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If you’ve read any of my recent posts you’ll know that there has been a constant throughout – that of ‘family’.


We’re all the same (almost) © John MacPherson

It’s a word we use often and perhaps less often stop to consider what it actually means. There’s a few definitions: a unit consisting of parents and children; and then there’s the wider meaning – all the descendents of a common ancestor. But there is also an informal interpretation where the ‘family’ is a group of disparate individuals connected through their (sometimes criminal) enterprises, such as the mafia, although also perhaps with strong blood relationships to underpin it.

Coincidentally just a week ago I was privileged to have some of my documentary work on rural Scottish island fishermen featured in Rear Curtain (Issue 5). It’s work that is important to me for several reasons – the people featured are ‘my people’, rural Highlanders, but they are also families whose determination to uphold their (island) traditions and wrestle a living from their harsh environment in collaboration with each other is something I admire greatly. These are people who are not only located on the physical edge of my country, but teetering on the economic margins too. This is photographic work that has been rejected by several major Scottish newspapers and magazines, for reasons that escape me. So I was pleased to see it finally in print and gaining a wider audience.

Rear Curtain Issue 5

Rear Curtain Issue 5 Editor’s Note © Sabrina Henry

But what pleased me even more was to have it included in a collection of work in Rear Curtain under the theme of ‘Family’.  In this same issue is an interview with, and images from Jim Mortram: gritty, insightful and powerfully moving collaborative work with his subjects, but again a group of people on the margins, however this time not so much geographically marginalized, more socially and economically disadvantaged. But crucially people with whom Jim feels a sense of kinship.

But the article in RC5 that most moves me is ‘All the Same, but Different’ by Hilde Mesics Kleven. I’ve worked hands-on with people with Down Syndrome for almost two decades in Social Work and watched families suffer, fail, try again, and sometimes triumph as they try to accommodate a child with Down Syndrome. Their struggles are often not so much against the Syndrome, but the social systems we rely on and which too often exclude those whose needs are more complex and challenging, which forces such individuals to the precarious margins of our communities. Hilde’s work shows the riches that can accrue when they are put at the centre, and may flourish.

And as the icing on the cake, RC5 includes an interview with William Albert (Bill) Allard, a photographer whose work I’ve admired for many many decades. His ability to ‘disappear’ as a photographer, and thus be able to capture little insightful moments of other’s lives is uncanny. There’s a wonderful paradox in this – that the very ability to ‘disappear’ depends entirely on one’s ‘presence’ and unwavering willingness to be wholly involved in the lives of others.

There is much much more beautiful, insightful work in RC5, from Mallory Benedict, Brian Miller, and Mark Krajnak, and to have my own work appear in the same issue as such esteemed photographers is, simply, an honour.


One big family © John MacPherson

My own ‘family’ has taken a few knocks of late, and despite it all, perhaps even because of it all, I’ve clutched even tighter to my camera. Because ‘outside’ of the sphere of immediate family I’ve realized that through my use of this very peculiar device, the camera, a wider ‘family’ has been ever present. A ‘mafia’ of sorts, whose shared love of imagery, and image-making has united us. Your occasional, gentle enquiries about ‘how are things?’ with me, ‘how’s your partner?’ and ‘how is wee William, is he coping ok?’ have been both heartening and often uplifting, often arriving just at a moment when most needed.

Photography is a strange strange craft. The camera can legitimize intrusion into circumstances, and the lives of others, in a way no other device can. But I’ve realized over the years, and had it underlined over the last few months, that it’s a two-way street, that BEING a photographer opens you to an unbidden allegiance with a disparate group of people for whom the notion of ‘family’ is deeply engrained, and who, by some strange alchemical process I can’t even begin to guess at, just ‘know’ when you need a lift, a word, and sometimes a bit of space. We are fortunate people to share this. So, to all of you, and you know who you are, thank you: for taking the time to ask, and to share. It has not gone unnoticed, and it will not go unrewarded.





#FF Funky Friday

For John, Melanie, William, and, of course, you.

Photographs & Memories

Been a while since I last posted anything ‘substantial’. I guess the time needed to be right.


Text written whilst I waited in the ICU on November 12th 2013. The afternoon Melanie collapsed. © John MacPherson

Some of you may have previously read the backstory to all of this, and some of my subsequent observations on the situation that enveloped us, particularly this post, about the power of photography. Jörg’s quote, which I finished that piece with, was apt:

“Instead of whining about the limitations of the medium, we need to start appreciating those very limitations. It is right here that the promises lie. Right here. And the promises are plentiful, much more plentiful than the limitations.

