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Posts tagged ‘Reuters’

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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That Day in Naivasha Revisited – January 27th 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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 bad side of news photography as a freelance (con’t)

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On the way back home to Hout Bay, Cape Town after a short outing I was informed of the terrible tragedy that had befallen those on the catamaran, Miroshga near Duiker Island.

It had already been several hours since the event and the first set of survivors had been brought to shore and the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) were busy in attempting to rescue a second set of survivors from the overturned vessel.

A broken engine had left the catamaran stranded and the boat had then capsized in the high winds and choppy waters.  Of the 33 or 34 tourists on board, 1 was later confirmed dead and several seriously injured.  Many of the passengers had had to wait hours underneath the overturned catamaran surviving on small pockets of air until the NSRI had been able to reach the boat.  Several poachers (of perleman and crayfish) had gotten to the site earlier and had made brave attempts to rescue as many of the passengers as they could.

After assessing the situation I realised this would be an international story of sorts and had to go down to the harbour where the passengers of the Miroshga were being brought in.

The first sign that things for the media were amiss was when I got down there and spoke to several news people from local and international outlets.  They had not been briefed and were already annoyed at the lack of access and the way the police was treating them.  We found ourselves being mishandled, told to always move away and were kept as far away from the survivors and the rescue operation coming in as possible.

Apart from protecting the identity the deceased survivor until next of kin had been informed and on a larger scale minimising any PR damage for the Cape Town tourist industry – whatever the good intentions, being mishandled in such a manner was both demeaning and was a general affront to the press and the work they do. We could just as easily have been briefed on the do’s and dont’s and would have respected any reasonable guidelines given.

A fellow photographer working with the local newspapers aptly said after an argument with a policeman that the next time they wanted to feed a ‘feel-good’ story to the press, they wouldn’t oblige them.

I have already blogged about the professional value as a freelance of working as a news photographer.  Here though was the other side of the coin I also dislike – the photos themselves are restrictive in terms of quality and what you can achieve but also in many events now in news photography, everything is carefully staged and choreographed on the whole.  You will find the most media savvy people in even the remotest parts of Africa keen to try and control access.  Not only is it necessary to use your best skills in a limited setting to convey whatever you are photographing (for little reward as a freelance as I have written in past blogs) but increasingly you must also at the same time navigate a mountain of control and access issues of what pics can and can’t be taken.

Over the years, I have learnt to gently push in such situations to get the pics that are required – but given that my pics – however good (and they def weren’t in this case) – would not have received any interest from media outlets (who as I have said before would go to Reuters, AFP and AP for such pics whose staff photogs and cameramen were already on the scene at the Harbour) I decided after a couple of hours and a few weak pics to go home and continue with my relaxing Saturday.

This event was even more confirmation for me that moving away from this type of photography was a good and positive move for me both professionally and personally.

Introspection, shooting vid and the way forward….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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