Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Dench Diary : June/July 2012

4th I receive a message via Facebook asking to deliver a speech at the opening of the Swansea Metropolitan University ‘Free Range’ photography degree show at the Truman Brewery in London. This is pleasing and pour myself a Rioja

12th Russia have just taken a one-nil lead against Poland in the football European Championships. The man sat next to me in The Hillgate Pub, Notting Hill, punches the air in delight; the man is Alexei Obolensky. The name Obolensky is said to derive from the town of Obolensk, the name of a princely Russian family of the Rurik dynasty, one of Europe’s oldest royal houses. The family of Obolensky aristocrats mostly fled Russia in 1917 during the revolution; Alexei is a 21-year old descendant of that family. We met while I was on assignment for the Telegraph magazine shooting a reportage of a group of pupils from Sherborne independent boys boarding school on a visit to the central eastern African country of Rwanda. They were visiting Rwanda to join locals and build a community hall for survivors of the genocide. It was a bonding experience and Alexei and I have remained friends. At the time I was lucky enough to hold a silver British Airways executive club card which allowed business lounge access and access to a plethora of free booze. Arriving from Rwanda into Kenya for a welcome stop over and change of flight, I flew up the stairs into the BA lounge. The young prince had gained access with his fathers gold BA card and was already on the Gin. Back in Notting Hill, I ask Ed Bacon who was also in Rwanda and has joined us for a catch up; “Why The Hillgate?” He explains; his cousin owns it, one of a portfolio of pubs in the area; I get the beers in.

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

13th As my profile increases, faces from the past continue to reconnect. Today it’s Gef. Gef was a rather naughty boy I knew from the early 90’s Rave scene in Bournemouth. From his Facebook message, Gef seems to have mellowed. He has found a wife and settled in Morecombe. I click ‘confirm friend.’

17th I hit the editorial jackpot; a 12-day assignment for a German news magazine shooting a pre-Olympic portrait of London. That’s long enough to wear all the clothes in my wardrobe twice. There’s a list  of general topics to cover: Anything to do with the rush in London; quiet London; markets in London; posh London; artsy London; strange London; financial London. I decide on the strategy and the strategy is to organize the shoot as one giant pub-crawl and get stuck-in. I drink a London Pride at The Audley in Mayfair and  wait with a Magners cider for a horse-drawn hearse at The Boleyn Tavern near Upton Park. I order a bottle of Mexican lager overlooking Saint Paul’s Cathedral at One New Change and a Pale Ale at Dalston Roof Terrace looking out towards Canary Wharf. I drink a Pinot Grigio white wine spritzer at All Bar One Canary Wharf and a glass of champagne outside Corney and Barrow watching pretty office workers playing a lunchtime game of Croquet in Exchange Square. I drink at King’s Cross, St. Pancras, Waterloo, London Bridge and Victoria railway stations. I imbibe at The Dove on Broadway market, The Birdcage at Columbia Road Flower Market and the Howl at the Moon after a visit to Hoxton Street market where I also have a pie. I drink on the South Bank of the River Thames, the north bank of the River Thames and on a boat on the River Thames. I drink a Marks and Spencer Vodka & Tonic in a can at London fields and a bottle of Beck’s sat on a bench watching cheerleaders in Battersea Park. I suck back Sols at The Night Gallery in Redchurch Street and clutch a Rose watching a drag Queen sing Abba songs at Molly Moggs in Soho. The job goes well, the magazine is pleased and I celebrate at the Villiers Terrace, with a Prosecco.

18th I receive a message via Facebook informing me that Tom Hunter would now be opening the Swansea Metropolitan University ‘Free Range’ degree show at the Truman Brewery in London. This is not pleasing and pour myself a Rioja. TOM HUNTER! Who the F*** is Tom Hunter!? Is Tom Hunter contributing editor to Hungry Eye magazine? Is Tom Hunter Co-Creative Director of White Cloth Gallery, Leeds? Is Tom Hunter core group photographer at Reportage by Getty Images? How can Tom Hunter help students more than I? I fist his name on the keyboard into Google; trkmnBUnter. Then I try again with single finger digits. “Oh he’s an ARTIST!” Actually he’s rather good; 1998 John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award winner; 1999 Saatchi Gallery exhibition of the ‘Holly Street’ estate; 2006 solo show at the National Gallery; Recent commissions from The Serpentine Gallery London, Channel 4, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Museum of London and the Royal Shakespeare company.

19th Gef texts to say he would like to visit with his wife and has recently lost a foot.

21st I head down to the Swansea Metropolitan University ‘Free Range’ degree show at the Truman Brewery in East London, the UK’s largest graduate art and design exhibition, and swing by to say hello to Tom Hunter. It’s 17-years since I graduated and watch fondly as the students pin their hopes to the wall. At the City of Westminster College show I cup a hand of gummy bears and cast an eye over Arthur Hyam’s work. His work is on dry mounted glossy paper, darkroom printed. Observing the work is a young man tweaking his outrageously flamboyant mustache. He can’t be old enough to have achieved the right to sport such an outlandish growth. I step outside; there’s a young man wearing a jauntily positioned Trilby hat playing a Rubix Cube. With Shoreditch-chap-rage swelling in my clenched hands I dash for the tube and narrowly miss being rubber stamped by a customised low-slung BMX bike ridden by a sock-less young man wearing paisley shorts, brown brogue shoes and an ostentatious beard.

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

22nd “Wow! Make up really works!” may not have been the best phrase to compliment a 16-year old girl on the cusp of the most special evening of her young life. I’ve taken an afternoon out from my London editorial adventure to act as official snapper at my niece Jaye’s graduation prom. As we make our way outside for the group photograph by the light pink Limousine, a brutal wind whips the girls around like a chucked tin of Quality Street. Arriving at the prom it’s a bit Gypsy Wedding; Strap marks climb from strapless dresses; zits are popped and hair is primped; dresses bustle and boys bay at the boobs on display. I get the camera out.

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

25th My daughter has a day off school and would like to go on a visit to the Tower of London. I would like to take my daughter on a visit to the Tower of London but in June 1999 I was banned from the Tower for life. I was on assignment for the now defunct style magazine The Face shooting a reportage on The Power Team, a troupe of ministers from Texas who perform feats of strength while preaching about God. After sending a message to the masses in Hackney, East London, they decided on a day off for sightseeing and I was to accompany them. Photographing the Crown Jewels on display at the Tower of London is strictly forbidden. I stepped on to the moving walkway towards the bling with members of the God squad (mainly ex-American footballers and weightlifters resplendent in their matching shiny Power Team tracksuits) and raised the camera to focus; ‘Click’ - a hand weighed down on my shoulder and I was marched down to the bowels of the Tower and unceremoniously ejected out. “You Sir, are not welcome back. EVER!” Now I’m sure, 13-years later, my crime is forgiven but my daughter is rather sensitive when it comes to misdemeanors and I’d rather not risk it so I send the wife.

27th Gef texts to say he received over £2 million for the loss of his foot and that his wife is a man.

July 2012

5-6th The Stilo or the Sharpie? I’m at Les Recontres d’Arles festival for a book signing. Arles, where the bums drink Rose on the steps to a Koudelka exhibition and flies suckle on the sweet wrists of sweet young young women flashing their white teeth smiles. Sat in the sunshine at my table on the Rue Des Porcelets I inhale the atmosphere and opt for the Sharpie, the David Beckham signature pen of choice, and wait for my adoring fans. There are three. The problem with buying books in Arles is it would be more economical to buy it a return seat on ‘Tryandbear Airlines’ rather than fork out for the overweight luggage fee. Don McCullin drops by for a peek but leaves empty handed. Later at dinner with the Don, I suggest we double up on a photo-tour of England; Dench and Don Uncensored? Surprisingly he doesn’t dismiss it out of hand.

The Don checks out England Uncensored

6th Gef calls at 1am for a catch-up.

7th What is a chap and do I have the potential to be one? These are pondered thoughts on the short number 91 bus ride from Crouch End to Bedford Square in central London, the venue for the 8th Chap Olympiad. In between The Cucumber Sandwich Discus, Umbrella Jousting and Shouting at Foreigners events, I ask Tristan Langlois, Lord Laughingstock, Sir Gerard De Wilts and Mr Wax if I have the potential to be a good chap and am handed a copy of the chap manifesto. While I could cope with being courteous to the ladies, doffing one’s hat should I be wearing one, and never wearing plimsols when not doing sport, I could not; always cultivate interesting facial hair and volley my screwed up rage into the bin.

10th I put a chicken in the oven before I go out so I don’t spend too long in the pub. When I return home I have a burnt chicken.

