Friday, 20 February 2009

Eight hours of shooting in Basra.

A year ago you might assume that headline referred to another round of sectarian violence in the southern provinces. But it is actually the amount of time that leading British photojournalist, Abbie Trayler-Smith was allotted to make a photo-story for Time Magazine about the resurgence of Iraq's second city.

Now it would be easy to bleat on about how this is a "sign of the declining importance given to photography" but actually...... no, not on this occasion.

When time is tight and you are at the whim of deadlines and large organisations, you simply have to do your best and work hard. Which is exactly what she did. 

Although her assignment was organised by Time Magazine, she and writer Catherine Mayer were going there with representatives of the UK Government who were visiting as part of the planned withdrawal of British forces. As guests, they were not free to make their own schedule so between meetings and travel they had the equivalent of a working day to piece together as many aspects as they could while keeping it all relevant.

It is a testament to their skills that both the photos and the article give an impression of having spent much longer. We all like to do thorough and considered work but the ability to produce pictures in a narrow time-frame that bring a subject to life is a rare skill.

At this point I should point out that Abbie and I have been close friends since we worked together for the Telegraph in Baghdad following the fall of Saddam. She is one of a group of photographers in the UK who have constantly inspired me so if I sound a little partisan please excuse me and judge for yourself at the above link.

Abbie Trayler-Smith has a major new exhibition opening in London next month and her new web-site goes live at around the same time. So there will be more about her work in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Section 76

Sunday 15th February saw the controversial Section 76 of the 2008 Terrorism Act come into force and this will "allow for the arrest and imprisonment of anyone who takes pictures of police officers that are likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism."

Put simply this is the single most blatant attempt to curtail the freedom of the press since the police gained the power to seize unpublished photographs from instances of public disorder in the nineteen-eighties.

Aside of the fact that the words "likely to be useful" are impossibly vague to begin with, we have to face additional reality that all previous powers conferred on the police and/or local government have been regularly and flagrantly abused in respect of anti terrorism legislation. 

Several recent dreadful examples can be found in this BJP article and I myself have been stopped a questioned while taking a picture for a commercial client of their London buildings. 

In my case, explaining that I had been commissioned and was being paid to take pictures of the London landmark brought no measure of understanding from the two officers (not pictured above!) but ironically was allowed to continue after I produced my press card. 

Nowadays a press card is likely to get you about as much respect as a mink coat so I had been reticent in producing it and frankly, I was not personally harassed, arrested or seriously inconvenienced but mine is not a typical encounter.

Those most affected by the implementation of Section 76 are obviously working press photographers who come into contact wit the police and armed forces on a regular basis. They already face difficult working conditions in that the police they deal with are mostly ignorant of the law with regards to photographers rights and frequently fall back on anti-terrorism legislation in even the most benign of situations.

But there are another group who may be strongly affected; street photographers. For some, the act of documenting life's spontaneous drama and humour is not only a professional endeavor but part of the rich photographic heritage of this country.

Brilliant British street photographer Nick Turpin has made a simple eloquent video about this issue and the thought that his brand of incisive photographic wit might be stifled by this pointless piece of scare-mongering nonsense is  just too depressing for words.

Here is the video and I urge you to take a look at the work of all the photographers that contribute to iN-PUBLiC and realise what is so needlessly being put in jeopardy.

Photographers Rights UK from Nick Turpin on Vimeo.

Then write to your MP and contribute to the democratic process of amending this law.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

OK - I might have been wrong.

I have frequently described video journalism as "a child"s medium" and with few exceptions prefer audio slide-shows as multimedia content.

Narrated audio slide-shows like Andrew Testa's excellent piece on Kosovo (here) serve to remind us of all that print journalism does well. The sense of reading is evoked by the narration, the transition between still images similar to the turning of a page.

Video on the other hand reminds us of all that Television does well. It immerses us but leaves little to the imagination. For the most part it tends to be less engaging on the internet and much of what appears on the online sites of major newspapers lacks the production values of TV.

Sean Smith has consistently managed to rise above this and I suspect that this has much to do with his deft blending of moving footage with stills and a series of interviews where the subject is given enough space to tell the story in their own words. His excellent series last year from the Iraq troop surge (here) broke all the so-called rules about length and showed us a glimpse of what could be achieved with a longer format, carefully considered editing not to mention Sean's prodigious talent.

