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06.03.14 - Is Empathy reserved for whites?

“Most Shocking Second a Day Video” is a powerful and shocking: for a minute and a half  it portrays a year in the life of a young white British girl who experiences events like those in Syria. But, in doing so, this video also highlights the void between the myth of a secure and civilised west, and the rest of the world, normally portrayed as backwards, chaotic and brutal. I’ve seen this done before – using white actors and a western setting to bring overseas tragedies closer to western audiences – but never done this well. Tear jerking stuff indeed, but how successfully does it connect the viewer with the Syrian people and the three years of struggle they have endured?

Save the Children have a long history of using pity marketing to raise funds for their humanitarian work, an approach which re-enforces stereotypes of the global south, and which many would say is counter productive in the long run. This video is a clear and welcome departure from their normal marketing MO, but the question has to be asked: does highlighting perceived divide between the west an Syria do anything to break down said divide?

The normal question I would be asking to judge a video such as this is: does the video evoke pity or empathy for the people portrayed? However, in this case things become a bit more complicated Even if the video succeeds in evoking empathy in the viewer, which I think it does, how does this empathy for a white girl translate to the people of Syria? “That was terrible, but thank goodness that the events in Syria don’t really effect people like me” is a likely automatic reaction from many in the west.

As the lives of young girls of the middle class in both the UK and Syria are (or at least were) very similar, I would hope that a western audience would connect almost as much with a girl from wither country, IF they were portrayed in the same way. One of the strengths of the video the background signs of events to come – signs that the little girl is oblivious to – such as the television report or the newspaper headline. Perhaps these signs would be missed by some viewers if they were not in English, but as the video as a whole relies so little on speech that I think visual alternatives could be just as effective. It would be really interesting to have filmed a Syrian version of the video to see the difference in reaction. I personally believe that a clip with Syrian actors would have been just as powerful and more effective.

This video was successful in making me look at the people of Syria in a new way, but the question has to be asked: can white westerners only feel empathy for people who look like them? Currently the options seem to be feeling pity for people of colour, and empathy for white people.

11.10.11 - Monuments to the Past

I spent a lot of the last two weeks in New York City simply wandering the streets, from early in the morning until late at night. The scale of the architecture is amazing. To turn a corner and be confronted with the eight story stone footing of a bridge filling the space between buildings, and carrying a further ten stories of steel up into the night air, is breathtaking. The general style is a utilitarian one that I find quite beautiful; painted steel held together with great bolts and huge rivets rather than the glass and concrete favoured today.

Years ago I had come across Joel Sternfeld’s photographs of the High Line, a disused elevated rail line on the west side of Manhattan, and instantly wanted to go. His photographs show a small area of elevated wilderness cutting through perhaps the most iconically metropolitan city in the west. In the years after the lines closure and abandonment wild grasses had closed in upon the steel tracks, and saplings had pushed their way through the track ballast and shot up to above head height. Beautiful.

Now, however, the part of the High Line that remains has been transformed into a park. As nice as the new park is with its innovative fountain and moveable wooden benches that span the distance between tracks, it’s paved footpaths now give you one more place to walk on cement in a city made of the stuff. Sternfeld’s photographs give the feeling that nature was reclaiming it’s space, now the sense is that nature has been caught, contained, trapped, and now is allowed to stay only as long as it stays in its cage and doesn’t piss on the rug. I wish I had visited the High Line before it’s regeneration. OK, it was more exclusive as you had to break the law and climb to go see it, but wow. As I walked along the track I couldn’t help noticing a piece of graffiti on a neighbouring building that simply read “RIP High Line”.

On Roosevelt Island the decaying ruins of a former smallpox hospital is having similar construction work done to it. Seeing these has made me think about our desire to remove the offensive parts from our past, to turn them into something that is banal and inoffensive. I suppose in a place where room is as tight as it is on the island of Manhattan letting a space become reclaimed by nature is hard to justify, but in a country with such a short history it seems a shame to remove what little they have.

Who controls the past, controls the future. Who Controls the present, controls the past.

