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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Publish your Photography Book’ by Darius D. Himes & Mary Virginia Swanson and general notes on getting my own photo book published

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I recently finished the excellent ‘Publish your Photography Book‘ by Darius D. Himes and the irrepressible Mary V. Swanson, who I have had the absolute pleasure to meet on 2 occasions and is one of the true characters of the photography world.  You can see her authentic energy and passion for the photography book interwoven into the fabric of this excellent book.

While some in the industry give downbeat accounts of the state of the photo book publishing world, from the outset ‘Publish your Photography Book’ is positive and charts in great detail the structural changes that the photo book publishing (and indeed the publishing industry as a whole) has undergone in the last two decades – especially with the onset of PoD (Print on Demand) technologies.

From the very first sentence there is a sense of optimism and a belief that the dynamic nature of the industry will lead ultimately to a healthier and re-vitalised landscape in coming years:

Talk to anyone who has been involved in the photography world over the last ten to fifteen years and they will affirm that the photography book market has exploded…Never before has there been such widespread interest in the printed image.’

In consideration of the question:  ‘Will books fade?’  The book states:

‘The short answer is no, not a chance… Books are conveyors of ideas, mementos of civilisation & harbingers of change…’

The book is highly informative as well and a must-read for those seeking to publish their own photography books.  It opens up and explains the inner-workings of the photo book publishing industry and process required to attain that goal.  From encouraging the photographer to ask themselves the tough questions required before beginning the process and breaking down what makes a successful photo book and what doesn’t – to the in’s and out’s of the submission process and inner-workings of a publishing house – right through to the design and production process and the specifics of a successful marketing strategy for the book itself.

It also includes very useful testimonials from a wide range of well-placed people in the industry – from the likes of Robert Morton, Michelle Dunn Marsh, Denise Wolff and Rixon Reed to photographers themselves like Alec Soth and an in-depth interview with Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on a rare collaboration between photographers on their book ‘Violet Isle’.

The book has certainly helped me to chart a course for my own work and to start to clearly see how I could take either of my long-term projects forward.  I have been in touch with a few publishers who have shown initial interest.  The main obstacle at the moment is finding an audience for the very niche subject matter of my current work. I’ll give an example in the form of a convo I was recently having from one very helpful and interested publisher who I met last year at Paris Photo in LA:

Hi George,
So nice to hear from you.  Hope you are doing well.  I love your photos.  If you are interested in submitting a book proposal that would be great….My concern here is where is the market for the book?  As you must be aware book sales have been tough in recent years.  Are you represented by major galleries, do you have exhibitions lined up? 
If you can help us identify the market for a book that would be a very big help.
Let me know your thoughts.
Best

I have only recently began presenting myself to the outside world as a book and gallery photog and need to find a voice and audience within that world.  That will take time.  More importantly, I have to engage a local audience in South Africa – with which my work is more relevant firstly, before being able to engage with the international market more fully.

‘Publishing your Photography Book’ has helped a great deal in understanding the goals I have to set myself if realising my long-term projects as photo books is to be realised.  While in NYC, I am mostly looking to engage with contacts – both old and new – to find interested magazines and editorial space (both published and online) for them and to begin conversations with as many publishers, consultants and galleries as possible with a view to engaging them in the long-run if I succeed in building an audience for the work.

I cannot re-iterate more the basic given that completing a long-term photo project is only the beginning of a very long process that requires just as much energy and passion as constructing and putting together the images themselves.  ‘Publish your Photography Book’ is a great and essential resource for anyone setting out on that long journey themselves.

 

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.

 

A Selection of Images from my final trip for my long-term project in the Karoo ‘A Changing Landscape’

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The current online edit of ‘Karoo: A Changing Landscape’ is up at: http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/karoo/

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More Images from the Karoo

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I recently finished editing the bulk of images from my last trip to the Karoo.  The ongoing project, Karoo – A Changing Landscape can be viewed on my website at:  http://www.georgephilipas.com/gallery/karoo/

That Day in Naivasha Revisited – January 27th 2008

Post-Election Upheaval in Kenya.  January & February 2008.

Grace Mungai is shot through the neck and killed by a stray bullet fired by police during tribal clashes in Kenya as her distraught 15 month old baby son Brian looks on.

I was wading through some news articles a few days ago when I came across one about simmering political tensions in the Rift Valley in Kenya (Rifts in the Rift – 23rd January 2016 – The Economist).  It talked about the tribal divisions that are still rife in politics in the country and showed how such tensions might boil over in elections around mid-2017, especially in multi-tribal towns like Naivasha.

