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Housing crisis

There are currently estimated to be 320,000 people in Britain recorded as homeless according to a report released in November 2018 by the housing charity Shelter, an estimate which by their own admission is conservative. Shelter works not only with providing support to rough sleepers but also offers advice, support and legal services to people who are struggling with unsuitable accommodation and bad housing, as well as campaigning to end homelessness altogether.

Their latest report on the housing crisis in the UK shows an increase of 4% on the 2017 figures. That’s equivalent to an additional 36 people being made homeless every day.

Many people think of homelessness simply as people sleeping rough on the streets. Attitudes are often accompanied by assumptions about begging, mental illness, substance abuse, or even that people deliberately choose to live on the streets.

What people don’t generally associate with homelessness are the less obviously noticeable issues caused by bad and inadequate housing, especially in major urban areas like London, where the housing crisis is at its worst. Barely affordable rental prices, coupled with cuts in welfare and a refusal by many private landlords to accept tenants claiming housing benefit have forced many working people, including families with young children in to temporary accommodation. Temporary accommodation which is often unsuitable and ends up being long term.

The fact is, anyone can become homeless and it’s not just an issue that affects the most marginalised in society.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been working with Shelter to photograph people all over the UK who have been affected in one way or another by issues surrounding housing and homelessness. The people I’ve met all had their own stories to tell and have been affected by circumstances which could affect anyone at any time. I met a family with five children living in two rooms in a Travel Lodge. I met single parents living with their children in single rooms. Single parent families facing eviction from the hostel rooms they were living in, facing the prospect of rough sleeping. I met a family with two children who’d slept rough for one night, now living in a single room. A wheelchair user housed by the council in accommodation with too many stairs and no disabled access. These were all people who’d had jobs and stability but whose circumstances had forced them into their current predicaments.

The portraits could be of anyone in your daily life, your neighbours, friends, colleagues, your family. The faces are those of normal, everyday people, like you and me. They’re not incoherent, drunken beggars, they’re people with ordinary lives, with jobs, with families, with dignity.

However, when the media report the issues highlighted by Shelter’s report, they largely rely on lazy stereotypes of homelessness to illustrate the story, preferring to show stock images of anonymous rough sleepers or their tents, instead of the real faces of the people who are affected by this crisis. Perhaps this reflects the difficulty people have in putting a human face to the issue - of empathising with people affected by homelessness. Perhaps it’s easier to dismiss people as anonymous strangers, instead of recognising them as individuals. Among the few media outlets covering the report which didn’t simply use stock imagery were the BBC and the London Evening Standard who actually linked the story to real people. Most others, even the Guardian and the New York Times chose to ignore the personal angle and stuck to statistics, government policy and quotes from politicians and ministers, keeping the personal realities very much at a distance.

This gallery shows some of those people I photographed for Shelter. The point I’m trying to make is that there are real people behind the statistics. Real stories and lives that are affected and they deserve to be acknowledged, not simply reduced to a statistic.

Tube People

About a year ago I was on the underground and my attention was drawn to the man sitting opposite me. He was totally absorbed in what he was doing on his mobile phone, and seemed completely oblivious to anything around him, including the man who had just entered the carriage and was now sitting directly opposite him. As a photographer and being interested in people I decided to take a portrait of him on my phone.

I didn’t ask permission as it would have fundamentally altered the situation and the moment I wanted to capture. I guess I’d probably have been refused anyway. There are of course those who would argue that I should have asked first, but I believe that street photography and candid portraits are an entirely legitimate form of photography. Unless those images are being used with a view to commercial gain or are associated with a particular political view or a product endorsement, photographing people in public spaces is a valid form of a photographer’s craft, a way of seeing the world and recording a particular slice of life.

That first image, the first one in this little series, led me to repeat the exercise on subsequent journeys and slowly developed in to a kind of personal project almost every time I’m on the tube.

The project is all shot on my iPhone - it’s the perfect camera to provide anonymity and that’s what I soon realised this project is all about. I quickly recognised that what I was doing was trying to explore the sense of anonymity in what is in effect a very intimate setting. Often it’s worth shooting with a gut feeling and then analysing the subconscious thinking behind the image later. Underground trains in London are shared public spaces where people retreat in to their own private spaces, mostly through electronic devices, where people rarely engage or connect with each other, often in very crowded carriages. We travel together for a short part of our journeys and barely notice the people around us, who they are or what they’re doing. That strikes me as quite a nice metaphor for life.

