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All in all its just another brick in the wall

Lego. It’s great stuff. My wee lad loves it. (Personally speaking I prefer Meccano – more imagination and finesse required in my fumble opinion).

What’s Lego made from? Plastic I guess. Where does that come from? Well some is synthetic, but mostly it’s from oil.

What better tie up then than Shell and Lego…….

But all is not as it seems…….as the most excellent Greenpeace video pouring scorn on the partnership reveals, as featured in Alex King’s article “Polluting Kid’s Imaginations’ on Huck Magazine:


After clocking up over three million views, YouTube have removed the original video. Democracy on the internet is alive and well… Luckily, it’s been re-posted on Vimeo so get sharing and spreading the message.

The #BlockLego video was suspended by YouTube following a copyright claim from Warner Brothers for the use of the song ‘Everything is Awesome.’ However searches reveal the song is featured in hundreds of videos that remain on the site. Greenpeace intend to appeal against the decision, arguing their use of satire and parody is protected under the right to free speech as it is in the public interest.


It appears to have also been removed from Vimeo.


After huge pressure on YouTube, the original video has now been reinstated (above).


The Toxic Price of Leather

The Atkins CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the Year awards were made last night. I was a finalist in the film category for best environmental video for my Clootie Well piece.

Sad to say I didn’t win, but I have to say I was beaten by a class act! Well done Sean Gallagher for his film The Toxic Price of Leather. A truly excellent piece of work.

The selected and winning works will be displayed at the Royal Geographical Society in London in June 2014, followed by a tour to forest venues nationally, supported by Forestry Commission England.






Love and war

My mother’s cousin was Bill Millin, he was Lord Lovat’s piper, and one of the many heroes of the D Day landings and battles in France.

Bill used to stay in our home town in Scotland but eventually left and settled in the south of England, but he was fond of my mother and visited us often over the following years. As a small boy I would sit and listen to his tales of marching across Pegasus Bridge, bullets whizzing past his head, killing his colleagues, but none hitting him. Various explanations were offered for this, that the German troops were sure he must be crazy so didn’t shoot him, or that the German commander was so impressed by Bill’s bravery that he ordered his men to avoid shooting him. I always liked the latter explanation, that a vestige of honour was maintained even in the midst of madness.

Spitfire © John MacPherson

Spitfire © John MacPherson

But what I did not discover until fairly recently was the impact the D Day landings had on my mother.

As a young woman in central Scotland, born into a large mining family of 15 children, she found work in a munitions factory, driving a crane. Around this time a cousin from Canada came over with the Allied troops to join in the D Day landings, and along with a group of his fellow Canadians, visited my mum’s family home and spent some time before going off to fight. Sadly her cousin was killed during the Landings and was buried in France.

By this time mum had moved to the Scottish Highlands, asked to come up  to look after one of her sister’s family. And it was here that she met my dad, got married and settled down, raising three children. Decades later mum went with my dad to France to visit her cousin’s grave, just one young man amongst an uncountable number who fell in that foreign field. I still have some of the photos mum took of this trip. It was obvious that for some reason this particular event was significant, for reasons other than just the death of a relative, but I never discovered why.

Later in life my dad suffered severe ill health and passed away when only 70 after a miserable retirement punctuated by mental illness, but an illness which revealed many aspects of his life he had kept concealed. Mum gamely carried on and eventually, when in her late 60′s, decided to go alone to Canada to visit the remaining cousins she’d never met, several of whom were older than her and infirm and she wanted to see them before they died. She met up with some in the Saskatchewan plains, and then traveled to the B.C. coast to meet others. She had a great time.

But more than ten years later, and starting to show the early signs of dementia, mum quietly revealed a story she’d concealed for almost 60 years. I’m not sure of her motivation….maybe a sense of her failing mind, the love of ‘the story’, a feeling of guilt, or perhaps and more likely, just closing a circle that had for too long been left unattended….

Biting her lip, a glass of wine in her hand, and her eyes focused somewhere distant, she told me the story of her trip to Canada…….

“I didn’t just go to see the cousins………och…..John it’s a long story…….” and a tear welled up in her eye….“..when the Canadians came I fell in love with one of them……and we got engaged……” 

….then…a  long silence. Another sip of wine. A tear wiped before it started to obey the inexorable pull of gravity.

“He….well…he…bought me a ring, we were engaged, and I was so happy….   But then he had to go to war, off to fight in Europe, and I went to the railway station to see him and his fellow soldiers off, to wish them well. And then…….(a long regretful sigh)..and then…… mum, your granny, and one of my big sisters appeared, and they pulled the ring off my finger and shouted at him…..and I just remember them throwing the ring at him, telling him it would never happen between us and the ring CLINK CLINK CLINKing and rolling along the platform towards him, and I was pulled away and he left on the train……….I can still remember his face, so sad, I could see it through my tears as the train left…..and then…..I never saw him again.”

