Archive for October, 2015

Victimised Workers

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Sandy Nicoll from SOAS Unison smiles at police who ask him to move outside Sotheby’s

This will be a rather shorter post than usual (I hear murmurs of “Thank goodness” from readers) because I’m rushing to leave for an emergency demonstration called because Sandy Nicholl, SOAS Unison’s branch secretary has just been suspended by the SOAS management on grounds of gross misconduct.

As in other such cases, the allegations made against him appear to be false and in any case would not be grounds for their action, but are simply victimisation for legitimate trade union activities that annoy the management.

The SOAS Unison banner which Sandy brought to the protest at Sotheby’s

On the evening of July 8th I was taking pictures of a protest over another case of victimisation, where Sotheby’s had effectively sacked four workers for taking part in a legal demonstration calling for proper sick pay, holiday and pensions arrangements. As so often, the union involved, the United Voices of the World, was supported in its protest by other trade unionists, including other victimised union reps such as Candy Udwin from the National Gallery and Alan Brown from Bromley Council, and, as at many other such protests, by Sandy Nicholl with the SOAS Unison banner.

Sandy and Candy Udwin behind the National Gallery strikers banner

Of course there were others giving their support to the UVW, notably Class War, who had brought their water pistols, megaphone and ‘We have found new homes for the rich‘ banner and infused the occasion with their usual theatricality. Others making their presence felt included some from Lewisham People Before Profits and OSE (Open School East) Artists.

But at the centre were the UVW, and their General Secretary Petross Elia, standing up to some fairly extreme harassment by police who had obviously been leaned on very heavily by Sotheby’s and their influential friends to try and counter the protest rather than – as they should – facilitate it.  It’s a line on which police almost always favour the rich and powerful.

Police surround Petross Elia, refusing to look at him as they push him away

One of the placards which you can find if you search the images at Sotheby’s 4 sacked for protesting I think sums things up nicely; the text reads ‘Your worker’s rights are bad for my business!!’  But they are rights enshrine in law and the law should prevail, and in this case, eventually after some further months of struggle it seems as if here and at the National Gallery it has.

Now I’m off to SOAS to see more people standing up for the law.


Budget Balls and More

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

The trouble with working on a Wednesday“, one military gentleman once remarked, “is that it cuts into two weekends“. I don’t like it either, as usually it’s the day of the week when I catch up with some of the little routine things that need doing regularly, none very important but a nuisance if I don’t do them. When you are a freelance and your work is largely driven by when other people decide to do things that you want to photograph you lose the kind of structure that most employment provides, and I find it good to have one fairly fixed point in the week.

Not that I don’t work on Wednesdays. I’m sitting here on a Wednesday writing this and later – after I’ve been out on a few errands in my local town centre – I’ll be putting in several hours of work on getting my web site closer to date, and perhaps also another few on getting images ready for my next book. But I’ll be ignoring the several possible events in my diary for today, interesting and possibly financially rewarding they might be, largely because it’s a Wednesday. If they had been on yesterday I would have gone.

It has to be something that I’m really interested in to get me out on a Wednesday, and on July 8th there were several such events taming place, some because it was Budget Day. Of course I wasn’t going to get out of bed to take the usual ritual picture of the Chancellor that the papers would almost certainly run (though a large squad of press photographers lined up for the non-event the chances of any particular image being used are fairly low) but quite a few people would be taking the day as an opportunity to protest at the various cuts in welfare spending that were bound to be announced.

Prominent among the protesters were of course DPAC, Disabled People Against Cuts, and I’d received a message from one of the organisers that as well as the widely advertised ‘Balls to the Budget’ protest at Downing St, they were (as usual) planning a little surprise later.

What makes the picture of Paula Peters of DPAC attempting to throw a football with a message into Downing St for me is the policeman standing watching, thumbs tucked behind his waistcoat, standing in a row of pink and orange balloons and balls. Of course her message didn’t reach the gates into Downing St, though a number of others did manage to get kicked or thrown into that high security zone.

It isn’t really a picture that fits the 35mm format frame and would be better cropped a tiny bit at left and quite a lot at the right. Sometimes I do crop images before filing them, but often I’ll leave them un-cropped, knowing that too many editors have an apparently irresistible urge to desecrate images by cropping; if I crop to perfection they will then crop to destruction.

D700, 16-35mm at 16mm, 1/400 f10 ISO 640

The little surprise turned out to be a 23 metre (75 foot sounds much bigger and better) long banner which they ‘dropped’, hanging on tightly to it over the Albert Embankment wall facing the Houses of Parliament with the message ‘#Balls2TheBudget #DPAC’ before bringing it up to join the other DPAC protesters, some in wheelchairs who had be then marched from Downing St to block Westminster Bridge.

It stretched all the way across the road and it was difficult to get a clear view of it for the buses it blocked and the protesters and other people taking pictures particularly those using their phones. Though I welcomed the cyclist who rode up to it at speed  before jumping off his bike just before it to give me the picture above.

The picture would perhaps have been better with a slower shutter speed to give a little blur as it was still rotating, but was able to nicely frame both it, the larger wheel of the London Eye and the banner. It was nice to have something a little different, and I had very little time to make the image before the cyclist lowered his bike. More pictures at DPAC blocks Westminster Bridge.

