Friday, November 16, 2012

Dormant History

There must be many photographers whose working lives began before the digital era and who, like me, have shelves of black and white negatives lying dormant, the stories they tell hidden from view.

To be visible, images now need to be online, or at least on-screen. But unless they are in immaculate condition, digitising black and white negatives is either expensive (commercial rates start at around £35 + VAT per scan), or extremely time-consuming - an average of about an hour a frame, in my recent experience.

Why does it take so long? The tonal adjustments that need to be made to the raw scans, and the captioning and keywording that make the finished files accessible, take a while. But it is dust and scratches that are the killer. They seem to be unavoidable on film, although careful processing and storage can minimise the damage. Film scanners equipped with the right technology can remove them from most colour films, but not from silver-based black and white. The clean-up must be done by hand, spotting each blemish of the scanned file with a mouse click. On a high resolution scan there can be hundreds of them. There are Photoshop short-cuts that work on parts of some images, but they can degrade grain pattern and sharpness if used too liberally. Having just scanned a small set of 30 year-old photos of the campaign over the status of political prisoners in Northern Irish gaols, it is evident that my early rolls of Tri-X were not always well processed or cared for.

On the plus side, there is satisfaction in knowing that, unlike the retouching of paper prints, each scan only needs to be processed once. And still being in a position to do all this must count as some sort of success: the need to digitise their collections was what bankrupted many of the smaller photo agencies during the transfer from film to pixels, and led to the closure or takeover of so many of them. At least I'm still here.

But it's important not to forget the point of all this technical stuff: what happened 30 years ago is still relevant today. The government is currently pushing through plans for secret courts (back then it was internment without trial and juryless Diplock courts), and only this week the prime minister indicated that, despite a ruling by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, he doesn't have a problem with the potential use of evidence obtained by torture (back then it was commonplace in the Six Counties). History is always worth a look, especially if you like repeats.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Georgia On My Mind

Following elections earlier this month, it is unclear how far Georgia's new government will go in honouring a pledge to reform the draconian labour code introduced by the previous regime. Although opposition coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili is now Prime Minister, Mikheil Saakashvili, whose United National Movement lost its parliamentary majority, remains President.

As I wrote at the time, the effects of the code were apparent when I visited the former Soviet republic last year to document the work of public sector unions. Trade unionists were already complaining of intimidation by both government and employers. Now a friend, recently returned from Tbilisi, tells me that, in the last 18 months, membership of the Georgian health workers union has fallen from 27,000 to 3,000 - a catastrophic collapse that suggests the situation has deteriorated further.

The legacy of Cold War realpolitik meant that the UK was quick to leap to the defence of Saakashvili's misguided attack on South Ossetia in 2008, whilst his attacks on workers' rights, in contravention of article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, went unremarked. However, despite the lack of pressure from its western allies, a recent report suggests things may be about to get better. More pictures here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The People's Library

Local residents and a group of activists from Occupy London, who took over the empty Friern Barnet Library a few weeks ago, have already filled its shelves to overflowing with books donated by supporters. The newly restocked People's Library and community hub is open six days a week and hosts a range of events for children and adults, as well as running a trust-based book-lending service.

A court hearing in December will determine whether Barnet Council can evict the community librarians and sell off the building as part of its One Barnet £1 billion outsourcing programme. Until then, at least, volunteers and users have an opportunity to demonstrate how such a service might operate without local government support. A couple of months is one thing, but it's hard to see how it can survive in the long term without a regular source of income. In the meantime, it's a great advert for community solidarity and co-operative action. More pictures here (and more to follow).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Don't Applaud, Just Throw Money

Down the road from the Tate Modern gallery in Southwark, London, is an animatronic sculpture by the public art collective Greyworld. Monument to an Unknown Artist (above) looks out over cranes and the rapidly rising towers of a new residential development called Neo Bankside. Apartments in the blocks are on sale for prices ranging from £1m to £6.5m. A quick Google search (my Latin is rusty) reveals that the inscription on the monument - Non plaudite modo pecuniam jacite - translates as: Don't applaud, just throw money. Neat placement.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Consultation? No Thanks!

Consultation is very popular with the authorities in west London. Residents in Earls Court are still fighting to prevent the demolition of their homes following a deeply flawed consultation exercise by Hammersmith and Fulham Council. Now the local health service is under threat.

