Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Blast from the Past

It’s good to see students engaging in political action once again, but the protests of the last few weeks also bring back not-so-fond memories of the last time the Conservatives were in power.

The intervening New Labour years saw some notable improvements to life in the UK, some abject failures - and much that continued on its neo-liberal path uninterrupted. The ‘yuppies’ of the then newly deregulated City of London are now collectively known as ‘bankers’, but are still busy siphoning off our savings, pensions and taxes. We’re still tied to US apron strings when it comes to foreign affairs: last time round it was Cruise missiles at Greenham Common, Molesworth and other USAF bases, now it is Afghanistan and many parts of the Middle East. And, of course, public services are being savagely cut back again.

That regime lasted 18 years. It seems inconceivable that, once the rest of the public spending cuts hit home, this one will last anything like as long. At least, I sincerely hope it won’t.

Work took me elsewhere during each of the three recent demonstrations, so I have nothing to show of the current unrest (yet). But for a reminder of life during the previous Tory era, a selection from the archive is here.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Housing Market Renewal update

Only a few weeks after I wrote about the Housing Market Renewal programme, the government cancelled it. There is no connection between the two events, and I don’t claim any credit. But despite its misguided premise, and consequences that have been disastrous for thousands of residents in the nine ‘Pathfinder’ areas across the north of England, its abrupt termination is not a good thing.

Its sudden demise leaves the areas in limbo, with street after street of tinned-up houses, property prices at near zero, communities destroyed, and the remaining residents left to struggle on in what looks like a war zone.

It is too late to rectify most of the damage, but the government could at least buy out any of those left behind who wish to move, at prices that make moving a realistic possibility. That means substantially more than current ‘market’ values.

More Housing Market Renewal photographs are available here.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Over the Hill?

Over the Hill?, a video, print and web project by the Hereford-based Rural Media Company, documents eight exemplary schemes around the country that support older people living in rural areas.

Pictured above is 89 year-old Les Spicer, who lives alone in an isolated, book-lined cottage on the outskirts of Norwich. Under a ‘Money Matters’ programme, run by Age UK Norfolk, volunteer adviser Marion Billham visits each week to help deal with bills and other mail.

The Lincolnshire County Council CallConnect bus (below), is part of an extraordinary on-demand service that makes use of specialist software to draw up routes that vary day-to-day, in response to phoned-in requests. CallConnect allows people of all ages to book a bus from their village into town and back, at a time that suits them, and has proved to be of particular benefit to the elderly.

Both local government and the voluntary sector will be hard hit by the coalition’s public spending cuts. It would be a great shame if lifeline services such as these were to suffer as a result.

Over the Hill? is scheduled for release in early 2011. More pictures here.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Searching Photo Libraries: keep it simple

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the search feature of a photo library looks for words, not pictures. Search engines cannot see photos, only the words attached to them.

Where a word-based search is required, it is important to remember that the words have been put there by a (fallible) human being, and did not emanate magically from the visual image of their own accord. Writing captions and keywords – and carrying out a search to match them - requires a mixture of common sense and intuition on behalf of both photographer and researcher.

So, before embarking on a search, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what words the photographer is likely to have chosen. On my site the most common cause of search failure is an over-elaborate search term. A recent search, for photo in 1981 Mozart Estate produced nothing, but 1981 Mozart Estate would have been successful. It’s a photo library, after all, and it seems unnecessary (to me at least) to say so in every caption. Were I to do so, logically I should also preface each caption with all the possible synonyms: photograph, picture, image, view of, etc..

In any picture library, it is better to start a search as simply as possible – one or two words are often enough to bring up a selection tight enough to locate the desired image by visual inspection. In the above example, Mozart on its own would have only produced eight pictures – easy enough to look through without further need for a more complex search term. If one is necessary, a simple guide to combining and excluding search words is here.

Another recent failure was really my fault: a search by an unknown user for fair trade in Caribbean produced no results. Why? Because I had captioned the relevant photos using Fairtrade (all one word), the correct name of the scheme I had photographed, but had not also included the more commonly used fair trade as a keyword. Even so, a simpler, less specific search would have worked: trade in Caribbean delivers 15 images, of which six (including the one shown above) have a Fairtrade connection.

