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Posts tagged ‘George Philipas’

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!

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…!

Getting to Grips with Panned Time Lapse Sequences

As part of a larger mission aiming to bring South African expertise in photography and certain high-end and niche film and commercial techniques to the African commercial market with my colleague, Sean Ackermann (I’ll blog about that soon), we started messing around as almost a side interest at first with time lapse photography. 

It was initially never meant to be part of our portfolio, but a quick look at the possibilities such as a look at Dustin Farrell’s or Rob Whitworth’s work and both myself and Sean were instantly hooked.


Achieving the bar set though has been a challenge as the art is certainly a complicated one and to master it takes time, effort and a bit of investment.  But in the simple matter of a couple of weeks, we have started to understand and are beginning to get a firm grip on the processes involved.  What excites me most at the mo have been the panned sequences achieved (where the camera moves across the time lapse sequence).  For the time being, with a simple 2 foot slide and glide we have been experimenting and trying out the medium.  

A quick look at the best panned time lapse sequences and what seems to work is a pan along a prominent well-lit or bright foreground subject juxtaposed against a darker background that goes against the main movement (usually sky and clouds) in the time lapse.  The other way to achieve great pans, which has been Sean’s realm of interest (I am currently useless with video editing software!) has been to use After Effects to pan and zoom through a static time lapse sequence. We have also been brainstorming some ambitious ideas that will involve some of the lighting techniques we use in photography… but for now back to basics…..

The first thing I will say – is that with the basic equipment that is at our disposal for now – so much can go wrong with even the most basic time lapse sequence.  To keep consistency in exposure and white balance throughout all the images you firstly have to set all controls to manual (though even this isn’t enough and I’ll come back to that in a bit).  Simply put even a slight jump in the exposure or white balance in 1 or 2 of the images in a sequence becomes obvious to the eye when played back at 25fps later on down the line.  Judging exposure becomes a bit tricky if the light changes a lot.  The general rule I find is to under-expose by 1 or 2 stops (using an ND filter also helps).  If dealing with scenes with massive exposure changes such as sunsets these become very tricky to change exposure incrementally so as not to ruin the sequence.  Bulb Ramping (which adjusts exposure incrementally in each consecutive image as the light changes) is the best way to achieve this and can easily be done now with the new firmware for DSLR cameras called Magic Lantern (I am so appalled that the Canon TC-80N3 intervalometer doesn’t have a bulb ramping feature when even the generic makes do).

But even manual settings are not enough as on all DSLR’s they will invariably still adjust the pic exposure and white balance (I never knew this until I started messing with time lapse) for some scenes.  This will create the unwanted flicker effect when jumps in exposure occur throughout the time lapse sequence.  The best way to get rid of this is with a technique called lens twist (or aperture lock) which effectively cuts communication between the camera and the lens but still allows you to take an image and locks down the aperture.  This is done by holding down the depth of field button and lens release and twisting the lens ever so slightly until aperture reading is 00.  The downside of course is that you have no control over aperture now throughout the time lapse but it all but eliminates one of the biggest problems with the medium.  Mirror lock-up is also another effective method and of course making sure to switch off functions such as Auto Lighting Optmiser and Noise reduction feature.

The other thing that can destroy any time lapse is the slightest movement of frame.  Sean has applied the image stabilisation feature in After Effects to good effect on some of the sequences where there was blatant movement, but even this can’t get rid of large movements (wind in Cape Town has been a big problem recently and ruined a few good time lapse sequences). Everything must be dead still for the entire duration of the sequence. 

Now adding a panning motion on a slide and glide and things begin to get more and more complicated. Especially as at this point we don’t have a mechanised head.  This will change in the next few weeks though. Our first attempts at panning were pretty bad – completely misjudging the number of pans between frames and movement (in mm) that is best for a smooth pan.  By trial and error we found that a 2.5mm – 5mm movement between each shot (at around 5sec intervals – anything slower and another flicker effect comes into play) is best. 

