Monday, 5 November 2012

A box full of (im) possibilities.

Several years ago I did a byline picture of one of my colleagues, and after she decided that she rather liked it, we agreed to do a trade. 

My ransom for the rights to use the picture on her web-site and PR company profile was fairly simple, a few packs of Polaroid 600 film. At the time, the film had just been withdrawn but it was still reasonably easy to find on internet auction sites.

Now we all know how life gets in the way of these slightly fiddly tasks and despite an occasional friendly hint, it looked as though I was likely to go un-remunerated. But with a special occasion coming up, I decided to give it one final try, and sent off a little gentle reminder that the swap was still not completed.

The response I got could not have been nicer. A short note apologising for delay accompanied by a UPS tracking number. A few days later, a cardboard cube bound with tape bearing the legend "impossible" was sat on the kitchen table, greeting my return from a long and tiring day.

My much loved Polaroid SLR 680 has lain dormant and somewhat neglected since the demise of 600 packs. And despite the inspiration of reading Greg Funnell's post about early Impossible offerings, I had been reticent about the shading process. 

It basically meant that you had to get the film immediately into shade to stop fogging of the developing image. Most people who had experimented with it described a kind of "mason's handshake" technique involving holding the film box over the exit chute of the camera with your left hand whilst supporting the underside and pressing the shutter with your right.

Now though, the new PX680 looks to be a might less cack-handed to use. You simply have to get the developing shot into shade promptly rather than immediately.

I have not had time to try this yet but it's hard to properly express the childish joy and anticipation with which I am looking forward to popping the seal and firing up the my beloved 680.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Diary Picture - 20 Oct 2011

Halloween ghosts strung up outside a favourite old haunt - Cafe Lalo. 

For all my US friends who might have been caught up in the chaos of Sandy over the last few days... I'm thinking of you and hope you are all ok.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Details! Details! - part two

Following on from my hurried post at lunchtime... the story so far; a friend ask me for some DSLR raw files so he can run a test with them on upcoming software. He can't tell me any more than that and would prefer some shots from a variety of cameras, preferably pictures that are challenging in some respect.

Fast forward to this morning when Drew Gardner posted several examples of pictures, some of which I took, processed with Adobe's Lightroom 4 and also the newly launched Capture One 7. It was an "out of the box" test which aimed to garner an impression of the differences between the two software offerings rather than a serious exploration of the full capabilities of each.

He has since sent me a couple of the processed frames so that I might make my own observations on them. Firstly we have these two shots from an ambush in Afghanistan in 2006. The light was fading fast and I was crashing upwards through the iso of my 5D mkI as we fought for our lives in a total encirclement whilst on patrol with the soldiers of 16 Air Assault (3rd Parachute regiment and Royal Irish).

Here is Lightroom's version, with no changes or adjustments.

And here is the version from Capture One - 7

The first thing to note is that they both look way better than the in-camera JPEG that I used at the time (I always shoot RAW +JPEG although often, on deadline, it's the in-camera JPEG that I have to send to publications due to time constraints). Lightroom has produced a more saturated, slightly yellow/cyan shift which whilst not faithful to the original, does look good. At first, the area to the lower right of the picture, where an Afghan National Army soldier was crouching, appears more clearly. But on closer inspection it has markedly less detail than the C1 interpretation although it does a better job of holding the green colour in the undergrowth.

The default noise reduction in LR4 seems just a bit too aggressive and it seemed to be glossing over details in favour of smoothness. But the foreground figure of the running soldier has lost all detail n his left arm in the LR4 version and consequently much of the urgency of the picture is gone.

On Drew's blog there are several examples that I have not yet got from him. So this one-shot comparison is not altogether conclusive. But his piece makes the very valid point that details do seem to be getting lost in LR4 and the balance between sharpness and smoothness seems to be out of kilter.

Whilst it is almost impossible to do a like for like comparison I would point out a few strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches.

LR4 has very good highlight detail retention, markedly better than the samples from CO7 so if you habitually over expose your pictures and need to recover, that is something worth bearing in mind. Colour faithfulness and overall crispness cuts the other way; with CO7 the clear winner in Drew's test by such a huge margin as to be a little disturbing.

