Archive for September, 2010

September Branch Newsletter

21st September, 2010

Next Branch Meeting: How to Pitch Video

6pm, Tuesday 28th September at Headland House.

Branch member and video journalist Jason Parkinson will show a short, yet-to-be published film documenting the devastating effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on the local fishing communities and lead a discussion on how to pitch video stories, especially when the story is off the radar.

Any motions to the branch should be sent to the branch secretary prior to the meeting.

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Defending Press Freedom

21st September, 2010

A journalist at all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.

NUJ Code of Conduct

The February meeting of the London Photographers’ Branch agreed to create the position of Legal Rep. It was agreed that the person elected to this position would support Branch members who have had a ‘negative encounter’ with the police and to coordinate the Branch’s relationship with the police.

I’m proud that Branch members have elected me to this position. The Legal Rep’s job is to support members to uphold and defend press freedom, in hindsight maybe the Branch should of named the position ‘Press Freedom Rep’.

Just to be clear the Legal Rep does not give legal advice, that is the job of the NUJ Legal Officer Roy Mincoff and the specialist lawyers that the union uses. It is the job of the Legal Rep to get you into a meeting with the most appropriate national officer or lawyer to help you.

So what kind of situations does the Legal Rep support members with?

A Branch member was stopped & searched three times in 45 minutes by police whilst covering a protest in London; branch members were forcibly removed and stopped by police from covering an EDL protest in Bradford; a branch member was forced to delete pictures under the threat of arrest in east London; branch members have been violently assaulted by police officers when working and a branch member has been threatened with a warrant by police to seize pictures of a political protest.

These are some of the real and current situations that Branch members have had to face when working, a barometer of the current political situation in the context of press and media freedom today.

In the majority of cases I have been one of the first people in the branch that members have contacted when things go wrong with the police. One of the first things is to listen to find out what the member needs. To give the member an idea of some of the options that are available to them. This could be highlighting the issue in the media, making a complaint to the police or IPCC or take legal action – sometimes all three!

Practically, this involves time, emails, phone calls and meetings to get the Branch member the best support the union can give them.

Currently the Branch does not have any formal contact with the Metropolitan Police. The Branch has successfully gained the agreement of NUJ Freelance Officer John Toner to report to the Branch on the meetings he attends, along with other organisations that represent photographers, with the police.

Meetings with the police are problematic at best, sharing a cup of tea with senior officers is seen by many as no more then a public relations exercise on behalf the police. The lack of any real concrete and lasting change in the behaviour of frontline officers gives weight to this view.

A trade union of photographers and journalists – a freedom of expression organisation – has to be cautious about such contact with a section of the state. Especially when it’s our members job to report on the actions of the police to the wider public. Transparency is the key and full and open records of any such meetings is vital for a democratic member lead organisation like ours.

Missing from the Record: what has happened to workplace photography?

20th September, 2010
A domestic worker at St. Charles Hospital, Notting Hill, newly contracted out to cleaning company Mediclean, watches a televised speech by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Image © 1986 Phillip Wolmuth.

A domestic worker at St. Charles Hospital, Notting Hill, newly contracted out to cleaning company Mediclean, watches a televised speech by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Image © 1986 Phillip Wolmuth.

The call to action from the TUC in Manchester this week brings to mind campaigns against public spending cuts imposed by previous governments, and the part that photography has played in them.

Perhaps the most memorable image of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, which immediately preceded the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, was of rats scurrying over piles of uncollected refuse sacks in Leicester Square. In that and subsequent disputes, those parts of the press more sympathetic to the trade union point of view, particularly the papers produced by the unions themselves, built solidarity with photographs of countrywide protest actions, and of workers in their workplaces.

One big difference between then and now, immediately discernable in the trade union (TU) press, is the current lack of representation of people at work. This is the culmination of a trend that began in the 1990s. It’s also at the root of the heated debate about the use of photography in TU journals that recently sprang up in the pages of the NUJ’s Journalist magazine.

The TU papers of the 1980s and 1990s were usually tabloid in format, like the NUPE Journal, for which the above photo was taken. Features frequently ran over two or three pages, with pictures used large, often occupying more than half the page. And they were very often unposed, documentary shots taken in workplaces – something that is now rare.

