Monday, January 6, 2014

Ode to the Isle of Thanet: A Street Photography Slideshow

For most of the winter of 2012/13 I lived on the Isle of Thanet, in Margate to be exact. Due to the cold, I wasn't out on the street that much, but I worked when I was able and when I was in the right mental space. Thanet is a beautiful area, but down on its luck as "they" say. Decaying infrastructure, increasingly scarce social and other services and a general lack of energy, will or attention on the part of government, all have led to the area being very depressed. So, a lovely part of the world, full of people who deserve better is being allowed to decay. This slideshow of images made while I was there is dedicated to all the people of Thanet, including my son who lives there too.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fingers poised? Look before you leap - I mean click

His Eyes Doing the Talking (Perth Australia January 2014)

I wonder, have you heard about the columnist at a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia who was ‘let go’ because she sent some ‘controversial’ messages via Twitter while at a TV awards night? No? Well I’m not surprised: it’s hardly Earth shattering, and it isn’t really important on any number of levels if you ask me.
What I want to talk about here is a follow up opinion piece I read a few days later. In it the commentator, while putting the responsibility squarely on the offending Twitterer, writes, ‘... the availability and immediacy of the technology intrude upon the normal choices and judgments which people make.’ He adds: services like Twitter, Facebook, emails and the rest, ‘bring into the public realm many things that would previously remain private.’

Of course, he’s right there isn’t he? You read all sorts of stuff out there in cyberland and it ‘ain’t all pretty, as the saying goes. This guy goes on to say that we are at ‘an evolutionary disjunct between old notions of the public and private spheres and the means of communications now widely available.’

Therefore it seems to follow that it’s not your fault if you blurt out something that you might later regret or that is offensive or libellous or otherwise insensitive. Or is it? Well, of course it is. You, like me and everyone else, are responsible for what we say and do whether it’s online or in person or on a postcard!

Anyway, the writer of this opinion piece then tells a story about US president Franklin Roosevelt. As we all know Roosevelt had polio and used a wheelchair. However, for public speeches he stood with ‘discreet assistance’. Apparently, one day he actually fell over and lay sprawled and helpless in front of the assembled Washington press corp. Of the dozens of photographers there guess how many took a photo? Go on guess.

Not one. That’s right: no photographer thought it was relevant; they all—each and every one of those hungry ‘vultures’—judged that it was a personal matter and therefore not to be reported. You can bet that if a world leader fell in front of the cameras today it would be in your inbox, on YouTube and plastered all over the Internet before he or she was back on his or her feet.

You know me: I'm always on the street, making photographs of the people I encounter there, making a record of all those little moments that usually just pass us by. But, as I point my camera towards a person or group or "something about to happen", I sometimes hesitate before pressing the shutter button. Why? Well because there isn't a photo to make. Simple really when you say it like that. It could be that what I thought I saw isn't there. Or perhaps I notice something that would set the person up for ridicule or make them look bad. Sometimes it's just that I go kind of "blah": nothing there for my camera.

So, I don't press the shutter.  And it is moments like these that remind me: those Washington photographers made the same choice: there was no photograph, so no need to press the shutter.

As you have probably worked out already, I have always thought that if there was one tool that shouted ‘availability and immediacy’ it’s the camera. This isn’t a new idea: it’s about the decisive moment and all that. Photography 101 you might say. And, of course, it's a foundation stone of my chosen art of street photography.

So how come it’s so different with the buttons on your mouse or your mobile? Especially as you have to type a message into the keypad before you get to send it. If you ask me that’s a lot less immediate than the camera shutter. What I’m getting at here in my usual long-winded fashion is this: if those photographers could make the decision in the heat of the moment to not press the button, why do we need to make excuses for us ‘modern types’ with our keyboards and mobile keypads and whatever?

Of course, the answer is we don’t. As I said, we are all responsible for what we say and do. I suppose a good motto to follow in our online or other communications—and in life generally— would be ‘Do No Harm’. Or at least, do as little harm as possible.

