Monday, 14 November 2022

Brake Out

After lockdown, a rumour has been building about the increase in popularity of the photo-van as photographers let loose and take to the road.

In an unassuming Gloucestershire town, in an unassuming street, nestled among a cafe, charity shop, butcher, bank and frozen food store, a quiet revolution is taking place. Walking through the door at Clifton Cameras, you find a significant percentage of employees have taken out cash and taken up tools to purchase and convert vans to drive their adventures in photography.

“The two biggest things in my life are photography and mountain biking. Both came to a stop during lockdown. I was furloughed, all University study was based from home. That’s where the idea blossomed. To be able to travel and ride and photograph while sticking to the rules. The idea had been floating around for a while, lockdown was the ignition to get started,” explains 23 year old Alex McDowell, part-time sales assistant at Clifton Cameras and second year photography student at Gloucester University. Alex sourced a van from the several dealerships he could walk to during lockdown, eventually settling on a 2011 Peugeot Vivaro 2900. After it was stripped, cleaned, insulated, sanded, fitted with electrics, roof vent, solar panel, windows, tiles, worktop, taps, cupboard, cabinets, bed, mattress and off road tyres - after several months of graft, Alex was ready to go and he didn’t hold back, shooting a large portion of his 17819 km British coastline project using the van.

Despite travelling far, Alex has also been utilising the van closer to home. Through the viewfinder of his living room window during lockdown, he began to take an interest in observing the locals. Inspired by Richard Avedon’s book, In the American West, he set out to document people living within a 30 mile radius - Freeminer, Field Sport Enthusiast, Allotment Owner and Horse Academy Rider. Following the Avedon pop-up studio technique, Alex hung a white backdrop from his van or nearby structure. Using a simple Speedlite flash and softbox set up, he captured subjects on a large format camera using black and white film. Energised by his successes, he’s about to add to his fleet: “I’m on the edge of building another van, a small darkroom that can be driven around, I do a lot of Collodion based practice, it will open up so many opportunities”

Walking across the wooden floor at Clifton Cameras, we meet 57 year-old buyer (and former optics specialist) Martin Drew. In the summer of 2016, on a trip to South Stack off the northwest tip of Anglesey, as hundreds of Manx Shearwaters streamed past the famous lighthouse, Martin had an epiphany. In the clifftop car park he witnessed a scene that would have life changing consequences - a grey VW camper van: the side door was open, one occupant swivelled on the passenger seat, another lolled on the fold down bed, the smell of coffee pervaded. “We’d arrived early in the morning and it was clear that the VW dwellers had overnighted there. The weather had been glorious all week and we could only wonder at the truly spectacular sunset views these lucky people must have experienced the previous evening. We left South Stack subtly changed - for the first time in our lives, we really wanted a camper van!” reveals Drew on the Clifton Cameras blog www.cliftoncameras.com

 Four years rolled on and the image wouldn’t fade. Fuelled by his passion for birding and developing interest in Astrophotography, the search for the perfect family photo-van was on. “We spent the next few months researching vehicles. We had pretty much decided to go for the classic short-wheel-base (SWB), pop-top roof setup as this would allow the van to be used as an everyday vehicle rather than just something to be used for trips away. We considered a number of brands - VW, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Ford. On Boxing Day 2020, we found ourselves 130 miles from home inspecting a recently-converted SWB Renault Trafic. The van was in really nice condition (albeit in boring white) and sported a standard side conversion featuring a twin gas burner, sink and numerous cubby holes for storage. A rock & roll double bed provided sleeping space for two downstairs and the pop-top roof concealed an elevating bed suitable for one smallish adult - ideal for our then fifteen-year-old daughter, Jess.”

During family excursions, Jess began to take a lot more notice of the remote natural world that Raven (as the van was christened) was able to take them too. She photographed waterfalls and experimented with shutter speeds. Jess is now in the first year of sixth form taking photography as an option. Despite the family fondness for Raven, their wings felt clipped and have traded her in for Skye: “The single most important thing for all three of us is to be able to stand up. With Raven we had the pop-top which is great but if you’re just popping into a lay-by for a cup of tea it’s a bit of a faff. We like coastal locations and if you park somewhere and it’s windy you have to be very careful as you don’t want to buckle the struts. Being able to stand up is huge for us, we’ve gone from two metres high to 2.5 metres.”

Restocking the Olympus cameras in Clifton Cameras is 35 year old sales assistant, Craig Pitts. Travelling every year since he was 19, lockdown made Pitts stop. Going stir crazy at home, he dreamt of owning a VW Transporter T5 but his wallet said no. Undeterred, he started researching online and discovered a community of individuals building stealth camper vans, vans converted to a camper or living quarters but still has the look of a regular van, allowing campers to sleep in their vehicle without drawing attention to themselves. In Spring 2021, tired of sleeping in the boot of a car with his mate on photography road trips, he bought a Ford Transit Connect to convert into a stealth camper to travel around the UK pursuing his landscape photography.

Pitts made sure a robust electrical system was built to charge all his gear and laptop during drives between locations. In the middle of a pandemic, he took a Welsh summer road trip adventure to Rhossili, Tenby and St Govan’s. Has the stealth van worked? “I don’t want to bring attention to myself where I’m staying. I’ve got a vent but it just looks like a builders van. I’ve stealth camped in Elan Valley before where they banned camper vans but if you drove past my van you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. You’d think it’s just a contractor van, unless I had the door open you wouldn’t know. I’ve not had a bang on the door yet but I kind of want to tick that off!”

History

Converting vans and vehicles for the purposes of photography is not new. In the mid-1800s,  Roger Fenton captured the lives of soldiers in Crimea from his mobile, horse-drawn studio and dark room, reportedly converted from a wine merchant’s van. More recently, between 1992 and 1996, Magnum Agency photographer Mark Power drove around the British coast in a VW camper van photographing the 31 areas for his book, The Shipping Forecast. Photographer Simon Roberts wouldn’t be without a van. Photographing his We English project, an investigation of the English at leisure shot between 2007-2008, Roberts utilised a 1997 Express Talbot Swift Capri for his extended journeys across the UK. To capture people situated in the landscape, he often photographed from on top of the Capri. In 2013 I turned on the Sat-Nav and slid alongside photographer Anastasia Taylor Lind in the front of her 2006 Peugeot van as she set off across Europe on her Negative Zero project about fertility rates and population decline. Purchased for £5K, the van with extra costs and insurance took the total to nearer to £7K. For her odyssey, she had stocked the van with a coat hanger, electric blanket, baby wipes, Heinz food products, Earl Grey tea, cartons of dry noodles, a fluffy rug and six books. In the hilarious 2017 television mini-series, Confessions of the Paparazzi, controversial Pap, George Bamby, regales mischievous tales from the back of his van containing Pap-essential items - bunk bed, kettle, football and drone. In the episode, Extra, Extra: My First Time with Mary, he attempts to frame Britain’s baking darling, Mary Berry, by Papping her from a lens sized hole cut in the side of his van. Photojournalist Tom Stoddart decided to stop travelling around in a van for his reportage, The Britons, after he went to photograph a Hull boating regatta, parked under a bridge to sleep for the night and had a rude awakening from Doggers.

Versatility

Landscape photographer Thomas Heaton remembers being WOWED! looking through a magazine back in 2004-5 and coming across an article about photographing grouse in the Scottish Highlands. The photographer talked about his workflow pictured alongside an old motorhome used as a base. 15 years later, Heaton got his first camper van, a Ford Transit. “I left my job to do photography full time so it was like an investment. The problem with camper vans is people buy them then don’t use them because they don’t have the time. I’d always wanted one. Two main reasons for not having one was price and time to use it. The odd weekend in summer doesn’t really cut it. I was full time, this is it, now or never. Got the camper van and never looked back,” except to park.

