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!