Coming of age.

By , July 4, 2017 3:50 pm

There are three types of photographer: hobbyists, professionals, and artists. While their motivations are different, and the distinctions between each group are frequently blurred, they are united by a common approach. While others “take” photographs, serious practitioners “make” them. And their success is determined by two things: knowing what they want to say, and knowing to whom they are saying it. Photography is a means of communication, and becoming proficient at it has always been about finding one’s voice. But to really excel you have to be moved enough not only to have something that you wish to say, but also to know how best to say it.

Perhaps commercial photography is made easier by having the message and the audience clearly defined by the client’s brief, while for the hobbyist the critic and the author are frequently one and the same. This is not to say that producing good work is easy for either, because it is not. A commercial client can have exceptionally exacting standards, as can the hobbyist. But for the true artist photographer, coming of age is measured by that moment when they manage to bring alignment to their work, their audience, and the message they feel so compelled to tell, without the luxury of someone else setting the brief or the comfort of being one’s own audience.

Miah H Rachel Molina Seen But Not Heard

From Seen But Not Heard, this image was selected for inclusion in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015. Photo © Rachel Molina.

To use a schooling analogy, most photographers with artistic aspirations never progress beyond primary level. Their work lacks maturity, finesse, and a cohesive narrative. Those who make it further often find it comes after many, many years of experimentation and soul-searching to find their métier. It is that which makes Rachel Molina’s first exhibited body of work so unusual.

Seen But Not Heard is a series of portraits of children in a transitional phase of their lives. Moving from the closeted safety of primary school to the greater independence of secondary school they are, much like Molina, forced to come to terms with a future where they must give more of themselves to their education. As Molina points out it marks the start of the transition from child to adult, a period she felt compelled to explore because her eldest son was making that transition himself, although he does not figure in the work.

Thirty-one portraits, a class in size, of children from various schools and very different backgrounds in South East London look out across the horizons of their own futures. Some hold the gaze of the viewer, others look instead to middle-distance of their own hopes and aspirations.

Tom Seen But Not Heard Rachel Molina

From Seen But Not Heard. The subjects come from very diverse backgrounds, and while all are broadly the same age at the time of the sitting (year 6 at primary school) each has very different levels of self-assuredness. Photo: © Rachel Molina

Each subject is unique. Caught in their own environs, surrounded by the paraphernalia of individual circumstances. Some sit comfortably in their skins, their demeanour resolute and sure, displaying a confidence which belies their tender age. Others are more circumspect; wary of the viewer, and nervous of what the future might hold. A testimony accompanies each: the sitter’s ambitions and trepidations about the future in their own words.

The quality of the work was first spotted by the judges of the 2015 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize when they selected one of the portraits, Miah H, to be included in the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Subsequently the work was picked up by the Guardian Online before she was offered the chance to exhibit the project in its entirety.

There is a tendency with portraits of children for them to be either critical or saccharine depending on the proclivities of the photographer, but Molina has achieved the considerable feat of making portraits which are neither judgemental nor sensationalised, and in doing so she has allowed genuine intimacy to flourish between her and the subjects, and kept that door open briefly for us as viewers to enter the worlds of these children. Given the diversity of characters in the project it is that singular accomplishment which marks Seen But Not Heard out as an eloquent and mature body of work. That it is Molina’s first major body of work is nothing short of phenomenal, and if you think I am overdoing this praise I would urge you to take it up with the V&A Museum of Childhood – they are the ones who have chosen to exhibit it for five months.

Jessica Seen But Not Heard Rachel Molina

From Seen But Not Heard. The transition from primary to secondary education marks the start of a child’s progression to adulthood as they are increasingly asked to make decisions for themselves and hold themselves accountable for their actions. Photo: © Rachel Molina

The children in Seen But Not Heard are now all well settled in secondary school, and none will be under any illusion about the fact that to succeed in this new world they must reach deep within themselves to get the most from their education. So too for Molina. Having set the bar so high with her first body of work the test is now to produce something new which draws on her clearly considerable talents, but does so without being derivative of what she has already achieved. Having found her voice I look forward to hearing what she has to say next.


Seen But Not Heard is on show at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green until November 19.

Just how dishevelled is BoJo?

By , March 18, 2016 1:05 pm

London Mayor Boris Johnson is famed for his dishelevelled appearance, his apparent disarray as always been his visual signature. But I have wondered whether it actually is a contrivance, or based on a more compelling desire for comfort over presentation.

A week ago I was on assignment to document his first big speech for the campaign for the UK to leave the EU at the referendum in June. During a few moments of looking around I noticed his shoes.

