Archive for the ‘Photo Issues’ Category

Strong Women

Monday, June 19th, 2017

I’m not sure how much it reflects on me and the entirely sexist world I was brought up in back in the days of the fifties. Even in the sixties when I became politically involved, many still regarded the role of women to be to darn the socks of the revolutionary man. Though I hope I didn’t share that view, but I’m sure there are still traces of that prehistoric past in my make-up. And it still surprises me a little how many of those that I photograph and admire as political activists are women. I’ve not made any accurate census, but so many of those who first come to mind are women, and many of my favourite images are of women.

But perhaps I just like women. They often seen far more sensible than men. Photographing people isn’t just a technical thing, and it works better at least for me when there is a certain rapport or at least empathy. But perhaps I’m straying into sensitive territory and will find gender police of various sympathies swooping down on me talons outstretched (surely a sexist metaphor but what metaphors aren’t.)

On Saturday 24th September last I photographed three protests which were or seemed to be dominated by women (and the fourth, Release the Craigavon Two would perhaps also at least seem that way from my pictures.) Focus E15 started as a group of unmarried mothers in a council funded hostel under threat of eviction who got together and decided to fight to be rehoused in London, and were celebrating three years working together on a campaign which has widened into one fighting for proper housing for all and an end to social cleansing, particularly in their own entirely Labour borough of Newham, but also more widely.

The celebration took place on the wide pavement at Stratford Broadway where they hold a weekly street stall, and there was music and dancing and it was one of the few protests at which I’ve been handed champagne, which still tasted pretty good from a plastic cup. Almost all of the speakers at the rally were women, and so were most of those taking part.

From Stratford I made my way to Brixton, where Ritzy Cinema workers, men and women, were striking for a living wage. There were rather more women than men visible, and rather more of the men seemed to be hiding behind some large masks.  The picture above was a slight disappointment and would have been better, but as I was carefully framing it, another photographer walked into the frame at the right hand side, spoiling the composition. I’ve cropped him out but had to lose a little more too, and though I still like the picture, I can’t look at it without thinking of the one that I just missed.

Of course I did photograph the men too, and there are one or two decent pictures starring them, but in general it is those with women in the lead that are most interesting. Judge for yourself at The Ritzy’s Back for a Living Wage.

My final protest of the day was at the Polish Embassy, called by Polish Feminists against the introduction of new laws outlawing abortion  proposed for Poland  in solidarity with the 5th annual March for Choice in Ireland against the strict anti-abortion laws there condemned by the UN as ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’.

The colours of the head dress of this woman speaking are of course those of the Polish flag, and I carefully positioned myself to get the Polish eagle on the Embassy frontage  to her right. It wasn’t possible to get enough depth of field for this to be sharp, but I stopped down as much as I could under the lighting conditions.

This was a ‘black protest’ with many of those taking part dressed in black, and the black doors of the embassy made a good background, though careful exposure and a little help in post-processing made the figures stand out better. I wasn’t ‘directing’ the woman holding up this octagonal placard, and it took a little patience and luck to get the framing I wanted.  And although the verticals were quite close to vertical as I took them, a little massaging in Lightroom was needed for the final image. Some agencies would not approve, but this was what I saw and tried to achieve when I was taking the picture and I’ve no qualms about using a little electronic help in this way.

Of course I took other pictures, but given the nature of the protest they too were mainly of women. You can see some of them at Polish Women’s ‘Black Protest for Choice’.
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Deeper, Stronger…

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017

I’ve not before come across David du Chemin, but his 3 Shortcuts to Deeper, Stronger Images expresses well many of my own thoughts and teaching about photography.

Its worth reading what he has to say about them, but the 3 shortcuts are:

Study Photographs Not Cameras.
Focus Your Attention, Not Just Your Lens.
Expose Your Soul, Not Just Your Sensor.

I feel happy about spilling the beans here, because although they give you the gist, you really need to go and read his piece to fully understand what he means.

Of course it isn’t novel. Strikingly similar to what I tried to deliver to students in my 30 or so years of teaching – and of course many others. And if you want to know more you can also read duChemin’s new book,  The Soul of the Camera ,which has its own web site where you can download some sample material.

