Forgotten images

 

 

During Lockdown, like many people, I’ve spent some time looking over my archives. On my infrequent Instagram postings, I’ve decided to feature three images that were in the mix for my second book, The Palaces of Memory – Tales from the Indian Coffee House, but never made it. The editing process was very thorough and sometimes you have to let go of pictures that you like and think are strong but simply don’t fit a narrative. That was true of so many photographs that I made over the years on this project. Never so much as the image below however.

It was made in Shimla on a freezing cold, three-day trip staying in a miserable budget hotel, a twenty minute walk from town. The frame, shot on a really awful early digital Leica (an M9) seemed to encapsulate my feelings echoed in the face of the waiter on the first day. I didn’t like Shimla that much. I just saw a tatty old British capital playing on its dubious heritage, packed full of noisy tourists. But maybe that was just me on those days – the rest of Himachal Pradesh remains beautiful. The Coffee House was nice though. Welcoming and warm.

I remembered that I’d arrived in the evening after a long drive from Delhi with my long-time driver/fixer/partner-in-crime, the late and much missed, Armajeet Singh.

I wandered alone into the warm fug of the half-empty coffee house late at night. There were pictures to be had and now, years later, I remember the yellow light and the steam, but I hesitated and shot nothing preferring to just look. I had a coffee and left, angry at myself for not pushing harder. It was however, a cold calculation born of not wanting to make a mistake before I’d had chance to ask permission properly and work out the lay of the land. Of course, when I went back over the next couple of evenings, it was never the same.

It never is.

Perhaps that’s why the waiter’s face chimed with my mood when I made this picture the next morning. You always end up photographing yourself in one way or another. Photography’s funny like that. The frame often has you in it, even though you’re not…

It was certainly how I felt when I was just starting the project and was unsure where it would go or whether it would work.

I’ve always liked the image however.

 

A waiter and customer reflected in a mirror at The Indian Coffee House, Shimla, India.

American Photography Annual (AI-AP 36)

 

Delighted to again be selected for the AI-AP 36 photo annual with two images.

The first was taken on a long assignment in Guatemala last year and the second, earlier in the year as part of a personal project about sub-cultures.

Here are two screen grabs of the images on the site –

 

The rooftops of Delhi

 

 

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.

 

Traditional musicians play on a roof top in Chandni Mahal, Old Delhi. Once patronised by the Mughal rulers many now scrape a living playing weddings and social functions. Violinist Afzaal Zahoor leads Zeeshan Ahmad, a singer, Shankat Qureshi (tabla) and Shakeel Ahmad (Harmonia).

 

Radhika and her neighbour Saroj on her roof garden in one of Delhi’s largest slum’s Kusumpur Pahari. The settlement, built more than thirty years ago has no running water or sewage facilities but despite the residents modest situation, many have beautified their homes with plants and flowers. New Delhi, India

 

Bela Gupta, Secretary of the All India Kitchen Garden Association and her dog in her roof garden. New Delhi.

 

Boys fly a kite over rooftops in Nizamuddin, a largely Muslim area that contains many important and venerated tombs of saints and holy men. New Delhi.

 

A monkey walks between tables of customers on the roof terrace of the Indian Coffee House, New Delhi.

 

A view over Mehrauli from a roof terrace, New Delhi.

 

Tearsheet – Mare 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.

Wonderful.

 

 

 

The importance of doing what you want

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…).

But sometimes…

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…

A street in Zone 2, Guatemala City
Nayusky, 17, gathers her hoops for her act. Circo Hermanos Lopex. Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
Mercado Terminal, Guatemala City.
Mercado Terminal, Guatemala City.
Bus station. Antigua, Guatemala.
A bus driver. Guatemala City.
A man gathers fallen onions. Mercado Sur Dos, Guatemala City.
Street dancers. Antigua. Guatemala.

The Bridge and the Eunuch

 

Recently I stopped my car to take a photograph. I stopped on a stretch of road (actually a bridge) that I’ve traveled a thousand times; a stretch of road that leads to the gora ghetto of Jangpura Extension, a sort of home from home in one of the world’s most cruel and beautiful cities. I stopped to make a simple image – with cars whizzing past me – of a brightly coloured apartment block (on the roof of which some years ago I’d been shown by a young man how to fly a kite) crucially situated between a drain (old) and a flyover (newer). I made a very simple picture but this being Delhi, the ground itself hides more than it tells. This stream of black water is actually called the Barapullah and it’s one of the key drains of the city. Barapullah apparently gets it’s name from a bridge built across it by the then emperor Jahangir’s chief eunuch, Mihir Banu Agha. The bridge had ten piers and twelve columns – hence, the name, Barapullah.

