Monday, 19 September 2011

Dead man's shoes

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an Afghan fighter in possession of a good pair of boots, must be in want of a tale to tell about them.

October 19th 2006. About halfway through our climb to Osama's former compound in Tora Bora, we stopped for water and a quick break to check our position on the map. Our guides (and guards) were a mixture of local tribal militia and the regional governor's soldiers. A good-natured competitiveness had sprung up between the two groups. Each talking about the weaponry and equipment they carried, boasting in Pashto of their various exploits, occasionally laughing and translating for me what had just been said.

Cooling off in a mountain spring on the climb up.

Amongst infantry, the world over, comparing boots is one of the immutable laws of life. It comes from needing your feet to be in good condition. And although it would be an overstatement to call it an 'obsession' there is certainly more frequent and impassioned discussion of footwear than you might otherwise expect from a bunch of hard-bitten men with guns.

Boot story one-upmanship. 

The local militiaman explained that he had taken his sandy coloured boots from the feet of an Arab fighter he had killed in battle, while the older Mujahedin from the governors forces claimed (to a largely unconvinced audience) that his boots had been a gift from an American special forces soldier. They were plainly too poorly-made for this to be likely, but seniority has its advantages and not having your story questioned is one of them. 

He turned to me and asked how I had got my boots. They were a new pair of Altbergs, bought only weeks before, not yet broken-in and the only thing that had died during the process of procuring them was the poor cow that made the leather. 

I toyed briefly with inventing an elaborate backstory and thought better of it. 

"I bought them," was my somewhat feeble response, "in Englistan!" I added, using the colloquial Afghan term for Britain.

He translated my response to the group. 

They all smiled and shrugged but you could tell I'd lost any respect they might have had for me.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Diary Picture - lucky shot in Queens

First trip to New York in over a decade. As I arrived the heavens opened. In the back of the cab, with the rain lashing against the roof I waved the camera at arms length in the general direction of the storm. Squeezed the shutter just as lightning forked across the sky - pure fluke.

Given the choice between good and lucky, I'll take lucky every time.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Diary picture - night out in Leeds

19th March 2011 Taxi rank near the Calls in Leeds. Saveloy and chips anyone?

After my last two, reasonably long, posts addressing serious issues it seemed like a good time to publish something light-hearted for balance. 

Earlier this year I helped friend, colleague and namesake Justin Leighton on a big advertising shoot. Multi-city, three week assignments are not common and so he decided that we would do a mad four day Recce trip. Justin L armed with his newly acquired Fuji X100 and me with my 5D mkii and 35mm lens (approx same angle of view).

Whilst working out angles and schedules for the live shoot in April we indulged ourselves in a bit of old-fashioned documentary photojournalism for the joy of just taking pictures. From a technical viewpoint, there is not a lot to separate the two cameras. Both good in low light, nice colour, very sharp lenses.

But the X100 soon became an object of desire for me after it became clear how much less often people noticed it and how quickly they ignored it. The 5D on the other hand drew a lot of attention quite quickly. Also when close to group subjects the smaller sensor and wider angle lens of the Fuji helps to spread everything out a bit, whereas the full frame 35mm f1.4 allows better portraits of single figures at the same angle of view. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Turning point

I was not there. I did not witness, first-hand, the chilling scenes. Did not taste the acrid sting of smoke and all things man-made turned to powder. Did not photograph the heart-rending plight of those that jumped to their death rather than face the inferno. Did not record for posterity, all the permutations and combinations of grief, heroism, despair and brotherhood.

And yet I felt it. Like twin daggers to the heart.

I called New York my home for nearly a decade and returned to my native Britain, for family reasons, more than two years before the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Nonetheless, it felt personal, as though a loved one had been assaulted.

None of my closest friends were killed when the towers collapsed, though many were photographing the unfolding chaos in the immediate vicinity. A very few, who were closest had only their quick thinking and the assistance of those around them to thank for their escape. But I had no reason to cry with grief and so, I did not.

But I felt it all the same. The shock, the disbelief, the anguish, the powerlessness, the sympathy for all those so terribly and directly affected. The dreadful certainty that so much would change, everywhere. And the inevitability that it would not, and probably could not, be for the better.

Often, when asked "Where were you when.....?" my answer would be, "I was there, right there as it happened, this is what I saw." That is the privilege, the burden and maybe to a certain extent, the addiction of what we as photographers do. We see it ourselves, know for sure, because we are there.

Not on September 11th 2001. That day I was in London, photographing a footballer. That day I saw it all second-hand, part of the global television and media audience. I read about it, heard pundits opine and even spoke to colleagues who saw it themselves in the vain hope that if only I got a clearer understanding I would be somehow objective about it.

The events of September 11th 2001 left their mark on me by osmosis. A thousand news clips deluged me for days, weeks, until the gradient had been equalised. As much unsettling imagery and knowledge within me as surrounding me.

There are so few fulcrums on which the whole world turns. I did not witness this pivotal moment. Do not know for certain, did not see for myself.

And yet I felt it. And feel it still.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The double-edged sword of controversy

Is there such a thing as bad publicity? The events of the last week have made me wonder. A video I shot has been widely watched but has three times as many 'dislikes' as 'likes'. Naturally I have to wonder, how did this happen?

Banksy mural 'Stop and Search' cut down and sat in a Bethlehem back-yard.

Late last year, I embarked on a project to document the journey of two Banksy murals from The West Bank to the UK and then to an exhibition in Long Island, New York.  They had been bought from Palestinian entrepreneurs by a partnership of two galleries, Keszler Gallery NY and London's Bankrobber, both of whom have previous experience of dealing with Banksy's uncertified street work.

