Nothing to do with photography. An Essay.

This article is apropos of absolutely nothing to do with photography, but it’s an idea I’ve been thinking of committing to words for some time now.

If you’re a driver, or interested in technology, or the environment, you might find this an interesting read. You’ll be the judge. I warn you though, it’s not a short piece, so get the coffee and biscuits ready. Maybe a sleeping bag too.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or in a cave for the last few decades you’ll know that the environment is under pressure as never before, and that if we do nothing to address this we will all end up living under rocks or in caves.

We know our driving habits are just one aspect of modern life which needs to change. While the bogeyman du jour is diesel, petrol cars are at least as bad for the environment and simply replacing our diesel/petrol cars with electric isn’t going to solve the issue of energy consumption. It might push pollution out of our towns and cities, but it’ll still be a major factor in climate change.

What the environment needs is a massive shift in how we own and use cars and how we travel.

Most people seem to be of the view that the future lies in simply switching from one form of propulsion to another, that whatever car they have now, they will one day switch to an electric version of it and this will solve everything, but this simply isn’t radical enough. It doesn’t look far enough ahead and as I’ve already said, it doesn’t address the fundamental issues affecting the environment or climate change.

I won’t go into too much detail about why this simple switch isn’t enough, we already know the problems caused by battery production, electricity generation, life-span maintenance and eventual disposal. Instead I want to focus on how radically our private transport solutions will change in order to make an effective impact on the health of our planet.

Ok, so we know we need to make fewer journeys by car, and we need to make those journeys more effective, so how about if we start from scratch? I mean literally from a point where nobody owns a car?

That’s not such a radical idea. Figures for 2016 show 86% of new cars were bought under personal contract purchase (PCP) agreements. In other words, only 14% of drivers owned the (new) cars they paid for. The rest had them on plans under which the car was effectively owned by the dealership.

That’s the first step towards a new way of motoring. How about taking it a step further, and instead of motorists paying hundreds of £s a month for a car they don’t own, they pay for a contract plan which allows them to use the car they need, when they need it, without ever keeping the same car from one journey to the next?

That’s a taxi isn’t it? Well no it isn’t, at least not in the way I’m thinking.

Here’s the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle: We all know about driverless vehicles (DVs), but at the moment they seem like space-age technology and we’ll never live long enough to see them in common use. You know, like computers were never going to be widely owned. Or “radio telephones”. Believe me, just like those old technologies which we assumed would never hit the mass market, DVs will be everywhere before we know it.

What you probably currently think though is that one day you might own an electrically-powered DV. Actually, I don’t believe you will. Ok, some of you will own one because you don’t have the imagination to see a life where you don’t keep a car you chose personally in front of your house, but you’ll probably be a minority with money to waste on things you don’t need.

So how does this utopian dream work?

Let’s say you need a car to get to work. This might be a regular commute, or (like me) an irregular commute at irregular times and almost always to a different location. It actually doesn’t matter because the electric DV (let’s call them EDVs) will pick you up according to your schedule requirements and take you wherever you need to go. It’s still sounding like a driverless taxi, but stay with me.

Unlike a taxi, there will be a few fundamental differences; as I say, there won’t be a driver, but also the car will be exactly the right size for your requirements and if your requirements change, a more suitable vehicle will be along in a just a minute to take you to your next destination.

Let me elaborate: You book the car you need using an app. If it’s just you commuting, you book a 1-seater car. If a few people need a car on the same route at the same time, the app will offer to send a larger share car for a discount. You take your pick.

Let’s say you get to your initial destination and decide you need a larger vehicle – maybe you need one which carries more people, or one which ‘could’ carry more people, but you need to flatten the seats to take a long load, well just get on the app and within minutes of booking, a replacement EDV will come along. The first EDV you booked will go off to the next person who needs it.

One of the problems with owning a car is that it’s often the wrong shape or size for what you need. Most of us drive around with 4 or 5 empty seats in our cars, but with the scheme I’ve outlined above, we could save car space, energy and road space by only driving a car of the size we need for any specific journey.

Indeed the shapes of cars in a driverless, fully-electric world could be very radically different. How about just one rear-facing seat? Or a circular cabin for 4 or 6 people? For long journeys, what about a car you can bed down and sleep in?