Now achieving this manually has caused me some serious stress I tell you!  Sitting and concentrating sliding a camera along after each shot every 5 seconds exactly 2.5mm takes concentration and when things go wrong (as they invariably do).. there is nothing more deflating than having to start the whole process again!

I am sure we will sit back over a few beers very soon as the mechanised head does its thing and laugh at the days when we used to do the whole thing manually! With time lapse – to avoid agony – it is worth investing in the basic kit but the possibilities are endless – just take a look at what Vincent LaForet is using for his time lapse sequences..


I am excited to take this whole process forward and with the right tools and effort time lapse photography can become an exciting extra dimension to our work.

Time Lapse Photography in Khayelitsha

I was recently commissioned to shoot a few interviews and a time lapse sequence for an international charity with an office here in my locality in Cape Town.  They made up part of a larger promotional piece for the charity that is still in post-prod.  Interviews were pretty straight forward shot with the 5D MkII on video legs and using a simple shotgun mic for audio stream…
The time lapse provided somewhat more of a challenge.  I was specifically asked to shoot a sunrise over a township where you would first see the sunrise associated with the beauty of South Africa and only as it came up would you slowly realise that this beautiful scene overlooked one of squalor and poverty that is of course the trademark of many townships still in SA.Living in Hout Bay I tried first to shoot it locally over the tonwships in my locality of Hangberg or Imizamo Yethu.  Getting the shot meant I could only try once of course every day so got up at 5am on two separate days and went to a pre-chosen location.  I found in Hangberg – in the colored township (which I am of course doing a photo book project at the mo) there weren’t enough shacks to make the piece viable and in IY – while it was def what they would be looking for, the sun unfortunately rose from behind me onto the township that is set on a mountain side and couldn’t get it to work logistically.

There was only one thing for it in the end.  On my third and final attempt (given the strict time-frame within which I had to make the piece) I drove into Khayelitsha – the main township in Cape Town at 4.30am.  While I have been many there many times, driving in on my own with all the camera equipment when it was still effectively night time was a bit daunting.  Once I had pulled out all the equipment I did get loads of dodgy stares and a few people shouting ‘watch out for your stuff – be very careful!’ from their cars as they past which didn’t instil any confidence! But mostly people were friednly and mostly inquistive as to what I was doing there so early standing on top of my land rover on the side of the road with a camera!

Before I could get my equipment out though I had to first find a location where the sun rose over the township at a point where there were enough shacks to make the piece viable.  In the dark, this was not easy to say the least! I also had the problem in that I didn’t know where the sun came up from! In the end, I pulled out my iPhone and used the compass to work out where east was and drove around – jumping on the roof rack of my land rover from time to time – to find the perfect spot.

In the end – after much fretting – I got the simple piece done.  Technically, it was a bit of a challenge too in terms of adjusting the aperture and shutter speed manually as the lighting conditions changed rapidly especially once the sun began to come up (thankfully – due to the mountain cover in the background the sunrise delayed on the loaction and I had til 7am to find my location and set up).

My one concern once I had put the piece together in post-prod was that I noticed that on top of a Land Rover – the slightest movement – esp from the passing buses whizzing by and causing the Land Rover to move slightly on the shock absorbers – caused the picture to move a bit. Otherwise though – the piece came out to spec and the charity that commissioned me seemed more than happy with the piece.

I am excited by time lapse photography to the extent I went out and purchased the Epic 100 robotic camera mount.  In conjunction with the intervalometer, it will allow me to take stunning time lapse sequences where the camera will seem to pan across the scene I am capturing… look forward to playing with it soon!!

More from Hangberg…

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Haven’t blogged for a while… never been good like that unfortunately!  Doesn’t mean to say that I haven’t been busy and exciting developments are happening which I will share soon….

