Please join me, starting on July 6th and over the next ten-weeks, on a journey into the creative process. This is in conjunction with CreateSpace, which is creating opportunities for people, regardless of their arts background, to use art as the basis of self-reflection by simply taking 5 minutes out of their day to do something creative.
On one hand, for me at least, the coming posts are a scary attempt to explore the practicalities and pitfalls of working creatively. Via the observations of new work in development made in response to the current pandemic. As with all journeys into creativity, what path one takes and what emerges on the other side is as yet uncharted and uncertain. But resolved or not, something will emerge, even if only the process of this journey.
I hope though that these posts will prove to be more than just praxis and where there is something in my journey for everyone - not just artists.
Creativity has been proven to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress, and I hope by looking at my process and thoughts - and I’m not pretending to have all the answers - that you might find something in there for your own sense of creativity - in whatever way that might reveal itself. People wishing to share their own insights, work and thoughts and to create a dialogue with me about it can do so via a private CreateSpace group that you will be admitted to upon request.
Join me on Facebook to share your work and thoughts. A private group page is available for group crits / peer reviews of work.
I look forward to sharing with you.
CreateSpace is a Creative Health CIC project in partnership with Arts Council England, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Staffordshire County Council.
THE LAST PORTRAIT
I don’t really know what I’m doing.
But it’s OK though.
I’m just trying to get through, I guess? Get through to that mythical world on the other side of this, I seem so often to speak of, to people I miss back at home. Yet, for the first two weeks of the pandemic, and it may have been even longer, I sat with a strange sense of grieving, for a life lost perhaps while staring at the TV, often unshowered - and often in my pants - wondering intently on what the future foretold.
My flight back to the UK never materialised when I had hoped and subsequent flights came and then were cancelled. Throw in being scammed when asked to pay extra fees, by whom I had believed to be my airline carrier - it wasn’t by the way! Then throw in countries closing their borders and now enforced quarantines not being relaxed, I find myself only now to have a date for my return in the coming weeks.
Then, just as it seemed that a furrow was being ploughed in the soil of this new normal, George Floyd was graphically murdered and what would take eight minutes and 46 seconds to befall, in Minneapolis, would send repercussions around the world for the next 6 weeks and counting.
So, where was I, yes that’s right, I don’t really know what I’m doing.
In those first few weeks of the pandemic so many arts organisations, and publications for that matter, often like frenzied flies over a rotting carcass, (to the reader that carcass is used to symbolise the broken and lamentable figure of the self-employed photographer) buzzed around asking photographers for free content for their feeds, websites et al. But, in those early days of the "Rona", the very thought of picking up a camera, to take photographs, seemed the furthest thing from my thoughts. Besides, Tiger King on Netflix wasn’t going to watch itself.
My wife, my partner in crime and the person who I could never imagine going through this without, perhaps fearing that I was lapsing into a bout of depression (I remind the reader of that unshowered figure in his pants watching a man talking to tigers) suggested that I document our days together, not as a ‘considered work’ or ‘project’, whatever that means, but just for us, and just so that we could look back at this moment in time together in the years to come.
My wife’s words, coupled with the memory of what Vanley Burke had once told me “the good thing,” he had said, “ about being a photographer, is that when you’re in trouble, you can always shoot your way out of it...” Led me to, indeed try and shoot my way out of the funk, I found myself in.
So, what am I trying to say in the images which follow in the weeks to come, that's if they do come? Also, who is the audience for them, and all of those other ‘making work’ type questions anyone who has gone through art school has often asked of themselves or told commissioners when making new work? Well, as I started off this blog post saying, I don’t really know - and that goes for these blog posts too.
But again that’s OK too.
Besides, as John Myers has argued, in his ‘no project’ theorising, why do we even need to have a ‘project’ anyway?
What I do know, however, is that the last time that I actually did think that I knew what I was doing, photographically at least, occurred a while ago now, back in the UK.
I had waited patiently to be let in, looking around sheepishly, before leaning in and peering in through the horizontal panes of frosted glass in the wooden doors of the Baptist Church, on Regent Street, Smethwick. Sighing as the flat of my hand pushed against the coldness of the door for a second time, just to make sure, to convince myself once again that it was still closed.
All this time furtive; my glances quickened as my eyes searched desperately for any signs of life within the frosted distance of the world inside and I tried to temper the growing frustrations of being late and stuck in the cold rain. I sighed again, catching the slipping tripod strap and pulling it up, for the 17th time, back onto my shoulder.
“Had I even pressed the right button on the intercom?” I wondered uneasily, drizzling rain halting my fears of shame momentarily, my head tilting back wearily and then my eyes looking upwards to confront the white sky above in an accusatory glance.
But still, it rained.
“I’ll give it another minute,” I sighed, yet again, “just one more, and then I’ll head all the way back home again,” looking down at my phone to see the time of 9.23 am revealed to me, the same phone that didn’t hold the number of the person I was meeting. By all the way home, well, I meant all of those 234 yards or so, back to my front door. Turning behind me, as I thought of it, to see the roof of my place nudging up into the air behind the row of houses in Sketchley Close.
Suddenly a door opened inside, beyond the frosted glass, and an indistinct figure, in a beige sweater, walked towards me. It didn't look like whom I was expecting to see, and my growing fears of embarrassment were confirmed. “Hello?” the gaunt-faced man said. My eyes leaving base camp and rising upwards to look up to his greying hair perched atop his very high forehead and then back down to his quizzical eyes peering out at me, as his head extended out slowly, in a tortoise-like fashion, towards me beyond the propped open door.
“Hello,” I replied back, stepping back slightly and then followed up with, “I’ve got a 9.20 am appointment”, oh wait, the wheels and cogs of my brain whirred momentarily, my brain launching into a data retrieval protocol while I tried to remember the name of whom I was actually visiting. Ahh yes, “with Marianne,” I spat out.
I registered the look of disappointment on his face, a tsunami of wrinkles forming on his forehead, and imagined this happening to him all of the time before he looked over to the intercom wearily, pointing a finger out towards it, while informing me that Marianne, at Friends and Neighbours, was the top button.
“Come on,” he said, grudgingly, “I’ll take you to her.”
These were the moments before the last portrait.
Moments in time, just a few months before the death of Birnham Roberts, an 82-year-old grandfather, who would become the first man to die from Covid-19 in Smethwick. A man beloved by friends, family and the community, who would find himself at the head of a deathly pilgrimage, through the UK, that would reap 60,000 other souls in the weeks that followed.
I’ve thought of Marianne’s portrait so many times since that moment. Not because I think it’s a great portrait, and not because it’s of Marianne - even though Marianne is great and works so hard for the community. No, I’ve just thought about her portrait because of the indexical link it holds for me to a time and space forever fixed and still unchanged by not only the deaths of so many, but also of the erasure of the future which I had thought I was destined to find back in that time - which was still alive.
In this world of the present though, where calendar entries, made in the world of the past, constantly remind me of that future lost, and of that home in the UK, that last portrait and those memories leading up to it, are a time forever free of the pandemic and all that it has wrought and removed.
That time is a reminder of not only what was, but what could have been, something I hope that the following posts will explore.
“I suppose therefore that all things I see are illusions; I believe that nothing has ever existed of everything my lying memory tells me. I think I have no senses. I believe that body, shape, extension, motion, location are functions. What is there then that can be taken as true? Perhaps only this one thing, that nothing at all is certain.”
― Rene Descartes
The other day, I watched Aston Villa squander a one-nil lead to Chelsea, before they eventually lost 2-1, as is the want of the Gods of relegation. *Shakes fist at the heavens* Taking my mind off my frustration I began to count the number of bricks in the building opposite, visible through the pane of glass in the white door leading from the living room out onto the metal balcony, which I always walk onto so gingerly.
Maybe it was the desire of wanting to distract myself from the sight of apathetic millionaires, clad in Claret and Blue, pretending to care in the empty stadium or the seductive power of the golden hues of sunlight, filtered through the leaves of trees, shimmering up and down the terracotta brickwork, like lights on a Sunset Strip casino, calling gamblers to prayer.
Not long ago, only the brown and withered remnants of plants, which had lost their grip on existence, lived on the balcony. Fluttering limply in the wind, death having embraced them. Still rooted there to the past in their plastic flower basket homes, tied securely to the dark brown metal railings, even if they looked as if they could fall, at any minute, onto the children playing down below, like an Acme weight falling onto Wile E. Coyote.
Now though, with the soil toiled, death uprooted and new seeds sown, life had returned to the balcony as the shoots of onions also shimmered in the golden light of Mile End.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that I’m living through a global pandemic.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been lucky enough not to have endured the pain of losing a loved-one to Covid-19? Or maybe it’s because I haven’t had to expose myself to the world that much, these last three months, like all of those brave essential workers on the frontlines?
Perhaps though, and this might be why these current times seem so surreal - seemingly happening and yet not, is that we haven’t seen the usual photojournalistic impressions of death one would have readily expected to have seen employed if this was taking place solely somewhere in Africa.
If this was occurring in an African country, we would have seen gratuitous close-up images of grief and pain. We would have seen black bodies, as props, and as framed morsels packaged nicely in accredited World Press Photo winning compositions for Western consumption. We would have seen lifeless forms, limbs akimbo in piles or bulldozered into mass graves.
The one-way street of Western photo ethics states, quite clearly, that those graphic representations of white bodies in crisis must not stand. White bodies can’t be seen in crisis, as they would if they had higher levels of melanin. It is, of course, difficult to continue to centre whiteness, which photojournalism seems adept at facilitating, via images of white fragility, death, incompetence and Western political ineptness.
So, instead, the pandemic in the West has been told through less potent photographic depictions of empty streets, within portraits of neighbours on porches or found behind the reflections of glass.
To a great extent, no images of death or of loss have permeated the media’s narrative (though some Italian images have filtered through) to reveal the true horrors and true scale of what we are living through. And so, we live in a strange world, one where our governments coerce us, hand in hand with the media, to almost become Covid-19 deniers.
In this light, the reality of the pandemic, that reality which has encompassed the loss of 500,000 souls (and growing) worldwide, goes unrecorded. It goes unregistered on the psyches of those living through this, and as such, the horrors are made unreal and people act accordingly.
Close your eyes and imagine, if you will, an image of a packed British beach or a street outside pubs in Soho, on the day they reopened in the UK.
So, yes, it’s easy to forget that I’m living through a pandemic.
The laughter of Hasidic children, running outside, down beneath my balcony, accompanied by the plants in the flower baskets, often belies the presence of an old, familiar normality. One which calls me willingly back to past times, as the childrens’ shrill notes of joy penetrate my evolving cocoon of reality, from time to time, throughout my hermit-like day.
I still love to tell the story, from a previous trip this world, of the Hasidic children shouting, en masse, up at the wealthy condo dwellers in the neighbourhood I see from my balcony: “Poop on the rich! Poop on the rich! Poop on the rich!” Again and again, with great gusto, until a parent came out and rounded them all up.
