Apparently, the seminal British television arts programme, The South Bank Show is forty years old this weekend. I remember watching it on a Sunday evening with it’s extravagantly coiffured presenter, Melvyn Bragg.
I thought this might be an appropriate time therefore to show an image from a (very brief) portrait session I had wth him some years ago. I can’t remember the client but I do remember that the venue was the South Bank Centre and that I probably had less than five minutes – a pretty standard amount of time to make an impactual and polished image under the cold, dead eye of some insufferably intransigent PR (plus ça change…).
In those days, it was rare to be able to set up a background (as seemingly all celebrity portraits have to have now) so I chose a neutral wall and used a metre square Chimera soft box mounted on a Lumedyne head with a heavy battery pack that no doubt I’d struggled with on the ‘Tube at rush hour… This is back in the days of film when I was shooting 6×6 and one had to meter slightly more carefully than with the more forgiving digital cameras that we now take for granted. I remember very little about the shoot except looking at the contact sheet I see that I shot just ten images (from a roll of twelve) and Bragg was polite if brief. He did comment on my camera – as many people used to – an old Mamiya TLR – a C330 built like a tank with bellows… (years later I’d photograph Arundhati Roy who insisted that I only use that camera because it looked “like an antique”). The softbox was great at wrapping light around the face if you set up right and had time to adjust and it was a stock-in-trade technique I used when I knew I’d be pushed for time and wouldn’t be able to use a second head for a little help with the shadows. All key light, no fill.
I shot a portrait for a European magazine yesterday – something I don’t do enough of these days and I used three lights on one set up (for those interested in such things, a big, deep 100cm Elinchrom Octabox as key and then two other kicks with a brolly and another shot into a reflector underneath). It took more than twenty minutes to set up before I shot a frame … I did at one point miss those earlier simple shots… but not the inevitable wait for the film to come back from the lab to determine whether the job was a success…
Amateur Photographer Magazine recently asked me what image that I’ve made, had had a profound effect on me. I told them about photographing a deeply disturbed boy forced to commit atrocities by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Here’s the full piece …
Yesterday, I was delighted to learn that Prince Charles and family – surely Britian’s most celebrated benefit claimants – were visiting his very own bejewelled architectural confusion, Poundbury. Three years ago, I visited the same town – a kind of Daily Mail wet dream of Middle England, to write about it for a special edition of the German magazine, Brand Eins. I found the place mostly deserted with a chill wind whipping through a stage set of architectural pastiche and folly. Charles, a fan of the work of Albert Speer, has overseen the creation of a fantasy land: a reimagining (from a lonely castle window) of a ‘former’ but entirely fictional Britain well suited to the Brexit generation (British homes for British people…) – an airbrushed past of classical architectural tropes masquerading uncomfortably as an (upmarket) housing estate.
You can read the piece called ‘The strange Death of the British Utopia – or how Britain live in her own past’ here (warning: it’s long…).
but I leave you with an image of a deserted street and a Neo Classical … errr bus shelter.
A few years ago I was delighted to photograph Anne Frank’s cousin, the mercurial Buddy Elias in Basel for the Times Magazine. Elias, the force behind the Anne Frank Foundation was charming and entertaining and we spent a very enjoyable day together.
His mood quietened only when I photographed him at his bedside where he keeps a photograph of Anne.
I’m coming late to this because I’ve been away but…
The Kony 2012 project is a film that ‘seeks to make Joseph Kony famous’ and in doing so, expose his deeds to a wider world. All very laudable but the entire thing makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Certainly, exposure for such dreadful stories are generally to be welcomed however this enterprise bears all the hallmarks of an emotionally manipulative Hollywood fantasy that a crazed warlord just appeared from nowhere. I’m all for people changing the world but perhaps we might have prequel (I’m not sure that’s a word either) explaining exactly how something as awful as Kony came about. Perhaps we might talk about how Kony fits into the post-Amin world of Acholi politics (Kony’s early pronouncements on Museveni and his ‘Tutsi empire’); we might talk about disengagement in American Foreign policy in the nineties in Africa shaped in part by the New Barbarism thesis. We might talk about the allegation that the Ugandan security forces had an incentive to keep the war going to keep themselves in power. We might also talk about how the discovery of potentially billions of dollars worth of oil has made (especially) the US sit up and look at how the situation might be pacified.