It’s also worth making use of features that make a word search unnecessary. My home page provides direct links to galleries covering easily understood subject areas (including one called Caribbean - Fair Trade?) . Each gallery displays images in date order, with the most recent first, and also offers an option of searching within the gallery, rather than across the whole site. Other libraries have similar systems to help narrow down the number of options. In this respect, smaller, specialist libraries have an advantage, being easier to navigate and more likely to produce relevant results.

There are now an extraordinary number of images available through online photo libraries. Finding the one you want need not be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but some thought - and maybe a little intuition - is required. Whether you make use of word searches or visual inspection, or a mixture of the two, there is one thing that technology has not changed: picture research is an art, not a science.

A version of this article was published in the November 2010 issue of the British Journal of Photography

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Benefit Cuts: a case study (Part Two)

Following a trial programme of medical re-assessments begun earlier this month, the Department of Work and Pensions has stated that three-quarters of Incapacity Benefit (IB) claimants are well enough to work. Currently, 2.6 million people claim IB, while unemployment stands at 2.5 million.

In Rochdale’s Spotland and Falinge ward (pictured), 42.9% of working age residents claim IB, the highest rate in the UK. The distribution of IB claimants nationally roughly corresponds to the areas worst affected by 1980s de-industrialisation, and it is often claimed that the benefit, which replaced previous disability payment schemes in 1995, has been used by successive governments to disguise the unemployment figures.

The coalition government aim is to return 500,000 IB claimants to the job-seekers’ register. Where are they all going to work?

Benefit Cuts: a case study (Part One)

The results of the Autumn Spending Review, announced last week, included major cuts to welfare benefits as part of the government’s deficit reduction policy. An estimated 500,000 public sector jobs are also being cut, and a similar number in the private sector are expected to follow. With the inevitable fall in the tax take, how is that going to add up?

I went to Rochdale to find out. A New Labour welfare-to-work programme is still running in the town, staffed by a dedicated team at the national charity Groundwork, funded by the local authority via a sub-contract with Serco. Under the current system, after 72 weeks of unemployment, claimants of Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) must undertake 4 weeks of ‘Mandatory Work Related Activity’. This may take the form of an unpaid work placement, and can also include employability training. On the day I visited, a group was nearing the end of one such course. What was striking was just how employable some of them were: they included an articulate IT support worker with 10 years experience, and a clearly capable shop assistant made redundant when the local branch of M&S closed down.

According to Lisa Brown, who manages Groundwork’s Middleton office, all that is available in the Rochdale and Oldham area are ‘entry level’ (minimum wage) jobs in warehousing, private care and retailing. But in the massive Stakehill Industrial Estate, built close to a major motorway network, half the warehouses stand empty. Many of the national brands (Woolworths, B&Q and others) that had used them as their distribution centres for the north-west have either gone bankrupt or moved elsewhere. Employability isn’t much use if there aren’t any jobs. The only thing this adds up to is a worsening of the living standards of claimants already struggling at or below the poverty line. More pictures here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The French Do It Better

On Tuesday, the sixth day of nationwide protests against the Sarkozy government’s pension reforms, there were demonstrations in around 200 French towns and cities. In Alès (above), an ex-coalmining town in the south of the country, several thousand took to the streets. There was lots of smoke, some very loud bangs, and not a single policeman in sight. At the end of a boisterous march, nobody knew what to do, so someone set fire to the gates of the Sous Préfecture (local government offices). They don't look too good now. More pictures here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Housing Market Renewal: another fine mess

The Derker district of Oldham has the misfortune to have been designated a Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder. The scheme, launched by New Labour in 2002, is the biggest programme of demolition since the slum clearances of the mid-twentieth century. In Derker, row after row of tinned-up houses stand empty, and newly-laid grass has already replaced many of the 588 two-up, two-down Victorian terrace homes scheduled for the bulldozers. According to Anna Minton, in her book Ground Control (which I strongly recommend), 400,000 properties in the nine Pathfinder areas across the north of England are destined to meet a similar fate by 2015.