However, there is the NIK question. Many photographers I know have come to rely on the NIK plug-ins for many of the fine colour adjustments, sharpening, noise reduction and localised retouching that would otherwise be done in photoshop. These tools are a godsend and reduce further work in photoshop and overall post processing time. Capture One has never been compatible with these plug-ins (which are available for Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop) and while they are not cheap, the fact that  CO7 cannot use these tool in pre-acquire is likely to be a factor for many who are looking for a one-stop solution.

Still, I'll say it again, the amazing level of detail and colour accuracy means that all my high-end output will be routed through Capture One 7 for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Details! Details!

Digital photography presents as many difficulties as advantages sometimes. Chief amongst them if you have dedicated yourself to a good raw-file work flow is how to process the raw images.

At various times over the last few years I have used many or maybe most of the available options including Bridge, DXO, Capture One (in various incarnations) and more recently, the all-conquering Lightroom.

The advantages of Lightroom are obvious; a powerful feature set allied to nimble processing speed, excellent support for new camera file formats and the knock-out punch of a seemingly unbelievable price-point. Combine that with the Nik software plug-ins for pre-acquire and it made it a mighty tool for photographers to get the best from their files.

However, various versions of Capture One had always delivered the best colour of all of them (I confess never to have seriously used Aperture) and for all serious high-end output projects I have tackled over the past decade or so, it has been my favourite software.

A few days ago and somewhat cryptically, my friend and colleague Drew Gardner asked me if I had any examples of Raw files from a few different cameras that I could give him in readiness for a new C1 launch at an unspecified future date. He explained that he could say no more than that and asked my understanding. His idea was to try  a real world test on a broad range of subjects and light-levels, over different cameras. He wanted to have these ready for release day so that he could get the first results out onto the net.

Naturally I said yes and waited for some kind of announcement from him. But just to make his job as tricky as possible I sent him some low-light shots from a Canon 5D mkI and a 1D mkI, both of which had presented me with problems due to noise at high ISO shooting, as well as a few pictures from a recent sailing event I shot in the summer where the sails, water and spray all provide lots of fiddly details to be rendered.

This morning, as I started setting up for a shoot, he called briefly and said that I should check his latest post on "the Dark Art" and that I would most likely be surprised by the results.

Now, I haven't had enough time to fully digest these and I'll write a detailed post later today but the initial results are not just surprising, they are nigh-on unbelievable.

I suggest you read Drew's comprehensive post (here) and then check back in a few hours time for another take on this issue.

Although, it must be said that both he and I are very taken-aback at the sheer chasm between the two in terms of fidelity and colour accuracy.

It means that the new C1 version 7 will be an absolute must-have for all my high-output assignments. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of it.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Maybe not everything - but definitely not nothing.

Ever since I returned to Britain from the US in 1999 I have submitted pictures to the National Portrait Gallery's annual Photographic Portrait prize in the hope of making it through to the exhibition. 

The yearly ritual of delivering prints (showering in public - Aug 2010) and then, sadly retrieving them after they have not been chosen (collecting the children from detention - Sept 2010) has provided a certain amount of humour for me and is something I have enjoyed describing. 

Currently sponsored by Taylor Wessing, it is one of those prizes that often sharply divides opinion amongst my fellow photographers. Some, like me, see it as the most consistently challenging, interesting and provocative collection of portraits that the UK produces. Others regard it as slightly aloof and perhaps unrepresentative of the everyday majority.

Either way it is well supported with more than two-thousand photographers entering this year and more than five-thousand pictures submitted in total. Even with the seemingly insurmountable odds of getting into the final edit, the momentary sting of disappointment that accompanies the polite rejection message is something that never gets any easier.

Rejection or acceptance does not instantly make anyone a lesser or greater photographer. On the other hand, photography is a language, a form of communication and photographers who profess no interest in having the chance to connect with new and different audiences make me sad and slightly suspicious. 

This year I entered three prints, but one of them, a portrait of PC David Rathband, the policeman shot by Raoul Moat, had special significance for me. Meeting PC Rathband was one of those experiences that had really made me examine my life and how lucky I was. The terrible nightmares he talked of, the physical pain and mental anguish of having his sight taken from him in such a violent manner, the feeling of loneliness and isolation and the dignity with which he tried to bear it. 

His story had a profound effect on  me and it showed in the picture.

