Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best Things In Life Are Free

Street pictures offer many possibilities, providing background for a story, as well as opportunities for comment, irony or humour. Like other photographs, taken out of context, they can also be quite ambiguous. I suspect this one, taken last week in Oxford Street during the post-Christmas sales, may be read quite differently by different viewers. For me, it expresses everything I feel about shopping. And tax evasion. More pictures here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The End of History?

In 30 years as a freelance photojournalist I have never hidden behind a hedge with a long lens, or importuned anyone on a doorstep. I have no interest in celebrities. Nevertheless, some of the suggestions being bandied about inside and outside the Leveson phone-hacking inquiry, if implemented, could stop me in my tracks.

Much of my time is spent documenting the society I live in. To do that I often photograph in the street and other public places, and my focus is almost always on people. A privacy law that required me to ask for permission from anyone who enters my frame would make that impossible.

In France. which already has legislation that includes a right to privacy, even when ‘in public’, street photography is still permitted – but publish and you may well be damned. In recent years a couple of court rulings have gone in favour of the photographer’s right to freedom of expression, but earlier ones have gone the other way – prioritising the subject’s ‘image rights’. Initiating legal action depends on the resources of the litigant; the outcome on the whim of a judge. Who wants to make that calculation before pressing the shutter release?

Were similar privacy legislation to be introduced here, many aspects of the social history of this country would no longer be legitimate subjects for the camera. An important element of the free public discourse that is an essential feature of an open society would be lost, and the damage would be felt by everyone – from professional photojournalists, to kids posting their smartphone snaps on Facebook.

Almost all the obnoxious behaviour that is being crawled over by Leveson is already illegal. Harassment is illegal. Phone-hacking is illegal. Bribing a police officer is illegal. They are offences that can be dealt with by enforcing existing law. The rest is the result of a profit-driven debasement of popular culture that goes way beyond Leveson’s remit. The NUJ has an excellent Code of Conduct which all of its members are obliged to abide by. Why not apply the same code to the publications for whom we work?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Another One Bites the Dust

The picture above, of Kids Inspire Director Sue Jochim, was taken for Community Care a while ago, but there won’t be any more commissions or repro fees coming my way from that source. The current print issue will be the last - the next will appear online only. The award-winning weekly for care professionals is the fifth of my long-standing magazine clients to close this year.

Print is dying, slowly strangled by the move to the web of both advertisers and readers. Figures for the first six months of 2011 showed a decline in the magazine’s circulation of 21% year on year, to 32,568. Even that is deceptive: all but 4000 were distributed free. The free-to-view online version gets 300,000 visitors a month, carries classified ads and a subscription-based reference service.

Community Care’s difficulties were compounded by its being so firmly rooted in the public sector, heavily affected by government spending cuts. The closure means publishers RBI will make savings on printing costs and the net loss of seven jobs. The photography budget has been in noticeable decline for some time, and will no doubt diminish further. Not that long ago NUJ recommended rates were the norm: £70 for a quarter page, £100 for a half, etc.. These have already been replaced by cut-price agency deals, with payments commonly at a flat rate of £15 or £20. That may work for the big picture libraries, but not many photographers will find such rates viable. Even on the web serious photography needs to be adequately rewarded if it is to survive.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Global Village

The tent dwellers of Occupy London have quickly become part of the London landscape. City business types stride through the new shanty town nestling up against St.Paul’s Cathedral without batting an eyelid. Tourists doing their rounds can tick off two landmarks in one go. The camp is well organised, and seems to have established a daily routine. Anyone who wishes can drop in to the twice-daily General Assemblies to listen or speak. In the middle of the city, it has something of a village atmosphere. It has succeeded brilliantly in forcing the issue of corporate greed onto the political agenda. What happens next is unclear. It is also unclear when, how, or even if, it will end. More pictures here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dole not Coal

I first went to South Yorkshire during the big wave of pit closures of the early 1990s, and I’ve been back a few times since. The miners fought the closures and lost. “Coal not Dole” was their rallying cry, but the collieries were bulldozed back into green fields. Now, in their place, stand tin shed-style warehouses and call centres offering small numbers of jobs at the minimum wage. In the intervening years some new, high tech, manufacturing has established itself, but nothing providing the large-scale employment required to make up for the huge job losses of the last 30 years.

