“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens..."

Ray Bradbury on writing


Ok, so there won't be a post everyday, but this is where I'll be sharing short stories about my adventures as an artist and student.  Check back here for the latest updates by clicking the subscribe button below.

Camera Stories Chapter 1: The Halina 110 Auto-Flip - Where it all started

February 24, 2024  •  1 Comment

While out on one of my regular walks around town recently, I bumped into an old colleague of mine from around 20 years ago.  We greeted each other warmly, despite my vague memories of our working together being more of passing acquaintances than best mates.  We talked only for a few minutes with the usual “How’s life/work/the family” etc, but I found the experience incredibly embarrassing.  Why? Because I had completely forgotten his name.  I find that this happens to me a lot these days, and it will no doubt be a familiar sensation to you too.  I often hear the sentiment repeated that “I can remember something in my childhood but can’t remember what I was doing last week” or something similar.  One of the contributors to this notion is that our memories of things are related to how significant they were to us at the time, coupled with other sources of context such as the experience or stories of others around us, the emotions we felt and so on.  These memories seem very real, but we actually never fully recall every detail, unless it is exceptionally traumatic, so we subconsciously fill in the gaps.   We preserve our treasured memories, sometimes embellishing them over time, but others that might not be as important fall by the wayside, as in the case of my former colleague.  For me, the ability to put names to faces has decreased significantly in recent years, for no other reason that I’m getting older, which has put me in some awkward situations with increasing frequency.  With all that in mind, the first thing I must do here is apologise for ‘mis-remembering’. 

When I was originally thinking about writing this first chapter of Camera Stories, I naturally had to start by trying to recall old memories of the origins of my fascination with photography, which date back around 40 years.  I spent a great deal of time trying to picture those early days of camera ownership; What did it look like? How did it work? What did I take pictures of, and do I still have any? This exercise was trickier than I thought it would be, and I realised that I couldn’t recall that first camera at all, no matter how hard I tried.  The only thing I could remember was a camera that my father lent me, a Voightländer Vitoret 110, which felt like it should have been the first, and was asserted as such in a previous blog post.  I was convinced it was right, but all the same something didn’t feel right about that belief, so I started to dig through the hundreds of pictures of my family that I have either taken or inherited over the years, to see if I could validate it.  Fortunately for me, there was one piece of evidence; a photograph of my little sister holding that first camera, taken by me much later with a 35mm SLR.  That picture unlocked something, because the memories quickly started to flood back, and I could suddenly recall lots of tiny details about the Halina 110 Auto-Flip.  This was the camera that started it all.

Mid 80s photo of my sister with the Halina

As the name suggests, this camera used Kodak’s 110 film format, which was popular throughout the 1970s and 80s because of its simplicity, compact form and low price.  The mainstream manufacturers generally made cheap cameras for this film, like this one, but there were some more technically advanced offerings if you wanted to spend the money.  I was a kid, funded by his parents, so that wasn’t about to happen.  Loading and unloading a 110 camera was incredibly simple, because Kodak had gone back to a similar design to their 126 format of the 1960s.  The film was housed in a sealed double spool cartridge that would simply drop into the film compartment, without the need for threading it onto a take-up spool as with the standard 35mm cannisters.  This was perfect for a small boy with relatively little manual dexterity and the continual risk of something being damaged that followed him around.   I quickly became interested in loading up my little Halina and going out to take pictures of completely random stuff that I liked the look of.  As well as being simple to load, the Halina needed no batteries because it had no electronics and had minimal controls.  Minimal controls meant not having to worry about things like focus or shutter speed, both of which I’d never heard of, let alone understood. There was a switch on the top to set the aperture for a given film speed (ISO), with the options being 100/200 and 400.  Helpful little icons were printed next to the switch to suggest the weather conditions that each setting was suitable for.  Alongside it was a bright red shutter button, in case the user was some danger of misplacing it, and the rotary winder to advance the film with a satisfying ratchet noise, completed the set.  The camera was also compatible with flash bulbs, which were a primitive way of lighting a scene that literally involved exploding a small magnesium bulb on top of the camera.  Arranged vertically in a strip, these flash units vastly increased the size of the camera, which seemed to me at odds with the whole idea of being compact.  However, it was exciting when each bulb popped, even though I now shudder at how environmentally unfriendly it was to manufacture them.  Perhaps the Halina’s coolest feature, though, was its integrated case that turned into a handle when the camera was opened; the ‘Flip’ part of the name.  This meant that I could carry it in my pockets without the risk of scratching the lens or getting grubby fingerprints all over the lens when not in use.   It was also not such a leap for a small boy to compare them to Captain Kirk’s flippy communicator in Star Trek.  It takes so little to spark a young imagination, doesn’t it?

The Auto-Flip and the convenient gem that is 110

When it came to unloading the camera, the fully wound cartridge would drop out when the door was opened on the back, be put in an envelope and then either posted off to a lab or taken to a chemist to be developed.  It was just a wonderful time, waiting to see what accidental masterpieces I might have created returned in the packet of prints.  Kodak made lots of their amazing stocks in 110 too, including Kodachrome colour slide film, regarded by many as the greatest emulsion ever made, and it was all readily available as this was the 80s.  The problem was that the format was, frankly, a bit rubbish because 110 has a tiny frame size of just 17mm by 13mm, much smaller than conventional 35mm that we think of today.  Having a much smaller area frame meant that the emulsion’s grain was more noticeable printed, and it got worse when you tried to do any kind of enlargement.  The prints that I used to get back from the chemist were 6x4 inches, which was presumably considered trade-off of size and quality owing to the film’s limitations.  Add the fact that the quality of lenses in the available cameras was also generally poor and you didn’t exactly have a recipe for high-end photography.  As I mentioned earlier, there were notable exceptions when it came to cameras, though, with Pentax’s superb Auto 110 and Rollei’s A110.  The former was a fully-fledged but tiny SLR camera system, with good interchangeable lenses, a flash gun, and even an electric winder amongst other useful accessories. The latter combined a high-quality Zeiss Tessar lens and sophisticated electronic metering system in an elegant, compact design making it the greatest ever 110 camera in the eyes of 110 aficionados.  In my case, I had none of those things with the Halina, but what did I care?  I was having a great time, and that is why the format was so significant to photography back then and to me.  110 made photography accessible without spending big on an SLR or having to learn how to use one.  It was convenience personified, which is something Kodak themselves should have realised when they launched the awful 'disc' format in 1982, 10 years after 110 came out.  With the film arranged on a flat circular disc instead of a cartridge or cannister, disc cameras were slim and compact, designed to slip into a pocket, which Kodak thought would be a selling point to the fashion-conscious hobbyist photographer.  All sounded great, apart from the fact that in order to fit into the compact circular film pack, the negatives were even smaller than 110. This made the quality of the photographs even poorer, despite the bells and whistles of the cameras being made, to the extent where it was massive commercial failure that was quickly glossed over.  Kodak decided instead to focus on easy-to-use 35mm compact cameras, as if they’d somehow remembered that the convenience end of the market was already covered by good old 110.  There wouldn’t be another real attempt at revolutionising the compact/convenient end of the film market until the introduction of APS in the mid-90s, but more on that in a later chapter.  For me, the 110 experience with the Halina was what introduced me to the wonders of photography, although it turns out that sadly none of those early photographs that I took with it survive.  However, I have just picked up the one pictured here for less money than a round of drinks in even the most reasonable UK pub, and just handling it immediately transports back to my childhood with its quirky design and its very 1980s plasticky build quality.  Also, despite being largely consigned to history, there is still a loyal 110 fanbase, with enough interest it would seem to ensure that there is still some colour and black and white film being manufactured.  Perhaps this camera will get the odd outing in the future, and perhaps the grown man shooting with it will reclaim some of that childlike enthusiasm along the way.   I have no idea, but it’ll be fun finding out.

 


Camera Stories: An Introduction to Obsession

February 13, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

It’s fair to say that photography is in my blood.  My father and grandfather were both keen photographers, the former becoming a professional after he retired in the early 1990s, and the latter being a generally very creative man.  While they undoubtedly sparked my initial interest in photography, there were other influences around that time when I first picked up a camera.  It was the start of the 1980s, and I was a young boy who loved science fiction, which might not sound like it’s relevant, but hear me out.  Like most sci-fi fans, there is an inherent wonder and sense of ‘what would life be like if that were real?’ which requires some understanding of what is currently possible in the real world.  An example of this connection between fact and fiction would be that era’s belief that everyone would own flying cars by the year 2000, because that was what we imagined the future to look like.  Like everyone, young Fletcher was just beginning to show an interest in how things worked in the real world, while his imagination ran wild about what might be coming next in terms of technology. One of my early memories of that time is of listening to my alarm clock radio’s short and longwave bands at night, when I was supposed to be asleep, trying to pick up unusual broadcasts that might have included the police frequencies (allegedly).  I was fascinated by the way that my radio could pick up these broadcasts mixed in with the likes of Noel Edmonds.  In this era of technological discovery, which went on into my early teens, I also started to show an interest in cameras and taking pictures.  There was something about capturing something fleeting that I liked the look of, and then seeing it on a piece of paper that I could look at whenever I liked.  In those days, film was the only available technology, of course, which meant that every chemist sold and processed film, and there were many different formats to choose from.  To be completely honest, I was drawn to the process of loading, shooting and unloading the film more than that of actually making photographs, although that magical revealing of the pictures once developed still excites me as a photographer in his 50s. 

