Interview with Documentary Storytelling podcast


Recently, I had a long – and hopefully fruitful – chat with Chris King on his podcast, Documentary Storytellers about my past, my work and where I’m going next… and quite a lot of other stuff as well. Have a listen on either – Spotify or Apple Podcast.




The obit picture


Recently, I was having some of my black and white archive scanned. A lot of this work had been rather rushed (by me and others) during the process that saw my old agency Network Photographers digitise as fast as we could. It’s clear that some really interesting images were missed but I suppose that was entirely inevitable. Anyway, looking through the work now, it allows one to examine past images in a new light and with fresh eyes. As I looked through the innumerable contact sheets, I saw that on each assignment there was always one or two of me usually taken in a hotel room mirror, just before I went out to work. I suppose that these were a kind of early ‘selfie’ but I realised that I’d been doing it ever since I photographed the Croatian conflict in the early 1990s. I’m not superstitious but on that trip, I stayed with a chap called Paul Jenks about who I’ve written about before here and here. I noticed that he’d often take an image of himself in a mirror – he called it the obituary picture – an image to be used in case anything unforeseen were to happen. Despite what did happen to Paul – or perhaps because of it – I adopted the habit and kept taking images of myself in hotel mirrors. At some point in the last several years, perhaps because I started to feel daft doing it and was simply deleting the images as soon as I got home to edit – or simply because I no longer recognised my ageing self – I stopped.

There is of course a great tradition of making images of oneself. Many have done so throughout Lockdown from sheer boredom I imagine but artists from Artemisia Gentileschi to Nancy Floyd (who photographed herself every day for forty years) belong to an honourable and significant tradition.

Looking through the black and white contacts made me realise that I had frozen myself in time in episodes that revolved not so much about significances in my own interiority, but in my brief appearances in other people’s countries and larger narratives. Certainly not in any pompous sense and certainly not quite Zelig-like, but worthy of further thought.

Here’s one from a grim Basra hotel in Iraq in 1999 (yes, I did used to wear one of those multi-pocket jackets) and one from a hotel in Zamalek in Cairo in 2013.

Similar (battered) cameras, less hair. Same odd life…


Melvyn Bragg and the portrait


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…



Melvyn Bragg, British broadcaster and author

The King is dead…



I’m no Elvis fan but I know lots of people have a very soft spot for The King and his music. For many, the anniversary of his death today is a significant one so I thought I’d show a few images that I made at an Elvis convention some years ago in Blackpool as a mini tribute. Once upon a time I was shooting a good deal on a rather lovely 5×4 Horseman Camera with Polaroid Type 55 (pos/neg) instant film. Working that way allowed me to shoot rather formal – but unexpectedly beautiful images that I could peel apart and then give to the subject (whilst shoving the negative in a big tank of fixer). It was a lovely way to work but my back never forgave me for the weight of kit I had to lug about. Anyway, here’s a triptych of some of the work…





ps. You might like to look at another image of Elvis fans that I made years ago that I featured on this blog in 2015…

The sad demise of the Independent…

There was some inevitability about it of course but after thirty years, The Independent Newspaper has decided to close the print edition(s) and move online. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I worked on quite a few stories for the excellent Sunday Magazine picture desk that was Victoria Lukens and Susan Glen.

Susan, now a respected photography consultant is featuring some of the Independent’s work on her site and has just published my story about the mental landscape of war amongst child soldiers in Africa, The Lord of the Flies 

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You can see the full set here


A day against child soldiers


Today is the International Day against the use of Child Soldiers, a United Nations sponsored campaign which aims at the universal ratification of the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.

I spent a couple of years in the late 1990’s looking at the mental landscape of war amongst former child fighters in Africa in a series called The Lord of the Flies

Here are some images.


Liberia - Monrovia - Two former boy fighters from Charles Taylor's militia on the streets of Monrovia argue with and threaten another boy.
Liberia – Monrovia – Two former boy fighters from Charles Taylor’s militia on the streets of Monrovia argue with and threaten another boy.