12th The German news magazine with my pre-Olympic London photo-essay hits stands. Out of the opening eight double-page-spreads, five of them are mine. There are 12 of my photographs used in total. This is clearly too many as three have been credited to the photographer Nick Turpin.

14th Gef leaves three abusive voicemail messages on my cell phone.

18th It’s the night before the UK in print premier of my exhibition England Uncensored at White Cloth Gallery Leeds and I opt for a low-key evening of a pint and a pub quiz. Before the questions are asked I pen all the answers and the answers are all the same; Geoffrey Boycott.

21st I’m giving a photo-walk around East London to a hen party. The hen is Clare who likes graffiti art. I’ve prepared a presentation, plotted the route and sourced a few quirky bars for a rejuvenating glass along the way. Heading for the door the cell phone delivers a text; “Hooray it’s sunny! Just to give u a heads up, Clare's mum said to me that she wasn’t keen on photography!” Essentially then, they have paid for a strange man to accompany them for a walk and to sit next to them in bars. I invite my friend Ben along and ‘unfriend’ Gef on Facebook.

You can buy a copy of England Uncensored here

A version of this feature first appeared in issue #8 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here

Friday, 14 September 2012

Dench Diary : April - May 2012

April 7th It’s 6.30pm and I’m the first to arrive at The Lazy Lizard (a cafe and bar with a rustic image, with home made food and service with a smile) in my home town of Weymouth, I order a beer and scan the entrance. Russell Stainer is next to arrive all the way from Leicester; we grab a seat and discuss the wiry bearded man sat opposite wearing a fluorescent jacket and sipping half a lager. We call the wiry bearded man over; it’s Mr ‘Speedy’ Clarke who taught us maths. I’m at the ‘Class of 1988’ Weymouth Grammar School reunion. Forty minutes into the reunion it feels more like a bad date, or three men whose dates have failed to materialize, then they start to arrive, a portal from history: Adrian Bratt looks well (well fed); David Short looks tall; Justin Measures short. Lisa Walbridge reminisces how I threw a ‘tizzy fit’ when she tipped the box of Maltesers I had bought for our cinema date onto the floor; I don’t remember. Stuart Lloyd still blames me for being knocked over by a car when I called out his name and he ran unchecked into the road; I don’t remember. We all blame ourselves for the relentless singing of the surname of another Stuart (who stuttered) to the  theme tune for the British cinema advertising company Pearl & Dean; Babababababababababababababababa..........BOWDEN! That I shamefully do rememememememememememem.......BER! New photographs are posed for and old ones passed around; class portraits of all-white mainly working-class kids; the girls in white knee-high socks and the boys with slick hair flicks, fixed bad-teeth smiles and brown National Health specs. I came equipped with camera kit to film the reunion but it feels inappropriate and a lot more interesting on paper; as the updated class photograph head for dinner, I head for home, content in the knowledge that I won’t be attending the next reunion.

16th  There’s a white line; It’s less than a millimeter thick but it’s definitely there; It shouldn’t be there. It’s the end on a long day at EBS printers in the Italian city of Verona; the printers want to go home and I would like a drink. I’m advised there are two options; let the mistake go and negotiate a discount or reject the plate costing the printers a significant sum of money and a delay to the printing. Along to the lyrics of Grandmaster Melle Mel’s White Lines I rapidly asses the pros and cons; the cons go a long way. England Uncensored is my first book, my creative legacy on which my early career will be judged; it would be the first page I’d turn to for the rest of my life; I wouldn’t be able to confidently promote the book; my daughter to whom the book is dedicated will one day be visually savvy enough to see the mistake; It’s a fine white line but not one I’m willing to tread; Melle Mel sings me the answer “Don’t Do It” I point my finger in the air and pronounce “reject the plate!”

19th Sat in Jamie’s Kitchen in Leeds, September 2011, the concept sounded simple; we would open a photography + film gallery and events space in the heart of this thriving city. Seven months later we have. Tonight is the official launch of White Cloth Gallery opening with The Family, an exhibition by Jocelyn Bain Hogg. BBC Radio have had their interview, the PR company are on patrol at the door and the numbers start to come; more than 240 names are ticked off the list.

23rd I’ve always been acutely aware of my own mortality, many of Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ generation is. Watching the video for the 1984 single Dancing With Tears in My Eyes by Ultravox on the music television programme Top of the Pops about a nuclear power plant meltdown and imminent explosion, I had to sit at the front of the lounge so my parents wouldn’t see the tears in mine. I lay awake at night imagining the flesh peeling from Ultravox lead singer Midge Ure; sometimes I still do. I’ve never been able to watch Threads; the British television documentary-style drama account (also from 1984) of a nuclear war and it’s effects on the British city of Sheffield. Today I am 40 years old and ponder how long I have left; four football World Cups? One monarch? One World War? 7,300 bottles of red wine? I always assumed I would drink hard until I turned 40 then turn my back on the booze and live a life of vitality and health; turns out I’m a big fat liar; “Hello, I’m Peter Dench and today, the Villiers Terrace have introduced me to the Jaeger Bomb!”

28 - 29th It’s the wettest April on record and today is the wettest day of April. The proprietor of the pub in which I am meeting the six participants on the ‘This is London Workshop’ went out on a bender and fancied a lie-in instead. I send the cold and grey half-dozen to the coffee shop to warm up and wait.

May 2nd My daughter Grace lost her first tooth today, she is seven years old. We found the tooth and placed it in her specially made ‘I’ve lost my first tooth pouch’ that she got from Santa Clause who I’m informed is in cahoots with the Tooth Fairy. When she’s  asleep I gently reach under her pillow and replace the tooth with a five pound note and sit down in the lounge to absorb the news, reconsider, grab the note back and nip out to buy a four-pack of Scrumpy Jack cider and place the change in the pouch; children prefer shiny coins.

19th A financially successful photographer used to live at the end of my road; he moved to a bigger house to accommodate a cinema screen for his burgeoning family. Our daughters, who were in the same class have remained friends, and today we take the train out to the London suburb for a birthday party; the plan is to drop Grace off then find a country pub for lunch as it’s too far to return home. After depositing Grace at the front door I ask about the nearest pub and am advised to “tap it into Satnav.” Satnav? I haven’t got a car, and march in the general direction of The Cock Tavern; half an hour later I arrive too late for lunch. After filling up on booze, bus back to pick Grace up and chug a beer taking in the signed Terry O’Neill prints on the stair walls before Grace bounces over with her party bag; I check to see if it includes return train fare home; it does not.

21st 10.19am the first box of England Uncensored arrives at my home. As giddy as a five-year old expecting the postman on their birthday, I’ve been peering out of the window for hours. Opening the box there’s a few pleasant surprises; along with five of my books there’s a copy of William Daniels Faded Tulips and a copy of Pantelleria - da Armani a Zzibibbu by Walter Tjantele. All books went to press at the same time and we were all there to watch; it’s a touching gesture. I inhale the ink from an unwrapped copy of England Uncensored and apprehensively begin to check each page for the inevitable cock-up. The photographs were taken over 12 years, shot on three different cameras of three different formats using countless film stock scanned by several scanners; I turn the final page without regret. In triumphant mood I take a copy of the book to Lord’s cricket ground and the company of international thriller writer Tom Knox and celebrity photographer and photographer of celebrities, Chris Floyd (apologies Chris). There are five photographs taken at Lord’s in the book and I take a tour of the locations. I recognize the man sat in the same place where I snapped him four years previous and say hello to John C Page. John has been a Marylebone Cricket Club member or 43 years, he wishes me luck with the book and signs his page; then drops the book down the concrete steps.

International Thriller Writer Tom Knox (left) & Chris Floyd

25th Nip to the Villiers Terrace for an afternoon glass and am delighted to discover an envelope has been left in the till with my name on it. Inside the envelope is a postcard with a portrait, the card reads; “Hello Peter. Coming back from a job, realised I was in the vicinity of the legendary Villiers Crouch End. Sadly you weren’t here when we got here! Next time though. Hope all’s well with you. Looking forward to your book arriving. Best regards Niall PS. I bought you a drink. Ask the barman.” I ask the barman. Niall has bought me a drink; cheers Niall.

28th - 2nd June. I take a look around my hotel room; it’s so small I only use one eye, the lazy one. I open the window hoping for a view across one of the Venetion canals that dissect the city; there’s a brick wall. The room is cold and the air-conditioning jammed on so I pull over a blanket. The smoke alarm has a flashing light so I snap on an eye-mask. The elevator strains so I pop in some ear-plugs. If there’s an evacuation I’m not hopeful; in the morning an earthquake shakes me awake. I’m on assignment in Venice for an American travel magazine. They have seen thousands of photographs of the watery city and want to see a “Dench take on it” and I take myself into the city. Slow walking couples gently touch marveling at the shops selling world-famous Murano glass, gondoliers shout there availability and waiters try to keep tables from wobbling.

