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NYC Diary – Part 2

Wednesday 19th October

 

I attend an eye-opening all-day session watching Peter Coulson – an award-winning Australian fashion photographer.  He talks about everything from the technical aspects of post-prod to why not to chat up a model on-set.

He is accomplished in all aspects of the medium that is rare – from highly subtle play with the most basic of studio light set-ups and extensive post-prod and geeky equipment knowledge to talking extensively about the psychology behind getting the best out of a model.  He talks about the three worst types of fashion photographers – those who over-direct the model, those who under-direct and those who ask for phone numbers and ask the model to get naked for no apparent creative reason. Love his passion too – he often promotes equipment that he doesn’t sponsor or are even rivals to companies that he does sponsor simply coz he believes in the gear.

In the evening I go to the 13 year anniversary party for Digital Transitions  in downtown Manhattan (an NYC based camera equipment shop) with some colleagues.  It is held in a large darkened open-plan studio with a wide infinity curve to one side and brick walls all around. The music blaring unbearably loud. We all spend most of the night by the entrance area where we can just about hear ourselves talk.

At the entrance there is a photo booth.  We have the option of putting on colourful hats and wigs and having our pics taken under lighting and against their logo – we oblige before being told that all we have to do to receive the pics is post them on our instagram feeds.  I glance at my fellow photogs and from the look in their eyes I know we all have the same thought.. ‘You mad?! no damn way am I putting a pic of myself in a stupid hat on my instagram feed!’ We respectfully decline the kind offer and take some of our own phone pics instead.

We end up at a diner watching the last Presidential debate.  By now, even I am praying for this whole thing to end.  Can’t imagine what it must be like having to live through a whole year and a half of this thing.

Thursday 20th October

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PDN Photoplus begins a proper today.  The large expansive open plan space of the Javits Conference Centre is abuzz and a throng of people come and go from the expo floor to the seminars in the lecture halls downstairs to milling around all the coffee shops that almost but not quite makes the vastness of the centre seem ram-packed.

I bring with me my large A2 portfolio folder today as well for the first in a series of portfolio reviews over the coming days.  Riding the subway with the folder I am thrown around to the apathetic amusement of my fellow passengers by a train driver who often punctures the silence of the carriage with emphatic Eminem style lyrical annoucements as we approach each station on the way to Hudson Yard on the 7 before braking suddenly each time and throwing me off my feet once again.  I am already feeling my age by now and it is only day 2.

I have mixed feelings about portfolio review events… sure they are a great way to meet key people in a sector of the photog industry with which I am unfamiliar in a short space of time and that might otherwise takes months to arrange (if at all).  But given the short 20 minute slots you have and the number of people each reviewer sees it is more akin to speed dating (as one reviewer put it).

I would go further and say that as you have to pay for these events, it puts us photogs at an instant disadvantage.  It is more like being the guy who still wears dental braces and has halitosis trying to impress at speed dating events.  All you can really hope for is to try and make a decent enough impression (in a sea of other impressions) that you are able to use and go on and build a relationship later from.  My reviews are decent enough today though.  I take great care in researching each reviewer and have very distinct aims going into each review which always helps to stand out a bit.

I briefly attend Jay Maisel’s private showing at the Javits in the eve.  Get to say hello to the great man himself who – even in a bit of a frail state is still jovial, charming and full of energy.  I pretend to steal his walking stick – I tell him I need it more than he does right now.  He laughs but I am only half-joking.

After-hours we go from gallery to gallery and party and opening.  I lose track where we go and where we are.  The amazing vastness of the NYC skyline begins to blur into a daunting mass of imposing structures as we make our way by foot through the oncoming crowds that by now hurtle at us like missile projectiles that take every bit of concentration to avoid on the garish headache-inducing streets.  I begin to feel my twice-broken ankle playing up but the free beverages at each event helps keep me just about going.

We end up in Korea Town looking for a place to have dinner.  We start to queue at one restaurant but with my ankle having none of it (what is it with New Yorkers and queuing up for what in many instances appear to be mediocre eating joints?) I suggest we go to another restaurant which is full but without queue.  Unfortunately, like the guy who picks a bad movie, I get blamed the rest of the evening.  In my experience, a sign of a good restaurant is if you see plenty of people of the same ethnic origin as the food served.  This place though took the concept of ethnic food to another dimension.  For starters I could hardly understand the English translation of the menu – mainly because we couldn’t recognise the component ingredients – so picking the dish was pretty much a case of lottery – and then the resident surliness of the waitresses made us feel as if transported to what I imagine it would be like to be dining in a small industrial town in South Korea.

