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Presenting an Art Portfolio, Conceptualising and Apartheid

A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen… the meaning is the use.

Susan Sontag – On Photography

Spent the last few hectic weeks in the UK and a small trip to Europe preparing amongst other things a portfolio of my 2 long-term projects: ‘Of Religion and Gangsters’ & ‘A Changing Landscape’ – that is making large prints, presentational Blurb self-published books and new cards and websites (frustrating work in progress this last one!). At this early stage, the most important thing when showing the new work has been the feedback from peeps well-placed in the industry whose cumulative opinions ultimately help my own decision-making process in what way to take my own work.

The highlight of these meetings for me was definitely getting to hook up again with my old mentor from the Northern Lights Masterclass, Marc Prust in Amsterdam.

Marc is one of those rare successful guys who is also a genuinely friendly and open guy. Spent a pleasant afternoon chewing the fat and of course trying to put the world of photography to right over a couple of beers.  For me, getting feedback from Marc is a bit like being broken down in basic Marine training – all my ideas (read here delusions) about my own work quickly evaporate, but in the long-run from that come the crumbs that help build stronger more relevant ideas around my own work.

I have known for the longest time that presenting my own work has never been one of my strong points. I have always been one of those photogs more comfortable hiding behind agencies and not having to market myself directly. Assignments have always come relatively easy in that I have always been good at implementing someone’s photographic specs (however ludicrous and unrealistic the logistics and timelines etc may sometimes be – and always with a big fat smile on ma face!).  But to truly progress as a photog, unlike many other professions, this is simply not enough. Professional photography – in all fields, but especially in the world of book, gallery and art photography has this added dimension where you are and must be in a perpetual state of self-promotion. At the end of the day, if you don’t keep up with the newsletters, emails, blogs and portfolio reviews (but the relevance of portfolio reviews is questionable and will write about in a future blog), then with so much competition out there, you will simply be forgotten and quickly at that matter.

Given its importance, it has been essential that I bring these skills up to scratch. To say it has been a hard experience preparing is an understatement to say the least. But as Marc, who first sat me down on a couch like some Freudian interrogative session before even looking at my pics rightly pointed out: The problem and strength of my own presentation of the work, begins way before deciding how to show it. I have go way back to having an airtight idea of who I am professionally (esp now I have decided to leave the world of news photography behind) and essentially where I am going. I previously had some vague notion that I was doing these two projects to test the waters and either create a book (which I now think is def possible) or approach a gallery space or even to use as promotional tools to make contacts in this new field and from that build relationships that will eventually lead to the same goal with future projects. After our convo, I realised that this idea needs serious development. I have began formulating a much more solid idea and essentially a business plan – of where I want to be in 5 or 10 years. What now seems obvious, is that without this – it is hard to decide ultimately the best method to convey the work or even the best way to edit it: Understanding whether the work is strictly art portfolio, has a documentary-style narrative and therefore where it’s final destination will be will at the very start determine how best to present the work.

The other side of getting the basics right is having a solid conceptual basis for both projects to work around. It is interesting that even before I presented my work, the concepts for both have evolved and transitioned into something very different from where they started life and especially for my ‘Of Religion and Gangsters’ project.

I find it so interesting how the same set of images, edited and presented differently with a totally different conceptual idea can have such different meaning and be made more profound and relevant on the back of a great solid concept (and hence the Susan Sontag quote above). Of course, you can’t fake it at all. In all probability I will have to go back and shoot a lot more for both projects but at least once I have the concepts for them firmly nailed down I have a great set of images as a starting point and ultimately the rest will fall into place rapidly.

I knew conceptually both projects needed developing and being able to bounce ideas has been a god-send.

It is interesting that what came out though organically from the meetings was that I am moving towards tying them both to a narrative that is in both cases loosely based on a framework around the concept of apartheid and its continuing effects on South African society. I do hesitate in ever doing such things. I find it contrived and cliché to even mention it as many have done before and as many who live in SA know, the everyday narrative has transformed and moved forward a lot. But in many ways it also hasn’t – and more significantly – in the all-important international world of opinion, SA is still viewed through the eyes of apartheid and the positive redeeming journey towards the relatively peaceful transition to independence.   In photography (as in many art and media platforms) it is work and concepts based somehow on this idea that continue to have appeal in the West.

Of course, there are well-established photographers out there who have done an amazing job of moving and helping to transform this perception of SA and even Africa as a whole. Pieter Hugo immediately comes to mind and who is currently my stand out photographer (check out his new work ‘Kin’ based on his relationship to his surrounding environment i SA which has now become more releavnt to him after having a family) and of course there is the forefather of a new South African narrative Roger Ballen and his seminal book ‘Outland‘ (not a big fan I must say though).  Might or might not do a future blog on African narrative in photography which is something dear to my heart.

I must say though by attaching an interesting and innovative angle based loosely around the framework of apartheid to both my long-term projects, I see them in a new and exciting light and has given them a more profound visual purpose that genuinely excites me. Evolving both concepts and setting out to finish and shoot both projects is something that gives a new breath of life to the work and the feedback, especially from Marc (however punishing and ego-shattering!) brings with it much welcome new possibilities… and I can’t wait to see where that road might lead.