No, I don’t have documentary evidence of this, no audio, no stills, or video either, for that matter. Besides, I was too enthralled by the moment to record it. Too busy living it to capture it. Too busy laughing, in stunned amazement, at the audacity of these children to attempt to storm the Bastille of gentrification - which the million-dollar condo apartment dwellers had built.
So, now, when I tell the story, people with wry, pinched, polite smiles always ask, “Really, that actually happened?
But it really did. It really happened. Though truth, of course, is a spurious concept.
My mother never took a photograph in all of her 85 years of life, not one. My father neither for that matter. Not once did my parents look through a viewfinder and press a shutter release. I don’t even think that either of them ever touched a camera, in truth, and I wonder how I became a photographer, the one who would take my mother’s last photograph.
I’ve thought about that photograph, about taking it and how it looked, so often since then, even though I’ve never actually looked at it since taking it. Outside of a momentary glance down at the screen on the back of the camera, that is. It wasn’t a great photograph, whatever that means; it was just a moment in time that would soon stop for my mother. Just another digital file in a folder, one to be found inside another folder. One copied multiple times and then housed on multiple harddrives and as well as in the cloud. I trust it’s still there, and have faith that it still is for some reason, but as I said, I haven’t really looked at it. This portrait of an elderly woman waiting to die.
I hadn’t seen her for three months before the moment I took the photograph, and I have written about this fact before. She had forgotten who I was by that point. But before I left her, as my father sat next to her bed in his wheelchair, I took a tightly cropped photograph of them both. Making it look as if both of their heads were resting against each other, just as fate was pulling them further from each other's touch.
I’ve never shown anyone that photograph, not even my dad or my sisters.
I pressed the shutter release, stepping back to take another wider shot, then I put the camera down. That would be the last time I would see mom, as four days later she was gone whilst I was far away again.
What if the image doesn’t resemble my description? My perception of reality falling short? What if their heads aren’t tightly cropped and not actually looking as if they are resting against each other? Finally, what if I’ve imagined all of this, because I said, I haven’t looked at the photograph.
The camera has been a shield for me at times in my life, a place to hide behind rather than a device I’ve ever believed could truly provide me with a ‘truth’. Besides, truths sometimes only come with distance, made via the praxis of time. They sometimes only come with self-delusion, and often they are found when we are trying to hide from that which causes us pain.
Truth is often an imposition; it is also an illusion.
* Insert photograph here*
CreateSpace is a Creative Health CIC project in partnership with Arts Council England, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Staffordshire County Council.
A SEAT AT THE TABLE
An off-duty cop sits in a patrol car, parked with the engine turned off, outside of a nightclub in the Twin Cities. This isn’t his first stake-out though, it’s not his first time sitting alone in the dark looking out at the night and into himself. Because he’s sat in this very spot, off and on, for the last 17 years.
The dull sounds of music from inside, filtered as they are through the slipstreams of passing traffic, are barely audible to him now, after all these years. He looks up, his face now illuminated in the orange glow of the street lights, to glance back through his rearview mirror, not at where all those years have gone, but at a figure walking by and into the distance. Just as a voice on the radio scanner calls out a code 10-17.
He’s earning some extra cash, while off-duty, by running security for the nightclub. Sitting out there, protecting and serving, and keeping everyone safe inside that world known as the Paradise Lounge. Here desperate punters look around furtively to find someone to hold tight onto, as the last dance quickly approaches. In this version of paradise, another man is also running security, and just like the off-duty cop outside, he’s also just trying to earn a little extra cash.
While he waits for the clock to tick down for his shift to end so that he can be set free and claim those unsold nachos in the restaurant kitchen, he helps the bar staff out. Meandering through sweaty gyrating bodies, with sharp elbows thrusting out at oblique angles, assorted tables and pulled out chairs left in his path, to collect empty glasses wherever he sees them. Glasses left behind by those who have already gone home, or those still hanging on to the sad bitter end, attempting their sad attempts at a mating ritual on the dance floor
But that’s why they like him here, the other staff, as he’s always there to give a hand and to help out; he’s just that type of guy.
So, yes, it’s just another night in Paradise, here at least, on “urban'' music night, at El Nuevo Rodeo, for these two employees.
Just another Tuesday night for two men running security on East Lake Street, Minneapolis. Two blocks up from the police station.
Just another night for these two men in a life full of so many others.
365 days later, and 1,815 km away from East Lake Street, a woman is coughing in the night, down in the communal area for the condo dwellers, which my apartment overlooks. She is coughing her guts up amidst the sounds of drunken revelry, carousing and laughter from her fellow ‘condo-aires’.
She tries to laugh it off at first, her coughing fit, trying to turn it into a joke, but it continues nonetheless, and as it does, the sound of the carousing subsides. Perhaps thoughts of Covid-19 begin to arise in the minds of her fellow revellers? But then there is only the sound of her coughing left before the night consumes it all.
As I lay on my back in the darkness and the heat of my Tuesday night, laying there on top of the bed covers, waiting to clock off my shift and find the sleep which has already found my wife. At that moment a gust of cool air rolls over me, from the cheap plastic Facto fan, and I think about England momentarily and wonder if I will ever see my dad again.
Then, strangely, I began to see the woman who was coughing outside. I see her pained red face, and the mild panic growing there, her auburn hair down to her shoulders, falling forwards as she drops, and I see someone rush out with a glass of water and thrust it into her hand.
I see it all.
But only in my mind’s eye, of course, and then sleep finds me, and my shift is over.
I haven’t taken many photographs lately. I’ve taken some though, feeding them into my hard drive after I do. I always catalogue them, before giving each a cursory glance. Zooming in to check their sharpness and then leaving them there nothing else done to them. At times I feel satisfied that one image works with another but that’s all I feel.
In the early days of the pandemic I began to photograph the faint, tiny fissures which meandered up and down some of the adjoining walls of the apartment. Buildings here are beset, by the way, by the perennial contractions and swellings brought on by the extremes of weather. Extremes, which range from minus 30 degrees centigrade in the winter to 30 degrees centigrade in the summer.
Sometimes I wonder how buildings here just don’t simply fall down under the strain. Under the constant battles of this hostile environment that never seems to change.
I haven’t left the apartment for awhile, incidentally. Well, for at least a week. I tell myself that it’s too hot to go out right now. Well, it was 37 degrees centigrades yesterday, with a humidity factor of 45 degrees. But in truth, I worry about the world outside, that place beyond the control I have within my four walls. I worry about the virus, and the crazy people who seem to have forgotten about it, and I worry about the cops out there with guns speaking a language that I don’t fully understand.
I worry about getting back to the UK and about the flight that I will soon have to take. All in all, I worry about my own faint, tiny fissures. Those tiny cracks that widen with each day of this pandemic, where the world seems to be wonderful one day and then terrible the next. While I worry about where the next gig is coming from but enjoy the time to myself to do things that I haven’t had the chance to do before. Like taking French class online. Note to reader: French classes go by so much quicker when you put whiskey into your cup, and pretend that you’re sipping coffee instead during the lesson.
In next week’s episode of “Wino Tips” we’ll discuss pretending to look sober during Zoom meetings
My dad rang me last week to tell me that his friend, for over much of his life, had died. I’m not exactly sure if they actually really liked each other to be honest, as this ‘friend’ was a complicated man. Even as a child I could see this. He was a big man who was encased within a prickly static charge. He was a big bully one who made others shrink when he walked into the room, me too at times, and yet the laws of nature had given him a magnetic draw that pulled people to him - to become jesters in his court of disapproval. No wonder that, over the course of my life, he was often at the centre of so many of my dad’s stories.
This friend once asked someone, who was on their deathbed in hospital, with only a few days to live, what he was going to do with the new sheepskin jacket he’d recently purchased.
He then proceeded to ask said dying man what he was going to do with his van.
Hey, I never said they were good stories.
Anyway, it’s strange how some deaths tear us apart while others barely graze us. Isn’t it? I knew my dad’s friend all of my life and yet, well, my life went on, as his ended. Even when I imagined his children and his grandchildren grieving his loss - whom I know - no tears came.
Yet, since May 25th I’ve been marked by the death of a total stranger.
I once cried, for example, when reading a story in the local newspaper in my hometown of Dudley, of a child being run over and killed by a car, just a few yards away from their home and their mother who was waiting patiently for them to return. Yet I can hardly find it within myself to raise an eyebrow, when a fully laden passenger plane crashes - even though I know that there must have been children aboard.
If, for example, I was on a sinking ship, and was told by the crew that it was woman and children first allowed onto the lifeboats, I would have no hesitation of jumping to the head of the children’s queue fully prepared to tell any crew member that I was a 10-year-old child suffering from a strange accelerating ageing disease called Middle-Aged-Man-itis.
So, in hindsight, I didn’t cry just because it was a child in that story. Perhaps it was down to how that story was told, the ability and skill of the narrator to put information in a sequence that humanised the central protagonist of the event, and their skill to draw me in? That is what enabled me to project myself into that narrative so that they could move me emotionally? Because grieving is always a selfish act, one which is always more about how we are going to feel in their passing, rather than their actual passing.
Maybe it’s all of this?
Yet, I grieved for this stranger.
On May 25th the world would see that off-duty cop, who ran security, the one who sat outside of the nightclub in the Twin Cities, murdering the man who ran security inside. The same man who counted down the minutes to the end of his shift while collecting glasses. The world and I would watch this man being murdered, in video shot by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, over the course of 8 minutes and 46 seconds - even if I could watch for only 2 or 3 of those seconds.
Nonetheless, my world would be changed forever.
Over the last few weeks, since George Floyd was murdered, the sight off all-white curatorial teams in art galleries and museums, posting their Black Squares on Instagram (squares found from typing ‘Pantone Black’ in Google image search followed by right, click, save) often in league with white writers on photography, and all-white staffed photography departments in art schools, who sometimes perform the roles of speakers on all-white panels as well as on all-white competition juries - all falling over themselves to call for photography to be decolonised and to become more inclusive.
Throwing out messages like this one:
“XXXXXXXXX recognises that the arts have a problem with diversity and inclusion. We acknowledge our culpability and the need to do more in dismantling wider structural inequalities within society and the industry.
We are committed to addressing the issues of inequality in the representation of, and opportunities available to, under-represented
voices within the visual arts.
Over the coming weeks we will regroup and discuss how we can and will do better. We have a responsibility to reflect the world we live in. We believe photography can be a powerful tool for positive change and now is the time for that change.
We are listening and learning. We welcome healthy contributions and conversations on how we can improve.
So, let’s get this straight, you recognise that you have deliberately chosen not to give any opportunities to Black photographers when you clearly could of, yet you now want me to get in touch with you to tell you how you can improve on this and not actually be a cog in a structurally racist wheel - which you kind of admitted that you were?