In some instances I’ve clearly been rumbled, but I’ve only once been challenged. I was asked if I knew the person I’d just photographed and when I tried to explain the project I was cut short. I respected the person’s objection and deleted the image.

What defines "Street Photography?"

What is "Street Photography?"

Is it simply photography that’s done on the street? Is it the same as documentary photography? Or lifestyle photography? Does it have to be in a public space? Does it have to include people? Is it something that can be learnt? Like most things photographic, there’s no simple answer. 

As it goes, the answer to this and pretty much every other question about photography is the same: “it depends”. 

It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that a good photograph is down to the technical mastery of the equipment, especially for beginners. I often hear people ask what the settings were when discussing photographs, but this is totally the wrong question. It's easy to break an image down. Just ask yourself a few simple questions: is there any movement in the shot? If so, is it blurred or frozen? A good amount of motion blur is achieved at shutter speeds between 1/10th– 1/60th sec (depending on how fast the subject is moving). What’s the depth of field? What’s the distance from the camera to the subject? This will give an idea of aperture, and also focal length of the lens used. How much ambient light is there? That’s the clue to the ISO setting. Where’s the light coming from? (look at the direction of shadows, or for catch-lights in the eyes).

It's not hard to estimate the settings. The real magic of a good photograph, the essence of what makes a great shot are found in what Ansel Adams famously referred to as the single most important part of the camera – the twelve inches behind it. In other words, it's the composition, the photographer’s eye, their interpretation of the scene that's in front of them. It's those kind of questions people should ask. How did a photographer approach a particular scene? What made them decide on their composition? Why did they choose a particular angle or viewpoint? Why did they choose that particular subject? The camera and its settings are merely the tools that interpret the photographer's vision.

When it comes to street photography, as in all photography there is no silver bullet, no quick fix solution. But as always, there are a few rules, or rather guides, tips, and tricks that will help in developing your progress as a street photographer.

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1.    The rule of thirds

There are loads of guides to composition and most of them can be applied in post processing as a crop tool option. There are some compositional crop options which are slightly more complex, like the Fibonacci Spiral, which translates in to a grid known as Phi, or the Golden mean, but by far the most common and easily applied is the rule of thirds.

Simply stated it means positioning your subject inside one of the boxes or on one of the intersections of the grid, along one of the horizontal or vertical lines or inside one of the three columns or rows. This composition will give a 1/3 to 2/3 ratio within the image which provides a more interesting dynamic than the half/half split of positioning your subject in the centre. Most cameras can show the rule of thirds grid in the viewfinder display and it’s definitely worth turning this feature on.

As a general rule, ‘negative space’ should be in front of your subject, especially if it’s moving. This will guide the viewer's eye through the frame in a more familiar direction in relation to movement. Giving the subject space to move in to is a more comfortable way of understanding motion, although that doesn’t mean you can’t break the rules as I have done in this image, where the subject is moving out of the frame towards the right hand side, leaving the negative space behind them.

 

2.    Zone Focussing

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If lighting conditions are consistent, shooting in full manual mode will allow you to capture moments quickly without having to change any settings, as long as they’re set accurately to start with. Using the deeper depth of field achieved at smaller apertures, at a focal length of between 28mm – 50mm, you can focus manually to a given distance e.g. 1.5m and with an aperture of around f11 and the appropriate shutter speed for accurate exposure (a slightly higher ISO will help avoid slower shutter speeds) you can capture reliably sharp and well exposed images of subjects that are within the ‘zone of focus’ which in this case would be roughly at a distance of 1m – 2.5m from the lens. Pre-digital lenses almost all showed this depth of field scale below the focus ring/window. 

3.    Work the scene

A mistake that people often make is that they only take one or two shots of a scene and then move on. Especially within street photography it’s important to take several shots of a scene because it’s constantly changing in front of you.

Often there will be some elements in an image that you won’t see until you’re looking at them later on so it’s worth applying points 1 and 2 above to a scene and then use the ‘fishing’ technique. Once you’ve chosen a good location you can set up your composition, choose the exposure settings you want to apply and simply allow the world to unfold in front of your lens, capturing moments as they happen. You’ll soon gain a psychological advantage in ‘owning’ your space and people will start to ignore you. This way you’ll become ‘invisible’, your confidence will increase and you can capture a number of similar images which would sit together nicely as a series.