The fire on the mountain, World Press Photo Awards and Letting Photojournalism go as a Profession to save Photography

It is time to let photojournalism go as a profession and recognise it has and will become far more inclusive in nature. It is time to ring fence and protect photography’s exclusivity in the digital age and clearly define what is and what isn’t professional photography. And photojournalism no longer is.

 

Yeah I know, grandiose title typical of me but recent events on both the local and international stage indirectly lead me to have an epiphany about the state of photography as a profession and what in my humble opinion (however grandiose the conclusion) was the answer and way forward.

We had a massive fire here in Hout Bay around Cape Town but as far away as Cape Point that engulfed entire neighbourhoods, laid waste to thousands of hectares of pristine Cape landscape and nature reserves and destroyed houses, top hotels and prestigious vineyards. Just as the out of control fire swept into our area the strong winds thankfully subsided and heaven sent rain essentially killed it just as it threatened to sweep into Hout Bay from both sides of our village.

The response from the community was unbelievable. Fire fighters especially worked days on end without rest to stop the advance and were supplemented by volunteers from the community and by a constant stream of donations of supplies from us all. My poor mum visiting from the UK and who had to bear all of this on a supposed holiday wanted to volunteer but I never would have heard the end of it from peeps back in England so gently convinced her to stand down and we donated as much as poss to support the effort instead.

On the photography side, the first day (last Monday) that the fire arrived in Hout Bay I was up at 5 and on the road to take pics. I was stopped from getting too close to then then epicentre of the fire on instruction from the Fire Chief. I didn’t argue or wrangle my way too much as I would surely have done in the past and decided to go to the other side of the Bay and take more landscape pics of the encroaching fire. I didn’t try too hard though and my attempts were so half-hearted. These pics would have ended up on pic libraries somewhere probably which don’t really do well selling news photog images anyway. I didn’t even post on social media not wanting to alarm those nearest and dearest to me spread all over the world.

I actually started getting annoyed seeing loads of posts from photographers on facebook saying things like ‘SO AND SO PHOTOGRAPHY’ promoting their own visual take of the fire and ending their posts with some comment of concern or commending the bravery of those fighting it almost plastered at the end of their respective posts as an after thought. I guess when a news story starts to effect you personally you start to have a different take on it but I don’t think it is just that.

Slowly but surely I have become so far removed from news photography that the ambulance-chasing (or in this case fire truck chasing) type work on which I have commented plenty of times in the past especially concerning its moral ambiguity is not part of my professional make up any more. I have thought about doing a post-apocalyptic more arty photo series instead that in my opinion would stand out far more and I could prob get far more coverage for anyway and would in all fairness also get the message across of the far-reaching devastation that has been caused. That is more the type of ideas I work around these days and my take on such an issue now although given the short time I have before I travel and the preparation I have to still do I don’t think it will happen (if any photographer reads this, think it a good idea and does it and is successful with it just buy me a drink if you ever see me!).

It has been far more interesting though for me to see the amount of ever improving quality of citizen journalism – esp with video and photography –during the outbreak. I think increasingly – especially as the quality of citizen journalism improves with better cameras on smartphones and the such and the fundamentals of not being biased in a story take hold in this genre (though with a fire of course there is no real controversy in terms of bias reporting) then we will see citizen journalism become more and more important especially on the ever-growing social media platforms whose purpose of disseminating news info in times of crisis is growing exponentially.

Photo news is becoming ever more inclusive which is great for us in general as a public. But as a profession this creeping inclusive nature of news photography is slowly but surely spelling disaster. Swamped from the outside, news photography increasingly has very little monetary value. It has been well-documented that the profession has been long in decline – especially with falling advertising revenues in traditional media houses who increasingly don’t have budget for newsy type photo series.   Many have let go of all their staff photographers internationally (here in SA the classical model appears more robust and still works well) and tend instead to rely heavily on wire feeds who themselves are cutting relentlessly on costs: A good example of this being the whole Africanisation of the news wire services here on the Continent which has more to do with one massive cost-cutting exercise rather than empowering local populations.

All the issues and debates above finally came to a head and spilled over with the more than usually heated debate raging around the World Press Awards Winners this year. Serious questions have been raised concerning the judgement process involved. To put it in a nutshell many in the profession were outraged by the choice of such winners as Giovanni Troilo’s ‘The Dark Heart of Europe’ photo series in the Contemporary Photography section. The fundamental argument is that many of the pics were actually set up and in so doing contravened one of the very fundamental pillars of photojournalism and that is not to intervene in the subjects and material you are photographing, otherwise it becomes more portraiture or art photography. Giovanni’s photo series was eventually disqualified but not for the reasons above but more on a technicality that one of the photos he entered was taken 30km outside Charleroi where he claimed the entire story was based.

On the other hand, it has also come out that almost 20% of all potential finalists who made it to the last round of the prestigious competition were disqualified because they manipulated their images too much, especially darkening some areas of an image so much that it supposedly changed the content and message of the image itself thereby contravening the second rule in photojournalism and that is not to digitally alter images to affect overall message and content.

The argument has become so heated, that Visa Pour L’Image, arguably the largest photojournalistic festival globally and held annually in Perpignan in France has taken the most unusual step of categorically refusing to showcase all World Press Winner photos which it has done religiously for as far back as I can remember.