You don’t fake that. Boris wants to be comfortable.

Boris Johnson's shoes

London Mayor, Boris Johnson, gave his first big speech on leaving the EU at a logistics warehouse in Dartford. His shoes suggest that his unkempt manner is based on comfort.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2016

It’s tough to be Independent.

By , February 13, 2016 10:53 am

The sad, albeit inevitable, news of the demise of The Independent as a printed publication reminded me of an interview I conducted some 17 years ago with Colin Jacobson. The interview was about his brilliant Reportage magazine, and foretold its inevitable closure in print form. Much like The Independent today it was compelled to become an online resource, but considering we are talking about 1999 when the web was in its infancy, it was a poignant indicator of the way things were going. Why is this relevant? Jacobson was probably best known for being the founding editor of the Independent Magazine back in 1988. The Independent may be highly regarded for the quality of its writing now, but in its heyday it was universally admired by photographers for the quality of the images it used, and the prominence with which it used them. That drive to make photographs of primary rather than secondary (or space-filling) importance within the paper was in no small part due to Jacobson and those with whom he worked, and it attracted photographers of the very highest calibre to work with them. When other publications shunned black and white for being an anachronism, The Independent proudly proclaimed that it was the quality of the image that mattered, and to photographers that mattered and the paper and Jacobson were seen as their champions.

The interview may be older than the digital revolution, but what it has to say is just as pertinent now. The online version of Reportage is still available, although has not been updated in fourteen years. Here’s hoping that the Inde online is more successful.



An Interview with Colin Jacobson


As men of vision go, Colin Jacobson is an unlikely example. Soft spoken, bespectacled, and, it appears, utterly at ease with life. But looks deceive, and he definitely has a vision, albeit one which by his own admission is self-indulgent.

In 1993 Jacobson launched Reportage, a magazine for quality black and white photojournalism. Image led, it was inevitably hailed as a Picture Post for the nineties. But poor business decisions and Jacobson’s reluctance to compromise on quality led to its demise in 1995.

At about the same time, the arguments about the death of photojournalism became a favourite in the pages of the photographic press. Perhaps it was coincidence. Nevertheless, the received wisdom was, “nice try, but the genre’s dead.” It was, therefore, something of a surprise when Reportage was relaunched in the winter of 1997.

Working in London’s Shoreditch, Jacobson is now guiding his creation into the second year of its second incarnation. It’s make or break time and, quietly, he knows it. Files and papers all around him an exercise in controlled chaos; the hum of his Mac standing in for the insects oddly missing from a humid summer’s day, he took time out to consider how he had reached this point in his life.

Jacobson’s career seems in retrospect to have been grooming him for Reportage.

“I started as picture researcher for The Sunday Times Magazine in 1971. At the time it was a very strong magazine with topical features. They had Don McCullin going out to Vietnam. It was in the tradition of front-line reporting. My job was to find photographs to illustrate texts that were already written. It was a very good learning school because at that time it was definitely the most influential magazine in the world.”

From there he moved on to become photo editor on the Economist, before working on a short-lived but interesting magazine called Now.

“It was the first real attempt to launch in the UK a news magazine a bit like Paris Match, or Stern – a kind of hybrid between that and Time or Newsweek. A lot of text at the front and back but the centre of the magazine was visual. You always had a strong photoessay in the middle, which was usually news related. A lot of our stories were the first to be published in the world, like the Reagan assassination attempt, which we got out very quickly the day after. That was a fast moving magazine but unfortunately it closed after eighteen months because it wasn’t making any money.”

Did that set the seed for Reportage?

“Not really. Where you could say it planted a seed was my realising that the best photography always comes from a particular individual’s perspective. The way the photographer sees the story is the difference between ordinary photography and memorable photography.”

Another lesson he took from Now, was that a good picture magazine does not need high profile writing staff. The major input should be visual not textual. But he is adamant that this is not the same as saying that good captioning and well written text cannot enhance an already powerful set of pictures.

“Despite the fact that Reportage is an attempt to swing the balance towards the visual, as opposed to the textual, I do believe very strongly in good text. Photojournalism means context – photography in journalism – so it requires good headlines, good intros, good captions, good text to make it all work. I have a couple of volunteer slave labourers who help with the text. I hope that the text is not just throw-away, I am really trying to avoid that.”

From Now he moved to the Observer Magazine as photo editor for six years before a very brief excursion to another short-lived paper, News On Sunday. When that closed after only eight weeks, he freelanced for a year, editing the photography for Chronicle of the Twentieth Century before landing the job for which he is probably best known, founding picture editor on the Independent Magazine in 1988.