In a properly driverless world, cars which can’t crash can be designed in a much wider variety of shapes. They can be made from much lighter materials because they won’t need crumple zones or side impact protection bars. The full range of possibilities is beyond imagination right now.

Also in this wonderful future you are freed from loan plans, fuel costs, servicing, MoTs, insurance, or having to spend weekends washing a car which is rapidly depreciating outside your house.

And that’s another thing; as a percentage of the time you own a car, how much of that time does it spend idle outside your house, your place of work, or even at the shops? I can’t calculate an accurate figure, but for most of us it’s got to be around 75% or more unless you’re sharing your car with someone else who drives it at night when you’re asleep.

That’s a ridiculous amount of time to have something you’re paying several hundred £s a month for just to be sitting around doing nothing. I hear business people and politicians banging on about efficiency, well where’s the efficiency in that?

So an EDV you don’t own will be more efficient, because the minute you no longer need it, it can go and be useful to someone else. Even at night.

Now imagine if most of us switched to “communal” EDVs and got rid of our cars. Suddenly the number of vehicles cluttering up our kerbsides, drives and car parks would reduce massively. There would be the occasional EDV, but we’d see our streets again. We could re-shape them, plant them up, re-plan one-way streets to make the most of what we have.

Our streets would be safer for pedestrians and cyclists too. In fact, more people would choose to walk and cycle precisely because it would be safer to do so, and because the air would be sweeter to breathe.

Returning to the question of the environment, ask yourself which would be better: Millions of electric cars being built to replace the cars we own as individuals, or EDVs only being manufactured in numbers sufficient to meet real need? If not everyone is driving all the time (and no one is), we only need sufficient vehicles to service the journeys actually made, not to have them sitting doing nothing.

The savings in steel, alloys, plastics, glass, batteries and so on would be enormous, as would the savings in energy because EDVs would only be charged when they needed it. I bet a lot of electric vehicle owners find themselves having to top-up charge simply because the car has been sitting idle for long periods between journeys.

Of course all this will require a great deal of re-adjustment in individual thinking. We’d all have to give up the desire to own our cars. Some of us would already do this gladly, if given the opportunity, but I suspect there are many who still believe that the environment is someone else’s problem and they will cling to car ownership for as long as legislation allows them to. For the rest of us I imagine a very sudden switch from ownership to contract plan fuelled by the biggest scrappage scheme ever undertaken.

There will always be classic cars which people will want to keep (those Maestros and Cavaliers with their nostalgic tug back to the 1980s…) and I get that, but they’ll be such a minority that their environmental impact will become minimal. And eventually, once fuel becomes too scarce or expensive, they’ll eventually be permanently garaged; preserved in aspic or gently rotting away.

Likewise there will be every specialist vehicle from ambulances to ice cream vans for which a shared EDV equivalent won’t exist. Again, these are a minority on our roads, so losing everything except them will still mean a great environmental gain.

There would of course be great societal upheavals too. Taxi drivers would be a thing of the past. Traditional car mechanics will have a dwindling trade. We won’t need as many car parks. There will be economic impacts I can’t even begin to imagine, but as ever, this won’t stop progress.

My hope is that this might be one form of progress which, rather than crushing all that went before with no tangible benefit to mainstream society, will bring benefits to far more people as well as the environment itself.

One thing is for sure though; just replacing what we do now with a slightly shinier version which runs on a battery isn’t going to solve the issues we face. We’re going to have to think far more radically than that, and we’re going to have to be quick about it too. The question is, do we have the imagination and the will, and can we do it before it’s too late?

On My Hobby Horse

When a professional musician isn’t gigging or recording, they’ll be practicing; running up and down the scales, trying new techniques, working on pieces they may have to (or would like to) perform some time. When they do this, we don’t consider them to be indulging in a hobby, it’s just part of being a professional.

Professional photographers also need to practice between gigs. Of course we can’t sit in a room or studio and just run up and down the shutter speeds on the camera for an hour or two. We have to find pictures to take, pictures which stretch our abilities and keep our brains photographically sharp. That’s where the personal project comes in, at least for me.