 

Constraints nurture creativity

When you go out with the intention of taking street photographs, it can be a little overwhelming to know what to photograph. The world is a busy place and to distil the interesting elements out of a scene can often be a difficult task. This is where constraints can nurture your creativity. Before you start shooting, try and think of some ideas or themes and stick to them. While it might seem to inhibit you at first, limiting yourself to certain ideas or camera settings can unlock tremendous creative possibilities.

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Some ideas for street photography exercises could be:

·     Use a 50mm lens with focus locked at 1m

·     Shoot only from a kneeling position

·     Shoot only at 1/15th sec (don’t forget about camera shake)

·     Choose a colour and shoot only subjects of that colour

·     Include only three elements in your image

·     Look for shapes (circles, triangles, squares) to use as frames

·     Look for relationships between elements within a scene

·     Simplify

 

The list could go on. Come up with your own ideas, but the point is that this will focus your attention and give you something to think about, so that you don’t go out without any aim and you struggle to find inspiration. Other times you might see a potential shot in every direction and your creativity just flows and you don’t need to apply boundaries to work in, in which case, just go with the flow.

“Luck – or perhaps serendipity – plays a big role… But you never know what is going to happen. And what is most exciting is when the utterly unexpected happens, and you manage to be there at the right place at the right time – and push the shutter at the right moment. Most of the time it doesn’t work out that way. This kind of photography is 99.9% about failure.” (Alex Webb 2012)

So if in doubt, just click!

I run street photography workshops throughout the year in various locations in London. For more information click here or to book a space, please get in touch.

Shooting Video for the first time...

For a long time now I've been thinking I should learn to video. Like so many things, it's always on the list of things I ought to do, yet there always seem to be obstacles in my path, either real or imagined which prevent me from taking the necessary steps. Moving images require a whole new set of skills to learn, and that means investing time (and money) in learning them. In itself that's not a problem, but combined with the inevitable demands on kit investment and the difficulties in balancing the existing work/life/money situation, it's always something that seems to get pushed onto the back burner and I promise myself that I'll do it one day.

While the pressures of finding the time and money to invest in developing the necessary skillset are still very real and present, I recently found myself pushed in to a situation where I had to jump in and either sink or swim!

My brother Chris, a very talented musician/songwriter/producer called me up a couple of months ago asking if I knew anyone who could do some filming for him for a short promotional video he wanted to put together of his band, Da Lata. He'd been let down and needed someone at short notice to step in and do some filming. Not knowing anyone who'd be able to fill in with only two hours notice I decided to bite the bullet and offered to do it myself. I figured that as a photographer I already have an idea of framing and composition and with a rudimentary understanding of the basics of shooting video on my Nikon D800 I figured I'd be able to provide an acceptable service which could be edited to create a reasonable video.

So here it is, with thanks to the talented Tian Xu for editing.

Preto Food Shoot

Food Photography on Location

This is a series of images from a food shoot I recently did with London digital creative agency Kota Creative for Brazilian Restaurant chain Preto. It was a two day shoot on location at Preto's newly opened venue in Camden, North London. The first day was spent shooting food which was prepared and styled by the kitchen staff on location. The second day was all about the pickups and lifestyle images, shots that would capture some of the details and the atmosphere of the restaurant. All the images were shot for the new website and re-brand that Kota had designed for them.

With all food and product shoots it's important to provide options for re-touching in case decisions are made to change certain elements within the composition so I always shoot the same composition several times, removing individual elements one or two at a time. As I was reviewing the images for this particular shot with the creative director on location, they created a kind of stop frame animation effect, so I thought it would be a bit of fun to create this time-lapse. Of course, the accompanying music had to be Brazilian so I've used an un-released piece written and recorded by the super talented Chris Franck and Da Lata

To see more images from the shoot, both food and lifestyle, as well as the web design by Kota, visit the Preto website.

Night Photography in London

Night Photography in London at low tide

With the long winter nights and the shorter days at this time of year I've been running a lot of low light and night photography workshops lately. Most of these take place around some of London's iconic and extremely photogenic riverside locations but I also like to venture further in towards the City or the West End, depending on people's preferences. I often bring a small camera and tripod along myself as I find it hard to resist the urge to shoot these locations again myself. The river is always a big draw for me as I love the way the city lights reflect on the water with the super slow exposures that I use at night, both at high and low tide, but especially when the tide is low.

