Yesterday, I managed to put my back out . I just bent over to pick up a file of papers and it gave way. Some of you will remember a more serious occasion in Delhi two years ago and me laying on the floor for weeks on end, moaning… but that’s another story. Anyway, as I lay there in a completely dignified manner with an ice-pack glued to my lower spine, I was distracted by the rain pelting down on my windows; it is almost summer in London after all. Then something odd happened. A leaf landed against the pane. A single, solitary leaf, not extraordinary, a leaf from a neighbour’s tree. It just sat there. Stuck. It’s still there despite the sunshine and the best efforts of the evening winds to dislodge it. It got me thinking. Firstly, how dirty the windows actually are and then, looking at it more closely, I thought I’d photograph the little chap. Over the last few years, I seem to have been looking more and more at plants and less and less at people. For the last couple of years, I’ve been making work in Delhi about space and gardens as a way to view the city and, strangely enough, I think my favourite frame that I made last year was of a tree and its fallen blossom in Hue on assignment in Vietnam. I don’t think my leaf is in that league but it did bring to mind the poetry of Ryokan whose work I always have with me when I travel and when I am down:
The plants and flowers
I raised about my hut
I now surrender
To the will
Of the wind
My particular favourite when it’s raining in London and when I have hurt my back:
You must rise above
The gloomy clouds
Covering the mountaintop
Otherwise, how will you
Ever see the brightness?
Here are the photographs that I mentioned. I hope that you like them. One day, I will go back to Japan and make some work on Ryokan…
The first question people asked me was ‘why are you doing a blog?’. The second was ‘why have you called it something daft like that?’.
The ‘why’ about having a blog is easy – the pretentious title is a little more tricky. Bear with me.
Those of you that know me know that I grew up in Hackney. A tricky place – “worst services, best crime” as Iain Sinclair would have it in That Red Rose Empire. In the 1970’s when the Holly Street estate in Dalston was a byword for all that was wrong with urban town planning, crime and decay, I sometimes used to go with my father to Brick Lane on a Sunday. The ‘Lane in those days was a very different place. Full of pavement stalls selling one shoe, dirty second hand clothes and the like. At one end would be the Spitalfields market where you could still see the tramps as we used to call them drinking themselves to death with meths around bonfires of refuse and rotting vegetables. At the other end would be Club Row, an infamous market for pets and small animals. You could buy all manner of bizarre creatures from all manner of bizarre creatures. At this end too would be the regular National Front demonstration: a handful of men with Union Jacks in a little corner snarling at the Bangladeshi’s that walked past. None of this meant particularly much to me as a boy. I used to walk through the swarming crowds oblivious to the now well documented history of the area. For my father, though he never spoke about it, this had a resonance. A ‘rubbish’ Jew as my non-Jewish mother always said (with a penchant for bacon and no idea of the religious duties thousands of years of Judaism had passed to him) we’d walk past the Nazis which of course echoed the speeches of Mosley that he would have heard in Ridley Road Market in the thirties (and indeed fiftees) as he grew. We’d also walk past the Mosque on Brick Lane that used to be a synagogue that was the heart of the old Jewish East end. On the side, high up – so far that if you looked, you’d certainly bump into someone coming the other way – was a sundial. The title page of this blog is the inscription on the sundial on that palimpsest of a building.
Built in 1743 the imposing square frame was originally a church built by the Huguenots, French Protestants exiled from their homelands who came to the area, a slum outside the city gates where they built beautiful houses and prospered. The inscription “we are but shadows” in Latin seemed to echo the refugee experience that I suppose I am part of. I’ve never worked much in England, never felt the need as many photographers do, to explore their surroundings. For me, I was always interested in the Other. Perhaps it was about escape, a desperate run from Hackney. The world is a big place and we don’t have long: ‘we are but shadows’ reminds me of the impermanence and transitory nature of what we are – and I wanted to know as much of the world as I could. Photography has in some small measure allowed me to do that.
Ironically, when I started as a photographer I was drawn to these places that I had walked with my (even then elderly) father. Quite by accident I’d stumbled on the last days of the Jewish East End – specifically an organisation called “Food for the Jewish Poor” – a charity that had once given soup and later tins of food to the last elderly Jewish survivors of the area. I turned up and asked if I could hang around and take some pictures for my portfolio. Little did I know that I was following in the footsteps of the sadly underrated Sharon Chazan a young photographer who a few years before had undertaken a large project to record much of Jewish London and was murdered by one of her elderly subjects, Moshe Drukash. A strange, tragic happening in an area of strange, tragic happenings.
Shadows on shadows.
Here are some of the images that I made. I only found them a few days ago… They’ve never been seen publicly before and I hadn’t seen them for nearly twenty years…
The Soup Kitchen is now expensive flats for wealthy City types and my father is long gone.
