Life is Fleeting; Take a Moment to Look at Yourself

I’m not one for taking self-portraits. I know it’s a bit hypocritical to call yourself a portrait photographer and then be so entirely reticent to put yourself in front of the lens but there you go. I’m not the only photographer guilty of this. Recently a friend of mine photographed a really lovely scene in run down house where an armchair was positioned perfectly under the soft morning light coming in through a Velux window. It created a wonderful pool of light and I commented that the only thing that would improve the composition would be a subject in the chair. He replied he was there on his own and then in response to my suggestion he could/should have made a self portrait, said that one of the main reasons he got into photography was precisely so that he didn’t ever have to be in front of the lens. Like I said we’re all guilty.

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There’s a school of thought that argues all portrait photographers should subject themselves to the glare of the lens as part of their own learning and creative development. I can engage with the sentiment but still it’s telling that it took a far more compelling experience to persuade me I should do this.

There’s nothing like being confronted with the fleeting nature of life to put you in a critically reflective frame of mind. Three days ago on my way in to work I had just such an experience. I was the first person to the aid of someone who had collapsed in the station. The experience was traumatic and the seriousness of the situation was immediately and viscerally apparent. The gentleman that others and I ran to help died while we were trying to help him before the paramedics arrived. They couldn’t revive him and we were left with the painful reminder of just how fleeting life is.

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I try to be a good person and I mean no ill to anyone but I have always been a opinionated, argumentative son of a bitch. I'll argue black is white if I think there is enough debate in it. I don't mean ill, I just enjoy the discourse and the understanding that it brings, but my approach can be incredibly fatiguing. But this experience of being with someone in their very last moments caused me to reflect and think just how good a person am I; have I made the most of my life; have I made a difference to other people; have I been a douche bag? I decided that it was time I put myself in front of the camera.

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I spent a lot of time talking about the experience and thinking about the answers to these questions. These self-portraits are a part of that process. I wanted to take a long hard look at myself, literally and metaphorically. On a superficial level I see someone looking back at me who needs to take better care of himself, loose some weight, get back to riding his bike, give his own heart a better chance of carrying on. On a deeper level I see someone scared of not making the most of the opportunities he has and becoming invisible to the world around him.

 

My mind is going. I can feel it.

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Did you ever watch the film 2001: Space Odyssey?  There’s a scene towards the end of the film where the lead character, Dave Bowman, shuts down the ships main computer, HAL, because he’s malfunctioned and killed the entire crew apart from him. He does it by ejecting the computer’s memory banks one by one. As he’s doing this HAL is talking to him, asking him to stop, saying that he can feel his mind fading out. And as he narrates the experience, his ability to articulate that experience also fades and becomes more facile. 

Well that’s my/our experience of dad. That’s as close to explaining what it feels like from our perspective as I can get. 

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But it’s OK. He does still know who we are; there is still recognition and there are still memories. He’s incredibly hard work, like managing a 200lb three year old and when he gets his ‘no’ head on, it’s especially hard. But I only see him once a month or so. My mum has this constantly. She does get respites though and these are precious moments to her.

I still love to photograph him though. He's so willing and there is some recognition in these moments that just doesn't happen elsewhere. But each time I photograph him I am painfully aware that the chances of it being the last get a little higher.

Colin - His Story

It’s frustrating that this is not a better picture. It was taken in a hurried moment, more as a means to tell the subject’s story that to take a good picture. I met Colin in Brighton this morning. He approached me and commented on my camera and proceeded to try and engage me in conversation. I could tell he was homeless and to be honest this lack of any immediate request put me a little on edge. There were several other clearly homeless men congregating and I couldn’t help but notice that one of them had clearly been in some sort of scuffle.

