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

Skipping in Tamale

A few days ago I was contacted by a small local African NGO whose project I had made a short assignment with maybe six years ago. They were re-doing their website and wanted to give it a new look. Generally, I never, ever give away images but there are always notable exceptions and I remembered their tremendous work educating (and protecting) lone street children and their enigmatic champion, Agnes Chiravera. Agnes is one of those elegantly tough African women that just make things work through sheer will power.

I also remembered waiting for the school to open and being invited to do some skipping with a young girl and her friends that I subsequently photographed. Never easy to skip with cameras – but it certainly made the children laugh.

It’s those kind of memories that make some of the more tricky stuff bearable.

Street children play in the grounds of a school run by the Youth Alive project. Tamale, Northern Ghana
Street children play in the grounds of a school run by the Youth Alive project. Tamale, Northern Ghana
Agnes Chiravera, social worker and head of the Youth Alive project, hugs a former street child who is now in full time education.
Agnes Chiravera, social worker and head of the Youth Alive project, hugs a former street child who is now in full time education.

Vedanta – India’s shame

I read today with disappointment and resignation that Vedanta Industries have won their fight on appeal to establish a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills in India.

I wrote a piece for the Indian magazine Tehelka about this story in 2007 and it can be seen here.

Vedanta Resources, a UK-registered ftse -100 company has fought a long campaign to establish the mine and despite judicial review it seems now that nothing can stop it.

The story typifies the very real problem of India’s industrial development. The Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa are sacred to the Dongria Kondhs, a protected tribal group of ‘original’ Aboriginal peoples. Allegedly, the British geologist who “discovered” these rich deposits nearly a century ago dubbed them “Khondalite” in tribute to the people who guided him there. It seems that this simple act of hospitality will mean the end of another of India’s pre-Aryan traditional cultures. The holy mountain will be raped for its ore and the people who haven’t already fled the company’s previously illegal building programme will be scattered. Those who stay will doubtless be housed in the stalag-like accommodation blocks I saw laying empty and crumbling in Lanjigarh. They will have to sell their land at government determined prices and then work as contract labourers. What has happened to countless other ‘primitive’ and powerless peoples all over India will happen to them. Displaced from their traditional homelands, sacred to their animist beliefs, women and girls often end up working as daily wagers, domestic helps or prostitutes. The women will also have to cope with alcoholism and domestic violence.

The author and social activist Arundhati Roy has described India’s unfettered race to Market Capitalism as nothing less than India ‘eating its own people’ and in this macabre metaphor one can see the reflections of the Enclosures and urbanisation of the rural communities of England in the nineteenth century.

Engels in his ‘Conditions of the Working Classes’ wrote about the squalor and appalling inhumanity of the Northern mill towns but these could be anywhere in the newly ‘industrialised zones’ of rural India.

I am no romantic when it come to India. I don’t share a Raj view of the colonial apologists (despite inevitably by dint of being British having reaped the indirect rewards of the subjugation of that country). I don’t yearn for quaint, underdeveloped communities full of poverty and colour. I want to see India progress. But I know the stink of international corporate power when I smell it.

India had no colonies from which to steal resources so it’s stealing them from its own weak and vulnerable. The profits of this mine will not be spread evenly to benefit the Indian economy – it will be hoarded in the off-shore bank accounts of those corrupt politicians and corporate executives who already think that India is theirs by right.

A new Middle Class India has been brought up to believe that a successful society means a consumerist society. Greed and nationalism go hand in hand: it is not the poor of India calling for war with their brothers and sisters in Pakistan.

Traditionally, Indians have protested injustice in a dignified Ghandian way with hunger strikes and marches. While the Western media and much of India has been marvelling at ‘Shining India’ it has failed to notice that a good deal of India is now under Maoist rebel control. In Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand the Indian state is fighting a battle it might not win.

A woman carries a pot of water from a stream in front of the Vedanta plant, Lanjigarh, Orissa
A tribal woman carries a pot of water from a stream in front of the Vedanta plant, Lanjigarh, Orissa
The Vansadhara river. The river is one of two that flows from Niramgiri mountain. The effect of the Vedanta plant will be to dry up streams that feed the river depriving the Dongria Kondh of fresh water
The Vansadhara river. The river is one of two that flows from Niramgiri mountain. The effect of the Vedanta plant will be to dry up streams that feed the river depriving the Dongria Kondh of fresh water
Widow Kadu Dei and her child, Harni Majhi, 2. Dei's husband was an anti- Vedanta Alumina activist who it is alleged, was killed in a hit and run accident by a car used by Vedanta employees. Dei is now forced to rely on the charity of her neighbours to survive. Kansari village, Orissa
Widow Kadu Dei and her child, Harni Majhi, 2..Dei's husband was an anti Vedanta Alumina activist who it is alleged, was killed in a hit and run accident by a car used by Vedanta employees. Dei is now forced to rely on the charity of her neighbours to survive. Kansari village, Orissa

Kathakali – Into the Dreams of Heroes

To my surprise and delight, Tewfic El-Sawy who runs the popular Travel Photographer blog has again chosen to highlight some of my work in India, this time on Kathakali.