Paula Peters and Boadicea

As protesters left Westminster Bridge they were led towards Parliament Square by DPAC’s Paula Peters on her mobility scooter, and as she came up to the statue of Boadicea – also in her chariot – I made a number of attempts to show the two of them together. I think this was the best, with Paula’s gesture echoing that of the statue in the top left. Boadicea probably burnt the town where I now live but was eventually defeated by the Romans. Paula’s chariot as yet lacks the scythes.

As the pictures in DPAC Parliament Square Budget Day protest show, the protest continued, for a while blocking traffic in Parliament Square. The police are faced with something of a dilemma by the protests by people in wheelchairs, realising the terribly bad publicity they would get by using the kind of tactics they use against other protesters. So while they may fairly forcibly drag away ambulant supporters, those in wheelchairs – at least while the press are around – are generally treated with rather more care.

At this protest they had to hire a special vehicle which took quite a while to arrive to transport DPAC’s Andy Greene, locking down his motorised wheelchair with great care. Unlike police vans, it had large windows, and I was able (despite a little harassment by other officers) to photograph through them. They also took away pensioner Terry Hutt in the large and otherwise rather empty van. Two others arrested had left earlier in a more normal van. By the time I arrived at the police station in Savile Row an hour or so later, Andy had already been released, unusually fast as the police usually seem to prefer to hold people for long enough to release them in the early morning after most transport for them to get home has stopped as a little punishment even if they can’t find anything to charge them with.

DPAC’s was not the only protest in Parliament Square, with people from several current industrial disputes in London – at the National Gallery and council workers from Barnet and Bromley – coming together for a Joint Strikers Budget Day Rally, and the usual Wednesday lunchtime Save Shaker Aamer weekly vigil who were confronted by an unusually large number of police lines up along the length of the pavement.

Their persistence in calling for the release of Shaker and for him to be returned to be with his family in Battersea seems to have eventually been succesful, though as I write he is still held there. Obama has given the required notice of his release and he could have been on a plane last Sunday, but the authorities at Guanantamo apparently couldn’t handle both that and a visit by three US Congressmen. Quite what has been holding it up since then I don’t know, but I hope it won’t now be long before he is home.

This wasn’t the end of my work on that Wednesday, but I’ve got jobs to do, so I’ll continue another day.

Dartford to Greenhithe (part 3)

Monday, October 26th, 2015

The mouth of the River Darent is a pretty empty area, emphasized by the wide-angle lens. Across the Darent is  the Darent Industrial Park, mainly hidden behind earth embankments, on the northern edge of the Crayford Marshes. Across the Thames are the Aveling Marshes and Purfleet. Behind me as I took the picture were the Dartford marshes, mostly drained farmland, and Long Reach stretches away to the right out of picture.

Mouth of the River Darent,        © 2003, Peter Marshall

The view from the other bank of the river mouth is more interesting, as this picture I took in January 2003, shortly after I first got a serious digital camera, the Nikon D100 shows.

Here at Long Reacg was a desolate location used for London’s smallpox and fever hospitals, at first on hospital ships moored in Long Reach and in tents close to these, then also in the more permanent buildings of Long Reach Hospital and Orchard Hospital built in 1901-2. A little further inland, Joyce Green Hospital with almost a thousand beds was built in 1903, making a total of over 2000 beds for smallpox victims in the area and the ships were sold off. All of the hospital buildings are now gone, virtually without trace.

Instead in the distance we now see Littlebrook Power Station. The first of four power stations opened here in in 1939, using coal brought by rail, but later this and the other power stations on the site were oil-fired. Littlebrook D replaced the earlier stations in 1981 and only ceased operation in March 2015.  Climate Camp came here as well as Kingsnorth a few miles downstream in 2009, but I was in Edinburgh and missed it.

Past the power station you can see in the distance the Dartford Bridge (Queen Elizabeth II Bridge) which opened in 1991 and although not itself part of the motorway connects the two ends of the M25 which come to the banks of the river, along with the two Dartford tunnels. Bicycles are unfortunately not allowed on the bridge or I would probably have been up there taking pictures. You have to use a free transfer service, provided I think by Land Rover, but I’ve never done so. Before the power station is a sewage works, not visible from the distance, though very noticeable by its smell when you get closer. And a little inland is a shooting range, the sounds from which, along with a slightly more distant moto-cross circuit accompanied us for the next couple of miles.

British Beech discharges oil at Littlebrook, September 1985

The panorama was stitched from four exposures in portrait format using the Fuji 10-24mm (15-36mm eq) zoom and has a horizontal angle of view of around 148 degrees. I haven’t quite got the power station chimney vertical yet. There was as you can see plenty of blue sky and those sun-hats were pretty necessary, though I wasn’t wearing one – my hair is still fairly long and thick enough to give protection.

Close to the bridge on the opposite bank at Purfleet, the daily Cobelfret ferry to Zeebrugge was preparing to leave, and we stopped close to the bridge to photograph it going under, as well as admiring a rather nice cloud formation.

Even in this relatively confined river, the ferry was still going at quite a lick, and was soon under and away. We could see it for a long time as it went past Grays and turned towards Tilbury.

By now I was getting rather tired. It wasn’t a long walk but the hot sun virtually without any shade was wearing and I hardly stopped to take any photographs as we went past Crossways and the Freightliner Terminal and on to the station at Greenhithe, and most of those that I did I soon deleted.

