Archive for April, 2008

Light the Passion, Share the Dream, Free Tibet?

Monday, April 7th, 2008

Argyle Square Gardens is a relatively small park just south of Kings Cross, and I arrived just as the Tibetan Freedom Torch Relay was starting, to find it absolutely jam-packed, and it was a rather difficult job to make my way to the stage at the centre where there was a space for the press to work.

This too was pretty packed, and it wasn’t always possible to find a position from which one could photograph those appearing on stage adequately. Working in confined spaces is made considerably harder by the increasing trend of photographers to use backpacks rather than shoulder bags. There were also too many inexperienced photographers moving in front of others taking pictures without thinking about it. It’s something we all do occasionally by accident, but when working with others most try to avoid as much as possible. The worst offenders are people with camera phones or similar who think nothing about holding them out at arms length in front of other’s lenses.

Face in crowd

There were stirring speeches and some fine performances on stage, but mostly the interest there was for the ear rather than the eye, and it was the members of the audience that attracted the photographers’ attention. The exception came at the end of the event with a short drama depicting the treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese and the Tibetan response, followed by the introduction to the Tibetan Freedom Torch and Team Tibet.

Athletes of Tibetan origin living around the world want to compete for Tibet in the Olympic Games and formed a national Olympic committee and mad an application to the International Olympic Committee to compete in Beijing. They received no response to this and last month withdrew their application, demanding the IOC remove all Olympic Torch relay stops in Tibet, including those in the Tibetan areas now a part of Chinese provinces.

I’d stood on the pavement where the press were cleared to by police in Bloomsbury thinking that the Olympic slogan – Light the Passion, Share the Dream – really needed a third statement to seem complete, and ‘Free Tibet’ made the obvious one. That supplied by the Tibetan Freedom Torch organisation, ‘Freedom and Justice for Tibet’ is just too long to chant.

Team Tibet also appealed to athletes around the world to show solidarity with them by visible actions to protest about human rights abuses by China, and have started their own alternative Olympic torch relay. This began in Olympia, Greece on March 10th, the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising and has travelled across Europe, with ceremonies in Budapest, Rome, Munich and Edinburgh and London.

Tibetan Torch Relay

I photographed the torch as it was carried by one of the Drapchi nuns, imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese, on its route to St Pancras Station for the train to Paris – – like the other Olympic torch was going on to Paris. From there it will travel through North and South America and Asia, with its arrival in Tibet planned for the first day of the Beijing Olympics.

Text and more pictures on My London Diary

Chinese Torture Torch Relay Shames Olympic Ideals

Monday, April 7th, 2008

Four years ago I photographed the Olympic torch relay as it made its way through Brixton.

Brixton torch

At the time I described it as a rather sad non-event, which seemed to lack the kind of real community involvement that might have made it worthwhile. Unfortunately the whole Olympic movement has become so tied up with the commercial exploitation of sport that it is now impossible to see much evidence of the original ideals that led to its foundation.

It was an organised but low-key event, with little apparent security and I was able to stand only a couple of feet from Frank Bruno and as Davina McCall as they carried the torch, which had arrived by taxi and was accompanied by dancers as it made its way along the high street.

This is Davina and not Frank

Sunday was in contrast a giant security operation, with crowds of police, and a rather sinister phalanx of Chinese security men. I’d chosen the Bloomsbury leg as the torch was to have been carried there by the Chinese ambassador, but these ‘secret’ plans were altered at the last minute (she carried it instead in Chinatown) apparently as police decided it would be too dangerous. Instead the torch was smuggled through hidden inside a vehicle, with no sign of it visible to the waiting crowds. About all we got to see – apart from a huge security operation were some very silly looking dancing girls.

There were probably around a thousand demonstrators for human rights in Tibet on and around Great Russell Street, mainly penned behind barriers in Bedford Place, roughly ten yards back from the road. Probably about the same number of Chinese with pro-Olympic banners and flags were allowed to remain behind banners along the route. This seemed to me to be a very debatable taking of a particular side by the police.
British Museum
Police hold Free Tibet protesters outside the British Museum

Similarly when the motorcade had passed, the police attempted to detain the Tibet supporters, while allowing others to disperse freely. The crowd pushed through a double line of police close to the Montague Street junction but were held for some minutes further down the road before eventually being allowed to disperse down Coptic Street. Presumably this was a delaying tactic to stop them catching up with the Chinese ambassador in Chinatown.