For many photojournalists the arguments that have now spilled into the public arena have been simmering for years and I have often spoken here of the increasing moral ambiguity in the profession, always under pressure in the new digital age to create more visually striking images which is harder to do naturally with object trouves (found objects) without interfering somehow and digitally altering the photo to the point where it might be judged to be have been altered somehow.

It is interesting to me though, that the judges have been very lenient on one side of this argument – judging many set piece situations to be acceptable while almost to compensate and try and keep in line with classical ideas about photojournalism have come down heavily on the other side in terms of disqualifying the slightest bit of supposed digital alteration (I haven’t actually seen the images that were disqualified and am purely going on what has been widely reported in the press). I have a lot of sympathy for Lars Boering, it’s new managing director appointed last October who one suspects was brought in to make the competition more relevant today and bring it closer in line with art and gallery photography. Indeed his appointment was announced on the World Press website with the quote:

Lars Boering is well-known in the photography scene but for World Press Photo he represents new blood, combining continuity with innovation. We believe he is the right person to future-proof the organization and to take it to the next level.”

I know Lars from the Noorderlicht (Northern Lights) Masterclass in Groningen in the Netherlands which he runs with Marc Prust (another great in the photography world) which I undertook back in 2011/12. I was mentored by Marc (and whose instructions and advice have had a massive influence on the direction and expression I have been trying to take these last few years), but had enough contact with Lars to know him to be an outstanding agent and an absolute asset to the world of photography that he clearly is so passionate about. His background though is more from the art world of photography. World Press seem to have brought him in to try and re-invent the competition to make it more relevant today and bring it closer to the art, gallery and established book world of photography. But in so doing, his new bright and innovative ideas clashed horribly with the classical notions of what photojournalism really is. And hence the furore and heated debate raging right now.

In my humble opinion the two are anathema to each other and never the twain shall meet. Its fundamental nature means that mainstream photojournalism can and never will be brought in line with the modern and more commercially viable art photography world (although this world is also suffering the last few years from severe recession). By even trying to do so, it is making art photography look insidious, superficial and frivolous when it is anything but. You simply cannot make something as serious as the subject matter many photojournalists tackle more arty in nature, fiddling with composition to make it so without a massive backlash from those with very traditional and classical concepts of what photojournalism is that is essentially far more humanistic in its approach which ultimately had its heyday back in the 1950’s and peaked in the 70’s.

With the far more inclusive nature of photography in the digital age where everyone has access to a decent enough camera, and especially with the advent of citizen journalism, photojournalism will and even already is lost to the masses and no longer a viable profession. I am a strong believer in the fact that if you can’t essentially feed your kids (or even yourself these days) from what you do, you can no longer call something a profession.

If awards such as world press continue to try and update photojournalism to make it more part of the relatively successful art photography world, it will damage photography as a whole. And here I come full circle in my argument:

It is time to let photojournalism go as a profession and recognise it has and will become far more inclusive in nature. It is time to ring fence and protect photography’s exclusivity in the digital age and clearly define what is and what isn’t professional photography. And photojournalism no longer is.

I think in the future, as technology gets better and better, internet speeds get inevitably faster and people become more media savvy and able to edit, video footage and news clips will, for better or for worse, be the next to fall into this brave new world of increased inclusivity. But that is another story all together.

I was trained as a photojournalist. I had varying degrees of success in it and have always gone in and out of that side of photography. And I must clearly note here that I entered the World Press Awards this year and didn’t get anywhere (sour grapes I hear?!). But I also knew it would be for the very last time (my work in South Sudan qualified for entry). In a previous blog after coming back from South Sudan last year I said it might be worth every now and again doing something meaningful as a news wire photographer in a war zone. I no longer think so. I have been moving away for years and now that door is finally closed. And I love the work that I do now and see it as more personally fulfilling and meaningful than anything gone before – especially news photography.

A quick first edit of ‘The Karoo – A Photographic Odyssey of a Changing Landscape’

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Been a longer while than usual since last posted here.  A lot has been going on in the background and of course jobs have come and gone but I have been quiet mainly because I have said enough about transformation from news photography and the such and trying to become a more book/print and gallery photographer and just wanted to get on with it.  Change has taken time for me because it requires a complete change in mindset and outlook not just towards work but in life in gen in my humble opinion.  I am not saying I have established myself yet in this more creative field!  Far from it.  But I feel I have come enough down the path and made enough tentative steps to introduce some of the new long-term projects I have been doing (I have already posted a lot from my first project on a small colored community here in South Africa on past blogs).  I have won some awards that stand out from the usual honorable mentions I usually achieve, managing 3rd Place and Honor of Distinction at the Annual Photography Masters Awards last year for work on one of the long-term projects.  I was also invited onto the internationally-renowned Lens Culture online to show work recently.  Baby steps – but def going slowly in the direction I want my style of work to go.  I will soon though be traveling Europe and Stateside to show a new portfolio which will be the true gauge of how far I have come.