It would be wrong to say that any form of obsession with photography was born out of that time, because I had other things to distract me.  Also, around the same time home computers were beginning to emerge, with our primary school being lucky enough to have the new BBC Micro for us kids to learn how to use.  This machine was like nothing we’d ever seen before.  As I got a little older, my parents bought me my own home computer, which introduced me to a whole new area of imagination and fantasy; the video game.  Having my own computer meant that I was able to trade games, recorded onto audio cassette, with my school friends and that thrill of a new release making its way around a select few was palpable.  Our little, if somewhat illicit, cottage industry took over from my interest in photography and my first camera, but it didn’t completely go away.  As I said, my dad was, and still is, a keen photographer, which meant that every time the family had a holiday, celebration or major event, a camera would be produced, and the moments captured.  I guess that is the single aspect of photography that eventually drew me in and that I continue to come back to today.  Photographs have the power to help us remember, not just the details like where we were, or what we were wearing etc, but how that moment made us feel.  I look back at pictures of my siblings and I on holiday and remember how it felt to be outside playing games, meeting other kids, and having fun.   I’m instantaneously transported back decades just be looking at those pictures for a few minutes.  Of course, the most powerful memories are the ones associated with now lost loved ones, and I am eternally grateful to have many pictures that invoke those memories, courtesy of the family archive.

My rekindled interest in photography happened when I was around 12 years old and about to move into the next phase of my education at ‘the big school’.  I had already taken, and failed, the ‘11 Plus’ exam which was intended to determine which local secondary school I would be attending for the next few years.  Thanks to my parents’ persistence with the local authority, I was able to avoid the less desirable ‘secondary modern’ school and go to a much better ‘comprehensive’ in a nearby town.  With this came a challenge, though, as within a year I would have to prove that I was bright enough for that they called ‘A stream’.  Kids in this group would get lots more opportunities to shine and were ultimately expected to go on to the sixth form.  Why do I remember this so vividly?  Well, because my parents told me that they would buy me a ‘proper camera’ if I managed to get into this group.  I wasn’t a particularly academic child, so I had to work hard for that year to get into the A stream. When I did, I was bought my first SLR and was off and running, taking pictures of anything I liked the look of.  I was still using that camera several years later when I went for my interview for my engineering apprenticeship, aged 16.  One of the suggestions for preparation was to take something that we were interested in to discuss with the interview board.  Having never previously had an interview, I put together a small album of photographs that I thought were my best, an early curation of a series as it turns out, and hoped for the best.  We duly talked about my interest in photography, which at that point was fairly low level despite still having my SLR, and I remember being asked what my favourite kind of photograph was.  They meant genre and I had no idea, winging the answer and hoping they didn’t see my lack of preparation written all over my face.  When I was eventually accepted for the apprenticeship, I became more interested in motorcycles, getting my first so that I could get to work, cars, drinking and, well you can guess the rest.  Photography was nowhere to be seen and effectively remained that way until I got married in 2001.  My new wife and I were aware that we didn’t have a ‘convenient’ camera between us, with devices on phones a long way off to the horizon, and the film models we did have  were a bit of a faff.  Fortunately for us, the new era of digital cameras was in full swing, so we bought a compact point-and-shoot camera which relegated my SLRs (I had two by then) to the back of a cupboard.   That little camera got me interested in composing and lighting, although my fascination with how the thing worked and the apparent magic of free ‘instant’ pictures that could be shared via email, was still my main interest at that point.   It wasn’t until we planned a special trip to the USA in 2009 that things changed completely.  Three weeks travelling around New England called for a proper camera, a DSLR.  This what really hooked me into photography and, a few years and some excellent tuition later, my passion for this art form really started to flourish. 

While this is all well and good, it can still hardly be called an obsession.  That came in 2016 when a brief chat with one of my photography heroes sparked a desire to explore the medium in its purest form.  I’m referring, of course, to going back to traditional film which I believed to be pretty much dead.   I couldn’t have been more wrong as it soon occurred to me that, like vinyl records, film had never gone away, it had just been less popular.  Like vinyl, but on a much smaller scale, film has enjoyed a revival, with the younger generations becoming interested in shooting with it.  With so many old cameras in their parents’ attics and cupboards, it quickly became an accessible medium.  I had been advised to take my time over the fine details of making a photograph, and that a way of doing so would be to use a manual film camera.  Good idea, I thought, as I went searching for the right one.  When I clicked ‘Buy Now’ on that well-known, but nameless, retail website, I had no idea that nearly 8 years later I would have a collection of 55 cameras, including that very first SLR that my parents bought me when I was struggling schoolboy.  My fascination with how cameras work remains, but it now goes further than that.  The cameras in my collection all have either a special place in photography’s history or some connection to my life and my memories, the former satisfying my technical curiosity, and the latter being like looking at one of those old family photographs.  The memories are patchy, but the happiness of the time and the relationships to events remains strong because I remember the camera being used.  I shoot all but 3 of the collection, only because those particular ones need repair, and I get to enjoy all of the film formats from sub-miniature to large.  With the act of working with them rather than just admiring them, my engineering curiosity remains, and I’m always wondering how it’s possible that these old machines, the eldest of which was made in 1918, still work in a world seems to be much more ‘throw away’ than it used to be.  I do have the odd camera that I consider to be ‘shelf queen’, a great description coined by The Film Photography Project in the US, but they have that status either because they are too fragile or that the film is too rare or expensive, or both.  Regardless, the collection is both a showcase of cameras and a collection of very capable tools that help my creativity.  