Moving on from the Ford Transit, in 2021 Heaton imported a 2002 Mitsubishi Delica camper van from Japan to convert into an off grid, off road, go anywhere 4x4 camper van. He’s cleverly incorporated the van into the storytelling of his landscape photography, making it part of the bigger picture. His YouTube channel has over 508K subscribers. A new video is posted every Wednesday, many featuring the van. The first of a four-parter documenting his Mitsubishi received over 973,000 views. “For a photographer, especially a landscape or wildlife photographer or any photographer who needs to be outdoors, a van is as important as a lens, or tripod, it opens up the landscape. I can’t believe I used to sleep in my car, pay for expensive hotel rooms or camp in a tent which is great but not practical if it’s bad weather. Having a vehicle to sleep in, back up and edit images, check all’s well is huge. The van encourages me to go out more, see more places and be a lot more versatile. I can check the weather before deciding if I set off north or south. If you don’t have that luxury of versatility and you’ve pre-booked a hotel or caravan then you’re kind of stuck with what you’re given.”

On a recent warm and welcoming early Spring afternoon, I stroll into the Vinyl Cafe in north London to meet legendary photographer Andy Earl. It’s a fitting place to meet the man who’s shot over 120 covers and iconic album sleeves for Pink Floyd, Duran Duran, Cranberries and Bow Wow Wow among others. Earl’s decision to adopt a photo-van also rose out of lockdown. He sold his elderly Range Rover and in July 2020 invested in a Mercedes Benz Marco Polo. “COVID hit big time so I thought it would be great if I could go along and do photo-sessions and turn up and be completely independent - sleep in it, eat in it, do everything and not be infectious or infected. That worked quite well but people were still very cautious, preferring I set the camera up and walk two metres away to take the picture. There was so much nervousness,” he says, stirring a flat white.

Earl opted for the first class experience, the Mercedes equipped with Wifi, sink, double cooker, fridge, loo, cold shower, air conditioning, night heater and bed with sprung mattress. You could put the roof up, rearrange the seats, sit comfortably and work in style. The van could be adapted to host talent in an on-board green room and make-up area. In the end it proved too high-end. “It was so smart you had to keep it clean the whole time. If I’d have got something and converted it that might have been better. I got a bespoke piece with all the trimmings and that’s what I was attracted to. I was swayed by the comfort, it was lovely to drive, economical. All those were good but that was my only everyday car. That was the problem, running down to the shops to get a paper you didn’t want to jump in the van.”

Earl’s long term dream was to echo Irving Penn’s, Worlds in a Small Room, travelling to meet people and communities to photograph against a heavy plain canvas. “Every time I put a sheet up the bloody thing blew away.” After just under two years, Earl's adventures in vanning are over. He cashed out and cashed in getting back what he paid for it. “It was great when I used the van and great for that time. I enjoyed it. I’ve never done camper vanning before. It got a massive response from everybody wanting to do shoots and then when it came to it they didn’t need the van. I wasn’t using it as a way of earning money by hiring it out, none of that, if you wanted me, the van came too.” This modernist of photography is now contemplating a SUV size Tesla Model X.

A van may not directly improve your photography skills but will give you more opportunities and freedom to learn. It’s hard work but can be tremendous fun. At the end of another busy trading day at Clifton Cameras, 23 year old new recruit, Megan Bendall, joins Martin, Alex and Craig sitting around a white table. The conversation turns to plans for the weekend. “I might take a trip out in my converted 2014 Ford Transit Minibus photo-van,” she says. Safe travels.

TOP VAN TIPS

Do your research. Don’t buy the first van you see on the market. You might not enjoy it, it’s not always luxurious and can be quite miserable at times, it’s cramped. Maybe hire one, see if you enjoy the process.

Don’t just buy the cheapest van, it may end up costing you more long term. If able, take someone along who knows what they’re doing when it comes to vehicles.

Create a 3D model of your van layout. Tinkercad is web based, free and easy to use.

Apply sound deadening. It cuts down on road noise but more importantly makes it soundproof at night. Without it, when the rain or anything hits the metal panels of the van it creates an amplified and intimidating sound. Deadening adds density to the panel and absorbs sound. There's many options available including Noico.

Fundamentally you need three things: somewhere comfortable to sleep (a van with a mattress in would do the job). Somewhere to make a cup of tea and somewhere to store your camera gear.

According to Comfort Insurance, there are no UK laws stopping you from living in your motorhome, camper van or van full-time. The only requirement is that your vehicle has passed its MOT and is fully road legal.

There may be restrictions on where you can park up and reside, which you’ll need to research yourself depending on where you decide to go. Being able to take your home with you doesn’t mean you can park anywhere any way you like. Try an App like Park For Night and consult The Highway Code.

Watch a bunch of van build YouTube videos. They give you an idea of what you want your van to look like. How you want it to function. Think about the purpose of your van. Is it something you’ll be living in full-time or just use at weekends or week-long photo-trips.

Test different vans, some of the smaller ones are just no good. The short wheeled versions are more stealthy but may not be practical. The size of the van dictates the layout of the van.

Consider adding some big off-road tyres so you can park on a grass verge or more rugged terrain.

The van community is generally friendly but proceed with caution, be careful who you talk to. Don’t draw attention to the fact it’s a photo-van with thousands of pounds of gear inside. It might not be there when you pop back from the loo.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Alex McDowell : Instagram @the.vanproject or www.alex-mc-dowell.format.com
Craig Pitts: YouTube www.youtube.com/c/CraigPitts or www.craigpitts.com
Tom Heaton: YouTube www.youtube.com/c/ThomasHeatonPhoto/videos
Andy Earl: www.andyearl.com
Megan Bendall: Instagram @meganthebendall 

A version of this article first appeared in Amateur Photographer magazine

Friday, 11 November 2022

War Stories

At the time of writing, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 12 journalists and media workers have been killed in Ukraine since the Russian led invasion on 24th February. For many, the war is only a cheap flight or drive away. Experienced photographers are following a trodden path and novice photographers have the opportunity to wet their boots. With little opportunity to embed with the military and unpredictable nature of the conflict, what are the daily challenges, how are photographers being treated, are they being targeted and is their photography being used for propaganda?

Jay Davies (JD) is Director of Photography at Getty Images (GI) overseeing news coverage in Europe, Middle East and Africa. GI is primarily a news agency that gathers pictures and sells them to subscribing news organisations, newspapers, magazines and and television broadcasters. Jay manages seven news photographers and can draw on several dozen other photographers from the sports and entertainment divisions if necessary. With the staff photographers spread thinly, freelancers also provide a crucial contribution.

JD ‘In the years prior to the invasion where the conflict in the Donbas was somewhat of a cold war, we worked with a freelance photographer based in Kyiv and a handful of others from time to time. We periodically cover news in the Ukraine beyond just the conflict, Zelensky’s election and campaign for the presidency was newsworthy. We had our freelancer there covering different parts of that campaign and also taking periodic trips out to the front-line areas near the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk. We stepped up the tempo when there were fears that Russia was looking to escalate in some way at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022. At that time we reached out to other freelancers that are not based in Ukraine who we’ve worked with before who started going to the country with more frequency so we periodically put them on assignment and then in January 2022 we sent one then another of our staffers to Kyiv. We had photographers who raised their hand very vigorously, I would say the majority of them, there were some that were not very comfortable with it or their families were not comfortable with it because it was not something they’d routinely done. We have photographers who went to Ukraine before during peacetime but this is a different matter.’

Leon Neal (LN), a staff member on the GI editorial team, was assigned to Ukraine several months into the conflict arriving shortly after a holiday in Mexico.