Unlike the earlier slum clearances, the homes are not being knocked down because they are in poor condition. The programme was not designed to improve conditions for the current occupants, but to “correct” so-called “housing market failure” in order to attract a “better social mix”. The areas in question are all places which have seen major falls in employment over the last thirty or so years, a collapse of the local economy, and a consequent decline in population. Opponents have labelled the process “social cleansing”, and there has been widespread resistance from residents who do not want to move from homes they have lived in for decades, or see the break-up of their communities. The piles of rubble and the silent streets are the very visible sign of another attempt at a market-based solution to a problem that requires social and economic planning, not more laissez-faire profiteering. If the demolished houses are ever replaced, which seems increasingly unlikely in the present economic climate, the only people likely to benefit will be private developers.

Lynn Ogden (below, left, with her ex-neighbour Margaret Rowcroft) is the last remaining resident in Ramsey Street, where she has lived for 43 years. Despite a long campaign and a partially successful battle in the High Court, she believes it is now too late to save Derker. Almost everyone has left, worn down by years of uncertainty. It is not often that results of bad government policy are so starkly evident.

More Housing Market Renewal photographs are available here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Alternative Vote

In the City of London, the heart of the capital’s financial services ‘industry’, they do democracy differently. Those voting in the annual election for the Lord Mayor, which took place yesterday, must be Aldermen of one of the 108 City livery companies - and they need to be properly dressed. The ceremony that surrounds the election is elaborate and very much out in the open. The interests it represents are less visible, but equally elaborate, as has become all too clear over the last three years. More pictures here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Building the London Olympics

Documenting progress on the Olympic site in the Lower Lea Valley hit a major obstacle in 2007, when the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) put up an 11-mile long, 10-foot high blue fence. Getting inside was (and still is) almost impossible for photographers, other than those on contract to the ODA. But now work has advanced to the stage where much can be seen over the top of the long blue plywood line, especially since the completion of the View Tube vantage point on the high level Greenway footpath and cycleway.

Currently the biggest concentration of cranes surrounds a collection of concrete towers rising skywards in the north-east of the site. The Athletes Village doesn’t have any of the recognisable attributes of a village, but the viability of the social housing legacy that it represents will be an important measure of the long-term success of the London 2012 games.

More photographs of the area, including pre-fence pictures of some of the businesses displaced by the Olympic Park, can be seen here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Missing from the Record: what has happened to workplace photography?

The call to action from the TUC in Manchester this week brings to mind campaigns against public spending cuts imposed by previous governments, and the part that photography has played in them.

Perhaps the most memorable image of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, which immediately preceded the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, was of rats scurrying over piles of uncollected refuse sacks in Leicester Square. In that and subsequent disputes, those parts of the press more sympathetic to the trade union point of view, particularly the papers produced by the unions themselves, built solidarity with photographs of countrywide protest actions, and of workers in their workplaces.

One big difference between then and now, immediately discernable in the trade union press, is the current lack of representation of people at work. This is the culmination of a trend that began in the 1990s. It’s also at the root of the heated debate about the use of photography in TU journals that recently sprang up in the pages of the NUJ’s Journalist magazine.

The TU papers of the 1980s and 1990s were usually tabloid in format, like the NUPE Journal, for which the above photo was taken. Features frequently ran over two or three pages, with pictures used large, often occupying more than half the page. And they were very often unposed, documentary shots taken in workplaces – something that is now rare.

I think this is a significant loss, particularly in the present context. Such photographs can give meaning to the otherwise seemingly abstract effects of ‘planned public spending cuts’. If these images do not even appear in the TU press, they are unlikely to appear anywhere else.

Why has this change come about? One obvious reason is that the privatisation of so many services – from the railways and other public utilities, to hospital porters and school dinners – has made access difficult. Another is that union membership has fallen, resulting both in an increase in non-unionised workplaces, and in a decrease in union income. Over the same period there has been a move, across the media generally, away from serious photojournalism and towards ‘lifestyle’ and celebrity. And then there is the proposition that, with the rise of the new, fully automated, digital cameras, anyone can do it - so why pay for photos when members will send them in for free?

