The British Journal of Photography

One of my favourite photography publications (and it's not just because I'm a Brit) is going monthly with a redesign to boot. Editor Simon Bainbridge says that "While we weren’t faced with any immediate crisis of our own, when we looked ahead to the future we felt the weekly format would one day become unsustainable. And once we recognised that possibility and opened ourselves up to change, we began to get excited about what we could deliver if we had a complete rethink."

Perhaps a few daily news publications might do well to follow that thinking.

I look forward to seeing what they do.

Run Sarah Run

I only just saw this. I laughed so hard I think I hurt something. I wonder if Palin will run for President? Part of me really hopes so. Part of me remembers 8 years of Bush and gets cold sweats...

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sarah Palin Uses a Hand-O-Prompter
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations

Song For Haiti

Photograph by Julie Platner for The Wall Street Journal

Hey, how about releasing a benefit single made by Haitian musicians? (and no Wyclef, I'm not talking about you...)

The World Press Photo Awards, Julie Jacobson and Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard

This years winners of the World Press Photo competition have recently been announced. You can see the winners gallery here. Once again, there is plenty of stunning work on show, much of which I haven't seen before.

One of the winning shots was taken by in Afghanistan by AP photographer Julie Jacobson of a fatally wounded Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard being tended to by his colleagues. When published in September 2009 it generated an enormous amount of controversy and debate. A post on the NY Times Lens blog generated almost 700 comments. A lot of people object to seeing images of dead and wounded Marines while much of the anger directed against the AP, the news media and Julie Jacobson centered around the decision the AP took to disregard the wishes of Bernard's family, who asked for the picture not to be published. You can read the AP's report on the issue, including extracts from Julie Jacobson's diary here. I remember reading about this briefly at the time but I was on the move and didn't have the opportunity to sit down and read about it all in depth. The image, and my reaction to the decision to publish stuck in my mind though.

I personally think that the picture should be seen. I think the AP acted insensitively in their decision to ask for permission and then ignore the family's wishes but ultimately I think they made the right call. Bernard's death happened in public. Although it was not public in the sense that a shopping center or city street is public, it was not a private event, and cannot be treated as such. In an interview with Jim Bennett - who begins his post with the accusation that this picture will only inflame anti-American sentiment and serve as a propaganda tool for Islamic extremists - Bernard's father states that this picture serves no purpose. With all due respect I think he is wrong. The argument is that it is disrespectful to Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard's memory to show him in such a condition. That is an argument I cannot agree with. I think that violent death is a tragic event but if a soldier's death is truly a sacrifice then we need to understand exactly what that sacrifice entails. A folded flag and a salute just don't do that for me I'm afraid.

Of course, it is possible to make a picture of suffering that is disrespectful. The attitude of the photographer and the way in which the image is made can of course be an affront. In this case, however, I don't believe the image is gratuitous. Jacobson shot this image while embedded with these troops. She was living amongst them, working alongside them and she shot this picture from a distance. She did not see the wounded man and run over to him, shoving her camera in his face before asking if he was OK. She did not get in the way of the Marines who rushed to his aid. In fact she states that the thought crossed her mind to help him but she saw that other Marines were already tending to him and that her help would not be needed, so instead she did her job and took the picture. To accuse her of gratuitous opportunism is a misrepresentation of the role of a journalist. But then, a lot of people seem to misunderstand what a journalist's role is these days. For too many people, journalists are regarded as muckrakers and intruders, people who will write only bad things about people and wish only to advance their careers. of the suffering and misfortune of others. It is upsetting the amount of times I tell people my job as a photographer includes work as a photojournalist only to hear the reply 'You mean like a paparazzi?'. Too many people confuse celebrity gossip with news, but I will avoid digressing into that argument now.

So just as people misunderstand the role of a journalist and the importance of honest reporting, is it possible that people are misunderstanding their reaction to this image? Truly it is an upsetting and disturbing thing to see anyone so grievously wounded (no matter how blurred and grainy the image) but surely then, instead of lashing out with venom at the reporter and the distributors, the emotional reaction should prompt people to say 'Oh my god isn't that awful, we have to do something to bring this war to an end. How can we do this to each other? Shouldn't we all be able to live in peace and end this senseless violence?'

Maybe I am just biased because I am a photographer. Maybe I don't buy into nationalistic, patriotically framed propaganda. Maybe I don't believe the idea that war is a glorious and noble thing. I don't know what it is, but my very last thought when looking at this image is 'what an affront to this man's dignity that photographer is perpetrating.' The true affront to Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard's dignity is that he died young, thousands of miles away from his family, where he was serving the wishes of a government that has a political agenda that it cannot pursue without resorting to violence on a mass scale.

Is that the truth that people really should take offence to? If that were the case then I could completely understand the outrage of Defence Secretary Robert Gates in this case. While his letter to the AP clearly states his objection to the AP distributing the picture against the wishes of the family, he frames his argument in the context of what is fitting for the American people "to understand, to see, and to appreciate". This obviously does not include pictures such as this.

As for the idea that it will be used as propaganda for Jihadists; well, I was under the impression that propaganda referred to the use of information, rather than being an inherent quality of that information. In fact, you could use information - in this case an image - to support opposing arguments and persuade people to act in accordance with your own agenda depending on how you frame the context. I do believe that is the very definition of propaganda. That is why it is important to explore, examine, inquire and think, rather than just accept what you are told. That is the only way you will avoid succumbing to propaganda, which by the way is not something used exclusively by Islamic extremists.

So do we really want our reality to be censored. Already, there are new rules being dictated to journalists regarding what they can and cannot photograph. How then will we learn about these events? Should we live in an Orwellian society, where our leaders decide what we should know and what is good for us while we blindly obey? Perhaps we should only ever see images of Marines taking their last breath being reenacted on the movie screen in a fictionalized narrative? Certainly that is something that does not throw up such anger and debate. Well, no matter how graphic and engaging a movie may be, we still – most of us anyway - know it is only a movie. We know that the actor portraying dead man will get up when the cameras stop rolling and go get a latte and a bagel. I don’t care how incredibly realistically a situation is portrayed, it cannot show the true brutality with the same impact. If you don’t believe me, go watch Black Hawk Down then take a look at Paul Watson's photograph of the photos of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland from that very battlefield.

That is not to say that movies and fiction are unimportant and do not touch on these issues with the same concerns in mind, but to censor reality is just plain idiocy. I believe it does a massive disservice to the soldiers fighting. They go through some unimaginable horrors and civilians need to understand that. How else can we relate to servicemen and women when they return home? How else are we to know what they are dealing with. Bernard's father tells us that what the Marines are going through is unimaginable and that we don't understand enough about what they do and why. To that I say then let the journalists do their job and help us see it.

To many of us, the memory of this man is now more than just a name and a number. I know more about him because of the debate surrounding this photograph than I do about the hundreds of other Marines who have lost their life in this combat. For his family, he was a real person, now this photograph shows the rest of us that truth too. This was a real man, with a real body and a real life that could be taken away from him by an act of violence.

I understand that for some, to have this image publicly displayed could feel like an intrusion into private grief, but if I were the father of this Marine I would be thanking Julie Jacobson and the AP. I would not have to lie awake at night imagining the scenario of my son's death so far from home. I would have evidence to tell me that he spent his final moments surrounded by his comrades, who rushed to his aid and did all they could to save him. I would know that someone was with him and that they cared. I would cry unstoppably at my loss but I would know that someone was there to witness and help my son when he needed it the most and I would know that in seeing this others may better understand my family's pain.

To those who think this picture is disrespectful, I say that perhaps you prefer it if we remembered him only as a statistic. I'm sorry but again I have to respectfully disagree. I have said it before and I'll say it again, if I was a soldier killed in action, you can be damn sure I would want a photograph of my death plastered across the front page of every publication in the world. Rather than desensitising us to the violence, I would hope that it would make people think about the war and work harder to bring about it's swift conclusion, so that my fellow soldiers can come home to their families and that the picture of my death would be the last picture of death you see, and not because of some form of censorship, but because no one else died in this way, and we had peace. If my death and it's image would end a war, I could not think of a more noble cause for which to die or a more noble reason to display such an image. After all, if we are to believe in the noble way of the warrior, and if we are to believe that war is fought to defend the high ideals of humanity, then is it not peace and freedom for which these Marines are supposed to be fighting and dying? Is not the end of war the true goal of the conflict? Because if it is, then it is images like this that we all need to see. If only to make us fight that much harder for the day when we can say, truly, that war is over.

Shaped by war

I'll take any opportunity to profess my admiration of Don McCullin, who I have mentioned before. This time it's because he has an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. Reason enough for me to trek over the Pennines in May when I return to the UK for a visit. I won't repeat what I have said before except to say that for anyone who wishes to go out into the world and photograph the worst of humanity, the pain and suffering of war and conflict, disasters both man made and natural and in fact any kind of social documentary in general it should be mandatory to listen to and absorb what this remarkable man has to say about his work and his life.

These things are not glamorous. They are horrific. They can get you killed. They are people, not subjects. If your attitude is one that puts you in these situations because you think - even if you don't admit - that the pictures you make will advance your career, turn you into a superstar photographer and earn you respect, then you are doing it for the wrong reasons. All those things should be a by product of the work you do, not the motivation.

I've been close to plenty of violence but I've never been to war. However, this is what a war correspondent looks like in my mind - uncannily similar to a shell shocked soldier right?

Don McCullin with Delta Company, 1/5th US Marines during the Battle for Hue, Tet Offensive, Vietnam, February 1968. (DM 97 A)
Photograph © Nik Wheeler

And if you think you're immortal - more fool you. This camera illustrates how close to death you can get and still walk away.

Don McCullin’s Nikon F camera, damaged by a Khmer Rouge AK47 bullet at Prey Veng, Cambodia, 1970.

I have utmost respect for the many photographers who are following in McCullin's footsteps, it's just a shame that there others who trample over them without any regard.

DIY Sound Blimp

The other day I got asked if I had a sound blimp, which is a case that dampens the noise a camera's shutter makes. I don't own one and have to confess I didn't even think they made them for still cameras. I know they make them for audio equipment and noisy old (motion) film cameras. Anyway, I did a quick search and it seems the only company that makes them is Jacobson Photographic Instruments Inc in Hollywood. And they aren't cheap. We're talking $1000+. For a padded box.

So here's the thing, looks like I'm going to need one. I'd buy one but I'm on an equipment budget at the moment. I'm also hoping Nikon will sort themselves out with a full frame HD capable DSLR later this year that I can upgrade to (I don't need all the bells and whistles of the D3 - soon to be D4 series) and which will cost me a lot I'm sure. As Jacobson Blimps are custom built I'm a bit reluctant to spend the money on one now and then do it again for another camera before the year's out. Besides, it's a $1000 for a padded box for crying out loud.

As I live in New Jersey I found out that Lens And Repro in NYC rent them, which is great, but my first thought before looking for one to rent was 'I bet I can build something like that.' I even thought that a Pelican case would be a good starting point. Lo and behold a quick search revealed a couple of other people had already done just that and had kindly shared their experiments online. Check out Jim Newberry's post here and Tony Donaldson's post here.

So, following their lead I decided to give it a shot. I decided to do it as cheaply as I could. If it didn't work, then at least I wouldn't have wasted too much money So, eventually spending around $100, here's what I did:

Plan it first. I measured my camera and the lens I intend to use. I measured not just it's size but where the lens mount and eyepiece are situated in relation to the rest of the body. This will help you decide how big to cut the necessary holes and where to place them before you start drilling away. It takes a little longer to do this measuring but it's worth the effort. Oh yeah, and don't underestimate the usefulness of gloves, goggles and boots when messing around with power tools. You'll need you fingers to press the shutter and at least one eye to see out of..