That's some crazy shit right there!
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: LAUGH TRACK #1
Anyway, moving on, I, like so many other Black photographers, have found themselves thrust into a position where they have seen their works shared and highlighted online from an assortment of people via some perceived sense of guilt by the aforementioned poster. “Blackout Tuesday” was a day like no other where white strangers on Instagram - who in the past would not even have paid any attention to me if I was on fire while driving an Uber they were the passenger in - tagged me into stories, many of which, invariably contained the line “Black photographers to look out for”.
Who actually were they asking to 'lookout 'for it, I wondered?
Many of them weren’t even photographers and had no affiliations with any industry professionals that could actually help. Whilst I’m sure some meant well, in most cases, it was difficult to not see through the very public and performative virtue-signalling many made as they played to the gallery. Especially when two weeks later they unfollowed me.
But, how am I supposed to feel if it takes a man, a complete stranger whom I never even knew existed, to be murdered, before they can see that I exist?
How am I supposed to feel when I see all-white led organisations saying that they support my struggle and my cause and that they will ‘do better’? When everything about their structure and their track record proves otherwise?
How am I supposed to feel in the knowledge that it has taken such a horrendous murder for them to be roused into even considering pulling out a chair and giving someone who looks like me a seat at the table?
I can tell you how I feel; I feel at a loss and so I grieve.
I grieve not only because I know that I am George Floyd. That the same reasons which led to his death could lead to my own just as easily. I grieve because the entirety of my life has been lived continually attempting to justify my humanity to people who it appears will only consider it when the life of someone who looks like me is taken away.
But I grieve, foremost, because I know that I have benefited from this man’s demise and that his death has, if only in the short term at least, helped make my own life better.
Sometimes in the night, in that moment before sleep finds me, I wonder how I don’t just simply fall down under the mental strain some days. Under the constant battles of the hostile environment in which I live, which seem never to change, the same environment which never seems to want to acknowledge my humanity.
That man-made hostile environment that instead leaves my humanity always open to question, as I wait patiently for a call to find my seat at the table that never comes.
In memory of George Perry Floyd Jr.
October 14, 1973 – May 25, 2020
I dreamt once, as a child, that there was an assorted collection of toys in my father’s wardrobe. They felt so real, so colourful and bright, these toys, that I could almost feel them even though they were out of reach on a top shelf in my dream. Upon waking I excitedly rushed to go and open the doors of the wardrobe, in hope of finding them, but there was nothing there. No matter how hard I searched, there was nothing there, and yet in the days which followed, I still continued to look.
Those first moments of consciousness, upon awakening in the morning, as I still hang onto the coattails of an unconscious world, slowly slipping away. I often pretend to still be asleep. Not out of fear for what the day may hold, to any great degree, although, in truth, sometimes it is, as the days of the pandemic continue to grow with no end in sight. But no, I’m not afraid - well OK, just a little - but I do pretend to still be asleep as to not be the one who has to get up to make the coffee.
Yet, each morning I awaken, spat out from an ethereal world of my own mind’s making, to be rebooted, often with newly found optimism, but invariably infused with the self-reflections of life which take me to yesterday and then tomorrow, as I slowly come to terms with being awake, and of being alive, staring upwards at the ceiling.
Then, after a short while, I roll over onto my side and pray for sleep once more, but always, without fail, nothing comes. Just the sound of early morning traffic exhaling into the distance like a drawn-out, fed-up-of-it-all sigh perhaps made by a bored portfolio reviewer.
Is it sad to say that often my first waking thoughts in the morning are of photographs or of their making and that my last thoughts at night are too? Often these appear as acts of remembrance about those people who passed in front of my camera and our relationships which of course never were and yet always will be.
But also, there are those thoughts of, well, what’s the point of all this? What’s the point of photography, that job, that life, which you can’t switch off from?
These thoughts and I’m no Columbo, usually, and in a totally unconnected manner, of course, seem to reveal themselves towards the end of each month when those pesky bills need to be paid. *Shakes fist at capitalism, gaining two extra steps on the Fitbit strapped to his wrist in the process*
Perhaps the pandemic has created these anxieties in so many people right now - not just photographers. There was something fundamental about governments around the world, at the height of the pandemic, calling some workers essential and the majority of others non-essential. If your job isn’t considered essential to help a society function, well, what is the point of it? And what is the point of us?
But then it hit me, perhaps I am not even an essential worker within photography? It dawns on me that if I were never to take another photograph, ‘Photoland’ would never even blink an eye and never even skip a beat.
So, what is the purpose of what I do? What is the purpose of all those years of struggle and strife to get to a position within my career where I am still worrying about paying the bills?
It’s funny how money, or lack thereof, forces you to question your choices, right?
Those choices which sometimes makes you wonder what it would be like to have a ‘proper’ job that you didn’t have to take home, that didn’t cause you to churn over and dwell on at day’s end or at day’s waking. A job which paid you for the hours that you have actually put in. Perhaps no such job exists, or won’t exist in a future made by a pandemic and a looming global recession, where everyone, if not an essential worker, is prone to be cast aside as surplus to requirements.
But what is it about, not just photography, but the arts in general, which makes people who work within them think that what they do is more than just a job, and when does a job become one’s life? A window cleaner, for example, who had no windows to clean would simply do something else. So, why do photographers think that they are so different, better and more entitled, that they ‘stick with it’ when there’s no work?
Is it that we consider this a ‘calling’, or that so many of us have made such an investment of time and resources that we are unable to make a change? Or is it that we were sold an impossible dream to begin with? Many of us went to art school and were taught photographic skills, yet we were never told how to monetise those skills. We’ve been told what is ‘good’ photography and what is ‘bad’, and we’ve even listened to disparaging comments made about certain types of commercial (read ‘lifestyle’ photography) made by senior lecturers that left an indelible stain on impressionable students about art and money.
Perhaps if photography courses are unable to teach you how to make money out of the industry they shouldn’t be running, some might say. Yet, it never dawned on me at the time that, if the photo industry was so bountiful, why were my lecturers' teaching and not practising anymore? But that said, I would never change my experience of university, as it was at least for me a working-class Black man from Dudley, life-changing.
Of course, it is only when we leave art school that the real work begins.
I had a friend who stopped being a photographer and got a job in PR. It was a fantastically well-paid job with security and benefits and the trappings that came with it. Yet, I looked at him as if he was a failure, as if he’d ‘sold out’. Sold out of what, I’m not sure, but I imagine that he also looked at me with similar disparaging thoughts, a photographer growing in years still waiting for that big break that would never come.
Is photography a cult or is it a pay to play pyramid scheme?
Sometimes I think that it must be a cult, when I see photographers from the analogue denomination square up to other photographers from the digital denomination. Or street photographers with their rigid dogmas or photojournalists still speaking of photographic truth.
But what if is it also just a glorified pyramid scheme?
According to Letitia James, NY Attorney General, “A pyramid scheme is a fraudulent system of making money based on recruiting an ever-increasing number of ‘investors.’ The initial promoters recruit investors, who in turn recruit more investors, and so on. The scheme is called a ‘pyramid’ because at each level, the number of investors increases. The small group of initial promoters at the top require a large base of later investors to support the scheme by providing profits to the earlier investors.”
What if we changed ‘investors’ to photographers and ‘promoters’ to gatekeepers? Gatekeepers pushing yet another pay to enter competition, pay-to-play portfolio review, or asking you to stump up £15k to have a book published that you’d be very lucky to make pennies back on? All pushed at you like things which will get you up to a new level. Gatekeepers, like snake oil sellers, pushing all of those things to desperate “investors” cravings for success, whatever that is.
Maybe, for me, success, after all of this, is simply measured in being able to pay my bills at the end of the month.
Being able to get through to another month, buying myself more time while I look through the wardrobe of my making for those bright coloured toys of my dreams, which I seem always still to be in search of.
TODAY, TOMORROW AND WHAT COMES NEXT
“It is strange how we hold on to the pieces of the past while we wait for our futures.”
― Ally Condiee
“Memories don’t live like people do,” Johnny Bristol once sang, “as they always stay with you, whether they’ve been good or bad.”
That’s not true of course, as my mother would find out to her cost when dementia claimed her in her twilight days. So sorry Johnny, you’re wrong pal. They can fade, they can become jumbled, uncertain, and yes, they can indeed leave us, Johnny, just like people do.
But when they do go, when they leave us, what do we become?
I would often watch my mother grapple with that very same conundrum, as the person who she was would randomly resurface from time to time. The woman who I knew and loved, my mum, would sometimes suddenly float to the surface of the dark dementia sea that had taken her under. She’d weep as she begged for us to tell her what was wrong with her - but we never could. Then she would be gone again, swallowed up and reclaimed beneath the waves, from whence she came.
Dementia is such a very cruel way to die, as it takes not only one’s memories but also knowledge to perform even the most basic of intuitive skillsets, hardwired by synaptic plasticity since birth. All is made moot by dementia - sadly, even breathing.
Memories are where I turn now though when the future seems so unclear. I run and hide into a past world of certainty, snuggling up under its duvet-like presence and re-running past times again and again like an old film which bears no surprises yet still provides joy in its telling.
I spoke to a friend on the phone last week, and she told me that during the last 3 months, 2 old flames, from a long time ago, had contacted her in hopes of rekindling the fire, so to speak. Yet for them, there was to be no return to that long conquered country known as the past.
That country which is calling so many of us now.
Once, in a distant past, when I thought that I was becoming the man who I believed I wanted to be, I waited in the hallway of a house, made golden by the early morning sun of a December morning in South Africa. Waiting patiently, as trepidation and a sense of guilt-laden excitement churned away inside of me. Glancing down at my phone to check the time and then beginning to send a text I would never send, as I stopped to open the front door and look outside forlornly before closing it back once more, waiting for Timmo to arrive.
The quick beep of a car horn startled me, and instinctively I stooped down to grab my camera bag and tripod by the door and then rushed out to see Timmo waiting outside. As the heat hit me, my arm raised in a half-hearted salute of sorts. I struggled with the camera bag and tripod in tow. Throwing my tripod into the back of the car, then locking it and then crashing into the passenger seat; we headed off to Khayelitsha Hospital, Cape Town.
Timmo was a doctor heading off to a day of helping as many people as he could to live while knowing that at Site B he was sometimes the only trauma doctor on call and so decisions on who was treated and wasn’t were quick and final. For the past few days I had shadowed him and his work, and I could see the toll and the strain it was taking on him. On my first day, after walking into triage and seeing a woman in the corridor with a hole in her face, he let me sit in during his consultations with patients. This involved me, with patient permission, sitting in the room as around five or six people came in, one by one, to be told about their HIV / AIDS status.
I sat behind Timmo, like a theatre patron of a sordid play, watching as some people cried hysterically while others laughed. “Well”, one gentleman said, reclining back in his chair, his hands raising to clasp behind his head, his navy blue Fila tracksuit searing itself on my memory, “I better tell all my girlfriends then.”
