Category: Photographs

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.

No ordinary field

By , May 2, 2013 10:53 am

The great joy of being a photographer is the access to things and places you might not otherwise see. An associated pleasure comes from talking to people and listening to the little gems of information that they might pass on. I have to confess that I am not very good at listening – it is a skill I am constantly trying to improve, ever mindful of the old adage that we have two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in equal measure!

Anyway, for the past few months I have been engaged in a commission, a side-effect of which is that I have discovered some fascinating things (largely as a result of chance conversations with people I have happened across) about the area in which my studio is based, including some places which I have passed on many occasions without a second glance. Which leads me nicely to this image here.

Sir Hiram Maxim and powered flight bexley

No ordinary field.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

We all know from our schooling that the first powered flight of a heavier than air vehicle took place at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in December of 1903. Thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright and their Flyer, aviation as we know it was born. Now consider this unremarkable cricket pitch at Baldwyn’s Park just outside Bexley in Greater London.

On July 31st, 1894, Hiram Maxim with a crew of three, piloted an aircraft of his own invention down a 1,800 foot test track sited where this cricket pitch now basks in the spring sun. The aircraft weighted about 8,000 lbs and was powered by two 360 horse power steam engines (yes, steam engines!). About half way down the track it took off and flew for a distance of about 100 feet before crashing back down to the ground again. It was only meant to be a test, and didn’t fly very high –  some two or three feet up. But despite its instability it proved that very heavy machines could indeed get off the ground and stay up. All that was needed was to understand and develop the means of controlling such craft.

Sadly Maxim did not really pursue his flying invention (although he did invent many other notable things, and is worthy of further investigation). Amercian born he became a naturalised British Subject in 1900, and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1901. It is telling that he was asked towards the end of his life in 1916 about the lack of monument to his work at Baldwyns Park. His response was that the authorities had “demonstrated their appreciation by building the largest, finest and best-equipped lunatic asylum in the world there!”.

So the next time you’re boarding an aircraft somewhere in the world, think about this bit of green in South East London where a little bit of history was made nearly ten years before the Wright Brothers.

Silk purses and sow’s ears.

By , March 8, 2013 10:40 pm

In my last post I mentioned that I could pick up a guitar and make a noise with it, but that it did not make me a musician.

One photographer who was a musician was the great Ansel Adams – a virtuoso pianist by all accounts. Unsurprisingly he was disposed to musical metaphors when talking about photography, and perhaps his most well known proclamation was that the negative is akin to a musical score, while the print is the performance.

A couple of days ago the following photo appeared in my personal Facebook news feed.

Tracy, poorly "performed".

Tracy, poorly “performed”.

It is a “portrait” of a good friend of my wife. I didn’t take it, and I don’t know who did. But my reaction on seeing it was that it was the photographic equivalent of my playing the guitar, but with a slight twist. In this case a photo that I wouldn’t ordinarily have given a second glance caught my eye because the problem was not with the “score” as such, but the “performance”. It had been posted five years ago, but in all that time had merited virtually no attention from her friends, until someone happened to comment on it this week – hence it appearing in my newsfeed.

I couldn’t help myself. I pulled the photo from Facebook, spent 90 seconds retouching it, and then reposted it to her Facebook wall with a tongue-in-cheek quip apologising for touching her up in public.

The reaction was immediate, positive and huge. And it just goes to show that while being able to “see” a good photo at the time of taking is important, part of that creative vision has also got to be about visualising the “performance” of that musical score.

Tracy re-imagined or re-performed.

Tracy re-imagined or re-performed.

A cruel world

By , February 19, 2013 11:08 am

Sometimes life can be ever so cruel.

My last post was published on January 26. A fairly mundane article about the cameras I have owned, I chose to title it “So Long Old Friend”. The following day, the 27th, quite unexpectedly one of my closest friends dropped down dead.

I spoke with him often about the idea of photographing funerals, and he had agreed that in this country our relationship with the death of friends and family is too introspective and not celebratory enough. He thought it was something I should push.

In honour of him, I photographed his funeral, and the response of his family and friends has been overwhelming. It is perhaps best summed up by his oldest friend, Connal. The two had been friends from the age of 6, and Neil was 51 when he died. Connal wrote to me yesterday:

Thank you for your incredible photograph. You found beauty and grace beneath a flat grey sky and captured all that was special about a day of sadness and love. Neil always said you were a brilliant photographer and he was right.

