A New City

Looking out of a window on the first day in a new city

For me visiting a new city follows something of a regular pattern. For the first few hours, I don’t like it, wherever it is. That’s pretty much a given. It could be the holiday destination of your dreams – I won’t like it. They could be scattering orchid petals in front of me on the street – I still won’t like it. Period.

I’m generally the trip organiser. I tell myself I do it under sufferance but in reality, it’s a control issue – I think something would get forgotten if I didn’t do it. So because I’ve arranged everything I have this performance anxiety thing going on. My wife won’t like it, the hotel’s going to be a roach infested pit and we’re going to get mugged – the usual stuff everyone worries about.

A woman waiting for fries in a Berlin fast food store

However, once that’s passed and it is generally only a few hours. Then fairly quickly after that, I want to live there. Not lock, stock, and barrel sell our house and move. Just live there for a while, three months seems ideal. Long enough to get to know the place.

My fantasy, which is fully developed by now, generally involves renting a small apartment. I like the idea of an apartment because it’s easy to maintain, there are no distractions from the work in hand. I don’t want to waste my time gardening or sweeping the yard. I’m going there to be an artist nothing else. Once settled I’d spend my time wandering the streets with my trusty camera documenting the life of everyday man. In the evening I drink red wine and eat at a pavement café.

That’s not so unusual, I hear you thinking, everyone does that, from time to time. But for me it’s not time-to-time it’s every time!

A woman working late at night seen through an open window

This fantasy doesn’t always end when I leave the city. When I got home from visiting Eugene, Oregon, I spent several hours trawling rental properties online. Deciding which one I was going to rent like I was actually going to do it. I like the view from that one, but it’s a long walk from the town, that’s no good, I tell myself.

I picture myself like W. Eugene Smith trying to record the whole of Pittsburgh.

One property consisted of a small cottage at the bottom of the owners garden. I developed the story I was going to tell them about why I was there. As long as there’s no gardening required that would be fine. I’m not going to have time for gardening.

Hands tending a plant through an open window

The latest object of my desire was Berlin. We visited last month and stayed in a great hotel in Neukölln. We loved it. The streets behind the hotel were jammed with suitable apartments, it was ideal. A new city to explore my imagination ran riot. There are lovely little bars and a really welcoming atmosphere. I don’t speak more than the very basics of German, but that’ll come, I told myself, once you’re living here, chatting to people every day.

A group in a bar watching a football game

Maybe this fantasising is the sign of some malcontent in my life as it is. Could it be I just have an overactive imagination? I’m going to Bristol for the weekend soon, so if you’re interested in the state of the rental market give me a few days and I’ll be the man to ask.

A woman waiting on a u-bahn platform.

Small town America: Port Orford, OR

A small church in Port Orford, OR

I have a great fondness for small town America. That eclectic mix of industry, commerce and residence rarely fails to entrance me. One of my longest-held ambitions is to take a few months out and complete a long-term documentary photography project in a small American town. I rather ambitiously see it as a scaled-down version of W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh project, with maybe slightly fewer than his 17,000 images.

We spent our holiday in Oregon last year and in a small echo of that ambition while there I tried to document the buildings along US Route 101 in the town of Port Orford.

documentary photography shot of unmarked building, Port Orford, OR

For those who are in a hurry to get somewhere, and who are not flying, US Route 101 has been superseded by Interstate 5, but at one time it was the route along America’s West coast. For 1,550 miles it runs near the mighty Pacific ocean.

….. a scaled-down version of W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh project …. slightly fewer than his 17,000 images

Even despite its inter-state scope when it runs through hundreds of small towns it becomes Main Street, the strip onto which stores open their doors. Onto its sidewalks churches open and schools empty, thousands of small General Stores, fast food restaurants and industry trades along its length. When you pull out of Coos Curry Supply in Port Orford it’s easy to forget you’re on ribbon of blacktop stretching from Port Angeles at the very top of Washington state, a wet two miles from the Canadian border, to Los Angeles in sunny Southern California.

documentary photography shot of Coos Curry Supply a hardware store in Port Orford, OR

On this trip I ran out of time in Port Orford, route 101 was pulling me ever northward, but I’m sure I’ll be back to both to Port Orford and hopefully for even longer to some, as yet, unknown small town at which I can point my lens.

documentary photography shot of Chevron gas station, Port Orford, OR

documentary photography shot of gas filling rig, Port Orford, OR

Criminal podcast: It looked like fire

Edward Crawford throwing a tear gas canister during Ferguson Protests

Edward Crawford returns a tear gas canister fired by police who were trying to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Four days earlier, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson. The killing ignited riots and unrest in the St. Louis area and across the nation. (Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch – August 13, 2014)

If you’re interested in photography it’s likely you know this photograph. What you may not know is the story of the people behind it; Edward Crawford, who’s throwing the tear gas canister and Robert Cohen, the photographer. The story is told in a recent episode of the excellent Criminal Podcast. If you enjoy good audio documentary I’d recommend Criminal.