I try and put a brave face on it but my colleagues are having none of it.

 

Friday 21st October

 

I go to a seminar with Mary J Swanson at the end of the day even though I am tired from a barrage of reviews and previous seminars and having seen her give the same lecture before on getting a photo book published.  I love her passion and there is always smthg new in her talks to take in.  She continues talking way after she is told in increasingly stark terms to stop by the conference guard who keeps walking in.  A surly tech guy even marches up to her and removes her lav mic in the middle of the seminar but she continues unphased for another 20 minutes…. After the lecture I go up and say hi and tell her that I loved her book that I had recently read.  I remind her that we first met in Paris… she jokingly tells me that her husband is in the room and I should be more discreet about some comically imagined far more intriguing meeting in the City of Love… total legend of a person.

Go to an Agency Access party in the upstairs section of a bar in downtown hosted by the charismatic Frank Meo.  I meet Bob Carey who was in town to talk about The Tutu Project and his accompanying photo book ‘Ballerina’ – a compilation of interesting self portraits of Bob in a tutu in various locations.  I love the work and concept instantly.  I put up a congratulatory high five on a great project just as he somberly tells me the project was borne out of the need to embrace and laugh at life in the face of his wife’s terrible recurring breast cancer.  I retract my high five as humanely and with as much dignity as I possibly can.  Bob gives me one of his calendars of images from the Tutu Project.  Great work for a great cause for sure – http://thetutuproject.com/

 

Saturday 22nd October

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Finish up with reviews and seminars today and finally have some time to hit the expo floor where all the newest releases of equipment from a very wide range of companies are on show.  The floor is a dizzying mash of people and innovative displays.  One thing that has become apparent throughout the last few days is the constant crazy levels of innovation and change that as a photographer it is necessary to keep abreast of.  There are few industries where you have to evolve and transform as quickly as in photography.

 

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When I get back to the hotel for an afternoon break, a friend who involved in organising the pspf event and is now clearing up sends me a forlorn pic of one of my cards abandoned on a reviewers desk.  I write a ‘lol’ back.  Obviously I hadn’t been that much of a hit with one of them.  I brush it off – 1 card out of the many reviews ain’t bad and I know who I did and didn’t get on with.  Constant rejection is part of the game I say.  My friend sends me proof of the bundle of other photogs cards left behind as if in some way trying to console me – but I am disinterested hoping to catch a quick afternoon nap.

But then my mind can’t help trying to recollect the reviewer I saw at that particular table.  What if it was one of the reviewers I thought I had gotten on with? A simple side thought turns into a full blown internal investigation.  After all these years of dealing with rejection I still can’t help myself sometimes.  The mental effort though thankfully soon sends me into a blissful afternoon sleep.

End up firstly at the IPA Annual Best of Show Exhibition at Splashlight Studios on Hudson Square  followed by the popular Resource Magazine party.  The fancy dress theme for the latter is Black and White.  Before I left for nyc I had quickly grabbed my one and only pinstripe suit and bought a cheap bowler hat and umbrella on the way up to the studio from one of the stalls in Times Square.  I turn up and quickly realise I am completely over-dressed.  Not many people made that much of an effort (which sod’s law is characteristically what I would normally do).  The place is quite lively.  By this time though, I am completely exhausted after a frantic few days.

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I leave just after midnight by now beyond exhaustion.  Heading back to the hotel I pass by a McDonald’s.  I pop in.  At least I don’t have to queue up for this damn place I think to myself.  While inside I sit opposite a man sitting playing with a  cup of coffee in deep contemplation.  We start chatting.  We settle into one of those late night pseudo-meaningful life discussions.  He has just lost his job managing 5 Salvation Army shelters apparently in the neighbourhood and his sister has asked him to move out of the family home after deciding to get married.  He is contemplating becoming a major drug dealer now instead.  I have so many questions for him – like firstly how do you make the jump from Salvation Army to significant  drug dealer but being tired – keep the conversation narrow.

‘you sure it’s not just desperation talking?’ I ask.

