Because History Matters

Last Sunday there was a Black Lives Matter rally in my home town and I felt a strange compulsion to cover it as a photographer. Strange because I normally shy away from large gatherings for personal work.

However I support the aims of the BLM cause, and I also felt that since this movement had resonated all the way to the relatively small, rural town of Frome in Somerset, the local story should be told too.

Because no one was paying me to go I decided I would shoot black and white film. There was another motivation for this – given that in 100 years’ time it’s possible that digital images of today will be inaccessible, perhaps shooting on film would present an insurance against digital degradation. Future generations would be able to see us, in protest, working to change the future.

I approached the rally as if I had been commissioned by my local paper, creating a mini series of images suitable for a double page spread. That would give me a structure to work to beyond just taking a random set of pictures, so I prepared my kit, loaded film and set off.

At first I didn’t think many people would be there. The weather was cold and wet, social distancing is still in place, and I hadn’t seen much publicity for the event. However as the start time approached, people arrived in reassuringly high numbers.

There was one particular shot I knew I needed to get to justify my un-commissioned intrusion and it’s the photo I had in mind from the moment I decided to attend. It’s the final shot in this gallery and I was the only photographer with the foresight to capture it.

After the event I decided to turn the pictures around as fast as I could and I posted that last frame to the Frome Facebook page. To say the reaction was intense is an understatement. I don’t think I’ve ever had an image be so widely liked and shared online ever.

Perhaps it is a shame I wasn’t commissioned to go, but I’m glad I did because if such big stories are left to random photos on individuals’ iPhones, there is a risk no permanent record will exist for future historians and generations to refer back to.

In fact I bought this week’s local paper to see how they covered the story.

They didn’t.

Incredible Legacy

A while back I pledged to support the publication of John Downing’s book, LEGACY, through a Kickstarter campaign run by Bluecoat Press.

I’d previously supported Jim Mortram’s hard-hitting social documentary book Small Town Inertia in the same way and since John’s book required a ‘mere’ £8,000.00 to come to fruition, I thought it would be a great opportunity to see the photojournalism of a man who spent 50 years covering everything from Royalty to tragedy, the everyday to the extraordinary in a single book.

In the event the campaign smashed the target, raising a staggering £31,836.00, raised by 495 backers, which is testament to the level of respect and interest in his work.

My copy arrived today, and I was thrilled to realise I’d forgotten that my pledge level included a signed print of The Beatles taken at the press launch of Sgt Pepper in 1967. I think there will be a special place in my office for that print once it’s framed.

It’s almost pointless me saying much about John’s work; I’m genuinely not worthy to comment. You have to see the book to realise what a towering talent he has. His photos, regardless of what they show, always demonstrate an absolute command over his skills.

Whether the photos are of breathtaking, tragic or everyday subjects, there’s always an extra ingredient in his handling of the subject before him which just leaves you breathless. The sheer range of stories he has covered is astonishing enough, and far too many to list here.

My best advice is to buy a copy. Even if you have no interest in photography or photojournalism, buy it. You will learn something about history, about the human condition and you never know, you might learn something about yourself too.

Cairncross Review Review (Part the Second)

The silence is deafening and so is the noise.

The problem with the Cairncross Review is that it tackles issues which should trouble us all, and deeply, yet I’m seeing very little discussion of it not only amongst former journalist colleagues and photographers, but also the wider public.

Much of the problem seems to stem from a general lack of awareness that it was even being undertaken. When I look through the list of organisations and individuals who submitted responses to the call for evidence, all the usual suspects are there (Johnston Press, Facebook, Google, The Guardian, News UK), but not a lot from individuals with specific interests in the industry.

From the general public there were 588 responses, but the report doesn’t publish more than excerpts of these submissions. On the one hand, that’s a larger public response than I was expecting. On the other, it’s pretty abysmal given the importance of a thriving local press sector for our freedoms and democracy.

This relatively low response will be a result of factors such as ignorance of the existence of the review, apathy and perhaps most understandably, an exhaustion brought about by the constant white noise of Brexit debate.

And even I am sitting here wondering why I care so much for an industry which has now given me less than half of my professional life. I’m too busy with keeping my own business running (as well as trying to expand my documentary work, which is in itself a response to the collapse in local journalism) to invest in a future which will be entirely out of my hands.