This image is part of a series of photographs from the Ferguson riots shot for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography.

Congratulations to Robert Cohen and his colleagues.

 

Gravesend Street Portraits

I had a great couple of hour shooting some street portraits in Gravesend last Sunday. I took the opportunity to hand out some of my ‘We Are Gravesend’ flyers, hopefully I contacted with some interested participants.

If you’ve landed here after meeting me on Sunday please get in touch, I’d love you to take part in the project.

A portrait of a young couple, Steve & Adele, in Gravesend.

Steve & Adele

A portrait of Wendy on the street in Gravesend.

Wendy – who stopped even though she’d just finished her night shift

A portrait of a young woman, Isabel, in Gravesend.

Isabel

Thanks to everyone who took the time to stop.

We are Gravesend : Genevieve Jones from Sierra Leone

A portrait of Gravesend resident Genny JonesIt’s such a great feeling to have finally started my personal project about my home town, Gravesend, Kent. Yesterday I had the privilege of shooting and interviewing Genevieve ‘Genny’ Jones, an inspirational woman and one of the real life-bloods of our community. If there’s a community event in Gravesend it’s likely somewhere behind it will be Genny Jones – The Confident Queen.

Genny was born in Sierra Leone and is the first, but my intention is to photograph and interview at least one person from each of the nationalities in the borough. In 2011 that numbered 40, I have no idea how many there may be now but it will be interesting finding out.

If you live in Gravesend, were born outside the UK and are interested in taking part please get in touch. However I understand not everyone welcomes immigration, it has effected the lives of residents here as it has in many towns in the UK. As I write we are five days from a General Election and immigration has featured significantly in all of the debates. If you were born in Gravesend and have lived here all of your life you’ll have seen your town change significantly in the last 20 years. I’d love to meet you and hear your views.

You can read more about the project here.

Still riding the Inspiration Roller Coaster

I wrote in my last post how I was being inspired by the podcasts of documentary radio producers talking about their work, as much as by the work itself. I’m still riding that particular inspiration roller coaster and I’m enjoying it. Earlier this week I listened to an episode of How Sound which underlined everything I’d been thinking about the power of documentary radio.

Alix Spiegel came up through the caldron of good radio storytelling that is This American Life; I’m sure some of you may be getting just a little tired of my banging on about This American Life but if you’ve listened to even one of their programmes I hope you’ll understand my infatuation. In this episode of How Sound, called Love is a Battlefield, Alix talks about her interviewing technique, how she structures questions and the incredible amount of work she puts into her ‘pre-interview’, as she refers to it. What also astonished me was the length of the interviews, she says the average interview maybe 1.5 to 4 hours. At one point she says, “I don’t think I’ve ever done an interview that’s more than 5-6 hours”! While I was listening to the programme, and since, I’ve been wondering, aside from the inspiration, ‘how can what I’m learning be applied to documentary photography’. I’m still thinking about that one, I’ve always liked the idea of accompanying images with recorded sounds, it’s just such a tricky thing to present.

In a recent programme I heard a radio producer say (sorry, I can’t remember who) that they wanted to create moments in radio where you make the listener turn to look at the radio in disbelief. I had at least one of those moments when listening to Love is a Battlefield. You can listen to the interview, which includes clips of ‘Love is a battlefield’ on the How Sound website or the original This American Life programme on their website.

Alix’s latest project is Invisibilia.

Making Documentary Radio & Photography Inspiration

An old Roberts FM radioI have, I’m aware, a tendency to get a little obsessive about things I like. I’m also aware this may get ‘a little’ boring for those around me, as I preach on the subject of my latest obsession. Which, ironically, I realise is exactly what I’m about to do here. I can’t help it. I’m so convinced that you’ll join me at the heights of appreciation, as soon as you know about ‘the thing’, that you’ll forgive the pushing and cajoling that’s caused you to relent. The current ‘thing’ is radio, not just any sort of radio but that particular form of radio documentary for which the USA is most associated.

It all started with This American Life which is a radio programme and/or podcast depending where you live. Each episode is based around a theme with generally three or four stories loosely tied to that theme. If you’re intrigued let me recommend this classic episode – I’ve done it again, I’m like a pusher, there’s no hope! Twice a week I endure a fairly long commute (about three hours each way) so I’m always looking out for new things to listen to. I can’t remember when I first heard This American Life but since that first programme I’ve been hooked.

Towards the end of 2014 the producers of This American Life made a second show, Serial. As the name suggests, Serial, is a single story told over a number of episodes. It really is very good. It shot to the top of the podcast chart and stayed there for it’s entire run. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe This American Life wasn’t a one off, there could be other shows like this waiting to be discovered. Like a man possessed I googled, download and listened. I’ll give a brief list at the end but trust me I’ve listed to a whole load of podcasts.