In the last couple of weeks there have been two big demonstrations by residents and health workers in Hammersmith (above) and Southall (below) over proposals to close the A&E departments of four local hospitals: Charing Cross, Central Middlesex, Ealing and Hammersmith. As with the Earls Court redevelopment scheme, the plans are 'out for consultation', but it is clear that NHS North West London has already made up its mind. In the current climate the powers that be will have a hard time convincing anyone that 'reorganisation' isn't just a euphemism for cuts in services. The demonstrations are likely to continue.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The New Localism

Last night Hammersmith & Fulham Council agreed to sell West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates to developer Capital and Counties, who intend to demolish them to make way for an £8 billion Earls Court regeneration scheme.

A very large majority of the residents of the 760 homes on the two estates are strongly opposed to the plan, and have put in a rival bid through a resident-controlled housing association, West Kensington & Gibbs Green Community Homes.

Despite the council's approval, the plan requires the go-ahead from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Which way will Eric Pickles jump? It would be a good opportunity for him to showcase the new localism his department has been championing so vociferously for the last couple of years. Will he rule for the local residents, or for Capital and Counties? His decision will finally reveal whether localism means real new powers for communities, or whether it's just business as usual. If it goes against them, the residents won't give up. It could be a long campaign. More photos here and here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Where the Money's Gone

Last week's sale of Getty Images by one private equity company to another doesn't change much, but the figures bandied about in the financial press make interesting reading for any photographers wondering where their once-reasonable earnings have disappeared to.

The Carlyle Group paid Hellman and Friedman $3.3 billion for a controlling stake in what is now the world's largest image and video stock agency. Hellman and Friedman bought it for $2.4 billion in 2008, extracted $950,000 in dividends, and walked away from their latest trade with a total profit of $1.85 billion, minus debt charges (half the original purchase price was borrowed money).

That's a pretty spectacular return. Almost as spectacular as the fall in reproduction fees paid to photographers over the same period. A transition from print to web that has seen many publications' advertising and other revenues plummet, coupled with a chaotic overabundance of digital imagery, has brought image prices to an all-time low. Editorial pictures that would have fetched a fee of £100 or more ten years ago, now commonly sell for £20 or less via bulk-buy agency deals.

The market dominance of Getty and the (very) few other big players allows them to set prices that are, in the long term, unsustainable for those who produce the so-called 'content' they so profitably distribute. Either a very large number of photographers are going to go out of business, or a lot more of the money that is being generated needs to find its way back to the people who create the value.

Is there a silver lining? According to a report by Reuters “....the prices commanded online are still lower than in print. But as the resolution on screens of portable and desktop devices becomes ever higher, Getty expects online pricing to improve.”

Well, in the middle of negotiating a sale that big, they would say that, wouldn't they? Can prices paid for photography go up as well as down? It's been one way for such a long time, I've forgotten. And if they did go up, who would walk away with the cash?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Emperor's New Clothes?

The Photographers' Gallery, which re-opened in May following an 18 month refit, is currently showing work by the four finalists in the gallery's annual Deutsche Borse Photography prize. Last year's exhibition (held at the University of Westminster during the gallery closure) came in for some strong criticism for its narrow, overly-conceptual focus. This year is no different.

The text panels which introduce each photographer set the tone. The “interventions” of John Stezaker, who hasn't actually taken any photographs (just cut up other people's), “present us with a dislocated view of the world”. Pieter Hugo “presents us with a world that is characterised by complex relationships and interdependencies, somewhere between modernity, tradition and myth”. And Rinko Kawauchi has the ability to “turn the mundane into the extraordinary and poetic...”, a cliché that has prefaced countless other exhibits with nothing to say.

Perhaps the grandest claim is for the work of Christopher Williams, whose series “addresses the impact of the Cold War on our society”. The picture chosen for the catalogue (and the only one I can remember of, I think, three exhibited) is a large colour print (the favoured form for this sort of thing) of red and green darkroom trays. Perhaps the blurb is right when it goes on to state that “Williams' projects defy easy reading as they involve multiple sub-texts and themes, layers of connotations and background stories”.

Although I am a documentary photographer with a desire to use images to communicate, I am not averse to the poetic, subtle, ambiguous, or elegaic. However, even if it is any or all of these things, an exhibition also needs to have a coherent purpose. Only Pieter Hugo's (visually very strong) photographs (above), of Ghanaian slum dwellers recycling electronic waste, come close. But because they aspire to the status of 'art' rather than photojournalism, they are not presented in a context sufficient to fully explain what is going on, and why, or how such an unsatisfactory situation might be remedied.

