Monday, 29 November 2010

Fireman v Corespondent

A fortnight ago I posted about Eid in Jerusalem and received a very interesting comment from Dominic Tyler about the way in which different kinds of photographers approach photojournalism.

To those uninitiated with the British journalistic slang, a Fireman is someone who travels to foreign countries to cover stories, often at short notice and in response to a breaking news story or emerging issue. A Corespondent is someone who moves to a foreign country (usually temporarily - but not always) in order to cover the news from that region in depth for an extended period of time.

In the course of my work I have been both. Initially I was a Corespondent based in New York for the better part of the Nineties and covering US news and features. Of course the US is vast and a Corespondent often travels within the country but essentially my introduction to working abroad was here.

During the best part of that decade, my friends and colleagues would occasionally visit and I was always surprised (and sometimes envious) at how they made great pictures of the things I overlooked. Familiarity can breed contempt and I think I was guilty of taking the everyday things for granted in New York.

Sometimes I would kid myself that these were tourist pictures and therefor not the kind of thing I would visit. In fact I used to pride myself on having done all my tourism in one day when I first arrived in NY and then set about the business of really knowing the city as a resident rather than an interloper.

Wow, what a trick I missed! Looking back, I wish that I had not striven for nonchalance. I shot several good news pictures in those years, some of them within shouting distance of iconic even. But my library of daily life in New York could be easily surpassed by a moderately talented photographer with a spare 48 hours in the city.

For seven years or so after 2000 I found myself in the Fireman role, flying at short notice to cover stories (both breaking and simmering) in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. In these places I tried to correct what I had come to see as the lost opportunity. Photographing the whole time, almost compulsively, determined to collect the strange, fleeting worlds I was seeing. Inevitably perhaps, it was too far in the other direction.

In 2002 I spent several weeks in Kabul on the anniversary of the fall of the Taliban. While there I met Steve Connors a British photojournalist living there for a few years who kindly took the time to point out the middle path. Learning how to have patience and to resist the temptation to immediately photograph everything one sees is about the hardest trick I have ever attempted.

Patience reveals the hidden facets. Only once people have grown accustomed to you without the camera are they likely to be candid and comfortable when it finally appears. Patience leads to atmosphere in pictures which in turn, gives them a lasting quality. Moments are like speaking a foreign language from a phrasebook, atmosphere is like speaking that language fluently.

Of course, the life of a Fireman is rush, rush, rush. Hard to show that level of patience on an assignment where you often have only a week or less to do a complex story. But Steve's advice did serve me well a year later when I spent several weeks in Baghdad. There were the usual hurry-ups on daily stories but whenever possible I went out and looked at things patiently and waited till I had a better understanding of the rhythms of daily life around me before trying to photograph it.

So what have I learnt from approaching things in these distinct ways? Not enough.. you can never know enough, but I am now more open to subtleties and nuance. I have learnt to re-examine what I might have previously dismissed as obvious, or overlooked as banal. So now its a question of constantly trying to blend the best of the different approaches to each situation.

A group of girls walking around old Jerusalem. Laughing and chatting, one of them carrying an assault rifle with double clips taped end to end for quick reloading in a fire-fight. Looks completely alien to me but it's absolutely normal behavior for them. If I lived in Jerusalem would I ever get to the stage where I just filtered-out this kind of thing? Don't think so, but maybe that's the fireman talking!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Eid Al Adha

The photographic language of the middle east is so often tied up in the most dramatic incidents and extreme behavior. On both sides of the political and ideological divide photographers have inevitably been seduced both by the horror of violence and the mawkish romance of suffering.

I have been guilty of this too. My first assignment in Israel and the West Bank in late 2000 was filled with trips to refugee camps, desperate hospitals, besieged settlements and the fighting at the Ayosh Junction in Ramallah (where the violent clashes happened with a horrible kind of predictable regularity that would make a swiss railway timetable look slapdash!) It was a terrifying, awful cocktail of tragedy and as journalists we were all (completely legitimately) committed to fearlessly, unflinchingly and repeatedly reporting the dreadfulness that was unfolding.

The intervening decade between my last visit has not seen a great deal of improvement and many aspects are much worse.

But as I stepped out in the first light of dawn yesterday to photograph the celebration of Eid Al Adha I was overtaken by the uneasy feeling that I had missed something important about the essential nature of life by ceaselessly pursuing the headline moment. The impetus to re-examine my persona approach came from conversations with my friend and colleague Geert Van Kesteren who has been producing extraordinary and insightful photojournalism from this corner of the world for many years and has gained a deeper understanding than most about what effect the international media coverage is actually having.

We walked up the hill through Silwan towards the Dome of the Rock. As we progressed, the numbers swelled, all heading to the mosque and afterwards to the graves of their relatives to offer prayers and honour their departed family. The atmosphere was one of understated, dignified observance. Neither solemn (although many were quietly tearful) nor really celebratory. Children sat respectfully talking and showing one another their Eid gifts but there was no boisterousness or sudden movement. Some were dressed conservatively others more casually. Amongst the pictures I made, this one seems to illustrate best what I experienced.

The men of the family; silently reflective, modern in appearance yet traditional in values. They had about them, a certain contentment in fraternal contemplation and occasional conversation. Reading the Quran or even the newspaper, but at all times this unspoken comfort in their duty and respect for the occasion. It is the first time I feel as though I've captured something more subtle and relevant to everyday life in my photography of this particular issue. Perhaps it was the first time I've had the necessary understanding to even be able to aspire to that.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Breaking Mr Bailey's rules

David Bailey has probably forgotten more about Portrait photography than I will ever know and for that reason his cardinal rule that your subject should never have their hands on their face unless it is for very dramatic effect has been a guiding principle for me in all instances.