 

I don’t have much more to say about news photography and the such.  But reading my last (ancient) blog and recent events both locally with a massive wild fire here in the Cape and internationally with the controversy raging fiercer than normal over World Press Awards winners, I feel compelled to write one last subsequent blog about it all (yes – I still complain and moan as in the past!). On other fronts – I have been working relentlessly to improve the style and content of my time lapse photography which has been coming along nicely and hope to have a show reel ready some time this year.  I will be doing a very useful workshop at the Palm Springs Festival in Cali with an established master in the genre, Jeff Frost and hope to hone the technique further there.

 

Anyways – the pics in the slideshow are actually from an old resurrected project which I first tentatively started in 2011.  At the time I think I wasn’t ready and am happy now I put it on the back burner at the time – but recently, with a changing style that I feel suits this project more, have brought it back to the forefront.  It essentially aims to visually chart the course of large-scale change about to transform the Karoo desert – a large expanse of sparsely populated land north of Cape Town where little has changed since the days of the first Voortrekkers (English and Dutch settlers who first moved inland away from the Cape Colony in South Africa).  The building of the SKA near Carnarvon (Square Kilometre Array Radio telescope) awarded in large part a few years back to South Africa and the discovery of the 5th largest deposit of shale oil in the world and subsequent exploration and forthcoming mass extraction will see the Karoo undergo the largest unprecedented change since the introduction of the railway in the mid-19th century.  The images in the series aim to at once capture the serenity and beauty of the Karoo but are also riddled with hints of brooding insecurity and doubt that the great change already in progress will inevitably bring to an ancient way of life essentially untouched for generations.

South Sudan, being a Reuters Stringer & Zanzibar Chest

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Spent the last month up in Kenya and a brief 2 week stint covering the terrible events passing in South Sudan.  I’ve been back a week now in Cape Town and still haven’t blogged – I’ve been busy to the max but to be honest for many reasons, I have been putting off writing this blog.

Part of it is the obvious – that I don’t like sitting on my own in front of countless gruesome images and wanton destruction and editing for hours.  But I’m used to that in a lot of ways and it’s not really that – it’s more that since going to Mogadishu in 2011, I have not ventured into a conflict zone and have blogged countless times about how news photog doesn’t work as a business model and touched upon the personal cost it has taken upon me in the past.  To explain away why I have gone back to it couldn’t simply be explained away by the fact I felt I could do a decent job of it in South Sudan.  A lot of what I would say would be personal and uncomfortable for me to say on a blog too.

But I decided to just sit down and free-write and see what came out.  I have been re-reading parts of Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley  recently – a book which had a huge influence on the type of photography I wanted to do and the area of the world I wanted to do it in when I first started out over a decade ago (even though I ended up doing more commercial work when I finally got to Nairobi).  The book covers a lot what transpired with the EA Reuters news-desk in Nairobi in the 90’s.  I read it too cos while in South Sudan with Reuters I met the son of one of the great Reuters photogs mentioned extensively in the book who died on 12th July 1993 during a botched UN attempt to capture or kill General Aidid and which was a forerunner to the infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident later that year in Mogadishu.  I had one of the best convos with him that I’ve had with a fellow journo one alcohol-fuelled night of typical journo mayhem at the Logali House (where most journos stay in Juba).  I’ll come back to that all later.

Firstly, I went up to Kenya to try and begin to re-connnect with some of my old commercial contacts I have there.  I had worked extensively with ad agencies and large companies directly on ad campaigns in Nairobi in the past (at 1 point around 2006/7 1 in 3 billboards in Nairobi were mine) and have been considering going back there and spending large parts of the year in Nai to also pursue such work. I think the potential is def there to start up again – I even managed to meet up with a large company I loved working with back in the day and am busy with a creative brief for them for a large new ad campaign covering all of East Africa that may take me back to Nai within weeks.  One can but try & hope.

But my main reason for going back was to go into South Sudan and cover the terrible civil war that has broken out there.  I went with Polaris Images but also hooked up again with the Reuters photo desk once in Nairobi with whom I hadn’t spoken to in a couple of years since trying to cover Mogadishu.

I went cos I believed I had good potential contacts there to be able to do a good story – albeit many I hadn’t spoken to in years.  Not only the NGO’s and UN contacts – but a few high level SPLA and rebel contacts, including Riek Machar himself (one day I might write about the crazy and surreal dinner at the Bhandini at the InterCon in Nai I had with him circa 2006, a contact and a man who simply and ominously introduced himself as a ‘Consultant from Virginia’).

But the reality once in South Sudan was that on the ground – access was hard and limited. Getting an exclusive with the rebels for example could only be done from Nairobi (smthg which Goran Tomasevic – Chief Photographer in Nairobi impressively managed to get the exclusive for Reuters).

I was expecting this before going though.  All the media coverage coming out of South Sudan up to mid-Jan had been scant and well away from any frontline fighting (expect for the BBC’s Alastair Leithead’s excellent reporting of the SPLA being ambushed on approach to try and re-capture rebel-held Bor).  It meant that either there were tight restrictions on the media or getting to the right place was hard… it turned out both were true.  I have blogged many times how such conflict photog in Africa is being killed by tight access restrictions more akin to a major event such as the World Cup or a Justin Bieber concert than a war zone.  It is also our fault as journos in that we act too much in unison as a press pack – to easily herded around by those who mean to control the access we get.

