Saturday 22 November 2014

The first photographer to travel on a royal tour - 1862

Everyone involved is long dead but the inquisitive feel, sense of exploration and beauty of the pictures live on. These are the thoughts that stuck me as I looked at the pictures by Francis Bedford of The Prince of Wales Middle East tour. This was the first time ever a photographer was invited to travel on a royal tour. It was 1862. Having been on several royal tours as a photographer I was intrigued.

Rarely, on first look when visiting exhibitions, do I use the recorded narration or read the small labels as I want to come to my own conclusions about the pictures. As the exhibition "Cairo to Constantinople" in the Queen's Gallery, is small I decided to look at it twice, the second time using the narration.

On first look the pictures are beautiful in composition, light, and technical execution. The prints are quite small so you have to peer closely at them. As I looked closer the details that really came to life and fascinated me were the local people. Exposures at that time were long, so to capture people without movement they would have to stand still for quite a while - completely still. I can't imagine for a minute that Francis would ask his Royal host to pose for pictures, under strict instructions not to move an inch for 12 seconds. The locals, on the other hand, would be a completely different matter. This for me, 152 years later, is the strength of these pictures.

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali, Cairo. Francis Bedford, 1862.

Listening to the narration I came across two wonderful gems of information that made me take a closer look at two specific pictures. The first is that the party travelled wearing tweed. Just imagine how hot it would have been riding horseback under the Middle East sun wearing tweed. This picture by French photographer Gustave Le Gray shows the party in their full splendour (the Prince 5th from right).  Le Gary, an important French photographer at the time, was in the Middle East on commission to cover the conflict in Syria but was injured in a horse accident, so joined the royal party up the Nile.

But to discover that Francis Bedford had managed to capture his own portable darkroom in the corner of his picture of the Great Court in Edfu, is truly wonderful. It so reminds me of the desperate and sometimes failed attempts by photographers to clear the background on modern royal tours.

The exhibition is on at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 22nd February 2105 and I highly recommend it if you have a spare 90 minutes and a tenner to spend. I even bought the book! If you are interested to learn more on Wednesday 26th November there is a lecture about the work. Sadly I can't make it. 

Monday 7 July 2014

On the Sidelines of the Brazil 2014 World Cup

As national soccer teams and the photographers who have been covering them start to trickle home from the Brazil World Cup, it’s time to revisit the “On the Sidelines” project.
This Reuters Pictures project was billed as a chance for photographers to share “their own quirky and creative view of the World Cup”. I thought that I’d examine what has been achieved

As a way of introducing the project, let me use a comparison. I’m intrigued by the notion that an animal that has been caged, but is well fed and well treated, will not exchange freedom from its pen for the uncertainty that this freedom might bring.

Likewise, working as a photographer at the World Cup comes with a kind of cage of security. You know what you are going to do, what time you are going to do it, and what is expected of you. You need to capture pictures of great sporting action, goals, celebrations, red cards and, of course, every important incident, be it Suarez’s teeth marks or the collision that led to Neymar’s broken vertebra.

For editors too, life can fall into a regular pattern. First, arrive at the office two hours before the start of the game and make sure all the technology works, and that tests have been received from the photographers.

Then, with three other colleagues, look at between 12,000 and 20,000 frames per game, select the right pictures and make sure the captions and image quality are good (all while trying to block out the sound of drilling from builders in the next room… See video below).

As the game finishes and the last end-of-match celebration and dejection pictures are being picked through, the photographers from the next game are already starting to send in tests for their match.

Eleven hours after arriving in the office, the World Cup editing team here in Miami leaves and tries to find something (healthy, of course…) to eat. And hopefully there is no polite but disgruntled call from a photographer claiming you missed their best picture…

Here is my screen after the Netherlands v. Costa Rica quarterfinal match.

It’s not at all easy to cover the World Cup. Photographers face all sorts of struggles: travelling for hours to get to the ground, avoiding being robbed, dealing with technical issues, setting up and shooting in the rain, not to mention getting the best picture. All of this can make you feel like you are trapped in a cage when it comes to being creative with your photography.

The “On the Sidelines” project was intended as an outlet from this hard work – an opportunity to enjoy the freedom to shoot additional creative and unexpected photographs, just for fun’s sake.

The guidelines for the project were simple. You could photograph anything that you liked, with any camera or even phone that you liked, and use any caption you wanted as long as it had the correct date and location and didn’t offend.

