Monday, January 30, 2012

The Faces of Occupy

Click images to enlarge.

Having trudged countless miles around London photographing streetscapes, back alleys, construction sites, dereliction, the Thames, bridges and beloved landmarks, my eye has grown jaded. I have stopped seeing; little seems worthy of a shot. Yes, in this vast city of 7 million people, with its streets and housing estates, its grit, grime and grandeur I, astonishingly, had become creatively blind.

One of the speakers at Saturday's event. He spoke about Julian Assange, about getting him freed, about sinister machinations. Real or imagined?
Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012

Something had to be done.  I also had to overcome a secret fear that I have: photographing people. In the past, I have had confrontations with not-so-unwitting subjects catching me trying to create candid images and to be honest, I have always felt uncomfortable with "taking" photographs as opposed to "making" photographs. I had a long talk with myself and decided that to grab the bull by the horns was the best move. I was going to go and do some street photography of people. Not only was I going to do it, I was going to master it.  It turns out that I am a long way from the mastering objective, but I have taken the first steps.

A couple of weeks back, I headed into Camden, got busted by an old Italian guy in the market when I took a quick snapshot of him and was very sternly asked to delete the image. I did so. I felt bad. I should have asked first and explained what I wanted to do. He would, most likely, have cooperated.  I felt like a thief. Just a few moments later, in another part of the market, I met King. King, like me, is a Zimbabwean. We struck up a conversation and I asked him to let me take some photographs, explained what I wanted and he was only too happy - and I got some great images. Images that honour what he does, and, I hope, honour what I do too.

King. He creates mobiles  from drinks cans and jewellery from cutlery.
Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012

Fast forward to this weekend just gone and penniless (so no fuel to go on my usual countryside walk/landscape shoots) I headed into town. Arriving at Euston with no real plan I wandered through Bloomsbury and eventually found myself in The City. Paternoster Square to be more precise. I noticed it was clogged with barriers and a heavy security presence; Occupy had tried to set up camp there in October. I though I'd go and have a look at the camp surrounding the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, and get some photographs - of people.  Which is what I did - all of them candid, all of them of people who, as media-hungry protesters, were quite happy to be photographed. It was a rich feeding ground and I got several reasonable candid reportage-style shots.  I headed home cold, but satisfied.

 Smoke break. 
Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012

When I got home, I downloaded the images in Lightroom and was after looking at them all, a little less satisfied. It was clear that I had rushed some of the shots I initially thought were good and they were flawed in some way - not sharp, not properly exposed (I always under-expose deliberately by a stop to preserve highlight details - but these were all over the show) and some were poorly composed - I would have to crop them - something I don't like to do because it lowers the resolution of the already low (6.2 Mpx) images. Sigh. They'll be fine for online and small prints.

 Sheila. She was recording the St Paul's bells with a dictaphone and writing notes.
Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012

I published a few of the images on Facebook and was flattered by a few of the comments I received. But I knew I could do better. I also knew that I could have been more honest about the images.  I had photographed them with my current opinion of left wing activists, and had commented about them with the same mindset. I still felt like a thief. And like a bombasitic, opinionated, narrow-minded right wing fascist. Indeed, someone for who I have a lot of respect for even told me I was a fascist - albeit a loveable one.

 Mark. A homeless man with a wild range of conflicting opinions.
Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012 

I had to do better. I knew I could do better and I knew I could be fairer. I would go back. I would engage directly with individuals in the camp, explaining what I wanted to do, asking them their names, asking why they were there, asking, asking, asking. And listening. I took my notebook. I took down names and frame numbers. I had conversations and best of all, I began to understand. And when I got home, I was less disappointed than the previous evening. I had a small number of what I consider to be good, honest portraits of strangers I had gotten to know a little.

Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012

My throw-away rate was still far too high.  Shooting landscapes is a far more considered, methodical task than shooting portraits. You can take your time with landscapes. With portraits, shot during a conversation, things happen a lot quicker. The subject flits in and out of focus as they move and gesticulate - far too fast for my ancient lenses to cope with. Add to this the low light levels thanks to heavy cloud, a flashgun that takes its own sweet time recharging, no image stabilisisng and my still-to-be-cured mixture of fear, timidity and guilt and the overiding ingredient needed for the images was luck.  Fortunately, I did, to some extent, get lucky.

Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012

I published a few images on Facebook and once again, got some very kind, positive comments. I also felt a lot more credible with hese images. They were not stolen. I can vouch for them. They have a back story. The people (mostly) have names. They are more intimate. They are kind.

 Indigo and Elijah. Indigo is eighteen, first came to the camp with her parents who wanted her to see how the other half live. She stayed. She told me she does go home for baths as home is just ten minutes away. Elijah is an Aussie, arrived in London after spending time at Occupy Berlin.
Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012

I also came away with much more of my own opinion of the whole Occupy movement. Was I impressed by them? Not very. Did I gain new respect? For some individuals, yes, for others, no. Occupy is a loose assembly of disparate agendas. Many of them are loopy, many of them want to wipe out one system and replace it with another, founded on ideals that ignore such immovables as human nature. A small corner of the camp had the "Tent City University" where workshops and talks were being held; active activism. But the rest of the camp was largely peopled by people who were just "there". Cohesion seems not to exist at anything more than a superficial level and there are clealy several factions within the camp whose regard for the current leadership is low. There is an undercurrent of jealousy. There is a plethora of mixed messsages, of diluted and uncompromising positions, of militant and pacifist ideals.

 Mada. A lovely bloke. A full time activist who has lived in the camp from day one.
Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012

But there is also hope. Some small miracles. Homeless people feel for he first time in a long time, that they belong. They have a shred of identity, a little scrap of dignity, of feeling that they are part of something good, even if some of them may have misinterpreted the mixed messages at the core of Occupy. I can live with that and I respect that. There is Joey, a long haired, bearded, bespectacled homeless character who has appointed himself the camp's bin man. He has a position, a responsibility.

The camp itself is filthy. Cooking smells mix with powerful body odour and the stench of portaloos. The ground is stained with spillages of indeterminate origin (the smell of urine pervades) and there are cigarette ends, the odd condom package, styrofoam food punnets, water bottles and Starbucks coffee cups. There are banners and posters with various messages, requests and dubious "facts" relating to the haves and have-nots. Bewildering.

Photograph © Copyright Paul Davey 2012

I am gald I visted the camp. I am glad I listened. I am no closer to a grounded opinion of my own, other than to say, they are a mess. A blight, that on the one hand, demands attention on the landscape of the current system, and on the other is self harming, thanks to the idealogical free-for-all that accepts almost any agenda that goes against the "system". Whatever that is.

Copyright © 2009 Paul R Davey. All photographs, text and artworks in this portfolio are copyrighted and owned by the artist, Paul R Davey unless otherwise stated. Any reproduction, modification, publication, transmission, transfer, or exploitation of any of the content, for personal or commercial use, whether in whole or in part, without written permission from the artist is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved.