Sunday 22 March 2015

A Decisive Journey Across The Thames (and back again)

Over the last few weeks I have had a lot of fun. First getting out with the cameras and doing what we demand of our photographers, taking a different look at what is seen every day. Secondly, I enjoyed re-reading 'The Decisive Moment' by Henri Cartier-Bresson; again inspired by his words, “the picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart”. And lastly I contributed to a kick starter project for the first time. Congratulations to Peter Densch, his hardback book “The British Abroad” will now be published with a little help from me and a lot more from others.

Captain Dave Watkins in the Wheel House of the James Newton ferry before dawn in Woolwich, London February 5, 2015. 

In short, I have managed to get back to the roots of what drives me to work in the news picture business. A love of picture stories about people.

For quite some time a nagging thought had been growing in my mind. Could I actually achieve myself what we demand of Reuters photographer’s and look differently at something we see all the time? I decided to shoot a local story that had fascinated me, London's Woolwich Free Ferry. The full story can be seen here on the Wider Image.

Gaining permission for access took time. “So you want to spend time with the crews of a public service to take pictures completely unsupervised – why?” I had to explain what I was doing, who for and why. It was good to have these thoughts cleared in my own head. The toughest question ‘who actually cares?’ Eventually I was handed a green high-visibility ‘VISITOR’ jacket, a pair of steel capped shoes and signed a form after completing a health and safety training session. Job done I thought.

But I thought wrong. I quickly discovered that I had lost my confidence taking pictures of people and technically I had lost it completely. Poor exposure, bad timing and poor focus. Years of driving a desk had taken its toll. What I had not lost was sense of shape and my honed skills as an editor. I did a harsh edit of my work to discover I actually had nothing. I resisted the temptation to switch my cameras from manual to automatic, got up at 04.45 and did it all again and then again. 

Recently I asked a photographer to reshoot part of a story and wondered if it was possible. He said it was but failed to mention it involved a half-day walk and chest deep wade across a flooded river.  Respect to him and a great re-shoot. What is important here is to be honest with yourself when editing your picture stories, if it doesn’t work you have just got to do it again. If you can’t do it again, then sadly it still doesn’t work.

Chargehand for the Woolwich Ferry workshop Terry Hanlan clears the bench in the ferry workshop in London February 5, 2015.  

But there is so much more now to getting the “job done”. Full captions and additional information to give the story context and relevance, we are after all photojournalists. Historical documents and archive pictures, full copyright secured. And then there is presentation and publication in all formats, print, online and hand held devices. Also there is the question of the inclusion or not of video, ambient sound, sound bites and graphics in the final piece.

So during my short journeys back and forth across the River Thames what did I learn? I would hardly describe my picture story as groundbreaking, but I am happy with result; I’ve never seen the working life of the Woolwich Free Ferry photographed this way before and it opened in 1889. Viewed in 50 years I hope it will be a sound historical document.  I learned that the opportunity for visual story telling is as great, if not greater, than it has ever been. All you need to do is look, think and see.

The last word to Cartier-Bresson. “Though it is difficult to foresee exactly how colour photography is going to grow in photo-reporting, it seems certain that it requires a new attitude of mind, an approach different than that which is appropriate for black and white”.