We take photographs out of this world we live in, and the moment we have done that they become something else entirely.”

The images I’d mentioned were intended to help my partner, and sent at my request by her friends and colleagues, in case it turned out that her memory had been seriously damaged. Luckily, despite some short-term memory loss, she’s got full recall of most things from before her collapse, although her recollection of the two weeks immediately preceding the event are gone. But all the images sent by her acquaintances have not been ‘wasted’ -  far from it – they have helped cement relationships, and allowed individuals to articulate their feelings and express what Melanie means to them.

Melanie’s initial slight physical coordination problems have improved – she’d fallen, or almost fallen, several times in the first couple of weeks after release from hospital. The most notable fall was on the 2nd January when she went face-down on tarmac, very heavily, severely bashing her nose and lips and spraying blood everywhere. This was an unpleasant incident, but it had it’s darkly humorous side too.

I’d managed to get an emergency appointment with our GP practice. The doc looked at Melanie’s face, then at my right hand knuckles, at the fresh bruises and deep cuts across them (caused by an altercation with some wood I was chopping a few days earlier). We’d never seen this particular doc before and as he sized us up he muttered “Hmmm…. ah yes…..fell on the road eh….ah right…” and had obviously decided it was most likely some booze-fuelled Hogmanay altercation and that Melanie was the victim, and my presence with her for the consultation was to keep her from speaking about it. There was a long awkward silence as he read the medical notes, then his demeanor changed, as he realized exactly what he was being confronted with. A very lucky woman, rather than a very unlucky one.


William, Melanie and Melanie’s mum – Melanie’s first walk in the woods after coming out of intensive care © John MacPherson

The statistics are stark: 80% (yes eighty percent) of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests die. Of the remaining 20% who survive, a very high percentage have serious and often irreparable brain injury, fundamentally affecting many aspects of their lives. The odds are stacked heavily against you, should your heart suddenly stop in the street. I didn’t know that back then. I know it now.

Melanie was incredibly lucky. She owes her life to quick-witted colleagues and a fire and ambulance crew who acted immediately.  She has been fitted with an ICD device, inserted just under her collar bone, and wired into her heart. This is basically a safety-net’ should her heart stop again. There has been no proper diagnosis – she did not have a heart attack, nor any blood clot, simply some electrical malfunction which caused her heart to abruptly stop. It may be a condition called ‘Long QT Syndrome’.  We await the result of blood tests that have gone off for genetic analysis to find out for sure. But the genetic implications are worrying – if it is Long QT we’ll have to get William checked to see if he has the condition too, as it has been linked with SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and cot deaths. I have to confess my night-time checks of the wee man have been more cautious as I find myself listening closely to make sure he’s still breathing. And if he has unaccustomed long-lies in the morning I get rather nervous.

My ICD is under here © John MacPherson

My ICD is under here © John MacPherson

But William talks about mummy’s hospital stay quite happily, laughs at the photos of us all in the ICU, as if it were an easy ride.   Just how desperate the situation actually was, we only found out in the last couple of weeks  – apparently the two paramedics that had raced to Melanie’s aid in their ambulance had had such a desperate job keeping her alive in the back of it that they could not drive the vehicle. It was the woman officer from the Fire Brigade who had jumped into the driver’s seat and driven it back to the hospital. And from conversations with several of the rescue personnel from the various services, it’s become apparent that they’d all found it a very traumatic experience, confronted with a young fit woman apparently dying in front of them, despite their best efforts to save her, and with no obvious sign of what might have caused it.

Over the last couple of months I’ve realized that the photographs I’ve taken during this period are not just helping Melanie gain some insight to events, but helping me too. It was an emotional rollercoaster blur for several weeks. And had I not taken so many images I doubt if my recollection of much of it would be very good. One of the first images I took is at top – of the text message I used as a template to send multiple times to family and friends so they knew what was going on. It was taken just after I’d taken a picture of a cup of cold tea, then the view out of the window, followed by an arty image of the pattern of light and shade cast across the wall by the half-open door of the ICU waiting room. This was a few hours after Melanie collapsed, and at that point I’d not yet been allowed in to see her. Using the camera as I sat alone, was a crutch, something I ‘know’ and can use instinctively, but also know from long experience, can be a welcome distraction. Since then there have been many more images.

Some of the most ‘useful’ ones for Melanie show her circumstances when she was in a coma, nothing ‘personal’ simply her hospital surroundings, the view from the window, and the machinery required to keep her alive and to try to prevent even worse brain damage. Having no recollection of anything that occurred for almost two weeks has bothered her, and the images have given her a sense of ‘place’ and some understanding of the situation she was in. This image of only one side of her bed for example – the other side had just as much ‘kit’ all humming, beeping and ticking. And there are many more images of her when she first came out of unconsciousness and was surrounded by family, events she has no recollection of, and she finds it odd to see herself fully immersed in ‘being’ in what are obviously hugely emotional events, smiling and hugging, yet unable to recall any detail of those moments.

Life support. © John MacPherson

Life support. © John MacPherson


Last week Melanie, not one for publicity usually, happily agreed to do a PR piece with the Fire Service for the local press, to highlight the importance of  first responder skills and workplace First Aid. Her colleague Peter who had initially administered CPR on her for several minutes on the ground in the rain until the Fire Crew arrived, also joined her for the press call. It was odd seeing the headline on the newsstand and outside our village shop, but William had fun practicing his reading skills on it as we went to school and passed it by. “That’s my mummy!” he’d gleefully proclaim.

Local news © John MacPherson

Local news © John MacPherson


But there’s one image I didn’t take. To do so would have seemed such an intrusion, and an unnecessary one. Sometimes it’s worth ‘being in the moment’ rather than outside it looking in through the eye of a camera.

It was the day we visited the fire brigade to thank the four personnel who had rushed to Melanie’s aid: a firewoman and three firemen, none of whom we’d met. We didn’t make an appointment, simply called in on the off-chance they’d be there, Melanie clutching a cake she’d baked for them. We were lucky – all four crew who’d assisted were on duty that day. They were surprised and delighted, then emotional, as we thanked them, and Melanie handed over her cake. A cake might not seem much thanks for saving your life. But they knew just what it signified, and were hugely grateful for it. They mentioned how ‘patient confidentiality’ usually prevents them from finding out what happens to the people they are involved in rescuing, and how delighted they all were that she had thought to come and see them in person.

The Fire crew have invited our wee lad William to come in and see them and have a sit and play in the Fire Engine. William was delighted to hear this, and has made a fire engine out of Lego to show them when we go down. I did take a picture of that.

Remember that quote from Jörg:

“We take photographs out of this world we live in, and the moment we have done that they become something else entirely.

A Fire Engine, made by William © John MacPherson

A Fire Engine, made by William © John MacPherson

….well this is only a simple image. A snap of some Lego in a lorry shape, made out of imagination in the way that only a five year old can. It will no doubt be ‘found’ online by some other small boy and, shorn of it’s story, will wander on amusing, entertaining and maybe inspiring. I like that.

But of course, for us, behind this unassuming image lies a story that our wee lad may reflect on as he grows older, and which with time will take on a deeper significance as he better understands precisely what has happened. Often the story we seek to capture extends far beyond the edge of the frame. And the simplest images sometimes have the most to offer.

Do computerised sheep need more RAM?

An excellent idea from a group of Irish schoolchildren! Have a look at their FundIt page for more info.  Their promo video is light on production values and high on smiles – just what’s needed!

“Our product is a Sheep collar with an inbuilt Pulse Monitor, which sends a VHF signal to a GSM receiver, which texts the Farmer when his sheep are under attack. 

When the Sheep are under attack, the pulse rate of the sheep elevates above the normal 60-90 beats per minute for a sustained period. This triggers a VHF signal to be emitted from the collar and picked up by a receiver located in a secure area of the field. This receiver will also have a GSM, which will text the farmer informing him that his sheep are under attack.

The pulse sensor will record the pulse every 15 seconds, so when the sheep are in danger the farmer will get a text through to his phone. If the farmer doesn’t respond with a blank text within 2 minutes the message will be sent again.

The advantages of this invention are that it saves the lives of sheep and also dogs as they would have to be put down by the farmer if he attacked his sheep. The collars also save the farmers from expensive veterinarian bills for treating injured sheep.”


#FF Funky Friday

Hmmm.. it’s a bit naughty. 



Why I left Facebook and then regretted it

It was a moment of drunken clarity.

“I’m leaving FACEBOOK” I announced to the duckrabbit team over a few beers the night before a workshop.

The reasons are multiple.