I do have a few minor quibbles, not least that cameras don’t have souls, though some of mine definitely do have a perverse character of their own – and one that changes the camera settings when I’m not looking. I also wonder how someone can stretch out what is basically a fairly simple idea into around 25 chapters and 250 pages.  But what I’ve seen is good advice and could certainly be useful to some, though others might find it better to just get out there and do it.

This, I find, is only one of a number of books that duChemin has written, one or two of which have titles that do a little suggest the kind of learning tricks approach he denigrates. But rather than buy his books you might also be better off buying and studying those of the great masters of photography. And if your bookshelf is already stuffed with well-thumbed copies of the works off Edward Weston, Walker Evans, Gene Smith, Cartier-Bresson and the rest you probably don’t need this one!

The Strange Case of Souvid Datta

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

A few days ago I posted about the controversy over the use of a picture of child prostitution being used to promote a Magnum photo contest on the web site Lensculture, brought to my notice in a post on the Duckrabbit blog.

Since then more has appeared about the photographer concerned, with Petapixel posting Photographer Souvid Datta Appears to Have Plagiarized Mary Ellen Mark, a story which came to light after Shreya Bhat of Bangalore, India read a report in Petapixel, who like me had picked up and commented on the original post from Duckrabbit.

Bhat is a great fan of photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and also very familiar with the subject matter and in 2014 was a social worker in the Indian red-light district of Sonagachi. So she had a great interest when in 2014 the Huffington Post published a feature on Dattas’s higly acclaimed series documenting sexual violence among sex workers and children in that Indian red light district, ‘In the Shadows of Kolkata‘. She noticed that one of the women in a picture had actually been taken not from life but from an image published in Mark’s fine 1978 book ‘Falkland Road‘ with the caption ‘Transvestites getting dressed in a courtyard. Falkland Road, Bombay, India.’

After reading the Petapixel post Bhat contacted them with this astonishing revelation – and the pictures in their post leave no room for doubt. It remains to be seen if this is an isolated case of cheating, or if once people across the world of photography start to look critically at Souvid Datta’s pictures they will come up with more instances. Petapixel describe it as plagiarism but I think a better term might be fraud. If you attempt to look at Souvid Datta’s web site at http://souvid.org/, you now only get the message ‘This page is password protected‘ rather than being able to access his pictures. ‘In the Shadows of Kolkata’ was available on the site last year, and the removal of this and his other pictures is highly suspicious. Petapixel say his Facebook and Twitter were also taken down after they contacted him asking for a response to the allegation.

As Petapixel states, Datta’s work has gained many prestigious awards over the years, but this puts all of them in doubt. Did he cheat in those other images? Will more cases like this emerge? It reminds me very much of drug-taking in athletics and cycling, and while it would probably not be sensible to call for awards other than those which include plagiarised images to be removed, perhaps we should consider ‘life-time bans’ for abusers in photography too.

Already PetaPixel has posted an update, linking to a Facebook post by documentary photographer Daniele Volpe, about two of his pictures being posted by Datta as his own.

FURTHER UPDATE

The latest development – published as I was finishing writing the above is that Datta has admitted his guilt in an interview with Olivier Laurent on Time Lightbox, and trying to explain his actions. Frankly I think he is in the wrong job. Datta was educated at Harrow School, one of the UK’s two top public schools, going on to study at University College London (UCL) and spending 3 months as an intern at Magnum. None of these venerable institutions seemed to have trained him in basic honesty and integrity.

Lensculture & Child Rape

Monday, May 1st, 2017

I’ve long been a supporter of Lensculture, which has done a great deal to popularise and support photography and educated photographers in the history and scope of the medium over the years and its editor Jim Casper is a friend I’ve met on many occasions. It’s sad to hear of the incredible mistake made by the site in promoting the Magnum Photography Awards, and I’m sad at feeling I have to write this. And I’m finding it hard to do so.

Although I often look at the site and see its Facebook posts I didn’t see this myself, as I long decided that competitions with high entry fees are something of a racket – and I get frequent mailings from a number of sources about them and simply delete or scroll quickly down when I see them.