I walked along the front and he walked with me; we chatted and part of his story came out. He was homeless because his mother had died in january from cancer and he’d been evicted from the house as his name was not on the tenancy agreement. Whatever the rights or wrongs or legal rights of that situation, housing, or rather the utter shitfest of a situation this country has got itself into with housing, is one of my hot buttons. We’ve played fast and loose with housing over the last 30 years. The baby boomers and quite a few of my generation (Generation X), have happily sat on property as if it were a cash point, either by virtue of remortgaging our own homes to buy nice cars (and cameras obviously) or by taking advantage of the massive subsidies available to landlords on mortgage interest deduction.We've blithely looked on as an entire generation has been disenfranchised from the most fundamental human need there is - shelter.

So Colin got my attention. In the end though I had to confess to him that I didn’t have any money on me (I really hadn’t) and that I was sorry I couldn’t help him. I’m not naive enough to believe everything I am told as a possible ‘sob story’ but what he said next convinced me that whatever else he had told that was or was not the truth, this thing was the most sincere statement I was going to hear all day.

‘It’s OK, you’ve talked to me, you’ve acknowledged that I’m a human being. That means more than money’.

He had me at that. I told him that I would be having coffee at this particular place at 8am and that if he would meet me there, I would buy him breakfast. He duly showed up, with a friend and I happily made good on the offer. It was over a bacon roll that he told me how he’d come to fall into quite such a dependent state in the first place (the reason he had been forced to move in with his mum). At one point he had been a successful electrical engineer, selling and fitting solar panels for a reputable company and making well above the national average income. Then one day, about five years ago, his wife (Sarah) and his son (Luke, who was nine), were killed in a car accident. A lorry that was being driven by someone well over their duty hours, crossed the central reservation, tipped over and crushed the car that his wife and child were travelling in. They were both killed instantly.

He hasn’t coped with this. He fell into all kinds of problems but was lucky enough to be caught by his mother and taken in before he fell onto the streets. But then she also died.

I don’t know how much of this is true. I’ve tried to verify the story as he also told me that the lorry driver went to prison for the accident. I have his surname (Marriott) but since the events he spoke of happened five years ago It’s going to be very difficult to find any references. There have been many similar stories since then.

I don’t think it matters. This man sat in front of me and relayed this story and was in tears whilst he did so. He told me he struggles most with not committing suicide (and he is a prime candidate; suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 50 and he fits the profile worryingly well). My one morsel of comfort is that the new Labour MP for Brighton has taken his case up and is accompanying him to a meeting with the council next week to get him a home. I hope this happens. I will try to keep in touch with Colin and will update here when I do. 

Fade Out

 

My father has vascular dementia. It’s hard to know precisely when this degenerative disease started but we think it was about ten years ago after a viral infection got into his heart causing an irregularity in its beat. This led to blood pooling in one of the ventricular chambers, which then led to a clot, which then led to a trans ischemic attack. On that particular day, he reported how he had suddenly lost his balance and one side of his vision had gone fuzzy, like the noise of a TV channel without reception.

For many years after this our main focus was on making sure his heart condition was well managed. He was first diagnosed with congestive heart failure and our concern with that, and the well placed desire to manage him back into health, meant we mistook the subtle shift in his behaviour for belligerence in the face of our trying to manage his condition. 

Gradually over time our own frustrations with his behaviour became more and more apparent. There came a point where we (that is my brother, mother and I) all found ourselves recognising the deep frustration we were experiencing with him. He would fuss inexorably over seemingly innocuous details; if we visited and left our car keys or wallet on the side board he would worry about who they belonged to (because he recognised that they were not his), shoes left at the front door would be moved and we would be told numerous times as to where they had been moved to and the multiple reminders to turn off the lights and TV before we came to bed, along with similarly numerous reminders of where to find the switches, become a thing of legend in our family.

I don’t know whether it would have helped to have a diagnosis earlier or not; it wouldn’t have stopped the progress but it might have made us all a little more tolerant. By the time we got the official diagnosis (which was only in the last year or so), it was far less about finally knowing what was going on and more about getting the medical profession to agree with our experience (note that no one believes they were negligent in any way).