“The first few years of that magazine we achieved something really quite special in British magazine journalism. But all these things have a kind of life, and after a few years somebody decides on a change for no apparent reason. I left the Independent in 1995 just after the Mirror group bought the paper.”

The fact that he started Reportage while still working for The Independent is telling. Such a massive undertaking would put most people off.

“My spell at the Independent made me realise that nobody was doing the stories that we began to do. Once we started showing we were prepared to do black and white stories, and not about famous people or lifestyles, we started getting a lot of submissions. I realised just how much work there was out there that wasn’t getting published.

After three years the Independent Magazine got a new editor who wanted to make it more glamorous – much more like any other magazine really, and less like the magazine it had been. That’s the point at which I started Reportage because I wanted to find a home for this work which was either not being published at all, or if it was, it was very truncated – maybe just one big picture and a little one, and that was it.

It was a shame that somebody was spending a lot of time on a good story, producing maybe ten or fifteen excellent pictures, and then no one could see them. So I started the magazine in 1993 with the hope of providing an alternative to the mainstream magazines.”

Reportage is characterised by its high quality – quality paper, quality printing, quality design, and of course the quality images. If his motivation was to publish unseen work, surely it would have made more sense to compromise on the quality in order to reduce costs, lower the cover price, and give the magazine a greater chance of success?

“It was a time when the broadsheet magazines were going towards newsprint, so the reproduction was pretty mediocre. I wanted something that was going to be more collectible. I knew it was going to be expensive to produce anyway, and that it was not going to be a cheap magazine to subscribe to, so I felt people would want to get something of value.

It was an expensive subscription, particularly for a quarterly magazine with not that many pages. It started out at £12 in 1993. I wanted to persuade people that this was worth having, by having something well printed, and well designed; something that people wouldn’t just throw away like most colour magazines these days; something lasting, which in a sense, put together over a year would be a bit like a small book. You had an investment in something which you could keep.”

In the editorial to the pilot issue, Jacobson wrote that “in the minds of most people the distinction between photography as self expression and photography as a documentary tool still exists.”

“I think the guidelines are being merged more and more between documentary photography, photojournalism, and press photography. You could say that reportage is a kind of “catch all” description. But I think press photography is becoming dominated by digital technology, and to my mind suffers. What is paramount now is speed. The speed at which you can get something on the page. I think that is having a destructive effect on press photography generally, if you look at the quality overall of national newspapers in Britain today.

At the other end of the spectrum is documentary photography. This is becoming much more obscure. Documentary is getting closer to art in that it is more about personal expression than chronicling something out there in the world. It is tending to become more about a subjective assessment of a subject. Documentary photography is a lot more about combining fragments of this or details of that, and putting it all together as a show. I think that’s what has happened a lot in documentary practice. It’s becoming a curatorial product rather than a photography product.

In terms of photojournalism, I think the real problem – in Britain anyway – is that the outlets are going. Other outlets are replacing them. Like the Internet, which is available for photographers to show their work, but they don’t make any money out of it. Photojournalists are finding it difficult to survive. Some are reaching into commercial work and advertising, or company reports – well paid, but not very challenging in terms of being a photojournalist. Others are working in more focussed ways in niche magazines. These specialist magazines have good opportunities for photographers, but they are not going to give the same job satisfaction that photojournalists would get from say the Sunday Times Magazine.”

Does he feel then that the documentary rôle of photography needs to be protected?

“Yes. There is this big contemporary post-modern debate about, ‘is there any such thing as truth; can we ever talk about anything as being objective anymore?’ To me a lot of it is a philosophical game, because actually most people would agree a normal kind of reality. Like if you drop a pen from your hand it will fall downwards and not upwards. You accept this without asking if it’s true or false; it’s a common reality. What I believe is that there is a certain kind of debate about photography which is at an esoteric level of curators, critics, teachers, where a lot of mind games are being played. But I don’t think it is touching the greater public, who by and large still believe, despite all the evidence of manipulation digitally or non-digitally, in what they see in photographs. They accept it as a form of evidence and appreciate it as a kind of contemporary history. The general public are the people I am trying to get to. I am not really trying to get to the people who are happy to reject classical photography as meaningless, because as far as I can see it does have meaning if you want it to have meaning.”

So we arrive at the critics who from the outset felt that Jacobson and Reportage were trying to keep alive something they regard as an anachronism.

“That is a totally valid observation, but in the end you do what you want to do and what you believe in.

