Sunday, 31 May 2009

Trent Keegan One Year Later

Many of my colleagues go abroad on a regular basis, something I did myself when younger, but unlike many others I have never really found myself in a position where I have been on my own in a foreign country, worrying for my life.

But there are photojournalists who do this on a regular basis.

Back in October 2006, the then London based Italian Freelance Photographer Kash, went missing in Afghanistan. The story quickly unfolded and he was abducted at gunpoint, along with his guide/interpreter, by persons not clearly identified.

Held, often in isolation, often blindfolded and restrained one can only imagine such a situation. Eventually, after much campaigning here in the UK, and in Italy, and after approached had been made by friendly parties in Afghanistan and Pakistan Kash was eventually released, physically unharmed. Rumours that the Italian government made a donation to some cause or other remain unproven, and that there was a large amount of British army activity in Helmund Province at the time of his release is now part of history. For most of us the how, and why of his abduction and eventual release remain theory, it is probable that even Kash himself does not know the full story.

That another photographer that I had been in contact with should be found dead in a ditch came as a great shock to me personally. Although this terrible discovery was made a year ago, I still find myself mulling over the futility of such a terrible crime. Although I never met Trent Keegan, we had corresponded regularly over professional matters, indeed I had only just responded to a plea for help in seeking a journalist to work with him on a story that was rapidly unfolding around the New Zealander. Whether the story itself had anything to with his eventual death on 28th May 2008, one can only guess, but that his death was due to robbery may seem to many a little far fetched as his wallet with 3,848 shillings (about $62) remained with his body. All that seemed to have been taken was his mobile phone and laptop computer.

What is the most worrying thing from my point of view is that less than two weeks before his eventual murder, (I don’t see how Trent’s death can be seen as anything else as he was severely beaten on the back of his head and left for dead in a ditch a few yards from a main thoroughfare. Ironically, very close to a government building and in theory at least within the coverage of a CCTV camera mounted on a fence in the immediate area), Trent had e-mailed me, his message starting with the words,

“Keep this safe mate. In case something happens."

This was followed by.

"Police are here, possibly to arrest me."

Although he did send me another message a little while later to let me know he was (on that occasion) OK,

"Much abruptness from ourselves and they backed off a fair amount.
Meeting with the district commissioner today and vented at him...
police hanging about though."

He also then regaled a story that can do nothing but make the reader very concerned about things that were happening around Trent Keegan.

This is the blog entry I wrote a year ago,

PDN did a very good analysis of the Trent Keegan murder on June 27th 2008

And another good follow up in July when it was revealed that the Nairobi Police had recovered both his laptop and some of his camera gear stolen at the time of the attack.

Considering five suspects were held, and then two taken to court, (not the actual murderer we are told but simply two lookouts), but no convictions, that some 15 items stolen from his body were recovered, the observer reading about this case might conclude that, there is far more to this story than the robbery gone wrong that we keep getting told by the Kenyan Police.

What is going on in Kenya, that a photojournalist of excellent reputation can (we are told) be killed in a robbery gone wrong, yet no one steals his money?

That fifteen items of equipment stolen in the advised robbery gone wrong, can be recovered, five people can be held, accused of the murder, two even taken to court and tried for his murder, yet we end up with no convictions?

Trent writes and tells me that he is concerned about the subject matter of a story he is working on and that the company concerned is hounding him, yet the company concerned (based in the US) turns around and state in one statement that they have never heard of Trent, and in another that they were merely concerned for his well being? Do those in based in the US really know what is going on in Tanzania in the middle of Africa?

The one thing that we do know without any question of a doubt, is that a well liked, non-aggressive New Zealand Photojournalist, had his life taken away from him well before his time, in an unforgivably violent act.

We still do not know the true motives involved, although there are a great number of pointers, none of which suggest that this was a random act, but rather one of more sinister motives.

Pete Jenkins

Member of: The National Union of Journalists

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Photography Matters

18th May 2009, A conference for Editorial Photographers at the Institute of Education, University of London, Bedford Way, WC1, London.

Pics from the event can be seen here:

When around 160 photographers register for an event, some of them travelling many hundreds of miles, you get the feeling that something interesting is going to happen. That’s exactly what I experienced on Monday 18th May, at the Institute of Education in Bedford way, in Central London.