So it was especially uplifting to receive the news yesterday that this one photograph, of the three I submitted, had been selected to join the sixty or so pictures that would be included in the exhibition and book this year.

I found myself running a rather unexpected gamut of emotions. What I felt most instantly was relief. Maybe I had been wanting this particular picture to be chosen a little too much. It was replaced with a kind of elated disbelief as I read and re-read the email just to make sure I hadn't imagined it. This I understand is fairly normal behaviour for unexpected good news. 

Then finally, and most strangely, as my friends started to post messages on Facebook and text, expressing their disappointment at not being selected, I felt guilt.

The fulfilment (at the eleventh attempt!) of a modest but sincere ambition to see my picture exhibited amongst that selection of inspiring works made me feel momentarily as though I had been ushered into a nightclub when my friends had been left behind the red rope.

A day later I finally feel as I am probably supposed to in such circumstances, fortunate and happy. But this could never have happened without the people involved in the process and I would like to acknowledge the tremendous contribution they have made.

Firstly and most importantly, PC David Rathband, who was so open and honest in the way he sat for the portrait. His tragic death earlier this year was such terribly sad news.

Secondly, Sophie Batterbury, Picture Editor of the Independent on Sunday who commissioned me to shoot the photo and whose guidance in my work has been so important over the years.

Also thanks to Martin Berry at Tapestry who was endlessly patient and did a beautiful job of printing the pictures.

Obviously I could never have done anything worthwhile without the support of Jane and my friends but I haven't won a bloody Oscar so a sense of proportion might be best!

It's just a picture in an exhibition, a picture I feel strongly about in an exhibition I have always admired.

As they would say in New York, "That's not nothing!"

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Diary Picture - 23 April 2011

Edinburgh - In the house of chaos, waiting for night-fall so we could head off for a shoot. 
Wishing that I had a Fuji of my own.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Diary Picture - 07 July 2012

Storm gathers out of a blue sky, crossing back to Portsmouth on the Isle of Wight ferry.

Diary Picture - 28 July 2012

BT Vision Hyde Park - first saturday of the Olympic games. Stand up and cheer!... or lie down.... either way.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Diary Picture - 05 September 2007

A Pashtun man and child walking through the main street of the bazaar in Sangin, one year after it had been the scene of the fiercest fighting in Helmand.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Gore Vidal

I was sad to hear on the radio news this morning of Gore Vidal's death at his Hollywood home on Tuesday.

Back in 1998 I had the slightly intimidating privilege of photographing Gore Vidal for the Daily Telegraph (London) in a Miami Hotel. At the time he was going through a phase of not giving regular interviews so the paper had considered the opportunity something of a coup.

I was warned that he could be quite sharp with photographers, that he had a well deserved reputation of not suffering fools lightly, and that consequently I was to keep my mouth shut as much as I could manage.

The oppressive heat of July in Miami just picked me up and sucked the energy right out of me, even on the short trip from the cab to the hotel lobby. Then the aircon nearly froze me like a popsicle (ice-lolly) as I walked through the swishing doors of the hotel and spa.

Arriving pretty much bang-on the allotted time, I was ushered immediately up to the tiny room where the interview had been held.

Earlier that day, feeling slightly lacking in fresh portrait glass, I had dashed round to Adorama before setting off for the airport and impulsively splashed-out on a Canon 135mm lens specifically for the job.

Now finding myself in the rather 'bijou' room with the light flooding through white wooden shutters, it was plain that the 135 was massively too long! I could just about get far enough away for minimum focus length if I jammed my head awkwardly sideways against the far wall and imitated a gecko.

So it was that I photographed a man who "never suffered fools lightly" while contorting myself into the most unbelievably foolish and precarious pose.

But, as is so often the case, those with the fiercest reputations are generally the easiest and most charming people in person. He seemed slightly amused at the ridiculous figure I cut.

We exchanged pleasantries about America and Britain over the short time of the shoot and at the end he looked me square in the eye and spoke.

"If you wish to succeed in America, all you need to do is tell everyone you meet that you are a Person of Integrity," he proclaimed in deep, mellifluous tones, stressing the last part in that slightly theatrical manner that was perhaps his trademark.

"It matters not a bit whether you actually are," he added, "Just so long as you keep telling everyone."

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Tearsheet - Independent on Sunday Centrepiece 1st July 2012.