Another silence, thoughts being lined up, emotion swelling and choking……both of us.

Closing the circle © John MacPherson

Closing the circle © John MacPherson


“And then I heard nothing more from him, and I moved north and met your dad, and we had a family and…..and….”

A long pensive stare out of the window.

“But I discovered only a short time ago, after your dad died, that my Canadian soldier had written to me, had written many many letters, but they never got to me, your granny or my sisters destroyed them, didn’t forward them to me, never told me he’d persisted trying to get in touch…..and he kept trying and trying….he never forgot me……and…….and……I never forgot him either….”

I’m utterly silent now, transfixed as the story unfolds….

“But I knew roughly where he’d been born in Canada, so when I went to visit the cousins all those years ago what I didn’t tell you or anybody was that I bought a bus ticket and went to the nearest small town to where I knew he came from, hundreds  and hundreds of miles from where I should have been going. I didn’t know where to start – it was only a small plains town, a farming centre, but spread out, so I went to the Town Hall where they had a small tourist office and asked. There was a woman at the desk and she smiled and I asked her if she might be able to help me locate someone. “Who is it?” she enquired so I said, just a Canadian soldier I met when he was in Scotland before the D Day landings, he was with my cousin, and I just ….well…wanted to get in touch with him again.”

“What was his name?” she asked, so I told her……”

“She smiled even more broadly. “He was my father-in-law!” she said.”

Mum stood and listened as the woman explained that he’d survived the war, came home to Canada and eventually met his wife, a local girl, and had a family. But, with emotion cracking in her voice continued ….“…..sadly he died…just last year, I’m so sorry.”

A circle closed. Letters written, never received; a love lost against a backdrop of a war that saw the loss of many. But each one had a story, and it took many many years to discover just a fraction of the story of my mother’s experience.

And when my son is old enough I’ll tell him too. About war, about love, and most of all about the importance of stories. About keeping them safe. Then telling them.

My son looking out © John MacPherson

My son looking out © John MacPherson








Metadata, time and the story of our pasts

I’ve written several times before about metadata and its importance to history and the ways it can enable images to be properly used, or misused. In ‘Henry Carter and the Divisive Moment’  I quoted David Riecks, who said:

“Most documentary images will have little cultural value if we don’t know at least a few of the basic Who, What, Why, When, Where and How’s of the image in front of us.”

And that’s proved to be the case with a few images I have in my possession, which belonged to (and were perhaps taken by) my grandfather’s brother who had gone to sea, ending up in Australia, via Polynesia. As the story was told to me by my dad, he had at one point been “the King of Tonga’s english teacher” some time in the mid 1800′s, but how accurate that is I’m not entirely sure. He did go to Polynesia, that much is certain, the proof was in the dusty store room in our old house which held a variety of Polynesian & Australian items: small dugout canoes, shells, boomerangs, opals and a few little gold nuggets which I happily played with when I was a few years old.

I still have all those treasures, having carefully stored and tended them for several decades, but recently I’ve inherited a pile of papers and photographs from my mum which she had in a large chest, and have been going through them. Amongst them are a lot of old images that obviously belonged to my dad, inherited from his father. There is a particular  set of prints, all similar in size and shape, stored in an envelope, amongst them a picture of my relative in the same style. I can remember looking at these photographs in my childhood, another fascination amongst the many ‘treasures’ that filled our house.

A piece of history © John MacPherson

A piece of history © John MacPherson

This particular set of images are all of Samoa, and show much of what was mentioned  and made famous by author Robert Louis Stevenson (a Scot, and world-famous author, who traveled to, and finally died in, Samoa).

It may be that the images were a set that visitors to the Pacific could buy, or it may be the case that my relative actually took them, or at least some of them. But the one that always intrigued me as a small boy was of a figure hanging by the neck from a rope slung over a palm tree. I’d look at it with a mixture of fascination and revulsion, and simply wonder at what had transpired. But nobody seemed to know.

Hanging in Samoa © John MacPherson

Hanging in Samoa © John MacPherson

But today we have the internet, and Google. And crucially, unlike many other images from this period ALL these images have ‘metadata’…..well sort of. Someone, presumably my relative, has handwritten details on the back of all the prints, and this lynching image carries the message:

“First and only case of lynching in Samoa. Corcoran lynched after being found guilty of wilful murder”.