'Photography Matters', the second photographer’s conference organised by the National Union of Journalist’s Freelance Office staff along with the Photographers Sub Committee, is part of the Unions ongoing efforts to support its photographer members. The conference hosted many sessions aimed at the varied interests of attendees.

John Toner ,the Freelance Organiser, introduced the days events. John is known by many members for his work in not only individual cases where the union has been able to get involved, but also as the guy who represents the Union’s photographers at many of the sharp end negotiations whether it be the Intellectual Property Office, discussing the future of copyright, or the Association of Chief Police Officers, kicked the conference off talking about some of the challenges we face to day, both economic and some more ‘in your face’ issues, such as difficult policing.

I didn’t get a chance to see any of the ‘Business of Photography’ where ways of expanding ones business potential as a photographer were explored, as I was chairing my own session – video and the photojournalist, but I am told that Nick McGowan-Lowe gave a useful insight to using the web, David Hoffman provided some interesting insights into stock, and Paul Herrman some thoughts on expanding ones business outside of newspapers.

'Video and the Photojournalist' shared the experiences of George Chin who has directed (and also shot) his own short films for various musicians and bands, and Antonio Olmos, who has shot work for the Guardian and Observer. Both talked about the difficulties they faced, how they dealt with equipment choice, pricing and the differences between moving pictures and stills.

'Dangers of the Trade', with Penny Tweedie and Kevin Cooper was also popular, and we saw both an excellent presentation of work – truly showing why what we do is so important, as well as an insight into the experiences of a photographer working in the midst of the troubles experienced in Ireland.

'Copyright and Intellectual Property', was presented by a powerful female panel. Linda Royles gave a thoroughly entertaining and informative update of the current state of 'Orphan works', including where the US legislation started and finished and what has been proposed for the UK. We aren’t safe yet is the message, and we need to keep our eyes and ears open.

Whilst many attendees were eating, looking at the exhibition and chatting to the sponsors a hard core of twenty or so, attended the session with Neil Barstow and Mike Walker to talk about colour management. Too many professionals still only play lip service to proper colour Management, and doing it right is surely one of the most important things that separates quality imagery from the also-rans.

Jeff Moore and Paul Stewart, along with John Toner, were the key negotiators for photographers with the Met Police when the Guidelines were established, and their presentation shows that things have not gone particularly well for press photographers ever since. Good Cop, bad Cop, was excellent but it was the thoughts of Commander Bob Broadhurst, senior officer in charge of the policing of the G20 protests in London a few weeks ago, which casued the biggest stir. Several of the attendees had been allegedly assaulted by Police officers during the events in early April, including a documented shield in the face and a broken arm.

Commander Bob Broadhurst, Pic by Pete Jenkins

The bob Broadhurst tapes (by Paula Geraghty)

That Bob Broadhurst thought that the UK Press card was called the NUJ card was interesting, and presumably reflects the large number of press cards that are issued by the union rather than by specific news organisations, but that he was so ignorant of how the press card is issued and on what criteria, I found hugely worrying.

This is one of the guys at the top of the police tree. This is one of the senior police officers involved in the negotiation of the Met Police guidelines, the very same guidelines that are supposed to have been rolled out to all the police forces in England and Wales.

"How do we know what their motives are?" he says when referring to holders of press cards, forgetting that the current Press card system was set up in conjunction with the Police, by the major news gathering organisations and the NUJ, CIOJ, BAJ etc.

What we learned from the presentation to the gathered photographers by Commander Broadhurst, and during the subsequent question and answer session, was that Commander Broadhurst has no faith that Press cards are only given to accredited journalists. If that is how their senior management think, then it is clear that the rank and file police officers will be working with this guidance.

Clearly the Press card authority has to have a meeting with the Association of Chief Police Officers, (ACPO), and get this deplorable situation dealt with immediately. But meetings may well be not enough. What can we do to get through to British Police Forces, (including senior and junior officers), that those holding the British Press card, regardless of the awarding organisation (NUJ, BBC, SKY etc) are bone-fide journalists, and should not be assaulted with guns, truncheons or shields, and that the behaviour of front-line police officers in these confrontation situations needs to be drastically revised?

Pete Jenkins

Member of: The National Union of Journalists

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Why is it that so many professional photographers seem to be having such a difficult time at the moment?