When I leave he runs after me with my cheap umbrella I had left behind.  I really didn’t have a need for it but thank him anyways and offer to buy him a drink at a nearby sports bar.  I continue to try and make token gestures to dissuade him from his proposed life choice over a quick pint in the lively bar.  But with fatigue taking over and my initial curiosity turning to disinterest as he comes up with objective reasons as to why he should become one to my every point, I eventually say

‘well – you seem to have your bases covered – maybe you should become a drug dealer.’

He laughs seeing the funny side but also gives a knowing nod to himself.  I instantly panic.  What if he cites this moment in some future indictment or some forthcoming ‘Mr Nice’ style autobiography as the very moment he turned to his nefarious ways?  I quickly console myself that the incongruous sight of a dark skinned bearded man with an English accent in a pinstripe suit and bowler hat in a McDonald’s or sport’s bar would be interpreted at best as a symbolic hallucination – some sort of fictitious Dark Angel who finally sent him over the edge to begin his East Coast spree of mayhem.

I make my excuses and leave but not before buying him one last drink.  I make sure it’s a double.

 

Monday 24th October

I am back at the MoMA in the afternoon.  This time I pay particular interest to the exhibition on refugees – or rather a look at how ‘contemporary architecture and design have addressed notions of shelter in light of global refugee emergencies’.  (Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter’).  There is not one face or portrait of a refugee in the display being more a focus on the structures in which they are housed in camps worldwide.  At the entrance of the exhibition though there is a bland list of record of all the deceased refugees who died attempting to make the often perilous journey to Europe by boat or by other means.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with the display.  I can’t help but think of this as a good example of how art and documentary photog don’t mix.  The gap between serious subject matter and abstract conceptualisation is just too stark for me.  I leave realising how much I had under-rated the ‘Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts’ exhib and go back to the comfort of Nan Goldin’s video display next door.

 

Wednesday 26th October

I pop into Polaris offices one last time.  This time I have a long pleasant chat with James McGrath – the News and Assignment Ed there.  I have begun to grasp the extent to which the whole industry has changed beyond recognition from even a few years ago.  How hard going it all is.  But I can’t get away from this type of photog.  It will always interest and excite me.  We talk about possible work going forward.  Reportage and documentary photog proper will always somehow be part and parcel of my professional DNA.

 

Thursday 27th October

 

I am meant to be flying out the day before but extend my trip for one last meeting in DC for a mag that I have always wanted to be involved with.  With my finances depleted, I decide to make an exhausting overnight bus ride to Washington DC that is the beginning of a non-stop 50 hour expedition that would eventually see me back in Cape Town.

It begins at 3.45am at the Port Authority waiting to catch the Greyhound.  I was a bit wary of going by coach and especially coming to the Port Authority in nyc – made infamous to us foreigners by things like John Oliver’s segment and the Simpsons.  I was not to be disappointed. In the queue waiting to board, a trangender person starts screaming

‘You think you can buy this pussy dear – this pussy ain’t for sale!’ to some unseen person.

This goes on for at least 20 minutes as we wait to board.  On the bus, the driver barks orders about use of mobiles and to keep any noise level down in a tone more akin to what I imagine would be barely acceptable on a prison transportation bus rather than on a coach trip with paying customers.

In DC I bide my time at the pleasant Founding Farmers restaurant.  Outside while puffing on my e-cig, I chat to a friendly man of burly build who I later realise is wearing an earpiece synonymous with secret service security detail.  I wonder who he is protecting inside.  I unwittingly put on my best British accent as I always do when I feel my olive toned skin and beard might come into question as has done on many occasions – especially at airports – in the past.  He is unaware of my silly paranoia borne out of one too many movies.

I meet up with the affable James Wellford who I had last met while he was photo ed at Newsweek years back.

After the meeting, I go on to meet up with an old friend from Reuters now based in DC as a freelance.  We had first met in South Sudan while the war raged there in early 2014 and hit it off pretty quick.  We were both disillusioned with the dangers involved in this type of work and the poor pay – and in fact it was my last ever conflict zone.  I was forever grateful to him too for having fought hard on my behalf to get me paid my dues for exclusive video footage that had been used extensively on international rolling news services by an increasingly frugal Reuters dept ever eager to report back cost-cutting successes to their managers on high.