The photographers were not to use filters (who needs amateur filters when you can compose and expose professionally anyway?) and, of course, they had to follow all of our professional ethical guidelines.

We added the following sentence to the caption of each picture so that some of the stranger shots would be put into context: “In a project called “On The Sidelines” Reuters photographers share pictures showing their own quirky and creative view of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil”.

And which photographers took part? Every one of them.

What amazed me most was the energy and sense of fun that came through in the hundreds of pictures produced by photographers who were tired, hungry, and sometimes wet and grumpy, but never bored.

After a hard day in the cage, it was time for some freedom.

Having edited thousands of pictures from the matches, I also enjoyed looking at and processing “On the Sidelines” images when they were filed. They can all been seen here.

As we prepare for the final four matches of the World Cup, we are sending our mainstream clients an edited picture package, showing a selection of some of the hundreds of images produced as part of “On the Sidelines”.

We hope that our media clients and their readers will enjoy this second package of new material as much as they enjoyed a previous set of Sidelines pictures that we sent out.

So, what has been achieved by the “On the Sidelines” project?  Our professional photographers have had a lot of fun producing yet another set of amazing pictures, all of which are in the archive to show “their own quirky and creative view of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.”

It’s a great record for them to look back on, in addition to the thrills and spills of the soccer action.

Now, bring on the final.

Suarez - Did he bite?

The shout went up “He’s bitten him! Suarez has just bitten him!” 

It was the World Cup match between Uruguay and Italy, and both teams were playing for a place in the last 16. 

The game was tense, with pictures streaming in from the match in Brazil to the remote picture-editing centre we have set up in Miami. 

A television replay and it looked pretty certain that Uruguay’s Luis Suarez had bitten Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder in an off-the-ball incident. But you can never tell 100 percent when looking at TV. 

Chiellini was in no doubt though. He tried to show the referee tooth marks on his shoulder by pulling down his shirt.

We waited for the pictures to drop. Photographers Tony Gentile and Toru Hanai were sitting at the right end of the pitch. Tony was on the right side to get the picture

The pictures dropped in quickly, in sequence. Suarez on the ground holding his mouth. Chiellini holding his shoulder. 

Finally, we get the pictures of Chiellini pulling down his shirt to reveal marks on his shoulder. There are only 6 pictures, with one key frame below. 

At this stage we are unable to confirm what happened. We move the picture cropped wide to demonstrate what we do know - Chiellini is trying to show his shoulder to the referee.

We then look closely at the picture – you can clearly see marks, but are they teeth marks? We cannot confirm it. All we can do is show Chiellini’s shoulder and let the story take its own course. 

A tighter crop shows Chiellini’s face and his shoulder. Mindful of clients’ needs we crop the same picture into an upright shape. 

Lastly, we take some time and look at just how far we can crop the image to show the marks. Too close and the image quality breaks up. Too loose and we add nothing more to the images we have already sent. 

A final decision is made. We crop the picture, keeping in the fingers pulling down the shirt to draw the eye up and reveal the marks on Chiellini. His face is cropped out entirely, so no extra details detract from the picture. 

TV pundits and voices on social media were already calling for Suarez to be banned and punished. 

We had moved the pictures out. Uruguay score a goal and more pictures came streaming in. The game had moved on, but we all knew what the talking point was going to be and what picture was going to be used. 

Was it a bite? We have to wait for the FIFA ruling, but Tony Gentile’s photography offers a pretty clear picture.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Imagine the world viewed through the single constant of a goalpost

Sometimes the best ideas are also the simplest ones, especially when you have the support of the world’s biggest news agency behind you. 

Children play soccer on a playing field in Kirtipur, Kathmandu May 31, 2014. The 2014 Brazil World Cup opens on June 12 and fans around the globe are gearing up for the big tournament. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Inspired by the energy generated by a Wider Image workshop with our photographers in South America, I wanted to work on a global story about the Brazil 2014 World Cup. So many superlatives are used to describe it: the world’s greatest show, the most watched tournament, the biggest sporting event.

A goalpost is painted on a wall at a house used as a creche in Ciudad Juarez June 3, 2014. The 2014 Brazil World Cup opens on June 12 and fans around the globe are gearing up for the big tournament. But soccer lovers are not only preparing to watch the world's best professional players battle it out on the pitch; they are also out there kicking a ball about themselves. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

I needed a big idea that could demonstrate the worldwide reach of football (or soccer, for our U.S readers) and I wanted to include our global team of busy photographers. For them to find the time to get involved, the idea had to be simple. 

