Friday, December 06, 2013

Video on Demand

The Great Western Railway Band performs on platform 9 of Paddington Station at 7.30pm every Friday between Easter and Christmas. It's not the most obvious venue for a concert – at times the music is almost drowned out by the collective growl of engines travelling in and out of the great glass-roofed train shed - but lifting the spirits in adverse circumstances is just what marching bands are for, and the musicians play on regardless.

This short video was made for the inpaddington YouTube channel, with a brief to capture the spirit of the band and the life of the station in which it performs. It was great fun to make, and also a reminder of just how much the publishing and PR world has changed over the last few years. Before the all-encompassing rise of the web, a commission like this would more likely have been for a set of stills for use across a range of print products. Fortunately the demand for moving pictures has been matched by the ability of our once-still DSLR cameras to make them, albeit with significant additional requirements for audio equipment, editing software, beefed-up processing power - and some serious new skill acquisition.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sounds from The Park

Sounds from the Park is about to launch a unique archive documenting the post-war history of Speakers' Corner.

The project, a collaboration between oral history group On the Record and the Bishopsgate Institute, was funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, and over the last year has collected oral testimony, historic and contemporary photographs, recordings and other material from orators, hecklers and other regular frequenters of the public speaking area in Hyde Park.

The formal opening of the archive, an exhibition and an accompanying booklet, includes a free lunch and contributions from the archivists and other participants.

I have a vested interest:  I've been on the project steering committee for the duration, and the collection includes around 150 of the photographs I have taken at Speakers' Corner since 1977, a number of which feature in the exhibition.  The experience has greatly enriched my own archive, enabling me to put names and stories to faces in photographs shot more than 30 years ago.  I feel a book coming on.

You can book a free place at the launch on 020 7392 9200.
It runs from 1pm - 5pm on Saturday 7th December, in The Great Hall, Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH.  The exhibition continues until 30 April 2014.  More details here.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Working Lives

This interview with Anne-Marie Sanderson, chief photographer at North London & Herts News, was made for the Working Lives project being developed by the NUJ London Photographers Branch (LPB). It's the first in a planned series of videos exploring the varied working lives of its members. 

The project grew out of a discussion at a branch meeting last year, at the height of the furore surrounding the Hacked Off campaign and the Leveson enquiry. Photographers of all kinds were being maligned as a result of allegations about the behaviour of a very small number of so-called paparazzi, and it seemed clear that the public at large had little idea of the great variety of work that photojournalists do. The aim of the project is to show, to the public at large, the range of our work, our motivations for doing it, and the problems we sometimes face. 

Anne-Marie is unusual in being a staff photographer. The vast majority of LPB members are freelancers, and the branch plans to follow this pilot with interviews that cover the wide range of specialisms and working practices that they are engaged in. This first piece offers an insight into the complexity and value of local newspaper photography, on how it is changing as more and more of it moves online, and the crucial support provided by the union when disputes arise. 

The venue for the interview was pleasingly unexpected: a delightful boutique cafe on Platform One of Enfield Chase station, generously opened up for us on a Sunday morning by Karen Mercer, its creator.  Recording was interrupted a couple of times when a train came thundering through my headphones, but they were infrequent enough to not be a serious problem.  The armchairs were very comfortable and the coffee was great,  If you're ever in the area, My Coffee Stop is a five star recommendation.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Special Offer

Having fallen for a special offer I couldn't refuse, I have been walking the streets of London with a Fuji XPro-1, and a very fine 35mm/f1.4 lens, to see how they behave. Making pictures is not really about camera technology - unless it gets in the way or, as in this case, opens up new possibilities.  I can walk all day with this small, light and discreet camera, and an X100 (its fixed lens predecessor), something I can't do as comfortably or as inconspicuously with a couple of hefty DSLRs. Neither camera is as quick or as versatile as a DSLR, but for slow-paced documentary work they're wonderful new tools, and a pleasure to use. I await delivery of a free 18mm/f2.0 lens from Fuji - the bit that made the special offer irresistible.

(above: Cricklewood; below: Whitechapel)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Last Refuge

Samuel Johnson famously declared that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but 'national security' is also a popular destination these days. Home Secretary Theresa May has been spending a lot of time there recently so, as I was passing one of its northern outposts last week, I called in to take a look.

The radomes (radar domes) of Menwith Hill RAF base in Yorkshire, the largest secret intelligence-gathering system outside the USA, are plainly visible from miles around. But at close quarters the installation, run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), is not very welcoming. Thickly planted bushes block the view through the high wire mesh fence that surrounds it, and CCTV cameras monitor every entrance. Although I was doing nothing illegal, I was surprised not to be apprehended as I poked my lens through the shrubbery, and kept an eye on my rear view mirror as I drove away.