Metadata © John MacPherson

Metadata © John MacPherson


So I googled the details ‘lynching’ ‘corcoran’ ‘samoa’ and found this, from The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. Monday 15th July 1878):

The necessity for the new tribunal was speedily shown. It may be remembered that in November last a man named CHARLES CORCORAN, who had been committed by the United States consul at Apia to stand his trial in America on a charge of murder, was forcibly taken from the consul’s custody by a number of foreign residents on the island, and “lynched” with- out delay. One of the ringleaders in this brutal outrage was on Englishman named HUNT; he was arrested, and on February 23, or less than three weeks after the High Commissioner’s Court was constituted, he was tried at Apia before the judicial commissioner and two assessors on the double charge of murder and conspiracy to commit that crime. He was acquitted on the capital charge, but found guilty of the minor offence, and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. Against this decision he appealed, generally contesting the propriety of the conviction. The case was elaborately argued before the Chief Justice of Fiji in May last, and evoked an extremely able and lucid judgment from his Honour, which will be of value to the profession not only from its being the first authoritative decision given in support of the new court, but from the light it throws upon the jurisdiction and powers of the tribunal.

I’d originally thought that this was a lynching of an islander, so was surprised to discover this was not the case.

I did some more searching and came up with a clipping from the Thames Star Volume VII, Issue 2778, 9 January 1878, Page 2.

Clipping © National Library of New Zealand

Clipping © National Library of New Zealand


So it appears the man’s name may not have been Corcoran, but Cochran (and easy to understand the confusion).

What I can’t find is any reference to photographs of this hanging, the newspapers did not have any illustrations, and various searches have not turned up anything, Maybe someone out there knows if any exist other than the one I have?

But the Samoa Times account seems to suggest the event was conducted in a civilized manner, concluding with the comment:

“Everything from the commencement of the meeting till the burial was conducted with the utmost order.”

The Canterbury (N.Z.) published ‘The Press’ carried an altogether more condemnatory article:

Clipping © National Library of New Zealand

Clipping © National Library of New Zealand


“The scenes that disgrace Samoa have gone far beyond Fiji in its very worst days, and appear to have reached the climax in a party of British subjects taking an American citizen out of the custody of the American consul and hanging him on the spot.”

There’s a story here.

I’ve got some images, and I have some details, but I don’t have a full picture. I’ve contacted a few folks in Samoa to see if I can establish any more about these images and who might have taken them. Was my relative the photographer? I don’t know. But what I do know is that history is better served if the accurate details of our present are maintained within our images. Those few simple handwritten words on the back of the print have linked this photograph to a place and time, and a significant event in history. Maybe I’ll be able to shed some more light on who may have taken the image by following their trail.

This only underlines for me the importance of metadata: it is the thread that weaves together the story of our digital lives, and if we allow it to be unpicked, the fabric of recollection of our collective pasts simply unravels and is lost. I think we owe the future much, much more than that.



Talking shit…..

……makes a great deal of sense.

We don’t talk about it often enough.


Who's watching YOU 'powder your nose' ? @ John MacPherson

Who’s watching YOU ‘powder your nose’ ? @ John MacPherson


I was doing some photography work for an environmental client in remote area of Scotland at the end of a long arduous single-track road. It was a glorious fjord-like inlet from the sea, but more than a dozen miles from the actual ocean. It could have been a scene from Lord of The Rings, mountains looming all around, still traces of snow in the deeper gullies high up. And no sign of any human presence, other than a single VW campervan parked a short distance away whose inhabitants, a young couple and a small child,  had just risen and were preparing for a walk with their large frisky dog.

Well I thought there were no signs of human presence until I walked to the lochside where lay a huge amount of disgusting detritus left by some vandalcampers. Discarded beer cans, empty food tins, plastic bags, whisky bottles both whole and broken, and all manner of bits of old clothing and scrap. And all this right on the water’s edge in an otherwise idyllic spot.

I walked through it, astonished that people would make the effort to come this far to such an amazing spot, carry all this stuff, then simply discard it. The mess was everywhere. Then I spotted something odd, so went closer to investigate… looked like some huge mound of discarded peanut butter sandwiches…….white bread……covered in spread….then the godawful smell hit me. Caught short with no toilet paper, and confident that no-one was around to watch or complain, one of the inebriated campers, whose stomach had obviously rebelled against their poor hygiene, had crapped a monstrous pile on the shore and used a white loaf as toilet paper, discarding it right beside their camp.

