Palermo Palavar


In a blog post yesterday, I showed a very quiet image of a priest reading and walking around a cloister. Below is perhaps a more typical image of Palermo and (southern) Italy in general. It’s said that Italians can only speak with their hands and the New York Times has a recent, rather prosaic piece here on that very subject.

The consensus seems to be that somehow, in such crowded places people needed a further way to make themselves heard. Perhaps. Some years ago I stayed at a rather expensive hotel in Naples and they gave me as a gift, a lovely book (see below) about the secret meanings of Italian hand gestures. There are hundreds: some pleasant, some decidedly unpleasant. It occurred to me that in one sense it was a code, a language of the initiated in the way that rhyming slang was to the Victorian Cockney. A very real way to subvert authority (and of course the law) and build an identity that was separate and uncontrollable. Naples like Palermo are exquisite places full of art and beauty but are also brutal and fearful. Norman Lewis in his highly entertaining Naples ’44 recounting his time in the Intelligence Corp in that city remembers constantly being offered women by their families in order to eat. Peter Robb in his exquisite Midnight in Sicily (and later in his Street Fight in Naples) shows a labyrinthine society with bestial corruption at it’s very heart and violence meted out by mafiosi at every level. A society moved by an unofficial nod of the head, parallel governments. Secrets. Robb lived in Southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno for years. He immersed himself in the language and the culture and his writing shows the depth and commitment of that effort.

A photographer wandering the streets is usually a little different. He walks and sees a moment developing in the chaos of colour and movement and steps towards it. He takes two pictures and the image changes. He might have recorded something significant, something trivial but he has little hope of understanding anything on a deeper level than the symbol in the image – a gesture between two (or in this case three) people. The words he hears don’t mean anything – the gestures might be theatre. He might be ignored, or as in this case, sworn at and threatened. The language he is trying to communicate is equally symbolic as the hands of an Italian yet inevitably painted with a thicker, less subtle brush. He just sees the signs the hands make, not necessarily the subtlety of the meaning. He might interpret those signs as meaning something completely different – something as part of a visual culture that he has absorbed. Photography is as valuable but blunter than words. A more democratic code. Perhaps.

By the way, the title of this post comes from yet another language. Another collected word from another country. Palava(r). A word that I used to hear in West Africa all the time. Apparently it is Portuguese in origin. I didn’t know. Non capisco. So many words, so many countries. A mixture, an argument, a conversation. A beautiful mess. Just like Palermo.


Italy - Palermo - A man and a woman in a heated conversation in a lane behind the Capo Market
Italy – Palermo – A man and a woman in a heated conversation in a lane behind the Capo Market


The Art of Gestures in Naples


David beats Goliath


I was delighted to read over the weekend in a piece by Dean Nelson and Simon de Trey-White in the Daily Telegraph of the decision by Vedanta Mining to respect the wishes of the Dongria Kondh tribe and cease mining their sacred mountain for bauxite.

Vedanta Resources, a UK-registered ftse -100 company wanted to mine the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa which are sacred to  Dongria Kondh, a protected tribal group of ‘original’ Aboriginal peoples. The Orissa state government had agreed to the destruction of the Tribal peoples land in 2005 but the decision was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court after a tortuous appeals process. The final decision was made by the Dongria Kondh themselves at a gathering at the weekend.

I covered the story in 2007 and wrote about it for the Indian magazine Tehelka (see here).

In a blog post on this site in 2009 I wrote that,

“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.”

It is a deeply significant victory for the Dongria Kondh but as Nelson correctly points out the flow of modernity is inevitable.

As I also wrote in 2009,

“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 (mostly Maoist) rebel control. In Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand the Indian state is fighting a battle it might not win.”

I’ve used before Arundhati Roy‘s metaphor of India ‘eating its own people’ to describe that country’s unfettered race to Market Capitalism’. I hope that the Dongria Kondh’s victory for their peaceful, traditional way of life in harmony with the land of their fathers will last for as long it can.



India - Orissa - Dabu Limajhi, a tribal woman in her home in Kankasarpa village, India – Orissa – Dabu Limajhi, a tribal woman in her home in Kankasarpa village,

How I learned to love Bollywood


There’s a really interesting piece in the Guardian today by Amit Chaudhuri (the British media’s new go-to man for South Asian comment) about Bollywood – the catch-all term for Indian mainstream film. Chaudhuri relates his own personal journey back to an Indian past whilst watching classic Hindi cinema at university in Cambridge in the ’80s. It was a medium that he’d ignored partly because of his middle-class upbringing and partly because he’d grown up on Hollywood movies. Interestingly, as he says, “just as Bollywood seemed to become all gloss and syrup, there was another development.” This came in the form of Independent Hindi cinema. Movies like Maqbool and Omkara. It’s a shame for the outsider who doesn’t speak Hindi because it’s really tricky to find subtitled versions beyond the big blockbusters. I’m still trying to hunt down a version of the Gangs of Wasseypur that I can understand. For me, I remember sitting open mouthed the first time I saw some of the beautiful Satyajit Ray offerings in black and white that are pretty easy to find… but then also loving more modern ironic offerings like Quick Gun Murugan. In any case it will be interesting to see where ‘new’ Indian cinema will go in the next few years in a rapidly changing India.

I’ve never worked on a Bollywood movie (although I did shoot movie moghul Ronnie Screwvalla for the Sunday Times Magazine a few years ago – see here) but did photograph the rehearsals for The Merchants of Bollywood (again for the Sunday Times Magazine) in Mumbai a while back. As my own homage to Bollywood, here’s one of my favourite frames from the job…


Indian - Mumbai - Dancer Ashwini Iyer, 23, practices her routine at a rehearsal of the production of The Merchants of Bollywood in a studio in Mumbai, India
Indian – Mumbai – Dancer Ashwini Iyer, 23, practices her routine at a rehearsal of the production of The Merchants of Bollywood in a studio in Mumbai, India


You dancin’?


