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.