BETWEEN A LANDLORD AND THE XENOPHOBIA ON THE STREET

Crowded in between a landlord and fear of Xenophobia in the streets of South Africa.

Crowded in between a landlord and fear of Xenophobia in the streets of South Africa. Photo John Robinson

The Madiengua family lives in a over crowded flat in the Point area of Durban, South Africa or “Little Nigeria” as it is known.

The Madiengua family live with their personal belongings packed in plastic bags in case of immediate eviction by the landlord of their building in the Point area of Durban, South Africa, Paty Madiengua stands with his wife Yvette and 4 children L to R Ephraim (15), Sabrina (14), Geffrey (10) and Genesis (2) in the kitchen of their flat ready be on the move again.

Yvette comes from the village Buta in Oriental Province, DRC. her parents were killed by the DRC army, she escaped to Kinshasa with her brother and sister where her brother went missing. Yvette met Paty an egg vendor on the streets of Kinshasa and followed him to South Africa with their 4 children.

Paty works night shift as a security guard in the city and Yvette sells clothes on the beach front. Mr Madiengua’s salary does not match up to the rent on their 14th floor flat, the landlords in the area are getting rid of families on the over crowding rule. While the Madiengua family feel safe in their flat they struggle to keep up with the rent and cost of a family and they are “fearful of the xenophobia in the townships”.

 

While Reclining one Saturday afternoon in ‘Little Nigeria’ (South Beach) Durban, South Africa…

The men are drinking quarts of Black Label upstairs while the woman folk are rubbing  down my host’s wife with peanut butter and tomato sauce in the courtyard at the back of the building in a well humoured anticipation of an addition to the host’s family.

The man talk is of a celebrity visit to South Beach; and there are strong views on this issue: will South Beach be graced to this magnitude or will the area once again be left out in the cold?

The blue walls of this building contain dramas that could feed a T.V. series for a season or two.  Outside in “piss alley” the road is controlled by the Congolese, inside the building my host’s brother rules the realities of life. The building has about 14 flats rented to people who cannot afford beach front apartments on the golden mile… Little big eyes and her peanut covered mommy come back from the courtyard and her daddy is shocked by what the women have done to his babe.

The fast beats of tech music fill the background of beer and men talk all afternoon, the brothers are close and the under current of the talk is coping with life and concern that hurt is kept away from the family. Hurt and life is interrupted by asking for this or that tune to be played. Our ‘beer talk’ is mixed with two plates of cake, pretzel sticks, sweets and cookies and a bowl of sugared pop corn from the baby shower in the courtyard.

I place a blanket over the little girl who is soon to be ‘big sister,’ not even strange visitors and cartoons on the T.V. can keep her upright. My bicycle ride home is delayed by a swapping of movies and series for .jpg files of family pics I have done for the host in the past.

My ride home on Lady of Loreto, I named my bicycle after a patron saint of flying, is stopped for the fuel of a mutton curry pie on Maydon Road past the back of the Durban Port to my room in Woodlands in south Durban.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Painting With Light

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I love perspective, photography is also about perspective as it is about cropping, to understand something better I have to sometimes walk across and stand in other shoes. Perspective helps me to to see as other people might have seen.

What is photography?

At the roots of the word photography the words light and drawing lie around. Up to the time of the invention of photography people where painting in multi chrome and drawing in mono chrome; and the pointillists or neo impressionists were beginning to paint with small dots of pure colour that where blended together in the eyes of the viewers of the resulting work not unlike the pixels of modern digital photography.

Their world changed and the new black and white pictures of those first photographers pushed aside the non photographic realist artists of the period as photographers went to the front line of war, adverts begun to employ the photographer rather then the painter and more and more portraits of the famous where done through photography rather then artist and paint brush. There was a time when photography just did realism better then the painter with colour and brush of the time. If the technology of the time had permitted and photographers had started out with colour, we might have been known as photo portraitists rather then photographers.

The realism of that period of photography was backed up by the little slip of plastic covered in emulsion that we call the photographic negative; in the analogue or film age of photography the realness of the photograph could be just broken or backed up by the production of the original negative.

Now in our modern digital photography world news wire services like Reuters ask their Photographers to give in unprocessed .jpg files straight from their cameras because of the eroding of the realness in the public eye by ‘over processing’ of image files in the digital news picture industry and in the modern photography arena in general.

Though I too love the creamy colour of the modern digital photograph, I prefer the crisp image that my rangefinder lens provides me with the no nonsense provability that colour film in my M6 camera still gives me and my readers… JR

I Walk Because I See More Then When I Run

Mozambique refugee mother

Photos Jenny Matthews from her book Women and War.

Visual literacy can be described as the art of reading or writing with what is presented in a visual format as against the written word. A photograph is a 2 dimensional crop of what is; and there is a lot that surrounds me…

All of what you are colours how you see all that is around you. I have presented the same picture of a Swedish doctor working in a Sudanese internal displacement camp to different people. These different people have interpreted the same photograph differently accordingly to their world views. One person commented on how thin the people in the camp were, another commented on how pale the medic was and a third pointed out that there are also African doctors working in the Sudan… While the ‘language’ of photography transcends all the languages of the spoken and written word, it’s not an exact language as a photograph can be interpreted in so many ways, it’s a lawyer’s nightmare in this regard. The subtext of a photograph is also affected by the angle of view of the photographer, by what is in focus, in the foreground and what’s small and insignificant and in the background for example. The message of the photograph is affected by many things.

As much as the world view of a reader of a picture filters the message of a photograph, the world view of the photographer also affects their resulting images. I am an African photographer and I have never been to Norway, but I have seen pictures of the Norwegian fjords and pasture lands. This image of the fjords has coloured my perception of Norway as a whole; and if I got to photograph in their country I feel that the images burnt into my mind will affect my resulting images too. The pictures of the Norwegian fjords were taken by my ex wife’s father on his holiday there, the photographs of the landscape were ‘chocolate box’ in essence. I went away after seeing these images of the fjords and pastures thinking this maybe why the Norwegians too donate so much to my Africa. The social documentary photographer Dorothea Lange said that photographers should work by looking at that which they instinctively respond (Dyer, 2005).The photograph is also as much subjective to the individual photographer as it is also truth.

The photograph cannot exist if not for the camera itself first being present in the Sudan or the Norwegian fjord for example. I use cameras to make photographs to message a truth to my visually literate readers but have found out that the presence of a camera itself can alter the very subject that I have come to message to my readers. Jenny Matthews in her book Women and War talks about photographing survivors of a rebel attack in Mozambique, in Matthews’ first photograph the woman looks like a war weary refugee, in her second image the woman noticed the camera and she became the beatific mother, both moments happened, both images are truth. In the second photograph the camera itself changed the resulting picture. The woman in Matthews’ example became normative in that she put forward a face that she felt appropriate for a photograph of herself when she saw a camera pointing at her.

As a narrative photographer I have to have a handle on the dynamics of what surrounds me when I use photography to message to readers of my images…

Fools Only Go Where Angels Don’t Tread

I always carry my Leica M6 around with me because it has become a habit, it is my comfort blanket of sorts; and there is always a roll of colour film in it and a spare roll in my shoulder bag. Without my camera on me I have no chance of shooting a decisive moment, with my M6 on me I may just be in with a chance as it where. Decisive moments are not only in places of high drama and action worthy of front page news, often the best of them go past unnoticed. The photographer just has to be at the right place at the right time, that place can be anywhere that life is being outworked. But I am not writing about just getting out there and snapping pictures, this is about playing it forward.

I liken narrative photography to walking carefully through a flower bed, I want the telling pictures but without plowing up the space that I am working within.

The other day I took a long walk to clear my head and to put the city behind me; and the beach does that for me. I am working on a body of beach scape pictures, it’s a move from the person centric portraits of my South Beach work to a more environment centric focus of local beaches. I made a dent in the project with a few new images, but then the rest of the afternoon was quiet time for me to just absorb the space around me. I could have loaded a fresh film but the feeling to sit on the outskirts of the day’s activities and just look at what was was stronger.

Cuttings Beach is an 1.5 hour walk from where I stay in Durban South, it is just beyond a cemetery and a wetlands and between the Mondi paper mill and the SAPREF oil refinery. It was a Sunday that I felt that just looking was the better option. A large group of believers in the local Shembe faith were there alongside the normal subsistence fishermen who have made this place a home from home. By just sitting on the side I got to look deeply and enter into a conversation with one of their church elders, I came away with an understanding that will be of use next time I am communicating more fully aspects of the Shembe faith.

That day I made more then one new friend and made concrete for myself the concept of walking softly through the fields of photographic flowers.

As a narrative photographer I don’t want to be so busy taking pictures of all that is around me at the expense of first engaging with aspects of these subjects. How can I my photographs narrate fully if I as the author don’t first engage with the spaces? I want to dig below the surfaces with my images; and my conversations that Sunday opened up these narratives for future readers of photography. Instead of just a picture of an ‘unaware of it’s fate’ chicken on an African beach I can have a deeper outworking, by now knowing somethings more of the goings on of Cuttings Beach, Durban, South Africa.

SOME BASICS OF FILM AND DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Cameras and coffee.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the story tripod of the the photographic image; and how the photograph relied on story, technique and composition to convey the moment to the reader of the photograph.

Now I want to write a short piece on the most basic photographic tripod; and this is the tripod of the manual exposure mode of your film and or digital camera.

A camera is a lightproof box connected a hole through which a controlled amount of light gains access to a light sensitive surface producing a ‘drawing with light’, or photograph.

In all cameras light is controlled by just 3 mechanisms; and they are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. The aperture controls the intensity of the light coming through the hole or lens, the shutter controls how long the light coming through the lens is in contact with the film or the digital sensor and ISO or International Standards Organisation controls the sensitivity of the film or sensor to the light coming through the aperture and shutter.

At this point I want to say that there is no single standard exposure setting for bright sun light or late afternoon light as it where. The 3 legs of this tripod work together; aperture, shutter and ISO work together for the photographer’s good, there many exposure options whatever the light conditions are.

Exposure is based on ISO and balanced out by aperture and shutter speeds like an inverted equilateral triangle. ISO is at the bottom and aperture and shutter speed keep the balance on top. ISO in photography can be defined as the film or sensor’s sensitivity to light, ISO 100 is half as sensitive to light as ISO 200. ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 200, and ISO 800 is twice as sensitive as ISO 400 and so on to ridiculous heights with the new digital cameras.

The principal to remember in exposure is one of halving and doubling, ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 200 and so on…

When coming to grips with manual mode on your camera the first step is deciding what ISO film you want to load on your film camera or what ISO you want to set your digital camera at.

Another way of understanding exposure is seeing it as two glasses filling with water under the water tap. The size of the glass is like ISO in exposure, one glass is twice the size of the other glass so it will need twice the amount of water to be filled to the brim. The water in the filled to the brim glass is like exposure in photography. The smaller of the two glasses is like ISO 400 to ISO 200, it only needs half the amount of light to be fully exposed. When filling a glass just to the brim with water whatever the size of the glass you always depend on how wide the valve in the tap is and how long the glass is held under the tap. The valve in the water tap is like the aperture, and the time I hold the glass under the tap is like the shutter speed in the camera.

So when I want a glass filled to the brim or a photograph exposed just right, if I halve the size of the valve through which the water flows I have to double the time the said glass is under the tap. Or if I double the time time I hold the glass under the tap I have to halve the size of the valve or visa versa. It always depends on the size of the glass or the ISO of the film or the camera setting.

