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 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 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 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.