Posts tagged: stories

The Rape of a Nation

By , January 6, 2013 12:40 am

BOOK REVIEW: Marcus Bleasdale – The Rape of a Nation

I started to write this review a long time ago, but somehow never managed to find the right way to pitch what I wanted to say. Recent events in India have brought the subject of rape to the fore of international consciousness, and now seems a particularly apposite time to finish what I started and bring this important book back to people’s attention.

Some people labour under the misapprehension that rape is about sex. Indeed, there have been a flurry of ill-informed comments on social media sites discussing the subject which peddle the tired notion that women have to take some responsibility for the way they dress. The suggestion is that if a woman is just too good looking some men cannot help themselves. If that were true, as a generalisation, then it would stand to reason that the majority of women who are raped would be glamourous, long haired and with beautiful figures.

They are not. They are not because rape is and always has been about subjugation. Girls, boys, babies, women, men, young, old, able, disabled, ugly, beautiful. All are and can be victims of rape. Rape is about power. It is about destroying a person mentally and leaving them diminished to live with what has happened to them for the rest of their lives.

If ever there was a country that could be paired with the word rape, it is the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the few remaining taboo subjects in the Twenty First Century, rape is so endemic in parts of Congo that statistically it could almost appear as a national passtime. But that is to make light of it. A weapon that is cheaper than bombs and bullets, it may not leave the victim dead but it certainly kills their spirit and robs them of a life they knew. Rape is recognised as a part of genocide when it is used specifically against an ethnic group.

Marcus Bleasdale’s most recent book is not about that kind of rape, although clearly it forms part of the background of the subject. The Rape of a Nation is about something more shocking, more horrific and beyond comprehension. It is about the defilement of an entire country; systematically; day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade. And we are all culpable. In his excellent foreword John Le Carré writes that “the continuing human tragedy of the Congo is not a statistic. It is a continuing human tragedy”. A simple statement – a brutal truth.

The washing of the body at the burial of the eight-month-old Sakura Lisi, the daughter of a gold miner in Mongbwalu, northeastern Congo. 2004. © Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo Agency

You don’t have to work as a photographer for long to know that for the uninitiated the job has an air of glamour about it, and this is particularly true for photojournalism. The poor cousin to being a Hollywood actor, Hollywood itself has done much to perpetuate this fallacy through movies like Salvador, and Under Fire. The reality though is far from glamourous.

With increasing frequency photojournalists have found themselves targets for protagonists who do not want their stories told, and even when they do not find themeslves directly in the line of fire, getting a story of consequence is often a lengthy and lonely affair. This might be worth while once the story is published, but that has often been harder than getting the story in the first place, something which has never been more true than now. Indeed, Neil Burgess famously stepped forward to call the time of death of photojournalism as 11:12 GMT on August 1st, 2010, although to be fair the late John Szarkowski called it around 1960.

So what is the relevance of this to Bleasdale and his book? It is two-fold: firstly the story itself is of enduring consequence. The problems so sharply conveyed in the book are as real and pressing now as they were when it was published. For that reason alone the delay in publishing this review is oxymoronically both irrelevant and relevant, since the story is still current and because the book is still available, and anything that can promote it to a wider audience can only be a good thing. Secondly Bleasdale himself is a photographer of consequence, and deserves to be taken perhaps more seriously than he has been in the past.

A child soldier rides back to his base in Ituri district, northeastern Congo. 2003. © Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo Agency

I once had a conversation with a commentator well regarded on both sides of the Atlantic in which Bleasdale was dismissed out of hand as “not to be taken seriously” for having been of independent means. It struck me as a remarkably stupid statement, and on the handful of occasions I have heard similar notes of dissent from others I have wondered why this myth perpetuates that for a photographer to be taken seriously they must be seen to be the starving type.

It is reasonably common knowledge that Bleasdale left his high-flying job in the city because he couldn’t bear the flippant attitude of traders to the misery and suffering of millions. When one of his colleagues openly wondered what the effect of a disaster would be on gold prices, Marcus had had enough. He walked out and changed his life for good. The fact that he has gone on to become one of the most highly respected photojournalists in the world and a full member of VII is a testament to his determination and skill. Frankly, if a man will stake his life and all that he has on something he believes in then it is worthy of our respect, and it is easier to stake everything if you have nothing to lose. That Bleasdale had so much to lose makes his choice the more remarkable.

His first book, One Hundred Years of Darkness, now out of print and very expensive if you can find a copy, paired his early images of the Congo with quotes from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to celebrate the centenary of that great novel. It was a masterly piece of work, and a high-brow artistic endeavour: brilliantly conceived and universally well regarded, but also an exercise in historical introspection and literary allusion.

Where his first book was a Conradian journey of self discovery, The Rape of a Nation is unequivocally about the DRC, and in particular the people themselves. Just as importantly it demonstrates a breathtaking journalistic maturity. The images are undeniably Bleasdale’s, but he vanishes from the work itself, and allows the subject to be everything. Many photographers talk of wanting to give a voice to their subjects, and it is questionable how many succeed. In this case the success is emphatic.

A child soldier with the Mayi-Mayi militia waits in Kanyabyonga as CNDP rebels advance. He was recruited while young men in the area were being abducted by the rebel forces. He didn’t want to be forced to fight, so he volunteered with the Mayi-Mayi. 2008. © Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo Agency

The Rape of a Nation is meant to be absorbed. Just picking up the book you get a sense of the seriousness of the subject matter before you open its blood red cover. Gone are the artistic sensibilities of large format tomes, Bleasdale and his publishers Schilt opted instead for something the size of an academic text. There is no writing on the cover (excepting for the title and his name blind-embossed on the spine), instead the writing is saved to a black banderol which stands in stark contrast to the red board embossed with the stylised face of a leopard as seen on the coat of arms of the DRC. There is a particular irony in this choice of cover adornment, since the coat of arms in its full form also includes the national motto, made up of the three words: Justice, Paix, Travail. Justice, peace and work: the contents of the book suggest that there is precious little of the first two.

The reader opens the book to almost unremitting black. 240 black pages with 117 duotone images printed one per spread. While the images are captioned, there is another, more powerful, body of text. Lest the reader become too absorbed by his photographs Marcus chose to punctuate them with half pages of testimony from some of the people who feature. While writers might be given to rhetorical flourishes in an effort to introduce drama, they would fail utterly next to the simple statements of Bleasdale’s subjects which hit you like a brick. Choosing one at random:

The enemies attacked my village. They forced me to go with them, I stayed with them for many months. I was as a wife to them. Anyone could sleep with me. When I became pregnant I did not know if the time I gave birth was early or not. There was no hospital, no clinic, no doctor. When the baby came out the soldiers were using their hands to pull it from my womb. It was divided into pieces. They made me leave them after that and I had to find my way to the hospital fifty kilometres away. It took me many days.

Mushaki Miss P. Twenty three years old

Many great photographers produce work on hugely important subjects. But how worthwhile is it if most of the people who see that work and appreciate it are already in the know, or are photography junkies? Given the scale of the story in The Congo Bleasdale concluded it would be a spectacular waste of time, not to mention a pointless conceit, if the story was not placed directly in the hands of those with the power to affect change: the politicians, and the people who elect them. But targeting these two disparate groups poses different problems.

Bleasdale eschewed the bright lights of the mainstream and chose instead to work with Human Rights Watch, an organisation with which he has developed a close working relationship, and which has the capability of putting the work in front of decision makers. He personally put a copy of the book in the hands of Nane Lagergren, the wife of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and herself a UN lawyer. His thinking was simple: if you want to bring a story to the attention of the most powerful politicians, then bring it to the attention of those closest to them. It’s not that Marcus has anything against newspapers and magazines, on the contrary versions of the story have been published all over the world. Rather it is that he recognises the limitations of relying on them as the only means of disseminating his work.

