Things on the news front here in Cairo have been quiet the past week or two – at least for us photographers. It’s down-time like this that I use to take a look over the work that I’ve been doing, how it’s looking, how the narratives in my edits are working, and to consider how I might do all of these things a bit better when it all kicks off again or another assignment comes through.
This time, I used the spare moments to re-edit my ‘singles’ portfolio, and divided the work into distinct colour and black and white photographs. On a recent trip to London to visit editors and agencies, one particular agency editor knocked me a bit for combining colour and black and white stills into the same ’30 pix’ edit. My reasoning for doing this was to combine the best of my photo-essays into one tight edit – a kind of ‘preview’ of what I felt was my best reportage work. The editor made the point that that’s not what the 30 picture format is good for – and I think he was right.
So I changed tack – and took on the task of properly knocking together a singles edit. Halfway through this process, I decided it just wasn’t going to cut it to display a colour-only singles portfolio on my site. A lot of my early work, and my own personal work, I do in black and white. A few mentors have really beat it into me that this is the tradition of photojournalism and documentary photography, and so I’ve stuck with the format. I don’t just shoot black and white for that reason, though. While most of the work I’m paid for these days is in colour, the monocrhome format is something I’ll always work in. But more on that in a bit.
So, here are my two new singles portfolio edits:
Black and White:
So, there is some more to be said about black and white, and why I still feel so drawn to work in shades of grey. Obviously, colour photography is the dominant medium for news photography in today’s world. Newspapers, wire services, magazines and online publications largely want their assignments completed with full saturation, colour pictures – deadline yesterday!
Despite today’s rush of digital, full colour megapixels, photojournalism and documentary photography’s roots are in the emulsions of black and white film. I was schooled in a darkroom in Sydney, Australia, by my good friend Chris Reid at Blanco Negro, in how one works with just 36 frames on a roll, how to agitate the tanks just so, and how to print my own contacts for editing and archiving. My disciplining in the monochrome has continued in the past few years as I work with close friends and mentors, Stephen Dupont and Jack Picone, who are both strong proponents of the use of Kodak Tri-X film in fully manual cameras in any and all conditions imaginable. Steve’s 15 year body of work on Afghanistan ‘The Perils of Freedom’, along with his other work in monochrome, has been a big influence on the way I see the world as a photojournalist. Jack’s work in general – his particular use of composition and brilliant timing, as well as his considered, often quite ethnographic approach – has been another influence, especially his masterful use of the panoramic format for street shooting and documentary work.
The use of black and white film is a meditation on light, composition and timing that requires something extra from a photographer – something the high speed, computer-assisted processes of the digital will never replace or even fully replicate. The slowness of the medium, the discipline and knowledge required to correctly develop one’s negatives well, the ‘quiet’ space and the dim lights of a well set darkroom make the practice of photography in monochrome something that will never die in my practice.
Since those early days, I’ve continued to shoot black and white film, and also to regularly convert my digital files to monochrome and build edits in contrast rather than colour for the majority of my personal documentary work.
This gallery is a collection of black and white singles, primarily from the Middle East in the pre-Arab Spring years of 2006 – 2010, and some work from my time here after the revolts of 2011. There are also samples of continuing long term projects in Asia.