I think this is a significant loss, particularly in the present context. Such photographs can give meaning to the otherwise seemingly abstract effects of ‘planned public spending cuts’. If these images do not even appear in the TU press, they are unlikely to appear anywhere else.

Why has this change come about? One obvious reason is that the privatisation of so many services – from the railways and other public utilities, to hospital porters and school dinners – has made access difficult. Another is that union membership has fallen, resulting both in an increase in non-unionised workplaces, and in a decrease in union income. Over the same period there has been a move, across the media generally, away from serious photojournalism and towards ‘lifestyle’ and celebrity. And then there is the proposition that, with the rise of the new, fully automated, digital cameras, anyone can do it – so why pay for photos when members will send them in for free?

Access is a problem, but not an insurmountable one. As for the rest – I don’t buy any of it. Declining union membership has been offset by amalgamation – the membership base of the new ‘super-unions’ means that cheapskate sourcing of photography should really not be necessary. And there’s no reason why union journals should follow Murdoch and the rest down the celebrity and lifestyle route. As for digital cameras – ownership no more confers the ability to produce meaningful photojournalism, than does possession of a pen the ability to write like Shakespeare.

The fundamental reason for the absence is, I think, more depressing. It is that many editors (and those who employ them), inundated with mundane, ‘good enough’, almost-free imagery, have forgotten the value and impact of intelligently presented, serious photography.

Phillip Wolmuth is a freelance photographer and branch committee member. This article originally appeared on Phillip’s blog.

Police press liaison for Papal Visit

17th September, 2010

Members of the media were allowed access to the police operation briefing on the Papal visit. Commander Bob Broadhurst, Gold command, will be in charge of the operation. Chief Inspector Ian Thomas, Silver command, advised all senior officers of all units of the 4,000-strong police operation to follow the ACPO guidelines and respect the UK press card. Any doubts over press cards must be checked by using the phone number on the back of the card.

At the briefing police said that the intenational terrorist threat is set at severe, although the threat to the Pope and the Sequito (Papal staff) are considered low. The threat against the Prime Minister is moderate. Although police reminded that threat levels have been low before when assassinations have succeeded. They also said that there will be a large number of armed officers covering the two day visit, both overt and covert, on the ground and at elevated positions. Armed officers on the ground will also be armed with Tazers.

The dedicated number for journalists to contact police press liaison officers is: 07917 556824.

The NUJ Emergency Legal number is 0800 5877530, this is for NUJ members who need emergency legal assistance only. Branch Legal rep Marc Vallée will also available on 07947 181204.

We shouldn’t be fatalistic about the decline of stock photography

14th September, 2010

Anyone seriously interested in “The State of the Industry” should subscribe to Jim Pickerell’s Selling Stock website. He reports faithfully on the picture library and agency world as a whole and uses his extensive expertise and knowledge to fillet through the figures to present much of the facts of the matter, albeit with a US bias, and has been doing so since the very inception of the digital revolution.

Like many, however, he tends to present economic processes and technological change as wholly determinate, immutable manifestations of “natural” capitalist forces that admit no contravention. “The Market” and those who, prior to the crash, were seen as “Masters of the Universe”, are thus mythologised as Joseph Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction” is invoked:

Innovation by entrepreneurs is the force that sustains long-term economic growth, even as it destroys the value of established companies and labourers that enjoy some degree of monopoly power derived from previous technological, organizational, regulatory, and economic paradigms.

It is a common enough prognosis these days. “There is no alternative” to the depreciation. As photographers no longer piss about with smelly chemicals in the dark getting dermatitis and listening to Women’s Hour or tediously attaching labels to trannies and poking them into plastic sheets prior to shipping,  we have lost our “monopolisable skills” and must accept ever decreasing prices for a product that we’re told almost anybody can now produce. Those who question this wisdom or think otherwise are typically dismissed as foolishly idealistic, wanting a return to some previous pre-digital (and equally mythological as I recall) “golden age” of restrictive practices. We’re sort of Pre-Raphaelites of the Photo industry – though not as good looking, “Wheel Tappers” as one railway trade union editor put it – oh alright then “Luddites” (although popularly they are done a great disservice). In short, dissenters are characterised as wishful thinkers failing to comprehend the harsh commercial realities to which they must inevitably bend and submit or break.