My Hangberg project is taking on a life of it’s own and for the first time it is beginning to look like it is morphing into something that might be presentable as a book project… There is still a long way to go and there are aspects of the community that I haven’t yet touched upon.. but I’m content with the way it is beginning to turn out!!

A Church Service in Hangberg – between Light and Dark

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

I spent Sunday morning photographing in Hangberg at a church service this time.  The likeable Reverend Derek Maragele was kind enough to give me permission to shoot amongst his congregation and those who attended (as ever) were happy to let me wonder amongst them (almost) unnoticed and take images.

I’ve been cleaning and editing quickly yesterday and this morn.   One great thing about having an assistant is that editing images is greatly helped by having someone artistically minded look at the images and who is not involved in the work.

I took both these images at nearly the same time.  I took the first one with a near to normal balanced ambient reading and then looked again and shot a second using a spot meter reading from around the main cross area over the Reverend’s head. I have lightened the second image slightly though.

The reverend’s head is slightly off-centre in the second image, making composition slightly better in the first but I still personally lean towards the darker image.  One thing I will say about the Hassleblad is that while  there is more noise at higher ISO’s the tonal gradation in shadow is supreme.  I’ll prob end up editing in the first image (if I use it at all in the final edit) but still love playing around in the darkness with the Hasslebald!




Hangberg and a different type of photography

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Been a while since I last blogged but that’s not to say haven’t been busy.

I’ve hired an assistant to help me out with all the backlog of work  I had accumulated and was dreading to face – mainly helping with the cleaning and keywording of stock library images (which is not what I think she had in mind when she took the job – imagining exciting adrenaline-fuelled work and the such!).  I’ve strengthened my relationship with AMO who I love working with and also began engaging with a lot more with Alamy.

Apart from taking the whole stock library income stream seriously, I’ve also pushed forward on a couple of long-term photographic ideas and brought them through from conceptualisation, to proposal stage and have begun shooting them – one in Hangberg, a poor coloured community set in an amazingly stunning surrounding near where I live. And another in the Karoo – a vast desert expanse north of Cape Town.

The doccie on front-line services working on child rape took a break for a few months.  There have been a few problems concerning access that I have been dealing with and decided to stand back for a bit because the mild pressure I was applying had become counter-productive.  We have decent emotive general interviews now with all the key players except the police in Khayelitsha but what we really need to do is to follow a couple of cases through the system which is proving harder to do.

There is an ongoing Commission of Enquiry into the police force in Khaye at the mo looking into the high level of vigilantism in the township and looking at why the police force may not be stepping into the security vacuum.  This has managed to irk the police there no end and has lead to them being a lot more reticent in allowing access to media and the such.  I think it will happen but in the meantime we have been filming at the Thuthuzela Centre in Port Elizabeth where access is a lot more open.  Doing so has given me untold headaches though in terms of having to re-focus the short doccie away from Khayelitsha which was the main scope and re-writing the entire documentary script to incorporate all of this.

In the meantime, I was happy to work with the journalist Claire Simpson on a piece that gave a bit of publicity on the forthcoming short doccie in Vice magazine (UK) which can be seen here:

As for the photo projects, Hangberg is tentatively ready to put up here (which I have done above) although I realise I am still a very long way off from completion of the project.

I’ve done a lot of blogging about how I would like to evolve my work away from news photography into more long-term book and gallery exhibition projects.  Well – finally I can put my photos where my mouth is.  This is the first such project I am undertaking and has been a great joy to shoot as I’ve always wanted access into Hangberg.  Going back to the Benefits of Teaching Photography blogs I wrote – well, I managed to gain access through one of my more prodigious students I worked with on one of the courses I taught through the local charity Lalela and who now regularly works with me as my assistant in Hangberg.  I will be doing more teaching with Lalela and look forward to the opportunity to work with the kids again.