This Magnum contest is a cut above some of the others which are pure money-making exercises for those who run them, but with fees of $20 for a single photo still seem to me something of an expensive vanity for most who enter, though for $50 or $60 (which covers 5 single photos or a set of up to 10 respectively) you do get a submission review which offers “constructive feedback on your photography plus recommendations for improving your practice” from “over 100 of the top photo editors, educators, portfolio reviewers, curators, and other industry professionals“. You can see some of these on the web site and decide if you think they are worth the money – you still have some days to make an entry – until May 16th. You can also get a free download of over 60 pages of advice from Magnum photographers; it’s title ‘Wear Good Shoes‘ is advice which I gave for free in a magazine interview many years ago.

Looking through a few of the reviews I feel they might be of some use to some photographers. But if you are a photographer the best advice is to get to know other photographers, and you will probably get a greater insight from passing your pictures around with them in the pub or café. You’ll certainly get far more (though at greater expense) from going to a good workshop if you can find one – I was fortunate to be able to attend a number with Paul Hill and Ray Moore and others at Paul’s Derbyshire Photographers’ Place in the 1970s.

Perhaps I was fortunate to get to know a number of good photographers fairly early in my life as a photographer, and we set up regular meetings where we would bring our current work and discuss it – something we could do rather more openly and honestly because we were friends than it’s possible to do in commercial setting such as this competition or portfolio reviews. A few photographers couldn’t take it and went off in a huff when people called a spade a spade (or sometimes an effing shovel) but they were generally those whose work was weakest and the exercise certainly helped those of us who stayed to improve. Of course I didn’t always agree with the criticism of my own work, but I tried to understand it and often went away determined to create more work to prove my critics wrong.

I was fortunate too that many established photographers were then happy to spend a few minutes looking through the work of me and other young(ish) photographers and give me their opinions, and gallery owners and editors too, without having to book and pay for portfolio reviews.   But while some like me regret the commercialisation that has taken place in photography and the relations between photographers (and its partly because of the sheer number of people who think of themselves as photographers now, particularly with the coming of digital) this isn’t that which the controversy against Lensculture & Magnum over the contest is about.

Quite simply, what has shocked many photographers is the use of a photograph of child rape to advertise the contest – and a picture in which the victim of the crime is clearly recognisable. It’s a picture – and a project that raises severe ethical problems, and one which certainly should not have been used in this context. It has now been taken down – apparently after the photographer who took it complained, saying he specifically told LensCulture not to use it.

You can read more about it in a post by Benjamin Chesterton on his Duckrabbit blog. I hadn’t read this blog post when I found the story – along with outraged comments by some photographers I admire – on a private Facebook group. I share that outrage.

Magnum Capa

Friday, April 21st, 2017

As regular readers will know, I’ve followed with interest the long series of investigative articles by A D Coleman and his team of co-workers ferreting out the truth about Robert Capa’s D-Day pictures. There are after all few more iconic photographic images than Capa’s grainy and blurred US soldier in the surf of Omaha beach, and the story surrounding it must thus be of great interest in photographic history.

So while to learn about the whole nest of stories that have been deliberately built up to hide the facts came as something as a shock (even though its central story of the darkroom mishap had never been believable) it was good that at last we were getting to the true story. And while it isn’t always one that reflects well on Capa, it doesn’t alter my assessment of him as a photographer.

The latest instalment, Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (32), does include a mention of my post here, A Capa Controversy, and describes it as “thoughtful, balanced, and closely attentive to the specifics.”

Mostly it looks at the recent re-publication on the Magnum site of D-Day and the Omaha Beach landings, a chapter from the 2004 book ‘Magnum Stories‘, edited by Chris Boot, which begins in a bad way with the sub-head declaration “The only photographer landing with the first wave on Omaha Beach, Robert Capa’s iconic photographs provide a unique documentation of the event“.

It’s hard to make a great deal of sense out of some of the introduction to a lengthy quotation from Capa’s own ‘Slightly Out of Focus‘ story of D-Day, although it does remind us that Capa’s book was written “with film rights in mind” and that on its rear cover Capa tells readers that he has allowed himself to go “slightly beyond and slightly this side” of the truth. His was a radically different approach to Gene Smith’s ‘Let Truth be the Prejudice’.

Of course it’s impossible to know exactly what happened on D-Day, though there are some other relevant eye-witness accounts, but I think that we can be sure that “my friend Larry, the Irish padre of the regiment, who could swear better than any amateur” and the “Irish priest and the Jewish doctor” are simply a part of the Hollywood treatment rather than Omaha beach, along with much of the rest – and that Capa took only ten or eleven of the 106 pictures he mentions.

