Thursday, 22 August 2019

Viewpoint : Imposter Syndrome

When do you become a photographer? When you receive your first camera? When you graduate from college or university? When you receive your first professional commission, sell your first print, publish your first photo-book, reach a 1000 YouTube subscribers or decide to watermark your Instagram posts?

©Peter Denc'

On a recent visit to the hairdressers, to have what hair I have left cut, I was asked by Kostas, my assigned barber, what I did for a living? I hesitated. Assignments had been a bit sparse, my photo-mojo a bit dulled. The words, 'I’m a photographer' lodged in my throat. I felt a fraud. The weight of photographic history pounded in my mind. Images by James Nachtwey, Tom Stoddart, Don McCullin, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Walker Evans, Paul Strand and Edward Weston trampled across my retina. “This and that.” I finally squeaked. “Bits and bobs.” I added. Kostas finished the cut in silence.

I was a Judas to my my craft! The denial of photography felt biblical. Was I still a photographer if I hadn’t taken a photograph for a few weeks? Would I become one again if I went home and grabbed one of my three Olympus cameras and went out to photograph for the day - was it that simple?

I’d always believed I’d been a photographer since the age of 14, when I took myself away from the distractions of the amusement arcades and flirty girls to patrol the local nature reserve snapping herons, coots and butterflies with my second hand Pentax ME Super.

It’s not the first wobble I’ve had and won’t be the last. I’ve had my photography career interrupted by necessary stints working in a canteen, as a builders mate and jet-washing patios (a word of advice, don’t wear flip-flops when jet washing patios or try to clean your feet with the high pressure jet wash).

In a time when everyone’s supposed to be a photographer, I don’t see a deluge of outstanding new photographers. Great photographs have to be grafted for and photography has it’s own unique attributes that have to be mastered: composition, content, colour (or lack of), lighting and perspective. It’s a ridiculous way to live, trying to make sense of the world and how you feel about it, through a rectangle or square. 

Photography can be a deeply unsatisfying pursuit and profession but a compulsive and all-consuming one. Renowned photographers, often without question, spend days away from their loved ones, spending money they may not have, in situations they may not like, hunting that moment when everything, for a fraction of a second, makes sense - when all problems and doubts are blown away and the only thing that matters, is they got the shot.

If you don’t understand that, then you’re probably not a photographer, no matter how many social networking followers you have or how many expensive cameras and gadgets are hanging around your neck. It’s a state of mind, you just know.

This article was first published in Amatuer Photographe magazine March 2019.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Documenting The Fallout

In 1984, anxiety over nuclear war was at it peak. American President Ronald Regan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars), intended to protect the United States from attack by ballistic strategic nuclear weapons, was in development. The landmark television film Threads, about the effects of a nuclear holocaust on the working class in the British city of Sheffield and the eventual long-term effects of nuclear war on civilisation, disturbed the nation. The British New Wave band, Ultravox, released Dancing With Tears In My Eyes, their second single from their seventh studio album Lament. The music video depicts band frontman, Midge Ure, driving home after discovering that a nuclear explosion is imminent. The video ends with the power plant exploding. I was twelve years old and I was terrified.

And then in happened. At 1:23:58 AM (Moscow time) on 26th April 1986, a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred at the No. 4 nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine. The reactor exploded and burned, spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere. It was the worst nuclear accident in history. My family and I would gather round the television to watch the news and progress reports of the radioactive cloud. I would sit at the front so no one would see the tears in my eyes.

The first photograph to be taken of the reactor 14 hours after the explosion is accredited to Igor Kostin. Shot from the first helicopter to fly over the disaster zone to evaluate radiation levels, the view is fuzzy due to radiation, which may explain why the photograph wasn’t taken too close to the window. Radiation experts later learnt that at 200 metres above the reactor, levels reached 1500 rems (a measurement of the biological effect of absorbed radiation), despite the fact that their counters did not exceed 500 rems. Working for the Novosti Press Agency, Kostin was one of only a handful of photographers in the world to take pictures of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (he died in a car crash in 2015 aged 78). In subsequent years there would be many more photographers. The area has an undeniable lure.

In 2002, a week before my wedding, I was on assignment for Men’s Health magazine in Minsk, the capital city of Belarus. I was shooting a reportage on male life expectancy - the men die nearly 12 years before the women. About 70% of the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster landed in Belarus, heavily contaminating a quarter of the country, a fifth of its agricultural land and affecting at least 7 million (of around 10 million) people. Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant lay less than 4 miles from the border of Belarus. The journalist and I locked eyes, we both agreed we had to go and scrambled on to a train heading 300 kilometres south.

©Peter Dench

The town we alighted at was primitive. Patched-up cars were filled with fuel from plastic containers. Home made alcohol was swigged from plastic containers. Plates of mushroom stroganoff were devoured feverishly from plastic plates (in an area where radiation was prevalent, it seemed absurd to eat a soil based fungus, however delicious a food source). We hired a local to drive us to the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ), an area of approximately 2,600 km2 immediately surrounding the nuclear power plant where radioactive contamination from nuclear fallout is highest and public access and inhabitation are restricted. Belarus has more territory classed as a ‘dead zone’ as a result of the catastrophe than Ukraine. The country has two exclusion zones: one in the south near the Ukrainian border, and one in the east near the Russian border. The drive took us through a damp flatland of marshes, meadows, forest, abandoned farms and the occasional horse drawn cart. The soldiers at the red fence that marked the edge of the CEZ, posed for the camera with guard dogs and smiles. If we’d felt inclined to pass through, for a few rubles, we think they’d have let us. 