LN ‘I travelled to Ukraine with a handful of notes of ideas to consider, plus a bunch of screen-grabs in my phone of interesting stories and photographs that I’d seen online. The GI team was spread out across Ukraine with different cities or regions to cover. I was assigned to concentrate on the gateway to Ukraine, Lviv.’

While international news interest in Lviv was waning, Leon grafted for interesting stories he thought would capture the attention of GI core markets.

LN ‘One of the biggest challenges for me in Ukraine was identifying and documenting features and ideas that had previously gone unreported. As the fighting had moved towards the South East, many media teams had moved with it, leaving Lviv behind. I wanted to dig into the story of Lviv and show what was happening. As the nearest major city to a popular crossing point, Lviv had become a hub for refugees fleeing the Russian invasion and every day saw more people passing through on their way out of the country. The other challenge was that of witnessing so much grief and unhappiness. As the wartime rules prevented men aged between 18-60 from leaving the country, the station became a daily backdrop for the heartbreaking view of families being torn apart. I soon came to recognise the look on the faces of men walking away from the coaches, after saying goodbye to their wives and children, as they battled to hide their emotions until out of view.’

JD ‘Leon was a good example of a staff wire photographer just how industrious you have to be. Our photographers are both reporter and photographer and they’re operating with guidance from me but with a whole lot of autonomy.’

LN ‘I covered everything from evacuated bears in a sanctuary to coffin makers, the race to move gallery artworks into safe storage to children drama performed in air raid shelters. It really allowed me to push as far as I could into a story and the resulting publications around the world showed that I managed that successfully.’

Freelance photographer JB Russell’s first serious attempt at reportage photography was in Russia and Ukraine just after the fall of the Berlin wall. He borrowed money from his grandmother and took a ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki then a train to Moscow. 31 years later, after a career that has sent him around the world, he knew he had to return to Ukraine.

JB ‘It was one of the first major news events post COVID. I was moved by the outrageousness and in-justness of the situation, the historical significance, it’s a huge story worldwide with repercussions and it’s what I do. I was in Paris and unable to leave straight away as I was doing a commercial job. As soon as I could I went. It was close, it was easy. I didn’t have to fly to the other side of the world and spend £1000 on a plane ticket. I flew to Krakow, Poland and was there in a couple of hours, it cost around €70. I rented a car in case I had to be mobile and drove to the border. The refugee crisis was my first stop and spent 4-5 days at the train station and border posts. I didn’t have a fixer, it was pretty straightforward. That situation was extraordinary, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was all volunteers managing a constant flow of primarily women, children and the elderly fleeing the country. I photographed that, it was bitterly cold. I found a little hotel in town. I think I got in early enough. Afterwards it became difficult to find a place to stay, some refugees were taking up hotels, also the media was coming in. For the rest of the trip the biggest logistical challenge was finding a place to sleep for the night.’

JB left for Ukraine without the proactive cloak of a staff position or assignment but trusted his instincts. Before leaving he reached out to previous clients and informed his agency PANOS of his plans. Already being on the ground proved advantageous.

JB ‘Before, a client would fly me out on assignment but now, particularly in the press, no one has money any more so they might prioritise finding somebody who is already there rather than flying somebody out from London, Paris or New York. I got an assignment via PANOS for OXAM so I stayed four extra days. Then I got on the train and went to Lviv for a few days. There were a lot of funerals happening, it was the hub for humanitarian mobilisation, food and medicines coming in and being distributed around the country and hub for refugees leaving the country. Then I got on the train and went to Kyiv. I got there just after two journalists were killed and the situation became so dangerous and difficult even the evacuation stopped, the Ukrainian military couldn’t continue as they were being targeted. Kyiv was being bombed every day, civilian apartments and residential complexes were being hit by missiles. I photographed that. Kyiv was a city on war footing, everything was shut down, the streets were empty, checkpoints every few hundred metres, barricades at every intersection.’

LN ‘Air alerts came regularly in Lviv, sometimes up to five or six times a day. When out and about, it would involve either finding a tunnel or shelter to photograph those taking cover, or continuing to walk the streets, looking for images to show those who refused to have their routine changed by the threat of missile strikes. Alerts that came in the night proved more disruptive with my mobile app producing a siren, followed closely by the air raid sirens in the street, followed by the receptionist broadcasting through the speaker in my room, telling everyone to head to the shelter. After weeks of these 3am wake-up calls, it became a little tiring. Around the weekend of the Russian Victory Day celebrations, tensions were very high in Lviv with reports of major airstrikes due to take place on military and civilian targets throughout the city. Air alerts became more frequent as the date approached and I must admit that my nerves were on edge for the three days around May 9th. Thankfully, in the end, nothing came of the threats.’

JD ‘The biggest challenge in the first days of the war was the kinetic nature of it. In the months since, the war has consolidated around a certain geography, things are in some ways a little more predictable than the first month and a half. It’s not like going and visiting a very well established front line, everything was changing on an hour to hour basis in a lot of cases. You go into a neighbourhood and you’re told by a Ukrainian soldier at a checkpoint this is a safe route to travel, Russian forces are over there and then on your way out the Russian tanks have moved and told you should stay where you are. That was the biggest challenge in the first few months of the war. The fluidity of it and trying to maintain some operational security in what was a really dynamic environment.’

JD ‘A lot of wars that GI have covered have been ones in which the US military is a participant and we have often covered it from in the context of an embed also we’ve covered it from the perspective and point of access of the dominant military actor where that factors into our safety and comfort level. As dangerous as some environments have been where our photographers have worked in Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s often been with the US military. In the first weeks of the war in Ukraine, Russia was the larger military power and that changed the equation for how photographers can navigate a conflict and seek to embed with forces. That said, it’s not like we had a lot of opportunities to embed with Ukrainian forces for our organisation as we didn’t have a full time presence in Ukraine in recent years. We also don’t have those relationships, a very small number of photographers in the first days of the war had the relationship to get alongside a Ukrainian military unit where you saw them moving around town with them. It was a very fluid environment with no official access necessarily even though we all had military accreditations.’

propaganda

JB ‘It was one of those conflicts that was accessible. The foreign press in general were welcomed and appreciated because the Ukrainians understood all wars are information wars. I found among the people and refugees they were very conscious of Russian propaganda. Some were quite wary about being photographed, not because they were afraid to have their picture taken, but afraid that if it was published somewhere out on the internet the Russian would use them and twist them around for propaganda. The Ukrainian population were attuned to the potential of propaganda and what Russia was doing and their image being used for the benefit of Russia. It’s hard to monitor if someone screenshots your picture on the internet and uses them for something in Russia. There’s processes you can do to follow up on that but it’s long and tedious and difficult to do. We’ve seen how Zelensky has been incredibly deft at using the media in communicating not only to rally and unify the country against attack but also to solicit help and support from abroad and getting their story out there. It’s not pure propaganda, it’s not a Trump-like alternate reality. Like in any war, they don’t report how many casualties are Ukrainians, trying to keep people's morale up. They re using the information for their own interests and purposes of course’

LN ‘One of the biggest shocks for me was just how open people were to being photographed. As the UK becomes more and more restrictive on when and where you can photograph and the public trust in news photographers continues to decline, it was such a relief to work in a country that trusts photographers and media to be doing their job. For my first few days, I was massively overcautious in my approach until I realised how relaxed the public are about being photographed. It made my job much easier to concentrate on making photographs and not battling to get permission to work. From a photography point of view, I was reminded to be braver with my photography. On day one I was carrying three camera bodies, with the wide, mid and long zooms, plus a belt pack with assorted other primes. By day three, I was down to two bodies, a 24mm and a 50mm. That forced me to get closer to the story and my images improved dramatically through that.’

JD ‘GI don’t have a dedicated team monitoring the web for misuse of images for propaganda, but it's something all editorial staff and contributing photographers are alert to and address these instances as and when they arise.’