Access is a problem, but not an insurmountable one. As for the rest - I don’t buy any of it. Declining union membership has been offset by amalgamation – the membership base of the new ‘super-unions’ means that cheapskate sourcing of photography should really not be necessary. And there’s no reason why union journals should follow Murdoch and the rest down the celebrity and lifestyle route. As for digital cameras – ownership no more confers the ability to produce meaningful photojournalism, than does possession of a pen the ability to write like Shakespeare.

The fundamental reason for the absence is, I think, more depressing. It is that many editors (and those who employ them), inundated with mundane, ‘good enough’, almost-free imagery, have forgotten the value and impact of intelligently presented, serious photography.

Monday, September 06, 2010

London’s Other Workers: multimedia

This multimedia presentation of the London's Other Workers project combines still photos and a recorded interview with Alberto Durango, who has worked as a cleaner since he came to London in 1995 to escape paramilitaries in his native Colombia. In this 3 minute piece he talks about the problems faced by the cleaners who work through the night in the office buildings of London’s financial district.

Putting together still photographs and words, whether written or spoken, can be very powerful. For the written word, the books John Berger made with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr are a model for many. A Seventh Man, which explores the experiences of southern European migrant workers in north-western Europe, is probably the best known.

What makes them stand out is the way in which the images and text do not refer directly to each other, but run in parallel, expressing complementary aspects of their subjects’ experiences. Berger and Mohr did not use photographs to ‘illustrate’ the text, but allowed them to tell their own related, but different, story.

Something similar can be done with photographs and the spoken word. Technology has moved on since the days of tape-slide, but the produce of digital cameras and sound recorders can be put together to much the same effect. Tape-slide required cumbersome equipment, and its audiences were necessarily small. The modern digitised version makes possible cheap, instant and unlimited distribution via websites, blogs and all the other channels the internet has to offer.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Troubles with Documentary (Part One)

Photographers go to enormous trouble to document the exotic or dangerous in far-off places. But working closer to home, although less risky to life, limb and wallet, is becoming more and more difficult.

Street photography, which has a long and fruitful history of recording life in our shared public spaces, is under attack from misguided policemen and over-zealous security guards. The powers-that-be appear threatened by any serious attempt at documenting how the world around us looks and feels in the 21st century.

Shortly after taking the photo above in Canary Wharf, part of a project on London's Other Workers, I was politely, but firmly, asked to leave the area by two security guards. Why? Because like many parts of London and other cities in the UK, large areas of apparently public space are now private property. On another recent jaunt I was stopped by a guard, after pulling a camera from my bag on the King’s Road, because I had inadvertently crossed an invisible line dividing the public highway from an (identically paved) area in front some glitzy shops. “You can’t take pictures here, mate, it’s private property”. You can spend your money here, and even tread all over it, but photography is out of the question. Unless you’re fooling around with an iPhone or some other terrorist-friendly gadget, in which case – no problem.

It is because similar problems have been encountered by so many other photographers, both amateur and professional, that the vigorous campaigning by I'm a Photographer, Not a Terrorist has been so well supported. There are signs that the authorities are taking note, but it will be a while before change filters through to the front line on the mean streets of the capital and elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Down the Pub

Most of the regular drinkers had no idea it was happening until it started. When the piano struck up and the cast of OperaUpClose launched into Act 2 of La Bohéme in the bar of The Chippenham in North Paddington last night, it took most of those present completely by surprise. But although one or two looked somewhat nonplussed, the fifteen minute performance got a fantastic reception from a packed house. The event, part of the Paddington Festival, was organised by the Paddington Development Trust, currently under threat (like so much else) from the government’s public spending cuts.

Turning the Tide

The Turning the Tide project, begun by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) last year, looks likely to continue. The project reports on actions by EU public service workers that assert the importance of public services and defend them from cuts, privatisation, commercialisation or liberalisation. Watch this space for updates.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

France plans to deport Roma

The young Roma boy I photographed begging in a street on the outskirts of Paris last year is not likely to be in the French capital much longer.

The Guardian reported this week that France has begun a roundup of more than 700 Romany immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, and has booked special flights to send them back to their home countries. The action seems to be an attempt by the Sarkozy government to appeal to the populist and far right vote, in order to deflect attention from a corruption scandal and other problems that it currently faces. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - as they say over there.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Big Society: early casualties

This month’s Queen’s Park Summer Festival may have been the last. The hugely popular annual event is organised by Queen’s Park Forum, an elected body of residents that has played a unique role in improving the quality of life for local people.