Successive governments have made only token gestures. One in four young people in Barnsley and Doncaster are NEETs (not in employment, education or training), one of the highest rates in the country. Last week I visited three inventive social enterprises providing training and apprenticeships (picture below). Even they have been hit by cuts in Education Maintenance Allowance and abolition of the Future Jobs Fund. And in these austere times, employability is no guarantee of employment. Life was hard in the former coalfields long before the current recession – and it’s likely to get worse. This set of images - work in progress – is a partial record of some of the changes.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Shock and Awe: Total Policing explained

In September the newly appointed Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, set out his plan for policing the capital.

"As Commissioner, I have three simple aims: I want us to cut crime, cut costs, and continue to develop the culture of the organisation, and to do all that based on simple but important values of humility, transparency and integrity. We will do that through what I call 'total policing'."

His statement was largely meaningless, but yesterday’s tuition fees protest in the City of London – the first student demonstration since the summer riots – gave some indication of how he intends to go about his business.

It was by far the most heavily policed demonstration I can remember, with about as many police officers (4000) as protesters, and preceded by threats of plastic bullets. From the point at which I joined it, close to the Law Courts, all side streets were sealed off with double barriers and up to three lines of police. The marchers were corralled into a very slowly moving kettle by mounted police, solid lines of officers on foot, and a large number in full riot gear. In New Fetter Lane the march was brought to a standstill for a considerable time, for no apparent reason, and the horses, surrounded by marchers unable to move away, became visibly restless. It looked dangerous, and felt very much as though the democratic right to protest was being honoured, if at all, in letter only.

Another casualty of the new Commissioner’s cunning plan may be the working relationship between police and photojournalists, recently much improved following discussions between the Met, the NUJ, the BPPA and others. For the first time in a while, I was refused passage out of a march despite showing my press card. If this is what humility, transparency and integrity looks like. I’m quite happy with whatever it was we had before. More pictures here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In the Picture

At many public events these days it seems that almost every hand is clutching a camera-phone, and every eye is watching the world through a screen. Very often, many of those hands get in my way. And if they’re recording a video, rather than a quick snap, it’s worse: they’re almost as big a nuisance as TV camera operators, blocking the view for the duration.

Most professionals have enough self-awareness to avoid making things too difficult for fellow photographers working close by, but the phone-wielders only have eyes for their screens – and there’s a limit to the number of times that can make a picture.

The phone pictured above shows WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange speaking to a crowd at the recent Occupy the London Stock Exchange protest. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, it’s a Samsung. More pictures here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lifestyle Tourism

The crowds that crammed into Westfield Stratford City last week appeared to confirm the owners’ press release description of the shopping complex as “a new lifestyle destination for East London”, behaving more like tourists than serious consumers. They certainly weren’t buying very much. Primark was doing a reasonable trade, but it didn’t seem like enough to pay a return on the £1.8 billion spent on construction, or keep the 10,000 new staff in secure employment.

With money scarce on the east side of town, the largest urban shopping centre in Europe is more of a hang-out than a place to spend hard-earned cash. Except the “gateway” to the London 2012 Olympic Park is private property and crawling with security guards, and after the benevolent free-for-all of the opening week, the welcome to all and sundry (including photographers) is likely to wear thin quite quickly.

As the largest regeneration project ever undertaken in the UK it raises a lot of questions. The most obvious is - what will it actually contribute to the economy? Its 250 shops are not making anything, just selling stuff that used to be sold somewhere else. The UK’s largest casino, due to open later in the year, will move money from the pockets of the punters to the pockets of the owners, creating nothing. The new jobs, however close to the minimum wage, will probably benefit those who get them, but only at the expense of those who used to do them elsewhere. And if there are any profits, they will accrue to the joint owners in Australia (Westfield), Holland (APG) and North America (the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board).