Most of what we understand about the past is mediated through pictures – a lot of it photography. Our understanding of Belsen comes very much through George Rodger’s pictures. What I can never quite understand about post-modern attitudes is that if they consider this kind of work as no longer valid, who’s going to provide this kind of history? It’s certainly not going to be through some of the post-modern work we see in the Photographers Gallery all the time. I mean what are people going to think in twenty years time when we look back on photography in the Nineties? What sense of society are they going to get? I don’t think they will get a very representative sense from this work.

I am quite happy to accept that a lot of stuff I publish is very “classical”, but I don’t see that as a pejorative word. Many of the outlets for photography on the page, apart from the mainstream publications, are into the avant-garde, and new ways of seeing. Fine, I have no argument with that, but I think somebody has still got to keep representing this classical stuff.”

If the need for Reportage is as real as he suggests, why did the magazine fold after only two years?

“The big problem with the first incarnation was that we printed far too many copies. We stupidly decided not only to supply subscribers, but also shops through wholesale distribution. We printed substantially higher numbers than we needed. About five or six thousand per issue for the first year, with about three and a half thousand subscribers at the end of that year. Our second problem was that all subscriber based magazines lose a high proportion of their subscribers at the end of the first year. You have to send a lot of letters out to people to remind them to resubscribe. Now it’s fine if you are Time or Newsweek because you can just keep doing it automatically. But every time I set up to do it, it cost me over £1000, and I could only afford to do it two or three times. So that was a reason why we never managed to get back our basic subscriber base. But maybe a lot of people didn’t like the magazine as well I don’t know.”

Having turned to other things, a chance encounter gave Jacobson the opportunity to try again. For most it would have been a case of once bitten, twice shy, but not Colin.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I would get a chance to relaunch. I hooked up with this publisher in Holland who is publishing it now. We met at Perpignan during the first incarnation and he rather off-handedly said he would always like to help. When I bumped into him again I told him what had happened and he asked if I would like to try again if he could raise the money. To which I said sure, I don’t want to lose my own money again! So eventually we did this one-off prototype for the new series. Then he managed to get a grant out of Canon Europe, which took us through to the end of the first four issues, and Canon Europe undertook to provide the same money for the second four issues. So we have that cushion. It’s not ideal to be dependent on sponsorship or grants. What we aim to do is to increase the subscriber base so that we can feel like we are our own people.

With the second incarnation we have a much more coherent strategy. We only print enough for our known subscribers plus some extras. The unit costs have fallen dramatically, but it’s still not cheap.”

Once more he finds himself holding his breath to see if people renew, which is, perhaps, a bigger question than the first time given the big increase in the subscription price since the first incarnation. If being a conduit for good contemporary photojournalism is Reportage’s guiding philosophy, what does Jacobson see as being its future?

“We have always hoped we could achieve a subscriber base of five thousand – internationally – over a period of years. That would be our ideal target, especially when we hit America, which we are trying to do now. Then we would be in a position to commission work, as opposed to trawl it in.”

That kind of support would also raise the possibility of the occasional colour story. While his preference is for black and white he is not averse to colour.

“If I could afford to publish colour I would probably do one story per issue, but it would have to be a special story where colour actually added to your understanding of the pictures.”

Contrary to suggestions that he is antagonistic towards advertisers, Jacobson suggests that quite the reverse is true; he would welcome advertisers, but can’t get them because Reportage is too small.

“My experience is that it’s more difficult to get people in the UK to help or sponsor than in Europe.”

Is this symptomatic of a British malaise? Evidence on the street would suggest not. Photography seems to be going through a renaissance, and black and white is more popular than it has been for years. But how is it seen at the publishers’ level? Jacobson’s view is rather bleak.

“What I detect is a growing disrespect for photography in that it is seen as just there to fill a space. There is no real belief throughout a publication that photography has a contribution to make.”

Clearly his own view is diametrically opposed to this, and his belief is strong enough that he doesn’t take any pay from the magazine. Indeed, almost all those involved in Reportage are giving their services for little or nothing.

There is no question that Reportage is an excellent and unique magazine, and Jacobson will continue to put it together for as long as the money is available. It will be interesting to see how history reflects on the man and his creation. By rights he should succeed. Whether or not he does is down to the greater public he aims at. At £32 for four issues it is not cheap, but then again, things of value very rarely are.


Original published in The RPS Photographic Journal

We are always being influenced

By , February 4, 2016 3:36 pm

No matter how hard we try to pretend that we are doing things our own way, the fact of the matter is that there is very little we do which is original. Almost all the photographs we take will be informed or influenced by others we have seen in the past. Often that influence is gentle, almost hidden, but occasionally it is quite blatant.

