Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dam Nonsense

Hampstead Ponds Project 

Campaigners who failed to stop a £22 million flood defence programme currently underway on Hampstead Heath might do well to reconsider their position following the catastrophic flooding that has devastated northern towns and cities over the last week. 

Many local groups and individuals put up a sustained fight against the Hampstead Heath Ponds Project, largely based on concerns over environmental damage to a unique and much loved open space. The 16 month dam strengthening and spillway construction works across 12 of the heath's 30 ponds, which began in April, has undoubtedly caused significant localised disruption but, as events up north have shown, blocked-off paths, the loss of a few trees, and some unsightly construction equipment are trivial compared to the damage to homes, businesses, and the environment that would result if the existing dams were to fail. 

One of the arguments used by the Dam Nonsense campaign was that newly weakened government legislation rendered much of the work unnecessary. A much more sensible argument is that the floods in the north demonstrate that government attempts to justify cuts in spending on flood defences by such manoeuvres are extremely foolish – and extraordinarily costly. 

Hampstead Ponds Project

Friday, November 20, 2015

Uber alles: we're all in this together

Drivers' protest, 12-11-15
When Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell speaks of an army of self-employed workers who have been casualised by the internet, he could be talking about the 100 or so Uber drivers who protested outside the company's London HQ last week (above). But he could also have been talking about some of the freelance photographers documenting their demonstration, hoping to make a sale through one of the big online news photo agencies.

The positions of the two groups are remarkably similar: both provide their own, expensive, equipment; neither have guaranteed hours of work or income; in both cases, terms, conditions and rates are set by the company; and in both cases there seems to be an endless supply of service deliverers struggling to make a living from ever-decreasing rates of pay. The drivers' protest, sparked by an imposed 5% increase in commission, was not the first time they have lost out financially through changes imposed from above.

In a way, Uber is quite honest about its role. The big photo agencies hide behind bland titles. The names of Alamy, Getty, Corbis and the rest promise nothing. Perhaps only Demotix hints at some sort of (non-existent) egalitarian enterprise.

But although Uber calls its drivers 'partners', the company's real relationship to its workforce is pretty much as described by its moniker. In German, of course.

Many of the drivers have now joined the GMB. Hopefully collective action, with its backing, will bring results. It would be good to see photographers attempt something similar.

More pictures here.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bringing Down the Shutters

Bringing Down the Shutters, my feature for The Journalist magazine on the massive decline in the number of staff photographers working for national and local newspapers, is now available online here.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Eye of the Beholder

A building I photographed by chance last week has hit the headlines. A poll conducted by Building Design magazine has voted 20 Fenchurch Street winner of the Carbuncle Cup 2015, awarded annually to what the voters consider to be the ugliest building in the UK. The 37 storey City of London tower, designed by Rafael Vinoly and built by Land Securities, and more widely known as the Walkie Talkie building, has had its problems, but it was its distinctiveness and prominence, rather than its awfulness, that struck me when I took the photo (above). It doesn't seem to me to be significantly more objectionable than a number of other grandiose British architectural follies.  But I'm an unreliable witness, easily seduced by an all-to-rare shaft of London sunlight.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Greater London Clearances (again)

Cressingham Gardens residents protest outside Lambeth Town Hall, July 2015

Last night's decision by Lambeth Council to proceed with demolition of Cressingham Gardens estate in Brixton is of a piece with similar 'regeneration' schemes across the capital. To maximise the use of increasingly valuable central London real estate, the Labour council plans to demolish 306 homes to make way for 464 new ones. Most of the 158 additional units will be sold off, with only 15% let at council rents.

Tenants and leaseholders in the 1960s low-rise blocks bordering Brockwell Park fear they will be priced out of the area many have lived in for decades. Meanwhile the council is caught between a rock and a hard place by central government funding cuts. On paper at least, the scheme looks better than those currently under way in Tory-led Barnet, but that is no consolation to the residents, who stand to lose their homes with no certainty over where they will be put during and after the rebuild, or at what cost.

