Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ignore the old farts!

On Sunday I attended a photographic exhibition titled “Then & Now”.
It was a display of the works of eight of South Africa’s most significant documentary photographers organised by Johan at Kameraz.
Over the years David Goldblatt, George Hallett, Eric Miller, Cedric Nunn, Guy Tillim, Paul Weinberg, Graeme Williams and Gisele Wulfsohn captured significant moments in this country’s tumultuous history and still continue to do so.
Their images, the majority shot in black and white, tell the story of a county in transition...a transition that was often bloody and brutal. Today they continue to reflect our society and although the occasions photographed are less dramatic, their images are no less moving.
But I could not help but think had those pictures been entered in camera club competitions few, if any, would have been praised by the judges or awarded gold certificates.
While camera clubs undoubtedly help amateur photographers raise technical standards, they do little else. Impact, particularly in the photo-journalism category, appears completely ignored. Creating an image that is moving, tells a story, causes the viewer to mentally ask questions about the story behind the picture or awakes some sort of emotion, counts for little.

Check list

In the minds of the judges there is a checklist to tick off:
* Is the image well focussed?
* Does it follow the “rule of thirds”?
* Are there diagonals or curves that lead the eye to the focal point?
* Does the focal point present a contrast to the rest of the image?
* Is the sky a deep blue with fluffy clouds?
* Is there a highlight to be criticized somewhere in the background?
* Is the background busy? (Yes it is, it was part of a riot and I didn’t have time or opportunity to arrange the people involved!!)
* Is there a fancy border that separates the image from the screen?
Meet all of the above and success is guaranteed.
I am sure there are other “rules” but one is certainly not: “Is this picture not just another rule-meeting, boring image of a lion/impala/bird/flower/bug the likes of which we’ve all seen hundreds of times before?
The pictures taken by the photographers listed above do not follow the “rules”. They don’t have to. They capture decisive moments, tell stories, evoke emotions and document history. Maybe that’s why such photographers get to have exhibitions, sell prints and publish books while the windbag camera judges, most of whom have never worked as photo journalists, pontificate and spew crap.
Almost 30 years ago I entered an image at a local camera club. It was shot at an Eastern Cape political funeral where activists shot by police were being buried. The image is of a group of ANC cadres running through a huge crowd of township mourners, carrying the coffin of one of their slain comrades on their shoulders.

Not pin-sharp

The judges, three old farts with inflated ideas of their own significance, tore into the photograph. The criticized it for not being absolutely pin-sharp, for not having the coffin located on a diagonal bisecting an image third, they said some of the people in the picture were looking back and not at the camera.
And they were right! Those rules were all broken but some background is in order.
At the time, all political funerals and gatherings were banned and breaking the law brought swift ploice retribution.
It was winter, late in the afternoon and the light was as murky as pea-soup. This meant shooting wide open, at a shutter speed of something like 1/15th of a second. It was also in the days before auto focus and meant constantly back-pedalling while manually trying to pull the focus.
At the time picture was taken the police had just begun to fire teargas and rubber bullets so the fact the picture was not sharp, the background busy and the main subjects not neatly arranged on diagonals was hardly surprising.
But it added to the drama. It captured the feelings of panic and disorder.
As I listened to the criticism I became increasingly angry but then consoled myself with the fact, that particular image was published in around 65 countries -- I shot it while on temporary assignment for one of the world’s largest news agencies.

Do what pleases you

So what does this all mean? In essence shoot pictures that please you and that tell the story of your life and those around you.
Most of the time the so-called experts are trapped in their own, limited, narrow thinking. Go ahead and break the “rules” if by doing so you achieve the emotion and impact you desire. The only rule you should uphold is never shoot boring images, no matter how technically good they are.
The fact is, the images of many of the great photographers would not impress the puffed-up judges at camera clubs, but they’ll be around long after that bloody shot of masked weavers building a nest is forgotten!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Photo Breakaway is organised

The first of the photographic breakaway venues has been a few weeks in coming but now all is done and it's only a two-hour drive from Johannesburg!
I have negotiated great rates in the historic Voortrekker town of Klerksdorp that was started in the mid 1830s. In fact, the oldest building in the old Transvaal, a Voortrekker "huisie" (little house) erected in 1837 still stands on the grounds of the guesthouse where we will stay.
Fountainvilla, our accommodation, was built in 1905 by a local liquor baron and is itself a national monument.
Heavy fighting occurred in the area during the Anglo-Boer War. There is a Military and Concentration Camp cemetery on the outskirts of the town that is now overgrown and vandalised. A few years ago I photographed many of the soldiers' graves, including, what is probably, the only spot in the world where two Boers and two Britons are buried together, in the same grave.