Consider, for instance, this image which I took at a wedding shortly before Christmas. It was long service and I was exploring the rear of the church with a newly acquired (and utterly sublime) 56mm f1.2 on a Fuji X-Pro 1, when I saw a young girl playing with the votive candles, as I pulled the viewfinder to my eye I already new it was an image I had seen before.

Girl with votive candles

Girl with votive candles. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2015

The image it conjured in my mind was by the photographer David Seymour (aka Chim), of a girl called Tereska. The original caption for the photo said:

“Children’s wounds are not all outward. Those made in the mind by years of sorrow will take years to heal. In Warsaw, at an institute which cares for some of Europe’s thousands of “disturbed” children, a Polish girl named Tereska was asked to make a picture of her home. These terrible scratches are what she drew.”

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum 1948

Tereska draws her home, by David Seymour/Magnum. 1948

Clearly they are very different subjects, with one traumatised by war and concentration camps and the other presumably having had no experiences other than a safe a secure upbringing, and I am not trying to draw specific parallels between the two. But equally it is clear that the compositional elements of the older photograph by David Seymour of Magnum were informing the decisions I made as I moved to take that photograph in December.

Good things come to those who wait

By , February 3, 2016 7:43 pm

Yesterday I began work on a new long-term commission, and was struck once again by the way that the smallest of things can resonate with you as a photographer. I have many things in the pipeline at the moment, all of which I have been plugging away at for months if not years. Now, it seems, all those hours of careful cultivation are about to bear fruit. My creative allotment offers many wonderful opportunities to harvest. But I am aware that I have neglected this, my blog.

Back to that moment of resonance, in a tired building somewhere in the UK. I opened a door, probably the thirtieth such door I had opened. On the wall opposite someone had written the message:

Good things come to those who wait

Derelict room with sink and faded carpet

Image from the series “Dreams once played here”. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2016


As the dust settles

By , May 8, 2015 10:59 am

At ten o’clock last night the polling booths closed, and the exit poll was announced to gasps of disbelief by just about everyone… except me. My only surprise was that the exit poll was only suggesting that the Conservatives would be the biggest party but still short of a majority. I have been saying to anyone who would listen that there would be a Conservative majority, albeit a slim one, but everyone told me I was wrong.

It was not wishful thinking on my part, as I was not specifically looking for a Tory win. I foresaw the result because it was blindingly obvious if you stopped looking at the polls, and started to look at the broader political picture in the UK. The point at which I became utterly certain of a Tory majority was during the three way Question Time debate on the BBC. The audience gave all three mainstream leaders a hard time, but they tore Miliband to shreds. With almost any other audience I would not have been especially struck by that fact, but this was a Leeds audience – a Yorkshire audience. This was a traditional Labour heartland audience. The fact that that audience would not, could not, give Miliband an easier ride was a strident warning light on the election dashboard. At that point any lingering doubts I might have had were removed, and even if the Labour high command saw that warning light too, it was by then too late for them to “pull up” and avoid the crash.

The consequence of this is more nuanced and interesting than any of the pundits are suggesting, or might even have realised, and the lessons to be learned must be learned by both the politicians and the electorate.

Firstly there is the shift in the nature of British politics. Without electoral reform – which is not guaranteed by any means – the century of either Labour or Conservative majority governments is now over. But rather than the complex options of minority or multi-party coalition that the media has been chewing over for months, it will be a new choice of either slim Tory majorities or socialist/left-wing coalitions. Labour as a majority governing party is finished for at least a generation.

general election polling packs

Preparing the papers for the polling stations at a general election. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2015

Secondly, while many Tory supporters will be pumping their fists in the air at the prospect of unbridled power and the ability to push through their entire legislative programme, the reality is that all such plans will have to be tempered. The temptation is to say that the majority, no matter how slim, gives them a mandate to pursue their manifesto commitments, and with the kind of majorities that have existed in the past they would be right. But this is not that kind of majority – the spectacular results of the SNP in Scotland have put paid to that. David Cameron told the country as a whole at the time of the Scottish Independence referendum that he “passionately” believed in the Union. He must now prove that. An old majority would have allowed him to ride roughshod over the wishes of those who might not have elected him because those people would have represented an even spread of the Union. But the reality he wakes up to is a majority government with no legitimacy north of the border. Constitutionally it does have legitimacy, but electorally it does not, and how he and the Conservatives govern must take that into account. Anything less and the Scots will never forget it. Cameron faces the extremely effective double act of Salmond in Westminster and Sturgeon in Holyrood. Miliband may have lacked credibility and strategy, Sturgeon and Salmond do not, and Cameron needs to be smarter and more effective than he has ever been, and that might be too much for him. As things stand the vote in Scotland is similar to that for the referendum – the SNP may have won virtually all the seats, but thanks to the vagaries of first-past-the-post about 55% of the Scottish electorate did not vote for them. Consequently the opportunity exists for good leadership to strengthen and reform the Union, but the jury is out on whether Cameron is anything more than an effective middle-manager; he has yet to demonstrate the qualities of a national leader.