I backed off as the flies rose in a cloud and started to home in on me. No thanks……

I quickly walked on away from the bread, swatting the flies, and following the trail of rubbish towards the water. Then out of the corner of my eye spotted campervan couple and child, with their dog….off the leash and ‘exploring’ the obviously whiffy aromas. I could see where the dog’s nose was leading it……I yelled as loudly as I could and waved furiously at the couple to grab their exuberant hound and running towards it waving my arms in the vain hope of intercepting it…..but too late. Confronted with what appeared to be a large pile of sandwiches the dog demolished the lot, greedily grabbing and swallowing every scrap then licking its lips in delight and rolling on the ground………..

The couple were obviously perplexed by my behaviour so I had to tell them what had just happened for safety’s sake. It would be fair to say I ruined their morning.

You might laugh at this. Or you might not. It’s a serious issue when it happens in our so-called ‘developed’ country, but it’s a global problem, and a matter of life or death for many people. And two young girls in India died recently doing what we take for granted: going to the toilet. In many developing countries access to toilet facilities is impossible, it’s not just an ‘inconvenience’ but actually places young women at risk of violence, and whole populations at risk of infections.

Writing in the Guardian Development blog on 1st June, Barbara Frost, Winnie Byanyima, Corinne Woods and Nick Alipui, report “Two girls died looking for a toilet. This should make us angry, not embarrassed”.

“Two teenage girls have been gang-raped and killed after doing what half a billion women and girls are forced to do every day – go outdoors to try to find somewhere discreet to go to the toilet.

A toilet, bathroom, powder room – whatever you want to call it – at home, at school, at work, in the shopping mall, is something many of us take for granted and cannot talk about without feeling embarrassed. But we must: because the lack of toilets is costing women their lives.

Today, 2.5 billion people live without access to a toilet, forcing women to walk to dark and dangerous places to find the privacy they need – those same dark and dangerous places where men wait to attack them.

So we must stop blushing when we talk about open defecation because it is not something to be embarrassed about: it is something to be angry about.”

But many people do think about this, and are trying to effect change. Here’s just one:

And you could be another.

Truth is, some people are literally dying for a crap…..something to consider the next time you’re imitating ‘The Thinker’……?




Memory, pictures, labels, loss

John MacPherson has written many thought-provoking posts about the relationship between memory and photography here on duckrabbit. Posts both about his Mother, who has dementia, and his beloved partner Melanie, who he nearly lost last year. It’s an important subject. Penny Russ‘s, who I met on twitter (@digitaldaisies)  also recently wrote movingly about this subject on her blog. She kindly agreed to let me re-publish her thoughts here:

My dad has dementia. He is in residential care in a home in Tauranga NZ and is deteriorating rapidly. I went to see him a couple of months ago, before he went into care and I was worried, from his wife’s descriptions of his condition, that he wouldn’t recognise me. He did though, knew exactly who I was and could sort of reminisce with me although his ability to actually speak is quite impaired. He was pleased to see me. It was hard to leave.

Now, he is on the third floor of the care part of a huge ‘retirement village’ in a Taurangan suburb, slowly losing his memory and sliding away from his wife and sister who visit him regularly. Already he can’t quite place them both. He hears his wife’s voice, knows she is important to him, but isn’t quite sure who she is. It is a cruel hard illness and I’m glad, quite selfishly, that I am only experiencing it through the Skype conversations I have with his wife. That I don’t have to watch first hand while he forgets who I am, watch his memory of our lives together, apart, touching, diverging and running in parallel, watching all of those memories disappear into nothing.

As a present for my dad I made a photobook of pictures of me and my brothers and their children over the years – I thought it would help him to remember us, and it looks good, all printed up properly in a real book. The activities person on his ward goes through it with him each day to help keep his mind and his memory working. This person tells my dad’s wife that he is finding it difficult to place the older ‘us’, to put names to our faces, although he can name us all very clearly in the childhood photos. He thinks I am my mum – it was inevitable, as he reels back through his long term memory, that he would think that – I look just like her.

I brought back lots of slides taken by mum and dad on their separate trips over to the UK from NZ in the late 50s. There was also some super 8 film which I brought back with me. We watched it the other night, it is the usual short wobbly shots of toddling children, although there is quite a lot of Trooping the Colour footage – an indication of the fact that, at the beginning of the 60s he was a tourist here. It looks faded and slightly flickery projected onto the living room wall, this is what memories from long ago look like don’t they? And I wonder if they’re like that for my dad, or if they are gaining a clarity and immediacy as he loses his more recent ones. Most of all though, I feel bereft, that as his memory slips away, my past too is disappearing and all that will be left is the photographic evidence, much of which makes no sense without a label, or explanation. I cling onto it and will make it tell my own stories. That’s all I can do.