31st I’m mentioned in a tweet from my old university @DerbyUni; Congrats @peterdench! First monograph this year ‘England Uncensored’ @DerbyUniADT grad & @formatfestival photographer. It’s all true, but I’m irked; it’s been 17 years since that graduation and I haven’t heard a peep from the course since, no mention, no aftercare, no invite to return.

2nd - 5th Arriving back into Gatwick Airport, thousands of miles of bunting has been stitched across the fabric of the land for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. I’m nonplussed; after the 2011 Royal Wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton, I’m bunting’d out and decide to let this four-day celebration march past and retreat home with a bottle of vodka and enough cooked chicken to feed an infantry of Grenadier Guards. Gazing across the resting urban foxes towards Villiers Terrace, the customers are in jubilant and jubilee mood; the bunting is strung like a child’s game of cats cradle. My decision to abstain starts to niggle; as a photojournalist shouldn’t I be documenting the present in an attempt to preserve the past? I drop a piri-piri chicken wing in the trash, drain my glass and button my shirt; “Betty I’m coming!!!”

9th I have been married ten years X

A version of this feature first appeared in issue 7 of Hungry Eye magazine, available to buy here

England Uncensored is available to buy here

In Conversation With Homer Sykes

I’m sat in the local Camden pub of international thriller writer Tom Knox (Sean Thomas). We are drinking a second bottle of rosé discussing success; his father is the critically acclaimed English poet, translator and novelist D M Thomas; he lives in a decent house in Cornwall with his current wife who is younger than us both; we think that is success. Knox has defeated heroin addiction, is a best selling author of archaeological and religious thrillers published in over 25 countries; he owns a flat, drives a mini cooper and has lent me £1000; we agree that is success. Success for me at the moment would be finding a way to say “Hello” to the fancy flock of young women that have settled around the adjacent table. I’m about to turn 40 years old and Knox is strutting towards 50; we take a rosé-tinted moment to suck back the idea of success.

The following day I’m on a 25-stop Northern Line underground train odyssey to meet a man; a successful man? I arrive early at the lines southern tip to take the edge off the previous nights imbibing and search for a bar. I can’t find one so I opt for a can of Carlsberg Export and a ‘grab bag’ of Quavers and sit on the wall of the Saint Martin’s Way Methodist Church; the ‘Brewers’ decorating materials shop mocks me with it’s title. As I watch the children’s club depart from the church, I think of what questions I should ask Homer Sykes; an independent documentary and portrait photographer of over 40 years. He has also produced one of the most extensive and comprehensive visual archives on the British. I’m visiting for two main reasons; there is something I want to ask and something I want to buy. The anticipation of achieving both in one day is making the can shake. Probably.

The semi-detached home of Homer is situated on a quiet quintessentially British suburban street. The trees are starting to bud and purple recycle bins present their neatly flattened offerings on the edge of clipped lawns. There are no clues that a photographer lives behind door number 51. Four chewed tennis balls are scattered around the pampas grass plants gesticulating at the entrance. Pampas grass!!! Isn’t that the plant used by swingers to advertise their presence to other swingers? I dismiss it as a widespread urban myth and rattle the knocker that hangs next to the bamboo wind chime perched over an old Collins road map of Britain.

©Homer Sykes

Homer Sykes looks like one of those people you expect him to look like. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he arrived in the world with his shock of white hair. His demeanor is warm but firm and his manner comparable with a Victorian explorer. I follow him past some of his most iconic prints from the 2007 Tate Britain show ‘How We Are : Photographing Britain’ the first major exhibition of photography at the premier gallery for British art. Arriving in the kitchen I present a bottle of Italian red wine and suggest a tipple; “Serious photographers don’t drink alcohol during the day or on a job.” Ah.

We take a coffee to the south facing garden and a seat at the table amongst the spiky plants an thorny roses; singing from his Greek neighbour plucks at the crisp spring air. Homer can track his first ‘proper’ photograph back to a camping holiday in 1966. While his friends watched England beat Germany in the football world cup final, Homer, who has never really been interested in watching sport, walked the backstreets of Nice. A shot that captured a woman washing clothes in an enormous stone tub that squatted among the tenements, won him a Birmingham Post photo competition.

Arguably best known for documenting British pursuits and customs, Homer never shied from gritty assignments. I ask about his time as a conflict photographer which saw him dispatched by hard news magazines to Israel, Lebanon, West Africa and Belfast where he found himself jumping in a car with Black Star photographer, James Nachtwey, before racing towards The Troubles. Homer balks at the modern term ‘conflict photographer’ and explains with a shrug that he was simply fulfilling a magazine commission that was paying him to take pictures. Toby, the chihuahua he is looking after for his daughter Tallulah vigorously humps my foot.

©Homer Sykes

Homer is a disciplined man. He rises at 7am, usually alone (the wife is ex, children Theo, Jacob and Tallulah have all grown and flown) and dresses smartly. Today his coral tank top compliments the thin lines running through his blue cuff-linked shirt that is tucked into faded jeans; a red elastic band fixes his watch in place. His constant companion, is Brendan, a Jack Russell X Smooth Haired Fox Terrier who is then taken on the first of three or four daily walks; Homer is breakfasted and at the computer screen for 9am, diligently checking Google Analytics through the screens dust; 160 non-bounced visits a day would satisfy his stat-lust.

He admits his commissioned days are behind him; the era that saw him regularly board a plane for TIME, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Telegraph and The Observer are gone. His last magazine commission was over three years ago; a photo illustration of a bereaved family for a German magazine. At 63 years old, Homer has taken stock of his options and his options are stock, a keyword or theme will be enough of a nudge to get him out taking pictures; laugh; laughing; laughter.

Homer is a salesman and has always had to be; marrying at 24 and raising a family made it necessary. Driven by the thrill of making a sale, his business is the business of making a living from flogging his archive. The past six years have largely comprised scanning; burgeoning his online archive to 12,000-13,000 images. He is currently shooting a digital colour project and trying to promote his rock and pop archive which includes intimate shots of the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney with his band, Wings. For Homer it’s all about income streams as is it for many photographers trying to sustain a living; a fine art print sale here; a book or stock sale there - it all adds up. The solitary day suits him; despite 15 years with Network Photographers, he is no longer interested in being part of a group and generally avoids bouncing around in the photo industry bubble.

©Homer Sykes

This famous photographer of Britain arrived from Canada aged five years old in 1954 when his mother remarried (his father was killed in China before he was born). As an only child at the co-educational Quaker boarding school in Somerset he built a darkroom, consumed copies of Camera Owner (later Creative Camera) and permanently lost hearing in one ear. In 1968, the calling of photography was unabated and he enrolled for a three-year course at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication). He continued to be inspired and formed a friendship with Magnum photographer David Hurn who lectured there. On his first summer vacation he visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and witnessed the accepted ‘art of photography’ by modern masters; Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank and Burk Uzzle; Homers career was cast; four decades later he completed his own Iliad and returns occasionally to LCC to teach a new generation of potential modern masters.

Homer suggests we move up to the bedroom, I peek out at the pampas bending in the breeze. He reaches under the bed in his spare room and pulls out boxes of prints from his great British archive. There are are 40 mounted prints from his book; Shanghai Odyssey, (Dewi Lewis 2002); a stack of “16x20” fine prints from his self published book; On The Road Again, (Mansion Editions 2002); and a box of Rolleiflex-shot square format work from his book; Hunting With Hounds, (Mansion Editions 2004).

He lifts the lid on what I’ve waited an adult life to see, work from his book; Once a Year - Some Traditional British Customs, (Gordon Fraser 1977). The photographs were taken in the 1970’s at more than 80 of Britain’s most fabulous, dark, historic and plain bonkers traditional annual practices; a large straw effigy known as ‘Bartle’ is carried in procession through the streets of West Witton, North Yorkshire; Blacked up Britannia Coconut Dancers stand on a rain-soaked street, smoking in their barrel skirts, Bacup, Lancashire; manic crowds surge forward during Hare Pie Scrambling and Bottle Kicking, Hallaton, Leicestershire.