The other obvious place in New York that is currently being redeveloped is the former site of the World Trade Centre, the infamous Ground Zero. Will the new monument really commemorate the event of 9/11? What can you say with stone and glass that properly signifies the world-changing event the took place there. Whatever they build it will not be as savage, brutal and sublime as the twin towers crashing to the ground. Surely, if you want to never forget the best monument would be to leave the gnarled, twisted metal and crumbled concrete that made up the wreckage.

Huge, sublime, phallic symbols of capitalist power that sky scrapers are, who would want people to remember how fragile they really are? Whatever they do build, for me there is one monument that really made me think about what happened: framed by the downtown buildings of New York’s financial district, there is an area of sky that was once filled by steel and glass and concrete and people.



10.10.11 - Manhattan Night Photography

01.10.11 - New York Derive


09.09.11 - Where Change Begins

When we look back today at the cultural racism of the past we find it disgusting and barbaric. How, we ask our selves, was it possible to treat people that way simply because of the colour of their skin? Personally, I completely fail to understand how so many people could not see what is obvious to us, that we should not be judged on skin colour. For the people of the past, and sadly some people of today, the opposite is true. To the racist it is equally as obvious that blacks are inferior to whites as it is obvious to us that race does not matter.

A racist may truthfully tell you that they believe in compassion, fairness and equality because they do not see the contradiction within their own mind. I am always astounded by the ability of the human brain to believe two contradictory things at the same time. For them the question of whether it is right or wrong is not even asked because the though does not occur. Is it wrong to break a stone? Morality rarely comes into it. To them the sky is blue, when you drop thing they fall to the ground, and peoples worth is determined by their race. For racists this is the way the world is; a world without racial prejudice is as alien as a world with a yellow sky.

I know I am not special. I am no genius, and I do not possess acute abilities of insight or critical thinking that will allow me to invent new ways of thinking, new ways of looking at the world. I see the world through the eyes of those around me, the eyes of the writers who’s manuscripts I have read, the artists who’s art I have studied, and through the eyes of my peers. I am quite certain that if I had grown up in a society, such as the apartheid of South Africa, where everybody around me was certain of the obviousness of white superiority, then that’s what I would believe. I am lucky to have been brought up to see the world through eyes of racial equality, even if those who taught me to see that way may not have seen that way themselves. (more…)

07.04.11 - Back home from Asia

I am now home in the UK.

Returning home after so long is always a disconcerting experience. Arriving back after almost six months you would expect something to have changed, but everything seems unbelievably static. Perhaps a few shops have changed hands, fuel prices have risen and there are different films in the cinema, but that seems to be just about it. The strange thing is that everything that is unchanged seems somehow alien.

Perhaps this is because things have changed, but we are very good hiding these changes behind the veneer and pretending they don’t exist. In India your house is cold in winter and hot in summer, not the same temperature all year round. Sitting on a train or a bus people are not plugged in to headphones listening to the same music, but look out of the windows and watch the landscape pass, or talk to each other. Children are allowed to run around and play, and if you want to join in you can without being treated like a paedophile. There you notice things change because everything seems closer. Here we just seem disconnected.

Maybe this is what I am sensing, but perhaps it is something else too.

Although little may have changed, I have. I look at the world through different eyes than I did before, and so I see a different place that the one that existed in my head before.

There is the danger that in two weeks time I will have started to forget some of the things I have seen, the experiences I have had. I want to keep this sensation, that everything is not quite as it once seemed. Now I must evaluate what I have been doing and make sure that I do not fall back into the same routines. I must not be static. I have some questions to ask myself, and the world.

10.03.11 - Free Tibet protests in Kathmandu

What a day. This won’t be a long post as I’m blogging from my phone.

Today was uprising day for Tibetans, the day when Tibetans round the world protest against the continuing opression in Tibet.

Unfortunatly not everywhere are these protests permitted. Bowing to pressure from Beijing the nepalese police use heavy handed tactics to keep any protests at bay.

After havin been up for 13 hours I just managed to eat my first meal of the day. My leg hurts from a Napali police lathi (1.3m wooden stick for beating the unarmed) that missed its mark, and I’m tired. Still I’m on the front page of Demotix.

You can see my photos here.

