How I learnt to love mobile phone photography after I started to teach it.
Posts tagged ‘photojournalism’
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
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.
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
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
As part of a larger mission aiming to bring South African expertise in photography and certain high-end and niche film and commercial techniques to the African commercial market with my colleague, Sean Ackermann (I’ll blog about that soon), we started messing around as almost a side interest at first with time lapse photography.
It was initially never meant to be part of our portfolio, but a quick look at the possibilities such as a look at Dustin Farrell’s or Rob Whitworth’s work and both myself and Sean were instantly hooked.
Achieving the bar set though has been a challenge as the art is certainly a complicated one and to master it takes time, effort and a bit of investment. But in the simple matter of a couple of weeks, we have started to understand and are beginning to get a firm grip on the processes involved. What excites me most at the mo have been the panned sequences achieved (where the camera moves across the time lapse sequence). For the time being, with a simple 2 foot slide and glide we have been experimenting and trying out the medium.
A quick look at the best panned time lapse sequences and what seems to work is a pan along a prominent well-lit or bright foreground subject juxtaposed against a darker background that goes against the main movement (usually sky and clouds) in the time lapse. The other way to achieve great pans, which has been Sean’s realm of interest (I am currently useless with video editing software!) has been to use After Effects to pan and zoom through a static time lapse sequence. We have also been brainstorming some ambitious ideas that will involve some of the lighting techniques we use in photography… but for now back to basics…..
The first thing I will say – is that with the basic equipment that is at our disposal for now – so much can go wrong with even the most basic time lapse sequence. To keep consistency in exposure and white balance throughout all the images you firstly have to set all controls to manual (though even this isn’t enough and I’ll come back to that in a bit). Simply put even a slight jump in the exposure or white balance in 1 or 2 of the images in a sequence becomes obvious to the eye when played back at 25fps later on down the line. Judging exposure becomes a bit tricky if the light changes a lot. The general rule I find is to under-expose by 1 or 2 stops (using an ND filter also helps). If dealing with scenes with massive exposure changes such as sunsets these become very tricky to change exposure incrementally so as not to ruin the sequence. Bulb Ramping (which adjusts exposure incrementally in each consecutive image as the light changes) is the best way to achieve this and can easily be done now with the new firmware for DSLR cameras called Magic Lantern (I am so appalled that the Canon TC-80N3 intervalometer doesn’t have a bulb ramping feature when even the generic makes do).
But even manual settings are not enough as on all DSLR’s they will invariably still adjust the pic exposure and white balance (I never knew this until I started messing with time lapse) for some scenes. This will create the unwanted flicker effect when jumps in exposure occur throughout the time lapse sequence. The best way to get rid of this is with a technique called lens twist (or aperture lock) which effectively cuts communication between the camera and the lens but still allows you to take an image and locks down the aperture. This is done by holding down the depth of field button and lens release and twisting the lens ever so slightly until aperture reading is 00. The downside of course is that you have no control over aperture now throughout the time lapse but it all but eliminates one of the biggest problems with the medium. Mirror lock-up is also another effective method and of course making sure to switch off functions such as Auto Lighting Optmiser and Noise reduction feature.
The other thing that can destroy any time lapse is the slightest movement of frame. Sean has applied the image stabilisation feature in After Effects to good effect on some of the sequences where there was blatant movement, but even this can’t get rid of large movements (wind in Cape Town has been a big problem recently and ruined a few good time lapse sequences). Everything must be dead still for the entire duration of the sequence.
Now adding a panning motion on a slide and glide and things begin to get more and more complicated. Especially as at this point we don’t have a mechanised head. This will change in the next few weeks though. Our first attempts at panning were pretty bad – completely misjudging the number of pans between frames and movement (in mm) that is best for a smooth pan. By trial and error we found that a 2.5mm – 5mm movement between each shot (at around 5sec intervals – anything slower and another flicker effect comes into play) is best.
Now achieving this manually has caused me some serious stress I tell you! Sitting and concentrating sliding a camera along after each shot every 5 seconds exactly 2.5mm takes concentration and when things go wrong (as they invariably do).. there is nothing more deflating than having to start the whole process again!
I am sure we will sit back over a few beers very soon as the mechanised head does its thing and laugh at the days when we used to do the whole thing manually! With time lapse – to avoid agony – it is worth investing in the basic kit but the possibilities are endless – just take a look at what Vincent LaForet is using for his time lapse sequences..
I am excited to take this whole process forward and with the right tools and effort time lapse photography can become an exciting extra dimension to our work.
Been a while since I last blogged but that’s not to say haven’t been busy.