One man fiddled with his hat in his lap, shaking uncontrollably. His daughter had been missing for six weeks, and he had already been diagnosed with Parkinson's. He too was positive. So too was a woman, whose skeletal frame and zombie-like mannerisms foreshadowed her results. No one in that room needed to read her the result to know her future.
I had visited South Africa for the first time in 2005 with the intention of being mentored by well-known photographer George Hallett. Two weeks ago he died, and 15 years ago this week I would be in Cape Town for the first time, ostensibly, via an Arts Council grant for that mentorship. We’d met in Birmingham, 9 months prior to my arrival in South Africa, at a function, being introduced by the late Pete James, Head of the Photographic Archive at the Central Library in Birmingham. George was in Europe because he had just been awarded a World Press GoldenEye Award for his work documenting Nelson Mandela’s first-year post-release from captivity.
Obituaries are never written to be read by the dead. They are only there to fulfil the needs of the living. Yet, suffice to say, George was a complex man, but a wonderful photographer.
It would be far too easy to say that he was a man with demons, yet, as sometimes people say, the path to truth is an easy route.
Maybe, in hindsight, the mentorship that George provided was more than just photographic - taking me to the French Embassy party on Bastille Day in Cape Town was, for a bloke from Dudley, interesting! But he created, intentionally or otherwise, the opportunity for me to fend for myself in Cape Town for two months.
In this time I met so many people who helped me so much. They, just like George, helped to give me adventures which I could never have imagined, and for the first time in my life, I truly felt alive.
I felt alive though, because for the first time it truly seemed that life and death were in graphic contrast.
After a brief introduction by George, I was befriended by the photojournalist Fanie Jason. Fanie told me, before taking me to a hospice in Gugulethu which catered mainly for AIDS patients, that you have come here to see how people live, but you must also see how they die.
Fanie had made a powerful photo essay here several years before, which had won him a Mother Jones Award. He had been initially covering, as Joy Chuang writes, “a local news story back in December of 2000, to which...triggered this project.” The story he covered was in Philippi Township, near Cape Town, where a young mother, husband, and their 3-year old daughter had all died of AIDS-related illnesses within a day of each other.
Inside the hospice, well, I remember every sad, voyeuristic moment of it. Mainly because they didn’t permit photography, and I couldn’t hide from it all behind my camera. The sounds, the smells, the sight of a blanket of many pastel colours placed over a window that looked like a stained glass window in a church, as the pastel hues of light shone down to paint the solitary old white man on the ward sitting on the edge of his bed with one leg missing.
I remember him.
I remember the face of the Black child in a cot, too, who reached out his arms for me, in a room full of other Black toddlers standing in cots, to lift him up, and how I turned my back on him and left as he cried.
I remember this child’s face too.
As the nurse, present in the consultation room with me and Timmo a year later, began to tell the man in the navy blue tracksuit, still leaning backwards in his chair, that he needed to change his diet and eat plenty of fruit. I thought back to that year before. Of that old white man, painted in the pastel hues and his white beard. Then I remembered the piercing eyes of the little Black boy who just wanted someone to hold him.
On that December morning in 20o6, after arriving at the hospital, I decided to wait in triage as Timmo went on call. I walked around the triage station with my Mamiya 7ii (yes, a camera reference) in hand. I took a series of flash meter exposures, at different distances, so that if anything happened I’d have a set of apertures in mind to use, depending on how close or far away I was. With this done, I just hung out waiting for something to happen. Hanging out mainly in the corridor for 20 or 30 minutes or so, just watching a cleaner who had been priming the green corridor floor upon my arrival. It may have been green with white swirls or white with green, either way, he waxed the floor and then polished it.
Each step of the process he would throw daggers at me as I tried, hurriedly, to get out of his way each time the whirs of his silver-grey buffering machine came closer.
After all of his efforts, he proudly wound the cord around the now silent, buffering machine. Just then, as he walked away to disappear around a corner, another figure immediately crossed his path to walk in the other direction, turning the corner to walk towards me and onto the newly buffered floor.
At the bottom of an arm, I noticed a large, heavy, white carrier bag, and just as that image registered in my mind, he collapsed. The bag crashing to the floor and all of the blood which had collected in there flowing like a flooded river all the way down the full length of the corridor.
After five days of being in the trauma unit, and after being inaugurated into a world of gallows humour, I found myself thinking, as I ran from the red tsunami, that this was the funniest thing that I had ever seen.
Until, of course, the screams of the man reached me.
Someone had tried to shoot him in the face and he had placed his forearms together, like a shield, in front of his face, the bullet lodging into his wrist.
He was lucky.
Maybe he was high or maybe hysterical, but after he was placed onto the light brown benches of the triage, he called me over and pointed at my camera. I raised it upwards and he gestured again. I took a photograph of his hand in a pool of his blood. Not wanting to reveal his identity, I then stepped back just as he began to scream.
It was a sound, the likes of which I had never heard before. A wailing piercing sound, which I think broke me a little that day, as I walked away to lock myself in the nurses’ station. Yet his screams would still find me.
The day before, I had taken a photograph of the hand of a man who had just died. His body was resting under a blanket on a gurney in the zinc-roofed shelter which seemed to force the temperature up into the high 30’s degrees centigrade. His face was not covered, and I stared at his eyes, waiting for a blink which never came. Timmo lifted the sheet to uncover his hand.
He had been poisoned by his family, I later learned, as I watched his hysterical mother begging a cop for them to release the body to her. His mental illness made him a drain on family resources I was told, so they poisoned him. As his death was suspicious, his body would have to remain there until he could be transported to the coroners for a postmortem.
The last body waiting for transportation had exploded in the mortuary, stomach gases building in the heat, until the cadaver couldn’t contain them, Timmo had said. Maybe doctors, just like photographers, love their stories too, no matter how gruesome they are.
Sometimes I think a group of photographers should be known as a “brag”. Because if there can be a ‘charm’ of finches or a ‘murder’ of crows, then there most definitely should be a ‘brag’ of photographers’. A photographer always has a story to tell.
One that usually posits them at the centre of a golden light of glory. A story designed, quite often, to show how brave they were, how principled, how clever and how - even when they have done some underhanded unethically duplicitous shit - they can demonstrate that a lesson was learnt which has paved a way for their new, photo-ethically sound self.
Perhaps the lesson learnt from those times was that, well, that that life was not for me. After a week of watching other people’s pain, I was done. Even if it took having to replay those moments on a loop inside my head every day for the next six months for it to be truly over. Six months of finding myself tearing up at odd times when sitting on a bus with strangers, or feeling sudden waves of guilt when laughing at a comedy on the TV.
I knew though that the stories I was trying to share weren’t mine to tell; they were never made for the consumption of those found within my framing. How could they be if the suffering of these people only acted as props for a study of my own experiences, their lives only serving the purpose of shaping so many anecdotes to follow? I knew then that I didn’t have to travel thousands of miles to find stories. That my own experience and the experiences of those who shared them were just as valid.
But finally, I learned that the intensity of the experience does not always make a good photograph - and most definitely that you don’t have to place yourself in a precarious situation for your photographs to be valid.
As photographers, we don’t have to live our lives always on a strange safari in search of trophies made of other people’s experiences. Parachuting into their lives, looking for moments to add to our collection. Taking all and leaving them with nothing but the eyes of others looking down upon them.
Perhaps, in hindsight, it is this idea, this narrative of what constitutes ‘good photography’ has been defined by those who have always held the power to tell stories and have them be heard. These stories, I believe, are inherently linked to narratives of whiteness. This is something I’ve written about before here.
That said, these memories have led me to the path where I find myself now.
Trying to tell stories about my parent’s migration from the Caribbean and legacies of that journey. Maybe, in hindsight, I am still hiding in the experiences of others, simply making sense of my own experiences in relation to theirs. Yet their stories are my stories.
They are closer to home if only because I live them too.
So, in 2008, I began to tell those stories my father and mother had once told me. Those same stories had once sustained my mother and whether they had been good or bad, I tried to save them, as they were slowly leaving her.
Sadly, just like people do.
RÉPÉTEZ S'IL VOUS PLAIT.
“The more often a stupidity is repeated, the more it gets the appearance of wisdom.”
Is it possible to reach the stage where you’ve spoken too much about your own work?
I don’t know, maybe?
I’m always very grateful, and it truly does mean a lot to be asked to speak about it. Yet, while I always give my best and people do say nice things afterwards, at times one can feel like an actor reciting words in a matinee performance. With the full knowledge that those very same words, in the very same order, will be spoken once more perhaps, in the evening or weekend performance, albeit to a different audience.
I once watched a photographer whose work, let’s just say, chronicles an inferno *winks knowingly* of death and despair, reciting exactly the same words as I’d heard in a youtube video I’d watched on the way to the talk.
Of course, they’re the same words you shout - it’s the same bloody story!
Well, yes of course, but perhaps it’s also the same bloody performance.
I watched a man die on a plane once.
Just prior to take off, on a flight at Montreal airport that was taking me back home to England.
Jesus, I know you’re thinking, not again, not more stories of death. Hasn’t he got any tales about kittens or maybe a fluffy white rabbit called Oscar?
In the absence of Oscar, I remember the hour-long wait in line at the gate, a hot and heavy hour of standing on my feet, after they had called us all to board. As I shifted my weight from one leg to the other, I began to watch an elderly man in a wheelchair looking off somewhere into space. A call for priority boarding had seen his wife and perhaps his daughter push him through the queue, past the boarding desk, and, as he sat in his chair, onwards to the other side.
I watched his wife fixing the long, white pointed collars of his shirt, smoothing them out so that they hung outside of his beige cardigan. Maybe he was of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern origin, I thought, as she turned away and left him alone again. Looking off into space, I conjured up a narrative about him heading back to the old place, his homeland again, perhaps for one last visit.
After a while he was wheeled off, leaving his fellow passengers sighing in the heat of a summer, a heat that, even though it was October, seemed never ending.
I finally passed through boarding, leaving the gate behind, finding myself a few people away from getting onto the plane. Getting closer and closer, finally stepping onto the plane, showing my boarding pass and about to follow the steward’s direction and turn the corner to head off down the aisle to my seat, the chain of passenger ants trooping to their seats in single file halted.
Someone trying to lift their luggage up into the overhead bin, blocking the aisle as they struggle, I thought, until a steward barged by quickly with a first aid kit in hand.
I stuck my head out around the bulkhead, or whatever it’s called, and saw the steward pounding on the chest of the old man lying there in the aisleway. Pounding up and down on his chest as passengers, on either side of him, sitting in their seats, nonchalantly scrolled away on their phones, unfazed by it all.
