What a bizarre few weeks. We’re now 30 days into official lockdown in the UK, and it feels to me like some of the paralysis of the initial days of Covid-19 has started to loosen. I’m still working as a journalist – working at snail’s pace on a number of features for Big Issue North which for the large part have nothing to do with the pandemic – and am starting to get the sense that many people are getting into a groove with this strange new normal. People I contact are responding fairly promptly for the first time in weeks. My own work pace is glacial but things are slowly getting done.
One of the ways I’ve been responding to this weirdness is to pick up my camera. Ironically I’ve found the past month an easier time than normal to be creative – despite having a three year old and a five year old in tow most of the time. I’ve been photographing the lockdown on a daily basis from their perspective. Something that has always felt uncomfortably self-indulgent to me – sharing photos of my kids and our own daily life – suddenly feels more legitimate, perhaps due to some odd journalistic psychology thing because it’s now framed within ‘a story’. Make of that what you will. These daily vignettes – which I’ve dubbed “Big Brother House” can be seen on my Instagram page.
The other way I’m documenting the lockdown is through window portraits of people living in my neighbourhood of Levenshulme. Lots of photographers are doing similar work at the moment but I love the way the glass provides a beautifully surreal visual metaphor for our current social distancing requirements. The participants have to come close to the window to make use of the light. I’m often closer to them than the permitted two metres but they’re behind glass so it’s fine. I’m making most of these during my daily outing with my kids so I have to be quick – more than three minutes and they’re bored. Some of them are on my Instagram and the full album can be seen on Facebook for the time being. This will be updated as I add more…
I’m feeling a bit happier about my approach to the current assignment I’m putting together for uni and thought I’d share a few pictures that I like but which don’t make the grade. Now there’s a bit of distance between me and my Istanbul trip, I’m starting to feel more satisfied with my images and to wonder what I could have come out with after knowing this Roma family for more than one week.
There are plans to put flats on the site vacated by him and his neighbours at some undefined point in the future but for the moment, thanks to the recession, little rebuilding is taking place under this regeneraton scheme. I wanted to get a better selection of images as I’m hoping to place this story and to sell it as a package. Last time I didn’t get a wide enough range of portrait types and the lashing rain meant it was difficult to get the external shots – including outdoor portraits – I needed. There’s little that can be done about the weather but this is one difficulty I have with trying to do audio, words and images all at once for real work stories – each role involves so much attention, and to do them well, time, that it can be really easy to miss things. There’s a definite danger in this new multimedia journalism world of trying to be a jack of all trades and ending up a master of none.
….who is one of two possibilities for my first course photo story assignment. Hamed is from Darfur and arrived in Liverpool in a container ship in 2005, weak and ill after a month at sea with no idea where he was going. He had escaped his country through Port Sudan after his village – including his entire family – were slaughtered by the notorious Janjaweed militia. After at first being refused asylum and ending up destitute and homeless, he is back in the system with a fresh application and is waiting to find out if he will be allowed to stay in the UK. Friends of his from his country have waited eight and nine years before being granted refugee status.
Anyway, Hamed and I have met briefly a couple of times before and he kindly let me drop around to his flat and tag along with him into town today. He has a fascinating story but reflecting it in images is going to be tough. Jotting down a rough shooting plan as we’ve been asked was a useful exercise because it made me really reflect on where there is and isn’t visual potential in this story….although I’m still not sure about the answer. Focusing on one person may well be setting myself up to fail as I think there could be a temptation to be too literal in the images but I’m going to now go away and do some research on how others have gone about telling short one-character picture stories.
I will be seeing and photographing Hamed again later in the week and hopefully tomorrow I’ll make a start on story option two. There may be a danger inherent in hedging my bets in this way but both issues are of interest to me in the broader sense. In Hamed’s case, whether or not he makes the final cut for next week’s tutorial, his story is the second installment of a loose and occasional series on the asylum system – the first being Sofia.
I have no real reason for posting these images except that I came across them the other day and writing about portraiture and people’s self-consciousness in my last post made me think of them again. This young girl lives in a shack sandwiched between a railway and the ghats, or riverbank, in Kolkata. It was late afternoon on the day of Holi (March 09), when Hindus throw coloured powers at each other…hence the state of her. What we found curious at the time was the way she held herself. It’s normal for Indians to hold your gaze, unsmiling, while you take a photo of them. But this girl, a rag-picker, held herself with the poise and self-assurance of a fashion model…quite unexpected.
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’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 have to say, I find it quite unbelievable that these Victorian homes in Bootle, Merseyside, are being condemned to demolition to make way for boxy little new builds (having seen them I can attest that some are truly hideous). But it’s happening and the few remaining residents were served with Compulsory Purchase Orders about 10 days ago.
The three I met – Pat and John Dunn (pictured above) and their friend John Gillespie (below) are determined not to be bullied out of homes they have lived in for decades and raised their families in. For them the issue is not so much financial – they simply don’t see why their homes should be snatched away from them under the Housing Market Renewal scheme. Before Christmas, the plans for the area were criticised by the Commission for the Built Environment (CABE).
I wish them the best of luck in their fight and will be watching carefully as their battle moves towards a public inquiry.