But despite my keen interest in Afghanistan I have not thought highly of fellow Guardian contributor, John D McHue's videos from the violent Eastern provinces.........until now.

The latest piece from Sarray Combat Outpost (here) proves me completely wrong. 

It is visceral, informative journalism and his best piece to date.

Maybe it is has just taken a while for the new medium to become a comfortable part of stills photographers output. Heaven knows there is a lot to learn but this strikes me as a really evocative and involving work that puts the viewer right there in the thick of it.

Still photographs will always be my favorite but the argument against video is looking harder to justify with each passing month.

Monday, 16 February 2009

An orange in a sock!

East London MP George Galloway is a complicated man. Politically  he is a staunch left-winger who's firebrand opposition to the war in Iraq led to his expulsion from the Labour party and onto the front pages of the news-media in 2003. Accused of being an apologist for Saddam Hussein and subsequently vilified by the tabloid and right of centre press he is definitely someone who cleaves opinion. So it was with great enthusiasm that I took the assignment to shoot his portrait for The Independent on Sunday last week.

Stylistically I have been repeating myself recently and was looking for a strong face to try something a little different.

My portraits are not from the "gurning" school of facial expressions, preferring a more subtle slow-burn that reveals itself gradually, maybe long after the viewer has stopped looking at the picture. 

Like an orange in a sock; no mark on the surface but I aim to make my presence felt internally! 

Whilst that may be the desired effect of my pictures, there are many routes to get there, and recently I have been taking the same path too often. So I turned for inspiration to Denmark - where else? In the 2008 World Press Photo there was an excellent essay by preternaturally talented photographer Eric Refner featuring the exhausted faces of competitors in the Copenhagen Marathon. Aside of their strong composition, they struck me also for the amazing look of the pictures. They had strong contrasts, saturated colours and yet retaining a highly detailed mid-tone that left a lasting impression on me and formed the seed of an idea for the Galloway portrait.

The location for the shot was going to be his offices near parliament, and being familiar with the building, I was prepared for a challenge. The offices are modest and often have very poor light, presenting the twin problems of how to provide illumination and where to find enough space to set-up. There was an additional consideration - time. With twenty minutes in total I did not want to spend much of it fiddling with lights and with no budget for an assistant it was a non starter in any case. In these situations I find it helpful to be flexible and rigid in equal measures. By limiting my kit to two bodies, two prime lenses and two flash units (*details at the end) I gave myself certain constraints. But knowing my boundaries left me with the breathing room to use what I found at the location and concentrate on gaining enough trust and respect from my subject to get something honest.

Knowing that I would be photographing Mr Galloway on the eve of a four week journey to Palestine and at the end of a long interview, I was prepared for him to be pressed for time and possibly a little distracted. However, he was full of energy and good humour. We talked about the joys of fatherhood, the route that he would be taking on his "Viva Palestina" aid convoy to Gaza and his enthusiastic appreciation of photography. 

He cited a portrait by Jane Bown as his favorite, marvelling at the deceptive simplicity with which she worked. I have shot several of Jane Bown's subjects and they nearly all cite her as their favorite photographic experience but one thing was now clear to me: the battle would be won or lost in the first salvo rather than the last charge. Twenty minutes might have been the time allotted but the best pictures would probably have to me made in the first three.

And thus it was, one minute and twenty-nine seconds after my first frame that I got a fraction of a seconds worth of real candour from my subject. Open, uncompromising with a little shard of the flint for which he is renowned and yet still somehow vulnerable. In the edit there were a few that I liked but only one rang out. Fortunately the Independent agreed I hope you do too if you read the article by Cole Moreton (here).

As you can see, the final word has to go to Capture One. It was post-production that allowed me to get away with the fact that the lighting was poor and the time was tight and while I did nothing that couldn't have been done under an enlarger, C1 meant it took minutes rather than hours! 

*Equipment used; two Canon EOS 5D bodies, (one with a 35mm f1.4 and one with an 85mm f1.2) two canon 580 speedlites, a canon infra red trigger and a rubberised clamp that allows me to fix one of the speedlites to almost any protuberance without damaging it. 
Post - Mac G5 running Capture One 4.0