Now, I am not saying here that I’ve never said anything on Twitter, or on Facebook or any other place, that was hurtful or insensitive or judgemental or in other ways just not good to say. Mind you, I think that on the whole I pretty much stick to my little motto, Do No Harm (it’s not mine of course, I just adopted it).

And for those times when I have failed, I apologise very sincerely. I do not make excuses; I can choose to press send or click OK or whatever after I’ve typed a message (note my italics please), just as I can choose to press my camera’s shutter button.

Let’s not have any more of this ‘evolutionary disjunct’ stuff. Though, when you think about it, we actually are at a lot of those type of places right now, don’t you think? It’s just that I would rather not use this particular disjunct (I love this word) as an excuse to be sloppy when it comes to how I communicate with friends and strangers alike in cyberspace, or in terrestrial space, or even in my head!

I originally posted this article on my now almost defunct blog, Dharma Dreaming a couple of years ago (I'm thinking of reviving it, but can't say for sure just yet). I have only made little changes to the original, and I reckon it's probably even more relevant and timely now than it was then. And it has a lot to do with my life as a street photographer, and as a human being!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Georgia: Recording life on the streets of Perth as it happens

Allow me to introduce you to Georgia, who I met while working on the street in downtown Perth on New Years Day.
I had just made a photograph of another person, one I wouldn't normally ever make, but for some reason I was drawn to the man who, clearly down on his luck, was sleeping along the wall of an upmarket store, Just as I made the photo, a passerby yelled that I should get permission before photographing someone in the street. He added: "How would you like it if someone took your photo in that condition?".
Instantly I knew he was right. Not about the permission, but the second bit.  I very rarely if ever photograph people who are homeless or otherwise vulnerable. In fact, it's a strong rule I always follow (I plan to write about this subject in some depth soon).  But, what happened next, gave me the answer to why I'd been drawn to photograph that poor man as he slept.
"Don't listen to them. You have to take those photos." This voice reached me just as I was walking away thinking about what had just happened. I turned and came face to face with Georgia. She told me that she was writing what she saw on the street. She kind of implied that this was what she was meant to be doing, that "the guy upstairs" wanted her to make a record.
"I'm thinking of calling it Hell on Earth after all the things I've seen," she told me. We chatted for a while about the importance of bearing witness to life as it passes us by. Georgia went on to tell me that she just goes where, and does what, she feels she is meant to do. Like the time she took in a young woman with a small baby she found alone in the city sitting with bags of belongings, but with nowhere to go.
"I took her home, fed her and the baby. She stayed a while, then the Salvos found her a place to live." Georgia reckons that her God had put her in the right place at the right time to help.
So, what had Georgia meant when she shouted to me 'You have to take those photos"? I've been giving this a lot of thought the last couple of days. First, she was telling me that I have to bear witness. Of course for many of us in the arts, bearing witness is oftentimes the very reason we do what we do. I know it is for me. As I say, I hardly ever photograph homeless people; but on that day I did. I suppose you could say that I was bearing witness; I was acknowledging my brother human, while most if not all simply passed by without even a glance or thought, much less any kind of empathy.
But, and it's a big but for me, I have never felt adequate to the task of properly bearing witness for the more vulnerable people I encounter in the streets. Besides, way too many of those I like to call "so-called" street photographers (the ones who simply play at the genre guided by their egos and a "hunting" mentality), snap away at homeless people, at people down on their luck, because they are "easy targets". I despise this approach and steer away from it as much as I can.
So, why me? Why is it me who has to "take those photos"? Well this hasn't been so easy for me to answer despite my deep reflection. Then, literally five minutes ago as I took a "Facebook break" from writing this, I saw a short post shared on my timeline. The quote reads:
Sometimes the detour is the path.
Perhaps. At least one thing can be said: Taking the detour I did when I photographed the homeless man sleeping, led me to meeting Georgia, who is bearing witness, who is seeing life go by in all its shades and making a record of what she sees and hears. That's why I've called this portrait of her, Georgia, the Life Writer.