With my failure to get to an active frontline in Mogadishu suddenly fresh in my mind, unable to negotiate the Kafkaesque web of clearances required there, I was determined not to be undone again.  I decided it would be best to stay in a hotel close to the pilots who made the dangerous trips to all the places us journos were desperate to get to rather than with the press pack at Logali House and try and get access – as well as any info from them on conditions on the ground – that way (alcohol-fuelled nights with them were fun too must say).  I managed to get clearance with the SPLA to stay with the army at their barracks and was able to embed for 3 days and nights in Bor under General Malwal’s Command – also second in charge in the SPLA – and was granted access to the frontline at Mathiang and witness some of the fighting – albeit remote – via BM and Cartouche rockets – first hand.  I never got to see the offensives the rebels were undertaking against SPLA positions as they were all at night or ealy dawn (and are therefore harder to confirm – although the countless bodies of rebel soldiers strewn in no mans land the following days was strong evidence of it).  This all after the ceasefire between the 2 sides had been signed of course.

Being embedded for 3 days, took a lot out of me personally – the SPLA soldiers – many of whom were from Bor itself and fighting to liberate their home town and villages rather than for any higher purpose – gave me a tour of their now destroyed town – where the slaughtered and decomposing bodies of civilians – and especially of women and children – many of whom had been killed when the rebels re-took the town for around 2 weeks in early Jan – still lay uncollected.  The soldiers showed no emotion but many of the younger ones especially, drank heavily at night I’m sure to rid themselves of the horrors of what they had seen by day. General Malwal himself, while always having a calm, approachable yet slightly menacing air about him also seemed tormented – he himself is from Bor.  One night one of his female relatives asked to go through my pics on my laptop.  It was only when she got to a picture of a covered decomposing body that I realised that she was looking to see if she could determine whether her own mother had been killed in the clashes.  She was only able to recognise that it was her by the blue sandals lying next to the body.

Upon returning to Juba, I made a half-hearted attempt to get up to Bentiu – a town that apparently had been all but wiped off the map during the civil war and where there were rumours that further fighting was taking or about to take place.  But by the last few days, my heart wasn’t in it – it sounds lazy – but to be honest – when I do this kind of photography I have to be fully committed or else it actually starts to become dangerous.  A fellow journo and I tried to hitch a plane ride up to Bentiu – and we found one for the following day – but on the runway at the airport the Commander there threatened to arrest us for security breach (we were running around a damn runway trying to hitch rides as if the planes were cars so kind of understandable!)– that was it for me.  I hadn’t been sure about going but this was a final straw of sorts – luck was def waning!  I had had a relatively successful trip –  I had done a large feature on IDP’s (Internally Displaced Person) at the UNMISS airport base for Polaris Images.  Doing a portrait series using a simple studio light and softbox (similar to what I had undertaken in Mogadishu) but this time asking each IDP to bring their most cherished possession with which they fled their homes with.  And I had gotten an exclusive of sorts from the frontline pics (and footage) for Reuters at Mathiang.

I jumped on the first plane and headed back to Nai and that was my 2 weeks in South Sudan.

Was it worth it?  Financially of course not – SS is damn expensive (given everything is in short supply) and stringer fees barely covered what I spent – so why do it?

I could give the classic professional answer that I did it cos it is a great way to get your name out there.  But I’d be lying though.  I hardly – and have not since – looked at where my pics might have been published.  And seeing as I’m trying to slowly (but hopefully surely!) move into book, gallery and other such more long-term photography projects, it doesn’t do too much career-wise in that respect esp anymore (try showing this type of work at Fotofest portfolio reviews at Lens Culture in Paris or Palm Springs at the PDN Annual and see where you get!).

I do this type of photography because it is what I got into photography in the first place to do.  To work in East Africa for news wires – and – because of one book – Reuters in particular.

In re-reading the book, I laughed when Aidan Hartley recounted how the agency needed to find another stringer for Mogadishu quickly at the time:

What was needed ideally ‘…was a hungry Caucasian freelancer who aspired to nothing in the world so much as to cover bang-bang stories like Mogadishu without expecting to get paid anything more than pocket money for it.’

Yep – that sounds like what I was doing..  It all seems a bit naive, to risk quite a bit at times for so little.

In talking to the son of one of the Reuters photogs who died in Moggie, he went into the agency to see for himself what it is all about and what his dad had worked and died for.  He recounted the day – when at 9 years of age – he learnt of his father’s death and after all this time – you could see it was still raw for him in a lot of ways.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like.  And to think now, when you can see the general state of news and media as a whole – ever in a declining cycle – and when so many people seem to have switched off long ago from this type of reporting and work – the same question comes round again –

Is it worth it?

I don’t know – I can only answer the question for myself and I have come to realise in recent times – after so many years of doubt – that the answer is still yes.

I gave up long ago caring whether other people were interested or not.  The region is one that I call home more than any other on earth and have always personally followed the terrible conflicts and wars that plague it with extra depth and interest.  It is what fundamentally drove me to go back to South Sudan to be honest.  That and the notion that I could make a decent job of it.

