I’ve been out of the country working for the last week (more on that another time) but came back to find that the Times had run a picture of mine in their newspaper and online. It was from a set of images on that was originally commissioned late in 2007 for a book, UK at Home.
I had three assignments for the book – one in London at the Tyburn Convent – which was, despite sounding rather dull, was an absolute scream (never underestimate Nuns having fun…), and two in Norfolk. One of the Norfolk ones was to illustrate poor Diana Wrightson whose home in the pretty village of Happisburgh was falling into the sea because of coastal erosion and that’s the one the Times ran.
She’d been a little tricky to get hold of and by the time we’d met at the house in the late afternoon, the light had gone. I checked into a hotel and made my way back there the following day at dawn. As soon as I got there however, I was treated to a fog bank rolling in. I ran down to the beach but because her mobile phone couldn’t get a signal, I had to keep calling her land line (so she had to keep running inside) and as soon as I finally got her into position with tea cup and looking out to see, the fog really came down. I perhaps managed three or four frames. As I was packing up, I took a step backwards on the beach without looking and went almost waist deep into a hole filled with sea water. I knew I only had one change of clothes with me and I was due on another job across the county within a couple of hours. As I turned around though, despite being soaked and furious I saw just how lovely the beach was in the fog and the frames that I took are below…
I sat for the next hour in this poor woman’s living room wrapped in a towel while she dried my clothes and cooked me a bacon sandwiches, amazed how resigned and calm she was to the fate of losing her home and her savings.
I hope that she is still resilient.
It’s with great sadness that I read yesterday in The Times of India that the cafe on Baba Karak Singh Marg is going to close. The Delhi Walla blog has the full story with pictures here.
A strange little place, it was always a haven of quiet away from the tourist throngs of Connaught Place and was never, despite being in a couple of guidebooks a place where many travellers went because thankfully, they couldn’t find it. I was introduced to it maybe a decade or more ago and always made a point of hanging around there between assignments or when I felt the need to come into central Delhi. Tucked away on the roof of a rather downbeat shopping complex it was the kind of place that you had to know was there. The roof ‘garden’ was of course covered in dust and smog but it but it had lovely views if rather awful coffee. The regular clientelle was composed of distinguished older Indian gentleman who’d gather to read the papers and argue about the topic of the day. When I turned up I was usually ignored as it was assumed I was lost and my appalling Hindi seemed only to confirm the fact that I was an idiot. It didn’t matter and I loved it. The staff, unfailingly polite, would always deliver a very ‘masala’ masala dosa which required a second cup of coffee to soothe the heat of the chillies. I unfortunately never tried the ‘humbergers’ nor the milk shakes but I am sure that whatever their culinary achievement I would have enjoyed them.
The coffee shop for me was Delhi – a Delhi that for better and worse is disappearing fast. The place evoked a gentler, simpler time and a city where people read large newspapers, where motor cars (…any car so long as it’s a white Ambassador) were a rarity and the bicycle was what people rode to work. I’ve written before about not romanticising India but there seemed something about the place that actually spoke to me of a bygone London: the (then) chic shopping area, the red velour interiors of Connaught Place’s United Coffee House (now revamped) and the Embassy. A time where you could cross the road in Delhi without being killed.
The whole saga reminds me of the slow death of one of my favourite places in London, The New Piccadilly. I could write a whole piece about the ‘Cathedral of Cafes’ as Adrian Maddox would have it but suffice to say, despite all best efforts, the developers got their way and it closed. I can only recommend the Classic Cafes website and its book as a homage to past glories. Suffice to say there are few places now in London where you can drink a cup of tea and just think without listening to ‘muzak‘ and enduring overpriced coffees sold in incomprehensible sizes as ‘grande’ or ‘tall’. Coincidently, I read today in the Daily Telegraph about a Californian software engineer on a mission to visit every Starbucks in the World. Well good luck with that: I’m still holding out for a world that isn’t based on a greedy corporate propoganda that sucks the individuality and taste (both literal and metaphorical) out of every attempt at difference in order to leverage the last drop of profit.
Tea stains, cigarettes, chipped cups, formica, worn seats, warmth on a cold day, company, a sense of history, courtesy, civility, conversation, ideas. But I digress…
Back in Delhi, the The Times reports Head Waiter Gopal Singh as saying, “If this place closes, our families will land on the streets. If it’s true that rent has not been paid for years, we are willing to pay 50% of our salaries if that will help”. Delhi is a brutal city and I don’t doubt for a second that that would happen.