There are a few key points to consider when shooting in low light but once these are understood and you're familiar with the concepts, there's no reason not to feel confident in going out at night with a camera and a tripod. What I do find though is that when shooting at night, each shot takes a lot longer to complete, as shutter speeds are generally much slower, in-camera processing also takes a lot longer and often several shots of the same subject matter are necessary to judge the results and decide on which elements work best (tip: busses and high sided vehicles work better than cars for low angle light trail shots!). I like to play around with light trails and create light orbs too. The spinning balls of sparking fire are a lot of fun, achieved by a simple trick involving steel wool and a kitchen whisk!

This galley was all shot as .jpegs on my Canon G16. The quality isn't bad at all with its 12MP CMOS sensor. The beauty of this little camera for night photography for me is the built in ND filter and the extended range of pre-set shutter speeds beyond 30", something I've yet to find on any full frame DSLR! The dynamic range can be difficult for any camera to capture accurately at night so some degree of post processing is almost always required. I'm not generally a fan of HDR images but when the ambient light conditions are so high, a lot of night scenes in London are HDR by default, so I don't mind bringing that out a bit in post processing.

The night and low light photography workshops that I run are informal and fun. Nobody knows it all and photography is a continual  learning process but my aim is always to ensure that everyone develops their understanding of photography that little bit further. 

If you want to join in one of these night workshops and learn more about the tricks and some tips on low light photography, please just get in touch or check back here regularly to see when the next workshops are scheduled.

LAH Property Shoot

Corporate Staff Portraits 

When it comes to photographing real people on location there are always challenges to overcome. If you're unfamiliar with the location and you're shooting in a space which is used by the general public it's important to be able to quickly choose a setting within the venue which will work both for the shot and for the client's brief. Setting up lighting, tripod, laptop etc. can cause some Health & Safety concerns in public areas but the most important thing is getting people to relax in front of the camera.

A good portrait is a reflection of the person being photographed and when people are nervous, as they often are in front of the camera, the job of the photographer is more than just getting the technical aspects of lighting, composition, focus and so on right, it's about engaging with the subject and getting them to relax and enjoy the shoot. 

Here's a small selection of some some of the corporate portraits I've been shooting for one of my regular clients, LAH Property Marketing who have a number of staff working in locations all across London and the South East. These portraits were shot for their website and I've included a few of the more relaxed ones in this gallery which show some of the fun that we have on these shoots. 

Brexit Photo Project

52:48 - A Nation Divided

A series of portraits around the theme of the referendum to leave the EU held on 23rd June 2016. I want to approach this project without prejudice, as an open dialogue to find out who voted how and to share their opinions with other people so that both leavers and remainers can see the ‘other side of the story’ as it were.

As more details emerge about post Brexit Britain, a picture of a divided nation is forming. In my opinion, this is not so much based on Britain’s relationship with Europe as was portrayed by both campaigns in the run up to the vote but more as the result of successive national governments having ignored huge swathes of the population, who ultimately viewed the referendum as an opportunity to make their voices heard.

Since Brexit there has been a tremendous increase in the amount of reported incidents of hate crime but I feel that this is a separate issue which simply reflects how the outcome has been interpreted by a small proportion of the population and is in no way indicative of the motivations that people had in casting their vote.

My own position is irrelevant as I am an EU national and was ineligible to vote, although for the sake of transparency, my position was to remain. I have livedin the UK since 1975.

If you'd like to take part, please contact me to arrange a portrait session.

To visit the page relating to this project on the BBC website, click here.

 

Photomonth

I'll be taking part in the annual East London photography festival again this year, exhibiting some of my work from Western Sahara at the Hundred Years Gallery as part of Sandblast's exhibition: Africa's Last Colony: 40 Years Not Forgotten

Below are the images that will be on exhibit.  

These pictures will be on sale, together with other contributors' images at the Hundred Years Gallery between 15th October - 7th November 2015

Accumul8 Photography project

I was recently told about a photography exhibition being held in North London which had a very interesting story behind it.  It's run by an organisation called Accumul8 which is involved in some fantastic community work in North London.  Together with Ravensbourne College and the North London YMCA, they help provide creative training, combined with culinary skills to young vulnerable and homeless people.  After contacting them to offer my support in what I thought sounded like a great project, I was invited to the private view of their photography exhibition on 4th June so I offered to do some event photography for them and I also shot a few portraits of the participants.

Below are Levi, TJ and Sam, three of the project participants.

More about Accumul8:

"In July 2013, the North London YMCA contacted the Crouch End Festival. They wanted to explore ways that the two organisations could work together to join the skills and talents of local artists and craftspeople with the creative potential of the young, homeless people living at the NLYMCA hostel.