Unboxing Appalachia

I ‘stumbled’ into an ‘unboxing video’ on youtube once when looking for some info on some photo doohickey or other that I wanted to buy, and was astonished. A video review just about opening a box! Well I never. Was this for real? What was even more surprising than it actually being for real, was that there were so many similar ‘unboxing’ videos.

Each one saying nothing very much about what the item IN the box might do to enlighten me or enhance my life, just earnest comments about the rigidity of the cardboard, the alluring sheen of its plastic shrink wrap,  and the breadth and legibility of the instruction manual. In a world that seems preoccupied with ‘surface’ these ‘reviews’ were like skipping stones on a pond, destined quickly to sink. I said I will never ever…………



….but today I unboxed Appalachia.

Well to be more precise, ‘Testify’, a book by photographer Roger May. A slim and unassuming pair of elegantly bound volumes of photographs of Roger’s ‘home’.  The process of unwrapping was a considered one, observing the carefully handwritten THANK YOU! on the tape. And again inside, another little bit of writing, just for me. When you open something that’s been closed with care, you know, and it matters.


And then the images, of course…..well first perhaps a little background to Roger – you see when I say these images are about Roger’s ‘home’ you might gain the impression that this is a book of photos about a place the author knows well. But it quickly becomes obvious he doesn’t.

His ‘return’ to this land of his birth has been an ongoing process, one of discovery and revelation. His use of the word ‘testify’ is not just a catchy title loaded with the heady aroma of religion, and the tight strictures of the law, but a nod towards the broader inference of sharing a personal truth with others. As Roger reveals:


Like Appalachia (and I imagine many other places too)  my own country has long been represented, and misrepresented as variously a ‘highland wilderness’ or ‘historic landscape of castles draped with mist and ghosts’ or ‘decaying urban wasteland in the wake of long-gone industry’ and all festooned with tartan, small white dogs and whisky, never mind the uncounted legions of orange cows peering over every fence.

And it took someone who was both ‘insider and outsider’ – Gus Wylie – to reveal for me what was special about this place of my birth. He revealed that it WAS indeed comprised of all those stereotypes, but it was so much more besides. Wylie with his ‘open eye’ taught me to be suspicious of those who claim some absolute insight because they “know it well,  from the inside” but who, with their blinkered vision, see only what they know, and which is all too often a very narrow view.


And as with Wylie, so too with May. There are no great claims of insight offered here, no absolute truths revealed, pinned like butterflies to a board, glorious in their iridescent sheen but telling us precious little about how beautifully they flew. Rather there are questions posed, little glimpses of place, gaps between moments that had other meanings for other people in some other time, but which still today reveal their imprint on the landscape. ‘All that there was then, has created that which we surround ourselves with now…’ they seem to say.

There is a great sense of ‘discovery’ evident here, of an ‘image maker’ teasing out from the warp and woof of belonging, those little threads that often lead to unexpected places, to reveal a great deal more about the pattern of life in this landscape.

And through it all are the people, their marks upon this landscape, and of course this landscape’s mark upon them too. Big coal, with all it’s problems and its devastating effect upon both the physical landscape, and the health of the miners, is both a blessing and a curse. It wrought its bittersweet charms on my mother’s family – her dad was a Scottish coal miner, my mum one of 15 children. My grandfather died of lung disease, as did several of his sons who had followed him into ‘the pit’. But ‘the pit’ paid their wages, enabled 15 children to be fed, clothed and educated. Coal united communities, and it split families. But it helped to create a nation.



And ‘Testify’ does not shy away from this ‘black history’. The landscape will never allow that, the mark of coal is everywhere. One of the more moving images (and there are many) is an historical one, simply titled ‘Williamson, West Virgina, 2008′ which appears in the index as close-up of a framed image on a wall, but cropped tighter in the presentation page. It shows a group of miners, black, white, all races, square-jawed Scandinavians and perhaps a few of my softer-featured Scottish emigrant cousins, but all united in the dirt of mining, proud and smiling. As my mum would observe on the dangers inherent in mining, ‘mines don’t care who dies’, what she meant was that you never knew when your moment would come, you worked with that ever-present risk and just relied on the men you worked with, and trusted in your God.

And these themes of ‘fellowship’, and ‘trust’ and ‘religion’ ripple through ‘Testify’ like an electrical current. Each image charged with significance. I think you can guess by now I found this a wonderfully moving ‘book’. And I use the word ‘book’ carefully because this is more than ‘just a book’ it’s a testament to one individual’s growing relationship with his home, and it is simply a beautiful piece of work.