England Uncensored is my own book attempt at documenting Britain; I ask the question I have come here to ask; “Is there anyone currently documenting the English in a way that interests or inspires you?” “No.” That’s that then! Then I ask to buy what I have come here to buy; a copy of Once a Year. There are copies of various prices of varying quality; copies Homer has reclaimed over the years. I reject the one that has a library stamp in the front and the mint conditioned one which is out of my price range. I flourish a (post dated) cheque and choose the one inscribed; “from Rachael and Nigel Xmas 1978.” The Christmas I unwrapped Star Wars toys to the sound of Bony M’s Mary’s Boy Child - Oh My Lord.

At 5pm Homer declares the afternoon is over and it’s time for wine. We push my passion for his work back under the bed and I’m waved into the lounge to be presented with his; modern British painting from between the wars. When Homer wines he does so with gusto; two bottles of Stamford Brook Chardonnay are quickly sloshed back as he tours me through the art. There’s an Eric Malthouse portraying a naked woman held aloft and paraded down an urban street (Malthouse can be seen in the foreground taking a photograph). Homer hooks his infected plaster-protected thumb towards an Anna Zinkeisen; a blind cherub carries a bloody arrow. There’s a John Armstrong; a Hans Tisdall; a Sine Mackinnon; a painting of Christ by Tom Nash; a John Elwyn and a painting by self-taught artist Francis Coudrill bought for £200 from a shop in Marlborough. Coudrill is perhaps more fondly remembered for creating children’s comic character ’Hank the Cowboy’, the subject of Homer’s painting is a little more adult; Coudrill’s wife as a mermaid with her breasts thrust out.

As I unscrew the red wine; lamb chops, mushrooms, potatoes and carrots are cooked. Homer would usually eat a meal then head over to The Chelsea Arts Club for a pint of London Pride and chat with fellow photographers; Roger Hutchings, Neil Libbert or Leo Mason. The chat would not be about photography; the talk would more likely be what it is likely to be by men in bars the world over; women, clothes, beer. Weekends may often find him selling Fosse Meadows Farm free-range chickens at a farmer’s market in Kensington on behalf of his son Jacob. The perfect date with his girlfriend would be a visit to an out of the way old English church, light a candle, maybe say a prayer, walk around the grounds looking at the architecture then a pint in the pub.

I dab the lamb juice from my chewing the chops, pull on my coat and ask Homer if he is pleased with how photographic history has acknowledged him and if he considers his career a success? “I’m not finished yet!” On the the tube train home, the northern bound passengers play games Tetris and Angry Birds on their phones; I flick through Once a Year; there’s a newly penned homage from Homer. I must be cackling like crazy and the eyes of the carriage level at my contorted face. I meet the gaze of my inquisitors, raise the book aloft, jab a finger at the cover, and much to their surprise, and mine; shriek out loud; “SUCCESS”!

More of Homer Sykes extensive archive can be found here

A version of this feature first appeared in issue 7 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Dench Diary : March 2012

23rd February. I have warm fistfuls of Parma ham presented to me by a Harrods catering team. I would like to eat the Parma ham, but am talking to Roksana who is an ambassador; an ambassador of what I have no idea. The striking six-footer is also a banker. I mention I am a photographer. She is also a photographer: a photographer who has an exhibition at a millionaires mansion. “I decorated the photographs with diamonds,” she remarks casually. Roksana hands me her card. It has no diamonds. She moves on and I stuff the ham into my cheeks before being introduced to Juliette. Juliette is an ambassador; an ambassador of what I have no idea. Ambassador of tight skinny jeans perhaps? I’m attending a drinks reception at the furniture and home accessories shop Nuttall, in South Kensington, London. Nuttall  is the vision of sisters Gytha and Amber. Inspired by the best of European craftsmanship with a strong English aesthetic the stock is exquisitely made to last generations. The cashmere draped from the wall appears as God's napkin for my hammy hands. Through the imbibing fug of Kia Royals, I try to figure out what the reception is for. I conclude the event is for people who have purchased, or want to purchase, a villa in an exclusive new development in Thailand. I suggest to Preet, who has invited me along and procured villa number two, that we abscond to the marvelously eccentric Janet’s Bar around the corner for some free popcorn, cheese, crackers and peanut butter sandwiches. Preet concurs.

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

26th A woman is shrieking, frenziedly shaking her head and jabbing a finger at my camera. The problem with photographing at a The National Wedding Show at London’s Olympia is the 'pre-brides' don’t want to be pictured in their frocks. The only decision I was allowed to make for my own wedding was what pants and socks to wear. Uninhibited by impending nuptials, I weave among the stalls planning my man wedding. I would definitely hire Faces of Disco. Famous for being live finalists on Britain’s Got Talent, they perform 20 minutes of non-stop, high-energy dancing, wearing the masks of your family and friends. I chuckle at the imagined high-octane body pumps of Great Grandma Dench. Of the 250-plus stalls, around 10% are photographers; and that’s not including the novelty photo booths. I wink towards Oli Green photography, curtsey at Petticoat Pictures, tiptoe past Balance Photography and chat with the officious Mike Garrard Photography. Without exception, all of the photographic businesses I ask, report business is brisk. That’s wedding photographers for you. I take my fixed grin to the Tobago stand and lubricate it with some complimentary rum.

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

"What a pile of crap! Seriously, this whole series sucks; and this photo in particulair is nothing but creepy. This appears to be some kind of racist skinhead... nice," says Bill. “This sucks!”says Boss. “I have studied photography all of my life. This collection of work is mediocre at best,”says Brad. And that’s just the 'B’s. The American news channel CNN has posted a piece about my book, England Uncensored. There are more than 35 comments of a similarly vitriolic nature. One of the pictures is of a long blond-haired dancer in a union flag bra and skirt. Spurt Reyonolds (sic) is upbeat: “Look at the fun bags on that hose hound!!!” My favourite comment is from Fantini: ““Umm...is that the eiffel tower in the background of picture number 9? When did they move it to England?!?!?! Horrible...” I change the channel. BBC picture editor Phil Coomes has posted a piece about my book, England Uncensored. There are 12 comments of a more considered nature: “Timely article for me, as this weekend I’m helping my son with his GCSE Art Photography homework. Photography is as valid as any art form as any nowadays. Art in general is too easily derided, thanks largely to the media coverage around Turner Prize time. It's good for young people to see successful artists; they give those with an interest in art something to aspire to," says Freddie Roach Ate My Hamster. Checking how beneficial these posts are I log on to Google Analytics. There are around 2,000 extra daily visits than usual to my main website, 900 to the blog and $800 has been added to the book funding page.

March 1st

There has been a sick and terrible murder; the genitalia from a black youth has been sliced off and stuffed into his mouth. The atmosphere in the police briefing room is serious and tense. “Oooh is that Coronation Street’s Karen McDonald (Suranne Jones) sat next to Michelle (Lesley Sharp) from 1986 film comedy classic, Rita Sue and Bob Too?” I ask Natasha the PR. I’m on the set of filming for ITV detective drama Scott and Bailey (Sharp and Jones respectively) shooting a reportage for the Telegraph magazine. I’m very excited. The reason I’m excited is not because of the two respected actors leafing through CCTV stills of the murder suspect. I'm excited because I heard that actor Sean Maguire may also be here. I first observed Maguire’s work playing the diminutive Terence 'Tegs' Ratcliffe in children’s television drama Grange Hill. I lost track of his career after Today’s The Day: his eighth and last single of his music career. The change of style in Maguire’s music to almost Britpop was not successful. As I gaze across the cast photograph of the now not-so-diminuative Tegs, she fills me in. Maguire, who plays traffic cop Sean McCartney, (an old flame of DC Rachel Bailey), moved to Los Angeles with his girlfriend in 2001 and is currently financing his own television pilot.

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

5th The left hand drive Winnebago careers through Camden. The four models/actors dressed as FBI security men sat opposite steady themselves. My colleague Ben Turner flings out drinks and sandwiches. We are on our way to meet an acclaimed artist for a portrait shoot on the streets of London. The shoot's budget was only signed off late the day before, and maximum effort was put in to get the crew together. At 8 o' clock this morning I received an email from the artist to be photographed, which read along the lines of: "I’m not going outside, it’s too cold, I feel under the weather, I am not flexible on this." A few emailed images of the cosy Winnebago interior assuaged concerns. I sit and sweat. The artist is 15 minutes late at our arranged meeting point. We haul them into the Winnebago and drive to our shoot locations: Westminster Bridge, Trafalgar Square and The Sussex pub in Covent Garden. After a successful shoot we give the artist a lift to their next meeting. I notice they are wearing thermals. "Can you turn the heating down? It's very hot in here."