A meeting was held with the residents and together, they planned to have creative workshops at the hostel and then show the work at The Crouch End Festival.

Funding was needed to pay for materials for the Accumul8 creative workshops. So they decided that the best option, and the one that would have the most benefit, was if Accumul8 made its own money, by producing a product that was cheap to make, desirable and could be easily sold. All of this would be part of the Accumul8 learning process and project journey.  The product they decided on was home-made jams and chutneys – the Accumul8 Preserves with a Purpose. The fruit for the preserves is donated from the local community and so people get involved and support Accumul8 via surplus fruit.

The majority of the young people involved with Accumul8 have come from institutionalised backgrounds, including care homes, hostels and youth offender’s prisons and have no previous experience of cooking. 

Since 2013, regular photography workshops, supported by Ravensbourne College, have been held with the residents. The Accumul8 photography project, however, is more than just a creative activity. It takes the residents outside of the hostel to observe the world around them, they explore their creativity, work towards an end goal and become part of a team, most importantly it develops their skills and confidence to start on a more positive journey in life. "

Kodak

One of my favourite teaching aids, an old Kodak Retina 1a camera.
A great way to understand aperture and shutter speed is to look at "old fashioned" fully mechanical, fully manual cameras and lenses. Modern digital SLRs work on exactly the same principle as the simplest pinhole cameras to allow light in through a lens to expose a light sensitive recording medium, either film or an electronic sensor.  Seeing how the iris in a lens opens and closes and how the mechanical timer sets the duration of the shutter speed is a great way to understand exposure. The built in light meters of modern cameras make getting accurate exposures child's play.  

However, the thing about great images isn't necessarily technical accuracy, perfect exposure and pin sharp focus, but composition. Learning how to control exposure is the easy part; developing an eye for composition, a way of interpreting the world and depicting a scene, that's the tricky bit, and something I also cover as part of my workshops and personal tuition sessions.

Re-defining the Landscape

In 2010 I met Diana Korchien, then editor of PRA's Montage magazine at the Frontline Club in Paddington, during a presentation by the citizen journalism organisation Demotix.   After discussing the difficulties I'd experienced in launching my photography career, she asked if I'd write a short article for them.  Here it is:

I’m a freelance photographer and pretty new to this game, having only started in 2007, just as the financial crisis was beginning to hit.  I’m often asked “what kind of photography do you do?” and the answer is never easy.  Depending on who asks the question, the answer is often something like: “I mainly shoot people, editorial and commercial portraits, features, design agency work…” before tailing off while the possibility of retaining any sense of credibility still remains!

The fact is, it’s hard to survive on just one kind of photography. In a market where images are a short-term commodity bought cheaply amid stiff competition, photographers need to diversify and consequently be able to work in more than one genre.

The problem photographers face is that ways in which images are created, bought and sold has changed significantly over recent years, especially in photojournalism.  The days when picture desks would send photographers to cover a story are all but gone.  In general, photojournalists aren’t seen as story-tellers so much as story illustrators nowadays.

In 2010, the EPUK published an article on their website by the former head of Network Photographers and Magnum London, Neil Burgess in which he even called the ‘death of photojournalism’.

So who or what killed it?  There are a number of suspects.  The decline of print media and its replacement by online editions of newspapers and magazines?  The rapid growth of huge stock image libraries like Getty and Corbis, together with microstock and other image providers? While these have certainly played a contributing role, there is also an apparent assumption that images in the public domain are fair game as seen by AFP and Getty’s use of Daniel Morel’s images from Haiti, although thankfully Morel eventually won his case and was awarded damages of $1.2m in November 2013.  The rise of ‘citizen journalism’ where amateur photographers supply images, often free of charge for use by mainstream media is another factor.  The thousands of talented amateurs who use photo-sharing sites like Flickr without understanding the complexities of licensing and usage further undermine the profession as creatives scan these sites looking for cheap or free images.

This means there are now more images from a wider range of photographers being made available than ever before, and consequently there is less demand for full-time professionals.  So unless you’re a seasoned pro at the absolute top of your field or able to fund all of your own work, the scope for new photographers to develop is restricted to self-financing, grants or that elusive ‘lucky break’.

I also think there has been a major shift in peoples’ attitudes towards the value of photographic images.  We are so used to seeing both high and low quality photographs around us that many people can't differentiate between them and images themselves hardly register any more.  The photographic image is being steadily devalued through such immense yet largely un-recognised consumption of pictures.