Why am I telling you all this?  Well, because the following series of blog posts is going to walk through my camera history and explore the stories, memories, and experiences of having this collection. They are not going to be overly technical, nor are they the usual user reviews, as the internet is already filled with these.  I personally find the focus on how good or bad a camera might be, should you buy one or not etc etc, really boring.  Instead, these stories are intended for photographers and non-photographers alike because I know that we all have possessions that invoke similar memories and emotions.  I hope that this series gives you an insight into what cameras mean to me, but also that it makes you think about your own memory-making and where photography might into that.  Who knows, you might start using a camera, even if it’s the one on your phone, more regularly or in a different way.  Either way, I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do.

Cover Photo: Etienne Girardet on Unsplash


The Only Choice I Made

February 08, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

I know what you’re thinking:  Where the hell have I been this past few months?  Have I quit? Have I been ill?  Am I dead, and writing this from some conceptual afterlife?  Well, the answer is none of them; I’ve just been incredibly busy getting my latest university project ready for assessment this spring.  Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I’m studying for a degree in photography, or more accurately art that has photography as its medium.   The course is part-time distance learning and goes on for a very long time, which always begs the question “Why not just go to a traditional university for 3 years, instead of spending 9 years doing the same thing?”  The principal reason for this apparent lunacy, apart from the previous lack of time available during full-time employment, was that this way the journey (isn’t everything a bloody journey these days?) is much more enriching.  I can honestly say that I’ve evolved as a photographer over the 5 years or so that I’ve been at this, with my interests and artistic ‘voice’ beginning to become more clear.  I don’t believe a standard course would have given me the same.

At the end of each module, we have a Self-Directed Project, which is precisely as the title suggests.  Our choice of subject, approach, interpretation of a story etc. is entirely up to us, as long as we can demonstrate the learning from the coursework.   This year’s learning was all about Ethics and Representation, which I’ve written about before, and this year’s project was the most challenging yet. 

The idea for The Only Choice I Made came about after reflecting on a photo assignment that I did in 2022, which was to shoot Malvern Pride for its organising committee.  Ethical behaviour and representation in photography is all about being respectful and honest in our decisions about taking photographs of people and aspects of their lives and identities.  Many of those aspects are protected, e.g. race, sexuality, disability etc., and in working on a photographic project about people there is a need to take an ethical approach.  When I considered those images of Pride, I realised that I had represented LGBTQ+ in a fairly one-dimensional way, that is to reveal the ‘big party’.  What I’d overlooked was the continuing struggle that LGBTQ+ people have in preserving their rights as human beings in an ever-changing, polarised society.  My photographs were all bright colours, rainbow flags and inflatable unicorns, which I started to realise wasn’t an honest or respectful representation.  Why did I not see it at the time?  Simple, I’m a middle-aged, heterosexual white male.   What this means is that I have an unconscious bias or preconceived perspective on what it is to be gay, based on my age, my upbringing, and my environment.  In my case, it’s not a hostile bias as it is with some people, just an association of aesthetics that become almost a reflex response.  While I have many friends who are LGBTQ+, my unconscious bias means that I cannot fully appreciate or empathise with how their lives are.  

In an effort to ‘do better’ with regard to Pride, I decided to make this year’s SDP about the whole movement and its importance to LGBTQ+ people.  I’d been fortunate to be asked to shoot the 2023 event, so this time my plan was to approach people to be part of a wider collaboration to tell the story from their perspective.  I would use interviews with my subjects to gather their thoughts on Pride and be able to make photographs that related to their own words.   I thought this was a great plan, until I started to do the interviews.  The first hurdle was being called out on my use of the phrase ‘LGBTQ+ community’, which I was told was a flawed description.  LGBTQ+ people, it turns out, don’t see themselves as a community because that word conjures up an idea that people of every gender identity and sexuality being a big happy family, or some kind of small town.  They were keen to point out that this wasn’t the case and that in fact the different groups often dislike each other.  What became clear from these conversations was that ‘LGBTQ+’ was essentially a label applied to everyone who isn’t heterosexual and used by both ‘sides’ to identify or classify the people.  This got me thinking about the project in a different way as here I was, talking to people who were seen as different simply because of one aspect of their lives that doesn’t fit some idea of ‘normal’; a thought that fascinated and horrified me in equal measure.  I hadn’t noticed it because of my own bias.  When we think about it rationally, of course, most people can pass each other in the street without ever knowing about the sexuality or gender identity of the other person, mainly because it’s irrelevant in that context and not worth devoting mental energy to work it out.  Of course, none of this is a new phenomenon in the same way that racism isn’t a modern concept.  Differences between people have always led to division, which causes almost all of the social problems in society.  As I started to rethink the project, I became more aware of, and more depressed by, the way that society has become so increasingly polarised in the past 20 years or so.  We now appear to have to take one side or another on virtually everything from gender to immigration, conflict to climate change, to the extent where there is no longer a middle ground.  I started to feel like my project needed to be less about being LGBTQ+, and more about the people I had met who happened to identify differently to me or not be heterosexual; that we are still all the same when we disregard those perceived differences from being ‘normal’ as some might see it.  So, that is what we did collaboratively.  My series incorporates stories from different parts of LGBTQ+ and quotations from those stories acting as chapter headings in a wider narrative about people.  The lovely people that I worked with couldn’t have been more engaged or supportive, bringing ideas and props to the shoots, helping me reach a point where their representation was both respectful and intimate, and giving me some great feedback on the final output.  As I said, it has been the most challenging work to date, but also the most rewarding.  I’ve shifted from being someone uncomfortable shooting portraits to a photographer interested in social documentary and building collaborative relationships with my subjects.  I also had the opportunity to work in a directional style, similar to that of movie directors, using mis-en-scène to give the viewer just enough information for them to form their own narrative about what each picture contains.  This is something that has interested me for a few years now, so being able to bring it to this project was a bonus.   Most importantly, though, is that I’m very proud of it as a body of work. It won’t be for everyone, for the reasons that I’ve already alluded to, but for those who are willing to be almost reset in the way they see people they perceive as somehow different, I think it will resonate.  I’m now considering how best to present the work, whether as a book or zine, or an exhibition.  I’m also thinking about how it could be developed to consider LGBTQ+ in other cultures as well as the etymology and psychology of applying labels to anything we want to classify as different.  It could become a much larger project.