As we have now learned via the Guardian and elsewhere, the facility is part of the global network that spies on our emails, telephone calls, web searches and browsing history, and anything else we do with radio waves or online. We are told it is there to make us safe and secure, and that if we haven't done anything wrong, we haven't got anything to worry about. But that's not how David Miranda felt after being held at Heathrow Airport for nine hours on Sunday, and this piece of the 'national security' infrastructure is also far from benign. Despite the assurances, it's not a good refuge for anyone, even scoundrels. Miranda was working for the Guardian when he was detained, and his phone, laptop and USB sticks (all seized by the police) should have been treated as 'special procedure' material, protected under laws designed to ensure press freedom. The Home Secretary needs to come out from her 'national security' hidey-hole and give some straight answers to the very straightforward questions being asked of her.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Money Down the Train

Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire

The public consultation on phase two of the HS2 high speed rail line began this week, amid signs that the cross-party consensus in favour of the project may be starting to break down. Lord Mandelson called it “an expensive mistake”, and Tom Harris MP, rail minister in the Labour government that initiated the scheme, admitted the original cost calculations were done “on the back of a fag packet”.

There seems to be a new development in the HS2 saga almost every other day. In recent weeks the estimated cost has risen from £32 billion to £53 billion, Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, has called the government's business case “farcical”, and HS2 Ltd, the government-owned company charged with building the new railway, has apparently looked again at a previously rejected alternative proposal for the Euston terminal which would avoid the need to demolish hundreds of homes in the Regent’s Park Estate (below). If accepted, it would be the third design for the station in as many months, and a major rethink very likely to impact on the newly revised cost estimate.

Outside Westminster, apart from some politicians and business leaders in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, there is massive opposition to the scheme from action groups and local authorities along the whole of the route from Euston, through the West Midlands, and northwards. If the political consensus does crumble, the scheme will probably stagger on until the next election, prolonging the blight and uncertainty faced by residents and businesses close to the new line – but what happens then is anybody's guess.

Several blocks on Camden Council's Regent's Park Estate and one of the three towers on Ampthill Square Estate are threatened with demolition

More pictures here
New views of Regent's Park Estate here 
Inside Housing feature here 

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Why Should There Be Losers?

Yesterday's Queen's Speech confirmed the government's intention to proceed with the High Speed 2 Euston to Birmingham rail line, despite opposition from affected residents and businesses along its route, and unanswered questions about many of the details.

The transport case, the economic benefit, the cost, the precise route, and the location of new stations are all in dispute. Only last month, the publication of revised plans for the Euston terminal did nothing to meet the objections of the local council, nor mitigate the fears of residents in the surrounding area.

HS2 Ltd, the government-owned company charged with developing the new line, scrapped a plan to demolish and rebuild Euston station, and replaced it with plans for what Sarah Hayward, Leader of Camden Council, described as “a shed being bolted on to an existing lean-to”. The new proposal significantly reduces the regeneration and development potential of the scheme. The original allowed for multi-storey blocks of offices and apartments to be built on top of the station - presumably that can't be done on a shed roof.

Hundreds of tenants living in blocks on the nearby Regent's Park Estate scheduled for demolition still have no indication as to where they might be rehoused. Many fear they will be offered alternative accommodation outside the borough, far from family, friends and workplaces.

Tenants, leaseholders and businesses in the streets immediately to the west of the station face a different threat. The roads have been 'safeguarded' – marked out as an access route within the construction zone – but the houses, shops and restaurants along them have not. Although some are no more than three or four metres from the likely construction site boundary, under current arrangements they stand to receive nothing for 10 years of disruption and blight. In rural areas outside the M25, residents within 120 metres of the new line will receive the full, unblighted market value of their property, and those within 60 metres an additional 10% bonus plus moving costs.

Why the unequal treatment? That's what the High Court wanted to know when it upheld a legal challenge to HS2's compensation consultation in March. Conspiracy theorists might point to the political colour of the wards around the station (red), and that of the rolling Home County landscapes further north (blue). The process will now have to be re-run.

Irrespective of the wisdom of the whole enterprise, the treatment of those directly affected seems grossly unfair. There will, of course, be beneficiaries – you can't spend £34 billion without somebody benefitting – but why should there be losers?

