Here’s a recent commission – images and words – from Thai Airways magazine about Delhi’s burgeoning street art scene. A million thanks to ST+Art India, Anpu Varkey and Harsh Raman. A really interesting and colourful piece to photograph – and write.
On Saturday I gave a lecture about my work at the Photographers Gallery to a group of talented young photographers. I was delighted that one student, Melissa Fund encapsulated those couple of hours in an excellent diagram with my portrait at its centre. I thought I’d share that here.
Thanks to her and the excellent Lottie Davies for the opportunity.
I’m delighted that my writing about London’s eel and pie tradition is included in the new UnCommon London book.
UnCommon is a compendium of guide and travel writing “and is more of a ‘companion’ for the traveller before, during and after the journey.” UnCommon London joins editions on Malta, Stockholm and Dubai.
Commissioned by my old friend Mike Fordham, my words are illustrated by May Van Millingen.
Here are a couple of pages to give you an idea…
In 2013, I made a story about the now sleepy town of Chandannagar on the banks of the Hooghly River near Kolkata.
Chandannagar (or Chandernagore) was first established as a French colony in 1673 when the Nawab of Bengal gave permission to establish a trading mission. By 1730 when Joseph Francois Dupleix was appointed governor, Chandannagar had more than two thousand brick built houses and was the main European entry to the subcontinent. The British East India Company inconveniently flattened a good deal of it during its capture in 1756 but returned it to French rule in 1816. It was governed as part of France until 1950 when the inhabitants voted to join with the newly independent India.
As part of my story, I wandered into the Institut de Chandernagar, now a museum that was the original governor’s palace. Inside, amongst Colonial French artifacts, I found a mystery – and one that I found very moving and upsetting.
Here is what I wrote:
“In another dusty room a harpsichord gently decays, its keys like broken teeth, watched over by a small bust of a stern Napoleon. In a case, the last French flag, dirty and a little tattered. Dupleix’s own bed is enormous but deeply uncomfortable looking. Time has stopped here and moulders in the sticky, wet heat. Perhaps saddest of all, the shattered spectacles of Dr J N Sen MB MRCS Private West Yorkshire Regiment and a son of Chandannagar, killed in action on the night of 22/23rd of May 1916 in France. His, the dubious honour of being the first Bengali to do so. Why he was fighting for a British regiment is a mystery but how sad to die so far from the verdant splendour of the steamy jungle and the smell of jasmine oil in a woman’s hair.”
I had quite forgotten about this until this morning when I heard a short piece on the BBC Radio 4 programme, Today (if you listen it’s at 02:53:51) where Santanu Das (a reader in English at King’s College London) explains why Dr Sen was there. There is also a piece here from BBC Leeds published a few days ago that reports the story.
I remember standing there in the heat of the room feeling so utterly moved by the spectacles that I didn’t take a photograph but just jotted some words down and had to leave.
Here are some images from the story. The last frame shows the talented musician Umesh Mishra, playing his sarangi during a practice session for a concert he was giving that night in the town.
Perhaps that might be a fitting visual requiem for Sen.
Here’s a recent tearsheet from the German Magazine Brand Eins Neuland. They commissioned me to interview three former alumni of Jacobs University for a special edition on the city of Bremen. I travelled to Ethiopia (Addis Ababa) and Bangladesh (Dhaka) to write the story and made a brief city reportage as well as the portraits.
Some weeks ago I was invited by the Dart Centre, an extraordinary resource for journalists who cover trauma in their work, to participate in a long weekend retreat in peaceful hotel the English countryside. The Dart Centre is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School Programme and seeks to promote best practice in the fields of reporting and understanding of trauma, human rights and conflict world wide. I was accompanied by a lovely group of very experienced journalists from amongst others, the BBC, Channel 4, Al Jazeera, The Sunday Times and The Associated Press. It was an honour to be part of this and my thanks to Dart for inviting me on such an informative and helpful weekend.
My special thanks to my colleague Lefteris Pitarakis who kindly provided an image of me during my presentation talk.