31st In November 2011 I completed an 11-day editorial assignment. I have not been paid. I was hoping to be paid before Christmas; then before the January tax deadline; then in time for Valentines Day and my wife's birthday; then in time for the school half term holiday. Today I receive an email from their accounts department: “I just got your invoice from the picture desk. I saw that it’s dated November the 30th and I try to accelerate the process. The good news is that it has now reached it’s last station. :-)” There’s a smiley face. They have typed a smiley face. I read on. There’s another :-) I don’t want a smiley face. I make an angry face; angry that I had to cancel a planned trip with my daughter to the zoo; angry that I had to ask my mother-in-law for a loan; angry that I couldn’t visit a sick relative; angry at having to shop at Lidl supermarket. I type my reply: “Thank you for updating me on the progress of my invoice. I look forward to receiving the payment. :-)”

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

24th - 28th Six men are bathing each other in the Adriatic Sea off the Istrian coast. One is wearing a pair of pink lace women’s panties; another a luminous green mankini. They are not recording their day for Facebook or Twitter. I ask if I can take their picture. I’m told that I cannot. They are simply six men who want to privately bathe each other. A man dressed as a bee jumps of a high diving board. Another in a florescent orange tutu balances precariously on a balcony. Boys from Bangor build a human pyramid: one has a dustpan brush padlocked to his wrist and a penis penned in red permanent marker on his back. Women dressed as Ronald McDonald remove their tops and wave them above their jiggling breasts.

I’m on assignment in the Balkans, photographing British university students on a sports tour to the region. After a typical splash by the Daily Mail newspaper on the 2011 invasion of British students of Salou in Spain, I’m being treated, at best with disdain. The hotel where I hoped to stay has been exclusively booked for the tour and is located far away from the main town and it’s blissfully unaware inhabitants.

I stake out the area. Students wounded from the night before, unwilling or unable to pay for medical treatment, pick at their injuries; moronic men with patches shaved from their heads auto-drink watching rugby being played on the beach. Teenage girls with love bites to match their patchy legs slap their feet, sloshing beer between their toes. There's no dignity to their drinking; no spark or respect for its taste. Speed of consumption takes priority, and the beer bong is imaginatively deployed.

Slowly access is leveraged; the tour organiser allows a 30-minute window in which to photograph at the hotel swimming pool. The boys from Bangor take me on to their balcony for a bender. Pink Eye presses a pint of wine into my hand and suggests that I “live a little”.

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

At Trieste airport in Italy, while awaiting my return flight home, I start to live a little and tuck into some Prosecco. With Mr Fingers' Can You Feel It? prodding in my iPodded ears and the Prosecco bubbles popping life to my insides, I think about my equivalent teenage tour in 1989. Aged 17, I left UK shores for the second time; and for the second time the destination was Magaluf, Majorca. Boys from Bury staying at the hotel would defecate into carrier bags and sling them from their balcony onto unsuspecting passersby. My roommate Jason woke one morning, covered in blood and bruises, without any recollection of how he got them. Three days later, as he walked past deeply-excavated roadworks, he remembered. It seems that not much has changed. Returning to the UK from Magaluf, I wrote love letters to Welsh Gail, who I had met at Benny Hill’s bar. Perhaps the love of letters has changed.

31st Tony, the proprietor of the Astoria Hotel hands me my keys. He tells me the front door is easier to open after a skinful of beer. It’s that kind of town. Having not had enough of drunken Brits abroad, I have located to Blackpool for a weekend recreational shoot. Blackpool: where the women are too fat to peel the price sticker from their cheap shoes; where the fake tan is so dense, there’s the danger of being arrested for blacking-up; where the opportunity for fresh air is nipping out for a fag and where a man playing with his massive organ can rouse you onto the dance floor of the Tower Ballroom on a Sunday morning. Blackpool: it’s my kind of town and I wish you were here.

A version of this feature first appeared in issue #6 of Hungry Eye magazine available to purchase here

Signed copies of my first book England Uncensored can be purchased here

A selection of print from England Uncensored will be on display at White Cloth Gallery Leeds, UK from 19th July - 17th September as part of their Best of British programme

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Dench Diary : December - February 2012

I’ve always wanted to be on a panel. I pout my lips around the word 'panel'. I think of television programmes: QI, Mock the Week and Question Time. Tonight I am on a panel and have been emailed nine questions for my urgent attention. I arrive early at the West London venue and asses the space. It’s intimate. There’s a table and microphone to accommodate two other experts: Ben Schneider from @radical.media and David Gryn from Artprojx. Our host informs me Ben will not be able to make it; more of the limelight for me. At 8pm the questions begin, the audience total is four. One leaves half way through. “Question nine to Peter, what is the most important advice you give to those starting out in your field?” “Not to get excited being invited onto a panel.”

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

23rd A seven-year old boy is punching me repeatedly in the face. I slug some port in between pummels. A younger child has just s**t himself for the second time. A woman approaching 50 dances in a tight Ted Baker dress to Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger. With each “Woohoohwoohoohwaahooh” it hitches higher. Truth is I’m rather enjoying myself. At an earlier parents' Christmas drinks and nibbles, I’d sat through a 30-minute conversation about Magnus Scheving; the actor who plays Sportacus - a fictional character from the children’s television show LazyTown. The show also featured the character Stephanie, played by Julianna Rose Mauriello. She has pink hair and always ends the show performing a song and dance routine to Bing Bang. I take the opportunity in a lull in facial jabs to grab my wife and coat, duck a flung jar of Nutella and blunder into sideways rain. With a cherry vodka nightcap, I type into Google, "Julianna, LazyTown", and am delighted to discover she’s blossomed into a rather lovely 20-year old woman. “Bing Bang Diggly Dong!”

26th Assessing the throng for the person least likely to talk to me, I choose Ian and plop down alongside him. Ian explains that daytime television is for idiots and a good enough reason not to leave the job you’re in. I poke a Hula Hoop from the mixed bowl of flavours onto my index finger. It’s beef. “Be careful, don’t forget where the Hula Hoop ends and your finger begins... HA HA HA!” I crunch away Ian’s warning and head into the lounge. It’s Boxing Day drinks at the parents, family and friends of my brother-in-law. Slack-jawed kids in slack-waisted jeans hold mumbled conversations. Teenage girls suck their hair and chuck back pear-flavoured cider. Barely-together couples compete in their annual 'gin-a-thon'. Overweight aunts chatter; flapping into their mouths ham and turkey from the cold meat platter. Skype is set up to converse cheaply with far away family; family who were barely spoken to when in the same room. Gifts of chutney and knives are waved at the screen. I reach for a bottle of home made damson whisky and plop down alongside Ian, who has come in to watch 50 Greatest Harry Potter Moments on television.

30th For Christmas my wife bought me a yoga mat and DVD. When I mentioned I admired footballer Ryan Giggs' stamina, that wasn’t what I meant. As I creak towards 40, I give the morning yoga 17-minute workout a try; Rodney will be my guide. As a the sun rises from the sea over Rodder’s sculpted body into a Cokin-filtered sky, I unroll my mat and stare through the sticky finger prints on the window, into a bleak North London. It’s quite tricky trying to watch Rodney’s moves on television lying flat on your back. A few minutes in I’m required to use a strap and quickly fondle it from the box. Then I need to sit on a blanket, so whip down a cushion instead. I arch into a Cobra pose, squat into the Supported Chair pose, do the Downward Dog, visualize my soft throat, soft belly and release my inner groin; my body sounds like cracking walnuts. By the two-minute meditation period at the end, I’ve half a dozen Christmas tree pine needles embedded in my arm and a Sugar Puff stuck to my leg. Turning off the DVD player, the television flicks on to Celebrity Family Fortunes featuring super hot Hollyoaks babe, Jennifer Metcalfe. I release my outer groin.

January 2012

1st No wander I feel so young. I can only remember half my life. In an attempt to remember, I take myself to The Maynard (The Villiers Terrace is closed) for my annual New Years Day review and awards ceremony. I’m delighted to receive ‘Employee of the Year’ and ‘Most Improved Employee of the Year’; and to be named ‘Employee Most Likely to Succeed’. Looking back over the year between pints of Aspall, highlights include being involved in the FORMAT, Visa pour l’Image and Periscopio festivals; foreign assignments to Italy and Jamaica; photographing backstage at Miss Leeds and the Royal Wedding; surpassing 1,500 Twitter followers; watching Laureanne have a spray tan; the launch of Lethal Bizzle’s DENCH clothing range; and the opening of a Wetherspoon pub in Crouch End. Lowlights include having no pictures published from shooting the Royal Wedding; being away for the London riots; and saying farewell to Tim Hetherington. Checking the diary for 2012, I’m booked in for a workshop in April and a talk for the Muswell Hill camera club in October The fee: £50 and all the booze I can eat. I unfold the piece of squared paper on which last years resolution is scribbled. It reads: “Drink less, work more.” I screw it into a tight ball and flick it hard across the bar into the trash.