We end up having an epic night making the most of a surprisingly diverse and interesting DC nightlife.

I end up missing the Greyhound return coach at 2am and have to get the train at 3am back to nyc – at annoyingly extra expense.  The trip is far more pleasant though and I am actually able to sleep a bit.  I make my way back to the hotel – pack quickly and get to check-in for my flight back to South Africa with only minutes to spare.

By this time my ankle is in full-scale rebellion and my back has joined the revolt in total  solidarity at all my shenanigans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can Social Documentary Photography ever be considered Art?

I am going to start on and off series of blogs going forward talking about whether social documentary photography itself is art and can be seen as such.  I am sure my own perceptions will evolve as well and it will be interesting to see how and why they do so.

I think it is safe to say that whether photography can be considered an art form was resolved an age ago if the museum and gallery photog collections and thriving auction sales of this world are anything to go by.  As far back as the mid-70’s Susan Sontag – in her seminal work ‘On Photography’ was discussing the well-established merits of photography as an art form finding acceptance in museum collections (even back then the arguments had pretty much been settled).  But social documentary photography on the other hand has until only recently began to be seen as art and with limited (if not significantly growing) volumes of work being seen at exhibitions, galleries and museums.

The current deep recession might have something to do with renewed interest in social documentary photography – as it cyclically does – as people become more reflective on social ills and global problems that mirror their own economic distress – as it did in the early 80’s.  But there is also a growing long-term trend of seeing social documentary photography in galleries and being more readily accepted as art.  One has only to see the amazing success of photographers like Pieter Hugo whose 30×40 can go for US$ 30,000 and whose subject matter – while more conceptual certainly touches on social documentary themes, to understand that rather than a passing interest, social documentary photography has set down its stall in the art world and is here to stay.

But there is certainly a contradiction between the two worlds that will probably take time to adjust and settle.  The largely humanistic approach (notwithstanding photographers such as Martin Parr) of social documentary photography sits uncomfortably with the values that the art world holds dear, namely concept, the abstract and composition that together contribute to the essential timelessness of a piece.  There is the danger of trivialising the grave subject matter which many social documentary photographers tackle in its commodification by print sizes and limited edition offerings that borders on the exploitative.

I think approach and execution of subject is always key in understanding which social documentary photography is right for the walls and which is better off in editorial format in a magazine or on an NGO poster campaign.  As social documentary photographers fine tune their approaches (as many have done highly successfully) away from actual subject matter and towards the conceptual, using subtle color patterns and composition rather than subject to express their chosen themes, then social documentary photography will increasingly start finding a successful home in the art world now that the traditional line of income from media outlets is all but extinguished.

 

 

Writing a short artist statement

‘Art is not something one does, it is what one is. An artist is made up of all that she or he has ever done, felt, experienced or been. And the art that the artist creates—if she or he is true to self—is an expression of all that has been done, experienced, felt or been.’  Paul Donohoe (social documentary street photographer).

 

It has become increasingly clear recently that I had to sit down and come up with a short statement that defines the vision and focus of my socio-documentary art photog.  It is often a requirement when submitting work and it is an essential part of putting forward what drives and motivates me as a photographer in my work.  While I have a clear idea in my head, putting it all down on paper is a trickier business than it looks!  I spent a good hour going over my pics and reading all the synopses to try and define it all in a few sentences.

But it was also a great personal exercise.  Getting away from the ‘who, what, why, where and when’s’ of documentary or more precisely news photog and being given the freedom to express some sort of humble vision is emancipating and brings me closer to my own work in ways that I didn’t feel before.

Having to be more introspective has helped me to understand myself in ways I didn’t really appreciate too – the fact I am always seeking out the absurd and abstract in life at the frontiers of modern life is a reflection of my own desire to always stay on the outside – be the observer – maybe even voyeur but never truly engaging.  Photography was almost a match made in heaven in this respect.  It has allowed me to seek out the weird and wonderful but by being able to put a large camera body up to my face – it has preserved the distance and disengagement which I guess really mirrors my own way of life in many ways.

While I am excited to be finally presenting my projects soon (it has been a long time coming!)  Whatever the outcome I know I have become a better photographer because of them.