Here’s the first in an occasional series of unpublished images from a recent Conde Nast Traveller piece on Sao Tome and Principe.

I’d just finished a portrait down the road when I heard some music and drifted into a bar (as you do). I found a sound system and a few people swaying to the music between the tables. This elegant woman was dancing the afternoon away.

A thousand stories.



Sao Tome and Principe - Airport - Paula, a local woman dances at the White House bar near the airport, Sao Tome and Principe
Sao Tome and Principe – Airport – Paula, a local woman dances at the White House bar

Ten glorious years…


According to General Stanley McChrystal, America’s war in Afghanistan began with a “frighteningly simplistic” view of the country.

An illegal, arrogant, NeoCon invasion was premised on a basic misunderstanding?

No shit

As our colonial masters in the White House might say.


Afghanistan - Kabul - A woman begs on the street

Charlotte Joko Beck

I was saddened to read of the passing of Charlotte Joko Beck recently. While I have my own thoughts about some aspects of American Zen, Beck’s clear-headed actions stood out and could serve well as a light to another community that I am part of. The photographic one.

“I meet all sorts of people who’ve had all sorts of experiences and they’re still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don’t care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, ‘Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?’… ‘Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.’” Joko Beck.

Some people will know of my own recent near misses and so her last words (according to the Twitter feed of one of Beck’s colleagues) have an extraordinary (and unlike my own…) courageous resonance.

”This too is wonder.”

Japan - Kyoto - A detail of a wooden door at the Ginkakuji temple, Kyoto, Japan

I have to be happy in the present…

I’m usually a day or so late with things and the centenary of International Women’s Day is obviously no exception… A week or so  ago on assignment I photographed an extraordinary woman, Sheela, who runs a tiny tea stall that backs onto a rag-pickers’ colony.


India - New Delhi - Sheela, a widowed tea stall owner keeps a steely eye on a customer dropping a coin onto a steel plate

I can’t tell her story any better than see did.


“I came to Delhi a long time ago. I came here with my husband and he was working as a chowkidar. That was in 1981. A long time. Then it all went bad. From the beginning I stayed on this piece of land. My husband died here 21 years ago. My eldest son then became sick and he also died. That was sixteen years ago and then my youngest (son) died I think six years ago. We spent a lot of money to save them all but despite the medicines they all died. I couldn’t save any of them. I don’t know why I am still here. But I am here alone and I must survive.

At my tea stall I get up very early and serve the rag pickers who work on the dump behind me. I have had this business since the children died. I am not happy but I don’t have the means to change my life. I am alone. I am a woman. It is not easy. I don’t make so much money – tea is Rs5 a cup and I have to buy the tea and the sugar and recently all this has increased in price.

I suppose Delhi’s a good a place as another: there’s work, you can survive. I can’t think about the future can I? It’s a waste of time <laughs>.

I have to be happy in the present.”



“I am not a witch…” Well, actually I am…

So it’s Halloween. Rather than mentioning the ideologically incoherent ramblings of Republican Senate contenders embarrassed by youthful dabblings, I thought I’d dig through the archive and find someone who actually had a coherent world view, albeit a Pagan one.

Step forward the rather brilliant Shan Jayran, pagan scholar, therapist and mum who ran the House of the Goddess temple in Balham during the ‘Nineties. I photographed her for a Channel 4 documentary and then again as part of a project about British Pagans at Home. She was terribly helpful and gave me lots of contacts in the Pagan world.

UK - London - Shan Jayran, Pagan High priestess at the House of the Goddess

Contrary to it’s serious spiritual roots, Halloween is now an American, corporatised globalised money pot that from my curmudgeonly vantage point gives children a dubious moral ability of being able to demand something from you at point of a threat. But I digress…

Here’s a couple of more pictures from the series

UK - London - Freya Aswin, a follower of the Norse God, Odin

UK - London - The Green Man of Catford

It’s been a long while since I looked at these images but what I remember from meeting these people was how charming and generous they were. These were people who, whether you agreed with them or not, had immersed themselves in a spiritual search to find their own personal understanding of the world. Unlike the deluded minions in the Tea Party movement doing the unwitting bidding of real dark masters like the Koch brothers.

The women and the mountain

In an extraordinary and wonderful turn of events, I have just heard that India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has blocked Vedanta Resources’ controversial plan to mine bauxite on the sacred hills of the Dongria Kondh tribe.

Vedanta Resources, a UK-registered ftse -100 company wanted to mine The Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa which are sacred to  Dongria Kondhs, a protected tribal group of ‘original’ Aboriginal peoples.

According to Survival International, Mr Ramesh said Vedanta has shown a ’shocking’ and ‘blatant disregard for the rights of the tribal groups’. The Minister has also questioned the legality of the massive refinery Vedanta has already built below the hills.

I wrote about this back in May 2009 (India – Vedanta’s shame) and also for Tehelka in late 2007 (Knocked Out by Bauxite).

Here are some images from the story.

India - Orissa - Dabu Limajhi, a Dongria Kondh tribal woman in Kankasarpa village, shares a joke with friends in her house
India - Orissa - Dabu Limajhi, a Dongria Kondh tribal woman in Kankasarpa village
India - Orissa - A Dongria Kondh woman carries a pot of water on her head in front of the Vedanta plant, Lanjigargh

India - Orissa - sunset over the Niyamgiri hills. The hills are sacred to the Dongria Kondh and are worshipped as a deity