Why is it that so many professional photographers seem to be having such a difficult time at the moment? It isn’t just the economic crisis that seems to have been triggered by the banks, as many editorial photographers at least have been under increasing financial pressure over the past ten years.

Many have blamed digital imaging, but that is not really true either, although without question the ‘digital revolution’ for want of a better expression has certainly been a trigger. There are many myths about digital photography, not least being how easy it makes taking good quality photographs, and how cheap it makes photography. The former is of course nonsense, as the skill required in taking a good picture has not changed since the day of Fox Talbot.

Even though we now have auto-focus, auto-exposure; the taking of a high quality photograph still lies in the hands of the camera-user (photographer), and no amount of automation can determine the exact moment to press the shutter or the framing of the image. (Even with the fastest of motor drives, and greatest of luck, the choice element is still with the photographer).

Many people think that good exposure and sharpness denotes good photography - which is of course nonsense. These are merely, (and there are exceptions), the most basic, taken-for-granted requirements. All good photographs should be well exposed and well-focussed, all digital imaging has done is remove the mystique of the darkroom, and replaced it with the joys of the computer. Because in this day and age, even our children are taught to use computers, the familiarity with PCs has given so many people the false illusion that comfort in using a keyboard is the same as actual knowledge and skill. How many times has ‘John’ in ‘I.T.’ been given the job of producing photographs based on nothing more than the misconception that proficiency with computers is the same as thirty years professional experience with a camera?

Despite so few of us being real masters of colour management (and I include myself in this), the entire population now truly believes that the mere ownership of a digital camera makes one a photographer, with the acquired skills of thirty years professional photographic experience.

Even those people who really should know better, the editors who so often are those most directly involved in selecting imagery have been sucked into this idea that it is all now so easy. Easy then becomes synonymous with cheap. Remember when the travelling editorial photographer had to use those Hassleblad drum scanners, and the horrendous price they cost. We were all (newspaper photographers) told that without them we would not get any work, only those who invested in the equipment. Hundreds of us, (thousands), spent (perhaps) £20,000 even then. The papers saved a lot of production time and effort, and yes we got 'wire fees' but probably not enough to quite balance the extra cost of the equipment, and the papers were 'quids in' as we say in the UK.

The next big step (1992?) was to ‘Macs’ and ‘Coolscans’. Thousands of us got sucked into this one. Something like £5,000 to buy an Apple-Macintosh laptop - mine was a 180c, a Nikon Coolscan and ‘Codex’ modem, plus the software to make everything work. No tuition, all skills acquired on the job. This equipment was the minimum required for the sole trader working on his/her own. We produced 4-megabyte files that would be laughed at now, but they did sell well for newspapers, and was the base of an income for many of us for maybe seven years. But this kit had to be upgraded, three times during the next few years and the increased costs were rarely fully recoverable, and within a couple of years, the newspaper clients that had insisted we buy all this still slashed the fees they were prepared to pay for all this extra digital work. The Sun started it and the rest of Fleet Street followed suit, and I am sure there was a similar progression in the US and other market places. The papers saved a huge amount in equipment costs, not to mention manpower, as the images were supplied already digitised, and in many cases practically ready to use bar perhaps a simple digital conversion.

Once so many of us were 'mobile' and able to produce and send imagery almost immediately the papers began to trim the numbers of photographers being commissioned to cover events. Why send your 'own staffer' on commission when you could get regular submissions from the local guy? As this progressed, it became why take stuff in from the 'local photographers', when you could get material in from the regional agency. Which today has become why use any agency when we can get the stuff on the PA feed, which we pay for on subscription?

From a situation where each paper (probably) directly or indirectly employed two or three hundred photographers, we now have papers directly employing five or six with maybe a similar number on contract and possibly using the occasional regional freelance for those 'special' stories too far to send their own guy/gal. Multiply this by the more than a dozen national daily and Sunday newspapers and one can see how our marketplace has changed. No doubt the scenario is repeated in the States, Europe and elsewhere.

These skilled photographers no longer getting work from the national press are doing what? Some (many) have left the industry altogether, but those who remain are working in ways that enable them to earn a crust. Many produce stock. It isn't all amateurs that the professional full-time stock producer is now competing with, but skilled professionals moving over from other parts of the industry.

