Category: Photographs

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

A thousand shades of orange

By , November 25, 2011 8:56 pm

Been a strange couple of days. Yesterday I found myself dangling from the jib of a crane above south east London – something I quite enjoy. It’s starting to dawn on me, though, that I may not be normal. The site manager described me as “ice-cold calm”, before announcing that he would be feeling the polar opposite if it was him. The view was breathtaking, and I was able to get the shots I had been commissioned to take.

Had a whole load of big commissions book in over the last couple of days too, with my printer working over time, and good news from one of my best clients about use of one of my images – watch this space.

Today I found myself scurrying around under the tracks of the Southend Cliff Railway working for a different client. As I returned to my car I was presented with one of those wonderful moments that nature gives you from time to time. A sunset behind low cloud that was just thick enough to allow you to look straight at it, and just thin enough that you could still see the disc of the sun as it slipped beneath the horizon. And in it were at least a thousand shades of orange.

Sunset, Southend-on-sea, Essex.

Sunset, Southend-on-sea, Essex. November 25, 2011. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Richard Branson, and how to play the long game.

By , November 17, 2011 12:40 pm

Today’s news that Virgin Money has bought Northern Rock for £747m should come as no surprise for two reasons. Firstly, it was always the government’s intent (both Labour when they nationalised it, and the coalition government when they took over responsibility) that Northern Rock should be privatised when the time was right, and secondly because those with a long enough interest in these things will remember that Richard Branson expressed more than a passing interest in buying Northern Rock back in early 2008.

My interest in this is of course photographic. When in early 2008 Northern Rock was having all its problems, Branson was heavily involved in another of his ventures – Virgin Galactic. On the 24 of January he held a press conference at the Museum of Natural History in New York to unveil White Knight Two and Space Ship Two. That evening, Virgin Galactic hosted a reception for the “astronauts” and other interested parties. It was at that event that Branson met a London based financier who knew of his interest in Northern Rock. Said financier advised Branson that he acted on behalf of two of the biggest shareholders in Northern Rock at the time and might be in a position to help. I took this photograph at that moment. A second later Branson turned to his aide de camp and told him to set up a meeting with the financier back in London for the end of the week.

Richard Branson discusses Norther Rock with London-based banker Per Wimmer of Wimmer Finance

Richard Branson at the Virgin Galactic reception in New York City discussed matters pertaining to Northern Rock. January 23, 2008. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2008

Of course, there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then. I had originally hoped that the initial Virgin deal might go through in 2008, at least then I would have had a picture that might have been pivotal to that story. Instead what I have is evidence that when things do not initially go quite the way he might hope, Branson is not put off. I suspect that he is the kind of man who takes the view that all things happen for a reason, and all outcomes pose opportunities rather than problems. Indeed it is precisely that frame of mind that has allowed him to build the Virgin brand into the hugely successful organisation that it is.

Business Secretary, and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable

Vince Cable, now Business Secretary in the Coalition Government, might find that its harder to come to conclusions when he has to act on them. July 6, 2010. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2010

 

So here we are nearly four years later, and Branson has got Northern Rock. Has it worked out better for him? Has the tax payer taken a hit? I’ll leave you to consider that for yourself by reading this rather enlightening article published in the Daily Mail just a few days after the photo above was taken. It was written by one Vince Cable, at the time in the enviable position of being the Treasury Spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, and apparently never likely to have make important decisions to affect the economy… like I said, a lot of water under the bridge since then! Do I have a photo of Vince for you? Of course I do. Happy ruminating.

A good rule of thumb

By , November 10, 2011 3:05 pm

Spend any great length of time working as a professional photographer, and you learn quickly not to become too absorbed in your subject. Why? Because if you do you fail to look around and see what else might be happening. Yesterday is a case in point. On the set of a short film I had a specific job to do and it did require my concentrated attention, but I still found a moment to look 90 degrees to my left when I was struck by this wonderful light. I let go of my tripod mounted camera, pulled the X100 to my eye and tripped the shutter.

Then it was back to the main action.

The scene to my left as I was on the set of a TV advert.

The scene to my left as I was on the set of a TV advert. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

You know you want to…

By , October 19, 2011 9:06 pm

Food photography today. I love my job.

three part dessert with strawberries and redcurrants

Dessert. © Michael Cockerham 2011

Bit of cheese to follow?