6th An unsolicited stranger has created a page about me on Wikipedia.

7th I have been marked for deletion from Wikipedia for not being notable enough.

11th To save money, in a cull of direct debits I cancel my life insurance. Now I can’t even afford to die.

©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images

12th Men with perfectly clipped beards posture with indifference. Different-shaped women without beards are bounced out the way. I’m whisking my way to the bar at the Ewen Spencer book launch - Three’s A Crowd Vol II - at the KK Outlet in Hoxton, London, past the prints featuring rock band The White Stripes, where I spend the evening tucking into the Red Stripes.

14th The Wikipedia 'wigbigs' have been mass debating. The votes are in and I get to stay.

18th I am on a panel. I pout my lips around the word 'panel'. The London Festival of Photography have asked me to join a conversation revealing how notions of psycho-geography and philosophies of urban life has influenced my work on the streets of London. Also having a chat will be photographer John Angerson and editors of Restless Cities, Mathew Beaumont and Gregory Dart. The book is a collection of writings by eminent authors which attempts to trace the idiosyncratic character of the modern city. The venue is sold out.

19th I haven’t been paid for three months. The optimism and hope for the year has been ripped from my stomach, jammed through a mincer and fed to the dog; if I could afford a dog. I check the bank balance; I have an unauthorized overdraft of -84p. I bag up £2 of 2p’s from the copper pot and head to the bank. On the way I notice the hardware store is having a sale: ‘Mops £1.50’. I could do with a mop. At the bank I’m too embarrassed to confront a cashier and wait for a queue to develop before dumping the coins into the rapid deposit box. Back home a credit card company calls to query an overdue payment. I make a nominal payment of £1. I am broke. Projects have stalled; too-expensive-to-get-to meetings re-scheduled. It’s time to leave the country. Before Christmas I bought the family flights to Norway. I’d hoped to supplement them with some spending money; 16p was not the target. I bundle my daughter, wife and her credit card onto the bus and head to Gatwick Airport and on to the snow-slapped house of Marcus Bleasdale

                   ©Peter Dench/Reportage by Getty Images                         

25th “Hello! I’m Peter Dench, Creative Director at White Cloth Gallery; an exciting new film and photography events space opening on the 19th April, 2012, in Leeds, UK.” Today, the WCG team has a meeting at the National Media Museum, to absorb its expertise. As the meeting unfolds, I realise being involved in a gallery is less about the art and more about lighting lux intensity and microwatts per lumen maximums; fire extinguishers (carbon dioxide is best); security, licensing and copyright issues.

26th The 'i's have been  dotted and the dotted line signed upon. I’m in. The journey of a freelance photojournalist is a long and adventurous one and you’re never sure where it will lead; the Magnum Photo Agency or Snappy Snaps? Along the journey you of course make friends, allies, enemies; you begin to understand your own needs and capabilities and where you might fit in. I’ve been freelance for 13 years; for five of them I was with the prestigious Independent Photographers Group that included Zed Nelson, Harry Borden and Tom Stoddart. Since it’s closure in 2005, I’ve largely represented myself, with the help of two successive independent commercial agents. It’s time for a change; to play with the big boys; nestle among the familiar; to be among friends. I look on-line at other the other core group of represented photographers for Reportage by Getty Images. There’s Eugene Richards, Jonathan Torgovnick, Benjamin Lowy, Brent Stirton and the cheeky chap himself, Tom Stoddart. It already feels like home.

30th I have 60 days to raise $12,000. My project, England Uncensored, has been accepted on the site www.emphas.is book publishing arm of the crowdfunding visual journalism platform. Sixty days. I can’t decide if that is too much time, or not enough. It’s the morning of the launch. I check the Emphas.is site and discover two other books will also be attempting their target: Trading to Extinction by Patrick Brown and Faded Tulips by William Daniels. I upload a personal appeal to Vimeo; it doesn’t play properly. A quick re-edit works. Teaser hash-tagged tweets have been fed the previous few days: 3, 2, 1... I launch project #helpdench. I Facebook the news; LinkedIn the news and get to work direct emailing. The funding website has a few gremlins and people are having difficulty pledging. When the website settles the response is surprising. School friends I’ve not met, since school, start to pledge. Some people I’ve recently bent over backwards to help remain unresponsive. The industry starts to take notice. Photographer Simon Roberts is quick to back the book. Martin Parr responds to a direct email with a pledge soon after. I log off day one on $835.

2nd February

The Sunday Times Magazine is 50 years old. It is holding a 50th-anniversary exhibition and party at the Saatchi Gallery, London. My instinct says suit; fortunately I have one. Up the candlelit red carpet and I tuck in behind Jeremy Paxman in the queue. I body swerve Vanessa Feltz and Jilly Cooper, pause to say a quick hello to Jeremy Clarkson, and then gobble at the tray of champagne. A good few glasses later, I totter to put my glass down on a shelf. The shelf moves. It’s the ridiculously pert buttocks of Carol Vorderman; even the women applaud its solidity. The evening unfolds in a role call of industry legends that are as fascinating as the exhibits.

14th Today I feel the LOVE. A top-dollar pledge has kissed the stuttering #helpdench book campaign back into life and a the target is breached. Darlings; I’m going to have a book!

A version of this feature first appeared in issue #5 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here.

And you can buy your copy of England Uncensored here.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

In Conversation With Marcus Bleasdale

There is no greater love than that between two heterosexual men. The silver screen is testament to this; the eponymous Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis); Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford); Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in Midnight Cowboy; and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in the Star Wars franchise (assuming Chewie is a chap).

From slaves on the road to Rome, to cowboys on the run in Bolivia; from surviving on the streets of New York, to a galaxy far far away; platonic man-love flourishes. If I was to spring from the trenches across no man’s land, it would follow a man’s order to CHHHAAARGE!!!!!! If I was to pirate the seven seas, it would be as an able seaman in an all-male crew. My luxury item on the BBC Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs, would be a man; and that man would be Marcus Bleasdale.

I first met Bleasdale in the London offices of the Independent Photographers Group (IPG), where he was formalising his membership to the agency I had joined two years previously. I assessed the newbie; his legs a little short; his hair a little long. Bleasdale had just self-published One Hundred Years of Darkness; a photographic journey into the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I assessed the work; dark, dense, moody images, present a raw, threatening world of dark, dense, shadowy characters. Out of necessity, the photographs were often shot from the hip; often out of focus. I suggested a ‘welcome’ drink in The Fox next door. Four bottles of wine later, a bromance was born.

 © Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo

It’s the annual family Dench winter vacation and Norway is our destination. Norway: a country where state-run liquor stores open less frequently than a nun’s nightgown; where kindergarden kids play outside in temperatures touching -14C. Norway: a country where unemployment is counted in single-figure percentages and which, according to a UN report, has the world’s highest living standards of health, education and income. I hit the tarmac tired, hung-over and broke, having maxed out on the duty-free maximum.

On the journey from Rygge's airport, Moss lufthavn, to Bleasdale’s home, I’m no longer curious why the VII Agency photojournalist chooses to live here. Arguably best known for his work with Human Rights Watch, and for his images taken in the DRC (one of the least desirable places on the planet to live according to the same UN report), the Norwegian capital could not be more different. Pushing the apartment buzzer where he lives with his wife Karin Beate (KB), I’m a little nervous. I have a new haircut and wonder if he’ll notice. Bleasdale answers in his underpants; Norwegian underpants: full-length black thermals. A student assisting him with a multimedia piece on HIV and tuberculosis cross infection in Tanzania takes our arrival as his cue to leave.

As Bleasdale excuses himself to dress and freshen up, I take the opportunity to have a nose around his office. It’s impressive; an Ian Berry print is propped on the desk; a poorly ‘fixed’ Paulo Pellegrin lies on the floor. There’s a pristine platinum American Express card and a bowl of grubby Congo currency. There’s an Olivier Rebbot award, a World Press Photo award, two, Days Japan International Photojournalism awards and a Unicef Photographer of the Year Award. I count up to 11 POY and NPPA awards before a zesty and scrubbed Bleasdale returns to take over the tour. He pulls down his prized possession: a first edition of Vietnam Inc. by his great friend and mentor, the late Phillip Jones Griffiths. He marched PJG down to 99 Judd Street in London and the premises of Photo Books International, where Bleasdale had located a copy to purchase and for PJG to sign. Randomly pulling books from the shelf, there’s a signed Cartier-Bresson and a host of signed Eugene Richards; a legacy of when the noted American photographer popped round for lunch. 