Firstly you set your ISO then whatever you do in your aperture setting you have to compensate with your shutter speed until you get your light meter centered on the dial in your viewfinder and visa versa if you slow down your shutter speed by 3 stops you will have to close down with your aperture by 3 stops too. If you open up the aperture by a stop you increase the intensity of the light to compensate for this increase you will have to decrease the time the film or sensor is exposed to light by a stop too or you will over expose your photograph in the end.

By practising this exercise you will now discover that there are many combinations of aperture and shutter speed that will give you a perfectly exposed picture under any given lighting situation.

In closing, no you can’t change the ISO mid film, you should stick to the given ISO.

USE IT LIKE A HASSELBLAD

Joshua G's  5th birthday

Sisters in Woodlands, Microsoft Lumia 435 ‘phone camera, Photo John Robinson

Cell phone cameras do not produce the same image crispness of a medium format Carl Zeiss lens, but the ‘phone camera does have the same ability of a medium format to take pictures out of the way of the human contact between the photographer and the person photographed…

Way back when I was just starting out on my own photographic journey, I remember Jenny Gordon commenting on the ‘feel’ of her photographs taken on her medium format Hasselblad camera at the time. When a Hasselblad camera is used, it is usually mounted on a tripod out of the way of the photographer and the persons photographed at the time; and this reduces ‘strain’ on the person or persons photographed.

Click your shutter button now, don’t chimp, look and be surprised later. When using a ‘phone camera in bright light it’s often hard to see the coming image on the camera screen, so just have a quick look to make sure of your angles, the camera has already a surprisingly good hold the exposure and focus side of things. So just get on with capturing the moment – it’s only digital, so no loss as ‘they’ say… And your pictures will be more spontaneous and ‘of the moment’ too.

On the theory side, when someone is being portrayed they can become ‘normative.’ Another way of saying this is: they present themselves to the camera in a way that they think they should be portrayed. The result of this behavior by the person been photographed is that the photographer does not get the moment as she or he saw it. The ‘phone camera is much less “serious” in the mind of the person photographed and so they get less up set by the process…

To end this piece, I say spend more time taking pictures and less time getting hung up in photographic gadgets; I also think that if H.C.B. had had a ‘phone camera he would have used it too.

A CASE FOR THE TANGIBLE DOCUMENT IN A PHOTOSHOPPED WORLD

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Goat herder and goats just before sunset in Iriri, Uganda 2006, Photo John Robinson.

The camera never lies, but we can not always say the same for the photograph or the photographer in our digitally adjusted world…

The other day I interviewed a prospective client for my ‘photography lesson over a coffee’ sessions, the client wants to learn “candid, fashion, landscape photography and everything” including editing. We live in a world of selfies, photo bites and altered realities where the subject is carefully ‘perfected’ after that aspect of reality passes into the wonderland of digital photoshopping between the camera and the end viewers of said photograph. When the above client said editing, she was not talking about which pictures worked best or which one to open the body of work with but rather “polishing imperfections” and “touch ups” of the original digital file. My client wants to become a photographer of everything and the polishing of imperfections is an expected part of the photography that the client wants to learn.

Photography and photoshopping or lightrooming has become synonymous. As a lecturer I have often heard “you can change things in photography” when a photograph is viewed, or “you can now do that in photoshop” is also heard from the sceptic in the class…

So the file that comes out of the digital camera is now just the first step in many possible steps in the expected altered realities of the the modern digital photograph.

I don’t think that it is for nothing that most documentaries are now movies and not still photographs, these moving picture documentaries are just more believable then still photography for now. When the technology to make these documentary movies becomes more accessible as has become of photography in general they will too be in a wonderland of of their own and lose their credibility too. The World Press Photo competition is also evidence of people who should know better, of photographers who enter altered realities instead of aspects of reality in the hope of gaining a prize as such.