Cheese and figs

Cheese and figs. © Michael Cockerham 2011

FINDS – Harry Watts

By , October 11, 2011 2:32 pm

BOOK REVIEW: FINDS – Harry Watts

I cannot for the life of me remember who it was, but whoever it was was an adult, and I was about 13. Nevertheless they admonished me sternly for walking everywhere staring intently at the ground. I have a feeling it might have been Victor Whyatt, a man who had previously smacked me on the head with his umbrella for my having the temerity to remark that he looked like Captain Birdseye when we had been trapped together in a doorway. If so, you might think that he would have learned not to draw my attention to things worth looking at. A rather brilliant man with a fondness for first edition books, he later became my A Level maths teacher, and his influence on my character and outlook has been huge. But that admonishment was to be particularly pivotal.

As we enter our teens there is a natural tendency for introspection which manifests itself in a form of paranoia (no one understands me), a desire to be at once an individual and yet not to stand out (I do not want to wear what my parents suggest, but see no irony in determining that I must wear the same things as my peers, and the palette from which I choose is grey, dark blue and black), and a tendency to walk everywhere listening to music and looking at the floor.

From FINDS 2011.

From FINDS 2011. © Harry Watts

Hopefully at some point we each have our own moment of enlightenment. For me, it was that admonishment. I realised the world was large and interesting, and I was small and inconsequential. This epiphany did not help me with girls, but it did set me on the path I have followed since: my head held high I have soaked up the world with vigour and enthusiasm, and nary a glance at the ground since, excepting to keep an eye out for piles of dog shit – although I appear not to have been too successful with that either, my nadir coming on a tour of Europe in the early 90s in which I famously trod in steaming piles of crap in every major capital.

From FINDS 2011

From FINDS 2011. © Harry Watts

Harry Watts’ body of work, FINDS has this morning bookended that period in my life. Forthwith I shall be turning my attention back to the ground. Not because of a renewed desire to avoid processed Pedigree Chum (although I hope that might be a happy side effect), but rather because Harry has singularly demonstrated that there is much to be derived about the world we live in by looking down.

Aside from his own work, Watts oscillates between the studios of Martin Parr and Simon Roberts as studio assistant and studio manager respectively. Yet despite the constant exposure to the output of these luminaries he has managed the signally mature feat of keeping his own eye. To be fair Parr’s presence hovers a little ghost-like in this work, but it is less confrontational and more sympathetic than it could have been. Where Parr might be brutal with the irony, Harry has chosen a more subtle approach which requires the reader to question and consider the meaning of the images – but the irony is there in spades.

From FINDS 2011

From FINDS 2011. © Harry Watts

FINDS is a series of 23 colour images printed on newsprint in a tabloid format. The newsprint approach has gained traction in recent years, Alec Soth’s The Last Days of W and Roberts’ own The Election Project being notable examples. More recently Blurb’s PDN Awards for 2011 was won by Valerio Spada with Gomorrah Girl. As more photographers turn to the notion that the artist’s approach is the best model for the future (an irony if ever there was given how violently some photographers used to react to being labelled “artists” only a few years ago), the choice of newsprint has considerable appeal. It is relatively inexpensive, somewhat ephemeral, and harks back to the possibilities of a bygone era when the whole raison d’être of the photographer was to get their pictures in the papers.

Aside from the title and the admission that it is “by Harry Watts” on the front, and details of designers (Birch), publishers (Black Box Press), and the logo of the Brighton Photo Fringe on the rear, there is no text at all. Depending on your point of view this could be construed as a huge oversight or a touch of brilliance; my own preference is for the latter. In fact so much so that when I asked Harry for permission to reproduce a few of the images for this review and he asked if I wanted a statement from him, I quietly demurred. The beauty of this body of work is in its ability to force – and no, that is not too strong a word – the reader to question the things that they find. These finds are things that Watts has found, and in so finding them he has found himself finding his findings somewhat out of kilter. I believe that having found them he wants others to find them too. Indeed, unless I am wrong his preferred method of distribution for this “book” was to dump copies in various places and leave people to find them for themselves.