 
 
Russ O’Connell (RO) is Picture Editor at The Sunday Times magazine. The magazine’s 10 day lead time makes it difficult to keep up with the rapidly evolving situation in Ukraine, preferring to publish longer term stories. Submissions have been tumbling in.


RO ’You’ve got your key people who are in the moment and know how to work those situations. Properly experienced photographers right on the front line getting images but also know when not to get the images. A lot of submissions seem to be coming over from people I haven’t heard of before, the aftermath as opposed to the front line. Even though they’re over there to document it they’re not really dipping their toes in as much as the professionals who have the experience and know where to go and have the proper network and contacts. A lot of the images I’m getting are post conflict and after the event, burnt out tanks in the street, destroyed structures and war crimes where they’ve been going through the villages after. There seems to be a lot of that, everyone seems to have gone over to the areas where it supposedly happened and taken pictures of bodies in peoples back gardens and mass graves. I think there’s definitely a divide. I can tell who had the experience of being a conflict photographer working in hostile environments and the people doing it for the first time around. I have mixed feelings on photographers out there shooting it, a massive majority are not trained professional combat photographers and have never been in hostile situations but have flooded there to christen themselves in the field of war photography, which not only makes it dangerous for them, but for other professional photographers, medics etc.’

RO ‘The Times and Sunday Times newspapers have staff photographers in Ukraine. When you’re commissioning them you’re responsible for them. Anything that happens to them you’ve got a duty of care. If they’re injured you have to take the appropriate steps. Security wise you have to make sure they’re in a safe place. The types of photographers The Times commission for those kinds of assignments would have to go through hostile environment training and have good knowledge to deal with those situations down to knowing how to tie a tourniquet. The company has a history of these kinds of conflicts and to make sure they can be as safe as possible.’

A photographer or journalist can only see the situation through the lens of their own perspective, culture and experience. The idea of journalistic neutrality is false, nobody is completely objective and no single journalist can tell all sides and facets of the story. What’s important to those I spoke to is to try and report from Ukraine as honestly as they can and add their visual chapter to this extraordinary passage of global history.

JB ‘Truth is a relative word too, what is the truth? If I’m moved by something personally or there’s a human story, an emotional aspect about it I think it’s ok to do that. To show a certain side of a situation. You have to be honest the way you’re doing it and not pretend to be neutral.’

Leon returned from Ukraine Working  just under one month and found himself fenced off in a photographers pen covering the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations: IG @leonnealphoto www.leonneal.com

JB returned to Ukraine and decided to crowdfund to continue reporting on the situation: IG @jbrussell www.jbrussellimages.com

A version of this article first appeared in Amateur Photographer magazine

Thursday, 10 November 2022

Being Able

Disability can strike at any time. It can be there from the beginning, middle or end of life. Much like photography. Having a physical or mental condition that limits movements, senses, or activities, doesn’t mean the end of photographic aspirations. In some cases it can trigger the beginning. Advances in camera technologies have largely been positive for those with a disability. A wider understanding of what is needed has developed in support groups and charities. At the forefront is the Disabled Photographers’ Society (DPS), a registered charity formed in 1968 to help make photography accessible to those with disabilities. Run by a team of dedicated volunteers, many of whom are disabled photographers themselves, the DPS offer individual members adaptations, equipment, support and advice. They loan equipment free at the point of need and enable opportunities to meet like minded (and bodied) people through exhibitions, competitions, social media and their quarterly magazine, In Focus. I spoke to three individuals with differing disabilities that have all been assisted by the DPS.

Rais Hasan

Without surgery to treat a brain tumour, Rais was given a worst case scenario of four months to live. He chose surgery which was complicated, long and left him house bound for well over a year. The former Senior Manager at a Youth Service could no longer read or write. Post surgery was the beginning of a new life of survival. Unable to walk outside unaided, his family bought him a small digital camera for his 50th birthday and Rais started taking photos around the house as a diversion to daily struggles. He’d ask his sons where the photos were taken? More often than not, they didn’t know. Short walks into the countryside followed to develop his interest. Galvanised, Rais went on to college to complete a two year photography course. Only after he qualified did he mention his trouble with memory, reading and writing. Rais has gone on to achieve more letters after his name that are in it: ADPS, CPAGB and LRPS among them. He has been President of the Bradford Camera Club, crowned monochrome photographer of the year and had several images in this magazine and the press including a recent front page of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus. A decade on from his surgery, Rais remains on large doses of medication and still makes regular visits to the hospital specialising in the surgery he had. Poignantly, he now photographs on behalf of the Yorkshire Brain Tumour Charity, creating a memory for families of what they’ve gone through or the moments before. Rais’s disability isn’t immediately apparent but can compromise his photography. Post production is not always easy, he learns it, keeps pushing but the retention is bad. The weight of his Nikon cameras, usually a D810 with lenses, means he has to sit down after a while. He’s undeterred and sees the brain tumour as releasing a talent for photography that otherwise may have stayed hidden.

Paul Hinchliffe

Photography for Paul started when he got married, started seeing more of the world and progressed it as a serious hobby in 2006. Seven years ago he started to drastically lose his eyesight. Paul has no central vision of any detail and uses peripheral vision to do everything. This usable vision helps him to take photographs, he can see shapes and colours primarily and shadow. While glasses improve but don’t correct his vision, he feels he can see best through a camera lens. The camera autofocuses and he can zoom in and out of the image with his preferred Sony A7III (which upon release had one of the best autofocus systems) allowing Paul to capture his fast moving, young sons. Familiarity with his camera and menu system is key to dealing with poor vision, relying a lot on muscle memory to change the aperture or white balance without having to look. Paul has many colourful conversations about why he bothers taking photographs? For him it’s therapeutic, taking the image and even seeing the final image. Using a lot of magnification software allows him to examine details of an image he didn’t notice before and relive the experience of that coastal sunset all over again. Paul produces a photo-book each year documenting his children’s adventures to give to his parents and in-laws, uploading the photos from his iPad to the affordable Snapfish platform before using a computer to edit, save and print. When Paul first started to lose his sight, his wife took him along to The Photography Show and the support of the DPS. He advises anyone going through what he has or any other form of disability, to reach out and find someone to talk to.

 Lorraine Spittle

An injury at work in Lorraine’s teens triggered Spondylosis, a degenerative condition of the spine. Her youthful optimism that everything would be ok took a beating when she found herself struggling to grip or feel hot and cold with her fingers. The Spondylosis was further exacerbated the following decade in a car crash in 1987 (in which she was blameless) causing a C7 spinal cord injury further affecting her ability to move wrists and straighten elbows. Limited hand functions didn’t limit Lorraine’s determination to fight the boredom and she found photography when her former Police Force husband bought her a camera to capture the grandkids. I feel lucky talking to Lorraine, not because of the medical conditions she’s survived but the scrapes in pursuit of her photography. She’s been wheeled out of shopping centres, punctured a wheelchair tyre when going off road and was so engrossed trying to capture a Filey winter sunrise, only when sparks started to fly from her electric wheelchair did she realise the tide had come around and about to cut her off. Being in a wheelchair doesn’t always bring the keen street-photographer the kindness of strangers. After a particularly threatening encounter when photographing children in the fountains at Bradford City Square, she didn’t pick up a camera for a while. When Lorraine does pick up her camera it has to be thought through. She can’t make a proper fist to hold smaller cameras, preferring a Canon 5D MK IV she describes as a brick. The first thing she does is put the camera on a table or over a soft surface then bends and slips the strap over her neck so it doesn’t drop straight through her fingers. She has to look at what she’s doing and prefers the audio clicks and bleeps of the camera to be on to confirm what she’s done. Lorraine doesn’t clamp the camera to her chair, preferring to react more fluidly. She has experimented unsuccessfully with tripods, monopods and gimbals and adapted her own methods. She has utilised the odd cricket bat to support her 100-400mm lens and if she doesn’t think she’s at the right viewing angle, will simply throw herself onto the floor. Using this strategy to shoot upwards as the Tour De France hurtled through her village had many of the cyclists quizzically rubbernecking!

