Friday, 27 March 2009

Submit to the chaos.

A strange week of overload on so many fronts means a short post and the promise of better things to come.

Forthcoming attractions? The new BPPA book "Unseen", a debate at the Photographers Gallery and a look at the effect that photographers who became picture editors have had on UK newspapers.

In the meantime I offer this picture taken in Kabul last year that seems to encapsulate the myriad things I am trying to juggle at the moment.

Your "International Moment of Zen" as the Daily show would put it.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Still human, still here.

Wednesday (18th March) was the opening night of "Still human, still here" at Host gallery. This is the first fruition of a long project by my friend Abbie Trayler-Smith. The exhibition, in conjunction with Panos Pictures and a coalition of like-minded NGOs aims to highlight the hardships and systematic prejudice faced by asylum seekers in this country.

Over the past year or so Abbie has been spending time with asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran, Zimbabwe, and the Congo amongst other nationalities and documenting them as they wait for the legal process of their cases to unfold.

Abbie has approached this project with a subtle lightness of touch. The portraits of those she has followed are accompanied by documentary observations of the objects and rituals that make up their day to day existence here in the UK. 

Shying away from blatant narrative, she tells the stories instead by showing the ripples on the surface of their submerged lives.

Some of these photographs have an almost dream-like otherworldly quality. Often giving pause for thought, they are suffused with hope rather than grinding despair. 

Walking around the exhibition  (a feat only possible once the massive crowds had thinned toward the end of the evening!) the large portraits gather more and more meaning as the smaller pictures start to flesh out the lives of the subjects. I found myself constantly switching between the large and small prints as I started seeing new layers.

The subtlety of displaying some of the strongest images as subordinates may not be to everyone's taste. But the interplay of these elevates the exhibition, drawing the viewer and immersing them in a conversation.

I would urge everyone (though not all at once!) to go and see the exhibition, which runs until the 4th April 2009, and see this thought provoking, wonderful set of pictures that gives us a glimpse of those we too often ignore and a chance to understand the asylum issue in a way that might galvanise us into political action. 

Thursday, 19 March 2009

A sad farewell.

Today's news of Natasha Richardson's death is a terrible and unexpected tragedy for her family, friends and colleagues and though it is not really my place, I would like to humbly offer my condolences to anyone who reads this and knew her. 

I photographed Natasha Richardson in 1998 when she was in rehearsals for the revival of Cabaret that would win her a Tony. The Times had managed to get an interview with her in the run-up to the first night and commissioned me to take a set of black and white portraits for the profile piece.

It was one of those bright, brisk March days in New York that makes you believe in limitless possibilities when I stepped out of the station in Times Square and headed for the theatre. On arrival I was met by Natasha's publicist. She explained that I was the last of a reasonably long line of photographers that day and that I would have to be quick so as not to cut into Ms Richardson's late lunch.

She left me and went to check on the progress of the current shoot. My experience of photographing actors is not extensive but time pressures seem to be a given in these "press day" situations. So I was just mentally preparing myself for a perfunctory "head and shoulders" when her publicist returned to fetch me for my turn - so to speak.

As we walked to the room where she had been photographed all morning, the negotiations began....

"Would it be possible to photograph Natasha in the theatre?"

No, there were rehearsals ongoing.

"Perhaps her dressing room?"

Out of the question. Anyway, there wouldn't be room for me and my assistant. Ah... where IS the assistant?

"Um, don't have one for this shoot I'm afraid."

How was I going to set up my lighting in time?

"Working with available light today," I explained breezily, "I was hoping for the theatre and I know union rules don't allow me to plug anything in."

This was all met with an exaggerated arching of the eyebrow and a slight quickening of our pace.

Smartly dressed in black "turtle-neck" and tailored jacket Natasha rose to greet me as we were introduced. As I took out my cameras we exchanged the usual pleasantries  - the weather (as English always do!) the city, the rehearsals. After a few shots in the same bright room that she had spent the whole day I decided to chance another request for a location that gave more sense of the theatre. Natasha enthusiastically agreed and a dressing-room (not hers!) was found where we could take the last few pictures.

