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!