Firstly, I feel this blinds us to understanding the development of the dominant business model and to the contradictions that it has and continues to develop – for example the divergence of the interest of between the supplier and the distributor or to put it another way, the business model undermines the content. Their fatalism demoralises us into giving up the possibility of competing on something other than price.

Secondly, these assertions divert us from the qualitative, ethical and ideational aspects of photography (and its delivery) – that which distinguishes great pictures. At one end of the industry “stock photography” is a “commodity” in the sense of being ubiquitous and generalizable. Typically a positivistic reaffirmation of the status quo and displaying a useful a tendency towards replicating “Fake pictures of Fake People”, it is like a machine rotating on the same spot. By contrast the best photography is limited only by history. It is specific, embodies something of the difficulties and complexities of real human experience, encapsulates contradictions or even denies the easy dominant social narratives. Intuition, intellect and events synthesise into inspiration or what Philip Jones Griffiths called “The upward spiral towards enlightenment… The more you see, the more you understand, and the more you understand the more you see”. Ideas are also a material force in the world. New businesses and modus operandi will continue to emerge as these dynamics unfold.

Finally, and forgive me for stepping back, but we should contemplate the fact that as the 70th anniversaries come around, at the time of Joseph Schumpeter’s writing the long years of the last Great Depression were finally ended when capitalism’s “creative destruction” was unleashed in the form of Hitler’s devastating rampage across Europe and the “Final Solution”.

John Harris is a branch member, photographer and also runs This article originally appeared on John’s blog.

Children in Architectural Photography

10th September, 2010

Marcus Fairs of Dezeen Magazine recently commented on his twitter that

…architectural photographers manage to make children look lonely, even in photos of a kindergarten.

Marcus’ point is timely and recognizes an underlying problem with images of children, as taking photographs with children as a secondary subject is being made more difficult.

Have you ever wondered why people in photographs are either blurred, have their back to the camera, look lonely and not engaged with neither the space nor the photographer?

Prior to digital imagery, film required long exposures, especially interior scenes and this resulted in blurred imagery owing to movement. Digital imagery meant that images can be recorded at higher speeds, as the light sensitivity of the recording chip can be rated at significantly higher levels than can be achieved with film. This can deliver more intimate imagery, as photographers can now successfully record scenes that are low lit.

Yet the images that are published are not like this. Home owners are often unwilling to be so critically exposed by the camera and have their living habits openly viewed. Pictures of the public in corporate or commercial buildings often depict people half turned away from the camera, or hurrying past so that they are blurred. Rushing out for a meeting or a sandwich, they often aren’t in a mood to be photographed, and see the photographer as a major nuisance; an inconvenience in a perhaps already stressful day. There is a suspicion of anybody taking photographs and the public become unwilling subjects in the attempt to bring scale and humanity to the buildings.

Photographs of schools or kindergartens raise entirely different issues. The blind belief that anybody taking photographs in a school, especially a male, must have an ulterior motive prohibits an easy interaction between subject and photographer. Some of the provisos I have operated under when photographing children in schools have been absurd. On a recent assignment photographing building works at a school in Hackney, the project manager told me it was illegal to photograph children, and advised me not to engage with the children under any circumstance. Other parents have asked whether the images would be on the internet. If the images were for printed publication, it was deemed acceptable; the internet was definitely out of bounds.

Some schools are quite relaxed about photography; a circular is sent out in advance that advises parents’ that a photographer will be working in the school. If they prefer their children not to be photographed, then the child does not take part in any activities that may be in danger of being photographed. However the normal restrictions are that children can only be photographed from the back, any front on images are blurred so that their faces are not recognizable, or they are far enough away from the camera so as not to be identifiable.

The result is often an image of a small child standing alone in a playground looking lonely.

Grant Smith is a branch member and also one of the organisers of the I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist campaign group.