It's the only game in town, though. Galleries are flourishing, even as newspapers fold. Auction house prices rocket as reproduction fees plummet. Everyone is a photographer now. Except Martin Parr - the one-time photographer and Deutsche Borse Prize jury member is now listed on the gallery wall as an 'artist'. Wise move.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cryptic Lighting

Even when not shooting for editorial, I regard myself as a photojournalist, reporting the world as I find it and, unless it's unavoidable, I prefer not to use artificial lighting. But there are times when the available light just isn't of the right quality, quantity or direction to make a picture that will tell the story.

The crypt of St.Mary Magdalene Church in North Paddington, which I was asked to photograph recently, is a dank, dark place with a trickle of daylight filtering through narrow windows high up one of its dripping walls – and a surprising secret. To one side of the roughly rendered brick arches that support the nave and aisles above is an extraordinarily ornate chapel. Its crumbling plasterwork is painted sky blue; the intricate altarpiece is covered in gold (paint, not the real thing, I assume). It has been disused for years, but the contrast with the gloom that surrounds it is still startling. All this can only be seen with the help of three plug-in builders' lamps, the crypt's only regular light source.

The photos above and below were taken using two off-camera flashguns and one of the builders' lamps. The lighting has undoubtedly changed the look and feel of the crypt and its decaying chapel, but it has brought out striking architectural features that would otherwise have been lost in the murk. Did I go too far in letting my lights colour the arches blue (above)? I don't think so. In my book, it's an acceptable manipulation of reality, given the purpose at hand - the pictures will accompany an application by the Paddington Development Trust to the Heritage Lottery Fund, for money to renovate the building and create a community arts centre.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Another Way of Telling*

The ability of my point-and-shoot camera to record video was not a feature to which I had paid much attention until about three years ago, when I was asked to do some simple 'talking head' interviews to accompany a photo story. Since then HD video has become standard on professional DSLRs, and a growing number of photographers have begun to experiment with it, producing short movie and multimedia pieces. The form is ideally suited to the web, the dominant medium of the age, and it seems that more and more publications and organisations are commissioning this sort of work instead of stills.

The evidence is only anecdotal, but given the popularity and flexibility of online video, coupled with the negative impact on many photographers and writers of the ongoing shift from print to cyberspace, a move towards multimedia and video-based journalism makes a lot of sense. What are the implications?

Multi-skilling is not new to photographers who, over recent years, have had to adapt from film to digital and keep up with continual hardware and software upgrades, but shooting video is a substantial leap into a medium with some very different dimensions. For many, dealing with audio is a whole new ball game, as is getting to grips with video-editing software.

With regards to equipment, although the new DSLRs are capable of producing seductively high movie quality, they have some serious limitations as video cameras, particularly in relation to ergonomics and focussing. On many models monitoring and controlling sound quality requires clumsy workarounds. These factors make them very good for some purposes, and very bad for others, with implications for both the style and content of what can be done with them.

For freelancers whose incomes have already been hit by falling reproduction fees and fewer commissions, finance may be a problem. Even assuming ownership of an appropriate, video-enabled camera, there are significant additional costs: tripod heads, microphones, stands, editing software, hard drives and other bits and pieces. In my case, a more powerful graphics card was needed to run Final Cut Pro on my Mac.

For some people there may be another issue. In old-fashioned trade union jargon it was known as 'demarcation'. Are photographers taking the work of videographers and film-makers? We complain when regional newspaper employers send their writers out with cameras. Is this any different? As a photographer who writes, I've never known how to answer that question – other than to say that, with some notable exceptions, writers with cameras tend to produce pretty poor pictures.

In fact, the context of what we might call the 'new video' is very different. This is not newspaper owners trying to cut costs at the expense of jobs, but photojournalists – particularly freelancers - adapting to the enormous changes brought about by the growing dominance of the web. The content that has migrated from print to webpage has not done so unchanged, but is increasingly exploiting the richer possibilities of the digital medium, and is prompting a realignment of skills from all concerned in the process. There is a niche here for low-budget video and multimedia produced with a photojournalistic sensibility. Not cut-price BBC or Wardour Street, but something specifically suited to the new website-oriented universe.

Why am I writing this now? Because I've moved on from my point-and-shoot and recently completed a commission shot on a DSLR. The form offers another way of adding words to pictures, and I find it very attractive. Suddenly the subject has a voice. Although the maker still controls the final output, the balance of power is shifted. The video (above), about the reorganisation of Camden Council's housing repair programme, is really a piece of reportage, shot in much the same way I would have gone about a photo story. The subject may sound like the topic of a tedious Powerpoint presentation, but it really isn't: the voices of public service workers talking about what they do each day and the quality of the service they provide, are totally engaging. At just under nine minutes, it's probably a bit longer than a typical made-for-web piece – the target is often between two and five minutes - but it was shot to a brief, and around nine minutes was what was required.