A few days ago I was contacted by a small local African NGO whose project I had made a short assignment with maybe six years ago. They were re-doing their website and wanted to give it a new look. Generally, I never, ever give away images but there are always notable exceptions and I remembered their tremendous work educating (and protecting) lone street children and their enigmatic champion, Agnes Chiravera. Agnes is one of those elegantly tough African women that just make things work through sheer will power.
I also remembered waiting for the school to open and being invited to do some skipping with a young girl and her friends that I subsequently photographed. Never easy to skip with cameras – but it certainly made the children laugh.
It’s those kind of memories that make some of the more tricky stuff bearable.
I read today with disappointment and resignation that Vedanta Industries have won their fight on appeal to establish a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills in India.
I wrote a piece for the Indian magazine Tehelka about this story in 2007 and it can be seen here.
Vedanta Resources, a UK-registered ftse -100 company has fought a long campaign to establish the mine and despite judicial review it seems now that nothing can stop it.
The story typifies the very real problem of India’s industrial development. The Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa are sacred to the Dongria Kondhs, a protected tribal group of ‘original’ Aboriginal peoples. Allegedly, the British geologist who “discovered” these rich deposits nearly a century ago dubbed them “Khondalite” in tribute to the people who guided him there. It seems that this simple act of hospitality will mean the end of another of India’s pre-Aryan traditional cultures. The holy mountain will be raped for its ore and the people who haven’t already fled the company’s previously illegal building programme will be scattered. Those who stay will doubtless be housed in the stalag-like accommodation blocks I saw laying empty and crumbling in Lanjigarh. They will have to sell their land at government determined prices and then work as contract labourers. What has happened to countless other ‘primitive’ and powerless peoples all over India will happen to them. Displaced from their traditional homelands, sacred to their animist beliefs, women and girls often end up working as daily wagers, domestic helps or prostitutes. The women will also have to cope with alcoholism and domestic violence.
The author and social activist Arundhati Roy has described India’s unfettered race to Market Capitalism as nothing less than India ‘eating its own people’ and in this macabre metaphor one can see the reflections of the Enclosures and urbanisation of the rural communities of England in the nineteenth century.
I am no romantic when it come to India. I don’t share a Raj view of the colonial apologists (despite inevitably by dint of being British having reaped the indirect rewards of the subjugation of that country). I don’t yearn for quaint, underdeveloped communities full of poverty and colour. I want to see India progress. But I know the stink of international corporate power when I smell it.
India had no colonies from which to steal resources so it’s stealing them from its own weak and vulnerable. The profits of this mine will not be spread evenly to benefit the Indian economy – it will be hoarded in the off-shore bank accounts of those corrupt politicians and corporate executives who already think that India is theirs by right.
A new Middle Class India has been brought up to believe that a successful society means a consumerist society. Greed and nationalism go hand in hand: it is not the poor of India calling for war with their brothers and sisters in Pakistan.
Traditionally, Indians have protested injustice in a dignified Ghandian way with hunger strikes and marches. While the Western media and much of India has been marvelling at ‘Shining India’ it has failed to notice that a good deal of India is now under Maoist rebel control. In Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand the Indian state is fighting a battle it might not win.
The students at the academy rise at dawn and undergo hours of daily exercise and academic studies for years to learn by heart the dances and the intricate movements of Kathakali. I thought Kathakali reminded me very much of classical Japanese Noh – a mute mixture of precise dance and theatre where slight eye and hand movements indicate an entire language.
The first picture has always reminded me of a pond of small frogs…
Here’s a link to my work on Shadipur Depot, a slum colony of artists and performers in New Delhi that was a previous post on the Travel Photographer.
I just returned from a job in Bologna several pounds heavier. It was actually the most enjoyable trip I’ve had in years: not only could I wander endlessly but the people were extraordinarily nice. In five days no one objected to being photographed, everyone was unerringly polite and everyone humoured my laboured and almost non-existant Italian.
I was searching for a way to photograph the city and quite by chance, after a long walk, wandered into a newsagent that sold books and found a panoramic image from the top of somewhere obviously very high. The guy in the shop was convinced it was taken from the top of a famous church but the caption read ‘O Coronato’… Confused, I called my new editor at Grazia Neri, Anna Savini. As luck would have it, Anna is from Bologna and the Coronato is actually a privately owned tower – and her Mum knew the owner. Very handy. Matteo Giovanardi who lives in and owns the tower was charm itself – but I had to climb the tower alone as he was waiting for his daughter to come back from school… I have to say that the tower was a marvel. It was also very high. For someone who isn’t great at heights and had already climbed the The Asinelli Tower, sweating and gripping the frail handrails tightly swearing never to do this kind of thing again, it was a bit of a trial. The view was however, extraordinary. The light, just before sunset, sublime. I remembered why I’d become a photographer. As I heaved myself down, Matteo showed me around his home that is the Prendiparte Tower…
I was terribly fortunate to be allowed to photograph from the Tower: I think Matteo has only granted permission twice – both for books. Anyway, this is what I saw: