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NPS3 – Saturday

War never changes. The weapons may change, but people still get killed.” Paul Seawright at NPS 3

The Saturday sessions for the National Photography Symposium started with a keynote speech by Paul Seawright whose work, Sectarian Murder is considered a classic documentary piece on Northern Ireland.

Paul said his work is made in response to straight photojournalism and, as such, could not exist without that context to create the potency of his distinctive and unique method of working. Focussing on the surface normality of the Troubles in contrast to the drama or the abstraction of the conflict, he takes influences from Paul Graham’s (Seawright’s mentor at the start of his career) Troubled Land* and Clive Limpkin’s Battle of the Bogside. He also noted a deep affinity for Benjamin’s critique of Atget, “pumping the drama out of photographs”, saying that the sought to achieve this in his own work.

Seawright’s second project in Belfast is informative as a comparison against Ed Kashi’s work also completed around the same time period. Whereas Kashi bases his narrative around one individual in Northern Ireland, Seawright adopts a much more open and undirected narrative to give a starting point for contemplation of a more complex set of questions.

The process of photographing is functional for Seawright – he claimed not enjoy the actual making of the photographs, and his work is initiated with an end exhibition very much conceived of, as the final product or presentation of an idea. Naturally, this makes commissioned work particularly tough, since is way of working is opposed to making single images and requires a strong personal statement to precipitate any work. As fascinating as his speech was, I do however have to question how far ambiguity in a visual narrative can be pushed before it slides in to a solipsistic framework. It will be a key question in my mind when I visit (and blog about) his exhibition at Look11 next week.

I’ve never been a great photographer, never trendy, but I have focussed on continuing a great tradition of portraiture” John Stoddart at NPS 3
I’m sure the numerous fans of Stoddart’s editorial work would disagree heavily with the former part of that claim. Photographing the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger for top magazines, John Stoddart moved from an initial interest in documentary photography to more commercial work after finding success photographing bands such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Echo and the Bunnymen.

He gave one of the many 15-minute break-time talks at NPS 3 last weekend, sharing with us some images from his commercial work alongside rarely seen images from his earlier documentary period. Personally, while I have great respect (not to mention a teensy bit of envy….okay, more than a teensy bit) for his commercial work, it was his documentary work that has interested me more. I was due to be working with John in presenting some of his work at Look11, as part of a 30 year retrospective of key Liverpool imagery. It is with regret that this exhibition was made unfeasible, but I do hope the images find a way into a public space somehow.

Observant of long-since lost details of Liverpool’s life and legacy, Stoddart spoke about the Cotton Picker Pub, the only pub so named in Britain with it’s clear ties to Liverpool past. He also picked up on the Irish connection within the city, presenting images that gave a continuity of sorts with Seawright’s earlier speech for their references to IRA militia, resonating with Seawright’s mention of Ed Kashi and suggesting the pervasiveness of visual symbols even (and especially?) in the minds of young children who knew little of the context.

We’re all orphans now…

Up next (or sideways, given there were overlapping talks to offer a wider choice of events to attend) Simon Brown, Paul Lowe, and Andrew Wiard discussed the Hargreaves report and the important issues of orphan works and how they may be reproduced and used by commercial companies, the media, and other groups.

Simon Brown has been pretty vocal on this issue, organising Stop43
in response to the Hargreaves report, and he gave us an instructive outline of how that organisation has been lobbying Parliament, representing photographers, and raising awareness about the Hargreaves report since its inception. As I both studied and worked in politics, a fair amount of the procedure was familiar to me but very useful for other members. And Simon really made it clear just how far reaching the ramifications of this shoddily thought-out piece of legislation can be. I urge all photographers to check this out immediately. It was an education and a half.

We all know vaguely about Creative Commons Licensing, right? About the 8 or so different options you have available to you if you give a work of yours a CC License? In terms of the general “politico-lifestyle” choices we tend to make off the back of scant researching, CC Licenses tend to fit in a wider schema, along with Open Source software, not-for-profit work, web transparency, and wider data sharing. In short, it is often viewed through those heavily cliched rose-tints as generally being A Good Thing.