My other complaint about the Magnum chapter is that by mixing pictures taken by Capa before leaving for France and with others from after he left Omaha beach along with half a dozen of the 10 images it attempts to mislead readers as to his actual work on D-Day, though careful attention to the captions would probably clarify things for the careful reader.

As Coleman says, Capa remains an important asset to Magnum, who offer “second- or third-generation derivatives” of two of his D-Day pictures at $3500 each which he describes as “nothing more than posh, high-priced posters.” Copyright normally extends only to 70 years after the artists death, so unless Magnum have some way to extend their monopoly, others could market such prints from 2024.

Of course it goes beyond this. Capa was the driving force behind the foundation of Magnum and something of a deity so far as the organisation is concerned. I’m not quite sure what “he created a narrative myth for Magnum too that has helped propel it over more than half a century” means, if anything, but I think it is more religious dogma than rational thought.

Something completely different?

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Most new cameras that are announced are pretty much the same as our old ones, though the marketing guys would like us all to get all excited about a few more mega-pixels or slightly faster autofocus and other minor improvements, many of which we will never use. And often we fall for it and spend our cash on the latest model, hoping it will in some way revolutionize our picture-making.

Of course all these improvements do add up over time. The Nikon D810 I now use is significantly better in so many ways than my first digital SLR, the D100 in 2002, with its small, dim, viewfinder and its 6Mp sensor. But by the time they brought out the D200 or D300, Nikon had more or less sorted out the major issues, though they tempted me with full frame in 2008 and I upgraded to the D700 the following year. Nikon had actually said for some years that we didn’t need to have full-frame for digital cameras, and essentially they were correct for pretty much all I do – the main advantage is a little more light into the viewfinder, though often I work in DX format as I like being able to view outside the frame – an advantage the Nikon marketing department keep quiet about.

Incidentally, this is a feature that works better on the D810 (and 800) than on the D750. With the D750 you see the viewfinder frame, but it is easier to ignore, especially in the heat of the moment when what you see gets exciting, and I’ve several times framed and taken what I think would have been a great image, only to find later that I’d actually lost half of it and only taken the central part. With the D810 there is some esoteric combination of custom settings (don’t ask me – search in your manual) which allows you to grey out the non-image area of the viewfinder. You can still see the area outside the picture, but it’s very obvious it isn’t a part of the picture.

But there haven’t really been any great advances. I’d still be using the D700 if it hadn’t gone legs up after a little over 520,000 exposures (not bad as it was only rated for 150,000.) It does have a few other minor faults, but it’s still sitting on my desk waiting for me to bother to get an estimate for repair, though I’m convinced it will be beyond economic – along with my 16-35mm f4 lens.

Over the years I’ve read about several new cameras that claimed to be truly revolutionary, and the latest is the Light L16. When I first read about it around a year ago I was frankly a disbeliever, and certainly not convinced enough to risk the thousand dollars or so to back the campaign and get an early camera. The video on its web site explains the concept, with 16 lenses with focal length equivalents of 28 to 150mm, using 10 of them each time you take a picture and digitally combining their images. They promise this will give ‘DLSR quality’ equivalent to using 28 to 150mm lenses from a package the size of a rather fat smartphone.

The camera will produce 52Mp images and will enable you to choose focus and depth of field after taking the picture. I remain more than a little sceptical, but cameras should soon be going out to those who pre-ordered and are expected be on sale to the rest of us towards the end of the year. If it lives up to their expectations, they may be correct in their claim it will be the most significant advance in camera technology since the first Leica. Just a shame they don’t have a wide-angle version!

Police Station Occupied

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Sometimes I look at the pictures long after an event and realise with a start that I forgot or failed to see what would have been an obvious picture, and in this case, when Focus E15 briefly occupied a police station, it was a good, clear image using the sign above the door which read ‘POLICE’. It is visible in a number of pictures, but clearly I hadn’t managed to take one that really made good use of it.