©Peter Dench

There were less than twenty people on the flight home. Myself, the journalist and a dozen ‘children of Chernobyl’ with their carers. The children had suffered terribly, their bodies evidently handicapped. The air stewards had to lift the drinks trolley over giant rucks in the airplane carpet. Faded wallpaper peeled from around the windows. 'What type of aircraft is this?' we asked. 'Second hand Aeroflot,' was the reply. Aeroflot didn’t have the best safety reputation; a second-hand Aeroflot jangled our nerves. 'What have you to drink?' we asked. 'One bottle of red wine. One bottle of white wine.' The journalist grabbed the bottle of red. I grabbed the bottle of white. Neither of us grabbed a glass. Landing in London, I didn’t feel the immediate urge to photograph in the CEZ.

Photographer David McMillan felt the urge. He first photographed in the CEZ in 1994. His 22nd visit was in November 2018 and he’s not finished. "I’m still intrigued by the place and I’ll go as long as I feel I’m still getting new photographs. If I can’t add anything to what I’ve done, it will be time to stop." says David. "The scope of Chernobyl is broad enough to make me want to return. I haven’t found an alternative as compelling." he adds. 200 photographs are published across 262 pages in his poignant hardback book, Growth and Decay: Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, (Steidl 2019). "Until relatively recently, when I started using a digital camera, I used 6x7 cm and 4x5 inch film cameras. There were no precautions taken to protect the film from radiation and no consequences from my lack of precautions." The images are mostly devoid of people but full of presence. They’re poetic, have beauty and depth and light. Perhaps an echo of his early training as a painter? "I trained as a painter but I think it’s all about a person’s sensibility - how one reacts to the world and what one finds significant. But then there’s also one’s colour sense and use of the frame and all the formal choices that transforms the world into a picture. It’s probably small, incremental things that makes a photograph resonate."

Luke Massey’s main reason to photograph the CEZ was to see how nature is reclaiming it. The naturalist, conservationist, educator, film maker and photographer spent 12 days in 2016 laying camera traps and searching for wildlife. He didn’t fail, witnessing among others: hares, moose, mice, red deer, bees, black grouse, black woodpeckers, great white egrets, raccoon dogs, beavers, cranes, ospreys, kestrels and most unexpectedly, a wolf. "I didn't get to photograph it as I was clambering across some very uneven ground on the edge of one of Chernobyl's cooling ponds when I looked up to see my first ever wolf exploding from the reeds below me and running in to the forest. Pretty epic to not only see a wolf, but in the CEZ too!" You could edit Luke’s photographs to make the CEZ appear a wild Eden. His images of the rare and endangered Przewalski’s horse, now thriving in the CEZ, are divine. "My work in the CEZ was to show it for what it is, not what has been written about it in the past, of mutant animals, where wildlife is thriving without the interference of humans."

It was human error that contributed to the disaster and human interference is returning. Ukrainian photographer Andrey Lomakin was born in 1974 and raised in Pripyat. On April 26 1986 he went to school as usual. "My family survived but it affected our health. My mum, sister and I were evacuated on April 27th. Dad stayed in Pripyat - he worked at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as shift manager of one of the reactors. We were reunited in October 1986 in Kiev." For Andrey, the CEZ is all about the people. "I cannot imagine Pripyat without people. On the first trip I could not take pictures at all. Just watched. I wanted to see at least some life. Even if it was just tourists." Andrey, who can assemble an AK-47 with his eyes closed, a legacy of the Communist regime he hates has returned home five or six times to shoot his reportage, 'Visitors'. He only travels for a day or so at a time as health doesn’t allow any longer. The sharp, crisp black and white photographs show people taking pictures and posing for pictures and looking at pictures on their phone next to a statue of Lenin. "This is normal. That's the way people are. But it’s still hard for me to accept. Tourists will never understand the pain of the inhabitants of Pripyat. As a child, I could not imagine that this ordinary city would become famous to the whole world this way.”

If you’re planning a trip to photograph the CEZ, here’s some advice about what you need and need to do:

“Good shoes with thick soles. There’s a lot of broken glass and debris on the floors.” David

“Do it properly, get a good guide and the correct permits.” Luke

“You need to plan a story that you will shoot, not a visit. There is a huge amount of photos from the Chernobyl zone. And they are all the same. Do not be afraid of radiation, you will not be taken to dangerous places. But stay away from large metal structures. And take some batteries for the camera.” Andrey

As I flick back through the work of David, Luke and Andrey, I’m reminded of the impactful words of Gerd Ludwig, photographer of the book, The Long Shadow of Chernobyl: (Edition Lammerhuber, 2014). “As engaged photographers, we often report about human tragedies in the face of disaster, and take our cameras to uncharted areas with the understanding that our explorations are not without personal risk. We do this out of a deep commitment to important stories told on behalf of otherwise voiceless victims.”
A version of this feature first appeared in Amateur Photographer magazine 3rd August 2019