Last week I read that a new biography of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great Polish Foreign correspondent, had accused him of inventing a good deal of his work. The biographer, Artur Domoslavski, observes that Kapuscinski “consciously built on his status as a legend” and “extended the boundaries of reportage far into the realm of literature”. I read this in Delhi online and, somehow the process of reading these allegations on a computer screen made me smile with irony. It made me think just how far we think we’ve come in journalism and reporting but perhaps just how little we’ve progressed. Let me explain.
I have few heroes in photography, but I held people like Kapuscinski, like Chatwin and Lewis et al as great writers that I could read as much for pleasure as literal accuracy. I don’t read Polish and so the details of Domoslavski’s allegations are a little hard to substantiate but they are not new. There has been a great deal written about Kapuscinski in the last decade: how he was a spy, how he was a womaniser. Much of it to me smacks of a jealousy and a pettiness and the disturbing tendency in modern life to have an icon to smash. We live in a celebrity culture controlled by big business and advertisers that have a financial stake in selling things – people – as commodities. That requires constant banality and revision. This week, ‘failed celebrity actress recovers from drugs’. Next week, ‘failed celebrity actress caught having an affair’. Orwell called it Prolefeed. What all the commentators have failed to mention is that Kapuscinski, when not filing tight wire reports for the Polish news service, was working within the tradition of his own hero, Herodotus, whose books he kept close by for all of his career. Herodotus drew upon an earlier oral tradition of story-telling and interpreting the world from his travels. Sometimes, he wasn’t strictly accurate (‘dog headed men, gold digging ants and flying snakes’ spring to mind) but that wasn’t necessarily the point. The Histories are as much about him as they are the events that he describes: he was interpreting the world politically through the prism of the mid fifth century BC. Kapuscinski was writing during the Cold War and cleverly subverting his masters when he was able to by speaking directly of the warmth and humanity of those people that he met. We are all constructs of our position on time. Plutarch‘s description of Herodotus’ work is vicious:
“He’s a dangerous Barbarian lover (a great heresy at the time) who praises foreigners and denigrates the most ‘solemn and holy truths of Greek religion with Egyptian humbug and fairytale”.
and of course misses the point entirely. Kapuscinski, like Herodotus was evidently no saint – it may be that he polished quotes, ‘tidied’ sentences but I wonder if that mattered: he was writing what he called ‘literary reportage’. It’s a way of understanding the world – to be able to breathe others’ air – you’re meant to believe what you are being told, but not in every literal detail. What we know for certain is that the world has lost a great reporter and a great writer: a man that suffered terrible hardship and was a conduit for the story of the later half of the twentieth century through his travels.
Which brings me back to the title of this post. Last week a photographer, Stepan Rudik was disqualified from the World Press Photo competition for altering an image. Rudik photoshopped out an offending foot from a frame but he also savagely cropped the picture and converted it to black and white. To be fair, it isn’t a million miles away from what Eugene Smith did with his Haiti pictures – except perhaps in intention. Smith was working in not a disimilar way to Kapuscinski – attempting to change the world by showing itself to itself (albeit with some literary license). Rudak was trying to win a prize which has somehow (and very sadly) become the defining element of a successful photojournalistic career. My contention here is not that Rudik was wrong or right (and I honestly feel rather sad for him) but that as photography and journalism stumbles further into the abyss of uncertainty and change, the move by the World Press jury looks a little like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. As photography is neutered by loss of magazines, funding and status, the industry relies increasingly on young freelancers with digital cameras to cover the world. Cheaply. Perhaps it’s my age but I see an erosion of professional standards, ethics and training. As a young photographer I aspired to those in Magnum, Network, Rapho, Gamma etc: the business was difficult to break into and there were identifiable mentors. No longer. It’s a free for all. We’re all journalists now and as far as I can see, there’s an ocean of visual mediocrity masquerading as the best of photojournalism – heavy post-production, a snapshot aesthetic. Easy frames – boring frames. There’s an army of young photographers treating the Developing world as an extended gap year in which to launch their careers into a media that they have no understanding of. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have meant a generation covering war by treating ’embedding’ as the norm.
Of course we get the industry that we deserve in a way. If we clamour for the pap of celebrity then we shouldn’t be surprised if journalistic standards fall. That’s why this is a defence of Kapuscinski. As a master storyteller he was entirely aware of what he was doing but had the intellectual rigour to understand the context that he was working within. It’s a lesson that photographers more than ever need to learn.