Always a good feeling to get a big display picture in the centre-spread of the paper. Doubly sweet when it's from an idea you generated with your own contacts...

Wider edit of pictures and full write up to be posted here in the next few days.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Diary Picture - 13 November 2010

Disconnected - telephone cables taken down at the point where the security wall divides the Palestinian-administered territory in the West Bank from Israel. At the end of the dead-end road that formerly ran between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Diary Picture - 2 April 2011

Suddenly it was spring.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Diary Picture - 12 April 2008

Walking down the seafront in Clacton I noticed the bright blue sparkle of a child's windmill sitting perilously close to the edge of the promenade. 

Twenty minutes later, on my way back, I saw the same twinkle of sapphire, blown onto a different spot on the pavement. Still incongruously blue in a sea of grey and beige. Still vaguely uplifting and tragic at the same time. And still oddly demanding my attention.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Barry Fantoni

Every so often you get a period in which there seem to be 25 hours in each day and all of them are spent working.

Last week was like that for me. The highlight of this slightly mad schedule was an evening spent doing portrait photographs of the multi-talented british author Barry Fantoni in his french home.

Barry was a leading light in the group of artists, writers, musicians and opinion-makers that made Britain cool in the sixties. It will go down as one of the most exciting and creative periods in our history and many of the things that drove this societal change; arts, music, political satire, were very much his strengths.

It almost goes without saying that lots of people can claim to have been on that particular bus, but Barry was one of the drivers. His role amongst the very first contributors to Private Eye may have been the starting point but from there his influence rapidly spread into television and popular culture. 

Despite this, he is perhaps not the household name one might expect. For those not acquainted with his extraordinary back-catalogue, don't bother looking at his ridiculously short entry on Wikipedia. I did, while checking that I had the correct spelling of his name for my captions, and the lack of information is derisory. Barry is evidently too cool for Wikipedia! 

The door to his house in Calais was dark and unprepossessing. But on the other side was a home fairly aching with quiet style. Nothing flashy, nothing trendy, nothing unnecessary, just a simple understated taste in eclectic objects and furniture. Emanating from it all was the enveloping and relaxed atmosphere of a life well lived. 

I could have spent an entire day and taken pictures from every angle without ever running out of amazing corners and settings for portraits. In fact the biggest challenge was what to do with so much choice in the limited time available. This was exactly the opposite from my morning assignment in a London office where I was left shaking my head in dismay at how hideous all the offered locations were.

Barry disappeared briefly while I decided where to start setting-up. I had asked if he could change the yellow t-shirt he had been wearing because it looked somehow wrong for the kind of author portraits that I had in mind. When he re-appeared minutes later, it was in a shirt that had been made for Picasso. Yes, the Picasso....  Definitely too cool for wikipedia!

Mostly due to the kind of piece I was shooting for, I confined myself to working upstairs in the office/studio he shares with his long-time partner Katie.  My favourite pictures from the take were all in the area around this desk. It was a kind of boiled down essence of the creative things he liked to do on a daily basis. Writing, drawing, music, all interspersed with family objects of touching hidden significance.

Often I prefer to shoot horizontal portraits in a wide, slightly environmental way like the one at the bottom -and used by the Independent on Sunday in their interview piece. But it was the more traditional vertical framing with the water stain on the wall behind, that best summed-up the evening's work for me. I made a conscious decision to to frame up with the turntable, desk and painting all leading out of the picture in different directions. The extended intersecting lines of these things, all significant parts of Barry's life, are intended to draw the viewer away from and then and back to his face. And although Barry spent much of the time laughing and joking, I quite liked the slightly contemplative look.

On the wall near his desk were three replica handguns which seemed like the only slightly odd choice or decor in the room. Barry explained that while writing the novels about his creation Harry Lipkin (the world's oldest private detective) he had wanted to get a proper sense of how heavy a handgun would be and how the ageing central character could have realistically carried such a thing. 

A we chatted in the course of taking photos, he talked about Depechism, his new art movement and showed me a few examples. As the name suggests, it is all about quick, simple compositions and he disciplines himself to make one every day. 

