Michael Freeman, an old mate, a prodigious photographer and author – and an all-round very smart chap – has generously included me in a list of thirty photographers from across the world who are illustrative of various photographic practices that link to the title of this post.
I’m not sure whether I deserve to be in this list (along with the exceptional William Albert Allard) but Michael’s new book, Get the Photos Others Can’tillustrates, amongst many others, the notion of home territory – the idea that your knowledge of the everyday familiar will be invaluable in making images – with my work on London’s pie and mash shops. It’s ironic as Michael says that I’ve spent almost all of my career abroad, but it’s true that one never forgets where one comes from…
There’s an interview about how I approach and how I photograph people from a culture that I’m very familiar with as well as three illustrative images.
It’s a lovely book and, apart from my contribution, well worth a look.
When I was a boy, I used to walk the ‘Lane with my father on a Sunday. We’d sometimes see men selling the National Front’s rag on the corner of Bethnal Green Road beneath a tatty Union flag. This was the 1970s: a troubled time where the certainties of the post-war settlement were under threat. This was the time of Rock Against Racism and the murder of Blair Peach, where racism, nationalism and bigotry were presented in some quarters as appealing and even respectable. How times don’t change.
But each generation remembers its own battles. In the ‘90s I became a photographer, and, for a very short time, I started to make images of the ‘Lane and inevitably saw the same men selling the same newspapers under the same tatty flag.
In 1996 I made a set of portraits and interviews for the Independent on Sunday Magazine of the veterans of the International Brigades who had fought fascists in Spain some sixty years before. Many had to go and fight the same battles again across the world in 1939. A few talked about the resurgence of fascism after the war and how, when interned Blackshirts were released from prison they started to organise, prompting a far-right revival.
It was then I read Maurice Beckman’s book about the 43 Group – a historically significant but largely forgotten organisation of mostly (but not exclusively) Jewish ex-servicemen (and some extraordinarily brave women) who had returned from the horrors of war only to find fascism again on their own doorstep. I read how they resolved to fight back; to physically oppose the menace; to meet violence with violence to protect their communities. And how they had done so against the wishes of their elders and representatives.
My father lived in a poor, bomb-damaged street in Stoke Newington and, as a young man in 1947 had seen the savage violence of the long-forgotten battles of Dalston and Ridley Road. Battles unremembered but perhaps no less significant than Cable Street. I’d resolved to find those men that had stood up to a new generation of Mosley’s thugs and record them for posterity. But I never did; I spent the next two decades working and living across the world as a photo-reporter. I forgot.
By the turn of this year, there were only six of the original members left. I photographed them just before lockdown and, last weekend, the Observer Newspaper ran the pictures as a tribute to their courage.
Tragically, Maurice Podro passed away a week before the photographs were first published and so these images are shown in his memory.
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.
Over the summer, I wrote on this blog about my series, the Heirs of the East London Group, the inheritors of the almost forgotten group of working-class, realist painters who had depicted life in a changing East End at the start of the twentieth century.
This week, Amateur Photographer magazine published a piece written by me about the work and, I’m delighted that the publication has been dedicated to, as I hoped, the late Ronald Morgan who passed away some months ago and whose image dominates the feature.
I’ll publish some of the text of that interview here next week if anyone would like to read it and hasn’t, by then, had the chance to buy a copy of the 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.
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…).
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…
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 bridgebuilt 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.
On this anniversary, I thought I’d show images from a remarkable story that I illustrated for a Channel 4 documentary many years ago. Titled The Last Jews of Berlin, the film featured Jewish survivors of the Reich that had successfully lived undercover in Berlin for years. I present two images from that set.
I was very sad to read that the Delhi government has, under the pretext of the violation of ‘environmental laws’ closed the protest site at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. The order was carried out this morning evicting and razing the temporary shelters of protestors.
For those that don’t know, the street was a kind of Speakers Corner crossed with an Occupy site that allowed a very limited amount of protests to be carried out by those with a grievance. The street – adjacent to the famous monument – was chosen as a protest site in 1993 after the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid movement raised security concerns and the government banned protests at previous demonstrations sites. The Jantar Mantar site was one of the few places where people in the city could protest and let off steam. It was also a fascinating place to walk through and see just what kind of issues affected everyday Indians – and their faith in their democratic right to that protest.
I’d been to a few demonstrations at the Jantar Mantar over the years. They never made great pictures – the gatherings – the pushing and shoving with the police were formulaic and regimented by the authorities. However, it was always heartening to see the faith that especially the rural poor – many of whom had come from all over the country to shout about their (usually myriad) grievances – displayed. Heartening but of course ultimately futile: policy in India is rarely affected by such organised protests and increasingly one sees that cold, hard hand of the State for what it really is. As a symbol for where modern India is moving the broken tents and the tarpaulin of protesters scattered across the street that I’ve seen this morning in the Indian media could not however be more telling. How similar they look to the scenes that I’m reading about in Kathputli Colony as well today as the authorities seem to have finally decided to tear that Colony down for ‘development’. You can read about my previous writings on Kathputli here.
I leave you with two images. The first from the Jantar Mantar, not of a protest but of what I remember best from the place – engaged activists talking and debating. Creating a space where people were able to discuss their city. The second, from Kathputli in 2014 of local residents discussing the future of their slum colony that had clearly already been decided long ago for them.
Both of these spaces – so crucial to cities are now areas where the poor and voiceless are systematically excluded – and thus from the narrative of Delhi. It’s enough to make you wonder who these cities are actually for…