For now, though, all that is left for me to say is that you can see it as a slideshow on my website at this address:

The Only Choice I Made. (Best viewed by clicking the Slideshow button).

Please get in touch and let me know what you think and whether it resonated in some way or not.  In the meantime, the blog is returning to normal, starting next time with a new series called Camera Stories, in which I’ll be talking about the cameras in my collection from the point of view of their place in history and what they mean to me.  Watch this space!


Prioritising the Shot: The Ethical Debate around Kevin Carter’s “The Struggling Girl”

November 04, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Something a little different this week.  I thought I’d share an essay that I recently completed for my degree course, all about the ethical debate around Kevin Carter’s famous 1993 image of the famine in Sudan.  It explores the decision to take the photograph, the intense reaction of the public and how Carter’s experience compared to that of other photojournalists.  This essay forms part one of two of a discussion about ethics and representation in shocking imagery, and the concept of ‘compassion fatigue’.  I’m interested in your thoughts, so please do let me know what you think about this subject. 

The Essay

When South African photojournalist Kevin Carter shot his 1993 photograph The Struggling Girl, he sparked a debate that has continued for 30 years.  

(The Struggling Girl, aka The Vulture and the Little Girl - Rare Historical Photos, 2013)

Dubbed “The picture that made the world weep” when it was published by The New York Times, the photograph depicts a small, emaciated child collapsed in a barren scrubland, while a vulture looks on.  The accompanying article reported that the little girl was trying to walk to a food station when she became exhausted.  The photograph won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography, gaining praise from journalists and aid organisations for its depiction of the shocking humanitarian crisis in Sudan, but also drawing criticism from the public for Carter’s decision to prioritise the picture over helping the girl.  This essay explores the ethics of his decision and the factors that may have contributed to the reaction of the public. 

“The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.”(Sontag, 1977)

The role of the photojournalist is to document an event or situation as an observer, and while photographs may distort, they are proof that something existed or happened at that moment (Sontag, 1977). This photograph clearly comprises visual signifiers of famine, poverty, and suffering, while the presence vulture connotes the likely imminent death of the child. During this era, coverage of this kind of suffering was commonplace, owing in part to the Live Aid fundraising of the mid 1980s, which led to the widely accepted idea in trauma photography of compassion fatigue. 

“It takes a lot to get full attention to a picture these days, because we are bombarded by pictures every waking hour, in one form or another, and transitory images seen, unconsciously, in passing, from the corner of our eyes, flashing at us, and this business where we look at bad images‐ impure.” Dorothea Lange (Doud, 1964)

The viewing public were saturated with famine imagery and, in many cases, Western colonialist views of what was referred to as ‘The Third World’ disconnected them emotionally from the people’s suffering.  Visually, the black girl is emaciated to the point of almost unrecognisable as human, further adding to that disconnect.  

“For some viewers of Carter’s photograph, or of any image of suffering, the victim may still be Other; we see her pain but cannot feel it. Conceivably, viewers may be guilty of what Sontag describes as a ‘failure of empathy’, an inability to extend our emotional identification beyond the confines of the self.”  (Kit Ow Yeong, 2014)

What really shocks in this image is the degradation of the girl to the status of carrion for the vulture. Upon publication, this caused outcry at Carter’s behaviour. which resulted in the publisher having to release more details about how the image was made.  However, this action did not help to calm the public reaction to the photographer.  He was labelled as unfeeling, ‘a predator, another vulture on the scene’ (Stanets, Reena Shah, 1994) etc, with many people feeling that his careful composition, which lasted 20 minutes (Cate, s.d.), was lacking in humanity.   