Will people buy more than they did before? I doubt it. And what will happen to the jobs and businesses in the Stratford Centre, the down-at-heel concrete mall directly opposite the new development?

Unless European economies are thrown totally off-kilter by a Greek default, Stratford City will doubtless do well when the Olympics come to town next summer. But after that? We must wait and see.

More pictures here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

263 CDs

Tala Skari, Director of Photography at the International Herald Tribune, was at a loss to explain the number of Italian photographers queuing to show her pictures of Gaza at this year’s Visa Pour L’Image. Festival Director Jean-Fran├žois Leroy was in despair after receiving 263 CDs of Tahrir Square photographs as exhibition submissions. Rubbernecking in the areas set aside for portfolio reviews by agencies and editors during the professional week of the annual celebration of photojournalism in Perpignan suggests that to maintain your street cred, you really do need to have a set from somewhere in the Middle East, preferably Libya. I exaggerate – but not much.

The narrow range of subject matter on show was striking. Of the 24 exhibitions hung in churches and other buildings in the old city centre, 19 were on third world subjects. The remaining five included a group show on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, a very fine B&W essay on the devastating effects of gang warfare in Los Angeles, and two on UK subjects: a comic Martin Parr-style take on the English by Peter Dench, and a set on an East End gangster family by Jocelyn Bain Hogg. And there were the fish – a wonderfully colourful show of 30 years of underwater photography by Brian Skerry that stood in complete contrast to everything else, presumably selected to offer a little light relief.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with third world subjects. Fernando Moleres’s photographs of children in African prisons, for instance, together with his campaigning work around the issue, are totally admirable. Many of the other exhibitions were very powerful, often shot with great sensitivity. I particularly liked Jonas Bendiksen’s essay on climate change in Bangladesh, which captured the great dignity of his subjects. But there was nothing on the global economic crisis. Or anything much at all of real significance about the so-called ‘developed’ world: the enormous changes in working lives; the staggering contrasts of wealth and poverty; the pressing social issues.

Why is that? Why such extensive exploration of third world problems, and none of our own? Perhaps photographers (almost exclusively from the industrialised countries) are being realistic when they go for the ever more exotic or violent. Publishers have their own priorities, and this is what sells. Or perhaps photographers are just not looking hard enough at what is going on around them.

In fact, there are photographers working on other issues, but their work rarely appears in the high profile publications whose editors are so eagerly sought out by aspiring globetrotters in Perpignan. Visa Pour L’Image is a great institution but, although it sees itself as the standard-bearer of international photojournalism, it really only represents one, rather limited, sub-genre.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Access All Areas (almost)

The photographs above and below, shot in Musgrave Park Hospital, Belfast, are unusual. Not in the way they were taken, or for any exceptional artistic merit - but because they were taken at all.

I’ve written before about the ever-increasing privatisation of public space, the restrictions this imposes on our freedom of action, and how the public realm is becoming a smaller and smaller place. This modern day version of the Enclosures has not only handed control of our streets to private corporations, but also our hospitals, schools, prisons, sports centres and more. As a result, photography in many such workplaces has been almost impossible in recent years.

These photographs are evidence that the move from public to private can be, and is being, reversed. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all contracting out of hospital cleaning and many other hospital ancillary services has ended. The relevant authorities have ditched ideology and realised that they are better off with directly employed staff.

It’s not the sort of thing that gets on the front pages, but it has had a big impact on the quality of services, and on the wages, terms and conditions of the workers who provide them. And it means that, almost for the first time since the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering in the mid-1980s, it is possible to record something of their working lives.

Private companies are accountable to their shareholders, concerned for their image, and unwilling to grant access to independent photographers or journalists who might provide the wrong sort of publicity – and overstretched workers on the minimum wage and lousy terms and conditions are unlikely to make good PR. Walking around hospitals in Belfast and Glasgow recently with a camera and a trade union rep from Unison, talking to directly employed staff proud to be back as part of the hospital team, was a pleasure I hadn’t experienced for nearly 25 years. I look forward to being able to do the same closer to home.