And then…..well…then there are the unexpected little bits of magic, which when you stumble onto them, make you gasp. As I did last night. The sun was setting across the loch and spilling into the house, and a shaft of weak light bouncing from somewhere illuminated one of the open books I had just laid down, to reveal the imprint of the hand-stitching that has been lovingly used to bind the pages.



But the magic, the magic is in the marks it has left, its imprint in the page. All these threads teased out by May in his visual exploration of his homeland and tying him inexorably to the land, are given form in the binding of his book, leaving their mark, as he will also with his ‘testament’. No doubt leaving a lasting impression on the cultural landscape of his home, one that signified a caring hand, and work that was lovingly given.

Hesitant Fictions


Joshua Lutz, Hesitating Beauty

Fiction has been an accepted element of art photography for almost as long as photography has existed. By contrast there’s still a marked hesitance amongst many documentary photographers when it comes to integrating fictional elements into their works, as I realised during a few recent Twitter conversations. Twitter is great for fast moving conversations, but less so for more in depth discussions, so I thought I’d make a short case for the merging of fact and fiction in certain projects, and knowing Duckrabbit’s emphasis on the theatrical elements of factual storytelling I thought here would be a good place to make it.

The example I often give in defending the merging of fact and fiction is Joshua Lutz’s book Hesitating Beauty, which on the face of it is about his relationship with his schizophrenic mother. When you finish the book you’ll probably feel, as I did, pretty confused. It’s full of visual dead ends, ambiguous images and strange recapitulations, as well as quite a few photographs that look like they might have been manipulated or otherwise interfered with after the fact.

Given time it gradually dawns on you that Lutz has used these fictions and ambiguities to very effectively insert you into his mother’s world. It’s the world of someone where fact and fiction merge to a dangerous degree, where nothing can be dismissed as trivial. Here everything from a car number plate to a spider’s web seems to be loaded with potentially life changing importance. The intention I think isn’t to be clever or different, it’s not about subverting the documentary form for the sake of controversy or hijacking it for the purposes of art. It’s about drawing you deep into an exceptionally difficult subject without you even realising it, making the eventual moment of recognition all the more powerful.

The old idea that photography should just show things as they are still holds sway to a great extent in the documentary community, and to be sure it still makes perfect sense in certain circumstances just to show. But showing the surface of something extremely complex often isn’t a very effective way to get us to understand it, because often we simply end up repeating what we already know, or think we know. I think far more powerful is using photography like a form of emulator, whereby the precise strategies and techniques used in the project are selected to mirror the subject at hand and get the viewer as close as possible to it in the process.

I’m not suggesting we should tear down the (admittedly rather shaky) walls of photographic reality in every single situation and replace it with untruths and mirages. I think it’s obvious there will always be subjects and stories which need to be recorded and told in a way which is completely straight. Instead what I’m trying to say is that adding elements of fiction to a project is just another strategy or technique which can be applied in certain circumstances, where it is highly appropriate to the subject and where it enhances, rather than diminishes, our understanding of it.


Tears for fears


Image © Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale

I was intrigued by the NYT Lens piece by James Estrin ‘The Real Story behind the Wrong Photos in bringbackourgirls”.  Estrin interviews the author of the images used to illustrate the campaign, Ami Vitale, who reveals:

A Twitter campaign using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has focused global attention on the plight of some 276 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. Three photos of girls have been posted and reposted thousands of times, including by the BBC and by the singer Chris Brown (who himself has had issues with anger management and violence against women).

One problem: The photos are of girls from Guinea-Bissau, more than 1,000 miles from Nigeria, who have no relationship to the kidnappings.

The use of these pictures raises troubling questions of representation, and misrepresentation. Ami Vitale, the photographer who made the original images as part of a long-term project, spoke with James Estrin on Thursday. Their conversation has been edited.


Tell me about the photos.


“There were three photos that were taken from either my website or the Alexia Foundation website, and someone made these images the face of the campaign. But these photos had nothing to do with the girls who were kidnapped and sexually trafficked.

There are many times when I get upset when people take my photos without permission, but this isn’t about that. I support the campaign completely and I would do anything to bring attention to the situation. It’s a beautiful campaign that shows the power of social media. This is a separate issue.

This is about misrepresentation.”

Reading through a few of the subsequent comments one stuck out, by ‘bronx’ noting that:

“First time I saw the image of the crying little girl was maybe two or three years ago, on some something&something cupcake website. I found it on many others too. I simply googled crying little black girls and her images appeared without her name or copyright or links to the sites she mentions above… She deserves credit for her work. Absolutely. I’d just like for her to stop being self righteous. Ok. I’m gonna talking. Thanks for indulging me.”