This photograph is very possibly the last photographic record of the site before thieves sawed off the metal crosses and sold them to some shit-bag scrap metal dealer! It is a blight on the town's authorities but makes for moody and evocative photography.
The main objective of the weekend breakaways will be to have fun, while learning to use a camera. Just a small bunch of people with a common interest and a desire to have fun.
There are countless photographic opportunities right on the premises and nearby are many historic sites.
It's going to be a blast. Click here for more details and pictures.

The link below will present you with some of the history of the area.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Not photographing the Chinese New Year celebrations

Last Saturday Johannesburg’s Chinese community held its New Year celebrations at a local shopping centre and the camera club to which I belong suggested there may be a number of good photographic opportunities.
Everyone and his brother was there, all armed with top-of-the-line digital cameras and everyone scrambled to get a position near the stage, so they could photograph the kung fu demonstrations or stick a camera in the face of the lion dancers.
I felt as though I had stepped back in time to the bun-fights I had years ago with hordes of other press photographers as we all jostled and shoved to get the same picture.
And that’s exactly what was happening - everyone was shooting basically the same image. It is an aspect of camera clubs I dislike. Camera club judges place emphasis on technical excellence but largely ignore creativity and uniqueness. I have no doubt, at the next club meeting, ten different people will present exactly the same shot and, so long as it is properly exposed, in focus and the main subject is located on one of the intersecting thirds in the image, it will score gold.
I wanted to do something different and the Chinese celebrations, colourful as they were, just did not do it for me. The light was harsh, contrasty and unattractive. So, after I’d had my fill of kids kicking and punching pre-broken wooden planks, I wandered off to see what else I could find.
I ended up with three images I liked. For me, they capture critical moments and tell a story.
Let me know if you agree.

Buy me! Buy me!

See no evil.

Pleeeeease, Mom!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Are pro photographers doomed?

One of my favourite blogs is the Strobist. Published by David Hobby, a veteran newspaper photographer, it is a most comprehensive and definitive source of information about lighting techniques and how to use off-camera flashes. David is undeniably one of the most knowlegeable guys around and I have learned much from his blog. Check it out, it is listed in the blogroll in the right-hand column.

Recently David wrote about the need for photographers to sometimes do work for free. The article evoked a great deal of discussion. While many agreed with his point of view, some took a completely different position, particularly John Harrington. Those who had opposing views felt that doing work for free adversely affects the way a professional photographer's value is perceived. You can read the debate on the Strobist site, so I won't rehash the arguments here.
But it got me to thinking that much, as I hate to say it, I believe the days of the professional photographer are largely numbered. I say this for a couple of reasons. Technology has brought convenience and simplicity making it easy for camera-owners to shoot properly-focussed, well-exposed, pictures -- the fact that little thought or creativity is involved, means nothing. Consumers of images have, since the advent of web publishing, been dumbed down and most wouldn't know quality if it walked up and slapped them in the face.