Just as a quick footnote – on a personal level, it is not just that my son (and for that matter my ex-wife with whom I remain v.close) that is Kenyan.  My dad was born in Gedaref and grew up in Khartoum.  And my grandmother is from Gondar in Northern Ethiopia.  I’ll never forget when I did my long drive from UK to Kenya when I first came to the Continent I passed through Khartoum.  A man grabbed me on the street and said ‘you must be Philipas’s son’.  He had never met me – and had last seen my father decades before – but he knew exactly who I was.  It turned out to be an old school friend of my dad’s and the owner of the famous Acropole Hotel there (where most journos like to stay and frequent).  I was shown some great hospitality for some long dead friendship… I know there is always a friend not far away even in the most hostile places in the region and because of that have less fear than I should were I to be in a place I considered completely foreign doing this type of work.

I remember around 2004, a photographer with close links to Panos Pictures told me there was an opening to go to Iraq and cover the war there and that he had mentioned me and I should go for it.  It took me 5 seconds to say no.  It was considered a strange decision by my peers back then.  But for me, it was always East Africa I wanted to be based in.

While I hope that my other types of photography and soon filming will dominate my work.  I will always see it as a badge of honour – some would say misplaced and naive – to do this type of work.  But the pics I bring back – however hard some are – and while most people these days look or simply walk away (esp here in news-averse Cape Town!) – they always fill me with a sense of smthg achieved.  You don’t need re-numeration or people’s appraisal for that.  Though of course would be nice to be paid more in general for it…never know – might take it up full time if it was!


Xmas hols in Hangberg

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Took Nils Herrmann – Paris high-end jewelery, product and fashion photog into Hangberg yesterday.  Was great having a fellow photog around…. sometimes shooting over the last year the project has felt directionless at some points… esp coming from a news orientated background where your focus is always short-term and you know pretty much what the type of shot you want… working on my long-term book project there is such a different fish for me… it was good therefore to get another photog to come in and listen to his useful opinions and views…he seems overall to have loved it all as much as I have loved Hangberg the past year… always enjoy going in and hanging out there… hope the end product will do Hangberg justice…

Anyway – as this is the last post of the year… Wishing you a Happy New Year! Hope you all have a good one.  It looks like I might be heading into South Sudan early in the New Year (depending on the very fluid situation there)…  so will def enjoy my NYE and think (and blog!) about it all much later!

First Attempt at a Stand-Alone Fashion shoot Time Lapse

Couple of weeks back we attempted our first stand-alone fashion shoot time lapse.  It worked OK and certainly provided us with a steep learning curve on the basic do’s and dont’s.

I think with time and development we will be able to turn it into something of value.  The few weeks in advance I thought carefully as to what might make it work.  The first golden rule I thought would be useful is that if it has any chance of working, we have to end the sequence on a strong fashion shot.  Then we worked back and decided what model and extras movement could lead up to this moment.  We had a feeling that the bigger the difference between final and first shot, the more interesting the time lapse could be.  Ultimately we wanted to come from a position of as much compositional chaos at the beginning and end up – following some interesting movement – at a strong fashion shot.

Well, this is our first result – have a bit to go before we will be able to start putting a strong portfolio together but we are looking forward to our next one soon already.  A photographer who I showed it too said to me recently that it looked interesting but we had to fundamentally differentiate the direction we took this all in from what was possible to do (very simply) with green screen and cgi in film.  Good point. We are planning a trip into the Karoo at some point with a single dancer/model.  I want to make use of the ‘American Sky’ lighting technique that I use often in my photographic work (where the studio light overpowers the daylight basically) and add astral time lapse and cloud movement to the concept.  Think we will slowly come up with some eye-catching and interesting time lapses.  Hopefully, we will also slowly add layer upon layer and make the sequences themed and more intricate…

We also have to start slowly placing products into them to give an obvious idea of how the concept can possibly be used commercially one day.

For a first attempt we are happy esp with what we have learnt and look forward to applying it in future…

The Curious Case of Thamsanqa Jantjie – The ‘fake’ sign language interpreter

South Africa commemorates the passing of Nelson Mandela

South Africa commemorates the passing of Nelson Mandela

So… last Friday I was preparing to leave for Eastern Cape to see what I could cover out in Qunu for Mandela’s funeral, when I asked Polaris what would be better to do?  Go down to Qunu or stay and try and find the fake deaf interpreter and photograph. There had been repeated requested over the week to find and take a few pics of him.  I made the decision it would be best to stay in Joburg and go into Soweto and find his house.  I had an address in Soweto but in Bram Ficsherville where he lives – there are only house numbers… going up to about 16,000 and the general area name.  So I started trawling Soweto on Friday and by around 10pm had found his house to about 200 numbers… the problem is the house numbers suddenly jump by thousands and I was getting frustrated going round in circles… suddenly realising that trawling Soweto – going up and down the same streets might not be in my safest interests in the late hours of the eve, I decided to turn back.