The global financial crisis has also played its part.  Budget constraints mean that people won’t pay more than they have to and everyone is trying to economise.  That’s understandable, but it translates into there being less commissioned work available and photographers having to compete with stock images selling at rates which make it hard to earn a living by.

So where does that leave the freelance photographer trying to earn a living?  Aside from specialist fields like high-end fashion for example I believe that if professional photographers are to survive we need to redefine the landscape, try to influence the way the market behaves and work together with image makers, image distributors and image buyers to protect our shared and interdependent future.  We need to establish a new way of looking at photography and the role of photographers.  The question is, how?

Africa's Forgotten War

When I first started out as a freelance photographer I was keen to return to an area I had been to previously during a trip through Africa I made when I was in my twenties.  At the time I knew nothing of Western Sahara or the Polisario Front, but as I started to develop an interest in documentary photography and visual storytelling I wanted to explore the issue in more detail, so in 2007 I returned to the area in South West Algeria where Saharaoui refugees have made their home since their Moroccan enforced exile.

Since 1976 the Polisario Front, the government-in-exile of the Saharaoui fighting for self-determination of the Western Sahara, has been at war with Morocco.  The former Spanish colony was annexed by Morocco after the former colonial power left in 1975. It was later sealed off by a heavily guarded wall built by the Moroccans known as the Berm, stretching the length of the border between Occupied Western Sahara and the Polisario controlled liberated territories.

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Since a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991, Polisario soldiers, young and old, perform field exercises and scout Moroccan positions in the mine-ridden no man's land.  There are an estimated three million landmines and unexploded ordnance littering the former frontline resulting in many casualties and deaths every year among nomadic Berber livestock herders and Saharaoui.

Meanwhile, refugees from the Western Sahara who fled the conflict have been subsisting in dusty camps in neighbouring Algeria, Polisario's main ally, who have closed their border with Morocco.

Polisario estimates there are 170,000 refugees in the camps in South Western Algeria who rely on international aid, distributed by the United Nations.  Despite daily hardships the refugee camps are well-organised: women's rights are widely respected, literacy is above 90%, and many children go on to study at universities abroad.  A fragile ceasefire exists but tensions are high.  Saharaoui who remain in the occupied territories are subject to police discrimination, detention and regularly report incidents of human rights abuses.

I lived with Polisario soldiers in the desert and was able to travel with them to locations where they carried out military training and operations.  I also met some incredible people working with Landmine Action who were training local Saharaoui to clear mines from what is still one of the world's heaviest land-mined areas.

To see the picture gallery I shot for the BBC, click here

For more information on Western Sahara check out the amazing work being carried out by Sandblast

Cuban Rap

Towards the end of 2014 United States President Obama announced that America would restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, more than 50 years after President Eisenhower imposed a trade embargo on Cuban exports during the cold war.   What this means for the future of Cuba is uncertain, but it will no doubt mean that a big change is on its way.  

Cuba and the US have had a long-standing love/hate relationship but in it's cultural heritage, especially through music, Cuba has managed to bridge any divisions and reach a truly international, even global audience.

When you think of Cuban music, you think of the wealth of fantastic talent that has come out of Cuba over the years - artists like Willie Colon, Celia Cruz, Irakere and Buena Vista Social Club.  Nowadays, there is a big Reggaeton scene in Cuba (as there is elsewhere in Latin America) but what many people don't associate with the island is a flourishing Rap and Hip Hop scene.  Perhaps typical of Cuba, this American import has been enthusiastically adopted by Cubans and is steadily increasing in popularity.  In 2002 the Cuban government recognised the significance of the Rap music scene and even provided a degree of endorsement through a Ministry of Culture sponsored record label to promote local artists.

However, not all Cuban Rap artists are so enthusiastic about what they see as the State sponsored, somewhat sanitised version of their art form.  Alongside the officially recognised Rap scene there exists a slightly more subversive, slightly more critical scene.  Ironically, a lot of the artists aren't anti Castro or anti communist, but simply critical of the state and its methods of control.

Some years ago I travelled to Cuba with Zoë Murphy and we produced a picture slideshow for the BBC about the underground Rap Music scene.

 

What's an image worth?

