There is much current debate around photography and ethics. Despite the fact that I’ve been asked in several interviews over the years, I don’t necessarily think of myself as any sort of paragon of virtue. I’m sceptical of any set of ethical guidelines that are set in stone for a particular place and time and for me, I think my ethical guide has always been to treat people fairly and try and be a decent human being.
Ironically, that is exactly the notion that I contributed to Paul Lowe’s new book, Photography Rules: Essential Do’s and Don’ts from Great Photographers.
Paul asked me to contribute my thoughts on how to behave as a photographer and he accompanied it with a sensitive image of mine, a man being dressed by his mother in a secure ward in a mental health facility in New Delhi.
Michael Freeman, an old mate, a prodigious photographer and author – and an all-round very smart chap – has generously included me in a list of thirty photographers from across the world who are illustrative of various photographic practices that link to the title of this post.
I’m not sure whether I deserve to be in this list (along with the exceptional William Albert Allard) but Michael’s new book, Get the Photos Others Can’t illustrates, amongst many others, the notion of home territory – the idea that your knowledge of the everyday familiar will be invaluable in making images – with my work on London’s pie and mash shops. It’s ironic as Michael says that I’ve spent almost all of my career abroad, but it’s true that one never forgets where one comes from…
There’s an interview about how I approach and how I photograph people from a culture that I’m very familiar with as well as three illustrative images.
It’s a lovely book and, apart from my contribution, well worth a look.
When I was a boy, I used to walk the ‘Lane with my father on a Sunday. We’d sometimes see men selling the National Front’s rag on the corner of Bethnal Green Road beneath a tatty Union flag. This was the 1970s: a troubled time where the certainties of the post-war settlement were under threat. This was the time of Rock Against Racism and the murder of Blair Peach, where racism, nationalism and bigotry were presented in some quarters as appealing and even respectable. How times don’t change.
But each generation remembers its own battles. In the ‘90s I became a photographer, and, for a very short time, I started to make images of the ‘Lane and inevitably saw the same men selling the same newspapers under the same tatty flag.
In 1996 I made a set of portraits and interviews for the Independent on Sunday Magazine of the veterans of the International Brigades who had fought fascists in Spain some sixty years before. Many had to go and fight the same battles again across the world in 1939. A few talked about the resurgence of fascism after the war and how, when interned Blackshirts were released from prison they started to organise, prompting a far-right revival.
It was then I read Maurice Beckman’s book about the 43 Group – a historically significant but largely forgotten organisation of mostly (but not exclusively) Jewish ex-servicemen (and some extraordinarily brave women) who had returned from the horrors of war only to find fascism again on their own doorstep. I read how they resolved to fight back; to physically oppose the menace; to meet violence with violence to protect their communities. And how they had done so against the wishes of their elders and representatives.
My father lived in a poor, bomb-damaged street in Stoke Newington and, as a young man in 1947 had seen the savage violence of the long-forgotten battles of Dalston and Ridley Road. Battles unremembered but perhaps no less significant than Cable Street. I’d resolved to find those men that had stood up to a new generation of Mosley’s thugs and record them for posterity. But I never did; I spent the next two decades working and living across the world as a photo-reporter. I forgot.
Last year, I read Daniel Sonabend’s wonderful, forensic and compelling new history of the 43 Group, ‘We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain’ (Verso, 2019) and I knew that I needed to make these images to remember before it was too late.
By the turn of this year, there were only six of the original members left. I photographed them just before lockdown and, last weekend, the Observer Newspaper ran the pictures as a tribute to their courage.
Tragically, Maurice Podro passed away a week before the photographs were first published and so these images are shown in his memory.
We forget at our cost.
(This text appears on the Spitalfields Life blog.)
Here’s the tearsheet from the Observer piece that can be found here.
