Our Dark Materials

Posted: July 18th, 2023

Slowly but slowly the work moves forward. It has a new name and is exploring a new technology (for me at least), with the latest incarnation using electron microscopy. Read below for the latest update.

The North Circular is a road with its own environment; noisy, dangerous and suffocating, but also for many, home. It’s been named the most polluted road in London, and with one-in-5 deaths worldwide linked to pollution, it begs the question: who would live here?

 

The work photographed between 2009 and 2015 started with this simple question. Then, during lockdown, I had the opportunity to revisit the project. I theorized that if up to a quarter of global warming is attributed to the motor vehicle and vehicle emissions are the biggest cause of London’s air pollution, I could connect the subject of climate change to vehicle emissions to amplify discussions around both of these environmental issues.

 

In 1952 the great London ‘pea soup’ Smog led to the clean air act of 1956. This inspired my realization that making the invisible pollution visible was key to the success of the project. By hanging the original photographic images as prints on the side of the road, I found I could directly evidence the dangerous road dust, physically transforming the original photograph and changing the emotional impact of the picture.

 

However, despite amplifying the significance of the dust with close up photography, a problem remained: the real killer is invisible to the naked eye. The particulate matter 2.5-10 microns wide, that slips past our bodies’ defences is so small, you can fit a thousand on the full stop at the end of this sentence. These particles then penetrate deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain. What we were actually seeing on the prints although visually effective and dramatic, was actually, at the safer end of the scale. I was eventually able to resolve the issue with his use of electron microscopy. We can finally see the invisible killer in the last image of the quadriptych.

 

I believe debate needs to be improved. Also, ideas around how we trade our personal health and that of our planet for seductive convenience needs to be challenged. The title ‘Our Dark Materials’ references the Pullman novels, but is also about materialist culture.

 

The first quantitative estimate of carbon dioxide-induced climate change, was made by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. The first production electric vehicle was made by Thomas parker in 1884. We could have chosen electric vehicles when we first discovered burning carbon was heating up the planet, not in the 1980s but in the 19th nineteenth century. No doubt back then, as today, cold logic struggled to be heard above fevered disinformation. Climate change deniers and petrol heads are all part of the equation. The fact is, air quality and global warming are inextricably linked. The wild fires in Canada this year, contributed directly to poor air quality in the Midwest USA.

This work points to a logical way forward. To progress, we have to quench our passion for the motor engine quickly, and reduce the dangerous levels of ‘hot air’ that cloud rational debate!

S

New Year’s Message

Posted: January 2nd, 2019

Happy New Year!

It does seem only a short while ago that I was writing asking for help to fund the book Big Brother. So much has happened with the project since then and I wanted to write to briefly recap, and more importantly to tell you about up and coming events.

Of course the first stage was to use the money to finish designing and to produce the very best book myself and Dewi Lewis could make. It was launched at Photo London in May 2018. Judging by your warm comments, (and thank you so much if you have reached out personally to me) we have come up with something special, and which most importantly does justice to my brother’s story.

So what’s been happening?

Justin examining his portrait at the book launch show case exhibition theprintspacegallery, June 2018, London

2018

The book has captured the imagination of many and I’m pleased to say created impact on the international stage. It has had some really great reviews and I was particular pleased to be nominated for the Les Rencontres d’Arles Photo-Text Book Award. I have also just returned from Lianzhou Foto Festival in China where the work was shown as a solo show and shortlisted for the Punctum Prize.

As well as this it made British Journal of Photography, ‘Best Photobooks of the year (so far)’, 2 August 2018 (nomination by Yumi Goto) and the El Pais selection of best photo books of 2018.

Last few preparations before show opens in Lianzhou, December 2018

2019

This year (in the first half of 2019) the work will be shown in at least four shows in four countries. The first of these will be the London Art Fair’s Photo50 Exhibition where Tim Clark has curated an exciting group show entitled ‘Who’s looking at Family Now’. The opening night is January 15th.

I’m going to post a detailed list below but in addition there will be shows in Beirut’s Sursock Musum, F3 Berlin, Format Festival, Derby and Mucem, Marseille .

Apart from being a great place to catch up, Derby’s home grown Format Festival is where the book was spotted and nurtured to publication, so it’s great to be back to show Big Brother as an exhibition; I do hope to see some of you there.

I enjoyed participating in many talks last year but I wanted to thank in particular (for the opportunity to talk to the next generation of photographers), London LCC, Edinburgh Napier, Falmouth and South Wales Universities. The energy in the room was fantastic at all these venues. Let’s hope I can do a few more similar talks in 2019.

The book is still available on my website. Thanks all once more for your time, support and interest in this work.

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Head over to the news section to get a list of everything thats happend and happening with details and links.

 

 

 

Dying Matters

Posted: November 24th, 2016

Exploring how photography can help us make sense of loss, with pictures by: Anastasia Taylor Lind, Lydia Goldblatt, Briony Campbell and Guy Martin.

 

Having suffered loss and photographed loss I can understand the importance that photography can play in helping us come to terms with losing our loved ones. When I think of my parents (who died in 2010,  very close together) the memories are often linked to photographs I have. For me at least my memory is sparked by imagery, and photography, being a medium that is very well suited to exploring the passing of time, is the natural partner to this process of remembering.

In my project Before They Were Fallen, exploring Remembrance, the passing of time and loss is revealed very directly in the comparison between two pictures: a family snap and its recreation taken after a death in action.

