Posts tagged: photoessay

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

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

 

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.

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.

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.


*    *    *    *

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.

Final resting place

By , August 20, 2011 6:13 pm

Apparently yesterday, Friday, was World Photography Day. News to me, I have to say, but I thought perhaps I should share what I was doing on such an auspicious day.

I got up at sparrow fart and drove to Poole to photograph the finishing touches being put to some large roof light sections of the new Farringdon Rail Station in central London. I photographed the same sections at a much earlier stage in their fabrication, but yesterday was to see two of these enormous erections transported from one side of the country to the other and raised into place.

It dawned on me that it would be the only journey these structures would ever make, and that once in position they will never move again until such time as the station is demolished, and who knows when that might ever be. I then realized that I am the only person to have witnessed the entire journey from the ground in a yard in Poole, to the roof of the station. But by the power of photography, you can witness it too.

Roof light lifted onto the wagon at the fabricator's yard in Poole, Dorset

Roof light lifted onto the wagon at the fabricator's yard in Poole, Dorset. This is one of nine such sections, eight of which, like this one, weigh 13 tonnes. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Loaded onto the wagon and ready to go. Two rooflights were moved in convoy with escort vehicles.

Loaded onto the wagon and ready to go. Two rooflights were moved in convoy with escort vehicles. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Once out of Poole the roof sections head for London on the M27.

Once out of Poole the roof sections head for London on the M27. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

The convoy parks up at Fleet Services for a rest.

The convoy parks up at Fleet Services for a rest. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

The convoy had to leave the M3 at junction 3 and go across country to avoid a low bridge on the motorway.

The convoy had to leave the M3 at junction 3 and go across country to avoid a low bridge on the motorway. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

There were many places along the route where the clearance between items of street furniture was measured in fractions of an inch.

There were many places along the route where the clearance between items of street furniture was measured in fractions of an inch. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Last light as the covoy passes through Hanger Lane.

Last light as the convoy passes through Hanger Lane. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Once the haulier pulls up outside the site on Farringdon Road, the erection team get to work quickly to attach the rigging ready for the lift. All the traffic on the road is stopped once the lift begins.

Once the haulier pulls up outside the site on Farringdon Road, the erection team get to work quickly to attach the rigging ready for the lift. All the traffic on the road is stopped once the lift begins. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Once lifted from the wagon, the section is raised to the roof by a 600 tonne crane.

Once lifted from the wagon, the section is raised to the roof by a 600 tonne crane. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

The section is gently lowered into place on the roof of the new station building. The crane driver is blind at this point and the whole operation is guided by a skilled banksman.

The section is gently lowered into place on the roof of the new station building. The crane driver is blind at this point and the whole operation is guided by a skilled banksman. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

In their final resting place the roof light sections wait for the first day break they will see from the same position for the rest of their lives.

In their final resting place the roof light sections wait for the first day break they will see from the same position for the rest of their lives. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2011

Back to the epicentre

By , May 18, 2011 1:33 pm

In the aftermath of 9/11 Joel Meyerowitz produced a powerful body of work that examined the clearup of the former Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Exhibited around the world and reproduced in a large format book published by Phaidon, it was a poignant examination of the work that went on at Ground Zero. Now, nearly ten years later, Time Magazine has commissioned Meyerowitz to go back and reexamine what’s changed and what will forever be the same:

A reasoned approach – Simon Norfolk

By , May 7, 2011 11:13 am

There are a great many photographers that I admire as photographers, but for the most part it is simply the quality of their output that attracts me. Simon Norfolk is a rare exception, someone who admire not only for the quality of his images, but as much (if not more so) for the thought, reasoning, personal politics and agenda that they are embued with.

I came across this short film today about a new body of work that he has been creating in Afghanistan, that references the work of Eighteenth Century commercial photographer John Burke.

Simon has a very clear idea of what he feels about the events going on in various parts of the world, and whereas many photographers drop in to a place “report” and leave, his approach is to make a statement about his views. It is less the supposedly objective reporting that others may (often incorrectly) believe they are undertaking, and more the subjective response as reporting. As a younger photographer Norfolk was often considered quite militant in his pronouncements. With age and experience his methods have become more nuanced and precise, but he has lost none of his anger and desire to hold a mirror up to the follies of the west. Long may he continue in this vein.

Note: The soundtrack does not start until about 45 seconds into the film.

The best thing about being a photographer

By , February 11, 2011 10:58 pm

Without doubt the best thing about making your living as a photographer is the opportunities it gives you to witness things that might not otherwise be possible.

I have to confess that I am a nosey sod, so I find most things interesting, but I was thrilled to be invited by Ben and Cathrine to document the birth of their second child following some pregnancy studies I had made of Cathrine in December.

While I was present at (and to some extent, photographed) the births of my own three children,  I always felt too close to the event emotionally to do it any justice. In the case of Ben and Cathrine I was able to be an impartial observer, but it was still a magnificent experience. Here’s a taste of what I caught. Oh, and if you know of anyone else who’s expecting and would like to have it documented let them know that I am looking for more subjects as part of a larger project.

birth, labour, baby, water birth

A two image narrative of the birth of Espen

Birth, water birth, husband and wife, gas and air

Cathrine manages the pain of labour with the support of husband Ben and some gas and air

Birth, baby, umbilical cord, midwives, water birth

Espen weighed a considerable 10lb 1oz at birth

Haiti – avoiding the disaster porn

By , February 3, 2010 10:33 am

Much has been written recently about the unseemliness of some of the journalism (of all types) that has been coming out of Haiti since the earthquake. Some of it has been branded a kind of pornography of despair that has had more to do with raising the currency of the news organisations and/or journalists than about objective news reporting. Indeed, Foto 8 has posted an insightful piece that considers if the experience of Haiti thus far should lead us to examine whether a new approach to reporting such events is overdue.

It has become commonplace whenever some major incident, particularly a natural disaster, hits some unsuspecting part of the world, for the fora of photojournalism in particular to crackle into life with every camera swinging wannabe trying to get snippets of info so they can insert themselves into “theatre” with the expectation that it is going to launch their careers. In all likelihood, it won’t.

There are, though, still some glowing examples of how it should be. Brussels-based photographer, Bruno Stevens, has published this powerful, poignant, but more importantly, balanced piece. It documents without being judgemental or overly visceral. All the issues that have been raised about Haiti are there, but the pictures do the talking by themselves. Perhaps most important of all the images are about the plight of the Haitians, not about Bruno Stevens.

To help Haiti, give here.

UPDATE: I have just listened to this, broadcast on Radio 4’s Today programme. It could not be more apposite. McCullin has a major retrospective of his career opening at the Imperial War Museum’s Manchester galleries on February 6th – it will move to London next year.

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