More pictures here. A video interview with Unison Branch Secretary Tom Hughes is here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Not the News of the World

The photo above, of the work of Developmental Dyscalculia specialist Trish Babtie, was taken earlier this week for what is likely to be the last issue of InstEd. If the magazine does close, it will be the second publication for which I have worked regularly to fold this year. The closures are a scandal, but not of the kind currently filling the front pages.

InstEd, in which my photos have featured since its first issue in 2007, is published termly by the Institute of Education and distributed to all London primary and secondary schools. Its remit is to relate the Institute’s academic research to the practice of teachers in the classroom. Its probable demise is a result of Higher Education funding cuts. Paddington People, a quarterly magazine produced by the Paddington Development Trust (PDT) since 2000, put out its last edition in January. Its pages provided information on local community initiatives to the residents of four of the most deprived wards in the capital. The cuts to PDT’s funding were particularly egregious: they followed a tour of the trust’s projects by the Minister for Civil Society Nick Hurd. The Old Etonian, on one of his first trips into the real world after the 2010 election (below), lavished great praise on all he saw, spoke glowingly of the so-called ‘Big Society’ and, on returning to his office, cut the organisation’s funding with almost immediate effect.

Both magazines, in their different ways, delivered important information of direct relevance to their readers. Not something many would claim for the NOTW. They are just two closures that I happen to know of through my work. How many more local or specialist publications are going to the wall as a result of this government’s all-out assault on the public and voluntary sectors? Now that's a real scandal.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Stand Your Ground

As part of the London Street Photography Festival, which runs in venues across the capital for all of July, I joined five other photographers and a team of videographers last week in London Wall, a major City of London thoroughfare.

The idea was to test what would happen as we went about our entirely legitimate business, photographing from the public highway in an area heavily monitored by private security guards. Each photographer was assigned a stretch of street and a videographer to record any interactions with guards or police. My patch was outside the Deutsche Bank building, which occupies a whole block between Moorgate and Bishopsgate.

It only took a couple of minutes before I was approached by a guard. who came out of the bank to ask what I was doing. When I said I was “just taking pictures” he was polite and did nothing to stop me. As I proceeded round the block with videographer Liam Rickets we were stopped twice more by different Deutsche Bank staff, but not prevented from filming or taking pictures. One said that if we were going to spend long in the area, he would have to take our names, because that was “the correct procedure”, but we pointed out that he had no legal right to do so, and he did nothing about it. I found all this pleasantly surprising – in the past I have found private security, in the City and elsewhere, to be much more obstructive.

This was indeed the case half an hour later, in nearby Gresham Street. We were stopped outside No.10 and told that, if we photographed the building, the security manager would be called, and he, in turn, would call the police. The guard was polite, and didn’t deny that we had the legal right to photograph from the public highway, but claimed his proposed course of action was necessary for security reasons, as the building housed a Lloyds trading floor. He also pointed out that calling the police would waste both his time and ours. His appeal to “security” was nonsense, of course – I could see little more than my own reflection in the tinted glass windows, and pictures of the building are freely available online on Google Street View, Alamy, Flickr and elsewhere – but dealing with the police would seriously have impeded my working day, had I being attempting serious photography in the area.

The other photographers had similar experiences, documented in a film of the day to be shown and discussed at Stand Your Ground on 20 July at Housmans Bookshop. To me it seems that, in the City of London at least, campaigning by I'm a Photographer, Not a Terrorist and others has had some effect. But if you’re photographing out on the streets in the City it is likely that you will sometimes be obstructed. And you’ll almost certainly be stopped and questioned - albeit quite politely.

You can read more on the NUJ London Photographers’ Branch website. An earlier piece on the problems of street photography is here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Last days

Hillwood, one of Age Concern Camden's three Resource Centres, will close at the end of June, an early victim of the coalition government's spending cuts. Some regular users of the Euston day centre who are eligible for specialist transport will be able move elsewhere, but many others will no longer have a local place to meet, get support and advice, have lunch, and engage in activities.