Before They were Fallen , Afghanistan Remembrance

HELENA TYM AND ROBIN THATCHER from Berkshire, are the parents of Rifleman Cyrus Thatcher who was killed on June 2nd, 2009, in an explosion whilst on patrol in Helmand province. He was 19. Before: Helena, Robin and Cyrus at home in Reading, Prom Night, May 2006. After: At home in Reading, July 2015 “We haven’t taken many photographs since Cyrus was killed, because all we see, when we look at them, is the one face that isn’t there. That’s why, when we were approached about this project, we wanted to do it, because it conveyed exactly how we feel. There is this space all the time, and I feel it very physically, so to be able to show it in a photograph is really important.”

Elsewhere in the project I used photography  to explore the potential for objects to store traces of a loved one.   The pictures consider the  possibility that we can  lock memories within a solid form such as  an object of significance.  They then store emotional potential like a reservoir  for thoughts and emotions, to be released by touch or through a visual connection.

UK _ Remembrance Objects of Significance , TONI O’DONNELL

Stones and Stuff “Gary loved to collect fossils, stone and shells form the places he went. He would be able to tell you exactly where each piece came from.” Toni O’Donnell, lost her husband, Warrant Officer Class 2 Gary ‘Gaz’ O’Donnell GM, from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment Royal Logistic Corps, when he was killed on Wednesday 10 September 2008, in Helmand province.

I know from the interest I have had in the story both from the participants and the audience  that photography as a tool to explore loss can be very effective and that there is a huge appetite for imagery dealing with this issue. When I was invited to be a Judge for the Dying Matters photography competition along with Rankin, Lisa Pritchard ( and several judges  from outside of the  photography industry) I really wanted to support it, believing apart being a from fund raising opportunity for the charity,  the competition was also a brilliant vehicle for people trying to make sense of their own loss and bereavements.

The  theme for the competition which can you enter here is broadly dying and  bereavement ,

“To enter, you need to submit a photograph and text to Celebrate Life in the Face of Death.  Your photograph could be a place, person, or object or abstract composition exploring dying, death or bereavement which:

Is a memory or moment of someone or something special in your life
Is a representation of a life changing experience or achievement
Depicts community spirit
Reminds you of mortality”

With that in mind I wanted to use this blog to show case some pictures that I feel deal with the subject particularly well in the hope that I can inspire some of the entrants. These pictures are selected  from  the work of friends and colleagues  and bearing in mind I’m a documentary photographer this genre is particularly well represented in this selection. They deal with public and private loss .

Brioney Campbell and Lydia Goldblat are two photographers who have dealt with the approaching  death of their fathers in  a very personal and hugely inspiring way. The Photography engages us immediately,  poetically and with intensity. The viewer shares the journey to the point of departure on an extraordinary  intimate level.

The work, undoubtedly, is part of the grieving process for Briony and Lydia; but through their attempt to make sense of their loss , and their generosity in sharing, we the viewer have  privileged access to this very private process.

Briony’s The Dad Project works with film and image; the sound is crucial in the film but always its the stills that hold our attention rather than the moving footage.

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“You seem like a very kind man David”. “Well thank you Alan I tried”. Alan the paramedic’s eyes were full when he replied; “Just keep on trying is all I can say to you my friend”.

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Me (Briony) as Dad, 1986

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Today we knew he would die soon. I went outside and looked at the sky while we waited for the ambulance. It was perfectly beautiful.

Lydia’s series, Still Here (Hatje Cantz 2013 ) seeks to make sense of the transition between  life and death, by searching for the poetic or ‘metaphysical’.

According to the publisher “her work offers a concentrated meditation on mortality, time, love and loss, in which corporeal scrutiny courts metaphysical wonder. The images are often limited to a single detail: a timepiece abandoned on a shelf, a closed eyelid, the sunlit form of a bee.”

Lydia herself says of her work “Photographing, for me, is a means of giving expression to both the internal and external processes that shape our experience of life”

she is “interested in the indefinable thresholds that mark out our individual existence, and in the subtle process of erasure that returns us to the state from which we emerge.”

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From the personal to the public sphere I wanted to show case the work of two other friends and colleagues , Anastasia Taylor-lind and Guy Martin , who like me have been interested in new ways of documenting  aftermath of conflict. They  both offered an interesting take on the Maiden protests, ( Kiev, Ukraine, February 2014)  that led to the shooting of 112 protestors.

Anastasia did not set out to document death or dying, I’m  guessing originally , but her project which began as exploration of the idiosyncratic nature of the protestors and their home made Armour soon became a study of  loss following the tragic shooting and deaths  of 112 protestors . An insight into the work is inferred from a recent quote, “Men fight wars, and women mourn them,”

Portraits from the Black Square Is published by Ghost books 2014 .

MAIDAN - Portraits from the Black SquareMAIDAN - Portraits from the Black SquareMAIDAN - Portraits from the Black SquareMAIDAN - Portraits from the Black Square

Guys work, ‘Shrines of Maidan’,  is again impressive in its simplicity , in his words the pictures ‘serve as reminders of the lives that were lost during the early convulsions of the Ukrainian revolution. He explains “photographers, returning to locations months and years after bloody and often violent events have taken place are often fraught with the weight of responsibility. How can it be possible to represent those historical events when all but the slimmest trace of of that specific violent history remains? These shrines, dotted along a snow covered avenue were not only a physical monument to those events but also a reminder in the enduring power of the simple family album image.”

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I hope these pictures give you a flavor of what is possible in both public and private spheres when photographing  Death and dying; and most importantly the inspiration and courage  to enter the competition.

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