What's a picture worth?  It depends.  Like most things, it's only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it.  Sure, there are industry 'norms' which dictate how much a newspaper or a publisher will pay a freelancer to go and shoot a feature, there may be 'typical' fees for commercial shoots, which might vary depending on usage.  Stock libraries have a fee structure for contributors and buyers and so on.  But in a world where the photographic image is a commodity which has become so readily accessible, it is hard to put a figure to the true value of a photographic image and the photographer's skill in creating that image.  There are even stock image libraries that place so little value on photography that they guarantee buyers to supply images for as little as $1.00 each.  The point to consider, in my opinion, is what the impact of a good shot is, over that of a rubbish one.  Good shots can easily be overlooked, but a bad one will stand out like a sore thumb.

When I teach, I often meet students who tell me with great pride that once they've learned how to use their cameras they'll be taking all the staff portraits at their place of work for use on the new company website or corporate brochure or whatever.  This depresses me.  Clearly the head of marketing or PR at their companies would rather save the fee of getting professional shots done and instead use the keen amateur.  That's not always the case, but it is an example of the shift in people's attitude towards the value of photography.  The thing is, we all have smart phones which are able to take relatively decent pictures without us having to understand the technical, or indeed creative processes that inform our decisions when we take a shot.   Add to that the huge number of applications which make our pictures look a million times better than they really are and most people think of themselves as able to take a decent photo.  So when faced with a 'real' camera people are easily led to believe that its owner is able to do as good a job as a professional.What's more, people generally take the view that because photography is something that photographers enjoy, they're prepared to do it for less, or even free.  I'm often asked on jobs to take additional pictures which weren't in the initial brief, 'while I'm here'.  Such requests raise a minor dilemma.  Is it better to provide the extra shots without question for the sake of good relations and the possibility of developing an on-going working relationship with a particular client, or is it worth trying to explain that any additional shots would incur additional costs and so risk upsetting and possibly losing a potentially regular client?  The fact is, if you get a professional decorator to paint your living room, would you ask him to do the hallway too, 'while he's here' and not expect to pay him?  Why should it be different for a photographer?  Yet the prevailing attitude remains that pressing the shutter release button a few more times costs nothing.  Never mind the additional time spent in post production, or re-arranging lights, backdrops or camera possibly to another location, simply 'while you're here'.

However, not all photography is quite so readily undervalued.  On the contrary, where there's money to be made, the value placed on photography can rise to stratospheric heights.

I was recently talking to a friend of mine, a freelance art director who not so long ago was working for a major agency on the re-branding of one of the largest supermarket chains in the UK.  A large part of the brief he told me was to increase customer awareness of fresh produce which had always been one of the weakest selling points for them.  He went on to tell me that they were using a food photographer who charges £5k per day.  £5k per day to shoot fresh fruit and veg in an attempt to convince customers that their fresh produce is of the finest quality!  Admittedly, the pictures they'd been using to date were terrible (more because of poor styling than poor photography) but is £5k per day really worth it? Where product photography as part of a large advertising strategy leads to increased sales and profit it seems that the value placed on photographs is not insignificant and clearly is worth it.

Because when people choose to use a professional, what they're actually choosing is more than simple camera skills.  What the professional offers over and above knowing how to take a photograph is consistency, reliability and the ability to deliver a product which correctly interprets the brief, as well as problem solving skills and the benefit of experience (I've heard it said that one of the things that separates the pro from the amateur is not that the pro doesn't make mistakes, but that the pro knows how to correct them!).

So the question of what a photograph is worth goes largely unanswered.  It's worth what someone is prepared to pay for it.  Perhaps a better question would be "What's a Photographer worth?'

 

Moments of Truth

It’s long been said that the camera never lies.  That’s not true.  It may not be the camera itself that does the lying but the person holding it is certainly manipulating the truth every single time the shutter is released.  Take for example the famous pyramids in Giza.  I’ve never been there but I’m reliably informed that Cairo’s urban sprawl encroaches right on to the edge of that so often photographed vista in the desert.  The fact is, most shots of the pyramids are taken from an angle that excludes views of Africa’s second largest city.

Whenever we take a photograph it is up to us as photographers to make decisions, often sub-consciously, about what we include in the shot, how we frame it, how we expose it, what camera angle we choose and so on.  But just as important is what we choose to leave out.  That is often a more conscious decision and one that can lead to much controversy if not taken carefully.  And it’s not only photographers who manipulate truth and reality in this way.  When it comes to reporting current affairs, Picture Editors decide which images best tell the story that they want to be told, thereby immediately introducing a second level of decision-making in to what is finally presented to the picture consuming public.