Of course it may not have been that I hadn’t wanted to or even tried. Sometimes I can see possibilities, but they don’t happen spontaneously – and it goes completely against my principles to set things up. Looking through the 45 or so images on-line in Focus E15 Occupy Police Station it seemed fairly clear that I was aware of the sign and I wondered why I hadn’t managed to make better use of it.

So I went back to my backup of the day’s work on my NAS, a Drobo 5N that sits to my right, and went through the pictures for the day – around 330 of them. So many have that sign in them that it was clear I was trying hard to include it, but didn’t manage to do so well enough to for  those pictures to make the web page. People just didn’t stand and set up things in the right place. Perhaps the best attempt was the image above, though it might be better had I taken it in portrait format – like this:

but I can see why I chose not to use this, as it definitely isn’t a flattering angle for Jasmin Stone. And while I don’t set out to flatter I try to present people well.

I can also see other images in the set that are on-line that I’ve framed to get that word in, notably where a police officer comes to talk with the protesters:

but at the critical moment, where the expression on the officer’s face and those of the protesters are at their most interesting, one of the protesters waves a Focus E15 flag in front of that word.  I can almost feel myself shouting ‘CUT!’ and saying ‘OK, lets run that scene again, and this time can we keep the effing flag to the left of the doorway’, but this isn’t a film set, and I’m not a director.

It is there in my favourite frame from the set, but rather in the background, but I’m fairly sure that would be why I was standing where I was to photograph Jasmin speaking. It was slightly tricky to take pictures, as it was a busy road and the pavement isn’t particularly wide, and there was a steady stream of people walking past as the annual Newham show was taking place in the park down the road.

Of course this wasn’t the only thing to photograph. This was the pavement outside and the occupation was taking place up above, not quite inside the building, but on the balconies.  Here’s just one picture of that, with one of the ‘occupiers’ holding up a ‘selfie stick’ which E15 produced so that people could pose with Robin Wales, the feudal Labour Mayor of Newham who features in their posters as ‘Robin the Poor’ and who had to apologise for his arrogant and rude behaviour to Focus E15 at a previous ‘Mayor’s Newham Show’ – not a previous Mayor’s show, but a previous show – the Labour Party machine in Newham, essentially a one-party state – runs the voting to ensure that no-one but Robin from the party can stand as mayor.

I’ve written a longer than usual article about the afternoon and Focus E15’s campaign at  Focus E15 Occupy Police Station where you can view my selection of pictures from the afternoon.
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More Brexit

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

It remains difficult to see anything positive coming out of our vote to leave Europe, and it seems to have brought out a number of the worst sides of parts of the British public, with an increase in racist attacks and bullying. Another Europe is Possible hosted a rally opposite Downing St against this climate of fear and hatred after the Brexit vote, calling for an end to scapegoating of migrants and Islamophobia.

Its long seemed irrational to me to allow the free movement of capital but to restrict the movement of people; if the market is a good enough mechanism for one it should be for all, though perhaps we might be better with a certain amount of planning and intervention in both. But certainly we don’t need the kind of draconian measures that the UK currently takes against migrants in general and refugees and asylum seekers in particular. The contribution that migration has made both economically, in maintaining essential services and in broadening our culture during my lifetime has been enormous and a genuinely free press would welcome and praise it – and politicians would then not be able to stir up the kind or racist and xenophobic responses that were behind many of the votes to leave Europe.

I arrived as Anna from Movement for Justice was speaking about the terrible injustice and maltreatment of asylum seekers in our detention prisons such as Yarls Wood, and photographed her framed by MfJ posters; a still image doesn’t tell us what anyone was saying, but the posters make MfJ’s arguments clear.

Of course we can’t ignore the Brexit vote, close though it was, but it is still worth fighting for the kind of Brexit it is going to be, keeping up the pressure on Theresa May (and her possible successors) not to throw out the baby with the bathwater as they currently seem determined to do.

Another of the speakers as Syrian activist Muzna Al-Naib, urging the UK to take action over the atrocities of the Assad regime and to offer real support to the Syrian people and to offer refuge to more than the small handful of Syrian refugees that have already managed to come to the UK –  largely despite the efforts of our government.  Her’s was a message that called for love and for unity of peoples and again a banner on the barrier she was speaking behind seemed appropriate.