By this time I’d decided it was probably too late – given the traffic disruption caused by the event and the likely crowds – to get to a worthwhile position in Whitehall (a BBC reporter who had been in Bloomsbury and hurried there had to rely on a man standing on a wall to tell her what was happening – less practical but not entirely unknown for a photographer, and at least one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s well-known pictures from India was taken by a man up a pole he handed his Leica. But I did walk down to see the crowds in Trafalgar Square, arriving just minutes after the relay had left. The square was still full of people, with crowds of Chinese arguing heatedly (if seldom very cogently) with mainly British human rights demonstrators, and the police in general seemed to be doing a decent job of preventing actual conflict, warning those who became overheated or abusive.

Police step in
Police try and cool down the argument

After a short while they decided to clear the square, and I got on a bus to go the Tibetan Freedom Torch Relay in Argyle Square. More pictures from the London Olympic Torch Relay on My London Diary as usual.

‘Bangladesh 1971’ at Autograph

Friday, April 4th, 2008

I was surprised not to see more people at the press view of ‘Bangladesh 1971‘ yesterday, at Autograph ABP‘s superb new premises that opened last year in Rivington Place in London’s now-trendy Shoreditch.

Women preparing for battle prior to the crackdown of 25th March 1971
Women preparing for battle prior to the crackdown of 25th March 1971
Photographer: Rashid Talukder, courtesy of Drik and Autograph ABP

Produced in partnership with Shahidul Alam and the Drik Picture Library (I was disappointed not to meet Shahidul, having corresponded with him over the years, and read his newsletters, but he was held up getting his visa for Croatia) this is in several ways an important show, and one that curators Mark Sealy of Autograph and Shahidul Alam can be proud of.

The show in the superb ground-floor gallery is of photographs, taken mainly by Bangladeshi photographers, of the events that led to independence for Bangladesh. One of the bitterest and bloodiest conflicts ever, many of the details are not widely known and still contested, and one of the aims of the curators was simply to provide a true account through photographs.

As they state, “For Bangladesh, ravaged by the war and subsequent political turmoil, it has been a difficult task to reconstruct its own history. It is only during the last few years that this important Bangladeshi photographic history has begun to emerge.” After showing here it is hoped that this exhibition will return to Bangladesh and become a part of a museum collection there. Although it is a show with considerable photographic interest, it is also one where the historical background is vital for fuller appreciation.

In an attempt to impose its will on the country the Pakistan army implemented the systematic killing of Bengali members of military forces, intellectuals and students, along with any other able-boded men they came across. Estimates of the number killed range from 200,000 to three millions (although an official Pakistan government investigation somehow arrived at a figure of only 26,000.) Similarly, estimates of the number of women raped during the atrocities cover range between 3000 and 400,000.

Over two million refugees fled from the army atrocities over the border to India. I also watched the film ‘Bangladesh 1971‘, part of the associated ‘Bangladesh 1971 Film Season‘ at nearby Rich Mix Cultural Centre, which includes powerful scenes from film made during the liberation struggle. We see refugees stepping through deep mud on their journey and of an old, near blind woman making her way by putting down a bamboo staff flat on the ground every few steps to find a route.

The 60 minute film, produced by a group at the Rainbow Film Society in Bethnal Green, describes the events in a clear time line, with footage of some of the key scenes also covered by the still photographs – and I think one or two of the featured photographers may be seen in it.

This show is politically important, and not just for Bangladesh, or the British Bangladeshi community- many of whom live in neighbouring Tower Hamlets – but also is very much relates to the British history of involvement in India since the days of ‘John Company‘, founded in 1600 “for the honour of the nation, the wealth of the peoples” of England, leading to over 300 years of colonial exploitation (in some respects little changed by independence in 1947.) The partition of India at independence was an unsatisfactory (and also extremely bloody) solution, and one which underlies the events of 1971.