There’s an unopened copy of Don McCullin’s In England, and a copy of iWITNESS by Tom Stoddart. It’s signed: “To Marcus. Mate thanks for your support and friendship since you joined IPG. I’m proud that we are in the same team. Tom 2004.” (On return to my flat in London, I check my copy of iWITNESS. It’s signed: “To Peter. With best wishes and a reminder that it’s your turn to buy the beers! Hic. Tom 2004.”) I fit in the chair that Ron Haviv couldn’t, as Bleasdale shows me his £325, 22/50-numbered, limited-edition Magnum Contact Sheets book complete with a Renni Burri contact sheet of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, 1963.

We take a tour of the rest of the apartment; it’s impressive. The rooms wrap themselves around a central sauna big enough to contain my ego. If you flung all the room doors open, you could run a full circle around it. I resist the urge to slap Bleasdale on the arse and shout, “You’re it!” The apartment is in the Frogner district of Oslo, Knightsbridge would be the equivalent location in London.

 © Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo

Bleasdale plops on his timeless four-cornered hat - a recent purchase from the J.J. Hat Center on 32nd and 5th, New York - and suggests we grab the girls and pop out for pizza. Over bottles of La Raia Piemonte Barbera, with the Norwegian predilection for 1980‘s pop ballads playing in the background, he talks about his experiences in the Congo. Experiences of being kidnapped in the capital, Kinshasa, where he was dragged from his car and robbed of cash and phones by men he suspects were government soldiers. Of nearly overturning a car when escaping from direct gunfire with a dwarf polio victim being tossed around in the back; and of delivering the vehicle, riddled with AK47 bullet holes, back to it’s owner (an alcoholic priest). Of hiding in ditches from young child soldiers who should be playing hide-and-seek. And he reports on the rape; so much rape. As Gloria Estefan and Miami sound Machine's Anything For You plays, I stare out into the soft snow flakes that dust the beautiful women walking by in seal skin boots. Why would he leave? Why choose to spend half of your year travelling thousands of miles away from those who you love with the very real possibility of death (Bleasdale already has malaria). Television presenter and former pop star Ravi (Ivar Christian Johansen), interrupts to say hello and I pay the bill. It comes to £235.56. For pizza! Maybe that’s the reason he leaves.

Bleasdale grew up with a brother and sister in Brindle and Preston in Lancashire, UK. His parents split when he was 10 years old. He remained with his mother; a mother from a sibling stable of 16. Times were tough and the tough young Bleasdale often chipped in to help pay the bills with money earned from odd jobs. His part-time jazz musician father advised him against going to art school in favour of business, money and security; advice Bleasdale heeded. By the age of 30 he was being paid half a million pounds a year, owned several properties and drove a 1968 Porsche 911. He packed it all in for photojournalism. Why would he leave?

Back at the house of Bleasdale, in the company of Rioja and the music of Norwegian rock band Madrugada, he answers the question. The reason is because he is angry and the driving force behind that anger are the statistics: “More than 5.4 million already dead from conflict in the Congo since 1998; the largest death toll since World War II. Photography is a tool; a method to inform people what is going on in the country. It could be a pen or a telephone. I want things to change and the tool for me to do that is a camera”.

I ask him about a photograph that shows him sitting with four camouflaged DRC government forces. He is wearing a pink shirt. “It’s a red shirt, and I will wear anything that will distinguish me as a non- combatant”. Over the four days spent with Bleasdale he plays affectionately with Luna, his Toller breed dog. He takes my daughter Grace on long walks, he takes her sledging, he takes her ice skating; always patient, always calm, never angry. On one occasion, at the Tabernacle Bar in London, cocktail infused and bored, I suggested we have a scrap and relocated to the waste ground opposite. I punched him in the face. He had not been punched in the face since the age of 11, when Ian Wheeler wheeled his furious fists. Bleasdale calmly guided my head-locked face into a wall. We returned in good humour, to continue imbibing. In over a decade, I have never seen him angry.

Is there a future in photographing human rights abuses? There is for Bleasdale. He expects to be documenting in the DRC for another 20 years. Does he crack? There are clues. Those clues are in what he views. Bleasdale confesses to cry during episodes of CSI, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and the Harry Potter films, all eight of them. He loves photographer David LaChapelle, but wants to be John Stanmyer. (Bromancing behind my back!) His favourite films are Casablanca and The African Queen. His superpower would be to, “Spread love around the world.” 2012 is shaping up to be an exciting year. He will be working on a first direct commission from National Geographic magazine, it’s not in the DRC.

After a Sunday morning of skiing - well, of Bleasdale taking my daughter skiing - we do what most of Norway is doing after what most of Norway has just done: watch Lycra-clad competitors fighting it out on the slopes in skiing contests on television. His adoring and adorable wife massages his shoulders; homemade brownies are baked and nibbled. I flick through his 2010 book on the DRC, The Rape of a Nation, and assess the work. Across the black pages, bodies are taken for burial, people mourn, drunk soldiers carry weapons, money is being counted and strong men mine for gold. There are bones of the victims of violence.

© Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo

Time spent photographing in the DRC has allowed Bleasdale’s camera to move up from the hip to focus. I stop flicking on the image captioned: "Refugees flee south after rebel attack on Bule and Fataki, north-eastern Congo, 2003." I look over at Bleasdale wiggling his toes as he sucks noisily in disgust as the French team triumph over Norway in a shoot and ski biathlon; it’s the most angry I’ve seen him. The image in the book is the only photograph of his own hanging in the mainly painting-adorned apartment. It hangs by the front door. The photograph is a metre high and two metres wide. It’s an appropriate image and an appropriate size; an image than reminds one on entering, this is the home he retreats to; a refugee from the intense horrors he has witnessed. It is also the last image one sees when leaving the apartment; an image of fleeing, of transit, of movement and change.

I don’t know where Bleasdale’s anger resides. Perhaps he leaves it festering in the DRC, to collect on return with his camera from beside the rotting corpses and rape victims; or perhaps it lives in the eyes of each child who levels their gun at him. I’m glad that Bleasdale is angry; angry enough to help fund the St. Kizito orphanage in Bunia, eastern DRC, and angry enough to keep shooting his photographs; photographs that won’t allow us to stop noticing, that show us how we can fail so spectacularly as human beings and what we must do to correct it.

It’s time to go. I squeeze the arm of this contemporary Spartacus - an arm that bears the tattoo, ‘Inner Peace’ - bid him farewell, and assuming the role of Antoninus, singer of songs, I turn home:

“Through blue shadows and purple woods...
I turn home.
I turn to the place that I was born...
to the mother who bore me and the father who taught me...
Iong ago, long ago...
Iong ago.
Alone am l now, lost and alone, in a far, wide, wandering world.
Yet still when the blazing sun hangs low...
when the wind dies away and the sea foam sleeps...
and twilight touches the wandering earth...
I turn home.”

Make a donation to the St Kizito orphanage here.

A version of this article first appeared in issue #5 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here.

Bleasdale's book; The Rape of a Nation - can be purchased here.

Dench's first book; England Uncensored - can be purchased here.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Dench Diary : November/December 2011

12th - 13th It’s Saturday 10am. I’m in a windowless function room in the basement of a pub. I’m waiting for the six people who have signed up for the ‘This is London’ two-day workshop I’m tutoring under the watchful umbrella of the London Street Photography Festival programme. One of the attendees was successful in winning a place in a competition in association with Metro Imaging. I wager myself a pint I can guess who it is. Andy is the first to arrive, direct from the overnight Megabus from Scotland. Andy will be spending the night in the Clink; a hostel near Kings Cross. I think we have a winner and order a Fosters.

The pub staff are the most resentful I’ve ever met and our presence an inconvenience. From the moment we arrive they are keen for us to leave. More than 100 Freemasons are expected for an evening function. With eight of us in the room, including my helper Miles, the room feels over-crowded. Perhaps the peculiar handshake the Freemasons are said to exchange was developed over centuries of greetings in packed basement bars. By the second day of the workshop, Miles is still happy for me to take the lunch orders and I manage to start calling Hungry Eye reader John by his real name, Tony.