To understand these reactions, we must consider the viewer’s gaze.  Carter’s composition brings the viewer in close to the scene and its two subjects, so that they witness the hopelessness of the girl’s condition and the threat from the vulture as events unfold before them.  The gaze is, of course, that of the photographer, so the helplessness of the viewer can be related to the photographer with the belief that “I would help, so why didn’t he?”. Contrast this with Napalm Girl (1972) by Nick Ut, which similarly depicts a young girl suffering, and also won the Pulitzer for its powerful impact on public perception.  

“Napalm Girl”, by Nick Ut, Associated Press (1972) (Wayback Machine, s.d.)

Here, the gaze is almost cinematic, with children fleeing the chaotic attack, surrounded by soldiers, and running towards the photographer crying for help.  There are similar signifiers of pain and despair, yet distance from the explosion, the soldiers, their positions in the frame, all connote hope of survival.  Their running towards the camera invokes a natural instinct in the viewer to want to help them.  When Napalm Girl was published, details of how Ut helped save her life emerged at the same time, which spared the photographer scrutiny until much later on, when she was identified and exploited as a propaganda tool (Holland, 2022). The gaze, the horror of the hopelessness of Carter’s image, and his perceived apathetic reaction, made things much more difficult for him. 

If we compare the decision to photograph in these cases with the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Code of Ethics, both men acted appropriately in being ‘accurate and comprehensive in representation’ and ‘not seeking to alter or influence’ (NPPA, s.d.). Both observed and did not intervene, until afterwards; Carter chasing the vulture away and Ut seeking medical attention for the badly burned girl, Kim Phuc.  When we compare their approach to the alleged behaviour of Steve McCurry in coercing the subject of his Afghan Girl (1989) portrait to be photographed (Karnad and Karnad, 2019), or the controversy around Newsha Tavakolian’s identifying of a child rape victim in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, (Batty, 2022), we can conclude that the decision to take a shocking photograph isn’t necessarily professionally unethical, even if it appears to conflict with our own personal values.

Conclusion

While the anger at Carter’s perceived inaction is understandable, his ethics are, for me, not in question.  His behaviour after the photograph makes us uncomfortable because of the viewer being placed intimately within the scene and that while we are used to seeing images of starving children, the idea of one being eaten by a vulture is abhorrent.  In considering his behaviour, I conclude that there are further ethical discussions that are rarely considered beyond the photograph itself, principally around what happens after the image is published.   Carter described sitting under a nearby tree, watching the girl continue her journey, and weeping.  In attempts to answer his critics, he expressed regret at not helping the girl, despite shooing away the bird and remaining long enough to watch her continue her journey once the vulture had gone.   His efforts weren’t enough to assuage his guilt, however, as two months after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Carter took his own life at only 33 years old. 

"I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners. . . . The pain of life overrides the joy, to the point that joy does not exist." -  excerpt from Kevin Carter’s suicide note, quoted in Time Magazine (Cate, s.d.)

Regret is a sentiment echoed by other photojournalists, such as Carter’s close colleague Greg Marinovich, who witnessed a killing by an angry mob without trying to help save him, and Donna Ferrato, who documented domestic violence in her subject’s relationship as a passive observer (‘I was gutted that I’d been such a coward’: photographers who didn’t step in to help, 2012).  However, these photographers were working, either directly or indirectly, for an editorial publisher who ultimately decide ethically how the image is to be used, with varying results.  In Carter’s case, the subsequent publication of the image didn’t cause the girl any direct harm, because it wasn’t known whether she had even survived.  In fact, in 2011 it was claimed that she was actually a boy named Kong Nyong, who not only survived, but lived another 14 years before dying from a fever (Vnuk, 2021).  In the case of Napalm Girl, Kim Phuc survived, but was psychologically damaged by the picture’s success, and her subsequent use as both a pro-war and anti-war propaganda tool.  She doesn’t hold the photographer accountable for that though, with her and Ut remaining close friends to this day.  In the case of Afghan Girl, the subject claimed that the experience and her identification caused her many problems in later life, and in the case of Tavakolian, the commissioning body, Médecins Sans Frontières, was forced to withdraw publication of the controversial images following wide-spread criticism over victim safety (Batty, 2022). 

My main conclusion here relates to the ethics of editorial, which I feel failed Kevin Carter by getting him to directly answer public anger about his image, that were less relevant than his journalistic representation of the horrors of the famine.  If the editorial had carefully managed their response to the public backlash to publication, the additional strain may not have contributed to his mental decline and its tragic outcome.  In an area of photography that is perhaps the most ethically challenging, the duty of care must be internal as well as external.

Bibliography

Figures

The vulture and the little girl - Rare Historical Photos (2013) At: https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/vulture-little-girl/ (Accessed 23/10/2023).

Wayback Machine (s.d.) At: https://web.archive.org/web/20110121082648/culturevisuelle.org/catastrophes/files/2010/11/petite-fille-napalm-vietnam.jpg (Accessed 24/10/2023).

References

Sontag, S., 1933-2004 (1977) On photography. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [1977] ©1977. At: https://search.library.wisc.edu/catalog/999494694402121

Doud, R. (1964) Oral history interview with Dorothea Lange, 1964 May 22 | Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [Text] At: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-dorothea-lange-11757 (Accessed 24/10/2023).

