Monthly Archives: July 2013

A Gaggle of Photographers

What do you get when four photographers go on a mini-break together? Two car boots full of gear – and hardly any pictures taken. Well, I exaggerate. The boots also held our overnight bags and a shopping trolley full of bottles. But prepared we were. The four of us were heading off for a weekend in the country. Admittedly, the intention was not to go on a photo excursion. We only wanted to spend some time together, away from it all, enjoying each others’ company. Not since the end of our degree course last summer had we been together so intensely. Plus – without any pressure of impending deadlines or looming exams.

However, the full loot of the weekend away was 12 shots taken with Marky Mark – and 30 iPhone shots. *arrrrgh* And I really couldn’t pretend that there was nothing to photograph. As a matter of fact, the area where we were, turned out to have some of the most stunning Irish scenery I have ever come across. South Co. Fermanagh with its interconnected waterways and Lough Erne was absolutely gorgeous, both on the cloudy Saturday, as well as the bright and sunny Sunday.

Alas, we were not exactly doing photo-friendly things, I suppose… The most stunning vistas passed us by as we were sitting in the car, driving to our first port of call – a cave. Now, I have shot in caves before. (And you can see some evidence of that here…) But – if you have seen *one* cave, you have seen them all… Not that that would keep me from visiting yet another cave. I still love going underground – but this cave was really special because the tour involved a little boat ride on the underground river that has created the cave system of Marble Arch Caves. On the flipside, dark, damp caves are just not particularly conducive to shooting pictures. That coupled with the fact that my footwear was rather incompatible with cave exploration (flipflops should really only be worn on sandy beaches, not rough, wet, subterranean passage ways), meant that I stowed Marky Mark safely in my camera bag because I just didn’t trust myself to slip, bump, stumble or trip and crash the precious hardware in the dark. The iPhone was much quicker, too, as opposed to the fancy-schmancy massive cameras which brought up the rear of the group *ahem*.

If it hadn’t been for the proximity of a particularly stunning view just 2 minutes away from the Caves carpark, I would not have exercised Marky Mark’s shutter even *once* all weekend… What was so beautiful of this view was the absence of signs of habitation in it. There was one farm house in the distance, but everything else was green rolling hills, cliffs, a table mountain in the distance. A few cows dotting the landscape, some trees – this could’ve been Hobbiton for all I know…

Hobbiton, Co. Fermanagh. Awwwww.

BTW, I must point out that I was not the *only* lazy photographer. None of my fellow snappers made many photographs. Does it matter? Hell, no. The impressions are all there in our brains. The eyes are, probably, the best camera in the world. They only really haven’t yet developed a printer that you can rig up to your hippothalamus and print what your eyes recorded. Unless  you consider drawing from memory an adequate conservation and sharing process. Analog, though.

A wonderful weekend it was, nonetheless. And any time spent with good friends is worth-while, even if you don’t make any pictures at all. But if I am honest, I would love to go back – and next time hardly take the camera away from my eye. Must go on my own then, because two many photographers spoil the picture.

(Anti-)War Photography – Part 2

It has taken me a whole month to finally conclude with part 2 of my impressions of the thought-provoking photography talks that I attended at the Borris House Festival of Writing & Ideas 2013. (Read Part 1 here.) What has finally prompted me to conclude is the arrival of a photobook that I ordered as a result of the talks, and I will discuss that in a separate post at another time. But back to Borris, Co. Carlow, where A___ and I had travelled with the intention of fangurling over Don McCullin.

Booking the second photography-related talk that was on the same afternoon that we had heard McCullin being interviewed by Colm O’Gorman, was a bit of an after-thought. Billed as “candid discussion on war journalism by three of its most admired practitioners”, I had never heard of the other two particpants, Ben Anderson and Giles Duley. To my shame! There was only sparse info on the Festival website, but the main attraction for booking the event was hearing Don McCullin speak twice. At € 10 a no-brainer, considering that we were over there in Borris, anyway.

The Venue in Borris, Co. Carlow. Incidentally I snapped Duley and Anderson in the foreground of the iPhone image – before I knew who they were…

The talk with McCullin had been great, but in retrospect we had heard nothing that we hadn’t already seen in the eponymous documentary. Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly then, the talk with Duley and Anderson turned out to be the highlight of the day. We were in the presence of three impressive, remarkable men. – Duley set the tone of the event right at the beginning. The talk was taking place in the private chapel of Borris House, where the panel sat behind the altar rails at the front. Duley had been setting up a slideshow of photographs at the front, facing the audience as he was clicking on his laptop. Clutching his beer glass, he turned around and took the right-most seat and deposited his pint next to his chair to his left. As the discussion had just started, he suddenly broke out in loud laughter, leaned over to Anderson who was sitting in the middle and whispered something to him. Anderson got up and moved Duley’s beer glass from his left to his right. “I haven’t got a hand on that side!”, Duley cheerfully informed the audience and chuckled again.