But on a gorgeous sunny autumn morning a few weeks ago in Primrose hill I broke his rule (and mine) and lived to tell the tale - just about.

With the sun streaming in through the windows of the Albert Pub and a coffee on the go I started the preparations to photograph Hayley Atwell, star of the new adaptation of "Any Human Heart" (starting on November 21st - Channel 4). I cleared the decks of all extraneous furniture and set up the lights, placing one small bare table and chair in the empty space I had made. In the background the sun lit up an etched window and the dark wooden floorboards soaked up the spare ambient to give it a nice contrasty feel.

Flare looks great on the Canon 5D and the strong sun just cresting over the rooftops of the houses opposite, gave me inspiration. Now it's not very clever to get too wedded to an idea but somehow I wanted to bring that beautiful day inside and no matter what I tried to set up as a second shot, I kept stooping to get the rings of red and green flare bursting through the frame, completely seduced by the atmosphere.

Hayley exuded a kind of warmth and dare I say it, a certain dreaminess too. Chatting away, she sank into an elegant outline with her face resting naturally on her hand. My immediate reaction was to stop shooting but she looked so relaxed and fixed me with an enigmatic smile that I just couldn't read. So I carried on taking pictures.

I spent ages looking at this frame during my edit and I've since gone back to it, trying to decide what that expression is. Sometimes I think it's cool and detached sometimes it looks as if she is recalling a memory or caught in a pleasant daydream.

Truthfully it's unlikely I'll ever to know for sure what was going through her mind but an occasional mystery can't hurt. In the meantime, the "hands away from face" rule is back in full force!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Friday, 15 October 2010

Sophie Fiennes and Benedict Cumberbatch

When I set out last Thursday my schedule looked pretty leisurely. One profile portrait in the late morning and one in the late afternoon and clear space in between to ingest, do an initial edit and acquire from raw. But Schedules have a habit of sliding. Job one gets put back an hour Job two becomes job three and then hey presto! at the last minute a fourth portrait has to be filleted into the ever contracting time-scale.

Of course, by the standards of any Fleet Street news photography this would still be a pretty cushy line-up but I wanted to light all of these and really take time to get it right.

My first assignment was the film-maker Sophie Fiennes to be photographed in a soho club. She was delayed and given her family name it would be easy to assume that she was running late from a clutch breakfast TV appearances. But in truth, it was simply that she had a bit of a nightmare with getting her baby buggy onto the bus from South London where she lives. Ah how refreshing!

It turns out that my vague expectation of theatrical intensity couldn't have been wider of the mark. The night before I had tried to do a little research including watching a clip from her 2003 documentary "The Perverts Guide to Cinema." This is a serious and thought-provoking philosophical examination of cinema. So I'm still not quite sure why I imagined that she would be late due to extended carousing with the green-room glitterati of the morning TV circuit. It is a patently ridiculous image but there you are - the mind is a funny thing.

Anyway, it gave me time to prepare and pre-light. When I first invested in portable studio lighting I decided to go the Profoto route. This was mainly because of their abundance in the rental market. I had used all sorts of kit for various shoots but Profoto seemed to be the industry standard for rental in the US and not only was it therefore the most familiar but also it meant that any additional kit I might need from time to time would use the same reflectors and light-shaping tools that I was already buying.

For these short shoots I tend to use the old-style 600ws mono-block because it is so quick to deploy and the fine-tuning is child's play - one twisty dial with clearly marked stop-fractions on it. So up it went, with a medium Chimera soft-box and an egg-crate to limit the spill and reflect black into the skin for punchy details.

Having finished the interview Sophie arrives in the room set aside for photos. Completely friendly and down to earth, she breezes through the shoot and even jokes about trying not to look too stern. Her only concern is to get back to her new (and first) baby so with that in mind, I aim not to take any more time than is needed.

At the other end of the day; a late arriving assignment to photograph the actor Benedict Cumberbatch whose recent portrayal of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes won praise from critics and (more significantly) from my teenage son!

At the BBC building where the interview is scheduled they do not allow photography so we agree to take the movable feast across the road to the lobby of a rather smart hotel (who asked not to be identified in any pictures) and I go with his publicist to speak with the manager for permission to take photos there.

Manager arrives and the Publicist sweetly explains that we are doing a little interview and would it be possible to take a couple of pictures. She promises that there will be no disruption and wont take long. Manager agrees as long as we make no mention of the hotel in the pictures or captions.

All good! We return to the lobby and I get to work.

Ezra Stoller claimed that location work is 5% inspiration and 95% moving furniture! This however is nearer 99% and soon the pristine lobby looks like an unprovoked act of aggression by the Furniture Liberation Front.

For some insane reason I decide to use a grid spot for this picture and end up with a beam of light that is a bit too narrow and without adequate space to move the light back to soften the fall-off. Switching beween grids and then repositioning the light is easy with a bit of help but on your own it's slow and each adjustment feels like it takes forever.

Luckily for me, Benedict is completely chilled and HIS only concerns are a change of shirt and not appearing to be Sherlock in private life as well as professional.

It's at this point that I really wish there was enough in the day rate for an assistant. Every tweak of the lights eats a little more time and a little more patience. I get tantalisingly close to the picture I want but in the end we just run out of minutes and space.