The Europe, Free Movement and Migrants protest ended with many of those present leaving to go to the Green Park Brexit Picnic,  and while many marched there, I took the tube. The picnic had been advertised as an opportunity for people to come together and debate the future under Brexit, though the great majority of those attending were obviously still feeling upset and cheated over the result of the vote obtained by an essentially dishonest campaign.

Those at the picnic were splitting up in to small groups to debate various aspects of the future as I arrived , some very small like that above, which seemed to me to be seceding into a small island of Europe in the sea of grass, and others considerably larger, circles with perhaps 20 or 30 or 40 people, and they were getting down to some sensible, organised and at times fairly heated discussions.

One group stood out, Brexit supporters who had come to counter the protest with their own ‘picnic for democracy’ organised by Spiked magazine calling for ‘Article 50’ to be invoked ‘NOW!’ They stood out in several ways, not least the number of empty cans and wine bottles and it was clearly in that respect a rather better party than the rest. I started to photograph them and got sworn at and threatened by one or two people who recognised me from right-wing protests I had photographed, but then they found a new outlet for aggression as the march from Downing St arrived with posters against Brexit and were joined by people wearing t-shirts with the message ‘Spread Love Not Fear’ and calling for ‘Hugs for Immigrants’ rather than hate.

There was some angry name-calling and posturing, but people from both groups came across and tried to calm things down, and stopped what had seemed an inevitable fight from developing.  The shouting had attracted the TV crews covering the event, and there was then a little largely good-natured jostling to get greater coverage from the cameras.

Having taken my pictures, I moved a few yards away and sat down to eat my own rather late sandwich lunch, after which as things seemed to have calmed down I decided to leave to cover another event.

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Hackney Women against D V

Monday, April 10th, 2017


It was the first event of East End Sisters Uncut and a protest against domestic violence and the failure of Hackney Council to take the problem seriously – 60% of women who desperately need a refuge are turned away as there is no room for them.

I didn’t know any of the women who were there are the start and felt just a little awkward photographing at a women-only event, though I don’t think I really needed to be. But I like to blend in and photograph form inside the protest, and it just felt a little uncomfortable. Though I think it was entirely within my naturally very shy mind. People sometimes laugh when I admit I find it very hard to take photographs, but it’s true. And some days, some events, I never quite manage to overcome that shyness. There is always an initial barrier I have to overcome, and there have even been a few rare occasions on bad days when I’ve turned around and walked away rather than take pictures.

Once the protest really started things were easier, though I did have some arguments with the two women who sere security guards on the steps of Hackney Town Hall. These look and feel to me like a public place, but they were being policed officiously as private property, and although they were not in use and empty they insisted I move off from them. Hackney hire out parts of the town hall for weddings and they use the steps for wedding photographs, but there was no wedding there at the time- and I would have kept out of the way had one emerged.

I argued a bit, and took a few pictures before moving off them, but perhaps I should have stuck up more for my rights. But the protesters had moved off them when they were told they had to, and though I was annoyed, it was more important to photograph the protest rather than make my own protest.

And of course I wanted to get in closer to the people who were taking part in the protest and take their pictures. It’s always good to get images from different viewpoints, and I like ot keep my eyes open for places where I can look down on events, but the really good pictures usually come from getting down and getting close.

Although the steps were fine so far as I was concerned, increasingly I do have problems with climbing up on anything less solid. Where I used to climb on top of all sorts of street furniture to photograph from a higher viewpoint, I now have to chose more carefully, looking for places that are really solid and where I have something firm to hang on to. Stand on a wall or a box without support and I begin to shake uncontrollably, getting blurry images and in danger of falling. I think I’ve always had slight problems with balance, but in recent years it has got far worse.

It didn’t look as if much was likely to happen, everything was very quiet and ordered and there seemed to be a number of speeches coming, and I decided I could leave to go to other events that day.

This was something of a mistake, as not long after I left things rather kicked off. The protest took to the steps I’d been ordered off earlier, and set of flares and protested noisily before going off to occupy a flat nearby in their protest against the failure of Hackney Council to take seriously the need to provide refuges for women who have to leave homes because of domestic violence. They set up a flat as a refuge and kept it going for several weeks before they were evicted.

I should have talked to some of those organising the protest and found out what was happening, but the event was running rather later than I’d hoped and I was keen to be elsewhere. I should learn, as too often I try to do too much.
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Awesome!