The progression has followed a pattern of increasingly awkward behaviour that was most pernicious in its subtlety. Slightly cloying and over sentimental expressions of warmth and fondness would be directed indiscriminately, regardless of how well you knew him. It was difficult because it was only ever faintly inappropriate and not something immediately recognisable as being associated with dementia.

Those times however have past. The progress has accelerated and his memory is slowly being erased, bleaching out to white. He still recognises us and still expresses warmth and love but there is little else to directly connect with.

But when I ask to take his picture, something remarkable happens, suddenly there is a process of re-engagement that takes place, as if he is connecting again with his memory and recalling the things that were important to him. We don’t talk when I take his picture, but that makes it all the more important. Photography is after a visual medium and it is the act of looking and seeing that is communicative. And this is what happens; I look at him, he looks at me and in that moment there is cognition and communication, there is re-engagement and remembrance. Sometimes it is sad because what I see is a sense of frustration with him trying to re-engage with a memory that has been washed out and faded but mostly what I see is the determination and strong will of the man who brought me up.

 

 

Humanity and truth in photography

In perusing the work of other photographers recently I came across a guest post on a photography blog/website that was causing some controversy. The photographer had posted a series of images taken with the new Hasselblad X1D while traveling in Bangok, among them the shot of the beggar you see here, posted along with the caption underneath it.

Photograph by Alex Kaikeon: http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2017/06/12/the-hasselblad-x1-in-use-by-alex-kaikeong/

Photograph by Alex Kaikeon: http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2017/06/12/the-hasselblad-x1-in-use-by-alex-kaikeong/

In response to the post there were numerous comments about how appropriate it was to photograph someone in such a situation. This is a perennial debate among photographers and lovers of photography alike; to what extent does photographing the homeless and the destitute represent salacious, perhaps even scopophilic, objectification; is such a photograph only ever exploitative even if taken with full consent?

In this particular instance I think the answer is yes. This is bad image, not just poor (because it is also a poorly executed image), but bad because it does objectify the subject and reduces their problems almost to the point salacious voyeurism. This is the case for a number of reasons:

The angle and composition elevate the height of the viewer so that we are, quite literally, ‘looking down’ on the individual and shot is taken completely candidly i.e. without consent (although of course this is a contentious subject that I have myself been in the midst of previously). As a consequence, all the power inherent in the narrative lies with the observer/photographer; the picture lacks any evidence of empathy, compassion and humanity and, were it not for the quick glance of the subject into the camera at the moment the image was taken, it would reduce entirely into voyeurism. 

I didn't realise Tom was homeless when I stopped him in the street but it quickly became apparent that he was. His situation came about because his wife cheated on him with his best friend and he wasn't able to cope. He left and fell into homelessness and as a result, he hasn't seen his two chidren in over two years. He knows he needs to get his life back on track.

I didn't realise Tom was homeless when I stopped him in the street but it quickly became apparent that he was. His situation came about because his wife cheated on him with his best friend and he wasn't able to cope. He left and fell into homelessness and as a result, he hasn't seen his two chidren in over two years. He knows he needs to get his life back on track.

Furthermore the caption that the photographer adds does nothing to counter this detached and unsympathetic perspective. Quite the contrary, it actually seems representative of an ambivalent attitude entirely lacking in empathy and humanity.

But by far the greatest transgression made by the photographer (and this is also the more interesting point) is that he chose to take this picture with a camera that costs over £12,000. To give that some context, the average blue-collar worker earns about £185 a month, so this camera and the lenses combined represents five and half year’s salary. This might not be so bad if the post in which this image was displayed had not been specifically about that camera and how amazing it is.

I cannot deny that I also have very expensive camera equipment and so spending large sums of money on such things is not inherently bad in my view. There are some basic truths about how economies work and the income I’ve been afforded is not down to me chasing that income but down to choices about what kind of career (sales) I wanted to pursue. I’m also fortunate that my wife has a well paid professional job (pilot).

I also do take photographs of people who are homeless but I never take their picture simply because they are homeless (and therefore less able to assert a position of power by objecting) and it is always taken after having engaged with them, learned about their situation, empathised and asked permission. 