Pictures from the walk are at Darent Valley Path & Thames.


Dartford to Greenhithe (part 2)

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Because Dartford Creek was a navigation (used at least since Roman times, it was improved by an Act of Parliament in 1840, with work completed in 1844) bridges across it had to allow for the passage of the vessels using it, presumably in its heydays Thames sailing barges. At this point there was a lifting bridge, but by 1985 the bridge itself had disappeared.  It doesn’t look a great deal different now, though perhaps a little harder to see as the vegetation on the banks has grown considerably.  The riverside path itself has been considerably upgraded and there are more fences to keep people away from the banks, and the brick building close to the bridge replaced by an undecorated large modern shed.

The pipe bridge looks a post-war construction, and once I think linked parts of the pharmaceutical works on both sides of the river; now on the west is a new housing estate, and little sign of anything to the east. But even at the date it was built, a high clearance was deemed essential, though sailing barges had probably given way to diesel.

By the footpath now are signs about the activities of the Friends of Dartford and Crayford Creek, and a little further on at Dartford Lock we came across one of them, working away at the vegetation on the bank. There was a hot sun and he was sweating and happy to stop for a few minutes and tell us about the navigation and the work of the friends – and told us to look out later for a yacht which was to try and enter the river from the Thames in a couple of hours on the rising tide.

Next to where he was working a narrow boat was moored. This year apparently saw the first boats to come up above the lock since 2006 and the first to be moored overnight for 40 years. Thanks to the ‘Friends’ the lock has been made more usable, with a stretch of over 200 ft of quayside cleared to allow mooring.  The port has silted up considerably over the years, and become covered with grass and weeds in places – according to the link there are now “mud banks over amost 80% of the total port area to heights varying from half a meter to a meter and a half.” and the stream at low tide as little as six inches deep. The port used to handle boats with a draught of one metre, and Dartford lock was a barrier to retain water above it to maintain a minimum depth of around 0.6 metres.

Back in 1985, the lock with its single gate appeared to be still in reasonable condition, possibly even capable of working, though obviously not well kept up, and the landing stage at the left clearly rather dangerous. I didn’t take many pictures – and here I think I was fairly clearly trespassing so perhaps fewer than I might otherwise have done. You can see there is far less mud on the bank at right and considerably less vegetation on both sides, though the older picture was taken in October when some might have died down slightly.

Things have clearly deteriorated since then, although the ‘Friends’ have carried out some work, getting the gate to open more fully and cutting down the flow of water around the lock, which was preventing the cill (or sill) in the lock from carrying out its purpose of maintaining the river level above it.

Below the lock the path is perhaps less interesting, following a winding path on an embankment with the river on one side and the long stretch of fairly empty fields and marshland to the east. There used to be a fireworks factory (and some of its isolated buildings remain) and further away an isolation hospital. In the distance you can see the Dartford Bridge and the now disused Littlebrook Power station, and as you get closer the Darent Tidal Flood Barrier and the River Thames. You pass the northern bypass (now renamed Bob Dunn way after the university that University Way was supposedly to lead to changed its mind about coming here) and the mouth of the River Cray (also part of the navigation.) It’s a pleasant enough walk, but one with no shade at all and we were pleased to find a hedge close to the flood barrier where we could sit at least partly in shade to eat our sandwiches.

From where we were sitting we could see the mast of a yacht turn into the mouth of the Darent and I jumped up and ran to photograph it as it made its way under the flood barrier – with plenty of clearance – and made its way up river with the incoming tide and under power.  It had hoped to get under the low bridge at Bob Dunn Way (with mast lowered) but I read later from the ‘Friends’ Facebook Page that the tide was too high when it reached there.

Pictures from the whole of this 2015 walk: Darent Valley Path & Thames

Continued at Dartford to Greenhithe Part 3)

For the walk in 2015 I was working with my newly arrived Fuji-X 10-24mm (15-36mm eq) on the X-T1 and the Fuji-X 18-55mm on the X-E1. Both excellent lenses which it is hard to fault in any way. I also carried but didn’t use the Samyang 8mm fisheye, probably because I was walking with two other people, and its a lens that makes me take a long time thinking about composition. The 10mm was wide enough for what I wanted to do, and considerably easier to use.

The only problem I had (apart from the cursed Fuji deep sleep mode – where the quickest way to elicit any response from the camera is to switch it off and then on again – a relatively minor annoyance with landscape, but which essentially makes the cameras hardly usable for covering protests) was that the times on the two cameras were not synchronised. It’s great to have clocks in cameras, time-stamping every image in the EXIF data, and I rely on it to put my images in order. But it would be nice if they kept time better. Though both were set at some point accurate to the nearest second, they were about 45 seconds apart. Yes, I should check and synchronise regularly.

Lightroom does make it very easy to select all the images from one camera and then adjust the time of all of them by the same amount, but I hadn’t done so when I wrote out the images for the web site, so you may notice the odd one out of order.

Back in 1985 we had no such problems. All I had to rely on when taking pictures was a notebook, and I wasn’t too good at making entries in that. But at least images were fixed on the film in the order that they were taken, and looking at the contact sheets I could normally reconstruct walk in my mind.

