I recently finished editing the bulk of images from my last trip to the Karoo. The ongoing project, Karoo – A Changing Landscape can be viewed on my website at: http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/karoo/
I was wading through some news articles a few days ago when I came across one about simmering political tensions in the Rift Valley in Kenya (Rifts in the Rift – 23rd January 2016 – The Economist). It talked about the tribal divisions that are still rife in politics in the country and showed how such tensions might boil over in elections around mid-2017, especially in multi-tribal towns like Naivasha.
I immediately felt some discomfort when reading the article especially when suddenly realising that by some dark twist of fate I was reading it the very day 8 years ago I had been in Naivasha itself covering the violence. On a whim, I decided to revisit that time briefly to see upon reflection what the images – and in particular the one image above of a recently deceased Grace Mungai and her traumatised baby Brian – that caught the media’s attention ever so briefly – means to me today. It has taken a few days to be even able to sit down and do this… I hardly revisit or talk about anything from that time – In fact, I don’t really even ever look through my old photojournalistic website at all – let alone write a blog about it. I find it really hard. I still get edgy and very nervous thinking about anything from time spent in conflict situations in general.
I took a photo that day – very much the right place and time type – of a horrific scenario that spread round the media campfire through Reuters and initially via the New York Times and came to be very much a brief talking point. Of course, I had no idea at the time. The photo itself is not well composed, very graphic, intrusive and just pure overwhelming content.
It was pure luck I had made my way to Naivasha anyway. I was actually en route to Nakuru further along the Rift Valley where violence was also apparently in full swing when news of clashes in Naivasha broke on the BBC World Service. I made the decision to divert into the very scenic town more out of curiosity, still planning to move on down the road later on. Surely this beautiful flower producing tourist centre couldn’t have been so affected? I was so wrong. I’ll let myself take up the story as I wrote it 8 years ago:
‘As soon as I arrived in Naivasha town it was clear that events were unraveling fast, with fires burning in several locations and the increasingly familiar smell of tear gas sweeping the entire town. The crack of live rounds from the GSU (General Service Unit – the Kenyan riot police) could be heard in the distance. I found a GSU patrol, left the car and followed them into an area of shanty dwelling where rioters were still battling with police.
Suddenly the sound of screaming women and children filled the air. Drawn to the noise, I found a group of people wailing outside a small corrugated iron dwelling. Everyone was in a frantic state and a lady had began removing all her clothes seemingly so overcome that she was unaware of what she was doing. When I looked inside the house, the sight that greeted me was so gripping that I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of dread. Before me lay a dead mother, shot through the neck, with her crying baby sitting on a chair behind. The dwelling seemed to have been ransacked. I took a few pictures, but then realised the frenzy of the crowd had begun turning its attentions to me. They were asking that perennial question that is asked of many journalists in similar situations. ‘Why don’t you help us?‘
A few days later, after the photo was printed page 3 of the NY Times, people had started writing in and asking a similar question as those that had surrounded the terrible scene that day – What had I done for the baby? Radu Sigheti – Reuters Africa Chief Photographer between ’03-’09 phoned me a few days later to get my side as a swell of readers had began asking that very question – maybe fearing a Kevin Carter style backlash in the heat of the media frenzy over his infamous vulture and baby shot. Upon reflection it is unreasonable to ask such things. I came to understand the role of photojournalist that day as being a concept that had become very mixed up in the general public’s perception. The drive to always be perceived as a humanist, a compassionate witness responsible for far more than the narrow remit of reporting news but rather fulfilling the altruistic dreams of what many would perceive themselves as having done from their armchairs a million miles away.
I had very much by chance ticked most of their boxes that day. I responded to the horrific scene and the restless crowd by seeking out an ambulance from the local hospital. It had taken time to find one and when I did, the crew were fearful – being from a different tribe on the opposing side of the clashes – that they themselves would be set upon by the crowd. The fact that news had got to me too that the baby’s dad was also on the scene by then and that I had to continue doing my freelance duty put an end to the futile effort.
It was in fact my assistant that day who turned to me and said – ‘what are you doing?!’. I had a job to do and here I was spending a disproportionate amount of time organising ambulances. To be honest I felt ashamed by having been overwhelmed by emotion, by being driven by a misplaced sense of duty and it all felt very unprofessional. It is this paradox – between reality and general perceptions of being a conflict photographer that has always left me bemused and something that has made me critical of this type of photography in the past (all covered extensively to the point of annoying in previous blogs so I won’t say much more about it here!).