US support of Pakistan, both through military aid and at the UN, also had disastrous consequences, and it would be good to see this show put on in the America. President Nixon even urged the Chinese (who also armed and supported Pakistan) to mobilise its forces on the Indian border, as well as sending the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal. Such support encouraged Pakistan to launch a ‘pre-emptive’ attack on India, and it was the failure of this followed by the rapid intervention of Indian forces against the Pakistan army in Bangladesh that brought the war for independence there to a speedy victory.

If I’ve spent too long on history and politics, it is because this show is in several respects an importantly political one (and if I have a criticism it would be that the exhibition needs to have more background material on display, including a time-line of the main events.)

But it is also an powerful show in terms of the actual photography – and also one that relates to the politics of photography. These are pictures taken by photographers from Bangladesh, several of whom deserve to be far more widely known. Although some of the images are important simply for what they show and in other respects are typical or even rather poor press images, there are also some outstanding pictures here. There are several very fine photographers among the dozen or so included here (and at least one excellent anonymous image) but the work of Rashid Talukder (b1939, India) and Abdul Hamid Raihan is outstanding.

Two Boys
Two boys stand among rocket bombs left by Pakistani army at the picnic corner in Jessore, Bangladesh. 11/12/1971
Photographer: Abdul Hamid Raihan, Courtesy of Drik and Autograph ABP

One picture by Raihan which stays in my mind is of a man standing in the ruins that were once his house. You can see it, along with another 32 of his pictures at Majority World, a “collaboration between The Drik Picture Library of Bangladesh and kijijiVision in the UK to champion the cause of indigenous photographers from the developing world and the global South.”

Talukder’s work is also striking, and in many cases not for the squeamish, with a startling picture of the discarded head of an intellectual along with bricks in a puddle, or the public bayoneting of a collaborator by guerillas. He also has a fine images of more peaceful events, including the release of a dove by Bangabandhu in 1973. Again you can see more of his work – over 90 images – on Majority World.

Drik, set up in 1989 by a small group including Shahidul Alam, its name the Sanskit for ‘vision,’ has pioneered the representation of photographers from the majority world, seeing it “vibrant source of human energy and a challenge to an exploitative global economic system.” It has very much challenged “western media hegemony“, promoting work from the majority world, running education programmes and setting up the first Asian photography festival, Chobi Mela.

The show – and the work of Drik – also raise questions about the future. We live in a rapidly changing world, one where India is fast becoming a leading power in the world economy, and also one where Bangladesh itself is under considerable threat from rising sea levels as a result of global warming.

The exhibition opens April 4 and runs until May 31, 2008. It is hoped it may also show elsewhere in the UK.

April 1

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Photo Safety Identity Checking Observation (PSICO) in EPUK’s April 1 post is great stuff – worth a look if you’ve not already seen it.

Met Police to relax London photography restrictions in pilot scheme is the headline, and the feature gives some pretty full details of the pilot scheme for tagging photographers – including the cost of licences and a map of the area covered. And of course, “There will nevertheless be full consultation with the NUJ and other interested parties once the scheme is up and running.”

Of course you can read several true stories related to police and photography on the web, including my own piece on Jeremy Dear’s one-person protest at New Scotland Yard last week.

Kingsnorth - Parliament Sq
‘No New Coal’ read the cooling towers in Parliament Square

I was too busy to read the April Fool post on 1 April, being out taking pictures of protests in London on ‘Fossil Fools Day’ against the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station and opencast mining in Merthyr Tydfil.


Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

One of the really great things about being a photographer is that it gets you places you wouldn’t otherwise go. So on Sunday I walked into the Gurdwara in the town I grew up up, and was welcomed as a guest and helped to photograph virtually everything that went on.

Hounslow Gurdwara
Rather different from when I used to walk along here to the pub at lunchtimes.

Sikhs are of course very generous people, and non-Sikhs are I think always welcomed. But the reception I got contrasted rather with the Catholic cathedral I’d entered earlier in the week to be greeted by notices stating ‘no photography‘ (and I’ve been escorted out of an Anglican cathedral for attempting to take pictures of an event there.)