I’ve started to resent the fact that everything I do on the internet is tracked so that advertisers can sell me crap that I do not need. The photography/videography world is full of very nice people who are obsessed with kit and for a while I’ve been in danger of becoming one. Honestly speaking my experience is the more the talent we buy in are posessed with kit the less they are able to connect with the story in front of them.

The second reason is that as duckrabbit grew I got more and more friend requests from people I’ve never met, or barely know. Instead of declining the request I kept saying yes. I also asked people to become my friend without having any real interest in them as human beings. My page became a bit of a marketing platform. It also meant that my feed was overwhelmed with information about people with whom I have no real connection, providing a stained glass window onto lives that barely exist. Being connected with people on Facebook became a reason not to make the effort in real life. One of my friends’ perfectly summed this up when he wrote, “I’ve known Benjamin since before puberty but Facebook is the only place he talks to me.” Piss poor and true.

None of this is having a go at Facebook. I like Facebook and I have no deep problem with their business model, I just came to the drunken conclusion that my life would be better without it.

Later that night I wrote the following update and then started deleting everyone:


I have to admit I felt sad deleting off people who I really like but haven’t seen for many years. I knew that I would probably never see or hear about them again. But then if I really cared I should have made more of an effort to stay in contact in a meaningful way. The sadness was real but momentary.

I’m writing this at Prince George airport in Northern British Columbia where we’ve spent a fantastic week making a film with Daniel Gallant, an ex Nazi skinhead. About an hour after we met with Daniel he took me to one side and said that he wanted to apologise to me for something that he tagged me in on Facebook. I was perplexed. It turned out that he came to the conclusion that he must have pissed me off and that’s why I unfriended him. Then I realised that there must be a lot of people who think I unfriended them for reasons other than the real one.

My bad.

I should have written to all my ‘friends’ and explained I was leaving.

That’s my regret.

But I’m happy I left.

#FF Funky Friday

Funk is the answer. especially William’s. Fascinating story he has too.

Brighten up your life.

London Then and Now

One for all you Londoners and Londonophiles out there.  2013 film by Simon Smith, 1927 by Claude Friese-Greene

via PetaPixel

World Press Photo: great pics and the usual incest


The World Press photo of the year was announced yesterday.   John Stanmeyer was the winner.  Speaking to the New York Times photographer and jury member David Guttenfelder is reported as having commented ‘that the jury knew that it might be controversial’.

Yes. But not because of the picture. Here’s why:

The chair of this year’s jury is Gary Knight (the furthest person from the camera in the pic above). He is a founder and shareholder of the limited company VII photo. The winner, John Stanmeyer, is also a founder and shareholder of the limited company VII photo. Knight and Stanmeyer are business partners. A clear conflict of interest compounded by the fact that their business stands to profit from the decision of the jury led by Knight.

It’s inevitable that conflicts of interest will take place.  Good governance comes down to how institutions deal with them. On this front World Press continue to undermine their own credibility with some wilfully self destructive governance ( overseen by David Campbell).

This is a good explanation of conflict of interest from Columbia University:

An apparent conflict of interest is one in which a reasonable person would think that the professionals judgement is likely to be compromised. A potential conflict of interest involves a situation that may develop into an actual conflict of interest. It is important to note that a conflict of interest exists whether or not decisions are affected by a personal interest; a conflict of interest implies only the potential for bias, not a likelihood.  It’s how you deal with them that matters. 

This is how the Pulitzer prize deals with a conflict of interest.

We operate under strict conflict-of-interest rules: If a board member works for the same newspaper chain, or serves on the same departmental faculty, or even is a close friend of a finalist, he or she leaves the room. Afterward, that person learns of the decision – and nothing more.’

Removing yourself from the decision making process when there is a conflict of interest is called recusing yourself. It’s normally a basic right which protects the integrity of individuals and institutions.  Did Knight recuse himself? According to the New York Times the answer is no.

‘Mr. Knight said that although he had asked to be removed from the final judging because of his friendship and professional relationship with Mr. Stanmeyer, the World Press rules did not allow for it.’

I find this bizarre.

Knight obviously knew it was wrong to keep chairing the process when there was such a clear conflict of interest, or else he wouldn’t have asked to stand down. It’s not a matter of rules then whether he carries on in that position, it’s a matter of maintaining the integrity of the process.  It’s also a matter of respect for Stanmeyer.  Would you want to win an award that has been presided over by your business partner?  I find it inexplicable.