Above: Kathleen Ullah at her front door a few metres from the planned Euston construction site; below: Buckinghamshire. More pictures here.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Flickr Commons

John O Brien
                                                      Photo courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

No, it's not one of mine. It's part of Criminal Faces of North Shields, a striking set of portraits held by Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums.The image is one of almost a quarter of a million on the Flickr Commons site, set up in 2008 to enable cultural heritage institutions to share photographs that have no known copyright restrictions. You can read more in an article I wrote for the current issue of the British Journal of Photography to mark the site's fifth anniversary.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Value of a Photograph

Last week I wrote a brief post about an online Guardian piece by Rowenna Davies reflecting on a 2003 school student protest in which she took part. There's a little back-story, about the photo that accompanies it, that is also worth telling.

The Hand Up For Peace (HUFP) article originally appeared with a generic demonstration photo from Getty Images. In this context, the shot was a space-filler: it didn't add any new information, and was only marginally related to the text. The picture of mine that replaced it later the same day was one of a set I had taken of the HUFP campaign. Why the delay?

The Guardian pays the writers who contribute to its Comment Is Free pages - not a lot, but enough to make the effort worthwhile. But when they called on the morning of publication to ask for one of my photos, I was told they had “no budget for pictures”. I wasn't prepared to collude with the implication that photographs are worthless, and declined the invitation to send one in for free. Hence the image from Getty, with whom, presumably, the publisher has some form of bulk-buy, eat-as-much-as-you-can-stomach deal.

However, I have known Rowenna a long time. She is a friend of my daughter, and both were very active in the HUFP campaign, which I supported. She also recognised the value of having the right photograph to complement what she had written. So when she phoned me to offer – very honourably - to pay for the photo herself, I had to concede defeat and send one in. I didn't take the money. I don't normally turn down offers of payment but, to be meaningful, this one had to come from the publisher. Why does the Guardian (along with so many others) appear to hold photography in such low regard? Why wasn't there a budget for such a significant element of the story?

It seems that the present-day hyper-abundance of digital imagery - much of it available at little or no cost - has desensitised editors and back-room bean-counters to the power and purpose of photojournalism. If quality is no longer a concern, with newspapers under severe pressure from the web, and many associated web-based ventures failing to generate adequate revenues, why pay for the right photo when you can fill the space for nothing?

The HUFP pictures were some of the last I shot on film. Quite apart from the thought and effort I put into taking them, in order for the Guardian to find and use them, I also had to process the films, scan the negatives, optimise the digital files, caption and keyword them, upload them to my website and keep them there. For ten years. All these things cost time, money, or both. If nobody pays up, it's not a sustainable way of earning a living.

This is not just a result of the precarious economic situation. After all budgets, although cut, are still there for writers - it's only photographers who are ever asked to work for free. But budgets reflect priorities, and suggest that the real problem is the failure of many publishers to recognise the journalistic value of the right photograph. How we ensure that they do is not obvious, but doing what I did in this (I plead, special) case is not the way to go, for which I apologise to my fellow photographers.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ten Years On

Rowenna Davies has written a Guardian Comment Is Free piece about the school student protest against the invasion of Iraq held in Parliament Square ten years ago this week.

Like the 2 million who had marched against the war the previous month, the protest failed to influence the gung-ho Blair government, clearly committed all along to doing whatever Washington asked. But, as Davies spells out, the Hands Up for Peace campaign did have an impact on the participants (of whom she was one), influencing, long-term, attitudes to politicians, and to methods of political action. Interestingly, even before the existence of Facebook and Twitter, it managed to go viral, with school students sending in hand prints emblazoned with anti-war slogans from across the country.

Famously, when asked his opinion of the significance of the French Revolution, Chairman Mao thought it “too early to tell”. Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, and twelve from the start of the war in Afghanistan, not many people would hesitate before giving their judgement of the consequences. The kids were right, of course.

Thursday, February 28, 2013


Patrick Butler reports in the Guardian this week that the government has launched an inquiry into the recent explosion of foodbanks, soup kitchens and school breakfast clubs. The country's finest minds will seek to understand why, with falling wages, cuts in benefits, and rising prices, increasing numbers of people are having problems feeding themselves and their families. It's real puzzle.

Foodbank was the result of my own inquiry, conducted last year. It was prompted by outrage that such widespread charitable giving should be necessary in one of the wealthiest countries in the world – particularly one with a well-established welfare system set up to act as a supposed safety net. The video is a quick snapshot of some of the problems faced by users of three London foodbanks, all run under the franchise of the Christian charity the Trussell Trust, and of the work of the volunteers who run them.

Foodbanks shouldn't be necessary, and many of the volunteers feel the same way. Watching these (mostly church-based) charities giving handouts to the needy seems like a throwback to Dickens, and the horrors of pre-welfare state Britain. It is a glimpse of what the country would look like if the coalition government succeeds in its attempt to dismantle state provision, leaving philanthropists and charities to pick up the pieces. A preview of what they mean by 'The Big Society'.

