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NYC Diary – Part 1

I have written a short diarised version of my current trip to NYC to talk at the SVA, show work and attend PDN Photoplus.  I freely admit that I have modelled it a bit on Peter Dench’s excellent diary series ‘The Diary of a Sometime Working Pro’ in the UK-based ‘Hungry Eye’ journal (a must-read for both photogs and film-makers alike). I guess in Peter’s seemingly random daily ruminations I see my own disjointed life narrative that makes up my sometimes surreal and very personal experiences as a photog.

Thursday 13th October

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Wake up at 4am after a bad nights sleep still jet-lagged.  I had added an extra day to my trip before giving a brief presentation at the SVA in the hope that I would be well rested but no luck there.  Start the day completing a general marketing brief, sending material for social media and website updates for the studio in Cape Town and preparing for talk later in the day.  I try and sleep some more but with no success.  Go into Manhattan to do all my international magazine and journal shopping – smthg I am very much starved of in Cape Town.  Come back at 4pm – plan to relax a bit and make my way to the SVA at 6.30pm.

8.50pm – wake up in a daze… where am I?! Oh yeah – in NYC – isn’t there smthg I am meant to be doing?… FUCK!!!!

In a confused mix of daze and panic I phone the SVA event organiser Lavonne Hall.  She confirms the event is nearly over but is thankfully merciful and relaxed about the whole thing.  She tells me we will re-arrange the talk and confirms our meeting the next day anyway.

I decide that getting some sleep is a top priority.

Friday 14th October

4.30am – awoken by messages on my SA phone asking me about studio hire and equipment rates in Cape Town on Saturday the next day.  I am instantly annoyed as I just know this request won’t happen by the tone of message.  Go through the motions of arranging with my ever reliable first assistant and get back with other info.  Tell the potential client to confirm before 3pm SA time knowing full well they won’t and try and get some more sleep.

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Spend morning showing work briefly and then end up at the MoMA with Lavonne.  End up seeing photography work much of which I’d mostly seen before.  Nan Golding’s exhibition there for example… interesting little exhib of scenes of destruction from Aleppo, Syria in back-lit mahogany boxes.  Lavonne comments on the fact you can see the shadow of the wiring coming through in a few of the boxes.  The Photographer could probably say it was all intentional.  That’s the beauty of art photography.

Trump – Trump – Trump-ety  Trump everywhere. I can see why the US is so sick of it all – away from the TV in NYC, all mentions of Trump are usually a comedic ruse at money-making.

Saturday 15th October

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11am – Outside of photography I have 2 goals for the immediate future.  One is to become good at kitesurfing (or at least not get blown into the bushes at the back of the beach so much) and the second is to watch as many Arsenal football games in as many different settings as possible.  I decide to go to the Blind Pig off Union Square to watch Arsenal vs Swansea.  I only make it for the second half in the end… but the pub is crammed full of Arsenal memorabilia, TV screens all dedicated to Premier league football and with American Arsenal-loving supporters almost as mad and passionate as fans in the UK… this could honestly be a pub around Finsbury Park.  ‘God Bless America’ I think.  Can’t resist the temptation of ordering a pint of Guiness to take in the atmos…

1pm – Go get a bite to eat and spend the next couple of hours drinking as many liquids as possible trying to get rid of the buzz that comes from 3 pints of Guinness before going to an open gallery event at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

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3pm – The Brooklyn Navy Yard is an interesting place.  Packed with studio spaces for various types of artists – from photographers to painters to sculptors.  Spend the next few hours mostly trying to find all the exhibited work in the sprawling redevelopment…

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Sunday 16th October

On the way to meeting a friend for dinner, I pass through Times Square.  The buzz and atmos of the place – and of Manhattan in general is amazing – it almost feels like in the areas immediately surrounding Noting Hill in London as people walk away from the carnival – but all the time.  The throb of people becomes uncomfortable as I pass an event dedicated to the ongoing Hindu festival of Diwali.  Having been to a few in London I am not so interested and instead take pics of the statue of Francis Duffy there – a priest and First World War hero – juxtaposed against images of 20th Century icons.   I hear one of the speakers talk about how there is renewed evil in the world and about harking back to better times.  I am instantly annoyed and see in his speech undertones of the ‘Make America Great Again!’ theme of the Donald – I wonder whether the speaker was at or even helped organise the recent ‘Hindus for Trump’ event in New Jersey (where Trump infamously and nonsensically said ‘I am a big fan of Hindu and India’)… ‘Humans have always been evil dude’ I think to myself and walk off to meet my friend – my disinterest in the event complete.

Monday 17th October

3.30pm – Had an interesting meeting today at Polaris Images – my reportage and documentary agency with the legendary in photographic circles, JP Pappis – its head.  Before the meeting I was pleasantly surprised to receive a cheque for library images sold… that’ll cover my spending (and part of my drinking money) on this trip…I look at the list of images sold.  One particularly lucrative sale was for:  ‘Current Afghan President Hamid Karzai’ – ‘Fuck’ I thought – I’ve never photographed Hamid Karzai – I’ve never been to Afghanistan for that matter’… I consider for a while whether I should mention it and risk losing the sale.  In the end I mention it… turns out it was thankfully a small admin error and the sale was mine.

