I ramble on for an hour talking about how I got started, the business and of course, my new book.
Do have a listen here. Or click the image below –
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.
As you will by now no doubt have seen (by the tsunami of images generated) humanity’s greatest gathering is taking place on the banks of the River Ganges in Allahbad, India. The Kumbh Mela, a bathing festival for Hindus that draws millions of devotees (and photographers and tourists) to bathe in the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna has just started.
This year, up to 100 million people are expected to attend. I last covered it in 2001 when there were ‘only’ 70 million in attendance. I’d also shot one in 1995 – an Ardh (or half) Kumbh so I sort of knew what I was letting myself in for. They both feel a long, long time ago. I remember that in 2001 I was working a good deal in medium format and all I took with me were two Mamiya 6s and an old Vivitar flashgun. I remember shooting the entire set on Kodak colour neg film (I used to be sponsored by Kodak). It felt like I was trying to do something different, something new.
On that trip I travelled up to Allahabad with Kalpesh Lathigra and Jason Eskanazi. I seem to remember bumping into Stephen Dupont and the late Tim Hetherington (then at Network with me). Bruce Gilden saved me from getting beaten with a lathi by an Indian policeman (a long story…) and I remember being freezing cold every day before dawn as I rose from my inadequate sleeping bag. My fondest memories are reserved however for another fellow Network photographer, Nikolai Ignatiev, who died tragically a few years later. A very talented journalist, Nikolai had a colourful life story to say the least. Sadly, few traces of his work – nor indeed of Network Photographers – remain online (but see here for an archived obituary) but good memories.
Some pictures and thoughts of absent friends.
And just because I feel nostalgic today, here are a couple of my favourite images from the Ardh Kumbh way back in 1995…
I woke up nearly a fortnight ago in a hospital bed completely unaware of where I was, to multiple cellphone calls telling me that my friend and colleague, Tim Hetherington had been killed. I have written before about colleagues being killed (here and here) but I think that there’s very little I actually want to say about this episode. I’m overwhelmed by the tidal wave of industry tributes and I am completely uninterested that Tim was a photographer or a journalist; why he was where he was and what he was doing – simply that he was my friend and I hope that wherever he is, he is at peace.
I was heartened by the news on Friday that Sub-Saharan Africa is leading the global decline in new HIV cases. It seems that countries in this region have seen an infection rate drop of 25% apparently due to better education and preventative measures.
A few years ago, I was commissioned by Positive Lives to spend a month on the Rwandan/Burundian border looking at the lives of those affected. The Rwandan government had made great strides in their efforts to get people tested and educated about the risks but crucially about how to live and cope with the illness. The work won the Amnesty International Award in 2006.
As I said at the time, it seemed to me that the Rwandese, packed tightly into their borders, had learned the real meaning of forgiveness and acceptance.
Without labouring the point, it was a pleasure to be taking pictures that weren’t simply showing people dying. I see so many photographers making work that purports to show an explanation of a subject but actually is little more than graphic cliche of a situation. That, at a time of crisis for visual journalism, isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to simply point a camera at someone and say ‘how terrible’. It says much that everybody has a camera and thinks that they have a right to call themselves a journalist by photographing the nearest horror without context or understanding. We earn a dubious and tenuous ‘right’ to report the world to itself by entering into a dialogue with it: an impossible covenant with a subject that tries not to perpetuate stereotype, easy answers or sloppy conclusions. It isn’t enough to go and photograph beggars on the streets of India for example to further our own purposes under the cover of journalism. We had better have a damn good reason to invade people’s spaces and lives. If you need an example of what is decent and committed about documentary practice look no further than that of my former Network Photographer colleague, Gideon Mendel who has spent more than a decade committed to the portrayal of HIV/AIDS in exactly the way I am talking about.
I had been debating for days whether to post something on Afghanistan (in light of our Great Leader’s brilliantly orchestrated ‘outburst’ about Pakistan’s involvement) when Time Magazine produced its most blatantly propogandist cover story for decades. The piece cynically manipulates Jodi Bieber‘s (a friend and ex-collegue from Network Photographers) dignified image of a mutilated woman to suggest that a withdrawl from this illegal, NeoCon war would lead to more barbarity. Presumably similar barbarity to the drone attacks killing countless civilians in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and the illegal, drug-infested, torture-soaked, Karzai government.
Let’s make no mistake here, the excuse that the brave forces of democracy are in South Asia to prevent another 9/11 is entirely spurious. Afghanistan did not attack America. The majority of those that did came from our staunch ally, Saudi Arabia – known for its robust defence of human, especially women’s rights. That a minority of Islamicists may have had bases in Afghanistan is more the result of Indo-Pak (and therefore CIA) intelligence machinations. Afghanistan has been raped and used by every invading army since the British had a go twice in the Nineteenth century. Are we surprised that such actions have spawned amongst the Pashtun tribes a spiteful and extreme Islam? I’m more surprised that it hasn’t been worse. My visits to Afghanistan (starting in 1994 to cover the Siege of Kabul for Der Spiegel) have consistently shown Afghans to be peaceful and kind – not that you’d get that from a whole generation of photographers and writers who have covered this forago ’embedded’ courtesy of the American Industrial-Military Complex. Surely they are all turban headed (‘rag-heads’ are Iraqis… obviously) women-hating, primitives. Still, if we can’t understand ’em and they don’t want our democracy, let’s bomb them, eh? Bomb them ‘back to the Stone Age…’.
According to Matthew Hob, the former US Marine who resigned his post as Political Officer in 2009, “The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies … I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.”
This campaign is lost as is the Mirage of the Good War.
Andy Aitchison, an old mate and editor at Network Photographers, has for the last five years been documenting the Orthodox Jewish Community in Stamford Hill in London. Not only is this work excellent but shows a unique commitment to a section of London’s community that is normally firmly closed. It’s part of Photomonth and is on at Madam Lillie in Stoke Newington – open for a month, every Friday – Sunday, noon – 6pm until Sunday 6th of December 2009.
I spent my first couple of years in a cold, damp house in Stamford Hill in the late 1960’s and the areas always been a draw for me: but unlike Andy, I never got around to exploring so thoroughly.
The France 24 website has a lovely slideshow tribute to the last, truly great, mid- century French photographer, Willy Ronis.
I have always loved his work for it’s romantic but humanist perspective. The beautiful, evocative portrait of his wife, the Leftist artist Marie-Anne Lansiaux, at the sink – Nu Provençal (1949) is deservedly one of the most famous images in photography.
We used to distribute Rapho’s images at Network and I could never quite get over the thrill of being able to look into that extraordinary archive.
The last word to Ronis though who said that ‘to transform chaos into harmony is the constant quest of the seekers of images’.