Kit Ow Yeong, W. (2014) '‘Our Failure of Empathy’: Kevin Carter, Susan Sontag, and the Problems of Photography' In: Think Pieces: A Journal of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences At: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1458035/ (Accessed 23/10/2023).

Were his priorities out of focus?, Stamets, Reena Shah (1994) At: https://www.tampabay.com/archive/1994/04/14/were-his-priorities-out-of-focus/ (Accessed 23/10/2023).

Cate, F. H. (s.d.) THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (full text). At: https://www.lehigh.edu/~jl0d/J246-06/THROUGH%20A%20GLASS%20DARKLY%20(full%20text).htm (Accessed 19/10/2023).

Holland, O. (2022) ‘Napalm Girl’ at 50: The story of the Vietnam War’s defining photo. At: https://www.cnn.com/style/article/napalm-girl-50-snap/index.html (Accessed 31/10/2023).

NPPA (s.d.) Code of Ethics for Visual Journalists. At: https://nppa.org/resources/code-ethics (Accessed 28/03/2023).

Karnad, R. and Karnad, R. K. (2019) You’ll Never See the Iconic Photo of the ‘Afghan Girl’ the Same Way Again. At: https://thewire.in/media/afghan-girl-steve-mccurry-national-geographic (Accessed 17/10/2023).

Batty, D. (2022) 'Médecins Sans Frontières pulls images of teenage rape survivor after outcry' In: The Guardian 23/05/2022 At: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/23/medecins-sans-frontieres-pulls-images-of-teenage-survivor-after-outcry (Accessed 18/10/2023).

‘I was gutted that I’d been such a coward’: photographers who didn’t step in to help (2012) In: The Guardian28/07/2012 At: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/jul/28/gutted-photographers-who-didnt-help(Accessed 31/10/2023).

Vnuk, H. (2021) Kevin Carter took one of the most famous photos of all time. The following year, he was dead.At: https://www.mamamia.com.au/kevin-carter-photo/ (Accessed 31/10/2023).

 


Check Your Bias at the Door

October 16, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

As with previous projects for my course, I’ve chosen a challenging subject for this year.  I’ve regularly been asked why I don’t choose something easier or less emotionally taxing and, in all honesty, I do not have an answer.  Perhaps I just look for things that make me somehow uncomfortable.  It’s fair to say that my work last year, a video slideshow called Modern Monsters that explored cyber-trolling in the context of Norse mythology, really took it out of me.   Not only were the images themselves challenging, owing to the extensive use of self-portraiture in constructed tableaux, but the research for the project was emotionally draining.  Stories of cyberbully that ranged from teenagers to charity organisations revealed the darker side of 24/7 communication and social media.  In some cases, the activity was declared to be ‘banter’, with the perpetrators attacking what they see as an oversensitive society.  In others, though, blatant racism, homophobia, body shaming, and humiliation led to tragic circumstances where people fell victim to suicide and, in some cases, murder.  During that time, I was considering how our use of technology encourages this behaviour where there appears to be little or no consequence, but it was while I was talking to a friend last week that I started to think about it in the context of this year’s project.  During our conversation, he said that he was increasingly concerned about the polarisation of world views, with people either firmly for or against something happening or being discussed, and little room for balanced debate.  I too share this concern, as I observe that such polarisation encourages extremism in the form of media outlets that stoke prejudices, in whichever direction, to the point where people take to their socials and so on.  The sheer volume of this kind of traffic for me deprives us of many, more constructive, debates. 

I don’t want to dwell on these specific points here, though, because we all see the effects of them in our daily interactions with the internet.  Instead, I want to highlight the layer beneath the establishment of a viewpoint, known as unconscious bias.   According to The Royal Society, unconscious bias is “…when we make judgments or decisions on the basis of our prior experience, our own personal deep-seated thought patterns, assumptions or interpretations, and we are not aware that we are doing it”.  It is a thought process that is within all of us, is informed by the way we are brought up as children and shaped in our continued development as adults.  What we are exposed to in terms of teaching, literature, television etc, builds that ‘prior experience’ as we get older.  Unconscious bias can put us into a kind of automatic pilot mode for everything from a trivial day to day assumption to the longer-term political perspective, and it is this idea of its being so commonplace that we are unaware of doing it, that bothers me about my project.  

