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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Sudan, being a Reuters Stringer & Zanzibar Chest

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Spent the last month up in Kenya and a brief 2 week stint covering the terrible events passing in South Sudan.  I’ve been back a week now in Cape Town and still haven’t blogged – I’ve been busy to the max but to be honest for many reasons, I have been putting off writing this blog.

Part of it is the obvious – that I don’t like sitting on my own in front of countless gruesome images and wanton destruction and editing for hours.  But I’m used to that in a lot of ways and it’s not really that – it’s more that since going to Mogadishu in 2011, I have not ventured into a conflict zone and have blogged countless times about how news photog doesn’t work as a business model and touched upon the personal cost it has taken upon me in the past.  To explain away why I have gone back to it couldn’t simply be explained away by the fact I felt I could do a decent job of it in South Sudan.  A lot of what I would say would be personal and uncomfortable for me to say on a blog too.

But I decided to just sit down and free-write and see what came out.  I have been re-reading parts of Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley  recently – a book which had a huge influence on the type of photography I wanted to do and the area of the world I wanted to do it in when I first started out over a decade ago (even though I ended up doing more commercial work when I finally got to Nairobi).  The book covers a lot what transpired with the EA Reuters news-desk in Nairobi in the 90’s.  I read it too cos while in South Sudan with Reuters I met the son of one of the great Reuters photogs mentioned extensively in the book who died on 12th July 1993 during a botched UN attempt to capture or kill General Aidid and which was a forerunner to the infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident later that year in Mogadishu.  I had one of the best convos with him that I’ve had with a fellow journo one alcohol-fuelled night of typical journo mayhem at the Logali House (where most journos stay in Juba).  I’ll come back to that all later.

Firstly, I went up to Kenya to try and begin to re-connnect with some of my old commercial contacts I have there.  I had worked extensively with ad agencies and large companies directly on ad campaigns in Nairobi in the past (at 1 point around 2006/7 1 in 3 billboards in Nairobi were mine) and have been considering going back there and spending large parts of the year in Nai to also pursue such work. I think the potential is def there to start up again – I even managed to meet up with a large company I loved working with back in the day and am busy with a creative brief for them for a large new ad campaign covering all of East Africa that may take me back to Nai within weeks.  One can but try & hope.

But my main reason for going back was to go into South Sudan and cover the terrible civil war that has broken out there.  I went with Polaris Images but also hooked up again with the Reuters photo desk once in Nairobi with whom I hadn’t spoken to in a couple of years since trying to cover Mogadishu.

I went cos I believed I had good potential contacts there to be able to do a good story – albeit many I hadn’t spoken to in years.  Not only the NGO’s and UN contacts – but a few high level SPLA and rebel contacts, including Riek Machar himself (one day I might write about the crazy and surreal dinner at the Bhandini at the InterCon in Nai I had with him circa 2006, a contact and a man who simply and ominously introduced himself as a ‘Consultant from Virginia’).

But the reality once in South Sudan was that on the ground – access was hard and limited. Getting an exclusive with the rebels for example could only be done from Nairobi (smthg which Goran Tomasevic – Chief Photographer in Nairobi impressively managed to get the exclusive for Reuters).

I was expecting this before going though.  All the media coverage coming out of South Sudan up to mid-Jan had been scant and well away from any frontline fighting (expect for the BBC’s Alastair Leithead’s excellent reporting of the SPLA being ambushed on approach to try and re-capture rebel-held Bor).  It meant that either there were tight restrictions on the media or getting to the right place was hard… it turned out both were true.  I have blogged many times how such conflict photog in Africa is being killed by tight access restrictions more akin to a major event such as the World Cup or a Justin Bieber concert than a war zone.  It is also our fault as journos in that we act too much in unison as a press pack – to easily herded around by those who mean to control the access we get.

With my failure to get to an active frontline in Mogadishu suddenly fresh in my mind, unable to negotiate the Kafkaesque web of clearances required there, I was determined not to be undone again.  I decided it would be best to stay in a hotel close to the pilots who made the dangerous trips to all the places us journos were desperate to get to rather than with the press pack at Logali House and try and get access – as well as any info from them on conditions on the ground – that way (alcohol-fuelled nights with them were fun too must say).  I managed to get clearance with the SPLA to stay with the army at their barracks and was able to embed for 3 days and nights in Bor under General Malwal’s Command – also second in charge in the SPLA – and was granted access to the frontline at Mathiang and witness some of the fighting – albeit remote – via BM and Cartouche rockets – first hand.  I never got to see the offensives the rebels were undertaking against SPLA positions as they were all at night or ealy dawn (and are therefore harder to confirm – although the countless bodies of rebel soldiers strewn in no mans land the following days was strong evidence of it).  This all after the ceasefire between the 2 sides had been signed of course.