Then there is the Labour strategy: where did it go wrong? The lazy answer is that it went wrong the moment the Labour party elected Ed Miliband as its leader. I am sure he is a decent and honourable man, but political leadership demands many qualities, and most important amongst them is credibility. It might seem cruel, but that does not make it any less true. To put it another way, if all hell was breaking loose around you, would you want to be standing next to Bear Grylls or Alan Carr? Alan Carr might be a lovely bloke, but I don’t see him rescuing me from an avalanche. It doesn’t mean that he couldn’t or wouldn’t – he might actually turn out to be the best person to have in a tight situation, but it is the kind of thing you would only discover through chance circumstances. If you were putting someone on standby, you would choose Grylls because of the credibility factor. Ed Miliband was always lacking that credibility, and it was always going to count heavily against him, and, ironically, as we all know his brother David did not suffer that shortcoming. But ultimately the decisive factor was the tone the Labour party took under Miliband’s leadership: theirs was the politics of envy. It was at all times about bashing those who were well off, those who had done well and were continuing to do well for themselves. The problem with that approach is that it is divisive. It necessarily encourages an “us and them” attitude, and inevitably requires everyone to determine whether they are “us” or “them”. At no time, especially when things are tough, does division encourage people and nations to pull together for the common good, and a great many people (including people who are neither well-off nor succeeding) are instinctively turned off of politics that discourages success. This is not to say that all of Labour thinking was necessarily wrong, but rather than it was packaged in a way that was negative and discouraging. If Labour is to rebuild its base irrespective of whether it remains “old Labour” or returns to a more Blairite “New Labour”, it must address the way it deals with aspiration, and join the politics that encourages, celebrates and rewards it.

Finally there is the lesson that all politicians will take from the Lib Dem results. For at least ten years, and likely much longer, the electorate and the media have bemoaned the way politicians insist on playing party politics. “Why can’t they be more consensual? Why can’t they put political considerations to one side and work with each other in a more compromising way?” In 2010 the Lib Dems did precisely that. They put their own interests to one side to provide a mature and stable government when it was so desperately needed. They had to compromise, and the lion’s share of the compromise had to come from them as they were the junior party in the coalition. They could have chosen to be obstructive. They could have chosen to throw a spanner in the works at every opportunity to protect their political ideals, but they didn’t. Instead they did what the electorate and the media have so often said they wanted to see politicians do. And now they have been annihilated for it. Every politician returned to Westminster today will look at that and see clearly the effect on their position of open compromise and consensual politics: they get shafted by the electorate. So the next time you ask why politicians can’t be more cooperative with each other and stop playing party politics, remember that we all played our part in making them behave that way.

All that is required for evil to triumph…

By , January 27, 2015 4:20 pm
Work will set you free. The entrance to Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Work will set you free. The entrance to Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Suitcases of Auschwitz inmates. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Suitcases of Auschwitz inmates. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Some of the prosthetic limbs removed from Auschwitz inmates. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Some of the prosthetic limbs removed from Auschwitz inmates. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Watchtower and barbed wire. Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Watchtower and barbed wire. Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

The ovens. Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

The ovens. Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Watchtower, tracks and endless fences. Brzezinka (Birkenau). Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

Watchtower, tracks and endless fences. Brzezinka (Birkenau). Auschwitz. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1993.

…is for good men to do nothing.

Holocaust Memorial Day.

What’s in a box?

By , January 22, 2015 1:36 pm

The news today is dominated by talk of an impending vote on cigarette packaging, and more specifically on making it plain. But if we are being honest, describing the proposed packaging as plain is at best disingenuous. As far as I am concerned, this is plain cigarette packaging:


Plain fag packet

This is what plain packaging really looks like.


However, the intention is that “plain” packaging will look something like this:


Intended "plain" cigarette packaging as currently sold in Australia.

Anything but “plain” cigarette packaging as currently sold in Australia.