The Forum was created in 2003 by the Paddington Development Trust (PDT), whose activities I have photographed since it started in 1997. But despite all the talk of the ‘Big Society’ from David Cameron, funding for the trust and the organisations it supports is being drastically cut back. The fact that grassroots projects are under threat suggests that the new government is rather more interested in the ‘rolling back the state’ element of its ‘Big Society’ big idea than in the valuable work being done by the voluntary sector. Not a great surprise, but still disappointing.

I’ve been photographing Paddington for more than thirty years. It has been a privilege and a pleasure, allowing me to experience and record in great detail the impact of community initiatives in a constantly evolving area of inner London, and I don’t intend to stop any time soon – whatever the new regime has in store.

There’s more about the early days of community photography, and the context in which it (and PDT) developed in North Paddington from the 1970s onwards, in a recent article I wrote for the British Journal of Photography.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Keeping Track

I was fortunate recently to have been given access by Transport for London (TfL) to some of the behind-the-scenes work that keeps the tube system moving.

The 3 million passengers who use the London Underground each day take it pretty much for granted. But it’s actually a minor miracle of engineering and logistics, most of which takes place on the tracks in the middle of the night, when the system closes down, or through the day in out-of-sight depots and workshops around the capital. The locations were fantastic to photograph, interesting both visually (albeit with some tricky lighting), and for the detail and complexity of the operations that were being carried out.

Getting access to document such places is something that is becoming more and more difficult, and photographs of real people at work – as opposed to sanitised PR shots - are hard to come by. In this case obtaining clearance was simplified by the collapse of the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements with failed private contractors Metronet and Tube Lines, handing complete control back to TfL, where it should have been all along.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Wonders of New Technology

One of the great things about the latest generation of high end digital cameras, like the Nikon D700 with which the above shot was taken, is their ability to make high quality images in really poor available light. Thus I was able to photograph freely during Professor Dylan Wiliam's talk at the Institute of Education in London, without the need for flashes or other intrusive lighting equipment.

The new technology means that a whole range of events – including many conferences, seminars and board meetings – can now be photographed without disturbing the participants. Shame about the price though (the camera's, not mine).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New images added to On Mobiles

I've added a few shots from New York to my On Mobiles project, which was originally inspired by André Kertész's book On Reading.

The subjects of Kertész's photographs are standing or seated in public places, or at least in public view, immersed in the printed words they hold before them. Although physically present, their minds are elsewhere, oblivious to their surroundings. His pictures were taken between 1915 and 1970, mostly in New York, but also in Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and elsewhere.

In 2010, in the streets of major cities the world over, reading has been overtaken by speaking. The book has been overtaken by the phone - private worlds are accessed by mobile.

Does this change signify anything? An image of someone reading suggests thoughtfulness and may even prompt musings on the nature of the human condition. The sight of someone with a phone clamped to their ear - although similarly disengaged from their immediate surroundings - suggests something more trivial. And much more annoying. Mobiles privatise public space. Streets are no longer places where citizens interact, merely paths on which we avoid each other whilst engaged in conversation with someone who isn't there.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Flickr makes it big

Across the pond, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is using a photo prominently bylined 'by Nicky Blobel via Flickr’ on publicity posters currently on display on New York billboards. Although at first I thought this was yet another case of cheapskate photo editing, it’s more likely an attempt at appearing cool - presenting the museum's image as being up there with the 'digital lifestyle’. I’d love to know how much they paid for it though.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Community Action 1975-2008

North Paddington 1975-2008 - Images by Philip Wolmuth

My book, That was Then, This is Now, Community Action in North Paddington 1975-2008 charts how collective action by the area's residents has helped transform an impoverished corner of the City of Westminster, one of the wealthiest boroughs in the country, and how the nature of community action has been shaped by the changing political environment over the last 40 years. Copies of the 80 page book (10GBP + p&p) can be ordered from Blurb, who printed it, or directly from me.