Next day I managed to find his home pretty quickly though… knocking on his door I asked for a few pics of him inside his family home.  His wife, who stood behind, refused outright and I was left sitting outside his home like a paparazzi photog waiting to snap a few shots… I was determined after all the effort to find him I wouldn’t go away empty handed.  Other SA journos turned up and I managed to sneak a few pics when he came to the door… He suddenly got angry when he caught me and came straight for me threatening violence.  I stood my ground and told him I was just doing my job but admittedly was frozen with terror too – there is smthg about being attacked with a camera in hand – as has happened on a few occasions – that makes me feel so much more vulnerable…

The journos there were getting annoyed with me for messing their thing so I decided to lay low and drove off for a bit… I went to the local bottle store and had a drink to calm my nerves and swore would go back, bang on his door and get the pics I should of got before… Instead I drove back – sat outside and decided to wait and see… He suddenly came up from nowhere and started talking fast… I could see he was angry so just listened and sympathised with whatever he was saying – I then told him – I needed some nice pics – all I had were angry shots of him (didn’t have any)… This finally convinced him and his attitude suddenly turned and he invited me in…vanity is usually the key…

I got to photograph him briefly in his family setting.  He showed me round – including showing me the axe he claims he was going to use on me… told me about the book he was writing and what the media attention had done to him and especially his family (for whom I had true sympathy)… there was def high tension in the home – and you could plainly see him and his wife were all near breaking point (would hate to be his wife if he ever blew up the way he did with me)…

He then went on to make some interesting claims.  Firstly – he alleges that he is being protected because the ‘vanished’ interpreter service agency he was employed by is owned by a Government Minister. He also alleges that a chunk of the monies allocated to the company from the event (he claims R2.2mill)  was siphoned off.  And most incredulously he claims that the said Govt Minister(s) – (he used the plural at this point) came to his home and personally threatened to (and I quote) ‘put me in hospital’ if he spoke.

This could all be the ravings of a mad axeman… but then again.. there are a lot of odd factors in this matter that don’t all add up… to get away with such ineptitude on so many public stages for so long (and then get the ultimate gig), there could be a ring of truth… it’s a bit like every pothole in Africa on every recently re-surfaced or constructed road – you just know someone high up has taken a big fat cut of the money allocated along the line leaving behind a sub-standard service…

anyway – we shall wait and see if any of this has a ring of truth  I went back three times and spent a few hours each time outside his home – he had been willing to talk further but couldn’t get him to elaborate before having to return to Cape Town.

Got a long long day today and I know it ain’t gonna be pretty.

Firstly shooting this whole fashion time lapse sequence which basically involves setting up for a normal fashion still, which is hectic enough.. (and makes up the end sequence in the time lapse) and then shoot a time lapse  with the Kessler pod that leads up to your strong final fashion pic scene… had to try n perfect a 3 axis movement yesterday for it… don’t know if it’ll work (I’ll blog more if it does… prob won’t bother my Xmas at least if it doesn’t).. then using the Pod for its first commercial purpose – completely in the dark (even after requests) as to what is required… I suspect they are going to want to do a basic dolly movement and possibly put heavy equipment on the Pod (which has a 19kg limit)… we’ll see.. always up for the challenge – but will protect the gear first and foremost.. and of course there is always a story to tell after if it goes belly up….!

Mandela’s funeral

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Well, the Kessler shuttle pod and the stand-alone fashion time lapse shoot had to wait.

With Nelson Mandela’s unfortunate demise came the word from Polaris Images to cover the event for the news desk.  It has been a hectic week to say the least.  From Cape Town, to Joburg to Pretoria to deepest Soweto… From one day to the next it was a continuous never-ending job – hard on the body n soul…  averaging 3/4 hours sleep a night… But having said that – it was great to have covered the 10 days of mourning for South Africa’s ‘greatest son’  (the personal highlight having to be the FNB Stadium memorial service last Tues… nothing beats seeing 500-600 people dancing and running towards you all at full voice singing Madiba’s struggle songs).

As for actual work, well – for these big events – there is not much scope for achieving so much outside those already in the wire pool (your usual suspects of AFP, AP, Reuters etc) or those working with papers already.  When I phoned and emailed round pic desks – ominously – those editors who were also photogs – all had auto-emails stating ‘back nxt week Wednesday’.  As one editor described it to me – it’s just one big ‘cluster-f*ck’ when it comes to assigning with this whole thing!’.  Turning up for accred in Joburg said it all… me n a colleague spent part of the three hours waiting to get the badge trying to work out how many journos had rocked up in Joburg – Our best guess was around 8000-10,000.. those at the London and Beijing Olympics said those events were nothing compared to this…

As for assignments… After the first few, it pretty much trickled down to snail’s pace as the week wore on.   And to be honest – the scope you had for decent photography was limited to a degree to generally people celebrating (mostly) or mourning – in one way or another – Madiba’s passing as well as all the symbols and pics of him everywhere around.

So why do it?  Well – apart from the actual experience of working on such a momentous occasion, and working with Polaris (who I honestly enjoy working with and are becoming a regular employer, esp in other fields of photog), I do also miss doing this kind of work I must say.  As I have said countless times – as a business model – it doesn’t make too much sense esp with these big events – but on a personal level, I do still enjoy and feel am good at it (once back in the zone).