Being embedded for 3 days, took a lot out of me personally – the SPLA soldiers – many of whom were from Bor itself and fighting to liberate their home town and villages rather than for any higher purpose – gave me a tour of their now destroyed town – where the slaughtered and decomposing bodies of civilians – and especially of women and children – many of whom had been killed when the rebels re-took the town for around 2 weeks in early Jan – still lay uncollected.  The soldiers showed no emotion but many of the younger ones especially, drank heavily at night I’m sure to rid themselves of the horrors of what they had seen by day. General Malwal himself, while always having a calm, approachable yet slightly menacing air about him also seemed tormented – he himself is from Bor.  One night one of his female relatives asked to go through my pics on my laptop.  It was only when she got to a picture of a covered decomposing body that I realised that she was looking to see if she could determine whether her own mother had been killed in the clashes.  She was only able to recognise that it was her by the blue sandals lying next to the body.

Upon returning to Juba, I made a half-hearted attempt to get up to Bentiu – a town that apparently had been all but wiped off the map during the civil war and where there were rumours that further fighting was taking or about to take place.  But by the last few days, my heart wasn’t in it – it sounds lazy – but to be honest – when I do this kind of photography I have to be fully committed or else it actually starts to become dangerous.  A fellow journo and I tried to hitch a plane ride up to Bentiu – and we found one for the following day – but on the runway at the airport the Commander there threatened to arrest us for security breach (we were running around a damn runway trying to hitch rides as if the planes were cars so kind of understandable!)– that was it for me.  I hadn’t been sure about going but this was a final straw of sorts – luck was def waning!  I had had a relatively successful trip –  I had done a large feature on IDP’s (Internally Displaced Person) at the UNMISS airport base for Polaris Images.  Doing a portrait series using a simple studio light and softbox (similar to what I had undertaken in Mogadishu) but this time asking each IDP to bring their most cherished possession with which they fled their homes with.  And I had gotten an exclusive of sorts from the frontline pics (and footage) for Reuters at Mathiang.

I jumped on the first plane and headed back to Nai and that was my 2 weeks in South Sudan.

Was it worth it?  Financially of course not – SS is damn expensive (given everything is in short supply) and stringer fees barely covered what I spent – so why do it?

I could give the classic professional answer that I did it cos it is a great way to get your name out there.  But I’d be lying though.  I hardly – and have not since – looked at where my pics might have been published.  And seeing as I’m trying to slowly (but hopefully surely!) move into book, gallery and other such more long-term photography projects, it doesn’t do too much career-wise in that respect esp anymore (try showing this type of work at Fotofest portfolio reviews at Lens Culture in Paris or Palm Springs at the PDN Annual and see where you get!).

I do this type of photography because it is what I got into photography in the first place to do.  To work in East Africa for news wires – and – because of one book – Reuters in particular.

In re-reading the book, I laughed when Aidan Hartley recounted how the agency needed to find another stringer for Mogadishu quickly at the time:

What was needed ideally ‘…was a hungry Caucasian freelancer who aspired to nothing in the world so much as to cover bang-bang stories like Mogadishu without expecting to get paid anything more than pocket money for it.’

Yep – that sounds like what I was doing..  It all seems a bit naive, to risk quite a bit at times for so little.

In talking to the son of one of the Reuters photogs who died in Moggie, he went into the agency to see for himself what it is all about and what his dad had worked and died for.  He recounted the day – when at 9 years of age – he learnt of his father’s death and after all this time – you could see it was still raw for him in a lot of ways.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like.  And to think now, when you can see the general state of news and media as a whole – ever in a declining cycle – and when so many people seem to have switched off long ago from this type of reporting and work – the same question comes round again –

Is it worth it?

I don’t know – I can only answer the question for myself and I have come to realise in recent times – after so many years of doubt – that the answer is still yes.

I gave up long ago caring whether other people were interested or not.  The region is one that I call home more than any other on earth and have always personally followed the terrible conflicts and wars that plague it with extra depth and interest.  It is what fundamentally drove me to go back to South Sudan to be honest.  That and the notion that I could make a decent job of it.

Just as a quick footnote – on a personal level, it is not just that my son (and for that matter my ex-wife with whom I remain v.close) that is Kenyan.  My dad was born in Gedaref and grew up in Khartoum.  And my grandmother is from Gondar in Northern Ethiopia.  I’ll never forget when I did my long drive from UK to Kenya when I first came to the Continent I passed through Khartoum.  A man grabbed me on the street and said ‘you must be Philipas’s son’.  He had never met me – and had last seen my father decades before – but he knew exactly who I was.  It turned out to be an old school friend of my dad’s and the owner of the famous Acropole Hotel there (where most journos like to stay and frequent).  I was shown some great hospitality for some long dead friendship… I know there is always a friend not far away even in the most hostile places in the region and because of that have less fear than I should were I to be in a place I considered completely foreign doing this type of work.