Normally these throw-away lines lead nowhere, but I still can’t resist trying….so did the ‘crying little black girls’ search and indeed up came Vitale’s image, so then did a ‘Search Google with this image’ command, and was literally astonished by what was returned – you’ll see it further down the page in this piece – and I have to confess that I find the repetitive nature of this ‘search result’ quite overwhelming visually.

But however visually striking it might be, it was only when I ‘mined down’ into the various uses of this one single image that its impact really hit home.

It has appeared in hundreds of different locations, illustrating everything from DestinationTrinidad’s article ‘What is for you…certainly is for you’.

Image ©  Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale


Homelessness in America:


The Beauty Impact (This is Your Planet):


‘Cry Accidental Heroes cry, the worst is yet to come’ (Teraminds):


To the fictional ‘The Mother’s Sins’ 

Image © Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale

and also ‘I have men issues but it wasn’t because of my daddy’ a piece on sexual and physical violence against children.

'I have men issues but it wasn't because of my daddy'

Image © Ami Vitale

And ‘news’ articles too, as on warm hearts blog  :

Image © Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale

This latter use is fairly common, well…..judging by the various similar uses it’s been put to that popped up by the less-than-scientific method I employed of simply clicking on any one of the images at random. Take the following as yet another example, and there are many many more:


Image © Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale


This example above from ‘One in a Billion Consulting’  uses it to illustrate an emotive piece on the rape of an 11 year old girl.

This is perhaps the most blatant – there is a ‘news’ intent to this piece, and the perpetrator/rapist is pictured and the illustration of the ‘victim’ is…..yet again the Vitale image:


I find this continual reference to (sexual) violence which accompanies these uses of this image very troubling, for all the reasons you can imagine. And particularly when the original story which featured the image was in no way negative, but a positive story, as Vitale underlines:

“So it’s ironic the story I was telling was that there is a beautiful world that lies between these two truths. Why don’t we ever tell these stories that show the dignity and resilience of these people? And this is why I feel so enraged, because I was trying to not show them as victims. They are not victims. Using these images and portraying them as victims is not truthful. The story I did was a hopeful story.”

Of course, and as Vitale herself notes, were we to utilize an image of a ‘first world’ white person in a similar (careless) way there is a very good chance there would be repercussions, of the legal sort. (To be fair some of these uses illustrated here may be ‘legitimate’ in so far as they’ve sought the appropriate permissions from the author or her representatives.)

But for the rest, because this is some anonymous black girl, it seems it’s just ‘hey who cares’.

Well it might be fair to say the subject probably cares. And so do her family. She has a name. She has siblings. She has a mother who cares deeply. It seems the only people who don’t care, are we image users.

There’s a curious irony in the fact that 270 schoolgirls are kidnapped, and……well nothing really happens. Until a photograph of someone unrelated to the incident is (mis)used to spearhead a campaign to find them – and the featured individual is from…well….the wrong country, and is the wrong ethnicity – but suddenly people sit up and take notice.

But, do any of you know what a group of 276 schoolgirls actually looks like? (276 is an estimate – I cant find an exact figure).

Well they look something like this – the result of my ‘search google with this image’ command – you really need to do it, just CLICK THIS LINK and scroll down slowly for the full disturbing effect. Have a delve and see what (mis)uses you can find – you have plenty of choice.

(Or click the linked image below to have the images fill your screen):


Except, of course, the number shown above is…well……just a few more than 276…..but as other schoolgirls were kidnapped previously and some others subsequent to the main event, and nobody appears to know the exact number of children missing (a frightening and telling fact in itself), this sobering graphic might be the most accurate representation of the real number of children missing…..

…….except these are not the missing young people. They’re not just a number.

The missing children are all different children, individuals with their own stories to tell. One of anguished parents, distraught siblings. They had aspirations too. As DestinationTrinidad’s article which I linked to above, eloquently underlines beside its own particular use of this image, and in a curiously ironic and apposite way:

“You may find it odd that although you planned a particular direction for your life  disregarding your trials and tribulations to get there stuff keeps happening and leading you in a total different direction. Take heed this is the time when you need to stop, reflect, observe and listen to what is going on. This is your life, your story that’s waiting to be told. It’s begging you to see the light, the path that you need to be on en route to destination success, life fulfillment and purpose.”

Maybe it’s time the real stories of these lives are told. Is that too much to ask?