The Olympus 35mm shift lens I took most pictures with at the time was a fairly early version and not multi-coated as later otherwise identical versions were, and was fairly liable to flare and ghosting. You can see a neat but large hexagon in one of the images above. Working with scans does enable at least some recovery of what in the darkroom would have been very difficult negatives.


Dartford to Greenhithe (part 1)

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

It was a hot summer day (something I’ve not too often had the chance to write this year) when we took the train to Dartford to complete a walk along the Darent Valley Path to the mouth of the River Darent, and then along by the Thames to Greenhithe.

Dartford has change considerably over the years, and the industries that dominated the north of the town when I first walked this way back in the 1980s have now gone, and most of their buildings too, though as yet little has replaced them.

Welcome Foundation, Dartford 1985

The picture I took back in 1985 was from the railway station, or rather through the open window of a train at Dartford Station, and the building in it has now gone completely. The pond still remains, and I photographed it through the railings on Mill Pond Rd, looking to the left of my older image.  The view straight ahead was rather empty.

Hythe St and The Huffler’s Arms in the top image didn’t seem to have changed a great deal, though I didn’t have time to stop to admire its interior. But the pub was as reminder that Dartford had been a port, with boats coming up the river from the Thames to wharves here.

You can see the back of the building facing the pond at the right of this picture.  It was quite hard to see exactly where I had taken some of those pictures back then, with little but the river remaining, though some were readily identifiable.

A public slipway next to the bridge taking the footpath across the river here was cleared by the Friends of Dartford and Crayford Creek and the first boat launched here for decades in March 2015.

Although I know I walked along this footpath, before that I think I had gone into the large car park for the pharmaceutical works and perhaps on to a bridge higher upstream, but Glaxo or GSK (as Welcome became) had filled in and built over much of the basin and culverted streams in the years between my visits.  I think I was last around here at the start of 2013, though I’m not sure if I walked this path then.

Back in 1985, there was still considerable evidence of the navigable waterway, but the Dartford & Crayford Navigation (Dartford Creek) was essentially completely abandoned the following year, and the low Dartford northern bypass bridge opened in 1994 makes navigation tricky.  Back in 2006, some intrepid sailors managed to get a narrow boat up to Dartford showing it was still possible – and on their way out they also explored the short arm of the Crayford Navigation.

The creek banks are now overgrown close to the centre of Dartford.

Even back in the old days, navigation was not straightforward, and teams of men were needed to assist the passage of boats, particularly against the tide. Ufflers (or Hufflers) were men with very long poles – perhaps 15 ft – that they could put in the mud to get a purchase as they pulled barges along the creek to the wharves, and were of particular use on those creeks where no suitable towpath for horses existed. Usually they worked in pairs or sometimes three men together.  Probably from Dartford they would be needed to take the barges down against a rising tide to arrive at the mouth of the river near high water so they could enter the Thames.

Continues in Dartford to Greenhithe (part 2)

Pictures from a previous walk from Eynsford to Dartford, mainly along the Darent Valley Path are at Walking the Darent Way  and you can see the pictures from this section (and the continuation to Greenhithe) at Darent Valley Path & Thames.

Black and white pictures in this post were taken in 1985 using an Olympus OM1 and Ilford XP1 film. Most of the pictures I was taking at the time were made the the Olympus Zuiko 35mm f2.8 shift lens, long my favourite lens and still one of the best lenses made for 35mm – it has a 62mm image circle rather larger than the 43mm needed to cover the full frame which gives it an advantage, and easily slides to project any 36×24 rectangle of that larger circle onto the film. After years using it, I still sometimes find myself trying to slide other lenses. Of course we can now correct perspective in Lightroom or Photoshop, but it isn’t quite the same, and I sometimes find myself wishing I still had a lens with movements.

It would of course be easy to fit the OM lens with an adapter to the Fuji-X cameras that I was using for the colour images here (with Fuji 10-24 and 18-55mm lenses) but on the smaller sensor it would be a 53mm equivalent rather than a wide-angle, and the shifts of much less – if not zero- use. But I’ve just found and started to read a test of this and some other ‘PC’ lenses on a Canon full-frame body. Fitting OM lenses to a Nikon is kind of possible, but probably not for the 35mm shift.

I don’t think Fuji will come out with a full-frame X series camera. There would be little in it for them (or for photographers given how well the 1.5x cameras work.) Full-frame is largely a matter of prestige rather than performance, and Nikon were right when they said the APS-C format could deliver the goods – even though they ate those words a few years later. Almost none of us needs full-frame except once in a blue moon. 99% of the images I make with the D810 (and before that with the D800E) I make on the smaller format, despite now having a full frame lens on the camera. If Fuji ever do make the leap, like Nikon it will be for marketing rather than photographic reasons.


Ahwazi Action

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Protesters rush past people in the narrow corridor at the BICC offices

I don’t much like taking photographs inside buildings. So often the light is poor or difficult to work with, and spotlights and windows both tend to mess up autoexposure, even with matrix metering which is supposed to cope with such things. It’s all fine when you have plenty of time to make readings and set settings, but can be tricky when you are working under pressure.

And in NIOC House I was certainly working under some pressure. I wasn’t there by invitation, but had rushed in following some Ahwazi Arab protesters. I’ve mentioned them before, but for anyone who isn’t sure, you’ve probably read about the Ahwazi homeland even if you’ve never heard of it, as it is supposedly the inspiration for Genesis’s garden. The death-knell for the Ahwazi Eden came with the discovery of oil there by the Anglo-Persian oil company in 1908, since when Iran, aided in the years before the Iranian revolution by the UK, has been trying hard to eliminate the Ahwazi people and culture.