I remember around 2004, a photographer with close links to Panos Pictures told me there was an opening to go to Iraq and cover the war there and that he had mentioned me and I should go for it.  It took me 5 seconds to say no.  It was considered a strange decision by my peers back then.  But for me, it was always East Africa I wanted to be based in.

While I hope that my other types of photography and soon filming will dominate my work.  I will always see it as a badge of honour – some would say misplaced and naive – to do this type of work.  But the pics I bring back – however hard some are – and while most people these days look or simply walk away (esp here in news-averse Cape Town!) – they always fill me with a sense of smthg achieved.  You don’t need re-numeration or people’s appraisal for that.  Though of course would be nice to be paid more in general for it…never know – might take it up full time if it was!


The Curious Case of Thamsanqa Jantjie – The ‘fake’ sign language interpreter

South Africa commemorates the passing of Nelson Mandela

South Africa commemorates the passing of Nelson Mandela

So… last Friday I was preparing to leave for Eastern Cape to see what I could cover out in Qunu for Mandela’s funeral, when I asked Polaris what would be better to do?  Go down to Qunu or stay and try and find the fake deaf interpreter and photograph. There had been repeated requested over the week to find and take a few pics of him.  I made the decision it would be best to stay in Joburg and go into Soweto and find his house.  I had an address in Soweto but in Bram Ficsherville where he lives – there are only house numbers… going up to about 16,000 and the general area name.  So I started trawling Soweto on Friday and by around 10pm had found his house to about 200 numbers… the problem is the house numbers suddenly jump by thousands and I was getting frustrated going round in circles… suddenly realising that trawling Soweto – going up and down the same streets might not be in my safest interests in the late hours of the eve, I decided to turn back.

Next day I managed to find his home pretty quickly though… knocking on his door I asked for a few pics of him inside his family home.  His wife, who stood behind, refused outright and I was left sitting outside his home like a paparazzi photog waiting to snap a few shots… I was determined after all the effort to find him I wouldn’t go away empty handed.  Other SA journos turned up and I managed to sneak a few pics when he came to the door… He suddenly got angry when he caught me and came straight for me threatening violence.  I stood my ground and told him I was just doing my job but admittedly was frozen with terror too – there is smthg about being attacked with a camera in hand – as has happened on a few occasions – that makes me feel so much more vulnerable…

The journos there were getting annoyed with me for messing their thing so I decided to lay low and drove off for a bit… I went to the local bottle store and had a drink to calm my nerves and swore would go back, bang on his door and get the pics I should of got before… Instead I drove back – sat outside and decided to wait and see… He suddenly came up from nowhere and started talking fast… I could see he was angry so just listened and sympathised with whatever he was saying – I then told him – I needed some nice pics – all I had were angry shots of him (didn’t have any)… This finally convinced him and his attitude suddenly turned and he invited me in…vanity is usually the key…

I got to photograph him briefly in his family setting.  He showed me round – including showing me the axe he claims he was going to use on me… told me about the book he was writing and what the media attention had done to him and especially his family (for whom I had true sympathy)… there was def high tension in the home – and you could plainly see him and his wife were all near breaking point (would hate to be his wife if he ever blew up the way he did with me)…

He then went on to make some interesting claims.  Firstly – he alleges that he is being protected because the ‘vanished’ interpreter service agency he was employed by is owned by a Government Minister. He also alleges that a chunk of the monies allocated to the company from the event (he claims R2.2mill)  was siphoned off.  And most incredulously he claims that the said Govt Minister(s) – (he used the plural at this point) came to his home and personally threatened to (and I quote) ‘put me in hospital’ if he spoke.

This could all be the ravings of a mad axeman… but then again.. there are a lot of odd factors in this matter that don’t all add up… to get away with such ineptitude on so many public stages for so long (and then get the ultimate gig), there could be a ring of truth… it’s a bit like every pothole in Africa on every recently re-surfaced or constructed road – you just know someone high up has taken a big fat cut of the money allocated along the line leaving behind a sub-standard service…

anyway – we shall wait and see if any of this has a ring of truth  I went back three times and spent a few hours each time outside his home – he had been willing to talk further but couldn’t get him to elaborate before having to return to Cape Town.

Got a long long day today and I know it ain’t gonna be pretty.

Firstly shooting this whole fashion time lapse sequence which basically involves setting up for a normal fashion still, which is hectic enough.. (and makes up the end sequence in the time lapse) and then shoot a time lapse  with the Kessler pod that leads up to your strong final fashion pic scene… had to try n perfect a 3 axis movement yesterday for it… don’t know if it’ll work (I’ll blog more if it does… prob won’t bother my Xmas at least if it doesn’t).. then using the Pod for its first commercial purpose – completely in the dark (even after requests) as to what is required… I suspect they are going to want to do a basic dolly movement and possibly put heavy equipment on the Pod (which has a 19kg limit)… we’ll see.. always up for the challenge – but will protect the gear first and foremost.. and of course there is always a story to tell after if it goes belly up….!

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