I pulled my head back around the bulkhead and stood there alone. Noticing that the passengers in the queue behind me were all gone, leaving me alone. I began to look around, thinking that I should get off too and then felt someone behind me. It was Captain of the plane, speaking to me in French. I was too surprised to reply.
He nodded his head around the corner and I looked again at the scene and then back around to him. We looked at each other, sharing this moment while all of the moments left this man just around the corner.
The Captain spoke to me until he gestured, and I knew that the moment I had feared was going to happen: he was about to ask me a question I wouldn’t understand.
Then he gestured.
Then that’s when I came clean and had to admit that I didn’t have a bloody clue what he’d been going on about for those last few minutes, as I didn’t speak French.
Look up the word disgust in the dictionary and a photo of that pilot’s face bearing the very same look he gave me, as he turned and walked away, leaving me there alone until another steward told me to go back up upstairs in the mid-space world between the gate and the plane.
As we waited, some people cursed their luck. Talk of the flight being cancelled echoed out, and paramedics with an empty gurney pushed by us.
People sighed and cursed their luck once more. After a while, the gurney returned but this time carrying the old man on his final journey, wrapped up tight under a white sheet, black straps buckled in place. Beside him were his wife, and, I think, his daughter sobbing. They walked through our silence, my eyes looking away from them at the end of a long summer.
In their wake, we waited to hear if the flight was being cancelled. Anxious energies of assorted passengers combusted into angsty sighs, until over the tannoy we were called to board the plane again. And that’s when someone chimed in, “well, there are going to be a few free seats now.” Laughter followed.
Humans suck sometimes, right? They really fucking do.
Yet, every single one of us, even that turgid bag of blood and bones who made that comment, dreams of going home.
I don’t know what I’m going to find when I come back home in September on a flight I’ve been putting off for as long as I can.
This is the first time I’ve told this story in public, outside of an Instagram video I made at the time to explain the death of the old man, the jokes which ensued and the emptiness of it all. The video was made just after take off, as the plane rose upwards through the clouds, to break free up there in the heavens as a burning orange sun shone to lead the way home to England.
Yet I know that I will tell this story again. In the very same order and in the very same way when the time comes.
But why did I feel the need to share that experience then and now?
In hindsight, perhaps recounting personal and painful experiences - again and again - currently helps pay the bills these days.
How do we stop repeating ourselves?
*I've been told, by the way, that I need to ask the audience more direct questions in these posts.
So let me try that again.*
How do we stop repeating ourselves?
No, not just in these ten blog posts, but in the photographs we take or perhaps even within the lives which we lead?
I used to teach at a particular college in a popular cathedral town. From the start of the term, until Christmas break, I must have purchased the same ham and tomato sandwich every day I was there during lunch. I bought it so many times that when I went in, just before the Christmas break, the staff in the canteen handed me a Christmas card addressed to *drum roll* Mr. Ham and Tomato sandwich.
I mean in this story the need for repetition was easily accounted for - as the ham and tomato sandwiches were the only items on the menu that I didn’t think would make me violently ill. Let’s just say that the rest of the items on sale there didn’t look like the most appetising of morsels.
Is it familiarity (in a better the devil we know sense) or fear of the unknown, the fear of failing, which makes us repeat ourselves?
A friend of mine once did a particular body of work that became quite successful. Selling enough to take a year off work, whereupon he consigned the body of work to history.
A few years later a particular world event happened which caused a wealthy buyer to ask if he would continue the series - which could have enabled him to perhaps take more time off work - he stood firm turned the buyer down.
I will always admire him for that. Well, I will always admire him because he is one of the most decent, dignified, and forthright people I know.
But I wish that I had his tenacity.
If many of us are honest, we know that we use the same technique again and again in our works. That no matter how much we think that we might want to ‘try something new’ and leave old approaches behind when the crunch comes - or the client calls - we take the safe path home. The same lighting set up gets used, the same framing is utilised. The same camera, lens, film, even down to the same action in your favourite editing software gets pulled out of the bag.
Or maybe this is just me?
There are so many different things I want to do and try - or I tell myself that I do want to. So many different approaches to take. Yet I don’t do them.
In the end, I return to only that which I know that I can do.
Is this fear of failure or clever marketing and brand development? Perhaps we have been fixed into our approaches by the expectations of others, clients and commissioners, who ask us for specific things and who want to have fixed notions of who we are and what it is we do? Commissioners who want to see us fixed as a particular type of photographer. In this light, maybe it’s better to be seen as a master of one trade as opposed to a Jack of all?
So we edit new approaches out even before we start and play to our strengths.
Maybe that’s what photography is all about? It's more about editing out our failures than ever it is about showing the world our successes?
Success, yes, whatever that means.
I messed up my French exam last Thursday evening. I’d revised and studied for it, but I just didn’t understand the questions and what was required of me to answer them.
If I’m honest, I’m totally out of my comfort zone trying to learn French, as in truth, I only usually play games that I know I have a chance of winning.
Because failing hurts.
It burns with such an intensity that all is left is shame. Even when failing comes within the parameters of an online French class with eight total strangers whom I will never meet in the real world, or remember in the years to come. Well, that’s not quite true, especially as in my mind, I’ve created a back story and identity for each of these strangers in the class - especially the professor.
Have you ever had a commission where you’ve been so nervous of failing, of messing up, that that fear stifles your creativity? To the extent that when you’re uploading the images afterwards, all of the ideas you should have used - and were absent during the shoot when you were in the eye of the storm - only comes to mind then?
I might just be asking myself these questions, by the way.
Well, it’s with great shame that I have to admit that my fear of failure has been so high, that, at times, I have even tried to talk commissioners out of hiring me because, well, not being able to eat and pay the bills didn't seem as painful as failing or at least being outside of my comfort zone. I turned them down in full knowledge that the night before the shoot would have been the most anxious and angst ridden of times for me, as I imagined, again and again, all of the things which would go wrong.
Even if the job might be, let's say, be only to photograph two artists in bed with animal masks on.
I still would be nervous.
Some will say, well, my friend, you are in the wrong profession.
It's strange, or maybe it really isn't, but I would never fear failure in any of my own personal works.
Sure, that fear dissipated as I did more of them - and, to be honest, it was only when I began to see working for national publications as basically not that important, in terms of contributing to where I wanted to be, that they became easier to the extent that I enjoyed them. But that desire to talk my way out of doing things still persisted for a long time.
*For the record, my client, in a prepared statement, would like to say that he is, in fact, available for commission and that the above paragraph relates to a previous period of time in his life*
Nonetheless, in an industry where you are only as good as your last photograph *phrase used for dramatic licence* failure is not an option.
Failure is not an option for photographers who constantly have to daily chronicle their success in their Instagram and Twitter feeds. Demonstrating to all and sundry that they are brilliant and the best person for the job. So we edit out our failures, we - and I know that should be using I - ‘we’ stick with what we know and nous repetons again and again until it’s everything we become.
“Many lives are wasted by just waiting for something good to come from the horizon”
― Mehmet Murat ildan
Sometimes, in the late afternoon, in the wind that shimmers through the trees or in the sound of the world carrying on like nothing ever happened, in sounds that seep in through the open patio door of the kitchen, I think that I can hear the voices of home calling to me.
Calling me, in a gentle whisper, back home across the sea. To swoop me back low over the crashing white-tipped waves with their aquatic dramas unseen deep below, and zooming me in and out, in between the huddled masses seeking succour in sinking speed boats, chased by BBC camera crews, back to Good Old Blighty.
Or COVID Central, as I sometimes call it.
The vision, last week of BBC and Sky News crews chasing Syrian migrants across the Channel, endangering the small cramped craft taking on water, as repeated questions were asked from refugees wishing not to speak to them, was an example of the current times alas.
Yet, I’ve thought so much about time lately. I’ve thought about the future times to come, but I’ve also thought so much of past times.
Of being on crowded buses, and sitting in my favourite seat on the 87 bus, downstairs, just there behind the driver, in that sweet spot of the solitary single seat away from everyone. Sitting there serenely like the King of the Bus Wankers, as I stylishly get driven into town, away from the hoi polloi behind me.
I’ve thought, as well, of trying to get served in packed bars, waiting patiently to catch the eye of an ignorant barkeep. You know the type - the one who flicks a glance at you, giving you hope, as they stand upright and aloof at the tap, filling a pint glass, only to gesture to someone behind you. I’ve thought of being in packed football stadiums of 40,000 people or more, wondering why the idiot in front of me, in just a football shirt, isn’t dying from hypothermia as I shiver in 13 layers of clothing.
I’ve thought of it all, while sitting on my sofa looking out at the plants on the balcony. Watching them grow and then noticing the first hints of autumn, as blooms look less sure of themselves, more doubtful of the days to come perhaps. It all seems like a dream now, a fantasy that never was; perhaps something called the past.
But I always seem to fall in love with dreams of what was or what could never be. Perhaps this brings me to the promised Photoland.
Why do so many from, let’s just say, ‘traditionally excluded communities’, continue to try to be a part of an industry that prefers to have people like them in front of the camera rather than behind it?
Why are racialised people, like myself, so eager to work within a photographic industry so focussed on centering whiteness and othering racialised people that the structures of its racism are clear and present? Historically, of course, photography, as that scientific instrument of positivism, was used as the rubber stamp of colonial anthropologists to make real its racist claims of inferiority about, well, me.
Back in those early ‘good ol’ days’ of photography, I would have been photographed, stripped, standing next to a measuring device. Now, I might be allowed to keep my clothes on. Well, I am well over 16, after all, and Photoland does seem to like them young, but no doubt some other trope, of course, would be used to measure my worth and confirm my inferiority, in contrast to notions of whiteness.
One could argue, then, that photography, and many of those who wield it in contemporary times, still choose to use photography in exactly the same ways - as an anthropological tool - whatever their photographic genre.
A way that doesn’t quite seem that ‘concerned’, as it damns and objectifies those of its choosing, with the very same stamp of inferiority as the artefacts of the colonial anthropologist.
It’s not too much of a leap to suggest that many of those photographers or journalists don't even consider the ‘subjects’ they photograph or interview to have sufficient levels of humanity to be treated as equals.
They can’t do, can they?
They can’t see the people whom they film or photograph as equals if they treat them in the ways that they do, surely?
How else could you explain an adult asking a 12-year-old child survivor of a sex crime, burnt by battery acid, to remove her clothing, so that he could photograph her naked from the waist up with her face there for all to see? Or that very same image being used on large screens at corporate presentations?
Or how else can you explain an adult bringing a child to their hotel room so that they can photograph them and then label them as ‘sex workers’ shooting the image from the point of view of a predator
How else can someone keyword an image of a child, a child who has been sexually assaulted, with words which sexualise them alongside captions which clearly identify them? One could never do this to someone they felt empathy for, or belonging with, could they?
So it can only mean that they don’t. But of course, these are not white children so perhaps it’s easy for these white men not to.