Adaptations

If members of the DPS are having problems regarding the mechanics of pressing the shutter button, equipment coordinator Gillian Birbeck is the person to contact and always on the lookout for new devices to make their lives easier. “As a charity we give free advice to anybody who wants it and ask people to be members. If that’s the case they can have equipment on free loan. There’s a limit to what that equipment can be, in general we have a few things that can help a lot of people. Occasionally we get an odd or difficult request,” explains Gillian. She receives emails from all over the world from people needing help and first asks what the person cannot do with regards to taking a photograph, what they have difficulty with, she doesn’t necessarily need to know their disability or name of their disease to help.

“Some illnesses mean people shake a lot which obviously affects photography. Some people can’t lift their arms, some can lift a camera up but not for long enough, some people have difficulty seeing through the viewfinder. Whatever they say they can’t do, that’s what we try and sort out,” she adds. The most common request is for a support to fix a camera to a wheelchair. With many cameras now having a tilt screen, it doesn’t have to be put to the eye, it can be down by their right arm or wherever it’s comfortable to see the screen.

The DPS support of choice is the Manfrotto magic arm or variable friction arm which Gillian thinks better. “It’s beautifully manufactured, it’s solid, the variable friction one takes up its shape with a Knurled Knob which is easier for most people to use than the lever which the magic arm has which needs quite a bit of strength to put into place. We have to try to find somewhere on their wheelchair to use something like a super clamp to attach it. What happens is the camera is in a fixed solid position and they can move the camera position just by moving their wheelchair.”

Available from retailers are the Canon HG-100TBR Bluetooth, Sony GP-VP2BT Bluetooth and Panasonic DMW-SHGR1 Wired, shooting grips which are specifically designed for one-handed use, with shutter, video and zoom controls. They tend to be designed to work with small compact or mirrorless cameras. Not necessarily cheap given that you have to buy the right camera but potentially useful for people who can only use one hand.

Difficulty in pressing the shutter button is quite easy to deal with as most cameras have a remote control that comes with it or you can buy it as an optional extra. Small button size can be problematic. “Get a little plastic box, cut a U shape in the top, put the remote control in the middle and that U shape becomes a bigger button which goes on top of the button,” advises Gillian.

If somebody can’t press the shutter button, there are such things as bite controllers or tongue switches available from Hypoxic Electronics. If somebody can’t use their arms at all, a bite switch is ideal. Gillian recalls a quadriplegic who couldn’t move anything below the neck. The DPS supplied a Hague motorised panel and tilt head camera powerhead which fixed onto the wheelchair with the camera on top tethered to a computer with up, down left, right controls on the screen. This was controlled using a stick on a velcro strap around their head, all they had to do was lean forward to tap the screen. If your disability causes you to shake a lot a simple lesson in photography can be enough: increase the ISO or use of flash is suggested.

Gillian would like the return of left handed cameras. Many DPS members have had strokes and if they’re right handed, it's that one that tends to go. As it is, they have to make an adaptation so a camera can be held in the left hand. Post production is another area the DPS advises. “We try to have workshops where they can learn. For some people it would be impossible, they might have a personal assistant in their everyday life who can help. In the past these personal assistants had been told by disabled people to take a picture for them. We actually give them the independence to do it themselves. That is so important, they are in charge. Post production often doesn’t matter so much to them.”

With so many difficulties to deal with, why take photos at all? “Some people look at photography as something they have to have, others think of it as something they quite like to have. If somebody’s been a photographer all their life and has a stroke, they are desperate to get back into photography. They will email us to discover exactly what they want. Other people are bored and don’t know what to do in their life and find photography and inquire. The impetus comes from the individuality of the person. We don’t discriminate between those that just want to point and shoot and those that want more. A lot of people with disabilities have to compromise but we can make it possible or easier to do more than they were,” reveals Gillian. With the help of the DPS, members with disabilities develop outstanding photographic ability.

Donations of unwanted working photographic equipment help to fund the DPS - please contact chairman@the-dps.co.uk

A version of this article first appeared in Amateur Photographer magazine

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Ethics in Wildlife Photography

There are few better pursuits in life than grabbing your camera and striding into the great outdoors to immerse and engage in the natural world. The drive to get the shot can become maddening, obsessive. With no centralised industry resource on what is and isn’t acceptable, moral boundaries can blur to the point of illegality. Opinions on how to behave as a wildlife photographer, wildly differ. Lines are drawn, choices are made.

Photographers can’t all be expected to be experts in animal behaviour but do have a duty of care. A deep love of nature is paramount, every life form appreciated with equal importance; invertebrate, amphibian, reptile, bird or mammal. Nature stories need to be told and great photographs can still be achieved within ethical confines. If you’re asking yourself uncomfortable questions about whether your approach to photographing a subject is ethical, then it most likely isn’t, you just have to learn to tread carefully.  

LIVE BAITING

Should live bait be used for the purposes of photography, are you even a wildlife photographer if you do? The industry swell is to reject live baiting, photography shouldn’t mean the death of an animal. The Wildlife Photography of the Year (WPOTY) rules state: Live baiting is not permitted, neither is any means of baiting that may put an animal in danger or adversely affect its behaviour, either directly or through irresponsible habituation. Any other means of attraction, including bird seed or scent, must be declared in the caption for the Jury and us to review.

Neil Aldridge, is open about his approach.’ I do not live bait my subjects. If I aim to attract an animal for photographic purposes, I use scent baiting which involves the careful placement of a strong-smelling naturally-occurring food derivative, such as honey or oils (depending on the subject). This practice limits the impact on my subject’s actions, expectations and, importantly, relationship with people other than myself. There are species that will only hunt live prey like with Kingfishers, you either do it by live baiting or you do it by spending a long time waiting and perfecting your craft. It is possible.’

TAPE LURES

Recorded bird song played to attract birds may seem ethical but can adversely disrupt natural behaviour. Will Nichols has reservations: ‘You should never use tape lures during breeding seasons as this can disrupt a bird’s normal patterns of behaviour. For example, when a male should be defending its territory from real intruders, it may instead spend its time trying to fend off the non-existent bird you are imitating.’

CAMERA TRAPS

A non intrusive way to capture wildlife is to use a camera that fires automatically when an animal is detected. To turn your DSLR into a trail or camera trap, all you need is a sensor that can detect animals which then trigger your camera. It can then  be left for days or weeks at a time once set up. It may not be photography at its purist but the longer you leave it, the greater your chances of capturing an ethical frame of an elusive animal. Will Nichols is an advocate. ‘Camera traps are becoming incredibly fashionable and it opens up a whole new unseen world to wildlife photographers. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that camera trapping is extremely addictive. The entire process, from setting up your DSLR camera trap to checking it weeks later for the results, has a real thrill about it.’ They can have setbacks as Neil Aldridge explains. ‘When you use camera traps you can make mistakes like putting the camera on motor-drive. If you take two or more pictures, the first picture you get the natural looking picture, the animal’s not aware of the camera when the flash and shutter goes off. The next picture is the surprise at what’s happened and the third picture is it running away.’ 

 

 

HANDLING SUBJECTS

Nicky Bay, shares his point of view on the temptation to handle or immobilise animals for better photographs: ‘It requires many years of training to be able to exert the precise force in handling any tiny subject without causing any injury or death. Attempting to handle them directly is strongly discouraged. It is NATURAL for subjects to run about. Forcefully holding a subject’s leg to prevent it from moving can lead to permanent injuries to the subject. In the wild, many living things only eat once in many days. Some spiders have to use up a lot of silk just to get one prey. Be mindful that touching these subjects or stressing them may lead them to drop their precious prey and essential food for the week.’