We can’t blame this ‘wonderland’ state of narrative photography solely on amateurs and the sceptic, ‘adjusting reality’ has been around as long as the photograph itself… Adjusting reality also includes viewing a full colour world in black and white to adjusting vibrancy to make a scene muted or a bright day dark, this all adjusts how the viewer perceives the reality in front of the photographer and camera.

I do all my important narrative photographic work with a Leica M6 rangefinder camera on colour print film now, I use a hand held incident light meter to get an exposure as close to what my eye saw in the first place.

Making documents of what we see around us is important. Going back to the basics of ‘getting what we see’ with colour film will also provide tangible proof that what the viewer sees is also what the photographer saw through the eye piece of the camera.

PUTTING PERSPECTIVE ON THRILL AND PERSONAL WORK

"Give us an education" Rebbeca Akoi

I have a thing for thrills.

In the years just before democracy came to South Africa I had a stable job as a lecturer at a design college in the City of Johannesburg; I taught aspects of interior design and also a ‘basics of photography’ course for their graphic design students because I “knew more about photography” then anyone else on the staff at the time. I had the feeling at the time that though I enjoy teaching I was wasting time and there was something all consuming waiting for me – it was the thrill of my narrative photography.

I believe that I have been created to run with this thrill, it is all consuming, I feel most alive when I am on the ‘street’ with my ‘M6 camera. But the ‘thrill of the moment’ only comes later when I am quietly viewing the negatives on the light box in my home office. I don’t trust the thrill of the moment while still out there with my camera, it has often just been the hype of the moment. Until I see the image I just think that I have something special.

I only stop taking photographs when I feel that I have captured the moment adequately.

Too often I have gone home to be disappointed with my images, by mistaking the hype of the moment for the thrill of the moment caught. It takes me a quiet space to really judge the moments caught; and that space is never while still out on a photographic shoot. It does not matter if you shoot a digital or an analogue camera, judge your images only after you have gone from the scene and you just feel that you have captured the moment while there.

View your thrills in a quiet and calm space.

I take ownership of all the images I have taken, there is nothing such as personal images and work images, all perceived by me and all are personal to me photographs. It does not matter if I took them for personal or monetary gain…

A photograph is just the perception of it’s author.

 

 

 

101 PHOTOGRAPHY, SOME BASICS OF DRAWING WITH LIGHT

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The above moment where a young boy, accompanied by his parents gets to sit with a pilot in a South African Police Services Air Wing helicopter in a Johannesburg park depends on a ‘tripod’ for support. This tripod has the following legs; story, composition and technique.

Every photograph ever taken depends on the same 3 basic legs to get off the ground… It does not matter if you use a cell phone or a DSLR camera, it is also the same for digital and analogue pictures.

Captions are great, they give the reader of the photograph some context, but the picture has a story to tell the readers of itself too. Narrative photography is like that, the photographer catches the moment in a frame and gives it a life of its own in the form of a photographic image that carries on from there, telling others of the photographer’s encounter on that day and in that place.

I see a story of a boy engaging one on one with a man… I see a police pilot giving freely of his day to a member of the public that he serves. I see something of the time of the day and also of the time of the year, in the background I see parents willing to give a son some space to experience a Eurocopter police helicopter for himself.

The above image is also my own perception of the moment as the author of the photograph. It is just as I saw it on a high veld winter late afternoon. The composition is just as I as the photographer liked it on the day. I am also as close as I can be, “it is not good enough if you are not close enough.” I did not ‘see’ the inverted triangle of parents, son and pilot at the time but it gives the picture dynamics. I did see the curves of the joy stick and reflections while concentrating on the moment between man and boy which was paramount in my mind at the time.

My technique is simple, I use a Leica M6 rangefinder camera rather then a DSLR camera, I pre meter for exposure with a hand held incidence light meter. I use a rangefinder camera because it’s less seen by other people then a big black DSLR camera. I pre meter so I can concentrate on the moments in front of me and not on camera technicals.

In the end I let my photographs speak for me, and you as the reader can see the picture as you perceive it for yourself.