Peter Tatchell’s green shirt disappears around the corner as other protesters face security in the foyer

Even before the recent moves to lift sanctions there have been continued links between the UK and Iran, with NIOC house, less than 5 minutes walk from Parliament, at the centre. Few people walking past would know what goes on in there, or indeed that the initials stand for National Iranian Oil Company. It’s surely significant that although its address is always given as Victoria St, the only entrance normally in use is tucked away at the back on Tothill St.

Back in April I went into the foyer with a small group of Ahwazi protesters (see Ten Days of Rage for Ahwazi Intifada) and at the end of June received an invitation from the Hashem Shabani Action Group to join with them and the Peter Tatchell Foundation in an attempt to gate-crash secret UK-Iran business talks taking place in the offices of the British Iranian Chambers of Commerce (BICC) inside NIOC House.

I met with the group outside Westminster Abbey, were Peter Tatchell gave a short briefing on what they were proposing to do, and in particular on the non-violent nature of the protest. Also present were two other photographers I knew, along with two videographers and an intern.

Security fail to stop an Ahwazi protester who runs past them.

I was more surprised not to be stopped by the building security as I followed the protesters who pushed past them and rushed to the stairs, along with the other two photographers; the videographers were a little slower and were apparently stopped in the foyer.

Had I known in advance that the meeting was on the sixth floor I might have declined the offer to attend the protest, and rushing up the stairs I was rather worried that I might not make it without collapsing, though I actually caught up with some of the protesters who were half my age. Despite being pretty totally knackered, put of breath and with a heart thumping at an unhealthy rate I was still able to follow the group as they ran along the corridor to the rooms where the meeting was being held.

More attempts to stop the protesters in the narrow corridor – and a trace of vignetting from my lens hood knocked slightly out of position

There was a certain amount of pushing and shoving in the corridor, and there were people telling me I couldn’t take photographs, but as none of them told me who they were and what authority they had to stop me I proved remarkably deaf. Everyone was a bit confused, but eventually we went into the room where those at the meeting were about to enjoy what looked like a very decent buffet lunch. Things inside the room were a little more civilised, with many seeming to totally ignore the protest and continue with their conversations, but when we got back into the corridor and were on our way out things became more hectic.

Peter Tarchell confronts some of those waiting for lunch who take little interest

Coming out of the meeting room I took the wrong door and turned left towards the stairs rather than to the right and missed the opportunity to photograph the best known politician attending the event, Lord Lamont. I was at the wrong end of the corridor with people blocking my way when he was confronted by protesters, though both the other photographers were close to him and were able to get pictures. A few of the people who were trying to stop the protest did get rather physical, and one young Iranian, thought by the protesters to be an agent, obviously completely lost his temper, and had to be pulled off by some of the other staff after he assaulted one of the other photographers, knocking him to the ground and causing minor injuries.

A young Iranian man gets angry with the protesters. I can’t get past to the end of the corridor where protesters found Lord Lamont

At least I didn’t get more than a little shoving around, but photographically I was having problems with the D700 which had started to fail to focus and also over-exposing, both extremely annoying. It wasn’t really possible to try another lens on the camera as there was quite a lot of people milling around and I was getting pushed around as I was taking pictures. The light in the corridor was giving me exposures around 1/30 f4 (wide open on the 16-35mm) and with overexposure giving me even slower speeds and considerable subject and camera movement quite a few exposures were unusable. I would have been better to have used the fixed 20mm f2.8, but I hadn’t thought to put that in my bag.

A colleague tries to hold back the young Iranian who has been assaulting protesters

The 16-35mm f4 isn’t really a lens for low-light action, and is also big and heavy, and my lens is beginning to show its age. A year or so ago it needed a very expensive service, almost to the point it wasn’t viable. Now it does seem to be getting a little temperamental, and though it was working properly when I took a few pictures of the group outside NIOC after the event, occasionally since then I’ve had to switch to manual focus.

At fairly close range even at 16mm there isn’t a great deal of depth of field at f4, and manual focus in poor light isn’t too easy with modern cameras and lenses designed for autofocus. Back in the days of film with cameras like the Olympus OM4 and a suitable choice of focussing screen manual focus was much more viable. And with cameras like the Fuji X-T1 that use an EVF, manual focus is again easy, though too slow for rapid moving events like this.

Eventually we left, walking down those six flights of stairs again (I don’t know why they didn’t take the lift down, but I had to stay with them in case anything happened.) In the ground floor lobby we were stopped by police, and told that we were not under arrest but could not leave, even though we photographers showed our press cards.

We sat around in the lobby for three quarters of an hour while the police decided what to do, complicated slightly by the complaint of assault against the young Iranian. Police advised the photographer that his assailant – who they went and found and questioned briefly – probably was protected by diplomatic immunity and he decided not to press charges. The police came round and asked everyone for names and addresses which we gave and then we were allowed to leave. It was good to get outside.