Well, there are a range of other pertinent accusations that could be offered to explain their alleged behaviours, but after five months of pandemic, I’m in no fit economic position to be sued.
Not that I was before, for that matter.
But how can I consider photography a career for me when, at times, it just seems to be another cog in the wheel of structural racism? Perhaps photography, and journalism for that matter, and it’s myths of impartiality and of concern, are really just the torch bearers of racism.
Imagine all of the photographs of people who look like me, taken since that first photograph in 1826, stored in collections or used in the media. How many of them were taken by people who looked like the people in front of the camera or who shared their lived experience?
How many of them were taken for the consumption of people who look like me?
As, more often than not, these were photographs made to damn me, not defend me. They were made to reinforce my inferiority and not to challenge it.
Those images and their ‘fake news’ have existed to construct (and still construct for that matter) in the minds of the West, who I and other racialised people are. These images of apparent concern act only as gateways for racists and predators - or both. A gateway of opportunity, for those without empathy, to dehumanise the racialised people they encounter.
Change will take time, some will tell you, whilst really meaning that calls of change will buy them time. These same people speak also of different eras and of different moral expectations in times gone by. Because let’s not forget, they say wagging a scornful finger, times were different then.
Yet, their promised change is sadly always out of reach, somewhere out there just beyond the horizon. Cast beyond a sighing sea which calls me home and past those crashing white-tipped waves with their aquatic dramas unseen deep below. Change is out there, they continue to promise, out there across the sea, just there beyond the huddled masses seeking succour in sinking speed boats, chased by camera crews who forget that their questions are being asked to humans too.
THE LAST SLICE OF PIZZA
"Ignorance does not make you fireproof when the world is burning."
— Nelou Keramati
Sometimes in those quiet moments when bravado and bluster leave me, taking with them their comforting whispered words of solace - "it's going to be OK", I begin to wonder what the future holds. My shoulders drop slightly, the world drawing in under dark clouds for silence to reign.
“Only in silence do you hear the voice of your mother singing a hymn in church 30 years ago”, commented the recent million-dollar winner of this year’s Alone series this week. He said this upon surviving 100 days in the arctic circle - alone. I’ve watched 4 seasons of the show during the pandemic.
Yes, 4 seasons. Maybe I’ve been looking for some survival tips, who knows?
That said, in the silence, I too hear the past.
As August draws to an end and autumn rears it’s evil golden lit head, I always, ever since I was a young boy, have feared the end of the summer and what it means. That loss of freedom, marked as it is, by the tyranny of a return back to school.
I hated school and still do, for that matter, after all these years. I didn’t think I could hate anything more than school but then there were, well, teachers.
Oh, how I hated teachers.
So, yes, I’ve always hated this time of year when the blue skies begin to turn grey and the clouds drop low to close me in and cast my world in the hues of blue.
Even though the last days of summer haven’t come yet, here I am mourning their loss already. I guess I’m the last piece of pizza kind of guy. Yes, I’m the guy who opens a box of pizza, looks at the 16 slices inside and then grows sad when he thinks of how he will feel when the last piece will be gone.
There is something which draws me to the tv show Alone, a reality show that pits people against nature, asking them to remain in the wilderness, filming themselves surviving on whatever they can fish, hunt or trap, hoping to be the last one standing. Each time, watching eager survivalists battle more against themselves as much as against mother nature, in a way that seemed so apt to me in these uncertain times. Well, they are uncertain for me. I hope that these times are much clearer for you.
Maybe I watched Alone because, well, I’ve always been a loner, and photography, with its ongoing narrative of solitary survival, was the perfect job for me. Photographers have always had to be survivalists, of course, but more so now, trying to stay alive in a pandemic-made recession.
But also I became a photographer because photography gave me the chance to hide in plain sight. To travel, and to run away from it all when things got too hard, and to have relationships with people which I could make and break at my choosing. Even in the media savvy world of today, photography still gives one so much power over people. It still gives the holder of that mechanical or electronic eye the power to coerce people into doing thy bidding.
Which one of us hasn’t just asked for one more photo? Even when we see the person we’re asking dying inside - we still ask. Just one more photo, even when we have forced them to take down that distracting photo on the wall, move their furniture around so we can get a tripod set up, asked them to change that distracting top they’re wearing - even when we know they’ve spent hours choosing it. Shots inside, shots outside, shot in the local park perhaps? Can we try one in the shed now?
Just one more photo.
For a Guardian shoot, I once tortured a man in Manchester with three and a half hours of this. Just because I wanted the right photo.
Then, right, I’ve had enough of your life now, I would sometimes think, I’m going to parachute into someone else’s. I used to enjoy trying to get accepted, to be liked, to be welcomed in and given access. All the time knowing that after I had what I wanted I would leave.
On longer works, I would tell myself that this is just a professional working relationship, just like any other. When the work is over, so is the association - the ‘relationship’. Just like any other working relationship I have ever had.
Yet I know that it really wasn’t.
People would tell me stories of their abuse. Of their pain, their inner turmoils, dramas, fears, doubts, and so on.
I would never share anything of myself though. They would know nothing of me, yet I would, or at least think that I did, know everything about them.
But it’s so easy to manipulate and to take control of others' representation. Especially when you’re the one taking the photographs. Choosing which photographs get used and the one constantly telling the story about who this person is in the frame.
Even now, after photographing the same group of people, on and off, for the last 12 years, I’m the one still in charge of what is hidden and what is seen from this encounter. Even when I’m fully aware of how I could make this process more collaborative - or give it the appearance of collaboration - I don’t.
How many supposedly collaborative works have you seen anyway? When the photographer gets paid and the ‘community’ don’t? Aren’t the community just unpaid fixers in this light?
Right now though, my world seems so small. Even if the outside does come into my apartment each day via the wonders of Zoom, the world appears to be spinning, but I feel that I am standing still as others run ahead.
It pains me to feel bitterness in the success of others, even in a pandemic - or more so during one. I hate the feeling that I have when I wish that someone else’s success was mine.
Success, right? I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, whatever that is.
I hate too that we all have to - more than ever - look and act as if all is well with our careers. Constantly posting on our Twitter feeds all of the things we are winning at and hiding our failures and fears.
Which perhaps is why this post and the others might prove to be a mistake.
But the pandemic, work, distance from ‘home’, George Floyd, and the constant daily reminders that Black lives don’t actually matter in Photoland and, well, let’s say it - in the West - have just finally caught up with me in the past couple of weeks. Maybe this has coincided with all the initial opportunities that came my way at the start of the pandemic seemingly all over.
This isn’t a cry for help, it’s just a statement of facts, but I don’t know what’s coming next for my photography, and, I say to you, my friends, when it has been the foundation of my adult life and of who I am and who I see myself to be, that is some scary shit, right there.
Another aspect of the Alone show, by the way, is that each survivalist is forced to speak their truths to a camera they have taken out into the wilderness with them. The camera becomes a surrogate friend, a confidante, who, in their low times, they tell their truths to.
But it sometimes becomes a snare for guilt, a source of anxiety and amplifier of doubt - it becomes a psychological trap that whispers notions of home and of ‘tapping out’, giving up and calling the producers to take them home. The camera, that pretend friend and therapist’s chair, is a maker of good TV, [see also photography] there for our benefit and never theirs.
They know that other people will see this, and yet they don’t, not really. They don’t really realise that other people will look at their lives as they sit alone in the wilderness. They forget that strangers in the comforts of their homes will scrutinise and make harsh judgments about them and their choices. And so they share themselves with strangers - if only because they think they are sharing them solely with the camera. Their intimate moments are recorded. Even if their words and actions are carefully chosen and edited before they reach me, of course.
But how many times have people seen themselves in my images and been shocked by what they see - even when I have been honest and open about what they should expect? Even then, when I have been ethical and respectful, I can see when people are not happy with what they see of themselves in my photographs. Because, quite simply, they don’t share them on their social media platforms after I give them the images.
When they are pleased, when they see themselves, they share them with family and friends. Sometimes they are unhappy with what they have given away, what they have revealed, and they know that they can never claim it back.
Perhaps I, too, will look back on these posts, these 10 weekly melancholy meanderings through my life during a global pandemic and wonder why I gave so much away. Even if it was very little. But I can simply take these posts down when I change my mind.
Every adult who lets a documentary photographer into their lives does so at their own risk. Once they give them permission to show the world who they are, through their photographs, they walk a tightrope of shame, exploitation and mockery - even when the photographer attempts to work ethically.
Because all the risk wrests upon the shoulders of who let themselves be photographed - once the photographs are out there.
It’s not on the photographer et al., but on the person being stared at. Scrutinised and judged by appearance or the context created by the photographer in which these images exist.
If these are the risks for adults, let’s not get started on impressionable or young people here.
I guess it’s just been too long since I made any work. This is perhaps why I’m listening to those voices of the past which live in the silence, as I try to find myself in Zoom chats about old work and new work I fear I might never make.
Anyway, as the days grow darker, and the clouds begin to brood and hang low, I’m hoping for my bravado and bluster to return, bringing back with them those comforting words of solace, “It'll all be OK.”
“In the land of the skunks he who has half a nose is king.”
― Chris Farley
Chapter 1: Photography for whom
Racialised people are the consummate observers in the West.
We are socialised, before we can even speak, to see through the optics of whiteness and before we can even begin to understand the intersectionalities of our own identities, we see and understand the mechanics of whiteness.
No matter the Blackness of my skin I will always see the world through white eyes whilst also seeing the world through my own.
This is a position that most white people don't and can never understand. Quite simply, I can tell your stories - white stories - because I have been socialised to see them, to know them, trained from birth to feel and understand them. But you will never be able to tell mine, understand them, or feel them.
This is simply because you have never been socialised to see the world through my lived experience as I have yours. The only knowledge you have of my experience is through the optics of whiteness and otherness. Through the optics of other white observers, who also are equally unable to see and understand me and therefore create and perpetuate tropes and stereotypes through which I am unable to see myself.
No matter how humane and honourable these white intentions are, no matter how hard they labour under the pretensions of a ‘shared or universal humanity,’ these actions and images will only ever skim the surface - because there is nothing of ‘me’ or anyone else who looks like me in their making - these works are only a product of their imagination, one based upon a myth.
An imagination made through structural racism and these works represents just another cog in the wheel.
Don't get mad at me just because I can tell your white stories and you cannot tell mine - not in any authentic way. But hey, your stories of Blackness were never for me anyway. They were for other white people - that’s who they are made for - and so I will never accept them.
But thank you for bearing witness, for being the voice of the voiceless.
Right now historians of photography and those academics who 'biggup' their mates, who make these works in advertorials in art magazines are, well, ‘mad bruv’. I know this because one person once wrote to tell me just this - that this type of work, this work made by a white photographer about Black bodies - was too “academic” for me to understand.
I'm always intrigued by white photographers who photograph Black ‘subjects’. I mean, intrigued enough as to whether I should place them in the exploitative racist anthropologist camp or in the do-gooder/white saviour camp.