For now I just need to summarise a few points from my reading of a selection of the responses, in no particular order:

  1. Facebook and Google consider themselves innocent in all this, indeed they claim to be putting masses of cash back into regional journalism and it’s the publishers which are failing to take advantage of the new opportunities open to them.
  2. The publishers consider themselves innocent in all this and their sales were fantastic and revenues strong until the nasty digital boys came and smashed up their game.
  3. Neither side can quite bring themselves to admit the truth, instead pushing positions which are self-serving and often delusional.
  4. Government ultimately has no answer to this. Whatever they do will be wrong and will end in tears, corruption and a slow death for local journalism (followed some time later, probably a Wednesday afternoon, by national journalism).

Whatever happens though, I will try to keep an eye on developments. I can’t help it, and I really do believe that if you care for democracy and a diversity of voices in the many media available to us, you should at least make an attempt to bone-up on the broad outlines of the Cairncross Review and the developments which arise from it.

From next week though, I need to get back to talking about my own work and personal projects before the crashing silence and deafening noise get too much.

Learning to Assist, Assisting to Learn

The work of a business or corporate communications photographer (which is what I do) is rather different from that of a truly commercial one, by which I mean a photographer who shoots commercial images for advertising campaigns.

Most of what I do is pictures for business communications (website, brochures, press releases and so on), which while it’s commercial in the sense that I make money from my work, it’s not commercial in the strict photography business sense of being for commercials/adverts.

That may seem like a rather fine, specific point to open an article with, but it’s pertinent here because a few weeks ago I found myself assisting a commercial (as in advertising) photographer.

Now the other stand-out point of this article is that I was assisting another photographer at all. In 30 years of being a professional photographer I have never assisted, but when I was asked if I’d be interested in helping with a series of shoots I didn’t have to think too hard about whether or not to dive in.

The thing is, assisting is one of the best ways to learn and evolve as a photographer. I never did it because I trained as a press photographer and cut my teeth with news photography at college and local papers. This was a typical career path for many newspaper photographers.

For commercial and studio photographers, assisting was the way to learn the ropes, develop techniques and evolve your own style.

If I have one gripe about those starting out as photographers now (ok, I may have more than one gripe, but let’s keep this brief), it’s that too many of them think that to be a commercial photographer, all you need to do is read the camera manual and start taking pictures. If a friend or your mum tells you your pictures are nice, you launch a website and hey presto you’re a fully-fledged commercial pro. Believe me, without a few years of assisting, training and a baptism or two by fire, this just isn’t going to cut it.

Anyway, back to the plot. In my case, the call came from friend, fellow photographer and all-round-good-egg Jon Raine whose work you really should take a look at.

Jon’s background is very much in the commercial sphere, shooting pictures for big brands, and one of his regular gigs has been to take portraits of TalkSport presenters which is what he was asking me to assist him with on this occasion.

The obvious benefit of this gig for me was to work alongside someone who has deep experience as both a photographer and a commercial art director. Seeing how Jon plans and executes his work was a great insight, as was seeing the similarities between his methods and mine. It helped reinforce some of my practices for me, which is also useful.

The benefit for Jon was not only that he got to listen to my jokes all day, but there were also one or two small tips I was able to offer back.

Also, being a photographer myself meant I knew what to look out for as his images came through to the laptop – an errant hair, a badly placed crease in a shirt or white fluff on a dark top (not always easy to spot until flash hits it).

Another advantage for Jon was that I could take behind the scenes photos while he worked, which he could then use for a record of his work and social media if he wished. Of course that was a mutual advantage because now I’m using one of the photos for this blog post, a BTS shot of Olympic champion and Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins.

So everyone’s a winner! Including the subject.

Goldfish Ate My Cat

How’s this for a blast from the past? A project from my college days, February 1991 to be precise, which involved mocking up a newspaper front page using pictures and stories I’d covered during the course. Well, two real stories at least; read carefully and you’ll notice some fake news too.

I stumbled across this while having an office clear-out. It’s pasted into the back of my first ever cuttings book, so it’s not been shredded or binned along with the eight-year-old bank statements, receipts, accounts and long-defunct business cards from long-defunct businesses.

The purpose of the exercise was to think about page layout and to get to grips with the newly-emerging technology of desktop publishing. In fact I recall this was done on something like a Mac 1 (or thereabouts). Looking at the caption for Norma Major’s photo you can tell I wasn’t all that impressed with the image quality available at the time.

The lead story about Don McCullin was clearly the one item I was taking seriously in this exercise, given the rather pretentious journalism I employed when writing it. But I still have a proper silver print of that photo I made at the time. It sits inside the cover of my signed copy of McCullin’s Unreasonable Behaviour.

Luckily no one came forward to claim the space shuttle prize and I’m afraid the competition closed in March 1991.

Two Decades and a World Away

Yes, I was there too. Another press photographer who covered Diana’s funeral and because my words will be lost in the blizzard of articles and analysis on this the 20th anniversary of her death, I’ll point you towards this excellent article by Fleet Street photographer Brian Harris before offering a few brief thoughts of my own.

For myself, I was a lowly local news photographer at the time and was astonished to be assigned an official pass to cover the funeral from a position directly opposite the main door of Westminster Abbey.

Like Brian, I remember being hissed at by the crowd as I made my way to the position. I remember the weird atmosphere as people cheered the stars of music, TV and film as they arrived for the service. I also remember seeing the shot of the card on the coffin which just read “Mummy” and yes it was a cracking shot, but Brian’s was more graceful.

As for my effort, well it wasn’t the strongest image of the day, but I found myself focusing on the expressions of the pallbearers, members of the Welsh Guards who were clearly struggling to hold their emotions together. The shot summed up the occasion and emotions of the day in a fairly tight frame.

So considering it’s not a shot I had never wanted to have to take, I’ll live with it and leave it here as part of a much larger record of a sad day which changed all who were involved at least a little and for ever.

 

Pink Elephants at Open Farm Sunday

The cliché of all clichés states that you should never work with children and animals, but I disagree. They can make excellent subjects and on Sunday 7th June I got to work with both as it was Open Farm Sunday, a national event and an opportunity for families to see the inner workings of farms all over the country.

I was booked to attend Meadowlea Farm in Somerset to capture a flavour of the day for sponsors ABP. The images were destined for press release and ABPs website and internal communications, so I needed to get a good variety of shots showing interactions between families, children, the farmers and animals.

I think my favourite shots of the day show a delightful young lad, Tom, doing some colouring in with one of ABP’s representatives, Robyn. The table was set up in one of the farm sheds, I just had it pulled forward enough to get the best of the daylight on them, then let them get going with pencils and crayons. After a few action shots I wanted them looking into my lens, so I told Tom if he looked carefully and smiled nicely, he might see the pink elephant that lives in my camera. It did the trick and Tom gave me a whole bunch of brilliant smiles, it was one of those moments you can’t help smiling at yourself. And of course Tom could see the pink elephant, children always can.

My First Digital Photos

I’d like to thank commercial photographer Chris Pearsall for the inspiration for this week’s article when he posted his very first digital image to a photographers’ forum on Facebook.

My first digital SLR was a Canon D30, a 3.1 megapixel camera which I bought at the tail end of 2000 for about £1,600. It was a pretty terrible camera, but I was shooting a lot of news at the time and it saved me a lot of rushing to 1-hour processing labs to get my images ready for scanning and sending to the picture desk. The next model up, the rather more capable 1D was I think about £3,500 at the time and on the shift rates I was on at the time would have taken forever to pay off.

Its main drawback was the slow, and not very reliable focusing. I could have my finger jammed down on the shutter button, desperately trying to get it to lock focus and take the photo of some celebrity or other rushing from their front door to a waiting taxi. If I was lucky I’d get a photo of the back of the taxi as it pulled away.

On slower-moving people and static objects it was fine, but not perfect. It’s fair to say that digital cameras have come a long way since 2000.

The earliest image I can find is a rather dull exterior of a house. It was to accompany a non-story about a gameshow contestant.

A big house at a distance... yawn

A big house at a distance… yawn

Another story I covered using the D30 (I wasn’t using it for everything at this stage) was something of a struggle, it being a nighttime air crash near Aldershot. Focus was difficult and the image noise further softened the images. Nothing I took that night made the paper.

Late in December 2000 I covered a visit by the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to the Millennium Dome before it closed and went on to become the O2 Arena. This shot of the director of the attraction, P Y Gerbeau, is a typical example of the struggles I had with that camera to get sensible colours and to get fill flash to work convincingly. I’m so glad things have improved since then, but it was interesting to go back to my very first CD of digital images. Another thing it showed me is just how much my photography has improved since then too!

firecrews examine the wreckage of an aircraft after it crashed into an industrial building near Aldershot.

It was a tragic accident on a dark, wet night and the D30 struggled to work reliably

P Y Gerbeau at the Millennium Dome, Greenwich, London

P Y Gerbeau at the Millennium Dome, Greenwich, London

My 2014 In Pictures

This, dear reader, is the last post of 2014 and as such it’s become something of a tradition for me to do an annual roundup of images, choosing one for each month of the year as it comes to a juddering halt.

