Hemingway's Younger Brother

I’ve written before about how I think most B&W pictures would probably also work as colour but that the reverse is rarely also true. The inherent interest of an image will always remain regardless of the saturation, but B&W composition requires the interplay between light and dark to work in a way that isn’t always required for a colour composition to also be successful.

I love B&W, but I am more aware now than I’ve ever been that my talent, such as there is any, is for colour rather than monochrome photographer; I always find myself composing in colour and then deciding after the fact that a given image would perhaps work well, or even better in B&W. This is luck and serendipity rather than talent; I am certain that exceptional B&W photographers compose in monochrome and know how that composition will work as such before they take it.

For now, I am happy to see the world and the people in it in colour. I will always enjoy the serendipity of a good B&W composition, but I won’t try to maintain any pretence about being talented in this area!  

 Steve Bateman, A true 'Guern', fisherman, doorman, labourer, chef and all round character, photographed off Vazon beach, Guernsey

Steve Bateman, A true 'Guern', fisherman, doorman, labourer, chef and all round character, photographed off Vazon beach, Guernsey

Eulogy for my Father

In sitting down to right this eulogy, I have tried to think about the ways in which we might best collectively remember than man I called ‘dad’. I have so many personal memories of him. We had so much fun together and so much of who I am is his work but ultimately these memories are deeply personal and perhaps only mum, Alex and I would feel connected by them.
I will get to these memories in a moment. For now what we need is a shared memory by which we can all connect with the man that Alex and I called, dad, you called Jeff and my mum used to like calling ‘jeffery bobbles bom bom’.

What might that thing be, perhaps we could start with some well-loved catch phrases.

 Are you alright?  No I’m half left

How are you? Not three bad

 It’s been ages, how are you?  All the better for seeing you my dear

And of course who can forget

How do you feel dad?  I’ll let you know when I’ve recovered

How poignant that one now sounds. I guess not this time dad.

We might consider his little routines and obsessions. For example, no matter how many times we talked about turning off all the lights, making sure the TV wasn’t left in standby mode and that the front door was properly locked before we came to bed, dad would still insist on giving us a full run down of this routine whenever Alex or I would visit.

We could also rely entirely on things like shoes, keys and wallets not being where we left them. Dad would insist on moving these things to somewhere safe, from what they were at risk of always eluded us but it was always a fun to play, ‘where the bloody hell has dad put my keys and wallet now?’

Again it’s poignant and ironic to acknowledge that this creeping obsessive compulsive like behaviour was perhaps the earliest sign that something wasn’t right, as were the bad jokes, the punchline of which you could see coming from a good weeks before it was delivered.

But this is not what I remember him by. Those memories, though funny in some respects are also difficult. Better then to remember the man who made Alex and I who we are. Here are some of those memories.

I’m two years old. I’m wearing a dark blue parker jacket, tartan trousers (this was the 70s) and wellies. There are two buckets of soapy water next to a dark blue Volkswagen Beetle and apparently, we are supposed to move the water from the bucket and on to the car via a sponge in a broadly circular motion. But somehow, far more of the water has ended up on me rather than the car. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for dad, quite the opposite in fact, but mum isn’t seeing the funny side and seems to think that dad has failed somewhat in his fatherly duties. As I am inside getting changed, I think dad is cool.

Dad is teaching me how to use a camera. He’s explaining about shutter speeds and what aperture is and how the hole gets exactly twice as large as the numbers get not quite half as big. I’m only eight so this doesn’t really make any sense to me, but I am quite interested in his copies of Amateur Photographer as they have lots of nice pictures of women with boobies in them. I think dad is pretty awesome.

Alex and I are both dangling from ropes off the side of Windgather Rocks. We’re wearing hemp cloth britches made by mum, big angry red socks and walloping great walking boots and basically look like we’ve just stepped out of an L. S. Lowry painting, but we don’t care because how many other ten years olds get taken rock climbing by their dads?

It’s 9 O’clock in the evening. Dad, Alex and I are lying in a tent in a campsite in the Langdale Valley. Earlier that day Dad, Alex and I were perched high on the side of Pavey Ark having just climbed up Jakes Rake. Dad has taught us all the verses of The Manchester Rambler song and we’ve just had dinner of Cumberland Sausage and chips in the Old Dungeon Ghyll. Alex and I had Coca Cola because we are only ten and 12 but dad has had quite a few pints of his favourite beer ‘Jennings’ and is now telling us all about Eskimo Nell and how he would hitch hike up to the Lakes as a young man to go walking and climbing with his mates. Once they had a bbq in a cave high up on the side of one of the valleys; they’d spent all day hauling beer and food in rucksacks up to it. I think dad is basically god.