He is the sole member of the Depechist movement at present, but if Barry has decided that's the way to go, you'd be a fool to bet against it being the next big thing.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Diary PIcture - 6 June 2010

Backstage at the Bizarre Ball 2010. Picture editor Tom Broadbent had given me a much coveted AAA pass and an open brief..... I had expected it to be debauched, full of hardcore, alternative-lifestyle devotees and bohemians. What I found was a group of very nice people with very sensible jobs like town planners and accountants who just liked dressing-up and having a good time - "freakenders" ..... and why the hell not?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Diary Picture - 1 July 2011

Nature, red in tooth and claw. Sometimes you've got to be careful when you stop to smell the roses.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Diary Picture - 22 Oct 2011

A riot of colour on Washington street. Bright autumn sunlight and that feeling of limitless possibilities that I love about New York. The sky, the high-line, the cars all reflected in a shop selling the most amazing orchids. This is an alternate frame from a previous post from my series, Chasing Smoke.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Diary Picture - 1 Jan 2011

Britain redux. Remnants of the the new-year celebrations left on a patch of muddy grass in Trafalgar Square; champagne, cava, polish beer, belgian beer, Coca-cola, football, tits, and Sir Elton.

Makes your heart swell with pride!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Diary Picture - 30 April 2012

An out-take from an evening spent swimming around (with varying degrees of success) on assignment with a team of male synchronised swimmers. This shot was taken shortly before I discovered that my "water-proof" housing is now merely "water-resistant" since lending it to a friend!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Portraits and the importance of good diction.

Recently I had the pleasure of photographing Meera Syal for a profile piece. She was doing a day of interviews and photos as part of the publicity for a new movie. The uber-smart london hotel hosting the event had set aside two rooms, sans beds, in which photographers could set up their equipment in turn. Meera rotated between photos, interviews and filming for TV. 

Many years ago I had worked at the same publication with Meera's brother Rajiv who is a journalist. It was nice to have something more as a conversational ice-breaker than the standard chit-chat about the weather and it seemed that Meera was very relaxed in front of the camera.

While Meera was patiently waiting for me to re-set the lights for the second shot, I noticed her looking at her feet, turning them one way and another.

"Nice boots!" I said, in appreciation of the beautifully stitched high-heeled ankle boots she was wearing.

There was a pause.

"I beg your pardon?" she said, sharply.

"Nice boots," I repeated, "are they new? It's just you looked like you were studying them."

"Ohhhhh, BOOOTS," she laughed. "I thought you were getting a bit personal for a moment there!"

We both laughed, partly out of relief I suspect and then I apologised profusely for mumbling behind the camera. Maybe elocution lessons should be in my immediate future.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside....

On my way home from work on Saturday (21 April, 2012) I was treated to the most extraordinary skies as a storm front passed a mile or so off the coast. The clouds coloured like the second day of a bad bruise with yellows, purples, greens and black. Bright sunshine followed as the front passed, causing a glimmer of rainbow out at sea.

The rain fell in illuminated sheets, sweeping through the offshore wind farm.

It's easy to see why Turner drew so much inspiration from the skies along the east Kent coastline.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Diary Picture - 19 Feb 2011

A forlorn bunch of dead flowers hanging in the tendrils of creeper, denuded of summer foliage - Kiev.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Happy (belated) Birthday your majesty

On Sunday (25th March) the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, celebrated her 70th birthday. One of the highlights of my year in 2011 was a rare opportunity to hear her sing at a private function in New York. 

Adamant that the air-conditioning should be turned off so as not to damage her vocal chords (and who could blame her, you don't take risks with something as valuable as that) she took the stage with an ever-so-slightly stern demeanor. But before she had sung a single note, the room belonged to her. 

Seconds later she opened with 'Say A Little Prayer,' and there was a moment where time itself seemed suspended. Her voice, bright and warm and maybe a little softer than I expected, pulled us all a step closer. Perhaps she chose to attenuate her power so as not to overwhelm the small crowd, perhaps it is the inevitable process of change over the years. Either way, what could not be denied, was that whatever she held back in terms of raw power, she more than made up in flexibility. Dancing over the melodies with impossible agility. Never fussy, never showy but just occasionally flexing a musical phrase with such exquisite nuance that left you in no doubt as to who she was and what she was capable of.

It would be easy at this point to roll off a list of the songs she performed that evening. Songs she had indelibly marked her own, songs that only a fool would sing now for fear of unfavourable comparison.