I immediately felt some discomfort when reading the article especially when suddenly realising that by some dark twist of fate I was reading it the very day 8 years ago I had been in Naivasha itself covering the violence. On a whim, I decided to revisit that time briefly to see upon reflection what the images – and in particular the one image above of a recently deceased Grace Mungai and her traumatised baby Brian – that caught the media’s attention ever so briefly – means to me today.  It has taken a few days to be even able to sit down and do this… I hardly revisit or talk about anything from that time – In fact, I don’t really even ever look through my old photojournalistic website at all – let alone write a blog about it.  I find it really hard.  I still get edgy and very nervous thinking about anything from time spent in conflict situations in general.

I took a photo that day – very much the right place and time type – of a horrific scenario that spread round the media campfire through Reuters and initially via the New York Times and came to be very much a brief talking point.  Of course, I had no idea at the time.  The photo itself is not well composed, very graphic, intrusive and just pure overwhelming content.

It was pure luck I had made my way to Naivasha anyway.  I was actually en route to Nakuru further along the Rift Valley where violence was also apparently in full swing when news of clashes in Naivasha broke on the BBC World Service.  I made the decision to divert into the very scenic town more out of curiosity, still planning to move on down the road later on. Surely this beautiful flower producing tourist centre couldn’t have been so affected?  I was so wrong.  I’ll let myself take up the story as I wrote it 8 years ago:

As soon as I arrived in Naivasha town it was clear that events were unraveling fast, with fires burning in several locations and the increasingly familiar smell of tear gas sweeping the entire town. The crack of live rounds from the GSU (General Service Unit – the Kenyan riot police) could be heard in the distance. I found a GSU patrol, left the car and followed them into an area of shanty dwelling where rioters were still battling with police.

Suddenly the sound of screaming women and children filled the air. Drawn to the noise, I found a group of people wailing outside a small corrugated iron dwelling. Everyone was in a frantic state and a lady had began removing all her clothes seemingly so overcome that she was unaware of what she was doing. When I looked inside the house, the sight that greeted me was so gripping that I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of dread. Before me lay a dead mother, shot through the neck, with her crying baby sitting on a chair behind. The dwelling seemed to have been ransacked. I took a few pictures, but then realised the frenzy of the crowd had begun turning its attentions to me. They were asking that perennial question that is asked of many journalists in similar situations. ‘Why don’t you help us?

A few days later, after the photo was printed page 3 of the NY Times, people had started writing in and asking a similar question as those that had surrounded the terrible scene that day – What had I done for the baby?  Radu Sigheti – Reuters Africa Chief Photographer between ’03-’09 phoned me a few days later to get my side as a swell of readers had began asking that very question – maybe fearing a Kevin Carter style backlash in the heat of the media frenzy over his infamous vulture and baby shot.  Upon reflection it is unreasonable to ask such things.  I came to understand the role of photojournalist that day as being a concept that had become very mixed up in the general public’s perception.  The drive to always be perceived as a humanist, a compassionate witness responsible for far more than the narrow remit of reporting news but rather fulfilling the altruistic dreams of what many would perceive themselves as having done from their armchairs a million miles away.

I had very much by chance ticked most of their boxes that day.  I responded to the horrific scene and the restless crowd by seeking out an ambulance from the local hospital.  It had taken time to find one and when I did, the crew were fearful – being from a different tribe on the opposing side of the clashes – that they themselves would be set upon by the crowd.  The fact that news had got to me too that the baby’s dad was also on the scene  by then and that I had to continue doing my freelance duty put an end to the futile effort.

It was in fact my assistant that day who turned to me and said – ‘what are you doing?!’.  I had a job to do and here I was spending a disproportionate amount of time organising ambulances.  To be honest I felt ashamed by having been overwhelmed by emotion, by being driven by a misplaced sense of duty and it all felt very unprofessional.  It is this paradox – between reality and general perceptions of being a conflict photographer that has always left me bemused and something that has made me critical of this type of photography in the past (all covered extensively to the point of annoying in previous blogs so I won’t say much more about it here!).

What I haven’t said much about that day is that a bit later on I was set upon and nearly killed by a machete-wielding gang of youths.  I had been innocuously asked ‘Are you CNN?’ while walking back to the car preparing to travel to Nairobi to file the pics somewhere.  CNN were perceived then as having been biased against the majority tribe in Naivasha who were reportedly instigating the violence that day.  It was claimed in later years at the ICC that the violence was calculated and organised that day.  I remember clearly how a short young man watched on impassively as he directed the youths to attack me when I brushed their question aside.  They used the butt of their machetes to try and put me on the ground for what seemed like an age but must of been about a minute.  I knew I was in serious trouble as they didn’t even try and steal my cameras.  Had I gone to ground I feel I would have been in real trouble.  I think they were hesitant to really attack but – like all power games – the weaker one gets in a fight – the more it drives an uncontrollable lust for victory over the vanquished.