Peter Tatchell poses with the other protesters outside at the end of the protest

Although I don’t think any of the protesters (or photographers) was later arrested, certainly some of the non-violent Hashem Shabani Action Group, named after Arab-Iranian poet and human rights activists Hashem Shabani, executed for peaceful opposition to the Iranian regime in January 2014, have been harassed by police. Some influential UK politicians with busiiness interests in Iran, including some of those at this meeting we visited, have called for the organisation – which says “Our weapons are pens. Our bullets are words” to be banned as a terrorist organisation.

Iran says that Shabani confessed to being a member of the terrorist group “Al-Moqawama al-Shaabiya Al-Tahrir al-Ahwaz” which appears to be a figment of Iranian state imagination. The confessions made by Shabani and others came after extensive torture. Press TV reported the confessions and sentence claiming that the Al-Moqawama al-Shaabiya (People’s Movement) is backed by the US and UK, but there appear to be no reports of the organisation nor its supposed activities except from these Iranian government sources. Unfortunately the UK seem more interested in backing Iranian interests and ignoring  human rights issues in Iran in general and in particular the persecution of the Ahwazi people.



Monday, October 19th, 2015

A remarkable set of pictures by ‘Glasweegee’ Dougie Wallace of the wealthy on the streets around Harrods and other shops selling ridiculously priced bling have apparently caused quite a stir in Qatar (where many of those he photographed have their homes) according the the British Journal of Photography, in an article Qatar responds to Dougie Wallace’s photographs of Britain’s wealth tourism.  The BJP also claim responsibility for having given him the idea, when they erroneously reported last December that he could be found working outside Harrods. It seemed to him to complement work he was doing in  one of the poorest areas of Glasgow, close to where he grew up.

You can see more of his work from ‘Harrodsburg‘ at The Story Institute, which also has some text worth reading on his work and the motives behind it. The area in which he worked – not just around Harrods, but down to Sloane Square and around the Ritz, once the home of many over-wealthy British, is now largely in the hands of “the various tribes of the global super-rich buying up London homes like they are gold bars, as assets to appreciate rather than as homes in which to live.”

More interesting than the BJP story is the article it links to in The Doha News, published in August.  It’s also worth reading the comments. (To save you worrying as I did, the hashtag  #دوغي_والاس  is simply #Doga_walas.)

Wallace’s images remind me of things that I’ve seen walking around some of those same streets, but have never photographed. Perhaps I should say, have never had the bottle to photograph.  Though rather that I’ve never had a very good reason to want to photograph. They are streets too that I dislike, only going through them when I have to, usually on my way to some embassy or other to photograph a protest. But his work is impressive – even if it doesn’t go down too well in Qatar. At the moment we can photograph freely on the street – a liberty I value that we may well lose unless we defend it.

Ooredoo (formerly Qtel Group) which provides most of the internet in Qatar (and probably other internet providers there) was quickly forced by the authorities to block the web site with the images, probably because as well as causing the ultra-rich embarrassment they also show their hypocrisy, particularly in wealthy visitors to London abandoning the strict rules of dress they forcibly impose on others in Qatar.
Pictures from ‘Harrodsburg‘ have been on show in London at the Printspace on Kingsland Rd, but the show, part of the East London Photomonth, was due to close today – or tomorrow or Wednesday – all three dates are in the links.

You can also visit Dougie Wallace’s web site, and buy his books Shoreditch Wildlife and Stags, Hens & Bunnies. The Shoreditch book is I think much better than the presentation on the web, and I hope that Harrodsburg will become available in print before too long.

Staging, Manipulation &Truth

Friday, October 16th, 2015

An excellent post on the New York Times Lens blog on a subject I’ve often written about, Staging, Manipulation and Truth in Photography, with comments from some well-known photographers, including Stanley Greene. The post is their response to the survey of photographers who entered for this year’s WPP contest that I wrote about a while back in my post The State of News Photography.

Greene puts some of the blame on digital, reminding us that he put contact sheets into his book ‘The Open Wound’ on Chechnya so that people could see how he was working and thinking and ending with the comment:

There’s a lot of good guys out there, but there’s also a lot of bad guys who are giving us a bad rap. And a lot of bad guys who are getting awards. It’s up to the editors and photo festivals to hold photographers’ feet to the fire.

The problem isn’t so much in staging pictures, but in passing staged pictures off as news. It’s no surprise that Gene Smith gets a mention for his practices, and certainly some of his greatest images would not pass the test for news, but his great photo essays were perhaps never presented as news. We were always aware that ‘Nurse Midwife‘ or ‘Country Doctor‘ were collaborations between the photographer and the subject and a certain amount of staging was probably inevitable.

Bill Brandt too comes to mind, producing some great images, many if not virtually all of them staged. A story I’ve often repeated is of someone commenting to him about an image of an old sea-captain he had been sent from London to Liverpool to photograph, and saying how fortunate that the man had a particular lamp next to him, to which Brandt replied it was not a matter of luck, he had taken it with him to make the photograph. Again there was no pretence that this was news.

Some of the other comments in the Lens post reminded me of my own experiences, and I’ve sometimes been shocked at how some photographers stage news images.  I often think their pictures ought to be accompanied by that short phrase that often was found below images in some magazines, ‘posed by model.’

