The hotel receptionist hands me my room key, I glance down to check the number and smirk to myself at the black embossed numerals on the fob; it would appear that I am to inhabit room 101… Ironically in room 101 itself; the toilet seat is missing; the aircon blows on hot and to use the “fire escape”* one must first lose all the bones in one’s body due to the rather large wardrobe blocking the door. I’m tired, I don’t care. Welcome to the (newly finished) Good People Home Hotel!**
So… I’ve spent three months abroad, spread over two trips, and an immeasurable amount of research and editing time in the UK working on a personal project in Iraq. To start off with the end result was going to be a photo essay on the ongoing issues surrounding land mines in the country. Instead it will likely turn into a long term project documenting the situation meaning more visits and possibly some trudging up mountains. It’s all quite exciting really.
Of the same ilk as Baz Lurhman’s 1999 cult single Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) I present to you a completely random list (yes, I really do like lists) of things I’ve learnt so far (that are very much omitted from the Lonely Planet Guide to Iraq***)
- If you interview a man who says that he, and his fellow villagers, cleared the mines around their own village: do not be surprised if, when walking out to the interviewee’s cattle herd through agricultural land, your guide asks you to walk “Only on the stones, please.”
- Nothing can prepare you for the moment you walk off a plane in to a blizzard and temperatures of -5˚c in a country where on various trips you’ve only ever experienced blazing sunlight and temperatures of 40-50˚c. This can be compounded by your barber in the UK (who originates from the city you’re flying to) who says, “Oh it’ll be about 25˚c out there now.”
- Eating a sandwich watching a knife fight, is not the same as watching TV while you eat. †
- Despite quite stringent gun laws, the thing that you think may be an AK47 barrel poking from underneath a blanket in the corner of the room, more than likely IS an AK47 barrel poking from beneath the corner of a room. This suspicion may also be backed up by a small child, who has become an instant friend after seeing his picture on the rear of your camera, pointing and saying “Avtomat!” with big grin on his face.
- Never trust the internet to research when national holidays are. Especially in a country where even your friends don’t fully know when the next holiday will take place. Sometimes you’ve just got to roll with the punches when dealing with a government that declares a holiday will take place tomorrow and put up with 50% of the trip being made up of days off.
- In a part of the country that actually benefited from the 2003 invasion, you will not win a disagreement with someone that says, “No, Tony Blair is a good man!” (see the al-Anfal campaign for further details).
- Do not eat Kurdish haggis. It is NOT Scottish haggis.
- If someone says that the thing on their plate is a testicle. It will be (and although chewy, actually doesn’t taste that bad).
- Watching The Smurfs movie in an Iraqi cinema is very surreal experience. ††
- If you try to put rubbish in a bin next to the house of the chief of the local secret police, even if it’s the bin you’re supposed to put rubbish in, you and the bin bag WILL get rather intimately searched by his security team. For this reason you should make sure there is nothing embarrassing in your rubbish. †††
- If you set up a remote to capture the destruction of cleared mines and you use a camera body you don’t mind being destroyed, saying this out loud (within earshot of the camera) will mean there is a high likelihood that it will cease to work (ON BOTH OCCASIONS) in some sort of twisted technological version of Murphy’s Law.
- Knowing how to wake up a taxi driver, asleep at the wheel, is an important skill; especially on winding mountain passes.
- It is not good news when having a few drinks at the top of another mountain and the only way down is in the car of the man next to you who’s imbibing copious amounts of beer and has a) Stated, “I drive better after a few drinks!” b) Informed you about the other week when he was drunk, drove off the road rolling his car down said mountain.
- No matter how you try, you just can’t read the paper when you visit the toilet.
* The fire escape consisted of a dodgy looking ladder, the strength of which I was definitely not in a hurry to try.
** I checked with a friend and this makes no sense in Kurdish either.
*** There really is A Rough Guide to Iraq available. It’s very much out of date and is only published as a PDF. Obviously it comes with all sorts of warnings. Hotels mentioned in the Rough Guide will put their prices up for foreigners even when the better hotel next door is cheaper.
† Apparently not a common past-time.
†† It may not stop the film being absolutely dire, but at least it wasn’t in 3D…
††† OK, just to clarify, I’m not suggesting you would be putting embarrassing rubbish into your bin bags. That would be an assumption. To be honest I’m not even sure what would constitute embarrassing rubbish; beyond possibly a bin bag filled only with tins of corned beef, spray cream cans, and a senile elderly relative peering up from the bottom saying “Do you want to see some baby pictures? He had a very small willy when he was two years old!” Some would suggest this would be very unlikely, but not having embarrassing rubbish is the equivalent of making sure one wears clean underpants in case one gets knocked over by a bus.
Wednesday saw the second of two rather large student demonstrations in London. The aim of both was to allow students to protest against cuts to the educational system and what is in essence a tripling of tuition fees.
In both cases the protests turned violent, with a minority of masked* types deciding to vandalize anything (nailed down or otherwise**). Obviously, one would think that this type of event has the potential to make for good photographic opportunities. The truth is, mostly…
Much like the G20 protests in April of last year at any one time there are only a few things going on. This time the majority of the focus was on a police van abandoned and marooned amid several thousand protesters, at the protest before everything was focussed on the front of Tory HQ and during the G20 protests we had the lone branch of RBS which was broken into and up. All ended up being the main illustrative images of each demonstration.