My assistant thankfully stepped in and gave me a few seconds breathing space to make a run for it.  I remember rugby sized rocks whizzing inches from my head.  I ran – carrying 2 DSLR’s as fast as I could down the middle of a wide road, lined on either side by drunken locals who had been whipped into a frenzy and were aiming projectiles at me as I ran.  It was a miracle I escaped that day.  I was bundled into the back of the car and we drove out as fast as we could back to Nairobi.

 

Looking at all the pics on my old website I think I am truly proud of only one from conflict zones and that is of a missile fired by SPLA soldiers on the frontline of fighting with rebel soldiers north of Bor in South Sudan. Another coincidence but it is also nearly the anniversary of this pic, taken 2 years ago on 26th Jan.

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I like it mainly because there isn’t any direct graphic content and only alludes to it.  I feel it is much more powerful because of it.  Taking it was difficult too – the scream and overpowering noise of the missiles is just unbelievable to the uninitiated.  I have never heard anything like it – completely possessing your body and shaking you to your foundations.  Concentrating on pic-taking with the noise and a fast moving body is hard to say the least, let alone trying to compose a decent picture.  I had to take video for Reuters as well that day and you can clearly hear me say very unprofessionally ‘Fucking Hell!’ after the first rocket was fired (much to the annoyance of the video editor later on.. Thankfully there was a lot more footage to select from)… I remember later on being a bit too eager and getting too close to one particular cartouche rocket being fired out the back of a jeep trying to get that perfect shot and the sound and energy literally knocked me on my back in slow-motion like in some cartoon (to the wild amusement of the SPLA soldiers and their usually very dark and brooding General).

Such moments of levity are few and far between.  I am writing this as fast as possible hoping to end the blog as soon as I can.  For all that I really remember is the unbelievable level of violence, darkness and evil that surrounds you in conflict.  And it stays with you – however brief you might have been there as an observer or ‘witness’ – it clings to the sub-conscience like a parasite.  A few months after I came back from South Sudan I travelled into the Karoo desert north of Cape Town with a friend.  I remember him joking about all the shapes he could see in the hills in the landscape around us… I recollect being very quiet not responding and not saying much – all I could see were the outlines of faceless dead people – rotten carcasses, and specifically those of women and children.

work on my journalistic website is at www.geojournalism.com

 

 

Building a Studio in Cape Town. Welcome to the Roeland Street Photo Studio

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I’ve decided recently to bite the bullet and set up a studio space in Cape Town.  Choosing a space from the stock of commercial property that was available was a slow decision-making process in itself but eventually settled on a 125 sq metre space in central CBD.  I knew the space would need quite a bit of work – basically being an open-plan industrial space.  But the location was great – within a 2 minute walking distance of the two largest photographic equipment sales and hire shops in CT and located in a building that is home to quite a few media, film & casting companies making it a bit of a hub and an ideal spot to inhabit.

The chance to fashion my own space and build a studio from scratch was also an exciting prospect- and an opportunity to make it my own.  Being an industrial space it came with a three-phase electrical system – essential to carry the lighting load on a multi-lighting set and ensure no cut-outs.  Apart from re-coating the floors with epoxy (to take the heavy load of lighting equipment without marking too much), I had to also fit specially made blinds to ensure total blackout.  Again, the location worked very much to my advantage in that there is no direct sunlight on it.  I went for white blinds – in keeping with the floors and walls (except on the shooting side which is brick), but more importantly – the blockout was more than enough to achieve the required blackout when shooting.

I have installed a post-production suite as well, with an excellent Eizo 24″ monitor that will allow clients to live view shoots.  In terms of client orientated comfort I have placed a lounging area with couch (No need to tell me! I know the couch is too close to the shooting area at the mo in the pics – we will re-arrange everything shortly!) as well as a shelving unit to accommodate the international photo mags and books from a range of photogs from all walks of the business. Hopefully this will be enough to keep everyone entertained during the more tedious periods of a photo shoot (though I might be forced to add some more gossipy magazines or even a TV at some stage!).

One small prob is that there is a small sectioned off kitchen area that will also have to double up as a dedicated make-up dresser area.  Fitting everything together and make it work was a headache but seem to have found a solution that works fine.  I had the make-up dresser specially built after speaking to a couple of well-established make-up artists in the business here.  Both seemed to prefer the cold nature of florescent lighting (rather than the warmer tones of the tungsten lighting associated with traditional theater dressers).