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

There is, according to the Everypixel Aesthetics Test, a 99.6% chance that my picture uploaded to their test page below is awesome:

Well, actually it isn’t, just a rather ordinary image, typical of many that I take. Publishable? Yes, and fairly nicely done, but certainly not awesome. Here it is rather larger so you can judge for yourself:

It’s clear, leaves no doubt about what it is – spells out in the banner who the group is carrying it and why they are protesting.  And they are obviously marching down a street in London as I caerfully took it with ‘Big Ben’ in the background. You can see too that it is part of a larger demonstration as there is another banner to the right. Clearly the people are actually walking along a road – except for one in the middle – and you see the wheels of her wheelchair.  It’s competent, even precise (if rather hurriedly processed)  but awesome? No.

I tried out the 14 images currently on the front page of my website My London Diary, on the test page, and the results were interesting, with this image getting the highest score, though there were others that ran it close.  And one that I rather like that only scored around 25%.

Clearly the algorithm used to set the scores needs some more work, and I doubt it will ever be able to spot the awesome, though it might well be able to weed out the truly hopeless. And when I hear some picture editors get sent 50,000 images a day that could certainly be useful.  There is a disclaimer on the page, which admits it isn’t really – despite the name – makeing aesthetic judgements at all. It states:

Surprised by the result? This service doesn’t measure the coolness or beauty of a person or any object in a photo. It cares only about technical parts like brightness, contrast, noise and so on. Service doesn’t dedicate for historical photos, illustrations or 3D visualizations.

What is surprising – and perhaps even at the currrent basic level useful is the ability to generate keywords from the visual content. This is perhaps a fairly simple image, and some of the others I tried were a little more impressive, but here is the algorithm-generated list for the image above:

Protest, People, Marching, Flag, Parade, Men, Cultures, Outdoors, Editorial, Protestor, Street, Sign,

It isn’t 100% accurate – but then neither are my own hand-crafted keywords for images, particularly since time constraints often mean I’ll synchronise a list across a whole set of images, and only fine-tune them for individual images if I have time later.  Obviously this list doesn’t have any of the more specific keywords I’d find essential, but only because the agency I place most pictures with doesn’t make sensible use of captions for searching its image library.

Writing good captions is essential – and the old rules still hold, though so many images on the web and on many sites selling images are full of images are lacking. But captions for photographs to go in an online library are not the same as captions that will be used when an image is printed in a newspaper, magazine or book.

One of the old and good rules about captions in printed material is not to state the obvious. But to be computer searchable image captions need to include the obvious as they will generally be read without the image when searches are conducted. And while you may send a batch of images and feel you don’t need to mention some piece of information on every one, you have to remember that searchers – machine and human – are often going to see just a single one of them.

The 5 W’s remain essential:

  • What
  • Who
  • Where
  • When
  • Why

and sometimes there is a How worth adding.

Something like Everypixel or an enhanced version of it, taken together with software that could parse captions to generate keywords from them could make assigning keywords unnecessary. Actually computing power is now such that there is no reason not to search captions and give them greater significance in searches. After all, any editor likely to want to use that picture above would be looking for a generic ‘Protest’  but would be interested in a protest about ‘disability rights’ or the UN and UK disagrement or the organisation named on the banner or some other specific. And those would be in the caption but are not in Everypixel keywords.

Going further down the Everypixel web page we find that they actually – despite the disclaimer above – make the claim that their ‘Heartless algorithm‘ has  ‘learned to see the beauty of shoots in the same way as you do‘ because it has been trained using Artificial Intelligence techniques on a sample of images provided for them by ‘designers, editors and experienced stock photographers‘.  My short test on the site suggests to me that there is still a very long way to go.

I rather hope it does work, as they suggest it might be used for ‘intelligent image curation‘, giving high-scoring images a higer ranking in search results, and I think I would generally benefit from this. I’m often apalled at the poor quality images used by the press when I know that much better and more appropriate images by myself and others are available if only those resonsible for finding images had done a better search.

But I’m just a little worried about it being used to weed out low-scoring images. I suspect it would eliminate all of the most creative and unusual pictures along with the rubbish. It does give some scores in the 20% range to some of my favourite images.

But I’m pleased to say that sometimes I agree with the software!

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