In some ways this should make things easy, you watch where the crowd goes and head that way, and to some extent it is. All three occasions saw anything of any importance shrouded by photographers, all jostling for position, all looking for a decisive moment. And with the exception of G20/RBS incident, I was one of them.
At the G20 protests, when I was actually working for myself to bolster my portfolio for an approach to an agency, I decided to keep away from the bank and concentrate on the people behind. Sadly that’s not the case when you have someone on the phone asking for pictures of the van*** and are acutely aware that you need to file the pictures ASAP†.
The problem with having one main thing happening within a crowd at any one time is that everyone with a camera will also gravitate to that place and it’s not just the other photographers there to make a buck and put food on the table. Because these events are scheduled, coordinated and published in advance scores of people with every kind of camera will be present, competing with everyone else to see what’s going on at the front of the huddle.
It’s a discussion that seems to crop up time and time again, when I’m around other photographers, and it’s probably the hardest part about shooting a protest. When you look around you see everything from the latest Canon or Nikon model to ancient 35mm types and even the odd medium format Hassleblad†† or Mamiya. So much so that after watching the news reports friends ask, “Aren’t you tired of this yet?“, “But surely there were hundreds of other photographers there? So what’s the point?“
To the former the reply is always no, but to the second there’s always the a counter argument. Yes, there are multitudes of people present at these things, toting an eclectic mix of cameras, but not all are going to do much with their images. Yes you get the pack who are filing pictures all over the place (foreign and domestic), but they seem to make up the minority.
The rest are made up of, bystanders with cameras, hobbiests†††, who want something interesting to throw up on flickr and even protesters with cameras (especially at the last two student protests, student papers need pictures too). Sometimes they (especially those of the non filing variety) may get in the way (hey, we all manage to get stuck in front of someone else’s lens from time to time) and sometimes they may be rude (again 99% of the time the non filing types), but sod it, they have a right to be there as well, regardless of the inevitable police cordon it’s a public place and a little bit of a word (or sometimes lots of loud words) usually gets the trick done.
Even though you know you’re creating good wholesome imagesª you know that every picture you take is also captured simultaneously by several cameras at once, you just have to hope that the shutter firing next to you belongs to someone who isn’t going to be trying to file to somewhere. Anyway, I think the point of this post (yes, there’s supposed be a point… honestly!) is, that as a photographer, just as it is with the protesters, it’s very hard not to get caught up in the moment and swarm to the one thing you see going on. But maybe that’s something we should avoid more? OK, so get a few pictures of the thing the picture monkeyªª on the other end of the phone wants, but after that bugger off and look for something else away from the swarm. For example, what Telegraph photographer Eddie Mulholland did (via @kate_day – who is well worth following on Twitter), it just shows, I should look back to what I did on April 1st 2009 and remember…
Many thanks to Simon Pollock (aka @gtvone) for allowing me to use his image of the G20 Royal Bank of Scotland incident. His blog/site in all it’s glory can be found at http://www.gtvone.com go, click links.
The Inevitable extra bits…
*Wearing G20 ‘anarchist’ style face coverings is now de rigueur amongst students. I expect to turn up to my next lecture and see half the class rendered unrecognisable after festooning the lower half of their faces with shemaghs, scarves and rags.
** – Oddly, I actually asked one of the protesters why he threw a missile that fell short of the police line and hit another demonstrator on the head, the answer was, “I dunno, I’m not sure.” Before he grinned stupidly and wandered off into the crowd.
*** – And mainly the bits without swearwords graffitied on the sides… The Daily Mail will obviously not be printing “FUCK POLICE” within it’s pages… doesn’t go down well with the readership. Sadly, students have potty mouths and just about everything involved a rude word of some description…
† – I didn’t… Which became a problem.
†† – There was someone at the G20 demonstration with a Hassleblad and light meter doing portraits of the protesters.
††† - Sometimes of the type who want to try and get something published… just for a credit, but that’s a discussion for another day.
ª – Like wholemeal bread and rather good for you, but actually needed to pay for the wholesome bread you need to buy to fuel your body to make wholesome images… it’s the circle of life don’t ya’ know!
ªª – I quote: “If you don’t get a pix (sic) of that van all graffiti’d up I will never speak to you again” Sorry bud, I know you don’t like being tied to a desk in the warm when it’s bloody freezing outside!
This post was written during two brief periods of procrastination and as such it’s only fair I bung in some music, today from the absolutely brilliant OK Go:
Since I’ve been reading interesting posts up from various sources this week I thought I’d share the love!
Series of articles from the Guardian written by reporter Gaith Abdul-Ahad ‘embedded’ with the Taliban in Afghanistan:
A follow up blog post by David Campbell over on his blog:
And finally, an opinion piece by Patrick Cockburn of the Independent:
The above don’t necessarily reflect any point of view I may have, I just found them all an interesting read!
Yup, two posts in quick succession, this would be a bit of procrastination…
Had a bit of a random ‘early o’clock’ wander along Oxford Street the other day. Kind of a quick exploration of street photography. something I guess I rarely do, I’ve no problem with confrontational situations, my past and present point to that. But there’s something feels slightly wrong and intrusive about poking my camera into the face of someone that isn’t part of a story; I think it shows when you look at how close I actually got to my subjects. Beyond that, it was still fun (as all photography is bound to be).
The following images are a selection from the results.
Still have a post on the student protests to publish, but you’ll have to wait for that one…