We’re still ten miles from home on the run back from the café stop at Crannage. I’ve got the bonk and we’re riding into a headwind across the Cheshire plain; my legs are dead and there’s nothing left in the tank. Dad’s hand is gently pressing on my lower back as he coaxes me home.

I’m sitting in mum’s car with everything I own packed into it. I’m 18 and about to leave home for the first (but not the last) time. I’m only going down the road to Altrincham to work in a bar during my year out so it really doesn’t occur to me that this might be something of a big deal to dad. Mum comes out of the house and looks at me. I give her a look that says ‘come on let’s get going’ but before I can voice this opinion mum tells me that dad is sat inside very upset because I’ve left without even saying goodbye. It then dawns on me that this is a big deal.

I get out of the car and give you a big hug and tell you goodbye dad.

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The Simplest of Spaces

Sometimes the light falls in the most simple or innocuous of spaces. You can spend a lot of time trying to set up your lights in a large studio space or spend a fortune renting out a Manhattan style loft with floor to ceiling windows and then by chance, while brushing your kids teeth in the family bathroom of your own home, you notice that the light coming in through the window in at 7pm of a summer evening is as good as it ever gets. Nature provides.

My two boys, though highly inquisitive and open to experience, are fortunately not old enough to question just why I am using the place they pee as a makeshift studio. They are unquestioning when I ask them to stand on a simple stool, placed in front of the round window and also in front of the toilet so that I can have the light fall just so on their faces.

Indeed, the session takes an interesting turn when my youngest decides it would be fun to see if he can aim down into the toilet from his elevated position. It doesn’t end well.

Fortunately, the portraits worked superbly. Perhaps we can try some more once I’ve cleaned the urine up off the floor.

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Touching Strangers

I first became aware of Richard Renaldi’s work through his long-term project ‘Touching Strangers’. I was struck by the sensitivity and poignancy of a particular image that showed an older black woman, holding the hand and touching the face of a much younger white man. The brilliance of the image isn’t just in the sensitivity and poignancy of the image but also in the fact that the two individuals in the portrait were unknown to each other before Renaldi made the portrait. I have often and wondered about the creative genius of the person who had not only been able to conceive of this portrait before its execution but had the empathy and sensitivity to make it happen, to be able persuade two individuals to engage with both him as a photographer and each other as subjects in a portrait.

Renaldi’s brilliance isn’t just in being able to persuade two random people to touch each other and be photographed while doing so, though I think that on its own would be a powerful and compelling commentary on today’s desperately neurotic and over protective society and worthy of our attention. More brilliant is the insight he brings in the selection process, the people he chooses and recruits to his work. Renaldi isn’t just making a beautiful portrait of two people, he’s offering commentary and insight into the human condition, dealing with issues of race, age, gender, sexuality and class. Simply framing two deeply contrasting individual together in a single composition, individuals whom you would otherwise not see as being ‘together’, would also result in a compelling portrait, but it would also run the risk of feeling confrontational. It would highlight the divisions that exist in society but that would be all. By having the strangers touching in some way, Renaldi offers us hope. He shows us something about our compassion and the ways in which rifts and divisions can be healed. It is what I have always liked to call ‘the humanity of the person in front of you’.

 From the project 'Touching Strangers' by Richard Renaldi. Reproduced here with permission from the arist. Copyright Richard Renaldi.

From the project 'Touching Strangers' by Richard Renaldi. Reproduced here with permission from the arist. Copyright Richard Renaldi.

This particular image is especially powerful and meaningful for me. It was posted in protest against to the terrible, but thankfully now repealed, American policy of separating immigrant children from their parents while their immigrantion status was processed. The whole premise of the Touching Strangers project lends itself so perfectly to this cause and this image is a powerful inditement of everything that was morally and humanistically wrong with the policy.  

But the image also made me think about the broader premise of how society 'separates' children from adults, particularly men, and sees them as a potential threat. I regularly photograph children, adolescents and young adults because these are the themes that, for deeply personal reasons, interest me and resonate most strongly. But I am always very wary of how society regards me as a middle age man photographing children. Indeed, on one occasion I have had to call the police in response to the accusations and threats being levelled at me as a result of my engaging with subjects. So this image, where Renaldi has arranged for a young boy to physically engage with a grown man, who is also a stranger, resonates very deeply for me.

I’m a father of two young boys and being their father defines me as a person, but society doesn’t define my success in the same way and indeed, regards me as a potential threat to children by the very nature of my age and gender. This image is incredibly powerful is so many ways and ‘touches’ me deeply.