“We’re all in this together”, Cameron, Osborne and Clegg said. But it seems that some are more in it than others. More pictures here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Back to the future

A three hour shift that starts at 5.00am is not for the faint-hearted, but the cleaning team that takes care of the offices, marble staircases and tiled corridors of Islington’s rather elegant Town Hall seem quite content.

Since the expiry of a 10 year contract with private company Kier Building Maintenance in October 2010, the 130 cleaners of borough’s 70 municipal buildings are once again directly employed by the local authority. The transfer back to an in-house service has seen the cleaners’ pay rise significantly to the London Living Wage level of £8.30 an hour, with improved conditions and no job losses. According to Council Leader Catherine West, the new arrangement costs less and, in addition to higher pay, offers the employees job security, access to the council pension scheme and the feeling of being “part of a team”.

It seems that the predictable consequences of the large-scale contracting out of council and other public services introduced by the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s, and left unchanged by the New Labour governments that followed, are finally being recognised in some quarters. Other council services in Islington are being reviewed, and further afield, hospital cleaners in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are now all directly employed, in an attempt to halt the disastrous spread of hospital infections. More pictures here.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

News value? Not much

Just three days after the very thoroughly photographed gathering of a couple of hundred pro-cuts provocateurs outside Parliament (see below), a march of several thousand from University College Hospital to Whitehall was largely ignored by the mainstream media. The relative news values of the two events suggest that marches and petitions, on their own, are unlikely to shift the political agenda. For that to happen, an organisation with significant public recognition would need to formulate and propound a clear alternative to the current neo-liberal orthodoxy. Now that would be news.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Massed Media

There were a large number of photographers at a very small gathering of anti-debt, anti-tax protesters opposite Parliament last Saturday morning. Possibly as many as covered the much larger demonstration, against cuts to benefits and services for the disabled, earlier in the week. Amongst the rather smartly dressed agitators were a few rightist celebrities not normally seen out on the street – UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Conservative blogger Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines), Bill Cash MP – but hardly enough to justify such media interest.

Of course, the rarity of such an event makes it instantly more appealing as a news story, and photos duly appeared in various publications the next day. That novelty value illustrates an essential truth about news: that it has to be - new. It does not report what is, but what has changed, or is different. That is why a train crash makes the national headlines, but the average nine deaths a day on the roads only make the locals. And why so many of the ongoing issues that confront people every day go largely unreported.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

TESCO: Every little helps

At an assembly marking the 10th anniversary of the Living Wage Campaign last week, Citizens UK launched a campaign to persuade supermarket chain Tesco to pay its workers a Living Wage. The company’s “every little helps” slogan, designed to promote its low prices, applies equally well to the wages of its employees, as was made clear in personal testimony on the impact of the Living Wage on their own lives by individual members.

The community organisation also announced the updated Living Wage rate for London (£8.30 an hour), and for the rest of the UK (£7.20). The National Minimum Wage is £5.93. More pictures here.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Wedding Dress

People had differing ideas as to what to wear for last Friday’s big wedding. Union Jacks were everywhere, and republicans will have been disappointed at the paucity of dissenting voices, although there were a few on show. It’s hard to tell how much of the hype was generated by self-serving media hysteria. But the fact that 2 billion people worldwide were watching, if true, is astonishing. And mildly depressing. More pictures here.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Jeers for Georgian MPs

On Saturday, 9 April, crowds gathered outside the Parliament building in Tbilisi to mark the anniversary of the 1989 massacre by Soviet troops of 20 hunger strikers (above). Times have changed, but despite the Rose Revolution of 2003, which ended the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze, opposition party members and supporters still face threats and intimidation. In October three opposition party leaders were arrested and charged with fraud and possession of weapons, charges they strongly deny. This was followed by the shooting of the son and daughter-in-law of Georgian Party activist Amiran Iobashvili. Iobashvili himself was beaten up outside his home by unknown assailants shortly after the May 2008 parliamentary elections.

At the rally, a group of MPs was greeted with jeers and whistles. In stark contrast, the venerable Ilia II, Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia, was mobbed as he attempted to reach the ‘martyrs’ memorial’ (below). More pictures here.