I’ve hired an assistant to help me out with all the backlog of work I had accumulated and was dreading to face – mainly helping with the cleaning and keywording of stock library images (which is not what I think she had in mind when she took the job – imagining exciting adrenaline-fuelled work and the such!). I’ve strengthened my relationship with AMO who I love working with and also began engaging with a lot more with Alamy.
Apart from taking the whole stock library income stream seriously, I’ve also pushed forward on a couple of long-term photographic ideas and brought them through from conceptualisation, to proposal stage and have begun shooting them – one in Hangberg, a poor coloured community set in an amazingly stunning surrounding near where I live. And another in the Karoo – a vast desert expanse north of Cape Town.
The doccie on front-line services working on child rape took a break for a few months. There have been a few problems concerning access that I have been dealing with and decided to stand back for a bit because the mild pressure I was applying had become counter-productive. We have decent emotive general interviews now with all the key players except the police in Khayelitsha but what we really need to do is to follow a couple of cases through the system which is proving harder to do.
There is an ongoing Commission of Enquiry into the police force in Khaye at the mo looking into the high level of vigilantism in the township and looking at why the police force may not be stepping into the security vacuum. This has managed to irk the police there no end and has lead to them being a lot more reticent in allowing access to media and the such. I think it will happen but in the meantime we have been filming at the Thuthuzela Centre in Port Elizabeth where access is a lot more open. Doing so has given me untold headaches though in terms of having to re-focus the short doccie away from Khayelitsha which was the main scope and re-writing the entire documentary script to incorporate all of this.
In the meantime, I was happy to work with the journalist Claire Simpson on a piece that gave a bit of publicity on the forthcoming short doccie in Vice magazine (UK) which can be seen here:
As for the photo projects, Hangberg is tentatively ready to put up here (which I have done above) although I realise I am still a very long way off from completion of the project.
I’ve done a lot of blogging about how I would like to evolve my work away from news photography into more long-term book and gallery exhibition projects. Well – finally I can put my photos where my mouth is. This is the first such project I am undertaking and has been a great joy to shoot as I’ve always wanted access into Hangberg. Going back to the Benefits of Teaching Photography blogs I wrote – well, I managed to gain access through one of my more prodigious students I worked with on one of the courses I taught through the local charity Lalela and who now regularly works with me as my assistant in Hangberg. I will be doing more teaching with Lalela and look forward to the opportunity to work with the kids again.
As for my assistant in Hangberg, he has been a masterstroke and am so happy I had the opp to meet him. I sometimes walk into his house not knowing whether I will be beaten up or whether he will assist me – such is the look of anger on his face – but he is a solid – ‘all I’ve got in this world are balls and my word and I don’t break them for no-one’ type and trust him completely – so much so that I decided to shoot the project on my Hassleblad.
I have wondered whether it would have been better to shoot the Karoo desert project with the Hassleblad and the Hangberg project with my Canon 5D MkII (soon to be upgraded to MK III – can’t wait to use the new AF system – finally Canon have got it spot on!). I originally thought that using the Hassleblad in Hangberg would force me somehow to slow down and take more static images rather than working with the faster and more dynamic Canons which would lead to more new-sy type images – smthg I of course have been trying to get away from. The results have partly vindicated the decision but I have lost a lot of decent images there too mainly in very low-light conditions and esp at night where the Hassleblad struggles and where at ISO 800 (the max on the H4D-40) a lot of noise is introduced into the images.
I worry sometimes that the old reflexes as a news photographer didn’t come to play in the decision to employ the Hassleblad, simply so I can prove to myself I can walk around with it there – Hassleblad may have got a camera on the moon (their own marketing blurb) but I bet they’ve never had one in Hangberg type thing!
I’ve had one or two hairy moments there – a gangster there told me outright he was going to steal my camera – when I laughed nervously he told me he was in fact very serious – I told him I knew he was but knew also that Denrico (my assistant there) is well-respected in the community and I was safe for now. The gangster said as much. Anyway – he was gracious enough to let me photograph him and I have given him A4 prints in return for the favour and we often greet each other now amicably enough.
As I’ve said – there is a long way to go with the Hangberg project but I am happy to put some of the images up now. I have found the road away from my old type of work long and hard but without any initial feedback – I am happy with the new direction I am taking and with the type of work I am beginning to put out. I am excited to get the short doccie finished too and know once that (and the Karoo photographic project) is complete, my shift will have been complete and I will be able to offer a new style and services to potential clients.
Linda Velapi receiving her photography award from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for winning the Nationwide photography competition organised by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation on the theme of Reconciliation.
Linda was given a Sony a300 camera as part of her award and a placement on a photography course at the City Varsity School of Media and Crerative Arts in Cape Town.