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.