Overall, I’m happy with how the studio is coming along, but there is still much to do before it will be possible to launch.  I still have to put in stuff like infinity curves (the backdrops I have now are only for the standard white, black and grey so will play with more ambitious colours here) and of course a reservoir of decent clothes for shoots (looking forward to doing some second-hand clothes shopping soon!).

I have also just started on the marketing side of things (logo, website, postcards, leaflets etc).  I decided early on to split the studio business away from my own freelance photography business.  While the studio will be my base and will be used for my own commercial work (as well as a discreet gallery space to display my some of my socio-documentary art work as well), I came up with a business plan that focuses on multiple revenue streams, including studio hire, commercial, model and family portrait shoots as well as a teaching space.  To achieve this, I thought it best to keep myself and my own business separate from that of the studio’s.  I think the marketing side will be greatly spurred along by the potential choice of studio manager too.  While being a great photographer herself (focusing mainly on the stock side and being part-owner of a stock site) she comes historically from an extensive internationally-based web and social media background.  This will certainly help in marketing and pushing the studio online and to potential clients in future (as well as being friendly and fun to be around as well!).

Dealing with the insurance side of all this was a bit tricky and actually took about 2 and a half weeks of careful negotiations.  At the moment I still insure my equipment worldwide through UK insurers that provide worldwide coverage (as I travel back to the UK at least once a year) as it has proven far cheaper than insuring in South Africa where I am sure higher crime rates here make premiums a lot more pricey.  Now that I have some studio-based items as part of a local business, I could no longer insure certain items through the UK.  Splitting my equipment list between freelance gear that would remain covered in the UK and studio items that would have to be covered locally took some effort.   Then having to set maximum value limits for gear that would regularly leave the studio (at any 1 time) was quite a task but greatly reduced the premium at both ends.  The devil really is in the detail and care had to be taken to make sure that in the worst case scenario I wouldn’t be left high and dry…. But I managed to more than half the total cost from what it would have been had I been insured just in SA.  Honestly, if you are a photographer who takes equipment out a lot, I would definitely recommend Aaduki Multimedia Insurance in the UK (not exactly the friendliest of peeps but great at getting specialised photography insurance cover at decent rates) and the Hereford Group if you are these sides.  The Hereford Group especially really pushed my case and gave great advice in the protracted and complicated process.

I’m in the Karoo (the desert expanse north of Cape Town) at the mo continuing with one of my photo book projects.  I have decided – despite the perfect conditions for time lapse (at a time when the moon is at the beginning of its cycle) – not to indulge myself and to focus on one thing out here (I have blogged earlier this year about having spread myself too thin on the personal project side!)… I love the Karoo – there is a serenity and peaceful aura about it that helps to re-energise and renew myself for life back in the city – even if the pic-taking itself can be hard work – walking around and driving distances in extreme heat and cold nights (which is why I took the afternoon lull in everyday life here where temps can hit 40C+ to write this blog!).  It is as far from the idea of Africa as many of us imagine it as you can get – more akin to the Andean plateau of Bolivia and Peru than any jungle or Savannah plain that is more typical elsewhere on the Continent.  And if meeting wonderfully eccentric folk with amazing stories to tell is your thing generally – then I def advise a visit here!

Palm Springs Photo Festival, and the Good, Bad and Surprisingly Pleasant thing about Portfolio Reviews – Part 1

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Well, just spent a hectic but awesome week in Palm Springs, California at the 10th Annual Palm Springs Photo Festival.  I have now done 3 or so festivals (of which only another in New York in the US) and must say this was by far the most relaxed and enjoyable and inspiring on a personal level.  It was a complete whirlwind of a week, spending anything up to 15 hour days non-stop with workshops, reviews, networking, symposiums and presentations.  Apart from the workshops (which I’ll come back to in subsequent blogs) the highlight had to be the daily presentations by some of the biggest and historically-significant photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark, William Albert Allard, Dan Winters, Jock Sturges and Frank Ockenfels.  Seeing Mary Ellen Mark’s presentation in particular made the largest impression even though I must say I had seen and heard a lot of the stories about her seminal work before.  Seeing her talking about it in person though was an experience of note.  Along with Don McCullin and Lee Miller she is one of three photographers who inspired me most to become a photojournalist and get into photography in the first place.  I have posted her talk on my fb page if anyone is interested.  At 75 years of age and looking painfully frail I imagine this might be the last time I would get to see her talk and just being there to witness it was an honour in itself.

