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