I’m not very good at just going out with a camera and taking random photos. In particular I’m not very good at photographing pretty scenes just for the pleasure of it. I have to find a theme and work to that, but sometimes when I’m doing this I’m told “It’s nice you still have photography as a hobby.”

Ok, I’m not massively irked by this kind of reaction. It’s understandable when photography is such a hugely popular hobby. I’m even aware of people who think that being a professional photographer is simply a case of translating one’s hobby into paid work. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy meeting people and taking pictures for businesses, but I’m not sure I’d spend a day taking head shots against a white backdrop just for the giggles.

However, this mode of thinking ignores the possibility that a personal project has the potential to turn into something with a value beyond just being practice between gigs. Currently I have a number of projects on the go which pay nothing up-front, but about which I’m hugely excited and I hope will excite other people too, once they come to fruition.

The problem could be in the term “personal work” or “personal project” which implies I’m only taking the pictures for my personal photo album, but it’s the term most widely recognised by photographers and publishers to mean a project which is exploring an idea without having a defined end point or deadline, or a pre-determined place for publication.

For now at least we have to stick with the term, so perhaps I should just get off my hobby horse and await the day when the terms are more widely understood and photography between gigs is recognised as having a value.

It’s fair to say that over the last year or two, my actual hobbies (cycling, playing guitar) have been rather squeezed out of my life by my personal photo essay work. It’s up to me to re-adjust that balance, but photography is definitely not my hobby.

Crossing Borders

Happy New Year to all my lovely readers, I hope you all had a fun Christmas and that 2016 brings nothing but good stuff.

Photographically I had a pretty hectic Christmas because I’d decided that since my travels would take in Austria, Switzerland, France and Germany, I really should make the most of this and come up with some kind of mini photographic project to share on my return. Besides the inevitable holiday photos, I already had a couple of mini projects lined up, but these were for clients and I wanted something I could work into a narrative post.

Taking in four countries didn’t mean huge distances were travelled, we (my partner and I) just happened to start in Austria and then went to stay with friends in a corner of France which converges with Switzerland and Germany.

In fact the border area on the outskirts of Basel in Switzerland is so complicated that I quickly turned my attention to this as the focus of my project. I only had a few hours to get the project shot, but here’s a flavour of what I found.

Basel itself is a pretty city with historic winding streets, a handsome waterfront and grand public buildings, but I’m not so drawn to photographing obviously pretty places, and I was more intrigued by the area we were staying in; Huningue in France and Weil am Rhein in Germany.

One feature of this district is a huge shopping mall where Swiss residents take advantage of the cost of living differential by making a tram trip from Switzerland (incredibly expensive) to Germany (cheaper), their destination being the Rhein Centre where they shop for food, clothes and electrical items without the Swiss premium.

Please click to enlarge and view the gallery:

The tram passes through Swiss/German border controls without let or hindrance thanks to the Schengen agreement between European countries. Though there is a border station there it seemed mostly shut for Christmas and I don’t imagine border guards check passenger passports very often.

Even more open is the border between Germany and France which is literally a few hundred yards down the road from the Swiss/German border. A bridge (Dreiländerbrücke / Passerelle des Trois Pays) joins the two countries and hundreds of people cross by foot or on pushbikes every day. It’s rather like any bridge in any town except it has a plaque and a pair of flags to denote the joining of the countries.

In this segment of Europe a walk in the town or countryside will involve crossing various borders with often little more than a small sign on a metal post to let you know which country you’re in. There were times when I lost track of which half-remembered language I was supposed to be speaking, but I don’t think I embarrassed myself too badly.

This is an area I’d be interested in returning to as there seems to be more than one story quietly playing out against the domestic and industrial backdrop. Youth culture, poverty and the social mix would all be interesting subjects given enough time to cover them. In the meantime, I’d best brush up on my French, German and Swiss-German at the very least before I go again.

Photographic motivation – an essay

For a college interview approximately twentysomething years ago I was asked what my photographic ethos was. I was stumped by the question, and to this day I’m still not sure what the interviewer meant, but the question did the trick; I failed the interview and didn’t get a place on the course.

Strangely though I’ve found myself considering not my ethos, but my motivation and a conversation I had with someone I was photographing today brought the subject back to the foreground of my mind.