Now, I’m not bashing CC Licenses at all here. But the result of making a work available in this way reaches far wider than merely side-stepping
the issue of getting paid for our work. It also means rescinding any control over how that work gets used, what it gives its artistic or visual support to. As an example, that wonderful photograph you made of the Royal Wedding celebrations could, if given a CC License, be picked up for the next BNP poster campaign. Nice. If you’re happy with your image being used in that way, that’s your prerogative. But I am guessing a fair number of photographers wouldn’t be so keen to work with organisations that don’t fit with their own beliefs and lifestyle choices. Simon argued that we have a duty of care for the content/subject matter of our images, and this duty of care would be undermined by Clause 43 of the Digital Economy Bill.

Creative Commons Licenses were only a fraction of the wider issue, though. Clause 43 really addresses the issue of orphan works. The CC License aside is related, because both can result in our images being used in ways we wouldn’t consent to if given prior knowledge of the intended use. Further, Clause 43 is particularly dangerous in a technological climate where many of the key platforms for sharing our images are effectively creating orphan works by stripping images of metadata – Facebook, twitter clients/apps, etc. all do this. There is an incompatibility with the expediency and
practicality of the proposed legislation and the reality of the landscape of image-sharing in which this legislation is suggested to govern.

Among the suggestions were a move towards the system in place in Germany, whereby the right to be known as the creator of a work is assumed. If a German newspaper wishes to use an image, they have to seek out the author of that image. In the UK, if the author is unknown, this obligation doesn’t hold (particularly not if proposed legislation permits free use of orphan works). Since the media outlets (and here I shall include online as well as print, social sharing sites and well as news corps) don’t have an obligation to assert your creative rights, the issue of accreditation is undervalued, and this leads to a proliferation of supposed orphan works, orphaned out of a professional negligence on the part of the companies redistributing images. To make any sensible and lasting headway into the issue of making orphan works available for use, it is imperative that the creation by neglect of new orphan work needs to be strongly addressed.

I may write more on this at a later date. I know the MP, Tom Watson has been pretty vocal over the Digital Economy Bill in past months, and I really do owe this subject some further study. Thanks Simon, you’ve bent my ear with this one.

The Last Things….

But not the least things. I was planning on skipping David Moore’s talk in favour of grabbing some much needed lunch (I blame my inherent naivety), but I was persuaded to delay on that by Paul Lowe. And a great call he made with that (big thanks).

I’ve seen David’s work before. Unfortunately, being fairly new to photography, a lot of great imagery currently falls into that netherworld of “stuff I’ve seen somewhere but I have no idea who did it or what else they did”. David’s work was firmly in that epistemological swamp of mine, so it was great to get familiar here.

Studying photography at Farnham, Moore always held strongly to the notion that documentary photography is inherently subjective in nature. This is an issue I have often considered in my own work and thinking on the medium, so it was useful to hear him elaborate on this and how it influenced his creative decisions from the outset to create a strong body of work with a unique perspective and a sense of thematic consistency running through his work.

“The panopticon is perhaps a perfect metaphor for photography,” he remarked pointing out that, much in the same way as the warden of the panopticon can view all the prisoners yet they can’t view back, for a long time photography was a tool of the elite and the institutions, used to survey the dispossessed. The Farm Studies, and the British Observation studies attest to this quite clearly. In his work, Moore began by turning Doré’s London: A Pilgrimage on its head, shining a light on the details of the rich and powerful instead of Doré’s poor. This work culminated in The Velvet Arena,
of which he said that, “there is a notion of the flash being an assault on the body.”

The themes of The Velvet Arena were developed into his later, and perhaps more familiar works, The Commons (2004) and The Last Things (2008). The Commons delves into the minutiae of details in, well, The Commons. An institution and space that is heavily documented via the BBC televising debates daily, a space of high surveillance in a sense, and one that reaches into every detail of daily life, yet a space which is largely unknown to the wider public. I’ve worked in Westminster and I find looking at Moore’s images of this space gives me a fresh take on the space, one that I couldn’t have obtained otherwise. I was personally struck by how much of my working life in Westminster revolved around that space while that space remained essentially isolated from me, or I from it. And I imagine that is a feeling that is extendable and applicable to anyone living under the British state. His mere presence working there was, as he noted, itself a political act. And the details, the scratches and frayed edges of furniture and artefacts acts as cyphers to the history that has been contained within that space over time. By photographing these details in a way that the public (and I would also guess many of the MPs themselves) don’t see it, Moore forces us to look again at our political and traditional history, while doing so in a manner which eschews cheap cliche, easy tropes, or a heavy hand in guiding the outcome of our reflection.