As I had not done my homework – again! – and researched the participants prior to the talk, it only occurred to me then that Duley was missing an arm. But from this episode it was already clear that this man was not in any way broken, despite a broken body. Duley duly took the lead in the discussion, launching it by explaining his own path into photography – a path that was actually inspired by discovering McCullin’s work at age 18. He became a photographer and specialised in music and fashion photography. Burnt out after a few years, he completely stopped, not seeing any value in his work. He abandoned his career as a photographer and stopped photographing entirely. Instead, he became a careworker, intensely looking after a single client. Gradually, it occurred to him that he wanted to tell the story of his client through photography. Motivated by compassion, this launched an interest in telling the unheard stories of those without a voice. He started covering the stories of conflict victims and humanitarian issues and shot in places like the Sudan, culminating with a project in Afghanistan where he wanted to show the impact of conflict on all victims of war, including soldiers. While embedded with the US Army in Afghanistan, Duley stepped on a landmine, losing three limbs – and almost his life. He became the story. And he became a victim. But not really a victim – the audience could clearly see his unbroken spirit, positive attitude, courage and will.

Anderson’s track record is equally impressive. An investigative journalist, Anderson has been covering conflict for the last ten years. He has filmed a number of in-depth documentaries in conflict zones such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Cuba. In 2007 he was embedded with the British Army in Afghanistan, later he followed the US Marines on their battle for Marjah which resulted in an insightful documentary of the same name. His most recent work is the deeply disturbing documentary “This is what winning looks like”, which again took him back to Afghanistan, covering the preparations for the take-over of the Afghan security services after the international troops leave the country in 2014. (Urging all readers to watch this film online on Vice.com. The documentary will have you shake your head in disbelief, disgust and horror!)

It was clear from the introductions and the following discussion that neither of these men are in their dangerous business for fame and fortune. They appear to be deeply compassionate people who have an urge to tell stories, to document, to give a voice to the victims of conflict and to speak the truth. They embodied that in the way they appeared on the panel and spoke candidly of their experiences and their work. It was clear that you can and must believe them and trust them.

McCullin stayed at the side-lines in this discussion, allowing the two younger men to explain their perspectives and to talk about the challenges of their work. What shocked me most was that both spoke of their difficulty of getting funding for their work. They are both free-lancers. There is no media corporation in the background to pay and pamper them. Their way of working is the way all free-lancers work: You work first, and get paid later. With an outlay of time and money, they have great difficulty getting their work published. Noone wants to see this??? Where has the world come to? A dumbed-down celebrity culture?

That was McCullin’s description of our contemporary world. When directly asked for advice on the future career paths of Duley and Anderson, McCullin emphatically discouraged them from continuing with conflict coverage. “It is not worth the high price that you pay, personally!” His view is, of course, shaped by his own experiences. It is a retrospective view and an honest answer. Somehow, though, I disapprove of his honesty here. The world needs courageous people like Anderson and Duley, to push our noses in the mess that we have created on this planet. Even if McCullin’s experience tells him otherwise, the public still has to be able to see reality, if we so wish. Not all the world is disinterested. And maybe we, as the public, should make that clear by supporting the work of documentary makers such as Anderson and Duley by buying their books and by pushing for publishing. Buying their work would also help fund their future projects. (See links to books at the bottom of the text.)

Anderson and Duley, thankfully, expressed in clear terms that they will not cease their pursuit of truth. They clearly held their “elder” in respect and awe, but their own convictions clearly shone through their contribution to this panel discussion. Both spoke eloquently and awarely of the challenges and ethical dilemma of their work – documenting the essence of human suffering by shoving a lens into the victims’ faces. They appear to be very conscious of the dangers of their professions (well, obviously) and the exploitative nature of photographic/cinematographic documentation. They are a generation after McCullin whose (provocatively emphasised?) outdated views occasionally drew a hiss from the audience – such as his slightly chauvinist remark, that he could not understand why women would cover conflict as reporters, photographers or filmmakers. – But then again, what do we know? We have seen nothing yet, while he has been there.

The discussion, although light in tone, was one of the most impressive talks I have ever attended. The personalities of the three speakers held everyone in thrall, as they spoke openly and honestly about their experiences, the media, their respective areas of media, their view of their work and the state of conflict zones in general. There was no bravado and no non-chalance in the face of war. All three, McCullin, Anderson, and Duley, came across as honest, deeply humanitarian individuals. Frankly, with people like this in the world, we can rest assured that the stories of the victims will be heard. That does not absolve us from our own responsibilities, and we should be conscious of the fact that they are paying a high personal price for the pursuit of truth. The least we can do, is spread their message by talking about their work and by supporting them through buying their books or pushing locally for opportunities of showing their projects.