Whether they are using Black bodies as props, removing identities, placing faces into shadows or hiding them behind other structures in pseudo-documentary slash fashion photography approaches, they remove from them any sense of dignity and humanity, casting them into the realms of spectacle.
So, yes, we have those jokers.
Then we have the do-gooders and white saviours. Photographers, who, in the culturally diverse West, have never been able to develop any meaningful relationships with any Black people, yet strangely feel that they are right to parachute themselves into situations in (choose any African country here) - without an invite from any of the people they train their lenses on - to tell their stories.
Spending all that time and money, invariably their own, as they’re usually Trustafarian types living an extended gap year and using photography as an excuse because no-one has commissioned them - to make the same-old-same-old images that their photojournalist heroes snapped some 50 years ago.
Don’t get me started on the academics, picture editors, curators and writers who all celebrate, condone and enable this bullshit - because it cannot exist in a vacuum.
These approaches exist because they are enabled, they are awarded.
Okay, now that I’ve got that momentarily out of my system, let us move on.
Chapter 2: Life stinks
It’s been a strange year.
There’s a global pandemic - I know some of you might have missed that - with a second wave rearing its ugly head, just off in the wintery distance. Then, secondly, for the first time in recorded Western history, the ‘system’ has acknowledged that you know what, Black Lives might actually matter, because of course, the Slave Patrol, (I mean the cops) remembered that they still had a license to kill, and began killing again.
Thirdly, Photoland (hiding behind those Blackout Tuesday black tiles) seemed like they were going to pull out a seat at the table, but that was another false algorithm. The keywording of hope and change has been changed to same old shit.
So, that pipe dream was over.
Incidentally, to the head of that photo agency who told me my work was great, asked me to explain my work in more detail and then said that we should talk: I'm still available to chat.
And fourthly, oh yeah, l got sprayed by a skunk.
OK, the spray of a skunk got me, wafting in through the open windows of the apartment at exactly 2:55 am in the early hours of Wednesday 12 August 2020.
A couple of weeks before, when coming back from a picnic in the park, a skunk crossed my path on the sidewalk - and the world stood still. And a week before that, a friend and his dog got sprayed in his garden. If he reads this - I feel your pain bro; if he doesn’t, well, has anyone seen that meme of Thierry Henry trying not to laugh?
So the Gods have been engineering skunks into my life, and our paths finally crossed in those early hours. But, you know, I’ve always strangely wondered what this moment would be like.
As a child, I used to love the Pepe Le Pew cartoons where a lovelorn skunk falls in love with a black cat that has accidentally had white paint poured on its back. I mean, in hindsight, it was a cartoon about sexual harassment and the dominance of patriarchal systems, but to childish eyes, when Pepe ran with a spring in his step, I was entranced.
Anyway, the taste of skunk spray lodged at the back of my throat, grabbing me by my neck and then violently shaking me awake; one second in slumber, the next wide-eyed in the early hours to confront my now terrorised consciousness. This was not fun my friends, as this real-life Monsieur Pepe Le Pew did not take any prisoners.
Indeed, as George Costanza might have said, in an alternate Seinfeld reality, that skunk was “angry my friends - like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli.”
I don’t know what happened outside to cause this skunk to engage in such activity. Perhaps a predator came for it, and it felt threatened somehow, or maybe a car hit it? I just know that shots were fired and I found them.
The early isolated days of the pandemic has created the opportunity for wild animals to thrive within the city. Skunks, coyotes and wild turkeys have all invaded or perhaps ‘reclaimed’ Montreal of late. I mean there were already turkeys in the Quebec government [ badum-tish ] *the writer points a finger to the camera, touching his nose knowingly, then winks into a freeze-frame*
The fact that well over half of all Canadian COVID-19 deaths have occurred in Quebec, with Montreal the hotspot, is testament to that. That and, worryingly, Quebec has seen the youngest fatality in Canada last week. A 19-year-old soccer player who had no pre-existing illnesses. Fit, young, dead. This doesn’t quite fit the early pandemic memo being sent around here, suggesting that only the old and infirm die.
It just feels that the second wave will not be kind to this city, and those who now laugh in bars and cafes, like the world hadn’t changed. But I don’t think that it will be kind elsewhere either for that matter.
But what do I know?
I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’m sure our governments have this all under control. *Yes, I’m pointing knowingly at the camera again and wait for it, here’s the wink*
Yup, we’re screwed.
It feels that we are all standing on the bow of a ship, right now, traversing an uncharted sea, standing there in the darkened night, waiting for a tomorrow to break into light, knowing all the time that a wave will soon hit us and yet not knowing how hard.
[Insert dramatic pause]
A day that will live in infamy.
I meant to type that earlier, by the way, about the skunk, but no matter, better late than never.
Chapter 3: The Image and the reader.
After writing about my hatred of school last week, I wandered onto a Facebook page about my old comprehensive school in Dudley. I looked at old faces which ignited memories of the past best left alone. I’ve never understood why people go to school reunions. Perhaps in North America, where people leave home and don’t think twice about moving thousands of miles away from where they were born. But, in Dudley, where most will die mere miles from their birthplace, I don’t get it.
That said, a few years ago I decided to look someone up from my school days. Yes, someone I had a childish crush on, looking them up, you know, in that sad way ageing people do to reflect back on the past. Maybe that’s why ageing people go to school reunions? To think about what could have been, or maybe to hope that someone’s life took a nose-dive and is worse than your own, validating their own sad lives, maybe that’s why?
Anyway, I looked them up, not in any attempt to reach out or make contact, but just to fill in some blanks.
I remember, one day at school, my friend slipped me a note in class, supposedly from this person I had a crush on. It detailed that she wanted to speak with me outside of the Tuck Shop. Away I ran, like a rat out of a trap, heading off to find out what she wanted. I straightened my nylon school tie as I skipped, hopped and jumped and patted down the semi-afro haircut I had at that time. *the writer asks the reader to imagine an image of Arnold from Different Strokes*
So yes, I rushed off to the Tuck Shop and there she was. Clearing my throat, I composed myself and walked up to her “well, what do you want to tell me?” A confident smirk forming on my face.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”, she said, before turning her back and continuing to chat with her friends.
My friends had lied, pulled a fast one on me, and as I retreated into a grey depressing mist of failure, turning only to look back at the remnants of self-worth I had left behind me, the bright flash from a camera went off.
A photo had been taken and had seared this experience into my mind. Why else would I remember this moment if it wasn’t that I believed it had been recorded?
For so many years I wondered about that photograph. I mean not everyday of course, but from time to time I wondered who had taken it. For what reason? Who was looking at it? Why?
Had my shame been preserved for posterity?
After putting her name in the search bar in Facebook, I scrolled down the list of possible names and then there was her profile. Clicking on the link took me to a memorial page.
She had sadly only just died of cancer, just a few months before my search, and as I scrolled down the page with the loving words of friends and family, there was a photograph of her at school laughing with her friends, outside of the tuck shop, and there I was, in the background a frozen figure in time, skulking away, into that grey mist, crestfallen.
The photograph that I had always wondered about was the one being used to celebrate her life.
What are the chances?
We somehow always think that the people from our past are out there. Out there living their lives just as we are ours. But people die and time is short. Yet, no matter how many times I hear people say that this thing called life isn’t a dress rehearsal, I can’t help but feel that it is somehow.
That I have another shot at this.
That I’ll make a better go of it next time, get it right. When I know that this is all there is.
Hey what about those *insert sports team of your choice here*
But I hope that the young girl outside of the tuck shop, who grew into the woman I would never know, had a full and wonderful life. I hope that she was loved and that the world she lived in was touched by her presence and her passing.
It’s hard not to think about the second chances slipping away from me during the pandemic. But amidst the struggles of conceptualising the current times, the pressures of keeping positive and forever pushing forward, making moves and staying upbeat, it’s proving harder each day. As the end doesn’t appear to be in sight, instead it seems hidden in the doubts of what might have been.
It’s hard to run a long-distance race when the finishing line proves always to be pushed back, the goalposts shifted. In this light, it's hard to know how to pace oneself, you know.
That said, on the plus side, the mist lifted on my photography last week. I’ve been in a depressed malaise of late - which I’ve found so hard to get out of - which the previous paragraph may have suggested.
I purchased a couple of sketchbooks and, Bob’s your uncle, ideas flowed and I began to map things out. It’s funny how a sense of clarity can come by just simply organising your thoughts. Making mind maps and linking ideas together. Knitting together a future of possibilities which were hard to see before, even if they were always there.
Mind you, when I’m going to be able to make any of this work is another matter.
But it’s the thought that counts.
*Insert pregnant, slightly depressed and jaded pause here*
Anyway, in an attempt to sweep the clouds away and to lighten the tone I’m ending this week with a song by a French Nazi collaborator.
Until next week.
MAKE ANDREW GREAT AGAIN
“... millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
― Susan Ertz
I don’t really know what I’m doing.
But one day I’ll get myself home.
I’ll rise up into the clouds and head east into the night sky, then cross the sea that divides us, to find my future. Even if it’s only a future that’s five hours ahead.
But one day I’ll see my family again. I’ll see you again, Dad, before you forget me.
I never thought it was possible to dream of Smethwick, or Dudley, for that matter.
Never did I ever imagine it possible to miss the walk through Victoria Park on the way to Asda. Before I get there, walking by the electrical shop on the High Street, where the previous owner was kidnapped and found murdered in the boot of his girlfriend's car.
Yup, she killed him.
Walking past the Red Cow pub, on the opposite side of the road, as my journey on into the park continues.
Then, ambling past the spot where my wife, on her daily run, interrupted two fine upstanding members of the community fornicating, before passing the other spot, further into the park, where the ‘bad lads’ once sat.
By the way, one of those ‘bad lads’, who sat in their ‘bad lads' enclosure? Well, he was a 13-year-old boy at the time, and returned there one night bragging to his mates about what he’d just done. Bragging to them after stamping on a woman’s head. Jumping up into the air with both feet raised and crashing down upon her with all of his might, cracking her skull open instantly and killing her on the spot.
Walking away, with bloodied feet, and leaving her body on the pavement. Laughing, as if, to him, she were nothing more than discarded chip paper.
Oh, Smethwick I miss you so.
I miss the fact the street signs aren’t in French and the fact that I don’t need Google translate to read a letter about my taxes.
I miss the dickhead shopkeepers who ask me far too many questions for their own good.
“Where you been?”
What the...what do you mean where have I been, mate? What is it to you? Are you the police, mate? If so, show me your bloody warrant card. Just take my damn money you fool! I always think this to myself, but never say it out loud. I just mutter inaudibly “around mate, just around.”
As said shopkeeper looks at me, giving me that knowing look, smiling as his brain begins to process the thought that I must have been banged up inside, doing bird for the last couple of months, instead of being out of the country.