 

Nil by Mouth

Those of your that follow me will know I've been documenting with my father's dementia and the rapid path of deterioration he has taken over the last few years. This activity is part art, part therapy (so I guess that makes it ‘art therapy’) but is entirely about engaging with his condition in a bid to maintain my connection with him. His form of dementia – vascular dementia – is the result of reduced cardio vascular output which subsequently causes the deterioration of brain mass and therefore cognitive function. It was an odd experience to witness its onset, not least because of how early in his life it seemed to start. Indeed, such was the premature nature of his condition that for a long time the subtle shift in his behaviour was largely interpreted as something other than dementia. For a long time it didn’t even register that there was clinical problem; we just regarded him as having become a little OCD here, a little emotionally effusive there and just sometimes perhaps a tad inappropriate in genteel company.

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This shift gradually become more obvious. The emotional effusiveness turned into cloying sentimentality and the slightly OCD nature of whether the car keys were mine or some other previously unidentified individual who might be in the house turned into frustrating stubbornness as he tried to rationalise who they might belong to.

His condition descended like a fog. Forward visibility slowly deteriorated but at a rate that simply caused ambiguity rather than certainty. For a long time we all wondered whether we were perhaps not over reacting a little. That ambiguity seems almost quaint now. There was a point when the fog was so thick that it was no longer possible to draw any other conclusion even if that point for us as family was some months before a clinical diagnosis.

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Over the last two years the degree of cognitive engagement has rapidly dropped off but there has always been an emotional connection. Hugs have always been reciprocated and I’ve commented before that he is most engaged and alert whenever I point a camera at him. At these times the lens seems to cut like a knife through the fog of his dementia and we communicate again. His gaze is fixed and determined and his eyes sparkle.

I've often thought about whether documenting this period in his life was fair on him. He lacks the capacity for consent to publish these images so there is a moral question that needs to be asked and, with respect to my fellow photographers, we aren’t the most objective people to ask this question of. I can publish the photographs on Instagram and Flickr and receive nothing but approval and commendation, but ask my brother what he thinks and you’ll get a very different answer. Not unequivocally condemning, but certainly troubled.

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On Monday he was taken into hospital and were told he had a less than 50/50 chance of making it through the night. I raced up to see him on Tuesday and went directly to the hospital. He had indeed pulled through the night but was (and is still) very ill. Of course, I had my camera and of course I had been thinking a lot about whether to document this point or not. The greatest challenge is the sense that I might be taking and posting these photographs precisely because I know they will be powerful and compelling and arguably the base of our motivation to act in any capacity is the desire to have that action recognised. It might not be that this is craven, attention seeking behaviour, but there is still a selfish component to the action.  

I thought these might be the last photograph I would take of him and thought particularly hard about whether I would or wouldn’t share them. As it turns out, by good fortune they are not, but that doesn't change my reason for sharing it. If they had been, I would still be posting it here.

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My photographing him has always been about forcing myself to engage with him; with the man in front of the lens, forcing me to look and confront what is happening. I still think that is terribly important, at least for me if perhaps not for anyone else. At some point, one of the pictures I take will be the last one. I will post that one also when it happens. Life ends eventually but while we live, we have to engage it with every fibre of our being.

 

For Display Purposes Only

There’s a fine line between documenting exhibitionism and indulging in voyeurism. It’s a line I have always tried very hard not to cross especially with portraiture as to do so risks objectifying the subject. Part of the reason I tend to formally engage with my subjects is because I want to connect with and represent their humanity; that’s very difficult to do, perhaps even impossible, if you’re photographing them without their knowledge or consent. It’s not that I think candid street photography of people is bad, I believe that approach can say a lot about our collective humanity and tell a wonderful story. A lot of the images in my ‘Brighton Beach, Sunrise Sunday’ project aim to do precisely this, but my greater interest is always with the person in front of me.

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Documenting exhibitionism is inevitable on Brighton Beach at any time of day, but in the early hours of Sunday morning, when the clubbers emerge like Mortlocks from their subterranean dens, it’s an occupational hazard. Partially clothed or even naked swimmers are the most common sight and making out on the beach is hardly a modern concept, nor is the public expression of sexual preference, after all this is Brighton and if not here then where?

On this occasion I had approached a group on the beach as I usually do. I’ve commented on this before but it’s often hard to read the dynamic of these groups; are they a group held together on the basis of long held friendships or simply as a result of the sense of collectivism that Brighton Beach tends to excite? This group had a consistency of dress and style that I really liked, a mixture of rock and rockabilly and it was apparent that they had all been to a rock night together, so I guessed that were at least some of them who were connected by more than just a shared night out.