Take for example the emotionally powerful image of a four-year old refugee taken at the beginning of the current conflict in Syria, seemingly lost and alone in the desert and found by UN workers.  In reality he had become separated from his family but was far from alone in the desert.  The image had been cropped to represent a "cropped" version of the story.  So while the camera itself isn’t actually lying, it is being used as a tool that is selective about what is represented.  And as such it is able to focus the viewers’ attention on specific elements which are particularly significant or effective in creating a response.

Similarly, images posted on twitter in 2014 depicting state violence and brutality towards civilians in protests in Venezuela were a mixture of both truth and fiction.  Alongside genuine shots of the Venezuelan protests, images of police brutality from other protests around the world were also used, presumably in an attempt to create a stronger reaction and thereby generate sympathy and support for the protesters, especially given the lack of media attention they were receiving.   However, if people are trying to tell the truth through the use of photographic images, they aren’t doing themselves any favours when they use them in this way.

But the question of “telling the truth” goes far beyond using images from other conflicts in a different context and claiming they are genuine, or cropping in to a small section of a wider scene for maximum effect.  It starts with what a photographer chooses to represent in an image.  The history of photography provides many examples of staged scenes depicting a supposed truth.

The obvious example is of Robert Capa’s famous picture of a falling soldier shot during the Spanish civil war which has often been accused of being faked, although Capa himself denied this.  Fred Morley’s image of a chirpy milkman delivering milk through ruined London streets during the Blitz is on the other hand a confirmed fake.  Nevertheless, both are powerful images which reflect a genuine representation of real events.

By contrast, in 2004 the Daily Mirror published fake pictures of British army brutality in Iraq, resulting in the newspaper sacking it’s then editor Piers Morgan.   In this instance the intention was less about offering a genuine news story or an insightful perspective on a conflict situation, more about selling newspapers through the use of shocking imagery.  Shock, like sex, sells.

But it’s not only the question of staged scenes which cast doubt over the authenticity of photographs.  Photographers are often accused of photo-shopping images as if it’s a crime.  There was huge debate about truth in photography in relation to Paul Hansen’s winning image of the 2012 World Press Photography Award on the basis that the image had been overly photo-shopped.  For a detailed discussion of the controversy, click here.  This year again, the debate is revisited in the same vein, with 20% of images being disqualified in the penultimate round due to manipulation in post production.  

The fact is that photographs have always been manipulated in some way or another.  It is in the very nature of photography to be selective in what is represented in and by an image.  If a photograph has been digitally processed to enhance tonal contrast or increase saturation for dramatic effect, that’s no different to dodging and burning techniques used by dark room technicians in the days of processing film and making prints.  The extent to which an image is re-touched during this process is subject to endless debate in terms of what is acceptable and where to draw the line.  There is no end of debate surrounding fashion photography and the impact that has on image-conscious teenagers with aspirations to look like something that could never possibly be achieved without the aid of Photoshop and the damage that can lead to.

The point is, photographic images are powerful tools and their manipulation has existed as long as photography has.  Manipulation here refers not only to the image itself but also its use as a medium to communicate information.  If a photograph can lead us to question what we see and in so doing nurture a better understanding of the world and the events that take place in it, that is surely a good thing.  Furthermore it can also shine a spotlight on our reactions to those events and help develop a better understanding of our collective sense of morality.  The difficulty can be in filtering the good from the bad, the genuine from the fake, especially in an era where so many image manipulation options are so readily available to so many.

We as consumers have become so used to seeing powerful and arresting images that we are becoming increasingly desensitised to them.  After Kevin Carter shot his Pulitzer Prize winning image of a starving child in Sudan in 1993 it was used by an international aid charity as a poster campaign to raise awareness of dreadful human suffering and tragedy.  I wonder if it would have the same impact today.  The fact is, that image was also slightly misleading.  The child was starving.  There was a vulture in the background.  But the child was in a camp where international food aid was being distributed, not alone in the desert as the image might make you believe.  And if you’ve been to certain parts of Africa, you’ll know that vultures are as common there as pigeons are in Trafalgar Square.


The success of the shot lies in the photographer’s decisions on how to take the shot for maximum impact in order to tell the story, in this case an undeniably true story of human suffering.  It’s precisely that ability to make those decisions that defines great photographers.  Sadly, Carter committed suicide only three months after taking that picture.

So while truth may or may not exist independently of a person’s interpretation of what they think it is, and the camera remains a tool used to selectively represent reality, a great photograph is still one person’s moment of truth captured at around 1/125th second.