Of course you have to behave with a certain sensitivity and follow the normal practice of removing your shoes and covering your head, and not to get in the way of the activities, but as with the Sikh wedding I photographed last year, you could otherwise photograph as you liked.

I was fortunate to meet when I arrived another photographer I knew who had also arrived to take pictures and already knew some of the people at the Gurdwara.

Vaisakhi Hounslow

I’ve previously photographed Vaisakhi processions on half a dozen or so occassions in other places, including a few times in Southall, in Slough and at East Ham, so I had a good idea what to expect, although each of these places observes things with some differences. But this was the first time I’d photographed the events inside the Gurdwara before the procession around the town.

Bell Road

I stayed with the procession for several hours as it made its way around the town, which I’ve visited only infrequently since my father moved away in the early 1970s. It was a fascinating day, and like the other similar processions I’ve photographed, extremely interesting. One real bonus is the free food available at various points along the route, though it hurts to have to turn down all the delicious sweets on offer.

Ouside the other Gurdwar in Martindale Road

You can also see pictures from some of the Vaisakhi processions I’ve photographed in previous years on My London Diary. There are processions in various towns over the next few weekends.

Arranged Images and Bossy Photographers

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

I don’t believe in the elaborate setting up of images of events. As a photojournalist I want to record and comment on what is happening, not to produce staged images.

Of course I’m not naive enough to think that me being there and taking pictures has no effect on the situation. Even were I to act like Cartier-Bresson, hiding his Leica and pouncing on his prey without warning – though in practice he didn’t always work like this either. Flies on the wall don’t take pictures, and even they get swatted at times. Like it or not, we are part of the action.

Actually I do rather like it most of the time. Like getting up close and rather personal, often deliberately using flash fill more to draw the subject’s attention than to alter the lighting, though it usually does that as well. And I do like to shoot several pictures, working through slight variations of my idea before I’m satisfied that if it works I’ve got it working. Of course many ideas still fail, but it’s seldom from want of trying.

So yes, I interact with people and they respond to me, but still in general they choose their responses, not me. Very occasionally I may ask someone to look at me, but usually I’m happy with their choice whether to look at me or away. Yesterday I did ask a couple of people to move placards so I could see things they were masking, occasionally I’ve tidied a branch or some grass out of a foreground, or removed some litter, but generally I don’t interfere with the subject.

At yesterdays Fossil Fuel’s Day demonstration in Parliament Square I watched with some annoyance as one photographer spent around 15 minutes rearranging the cooling towers, demonstrators and banner to produce a rather dull composition in front of Big Ben. Like the other photographers present I was annoyed because it stopped us getting on with taking pictures, and turned what was just getting interesting into a boringly formal situation.

KIngsnorth Demo in Parliament Sq

It’s something that often happens with photographers at events, who want to organise things for their own particular view of what a picture of the event should look like. Local press photographers are usually the worst offenders.

Then there are some press photographers who always want other photographers to stand further away so they can take shots with a longer lens. I use a 200mm quite often, but seldom to take things I could take with a 28mm. You can get too close to things – and sometimes circumstances force us to. At times I’ve been pushed into actual physical contact with the people I’m photographing, which makes it hard even with an extreme wide lens. But in general, Capa’s dictum “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is a good one.

KIngsnorth Demo in Parliament Sq
Later we were able to get back to taking pictures

Back to yesterday, none of us like being bossed around, whether when being posed and having pictures or if you are taking pictures. It was behaviour that showed a lack of respect for the subject and for the other photographers present, and also that undermines photography as a medium of record. It makes it PR photography rather than reporting.

Kingsnorth Demo in Parliament Sq

This is one area where journalistic practice in the UK is poor compared to that in the USA. Photographers working for the press here do things as a matter of course that would be firing matters there, failing to observe the clear boundary that they insist on between news and features.

It did mean that I – and others, including the person who had spent ten minutes arranging things and getting in anyone else’s way – didn’t get as good pictures as we might otherwise have done of the centrepiece of the protest – which was a shame.

More about the event and more pictures of course on My London Diary.