What I haven’t said much about that day is that a bit later on I was set upon and nearly killed by a machete-wielding gang of youths. I had been innocuously asked ‘Are you CNN?’ while walking back to the car preparing to travel to Nairobi to file the pics somewhere. CNN were perceived then as having been biased against the majority tribe in Naivasha who were reportedly instigating the violence that day. It was claimed in later years at the ICC that the violence was calculated and organised that day. I remember clearly how a short young man watched on impassively as he directed the youths to attack me when I brushed their question aside. They used the butt of their machetes to try and put me on the ground for what seemed like an age but must of been about a minute. I knew I was in serious trouble as they didn’t even try and steal my cameras. Had I gone to ground I feel I would have been in real trouble. I think they were hesitant to really attack but – like all power games – the weaker one gets in a fight – the more it drives an uncontrollable lust for victory over the vanquished.
My assistant thankfully stepped in and gave me a few seconds breathing space to make a run for it. I remember rugby sized rocks whizzing inches from my head. I ran – carrying 2 DSLR’s as fast as I could down the middle of a wide road, lined on either side by drunken locals who had been whipped into a frenzy and were aiming projectiles at me as I ran. It was a miracle I escaped that day. I was bundled into the back of the car and we drove out as fast as we could back to Nairobi.
Looking at all the pics on my old website I think I am truly proud of only one from conflict zones and that is of a missile fired by SPLA soldiers on the frontline of fighting with rebel soldiers north of Bor in South Sudan. Another coincidence but it is also nearly the anniversary of this pic, taken 2 years ago on 26th Jan.
I like it mainly because there isn’t any direct graphic content and only alludes to it. I feel it is much more powerful because of it. Taking it was difficult too – the scream and overpowering noise of the missiles is just unbelievable to the uninitiated. I have never heard anything like it – completely possessing your body and shaking you to your foundations. Concentrating on pic-taking with the noise and a fast moving body is hard to say the least, let alone trying to compose a decent picture. I had to take video for Reuters as well that day and you can clearly hear me say very unprofessionally ‘Fucking Hell!’ after the first rocket was fired (much to the annoyance of the video editor later on.. Thankfully there was a lot more footage to select from)… I remember later on being a bit too eager and getting too close to one particular cartouche rocket being fired out the back of a jeep trying to get that perfect shot and the sound and energy literally knocked me on my back in slow-motion like in some cartoon (to the wild amusement of the SPLA soldiers and their usually very dark and brooding General).
Such moments of levity are few and far between. I am writing this as fast as possible hoping to end the blog as soon as I can. For all that I really remember is the unbelievable level of violence, darkness and evil that surrounds you in conflict. And it stays with you – however brief you might have been there as an observer or ‘witness’ – it clings to the sub-conscience like a parasite. A few months after I came back from South Sudan I travelled into the Karoo desert north of Cape Town with a friend. I remember him joking about all the shapes he could see in the hills in the landscape around us… I recollect being very quiet not responding and not saying much – all I could see were the outlines of faceless dead people – rotten carcasses, and specifically those of women and children.
work on my journalistic website is at www.geojournalism.com
Just came back from a week’s trip in the Karoo – as a continuation of a long-term photo project I am currently undertaking out there (Karoo – A Changing Landscape: http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/karoo/ ). I was determined to undertake the challenging off-road journey out there- even if I have been distracted with things back in CT recently… Looking over past work in preparation for the trip, I realised I had to focus more on its wonderfully eccentric peoples to balance the opening part of the project (that has focused more on abstract and landscape images). In the short space of time out there, I managed to start fulfilling that goal (although of course I also shot a wide range of appropriate landscape shots – it is so hard to resist the temptation in the idiosyncratic Karoo!).