Well, let me conclude with a peek at astoldbypepper’s blog, where this same image appears once again, in a piece which combines condescension and irony in equal measure:

lsm1 lsm2


Man up for the World Press Photo Awards

I’ve already detailed on a number of occasions poor governance at the World Press Photo awards. Today I want to write about another example, worse in many ways than the others.

But first a reminder of this years self-inflicted PR failure. The chair of judges, Gary Knight, turned out to be a business partner of the winner, John Stanmeyer. Given this Knight sensibly offered to stand down but was told that this was not allowed. According to the Secretary of judges, David Campbell, there was no need for him to do so because  an actual conflict of interest would only exist if a photographer votes on their own work. Since judges are not allowed to enter their own work, the logic goes, a conflict of interest cannot exist at the World Press awards, only an ‘appearance of a conflict of interest’. This is straight out of Monty Python or Catch22.

Michiel Munneke, the Managing Director put out a statement saying ‘The four chairs and 15 jurors who participated in the process acted at all times with unquestionable integrity and deliberated in a way that ensured each entry was treated fairly and equally. We deeply regret that their professional reputations and conduct may have been called into question, and we stand with them to reject any accusations of impropriety.’

Whilst regretting the fact that the award was diminished this year he could also recognise that there is a credibility problem when the chair of judges is required to chair over and vote on the work of a business partner. And once he’s recognised the problem he could introduce a solution; the ability for someone in these circumstances to abstain. Campbell claims that it would be too hard to administer; if that’s the case they should bring in someone clever enough to make it work; it’s not as if World Press would be inventing the abstention.

All awards have problems. They rely on humans. No-one should be surprised, and mostly people aren’t, that dodgy stuff sometimes goes on. The World Press awards are better administered then most but despite that a former chair of judges of a World Press competition  told me that an award was rigged. A discussion was had outside the judging room. It wasn’t done for the personal gain of any involved, but it did mean, if the chair is to be believed, that something was picked for an award the judges didn’t think was the best. That’s not the only conversation I’ve had with a judge who has told me things are not always what they seem. Again this kind of thing is to be expected, it’s just not credible to pretend otherwise.

But let’s be honest this is not the biggest issue World Press faces. The biggest issue is that they appear to be unaware that the human race has two sexes and that black people don’t exist just to be photographed dying of starvation.

This year only 14% of entrants were women. I’m sure this is of concern to World Press and  is something that they want to address. A good opportunity would have been to recognise this during the two awards days in which a number of photographers are invited to speak and inspire. Here’s something they tweeted yesterday:


— World Press Photo (@WorldPressPhoto) April 25, 2014

An all male, all white panel about ‘standards’ in photography. This got me thinking. How many of the invited speakers (not award winners speaking) were men and how many women? According to their website these are the 21 speakers:

Aidan Sullivan, vice president photo assignments Getty Images, UK
Peter van Agtmael, photographer Magnum
William Daniels, photographer Panos Pictures
Francis Kohn, director Photo Agence France-Presse
Sebastián Aguirre, program officer Article 19
Edward Burtynsky, photographer
Sacha de Boer, photographer
Olivier Laurent, associate editor at British Journal of Photography
David Campbell, independent writer, researcher, lecturer and producer, secretary of the World Press Photo jury
Gary Knight, founder photographer VII Photo Agency, chair of the 2014 World Press Photo jury
Maarten Koets, deputy managing director World Press Photo
Volker Lensch, photo editor Gruner + Jahr
Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography The Associated Press
Francesco Zizola, photographer Noor
Stephen Ferry, photographer
Fernando Moleres, photographer
Jassim Ahmad, global head of multimedia innovation Reuters, UK, chair of the 2014 World Press Photo multimedia jury
David Airob, photojournalist
Gerry Flahive, senior producer National Film Board of Canada
Daniel Nauck, founding member and CEO for business development and marketing 2470media
HRH Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands

Out of the 21 there is just a single woman. As far as I am aware not a single person on this list is black.

The Managing Director of World Press is a man. The Secretary is a  man. The chair of judges for multimedia and photography (final week) were both men. 21 out of the 20 listed guest speakers were men. One woman. No black people.

The photojournalism world makes such a song and dance about ‘giving people a voice’, not least poor and war ravaged women and black people but what does that really mean if the industry is so ambivalent to passive sexism/racism? In a fair and equal world it would be almost impossible to pick 21 people and there not be a representation of women and black people (and I’m not talking about the token one or two). The world isn’t fair and it certainly isn’t equal, that’s why a real effort needs to be made to tackle this issue.  Don’t worry World Press have got a great defence. It’s not really sexism. Black people aren’t really absent. It’s just ‘the appearance of sexism/passive racism.’ Whatever.