Chalk it up as a draw rather than a victory.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Diary picture - 29 May 2010

Just had my fix of caffeine at the Monmouth coffee shop. Steps away I see this torn poster and the bricked up frames to avoid the old window tax. Compelling but simultaneously creepy.

Light's just right. One shot, wide open, walk on.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Magwich country

Even though I live in north-east Kent and frequently travel across the marshes riding the train to London, I have never actually spent any time walking there. On sharp autumn mornings they are quite stunning in their stark beauty but, like much that is close at hand, there is a tendency to take it for granted. And to my shame, I've never explored them.

So it felt like fortune was smiling when Sophie at the Independent on Sunday called and said, "I have a treat for you - travel piece about the Kent Marshes. Should be right up your street... quite literally!"

It had threatened to rain all morning but as I parked near Cliffe in north Kent the cloud had thinned just enough to see some detail in the sky and the occasional slip of blue. Armed with a printout of the piece, written by Tom Connolly, a really evocative read, I instantly wished for a few days more to try and get a variety of weather to do it justice.

A camera over each shoulder and two pouches on my belt (one with an extra lens and the other one with cards, batteries and my extension tubes for any close-ups) I strode out over the network of gravel pathways. I decided to work with three prime lenses (35mm 1.4L, 85mm 1.2L and 135mm 2.0L) rather than any of my zooms. Partly because I had the luxury of doing so but mostly because I craved simplicity and discipline.

Photographers always talk about the quality of image you get from fast prime lenses but they also have the benefit of forcing you to move around more to change your shot and in doing so you often see things that could easily be overlooked by just constantly re framing with a zoom.

The landscape is a strange compelling mixture of rural, coastal and industrial, In some ways it feels unchanged since Dickens but then there are the docks, power stations and oil refineries that serve as constant reminder of modernity.

I love this kind of solitary observational photography and I only saw four people during the course of the day. Walking their dogs or carrying binoculars and wildlife books they mostly just gave a slight nod of the head as we passed each other.

One of the things that makes this area so compelling for me is the bleak expanse of grasses, ditches and pools set amongst the crumbling remains of industry. A WW1 munitions factory had been here but long gone now and leveled to the point of near invisibility unless you get close. What little remains by way of bricks and structure is slowly, inexorably being reclaimed by nature, covered by grass or providing a wind break for the horses and cattle. Occasionally a bit of random rusting pipe-work bursts from the brambles, both incongruous and somehow perfectly appropriate here.

Heading east I drove to Chetney Marsh. The shortening days of autumn drawing in by then and the sky had become a misty featureless veil. Through the fading perspective duo-tone of grey and green I could make out the Island of Grain docks and the smallish shipwreck that Tom had described in his copy. In the middle of a field was an old stile. The fence it once brooked had been moved or broken down. Just another of those strange traces of man's history here that had decayed and been left a hostage to the landscape.

Ironically it was the marshland closest to my home that ended-up unphotographed. By the time I returned the weather had made good on it's early threat of rain and a persistent drizzle had reduced visibility too much to continue. The next morning was much the same story so I'll have to make the effort to explore it at a later date.

Tom's wonderful and atmospheric piece is published here please treat yourselves and read it. There is a link on the page to see more of the photographs. It turned out to be exactly what I needed - a break from traffic and rain and overstuffed schedule in a week that was to become all of those things.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

On the way to.... Tora Bora, at breakneck speed.

Four years ago, on assignment for the Sunday Times Magazine, I had the rare and almost certainly unrepeatable experience of visiting the mountains of Tora Bora on the border between Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Specifically we were to visit the abandoned camp where Osama Bin Laden had made his stronghold and from which he had escaped in the closing weeks of 2001 to the spectacular fury of the coalition forces who hunt him to this day.

Loaded-up with what seemed like enough fighters and weapons to start a decent-sized war, finish it, enforce the peace and then start it all over again, we set off for the place where the road would run out and the walking begin.

Flat countryside gave way to foothills and winding tracks which in turn became narrow barely navigable pathways around the outside of the mountains with precipitous drops on our left and sheer rock-face on our right.

Naturally, it was at this point that our driver sped up to around 70kph on the bumpy gravel track and we started to barrel along in a kind of unguided relentlessness that was really fantastically unpleasant.

Long-time partner in misadventure Charlie Alpha, raised her voice to be heard above the revving engine and asked why it was quite so important that we go this fast. The commander in the front seat smiled, turning backwards to face us and, pointing to the road, he said, "chakria Al Qaeda" (Al Qaeda street).

"This stretch of road, we do not control," he continued, "if we go any slower we will be attacked."

With repeated stabs of his fingers and a curious reverse clap movement he made the international hand gesture for gunfire and large explosions.

We got the message.

So there it was, the simple choice between being attacked or plummeting hundreds of feet to certain death. It was a marginal call, but not ours to make so we braced against the roof of the car to stop ourselves being launched upwards to a spinal injury by every pothole, and held on until we were through the danger area.

As we started to wash off some speed, the road opened up and we caught the first uninterrupted view of Tora Bora. Charlie wound her window down and we snapped away like tourists passing the Acropolis.

Both of us marveling at our driver's skill, remarking (somewhat sarcastically!) upon what a travesty it was that there were no Afghans driving professionally on the World Rally circuit and both trying desperately to ignore the fact that in a few hours we would have to make the return journey, probably in fading light!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Collecting the children from detention.

As strange as it was lining-up to enter the Taylor Wessing prize (see "Showering in public") it pales in comparison with the experience of collecting work that didn't get selected.

What a difference in atmosphere! Gone was the swagger, the passive aggressiveness the "not daring to hope" crackle of expectation and in its place the dole-queue drudgery of those whose dreams have been stamped like kittens.