For me, this is doing what I have always done - visual storytelling - using the most appropriate technology available. I'm still a photojournalist working on my own. I am not attempting the complexities open to a four-person film crew, but can offer instead a photojournalist's eye and understanding, and a cost more appropriate to the limited purpose at hand – in this case a showing at a conference and extended use on the council's intranet.

I don't think I'm taking anyone's bread from their mouths, or at least no more than any freelancer competing for work. The fact that I sometimes shoot stills and sometimes shoot video doesn't really make any difference. The internet is steadily reshaping the way journalism works, offering both threats and opportunities to those whose living depends on it. In the move away from print, much advertising revenue has gone AWOL. Although there is big money to be made on the web, not enough of it is filtering down to creators (particularly photographers) to compensate for that loss - the extraordinary proliferation of still imagery online has also contributed to devaluing its currency. It's an adapt-or-die situation. But it's not just necessity driving change: the new microphone in my bag has added another dimension to what I can do, and I really like it.

* apologies to John Berger

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Grassroots Government

Last week the residents of Queen's Park ward in Westminster won a two year campaign to establish a Community Council, the first such local elected authority in London since parish councils were abolished in the capital in 1963. In a referendum made possible following a change in the law introduced in 2007, 64% voted in favour of a precept which will add between £39 to £44 a year to typical council tax bills and provide the new body with a budget of £100,000.

The area has a long history of community activism. Its current most visible manifestation is Queen's Park Neighbourhood Forum, a residents' organisation set up with the help of Paddington Development Trust. The forum began the campaign for the new council after its funding was cut by the coalition government. Although situated in one of the wealthiest boroughs in the country, the ward is one of the 10% most deprived - in marked contrast to the 'other' Queen's Park, the upmarket area across the tracks in Brent.

Elections for the new council will take place in 2014. More pictures here

Monday, May 14, 2012

60,000 Journalists

According to the Metropolitan Police, 60,000 journalists (20,000 accredited and 40,000 unaccredited) are expected to be covering the London Olympic Games in July. That's enough to three-quarters fill the main stadium. When I first heard the figure quoted by Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison at a press briefing last month, I found it hard to believe - but then I remembered Kari Kuukka's 360 degree panorama shot at the Olympic stadium in Beijing four years ago. It's not my idea of fun.

Of course, the 40,000 unaccredited writers, photographers and videographers won't even be able get inside the 11 mile, £80 million fence that circles the Olympic Park, let alone the stadium itself. And if they're seen loitering nearby, they're likely to attract the attention of the police and the vast army of security guards hired for the duration – as I did recently.

If you're an NUJ member and one of the 40,000, it would be well worth coming to the next meeting of the London Photographers Branch on 29 May, when human rights and public law solicitor Chez Cotton will be discussing how best to negotiate police, security and military personnel, and the various public order and other laws likely to be deployed in the capital during what promises to be an interesting few months.

The photos above and below were taken during the recent London Prepares series of test events. More pictures here

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Smart Phone

Passing through the new extension of Kings Cross station for the first time yesterday, I was struck by the roof and the light, but the only lens I had on me was the one peeking out of the back of my Android smartphone. Although I've had it for almost a year, I've hardly used the inbuilt camera, unwilling to waste time making images with its tiny sensor. Seen in full magnification, the 14.5MB files reveal sharpening artefacts, highlight clipping and a fair bit of noise - but the Kings Cross ceiling looks surprisingly good on a screen at normal viewing size. I can see the attraction of the Instagram, Lightbox, and Urbian's Retro Camera apps – all ways of acknowledging the limitations of the form, whilst at the same time making the most of them. It's pretty obvious why sales of compact cameras are plummeting, but I won't be getting rid of my Nikons any time soon.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

London Calling

At last night's Mayoral Accountability Assembly, tightly orchestrated by London Citizens, the four candidates seeking election to City Hall were asked to commit to the community organisers' 'City Safe' programme, and to policies on the Living Wage, social housing and youth employment.

Boris Johnson did his usual Billy Bunter act, blustering his way through awkward detail, waving his arms about and generally playing the buffoon. In sharp contrast, Ken Livingstone responded carefully to each of the points put to him by the selected delegates, but looked worn down by his non-stop electioneering schedule. With only a week to go, it's neck-and-neck.