Removing pieces of street art from original locations is something that infuriates their creators and I can completely understand why. Context is so much of this art form and not everything travels well. This is probably particularly true of Banksy's work and the removal of these two pieces from Bethlehem, and their subsequent exhibition for sale in Southampton, NY, has upset lots of people who would rather they had stayed where they were sprayed.

As a result, a short edit, that was used in the exhibition catalogue to give a sense of the journey the pieces had taken, is now being viewed by thousands of people every day. Which is good, I guess, but the small percentage who have expressed a view either way (173 out of 29,000+ views) have been nearly three times more likely to hate it!

Some of these votes will undoubtably be a protest at the act of removing the walls, some will be because they don't like the way I've filmed it.

The two gallery owners, who allowed me the access, have been widely vilified on the internet and come in for some pretty stern questioning in the international media.

However there are several important points which the critics of Keszler and Bankrobber have either overlooked or, perhaps, are unaware of.  And as an impartial observer I find it strange.

Firstly, the works had already been cut down long before either Bankrobber or Keszler had been offered them. Several attempts had been made by their owners to sell them. Approaches by dealers and galleries, and even an attempt to sell on eBay, had all run into the problem of how they could be physically moved. The larger piece 'Stop And Search' weighs 2.5 tons. 'Wet Dog' is 1.8 tons. They're not exactly the kind of things you FedEx.

Even the word 'entrepreneur' conjures entirely the wrong impression of those that sold the pieces. Palestine is under severe restrictions in what can and cannot be moved across the security wall, leaving the territory effectively annexed. My experience of the Middle East means that I understand a little of the economic hardship that everyday hard-working Palestinians have to confront in order to do business. Can anyone who lives in comfort and freedom really criticize those who sought to earn some money from selling these works? Well, of course not, which is why the hate is turned toward the dealers.

Secondly, though Banksy himself may not like this fact, his work consistently transcends that of his peers. It is sharper, better observed and more subversive than pretty much all of his contemporaries. Because of this, his contribution to art history is going to be very important, I suspect. His prints, whilst often extremely good and highly collectable, nonetheless, do not have the visceral edge of the street works. The very fact that he so frequently risks arrest to make these pieces imbues them with extra presence. The two Bethlehem works that had been cut down were hidden from public view for years, in very unsuitable conditions. When I first saw them, they had rudimentary protection from the elements, and certainly one of them was deteriorating rapidly. The other, though more solidly constructed, was clearly fading all the same despite being covered with a plastic sheet.

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the people of Palestine, and particularly Bethlehem, are much more ambivalent about Banksy's works than you might expect. His politically-aware pieces on the dividing wall itself were extremely well timed visual barbs that helped to draw international attention to the controversy about the wall's construction. Most especially, amongst a section of the Western population, who might have had little knowledge or understanding of the issue, he brought awareness and curiosity, both of which are very good things. Several years later, few of these pieces survive, they have been painted over by Palestinian graffiti artists and political activists who have replaced them with their own authentic vision of what it is really like to live in a territory that is in enforced isolation. The taxi drivers who ferry tourists to and from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for massively inflated prices are only too happy to take the long route in order to show you a couple of Banksy works. For them, the visitor's interest means extra money. But for pretty much everyone else they are yet another sign of someone who came, admittedly in good faith and with the very best of intentions, and then left again while they for the most part cannot leave, cannot freely seek work, in many cases cannot even see their families who live only hundreds of yards away.

At a cafe in Bethlehem I asked about the general feeling towards Banksy's artworks around the West Bank. A polite, serious and well-educated man replied in perfect, heavily-accented English: "For him, I think it was good maybe to come and do these things.

"For us," he shrugged, "It's no difference."

This should not have been as illuminating for me as it was. Palestinian culture is complex, much more than the sum total of stone throwers, funeral processions, mourning mothers and burning flags that has become the newsreel shorthand for their struggle for a self-determining nation. I suspect Banksy himself might well have understood this when he made his paintings, but I think many of those who are angry about their removal are not quite as well versed in the subtleties of the region.

If Banksy was a Palestinian artist then it would be unthinkable for the works to be anywhere outside Palestine. But he is not. Those that chose to sell them certainly didn't feel as though they were parting with pieces of the national cultural heritage. 

So now what? They have been stablised, presented for exhibition, shipped to America and put on show. They have been danced around at a party, examined and, much to the chagrin of the gallery owners, touched. More people saw them in the opening weekend of the exhibition than in the last three or four years when they were living under plastic sheeting in a back yard.

Inevitably they will be sold, although when is anyone's guess. The person or institution that buys them will need to be well funded because you can't just put a two-ton piece of masonry in your average house!

It may seem a shame that they have not remained in their original context, but let us be as unsentimental about this as the people who lived with them. In one case, the building owner planned to cut a door though the middle of the work. In another, the wall, part of a disused bus shelter on wasteground, was crumbling even before the work was put up. 

Meanwhile, the video that I produced from some of the footage, has been used as part of the exhibition catalogue and subsequently to promote the exhibition. This will hopefully help me on the road to making the project into a more substantial documentary than it is currently. So yes, I hope to gain something too.

Banksy gifted the people of Palestine several of his artworks. Some remain, most do not. 

It is not for us to dictate what Palestinians choose to do with those gifts. 

•  •  •

Here is the catalogue video from my own hosting last week (a relatively paltry 582 hits!)

The original hosting (29,000 and counting) at Bankrobber's channel is here.