As a consequence Bleasdale has come to question more directly why he does what he does. What is it for? Who is it aimed at? What difference can it make. Photojournalism may not be what it once was, and though a entire treatise could be written on that subject alone, there is one element of that perception which is worthy of deeper consideration, and there is no doubt that Bleasdale gave it plenty of thought. That element is knowing your audience.

While politicians and industrialists may read papers and magazines and meet with representatives of pressure groups, the people who elect them and buy their products increasingly do not. Bleasdale was struck by the numbers of young people who do not read papers, but do consume their news in other less traditional ways. Always looking to find new methods of expanding his audience, he took the unusual step of collaborating with Christian Aid’s youth collective Ctrl+Alt+Shift and artist Paul O’Connell to turn his images into a powerful comic strip which was published in Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption. He collaborated with Mediastorm to create a multimedia publication which is also available as a DVD. These are not distractions: to put it simply The Rape of a Nation is one of the most powerful bodies of photodocumentary of the last decade, and whatever format you use to absorb it, the story is searing and shocking, but it is conveyed with skill and empathy by a talented man who clearly cares for and about his subjects.

A child gold miner in Watsa, northeastern Congo. 2004. © Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo Agency

For years the Democratic Republic of Congo has been systematically raped of its resources while the rest of the world looked the other way. A country which ought to be by virtue of its abundant natural resources one of the richest in the world has been reduced to a kind of hell on earth. Thousands (not an exaggeration) die every day in the DRC as a result of disease and malnutrition, wrought by unending corruption and warfare. And yet, what shines though Marcus’ images is a lust for life in the people of this country. Caught in the crossfire of warlords and corporate greed, the Congolese have a spirit that shines through the darkness that affects them daily. It is a spirit which Bleasdale also gives voice to, and in so doing demonstrates that the richest resource of all for the Congolese is the people themselves. We in our cosseted lives in the West owe it to them not to turn our gaze, however much it pains us.

The Rape of a Nation – Marcus Bleasdale, Schilt Publishing, 117 duotone photographs, 240 pp, 36 half-size text pages, Hardback with banderol, €39.90, ISBN 9789053306710

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

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!”

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.

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.

*    *    *    *

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

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.

Season of Earthquakes

By , January 17, 2010 12:01 am

There is, apparently, no season for earthquakes. They can and do happen at any time of the year. But with the news pouring in from Haiti, I can’t help but think this time of year is when earthquakes happen, January in particular seems to be “popular”.

I have to confess to a personal interest. Fifteen years ago today, a matter of weeks after giving up the day job to pursue photography full time, I was in Japan working on the research for a picture story I was going to do on the A Bomb survivors. It was coming up to the 50th anniversary and I wanted a counter in the western press to the stories that were inevitably going to run. I had interviews set up, access to the archives and museums, and a great many people eager to help. What I lacked was an innate understanding of what it was like to be in a city that is destroyed in a matter of seconds. I was based in the Kansai city of Kobe.

The former (and now deceased) PA picture editor (and one of the founder members of the Picture Editor's Guild) Eric Pothecary told me that this was the best photo of "shell shock" he had seen since McCullin's famous image from Vietnam.

The former (and now deceased) PA picture editor (and one of the founder members of the Picture Editor's Guild) Eric Pothecary told me that this was the best photo of "shell shock" he had seen since McCullin's famous image from Vietnam.

Fires consumed whole city blocks.

Fires consumed whole city blocks.