He was telling me about an incident in Bangladesh which confronted him with the dilemma of whether or not to take a photo of a scene of a child living on a rubbish dump. As it happens he didn’t because he worried that his taking of the photo wouldn’t go down well with the Bangladeshi host accompanying him. His motivation to take a photo wasn’t strong enough to overcome his misgivings.

This conversation brought a number of thoughts back to the fore for me, including whether I would have done the same, and one of the conclusions I came to was that it would have to depend on why I was there. The man who told me this story was there just as a visitor and would probably only have shown the photo to friends and family. Had it been me, I would have wanted to show the world, but it’s actually far more complex than that.

One of the issues I’ve been working on of late is why I ever wanted to be the photographer I turned out to be. That is even if I have turned out to be the photographer I wanted to be. In the early years of my career (and even before I became a photographer) I wanted to document the world. I wanted my photography to be a mirror to be held up to society to say “this is who we are and this is the world we live in, warts and all.”

Ok, so I didn’t end up doing exactly what I’d envisaged – covering conflict, famine, disaster and so on. My career took me in other directions and perhaps for the best, if the mental state of your average war photographer is anything to go by. And besides the lucky coincidence of self-preservation which comes with not putting yourself into conflict zones in order to take photos, there are other reasons why I would feel uneasy now if I were to find myself in a position to take pictures in some of the more troubled areas of the planet.

For one thing, I’ve always wanted to take pictures because someone else asked me to. I’ve never been particularly good at pushing myself to take photos in difficult circumstances if I didn’t have a client commissioning me. A commission serves two purposes; firstly that I know someone already wants the photos I haven’t yet taken and secondly that they’re paying me means I’d better damn well get the photos or I’ll break the trust of my client.

These motivations are powerful and to me they’ve always justified my existence as a photographer.

There is also another reason I don’t think I could cover the suffering of others so easily now. Back in the early days of photojournalism while cameras, film and processing chemicals were never cheap, basic kit didn’t have to be insanely expensive and the good you could do by taking a set of photos and getting them published in a national or international magazine would be palpable. Governments could be forced to change policy (or brought down) on the strength of a photo essay in The Sunday Times or Observer magazine.

Now things seem to have got rather out of kilter. Even the biggest magazines have dwindling readerships and diminishing influence, while the kit required to cover the stories which need to be covered has become ever more bling.

Many of the photojournalists of the 1950s and 60s used Leica and Contax cameras. These were never bargain-basement makes, but Contax no longer exist and Leica really only make cameras for the collector now. Indeed it would be obscene to go into a famine-ravaged country holding a camera which costs £6,000 (plus lens for another £1,000 or so) to take photos which too few people to make a difference would see. And if I were asked to go into such a situation, I’d need a main camera plus a backup.

Even a modest SLR set-up is a few thousand Pounds Sterling. Could I shoot poverty and not be pricked with irony? I’d sooner shoot film with a cheaper camera, but few film cameras are manufactured now and reliability is becoming an issue for those which ceased production many years ago. Mostly they’re either junk, or they’re expensive collectibles, again notably Leica.

It seems the tools we used to use in order to penetrate the more poorly-illuminated corners of humanity have become fashion accessories in the form of our mobile phones or the retro-cool cameras which beguile use with their promises of classic styling enabling us to take classic photos. I own a Fuji X20 so can’t throw stones here.

And the more photos we take, the fewer we take of the things that truly matter to society. This isn’t to say I don’t believe in what I do, and I work hard to make my pictures the best they can be, but I’m under no illusions that the work I produce is going to change society.

My motivation now is to give my clients  the very best images I can, and provided I can stay fit and healthy I’m really only about half-way through my career, so plenty of motivation to keep doing that. What I can’t quite shake off is the regret I feel when I see how photojournalism is caught between a lack of commissions for the best photographers (of which I do not count myself), the hopelessly low fees paid by publications (another reason I’m no longer in newspapers) and the eye-wateringly expensive kit required to do the job as demanded by the industry. It doesn’t seem healthy to me, but neither is a solution forthcoming.

All I can say is that my motivations now are different from when I first started, but at least now I have a better idea what those motivations are even if I’m still not sure what my ethos is.