Anyone with a camera

Nowadays, anyone with a digital camera, figures he or she is, or can be, a professional photographer. By way of example, I live in a small town in South Africa that has fallen on hard times as a result of local gold mines shutting down. There are 57 "wedding photographers" here, pretty well all of whom are equipped with a digital camera, painfully slow kit zoom lens (most don't know what that means) and built-in, pop up flash. Their standard operating procedure is to speculatively shoot around 1400 images, download them, burn a CD and present it to the client at the end of the wedding. They justify this mediocrity as "photojournalistic wedding photography," although the nearest any of these "photographers" has ever come to photojournalism is buying a newspaper from a street-corner vendor.
They are happy to work at a rate that, in many cases, just covers traveling expenses. But the client is happy because he's never seen better or "just good enough" is indeed good enough.
Recently, a young-buck newspaper sports photographer asked how I could shoot a motorcycle race with a manual Nikkormat that doesn't autofocus, has no motor-drive and does not allow me to immediately see the shot taken. He spoke from behind some or other 10 frames per second DSLR. As soon as I started to explain zone focussing and the decisive moment, his eyes glazed over. He had no clue what I was talking about an mumbled that those things didn't bother him, he simply put the camera on "auto" and of the hundreds of images he shot he was sure some would be good enough for publication.
I do not think it is the guy shooting for free that is going to put the pro out of business. I think the wave of technology - in much the same way easily-used office software signalled the doom of typists - and the general acceptance of mediocrity, where purchasers of photography can't recognise the quality offered by the true professional, will do that.
It's sad but I think we are a bunch of dinosaurs in a rapidly-developing ice-age.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A story of unthinkable love and courage!

When I worked for newspapers, magazines and news agencies I was always on the lookout for the big story. The story that would move people, get them talking, be remembered for years to come. Although I did some substantial articles none comes anywhere close to the story that follows.
Today I came across a tale of unimaginable courage and love. It's by no means my "scoop", in fact almost 10 million people have already downloaded the video but I do not remember ever being moved as much by any other story.
This is the background information I received:
A son asked his father, "Dad, will you take part in a marathon with me?"
The father who, despite having a heart condition, said "Yes".
They went on to complete the marathon together.
Father and son went on to do other marathons. The father always said, "Yes" when his son asked them to race together.
One day, the son said, "Dad, can we do the Iron Man together?" to which his father replied: "Yes".
The Hawaiian Iron Man is considered the toughest triathlon in the world. Competitors must complete three endurance events in the race: a 2.4 mile (3.86 km) ocean swim, followed by a 112 mile (180.2 kilometer) bike ride, then end with a 26.2 mile (42.195 kilometer) marathon run along the coast of the Big Island, Hawaii.
The father and son went on to complete the race together.

Do yourself a favour and take the time to view this 4 minute 36 second video. It will uplift your spirits!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Everything you ever wanted to know about the credit crunch but were too afraid to ask.

Although this blog is mainly about photography I got sent this and thought it was simply too funny not to share.
Here follows everything you wanted to know about the credit crunch but were always too afraid to ask.

Q: With the current market turmoil, what's the easiest way to make a small fortune?
A: Start off with a large one.

Q: What's the difference between an investment banker and a large pizza?
A: A large pizza can feed a family of four.

I went to the ATM this morning and it said "insufficient funds".
I'm wondering is it them or me.

Q: What's the difference between Investment Bankers and London Pigeons?
A: The Pigeons are still capable of making deposits on new BMW's.

Q: What have Icelandic banks and an Icelandic streaker got in common?
A: They both have frozen assets.

You know it's a credit crunch when…

1. The cash point asks if you can spare any change.
2. There's a 'buy one, get one free' offer - on banks.
3. The IRS is offering a 25 per cent discount for cash-payers.
4. UK Prime minister Gordon Brown has stopped chewing his nails and started sucking his thumb.
5. Your builder asks to be paid in Zimbabwean dollars rather than US dollars.

Q: What's the capital of Iceland?
A: About $3.50.

Uncertainty has now hit Japan. In the last seven days, Origami bank has folded, Sumo Bank has gone belly up and Bonsai Bank has announced plans to cut some of its branches. Yesterday, it was also announced that Karaoke Bank will go up for sale and will likely go for a song, while shares in Kamikaze Bank were suspended today after they nose-dived. While Samurai Bank is soldiering on after sharp cutbacks, 500 staff at Karate Bank got the chop and analysts report that there is something fishy going on at Sushi Bank, where it is feared that staff may get a raw deal.

Q: What's the difference between an American and a Zimbabwean?
A: In a few weeks, nothing.

Q: George Bush was asked today "what did he think of the Credit Crunch?"
A: He replied: "It was his favourite Candy Bar."