05.03.11 - Happy Losar from… wherever I am!

Happy Losar!

Losar is Tibetan new year, and a big deal out here. This is the last blog post I scheduled before heading to the Khumbu. If you are reading this then it means either I am still in the mountains, I just forgot that I had scheduled this post, I’m drunk on chang (Tibetan alcoholic drink that varies in strength between beer and whisky), or I really did fall down a crevasse. Whatever the reason I haven’t actually written anything new material in a month, I hate to see a blog that isn’t regularly updated.

Obviously (for one of the above reasons) I can’t tell you what I’m up to right now, so here’s a link to somebody else’s hard work.

Here is a series of videos covering a talk by caving photographer Stephen Alvarez on his long time project for National Geographic, The Earth From Below. Ever wondered how to take interesting pictures when more that two kilometres under ground?! Alvarez will show you how.  Some of his images are truly breathtaking in their scale and beauty, and the talk is interesting from start to finish.  Definitely worth a watch even if you are not a photographer.  Enjoy.

18.02.11 - War Photography in Clown Shoes

Simon Norfolk Ascension Island

As I am in the Himalayas somewhere freezing my ass off (it gets cold out here you know), far away from electricity, let alone high speed internet, I’ve left you some reading homework. I expect it all to be done when I get back.

As a follow up to the essay I posted a couple of weeks ago here are links to two interviews with Simon Norfolk, both from 2006.


The best part is when Norfolk talks about photographing the military instillations on the remote Ascension Island:

BLDGBLOG: How did you get to Ascension Island in the first place? Can anyone just buy a ticket ticket and go there?

Norfolk: You have to fill in a permission form – but, yeah, you can buy a ticket. A lot of birdwatchers go down to the Falklands, and airplanes have to refuel at Ascension Island. It’s expensive, but you can do it.

You also have to fill in a form which they go through, and it says what you’re up to and all the rest of it. So I’d filled in the form, and I’d said I was a photographer – but I got there and no one had read the forms! On my last day on the island, I phoned up and said: I’m a photojournalist, and I’ve been on the island for two weeks, and can I talk to someone up there…? And they fucking crapped themselves. They said how did you get here? Didn’t you fill out the forms? And I said yeah, didn’t you read the forms?

And they said, well – actually, nobody reads the forms.


[laughter] Indeed.

Lens Culture

The second interview is much shorter and in the form of five audio clips. This is less a discussion of his work and more a series of anecdotes, some amusing, all illuminating, about photographing in war zones.

I have it from the horses mouth that there will be a book release and an exhibition from Simon Norfolk in May.  If you ever get the chance to see some of his large prints in an exhibition then you really should take it. You don’t shoot large format to display your work at 500x400px!

If you are not aware of Norfolk’s work and want to see more, the best place to start is his website.

12.02.11 - Mountaineering Photography: Preparing for the Khumbu

The video above is part one of five of mountaineer Simone Moro talking about his mountaineering photography from the Manfrotto stand at Photokina. There are some rules when photographing in the mountains: small and light is important, requiring you to carry the minimum of gear. Moro breaks all these rules, carrying big cameras, bigger lenses, tripods and even a laptop and satellite gear up to 8000m in winter! How does he do this? By being physically fitter than almost anyone you will ever meet, and being that special kind of crazy that you normally only find in eastern Europeans (watch the videos to understand what I mean).

As this post goes live I will should have finished my 48hr+ bus journey from Dharamsala to Kathmandu and be trekking towards Everest. That’s right, for the next month I will be amongst the tallest mountains on earth. Last time I checked, it was hard to get really fast internet at the foot of Chomalungma (and I’ll be carrying enough crap without a satellite dish), so for the next few weeks everything published here will be pre written.

I really hope that as you read this I’m not at the bottom of a crevasse somewhere in the Khumbu (now there’s a morbid thought). Tempting fate? Maybe a little.

I’ll be picking up my mail and answering my phone when I can, but there’s a good chance of a delay in my response times.

In anticipation of me going properly into the mountains I’d though I’d write a post about the equipment that I’ll be taking with me, why, and how I’ll be carrying it.

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