It is amusing to listen to pro-smoking lobby groups argue that “plain” packaging won’t make any difference to smoking uptake by the young, while the advocates for the change argue equally vociferously that it will. Both of them are lying, but for very different reasons. Starting with the tobacco companies, if their argument was correct you would have to ask why historically they all invested so much time, energy and creativity into their packaging, advertising design and branding. My suspicion is that they would be only too happy to settle for truly plain packaging (see my example at top), since they know it would have little impact on their overall sales and market share. Meanwhile the legislators and anti-smoking lobby are quick to say that packaging and branding influences the young and persuades them to start smoking, and that for that reason they need to have an “anti-branding” campaign (against smoking per se rather than a specific manufacturer or brand) to scare the daylights out of people based on the impact it might have on their health.

The great thing about being an adult is that you were once a youth yourself, and if you try hard enough you can remember exactly how you felt about things and reacted to them. So here is something I remember very clearly from my youth, an advert for Benson and Hedges:


Benson and Hedges Pyramid Ad.

Benson and Hedges Pyramid Ad.


I was at boarding school at the time, and I remember a friend, Kevin, sticking this picture up on his wall (along with the many others that the brand released over the period). I thought that this was so cool. Did it make me want to smoke? No, it made me want to be a graphic designer or a photographer (funny that – perhaps it was cigarettes that got me into what I have been doing for the last 20 years!). Did this advert make any of my friends want to smoke? No. It may well have influenced what brand those who did smoke chose to buy, but none of the very clever advertising of the time compelled people who didn’t light up to start. But to be fair the prevalence of cigarette advertising and the ubiquity of people smoking will have influenced a lot of teenagers into thinking that it would be OK if they did. Society did not treat smokers as pariahs in the way it does now, and there can be little doubt that alone has had a huge impact on persuading many never to take it up who might otherwise have done so. But the fact is that some people will always choose to smoke anyway, just like some people choose to take drugs. Indeed it can be the very illegality of it which creates an appeal that is unavoidable. As a result, a part of me wonders whether the “plain” packaging proposed might be less effective than genuinely plain packaging. After all, there can be very few people who are not totally aware of the negative effects of smoking on health, and from the point of view of teenage rebellion, nothing is more of a turn-off than bland.

What’s my point with all this? Partly it is wondering where the limits of state interference in people’s lives should be. Yes, smoking is harmful to your health, but it is still legal, as are many other things which are also harmful to your health. Are we going to go the same way with alcohol? What about sugary products? How about driving – should cars be “plain” by which I mean emblazoned with pictures of contorted bodies of people killed by not being careful enough? What about extreme sports? At what point are my choices MY choices, and is it time for the government to back out and leave us to live our lives as we choose? Increasingly the bean counters are looking to tighten everything to reduce the burden on the state, and while that is understandable surely there must be limits?

I am not a smoker, and I support the legislation that has been enacted over recent years. I love the fact that I can breathe in a pub or restaurant and not come home smelling like an ashtray after a night out. I would not like my own children to start smoking and the overall move to reduce its visibility and therefore acceptability is welcome. But if within this prevailing climate a free person chooses to smoke who am I to castigate them?

One sad part of all this is the effect on creativity within the industry. Cigarette packaging has a long history of great design, and the skill of the artists and designers over the years has been to tap into the prevailing zeitgeist and both reflect it and shape the styles of the times. To work on a small space and create something which reflects society and its sensibilities and fashions is a fabulous skill, one which has now been replaced by proscription and fear. It is a dying art and the death is happening elsewhere for different reasons too – think of the record or CD cover, slowly becoming irrelevant in the era of the digital download.


A discarded Gitanes package in Paris I photographed and made into an artwork which adorns the wall of another Kevin I know. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1992

A discarded Gitanes package in Paris I photographed and made into an artwork which adorns the wall of another Kevin I know.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 1992


The real reason I started this post is that the news reminded me of a grave I happened across about a year ago. Hidden in the undergrowth of the cemetery of St Mary’s Church in Bexley, less than a quarter of a mile from where I am sitting as I write this, is the headstone above a different box: the coffin of Walter Everett Molins. The headstone was so unusual that despite its hidden position I was convinced he must be a man of some significance, so I took a photo and looked him up.

Molins was born in New York, the son of Jose a Cuban who made cigars and hand rolling cigarettes in Havana in 1874. Jose came to London after a period in the US (when Walter was born). In 1911 Walter and his brother Harold invented a machine which could make almost any type of package, and in 1912 they set up the Molins Machine Company. In 1924 their Mark 1 machine was making 1000 cigarettes a minute and by 1931 they had also set up in Richmond, Virginia: the heart of the US tobacco industry. Walter invented a number of machines and packages for the tobacco industry, the patents for which still exist today, and indeed it was his son, Desmond who having joined the family business invented and patented the hinge-lid pack in 1937 that is so ubiquitous today, and is the basis for all the discussions about the design which should or should not exist upon them. Interestingly Philip Morris relaunched the Marlboro brand in 1954 using the Molins’ designed pack, and it was instantly successful with a 50 fold increase in sales. Perhaps the legislators should be looking at the physical design of the cartons rather than what is printed upon them!