Even in the short space of time out there on this occasion – the wonderfully warm and friendly peoples of the Karoo – from all walks of life – helped make my pic-taking job easier. In many ways it is a hark back to a vanishing and more idyllic and simple existence – A way of being that I believed had been swallowed up by everyday modern urban life long ago. Will be making a 3 week trip in the next few months again… really looking forward to getting back out there too…
I’ve decided recently to bite the bullet and set up a studio space in Cape Town. Choosing a space from the stock of commercial property that was available was a slow decision-making process in itself but eventually settled on a 125 sq metre space in central CBD. I knew the space would need quite a bit of work – basically being an open-plan industrial space. But the location was great – within a 2 minute walking distance of the two largest photographic equipment sales and hire shops in CT and located in a building that is home to quite a few media, film & casting companies making it a bit of a hub and an ideal spot to inhabit.
The chance to fashion my own space and build a studio from scratch was also an exciting prospect- and an opportunity to make it my own. Being an industrial space it came with a three-phase electrical system – essential to carry the lighting load on a multi-lighting set and ensure no cut-outs. Apart from re-coating the floors with epoxy (to take the heavy load of lighting equipment without marking too much), I had to also fit specially made blinds to ensure total blackout. Again, the location worked very much to my advantage in that there is no direct sunlight on it. I went for white blinds – in keeping with the floors and walls (except on the shooting side which is brick), but more importantly – the blockout was more than enough to achieve the required blackout when shooting.
I have installed a post-production suite as well, with an excellent Eizo 24″ monitor that will allow clients to live view shoots. In terms of client orientated comfort I have placed a lounging area with couch (No need to tell me! I know the couch is too close to the shooting area at the mo in the pics – we will re-arrange everything shortly!) as well as a shelving unit to accommodate the international photo mags and books from a range of photogs from all walks of the business. Hopefully this will be enough to keep everyone entertained during the more tedious periods of a photo shoot (though I might be forced to add some more gossipy magazines or even a TV at some stage!).
One small prob is that there is a small sectioned off kitchen area that will also have to double up as a dedicated make-up dresser area. Fitting everything together and make it work was a headache but seem to have found a solution that works fine. I had the make-up dresser specially built after speaking to a couple of well-established make-up artists in the business here. Both seemed to prefer the cold nature of florescent lighting (rather than the warmer tones of the tungsten lighting associated with traditional theater dressers).
Overall, I’m happy with how the studio is coming along, but there is still much to do before it will be possible to launch. I still have to put in stuff like infinity curves (the backdrops I have now are only for the standard white, black and grey so will play with more ambitious colours here) and of course a reservoir of decent clothes for shoots (looking forward to doing some second-hand clothes shopping soon!).
I have also just started on the marketing side of things (logo, website, postcards, leaflets etc). I decided early on to split the studio business away from my own freelance photography business. While the studio will be my base and will be used for my own commercial work (as well as a discreet gallery space to display my some of my socio-documentary art work as well), I came up with a business plan that focuses on multiple revenue streams, including studio hire, commercial, model and family portrait shoots as well as a teaching space. To achieve this, I thought it best to keep myself and my own business separate from that of the studio’s. I think the marketing side will be greatly spurred along by the potential choice of studio manager too. While being a great photographer herself (focusing mainly on the stock side and being part-owner of a stock site) she comes historically from an extensive internationally-based web and social media background. This will certainly help in marketing and pushing the studio online and to potential clients in future (as well as being friendly and fun to be around as well!).
Dealing with the insurance side of all this was a bit tricky and actually took about 2 and a half weeks of careful negotiations. At the moment I still insure my equipment worldwide through UK insurers that provide worldwide coverage (as I travel back to the UK at least once a year) as it has proven far cheaper than insuring in South Africa where I am sure higher crime rates here make premiums a lot more pricey. Now that I have some studio-based items as part of a local business, I could no longer insure certain items through the UK. Splitting my equipment list between freelance gear that would remain covered in the UK and studio items that would have to be covered locally took some effort. Then having to set maximum value limits for gear that would regularly leave the studio (at any 1 time) was quite a task but greatly reduced the premium at both ends. The devil really is in the detail and care had to be taken to make sure that in the worst case scenario I wouldn’t be left high and dry…. But I managed to more than half the total cost from what it would have been had I been insured just in SA. Honestly, if you are a photographer who takes equipment out a lot, I would definitely recommend Aaduki Multimedia Insurance in the UK (not exactly the friendliest of peeps but great at getting specialised photography insurance cover at decent rates) and the Hereford Group if you are these sides. The Hereford Group especially really pushed my case and gave great advice in the protracted and complicated process.