Health Reform – Georgia style

We should count ourselves lucky that Andrew Lansley, our floundering Health Secretary, has not taken a study tour to Georgia. In the former Soviet Republic, public hospitals are being closed down or sold off at short notice, often in transactions with private buyers that are less than transparent. Resistance from trade unions is hampered by a draconian labour code, brought in by President Mikhail Saakashvili in 2006. According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the code has undermined fundamental workers rights, and many trade unionists complain of intimidation by both government and employers.

In Tbilisi the leading hospital for reconstructive surgery in the Caucasus (above) has been sold to a private company and suffered a major reduction in beds and staffing levels. At the same time costs of treatment have risen while, as the ITUC also reports, government policies have led to rising levels of poverty - clearly visible in central Tbilisi (below). All an indication of what might happen in the UK, were Lansley’s star to rise again. More pictures here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Destined for the chop

The after-school club at The Winch, a voluntary sector youth project in Swiss Cottage, London, is one of many services for children and young people threatened with closure as a result of the government spending cuts. The primary age children are collected from school and cared for until 6.00pm. Cutting the club will not only impact on the children and play workers, but also on parents who rely on it for the care of their children while they are at work. A strange way to go about boosting the economy. More pictures here.

What happens next?

Yesterday’s TUC March for the Alternative saw between 250,000 and 500,000 demonstrators parade through central London calling for an end to the government’s cuts in public spending. Unsurprisingly, the march has not lead to an immediate reversal of policy, despite the impressive turnout. But it has perhaps laid down a marker indicating the likely public response when the coalition austerity programme begins to implode, as it surely will. Watch this space. More pictures here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

British Journal of Photography articles online

Three articles I’ve written for the BJP over the last few months are now available online - two on photo libraries, and one on the growth of community photography projects in the mid-1970s and their subsequent decline.
Magnum Photos’ Tagging Game
Keywording is Key
Radical Losses

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A Rock and a Hard Place

When Camden Council leader Nasim Ali spoke to the Bengali Workers’ Association at the Surma Centre, up the road from Euston station, a couple of weeks ago, he was among friends and family. He grew up round the corner and first visited the centre when he was 14.

Labour took control of the council in May 2010, ending the four-year rule of a Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition, and now Ali finds himself in the unenviable position of having to implement radical spending cuts imposed by a similarly constituted national government. He clearly sympathises with the vociferous campaigns being waged by Camden residents in defence of local services - as is obvious from his addresses to protestors both on their home ground (above) and outside the Town Hall last week (below) – but he is caught between the wishes of the residents who voted for him, and the council's legal obligation to pass a budget within constraints set down by George Osborne and Eric Pickles. Not a good place to be.

More pictures here, and here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

On the Front Line

Rosie (above) is 91, and a regular visitor at Age Concern Camden's Great Croft Resource Centre in King's Cross, which is threatened with closure following cuts to the organisation's funding by Camden Council. Despite the government’s promises that frontline services would not be hit by its controversial deficit reduction programme, the knock-on effects on services delivered by both local authorities and the voluntary organisations they fund are becoming all too apparent. More pictures here.

Two other Age Concern centres in the borough, Henderson Court and Hillwood, are also scheduled for closure, but the elderly users of all three have mounted a vigorous defence campaign. The council will vote on the closures later this month.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Photography Not Permitted

Forbidden Territory from Philip Wolmuth on Vimeo.

More and more apparently public places in UK cities are in fact privately owned or managed developments, where photography is not permitted. Forbidden Territory, which introduced a talk by Anna Minton at the NUJ London Photographers’ Branch monthly meeting in January, documents some of the places in London that I have been asked to leave.

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Passing Moment?

The student demonstration in London last weekend was, by all accounts, significantly smaller and calmer than previous outings. There was nothing to match the earlier trashing of Conservative Party offices in Millbank, or the confrontation with Charles’s and Camilla’s Rolls Royce – images of which raised smiles around the world at the end of last year.