Somewhere at the back of my mind a thought germinated, maybe I could make a radio documentary, nothing as ambitious as This American Life, but possibly something that could compliment my documentary photography. I started listening, not only to the documentaries themselves, but also podcasts that discussed the making of the programmes. It was at this point I experienced something I’d not been aware of experiencing before. The fact that one artistic form, in this case radio, could inspire another, in my case, photography. I’m often inspired by great artists or by film and television, but they’re all visual media. This was audio inspiring a visual medium. The shear enthusiasm of these people talking about the programmes they’re making, the research they’re doing, the craft of radio inspired me as much as any Rembrandt painting or Irving Penn photograph.

An old Roberts FM radio

Once I started researching making radio I realised we have something of disadvantage in the UK; which I can only put down to that behemoth of all things media, the BBC. Before you jump to your keyboards to complain let me reassure you, I’m a huge fan of the BBC and BBC radio in particular. I’ve said before, I’d happily pay the equivalent of the Television Licence for Radio 4 alone. (note for those not in the UK: the BBC is funded by a sort of television tax with the antiquated title of the ‘Television Licence’). The issue with the BBC in this context is that it does radio so well and so extensively. We don’t have the type of disparate local public radio they have the US, because there’s just no ‘need’ – well, that’s debatable but you take my point. The US model, as I understand, isn’t so well funded and so that encourages a large number of small regional and community stations. I’m not based in the US, so excuse me if I’ve missed represented the situation. However, the upshot is, the US has a range of conferences, organisations, courses and groups encouraging documentary radio we just don’t have here in the UK.

I have found a part-time course run at UCL, but it’s the only one I’ve found in the UK so far. I’ve listed some of the US based resources which may be of interest.

Resources
* This American Life have a page with lots of related links, and have produced a book How to Make Radio.
* Ira Glass : the driving force behind This American Life
* Transom.org : runs workshops, lots of ‘how to’ articles, gear guides etc.
* Radio Diaries : make documentaries and also produced The Teen Reporter handbook

Podcasts
* This American Life
* Serial : podcast by the makers of This American Life
* Howsound : podcast produced by Transom, which is a mix of great audio and behind the scenes interviews
* Tape : ‘a radio show about people who make radio’ – a subtitle which doesn’t really do it justice, inspiring people talking about making good radio
* State of the Re:Union : ‘Telling the story of America, one community at a time’. I only mean it as a compliment when I say, it’s very similar to This American Life.
* Radiolab : Multi-award winning podcast which covers a range of topics. Radiolab has a particular style which I didn’t get on with, but that probably says more about me than it. I know many people would have it at the top of their lists.
* Invisabilia : ‘A look at the world you can’t see. NPR’s Invisibilia – a new show about human behavior co-hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel.’

I’m going to add to this list over time. If you know of any UK training or resources I’d really appreciate you getting in touch.

Henk Wildschut – Calais, December 2012

Henk_Wildschut_shelter

From the series Shelter – Henk Wildschut

In this video Henk Wildschut revisits the site of the Calais camps he previously photographed in his series Shelter. It highlights the difficult circumstances of those waiting to get to across the English Channel, many risking life and limb to make the crossing. It vividly shows that the view of these migrants from either side of the channel is never clear-cut.

Henk Wildschut – Calais, December 2012 from ARTtube on Vimeo.

I’d urge you to look at Henk’s website. He has several interesting documentary projects in addition to Shelter. The series Food, details the work of hi-tech food production facilities, however food in question is that which the layperson would expect to be raised on a farm in something approaching fresh air. One of the most fascinating and at the same time depressing pieces of work I’ve seen in some time.

Laura Pannack: documentary photographer

This Rave Late video features Documentary and Editorial Photographer Laura Pannack talking about her experiences working on both commissions and personal projects.

It’s interesting to hear about how she instigates projects, preferring to concentrate on subjects she feels passionate about rather than those which may be more obviously commercial. She also talks about how she tries not to go into a project with a particular outcome in mind. The work could end up being an exhibition, a book, or maybe it’ll never see the light of day. I think this is an important lesson, if you’re so focussed on your predetermined outcome it can’t but influence the work and the way that you shoot it. You need to let the outcome be determined by the work, not the other way around.

As someone who often struggles to find ways into a project I was hoping she’d discuss a little more about the very early stages of a project. How she made an initial approach, how she got the subject to believe in the project as much as she did, that wasn’t really covered, never-the-less it makes very interesting viewing.

I just came across this second video. It’s a one-to-one interview, where Laura Pannack talks about her experiences starting as an assistant, then her first commission as photographer and what she looks for in a good assistant – useful viewing for any students out there. Look at the lighting on this one, there’s a wonderful moment where all you can see are her head and hands.