I’m in the Karoo (the desert expanse north of Cape Town) at the mo continuing with one of my photo book projects. I have decided – despite the perfect conditions for time lapse (at a time when the moon is at the beginning of its cycle) – not to indulge myself and to focus on one thing out here (I have blogged earlier this year about having spread myself too thin on the personal project side!)… I love the Karoo – there is a serenity and peaceful aura about it that helps to re-energise and renew myself for life back in the city – even if the pic-taking itself can be hard work – walking around and driving distances in extreme heat and cold nights (which is why I took the afternoon lull in everyday life here where temps can hit 40C+ to write this blog!). It is as far from the idea of Africa as many of us imagine it as you can get – more akin to the Andean plateau of Bolivia and Peru than any jungle or Savannah plain that is more typical elsewhere on the Continent. And if meeting wonderfully eccentric folk with amazing stories to tell is your thing generally – then I def advise a visit here!
Hey all… have a bit of exicting news wanted to share… As part of the 5th Annual Exposure Photography Awards run by the See Me photographic collective, the image above made it through the first round and will appear in an exhibition in the Documentary Collection at the reception area of the Louvre Museum premiering on July 13th and in the subsequent print and online photography exhibition for the Awards. My full Exposure Awards entry is at:
Going through old series for a new website (it’ll go live end June/beginning July… I’ll write a short blog about the process next which has been different and interesting to say the least), I found this mini-series from a few years ago that I now intend to slowly resurrect, albeit in a slightly different form in the coming year. I was helping a colleague shoot something or other a few years ago in Tokai and Newlands forests in Cape Town, when in the lull in between shooting I started taking close-up pics of the forest environment of my own. In the textures of the bark of the trees and the formations of small rocks I could make out faces, even contorted creatures of old legend and myths that I tried to capture through balancing flash light and manipulating as much as I could the available light. I took it up a few more times on my own time too and even started using a macro lens when it was warranted.
Back when I was a more a news photographer I guess this didn’t really fit in anywhere so I quietly put it on a old hard drive and let it gather digital dust! It was fun doing it though and look forward to taking it forward in some form or another – even if it does become just a big old personal project!
In preparation for building a new website I have been going through some of my (very) old work… Came up with this pic from my days on the Postgrad course at LCP (now London College of Communication).
After marching with coca farmers half way across Los Yungas to protest in the capital La Paz, I did a side story about a lone Catholic priest who had been cast aside for his liberal methods on tackling drug addiction in his once sizable Munich parish and now worked with street children in El Alto – the large, sprawling shanty town (and a city in its own right) just outside La Paz.
It was taken in the days when I would shoot on grainy Fuji Superia 1600 film and then either scan it on the old Microtek (and spend hours getting rid of dust and scratches in some ancient version of Photoshop) or spend hours in a darkroom fiddling with chemicals in annoyingly dim infra-red light… those were the days! I think I used this pic for my first ever business card (which of course I did myself on an early version Epson inkjet printer)!
Interesting to see how my relation to my old work changes with time… at first discarding it as early experimentation but in time seeing (some) of it in a new light. It is also interesting to see how some things never change – my work does tend to gravitate towards light-hearted moments even in apparently dark situations (which I guess somehow mirrors my own personality on some deep level).. my Hangberg long-term project is permeated with such images.
I spent an important day away from the photography side of things to do a Video Editing course with Fletcher Murray. The course itself was educational and I got to ground myself better in the important post-prod side of shooting video. I have been undertaking a doccie last couple of years concerning the front line services, including counsellors, forensic doctors and police department involved with the dark issue of dealing with the deluge of child assault cases in the main township of Cape Town called Khayelitsha where as many as 1 in 3 children will suffer some form of sexual abuse by the time they are 18.
I have shot a fair amount of footage – mainly talking heads though – but have been unable thus far to move it forward. One problem has been technical, falling a bit flat at the first edit stage partly. In the past pre-digital era, editing was more formulaic but these days, editing is increasingly one of the most important part of the doccie production process and knowledge of it and technical know-how of prem pro or final cut is essential even if I am not going to edit the final cut myself ultimately. It is not just techinical though – knowing what to cut and what to keep – even when I know my story intimately has been difficult for me.