From FINDS 2011

From FINDS 2011. © Harry Watts

Assuming they were found, what might readers find? Pointlessness, futility, and humankind’s bizarre capacity to expend energy for no apparent reason. For example, why bother to use a ballast bag that has burst? Why sweep up rubble but then just leave it in a pile? Where is the warning for the broken warning lamp? Every one of Watt’s pictures asks these kinds of questions. They are not critical or accusatory, rather they offer a reflection of our own folly. We all do these things without a second thought. Harry Watts has found them and represents them to us so that we can find them too.

In a sense what Watts does so effectively is hold a mirror up to the irrationality of much of what we do. What is recorded in these pictures might be the flotsam and jetsam of modern urban living, but the subjects are metaphors for the more grandiose lunacies that society perpetrates with worrying regularity. As such FINDS is that rare beast: a body of work by a young artist that is clearly about a social issue and not about the artist. FINDS does not so much scream “look at me”, but whispers, conspiratorially, “look at us”.

So with Victor and Harry both giving conflicting advice on where I should be looking, I think I have reached an age where I need to start ignoring such advice. Now, who was it who told me to stop staring at my navel…?

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With thanks to Wayne Ford for sending me FINDS, and apologies to Harry for calling him an artist if he hates that epithet.

 

Serendipity 2

By , October 3, 2011 12:54 pm

A little while back I posted a photograph and commented on the fact that from time to time your gut tells you to trip the shutter and you get something you weren’t quite expecting. Well it happened to me again yesterday. My wife and I decided to take our boys to Minnis Bay on the north Kent coast in the late afternoon for a spot of paddling, sandcastle building and fish and chips. By way of an aside, if anyone had ever suggested to me that I would be paddling barefoot on the Kent coast while wearing shorts and a t-shirt at 7pm in October I would have said they were barking – still, I suppose it is in our nature: a bit of decent sun and mad dogs and Englishmen come out to play!

Anyway, as the sun set and the tide ebbed away, I turned from the carcass of my cod and chips to see the beautiful colours of the evening on the sand. Something said grab your camera, so I did, dropping to one knee for the angle. I tripped the shutter. I had not even seen the girl walking across the sands, but she chose that instant to leap. I have no idea who she is, or why she jumped, but it sums up a fabulous weekend of unexpectedly good weather nonetheless.

Minnis Bay X100 sunset jumping girl

Sunset at Minnis Bay, Kent. Fuji X100. October 2, 2011. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Not to be messed with

By , September 16, 2011 2:51 pm

What ever line of business you are in, there will always be people and companies that you love working with. I am lucky in that I have many clients that I am very fond of, but one in particular is Sensei Tim Steel. I have known Tim for about 10 years, and he is one of the most affable and enjoyable people to spend time with, and I had the pleasure again this morning, shooting a series of images for a new website for his karate school, Zendo Kai. Don’t be fooled by the picture, he’s a wonderfully calm and peaceful character!

Tim Steel - Zendo Kai Karate

Tim Steel with his beautiful sword. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Phineas’ Friends – a photostory

By , September 2, 2011 3:25 pm

For the first three weeks of his life, Phineas was a model baby, but on the Friday night of that third week something changed. By six o’clock in the morning his mother was sure that all was not as it should be. She took him to the local hospital A&E (Accident & Emergency department). Unknown to her, that particular A&E had recently gone to a twelve hour opening as a prelude to being closed altogether. As a consequence there was only an on-call GP. His verdict? “It’s just a virus, take him home. He’ll be fine.” Up to a point he was right.

Three hours later Phineas’ mother trusted her instincts and took him to another hospital to get a second opinion. He was admitted immediately.

phineas in intensive care at the Evelina Children's hospital

Phineas in the intensive care unit at ECH, May 2010. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2010

What followed was a battle to save his life and diagnose the problem. By the Sunday afternoon his condition had deteriorated so much that he was retrieved to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) of the Evelina Children’s Hospital in Central London.

Phineas’ Friends is a photographic study of the doctors and nurses and clinicians that were involved in treating him during his six days at the Evelina. It is a study that forces the reader to challenge naturally held preconceptions about the size of modern medical teams, and indirectly asks the question: if all these people are necessary to a treat one baby with an infection, who in this new age of austerity can we afford to do without?

*    *    *    *

Phineas is my third son. His mother, Laura, is my wife. Any parent who has ever asked a doctor if their child is going to die, and been met with a long pause and a non-committal answer, will have some idea of the emotions that were raging for us at that time. We were lucky. Although his condition was life threatening, he was in the best hands. Laura travelled to ECH in the retrieval ambulance with Phineas. By the time I got there the PICU team were hard at work stabilising him, and Laura, though still beside herself with worry, was comforted with the feeling that he was in the best place to get better.

