Yarl’s Wood in the mud

I’ve often written about my love for the fisheye lenses, the type that give a 180 degree view across the image diagonal, filling the whole frame with the image, first the Nikon 10.5mm for DX format and latterly the 16mm FX; both light and reasonably fast at f2.8. I use them when I want or need to work really close to the people I’m photographing, particularly in crowds and also for panoramic landscapes, usually with little in the close foreground. Where they seldom if ever work is at moderate subject distances.

Both lenses need a little help from software, and Lightroom (or Bridge or Photoshop) do a great job of removing the colour fringing which is otherwise rather pronounced on large prints. When I first started using the 10.5mm it was sometimes a problem, and reducing its effect in old versions of Photoshop something of a trial, involving careful selection by colour and desaturation. Now it’s automatic and does a much better job.

Also the curvature due to the spherical fisheye perspective is usually a distraction, and software that converts to a cylindrical perspective which gives straight vertical lines is often essential. Photoshop offers to correct it to rectilinear, but that only works if you are willing to accept a narrower horizontal angle of view and a definite softness at the image corners. Rectilinear images are really limited to a horizontal angle of view of around 90 degrees, while the fisheye covers around 147 degrees.

Just occasionally I take an image that – at least for me – works well without that conversion. If you are a photographer you probably noticed that the image above was taken with a fisheye; but to the ordinary viewer it just seems a ‘normal’ image.  And I want people to look at the pictures and not have problems with them seeming unnatural – I try hard to avoid a ‘lensy’ look, whether from ultrawide or extreme telephotos.

The picture was taken as protesters held a rally on the road close to Yarl’s Wood, one of the UK’s detention centres where we hold people seeking asylum indefinitely, sometimes for 18 months or more, treating them as criminals rather than as refugees. Yarl’s Wood is miles from nowhere, 5 or so miles north of Bedford on the edge of an isolated business park on a former WW2 airfield. The protesters come mainly in coaches and form up by the side of the road to march the three-quarets of a mile or so along a footpath to a field adjoining the prison.

Once we were outside the prison, it rained, or rather poured, as you can see in some of the pictures. I got out my umbrella, which kept the worst of the rain off my cameras but they still got wet. I got wet too, and the ground got wetter still.

Down by the fence, against which much of the action was taking place, the mud got muddier, with water filling furrows running through it. It got hard to move around at any speed, walking on the filthy greasy surface, struggling to keep balance.  Fortunately the rain was a brief shower, or rather a series of brief showers, with the sun coming out between. But I was getting covered with mud just trying to move around, though fortunately kept my balance, though I saw a few others falling over and getting plastered with mud.

There is a slope in the field going down to the fence, and also a ditch which is just wide and deep enough to be difficult to cross, but not impossible. Hard to jump with camera gear and a muddy landing on the other side, though at one point the protesters  had put down a pallet to act as a bridge.  From higher up in the field we could see and wave to the prisoners inside, many of whom were holding up notices to the windows, clearly delighted to see there were people who knew what was happening to them and cared about it.

Even the sun caused problems for photographers, making it difficult to photograph the people putting banners up on the fence from some angles – except when the clouds came over again.

From higher up the hill, we could see some of the women holding things at and outside the windows, which will only open a couple of inches. One banner read banners ‘We came to seek refuge not to be locked up‘ and another ‘We are from torture we need freedom‘. Others wrote their phone numbers on sheets of paper so that the protesters could contact them and relay their messages over the public address system they had brought.

I didn’t have a very good day there. I was very unsteady on the mud, and had forgotten to bring my 70-300mm lens which would have been rather more useful for photographing people at the windows than the 28-200mm. Photographing through the wire fence is a pain too, with autofocus struggling to get the window frames rather than the wire fence sharp – and modern lenses are not good for using manual focus. And as I walked away I realised that I’d lost my umbrella.

I stayed for a couple of hours and was then pleased to walk away, and find somewhere to scrape the worst of the mud off my boots, which weighed several times as much as usual.  It was several days later that I finally got rid of all the mud. But the feeling of shame that my country could treat people seeking asylum like those locked up at Yarl’s Wood can’t be washed or scraped away.

More pictures at MFJ Meet Outside Yarl’s Wood and MfJ ‘Set Her Free’ protest at Yarl’s Wood.

I’ve been back with the protesters to Yarl’s Wood since Novemeber, and another protest is planned there and at other detention centres around the country on May 7th, 2016. More details of this and other protests from Movement for Justice.


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