. This from the trays in 04/2024, printed from a series of dozens of negatives individually sleeved with handwritten addresses from across London with dates from 1939. They are from small box with the title “Fanlight Windows”. Looking up the addresses today, many look exactly as they did then, others no longer exist. 

‘Those who hear the ticking’ was a phrase used by Hannah Arendt in her 1968 essay, On Violence. It describes the first generation, those contemporary to the book’s publication, aware of the possibility of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war. As a child of this generation, I have always heard the ticking. It softened for a while, but today, it is louder than ever. 

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Like many who work with photography, I am interested in photographs taken by others, mainly the anonymous “vernacular” photographs outside the photography canon. This category encompasses all photographs of the past outside the art market—the vast majority of photography. These photographs form a residue of global culture. They hold secrets, poetry, and stories but also reflect a flawed society. Together, vernacular photography forms a narrative about us, proposing how we arrived at the world we occupy today. 

Over the years, I have amassed a collection of prints and negatives, but I am particularly focused on the negative. In this age of “fake news”, political distrust, and an ever-encroaching AI, negatives of the past take on new meaning and significance. The negative offers a photographic ‘truth’. Unlike a digital exposure, no manipulation is possible between an exposure and the image formed in the grains of a negative, and there are no copies. The negative is a unique witness of a moment and a testament that what was pictured, existed. When I work with a negative of the past, I am not only using a matrix containing a photographic image; I am handling an artefact of the moment depicted. It was there.

My collection, an array of visual history encompassing roughly a century up to photography’s migration to pixels, regularly occupies my mind. Themes of identity, power, and representation are woven throughout. I continually think about the images and what they signify. On the morning of February 24, 2022, I sensed that we had woken up to one of those moments when everything changed. Having grown up with the traditions and culture of Ukraine, handed down from grandparents, Russia’s invasion felt close to home, with the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin, a denial of a part of who I am. Almost immediately, the disparate photographs within my collection began to coalesce, interconnect, and form new constellations of meaning. As imagery from the invasion flooded in, the monochromatic views of a grainy past from within the collection began to lose abstraction and distance –– pulled uncannily closer and present. It soon became clear that the collection together was a metaphor for the in-and-out conflict cycle of the world we continue to live through.