I once heard that the rules of football are among the most universally recognised codes in the world.  They transcend divides of creed, culture, education, geography and wealth. Off-side is off-side no matter who you are, or what your nationality. And what is football actually about? It’s about goals.
And what is a goal? That moment of ecstatic joy, crushing defeat, a game won, lost or drawn (unless it’s a dull 0-0). Lucky, unlucky, frequently contentious, always an event. Maybe it should have been a goal and was disallowed, maybe it shouldn’t have been but was counted anyway. Goals can signify millions of dollars won or lost or invested in the business of football. They can mean winning or losing a bet. 

A makeshift soccer goalpost stands near Molweni, west of Durban June 5, 2014. The 2014 Brazil World Cup opens on June 12 and fans around the globe are gearing up for the big tournament. But soccer lovers are not only preparing to watch the world's best professional players battle it out on the pitch; they are also out there kicking a ball about themselves. Reuters photographers on every continent, in countries from China to the Czech Republic, went out to capture images of soccer goalposts used by players to practise the 'beautiful game'. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

And what is an actual physical goal? FIFA’s rules are strict, but simple: “The distance between the posts is 7.32 m (8 yds) and the distance from the lower edge of the crossbar to the ground is 2.44 m (8 ft)… Both goalposts and the crossbar have the same width and depth, which do not exceed 12 cm (5 ins).”

I read this, and an idea came to me. Imagine the world viewed through the single constant of a goalpost: the green grass and cloudy skies of Manchester, the dusk in Karachi, a cityscape in Boston, Kathmandu and Tokyo. I checked with a colleague to see  that this was not a daft idea. He loved it.

I knew that to get what I was looking for I needed to apply some structure. Experience has told me that photographers, on the whole rightly so, tend to follow their own ideas better than they follow those of others (no disrespect team, but it is as it is). 

I set some guidelines: a 24mm lens should be used, the pictures should be shot from the distance of the penalty spot (FIFA rules) and the camera should be at a height of 2 ft, from behind or in front, whatever looked better. My “goal” was to ensure that the position of the goalposts in the picture frame was a constant. I even shot a picture myself to explain what I wanted. What guide could be simpler to stick to?

Some followed the instructions to the letter, a few ignored some of them, and an elite handful completely made up their own rules. I love the result! I hope you do too. Click here to see the pictures 

Saturday 3 May 2014

Instagram - A Platform For Professionals?

Two amazing pictures showed up on my screen over the past few days. The first was from Myanmar, where a Rohingya Muslim woman was pictured holding her malnourished twins. The second captured a deadly explosion in Iraq. 

Both were sent out to our clients on our newswire, and I decided to share them on social media. First I posted them to Twitter, with links to slideshows and our Wider Image website. The people who follow us on Twitter know what to expect – breaking news pictures from around the globe including some images that are quite brutal. 

Then I went to Instagram. I paused. Over the last few months, Reuters Instagram account has increased its following to almost 50,000. Each picture gets an average of over 1,000 likes and the numbers are growing. 

We don’t force crop our pictures into squares and we never use the filters – what you see is an image just as it was moved to the wire, un-manipulated. 

Displaced Rohingya woman Norbagoun carries her severely malnourished 25-day-old twins in her lap in their house at the Dar Paing camp for internally displaced people in Sittwe, Rakhine state, April 24, 2014. Restrictions on international aid have exacerbated a growing health crisis among stateless Muslim Rohingya in west Myanmar. In February, Myanmar's government expelled the main aid group providing health to more than half a million Rohingya, Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF-H), after the organisation said it had treated people believed to have been victims of violence in southern Maungdaw township in January. The United Nations says at least 40 Rohingya were killed there by Buddhist Rakhine villagers. The government denies any killings occurred. An attack in March on NGO and U.N. offices by a Rakhine mob led to the withdrawal of other groups providing healthcare and other essential aid to another 140,000 Rohingya living in camps.  REUTERS/Minzayar

We are continually told that Instagram is the platform of the future for picture-sharing and news photography. It’s a space Reuters need to be in.  