Taking the course was important and will allow me to begin to move the doccie forward again. But it is not just on the technical side where I had issues:
For starters, while being a strong and important topic to tackle, in practice there is not much leeway of what can be shown. I was hoping to depict the gravity of what was being dealt with and essentially the ‘unseen horror’ (which could never be shown directly for obvious reasons) through the emotions and reactions of those working with the issue. But what has happened essentially given the monumental task of achieving access through South African Governmental departments and of course the police force is that access is very controlled and restrictive and what essentially I have is a whole load of talking heads.
Professionals are also hardened to the issue and it is very hard to capture the emotionality of the subject and therefore the ‘unseen horror’ with people who have to protect themselves and form a professional barrier between their personal feelings and the terrible nature of what they deal with on a day to day basis. And it is especially hard when the access is limited to a series of interviews.
I also realised a while back and even at the Palm Springs Photo Festival where I was pulled in so many directions – from photography to time lapse and then back to video editing – that I have very much spread myself a bit thin professionally and something had to give. I see myself as a photographer first – but also know that I got into it as a photojournalist with a love and training in essentially telling linear stories. The days for doing that in photography are essentially gone or going but in documentaries the possibilties are there and very much relevant. I certainly feel that I will possibly end up in this field one day – but for now I have had to put the documentary on the back burner as I decide what to do and how to get the essential B-Roll that will make or break the doccie. I have ideas and with more ideas about editing and the principles behind it will certainly help.
I spent 2 days at the festival doing a workshop on time lapse with Jeff Frost – one of the people who is taking the medium onto new and innovative places. For all those who haven’t seen his work please check his website:
What I particularly love about his work is that he is really testing the boundaries of the genre and is one of the few time lapsers out there who is moving it more towards the art installation world. Many have said that time lapse might have reached its peak with all the amazing nature pieces out there. But Jeff has begun to show the possibilities and you can see – through his work especially – that the medium is just starting to get going in many ways. Check out in particular the piece ‘Circle of Abstract Ritual‘ which is a great mix of time lapse, hyper lapse and video to create a seminal piece of stand-alone time lapse work:
His course matched expectations to say the least. He begun by telling us that this was probably the last time he would teach and he was willing to let the cat out of the bag and leave no stone unturned so to speak… and he was true to his word. We spent a long time analysing his pieces and he would be very open about the techniques he used which was useful to say the least.
In particular what I really connected to was the hyper lapse technique where one would move in unpredictable ways in all directions – all done on a tripod and camera and using personal judgement when moving the tripod in a certain direction after each shot. The dedication required to achieve some of the work he does is impressive and scary for me at the same time, but I love the medium and hope to take it forward on some level going forward into the future.
Learning as well as the possibilities to monetize the medium was very interesting to say the least. For now, I have given my small pieces meant for show reel to one of the libraries I am working with who was interested in trying to sell them but I think in the long-term, after doing this course, I will probably scrap it all for show reel and start again. Ideas and possibilities are endless and hopefully I will find some sort of niche in it in the future.
Well, just spent a hectic but awesome week in Palm Springs, California at the 10th Annual Palm Springs Photo Festival. I have now done 3 or so festivals (of which only another in New York in the US) and must say this was by far the most relaxed and enjoyable and inspiring on a personal level. It was a complete whirlwind of a week, spending anything up to 15 hour days non-stop with workshops, reviews, networking, symposiums and presentations. Apart from the workshops (which I’ll come back to in subsequent blogs) the highlight had to be the daily presentations by some of the biggest and historically-significant photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, William Albert Allard, Dan Winters, Jock Sturges and Frank Ockenfels. Seeing Mary Ellen Mark’s presentation in particular made the largest impression even though I must say I had seen and heard a lot of the stories about her seminal work before. Seeing her talking about it in person though was an experience of note. Along with Don McCullin and Lee Miller she is one of three photographers who inspired me most to become a photojournalist and get into photography in the first place. I have posted her talk on my fb page if anyone is interested. At 75 years of age and looking painfully frail I imagine this might be the last time I would get to see her talk and just being there to witness it was an honour in itself.
Meeting my fellow photographers from all walks – all connected by their dedication to the cause and seeing their work was almost as important and inspiring as well. Sometimes stuck out in a small village outside Cape Town I really miss contact with my fellow peers from around the world so just getting to hang and talk photography was such a great experience in itself.