What, I wonder, would Molins make of the discussions today? He is quite literally the father of the modern cigarette pack, but he was an engineer at heart, and no doubt he would simply have worked the problem like all engineers do. The company he created still exists today. Molins PLC had sales of £105.2 million in the year to 31 December 2013, with bases in the UK, the US, Canada, Holland, Brazil, Russia and Singapore. Not bad for figuring out how to pack a few fags.


The grave of Walter Everett Molins.

The grave of Walter Everett Molins. St Mary’s Bexley. Molins invented much of the machinery used in the manufacture and packaging of cigarettes, and his son invented the modern flip-top cigarette carton. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013


We too shall pass…

By , January 20, 2015 3:07 pm

In the normal course of our lives we meet thousands, if not tens of thousands of people. We do things for them, and they do things for us. Or, perhaps, we get in their way, or they get in ours. We may only exchange a few words, but we impact upon each other.

Today the news is focused on Anne Kirkbride whose sad death has affected so many, and yet the irony is that the vast majority of those distressed by her passing will never have been in the same building with her, let alone exhanged words. Meanwhile faceless people slip away everyday, their passing noticed only by the few with whom they were initmately connected, and yet it is just possible that they will have had a more profound, more lasting impact on a great many more people throughout the their lives. One such person is Gail Swann.

Gail Swann - General Nursing Assistant. Photo from Phineas' Friends. © Michael Cockerham 2011

Gail Swann – General Nursing Assistant. Photo from Phineas’ Friends.
© Michael Cockerham 2011

I met Gail twice, I think. The first time she was caring for my critically ill son, Phineas, then three weeks old while he was at the Evelina Children’s Hospital. My only recollection of her at that meeting was that she was calm, warm and professional. The second time was when she sat for me for my project Phineas’ Friends. Again, she was calm, engaged, polite and professional. I am not entirely certain that she was sure what I was trying to do, but she knew that my intentions were honourable and she was keen to be involved.

I found out today that Gail died from cancer last month, and I was struck by just how saddened I was to learn of this. Perhaps it is because I could so readily put a face to the name, that I could recall exactly how she influenced my life – the lives of my wife, my other children, my family and friends – and most especially Phineas himself. Gail may not directly have been the one who saved his life, but she was utterly instrumental, and as a part of that team, as a part of Phineas’ Friends, I am eternally indebted to her.

In some respects I am lucky. I know who Gail was and I could say thank you. But there will have been thousands, tens of thousands of people whose lives she will have touched over her career, who would have wanted to say thank you to her but never thought to do so until after she was no longer involved with them. They may not have known her name, or the specific role she played in treating them or their children, but if they had I have no doubt that they too would have been upset to learn of her death. They too would have mourned her and wanted to say good bye and the “thank you” that escaped them when it was appropriate. They would have wanted to express their sympathies to Gail’s own daughters.

Perhaps I can do it for all of us: Gail, thank you. You will be missed.

A very special publication

By , November 17, 2014 1:47 pm

It has been a bit of a publishing fest at Blue Filter. Along with notification of A Good School (now available to order online), I am also pleased to announce publication of WAKE.

WAKE is a highly personal body of my own work, which depicts the funeral, burial and celebration of one of my closest friends. Neil died quite unexpectedly in January of 2013 leaving his family and friends stunned and numb with disbelief. Some years previously Neil had asked whether I would be an executor on his will, and I had agreed, remarking loudly at the time that I thought it might give me something to do in my seventies.

Neil was probably my biggest fan, and I had no doubt at all that he would want me to photograph his funeral, and I knew that somwhere the resulting photographs would help me come to terms with his death. He owned the business next to mine, and we shared office space, and after a while I became aware of the truth of what people say about grief coming over you in waves. The more I thought about those waves the more the word “wake” came into my thinking. How apt it is.

Committing Neil's body to the ground.

Committing Neil’s body to the ground.

It is now nearly two years since his death, and I have revisited the photographs as we have finally reached the conclusion of our duties executing his will. I wanted to make something that was at once transient and permanent, so I conceived of a magazine format publication. Magazines are by their nature disposable. But occasionally we come across an issue which strikes a chord, and we keep it; treaure it even.

WAKE is strictly limited to 51 copies, one for each year of Neil’s life, and most of the edition has already gone. A few remain. If you would like to have a wave of his life wash over you, even though you may not have known him yourself, you can order a copy here.

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