AVOID DISTRESSING ANIMALS

Understanding and empathy for subjects is important to Gil Wizen:  ‘Photographs of small animals can be a great tool for communication and education by revealing the hidden beauty of overlooked creatures. However, we tend to forget how things are from their perspective. They do not like to be cornered or pushed around. The last thing they expect is a giant being trying to manipulate them to pose in a certain way.’ Putting your camera on silent mode or using a telephoto lens with close focus can maintain enough distance to allow your subject to behave naturally. For macro shots use longer focal length macro lenses. Portable hides and camouflage allows the documenting of wildlife without disturbing them. Don’t destroy habitat for a clearer view or deliberately draw attention as Will Nicholls explains: ‘Intentionally spooking an animal by shouting or throwing objects towards it can be more problematic than you might think. Not only is there an unnecessary energy expense in an animal’s flight response, but you could be scaring a parent bird away from a nesting site.’  Drones have huge potential for ethical research but should be used with caution. A 2015 study documented the effect of drones on the heart rates of black bears in Minnesota and found though there were no outward signs of stress, bears’ heart rates rose as much as 123 beats per minute above the pre-flight baseline when a drone was present.

HABITAT

Entering an animals habitat inevitably has impact. Keep noise to a minimum, apply discretion and don’t move or destroy vegetation for a clearer view, let nature envelop you as photographer: ‘Serendipity being what it is, other things happen if you are open and aware. If you have a love and awareness of nature you begin to see things. After you’ve been a certain length of time by any bit of water or whatever, nature just accepts you, you’re there and it ignores you. You’ve got dragonflies and mayflies around you, you’ve got a hundred opportunities,’ advises Paul Harcourt Davies.

ARTIFICIAL SCENES

‘A nature photographer documents nature, so staging artificial scenes may present a false representation of nature. If it has to be done for art, it should be clarified that the subjects were artificially coerced into certain behavior, positions or habitats. Some scenarios are biologically impossible so fake captions and descriptions tend to fall through. Photos of artificially transported subjects may also provide false information to researchers on its natural habitat,’ suggests Nicky Bay.

Paul Harcourt Davies prefers to construct his images in situ: ’I’m not an artistic photographer. I find it slightly arrogant that some people look upon nature as their canvas and they interpret nature in some ways. I have an innate love of nature and my rule is to try and reveal often things that are hidden using whatever ability I can summon technically but also with arranging elements in a picture that makes something attractive. I look for design in pictures and shapes and interaction and so on. It’s a communication thing, fundamentally I’m out to try and make people aware of what’s out there and is worth protecting and saving. If people use their photography as a basis for finding out facts about plants and animals it engenders a greater love and appreciation of the subject, people become a lot more conscious of wanting to protect and to preserve.’


GAME FARMS & PHOTO TOURS

Captive animals offer a convenient way for photographers to practice technical skills and add species to their portfolio and stock photography that they may not have the chance to photograph in the wild; Snow Leopard, Lion, Bear, Wolf. Arguments for the benefits of game farms are that you don’t travel to remote locations spending days or weeks staking out an animal in the wild which reduces pressure and intrusion on fragile habitats. At the more distressing end of the spectrum, many farms have a less than exemplary record for animal security and welfare. Reports suggest tigers being illegally de-clawed and use of a cattle rod on a bear to make it growl for the camera. When the animals are no use for pictures they’re sold off so people can shoot them. In 2012, an animal trainer employed by Animals of Montana game farm was mauled and killed by a bear.

Live or maimed mammals have been used to lure animals in front of the lens of paying customers. Neil Aldridge organises tuition and tours from the Cairngorms to Botswana, has his approach: ’The industry has become high yield where everyone wants things quicker. If you pay the money you want the shot. You're not only paying for the equipment but you’ve only got seven days holiday a year and you want to go to the arctic and come away with the photo of the snowy owl. That expectation has developed because of the success of photo-tours. If people do choose to travel with me they do so on the understanding where I’m coming from. I never put anything into an itinerary saying we’re going to set this up, we will visit photography hides but there’s water there and the animals are free to come and go as they want, we’re not going to bait or live bait.’

LIGHTING

Most nocturnal animals are extremely sensitive to light. Powerful light sources, such as flash, LED panels or even UV light can be harmful. The National Audubon Society, an American non-profit environmental organization dedicated to conservation of birds and their habitats state in their guide to ethical photography: ‘Photographing animals at night, the practical approach is to use flash. Use flash sparingly (if at all), as a supplement to natural light. Avoid the use of flash on nocturnal birds (e.g., owls, nightjars) at night, as it may temporarily limit their ability to hunt for food or avoid obstacles.’

To capture his photographs of the Grey Long Eared Bat, Neil Aldridge photographed with red light filters over nine flashes. ‘Our current research shows they aren’t impacted by red light. I use flash sensitively and only when necessary. Wherever possible, I use off-camera flashes placed widely so as not to trigger directly into the eyes of my subject and at greatly reduced power output. I do believe that flash use has its place in photography but only when used considerately and with knowledge of the specific subject in mind. I also remain open to learning from scientific findings around the impact of flash use in photography, both underwater and terrestrial.’

FAKERY & MANIPULATION

Be wary of viral photographs on social media, a frog riding a beetle, a snail riding a frog riding a turtle or five frogs riding a crocodile are likely to be fake. Cute or funny could mean cruel or deadly with subjects being glued, clamped, taped, wired, refrigerated, shaken or killed before positioned for a photo. A public community Facebook page by concerned nature enthusiasts, Truths Behind Fake Nature Photography, is trying to educate by highlighting fakes when they spot them.

In 2010, The Natural History Museum, Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner, José Luis Rodriguez, was stripped of his £10,000 prize after judges found he was likely to have hired a tame Iberian wolf to stage the image (‘entries must not deceive the viewer or attempt to misrepresent the reality of nature’). In 2017 entry by Marcio Cabral’s winning image was disqualified for featuring a stuffed anteater after it was decided it was ‘highly likely’ a taxidermy specimen. WPOTY enforces its view. ‘Images must not portray captive, restrained, manipulated animals, animal models, taxidermy animals, and/or any other animal being exploited for profit. The only exception is when reporting on a specific issue regarding the treatment of animals by a third party, in which case you must make clear that the animal was captive, restrained, a model or a taxidermy animal.’

POST PROCESSING, CAPTIONING & PUBLISHING

Think before you publish your photographs, be accurate but sensitive in the caption. Sharing an image could alert poachers to a rare breed, nest or plant.
Nicky Bay offers guidance: ‘Avoid stating the full species of any subject unless you are absolutely certain or have consulted an expert who is certain. Identification is based on a specific set of characters and NOT simply based on visual similarities on photographs. Subjects that appear ‘identical’ in photos to an untrained eye should not be assumed to be the same species. Conversely, subjects that look radically different can actually be the same species but different gender or morph. Most scientists will refuse to identify based on a photo because they need to examine the specimen under a microscope to accurately determine the defining characters. For some subjects, it is not possible to identify them accurately without dissection or DNA analysis.’

Process digital images within with the accepted rules and expectations of respected photography institutions, publications and competitions using digital software that reproduces a faithful representation of reality, crop to a minimum and only remove dust and reduce noise and you should be ok.