Meeting my fellow photographers from all walks – all connected by their dedication to the cause and seeing their work was almost as important and inspiring as well.  Sometimes stuck out in a small village outside Cape Town I really miss contact with my fellow peers from around the world so just getting to hang and talk photography was such a great experience in itself.

On a professional level, the workshops and showing my new work was the main reason for flying all the way from Cape Town to attend.  I have done a few portfolio reviews and had general conversations about their worth with people who sit on the other side of the review table and had my doubts before as to what I would ultimately gain from them.  It is great that you have so many prominent members of the photog community that you might want to see in one place, but the fact that they are seeing anything up to 30 photographers in a day in small 20 minute segments doesn’t help you stand out and puts a photographer at an instant disadvantage.  I had been told by a reviewer that in general a photographer is lucky if he gets one good contact to begin building a positive relationship with from all the reviews he might do.

Going in therefore my expectations were already low.  But my experience after 10 reviews during the week was very positive.  I think having done them before and knowing exactly what I wanted from them really helped.  I was there to show a new style of work and artistic and conceptually-based long term projects, to get feedback and advice and to maybe start relationships to build on in the long-term with prominent members of the art and book world of photography – an area where I haven’t had much contact in the past.  Firstly the general consensus was that the pieces worked and were strong (the Karoo project as I clearly stated from the outset was early in development and needed a lot more work but had good foundations but the Hangberg work was perceived as ready to go).

On the downside, the socio-documentary based nature of the work and South African content means that avenues especially in the gallery world in the US are limited.  I knew that already but what came out of the reviews is that it is not necessarily impossible.  What I will need to do (and something I knew before) is to start by approaching local globally esteemed galleries in South Africa and use such representation to build up interest elsewhere.  As I said when this was brought up in the reviews, I essentially want both projects to be airtight and completely ready before approaching galleries in SA and I was more at Palm Springs to get the necessary feedback and use the general consensus to help in the development of the projects.  And on that level, the reviewers connected with this approach and helped enormously.

In terms of starting relationships though I was more than pleasantly surprised with quite a few giving me their details and asking me specifically to keep them informed on developments.  One really cool guy and also large and esteemed book publisher, who I thought would not develop into much, gave me his personal mobile phone contact details and allowed me to call him for advice as the projects progress.  I think a lot of that as well has to do with the way photographers connect with the reviewers.  I was particularly relaxed and often joked with them and just talked about all things even outside photography.  I even talked about growing olive trees with the book publisher I just mentioned which is his passion now for a good 3/4 minutes of my review.  When meeting Holly Hughes (PDN Editor-in-Chief – a highly respected and important mag for us photographers based out of NY – I advise all photographers who don’t already to read it regularly for advice, great work and keeping up with what is going on with all fields in photog- it is in fact my homepage) asked what I wanted out of the review I immediately joked back – well to publish all my work of course! I didn’t obviously knowing that is not what these reviews are about.  But breaking the ice in such ways is a good way to settle in and hope to build later on a serious working relationship.  One reviewer who I particularly wanted to see and who I found out later had told someone independently he thought mine was the best portfolio he had seen, ended our pleasant session by saying ‘Now get the hell away from my desk!’ – I responded with feigned puppy dog eyes ‘But I thought you liked my work?!’ to which he replied ‘Nah – not that much – now go!’.  We both laughed as I walked away.

Ironically where I had most success in actual direct leads for work was the editorial side of things which I wasn’t really at the festival to focus on.  I bumped into a couple of editors I had done jobs for before (and whom I had never met in person).  It is so important – even in the inter-connected digital age to do things the old fashion way and meet face to face.  Tracey Woods of Essence Mag in particular was great to bump into.  I had shot Michelle Obama as part of the press pack for her when she visited SA a few years ago.  Had a few long chats and even pitched one of my older stories I have done (the Life After Rape portrait series).  Not saying it will be published but the interest was there and it is now up to me to follow up.

I even had interest to publish one of my long-term projects in a US-wide magazine.  I didn’t really go for meeting mag editors at the reviews thinking that publishing such art-based projects might hurt my chances later to get them into the gallery and book publishing world.  That turns out to be a load of nonsense.  I should have therefore done more meetings with mag editors but have enough contacts anyway worldwide in that area to go back to SA and do that myself.

All in all, I came away very positive from the reviews and networking.  But this is well and truly just the beginning of a long journey.  The groundwork has been laid but it is wholly in my court how and where I take this and build on the positives that came out of the sunny desert of California in the awesome shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains.

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