The Review of the Sunday Sessions for NPS 3 will follow tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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NPS 3 – Friday

Last weekend saw The Bluecoat in Liverpool taken over by a coterie of photographers for the Redeye-organised National Photography Symposium, known as NPS 3 (it is now in its third year).

With key talks being held in the upstairs performance theatre, and a range of smaller discussions taking place in the breaks in smaller conference rooms around the building, the range and depth of speakers was overwhelming. My first ever NPS, it definitely encouraged me to add this event to my list of must-attend events.

2011 is Liverpool’s year of Social Justice, with the tag line of a City of Radicals. The Look11 photography festival also carries the theme, A Call To Action? And it is perhaps therefore rather fitting that key themes discussed at NPS 3 included social justice, legislation over orphan works and photographing civil protests, and how the internet has changed the game for collaboration and photo-sharing in recent years.

The popular Symposium kicked off on Friday afternoon, with a discussion about surveillance featuring guest speakers Sara-Jayne Parsons, Gary Austin, and David Hoffman. Hoffman has been photographing demonstrations and riots in Britain for over 30 years, and is an excellent public speaker on these issues. If you missed the event, you can hear him on the subject here along with viewing some of his images from the course of his career. Hoffman has observed how policing tactics over the years became increasingly brutal, with police taking to the street in plain clothes, using kettling tactics to incite violence, and being suspicious of journalist reporting of events. This stance has since been modified by the introduction of the FITs (Forward Intelligence Team Police – I still can’t figure out if that is meant to be a description or a command…Forward Intelligence Team! Police…). The FITs routinely use camera and video technology to document public disorder events, essentially compiling dossiers of “evidence” on those in attendance.

And it is important to put “evidence” in quotation marks here, because anyone even vaguely familiar with this technology knows that camera can and does lie. It is limited by the frame, by the moment captured, by the general lack of context. I know myself that I have photographed at a public demonstration where a minor scuffle occurred between police and protesters. I photographed that, but in my photographs the incident appeared wholly different to the event that I witnessed. I had to use my personal judgement and integrity to exclude it from the work I have shown publicly. I have a duty to do that, and all journalists should feel similarly. But it is questionable whether the FITs have the same sense of obligation to unbiased reporting, especially given the lack of transparency inherent in the institution’s design. The reliance that the police have come to have on such a perspectival piece of technology is really quite worrying, and it was interesting to hear David’s account of how it has become ubiquitous with their policing tactics at demonstrations in current times.

Photographs can have multiple uses, and this multiplicity of function was further elaborated upon by Sara-Jayne Parsons, who discussed the images of Gertrude Bell and the idea that she was a spy in the World War. It is questionable whether Bell ever actually committed to undertaking such work, and yet her photographs contained enough information to prove highly useful when used in this manner.

Gary Austin discussed his work as a surveillance photographer, training to make photographs specifically for that purpose. He was also critical of the importance that this tactic had been given, especially considering the costs involved in training and equipping officers in light of constant talk about cuts and budget limitations.

The talk was followed by the official launch of the Look11 festival, with a particularly emotional speech by Chair of Look11, Colin McPherson, who fondly remembered Liverpool photographer Tim Hetherington who, as reported on ST84 Photo, was recently killed while documenting the civil unrest in Libya. Rest in peace, Tim.

This was followed by the Look11 launch party at Novas CUC. From here, a few of us took off to Bumper for good tunes and great dancing (yup, Paul, I’m looking at you here…). The relaxed socialising was reminiscent of the excellent vibe created at Format Festival back in March. As the official scouser among the photographers at CUC, I volunteered Bumper as a good spot to spend a few hours, but the invitation was open to all, and a strong group convened for some impromptu partying.

Stay tuned for the Saturday review….

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