I even miss the depressed, dirty looking guys in the *the writer has removed the name of this fast-food establishment in order to protect the identity of the depressed dirty souls he’s describing*, who I glance at hurriedly when in the queue.
Watching them yawn and scratch themselves, while leaning against the once white-tiled wall behind the counter. In between us, rows of battered ‘things’ rest wearily under heat lamps, visible through the glass-fronted stainless steel enclosure, waiting to be emancipated by those of us in the queue. I look around the dirty old place and then at the food down the front of the one guy who is about to serve me.
I become self-conscious and turn slightly to look at the assorted, racially-diverse ‘Road Men’ in the queue with me. Hoods up, guns down fellas, I think, let’s not make the papers tonight. At the same moment I wonder to myself, why the hell am I even here?
Before, of course, I order my usual - a large fish and chips, with extra salt and vinegar - for £2.50.
£2.50 - bargain!
Then, I remember, ahh, that’s why I’m here.
The first time I was in said anonymous fast food emporium and they gave me £2.50 change back out of a fiver, I thought they’d made a mistake. And you know the kind of way you’d react: you begin to stifle the smile growing on your face upon realisation of getting back too much change, as you begin to creep out of the shop backwards, hoping to make it out before they realise. *The writer seeks to point out that he always (if there’s a risk of getting caught) points out he’s been given too much change in shops*
One day, I’ll take a sample of this fish to a lab to find out what I’ve actually been eating all of these years - because I know it can’t be fish - I know that this bargain is too good to be true.
Oh, cool, it’s battered bio-degradable polyethylene terephthalate, love it! White plastic fish, only the best for Andrew.
Such was the penance for being cheap, lazy and ‘on the lash’. That’s really why I often ended up in this joint.
Insert here: “Friday night, Saturday morning” by the Specials
I’ve lived a strange life, a good adventurous one, and I owe it all to photography. I don’t want to say this in that hackneyed way that photography saved me, like they used to say about boxing saving ‘street’ kids from working-class backgrounds. But photography introduced me to a bigger world, it broadened my horizons in ways that some of my mates, back in Dudley, never got to see.
Granted, it was an image of the world made through the optics of whiteness, but yes, photography saved me from thinking that Dudley and life in a factory, or whatever else got my mates’ custodial sentences - yes, systemic racism, lack of opportunity and the ingrained messages that this is your lot, pal - was all there was. Photography told me that there was more than a declining industrial town. More than living and dying within a ten mile radius of where you were born.
Photography has given me a chance to be the person I am, it has given me a purpose in life, perceived or otherwise, because I once had none. I once had nothing, no reason to get up for, and that is hard to say, but it’s true.
Photography has given me a future, and, more importantly, it allowed me to travel out into the world and to meet Erin, my wife. No matter what I say about the corrupt and seemingly pernicious practices at times within it, photography has given me a life.
*Hallmark movie soft filtered focus and schmaltzy soundtrack ends*
Living and working in between two countries sounds great, and to be honest, it is. It’s literally the best of both worlds, except for the tax implications of that, of course, and the idea of trying to maintain friendships on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s great until, you know, there’s a global pandemic that stops travelling and then it pretty much isn’t.
Then, life kind of gets hard. I know, poor Andrew.
A few weeks ago I thought that I was lapsing into a bout of depression. Apathy - check. Lethargy - check. Not caring about anything - check. Can’t sleep, but don’t want to get out of bed - check. Showering? What’s the point? Check.
But I now realise that I’m in fact just, and I think this is a medical term, bored shitless.
That’s right, I’m so damn freakin’ bored right now. Bored of zoom chats, with the same old faces staring back at me and the same old conversations. I’m bored of wondering why some people seem so chipper, and I’m so bored that I can’t even summon up the interest to even write a Tweet now.
I’m bored bruv.
But life is good. I have a roof over my head, food on the table, I still have work, and more importantly - I still have opportunities.
Yet, I’m bored.
Maybe in hindsight, I’m less bored and more depressed though?
I don’t know, but I think a lot of people are feeling, how do I say it, ‘out of sorts’ now.
The pandemic has pulled apart the curtains which many used to help delude themselves from the reality of their lives. The self-delusion of it all, gained from work, and the notions of purpose and identity that it gave to so many. That curtain shielding them from the blunt reality of life - the reality that they’re only one month’s missed wages away from destitution and the fact that we are all just literally killing time before the big dirt nap.
Now granted, I’m no psychologist, I’m more of a ‘street-prophet’ (joking). But I know that the curtains have been pulled away by the pandemic to reveal the mechanisms of our mortality. In fact, our brains are designed to do just that - stop us from thinking about our demise. In this light, the pandemic has, for so many, stopped the self-delusions and made it all so clear.
No matter how hard I work, and no matter how I struggle to pay the bills on time = dirt nap.
No matter how well I dress, the car I drive, yup = dirt nap.
No matter how good a person I am = dirt nap.
Even if you give the overpaid change back in the shop = dirt nap.
Without self-delusion, we can all see that the dirt nap awaits us and that the clock, my friends, is ticking.
*The writer flexes their fingers before returning them to the keyboard*
Erin, my wonderful wife, I know, I rarely ever mention her, who has got me through this all, has coined the phrase the ‘Jacksonian Curve’. It describes my unerring ability to always hear a happy or funny story and then to nose-dive it into the ground, like a burning Japanese Zero fighter crashing at terminal velocity into a US wooden-decked ‘flat-top’, some might say, always mentioning some sad element that comes from nowhere.
Them: I love Coca Cola
Me: I remember seeing a small child being hit with a coca-cola bottle by an adult in a township in Cape Town once.
‘Jacksonian Curves’ have been plentiful lately, my friends. It is as if there has been a rich bountiful crop of them just in time for a harvest festival.
Do you remember when you had to bring in tins for your school’s Harvest Festival? Maybe that was just in primary schools in Dudley? Where did all those tins go?
I can just see my old teachers pocketing it all themselves…all those Heinz tomato soups and Fray Bentos pies…the horror.
Anyway, I would like now to take the opportunity to thank Ross and Cheryl, my wonderful in-laws, who also happen to be my friends, for putting up with these Jacksonian Curves in our regular Facetime chats throughout the duration of the pandemic. And for reading each of these posts.
So, whether it is boredom, depression or mechanisms of mortality, whenever someone is asking me to make a trivial decision, right now, it’s hard for me to act as if it’s of any great real importance, because, well, it isn’t.
But it is, but it isn’t.
I don’t really know anymore.
So, yup, I’ll get that email reply right back to you, I think, while I continue my YouTube search for videos with graphic war-time content - just to feel something in the greyness.
Because I’m bored, don’t you know.
Maybe this is depression?
I saw the aftermath of a road traffic accident last Thursday night, down by Laurier Metro. Two cyclists, bloodied and bruised, sitting in the gutter, one being held by someone in a white tee shirt. I don’t know why I remembered that detail. The cop, standing over them, wrote in a notebook before he turned and waved to the driver, in a fancy black SUV, who it appeared had hit the cyclists, to go on his merry way.
“White privilege,” I said under my breath, but I don’t know what happened. I only saw the aftermath, as the white driver drove away into the night, with the permission of the white cop, and as the white cyclists sat broken in the gutter traumatised by it all. As the Black man (that would be me) went on his way, walking past it all and leaving this scene behind to go and drink beer in the park, in the last days of summer.
I’d hate to have an accident in public, to have everyone look at me as a victim, with that rubber-necking thrill burning in them, because we all love a little bit of schadenfreude. Anyway, as I was getting off rubber-necking, I looked at the bloodied brow and the shocked thousand-yard stare on the young woman’s face while she sat there in the gutter. As she just looked off into the distance, all alone, the world, and me, walked by in the fading light of a Montreal night.
Sitting there on the curb of the pavement, or sidewalk, or whatever you want to call it in your part of the world, as I wondered what she was thinking.
*Insert the sound of a ring pull, pulling*
Then I could care less about what she thought. But this was only because, with the first sip of beer, I forgot all about her.
Maybe I’ve been in shock too these past weeks?
Nope, I’m just bored. It’s got to be that.
Or maybe I’m angry?
Yeah, maybe I’m just angry at, I don’t know what, or whom, but yes, I’m just bloody angry. I mean, you might have heard a few people saying this lately, but it was going to be my year.
No, wait, it was, really.
2020 was going to be my year and it’s all gone now.
Hey, hold on, come back!
I was going to be working on a new project in Jamaica, working in the UK, travelling to Paris and taking a tour with my in-laws. Projects were working out, and after all these years of feeling that people were not seeing me, or having any interest in my work, it felt like it was all just coming together and…
….did someone say mechanisms of mortality or dirt nap?
Maybe there’s just no outlet for the anger or frustration which so many are feeling right now, other than to do what I do - blow up strangers on the internet in online combat (by the way, spawn killers are soulless bastards), but anyway, yeah, it’s just...
...I just feel…
...I just don’t know how I feel right now.
That’s the problem. I don’t know.
Hey, how about those *insert name of sports team here once again*?
Capture One informed me today that in my ‘RONA catalogue’ I’d taken over a thousand images over the last ten weeks, when I hadn’t really thought I’d taken any. Mostly crap I guess. Thin cracks in white walls, pastel coloured packaging of frozen food, empty wastelands, close up details of ‘mankind’ crashing up against nature, and the backs of people walking off into the distance.
There’s something in there though, I think, even if it’s only the start of something to come.
I still don’t know what I’m doing though.
But it’s OK.
I’m just trying to get through, I guess?
Get through to that mythical world on the other side of all of this. I seem so often to speak of this and say it to people I miss back at home.
Ten weeks is a lifetime. At least it feels as if it has been, since the first time I wrote that last paragraph in the very first post. On one hand, nothing has changed, and yet, everything has.
Nothing lives without hope, and if I’m honest a little bit of hope has left me; it just stopped living and faded away. But not all of it. Some of it has been bolstered by family and friends and by more photo compatriots on Twitter.
So to everyone who has sent me a DM to just ask me how it’s going, or to have a chat, to ask a question, to shoot the breeze, to whatever, all of that has helped me keep those links to the world beyond the screens I live on, alive and allowed me to keep my chin up and myself squared away.
We all still have a long and winding road to walk, and I say this sadly, but there will be steep cliffs yet to climb and battles yet to win. But we can all get through this, all of us get through to the other side - whatever that other side means to each and every one of us - we can all get through, all get across.
So, let’s all keep talking about how we feel; let’s not bottle it up inside *The writer directs this message specifically to any Canadian readers who might have access to military-grade automatic assault rifles* because it’s OK not to know how you feel, to be angry, or to not know where you are going right now.
It really is.
These are the words I want to leave you with on the last of my ten posts (contractual obligation - check).
I leave you with the words - “we got this.”
So be kind to yourself.
Stay safe, stay well and I’ll see you all on the other side.