Let us just say that if you're thinking of one right now, chances are, it was on the set-list of this private and intimate event. Nobody who had ever loved her remarkable back-catalogue would have been disappointed.

But it was a song that I personally had never heard from her lips, that will stay with me for ever. 

Towards the end the set, Aretha crossed the stage and took a seat at the keyboard. She sang 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' unaccompanied save for her own playing. It was sparse, honest and restrained. At the end of those brief, spine-tingling minutes I felt barely able to breathe.

It was so tender, so soulful that it really defies description and no superlative could do it justice. But what overwhelmed was the sense that this was someone who had got underneath music somehow. Become part of it's fabric, understood it more fully that most people understand anything.

We as a society, use the word 'great' so regularly now. Too often we carelessly throw it out to describe that which is merely competent, or worse, hyped-up mediocrity. 

But this was the real thing - unequivocally great. Great in a way that far too few things in life ever really are. To be within touching distance of that kind of greatness was simultaneously inspiring and immensely humbling.

Epic Road trip - St Patricks Day 2011

We had planned to set off at a real 'Richard Dawkins' of ungodly hours. But the combination of work, family and fatigue all stacked up and it was mid-morning before we finally began the epic road trip. Ahead of us was a four day journey to recce the eight cities for JL's upcoming "Big Ad Job" all to be done in a Mercedes van recently purchased for the task.

The date had been picked more or less arbitrarily to fit around JL's schedule and only the very vaguest of thought had been given to planning. So it was, that we found ourselves heading to Cork on St Patrick's day and Dublin a day later which coincided with the England/Ireland Six Nations Rugby match being played there that night.

We arrived at the ferry terminal near Pembroke a few minutes before the sailing. At the border control we were greeted by a female officer in uniform and 'standard issue' silly hat bearing the legend, "What's the Craick?" 

Given that we were driving a kind of van/people-carrier thing, there were lots of security questions to answer. It was at this point I was glad that we had been sarcastically congratulated by JL's agent for our choice of recce-day. Had we not known it was St Patrick's, turning up and being thoroughly scrutinised by a woman in comedy headgear might otherwise lead to the suspicion that our fuel-stop coffee had been spiked with windowpane!

Once we reached Cork, JL rustled up our location list and the pair of us set off on the recce. The surrealism continued unabated, there was a tractor tearing up and down the main drag, blasting past lines of people waiting to get into the bars and clubs. 

We worked hard, speed marched round all the locations on the shot list , took a handful of pictures for the mood-board and managed to do all this without succumbing to the siren song of the many lively bars we had passed. But after four hours JL made the executive decision that we were finished for the night and that frankly, it would be rude not to make a contribution to the local economy.

Drink was taken in moderation but this triggered JL's all-eclipsing need for fast-food. After I had encouraged him away from various kebab shops on health grounds, we eventually found ourselves in a bustling pizza restaurant where we seemed to be the only two individuals not dressed green, amber and white.

Back to the hotel, and the tractor was parked up with random passers-by having there photos taken with it like it was some exotic super-car.

Ah, what a magical night of romance for the couples making out amongst the onlookers and the fast food cartons.

Next morning we ambled along the road to a cafe and sat in the bright sun drinking coffee in the brisk March air before taking the drive to Dublin. The previous night seemed somehow removed as though we had spend an evening at an Irish theme-park.

It is often remarked that St Patrick's day is celebrated more enthusiastically in the US than in Ireland. I'm not sure that is true but it certainly has a more downtempo vibe. In Wicklow, where JL had family ties, the atmosphere was restrained and nostalgic rather than raucous.

That evening in Dublin, Ireland's victory over England in the six nations match had overtaken any thoughts of St Patrick. There were no available hotel rooms so we just worked through until the early morning ferry and decided to sleep on the crossing.

So after an excellent meal and five hours of walking the length and breadth of Dublin's city centre, we eventually found ourselves heading past the striking new theatre to the ferry terminal. 

Like the snakes, we had been driven out of Ireland by St Patrick - with a little help from a rugby match.

Friday, 2 March 2012

In memory of PC David Rathband

This morning (Thursday March 1st) the first thing I heard as I switched on the radio was the tragic news that PC David Rathband had been found dead in his home. 