Personally I took the approach that, as with all photography competitions, lots of great photographers submit work, a few get chosen but it doesn't mean that those who did not make the edit are collectively a dreadful, talentless, waste of blood and organs. Indeed many of those collecting prints at the same time seemed to be rolling up very nice work indeed so plenty of wonderful pictures were undoubtedly passed-over.

However there was, amongst my fellow also-rans, a certain tension. One girl tore the plastic sleeves off her prints and stuffed them into her backpack with the kind of simmering, clenched-jawed resentment usually reserved for naughty children whose angry parent's don't like to "make a spectacle" in public.

Another folded her prints aggressively as I, overcome by curiosity, took a quick glance. Which seemed particularly bizarre on three counts.

Firstly I always imagined that Photography was about communication so why would you try to stop someone seeing your pictures. Secondly, why fold prints that you've taken the time to collect? Why not just let the committee dispose of them. Finally, what possible harm could come of me seeing the picture? Given that neither of us had won anything, plagiarism seemed an unlikely outcome!

I collected my three prints along with four of Abbie's and five of Sarah's, put them in a cheap but sturdy clear plastic portfolio to prevent them from being damaged and walked out with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.

Only one of my pictures (and not the one above) will be chained to the radiator in the attic and fed gruel, the other two make me as proud now as they did the day they were born!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Easier with honey...

Much has been written in recent years about the creeping restrictions being imposed on photographers. Security staff and Police seem to be only too keen to wade in and try to prevent photographers from going about their lawful business, especially in areas where the distinction between "private property" and "public right of way" is a bit hazy.

The security at Canary Wharf and Broadgate are both renowned for their hysterical over-reaction to anyone taking pictures and I have had Policemen argue that I was engaged in "commercial photography" at a large protest march and therefor needed a permit. His spectacularly half-witted logic was, "They don't give the magazine away for free, do they?"

Earlier this week I was approached by a security guard at Adventure Island whilst taking pictures for a travel piece about the resurgent attractions of Southend-on-sea. As he walked towards me I fully expected the standard "You can't take pictures here" routine that almost always deteriorates into a bad-tempered demand for my camera or memory card.

However, what ensued took me completely by surprise. Looking at the two cameras and my belt pouches stuffed with lenses, batteries and accessories he said,

"Excuse me sir but I'm not sure you're aware that we operate certain restrictions on photography here. If you wouldn't mind going to customer services, they might be able to help you."

His manner was calm, professional and non-confrontational. No fuss, no sneering and no condescending sarcasm. He proceeded to give me concise, accurate directions to the customer services hut and once there, I found a similarly helpful attitude.

There was a polite request to explain what it was that I wanted to photograph and for whom and after a brief call to a member of the management team I was told that it would be fine to continue and that if I should ever need to return that they would try to accommodate any reasonable request.

It was a remarkably unrepresentative encounter that demonstrated exactly what can be quickly accomplished if simple courtesy is observed by both parties. Later I came across the same guard and thanked him for being so straightforward. He explained that there was a growing problem with people trying to photograph children surreptitiously which he took exception to, but he was genuinely pleased that the management had been helpful in the case of a professional.

It has reminded me not to prejudge peoples behavior or stereotype them and that while we as photographers have rights we also have responsibilities - certain situations call for cooperation.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Lights and a plan.

Since hearing that I did NOT make it into this years Taylor Wessing selection (See post 8th August post - Showering in public) a new attitude toward my portraiture has preoccupied my thoughts. It has occurred that my reliance on available light is causing me to repeat the same picture over and over.

So when I was given an assignment to photograph Labour Leadership contender David Miliband, I immediately decided to break the cycle and pack my full lighting kit.

Using available light is the first instinct of anyone who has come up through documentary photography. It relies on observational skill, there are fewer things to go wrong and it offers the promise of flexibility - if the shot isn't working you can quickly move without fuss or fanfare and change the setting, background, tone etc.

IN the late 1990's, living in New York, I started to do more work for the magazine supplements. It required that I learn about lighting as very few clients were interested in "available lit" portraits at the time. To begin with, the hardest thing was not technical but the basic fact that when you set up your lighting, that's where you'll be taking the picture. In essence, your first instinct has to be good because there is rarely time to change your mind.

This is not always true of course. Some people have hours to spend on a shoot, others barely minutes but the leisurely ones are few and getting rarer all the time.

Learning to make those quick choices and envisage what something "could be" after a lifetime of trying to leave everything "just as it is" proved tricky and I invariably chose lighting that mimicked a diffuse window for the first year or so.

The great advantages of lighting are that by controlling the light you cease to be dependent on the amount and nature of your ambient light and you can choose lighting that is relevant to your subject and or setting. Also there are advantages of creativity over observation sometimes.

At the beginning of my journey into lit portraits I read a fascinating interview with Nigel Parry who talked about the experience of photographing Bill Clinton in a very short time-slot.

Amongst the many things he revealed was the fact that he had spent the night before the shoot doing timed a run-through with lighting set-ups so that he and his assistant could get what they needed before the curtain came down.

So the night before I decided on how I would light my portrait assignment. I picked three set-ups, all fairly straightforward and tailored to the assumption that it would be done in bare offices without any real environment that would pertain to David Miliband himself.

A quick run through led me to discard one of these ideas as, without an assistant, it would take too long to put-up and I suspected that time would be fleeting.

I am not as expert at lighting as some of my friends like Drew Gardner. Also, although I have three Profoto heads of various powers and a few light-shaping tools I do not have a limitless array of lighting weaponry.