If you have posed or set up your pictures, then your caption should indicate this. Under some of mine you will sometimes see captions like ‘Jane Smith poses with her ukelele‘ (not that I’ve ever to my knowledge photographed anyone called Jane Smith playing a uke) or ‘the handing over of the keys to the property was re-staged for the press’ to make clear that my photograph was not of the actual event. And if you photograph a ‘photo opportunity‘ you should also – as Santiago Lyon of AP says, make that clear. It isn’t hard to do, though it is perhaps harder to get editors to actually read and take notice of captions.

Michele McNally of The New York Times who headed the jury for the 2015 World Press Photo contest puts it clearly: ‘A staged photo is not acceptable in news pictures that are thought to depict real-world situations and events.’ Photographers need to make sure that they do not mislead in this way.

Greene says in the quote above ‘It’s up to the editors and photo festivals to hold photographers’ feet to the fire.’ Perhaps it’s also up to photographers to name and shame colleagues too where they know that award-winning news images having been staged.

Dignity Under the Hammer

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

I imagine everyone reading this will have heard of Sotheby’s, one of the leading auction houses in the world, not least for photography. I’ve never actually been to an auction, though I’ve walked past their building in New Bond St often enough, and have been to shows in their S|2 gallery opposite their rear entrance in St George St. But I have often looked through their catalogues of photography sales on-line – and there are some interesting images in their next Paris photography sale in November 2015.

But on July 1st, I wasn’t going to Sotheby’s to make a bid for the hand-painted dollar bill by Andy Warhol that sold that night for £20.9 million, or any of the other high-priced contemporary art works that gave them a record sale of £130.4m. Take the m off the end of those prices and I might have considered them, though I would still find some of the amounts paid rather high. But the art market and the photography part of it in particular is simply crazy, and not about art but about money, a subject I have a relatively small interest in.

The workers I was going to photograph do have concerns about money, though previous actions by their union, the UVW (United Voices of the World) very grudgingly got their employer to pay them the London living wage. Although they work at Sotheby’s, cleaning up the place and carrying around those ridiculously expensive artworks, they are not employed by Sotheby’s.

At the time their union actions won the living wage – and contractual sick pay above the statutory minimum – they were employed to work in Sotheby’s by CCML (Contract Cleaning and Maintenance London Ltd.) But Sotheby’s then ended the contract with CCML and made a new contract with Servest, who presumably were able to offer a lower cost service because they decided to renege on the agreement previously reached with CCML, refusing to pay the backdated payments that had been agreed, refusing to honour the agreement over sick pay, stating they were doubtful that they would pay the increased London Living Wage due in November and taking unfair disciplinary action against one of the union reps.

The union, the UVW, is one of several grass roots trade unions set up by low paid workers who feel the traditional trade unions have – except in a few branches – failed to stick up for the lowest paid in the workplace, particularly where they also represent those on higher pay. Regrettably, some trade unionists have regarded attempts to acheive the living wage as an attack on pay differentials and have even sided with management in keeping some workers on the minimum wage. Many of the lowest paid in London are migrant workers and not native English speakers, and some unions have found this hard to cope with – and trade unions are not immune to racism.

These new unions have brought a liveliness to protests that is seldom seen in the traditional union actions, with noisy protests where people parade and sometimes dance, blowing horns and whistles and banging drums. They want people to notice they are protesting, and it is certainly hard not to, and also they make clear with speeches, placards and banners why they are protesting. Some of the protest at Sotheby’s was in Spanish – the language of most of the cleaners – but it was also in English, and the ‘3Cosas’ that they were calling for were contractual rather than statutory minimum ‘Sick Pay, Holidays, Pensions’ and they wanted them ‘Now!!!’

Their chants could certainly be heard by everyone attending the auction at Sotheby’s as well as everyone else in the area. There was considerable tension between police and protesters, with the police trying to move the protest away from the entrance to Sotheby’s and to keep traffic along the street moving.

The protesters wanted to make their protest at Sotheby’s and to make those going into the auction aware of their cause and were not attempting to stop people entering or leaving, but the police seemed to the protesters to be siding with Sotheby’s and trying to minimise the impact of the protest. One of the managers did seem to spend a lot of time trying to persuade the police to be more assertive and clear the protesters away, and reinforcements did arrive and made an attempt to do so, pushing some of the protesters aside, but despite threats of arrest the protesters stayed around in front of Sotheby’s, though leaving the entrance slightly clearer.

As well as the UVW, the protest was also supported by a number of individuals and other groups, including other low-paid and victimised workers and their union branches and Class War, who injected their usual humour into the event, coming armed with water pistols and staging a mock shooting in front of Sotheby’s, as well as some dancing and mime.

Photographically it was a fairly straightforward event, working mainly at close quarters with the D700 and the 16-35mm (used in all the pictures on this post) with just a few longer shots with the D800E and the 18-105mm. The light was good, though the black carpet and awning over the entrance to Sotheby’s did create some deep shadows in that spot, otherwise the fairly bright but low contrast shade in the streets was easy to work with. There were a few times when police seemed over-officious telling me to get off the road, and a few times I was pushed out of the way, but most of the time things were polite and the atmosphere was reasonably friendly. I had to leave before the protest finished, but there were no arrests while I was there.

The day after this protest, 4 cleaners who had taken part in the protest were stopped going in to work, effectively sacked. Following another protest two were reinstated, but protests have continued to get the two most active union members their jobs back. As I write this, the UVW have called off another protest scehduled during tonight’s auction at Sotheby’s as talks have been agreed which it seems likely will end the dispute. It is a dispute that should never have happened, as Sotheby’s are making record profits and the amounts involved in giving their low paid workers decent pay and conditions are relatively small.