The other two candidates on show, Jenny Jones of the Green Party and Brian Paddick for the Lib-Dems, seemed eminently reasonable. Neither stands a chance. More pictures here and here.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dependency Culture

Public libraries around where I live in Cricklewood, north-west London, have been hit hard by the government's austerity programme, but my photo library, an essential part of my daily workflow, is safe, hosted far away in New York by Photoshelter. At least I hope it is: at the end of March the company implemented the first phase of a four stage re-vamp over eight hours of a Saturday night - and caused consternation among many of its 70,000 users (myself included, for a short while) when they logged back in on Sunday morning.

The Photoshelter portal offers photographers a well designed web platform on which to present their work, making it as accessible as that of corporate giants Getty or Corbis. It is flexible in design and functionality: I use my site both as an archive and as a means of presenting and delivering commissioned work to clients. Its behind-the-scenes architecture allows for different ways of organising images in galleries and collections, with a powerful system for granting or limiting access to them. It looks good, and clients find it easy to use. The staff on the help desk respond quickly to queries. It is very good value for money.

So what went wrong with the re-vamp? The 'update to a brand new Photoshelter', as the company billed it, not only involved a radical re-structuring of the user interface (UI), but also a move to new solid-state servers. The latter meant shifting a very substantial quantity of data, and it took longer than anticipated. Faced with a new UI and files that hadn't yet arrived at their final destination, some users were understandably alarmed – their life's work apparently lost in cyberspace.

Once the dust had settled, however, I found all my files back where they belonged. A number of site features were missing: most were restored over the following days; some are still pending. I'm not a software engineer, but it seems likely that more real-world testing before going live would have been a good idea. Was it worth all the bother? As Mao said of the French Revolution - it's too early to say. This was only part one of the four part 'upgrade'. My site is working fine - but it worked fine before. To the outside world, nothing has changed. Behind the scenes, the new UI is simpler but, for the moment at least, at the expense of some minor losses of functionality. Overall, I haven't noticed any significant benefit from what was, for many users, a major disruption. But I haven't noticed any significant negatives either: Photoshelter is still a very good platform.

What the upgrade has demonstrated, however, is just how dependent we - as photographers and, more generally, as citizens of the world wide web - have become on services over which we have little control. I first came to Photoshelter as the result of a real online disaster (OK, no lives were lost, but it caused a lot of people a lot of distress): the collapse of Digital Railroad. That photo archive platform, also based in New York, went belly-up in 2008, sacked its staff and wiped its servers. Large quantities of data were permanently lost - an electronic equivalent of the current state of my local public library.

The Photoshelter episode is entirely different, an attempt to improve services for its clients. In the weeks leading up to the changes, the company ran explanatory webinars and provided plentiful written documentation. Some of the alarm expressed on the help forum and elsewhere suggests that quite a few users had not been paying sufficient attention. But that is entirely understandable. One of the great things about Photoshelter is its off-the-shelf, almost instant, usability. Photographers have enough to worry about without concerning themselves with the arcane details of a new interface. Unfortunately, that's how the web works. It provides us with amazing new tools, but it can be hard work keeping up. Innovation is relentless. There will be more to come.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Dead Zone

I heard the siren and reached for my wallet. I was surprised they'd taken so long: I'd been walking along the pavement by the Athletes' Village construction site (above) with a camera round my neck for almost ten minutes. By the time the four police officers emerged from their vehicle I had a smile on my face and a press card in my hand. They were very polite, looked at the card, took my name, and drove off.

There are still four months to go before the Olympics come to town, but the area that stretches from the edges of newly fashionable Hackney Wick across to the rebranded Stratford City is already sterile.

It will be a long time before autonomous human activity is possible here. For now, the general public figure only as a security issue, or customers. It's rather like a giant airport, without the planes. Everywhere there are barriers, fences, and security guards in high-vis jackets. When the circus finally comes to town it will get worse. Drones, battleships and ground-to-air missiles have been promised.

From the Greenway, the well-used public footpath that runs along its southern edge, the out-of-bounds Olympic Park is underwhelming. Through wire mesh screens, even the supposedly iconic ArcelorMittal Orbit (below), by the usually wonderful Anish Kapoor, looks a mess, the sculpture's name itself a reminder of the dead hand of corporate capital that underpins the whole enterprise.