The very existence of these centres is shocking, and I set out to make a critique. But I found it difficult to say anything other than the totally obvious – much like the inevitable outcome of the forthcoming government inquiry – and cut the project short. For although I have strong reservations about the return to church-based welfare provision, I couldn't fault the generous impulse that lies behind it. The video ended up almost looking like a promo, and has been used as such by those that took part. Make of that what you will.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

To Hell in a Dust Cart

The financial crisis in Spain has been top of the agenda for European finance ministers for some time. But it was not EU-imposed austerity measures that provoked the recent 13 day strike by street cleaners and refuse collectors in Granada. 

The dispute, over cuts to wages and reduced terms and conditions, was not the result of spending cuts by the city authorities, but of an opportunistic attempt by private contractor Inagra to boost profits. The company is a subsidiary of Cespa, the ninth largest waste company in Europe, itself a division of Spanish construction group Ferrovial, owner of BAA (which runs Heathrow) and Amey (the main contractor building Crossrail).

The stoppage appears to be part of a wave of strikes across Spain. According to a report by the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), the big European waste disposal companies are attempting to restore falling profits by cutting costs in their contracts with municipalities, as the industrial and commercial waste markets have shrunk in the recession. 

The episode in Granada ended in defeat for the workers a few days before I arrived there last week (thus, regrettably, missing scenes apparently reminiscent of our very own Winter of Discontent). With unemployment in Andalucia the highest of any region in Spain and even, according to one report, anywhere in the EU, they were in an unenviable position. Now they are back on the streets (above) with a 2.5% pay cut, eight days less annual leave, and an increase in the working week from 35 to 37.5 hours.  As in the UK, it is a balanced economy: the poor get poorer so the rich can get richer. More pictures here.

"Take to the Streets Against the Cuts"

Monday, January 07, 2013

Not Really a Camera Review

I have returned to a project I began thirty five years ago and rediscovered the joys of working in black and white with a small camera. Only this time, instead of film and a Leica, I'm using a digital Fuji X100.

The photo above was taken with the Fuji a few weeks ago; the one below is a scan from a B&W negative shot in 1993.

I took my first pictures at Speakers' Corner in 1977, and have continued to photograph there sporadically ever since.  However, when I switched to digital in 2003 and film processing fell out of my daily workflow, the occasional visit to Hyde Park with heavy and obtrusive DSLRs produced immaculate but unappealing colour images that I filed away and forgot about.

My recent purchase of the X100 coincided with my involvement with a new Speakers' Corner oral history and archiving project, Sounds from the Park, but it wasn't until I revisited the place with it that I realised I had in my hand an almost perfect digital replacement for my old M6.

The camera was clearly designed to appeal to photographers nostalgic for the retro look of knurled dials, exposure rings and chrome finish. But it's the small size, virtually silent operation, and high quality files that make it such a pleasure to use.

For any non-photographer reading this, that's pretty much all you need to know about the camera itself. For me, its most significant feature is that it doesn't look like the weapon of a paparazzo. Like a Leica, nobody – apart from the occasional camera buff – pays it any attention.

For those after a bit more detail, I can add that even its limitations are a plus. It has a fixed lens (equivalent to a 35mm on a full frame camera), so no time is wasted selecting a focal length: the only option is to find a 35mm shot that works. And because it's not the fastest camera to focus or write to card, it encourages care in choosing the decisive moment.

For most of the work I do, the specifications of the equipment I use are irrelevant – I just need to make sure the particular bits and pieces I bring along are capable of producing the required image quality. What is different about fly-on-the-wall documentary projects like Speakers' Corner is that the intrusiveness, or otherwise, of the camera is also a factor, and can make a big difference to the process of making pictures. The DSLRs I have been using for the last ten years are great machines, and produce fantastic pictures, but they are big, heavy and noisy. It's hard to pass unnoticed with one hanging from your neck. Not so the X100. Its innovative design has enabled me to continue my old project in the same spirit in which it was originally conceived, without having to take the radical step of re-activating my long-neglected darkroom.

Speakers' Corner has changed over the years. It has got smaller; there is a narrower range of speakers. The demographics have shifted: there is still a predominance of preachers, although now at least as many are Muslim as Christian. But it still has the buzz generated by the energy and eccentricity of face-to-face argument. There is nowhere else you can get that with such intensity. I love it.

And in case you're wondering, the Fuji is great in low light, has a brilliant hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder, and produces very nice colour too.