So why my hesitancy? Who would want to “like” a picture of malnourished children? No one, I assume. Yet purely in terms of beauty of photography, emotion and content it’s a very powerful news picture. 

But is Instagram a platform for this? The second picture is an exclusive image of a deadly blast, captured with full force. It shows the very moment that several people were killed and many injured. Again, what to “like”? 

An explosion is seen during a car bomb attack at a Shi'ite political organisation's rally in Baghdad, April 25, 2014. A series of explosions killed 18 people at a Shi'ite political organisation's rally in Iraq on Friday, police and medical sources said. The militant group, Asaib Ahl Haq (League of the Righteous), introduced its candidates for elections on April 30 at the rally in eastern Baghdad. Three bombs exploded in succession as people were leaving, Reuters reporters at the scene said. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani 

Followers can comment right under the picture. Would there be an outcry and accusations of insensitivity at posting a picture of suffering children? Or would groups, who blame the Myanmar authorities for the health crisis among Rohingya Muslims – which the state denies – say the image was meant to advocate their cause? 

Would supporters of militants who exploded the bombs at the Shi’ite political rally write comments applauding the image and enraging those who suffered from the attack, who would be appalled that the image had even been posted? 

Every good news picture evokes debate and opinion. The more followers an Instagram account gets, the more diverse the commentary normally becomes. Nothing goes unchallenged or fails to raise the hackles of one group or another. 

One might think a picture from Ireland of a sheep that had been dyed pink to support a cycle race would be fun and harmless enough (it got 1046 “likes”). The comments ranged from clapping hands, smilies and “Mood for a pink outfit anyone?” to “People who do this to animals should be SHOT. Most dyes are not safe for them”.

The only pictures that don’t seem to upset people are silhouettes. So maybe we should just ignore everyone and post whatever represents the best of the file? But the point is to gain followers not lose them. Would someone interested in world news like to see cute pandas; or would our “panda followers” be horrified by pictures of children with malnutrition or bomb blasts in Iraq? 

I have to admit I enjoy posting Reuters pictures to Instagram; I get the buzz of instant gratification from “likes” and positive comments. Also, I tip my hat the very small group of photographers who have carved out a niche for themselves using Instagram to promote their work (I believe these photographers are so good that they could make great pix using a pin-hole camera). The platform has given joy to millions of amateurs using their phones to post pictures.   

But we are paid professionals and I am beginning to struggle with the question: “what is the actual value of Instagram for professional news photographers?” Likes cannot not, as yet, be converted into dollars so how will they fund the business now or in the future? 

So another question: is the platform best left to the amateurs, to enjoy filter-enhanced sunsets, rainbows, street scenes, lovers, pets and families or is this really the new, professional platform of the future? 

Last question “Would you ‘like’ a picture of malnourished babies in Myanmar?” 

If don’t give a damn about “likes” and just want to read the story and see the pictures, click here

Saturday 5 April 2014

News photography – going wider and updated

Sometimes apparently unconnected events turn out to be related in some abstract way, and they get me thinking.

My friend Jennifer O’Neill, the guitarist with a young band named “Bleech” posted a picture on Facebook recently. It read: “a musician is someone who puts £5,000 worth of gear into a car worth £500 to drive 100 miles to earn £50.” It’s a sentiment many young photographers can also relate to in the changing landscape of professional news photography.

A catch-up drink with some of my (now retired) mentors, colleagues and competitors from the AP and UK national newspapers revealed stories of gloom and decline. A respected photographer was selling his gear to pursue a career in baking since news pictures could no longer provide a viable livelihood. We heard a tale of young photographers waiting to be assigned jobs, knowing that if their pictures did not get published they would not get paid, even if they had invested time and money to produce the images. And of course we heard predictions that media companies would soon start to drop some of their newswire services to cut costs.

All this discussion took place against the backdrop of a debate as to why professional photographers hand out their pictures for free on social media platforms: “How can professional photographers expect to sell a picture that has already been seen for free?”

The conclusion of the assembled group was that young photographers must misguidedly believe that by giving their work away for free now, they will get the big-paying jobs later on. Yet the group agreed that, in reality, if you give your pictures away now, no one will pay for them in the future – why would they?

It seemed like another echo of the music industry, where bands now find themselves needing to give their music away for nothing and then make money by selling T-shirts. There was much shaking of heads and another round of drinks was quickly ordered to wash away these dire thoughts.