So long old friend.

burial, funeral, cortege, clandon wood

The mourners follow Neil to his last resting place at Clandon Wood. February 15, 2013.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

Movement

By , January 5, 2013 4:10 pm

I have often been struck by movement and stillness as subjects for photography, and airports are a great source of images relating to these two, apparently disparate themes.

Just before Christmas I was at Edinburgh airport to catch a flight back to London. Not for the first time (and no doubt not for the last) I learned that my flight was delayed, and thought of the irony of the speediest form of transport leaving me motionless and still.

I waited. The airport seemed such a haven of calm and quiet as I sat in my own bubble of existence. I stared out of the window at an expanse of sun dappled apron which seemed so calm. Every now and then something moved in my field of vision. I was motionless, and these little “creatures” scurrying across my view like rodents were the only movements in my life for that time. I resolved to record every movement while I waited for my own life to move once more.

Movement

Movement
© Michael Cockerham 2012

The resulting piece of work, “Movement” was created over a period of 28 minutes. It exists as a limited edition of 3 prints, printed on Canson Platine Fibre Rag, sized 24″x20″. The first print in the edition is priced at £20, the second at £40, and the final print at £80. No further prints of this work will be made.

What a difference a day makes.

By , November 20, 2012 11:44 pm

Taking beautiful pictures is all very well, but creating images which make a difference has always been my motivation. It sounds rather highfalutin, but it can be as simple as producing a set of wedding photographs that are prized and treasured by the subjects. Knowing that they will be cherished and examined for generations to come is hugely pleasing.

At a more profound level is the the thought that images might inform and consequently change behaviour, affecting people’s lives for the better. This kind of ambition is most often heard from photojournalists. Some of them manage to make that difference, but to be frank the only way to achieve it is to pitch the stories in the right way to the right audience. Too often a good story is presented to an audience which either already knows the subject or is unlikely to be affected and react to it.

As I have mentioned previously on Blue Filter, I created the story Phineas’ Friends to do two things: raise the profile of the Evelina Children’s Hospital, and educate people about the huge teams of specialists which are the reality of 21st Century hospital-based health care.

Initially the aim was to shoot the story and get it published in a weekend colour supplement, which was achieved in the Guardian Weekend magazine.

Phineas' Friends in the Guardian Weekend magazine

Phineas’ Friends in the Guardian Weekend magazine

Following that publication I was contacted by many people who had been affected by the article, and there was a surge in sales of the book both as paperback and iBook. It would have been easy to let it drop at that point and move on to other things, but I was conscious that only a small fraction of the country reads the Guardian, and I wanted to push on for publication in more widely read periodicals.

On the back of the Guardian publication I was approached by a freelance journalist who wanted to do a completely different treatment of the story for a cheap women’s weekly called Pick Me Up. In essence I was told that they weren’t interested in my story as such because I was a man (interestingly Marie Claire had very nearly taken the story instead of the Guardian but didn’t because it was felt that their readers wouldn’t connect with a story created by a man – nice to see sexism is still alive and well), but that they would like to do something from my wife’s point of view. We – my wife and I – agonised over this for months before coming to the conclusion that if my ambition really was to raise the profile of the hospital we should let it go ahead. We pushed to make sure that Phineas’ Friends got a good mention, and that links to this blog were included to boost sales of the book. Having seen the Guardian Big Picture run in October of 2011, Pick Me Up ran their story in March of 2012.

If I am honest the writing in Pick Me Up made me cringe, but I let it wash over me, reminding myself why I had done it. As it happens, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I made. Within a couple of days I took a call from another journalist saying she had seen the story in Pick Me Up, and that the Daily Mail was interested in running my story over half a page. That subsequently became a page, then two pages, and finally three full pages. To get three full pages in a national daily on a piece that doesn’t involve a terrorist attack or some major scandal is almost unheard of, and from the perspective of broadening the base of people who would see my story I could not possibly have asked for anything better.

A spread from the Daily Mail

A spread from the Daily Mail

To put this in context, the Daily Mail is the second highest circulation daily in the UK, with figures for June of this year of 1.93 million. Only The Sun manages higher figures with 2.58 million, and the third placed Mirror sold nearly a million less than the Mail per day. Add to that the fact that the Mail Online overtook the New York Times earlier this year to become the most widely read online English language news website in the world with nearly 60 million distinct readers a month, and Phineas’ Friends (and by extension, the Evelina) was going to get huge exposure in front of a massive audience.

Working with the editors and journalists at The Mail was a pleasure, if somewhat intense. I think in the final few days prior to publication I must have been on the phone either to them or people at the Evelina every five minutes checking facts or getting quotes.