I never photographed the Coffee House in Delhi, it somehow always seemed like a little bit of home and a liberty to start taking pictures. I retired there sometimes after photographing at the Flower Market on Baba Karak Singh for my project on Delhi. It’s an image from that set that I leave you with.
I wish all those at the Coffee House my best and my sincere gratitude (I was that heavily sweating firangi with the cameras…). Shukriya.
Ps… if you want to find rather wonderful places to eat in Delhi you could do worse that seek out Hemanshu Kumar and his fantastic blog, Eating out in Delhi
A friend of mine, Sion Touhig who has been staying with me, showed me the most fantastic blog the other day called Afrigadget. It’s a website dedicated to showcasing African ingenuity and I thought it was great. It shows home made projects like self-made phone chargers and an alternative use for a video drop box (an oven…). Apart from the fact that it makes one realise just how useless we are in the West in terms of even the most basic recycling, it puts us to shame in actually how much we have and how little we value it. Now, as I’ve said in a previous post about India, I’m not a romantic about the Developing World: far from it. There’s nothing lovely about disease and hopelessness but there does seem to be a ingenuity that I’ve always admired when I work in these places. It isn’t to do with a quaint notion of pre-industrial harmony, it’s more that if you don’t adapt, you will die.
Over the years, I saw a great deal of hopelessness in Africa: failed states, starvation and a fair few people that were intent on killing me (sorry, I don’t have any picture links for that…). Despite this, I always saw that ‘can-do’ spirit that Afrigadget showcases. I started to work on stories along a theme of a French word – débrouillardise – which sort of translates as the ‘art of getting by’ or resoucefulness. As an aside, it’s entirely ironic of course that here we are in the grip of potentially the worst economic crisis to befall capitalism since the Great Depression and we might soon be having to take a leaf out of the book of the very continent that we raped and pillaged for our own advancement.
Anyway, one of the stories that I worked on was about blind farmers in Ghana. I called it ‘To See a Small World’.
For about ten days I lived with Anafo and his wife, Asumpaheme in a hut in their village near Arigu, northern Ghana. I had a rather nice time despite being an object of intense curiosity from all the locals and, having I remember, to borrow a cooking pot from the nearby school teacher’s wife … The brutal reality of River Blindness or Onchocerciasis was of course sobering. To be a farmer in Africa is a struggle that I wouldn’t wish on most people. To be a blind farmer seems almost impossible. In spite of everything, the family managed to just get on with it.
Before I forget the point of this whole story, it’s simply this: Anafo gave me some rope. It was his ‘afrigadget’, his way of leveraging a few extra pennies at the market from what he could find around him. Here’s a picture of him making some:
and here’s a picture of the same rope on my kitchen table. It’s one of my favourite ‘things’ in the house. Certainly one of the most treasured.
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:
Last month saw the release of Unseen a new collaborative project by the British Press Photographers Association (BPPA). So many images are commissioned editorially and never used and this project sought to showcase some of that work. I have a few spreads inside as well as the cover of which I’m very proud.
The image shows Ibrahim who had his right arm hacked off by rebels from the RUF (Revolutionary United Front).
Despite the Guardian Magazine running the story, the image above was never published. It did however get some recognition at Pictures of the Year (POY) in America.
I remember when I took the assignment, I was very apprehensive. I’d made quite a lot of work in Sierra Leone for a project on young men and violence called The Lord of the Flies (largely an attempt to partially refute Robert Kaplan’s arguments) and had returned subsequently to look at the immediate effects of the mutilations. In the intervening years it seemed that the amputees had become part of a grotesque circus of photographers coming in, ‘doing the atrocity tour’ and leaving; I honestly didn’t know what I could really add to the story. Still, the job was to produce a big exhibition for Handicap International and I had no editorial constraints.
I tried very hard to just photograph the amputees as they were – the fact that they’d been brutalised, an aside on everyday life. In one of those rare moments that make doing this work extraordinary, I turned a corner in a village in Makeni and came face to face with Hassan Fufona. Hassan had polio as a child and the rebels cut off his one good arm. I’d spent days with him in Freetown in 1999 watching him beg, being fed and returning to a hut where he lived with his ageing parents and small brother. A haunted, gaunt boy. Now newly married with two adopted war orphan children in a new town he was transformed. I photographed him in bed with his wife giggling as she put on his prosthetic harness and I photographed him as the head of a family outside his new house. Now, I don’t make any claims to have changed much with photography or in fact to have done much to make the world a better place but meeting Hassan again certainly changed me a little. Sometimes you can’t see the small victories in Africa but they are there. You just have to know where to look.
Hassan Fofona begs outside the Post office
We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth