Ok, so journey number two was more about me being a flaneur really, and trying out a toy camera I picked up recently. I never got into the Holga/Lomo craze and shooting film almost completely passed me by because I’ve only got into photography in the past two or three years. But I’ve recently picked up a couple of low-fi film camreas (including an underwater one in the pound store yesterday…I’m sure that one will work well) and am also planning to start shooting a bit of medium format here and there, where money allows. I’m interested to see the effect of mixing it up a bit on my photography and also I’m hoping that shooting film once in a while will help me become more thoughtful about what I do. That’s the theory, anyhow.
Anyway, so these are just some rather random snaps from a walk yesterday from the city centre up the A6 to Levenshulme, the area of Manchester where I live. It’s a gimmicky little camera and won’t be to everyone’s taste. Not having a viewfinder at all means lots of shooting from the hip, guesswork and crooked horizons. I don’t think Homer (tutor) would approve.
So, I’m starting to pick myself up off the floor, where I’ve been languishing since my last MA tutorial on portraiture. Bruising would be the appropriate word for how it was for me, but I’m definitely someone who responds better to criticism than praise. In fact, I’ve found most of my tutorials pretty painful so far – I’m an over-sensitive soul – and would say that my confidence levels are barely even on the radar at the moment. I’m asking myself lots of tough questions about why I photograph the way I do, how my own ticks and personality traits affect what I come away with and why I pick the subjects I do. The last question – the subjects I veer towards photographically – is one that is playing on my mind a lot. Over seven years, I’ve developed a niche writing about social justice issues that are not easy to sell to the mainstream media – refugees, Gypsies, regeneration, prisons, homelessness and the like – and have made contacts and developed an affection for and knowledge base about these subjects. On this basis and since photography is an extension of the work I do already, it seems natural to continue. Yet it sometimes feels like these are the ultimate photographer – or certainly photojournalism student – cliches when it comes to subject matter. There is little space in which to add anything new or illuminating and that is making me question my judgement and my own values. Am I a voyeur for picking these issues? Am I always looking for the negative or for the obvious? I don’t think so but the fact that so many documentary photographers seem to want to jump on them is really making me wonder. However, I think this is all kind of the point of this first term…to pull our approach apart, think through, reconstruct, and finally hopefully come back better, more creative and more considered.
Anyway, my original portaits really didn’t cut it for John [tutor] and I have to admit he was right. I want to get as much as I can out of this course so am going to keep repeating the practice exercises as much as time allows…starting with portraits of a few friends to build my confidence…cheating, probably, but I have to begin somewhere. “Really explore the face” was one of the messages I took away from the feedback I got, so that’s what I’ll be doing. My big problem in this department is directing people – something which does not come naturally. In fact Aniko, above, pointed out that I actually hold my breath when I’m taking photos. This is not something I was aware of but thinking about it, I guess I get so engrossed in the picture-taking that it doesn’t always occur to me to speak. I’m going to have to work hard to overcome this because most people are very self-conscious in front of the camera and a silent, brooding photographer – especially one who isn’t breathing – will only add to the intensity of the situation. Yeah, something else to think about for sure. Ho hum.
I have to say that despite being slow out of the blocks this fortnight, I’ve really got into this portrait assignment, and have ended up doing more people than I originally planned. I still have the self-portrait to do, and have a work photo job booked in on Thursday, so hopefully I’ll get a few more done before Friday’s tutorial. Anyway, on the suggestion of a photo mentor I wanted to make sure that at least one of my portraits was of a Big Issue in the North vendor, seeing as though I work closely with the magazine and sometimes fill in as editor. I ended up getting two (plus dog) for the price of one when I turned up to the vendor breakfast club this morning and Paul and Shaun agreed to help me. I’d found a couple of interesting-looking walls on my way to the office, so knew exactly where I wanted to take them for a backdrop.
Each portrait session brings its own challenges, I’m discovering. In the past my own self-consciousness has been my biggest handicap. This is something I am now trying to mask as far as possible – essential if I’m going to help others feel at ease. Living in Manchester – known as the Rainy City for good reason – presents obvious challenges. Even when the weather’s fine, wind causes me problems when I want to use my simple set-up of an off-camera strobe, lightstand and brolly. Today’s attempt at a portrait shoot was hard in another way. It was beyond quick – I got maybe five minutes before my subjects’ attention was gone, so the lights couldn’t even come out of the bag. My volunteers – users of a street drop-in centre where I have just been given the go-ahead to do some work as this course enters its next phase – were a bit all over the place in terms of following directions, but I managed to get a few pleasing shots which I hope at least show a bit of personality. Compositionally, they could probably be better, and I didn’t manage to tick all the required shot types off the list, but you have to work with what (or who) you’ve got…
I’ve got off to a very slow start with this uni portrait assignment. I got a few nice shots of my good friend Rozie this morning and now have four days to find two strangers willing to let me photograph them and to do a set of self-portraits. Will it happen? Fingers crossed as I think this is a really great assignment and I need all the portrait practice I can get. Must get more confident and get better at directing people….
I spent a couple of hours today at a weekly pensioner’s group in Manchester run by volunteers from Irish Community Care. I didn’t really know what to expect but hadn’t thought through the fact that bingo – which takes up part of the session – isn’t exactly rife with human interaction. There were of course moments of connection during the afternoon and some of the images are okay. But in terms of the brief I was trying to fulfil, I’m not convinced I really nailed it. Of the three shoots I’ve done I think the family definitely worked best for the brief.
Maybe i was daydreaming when my current human relationships assignment was set but until I read a classmate’s blog post I had no idea that trying to capture negative emotions or situations was part of the brief. Unless I witness some toddler tantrums or tellings-off when I spend time with a family next week, the relationships I photograph are likely to be quite convivial. But thinking about this got me wondering what I had shot in the past which would have fitted the bill, and one place springs to mind: Palestine.
I spent four weeks in the Holy Land in 2008 – three based in the West Bank and nine days based in Jerusalem. I happened to be there during Ramandan, Eid and the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I was invited several times to Palestinian homes for iftar – the breaking of the fast – which was lovely. I also spent the last two Fridays of Ramadan at one of the main flashpoints between Palestinians and the IDF during the Muslim holy month – namely the Kalandia checkpoint. From very early in the morning here, especially on Fridays at this time of year, thousands of Muslims try to cross from Ramallah into Jerusalem to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque, the third most sacred site in Islam. Of course they need permits to do so, and men aged over 16 and under something like 60 aren’t allowed to go at all.
It’s absolute bedlam and the tension level is very high. The soldiers split men and women into separate queues and make them wait for hours in the blazing sun. People appear to be arbitarily refused access, even when they have the correct permits. Others chance their luck without the correct paperwork. People lose their family members, faint, get upset, are routinely humilated by the soldiers, and lots of tears are shed. Dignified, elderly people are made to wait around for hours on end. As the morning wears on people get more stressed and upset because they want to get to the mosque for afternoon prayers, and many end up saying their prayers next to the barbed wires and ugly concrete walls of the checkpoint. It’s distressing to watch and encapsulates all that is wrong with the power dynamic between an occupying force and the people they are colonising, and in this case humilating on an almost daily basis.
One of the great things about having started this photojournalism MA is that it suddenly gives me a reason to turn some of my ideas into reality…I am too often all talk and little action.
I’ve lived in the Levenshulme area of Manchester for more than five years now and one of the most distinctive buildings here is Tony’s Barber – if nothing else than simply for the fact that it’s half falling down. Part of a terrace on the main road, a developer is trying to bully Tony out of his building for low compensation and the shops on either side have been pulled down and left to rot.
That’s kind of interesting on its own, and in 2007 I ended up writing a story on the situation for the Manchester Evening News.
That was long before I’d started taking photos, but once I got into photography I started thinking that Tony’s would make an interesting photo story – but of course didn’t do anything about it. I thought about using him for the first ‘at work’ assignment but held off because I actually thought that would be a bit of a waste. Anyway, I bit the bullet and spent a couple of hours in his shop this morning for the current ‘human relationships’ brief but I think there’s definitely more mileage – and even an audio slideshow – in there, so I am going to keep returning.
Tony is Italian and the shop has been in his family for more than 50 years -some of the customers I met today have been coming to have their hair cut by him for two or three decades. It’s an old-fashioned barber’s shop on the inside – and its walls are plastered with Manchester City, Manchester United and Italian national football team posters; Viz cartoon posters and model motorbikes.
It’s also, I discovered, a hub for the older men in my neighbourhood – particularly the Italians – who just come to hang out in his back office, drink espressos and smoke. Definitely somewhere to keep going back to…hopefully with time they’ll let me into what they were calling their ‘mafia room.’
Chinese New Year celebrations, Manchester. I’d had enough of buggies and babies after an hour though.