I’m conscious that I am virtue signalling and my aim with this post is not to do that or to debate the rights and wrongs of taking pictures of the homeless. It is however to make this point.

Paul lives homeless in my home town. I've got to know him over the last two years. I know he has problems and so does he. I don't judge those and the money I give him from time to time is his to do what he wants with.

Paul lives homeless in my home town. I've got to know him over the last two years. I know he has problems and so does he. I don't judge those and the money I give him from time to time is his to do what he wants with.

Photography for me is about engaging with and representing our humanity; our sense of self, our sense of value and meaning. It is about being of consequence. It is a struggle with existential angst and trying to overcome that by engaging with our humanity.

Being homeless and destitute would, I can only imagine, elevate that sense of angst and nihilism to extraordinary levels. To be invisible as a person and therefore of no consequence would be my ‘Room 101’; it would probably drive me into insanity.

'The Humanity of Friendship'

'The Humanity of Friendship'

I’ve come to know a few people in my home town who are homeless and by engaging with them, I’ve learnt that the most valuable contribution I can offer them is a recognition of their humanity. When I take their picture, I print them and share them and they appreciate this because it is a tangible record of that humanity. It is hard evidence if you like.

If there is a problem with photographing the homeless it is not the photograph that is the problem, it is the process by which it was made.  But then isn’t that what the meaning of ‘art’ really is?

It is the process that counts. It’s what was in your heart at that moment that carries the most value.

Every photograher's worst nightmare

It’s every street photographer’s worst nightmare. Despite what the law says and what common sense ought to lead an observer to conclude, taking a photograph in a public place that either directly or indirectly includes a child in the frame, often raises fear and suspicion in the surrounding public.  Most of the time, an entirely apologetic, friendly and sincere disclosure is enough to diffuse any grievance someone may have. The nightmare scenario is one where you as the photographer are confronted by an angry mob that refuses to be placated by this; the nightmare then becomes really quite frightening as the mob vocally and aggressively accuses you of the very worst transgression humans are capable of.

This is precisely what happened to me last night and it really did turn very ugly and very frightening.

There is a travelling fun fair in town at the moment. I had to drop my eldest son off at a scout camp sleepover and my wife had said I could have an hour with my camera afterwards and before putting our youngest to bed.

Fairs are great places for street and candid photography. They are a rich part of our cultural heritage and they show the best of people. They show people absorbed in the moment; they are about the carnival, the burlesque, the fun and frightening. And yes there are often a lot of children around so if you’re going to take photographs, it’s best to be respectful and sensitive.

This is the image that got me into trouble. It's not even that good!

This is the image that got me into trouble. It's not even that good!

I was taking some pictures of a large pink inflatable ball hanging from the awning of a stall with a young boy, dressed in very bright red football strip, standing a few meters behind it (and therefore mostly obscured by it) and playing with similar sized blue ball that was on an elasticated string. I was trying to compose a frame that overlapped the two balls and some of the red clothing to create an interesting image.

The next thing I know, four women were challenging me and accusing me of taking pictures of their kids.

Now, believe it or not, there is no law against doing that. Anyone of any age in a public place has no right to privacy and no power to stop anyone taking a photograph of him or her. Keep in mind that in every town and city, there are hundreds or even thousands of surveillance cameras constantly monitoring your behaviour.

In addition, I personally think that recording our social and cultural heritage is an important thing, including photographing children, but I understand not everyone agrees so I always take a deferential approach in response to being challenged. I have been challenged before, not about photographing a child as I don’t tend to take photographs specifically of children (precisely because it can cause such angst), and this approach has always worked to diffuse the situation. In most cases it has even resulted in a formally agreed portrait and an encounter with another human being that left both parties edified, our faith in humanity restored.