The trend towards displacement of social renting from an ever-widening area of the city is undesirable for a whole host of reasons – including the break-up of long-established communities, unsustainable pressures on public services in the outlying boroughs, and rising transport costs for low-paid workers forced to commute long distances. Resolving all this cannot be done by the local authorities, Labour or Tory, now left to make the best of a bad job. It requires massive changes in central government housing policy. Don't hold your breath.

Cressingham Gardens residents protest outside Lambeth Town Hall, July 2015

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Photo Talk, 7.00pm Wednesday 15th July

Speakers' Corner 1993
This Wednesday I will be discussing some current issues in photography with photographer John Gladdy and London Print Studio Director John Phillips.

The Studio gallery is hosting my Speakers' Corner exhibition, and we will be talking about photographing in Hyde Park and other public spaces, ethical boundaries and notions of privacy, what it means to be a photographer in an age of universal camera ownership, and anything else that gets thrown at us.

It's also an out-of-hours chance to see the exhibition, which runs until 25th July.

7.00pm Wednesday 15th July
London Print Studio, 425 Harrow Road, London W10 4RE
Nearest tube: Westbourne Park

Monday, July 06, 2015

Speakers' Corner exhibition, on to 25th July

Speakers' Corner 1993

London Print Studio is currently hosting an exhibition of photographs from my book Speakers' Corner: Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace, which documents in photos and words almost four decades of the place regarded worldwide as a symbol of free speech and freedom of assembly.

The show runs until Saturday 25th July, and there will be a talk, by me and others, about photography in public spaces, on Wednesday 15th July at 6.45pm (more details to follow).

Tuesday - Saturday, 10.30-5.30pm.
London Print Studio, 425 Harrow Road, London W10 4RE
Nearest tube: Westbourne Park

Speakers' Corner 1978

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Regeneration - or Social Cleansing?

Private security guards prevent protesters entering Hendon Town Hall through a window

Barnet Council's apparent total disregard for the welfare of its less well-heeled residents continues to astonish. Yesterday, tenants who have lost their homes on Sweets Way estate in Whetstone, and tenants and leaseholders who face eviction when West Hendon estate is 'regenerated', were refused access to a council meeting in Hendon Town Hall.

Pretty much all services in the borough have been privatised, so handing over West Hendon to a consortium of Barratt Homes and Metropolitan Housing Partnership, and permitting Annington Homes to demolish Sweets Way, is very much in character. But failing to provide appropriate accommodation for the hundreds of households who have lost, or are about to lose, their homes of many years is inexcusable. All this is being done in the name of regeneration. The protesters call it 'social cleansing'. More pictures here, and more on Sweets Way here.

Esmaa Guernaoui, evicted from Sweets Way estate

Private security guards prevent protesters entering Hendon Town Hall

Friday, May 08, 2015

Going, Going, Gone.....

And it wasn't even fun while it lasted.  More pictures here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Exciting Times

For the second time this week Nick Clegg has lost his radio mic feed in the middle of a live broadcast. On Sunday, a few minutes into a double act on the economy with David Laws (above), people suddenly started scurrying around in front of the podium with hand-held mics, and all the photographers were ushered to the back of the room to stop the barrage of shutter clicks drowning out the resulting rather low-grade audio. When this work-around proved inadequate, the Lib-Dem leader was taken into a back room to have his transmitter adjusted. Apparently he was apoplectic, but managed to re-emerge and continue with gritted teeth well-hidden.

And earlier today The World at One (BBC Radio 4) clearly found a microphone malfunction during the Lib-Dem manifesto launch more interesting than any other aspect of the event, and played its listeners a generous stretch of crackle and dropped syllables.

Is this a deliberate Lib-Dem strategy aimed at livening up what many observers regard as an (until now) extremely dull campaign - or could it be sabotage?  We must be told.  More pictures here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

And Now for Something Completely Different?