During this period of social isolation, frequently referred to in the contemporary (and telling) militaristic parlance as ‘lockdown’, I’ve been thinking much about outside space. Photographs from across the world show people gathering on balconies, separate but conversing, singing and playing music the way that they used to do in more normal times. This additional use of personal and public space brought me back to Delhi, the city with whom I’ve had a long and complicated relationship.
When I first started to work there in the mid-90s, which in the evolution of that city seems like a very long time ago, the majority of residential areas were restricted by urban planners to just two stories. Delhi was, for the most part, a low-rise city with a human scale. People in middle-class areas inevitably used their roof space to build a self-contained room where their domestic help would live. By the time I arrived, the ever-resourceful Delhi wallahs had decided that these quaint little structures known as barsati (from the Hindi word – barsaat – for rain) were quite chic and started to advertise them for rent as an evocative, cheap and central place for urbanites. Despite me looking at a couple (I think in Defence Colony…) I never did take the plunge, fearful as I was of being drowned in my bed during monsoon or being swept away in the loo (the dry, seasonal Delhi wind – not the temperamentally plumbed convenience connected to the erratic Delhi sewers). I remember them being terrifically popular with an arty crowd and I’d sometimes be invited to parties where foreign journalists would hold court in them, serving imported drinks on tiny tables – the decor all Diwali fairy-lights, damp-mottled walls and antique Bollywood film posters. Apparently MF Hussain (about whom I wrote about some years ago here) lived in one in Jangpura as did Arundhati Roy in Lajpat Nagar. Anita Desi features one in her short story The Rooftop Dwellers.
The transformation of Delhi from sleepy government city to a gaudy, monied and dangerous metropolis (see Rana Dasgupta’s Capital) meant that the barsati has pretty much had its day. The two-floor Delhi dwelling is long gone, replaced by a Neoliberal architecture of individualism and show: multi-storied and gated. The city, seemingly desperate to forget its past (contrasted with today’s Britain that still clings to it’s own re-invented one) is unrecognisable. It occurred to me however, just how much I’d stood on these rooftops over the years. From traditional musicians in Old Delhi to The Coffee House to a friend of a friend’s place overlooking Mehrauli forest, they always felt a way to rise above; to overlook – to observe – away from the frenetic noise and bustle.
As I look out on these uncertain, pandemic nights, coming to terms with what was and what yet might be in a very altered world, I think back years to the Delhi that I once knew – my Delhi – and wish I’d have rented that barsati after all.
Over the summer, I wrote on this blog about my series, the Heirs of the East London Group, the inheritors of the almost forgotten group of working-class, realist painters who had depicted life in a changing East End at the start of the twentieth century.
This week, Amateur Photographer magazine published a piece written by me about the work and, I’m delighted that the publication has been dedicated to, as I hoped, the late Ronald Morgan who passed away some months ago and whose image dominates the feature.
I’ll publish some of the text of that interview here next week if anyone would like to read it and hasn’t, by then, had the chance to buy a copy of the magazine.
Photographers – well, certainly this one – are often disappointed when they give over their work to a magazine to publish.
The German Mare Magazine however, have done an absolutely wonderful job with my work on London’s iconic pie and mash shops in their latest issue. Essentially, a spread of my last book, The Englishman and the Eel (Dewi Lewis, 2017) it is beautifully and respectfully laid out over an enormous sixteen pages that give both my images and text space to breathe and shine.
It’s a long time since a magazine has given me so much space – especially a magazine that I’ve honestly wanted to work with for such a long time.
A couple of years ago, the Spitalfields Life blog published a rather lovely book called East End Vernacular. It featured the work of the almost forgotten East London Group – a collection of painters who showed together from 1928 to 1936 and who all portrayed everyday life in a changing East End. They were mostly working class, realist painters who drew and painted what they saw around them. The book struck a real chord with me. As I’ve written many times before, I grew up in the 1970s in a grim and gloomy Hackney; a much changed landscape from the gentrified hipster hangout of today. As soon as I could, I fled the tower blocks and the grainy streets and made a career photographing (and sometimes writing about) the places that I could only imagine as a child. I spent more than two decades working (and sometimes living) mostly in Indian and Africa – but pretty much anywhere across the world that wasn’t where I was from. So the book was like a window into the past for me – more because it featured what I might call the heirs of those original artists. People like Jock McFadyen, Anthony Eyton and Dan Jones (a reproduction of whose painting of Brick Lane in the 1970s we now have on our wall at home) who painted a more contemporary vision of my formative streets.