What a difference a day makes.

Within an hour of waking up on that Tuesday morning in April when the Mail was published, my phone started to ring off the hook. First the local BBC news wanted to know if they could come out to do a piece on me that day for the evening news, then the local newspaper group asked for interviews. Then ITV rang to ask if I would go on Daybreak. Then I was asked to do a radio interview. It went on like that all day.

I had mistakenly thought that it would be a normal day, and had a commercial shoot scheduled in Whitstable. But by the time I finished that shoot at 1pm my day had changed beyond recognition. A journalist met me in the car park in Whitstable to record an interview for the local radio. I had answered questions for a paper on the drive back to my office, and taken calls to agree to the story running in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Record, and agreed syndication on the story.

During all this I arranged to go into the BBC South East Today studio to do a live interview on the evening news, and also agreed to an early wake-up to go into the Daybreak studios in central London on Wednesday morning. As a result I was also giving details to the researchers for the BBC and ITV, and making arrangements to get the pictures to both for the video walls they had in mind for the interviews.

Michael Cockerham on BBC South East

Michael Cockerham on BBC South East

Me and Phineas on local BBC news

At least they got my name right on the caption – the presenter called me Michael Cockerman three times, although I didn’t notice at the time.

It was a fraught and chaotic period, especially the appearance on Daybreak since the taxi they sent for us got caught in traffic and we ended up arriving at the studio less than five minutes before we were due on air. Walking through the empty sound-stages with people doing our make up as we went was surreal. We sat on the couch opposite the presenters and went on air almost immediately with no time for preparation of any kind.

Within a couple of days I had given an extended live interview on BBC Radio, and started to see references to the story on the international newswires as far afield as Russia and Malaysia. And you really know that the story is big when you get your own tabloid moniker: I had become “Grateful Dad”.

As welcome as all this was it would be disingenuous to suggest that I expected all of it, because I didn’t. But none of it has surprised me as much as the quieter things that have happened and continued to happen since. It was when I began getting messages from doctors who said even they had no idea how many people were involved in treating a single patient that I started to realise the effect Phineas’ Friends was having on people.

With Phineas and my wife, Laura, on ITV's national Daybreak programme.

With Phineas and my wife, Laura, on ITV’s national Daybreak programme.

Of course the book sold in all three forms, and more money was raised for the Evelina. But then I started getting messages from other parents who were going through the same experience with parechovirus. This blog and my contact with them has helped them to get a better handle on their situation. I suppose it was obvious it might happen, but it genuinely never occurred to me beforehand.

People around me have have also started to change their behaviour. The lady who runs my sons’ kindergarten has taken on the chairmanship of an organisation for the coming year and chosen the Evelina as the preferred charity of the group. Local businesses that I work with have seen fit to have fundraisers for the Evelina, and have arranged for a very clever flyer to go in all their postal correspondence which encourages people to buy the iBook. Most have added a link to the iBook store in their email signature panels to encourage yet more sales. Friends and colleagues have chosen to support the Evelina in their various ways, whether running the marathon, or taking part in the Triathlon event next summer.

Julia George looks through Phineas' Friends while interviewing me for her show on BBC Radio Kent

Julia George looks through Phineas’ Friends while interviewing me for her show on BBC Radio Kent. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

A few months ago I was contacted by a clinical scientist from Edinburgh, a man who has been honoured for his work in transplant science. He told me he had spent three decades trying to persuade managers and politicians that health care is not just doctors and nurses. His assessment was that Phineas’ Friends had done more to address this knowledge gap in one hit than all his efforts and those of his colleagues combined.

As a result of that conversation I received an invitation to give a keynote speech at an annual NHS conference, and will be flying up to Edinburgh on the 29th of November to deliver a 25 minute address to scientists and technicians, and to coincide with this, Phineas’ Friends will be displayed as a temporary exhibition at the Royal Society of Scotland.

In effect they want me to help NHS scientists see themselves not as support staff, but front line clinicians. Are they? Well consider this: if a scientist makes a mistake in the lab it can be as catastrophic for a patient’s treatment as a mistake made by a doctor or nurse. Moreover, the reality is that modern medical practice is becoming ever more specialised, and increasingly scientists are moving to the centre of medical care.

I had thought this might be a strange aberration, but last week I was invited to go to Aberdeen in March to give another address to a different group of medical scientists. It has yet to be confirmed, but the early indications are that I will be doing that too. My impression is that these groups are keen to keep the momentum going, and change the perceptions of the decision-makers and public at large.