It seems that the students’ moment may have passed, the relevant votes having been cast without the government giving ground on the raising of tuition fees or the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. But that doesn’t mean the demonstrators have failed. The students were just the first to be hit by the dismantling of the welfare state that is currently under way, and they have laid down a marker that others will follow. An extraordinary number of anti-cuts campaigns have sprung up across the country in the last few weeks, as fine words about front-line services become a reality of closed facilities for young and old. There is much more to come. Watch this space.

More pictures here.

Discretion is the Better Part of Valour

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Big Society Ha Ha Ha

Today’s Town Hall protest against the proposed closure of Age Concern Camden’s three resource centres marks only the beginning of the dismantling of services provided by the voluntary sector in the borough - and elsewhere. As the government’s spending cuts feed through to local councils and on to the Third Sector organisations they fund, it’s hard to see anything that might resemble a “Big Society” surviving.

The three day centres - Great Croft, Hillwood and Henderson Court - provide a lifeline for their elderly users which will be impossible to replace. Once they have gone, Age Concern’s Good Neighbour schemes are also destined for the chop. If the Orwellian “Big Society” phrase had any real meaning, these schemes would surely exemplify its essence. For the price of one part-time coordinator’s salary, 50 carefully matched and dedicated volunteers make weekly visits to the housebound and isolated elderly in their neighbourhood.

If anyone had doubts that Prime Minister David Cameron’s catchphrase was nothing more than a content-free PR soundbite, cuts to services such as these should put them straight.

More pictures here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Good Old Days?

Ever since I first started out with a camera I’ve heard talk of the “good old days”. First, it was of a time when Picture Post was on sale at every corner shop, and photojournalists ruled the world. A little later, it harked back to the era of Don McCullin at the Sunday Times, and the once-glorious weekend colour supplements. Later still, the Independent magazine, under Colin Jacobson, was held up as the last survivor of a lost golden age and the great tradition begun by Bert Hardy, Stefan Lorant, Cartier-Bresson and the rest. Then it too went the way of all the others.

It’s a seductive take: right now there are many reasons why the “concerned photographer” (a term current back then) might think their chosen medium is on a downward path. Magazines, and many newspapers, are dominated by celebrity and lifestyle trivia, with virtually no space for serious picture stories; staff photographers on the nationals are an almost extinct species; freelancers are ten a penny, their ranks swollen by digitally-equipped wannabes and hobbyists prepared to work for peanuts; commission rates and repro fees have been static or falling for years, and copyright is under threat from big business interests and business-friendly legislators. Many photographers are feeling very hard pressed indeed.

The days of news weeklies filled with extended picture stories were undoubtedly a high point in the relatively brief history of print photojournalism, but their demise was not the end of the line. Today, the web is spawning new outlets and multimedia forms that expand the ways in which photography can be used to tell stories. And pictures are everywhere, made and seen in numbers and formats that would have been unthinkable before the advent of digital technology. It is true that the majority are dross, and too many picture editors seem happy to make choices based on cost, not quality, but the new technology has created at least as many opportunities as problems.

Many of those problems are the result of its revolutionary impact on publishing. The industry is struggling to adapt to a completely new business model – or possibly several of them. And it’s only part way done. The big question is, how do you make money distributing content on the web, when everyone expects it to be free? Cut costs with copyright grabs and rate cuts? Boost revenues with paywalls and advertising? Probably all of the above and more, with no-one sure what is going to work, and who will go to the wall.

We are in a period of transition, but the death of photojournalism is not inevitable. Sooner or later, viable revenue streams for publishing on the web will be established by the big corporate players, and smaller niche companies will follow in their wake (or vice versa). Who knows – even print might survive in some form or other. However it works out, there will still be an enormous demand for photography. And if paid-for content is to stand out in a web awash with oceans of cheap-and-cheerful mediocrity, dross will not be good enough. Quality will be at a premium, and quality will only be possible if the new reality is a sustainable one for photographers. Cutting rates and grabbing rights isn’t going to work in the long term.

So maybe there are good old days still to come. Of course, to get to there we have to find ways of surviving the short term. Undoubtedly, as a first step, that survival requires a vigorous defence of rates and rights. As for what else - answers on a postcard, please.

(For an alternative view, check out Neil Burgess on EPUK)