Teresa Rodriguez, Podemos candidate for Andalucian President

Voters go to the polls in Andalucia, southern Spain, on Sunday to elect a new regional Parliament and President, following the collapse of a coalition of the centre-left PSOE and Izquierda Unida (United Left).  Podemos, the radical grassroots organisation that grew out of the Indignados movement, is gathering widespread support, and the result will be seen as a significant indicator of what might happen in the countrywide round of regional and municipal elections in May, and the general election that follows.

Pablo Iglesias, Teresa Rodriguez and local Podemos candidate Felix Gill

At a boisterous election rally in Malaga's market square on Saturday (pictures above and below), speeches from Podemos Secretary General Pablo Iglesias and the party's Presidential candidate Teresa Rodriguez, attacking austerity, corruption, incompetence and 'La Casta' (the entrenched governing elite), clearly struck a chord. Both were mobbed on leaving the stage. 'Populist' is often used as a term of condemnation, but this was something completely different. Both would get my vote, if I had one. The contrast with the lacklustre crew preparing for our own May elections could not be more striking. Or depressing.

Last May Podemos won 5 seats in the European Parliament, only three months after formally constituting itself as a sort-of political party*.  Anything could happen.  More pictures here.

* for more detail see Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod's excellent piece here

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Speakers' Corner: Book Publicity (Part One)

Martin Besserman 1996

I have a photo book coming out in May and, following a year-long hiatus (it was accepted for publication in February 2014), am now beginning to grapple with the practicalities of publicising its arrival.

Speakers' Corner: Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace contains around 100 black and white photographs taken on Sunday afternoons in London's Hyde Park between 1977 and 2014. The place has a worldwide reputation as the home of free speech, and a parallel one as (to quote George Orwell) the resort of preachers, eccentrics and "a large variety of plain lunatics". That's a promising combination, and the pictures, many accompanied by excerpts of speeches, heckles and arguments that I recorded at the time, are my attempt at documenting the extraordinary mixture of serious public debate, off-the-wall religiosity, whacky humour and self-regulating anarchic mayhem that has repeatedly drawn me back there.

Stuart Wheeler 1978

Although it's a book that I hope will attract photo enthusiasts, I would be disappointed if it didn't also appeal to a much wider audience: to anyone interested in London history (it is being published by The History Press), politics, religion, popular culture, public debate and opinion. The publicity needs to reflect this, and it seems that social media, of which I am currently only a moderate user, will play an essential role. I'm working on it: this piece is a first step.  More anon.  

And more pictures here.

Argument 2014

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Another Round of Photo Paranoia

I took the photo above in Oxford Street last week. Is everyone in it over 18? I have no idea. Could I be arrested for posting it here? Not yet.

The argument over photography in public spaces is in the news again, with a proposal aimed at criminalising the publication of photographs of children without parental consent about to be debated by the House of Lords. If implemented, it would make the documenting of everyday life in public places - a central feature of photography since the medium was invented, and an integral part of our collective historical record - a potentially illegal enterprise.

Musician Paul Weller (ex-Jam, ex-Style Council) and his wife Hannah are campaigning to change the law following their successful legal action in the High Court over publication of photographs of their children in the Mail Online last year. It doesn't seem to have dawned on them that their victory in court indicates that the law as it stands is perfectly capable of dealing with the problem, as pointed out by the National Union of Journalists Photographers' Council in a response to the launch of the Wellers' Campaign for Children’s Privacy.

The central issues in this and previous similar cases are deeply political, and much bigger than the discomfort of celebrities, or the poor judgement of tabloid editors. Freedom of the press, widely recognised as a cornerstone of democracy, is the most obvious potential casualty. But what is, or is not, permitted in the public sphere is also a reflection of conflicting views on the nature of the society we wish to live in – or even if we live in one at all. To turn Margaret Thatcher's often quoted statement into a question: are there just individual men, women and families, or is there such a thing as society? If the latter, when we venture into the public realm we do so as citizens, not as private individuals, whatever our age. We must not allow yet another round of photo-paranoia to turn us into anything else.