Having been shot in the face at point blank range by gunman Raoul Moat in 2010, costing him the sight of both eyes, it was frankly a miracle that he survived at all. But exactly one year from that horrific incident, David was sat in a tiny hotel room in Greenwich, London, re-living the events which had left him fighting for every aspect of what he could no longer really recognise as his life. 

He described the last thing he remembered seeing, Moat's face over the top of the shot-gun, the look on his face, the flash (which he thought he may have felt more than seen) the searing pain and what he described as being the worst bit - the unbearable sound of the gun being fired into his head at close range.

What he was unfolding, had lived through in fact, has always been one of my darkest and most primal fears - to violently lose the visual world. 

Nearly as distressing were the nightmares he still regularly suffered, Moat's face swimming up through the darkness, horrible dreams of being at the bottom of an infinitely deep well, despairing of ever escaping.

The patience, modesty, and bravery that he showed during the interview and photos, made me vow to myself that I would never take another moment's eyesight for granted. 

But although his determination was extraordinary he was, unsurprisingly, a very troubled man. He spoke of how he felt abandoned, isolated, in some sense betrayed even, and despite his often cheery remarks and grim humour I was concerned at how fragile he seemed.

So it was a was with sadness but not surprise that I absorbed the news of his death this morning. As the day went on, bulletins informed us that David had been thought to have taken his own life. 

My sincerest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues and I hope that the brave way in which he fought to carry such an unbearable burden will be an inspiration if not a comfort.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Is this a five minute argument ... or the full half hour?

When the Independent on Sunday asked me to photograph a growing trend in socialised discussion this week called 'Talkaoke' I confess that the images which immediately sprung to mind were of focus groups, talk shows and a Monty Python sketch. 

What I did not expect was a round-table chat with a speakeasy vibe and Blade Runner aesthetics.

The principle is a disarmingly simple one, see what happens if you gather a group of people, seat them round a giant illuminated donut, encourage them to choose interesting subjects on which to express their opinions and moderate the whole thing with a person in the centre on a swivel chair wearing a headset for their own contributions and holding a microphone out to the guests in turn. Adding to the experience there is a live video feed of the participants projected onto one wall with snippets of imagery gleaned from the Internet to illustrate the points being made by each speaker.

On a deserted semi-industrial street in Hoxton last Thursday night I found myself heading towards an unassuming recessed doorway with light spilling out through the frosted glass. On the other side of the door was a circle of people bathed in a peach glow, engaged in an animated but calm discussion of the relative merits of atheism and monotheism.

There was a much wider demographic than I had expected, slightly more women than men but a small margin.

The gender balance constantly changed as speakers occasionally took a break or went outside for a cigarette.

On the face of it, a group of people talking to one another does not instantly present itself as a good source of pictures and I had expected the biggest challenge of the assignment would be bringing a rather dry subject to life. But the imaginative, atmospheric way in which founder Mike Weincove has fused debate with instant feedback and technological innovation meant that it was actually extremely immersive.

What quickly emerged as a visual theme was how thoughtful everyone's input was and how careful they were in their choice of words. Intrigued by the faces, I started to treat it almost as a portrait essay. 

The fact that everyone has to wait for the microphone in order to speak and all the topics are chosen by the members of the group meant that no single person monopolised any discussion and nobody felt trapped in a discourse they didn't care about. There were brisk and fascinating changes of topic as new moderators swung their legs carefully over the flying saucer table and took the helm's chair - swivelling and leaning this way and that, as hands were raised around the circumference by those waiting patiently to make their point.

In a society where instant messaging, social media, and micro-blogging platforms sit in the ringside seats of communication, where the relative anonymity of the Internet allows anyone to be as abrasive as they choose, there was something really uplifting about the simple fact of strangers and acquaintances coming to exchange ideas and discuss issues face to face. No shouting, no trolling, no aggressive posturing. Just spending an evening swapping opinions with people you may or may not know. Blending some of the best aspects of social media with the immediacy and personal interaction of a live round table, it seemed simultaneously old-fashioned and the most contemporary thing I had photographed in ages.

Demand for Mike Weincove's "Saucer of Chat" is flourishing and not just here in Britain. He and his illuminating idea will be visiting countries as diverse as Brazil, Lebanon and Norway this year. 


My colleague, Sarah Morrison, wrote a far more detailed article for the Independent on Sunday. So if you would like to discover more, you can read it here.