A version of this article first appeared in Amateur Photographer magazine

RESOURCES

Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography :
www.audubon.org/get-outside/audubons-guide-ethical-bird-photography
 
WPOTY Rules : www.nhm.ac.uk/wpy/competition/rules

Nicky Bay : Macro photographer, instructor and book author
www.nickybay.com/macro-photography-ethics/

Paul Harcourt Davies :
www.paulharcourtdavies.com

Will Nicholls : Wildlife cameraman and tree climbing specialist
https://www.willnicholls.co.uk/

Neil Aldridge : Photographer, filmmaker and conservationist www.conservationphotojournalism.com

Gil Wizen : Naturalist
www.gilwizen.com

Melissa Groo : wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist
https://www.melissagroo.com/

Truths Behind Fake Nature Photography  
www.facebook.com/fakenaturephotography/

Website targeted to nature and outdoor photo enthusiasts
www.naturescapes.net

North American Nature Photography Association :
www.nanpa.org/tag/wildlife-photography-ethics/

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Office Christmas Party

The traditional Office Christmas Party (OCP) was an opportunity for company directors to reward their staff. Desks and chairs would be pushed back, triangular white bread sandwiches unwrapped, complimentary loose cigarettes placed in a wide glass and the punch bowl filled. The white wine was warm, lemon bitter, there was sherry for the more mature employee. With the scene set, at 5pm, women would appear fresh from fixing eyelashes in the cloakroom mirror, tongues sticky with hair spray. Men in bland coloured suits would fidget until that first drink loosened ties. The OCP was potentially the greatest pitfall of the social year - some looked forward to an evening that others dreaded. You didn’t want to end the party with a 12 month hangover, to be that person who fuelled months of office gossip - did I really say that to the boss!?

 
©Peter Dench
 
By the late 1990s, the OCP had developed into a more lavish concept. I often had to choose which one to go to or attend several in one evening, thundering across London in the back of a black cab. In 2002, I set out on assignment for The Sunday Telegraph Magazine to document the modern OCP scene. They were far removed from the office and nearer to Halloween than Christmas - something for companies to compete over. At one, a well known travel company had erected a giant marquee in the grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company in London. Employees were transported in from all over the country and from abroad, as far away as Cuba. The evening was billed as The Night of a Thousand Stars. Each guest walked up the red carpet being snapped by fake Paparazzi. Their were dodgems, diamanté Deely boppers, a swing band, celebrity sing-a-likes, mandatory free bar and blankets for the journey home. The real Jason Donovan ducked flung bras singing, Sealed With a Kiss. Slade, Hot Chocolate, The Human League, ABC, Kim Wilde and Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet, were rumoured to be other acts available for the OCP circuit.

©Peter Dench

The photograph below was taken at The Rainforest Cafe, London, where Lawrence Graham, a firm of solicitors were hosting their OCP. There was fake forest, plastic elephant, recorded gorilla growls, table football, name tags and limbo. John Graham of Lawrence Graham, takes the hand of guest David Smith and a lady whose name I didn’t record. Their application and athleticism shames the culture of the back bending dance. The pin stripe power suits more Tory Party than Trinidadian.

With the hospitality industry devastated, curfews in place and after-work drinks almost certainly off the 2020 Christmas menu, I’m going to OCP like it’s 1969: wrap tinsel around the computer, tack mistletoe to the ceiling, scan body parts, binge eat cheese on a stick and drink Blue Nun until I vomit into a plant pot. You’re all invited, virtually. Don’t be late. Merry Christmas.


©Peter Dench

Friday, 18 December 2020

Robert Blomfield

The Loves and Loneliness and of an Amateur Photographer

The archive of one of Britain’s greatest amateur photographers won’t be forgotten, Peter Dench discovers more.


Robert Blomfield was an amateur photographer. He didn’t earn an income from his photography, use a studio or fulfil a client brief on demand. He didn’t seek fame, rarely showing his photographs outside immediate family and close friends, preferring to simply take them, print them and put them away in a box. Photographs are taken to be seen, increasingly today, when every plate of food and holiday sunset is posted on social media. What was it about the act of taking and printing a photo that was enough? “I was just a private sort of person and I didn’t want to share them. It wasn’t that I didn’t think they were good. I think I knew they were good and a few people who did see them said they were. But I’m just not the sort of person that needs other people to tell me what they think. I just did it for myself.”

Robert Blomfield was a professional photographer. He pored over magazines for tips and guidance, meticulously processed and printed his work and forensically studied the practice of his heroes Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson, even adopting the Frenchman’s tactic of covering the polished parts of his camera with matt-black paint and pieces of tape to be more covert. He was consumed by photography and loved his craft. “I think it’s a form of love. You should love the picture. I really loved taking photographs. I love the photographs. I sort of love the people. If it’s a good photograph, it’s a lovely thing,” he explains in the 2018 documentary, An Unseen Eye, by Stuart Edwards.

 
 
Born in Leeds 1938, Robert spent much of his teens in Sheffield. His father George was a keen amateur photographer and Robert would sometimes help him develop and print the film shot on family excursions in a makeshift darkroom. Aged thirteen, Robert borrowed his father’s Leica II 35mm and began to make his own pictures, for his fifteenth birthday, he received a second-hand Contax. Nikon F single-lens reflex cameras followed in 1960, allowing him to be more precise with focus, aperture and shutter speeds. He invested in an f/3.5 28mm Nikkor lens and later a 105mm and continued to photograph until 1999, when a stroke left him partially paralysed. He now lives at home in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, a compact digital camera always within reach.


Edinburgh

Robert moved to Edinburgh in 1956, aged 18, to study medicine. The following decade, photographing on the streets of ‘Auld Reekie,’ Robert took some of his most startling pictures: passengers wait for a bus in a fog draped street, sunlight invades the windows of a bar. The under-construction Forth Road Bridge emerges from the gloom. Children swing from scaffold. climb fences, sledge, scoot, peer from prams and play in drains. The images are close but unobtrusive, stark but kind, there are echoes of photographers Denis Thorpe, Dorothea Lange and early Don McCullin, who was introduced to Robert and his images by a mutual friend, Don was complimentary.

In 1965, he met his life love, history of art student, Jane, also a keen photographer and the biggest advocate of his photography. After she graduated, Jane moved back to London to continue a post-graduate course at the Courtauld Institute Of Art. In 1967, Robert took up a post at London’s St Stephen’s Hospital. They married and had three sons. With his medical and family commitments, were there periods when he wasn’t inspired, when the urge to to swing his legs out onto the street, leaving loved ones behind, failed him? “I never grew bored of photography. I sometimes took less photos when my studies or work demanded my attention but I was always motivated. I was fascinated by people. I think I thought of cameras as this ingenious, man-made mechanism that enabled me to record what I saw in every day life. I suppose it was that mixture of the technical aspects and the human that attracted me.”

In November 2018, 60 images were displayed at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre. Four months later, over 41,000 people from Scotland, England, Australia, Brazil, Russia, Italy, Finland, Spain, the USA and many places in between, had pushed through the doors to see the show. Around 2000 comments compete for space in the visitors book - outstanding, inspirational, fascinating, magical, excellent, thank you and please produce a book of this collection - are all inked regularly.

Colour Shift

Robert was a naturally shy photographer, he photographed alone, never joined any photographic groups or societies. How did he react to the very public responses to his exhibition? “I find that difficult to answer. I like to think the answer is in the photos themselves. I hope people would find them of interest and maybe even be inspired to go out and take some photos themselves. I do find it interesting to look back at Edinburgh from 60 years ago, the architecture, the lack of cars, the children playing in the streets. It just all seems more innocent.”

During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, some great reportage photography was produced by medical staff. Did studying medicine and working as a doctor benefit Roberts’ photography? “I don’t think so, no, although I suppose both require an interest in people. For me photography just requires a greater visual awareness than medicine. If anything, my medical studies interfered with my photography because when I had to study, I wasn’t out taking photos.” Perhaps photographers can make great doctors!?