Fatima Meho

Fatima Meho. Paediatric Staff Nurse, Beach Ward. Provided nursing care for Phineas on the ward. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2010

The doctors in PICU were able to stabilise him sufficiently that he was moved out of intensive care onto Beach Ward on the Monday afternoon. From then on it was about supporting him as he got better, and trying to establish exactly what was wrong with him.

From the outset the doctors were fairly certain that he had a viral infection. The problem was that without knowing which virus, it was difficult to know exactly how he should be treated. At his worst Phineas had been cannulated to all four peripheries, his blood sugar was perilously low, his temperature was dangerously and stubbornly high, and he was on a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to help him breathe. He was having bloods taken every hour or so, he had chest x-rays, and at one point they attempted to put a long line into him because his blood sugar was still dropping and he was on the limit of what could be given to him as a peripheral infusion without burning his veins.

Laura never left the hospital, only leaving his bedside to wash and eat. Over time it became clear that he was improving, but still the tests continued. Lumbar punctures, electro-encaphalographs, ultrasound brain scans. More infusions, more drugs.

Dr Emma Aarons

Dr Emma Aarons. Consultant Virologist. Ensures any patient with possible viral illness has the right investigations, and where tests show viral diagnosis that the appropriate care is given. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2010

On the Wednesday afternoon I was sitting with Phineas while Laura got some lunch. Staff nurse Fatima Meho was attending to him while I flicked through that week’s Sunday Times Magazine. The cover story was about a patient in the renal ward at Great Ormond Street Hospital. I held the magazine open for Fatima to see and remarked how ironic it was that the story should be published just I was sitting in Beach Ward (the Evelina’s renal ward) with my son. “No one ever writes about us,” Fatima replied. I asked her what the difference was between Great Ormond Street and the Evelina. “Nothing,” she said. Both hospitals have the same specialisations, only the former is world famous and leverages that fame effectively to raise funds. I have to admit that I had never heard of the Evelina until I needed it.

It was Fatima’s response which set me thinking that I should document Phineas’ story and get some publicity for the hospital. But what was the angle? I did not want to rehash a story that has been done many times before. The fact was that although it was important to me, it was not significant to anyone else. If I was going to publish his story, it needed an angle.

The following afternoon Laura and I got a visit from three doctors from the Infectious Diseases Directorate. At first I was struck by how different these three characters were. Nuria Martinez-Alier, Ian Plumb and Emma Aarons seemed at first an unlikely trio, but it quickly made me reflect on all the different characters we had come across during Phineas’ time in hospital. Not simply the diversity of characters, but the sheer numbers of people involved. I had my angle.

Dr Marilyn MacDougall.

Dr Marilyn MacDougall. Paediatric Intensive Care Consultant. On-call when Phineas was admitted to PICU, she made the decision to retrieve him. Authorised the retrieval team and responsible for his initial treatment. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2010

Over those six days Phineas was treated by about one hundred clinical specialists, about four fifths of them at the Evelina. There were doctors, consultants, registrars, nurses, matrons, ward sisters, students, phlebotomists, radiographers, metabolic specialists, virologists, and these were just the ones that actually saw him. There were as many, if not more, clinical scientists and technicians analysing and interpreting the various tests he was subjected to and samples taken from him. There was the ambulance technician and the retrieval team who collected and treated him on the journey to the Evelina. There was the counsellor who was there for us as parents.

As a photographer I found myself thinking about all the hidden talents within this huge team of people – the unsung men and women whose work as technicians and scientists underpin the decisions that the doctors make and the nurses carry through. The doctors get the plaudits, but the reality is that all these different facets of modern medicine need to work together to produce the outcomes that we as patients and parents yearn and pray for.

The more I thought about all these people, the more I kept thinking about Richard Avedon’s seminal work The Family, and more recently of Nadav Kander’s Obama’s People. Both these projects used portraits shot against plain backgrounds to highlight the differences in character – the repetition of style and of people was the motif, and yet it is this approach that highlights the enormous differences from subject to subject.

Tom Walton.