As for the latter suggestion that digital photography is cheaper, well anyone who is caught in the trap of upgrading, whether it be cameras, computers or software knows that this to be a serious error. Back in 1980s, I had Canon A-1s and F1s that lasted what ten years? In fact they never needed actual replacement, but I chose to go down the EOS1 route in 1990. The EOS-1 was a wonderful camera, but cost more than three times that of either of its predecessors (£1500), just buying two was a huge investment. True these cameras also lasted me until I was market led into going digital thirteen years later, but the difference in price from a conventional body to an electronic one has set a trend which has not slowed down. Whilst in £s and pence terms the price of cameras may seem to have stabilised, market requirements (and the lack of longetivity of the bodies themselves) have meant that they need upgrading perhaps as often as biannually. Each body far more expensive than the F1s of yesteryear.

And then one has to take on board the cost of the computer kit that makes all the imagery work. That first 180c Macintosh laptop was £3,500, Photoshop, £500+. Whilst today's computers are no question cheaper, their operating life seems to be no more than two years. More cost in both machine and software.

In 1994 I worked out my operating costs including overheads, running a separate office and working on a 48 week working year, four day operating week, (one day in the office), and my running costs were £50 per day. This included replacement equipment, servicing, car, phone everything. I did the same exercise in 2006 and came up with a figure of £105. In the twelve years between the two calculations my overheads and operating costs had doubled, whilst the commission fees paid by newspaper clients had remained static. Worse than this the expenses paid by those clients had fallen dramatically.

I did the same exercise last year and my overheads have reduced slightly to £95. I now work from home, have an older vehicle, etc.

Whilst I am fortunate in that some of the excellent lenses I purchased back in 1990 are still serving me well, like every other professional I am forced to upgrade camera bodies, computers and software at least every three years. If I don't, I remain less competitive in a market where there is now more competition than ever before.

As a photographer I have had to reinvent my business many times, and in today’s difficult economic climate that is an absolute essential. I am continually examining the services I provide and the markets within which I provide it. I no longer supply to newspapers (95% of my work in 1994), but my main selling point remains personal service and quality.

If my Unique Selling Point (USP) were price, then there would always be someone prepared to take me on. Providing a better service, makes my clients loyal, and despite the difficult times helps provide a regular income.

I no longer do sport either, something which I was heavily involved in from the mid seventies until the end of the last century; that market has died for all but the persistent few who have made themselves an unassailable niche (it can still be done). Sheer quality will always win through, although due to the nonsense thinking in the current market place which places (in so many cases) price above quality, (‘Never mind the quality, feel the width’), one still has to work hard and be diligent, and not expect the earning power of even fifteen years ago.

The myth that digital, has made processing unnecessary is a difficult one as well, as many operators out there do none at all, and even more clients accept this, which is shocking. Gone are the days when film could be given to a specialist processor and a while later prints are produced which the client paid for (all the processing costs). Now, the photographer does that processing – what we need all that expensive hardware and software for. Even with my limited knowledge of colour management I spend between 100% and 400% longer digitally producing the files that my camera produces before I am prepared to give them to a client, than I do actually taking the photographs themselves, it is as much my diligence to processing and editing my images that makes me a quality photographer. This sort of thing is difficult for non-photographers to take on board. I have had many editors simply refuse to believe that this work is needed. What clients deem unnecessary they simply refuse to pay for. These are the clients who want to employ a photographer by the hour and receive a CD of JPEG images totally unedited after the job. Known as ‘Dump and Run’, there are many less professional photographers who simply see this as the way a photographic business is run. No wonder the marketplace thinks that photography is cheap, and why in so many cases the photographs we see in print are so poor quality. Since when did ‘Good enough’ become a marketing strategy for professional photographers?

The days when our collection of stock (our stock library) was for most of us seen as our pensions have gone, (this was a huge shock to me), but photography is not dead. There are more images used today than ever before. The marketplace has changed and we simply have to change with it. It doesn't mean that we have to lower our prices or our service, or quality, but rather that we have to adapt our rather unique services to fit in with client requirements. It also means we have to be evangelists, for quality, colour management and service.

With everyone else chasing prices down to the bottom, there comes a point in every market place when low price simply isn't enough, and clients start asking for something better - quality. The trick for most of us will be to survive until that pendulum swings our way. That means we have to keep our wits about us! :-)

Pete Jenkins

Member of: The National Union of Journalists