Uganda - Gulu - 'Andrew', 17. A former kidnapped fighter with the Lords Resistance Army, he remembers killing at least twelve. "...but only two with a machete...". Gulu, Uganda, "We are the miracles that God made to taste the bitter fruits of Time..." Ben Okri from 'An African Elegy'
Uganda – Gulu – ‘Andrew’, 17. A former kidnapped fighter with the Lords Resistance Army, he remembers killing at least twelve. “…but only two with a machete…”.  “We are the miracles that God made to taste the bitter fruits of Time…” Ben Okri from ‘An African Elegy’


Uganda - Gulu - 'Edward', 16 sits alone at the World Vision Centre for child abductees in Gulu Northern Uganda. Forced to fight, he is deeply traumatised by his activities with the Lords Resistance Army that he is unable to mix with other children. At night like many of his contemporaries, he wets the bed and recounts his experiences as he sleeps. Gulu, Uganda
Uganda – Gulu – ‘Edward’, 16 sits alone at the World Vision Centre for child abductees in Gulu Northern Uganda. Forced to fight, he is deeply traumatised by his activities with the Lords Resistance Army and is unable to mix with other children. At night like many of his contemporaries, he wets the bed and recounts his experiences as he sleeps.

Visa pour l’Image


This year is the 25th anniversary of the photojournalism festival held every year in Perpignan: Visa pour l’Image. In 1998 I had a show there with a two-year body of work from Africa called The Lord of the Flies. Since then, some of my work has also been  projections but that first show was a really special moment and meant a great deal to me. I remember that I arrived in Paris to see the enigmatic founder of Visa, Jean Francois Leroy clutching a box of fibre prints under my arm. After he saw the first three images he stopped and said, “OK, you have the exhibition…” I was so shocked that I thought he was joking and I told him so. He assured me that he wasn’t and we signed a contract there and then. I walked around Paris that day at least a foot taller. It marked a turning point in my career and the first real recognition that I was on the right path professionally.

Subsequently, I’ve had an uneven relationship with Visa. I think it’s true to say that I find the whole networking aspect pretty uncomfortable and certainly it seems to bring out the worst in terms of ego in some people in the industry. Because of that, I haven’t been since the demise of Network. It might well be said that the exhibition selections also conform to a very rigid view of the world and of photojournalism. As I am writing this however, it occurs to me that although that certainly is problematic, I’m probably more on the side of Visa than I am of the narcissistic trend in what I’d call personal reportage about/within the world. I mean by that a self conscious style – a bleed from the art world that I see a good deal now. This is generally medium format, generally about close focus on objects and a melancholy that seems to me like a teenage angst. “Oh the world is so terrible/Oh, but it’s so beautiful/I’m so original and important” In a funny way, despite the protestations of ‘artists’ who photograph like this, stylistically it has more to do with them than what they purport to be photographing. I wouldn’t shoot The Lord of the Flies in the same way now (I probably wouldn’t shoot it in black and white for a start because of the connotations I think that has in terms of the West reporting Africa now) but serious stories that never get anywhere near a magazine do have a home at Visa and I hope that that continues. If nothing else and despite all its faults, Visa does stand for an engagement even if that is a little blunt and simplistic. The selection is purely down to Leroy and good luck to him. As he says in a very interesting interview with Time here, “You can like my taste or not, but at least you can see that there is a strong line”. He is also – absolutely correctly – critical of young photographers who have no idea of the heritage within the industry in which they are working. As Leroy points out “It’s very difficult to do a reportage about prostitutes in India, if you’re not familiar with the work of Mary Ellen Mark”. The internet generation may have more cameras and more opportunity to take pictures but they seem to have, according to Leroy, very little ability to tell stories. I agree. A random set of images are not a photo essay. This is worth quoting in full:

“It’s not because I have a pencil that I’m Victor Hugo or Shakespeare. It’s not because you have a camera, that you are a photographer. There is currently a trend in photography to cover specific communities, like poor people in Ohio, or very poor people in Connecticut, or really, really poor people in Arkansas etc. Where is the story? The other favorites are: my mother has breast cancer, my father has Alzheimer’s, my brother is a schizophrenic. I know these kind of stories. It’s personal, yes, but I’m not sure it makes good work”

Crucially for me, when Leroy is asked about advice for young photographers, he says “Work, work, work. Read everything done before you”. I couldn’t agree more. One’s work, although unique, is in a continuity; a flow of humanity and journalism gone before that is bigger than each of us but one that by adherence to an ethical framework, should be there to bear witness not simply to suffering but a better world. That multi-faceted, outward-looking storytelling is what is sorely lacking in much of visual journalism today and what Visa – with all it’s problems, it’s cliches and idiosyncrasies  – is still largely about. Personally, I can’t stand the ‘Scarf and Leica brigade’ with their egos and delusions about being heroes but at least that tradition (although I’m the first to admit it needs a re-invigoration) is about reporting and not about photographing dying flowers as metaphor. In a world where print media and funding have almost disappeared, at least Visa is still there.


Here are a couple of images from my show at the Couvert des Minimes, Visa Pour L’Image all those years ago.






Burundi – slipping back

I read with great regret a small piece from the Economist that tells of a ‘souring mood’ in the tiny African country, Burundi. It seems that opposition forces have again taken to the hills after around three hundred of their number have been killed since July and dozens arrested. Much of this goes back to the 2010 election which, despite the International community declaring reasonably fair was greeted by anger from the forces opposing President Nkurunziza. I worked several times in Burundi during the last twelve years – assignments ranged from looking at the so-called Regroupment camps where the Tutsi government corralled Hutu peasants ‘for their own safety’ in appalling conditions (as part of a global series called The Politics of Hunger) to looking at the steps to reconciliation with the Bashingantahe councils. I also photographed and wrote about the extraordinary Marguerite Barankitse, The Angel of Burundi who adopted children of all tribes amidst the terrible violence of the Civil War. I fear that her heroism and devotion will be called on again.

On Monday, The Forces for National Liberation (FNL) leader Agathon Rwasa, whom Burundian authorities believe is hiding along with fellow combatants in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, called on Nkurunziza to step down. Reuters are reporting this as a declaration of war. I sincerely hope that they are wrong.



Burundi – Bujambura – President Buyoya speaks at May Day rally


Burundi – Buhonga – A Hutu child carries water in a tin up a steep hill in Buhonga Regroupment camp


Burundi – Buhonga – A malnourished Hutu peasant woman receives treatment at a medical centre. She is part of the ethnic Hutu population that has been internally exiled from their land by the Tutsi military in order to cut aid to Hutu rebels.


Burundi – Buhonga – A peasant cultivates land in Buhonga Regroupment Camp watched by a soldier. He is part of the ethnic Hutu population that has been internally exiled from their land by the Tutsi military in order to cut aid to Hutu rebels.


Burundi – Buhonga – Hutu peasant family cultivates a small patch of land within their regroupment camp


Burundi – Ruyigi – A counsel of the Bashingantahe (roughly meaning ‘wisemen’) meet to settle a dispute in their commune. The Bashingantahe, a traditional court system, have been successfully resolving disputes concerning the civil war and issues of forgiveness and acceptance.

The reckoning

Delighted that at least some justice has been served today for the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia after Charles Taylor was  found to have “aided and abetted” war crimes” by a United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague.


Sierra Leone - Freetown - Ibrahim, a victim of the rebels amputation policy during the Sierra Leonian civil war. Ibrahim was amputated in Freetown in 1999 when the rebels occupied the Waterloo area. They tried to hack off his other hand but were unable to. Hastings resettlement camp