A year ago I decided to try and photograph them all at home, in the studio or making work on the streets in a way to reconnect with my own past. The photographs connect in some way with my last book, The Englishman and the Eel as a form of re-discovery and trying (at last) to come to terms with that. It’s been a long process: a quick look at the embarrassingly extensive archive of this blog shows that I was stumbling around trying to find an answer to that more than ten years ago. See here for more on that.
Anyway, I digress. With the help of the Gentle Author, I managed to make contact with them all and each was generous with their time and thoughts. My only regret is of course being too late to manage to photograph one of my heroes, Leon Kossoff who had been ill for some time and died recently. He had a studio off Dalston Lane in the early 1970s and I remember seeing some of his work of my local area as a teenager and thinking clearly how the world could be made to seem different.
Here are three images from the portrait set of twelve. You can see the rest of them on my site here. For those technically minded, I wanted a clean, simple look to them all and decided rather than to shoot them as reportage, I’d use one or two Elinchrom Ranger heads on each set-up trying (OK… sometimes three) to make them look not lit but as natural as possible.
I’ve just returned from a three week assignment in Central America for an old and favourite client. When I think back to some other clients and assignments over the years, this was wonderful: lovely hotels, a great driver, and a workable schedule. It meant that I could produce really strong work from every situation that I was presented with and give the client exactly what they wanted.
It also gave me the opportunity to rebel – to do something different – to jump a little outside of the comfort zone that I was (very happily) working in. On a day off and by adding days at the end of the job (on my own money) I tried to make work that pushed me and in some senses, put me back in touch with the young photographer shooting transparency film on manual cameras that I was twenty years ago. I haven’t had much opportunity to re-connect with my younger self over the last year or two; to take chances; to ‘risk’ exposures and compositions – but I highly recommend it.
Let me expand. What I make are, I hope, beautiful, colourful and simple images. It’s how I see and how I think. It comes from my conception of where I believe good reportage (especially good written reportage), and good photojournalism comes from. The ability of an image – or more importantly – a series of images, to convey quickly and effectively, a story and a meaning (a bit passé I know for the Post-Modernists amongst you). Those (unlucky enough) to have attended my lectures earlier this year at the Photographers Gallery or any numbers of talks or mentoring sessions that I’ve given will remember me banging on about this. I can bore for England about the history of visual journalism in Weimar (or Hungary or in Russian Constructivism – just ask…) and the transplantation of this culture to mid-century America in the form the nuanced photo essay (and American soft power – ask at your own risk…).
Just sometimes… we all need some space to experiment; to let our visual hair down (those that know me will realise the painful irony here) and make interesting questions as photographs. We need to wander around Guatemala City (and other places) and make images that push us. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t but doing something that challenges you is always worthwhile. Isn’t it? I remember a younger photographer that would always shoot the story but then always try something different. There were always a couple of frames on the end of every roll (sometimes in the middle) where I’d tried a composition that didn’t fit the story (and I couldn’t edit it in) but made a strong image that stood alone. I’d stopped doing that for a while and so with a single Leica (a very taped-up M10 if you’re interested: but it’s not that interesting is it?) and (mostly) a 50mm lens, I started challenging myself.
Here’s some of what I came up with.
Some of this ‘safer’ work is available to view on my Twitter feed and (apparently more important) Instagram page … instant-this, instant-that… you know how it is… but if you like what you see, follow me and I’ll try and keep uploading…