Sprawling around the north-east of the park the concrete towers of the 'Village', now jointly owned by the Qatari royal family and private UK investment company Delancey, are nearing completion. Overlooking the site from Stratford High Street is a 43 storey tower draped in huge banners advertising construction company Ardmore and Genesis Housing Association. And the self-styled 'Gateway to the Games' is Westfield Stratford City, the largest shopping centre in Europe.

If I were an athlete, focussed single-mindedly on the culmination of four years hard work, none of this would matter. But I'm not. I don't like starring on someone else's CCTV screen. I don't like being treated like a profit centre on legs. And I hate airports. There must be a better way to run a sports tournament.

More photos here

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Something is Happening Here

Anyone taking a stroll around the area to the east of London's Old Street roundabout for the first time might well start feeling like Bob Dylan's Mr Jones: you know that something is happening here, but you don't know what it is.

From high up on gable ends, right down to pavement level, sprayed onto walls, doors, shutters – flat surfaces of any kind – a painted army of the grotesque and the bizarre marches across the built environment. The buildings themselves are a contrasting mix of Victorian dereliction and the smartly modern. In between crumbling onetime industrial premises, recently converted factories and warehouses now host offices and apartments whose occupants are served by a growing number of minimalist galleries, fashionable bars, and Macbook-infested coffee shops.

The demographic is mostly young – twenty to thirtysomething – techy, tapered jeans and T shirts, some strange haircuts. The place is buzzing. Builders' cranes break up the skyline. The massive new concrete viaduct of the East London Line sweeps over road junctions and vacant lots. It doesn't feel like the recession has reached these parts, despite its proximity to Threadneedle Street.

But what's driving all this is not visible from the street. Hidden away in the new workspaces are between 300 and 600 tech 'start-ups' (estimates vary), some already pulling in big money, others hoping to justify the faith of their venture capital investors. People call this 'Silicon Roundabout'. The government prefers 'Tech City', but either way it's clearly thriving - the closest thing we've got to an economic success story.

Of course, economic crisis and government-induced austerity are not far away. Rough sleepers and rougher drinkers still hang out in the subways leading out of Old Street tube (it has free public toilets, an important facility for the homeless); at lunchtime, beggars sit on the ground by sandwich bars and cash machines. Not everyone is an IT entrepreneur: there are car washers and security guards, bar workers and shop assistants - and the occasional older resident or passer-by who may have lived there all their lives, but look about them as though they have strayed inadvertently onto another planet.

Why here? Immediately to the south, the steel and glass towers along Bishopsgate appear to be creeping relentlessly northwards; to the east, Stratford City is being sterilised in preparation for the Olympics. But for the moment rents are relatively cheap, and this, together with what Wired has described as 'a critical mass of available programming talent, and just enough outside investment', has combined to produce a place that actually makes stuff.

This is what unplanned regeneration looks like. It's not consumption-led, like Westfield's mega-mall in Stratford, or reliant on ever-inflating property prices, like the speculative scorched earth schemes favoured elsewhere in the capital (Hammersmith & Fulham's proposals for Earls Court, for instance). It's organic, a by-product of a new industrial revolution. There are still boarded-up buildings, makeshift conversions, and scrappy rubble-strewn corners, but it's a lot more interesting than the monolithic conceits of top-down re-development. And even if Mr Jones doesn't know exactly what it is, it's definitely not Desolation Row.

More photos here.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Consultation, Hammersmith & Fulham Style

Residents of West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates were last night turned away from a consultation meeting called to discuss proposals to sell their estates to a private developer and demolish them. Hammersmith and Fulham council officers refused to address the residents as a group, insisting they queue outside a small side room to be seen individually.

The council wants to knock down 760 homes to make way for a grand Earls Court redevelopment scheme. The Residents' Associations are totally opposed, and plan to use forthcoming legislation to take over the estates and run them as a resident-controlled mutual.

The meeting – held at a local Holiday Inn - appeared to be an attempt at divide and rule tactics, but many more residents turned up than could be dealt with one at a time. A letter of objection was handed over, and most left without speaking to anyone other than their neighbours.

More information is available on Dave Hill's London Blog.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Next Big Thing?

Since photo-blogging website Lightbox launched in June 2011, two million users have downloaded its Android mobile phone app.

According to co-founder and CEO Thai Tran (above), the site was originally conceived as a photography bolt-on to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. It soon evolved into something rather more ambitious when it became clear that many photographers – both amateur and professional - were using it as a stand-alone gallery for their work. Version two, launched in December, added social features enabling following and sharing, and very quickly established its own stand-alone community.