Amelia in particular stood out for her sense of style and flair and I knew I wanted to make a portrait just of her. I asked her if she would let me photograph her. She agreed despite her outwardly expressing a lack of confidence, but her timidity was charming and engaging and I was happy with the results. A moment later another woman in the group, who I had photographed a moment before and who had expressed much more ribald confidence, quite literally bowled over into the scene. There was a moment when it became apparent that they were clearly more than just friends but perhaps not quite ready to acknowledge this. I asked what the relationship was and Beth, the more confident one, energetically explained that she was working on it at which point she pulled Amelia down onto the shingle and passionately kissed her.

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‘Oh my god you’re so much more confident than I am’, gasped Amelia when she was able to draw breath.

This presented something of a quandary for me because I was framing for a photograph at the point this happened, so they both knew that I was photographing them. The act was almost a defiant public display of passion and desire, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate her strength of feeling and thereby woo the object of her desire, perhaps as a way of demonstrating her confidence and dominance, perhaps even as a way of challenging my position as a stranger with a camera, observing and taking pictures.

Whatever her reason, the passion was unbridled and reciprocated, and I found myself faced with the dilemma of whether I should politely retreat and leave them to it, or continue to photograph them. Obviously, I chose the latter though the experience was distinctly uncomfortable. It’s not as if they didn’t know what I was doing, quite the opposite. it was almost as if they were doing this because of what I was doing. And yet the creeping sense of eroticism in the scene and the growing sense of my voyeurism (though strictly speaking voyeurism is the pleasure of observing without you yourself being observed) only compounded my sense of discomfort.

So why did I keep photographing?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I think the best answer I can give is because I was curious as to what would happen, that is of course, less what would happen with them and more what would happen with me. Would I be able to remain focused, composed and objective or would my baser instincts get the better of me? It was almost like a self-administered test but one I hopefully passed.

It will be interesting to see if either of them gets in touch. I suspect not as it’s been a few days now and I’ve not had any contact but this is not entirely unusual. If they do it will be interesting to hear their side of the story.

 

Boy/Girl, Girl/Boy

Our appearance encodes many things about who we are. Some of these attributes are mostly beyond our control and so obvious that we take them for granted, for example our age and gender. Some are more nuanced and are the product of our personal choice and self-expression, for example our dress and our mode of speaking. These are the attributes we choose to adopt and show the world in order to define who we are and how we want others to see us.

 Alex

Alex

When we engage with another person, all of this information comes to us in a flood, but our processing is so well developed that we make sense of the data in a heartbeat. It is this speed that gives much of the information the quality of ‘taken for grantedness’, the phenomenon that the information we gather is encoded with meaning that changes the way we see, think and interact with the person in front of us, without us being aware of that. We rely on this mechanism to tell us what the appropriate pattern of behaviour with a given person is. Just like the information about their appearance, this behaviour is also spread across the spectrum of highly obvious to the incredibly subtle

Sometimes however we meet someone whose appearance is ambiguous (or perhaps entirely contradictory), and the process that informs how we should behave with this person is thrown into disarray. What personal pronouns to use, where you look, your body language and what you say all suddenly become less apparent.

The most obvious attribute that we take for granted, and which informs the mode through which we engage a person, is their gender.  Quite how much the way we engage with people is encoded in gender only becomes apparent when we meet someone whose gender is ambiguous. The experience can be deeply unsettling, either because as humans we are programmed to be at least wary, perhaps even rejecting of, the unfamiliar or because our sense of decency and compassion for our fellow person means most of us want to engage respectfully. When we’re unsure of precisely how to do that, it make us uncomfortable.

 Alex

Alex

But these moments, as unsettling as they might be, are  moments of truth and clarity. They are the opportunity to learn something about ourselves and the way we build society and culture. They are the opportunity to change those structures so that they (and we) are fairer and more respectful of others. As such they are important and precious.

My own insights into just how much of a role gender plays in simple human interactions began three years ago when my best friend came out as a trans’ woman. We have been friends since we were teenagers when we rode mountain bikes in the hills of the Peak District. We remained friends into young adulthood as we tried to find our way in the world. Like anyone else, our respective journeys have been challenging and at times difficult but we have always been friends and that was always a deep comfort to me.

There was always something about my friend that I couldn't explain. I felt it through the nature of our friendship, which contrasted strongly with my experience of other friendships. We were close but not full disclosed; emotionally connected but not physically so; caring but also slightly detached. I never imagined this unexplained thing was something as painful and significant as the fact that they were living the first, and arguably most challenging, half of their life in the wrong gender.

 Alex

Alex

I cannot imagine how difficult the lived experience of gender dysphoria must be, but I am now more empathetic for it and conscious of how we behave differently with different people based on these unspoken variables. None of which is not a judgement or commentary on anything other than the differences that exist and the importance of being respectful, sensitive and empathetic to the humanity of the person in front of you. Meeting anyone who helps you achieve this is a treasured moment.