Tom Walton. Biomedical Scientist. Analysis of urine by gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2010

It is a form of typological study that was perhaps made famous by Bernd and Hilla Becher and their studies of blast furnaces, and taken up by other photographers including Donovan Wylie and his study of the Maze Prison. The difference is that with people the subject has the capacity to introduce its own character and agenda to the way that they are recorded; it is necessarily a two-way process. Certainly these are “my” portraits and they reflect something of my intention, but as each individual sits for me, they have control over the face that they present. For a good portrait there must inevitably be a balance in that “dialogue” between the subject and the photographer.

Avedon chose to shoot in large format black and white, with a simple white background. His subjects were the men and women who ran and shaped America. From Gerald Ford as President to Roger Baldwin, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Kander chose to use a similar approach to document the nascent administration of Barack Obama as he was about to take office, but in this case he shot in colour, with a creamy background. The images have been digitally worked to some extent, putting a shadow close in behind each person, and emphasising the texture of each person. There is a kind of hyper reality about them which makes each face fascinating to look at. Although the work was regarded by some as something of a departure from Kander’s norm at the time, it was nevertheless imbued with his artistic sensibilities. It had his “signature”.

Sean Hayes.

Sean Hayes. Retrieval Technician. Part of the retrieval team that brought Phineas back to the Evelina PICU from Darent Valley Hospital. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2010

Both of these bodies of work were successful for the combination of simple, arresting portraiture and the fact that the subjects were either household names, or held positions of power that made their faces worthy of closer inspection.

For Phineas’ Friends I felt certain that a similar approach would be ideal. To the best of my knowledge no one had taken this approach with a medical documentary before, and the strength of the story would reside in the fact that as the reader moved through all of these portraits it would dawn on them that the common link for all of them was a single patient – a baby. None of these people are famous, nor was the patient. But the pull of such a small child as a narrative element is undeniable. Perhaps more importantly, we are all able to see ourselves in that baby. And when we do Phineas’ friends become our’s. These are our doctors and nurses and technicians and scientists. These are the people that keep each of us alive if we need them. As Phineas is a metaphor for all patients, so too his friends are a metaphor for all the clinicians working in all the hospitals around the world. Once we realise that, the old narrative beloved of dramas and documentaries seems a pale approximation of the truth – modern medicine is not a doctor and a nurse, it is a vast team of specialists.

Habiba Kawu.

Habiba Kawu. Neonatal Staff Nurse. Agency nurse providing constant care and monitoring of Phineas' condition while in intensive care. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2010

Nevertheless I was conscious that for the project to work, the standard of the portraits needed to be high. Each image had to work individually while they all worked together as a set. The choice of background, the style of lighting, the choice of lens, and the subtlety of any direction I gave would have to complement the image and the intent. I wanted very much to give viewers something of the experience of the parent or the concerned relative. Hopefully I have succeeded.

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I decided on a whim to enter the book of Phineas’ Friends in this year’s Photography Book Now Awards. Although it did not win, it was shortlisted in the Documentary Category, and as a result was eligible for the People’s Choice Award. To have been shortlisted by the jury in the first place is a tremendous honour. But more importantly it gave me a glorious reason to push the work in front of people as I tried to garner all the votes I could. I was able to enlist the help of a great many influential people around the world, and that in itself has helped in my quest to raise the profile of the hospital. All of you who voted, thank you. Your support means a great deal. But it does not end there.

As I intimated earlier, my motivation from the outset has been to help publicise the work of the Evelina and perhaps raise its profile just a bit. As a part of that process, Blue Filter has published Phineas’ Friends in three formats: as an iBook for the iPad and iPhone, as a small format paperback, and as a limited edition signed hardback. All of these can be ordered from this site, and the profits from the sale of these books will be donated to the Evelina Children’s Hospital.

Please, buy the iBook or the paperback. If you are feeling flush and want some exclusivity, buy the hardback. But whatever you do, encourage all your friends, family and acquaintances to read this post and buy the iBook too. If you just want to donate with nothing in return, you can do that as well.


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Buy the iBook for iPhone & iPad

Buy the paperback

Buy the limited edition hardback

If you would like to support the Evelina Children’s Hospital, some of the Evelina Team recently undertook a sponsored climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, and you can still donate now. Their target was £400,000, with the current total raised standing at £396,616.63. It is to this fund that monies raised from the sales of Phineas’ Friends will be donated, but if you would rather donate directly, please click here.

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