At a bare minimum, the tools you'll need are a drill, saw, very sharp knife and strong glue.

Then take one small Pelican Case, the smallest you can get that will contain the camera body. In this instance an 1150, which was less than $30.

Cut out the padded foam to fit the camera you'll be using. Cut a round hole in the bottom foam for the lens and a small hole for the viewfinder in the lid foam. Mark it first using your camera body as the guide and your measurements to double check.

Using the holes you cut in the foam as a guide, and the measurements you made to double check, mark out on the Case where to cut holes for the lens and the viewfinder. You want to make the hole for the lens big enough to accommodate it without forcing it through. The lens I'm using has a diameter of about 31/2 inches so I cut a 4 inch hole. I had to buy a new saw and drill bit for this, which was $25. You'll want to hold the box secure when cutting. Don't do what I did and use your hand to hold it down while you drill. Be sensible and use a proper workbench with a vice.

I also cut and sanded down the ridges on the case to allow the lens barrel to fit flush. I also sanded smooth the cut edges.

Checking the camera fits.

The hole cut for the viewfinder, looking through with the camera inside.

I also drilled a hole for a screw threaded tripod mount which I had lying around.

And a hole for the cable release. There are various ways to control your camera once it is enclosed in the box - depending on your camera, preference and budget you can go for anything from the standard cable release to a remote contol wifi iphone app. This was the solution that fits for me. Cheap and cheerful remember.

Using two part epoxy resin I glued a piece of plexiglass onto the inside of the lid where the viewfinder is situated. Use a scoring knife to cut the plexi - they're dead cheap and really useful.

The lens barrel is cut from a piece of pipe - called Charlotte Pipe in the trade for some reason. Remember it has to be the same size diameter as the hole you cut in the case. In my case, this is 4 inches. This type of pipe is usually found attached to your toilet. They sell in hardware stores in various lengths, with the shortest usually being 2 feet, so you'll need to accurately measure and cut it down yourself. Take you time and get it straight. This is glued to the case with two part epoxy and then the join sealed over with a silicon gel. I thought about making this removable by utilising a plumbing flange, but in the end decided against it. This pipe is cut to 5 inches and easily accommodates the 17-55 lens I am using without any vignetting at the wide end. If I use a longer lens then all I have to do is add some more pipe and hold it in place with a rubber collar.

I added a piece of insulation foam to the inside of the pipe where it is glued to the case. This adds a bit of stability, helping to hold the lens in place and prevent sound travelling down the barrel.

Next, I added velcro to attach the cable release to the case.

After passing the cable release through the hole I sealed it with a simple rubber washer glued in place.

I added some thin sheet foam to the inside of the barrel after spraypainting the whole thing matt black. Don't forget to cover up the plexiglass for the viewfinder before spraypainting!

The only thing I was really unsure about was the cover for the lens barrel. I decided to use a rubber plumbing cap and cut a hole in the front. Below left you can see I used an old screw threaded rubber lens hood with a clear filter attached, which was then glued to the plumbing cap and sealed on with silicon gel. This actually works excellently so I'm going to make another one with a large filter on the front. These caps fit really tight so there's no need to glue it on.

And here's the finished Blimp.

Pretty ugly right? But does it work? Yes, really well. I don't know how silent the Jacobson ones are, but this is pretty quiet.

Here's how the shutter sounds normally: Camera Without Blimp.
Here's how it sounds enclosed in the blimp: Camera With Blimp.

I recorded this by placing a high end audio recorder less than 3 inches away from the camera/box in a quiet room.

In any case, I'll probably rent a Jacobson one if I need to and if I end up needing a blimp regularly I'll likely buy one, but I think this is a pretty damn good solution, for a tenth of the price and moreover it can be done with some basic tools and skills. I had a bunch of ideas on what I could do to make this better but for that I'll need a bit more time, a proper workshop with some cutting tools, welding or brazing and some more expensive materials...