As well as direct access to the Lightbox website, the Android app contains an optional integrated QuickSnap camera. Like the popular Instagram and Hipstamatic apps for the iPhone, it offers in-phone image editing tools, but allows a choice of less stylised image outputs than the iOS programmes.

Tran isn't worrying about income streams – both access to the website and the app download are free. Twitter took three years to turn a profit, and Facebook took five, by which time it had 300 million users worldwide. For now, and for the next eighteen months, the priority for him and his eight-strong team is building the Lightbox user community, not revenue.

Will it be the next 'big thing'? The venture capital funded company is unusual in being so directly focussed on photography, but it is just one of several hundred tech start-ups now operating out of what has been dubbed 'Silicon Roundabout', the run-down but rapidly gentrifying commercial district around the Old Street roundabout, just north of the City of London. The government is hoping the area will become a London version of California's Silicon Valley, birthplace of some of the biggest businesses on the planet, and set up its Tech City initiative in 2010 to help make this happen.

Tech City has its critics, but IT entrepreneurs are widely seen as crucial in rebalancing the UK economy away from its over-reliance on the financial sector. Whether this happens, and whether Lightbox makes it up there with the global US brands, we'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, take a look at the Lightbox website. There's a surprising amount of interesting stuff on show.

More pictures of Silicon Roundabout are here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

All Work and No Pay

It's good to see Tesco franticly back-tracking in response to protests over its participation in the government's welfare-to-work programme. The campaign against workfare has widespread support and other high street retailers, fearing similar negative publicity, are under pressure to follow suit. Although the issue hit the headlines this week, it's been going on for years – ever since the previous Labour administration introduced Mandatory Work Related Activity as part of its New Deal. That's what's going on in the WH Smith store pictured below.

According to the Fair Pay Network, the average hourly rate for supermarket workers is £6.83, whilst the 'living wage' outside London is £7.20, and in London, £8.30. Low pay is bad enough. No pay is a step too far.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Austerity Blues #2

More on the ‘north-south divide’, with The Guardian reporting that “A stark north-south divide is laid bare by a study …. which shows towns and cities in the Midlands and the north are being hardest hit by the high street downturn.”

The problem was all too visible on a recent visit to Doncaster town centre (above) - shop vacancy rates in some northern towns are as high as 30%. But the ‘south’ is not a homogenous sea of prosperity and plenty. In the poorer districts of London (below) many shops stand empty – the averaged-out figures look a lot better than the shuttered-up shop fronts they conceal.

Are these pictures of poverty? Or austerity? They’re certainly part of the economic context, but not enough, on their own, to explain either. As I wrote recently, these are issues that cannot be captured in single frames.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Austerity Blues #1

Having written about the problems of picturing poverty in 21st Century Austerity Britain last week, I’m going to stick my neck out and attempt to do just that. It’s not going to be done with a single picture, or even a single posting on these pages. This is just a first instalment.

I’ll start by trying to confuse the ‘north-south divide’ issue even further: the pictures above and below were taken at a car boot sale near my home in London. Definitely south. More pictures here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Picturing Poverty

The Guardian newspaper recently illustrated a story on the ‘north-south divide’ with a picture of a child running down a Manchester back alley in the rain. The caption read “A child playing in Manchester. A charity says 1.6 million UK children live in poverty”. The alley does look typically northern, but nothing in the picture suggests deprivation, other than an echo, for photo buffs with a long memory, of a Bert Hardy photo of the Gorbals taken in 1948.

There is nothing wrong with the Guardian photo itself, just with how it has been used. The iconography of poverty too often makes use of stereotypes, and in this case the caption relies on ‘up north and wet’ to convey the intended meaning.

What does poverty look like when the sun is shining? According to the latest Indices of Multiple Deprivation, Jaywick Sands (below), close to the Essex resort of Clacton-on-Sea, is the most deprived ward in the UK. But despite the boarded-up shops and broken pavements, under a blue August sky, it doesn’t really look the part.

With some exceptions, it is difficult for a single image to capture either the experience, or the causes, of poverty in a developed western economy. We don’t have tin-roofed shanty towns (although Brooklands Estate in Jaywick, originally built as a low-cost beach-side holiday resort, comes close). Even the poorest child has shoes. The statistics tell us that a low income tends to result in obesity rather than emaciation.