Crucially we might try and work out why the film makers are doing this now when in fact the LRA aren’t currently operating in Northern Uganda. A cursory glance at the African and NGO press show that people who have worked in Northern Uganda on development and reconstruction are generally surprised; this story has moved on (and that’s not to deny the suffering involved). Not only that, they are arguing that efforts should be made to rebuild and that rather than these children being ‘invisible’, they are, certainly to people like Glenna Gordon (the author of the notorious and extraordinary photograph of Russel, Poole and Bailey holding weapons) and others who knows the situation, ‘pretty visible’. It is certainly true that this story was difficult to place in the mainstream media – although that didn’t stop a stream of Western photographers in the early 2000’s going and photographing the ‘night commuters’ as the children were called. In that respect the film certainly manages to circumvent traditional media outlets that wouldn’t want poor African kids getting in the way of their advertising. My point though is that if you want to defeat something, you have to understand it. And that is where this film, devoid of a good deal of context and seen through the distorting sentimental prism of a well meaning white film maker and his child (At 07:35 the white narrator says that ‘we are going to stop them’) falls down very badly indeed.
Something strikes me as deeply patronising in portraying this as a fight between good and evil. I spent a few years in Africa in the late 1990’s trying to make the point that the perpetrators of disgusting violence in the guise of child soldiers – were as much sinned against as sinning. An attempt – however flawed – to expose the mental landscape/legacy of exactly these situations of Post Colonial devastation that led to the rise of people like Kony and Taylor and Sankoh rushing in to fill a space that the State could not (or didn’t want to) hold.
I’m sad to relay to those people urging others to be ‘awesome’ and blindly support this campaign that if we blunder in, as well meaning as we might be, we might just make this situation worse. If a generation of American youth think that by capturing Kony and giving him up to the Hague, we can sort this out they are very much mistaken. Doesn’t that sound like the warnings that we were fed about the ‘madmen’ Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden? And didn’t that turn out well? Kony is clearly a product of the political situation in Post Independence Africa. You deal with that by dealing with the ramifications of poverty, politics and corruption. If you take away the justifications for Kony, you take away his legitimacy and his means of survival. And no, that isn’t as sexy and as easily reduceable to sound-bite length for the YouTube generation – but maybe that means the YouTube generation is the one that needs to remove itself from the tit of ‘info-tainment’ and decontextualised explanations. Ugandans aren’t stupid – they aren’t waiting for the White man to come and save them – they are, against very great odds trying to save themselves. They just need the tools to do that without people either exploiting their country or their situation.
As I sit packing in Delhi waiting to go to the South on a story, a good friend, Martin Beddall emails me about a programme (‘Overexposed’) he was interviewed for on BBC Radio a while ago. Martin was a postgraduate student on the photojournalism course at the (then) London College of Printing nearly twenty years ago. Another former student, Miles Warde has retraced the fate of some former classmates. As the BBC has it:
“Miles Warde presents the story of a group of photojournalists who set out to witness world events. They went to Yugoslavia, Angola, Chechnya, Gaza and Iraq. Two of them were shot dead. A compelling portrait of youthful ambition and the power of photography to change the world”.
The programme, originally broadcast on Monday 25 Jan 2010 is available on BBC iPlayer for another week.
Although I wasn’t a student on the course, I was around the same time finding my feet and as I’ve written previously, was friends with and worked alongside two photographers, Paul Jenks and James Miller who were both subsequently killed.
An odd feeling listening: my friend Gary Calton is featured as well and his and Martin’s comments ring very true. As a generation we seemed to have wanted to change the world. Was it because we had come through the politics-stained 1970’s that were in turn coloured by the 1960’s? I don’t know but I sense something now has changed. The myth of the great days of the magazine photographer has been exposed. There are no great magazines left to run work: TV, video and now the internet has won. We live in a more cynical age and we are all a little older, if not a little wiser.Many of us are struggling to find a way to say the things that still need saying. Perhaps it will not be through photography.