But enough of that. Tune in next week as I attempt to make an underwater housing from some macaroni pasta and wood glue.

Alan Rusbridger's Cudlipp lecture.

This provocatively titled 'Does journalism exist?' lecture was delivered by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and is a fascinating read. I highly recommend going to it now and reading the whole thing. I'll quote only a tiny fraction of it below and that really does not do the whole text justice.

Although it suggests rather than provides any concrete solutions to the problems facing the world's media in the online digital environment it does lay out in a fairly clear way some of the interesting aspects of journalism's role and methodology in the online community.

He of course brings the problem of payment and funding into the frame, which has been at the forefront of my thoughts the past few days. He points out that you cannot currently talk about journalism without talking about business but also states that,

"If you think about journalism, not business models, you can become rather excited about the future. If you only think about business models you can scare yourself into total paralysis."

Which is of course refreshing to hear and reminds me that although money is (and has been and will be) an issue, it runs the risk of getting in the way of what should really matter, which for me is informed, intelligent reporting and debate, conducted in a varied and engaging manner.

Crucially he follows this with a point about payment for online content and it's potential effect on this matter.

"If you universally make people pay for your content it follows that you are no longer open to the rest of the world, except at a cost. That might be the right direction in business terms, while simultaneously reducing access and influence in editorial terms. It removes you from the way people the world over now connect with each other. You cannot control distribution or create scarcity without becoming isolated from this new networked world."

Of course, the key word her is universally. He admits that that model may work and may be right for some, if not all. Most media organisations seem to advocate some kind of staggered paywall, with some content being available for free, but his point of view on this is one I share: Let's keep it as free as we can. I'll say it again, as long as there is a credit based monetary system, we need to find a way to pay for and fund our lives and our jobs, but if this system is stifling our evolution and growth, maybe it is that system itself which we need to rethink. Did I say maybe? I mean, It IS that system itself which we need to rethink.

Anyway, getting back to the lecture, Rusbridger goes on to talk at great length about the issue of an online community and it's role in the news media, something he does not downplay, while still maintaining the position that we need professional journalists.

"It is not about replacing the skills and knowledge of journalists with (that ugly phrase) user generated content. It is about experimenting with the balance of what we know, what we can do, with what they know, what they can do.

We are edging away from the binary sterility of the debate between mainstream media and new forms which were supposed to replace us. We feel as if we are edging towards a new world in which we bring important things to the table – editing; reporting; areas of expertise; access; a title, or brand, that people trust; ethical professional standards and an extremely large community of readers. The members of that community could not hope to aspire to anything like that audience or reach on their own; they bring us a rich diversity, specialist expertise and on the ground reporting that we couldn't possibly hope to achieve without including them in what we do.

There is a mutualised interest here. We are reaching towards the idea of a mutualised news organisation."

I couldn't agree more. As I have said, I think that one of the beautiful things about the Internet is this inter-connectivity (the clue is in the name right?) and the blurring of borders and boundaries. By following the links on any given Internet page you can travel virtually around the world and through vastly diverging views and opinions. We are engaged in a great debate and perhaps the role of professional journalists and editors to become something of a moderator in that debate.

For me, a journalist's skills lie in part in the ability to ask questions, explore the answers and provoke further debate and investigation. For me, it is not about arriving at some absolute conclusion, but instead going from point to point in a manner that will hopefully progress our understanding of our world. I had a conversation with a journalism student the other day who complained about the fact that they were being pushed to go and explore stories with an angle already worked out, when in fact they were finding that the situation may in fact in itself provide the angle, and that may not be the one you assumed originally. How can you go in with a preconcieved notion and look for evidence to support only that notion? You will never learn anything that way. As Rusbridger states, in an online community it is about finding a "[...]balance of what we know, what we can do, with what they know, what they can do." Something I would extend to being applicable in any journalistic situation, or in any conversation at all for that matter.

In my more optimistic moments I think we have made great progress in opening up our knowledge and expertise to each other. I think it is a step in the right direction. Let's not blow it now with an argument over cash.