It was all food for thought, and more than enough to get you down. But I’m not down because I have hope to offer. Here’s why.

At Reuters we are presently carrying out workshops with our photographers in the United States and South America about The Wider Image, the name for Reuters’ branded, long-form, storytelling photojournalism. We have already done the same thing in the Middle East and Africa, Europe and Asia.

Our goal is to explain how to balance the need for quality, breaking-news pictures with an increasing demand for more in-depth photography that will provide something “different”.  The results very quick and very rewarding - here is an example from this week, Jorge's Silva's look at the issues behind the conflict in Caracas, "Venezuela's skyscraper slum".

The message to the photographers is simple. We will continue to do what we always do – produce fast, accurate, unbiased breaking-news pictures covering all the top stories around the globe. But in addition we will explain visually and in-depth why that news is happening, producing stories that cannot be sourced for free from social media. Simple to say, harder to put into practice.

But here are some more recent examples to highlight the success of the strategy.

On March 17, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva heard a report on human rights abuses in North Korea. The news picture of the day was the address by Michael Kirby, who led the inquiry, officially presenting the report. It also could have been images from Pyongyang (unlikely) or perhaps anti-North Korea demonstrations in Seoul. High-quality pictures of this sort are all on the wires, readily available, and are sometimes even available for free on social media – even if they are not of such high or trusted quality.

But to offer something different, Seoul-based photographer Kim Hong-ji spent time beforehand making contact with people who had been separated from their families during the Korean War, and who had recently seen their long-lost relatives again at a rare, inter-Korean family reunion that took place just north of the border.

Hong-ji asked them what their most precious memento was from their time in North Korea and produced a very moving series of portraits. The International New York Times dedicated just about all of page 2 to his images.

A second example is the Wider Image coverage of a regular annual event – International Women’s Day. Every year, the wires are alive with great pictures that celebrate women and highlight the struggles many of them face. Our competitors will of course also have good pictures to match ours.

This year, weeks before the event we planned and shot a series of portraits showing women with their daughters in countries around the world. We also asked them questions about their personal aspirations for their daughters’ futures.

The published results were nothing short of spectacular, and you can see the series here.

The last example, a personal favorite of mine, is from our photographers Feisal Omar and Omar Faruk in Mogadishu.

It not only demonstrates how our photographers in developing countries are now producing new and valuable pictures; it also goes a long way to demonstrating how we are reshaping and differentiating the file, preparing for an uncertain future.

The idea was developed after members of Somali militant group al-Shabaab attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. Photographer Goran Tomasevic was quickly on the scene, and followed security forces into the building to produce a dramatic and awarding-winning set of breaking-news pictures.

Thinking ahead, we asked Feisal and Omar to shoot a picture story to show what the Somali capital Mogadishu was like for ordinary people living there.

The results were different from the normal news pictures of Mogadishu, showing bomb-blast aftermaths and shootings, where the only colors are provided by either flames or blood and the subjects are often ignored by the world’s media.

Here is the Wider Image look at Mogadishu, a series of pictures that published globally.

The biggest surprise for me was seeing the iconic symbol of all things USA – Mickey Mouse – at a child-care centre. The sequence of pictures revealed an equally unexpected splash of colour and normality from a part of the world that many think of as grey and shaped only by disaster, violence and bloodshed.

Working for a large and complex organisation, it is sometimes easy to forget a golden rule in business – if your competitors produce the same product as you but faster and cheaper, you will eventually lose custom. The end result of this shortsightedness is no revenue, no business and no paid professional photographers.

But I am confident that this won’t happen because I am inspired by the creativity and hard work of the likes of Hong-ji, Fiesal and Omar and the global team who produced the International Women’s Day project.

This confidence is further underlined by the impact these stories have on global publications, and the firm knowledge that the same photographers who produced them will compete daily to win breaking-news stories. They are true photojournalists who are looking forward and not lamenting the past.

At the end of the day, what will always sell is quality and integrity. If you combine that with creative storytelling that genuinely interests people, you will have a secure future.

We are living in an increasingly visual world full of opportunity for photographers with new ideas. The situation is not the same as it is for the music industry. As it stands now, professional photographers don’t sell T-shirts, they sell pictures.

If you work for Reuters, The Wider Image team would like to hear your ideas. If we think the stories are relevant to Reuters top news, visually rich and exclusive, we will pay you to shoot them. Good luck.