14th The hotel is booked, I’ve checked in for the flight, it departs in seven hours. The commission has been in the diary for a while. A 10-12 day trip to Italy to report on the economic crisis, but there’s a problem, Silvio Berlusconi has announced his resignation putting the assignment in doubt. I wait - call the picture desk - approval granted. Pay my respects at the Stansted Airport Windmill Wetherspoon, and suck back a large Merlot, trying not to think about missing another of my daughter’s birthdays; the fourth in seven years. A clockwork toy claps in the nearby children’s toy store. Touching down in Naples I feel the same way as I have when arriving on assignments for over a decade. Tired, bewildered, unprepared, wondering if I’ll even shoot a frame and worried that I must be the worst photographer for this type of job.

15th After a good nights sleep, the doubts have been temporarily assuaged and I 'boing' out bed full of optimism for shoot day one. In the current economic climate, Italian’s have been advised to take their own blankets when staying in hospital. My brief requires a shot of a patient, or patients, carrying their bundles. I arrive at the hospital and hang around near the entrance. It’s the entrance to the gynaecology wing. I relocate to the other side; it’s the paediatric wing. Then I move on to orthopaedics and loiter. Women carry babies, men carry coats, children carry dollies; no one carries a blanket. I explore the slums of central Naples and take a train out to the suburb of Nola, part of the ‘toxic triangle’ or ‘triangle of death’ where the regional mafia - the Camorra - are reported to illegally burn waste. I photograph a shoebox and a man on a red bicycle wearing a suit.

16th On the Circumvesuviana train line from Naples to Pompeii, a man plays the keyboard as his son, no older than five, collects money. The song he’s chosen to spring the change from our pockets is the 1987 pop classic Never Gonna Give You Up by the hip-swerving, Rick Astley. No one donates a penny. Three stops later I hear the gentle humming of the melody from at least three of the passengers.

17th Le Vele di Scampia, (Sails of Scampia), are an architectural Edward Scissor hands that scrape the sky of the infamous north Naples suburb (Scampia). Suburb: the word to me conjures images from Bill Owens' book Suburbia, where couples cuddle, men rake leaves and tight teenagers frolic in the outdoor swimming pool. Scampia is not that kind of suburb; it’s the drug distribution centre of Europe. Ruled with an iron fist by the Camorra, underground factories mix every conceivable drug. There were more than 60 murders in the neighbourhood in the years 2004 to 2005. It’s a no-go area; I want to go.

The evening before heading out to Italy I had watched The Bang-Bang Club on DVD; the film of the book about four South African photographers documenting the troubles in the 1990’s. In one scene, Greg Marinovich, heads towards the Nancefield Workers' Hostel in the Soweto township to photograph Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) Zulus. He is lucky to escape with his life. Taking inspiration from Greg, I ask at the tourist information office about the logistics of getting to Scampia. The fragile brunette looks at me as if I’ve delivered news that she is to spend the night with Berlusconi. The hotel receptionist simply circles on the map some churches I should visit instead. A taxi driver spits and laughs. Later, I leave Piscinola (the last stop on line one of the Napli Metro) and head towards Le Vele di Scampia, along Viale Della Resistenza and onto Via Tancredi Galimberti. On Via Antonio Labriola, a man talks into his mobile and three men cross the road. Further along, two men - one wearing a cap and waistcoat - peer into a five-door dark hatchback, talking to a dark haired man wearing a dark-coloured T-Shirt. An orange bus trundles past. Damp clothes are slapped taut across balconies. Dogs trot, rubbish rots, railings rust, faded posters peel. There’s an intense sense of menace, even online. I close Google Street View, drain my glass of Pinot noir and tuck myself in for the night. I’m not sure Greg would be proud.

18th In the morning I do go. I get off at Piscinola and find a safe vantage point. Notorious locations from modern history are my treasure hunt and I caress my gaze across the magnificent monstrosity of the Le Vele di Scampia with the same breathlessness as one might imagine English archaeologist Howard Carter upon discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. These urban chunks sit as curious as marooned ships on the depleted Aral seabed. The Veles cement innards are slung together like strands from the cheesiest pizza belched with a topping from Vesuvius. I consider venturing further in. What would Greg do? I’m too much of a coward; probably the one eighth of Italian in me. Back in the centre of Naples a woman warns me: “Be careful with your camera.” I’m always careful with my camera. Apart from a group of German tourists at the port, I’ve only seen two others swaggering around with a lens and tighten my grip.

19th After five nights in Naples I’ve not been stabbed in the arse, which I’m told, considering where I’ve been, is quite an achievement. I don’t want to be stabbed in the arse. To help the Italian economy I’ve purchased a fine pair of grey corduroy trousers. It seemed the right time in life to purchase a pair and coincides with going up a waist size. I am now officially, living it large. It’s time to leave the home of the Camorra and I buy a train ticket for Reggio di Calabria; home of the Calabrian Mafia. It’s safe to assume everywhere in Italy is probably the home of some type of Mafia, so I stop Googling.

Europe by train: this is the way to travel; a five-hour journey for less than 40 euros. Making myself comfortable in the six-seat compartment, I imagine the sweet smelling lovelies that will join me with their upward glances and uncrossing of legs. A man with a gammy thumb, and another with a penchant for whistling bluster in. I grumble towards Vesuvius and assess what I’ve learnt about Italians so far. I’ve learnt that they like to applaud the safe landing of an aeroplane. They like to applaud the starting of the luggage conveyor. They are quick to invade an Englishman’s desired personal space and quick to daub graffiti on anything, regardless of value. The second train to Calabria gives a clue of what to expect. It’s reminiscent of the UK’s 1980s regional trains that would transfer football hooligans to their fight destination: windows are frozen open, doors hang from hinges, the toilets are locked, a metallic smell rapes the nostrils.

20th - 24th In Calabria my struggle continues; the struggle to find a place to have a decent drink. Most of the bars are bakeries that serve beer. With a Birra Moretti, I’m offered some cupcakes. I don’t want cupcakes with my beer; I want more beer with my beer. If I ever want to gently peck men on the cheek, enjoy an ice cream and walk up and down the street in my finest clothes, then I may move to Reggio di Calabria. I crack on with the job. At one point I stray into a neighbourhood where the walls are daubed with “Ultras”; a word often associated with extreme football violence endemic in Italy.

I visit Gioia Tauro where, according to a 2006 report, Italian investigators estimate that 80% of Europe’s cocaine arrives from Colombia via the towns docks. I fear my nose may bleed simply from sniffing the wind. I watch lovers kiss in the lamplight by the Ionian sea and hang out watching b-boys break dance. A crushing loneliness descends; I’ve not had one actual in person conversation for over a week. So I invent a friend; Pepe. His breath smells and he only has one bollock. Pepe has also had the audacity to purchase the exact same pair of corduroy trousers. They say all roads lead to Rome (and Getty) and I depart with Pepe for the capital to complete the assignment.

25th The commission has, at times, been a struggle: no writer, no contacts, no guide, no fixer, no crystal clear idea of what I’m supposed to be photographing, no grasp of the language. At one restaurant I managed to order a pizza with chips on top; at another, one with no cheese at all. I’ve drunk blue champagne, a peach-flavoured cocktail, drinks with a cherry at the bottom and drinks with an orange on the top. I’ve walked so far, my big toe-nails have turned black. It’s time to go home. I depart Italy feeling the same way I have departed every other foreign assignment for the last decade: that the work is inadequate, the brief unfulfilled, that it will never be published and this will be my last job.

Landing at London Gatwick, the advertising board flickers images of England: cricket, Oxford University, the white cliffs of Dover, Tower Bridge. I grab my bag and join the flow of silent commuters with their non-gesticulating hands and stoic respect for personal space. It’s good to be back in London, back among the fat little boys with their fried chicken smiles, with its Hijab's and kebabs, child-unfriendly bars, £20 pound note, traffic that stops at a crossing and clocks that tell the right time. This is England, this is home.

5th My wife is participating in the annual Santa Dash charity fun run at Greenwich Park and wants me to go along to watch. It’s early on a Sunday morning and a long way to go. I ask how far she is running; I don’t get out of bed for less than 10K. She is running 10K, so I get out of bed.

8th I’m staring at a young woman’s leg with the tattoo of barbed wire and a revolver on it. It’s a smooth, tanned, long leg. I ask Katie to sign a photograph of it. I’m staring at a black mans head. It’s a shaven, sweaty head. I ask Teddy Bam Bam to sign a photograph of it. I’m staring at the gangster Joe Pyle Jr, wondering if he’ll sign the copy of Jocelyn Bain Hogg’s book, The Family, that I’m holding at the book launch and exhibition at HOST gallery. I approach to ask the question, a man intercepts and questions who I am. “Hello! I’m Peter Dench, author of The Dench Diary, in print and online for Hungry Eye Magazine . . .”

A version of this feature first appeared in issue #4 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here