At 5:46am local time an apparently dormant fault under the northern tip of the island of Awaji, about 20km from Kobe, ruptured at a depth of 14km. The resulting earthquake was measured at 7.3 on the Richter scale, and was the first recorded earthquake in Japan to reach 7 on the Japanese Closed Scale which measures the intensity of the tremor as experienced by people and objects on the earth’s surface, as opposed to the Richter Scale which is concerned with the seismic energy released at the epicentre of an earthquake. In terms of how it felt for people in Kobe, it recorded an 11-12 on the Modified Mercalli Scale; that is “Very Disastrous” to “Catastrophic”. It was, and remains, the first major earthquake to strike at close quarters and a shallow depth relative to a major metropolitan conurbation. Japan is used to having earthquakes, and for years buildings have been built to “withstand” them.

Discarded extinguishers

The remains of a hopeless battle three days later.

Nevertheless, the violence of the earth’s motion was too great. Nearly 6500 lost their lives, with thirty thousand requiring hospital treatment and almost a third of a million rendered homeless. The final cost of the quake has been estimated at as much as US$200 billion.

I got what I was missing and discovered what it was like to be in a city flattened in seconds: it has coloured my view of everything ever since.

On the face of it, the quake in Haiti is similar, a shallow hit. But Haiti isn’t built to withstand it, and it does not have the resources to pick itself up. Japan, despite its considerable wealth  struggled, and to some extent through misplaced pride, it paid the price. Haiti asked for help right from the start, and it needs all the help it can get.

In the end, the size and place of this kind of disaster is incidental. Only those who have experienced it first hand can ever truly understand how terrifying it is when the ground – that one thing that we all take as a constant – turns against you.

Today, of all days, my thoughts are with all those who have been scarred by earthquakes, and in particular it is with those in Haiti.

These are some of my photographs from Kobe, and form part of a very long term project called Shikata ga nai 仕方がない, a very common Japanese expression that translates as “It Can’t Be Helped”.

If you want to help the people of Haiti click here and donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee Haiti Appeal.

Because the water mains were ruptured, applaices had to be daisy chained together from the nearest culvert to provide water to tackle the blazes. And of course, many of the appliances were destoyed in their stations.

Because the water mains were ruptured, appliances had to be daisy-chained together from the nearest culvert to provide water to tackle the blazes. Many of the appliances were destroyed in their stations.

The high frequency earthquake was particularly devastating for low rise buildings.

The high frequency earthquake was particularly devastating for low rise buildings.

Burnt out area in Nishinomiya

Burnt out area in Nishinomiya, January 24, 1995.

Melted hoses

Frequently only one hose could be spared for a fire that in normal circumstances would have required 10-15 appliances, let alone hoses.

Any closer than this and I would have lost my hair.

This was as close as I could get with a 200mm lens without losing my hair.

The building to the right was a multistory carpark. The only noise you could hear was that of car horns and alarms, a noise which continued until the car batteries died.

The building to the right was a multistory carpark. The only noise you could hear was that of car horns and alarms, a noise which continued until the car batteries died.

The upmarket Kobe suburb of Ashiya.

The upmarket Kobe suburb of Ashiya.

Burnt out area, Nishinomiya.

Burnt out area, Amagasaki, January 24, 1995.

Fumi and her daughter Hana were pulled from the ruins of their home in the background.

Fumi and her daughter Hana were pulled from the ruins of their home in the background. January 17, 1995.

Locally based soldiers tried to offer some assitance for search and rescue, but were hampered by the destruction and the peculiarities of the terrain: a thin strip of habitable land bordered by mountains and the sea.

Locally based soldiers tried to offer some assitance for search and rescue, but were hampered by the destruction and the peculiarities of the terrain: a thin strip of habitable land bordered by mountains and the sea.

Where people were pulled alive from the ruins friends and family used anything as a makeshift stretcher to get them to the hastily erected field medical centres, all the time dodging live sparking power cables.

Where people were pulled alive from the ruins friends and family used anything as a makeshift stretcher to get them to the hastily erected field medical centres, all the time dodging live sparking power cables.

People are stunned by the destruction and ensuing fires.

People were stunned by the destruction and ensuing fires, not really knowing what to do next.

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