Baku, Azerbaijan. It was 4am and dark on the streets outside the Landmark Hotel (this works better if read in the style of an American Private detective, circa 1930s!)
The city was quiet at that hour, the shiny baroque facades obscured by the dark. Baku was a brand new city, a signal to the world that Azerbaijan was a place to do business like any other town in Europe – Paris, London – At least that’s what we were supposed to think.
A man gets out of a black Sedan. He is wearing the standard Baku uniform: black leather jacket, jeans and boots, no sunglasses at this hour though. He mumbles something in a thick accent: ‘British Embassy?’ I nod and get in.
It’s only then I start to question – who is this person? He could be taking me anywhere! This is Baku not London. I should have checked his I.D. It’s too late…..dun dun deeerrr!!
It’s ok, relax, fortunately he was my designated driver dropping me off at the airport after all – phew! – Only my active imagination was cause for suspicion.
I had been running a workshop in storytelling in Photojournalism, aimed at the emerging photojournalists of Azerbaijan. I think sometimes we can learn as much from writers about storytelling as from photographers. Each needs a beginning, middle and end; photographers look for the opening shot, writers consider their prologue and so forth. (By the way, you can drop the American accent as you read this now and excuse my indulgence in writing. I guess there’s a novel in all of us eh?)
I have to say I really enjoyed teaching out here. The students were passionate and actually not exposed so much to outside influences and because of it keen, soaking up information like sponges. This made our role there seem very worthwhile. The OSCE (Operation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) were funding this. They believe a free and professional press is a vital building block of a functioning state. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan scores very poorly on the freedom of the press ranking 140th out of 200; so in a way one could say myself and my fellow tutor Guy Martin were on a bit of a mission.
Not a secret mission however, but one where we discussed the vital ingredients of story telling in photojournalism: For example: the building blocks of a good picture story, ethics and legislation in photojournalism, the Golden Proportion and aesthetics in image-making to name a few of the lecture’s themes.
The students were up for the challenge. Everyday we sent them out and by the end there was a real sense they were developing and working with enthusiasm and commitment. I am posting some of the pictures here (assuming permission from the talented photographers of Baku) mainly from the last day’s exercise: “The Environmental Portrait”, hope you agree they make an interesting set.