Nonetheless I came up with a way of getting two distinct looks with a simple one-light configuration by just swapping the 20 degree honeycomb for a gridded soft-box and rotating the lamp-head so it skimmed in front rather than smacked into David's face.

This was primarily because I liked the idea of spotlights and all the metaphors they engender within the context of political power but also because they were quick to change and likely to work in whatever space I found at the location.

The coffee cup was his idea and came as he took a quick revivative swig while I quickly changed the light-shapers.

"I like this, it feels natural - like something I do regularly" he said.

"Yeah, it looks comfortable. It's honest, and there's not much of that going around at the moment," I jokingly replied.

I was lucky with the room in that the slope of the roof gave me a little visual interest to the right of the frame which seem to work if I lined his shoulder with the vertical of the corner. It gave another feature to distinguish from the spot-lit pictures shot a few feet over to the left which was a bonus.

Of course lighting all the time is just as likely to take me down a photographic cul-de-sac as using available. But for the time being my mantra will be "Carry lights and a plan" and if the sun is particularly lovely I can always switch them off!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Being a professional intruder.

Even after more than two decades of work as a photojournalist I am constantly humbled by the open, generous nature of people I photograph.

What we do is often intrusive by nature. The sense of awkwardness that most people would feel when pointing a camera at a stranger is one of the first things that a photographer has to overcome in order to be a documentarist.

But it's all too easy for that initial reticence to be replaced by a strange sense of entitlement. This can lead to a disconnect between you and your subjects which means that pictures become insincere, glib, gimmicky or just no good at all.

Photography is communication, we should mean what we say.

Earlier this month I photographed Olga Rodriguez and her daughter Ana Attia who has been left in a persistent vegetative state for the last six years after hanging herself in custody. The hospital where she is being treated are understandably concerned with her welfare rather than media campaigns for justice, so discretion was paramount.

Packing a single body with my bright and trusty 35mm 1.4 into a small, ordinary shoulder bag, I met Olga and her adult son and went to visit Ana at her hospital bed.

So as not to disturb other patients or make anyone feel uncomfortable, we drew the curtain around Ana's bed and I took some photographs for the family of all three together.

Their tenderness towards her was extremely moving and doubly so for the fact that my presence did not inhibit them. They were baring their souls to a complete stranger with total candour and dignity.

Over the years I have photographed in many different situations, some very dramatic, others not. But here was one of those times where you are reminded of the covenant we have as photojournalists: A voice for the voiceless, or at least for those that struggle to make their voice heard.

As I took the photos, the thought kept coming to me, "When people see this picture I want them to see and feel the love that I am seeing now. I am an intruder here, do it justice but don't endlessly shoot the same picture."

It is an essential part of my work to really feel that discomfort of intrusion and not try to deny it. I never want to get to the point where it no longer bothers me. I only ever want to conquer it momentarily in order to take the pictures and while it has never inhibited me, the fact that it takes effort to overcome is something that I hope never to lose.

This tragic case and Olga's fight for justice on behalf of her daughter highlights some of the problems involved with the provision of mental health care in the prison system and I would recommend you read the article by Nina Lakhani writing for The Independent (here).

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Showering in public.

Summer's here and the time is right for..... standing uncomfortably in a line of hopefuls all fidgeting nervously and clutching envelopes of prints - Yes its that Taylor Wessing moment. The National Portrait Gallery's annual prize for photographic portraits has rolled round once more and oh, the joy of submission is upon us already!

Every year this well-run and highly regarded prize (now sponsored by Taylor Wessing) offers a chance to take the "Pepsi challenge" with the best portrait photographers around.

Because all pictures must be entered as prints and most photographers choose to deliver them personally, the temporary office at London College of Communication becomes the single most passive aggressive place in town for one week only.

There is normally a queue. So you wait patiently eyeing your fellow combatants and their envelopes. The minimum size for prints is A3 and maximum is about A1. But in the line, unlike the actual judging, size is everything.

Size says confidence, size says, "Hey everyone my pictures are big, my pictures demand respect." Size says, "A3? Schmaythree! - looks like a goddamn postcard! Get that puny little passport picture out of my sight!"

But at the end of the line there is the room of tables. And the tables have a different take. The tables say, "Right then.... Are you going to get them out face-up or are you trying to compensate for something with that EXTRA-LARGE envelope or yours?"

The tables say, "Name, rank and registration number." The tables are ALL business.

Well on this occasion I'm delivering Abbie Trayler-Smith's prints along with my own entry and as it turns out she has gone the "Supersize Me" route so I get them out, Face-up (obviously) and somewhat gingerly - the acetate sleeves crease if you so much as look at them the wrong way!

They are really good and the big prints look great, like you want to dive in. They are carefully turned face down to have a registration number branded on their rump and carried off to the adjacent room.

Photographers at the other tables can't help but sneak a peek at each-other's work as they unpack their prints. They glance furtively and immediately look away if spotted. There are measurements being taken, strengths being assessed, weights estimated and totted-up. There is something of the communal shower about the whole process but hey, I just unloaded the Ark of the Covenant and best of all, they're not my pictures. Zero emotional investment and the room shudders as I flex my indifference.

But then it's time to drop my own towel and get these tiny little A3 prints of mine out. Anyone got a microscope?

I have three pictures, all darker and more direct than I normally shoot (abandoned my "painterly" style this year as I try to experiment with new approaches) they are - in no particular order: My favorite, a personal picture and a total flyer.

They come out of the envelope face down. A sticker with my registration number is slapped on the sleeve and a few details checked to make sure all is in order.