The link to the page is here.

I remember I spent a very pleasant few days at the Kerala Kalamandalam – the state academy of Keralan dance in the sleepy town of Cheruthuruthy.

You can read about the story here on my website.

The students at the academy rise at dawn and undergo hours of daily exercise and academic studies for years to learn by heart the dances and the intricate movements of Kathakali. I thought Kathakali reminded me very much of classical Japanese Noh – a mute mixture of precise dance and theatre where slight eye and hand movements indicate an entire language.

The first picture has always reminded me of a pond of small frogs…

Young students at the Kalamandalam practice eye exercise at dawn. Kathakali uses very intricate eye and hand movements to communicate with the audience
Young students at the Kalamandalam practice eye exercise at dawn in a classroom lit by ghee (butter) lamps. Kathakali uses very intricate eye and hand movements to communicate with the audience
A boy is massaged by his teacher at the Kalamandalam. Massage is seen as an essential part of Katahakali practice making the body supple.
A boy is massaged by his teacher at the Kalamandalam. Massage is seen as an essential part of Kathahakali practice making the body supple.
Professor Balasubramanian pauses before he finishes his make-up in preparation for a production of the Ramayana
Professor Balasubramanian pauses before he finishes his make-up in preparation for a production of the Ramayana
In the late afternoon sun, a senior student relaxes after class by the Koothambalam (temple theatre)
In the late afternoon sun, a senior student relaxes after class by the Koothambalam (temple theatre)

Here’s a link to my work on Shadipur Depot, a slum colony of artists and performers in New Delhi that was a previous post on the Travel Photographer.

Here’s the full story from my website with text.

All images are available through my archive site.

Unseen but not forgotten…

Last month saw the release of Unseen a new collaborative project by the British Press Photographers Association (BPPA). So many images are commissioned editorially and never used and this project sought to showcase some of that work. I have a few spreads inside as well as the cover of which I’m very proud.

Ibrahim was amputated in Freetown in 1999 when the rebels occupied the Waterloo area. They tried to hack off his other hand but were unable to

The image shows Ibrahim who had his right arm hacked off by rebels from the RUF (Revolutionary United Front).
Despite the Guardian Magazine running the story, the image above was never published. It did however get some recognition at Pictures of the Year (POY) in America.

I remember when I took the assignment, I was very apprehensive. I’d made quite a lot of work in Sierra Leone for a project on young men and violence called The Lord of the Flies (largely an attempt to partially refute Robert Kaplan’s arguments) and had returned subsequently to look at the immediate effects of the mutilations. In the intervening years it seemed that the amputees had become part of a grotesque circus of photographers coming in, ‘doing the atrocity tour’ and leaving; I honestly didn’t know what I could really add to the story. Still, the job was to produce a big exhibition for Handicap International and I had no editorial constraints.

I tried very hard to just photograph the amputees as they were – the fact that they’d been brutalised, an aside on everyday life. In one of those rare moments that make doing this work extraordinary, I turned a corner in a village in Makeni and came face to face with Hassan Fufona. Hassan had polio as a child and the rebels cut off his one good arm. I’d spent days with him in Freetown in 1999 watching him beg, being fed and returning to a hut where he lived with his ageing parents and small brother. A haunted, gaunt boy. Now newly married with two adopted war orphan children in a new town he was transformed. I photographed him in bed with his wife giggling as she put on his prosthetic harness and I photographed him as the head of a family outside his new house. Now, I don’t make any claims to have changed much with photography or in fact to have done much to make the world a better place but meeting Hassan again certainly changed me a little. Sometimes you can’t see the small victories in Africa but they are there. You just have to know where to look.

Hassan Fofona begs outside the Post office
Hassan Fofona begs outside the Post office
Hassan straps on his artificial arm
Hassan straps on his artificial arm
Hassan Fufona and his family outside their resettlement house
Hassan Fufona and his family outside their resettlement house

We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth

from Ben Okri’s ‘An African Elegy’