My immediate reaction in this instance was to apologise, to explain I wasn’t specifically trying to photograph their child, I was sorry if it had happened and that I would make sure that I didn’t take any picture in which their child would be in the frame. But that was not enough for them. They wanted me to delete all my pictures (and their tone was even at this point particularly nasty and vindictive) and prove I’d done so. When I refused it pretty quickly turned very (and I really do mean very) nasty indeed.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. Copyright © 1970 The Estate of Diane Arbus

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. Copyright © 1970 The Estate of Diane Arbus

At this point I tried to diffuse the situation by walking away but this only seemed to make things worse as they started to follow me and become increasingly aggressive and accusative. Within a few minutes I had a gang of about six women, including one from the carnival itself (I suspect the others were just visiting), all pressed full up against me screaming that I was a pedo, a pervert, that I was going to take the pictures home and have a w**k over them. They threatened to call the police and I invited them to since I know I’ve done nothing wrong (on reflection I should have just called the police myself). The situation was finally diffused when I backed down and walked away on their demand. Obviously I’m not going to pick a fight with anyone, let alone a group of vicious, baying women backed up by the young men from the travelling community that were by that time taking an interest in what was going on. I have nothing against these people but I’m also well informed enough to know that their willingness to engage in a fight is equal to their capability in one.

It was incredibly upsetting. I am entirely sensitive to their concerns and fears but I am also not about to start kowtowing to vicious and unreasonable demands especially when their motivation is pure hate and vile bigotry. I felt pretty shaken up. To have such horrible things thrown at you in such a brutal and public way, to be presumed to be something so utterly repugnant and so counter to who you really are; it’s truly horrible.

Over the last 12 hours I’ve thought a lot about whether what I did was wrong. I guess in one way I was photographing their children; they were in the frame after all and they were a dynamic part of it. But the intent of the photograph was entirely harmless, honourable even. My photographs probably aren’t important in the same way that other well known documentary photographer’s work are but my intent is still honourable and motivated by truth, beauty and love. 

There are also thousands of pictures of children everywhere and even without the photographs the eye sees and the mind remembers. We create photographic memories of everything around us simply by looking; if someone did have a subversive intent it would be far easier to simply look and remember so what possible additional evil intent could there be by taking a photograph of a child, either deliberately or by accident?

Copyright © Sally Mann. All Rights Reserved. Sally Mann's work is heartbreakingly beautiful and wihle the images she made were all of her own children, she has received a lot of very vocal criticism because of the nudity they show. Some have even suggested that it is pornographic and tantamount to abuse.

Copyright © Sally Mann. All Rights Reserved. Sally Mann's work is heartbreakingly beautiful and wihle the images she made were all of her own children, she has received a lot of very vocal criticism because of the nudity they show. Some have even suggested that it is pornographic and tantamount to abuse.

If we are going to say as a society that you really aren’t allowed to take a photograph in which a child appears then where do you draw the line as to where you can and can’t take photographs in a public place and how are we going to police that? You would be criminalising an image simply because there was a child in it that had been taken without explicit consent. This is the point at which we lose a record of an entire generation and in the process, we lose an important component of our humanity, culture and society. But all of this is reasoned debate in response to a reasonable challenge and that was not what this encounter was about; that was something far more disturbing and upsetting.

I posted this account on a few forums I am a member of (not photography related) and while the majority of people were entirely defensive of my position, some did, perhaps not unreasonably, suggest that I really shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this and that perhaps I was foolish to have thought it reasonable to be a middle aged man, on his own, taking photographs at a fun fair.

On the one hand they have a point, but on the other the point is predicated on, and indicative of, precisely the kind of bigoted and prejudicial belief systems that lead some people to conclude 'she's dressed like a whore so therefore she's up for it' or 'he’s black, wearing a baseball cap and walking in a funny way, he must be a drug dealer'.

To illustrate the point, if you’re reading this and thinking that they do have a point, that a man taking pictures at a fair is very wrong, ask yourself if you would reach the same conclusion if I was female.  And if I had been female, do you really think the baying mob I was confronted by would have reacted the same way?