Against my better judgement I turn the pile over to give them a last farewell at the school gates. The girl on the next table looks over. A little hint of curled lip passes over her face and then she lifts the corner of her print as she ostentatiously dusts it off. I get it full in the face. The work is strong, colourful and instantly memorable even at this distance.

I gather my envelopes and card and oversize plastic bag and leave quietly, not expecting good news from the judges in the coming weeks. There's always 2011.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

In praise of event work.

Despite the widespread challenges in the photographic industry there are still many ways of earning a living. The difficulty has often been how to maintain one's livelihood while acquiring the new skills to compete in the new landscape.

The Internet combined with the popularity of digital cameras means that photography has become more democratic, It is now easier to achieve acceptable standards than ever before. The upside is that as everyone becomes more visually literate, professional photographers have had to go one better and as a result, photography as an art-form is getting stronger.

The downside is that many traditional outlets for documentary and observed work are shrinking in number, ambition and resources.

During a difficult year in 2009 I found that one of the few areas of steady growth was event photography. Initially I found the change of gears between photojournalism and events quite hard. Having come from a background of observation I found that creating shots and being more of a catalyst was unfamiliar ground. But as a discipline it still relies heavily on observational skills and anticipation and is therefore and good fit with photojournalism.

Added to which, you often meet interesting people and the variety of challenges offer a chance to learn and experiment with new techniques. In particular, these events often present issues with lighting.

The challenge is this; how do you avoid the dreaded "direct flash look" in locations that are too fluid, too busy or just too small to set-up portable studio lights?

Initially I tried to mix available light and off-camera handheld flash from my Cannon speedlights. This was a good solution for small groups but meant either gelling the flash to the available light of accepting a caste shift from foreground to background - not good. The gelling solution became increasingly complicated as many locations had a mixture of daylight, tungsten and energy saver bulbs. Consequently I found myself spending more time juggling filters than taking pictures which was no good at all.

Manchester-based photographer Justin Slee took on a job for me last year that I was unable to do and his pictures had a wonderful quality to them that was somewhere between magazine editorial and corporate report. This was achieved by putting a Qflash on a small stand triggered with radio slaves and moving it around within the event to get a consistent colour with subtle variations in lighting.

After he explain how he worked I tried to find a way to adapt it for myself. With a bit of patience, some help from friends and judicious searching of the "pre-owned gear" cabinets I managed to put together a Q-flash outfit and Battery for around £250.00 and this has been my mainstay ever since. There are lots of battery powered set-ups on the market that offer the extra oomph needed to light a reasonable sized room full of people and my choice of Quantum was partly because there is a steady supply second-hand and partly because the battery can also be used to power my Canon Speedlights if need be.

The light it produces is very nice too. The hammered reflector gives strong, punchy light that is not too sharp-shadowed and the "coffee lid" diffuser works well to soften in out for closer range. Flipping the head upwards and putting a bounce card behind can be a very effective instant fix for tricky lighting situations where you need a reasonable depth of field and a low ISO.

Of course I have a great deal still to learn about this kind of photography. But I see now that while it is unlikely to set my heart alight with creativity, the rigour, discipline and flexibility required are showing benefits in other work. It just needs to be approached with the right mindset.

Friday, 2 July 2010

On the Way to....

Often I have had to drive past things that I really wanted to photograph. Sometimes you can't stop because of time, sometimes its because of security but either way it's hugely frustrating.

Back when most of my pictures were shot on film I had to just take this fact as part of the ebb and flow of professional photography. But since the advent of digital (it's not quite as expensive to just fire off lots of pictures at random stuff) I have been clicking-away at will and it has begun to make an amusing collection of pictures.

This picture of a balloon-seller in Kabul is a particular favorite of mine because of the unexpected joy and explosion of colour in the very dusty, muted shades of the ring-road. It took me so much by surprise that I barely had time to pick the camera off my lap.

The simple joy of a colorful balloon in a place with so many hardships never fails to make me smile.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The fifth way.

A noisy but tuneful battle for territory between local blackbirds has meant any phone-call I make from my garden sounds like I'm calling from a aviary!

This morning, one has taken up residence on the roof outside my window and it reminded me of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Walace Stevens' 1917 collection of short poems.

They are all gently brilliant but this is my favorite.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

First night of a love-affair with news.

The Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, which was earlier this week, marks an important milestone for me every year. Covering the event for my local newspaper in 1989 was my first taste of proper news photography and one of the formative experiences of my professional life.

During the late eighties the monument was closed to the public due to fears about its condition. Consequently there were often confrontations between the traveling community (who sought to observe the longest day with a big party at Stonehenge) and the police who were trying to prevent anyone actually reaching the stones other than the small group of druids who practiced their religious ceremony there. In 1985 there had been violent scenes at what came to be known as the Battle of the Beanfield, and although that had been half a decade in the past, the animosity between the New Age Travelers and the Wiltshire police was still raw and bitter.

In the last months of 1987 I had taken on a job as an indentured trainee photographer and darkroom assistant with the Western Gazette in Yeovil. This, it has to be said, was principally motivated by the desire to see my then girlfriend more often and she lived nearby. When she left to go to university I found myself legally bound to the Gazette for three years, working evenings and weekends as a photographer and all day in the darkroom.

Yeovil is a small town in Somerset where, in the words of Peter Gabriel, "they think SO small that they use small words."

Nearly two years of photographing cheque presentations, council meetings and village fetes (Fete's worse than death we used to call them!) had left me desperate to leave newspapers altogether and get into music videos or cinematography or.... anything!