Either World Press, Knight and Campbell live in a bubble where they actually do not have any idea how badly this plays outside of the photography community (and to many within it who are afraid to say something) or they don’t care.  Given it happens so regularly it’s hard to imagine they give a damn.

From a post I wrote about World Press judging last year

When the result of the World Press multimedia contest was announced it was noticeable  that among the winners was work by NPR. The chair of the judges this year was Keith Jenkins, whose job title is ‘Supervising Senior Producer for Multimedia, NPR‘.  In the press release there was no mention of whether Jenkins stood down from his role as chair of judges whilst NPR’s work was under discussion …World Press and Jenkins refuse to answer the simple question as to whether Jenkins chaired the judging of his own companies work and then voted for it (so much for transparency).  What they do say is that even if that did take place it’s absolutely not a system open to corruption because the vote is only worth 7%. 

From a post I wrote in 2012

Last year the panel was chaired by Ed Kashi from the photo agency VII (great choice) and another member was Andrew De Vigal, multimedia editor at the New York Times (another great choice). I think there was just six judges.

First prize went to the New York Times. Second prize went to a VII photographer. (both strong work)

You would presume that the laws of the contest would require both Kashi and De Vigal to at the very least abstain from voting or commenting on their own companies work? Anything else would just be two fingers up to any normal definition of fair competition.  So when I put this question to World Press Photo they responded by saying that it would be ‘unfair‘ to stop Andrew De Vigal or Ed Kashi voting for their own companies work.


What does that say about how much  (or little) respect World Press Photo  have for the hundreds of people entering work who I’m sure have a very different understanding of what is ‘fair’ in a competition?

When governments put in place systems like this we call it corruption. That’s the kind of corruption (bad governance) that photojournalism presumably, in part, exists to expose. 

It’s not just the World Press awards that puts itself in this position. In 2012 the Aftermath award was given to Stanley Greene by a three member panel that included business partner Nina Berman. Did she recuse herself?  Nope.  At the time I was left wondering if the only circumstance that would constitute a conflict of interest is if a judge was in the position where they could vote for themselves!

Apart from failing to recuse himself from chairing the jury Knight made some disparaging remarks to BJP about the quality of the photography presented to the jury,

‘in terms of depth and breadth, I noticed that something was missing … many of them hadn’t been well developed, so when you come to judge that story, you are left thinking: ‘It hasn’t been edited very well. There is no narrative … I’m seeing in these awards the real-life consequence of the lack of resources that photographers have to go out into the world and cover stories with any depth at all’.

Maybe Knight is making the mistake of judging the state of photography by the challenges his agency faces but frankly he’s wrong; there is so much interesting, thoughtful photography/storytelling out there at the moment it’s sometimes hard to know where to start.  The New York Times Lens blog for example consistently showcases fabulous work.

Some of the work out there (Mortram, Rafriqui) is as deep as any I’ve seen, yet it passes by World Press (probably because the photographers don’t see the point in entering). Maybe there is a problem with the way the World Press jury are looking, or the staging of the competition (tens of thousands of photos sifted through over a few days)?

Instead of disparaging the work that is out there Knight could be a bit more honest about the limits of the process.

Maybe photo editors, judging panels, agencies were blindly funded over the years by highly profitable news orgs to take themselves down a dark alley in which the rest of the world just simply didn’t want to follow.  The money ran out and they’ve found themselves so detached from an audience that there is not much left to sell but workshops. Outside that bubble I see many visual artists/storytellers/documenters working hard, making a living, looking forward and grasping fresh opportunities to tell stories.

Knight laments that ‘it’s evident that there’s very few [institutions] left that can still afford to provide resources to photographers.’ I’m sure that’s true if the photographers only want to produce self-referential art served up as documentary to catch someone from Magnum’s eye,  but trust me there are plenty of institutions out there with money for great visual storytellers. If there wasn’t we wouldn’t exist.

duckrabbit was built on the still image. I think this year we already have 12 films on the books (about as much as we can manage) and we’ve not had a quiet period for three years but if we become complacent, immune to change or detached from audience,  we’ll die.

Don’t be fooled by Knight. These are exciting times.

As for Stanmeyer’s picture. It’s terrific. I’ll let John Edwin Mason have the final say:


#FF Funky Friday

Happy valentines day. I’ve had a crush on you for ages. I couldn’t bring myself to let you know, cos I’m shy like that. This one’s for you, cupcake.