According to RV Smith‘s wonderful The Delhi that no one knows, by 1628, the road between the Barapullah and Humayun’s Tomb was a wide tree-lined path. The bridge now stands amidst a makeshift market near Nizammuddin railway station and the traffic of the main road. The Barapullah drain that flows below was one of the ten streams in the city that drained eastwards into Yamuna. Sadly, it’s simply now an open sewer.

By coincidence, I’ve photographed that same market several times over the years on my walks around the area and I show here two images that give a sense of what the drain looks like now and the market itself.

 

 

Gaily painted apartment blocks overlook a grim flyover and a polluted drain (open sewer) in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, India

 

 

A white Egret sits on a rock in the middle of an open drain beneath a flyover near Nizamuddin Railway Station, New Delhi, India

 

A man at his vegetable stall, near Nizamuddin Railway Station, New Delhi, India

A new book – The Englishman and the Eel

 

 

I’m delighted to say that my new book, The Englishman and the Eel will be published by Dewi Lewis this  November.

A sort of companion to my last book (also with Dewi), The Palaces of Memory – Tales from the Indian Coffee House, it explores the eel, pie and mash shops of my childhood. In doing so it examines the rich, largely undocumented cultural heritage of generations of working-class Londoners in a city whose only constant is change. After spending the best part of twenty-five years working in Asia and Africa, this marks a departure and a conscious effort to return home and examine Britain at a crucial juncture.

You can order the book from Dewi’s site or directly from me.

Here’s one of my favourite, but less obvious images from the book…

 

Cindy and customers at T and J Kelly Pie and Mash shop, Loughton, Essex

 

Triggering Article 50

 

 

Whilst looking through my archive yesterday for something completely different, I happened to chance upon this image that I think, whichever way you voted in the EU Referendum, might sum up today’s triggering of Article 50 by the British government. It was from an assignment for the Times Magazine on David Miliband in 2008. I’d travelled with him to Kiev, Brussels and errr… Birmingham as well as shooting a portrait at his home in London. This was taken after a rather laborious interview in the European Parliament’s TV studio. Everyone else had cleared off and just the dying buzz of the tv feed remained in the air. Clearly weary, he held his face in his hands as the lights started to dim. It’s never been published before and I’d forgotten all about it but I thought today it might have some … resonance.

 

David Miliband, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Member of Parliament for South Shields, Tyne and Wear after a live broadcast with a TV channel in the European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium

Learning something new

 

I’m quite a traditional photographer. To the surprise of many who see me working, I still expose my digital images the way I shot transparency film: carefully and with a hand-held meter. In this way, I’ve always had a problem with photographers that shoot real life and then work on their files afterwards to create a different, almost hyper reality. For photojournalists I find this very difficult to deal with and, as I’ve said before, I believe it can create a serious problem of authenticity and voracity. I find myself however at a stage of my career where I want to learn new things. I also find myself increasingly shooting personal projects with an eye to more commercial markets. Recently I’ve been trying to learn how to create a look that I feel happy with and that I can manipulate for a new project (that’s under wraps for now). After some deliberation and a lot of help from my friends – I have something I’m happy with. This may not be a very big step for some – very old hat to some people – but for me it’s an enormous one.

And it’s always good to learn something new. When was the last time we can honestly say that we have?

I won’t be shooting anything serious like this (in the sense of documentary work) but I may change and evolve a new process to reinvigorate things a bit on another front. Old dog/new tricks. Here’s one I made earlier.

What do you think?

 

before

 

An old man working as a scribe outside a shop in a Jaipur Bazaar, Jaipur, India
India – Jaipur – An old man working as a scribe outside a shop in a Jaipur Bazaar

 

and after

An old man working as a scribe outside a shop in a Jaipur Bazaar, Jaipur, India
India – Jaipur – An old man working as a scribe outside a shop in a Jaipur Bazaar