The middle of this year was rather dominated with work for University of Bath as I stepped in while their staff photographer recovered from a cycling accident, and while I could have filled more months with student profiles and university events I’ve tried to keep it more varied than that.

I hope you enjoy this year’s selection. It just remains for me to thank all my clients for their custom and support over the year and to wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Tim

Rotating milking parlour on a dairy in Wiltshire

January – Rotating milking parlour in Wiltshire for an article on the benefits of mechanised dairies

Jolly's of Bath store assistant Josh Gottschling in Revolutions Bar in Bath

February – Portrait of Jolly’s of Bath staff member Josh Gottschling in his favourite bar for an in-house magazine article

Nigel Lawson talking to an audience at University of Bath

March – Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson addresses an audience at University of Bath on issues surrounding renewable energy – he’s not a fan of it

Two silhouetted faces in profile talking with Future Everything Festival signage displayed between them

April – The Future Everything Festival in Manchester for client Digital Connected Economy Catapult

 

Mechanical Engineering student Robert Ford of University of Bath works on his design for a vertical climbing robot

May – Mechanical Engineering student Robert Ford of University of Bath works on his design for a vertical climbing robot

Student  Noel Kwan poses for the Humanities and Social Sciences prospectus for University of Bath

June – Student Noel Kwan poses for the Humanities and Social Sciences prospectus for University of Bath

Hundreds of new University of Bath graduates spill from Bath Abbey to be greeted by friends and family members

July – Hundreds of new University of Bath graduates spill from Bath Abbey to be greeted by friends and family members

A street at dusk in the historic part of Hall in Tirol

August – Finally, a holiday in Austria and I get to take pretty pictures of picturesque streets

Business portrait of Andy Harriss

September – Andy Harris of Rookery Software Ltd is a man every bit as interesting as his hair

Eight-year-old Scout Adam Henderson concentrates on packing customer bags for charity at Tesco's store in Salisbury

October – Eight-year-old Scout Adam Henderson concentrates on packing customer bags for charity at Tesco’s store in Salisbury

Chef John Melican stands at a farm gate with the sign PLEASE SHUT GATE nailed to it

November – A fresh portrait for chef John Melican’s new Melican’s Events website

Yarn-bombed tree in Melksham, Wiltshire

December – On the way back to the car from a job in Melksham I couldn’t resist a shot of this yarn-bombed tree in the December sunshine

 

 

 

The News Itch

Sometimes I hanker after the good old days when I was rushing about covering news events. Of course most of it was pretty mundane stuff (community group cheque presentations, councillors on self-promoting visits to local Scout clubs and so on), but covering Magistrates or Crown Court, while often time-consuming was an interesting challenge. Or a stakeout waiting for some local scallywag to emerge from their last known address, house fires, road traffic accidents… these were not enjoyable, but you felt you were doing a useful job bringing the news to your readers.

Yes, I miss the rush of covering hard news and sometimes I ponder how difficult it would be to start covering local news without the backup of a recognised publication. The problem is, I often spot newsworthy things around my home town of Frome, but there isn’t a local newspaper that would pay for the photos and I’m not prepared to give them away for free to a commercial entity. Instead I occasionally post pictures on my photography Facebook page, and it’s interesting to see how many hits these posts get. It often results in a little spike in visits to the page, which makes me wonder if I shouldn’t be doing more.

Police cordon off an area outside The Cornerhouse pub in Frome, Somerset, after a fight.

It’s not art, but local incidents get little coverage in the papers

Naturally it always comes back to questions of whether I can afford to peel off from whatever task I’m on to go and take pictures of an incident just to share them on my Facebook page, as well as the question of whether, as an individual without the remit of a picture editor, I can really justify approaching police and fire officers to get the necessary details for the caption and gain the access required to get pictures which fully tell the story.

At least when I was a card-carrying press man I had something which said “within the constraints of the law and my professional codes of conduct, I have a right to be here taking photos.” I find it harder to do now that I’m just another bloke with a camera.

With the local publications increasingly ignoring the difficult-to-get or the stories breaking out of hours, I suspect I’ll find myself taking more pictures of the things which happen around my town. I’ll rely on experience and training to know what I can cover and how far I can push my access, because lord knows I have no interest in getting arrested or punched, but if you want to see how I get on and keep up with what I do, you can always Like my Facebook page or keep an eye on this blog.

If you’re like-minded and local, why not get in touch? It might come to nothing, but you never know, we might be the start of a new publishing empire!