Arthur Fellig, popularly known as ‘Weegee’ was a photographer who specialized in ‘photographing pages from life’ in his own words. His photographs were never posed, and he made it a point to do masterfully capture true moments of life.

Arthur Fellig, popularly known as ‘Weegee’ was a photographer who specialized in ‘photographing pages from life’ in his own words. His photographs were never posed, and he made it a point to do masterfully capture true moments of life.

I'm entirely sensitive to their response, which is precisely why my immediate reaction was to try and diffuse the situation with an apology and a reassurance that I wouldn't take any pictures where their children might end up being in the frame. But I draw the line at being instructed (really rather aggressively) to delete my pictures by anyone. No one has the legal authority to do that.

To be honest, if they had been polite about it, heck I'd even settle for purely civil, I would have done that. But this wasn't about anything other than hate, bile and vindictiveness. Where is society when you start pandering to the vicious baying mob? My pictures might not be that significant, but the values and beliefs that they are made with are and they are values worth defending.

Bright Young Things

A few weeks ago I saw a group of teenage girls walking through Horsham and was immediately struck by their incredibly self-confident expression of identity. The Transitions project has always been about exploring the process by teenagers and young adults come to understand who they are and how they want to project themselves in the world. Suddenly here were four young women who even by the age of 15 already seemed to have figured out significant parts of that equation and were confident enough to be outwardly expressing it.

It was one of those moments where I though ‘oh my word what a great portrait they would make’ and yet my own lack of confidence and self-belief almost stopped me from taking the picture. I’d actually let them walk past and almost lost them before I plucked up the courage to trot after them and suggest a picture.

I’m glad I did, I’m really happy with this picture and the story it tells of the process we go through trying to figure out who we are, how we fit into the world and how that process can be both incredibly exciting but also terrifying.

'Sisterhood'

'Sisterhood'

I asked the four friends to simply stand together in any way they wanted, to hold themselves in a way they felt comfortable and let the picture be just what it is. Of course, when someone points a camera at you, the result is to a large degree an artificial construct but it is still the truth in that moment and that moment is still the product of who you are. So what we see here is true; it’s authentic in its portrayal of the varying levels of self-confidence that the four subjects show.

'The Brown Sisters' Photograph: © 2014 Nicholas Nixon

'The Brown Sisters' Photograph: © 2014 Nicholas Nixon

This group are curious and interested but still apprehensive. I had the sense that while this curiosity coupled with apprehension was the result of moment they found themselves in, it is also strongly reflective of where they are in life. The growing sense of self-understanding is just peeking through and there are very clearly big differences in who these bright young things will grow up to be. But they all stand close together for security; an act of ‘sisterhood’ strongly reminiscent of ‘The Brown Sisters’ (which you can read about here: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/19/nicholas-nixon-40-years-brown-sisters-portraits-moma )

Fast forward a few weeks and yesterday while taking a late lunch and walking through town I saw this group of four boys out after school. Again, the idea of a group portrait came to me and while nerves again piqued my self-confidence, the idea of taking a contrasting image was compelling and motivated me to approach them. These boys are the same age as the girls in the other photograph (15 or thereabouts) and yet there is such a striking difference in the way they present themselves to the camera. The contrast in gender roles here is really fascinating.

'Brotherhood'

'Brotherhood'

The space between them is the most obvious feature; where the girls a huddled together for security and in response to friendship, the boys keep a distance between them (and just how uniform that distance is also noteworthy, suggesting that there is an unwritten code that governs what is a minimum safe distance). They are trying to project a greater sense of power and confidence; the overt hand gesture that emphasises the genitals of the subject second from right; the clichéd defiance of the 'bird' gesture by the boy on the far right; the desire of the subject second from left to hide his identify. One of them had clearly deliberately left his facial hair unshaven as a way of projecting his nascent masculinity and all of them walked with that characteristic swagger of shoulders dropped backwards and the groin pushed forward.  

And yet these are still just teenage boys, out walking their mate’s dog and trying to figure out who they are in the process.