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…


Overexposed (?)

As I sit packing in Delhi waiting to go to the South on a story, a good friend, Martin Beddall emails me about a programme (‘Overexposed’) he was interviewed for on BBC Radio a while ago. Martin was a postgraduate student on the photojournalism course at the (then) London College of Printing nearly twenty years ago. Another former student, Miles Warde has retraced the fate of some former classmates. As the BBC has it:

“Miles Warde presents the story of a group of photojournalists who set out to witness world events. They went to Yugoslavia, Angola, Chechnya, Gaza and Iraq. Two of them were shot dead. A compelling portrait of youthful ambition and the power of photography to change the world”.

The programme, originally broadcast on Monday 25 Jan 2010 is available on BBC iPlayer for another week.

Listen here:

Although I wasn’t a student on the course, I was around the same time finding my feet and as I’ve written previously, was friends with and worked alongside two photographers, Paul Jenks and James Miller who were both subsequently killed.

An odd feeling listening: my friend Gary Calton is featured as well and his and Martin’s comments ring very true. As a generation we seemed to have wanted to change the world. Was it because we had come through the politics-stained 1970’s that were in turn coloured by the 1960’s? I don’t know but I sense something now has changed. The myth of the great days of the magazine photographer has been exposed. There are no great magazines left to run work: TV, video and now the internet has won. We live in a more cynical age and we are all a little older, if not a little wiser.Many of us are struggling to find a way to say the things that still need saying. Perhaps it will not be through photography.

And the world needs changing more than ever…

At peace in Pecs…

I write this in Budapest airport after surviving a three hour onslaught of a hangover and my driver’s taste in Hungarian rock classics.
Budapest is one of my favourite cities but I’ve seen nothing of it save for its  grim industrial suburbs as I’ve been on a job-ette in Pecs (pronounced ‘Peych’) for the last few days.
Pec is (one of) The European City of Culture 2010 and can rightly claim this title as it has more museums and modern art than can be good for any place this size.

I have to say that despite a couple of days of obligatory rain, Pec was a delight from start to finish. It didn’t even matter that the main square was being dug up and lots of the buildings were being renovated, there was more than enough Baroque and Art Nouveau to spare. The renovations did make establishing shots a little tricky mind you…

As luck (or sublime planning…) would have it there happened to be a cultural festival on during my stay and this seemed to bring out the best in what I’ve found to be quite reserved Hungarians.
The town itself is a bit of a mixture, settled by Romans and invaded by the Ottomans. It has a Mediterranean style to it that I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting it to be so close to Croatia either. It was a little strange on the second day in when the waitress (who doubled as the breakfast cook in my little pension) told me that she was born right on the border and that she spoke both Croat and Hungarian. She also managed a more than passable German and English which was handy as Hungary has the most impenetrable tongue possible, related only it seems to Klingon
Elena’s heritage suddenly jolted me right back to 1991 and I suddenly realised in one of the moments that make you go cold, that I’d been there before.

That year saw me, barely able to make a picture, ship off to Croatia with a borrowed Vietnam-war flak jacket. My memories of exactly how I got to Zagreb are hazy but I remember crossing the Hungarian border by train and I think that I came through Pec… What I do remember is just how confused I was. I can now, nearly two decades on, hardly believe that I went. I knew precious little about the situation and even less about how to operate. I was there I think for a few weeks and I stayed on in Zagreb with a chap called Paul Jenks, a British photographer, recently graduated from photography school who’d come to make the war his own. A few weeks after I left, Paul was murdered by a sniper. It was a salutary lesson for me. For a start, it could have been me and also, we’d not parted on the best of terms. Paul was as driven as I was to succeed in his new profession but hadn’t taken kindly to me telling him that he was working too hard. There wasn’t an argument exactly but my (genuine) concern seemed to stir something in him and I took it to be a signal to leave the place and come home. I thought about Paul a fair bit in Pecs… memory is a strange thing. Like the town itself that had absorbed so many cultural memories (Hungarian, Croatian, Turkish, German) I suppose that we are a mixture of all of ours simultaneously.

Having talked about my negative memories, I have to say that it’s always lovely to be able to walk around and make pictures without hassle (ie like anywhere in the UK) and a folk festival proved ample opportunity to juggle sausages, beer and cameras whilst trying to frame things.

Pecs is looking forward to an investment of around $220m which will be used to rebuild some of the more run down areas and there are cash incentives for building owners to renovate their properties. Literally hundreds of cultural events are lined up for the next twelve months.

I’m sure it’ll be a great year…

Hungary - Pec - A man in traditional Hungarian folk costume performs at a cultural festival
Hungary - Pec - A man in traditional Hungarian folk costume performs at a cultural festival
Hungary - Pec - A newly wed couple pose for a photographer by the Bishop's Palace and Saint Peter's Church
Hungary - Pec - A newly wed couple pose for a photographer by Saint Peter's Church
Hungary - Pecs - The caretaker of the Synagogue
Hungary - Pecs - The caretaker of the Synagogue
Hungary - Pecs - Boys backstage in traditional costume drink soda from bottles during a folk event
Hungary - Pecs - Boys backstage in traditional costume drink soda from bottles during a folk event
Hungary - Pecs - Teenage lovers embrace and kiss on a park bench
Hungary - Pecs - Teenage lovers embrace and kiss on a park bench

And finally, how can you possibly fail to like a place where they iron their bread?

Hungary - Pecs - A chef irons a piece of fried bread on a griddle with a sausage at a food stall
Hungary - Pecs - A chef irons a piece of fried bread on a griddle with a sausage at a food stall