It is interesting though – from a business perspective – that I was initially offered a full 6 day commission at the outset with a Scandinavian paper for the event that would have more than paid my trip and expenses. 6 months ago, when Madiba first reportedly became ill, the same paper had offered me a commission then but – because they would not cover my transport costs from Cape Town to Joburg, I declined as it would have cost me more to do the job.  Now – I could have had a far better more lucrative job with them (seeing as I was up there anyway).  Instead they went with the initial photog who worked for them 6 months ago.  I am def not disappointed though.. The relative freedom allowed me to cover a wide range of different news perspectives and – upon request from Polaris – lead me to the curious case of the fake deaf interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, which was by far the work highlight of the last week (and smthg I will blog about next). It would prob never of happened had I gone with the commission.

Anyway – After all I have said and written the past 2 years about the disadvantages of news photography on a business and personal level, I have now written to Polaris news ed…saying that if a client asks in future, I am willing to take on the job – anywhere on the Continent – and will cover my own travel costs…

I know…

hypocrite are you bloody a…  feel free to make your own sentence up.

I am immersed this week with the Kessler Shuttle Pod and time lapse photography.  Not only am I undertaking a test stand-alone time lapse fashion shoot with a complicated 2/3 axis movement, but same day it looks like we will be hired for the first time by a commercial set to do a time lapse.  One thing I do love is the variety  there is in my job….

Awards and Hangberg work…

A walk through Hangberg - the coloured district of Hout Bay in the suburbs of Cape Town

Well award season is upon us as photographers.  The 4 main ones I tend to enter are International Loupe, Photography Masters, World Press and Sony.  Just a single Bronze Merit award for early Hangberg work this year at the Loupe Awards for above pic.  It is an incomplete project (and maybe should have waited before entering) but last year I achieved 9 Bronze and a Silver mainly for work in Mogadishu so still slightly disappointing – As I have blogged here many times I am trying to evolve my work away from conflict zones and the such so maybe to be expected for now…

I like the Loupe Awards cos there is a chance for feedback on work from the judges of which some has been useful.  I am at the initial feedback stages of my Hangberg work at the mo too and I realise I need a few extra months of shooting as I home in on what are its strengths…  have some early images for the Masters too and will see how it does come nxt March… Last year I achieved Nominations in 3 categories… anything close on that n will be happy for now…

On a different note, I am immersed at the mo with shooting a full fashion shoot time lapse sequence – possibly nxt Monday morn.  In the quieter moments last and this week during a job, I came up with some basic rules that will help turn out a decent stand-alone piece.  I do question whether taking on something so different like this with my other 2 personal projects is wise.. (I will blog soon about child rape crisis doccie)…. but having thought a lot about how to make it viable I do believe it is possible to turn smthg of mild interest into smthg with potential commercial application… to be very honest – on a personal level – I really love the medium itself and it is always a pleasure playing around with time lapse… Will blog nxt time on the success or failure once theory turns to application!

Adding Movement with Model and basic panned time Lapse Sequence

So.. the new Kessler shuttle pod and revolution head came in while in London and I decided to take it all for a little spin in London before I left to come back to SA.

I only had 2 short days to play and work out the equipment.  Managed to work out a basic motorised pan and decided only to use 4ft of rail rather than 8ft or the whole 12 ft.  I asked an actor friend to help out and managed to find an appropriate venue in Camden at short notice.  I have wanted to start playing with panned sequences in real life environments using models… I have seen some great panned time lapse sequences mainly out in nature, but my main focus in my work has and always will be people-orientated and I want to see how far I can take various panned sequences with subject matter with the main idea of doing time lapse sequences that can eventually have fashion, product application as well as the usual cutaways n B-roll… Basically I ultimately want to do a decent fashion shoot with the end product being a time lapse rather than stills…

I think the most important thing to try and suss out when doing all this is the underlying emotions that such work may evoke – In my opinion from all these sequences there are 2 main things that come out of them – one is of omniscience: where the model is standing back and observing the scene (even if she is looking towards camera in these) and of being a ‘world-apart’  – as if the model was almost ghostly and above the action.  I will try and develop these concepts in further time lapses… I have one planned hopefully for next week in Cape Town with 2 models and want to try and play with more complicated panning and synchronised movement…

But firstly back to basics and learning slowly from mistakes – From the first panned time lapse I did in Hangberg (see below) I noticed that blinking in between the shutter firing is essential – from these sequences here, it is apparent that breathing must also be carefully controlled and timed in between shutter firing… I am also getting increasingly interested with controlling the mid-ground (thanks to Stephen Tomasko for bringing it up in convo!).  Panned sequences work at their most basic with a foreground subject that is isolated using whatever tools – be it different speed action or variation in the lighting…. to add another dimension it will be interesting to play a bit with mid-ground and try and juxtapose it somehow with foreground.. I think the small basic movement test we did worked well too.. looking forward to adding to all that…

anyway – all for the future – I know this is all basic at the mo… but hope to add layer upon layer until it becomes something different and hopefully new… I haven’t even added different panned motion with the revolution head yet which can add rotational and vertical movement to a basic pan…. I was in Covent Garden recently and saw all the mime acts down there and had a whole new load of ideas!  It’s hard to know where this will all go… possibly nowhere! But excited to find out….

Back to reality tho for this week… Going to be working again with the peeps from Crunch Inc Communication (UK) for a Shell event… looking forward to it and the after event chats…!

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