The room in question has unbelievably small. I was using a Fuji 690GW that day. I loved that camera for it's 35mm aspect ratio and low light usability but honestly, the room was so small that I had to jam my head against the far wall just to get minimum focus distance! 

Well, I had asked for this, so I had better make a picture before I wore out the patience of all concerned!

Natasha herself seemed entirely at ease. Radiating the kind of relaxed confidence that made it easy to be generous of spirit, she chatted as I tried to change rolls as quickly as I could. In the end there were a couple of pictures that were quite nice, I said goodbye, apologised for delaying her lunch and dashed off to get the film processed. 

Under normal circumstances I would have thought no more about the whole process but a week or so later I was back at the theatre for a different magazine to photograph her co-star in Cabaret, Alan Cumming. 

My "Rabbi" on this one was the Scotland On Sunday colour supplement and Alan's rather fierce US publicist clearly had never heard of it and cared much less. After a long wait I was finally being bumped for a late-coming photographer from USA Today. I was told in no uncertain terms that my publication would have to get pictures from one of the dozen or so agencies that had come in that day.

At that very moment Natasha Richardson entered the auditorium and, after saying hello to fellow cast members, she unexpectedly called out my name and strode towards me. 

Greeting me with a genuinely disarming warmth she said, "Thank you so much for that photo. The piece was horrible but I loved the picture."

Stunned and more than a little bedazzled I just about managed to say, "It was a pleasure!"

Smiling her goodbyes she re-crossed the room. I turned back to Alan's publicist to start pleading again but before I could even say a word she cut across me. 

"Five minutes, not a second longer." she said as she looked at me with a sightly suspicious and grudging respect.

"Thank you, I really do appreciate it."

Glancing at Natasha she dryly replied, "Don't thank me."

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Majestic

Last week, after a commercial job was unexpectedly cut short, I found myself at a loose end in Scunthorpe. 

Yes, my life really is just one long round of unbridled excitement! 

In an attempt to slough off the disappointment of the brief assignment I grabbed up my beloved Polaroid 670 SLR, my 5D and  set off round the town in search of something, anything to lift my mood. I found it almost immediately in the form of a fenced off empty lot that had obviously once been a cinema.

One wall was still standing and there were the remains of a mosaic floor at what must have been the entrance. Looking down I could just make out "The Majestic". 

I was strangely captivated as a torrent of thoughts hit me and I stood there like some kind of village idiot, staring seemingly at nothing, ignoring the the quizzical glances from motorists queuing at the corner of Mary Street and Oswald Road. All of us waiting for a changing light of one kind or another. 

The life of this building was there on the walls. The screening room "light-lock" still blacked out, the stalls sloping gently downwards, the circle more steeply. Years of different colour schemes poking through in various places.

Initially I was reminded of the area on West 42nd Street when they started to clear all the seedy skin-flick and strip joints. Their drab frontages torn down to reveal a kind of kinky dolls-house with mirrors and gaudily painted walls, tobacco stains at the top of each and bits of floors from different levels sticking out perilously. The whole scene soaked in a guilty voyeurism as though it's skirt had been blown over its waist by a passing subway train.

Then looking carefully at the detailing on the Majestic's exposed walls I was plunged back into my first trip to the cinema as a child. My Grandmother's joyous enthusiasm lending a sense of occasion as she pointed out all the plaster decorations of the stately Duke of York's Picturehouse. The intermission, hurtling down to the front in order to crowd round the usherette with the other children, clutching a few pennies of pocket money for sweets, it all rushed back.

Then of my early teenage years when trips to the pictures with friends represented the first taste of self-determination. Freedom, with stabilisers, if you wish.

I imagined that this cinema too had seen its share of wide eyed children with their grandparents, transfixed by the matinee shows. Its share of first dates and flickeringly lit back-row-mances. 

And now, here it was, surrounded by Herras fencing to prevent it being used as an illegal car-park.

I wonder if we will think of demolished multiplexes with similar nostalgia?

Monday, 2 March 2009

The G-man cometh.

Pronouncing Geert Van Kesteren's name is damn near impossible unless you have bad chest infection or a forty-a-day Capstan habit! For this reason he quickly became known as "the G-Man" to the US soldiers he was embedded with in Iraq over the course of 2003/4.