But the night of 21st June 1989 was about to change all that for me and as was often the case then, I never saw it coming.

My boss was a very dynamic and relatively young Chief Photographer called Peter Robins. He was in his mid-twenties and at least ten years younger than any of the photographers answerable to him. Having already worked for national newspapers, he was generous with the jobs and did not just ride-in to take all the plum assignments (if that is the appropriate phrase!). So it was not at all out-of-character when he told me to cover the Solstice. Looking back afterwards, I suspected he was probably trying to show me that there was more to the job and make me reserve judgement on my career choice.

Arriving at Amesbury, the nearest town to Stonehenge, I found my way to the pub where all the Big Boys from London had assembled to wet their whistle before the night's events unfurled. I was completely in awe of them. Many were the photographers whose work I saw each day in the national media while I toiled ingloriously in the provinces doing hand-shakes pictures at the Rotary club. They were rock-stars as far as I was concerned.

The Police had cordoned off section of the A303 leading past the monument and these were the points of resistance that provided the first flash-points. Reasoned debate soon became loud argument. Aggressive confrontation escalated to scuffles and arrests. The arrests in turn prompted more anger and the cycle started again. Little hot-spots fizzing and then subsiding and in each case my camera was almost magnetically drawn to the centre of things.

This was the first time I had experienced photographic compulsion. Time and again I found myself pulled almost involuntarily into the fray. Single-minded and hell-bent on capturing the action, making the picture, trying to wrestle the moment onto film.

It was a kind of religious ecstasy and combative too: like a mosh-pit! Most of the photographers were trying to get the same thing. There was a lot of pushing from protesters, police and media, but my unguided enthusiasm was winning me no friends.

Out of nowhere a police officer grabbed the metal hood of my wide-angle lens, tearing the Nikon F3 from my grasp and with three quick, powerful punches smashed the solidly built camera into my face. The third blow sent me reeling backwards and I flailed comically, trying to grab my kit and stop it hitting he ground as I stumbled. As it turned out I narrowly stayed on my feet - a helpful signpost had stopped me from completing the arc to the pavement.

Indignation rose in me as the initial numbness faded and the pain began. My hand went instinctively the the stinging around my right eyebrow and cheekbone and I was surprised and possibly disappointed that there was no blood. In one short moment much of what I had taken for granted in my sheltered upbringing was gone. Unsure which hurt most, my eye, my pride or the crushing realisation of my own naivety, I retreated into the midst of a cluster of photographers stood to one side.

Amongst them was George Phillips, a local legend and the Daily Mirror's south-west regional staff photographer. He beckoned me with an amused but sympathetic look on his face.

"A word in your shell-like," he said in a well-spoken, paternal tone.

"Look" he said, "I admire keenness but there is no point whatsoever in getting beaten-up or arrested. If you lose your cameras or your pictures, you will be doing nobody any favours, least of all yourself."

"Try to be a bit smarter, a bit more impartial." he added warmly.

In the proceeding eight hours I followed his advice. Picking my moments a little less blindly. And despite a few close calls with militant travelers and overzealous police, I managed to get through to the morning without loss of camera, liberty or film.

After the obligatory bacon sandwich with some of the others at a little roadside van, I drove the hour or so back to Yeovil. I'd not slept for 26 hours but felt no tiredness. Still on a high from the night's work, I was filled with a new desire. This was the kind of photographer I wanted to be: Taking real, visceral, newsworthy photos.

Although my pictures were not that great (charitably described as a creditable first attempt!) they were good enough for the front page of the Western Gazette and Peter had succeeded in educating me - all thought of being anything other than a photojournalist was gone that morning.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Getting something honest from the master of Spin.

Recently I did the portraits to accompany an interview with Alastair Campbell, the notorious former Chief Press Secretary to Tony Blair. Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of British politics will know that he was associated more than anyone with the tireless control of the government's public image during some of the most dramatic and important times of Blair's term in office.

The moment the call came in I started to wonder how to approach photographing someone who has such an acute awareness of, and fluency in, the power of public perception. Added to the problem was that as a former veteran journalist he has already forgotten more than I will ever likely know about "the tricks of the trade" and so an unguarded moment of candor did not seem likely.

The session was arranged to happen at his home so I arrived a little early and tried to imagine what the space and light would be like. I decided that, while it was a reasonably large house, the rooms themselves might not accommodate much lighting. Using natural light might also make it less formal and save a little time. So I parked up and grabbed the 85mm 1.2 and the 35mm 1.4 - my "weapons of choice" when shooting available light portraits.

The interview was just drawing to a close when I rang the doorbell. Alastair ushered me through the house to the back garden where he and John Rentoul were seated around a table taking advantage of the balmy morning (something never to be taken for granted in Britain!) and finishing up the last few questions.

As we decided where to take the pictures I recalled the last time we had spoken. It had been at a photographic awards night in 2003 and I was surprised that he instantly recalled it.

"At the Guildhall wasn't it?" he replied.

He had been the guest speaker and responsible for handing out the gongs. His speech had been a few anecdotes about his time at he Daily Mirror including a funny but not entirely appropriate story about legendary news photographer Kent Gavin and the lengths he had to go in order to get one particular illustrative picture. It involved a small dog, a cricket pitch and a length of fishing line... best not to ask!

As we talked about the legends of old Fleet Street, I recounted a story about another photographer who had been called into his managing editor's office after submitting his expenses from a trip to Italy.

"Do you speak or read Italian?" he was asked.