As for my assistant in Hangberg, he has been a masterstroke and am so happy I had the opp to meet him.  I sometimes walk into his house not knowing whether I will be beaten up or whether he will assist me – such is the look of anger on his face – but he is a solid – ‘all I’ve got in this world are balls and my word and I don’t break them for no-one’ type and trust him completely – so much so that I decided to shoot the project on my Hassleblad.

I have wondered whether it would have been better to shoot the Karoo desert project with the Hassleblad and the Hangberg project with my Canon 5D MkII (soon to be upgraded to MK III – can’t wait to use the new AF system – finally Canon have got it spot on!).  I originally thought that using the Hassleblad in Hangberg would force me somehow to slow down and take more static images rather than working with the faster and more dynamic Canons which would lead to more new-sy type images – smthg I of course have been trying to get away from.  The results have partly vindicated the decision but I have lost a lot of decent images there too mainly in very low-light conditions and esp at night where the Hassleblad struggles and where at ISO 800 (the max on the H4D-40) a lot of noise is introduced into the images.

I worry sometimes that the old reflexes as a news photographer didn’t come to play in the decision to employ the Hassleblad, simply so I can prove to myself I can walk around with it there –  Hassleblad may have got a camera on the moon (their own marketing blurb) but I bet they’ve never had one in Hangberg type thing!

I’ve had one or two hairy moments there – a gangster there told me outright he was going to steal my camera – when I laughed nervously he told me he was in fact very serious – I told him I knew he was but knew also that Denrico (my assistant there) is well-respected in the community and I was safe for now.  The gangster said as much.  Anyway – he was gracious enough to let me photograph him and I have given him A4 prints in return for the favour and we often greet each other now amicably enough.

As I’ve said – there is a long way to go with the Hangberg project but I am happy to put some of the images up now.  I have found the road away from my old type of work long and hard but without any initial feedback – I am happy with the new direction I am taking and with the type of work I am beginning to put out.  I am excited to get the short doccie finished too and know once that (and the Karoo photographic project) is complete, my shift will have been complete and I will be able to offer a new style and services to potential clients.

Teaching Photography and the great rewards that come from it (Part 3)

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Linda Velapi receiving her photography award from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for winning the Nationwide photography competition organised by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation on the theme of Reconciliation.

Linda was given a Sony a300 camera as part of her award and a placement on a photography course at the City Varsity School of Media and Crerative Arts in Cape Town.

The Thing about On-screen Interviews…

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I have done a few interviews in my time – usually to get the information for a written piece or for quotes to go with a photo story but never on film for a doccie.

Turns out that – as a rookie – setting up can be as daunting for the interviewer as it is for the interviewee.  The whole process transforms completely and to be honest – works against everything that helps make for a free-flowing sound interview.  For any broadcast journo this is all of course obvious and part and parcel of the job – but not being used to the process it is interesting to quickly go over a few of the issues I faced:

The first thing that changes is the ease with which I was used to communicating with any subject – with video – even the basic canon 5d mk II set up – you suddenly create a whole host of barriers to simple fluid communication and the interview becomes a slave very much to the technology that sits between you.

For starters there are a couple of glaring continuous 800W lights on the subject and extra film crew hovering just out of shot that makes the subject and interviewer less at ease – Mostly though – the prob with on-camera interviews are things like the fact that you suddenly have to ask the subject to paraphrase questions continuously (as I’ve said before the piece will focus on first person narrative and talking heads.. my voice won’t be on the film).

This then means that you have to stop and start sometimes which breaks the ease and flow of natural conversation.  Being constantly still and quiet on the set as well so audio doesn’t pick up any extraneous noise is also an issue for someone like me who fidgets and moves a lot naturally.

Simply put – the problem with on-film interviews is that the process itself gets so much in the way.  For a piece that is all about examining the emotions of those working on the front line of child assault cases, it is proving to be an issue and I am looking to work round this.  Ultimately, I think sacrificing some technical polish from interviews for more comfort and better on-screen reactions from the interviewees is def worth it.