But perhaps the most humbling response came at a meeting with people from the Evelina itself a few weeks ago. I had gone to the meeting to discuss various things and to hand over a cheque. What I hadn’t expected was to be asked if I would make a speech at a gala ball and fundraiser for the Evelina to be held in December at Old Billingsgate. They said they wanted me to entertain, inform, and enthuse the guests to give generously. This is a function at which they hope to raise a million pounds; at which the “price” of dinner is £500; at which some six hundred wealthy and philanthropic people will bid on all sorts of fabulous items which have been kindly donated for the purpose.

I was told that a significant part of the reason that the gala is being held is to do with the publication of Phineas’ Friends. I am not sure that I believe that, but it is fair to say the story has had a far greater reach and impact than I could have hoped for in my wildest dreams. If my speech at the gala has the desired effect, then I might be able to say that my work has engendered political progress for health care scientists and raised a million pounds for sick children. Now that really would be a beautiful picture.

Results!

By , August 16, 2012 8:19 am

It’s A level results day. One way or another thousands of school leavers will feel that what happens today will determine their futures for good or ill. Here’s wishing that you all have a reaction like this young lady, whom I photographed this time last year as she opened the dreaded envelope!

The first moment of opening the results when students try to assess quickly where the results are on the page.

The first moment of opening the results when students try to assess quickly where the results are on the page. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

The penny drops

The penny drops – that moment when its realised that expectations have been surpassed! Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

The excitement builds

The excitement builds and breaks out as a loud shriek. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

Disbelief and joy combined.

Disbelief and joy combined. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

The future is bright.

The future is bright. The moment when it dawns on her that all her greatest hopes will be realised. Photo: © Michael Cockerham

Away from the action

By , August 15, 2012 1:48 pm

Any sports photographer will tell you that what is going on around the field of play is as important as the action within the event itself – indeed it offers a rich seam of image possibilities, just look at the wonderful array of imagery to come out of London 2012. So too it is the case with other types of photography including weddings, and a good photographer will be watching what is going on all around them. This is image is a case in point, from the wedding I shot at the weekend. The bride’s son, an apparently quiet boy, kept to himself as the ladies were getting prepared, but he still wanted to keep an eye on what was happening for himself.

A boy watches the goings on from his parents' window

The bride’s son keeps an eye on the comings and goings at the house before the wedding. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2012

It’s the people, stupid!

By , June 11, 2012 4:14 pm

It’s curious that phrases can take on a life of their own. “It’s the economy, stupid” was never actually uttered by Bill Clinton in that form, but it is a phrase that immediately conjures him, and references the economic recession of the early 1990s. More interesting still is the idea that those four words are so perfectly conceived that they can be changed and the reference is still beautifully clear. Sometimes photos can do that too, but that is not what this (very overdue) post is about.

primary school children play the classic payground game hopscotch

Primary school children play the classic payground game hopscotch. © Michael Cockerham

I have always been of the opinion that the the measure of any institution is the people in it. The word “church” for instance, refers not to buildings (although it is usually meant that way now) but to the people who form it. The best institutions have the best people, and I would rather deal with great people who lack the latest equipment, than with mediocre people with the latest of everything.

Primary school teacher plays with the children

Primary school teacher plays with the children. © Michael Cockerham

Under the last government a huge amount of money was pumped into updating all sorts of things, in particular, schools. But then came the crunch, the crash and the recession. Schools now are lucky to see investment in their often dilapidated buildings. But in the new market they have to compete for  students with neighbouring institutions which may have had tens of millions of investment only two or three years ago. Some heads might take the view that competition was impossible, but the enlightened realise that it doesn’t matter how new the infrastructure is if you don’t have thehighest calibre of people within it. I have been approached by a number of such schools in recent months to shoot imagery for websites, brochures and prospectuses. The brief is simple: show that the children are happy, well-balanced and thriving, and that the staff enjoy their work. The physical school can melt into the background.

Primary school children play outside at break

Primary school children play outside at break. © Michael Cockerham

As a father of three young children myself, I say, “amen to that!”

Other options are available

By , November 26, 2011 2:07 pm

A little worried after looking at my last few posts that my loyal readers might think I am a sucker for the clichéd sunset. I’m not. So I think a disclaimer might be in order. Something to the effect that other meterological conditions are available, and that your sanity is at risk if you do not keep up repayments on the many other things that happen before you all the time.

That should do it. Let’s have a little stillness and fog to celebrate:

Foggy dawn. Forest Row, East Sussex. September 2011.

Foggy dawn. Forest Row, East Sussex. September 2011. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

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