More information and pictures at Sotheby’s ‘Dignity under the Hammer’ protest.


Robin Hood

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Robin Hood gardens 2009

Robin Hood gardens 2015

I’m sad that Robin Hood Gardens is doomed. Sorry for the loss of what I think is a fine architectural solution to a difficult site next to the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and also for yet another loss of social housing in London, at a time when there is a desperate shortage of low cost housing in London, resulting in most of those who work at the essential low-paid jobs that keep our city running being unable to afford to live in it.

I think the decision not to give the estate listed building status was wrong – as too was the failure to list the Heygate Estate at the Elephant, built as around 1200 council flats and maisonettes while its replacement will have virtually no truly affordable properties. Robin Hood, like Heygate, attracted a great deal of praise when it was built, designed by architects Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. It was a shame that it’s ‘streets in the sky’ ended up a little less wide than they should have been, but it is still a remarkable property.

The plan – like many at the time, was for a fairly low density development, with the east and west slabs enclosing a large green space, a surprisingly quiet oasis in inner London, just a few yards from the busy Blackwall Tunnel Approach. The flats, like those in other developments of the time, were large and airy, and had it been a private development the two-storey maisonettes would now be worth approaching a million pounds.

But several things conspired against it. Some people found its Brutalist design unattractive and the lack of necessary upkeep by Tower Hamlets council led to problems, exacerbated by the council moving in problem residents, using it as a sink estate. The real killer – of this and other council estates – came with Thatcher and the right to buy, both losing social housing and complicating management. And it is the commitment both to relatively low density and generous property sizes that make it and other council estates such an attractive proposition to investment-fuelled property development in London.

It doesn’t after all matter if a property is meanly proportioned and in a poorly designed environment if you are not going to actually live in it, but simply buy it for the high increase in property values year by year in London, or are going to let it to others who are prepared to pay high rents to stay in London.

The proposed redevelopment covers a rather wider area than Robin Hood Gardens, and according to the proposal with provide over six times as many housing units, with around 40% of these being social housing or shared ownership. Of course many such proposals have ended up with delivering far smaller number of social housing units than originally promised, with a get out clause allowing developers to evade their obligations on the grounds they say it would be uneconomic – that is, that they would not get enough profit.

Despite the Blackwall Tunnel approach next door it is very quiet inside Robin Hood Gardens and it was easy to hear Bridget Cherry talking. June 2009

I first photographed Robin Hood Gardens back in the 1980s, but only took a few pictures. I returned in 2009 on a walk around by Bridget Cherry, who together with Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner wrote the definitive volume on the architecture of East London in the ‘Buildings of England’ series.

Back in 2008, the local council claimed that in a consultation over 75% of the residents wanted the estate to be demolished, but a survey the following year by residents gave a very different picture with over 80% of residents wanting it to be refurbished. Rather curiously exactly the same results were also claimed by Soutwark Council and residents over the Heygate Estate – and a rather similar result also for the Aylesbury Estate. Some councils certainly employ PR firms to provide them with the results that they want, rather than seriously to carry out consultations.

Work was taking place on the western block of the estate when I visited and I was unable to obtain access. I didn’t try too hard as the light was coming from the wrong direction to work from the ‘streets’ there. Some flats might still have been occupied, but it was not possible to be sure. The gardens which had been well-cared for on my 2009 visit were overgrown, but there were some signs suggesting they had been worked on earlier this year. But the whole of the eastern block seemed still to be occupied, and I was able to make my way up to the topmost ‘street’ and walk along it and make photograph from it. The lifts were still working but I went up by the stairs to see if their were any opportunities for photographs on the way up, but views out of the building were very limited. However from the top street there were good views over the Blackwall Tunnel Approach and across towards the River Thames and beyond.

Both from the top deck and at ground level, most of the photographs I took were made using the the Nikon 16mm fisheye lens, which gives a horizontal angle of view of around 146 degrees. With this on the D800E at ISO200 produces extremely detailed files, typically around 7,200 x4,800 pixels after minor corrections, giving a potential print size at 300 dpi of around 24 inches wide.

The D800E does allow you to work at lower ISO, but there is really no point in doing so. I think the sensor basically works at the same base ISO – ISO200 – but then simply amplifies or diminishes the signal to give the required ISO.

Usually I make these images with the intention of conversion from fisheye to cylindrical proportion, and cropping the 1.5:1 aspect ratio to around 1.9:1 format. In the viewfinder it is easy to visualise the horizontal scope of the image, as the conversion retains the centre of each side, but allowing for the vertical cropping is rather more a matter of guesswork.

This approach also give a post-processing equivalent of camera movements, equivalent to a fairly small amount of rising/falling front. Most of the images that I put on the web however show the full 1.5:1 image uncropped.

Also from my elevated position I took some view with a narrower angle using the 18-105mm DX lens, as well as some images with the rectilinear 16-35mm on the D700. I’m unlikely to have the chance to photograph from here again.

From DLR Blackwall platform. Robin Hood Gardens at left and the East India Docks estate at right

Bridget Cherry – Poplar Trail 2009

Robin Hood Gardens 2015