In this case, it was lucky therefore that our subject – Dr Genine Josias – one of the forensic doctors involved in the project has a great presence and is natural and calm (more so than I am!) in front of the camera.  This made the process more relaxed and much easier to handle.  My film crew are also much at ease and helped also put Genine in a good space.

Two old tricks that came in handy – common to broadcast interviewers – that work very well is:

1/ The pregnant pause:  After an answer always give the subject time to add more.  Never ask the next question immediately.  This technique is especially useful with professionals who are used to the interview process. It is usually during these simulated moments of discomfort that the best and most unique answers can be attained.

2/ Get to chat and connect with the subject beforehand.  This greatly helps to put them at ease.  In my case, I have years of contact with many of the subjects on the film so this is not a problem.  But certainly, with people that I don’t know so much, it is worth sitting down and having informal chats with them before the whole circus begins.

Our next interview situation will be with front line service counsellors and we have the added dimension that a Xhosa interpreter will be used.

Success with the tv interview process all comes down to putting the interviewee at ease in my humble opinion.  The more time I have doing this, I am sure the better it will get.  Whatever though – I do feel much more at ease behind the camera and can’t wait to get back to where I belong!

The bad side of news photography as a freelance (con’t)

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On the way back home to Hout Bay, Cape Town after a short outing I was informed of the terrible tragedy that had befallen those on the catamaran, Miroshga near Duiker Island.

It had already been several hours since the event and the first set of survivors had been brought to shore and the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) were busy in attempting to rescue a second set of survivors from the overturned vessel.

A broken engine had left the catamaran stranded and the boat had then capsized in the high winds and choppy waters.  Of the 33 or 34 tourists on board, 1 was later confirmed dead and several seriously injured.  Many of the passengers had had to wait hours underneath the overturned catamaran surviving on small pockets of air until the NSRI had been able to reach the boat.  Several poachers (of perleman and crayfish) had gotten to the site earlier and had made brave attempts to rescue as many of the passengers as they could.

After assessing the situation I realised this would be an international story of sorts and had to go down to the harbour where the passengers of the Miroshga were being brought in.

The first sign that things for the media were amiss was when I got down there and spoke to several news people from local and international outlets.  They had not been briefed and were already annoyed at the lack of access and the way the police was treating them.  We found ourselves being mishandled, told to always move away and were kept as far away from the survivors and the rescue operation coming in as possible.

Apart from protecting the identity the deceased survivor until next of kin had been informed and on a larger scale minimising any PR damage for the Cape Town tourist industry – whatever the good intentions, being mishandled in such a manner was both demeaning and was a general affront to the press and the work they do. We could just as easily have been briefed on the do’s and dont’s and would have respected any reasonable guidelines given.

A fellow photographer working with the local newspapers aptly said after an argument with a policeman that the next time they wanted to feed a ‘feel-good’ story to the press, they wouldn’t oblige them.

I have already blogged about the professional value as a freelance of working as a news photographer.  Here though was the other side of the coin I also dislike – the photos themselves are restrictive in terms of quality and what you can achieve but also in many events now in news photography, everything is carefully staged and choreographed on the whole.  You will find the most media savvy people in even the remotest parts of Africa keen to try and control access.  Not only is it necessary to use your best skills in a limited setting to convey whatever you are photographing (for little reward as a freelance as I have written in past blogs) but increasingly you must also at the same time navigate a mountain of control and access issues of what pics can and can’t be taken.

Over the years, I have learnt to gently push in such situations to get the pics that are required – but given that my pics – however good (and they def weren’t in this case) – would not have received any interest from media outlets (who as I have said before would go to Reuters, AFP and AP for such pics whose staff photogs and cameramen were already on the scene at the Harbour) I decided after a couple of hours and a few weak pics to go home and continue with my relaxing Saturday.

This event was even more confirmation for me that moving away from this type of photography was a good and positive move for me both professionally and personally.

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