On a professional level, the workshops and showing my new work was the main reason for flying all the way from Cape Town to attend. I have done a few portfolio reviews and had general conversations about their worth with people who sit on the other side of the review table and had my doubts before as to what I would ultimately gain from them. It is great that you have so many prominent members of the photog community that you might want to see in one place, but the fact that they are seeing anything up to 30 photographers in a day in small 20 minute segments doesn’t help you stand out and puts a photographer at an instant disadvantage. I had been told by a reviewer that in general a photographer is lucky if he gets one good contact to begin building a positive relationship with from all the reviews he might do.
Going in therefore my expectations were already low. But my experience after 10 reviews during the week was very positive. I think having done them before and knowing exactly what I wanted from them really helped. I was there to show a new style of work and artistic and conceptually-based long term projects, to get feedback and advice and to maybe start relationships to build on in the long-term with prominent members of the art and book world of photography – an area where I haven’t had much contact in the past. Firstly the general consensus was that the pieces worked and were strong (the Karoo project as I clearly stated from the outset was early in development and needed a lot more work but had good foundations but the Hangberg work was perceived as ready to go).
On the downside, the socio-documentary based nature of the work and South African content means that avenues especially in the gallery world in the US are limited. I knew that already but what came out of the reviews is that it is not necessarily impossible. What I will need to do (and something I knew before) is to start by approaching local globally esteemed galleries in South Africa and use such representation to build up interest elsewhere. As I said when this was brought up in the reviews, I essentially want both projects to be airtight and completely ready before approaching galleries in SA and I was more at Palm Springs to get the necessary feedback and use the general consensus to help in the development of the projects. And on that level, the reviewers connected with this approach and helped enormously.
In terms of starting relationships though I was more than pleasantly surprised with quite a few giving me their details and asking me specifically to keep them informed on developments. One really cool guy and also large and esteemed book publisher, who I thought would not develop into much, gave me his personal mobile phone contact details and allowed me to call him for advice as the projects progress. I think a lot of that as well has to do with the way photographers connect with the reviewers. I was particularly relaxed and often joked with them and just talked about all things even outside photography. I even talked about growing olive trees with the book publisher I just mentioned which is his passion now for a good 3/4 minutes of my review. When meeting Holly Hughes (PDN Editor-in-Chief – a highly respected and important mag for us photographers based out of NY – I advise all photographers who don’t already to read it regularly for advice, great work and keeping up with what is going on with all fields in photog- it is in fact my homepage) asked what I wanted out of the review I immediately joked back – well to publish all my work of course! I didn’t obviously knowing that is not what these reviews are about. But breaking the ice in such ways is a good way to settle in and hope to build later on a serious working relationship. One reviewer who I particularly wanted to see and who I found out later had told someone independently he thought mine was the best portfolio he had seen, ended our pleasant session by saying ‘Now get the hell away from my desk!’ – I responded with feigned puppy dog eyes ‘But I thought you liked my work?!’ to which he replied ‘Nah – not that much – now go!’. We both laughed as I walked away.
Ironically where I had most success in actual direct leads for work was the editorial side of things which I wasn’t really at the festival to focus on. I bumped into a couple of editors I had done jobs for before (and whom I had never met in person). It is so important – even in the inter-connected digital age to do things the old fashion way and meet face to face. Tracey Woods of Essence Mag in particular was great to bump into. I had shot Michelle Obama as part of the press pack for her when she visited SA a few years ago. Had a few long chats and even pitched one of my older stories I have done (the Life After Rape portrait series). Not saying it will be published but the interest was there and it is now up to me to follow up.
I even had interest to publish one of my long-term projects in a US-wide magazine. I didn’t really go for meeting mag editors at the reviews thinking that publishing such art-based projects might hurt my chances later to get them into the gallery and book publishing world. That turns out to be a load of nonsense. I should have therefore done more meetings with mag editors but have enough contacts anyway worldwide in that area to go back to SA and do that myself.
All in all, I came away very positive from the reviews and networking. But this is well and truly just the beginning of a long journey. The groundwork has been laid but it is wholly in my court how and where I take this and build on the positives that came out of the sunny desert of California in the awesome shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains.