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.

Christmas came early!

My film foray continues, and with it new ideas about how I want to work and the personal projects I want to use it for.

For a few years now I’ve had a hankering for a camera which had no reliance on batteries. Unbelievably, in all my 30 years as a photographer, every camera I’ve ever owned has needed at least a couple of LR44 button cells to make the shutter work.

It was never a problem, but when looking at secondhand film cameras now (s/h being the only option since nobody makes a 35mm SLR or rangefinder film camera any more), we’re talking about cameras between 20 and 40 years old which all have electronics in them, and circuit boards being rather delicate, specialist parts, it’s less likely they’ll be repairable in years to come.

My very electronic Canon EOS 1N cameras are going well and I’m confident they’ll keep going for several years to come, but an all-mechanical camera, albeit an old one, is still more serviceable than one packed with fine ribbon circuit boards, motors and silicon chips.

Which is why when a Nikon F2 popped up in my Facebook Marketplace, I stopped in my tracks and took a good look.

The Nikon F2 is something of a legend, but I won’t bore you with the full history of this model right now. Suffice to say, it was ‘the’ camera of choice of photojournalists from the early 1970s to the 1980s (when the battery-reliant F3 came out) and finding one in good condition now is getting tricky; they’re actually becoming collectible (aka stupidly expensive). It takes a couple of button cells, but they only work the meter. The shutter is completely mechanical, so if the batteries die, I still have a working camera in my hands.

The particular one which popped up in my Facebook feed looked to be in fantastic condition and even better, it wasn’t a million miles away from me. So I dropped a tentative line to the seller about having a look at it, while assuming I’d never hear back.

Far from it, the seller called me almost immediately and we got chatting. Long story short, we met an hour later and I bought the camera (with 50mm lens). An early Christmas present to myself then, albeit one with some serious intent.

Even though it’s had little use since it was bought in 1973, the camera will need a service. The slower shutter speeds are a little dodgy and it’ll do it no harm to have the original lubricants cleaned off and replaced along with any decayed foam seals (though the film door and mirror box foams look incredibly good).

The camera is already booked in to be serviced by the one person in the UK who specialises exclusively in servicing and repairing Nikon F2s, Sover Wong. Sadly his waiting list is over a year, but he’s assured me I should be fine to use the camera while I await my slot.

The downside of it being a Nikon is that I can’t use any of my Canon lenses on it, but that would have been the same if I’d bought Canon’s last mechanical camera because Canon changed their lens mount system for the EOS autofocus cameras, so my EOS lenses don’t fit older Canons. Complicated, ain’t it?!

Thankfully, I’m only interested in using a very limited set of lenses with the Nikon and I can build these up over time.

In the meantime, I’ve put a couple of rolls of Kodak Tri-X through this amazing machine and I’m happy to say it seems to be working just fine. Even the meter is accurate, which isn’t bad for a 45-year-old camera. Yes, it’s only 7 years younger than me, but it looks prettier and less wrinkly.

In time I’ll be using it for personal projects and personal work where the scream of my Canon’s built-in motor-drives are perhaps less appropriate. Keep watching for updates!

What Happened Here

I’ve settled on this as the title for my Saxonvale series because it sums up the nature of the project; a semi matter-of-fact record, with touches of humour, drama and sadness. The title hints at the disappointment that land which should have been developed decades ago was left to ruin, but perhaps I should be thankful it wasn’t or the project would never have existed.

Things are definitely winding down in terms of new pictures and the site has now been almost completely boarded out. I’m seeking a final few closing images to round out the project, but I really have to get the next stage (a book) moving.

What has struck me is the incredible timing with which I came to start the project. Early on I wasn’t sure I had a project, but once it became obvious it was happening I knew I had enough expired film to get me through about a year of shooting it. Sixteen months later and I’m down to one last roll of the original batch of film (I did find a second source, just in case it overran) and the site has been bought, boarded and awaits demolition and reconstruction.

Unless Saxonvale is about to enter another extended period of neglect, I think my timing has been incredibly serendipitous.

So while I’ll try not to bang on about it too much on my Instagram account (@takeagander) or here, do watch this space and I hope to bring occasional updates regarding the progress towards a book. When the time comes, I hope you’ll be able to support it!

A Welcome Review

A new review into the future of UK press journalism was announced today and although I fear it may be too late, it’s welcome to finally see the issue being tackled at government level.

The independent review into the future of high-quality journalism in the UK, chaired by Dame Frances Cairncross, has issued a call for evidence from organisations and individuals and will look at the causes of the startling decline hitting the industry.

The review will look at issues such as the decline in advertising revenue, the effect of social media, the consequences for the press from a national to a local level and what might be done to ensure a vibrant press for the future.

I happen to believe, and have said for many years, that what has happened to the press (in particular the regional and local newspapers) over the last two decades has become a threat to open justice and democracy, with court proceedings and local government council meetings being seen as too expensive to cover.

The subject is huge and the solutions not entirely clear. Of course I would love to see a return to high-quality local and regional journalism, with good quality news photography being part of that mix.

I may sound like a broken record when I talk about photography again, but it’s incredible that in an age where images (and especially high quality pictures) are the bedrock of the popularity of some of the biggest social media platforms, local news outlets have forsaken the model of using creative, informative (but paid-for) photography in favour of boring, badly executed free content.

On the odd occasion I find myself in Germany or Austria I make a point of picking up the local papers and am astonished at the difference. Beautifully-produced broadsheets on high-quality paper with professional photography appear to be doing just fine and they’re packed with classified ads too! This may be because the internet is English, or perhaps it’s a cultural pride thing. Perhaps this review will look at Europe for ideas.

Of course the internet has had a massive impact on journalism in this country, but the foundations of this decline were put firmly in place by the short-sighted and often greedy management teams which bought up smaller publishers like they were on a supermarket trolley-dash, then asset-stripped stripped them to make their money back. I won’t bang on, it’s a subject I’ve tackled before and I won’t bore you with it again today.

Hopefully, as readers of my blog (isn’t blogging part of the problem?), you’ll be keen to put your own views to the committee via their call for evidence. I certainly shall because I think it’s high time this issue was tackled seriously and not just treated as a victim of “progress”.

For more information, take a look at the announcement page, but it’s all summarised on the call for evidence page too.

 

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Just when I thought my Saxonvale project might come to an end it seems it’s not over yet.

My original plan was to shoot the project until either my original stock of expired film ran out, or when the site got cleared or developed. Well the site got partially cleared and I’m down to the last few rolls of film, so it would have made sense to bring the project to a close.

However, the site is still accessible and the story is still developing as a couple of “tenants” have moved onto an area which has yet to be cleared and secured, and so rather than reaching a conclusion, the story has simply evolved.

Because of this I took the decision that I wasn’t prepared to let my film supply run out just yet. I put out a plea on a Facebook group for photographers and one in particular, a notable veteran of documentary photography David Hoffman, came forward with a very generous offer to help. This morning an intriguing mixed box of film arrived which should keep me going for quite some time yet!

There’s a freezer drawer at home which was starting to look rather empty, well it’s about to get indigestion.

Inspired By Inertia

Having no scheduled shoots this morning I decided to process the two films I shot yesterday evening for my Saxonvale project (it’s a long term project which I’ve been posting on Instagram as @takeagander).

So there I was, up to my elbows in my dark bag, wrestling (circa 30-year-old East German black and white) ORWO 120 films onto processing reels when I heard a knock at the front door. I knew exactly who and what it was, but couldn’t risk fogging my film to go and answer the door.

Thankfully our post lady didn’t just push a “we tried to deliver” card through the door, instead she found a safe place to stow the package and told me on the card where it was.

I was also grateful that the films loaded remarkably easily (very old 120 film tends to resist being unfurled), so as soon as they were safely in the developing tank I retrieved the package.

It was a book I’d been looking forward to receiving for some months, J.A (Jim) Mortram’s Small Town Inertia.

The book is a searingly poignant collection of black and white images and testimonies detailing the daily struggles of people in the small Norfolk town where Jim lives.

Unapologetically political, very anti-Tory, anti-globalisation and definitely anti-austerity, Jim’s book documents his subjects in a way which brings home in the starkest possible terms the effects of unemployment, mental and physical illness and addiction under successive governments which have sought to sideline these issues in favour of a market economy unfettered by the constraints of conscience.

It is to some extent due to my awareness of Jim’s work that I have sought to spend more of my time on documentary and working in traditional film. The Faces of Routes project, though shot digitally, would almost certainly not have happened if I hadn’t had my social conscience re-awakened by seeing images from the Small Town Inertia project a year or two ago.

Of course my work is very different to Jim’s and nowhere near as comprehensive (or, of course, as good). Jim has been deeply involved in the lives of his subjects, often helping them with bureaucratic paperwork or just daily tasks, and this shows in the photos.

However, even though my projects tend to be more random, less overtly political and involve being less embedded with my subjects, I will continue to be inspired by the work of J.A Mortram and others like him.

To which end, I’d better get this morning’s negatives scanned and added to my own personal project. It’s all very well to be moved and inspired, but if I’m to genuinely honour the work of others, there is no better way than to keep on pursuing my own.

If you would like your own copy of Small Town Inertia you can buy it here. Visit Jim Mortram’s website here.

Get With The Union

A couple of years ago I mentioned Union magazine in a blog post about how I need to feed my creative soul with things like magazines, Huck being another good example.

Union was started by a small group of individuals including photographer James Cheadle who I first met way back in the early 1990s when he was a darkroom technician at The Bath Chronicle and I was a freelance photographer in the throes of training for my certificate in newspaper photography.

In the intervening years James and I have met on very occasional jobs, but we only kept vaguely in touch. But when I saw he’d launched a magazine, I had to take a look.

I’ve supported the magazine from the start and am the proud owner of all four copies so far published. If I’m not careful I’ll have to build a glass-fronted teak display case with internal illumination to store my burgeoning library, but for now the copies I have will reside in my MFI bedside cabinet.

The magazine is a good read and very much photography led, touching on the quirkier corners of society; girl bikers, religious cult members, gang members and a few more bikers. James’ interest in motorbikes and those who ride them certainly shines through, and while I’m not a particular fan of bikes I really enjoy reading the stories and seeing the biker culture represented insightful, engaging photography.

Always a pleasure too is the added bonus of receiving some Union stickers and even occasionally some defunct, but weirdly fresh, foreign currency.

Union magazine won’t be to everyones’ tastes, and since its first edition some design and typology issues have needed to be worked out, but issue 4 is looking fantastic and I’m really looking forward to reading it. I wish James and the team the absolute best of luck with a magazine which deserves success in a market dominated by the big publishers churning out cookie-cutter, vanilla publications.

Up with the UNION!

Don’t Condemn the Photographer

I’d hoped to be writing about something else this week, but events…

Yesterday’s news will be written up as the worst terrorist attack to befall London since the July 7th bombings of 2005 and understandably it’s an event which is saturating our news channels and of course our social media feeds too. I learned of the attack on Twitter.

Twitter is also where Reuters published the incredible and upsetting photos taken by their photographer Toby Melville who just happened to be under Westminster bridge when the attacker ran his car into pedestrians before attacking and killing PC Keith Palmer.

I’m not going to re-publish the pictures here not because I believe they should be censored, but because I just don’t have the right to use them You can see some of them and read Toby’s account of what he witnessed here, though be warned they are stark.

What struck me as I started to see reaction to Toby’s photos on Twitter was how quickly people rushed to judge him for taking the photos, many believing he should have done more to help the victims. Well it’s easy to judge from the safety of a Twitter account, the comfort of a chair and without the chaos of a breaking news story physically surrounding you. As far as I can see, Toby did what he is professionally trained to do and once he’d called in the emergency services (as many others would have simultaneously done) he got to doing what he (professionally speaking) does best.

While others were already attending the victims and paramedics were starting to arrive, Toby recorded, as any professional newsgatherer should, what he witnessed. That he kept calm enough to compose and take photos that far surpassed any fuzzy phone photos taken by the public is testament to the difference between a trained news gatherer and a member of the public armed with a phone. If anyone had the required legitimacy to use a camera at this terrible scene, it was Toby. And if nobody had taken any images at all, well that would be incredibly peculiar and a failure to record a historical, if tragic, event.

But gathering the images is just the first part. Having filed them the next step was up to Reuters staff to edit and disseminate the images and one in particular raised strong criticism on social media. It showed the bleeding face of a woman who was clearly badly injured while a fellow pedestrian attended her. I notice in their write-up of Toby’s account they’ve omitted that particular photo.

The Editors’ Codebook suggests this particular image, by which I mean the publishing of it rather than the taking of it, could be in breach of the code of practice, but I italicise that because the code doesn’t exclude the coverage of such scenes and it would require some thoughtful consideration (not hot-headed social media condemnation) to decide if it was in breach of the code.

Going back to Toby’s part in this, we have to decide as a society what we’re willing to censor and we have to be cautious of condemning the professional photographer for being witness on our behalf. It is not the job of the photographer to decide what is too unpleasant to be photographed, but it is the job of the editor to only publish what is publishable.

We must also avoid hypocrisy; we might not like seeing pictures of dead people from conflicts and tragedies in other countries, or even in other times, but I see nothing like the same level of criticism when they’re posted online as when similar photos are shot and published showing tragedies so much closer to home.

My advice to Toby’s critics would be that they should do more to understand the role of the professional photojournalist and to take pause before jumping in to condemn those who bear witness on behalf of us all. If an incident such as this happens when a properly trained photojournalist happens to be on the spot, we should be grateful that bad news is covered properly and neither outlawed or suppressed by a mis-guided belief that our sensibilities should trump the truth except when the victims are on another continent.

 

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.

Cold, wet and Poldark

Filming for the TV series Poldark is due to start in Frome this week and since yesterday was an admin day (boo hiss paperwork) I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and take a couple of shots in the street where crews are currently at work making sure all signs of modern life are removed or obscured.

The weather was pretty dire with high winds and plenty of rain and I didn’t have a great deal of time to work up a broad selection of photos, but it got me thinking about all the times I’ve ventured out with my camera when the weather is bad – mostly in the past in order to get extreme weather photos for national newspapers.

I still enjoy the challenge of getting pictures in adverse conditions, even if I’m not venturing into the world’s extreme regions. Seeing how people interact and cope with the weather is often interesting in itself. Sometimes the weather is just a distraction, as in the Poldark pictures. Other times it becomes the focus of the story (the 2001 Trooping the Colour is a fine example). More often now the weather is the story, as when there is flooding or gale damage.

Here’s a quick gallery round-up of extreme (or sometimes just mildly difficult) weather photos I’ve done over the years, from Trooping the Colour to yesterday’s preparations for Poldark.

Please click to enlarge and scroll through the photos.