Decaying infrastructure, as in Jaywick, signifies something is wrong, but not how it impacts on people’s lives, or how it got that way. No-one is suggesting that those living north of Watford Gap are particularly feckless. The poverty of the ‘north-south divide’ is clearly systemic, its causes macro-economic and political, usually complex, and often longstanding. Many parts of northern England have never recovered from the rapid de-industrialisation of the 1980s. The tens of thousands of jobs lost in coal and steel have not been replaced. How do you show something that isn’t there?

The exceptions – instances where a single photograph does unambiguously capture something of the feel of poverty – are also problematic. Obvious examples are the images of rough sleepers used in fund-raising publicity by charities for the homeless. Family breakdown, mental illness and drug misuse are the most common reasons people end up on the street. But the focus on individual stories, however tragic, which such images encourage, diverts attention away from the failures, also systemic, that underlie them: inadequate care homes, mental health facilities and housing provision.

The current economic crisis is often compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the UK, that era is still remembered through the faded black and white images of the Jarrow Crusade, flat-capped dole queues, and downcast men standing idle on street corners. Poverty doesn’t look like that any more. Colour makes a big difference. The girl in the Guardian photograph is wearing a bright red coat. It looks new. In black and white it would have shown up as a miserable dark blob.

More importantly, the communities that grew up around the now closed pits, steelworks and other heavy industrial sites have largely fragmented. The ethos of solidarity that they embodied, and that underpinned the birth of the Welfare State, has been displaced by the individualism of the neo-liberal years. Although the causes of poverty and unemployment remain systemic, they are no longer experienced collectively. How can you convey the bigger picture with photographs of individuals? It can be done, but it needs more than one picture, the right words, and some history.

In the USA, the Depression years were famously documented in depth by the photographers of the Farm Securities Administration. The body of work they produced, of derelict farms, dust-blown fields, bankrupt share-cropper families, soup kitchens and the rest, managed to show that bigger picture, in a way that gave a context to photographs of individuals. It is impossible to look at Dorothea Lange’s well-known ‘Migrant Mother’ photograph, for instance, without having in the back of one’s mind images, by Walker Evans and others, of the destitution she was fleeing.

All that is a long way from sun-blessed Essex. Not only is the experience of poverty in 21st century Britain more fragmented, it is also mitigated by the existence of the Welfare State, whatever its inadequacies. In Jaywick a high proportion of residents are dependent on state benefits or pensions, but they are not typical. Most people whose income falls below the poverty threshold in the UK are in work. The National Minimum Wage is currently £6.08 an hour for those aged 21 and over; the minimum for apprentices is £2.60; the National Living Wage (outside London) is £7.60. None of these rates are affected by the weather. People ‘up north’ aren’t poor because it rains a lot. And down south, even if it looks less gritty, poverty doesn’t go away when the sun shines. It’s a complicated story, and newspapers need to find better ways of telling it.

This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of the British Journal of Photography.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Beer, Sandwiches & Hypocrisy

Earlier this week a group of MPs, plus assorted followers on the right of the Conservative Party, celebrated the launch of the Trade Union Reform Campaign (TURC) with a ‘Beer and Sandwiches’ reception at the House of Commons. Top of the bill was Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (pictured below); also in attendance was former Defence Secretary Liam Fox.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take the campaign, despite its distinguished proponents – or even how seriously it takes itself. Both the ironic beer (bottled Spitfire) and sandwiches were plentiful. The speeches were brief and addressed to a room full of the already converted. The only journalist was from the Morning Star.

The TURC wants to bring an end to what it calls “taxpayer funded trade union activity”, with one of its key demands that unions should pay commercial rents for the use of public buildings. This, surprisingly, it does not apply to its own anti-union activity, making free use of the Commons’ oak-panelled (publicly owned) Jubilee Room, with not a raised eyebrow in sight.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

This is All Copyrighted

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has issued a Call for Evidence as part of its follow-up to the Hargreaves Review on copyright. The submission deadline is 10 February.

It’s worth reading Stop43’s assessment of the proposals (mostly positive, but with some strong reservations) before responding. A more scabrous account can be found in The Register.

The big idea, a ‘Digital Copyright Exchange’ could be a good one, but not if it legalises the commercial use of Orphan Works or enforces an Extended Collective Licensing arrangement with no opt-out. The first is a thieves’ charter; the second, a state-sponsored seizure of creators’ intellectual property.

If you are a photographer and you want control over who uses your work, and how much they pay to do so, you should seriously consider making a submission.

If you’re wondering about the status of the wall art in the photo above – I’ve got no idea either, although I do know that the hoarding on which it is painted is not the property of the person or persons who painted it.