Ben Anderson: No Worse Enemy

Giles Duley: Afghanistan 2012

Don McCullin: Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography

NOH8

Would you consider paying for being a model? In all honesty, if anything, models get paid rather pay to be in a photograph. And heck, I’d rather not be a model at all never mind getting paid, or paying or not. But sometimes you make an exception if there is some kind of reward in it. And thus my friend A___ and myself jumped at the chance of posing for photographs despite having to pay for the privilege. It was, after all, a worth-while campaign we were lending our faces to. The NOH8 campaign for equality made a stop-over in Dublin on the occasion of Gay Pride. NOH8 has been going for five years and is spear-headed by photographer Adam Bouska whose signature portraits are the mark of the campaign. From its beginnings as a response to a proposed law in California, banning same-sex marriage, the NOH8 campaign has grown into a movement that fights discrimination of any kind and advocates universal human equality. Bouska still shoots all of the portraits of the campaign, and A___ and myself figured our photo fee would not only go to a good cause, but it would also allow us to take a look behind the scenes of an international campaign. In short: as curious photographers we wanted to see how celebrity photographer Bouska works.

The shoot was an open call, so all that was needed was to turn up and cough up. Well, and prepare in terms of “styling”. Bouska’s portraits are strictly uniform: The subjects are always dressed in a white shirt and their mouths are covered with silver duct tape. They display the NOH8 logo “tattooed” on their cheek and are shot in front of a white backdrop. With the mouth as a metaphor for communication having been covered, the message of the image is conveyed by the logo, they eyes and the hand gestures that are allowed in the frame.

Much to our surprise/disappointment, the venue of the shoot was not exactly  teeming with participants. Well, it was teeming alright – with lots of bubbly teenagers who are part of the theatre school in whose premises the shoot was taking place. But there was no waiting whatsoever – after the applying of the logo, we were immediately walked into a dance studio that had been turned into a make-shift photo studio. NOH8 chairman Jeff Parshley acted as the assistant – applying the tape across my mouth, and off I popped in front of the backdrop. As I had not done my homework, I was surprised to find Bouska such a young man. He briefly said what he was going to do (“Just stand here, I’ll tell you how to pose and take the pictures.”) and off we went. He took about 4, 5 shots per pose, interspersed with his commands, me reacting by peering over my glasses secretary-style, glaring dead-pan, crossing my fingers over my (covered) mouth, doing that Japanese photo/smile gesture. Done in about 5 minutes max. Very efficient and work-flow-friendly. He showed me a quick glimpse of the shoot on his camera – pretty much already as they appear when finished: White blown-out background, head-and-shoulders portrait of the sitter. The lighting in the images is exclusively done by a ring-flash, no other lights.1045160_4887244830046_934326295_n

As the discomfort of being in front of the camera took up most of my attention while modelling myself, it was much more interesting to observe the process when he shot A___ after me. Short, clear commands were given to his sitter “look here”, “chin up”, “stretch your arms out”, while Bouska moved animatedly with his camera. There was no need to adjust camera settings. Presumably, once it was all set up at the start of the shoot, all he had to do was point and release. With the sitters uniformly wearing white tops, there is probably little variation in terms of light reading, so it’s almost an automatic shoot. – Discussing how the shoot went, I complained to A___ afterwards, that there was very little interaction going on between the photographer and his sitters (apart from the posing commands). Well, A___ had to point out to me that communication was actually impossible, as we were gagged. Haha, strange that that had escaped a chatterbox like myself…

According to the NOH8 website, the campaign is on-going, and there are no deadlines or plans to stop anytime soon. The sole photographer for the campaign is Bouska – good for him, there’s a steady job. And yet, one wonders, whether the whole thing becomes a bit of a chore and a drag after five years and 35.000 photos? While the recognisability of the campaign rests entirely on the logo and the uniformity of the portraits, photographically it must have lost its shine and its challenges for Bouska long ago. Maybe my concern for Bouska’s own amusement and work satisfaction is cynical, but quite frankly, they could probably build a big white box, mount a camera-plus-ring flash on a stand, play a tape with posing directions on continuous loop and remote-release the camera automatically.

Nonetheless, in conclusion, it was an interesting insight into the workings of what could be a major shoot and campaign. No doubt the NOH8 logo and campaign is much more visible and loud in its home environment over in the States, a fact that is also reflected in the amount of “celebrity” participants who mean absolutely nothing to me. Over here, it was remarkably quiet, but then again, people may also have been put off by the fact that you had to pay to take part. As this was more than a modelling session for me, I was happy enough to fork out some money. I wanted the look behind the scenes almost more than being part of the campaign, as much as I endorse the message and goals. In return, I will also be given one retouched image that was taken of me. So I will be able to say that I have been photographed by a celebrity photographer. I hope you are all impressed!