“I used to be lively but I’m not now. Ever since I had a stroke which paralysed my whole left side, I’ve been struggling to stay alive really. And there’s not really much   of me left…, except for a few jokes,” he says in An Unseen Eye. Jane, who passed away in 2011, tried to organise Robert’s archive but it was a difficult task, many boxes simply labelled, ‘miscellaneous.’ Most of his black and white photographs have yet to be revealed. From a roll of 36 frames, it was rare for more than a dozen to be printed, often only two or three. There’s a stockpile of slide film after he shifted to colour in the 1970s, taking more of an interest in nature, recording things that black and white film couldn’t. There are enough Edinburgh photographs to mount five more exhibitions of the same scale and calibre as the City Art Centre. In January 2020, Robert’s family approached Bluecoat Press. Edinburgh, published November 2020, features over 150 photographs from 1957-1966, many taken when Robert was working as a junior hospital doctor at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. I suspect, there are many more publications to come, after 50 years behind the lens, there is much of Robert Blomfield left.

Having learnt extensively from reading Amateur Photographer magazine, has Robert any tips for aspiring photographers reading it today? “Keep it simple. Don’t worry about expensive cameras or lenses. Just look for interest. There should be something in your shot that captures your interest. The rest follows. Maybe go and see a good art exhibition – that might help!” And conceivably growing a beard? Throughout his life, Robert has exhibited one of fibrous magnificence. As a loner and shy, was the beard along with the camera, something to hide behind? “I’ve never really thought of it like that – maybe it was. Maybe it was a sign of my existential angst. Or maybe it was just because I lost my electric razor on a climbing trip once and was too lazy to replace it or shave the beard off!”

Robert passed away on the 14th December 2020 shortly after he achieved his ambition to publish a book.

A version of this artcile originally appeared in the 21st November 2020 issue of Amateur Photographer magazine.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

Classic OLYMPUS Advertisements

My first camera was a second hand Pentax ME Super. I didn’t remember the adverts for Pentax cameras. I remembered the adverts for Olympus cameras, the ones with photographer David Bailey. I wanted to be Bailey. Part of me still does. He was cool and hung out with rock stars, models and gangsters. 


The television commercials from the late 1970s and 1980s, screened during soap opera Coronation Street and sporting spectacles like the FA Cup final, reached millions, turning Bailey into a household name and Olympus into a household brand, except my house. “Who do you think you are, David Bailey?” would be levelled at anyone pointing a camera at a birthday party, wedding, in a pub, street, office, park or playground.

The bold, brilliant and often blokeish ads had Bailey being confused for someone else. In one, Monty Python’s Eric Idle reprises his 'nudge, nudge, know what I mean, a nod’s as good as a wink’ character, mistaking Formula 1 driver James Hunt for Bailey. The on set gossip is that Idle, after stepping on a nail, ad-libbed his way through infuriating the director. In another, Bailey is taunted for his tiny all-in-one Olympus camera by the all-gear-and-no-idea elitist ‘professional photographer’ played by George Cole.




The Olympus ads worked. Before Ian Dickens joined Olympus in a junior role in 1979, he worked in a camera shop. “I saw the sharp-end. After the first television ad [where Bailey, using the Olympus Trip, out-shoots an old school wedding photographer] people would come in and ask for an Olympus, the one Bailey used. They couldn’t be persuaded otherwise. I just had to take the payment.” Dickens was so impressed, it prompted him to apply for the job with Olympus where he remained for 21 years rising to Marketing Director. “The ads were designed to entertain, amuse, surprise and challenge. Build a brand perception that customers would have an instant warmth to.”

The creative agency behind the Olympus ads were Collett Dickenson Pearce, CDP, the same agency that paired Hamlet cigars with failure, Heineken beer with refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach and Hovis bread with brass bands and steep, sepia hills. And that’s jus the brands beginning with H.

“The agency’s brief was to do whatever they wanted, be as outrageous as they wanted and we’d take it from there,” says Graeme Chapman, Managing Director at Olympus from 1980 -2008 (including six years as European President of its Consumer Products division). Which is just as well, CDP had a reputation for only tolerating a certain amount of client interference. They took full advantage of Chapman’s advice, delivering humorous narratives and headlines. The philosophy was to treat the consumer with respect and provoke them into action.



The adverts displayed across these pages certainly provoke, one even suggests - ‘This Christmas, indulge in a little blackmail, extortion and torture,’ above a compilation of frivolous photographs featuring topless men, men with their tongues out, trousers down and sucking the toes of other men. The camera price is ‘… a drop in the ocean compared to the price you’ll be able to charge for the negatives’ it concludes, years before television shows offered financial rewards for the submission of embarrassing video clips.

‘Which part of the divine Ms Campell’s body holds the most allure for people? Her legs? Her lips? Her breasts? Perhaps her brain? No, it’s unquestionably her right hand’ declares another ad. At a time when fashion models were thought by some as a bit dim, Naomi Campbell holds aloft an all-weather Olympus Mju II under the copy, ‘Black. Sleek. Beautiful. Amazing features. Tiny brain.’ Naomi, a model with a large brain, was up for it. “She found the ad absolutely hysterical. She understood the humour as most celebrities featured in Olympus ads did.” says Dickens. 



Chapman always took legal advice. The only ad that presented any real challenge featured Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas. An undisclosed fee eventually being donated to a designated charity.

The business owners in the Japanese boardroom didn’t always understand the intent of the British ads but certainly understood the impressive sales figures. Their inspirational president believed in globalisation through localisation and Chapman and his team continued unhindered. Olympus UK were consistently the global market brand leader.

“It was a case of having a fantastic agency doing groundbreaking stuff. Other camera brand ads, sadly, were just pictures of cameras. We rarely did that. We wanted to stop the audience in their tracks” adds Chapman. 



“I used to hate cameras.” says the empowered looking American actress Koo Stark, probably better known for her relationship with Prince Andrew. “One day the paparazzi turned up on my doorstep, training their zoom lenses on me like a firing squad. It went on for years. In self-defence, I started snapping back at them.’ Stark went on to become an accomplished photographer and patron of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust.

While grabbing the audiences attention, the Olympus ads also engaged with them. Below the hero images of Bill Clinton with a brunette, a staring, snarling Sarah Bernhard and glistening torsos of rowing heroes Ed Bayliss and Stu Turnbull, are highlighted some of the latest Olympus camera benefits (they were always referred to as benefits not features): built in flash; built in zoom lens; auto film loading; auto film speed setting; auto winding; auto rewinding; auto program; auto focus; drop-proof; waterproof and one of the biggest challenges, red-eye-reduction.



The ads were cheeky, irreverent and often topical, the kind that the satirical and current affairs news magazine Private Eye used to employ on their covers. Convicted financial rogue trader, Nick Leeson, is pictured in an ad for the Olympus Superzoom 120 above the slogan, ‘Perfect for those that like to take long shots.’ A Princess Diana ‘leg-a-like’ poses in a luxurious looking chair; ‘Avoid getting your head chopped off by the in-laws this Christmas’ is the quip for an Olympus AF-10 mini gift set.

Alongside Bailey, there was a royal rat pack of other more than capable photographers to endorse Olympus: Patrick Lichfield, Barry Lategan, John Swannell and Don McCullin. Not all the adverts featured celebrities, or cameras. One ad for binoculars takes the 'ooh er missus’ approach promising dedicated ornithologists; ‘We won’t resort to cheap jokes about birds, boobies and tits’ above a picture of Phalacrocorax aristotelis, or to you and me, The European or common shag, a species of cormorant.



Olympus are known for their innovative ads. They offer an insight and rich archive into the advertising and photography culture of a time when celebrities were nationally recognised and copyrighters were king. 


A version of this article first appeared in the October 15th 2019 issue of Amateur Photographer magazine