At this point, I should probably say what the project is intended to be about.  For the past two years, I have had the great pleasure of photographing Malvern’s Pride event, held in our main park in the centre of town in July.  In being their official photographer, I’ve met and gotten to know many people from the LGBTQ+ community who are involved with organising the event, from which I’ve in turn learned about their lives and struggles with sexual, gender and identity in what feels like an increasingly intolerant world.  We’ve talked about the origins of Pride, starting with the Stonewall riots of 1969, through Section 28, and on to the present day with the continuing need to keep making both a celebration of, and a protest for, equality and respect.  Pride is very still very much seen as a way of making this happen.  My photo project idea was to explore these people’s stories and the importance of maintaining Pride from their perspective; or at least this is what the original intention was.   The evolution of the idea has been largely caused by the relationships built between us, the growing respect I have for them, and my recognition of my own unconscious bias.  What do I mean by this?  Well, the first time I really became aware of it was when I was pulled up in conversation for using the phrase ‘LGBTQ+ community’.  I had been liberally using it as a way to describe them as a group, both in terms of the interviewees for my project and within the wider population.  However, every person I’ve interviewed has pointed out that they are not part of a community as defined by this term, and that this categorisation was largely created by straight people to be able to describe a group that were different to them.  I was quite surprised by this, but when I thought about it, I’ve rarely heard a gay man or lesbian woman describe themselves in community terms beyond “We gays” or “Us lesbians”, and certainly not in a singular group.  The point was reinforced when I was asked whether I would know someone’s sexuality or gender if I saw them in the street.  Did I identify signs of these small aspects of a person’s life by visual cues or stereotypes?  This was pretty uncomfortable to answer at first, because like everyone I get drawn into LGBTQ+ stereotypes; that man’s clothing is flamboyant, that woman looks masculine, that person sounds camp…etc…etc.  These stereotypes, which I have grown up with for the past 50 years, create an unconscious bias in me that could lead to further assumptions about a person before even getting to know them.  It’s not a huge leap from that to being somehow judgemental and, more seriously, extreme.  I’m happy to say that neither of these is the case with me.  What keeps my assumptions in check, as far as I am concerned, is not only my strong belief in equality, but also my continual learning from the people who are kindly taking part in my project.  The work is transforming into a piece more about representing the person, not the stereotype, and challenging the viewer to recognise where their own unconscious bias might be at play.  Herein lies the real problem.  As I said, I feel very strongly about equality, the right for people to live their lives and to respect them for doing so.  I despise right-wing politics and the organisations and movements that follow them, people who seek to prevent other people from being themselves, who label those who are sensitive to being respectful with ridiculous terms like ‘woke’, which if you think about it, is another simplistic categorisation of people and attitudes ‘that are not like us’.   My concern is that my strength of feeling on these subjects, and in particular how I feel about the chastisement of LGBTQ+ people, is in itself an unconscious bias.  This could easily, if unchecked, influence the story that I am looking to tell in my project.  As part of the research for this section of my course, we were directed to a TED talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who talked about the dangers of telling a ‘single story’.  She grew up a veracious reader of novels written by Western authors who were almost entirely white, and while she loved what she was reading, her concept of all literature was shaped by their cultural anchors and not her own.  It wasn’t until she was older that she became aware of black Nigerian literature that spoke more to her culture and help undo that bias.  While it might appear a relatively harmless example on the surface, she talks about how stories that focus on one idea or point of view, can unintentionally make it difficult to see the wider story behind the subject; to almost discount other ideas even when presented with alternative ideas of equal weight.  The most dangerous course of the single story is to further create its own stereotype that could potentially do more harm to the subject than good, even if the original intention was entirely honourable.   In the context of my project, my own unconscious bias from strength of feeling, could make the story a rallying cry for the protection of LGBTQ+ rights, which I naturally see as basic human rights.  It could only focus on the pressure put on the people and call for Pride to return to its origins of protest, which itself can be traced back to Stonewall in 1969.  However, doing so would in a way overshadow the main point about treating people of all genders, sexualities and identities equally simply because it is a relatively small part of who they are.   In embracing my bias, I could totally miss the important story.  Now, I am not saying that wanting to make a statement about something using photography is wrong, of course.  Some of the greatest photographers and photojournalists in history have created work aligned with their own narratives, which is entirely valid.  Artists are supposed to create meaning, and that comes most naturally from our own life experiences, biases and all.  

 What do you see when you first look at the picture?  Is an unconscious bias directing how you read it? Let me know!

What I’m saying here is that if we take a moment to ask ourselves why we have a particular view or demand a particular action about something, or where we might be able to trace a prejudice or stereotype back to, we might recognise the work of unconscious bias, lurking behind the scenes.   Some of these biases can be challenged by broadening our learning, while others are not so easy.  For example, I went to shoot a couple of my portrait subjects recently and they asked me why I’d taken my shoes off when I entered their house.  I explained that it’s something I cannot instinctively control, being a product of the way I was raised. I recognise that unconscious behaviour easily enough, but despite being able to, and even if I have permission to keep my shoes on, I just cannot override it.  It’s a trivial example, that I’m not particularly unhappy about, because I was raised a polite boy. 

To conclude then, I am thinking carefully about where I want to take the project, despite making already photographs for it.  Whatever direction I take it in, I want to achieve a balanced narrative that respectfully and faithfully represents my subjects, while highlighting what they see as the challenges in their lives, however controversial or trivial they might appear to others.  I’ve talked about representation before and, in this case, it’s central to making a piece of work that they, and I, are happy with.  I just need to check my bias at the door beforehand, along with my shoes. 

For Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's excellent TED talk click here

For my series from last year, Modern Monsters, click here