Spent over an hour chatting to JP.. awesome character.  He gives me the lowdown on the ever-depressing state of the reportage and documentary world of photography.  Apparently Getty caught everyone unawares this year at Perpignan by announcing that Getty Reportage would close down and be replaced by Verbatim – still run by Aidan Sullivan – but focusing on corporate work instead.  We also talk about the rise of Shutterstock and royalty free micro stock images and what it has done to the business.  He tells me about his accident where he tripped and broke three ribs a few days before having to travel to Perpignan (for Visa pour l’image – the annual photojournalism festival in France) – but still got on a plane and went- even driving to and from Barcelona.  As I say – legend.

I tell him about all my new focus on different types of work and that I don’t do reportage and news any more – ‘I’m 40 and I’m Greek – it’s all about the money now!’  I joke.  We discuss putting up a corporate portfolio on the soon to be revamped Polaris website.  I get interested though in discussing how the South African narrative – internationally speaking – has stuck with independence and Mandela when so much has changed since then.  I offer to send some story pitches in this regard as well… guess I will always have a finger in the reportage pie one way or another.

I leave the Polaris offices happy that my last meeting was so fruitful… I go to the bank and cash the cheque.  Walking up to meet a friend in Bryant Park about 8 blocks uptown, the wheels of my roller bag which I use to transport my smaller portfolio catches on something.  I aggressively try and free it before realising it is catching on my one and only decent leather jacket which was draped over the bag.  I inspect the damage to the jacket and ruminate that a new one would cost as much as the cheque I had just gotten.  I arrive in Bryant park in a dark mood.  A Hare Krishna passes and offers a small bright, golden-coloured leaflet.  I take it – partly out of curiosity to see whether it was yet another NYC hustle and partly because I have an affinity with Hare Krishnas after they had kindly and mercifully put a blanket around my shoulders almost two decades before during one particularly bad moment at Glastonbury when I had lost friends and had run into their tent to seek shelter from the torrential rain.  The young man stops and turns with a speed and focus that can only mean he is about to ask me for money.  ‘Take it back take it back take it back’ I say firmly waving the leaflet over the palm of his now outstretched hand before he can say anything.  He takes it back and leaves me alone.

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Wednesday 19th October

wake up at 4am again – I decided before the start of PDN Photoplus today and the start of very hectic 12 hour days (if you include openings and after parties), I should say smthg about my trip to NYC on social media.  I get depressed thinking that very much in the same way that if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it making a sound, then if I go to NYC and don’t talk about it on social media – did it really ever happen?

I write 2 blogs then decide to get an hour’s sleep before having to head to the Javits… I set my alarm this time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Introspection, shooting vid and the way forward….

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‘I spent more than half my life in hotel rooms alone. There is a loneliness with that, but when I come home, I sometimes feel even more lonely. Even though I am in their (my family’s) physical midst, it becomes so clear how I feel neglected. They are not asking any questions, it’s just like: “Oh, Dad’s home. Bye, I gotta go. I got a date,” or “I am gonna hang with friends,” or “I have a soccer game or a baseball game.”’

‘Photographing the World, Longing for Home.’ – Ed Kashi’s Reflections on his Photos – in Diaries and Letters. (NY Times 21/03/12)

Recently updating my website and going through my News Spot section I found myself slightly deflated by my own pics .

I have seen my pics enough times now to shield myself from the worst elements mentally – even though looking at them all again still makes me grimace from time to time.  It was actually mainly out of a sense of frustration at the limited nature of the work itself.  I have been asking myself some soul-searching questions recently – both on a deeper and more practical level and the one glaring, inescapable truth is that the type of work I have done will not sustain me for much longer.  When I did my photojournalism course at LCC in London I was motivated by 1 thing – and that was to go into war zones and the such and be that war photographer – Inspired by books such as Don McCullin’s ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’, Antony Lloyd’s ‘This War Gone By, I Miss it So’ and of course ‘The Bang Bang Club’ I craved to be shaken out of my North London existence and become – for lack of a better expression – a ‘Witness’ to world events.

A decade on and I’m def not so sure – Don’t want to dwell too long on the  personal side – but at 35 yrs of age – and wanting to settle again 1 day, all the traveling will eventually either put a strain on any relationship – or more likely – there won’t be 1 at all – I don’t want to be that 55 year old in Moggie or Sudan or Nigeria on his own – far, far away from any point of reference.  Apart from the loneliness it’s an extremely selfish and solipsistic way of life too.

Far more importantly – there just isn’t any money in news photography or photojournalism as a whole these days.  Shooting for news agencies in particular – esp as a stringer  – just isn’t worth it.