Artist Statement:

My work seeks out the spaces where clash creates the wonderful and surreal at the frontiers of homogenised Western society – Be it in wide open deserts or in densely packed urban spaces. Where contradiction creates upheaval and change. Where the chaotic and abstract evolve. Where the end of one cycle gives birth to something transformative that is always innately beautiful. I am driven to capture the process of renewal that on a larger scale are reflected in the rhythms of nature and life.

 

Few pics out of the Karoo

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Just came back from a week’s trip in the Karoo – as a continuation of a long-term photo project I am currently undertaking out there (Karoo – A Changing Landscape:  http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/karoo/ ).  I was determined to undertake the challenging off-road journey out there- even if I have been distracted with things back in CT recently… Looking over past work in preparation for the trip, I realised I had to focus more on its wonderfully eccentric peoples to balance the opening part of the project (that has focused more on abstract and landscape images).  In the short space of time out there, I managed to start fulfilling that goal (although of course I also shot a wide range of appropriate landscape shots – it is so hard to resist the temptation in the idiosyncratic Karoo!).

Even in the short space of time out there on this occasion – the wonderfully warm and friendly peoples of the Karoo – from all walks of life – helped make my pic-taking job easier.  In many ways it is a hark back to a vanishing and more idyllic and simple existence – A way of being that I believed had been swallowed up by everyday modern urban life long ago. Will be making a 3 week trip in the next few months again… really looking forward to getting back out there too…

 

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.

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…!

The Heavy Personal Price of conflict zone photography and Moving on….

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

I have done a lot of blogging in the past about photojournalism, war-type photography and how it just doesn’t work as a business model.  I haven’t said too much though about the personal effect it has had on me and how I have felt undertaking such photography.  I remember when I did my postgrad at LCC in London, on the first day of the course we were asked if anyone would want to be a war photographer… I remember my hand going straight up and talking about what I then thought were the merits of doing such work.  I got into photojournalism mainly on the back of being in awe of greats such as Don McCullin, Capa and Lee Miller.  I would have given anything at the time to have been able in an ever so small manner to be able to walk in their great footsteps and achieve even a miniscule portion of what they had.

What I came to realise later on though is that things had changed so much than what they were back then for photojournalists.  In the past there were far fewer photographers doing such work and when magazines such as LIFE were in their hey-dey, such photographers were truly witnesses to the world for the rest – on an altruistic mission to reveal what was going on at great personal risk to themselves.  Today though (and for the past 30 years) there are so many conflict photographers out there.  The editor of a large European magazine once told us that during the Libyan conflict she was inundated with so many emails from freelancers simply stating they were on location and if she required any pics for the mag.  When there are so many of us – and now of course with the advent of citizen journalism – conflict photography, in my opinion, begins to lose that one altruistic justification – of being a true witness for the rest – that made it viable to run around conflict areas.  When it just becomes a desperate race to beat the competition to the action in my humble opinion it becomes no better than paparazzi photography.

I was at a funeral a few Sundays back taking shots for my Hangberg book project.  Around the open coffin there were standing young family members of the deceased, completely inconsolable.  For a second my old instinct came through and I thought what a powerful picture that would make.  But in the same instance I couldn’t bring myself to take any photos.  I found myself instead really empathising and I was quickly overwhelmed with emotion.  I stood there and just observed.  It suddenly struck me how much I had changed as a person as well.  In the past, I wouldn’t of hesitated to take that type of photo.  I suddenly wanted to apologise for every time I had stuck a camera in the faces of other people’s misery.  This might be a tad epic and overblown – but it was real to me and I had to hastily leave the funeral cos I could hardly breathe.

I began to question what had I truly risked so much for really – and the trauma of the things I had seen have taken a very heavy personal toll – a nightmare from which I have only recently been able to escape.  I had a conversation a few months back with an ex-British soldier.  We were comparing stories and discussing the trauma the things we had seen had caused us.  After an hour I came to the conclusion that the difference between us was not what we had seen – but in a strange way – I felt more traumatised because I had been inactive in all the situations I had been in whereas a soldier is active and involved.  I felt I had to carry the shame of ultimately running around a conflict area for the simple purpose of trying to get my pics in publications and on the wires.  Some might say these feelings are misplaced – but it is truly what I feel and it has been my own personal experience of such work.  I can honestly say I will never again go to a conflict zone to photograph and take such pics.  That time of my life is over and gone.

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!!

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