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?

Is your photographer GDPReady?

With the Facebook data scandal still simmering in the headlines, most people will assume that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into effect on May 25th only applies to large organisations, but it also affects a great many photographers. In particular it impacts on those, like me, who regularly photograph people for business websites, press releases, social media and so on.

In a rather large nutshell, anyone who handles data has to get their house in order and register with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) before the deadline or face sanctions. I’ve registered, paid the annual fee, and I’m going through the data I have to ensure it’s secure and compliant.

What this largely means for me is that I need to work through my client galleries removing old ones or ensuring they’re not accessible to anyone except the client. I also need to make updates to my website to ensure people have an understanding of what GDPR means in relation to my work and how I handle their data.

Some galleries are publicly shared because I’ve been asked to make them so, but even then I’ll be looking at closing access to the oldest ones. All this is going to take some time as I’ve been running the system for many years now, but as I add more client work to the delivery system I’ll be making sure it’s only visible to those who need to see it. The only exception to this will be where the person I’ve photographed has given permission for me to allow their images to be searchable.

There is a slight conflict around all this in that as a photographer I should have the right to use my work to promote myself, otherwise clients needing my services won’t be able to find me, but I have to balance this with keeping and handling personal data (a face coupled with a name and place of work for example) in a responsible manner.

There are ways of making all this work, but it’s going to take more than a few weeks to really hone it. Thankfully, for the most part, my entire back catalogue of digital work dating back 18 years isn’t stored online or I think I’d have a mental breakdown at the enormity of the task. While I use cloud storage to deliver images to clients and to allow them to have an online database of the images I’ve shot for them, all my original work is backed up to off-line hard drives which keeps them secure from a data breach point of view.

The other good news is that the personal work I undertake, such as the current Saxonvale project, falls under the artistic exemption of GDPR. Of course this doesn’t mean I can be slap-dash with peoples’ personal data, but because of its nature it’s less prone to result in either a complaint or an investigation by the ICO.

Even so, I have taken images for that project which will only ever see light of day in print form because they’re too sensitive to be shared online, and that raises an interesting question about the future of photography; will we find the internet a less useful space for getting important stories out if there’s a risk of a data breach in publishing online?

Only with a few judgements behind us on data breach cases will we build a true picture of what is or is not a breach of GDPR because it’s not entirely clear from the regulation text itself given the multitude of potential scenarios. In the meantime, I’ll do all I can to keep within the rules.

To be honest, it’s mostly just common sense and courtesy and of course you’ll want to make sure any photographer you work with is compliant. Well now you know of at least one photographer who is working towards that goal.

On Your Marks for Auction

Remember my post the other week about how it isn’t all about the gear? Well here’s a perfect example of that theory.

I have to confess, I don’t know a huge amount about the work of the American photographer Mary Ellen Mark (she passed away in May of this year), but I knew the name and now know a fair bit more about her since I can across the story (via Petapixel) about one of her cameras going for sale on Ebay. Mary Ellen’s estate has put the camera up for auction partly to raise money for American Red Cross, but presumably also to raise money for themselves.

I don’t know why they want or need to sell it; perhaps they’re looking to dispose of some assets in order to cover death duties and protect her archive. Whatever the full story is, speculation seems a little pointless.

Screen shot of the Ebay listing for Mary Ellen Mark's Nikon FM2 camera with 28mm lens.

What strikes me though is that if you look through her archive of work and understand that she counted People Magazine and Life Magazine among her clients, the Nikon FM2 (which we’re told she probably used for these clients) is an incredibly basic camera. No whistles, no bells, yet her work is clearly that of someone who could interpret a scene in an engaging way, but with the minimum of camera gear.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t photographers today, with highly sophisticated digital cameras, working in an equally simple but effective way. I know there are, but as I alluded in my earlier post, there is often too much emphasis on camera features and not enough on just getting the technique and style down and telling a good story.

Whether this particular camera has collectible value simply due to its provenance is also an interesting debate to be had. The FM2 was a Japanese, mass-produced camera and you can pick one up on Ebay for less than £200. Bidding on Mary Ellen’s camera has (at the time of writing) already exceeded $2,200.00, so clearly there are interested collectors out there. My instinct tells me her estate view this camera as not central to the story of her work and that her more exotic cameras will remain with them. Again, pure speculation.

Of course whoever buys it will be sorely tempted to put a film through it, assuming it’s still in working order. If it was me I don’t think I could bring myself to do it unless I knew my shots were going to be iconic (I know that’s a bizarre constraint and I can’t really explain it). But then would it be sadder just to place it in a cabinet for display? Well I’m happy to say I can’t match the bids, so that particular quandary won’t be troubling me. If you happen to buy it, do let me know how it goes.

Holiday Schnapps

Even though I’m on holiday with my son Joe this week, I thought I’d drop you all a line and share some photographic impressions of my time in the Tyrol, Austria. I’ve banged on before about how I enjoy taking photos for myself and how even though photography is my job, I enjoy the freedom of taking photos just to please myself.

The funny thing is though, when I’m in such a pretty part of the world as this, I’m not so keen on the “chocolate box” images which can be so hard to avoid. I want to take photos you wouldn’t find on Google Images – during a trip to Paris earlier this year, it struck me how many people walk up to The Eiffel Tower, take some snaps, then walk away. Shooting as if all they wanted was a frame or two to prove they were there, when they could always see much better photos on the internet any time they wanted.

Of course I have taken some of the bog-standard kitsch photos, which will have been taken by countless others and many probably better than my efforts, but I salve my conscience by not spending too much time on those, but looking for the unusual too. Images which while not literal, will also remind me of moments in my holiday without entirely overwriting my inner memories of it. I’m sure some people spend so much time peering at a camera screen and have so many stills and videos of their excursions, they must struggle to remember anything fun about where they went and what they did. My photos are meant to be those impressions which sit at the edge of the experience. I’m not photographing the main experience, but the little moments around it, leaving me to relax and enjoy the bulk of my trip without a camera glued to my face.

And so here, half-way through my trip, are a few of those peripheral moments. Don’t worry, I promise not to post every last photo I take. Some might pop up in future blogs and others will remain private. A couple have already surfaced on my personal Facebook page, but I wanted these to illustrate this weeks point. I hope you enjoy them.

The selfie, a fine tradition

I’m a little nervous about this week’s post in that instead of featuring a photo of some poor, unsuspecting client, it features me. This potentially opens up my comment box to many hilarious responses, but that’s ok, it’s probably justified.

Self-portrait of Tim Gander reflected in a shop window near Paris

The man behind maketh the photo (click to enlarge)

The reason for inflicting this narcissistic portrait on you isn’t just that selfies have been a feature of the news in recent months (most notably David Cameron, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service), but having taken the shot, it sparked a thought about photographers and selfies as something of a tradition.

First a little background to how this photo came about… I was in a little town near Paris, France at the weekend for a wedding (don’t worry, I was a guest, not the photographer – I haven’t gone completely mad!) and had some time to kill between arriving and the start of the service, so I took my camera and went for a wander around the streets.

Now I can’t speak for other photographers, but give me a super-reflective surface like a shop window and some interesting light and I can’t resist playing around to see what I can do with it, and this particular shop window seemed to call to me to make a selfie.

I’d just lined up for the best shot I thought I could get when I spotted a man in the reflection, walking along having a fairly lively conversation with himself. I waited until he moved through to the right spot and caught him in mid-animation. Without him I think the shot would have been about 50% less interesting, and possibly not even worth keeping. You can tell me if you think it’s worth keeping anyway, it’s probably not for me to say.

I’m not saying this photo is anything special, but where the selfie of iPhone fame tends to be of drunk teenagers gurning at themselves, there are plenty of examples of photographers who have used themselves as models when experimenting with light, composition and reflections. Take a look at the Vivian Maier official website and you’ll see she really played with the genre.

I suppose what I’m trying to say in probably too many words is that there is no shame in taking selfies. They can be flippant and fun, they can be more considered and exploratory. I could be honest and admit that mine is even more self-absorbed than a quick iPhone snap (which I’ve also done on occasion), but when there is no one else around to model, well you just have to go with what you’ve got.

I find them a useful way of trying out something new, I just wish I had a better model to work with.