Tthe maths of shooting as a stringer just doesn’t make sense.  You have to pay all costs to a dangerous location (which is usually very expensive) not to mention satellite links etc – and all for US$60 per pub.  That’s crazy -and to be honest offensive. In terms of agencies and representation, apart from my Reuters stringer contract, I have recently re-signed a Getty contract and am signed to Polaris and AMO in SA.  But while that all sounds great on paper – I sometimes wonder what the real worth is – I get by on commissions and library sales in gen with the agencies )the rest comes from NGO/UN commissions).  I am in particular to expand library sales dramatically (Alamy is another great source that I am looking to in future) – but it will only ever bring in a certain level of income.  I don’t want to be struggling in later life and running around while spreading myself thin – both physically and emotionally – As a business model it simply doesn’t make much sense any more (I would love to hear from people who disagree though).

I def want to be on the creative end of work which is why I took on the Masterclass as a way to try and expand my reach into more long-term artistic/abstract photog. projects.

With the Masterclass, delving into the world of long-term book projects and gallery exhibs has begun to bare some fruit on a personal and technical level of understanding – I shot the above images mainly as an academic project, to explore the world of more abstract photography although grounded in more underlying socio-economic trends and issues.  They were shot in Mombasa on a housing estate and depict the hardship of life for the so-called African middle class.  Without running water and sparse electricity and other basic amenities, I wanted to see how African traditional life and the social nature of life on the Continent came to fill that vacuum left behind by the absence of municipal authorities to provide the most basic of services.

I must admit – while I am pleased enough with the results to put them up on my website, coming up with ideas and the actual shooting of such projects I have found hard.  I found myself when shooting this project constantly saying to myself – ‘what the hell am I doing?- I’m just wondering around an estate taking what feels like random pics.’

Coming very much and solidly from a journalistic background I immediately have a fundamental notion that if it ain’t newsworthy – it ain’t worth engaging.  Unfortunately – I chose the 1 medium in the world of journalism that doesn’t pay too well these days (though I hear some of my colleagues from other mediums bitching as much as me these days).  The career structure for photojournalism I find is more akin to that of acting than anything else in the journalistic world (ie a few minted people at the top and a mass of struggling morons below with no middle ground in between).

Which is where starting the filming and vid process comes in.  While the economics of short doccies at the mo ain’t too amazing they are def far better than photography – in the long-term I am certain it will get better (as fast broadband becomes the norm worldwide) but more importantly – the possibility it offers in terms of avenues to do those old news stories I have such a good grasp on I feel are a lot better than with photojournalism.

Technically I have also always considered my traditional strengths to be in straight visual story-telling.  I think creatively doccies are a better medium in a lot of ways for achieving this end (although some might disagree)…

Translating this though into actually shooting is a whole different story.  The learning curve has been steep.  At 35 it is a bit unsettling  to start out again to learn a new medium but it’s def been worth it.  I had a film-maker friend teach me the basics in terms of equipment and I feel pretty competent now at holding it all together on the shooting side (although my audio knowledge – outside of positioning the various mics and managing the different sound channels – is pretty much limited to making sure the green bar thingy doesn’t become a red bar thingy on the Zoom).

I have found large stumbling blocks along the way and am a bit nervous but feel almost ready to plunge in.  The largest problem has been my choice of subject for my first project.   Instead of opting for simple subject matter – like the eccentric fellow who owns the antique shop down the road – Me being me, I just couldn’t resist taking on a subject that has mushroomed into encompassing 2 large SA Government Departments, an assortment of NGO’s and high ranking officers in SAPS (South African Police Service).  While my friend who gave me a bit of tutoring is completely from the ‘let the script and structure grow organically’ school of doccie thought, given the largesse and gravity of the subject matter I am undertaking, I def don’t want to go down that route (as someone once said – it gets a lot more confusing once you start shooting anything).

I have been immersing myself in reading up about pre/post-shooting scripts, shot lists and paper edits etc at the mo (although I’m almost certain I’ll go in with a general pre-shooting script and develop it organically as I go along into a tight post-shooting script for the forthcoming vid project).  It has helped that I have rather randomly done a film script writing course with a Hollywood scriptwriter in the past (it’s a bit unnerving how the fundamental building blocks of fact and fictional film-making are so similar in many ways) but all the preparation in the world will almost def lead to problems at some point in the shoot.  I promised myself I’d make this blog as blunt and truthful as possible so please key in for my next installment probably titled – ‘How NOT to go about shooting a short doccie’ or ‘How to destroy your reputation in a new medium in 5 minutes.’

Overall – I have large insecurities for the road ahead – it’s such a different road from the well-trodden one of the past but a necessary change is required but it’s also exciting in many ways.  I guess as ex-South African President F W De Klerk once famously declared, you have to ‘adapt or die’ (or in my case ‘adapt or open a small coffee shop on a wind-swept beach in Cape Town engaging in banal conversation and looking out to sea forlornly for the rest of my life’…).

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