But a tricky name is not the only challenge that Geert presents us. He is a formidable photographer sure, but then so many are. 

The problem with Geert is that he's a believer.

Last week saw Host Gallery packed to bursting point for an evening of discussion between Paul Lowe and Geert about his two books Why Mister, Why? and Baghdad Calling. The former was critically acclaimed for its visceral, down to earth portrayal of the time after Saddam's fall seen from a wide variety of viewpoints. Printed bilingually (English/Arabic) it set out to be the antithesis of "Coffee Table Books" printed on paper that had the feel of newsprint with feathered edges. One of the interesting features was that many of the double page pictures had the bilingual text bound into the middle of the spread. This meant that to see the full picture one had to hold the text paged vertically rather like and old-fashioned stereograph. This physical interaction with the book was part of what made it so powerful. As a reader, you had to put your own effort into its appreciation and the pictures and text stayed with you for that reason.

Conditions in Iraq deteriorated in 2005 to the point where Geert felt he could no longer cover the story in a balanced and equitable fashion without getting killed. He turned his attention to the communities of Iraqi refugees that had fled the fighting into neighbouring countries. However he soon ran into problems in documenting their lives. He observed that the pictures he took did not adequately describe the feelings of distress and displacement that his subjects felt. So much of their pain was bound up in the suffering that their relatives who remained in Iraq were enduring.

Geert said, "One of the women showed me a picture on her phone from a relative and I realised that this is what I needed to photograph but of course it was not possible."

Over the course the next two years Geert started collecting pictures of everyday life from inside Iraq taken by ordinary people, most often on their mobile phones. They range from the heart-breaking and dreadful to the upbeat even funny as they span the gamut of everyday life during the time when photojournalists were struggling to portray the realities of Iraq. 

Through them we get a glimpse of what had happened to society. The fears and anxieties born out in simple photos that were exchanged as a means of communication between friends both inside and outside the country. A picture of an empty street takes on a different significance if you learn that it was taken to inform friends and neighbours that a militia roadblock had been removed or perhaps that the road was too quiet and to avoid this route. In this way, photographs became a powerful shorthand for warnings of risk in a way that I suspect has not been seen before.

Baghdad Calling was published in late 2008 and as I sit here with my copy next to me on the desk, it's importance as a document of the unseen war in Iraq seems to grow. It has a similar construction and feel to Why Mister, Why? although most of the cell phone images lack the resolution to really hold up on a double page.

Context is everything; ordinary, even mundane images come to life when you read the significance attached by their authors. An out-of-focus street in Baghdad at night might look like a mistake until you read the caption explaining that normally during the celebration of Eid it would have been teeming with life and is now deserted; with people having to drive past out of fear.

Geert's own Photos in both books have a compelling immediacy that puts the viewer right there in front of him at the scene. Sometimes criticised by his fellow photographers for "untidy" pictures, his work reflect how the world is rather than the beautified vision of many photojournalists. Of course they are different but complimentary skills and I would not choose to forego contributions of any kind. 

But in comparison with most of his peers, Geert's pictures are the difference between cinematic violence and being in a fight, between a screen siren and a first kiss, between the world as advertised and the one that actually surrounds us.

In Baghdad Calling he has ceded all ego to the power of the story. His pictures in the book are few and printed smaller. Of course, compositionally they ring out over the other images but never diminishing the real focus. In pulling off this feat of communication he has made us re-examine the role of the much maligned (often by me!) concept of  Citizen Journalism

Ultimately what I have drawn from the book is that the Citizen Journalism can only be effective if allied to strong, rigorous editing by a trained journalist. Geert went to great lengths to establish the source, credibility and accuracy of the images he published. Sometimes he was sent pictures that had been taken by a wire-agency photographer and just passed around. In all instances he made sure that the picture would be safe to publish for subject and author. 

Additionally he went out of his way to prevent anyone shooting pictures specifically FOR the project. It is this key distinction that has given the work its veracity and ultimately made all the difference. 

Geert is challenging us to put the story's integrity ahead of our ambitions as photographers and we could do with a lot more like him in our business.