When he replied that he did not, the managing editor said, "It may interest you to know that I do. Would you like me to read you what it says on this restaurant receipt?"

The photographer shrugged and nodded.

"It says, This man is a lying bastard" he exclaimed. Evidently the photographer had left too small a tip when asking for the hand-written receipt.

Campbell roared with laughter and I got my only chance at unguarded candor.

Or maybe that's just what he wanted me to think.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Compare and contrast.

Last weekend was a bit of an odyssey with two assignments, one after the other, that took me from Saturday night to early Sunday morning. There cannot be many people who attended the both the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation Gala and the Bizarre Ball last weekend. In fact I'd be willing to bet that I was the only one.

Ordinarily shooting two jobs for different clients at nearly the same time is to be avoided. But it seemed like there would be plenty of time between both when the briefs were initially discussed.

First up was quite a formal occasion which I was shooting for the Independent on Sunday whose new owner Alexander Lebedev was hosting the evening fund raiser at his home in Hampton Court. Because of tight deadlines I was being helped with the production editing by UpandComing a bright young photojournalist who is gathering experience with a number of agencies, photographers and publications in order to give him a better idea of which direction he will eventually pursue.

Arriving at the house in the middle of the park was quite stunning. A balmy early summer evening stretched out as we walked past a herd of deer to a press accreditation tent to collect passes. Some wristbands meant standing in a fixed point and some had the roaming option. We were the latter and when in roam....

So we set-up the laptop and fired off a test transmission to make sure all was working. All good, UpandComing fully briefed as to how and what we were doing, so I went to take some pictures.

To be honest, these kind of things are not really my strength but fortunately a couple of the more experienced events and society photographers guided me through who everyone was and made sure I didn't miss anyone vital.

The Raisa Gorbachev foundation and Marie Currie Cancer care were the two equal beneficiaries of the evening and there was a very good turn-out of actors, designers, musicians and artists along with prominent business leaders from both the UK and Russian community.

There was also the star of the show, president Mikhiel Gorbachev himself, marking the memory of his late wife Raisa. I was caught off-guard by what an honour it felt to shake his hand as he was introduced to the assembled Photographers before posing for the official group shot. Here was a man that probably did as much to change the world as any single person of his generation and while it is easy to become blase about the politicians and world figures we photograph this was a genuinely moving moment for me.

The feeling was short-lived however as I was soon on the receiving end of a slightly fraught call from Sophie my picture editor at the Inde On Sunday. No pictures had arrived! Not good! The first card had been whisked away by UpandComing more than 15 minutes earlier.

I sidled out of view of the guests and sprinted round the outside of the house to the room where we were filing. UpandComing was disturbingly laid back - bad sign! If things go wrong calmness is important but a sense of urgency and purpose are better. I realised I had not briefed him adequately. As first edition was going to press we were being handed a beating by Getty's slick operation that had managed to file a string of pictures while mine were still sat on the ftp server and not showing up at the desk. Good lesson for me, technology will let you down at crucial moments and even bright capable people need guidance when doing this kind of thing for the first time.

An hour or so later, with last edition safely tucked up (and order restored with mostly my pictures replacing the early Getty interlopers!), I made the dash across London to the Bizarre Ball in Elephant and Castle.

Arriving later than I had wished, it was already well underway. Tom, the picture editor at Bizarre had given me a very nice brief; "Full access, get the atmosphere, just want to see your take on it." was his request. This is a rare pleasure, an open assignment, no restrictions, the lighter side of life and a chance to just enjoy the photography.

The Bizarre Ball is also not something I have experienced but everywhere you looked people were having a great time, dressed amazingly so it was hard not to make pictures.

The award-winning American photojournalist Porter Gifford once taught me a great lesson when I asked why he did a lot of documentary wedding photography. He had said, "If you were in Hong Kong and you saw a wedding, would you take a picture?" As I nodded he said "it has everything that we look for as photojournalists; human emotion, pageantry, colour and life. So why would you not shoot a wedding just because it's on your doorstep?"

This felt similar in some ways. It is all too easy to get into a mind-set of only wanting to tackle serious issues and cover important world events. But human experience is so much richer and varied. I have always tried to photograph the uplifting, the mundane, the tragic and the extraordinary with equal effort.

What struck me the most was how open and all-embracing everyone was. There were no divisions, no factionalism, no snobbery of any kind, inverted or otherwise. The "Killer Clowns", "Zombie Bitches" and "S&M Vixens" turned out to be software engineers, bicycle messengers, accountants, or council administrators, all submitting to their inner freak, united here in a way that they would never be in their nine-to-fives.

After it was finished I had a few surreal moments of standing outside at nearly five in the morning with many of the people I had photographed. While I was trying to get the final pictures of cabs and buses taking them home, I thought about the two events, not so much the obvious differences between the clothes and make-up, but more the contrast between exclusive and inclusive, between expectation and realisation.

Charities achieve great things but you shouldn't underestimate the divisions that can be broken down by a good night out. I love the fact that photography gives me a passport to so many aspects of life.

Back.... quietly.

Unlike most things in life, Blogging is way easier to get OUT of than back into. For more than a year now my weblog has been silent and the reasons are too many and maybe too feeble to discuss but suffice to say that 2009 was a very difficult year.

It is hard to feel inspired to document the process of chasing clients for money or being buried in paperwork or an endlessly delayed and eventually cancelled assignment that held the promise of creative and financial redemption.

Nobody wants to read these things and it serves no purpose to spend time writing about them. 2010 however has been better and this renewal means that there are positives to share and a little humour too.

So this is my attempt to get back on the horse so to speak.