Rest In Peace Seamus Heaney

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I was very upset when I heard the poet Seamus Heaney had died. I spent a day with him at his home in Dublin photographing him for the Observer Magazine in 2009. Heaney and his wife Marie were very kind to me, gave me as much time as I wanted and shared their lunch with me. Heaney was very down to earth and we spent more time in conversation than doing the photos. I only shot a few rolls of B&W 120 film on my old Mamiya C330. It really was the last time I shot film seriously. Three things I remember the most from that day. First Marie made Heaney get a haircut the day before the shoot so he would look presentable. It upset me because he had this wild riot of white hair like an Irish Afro that I really liked. Second his wife Marie is an exact copy of my aunt Lola and when she answered the door it took me a few seconds to recover from the shock of seeing my aunt in Heaney’s home. Lastly I regaled Heaney with a tale of how my sister in law Moya dodged loyalist paramilitaries to go hear him do a reading. I dodn’t quite get my facts right on that story but it tickled Heaney no end that someone from a Protestant family in Port Rush liked his poetry. He turned to Marie and said “See Marie, people do like me!!!” . Photographing and spending time with Seamus Heaney was one of the highlights of my photography career. RIP Seamus Heaney”

Maggie’s Funeral

AZO_130417_0102A long time ago I was given some great advice about being a photographer. “If you find yourself surrounded by a lot of photographers, you are probably in the wrong place.” Being a photojournalist and covering news events that is not always possible. Probably more so today in an age where everyone is carrying a camera of some sort. I had to photograph Margaret Thatcher’s funeral recently…yes its true she died…anyway I was amazed at the number of professional photographers in attendance. I saw so many of my colleagues I hadn’t seen in ages that it was hard to concentrate as I kept bumping into old friends every few minutes. I find it hard to work those big occasions sometimes as I feel like I am making the same image over and over again that hundreds of other photographers are making. I photographed the crowds, the funeral cortege and the protesters. The same stuff everyone else was doing. To add to the photographic tidal wave was that every person in the crowds also was recording the funeral with their iphones and point and shoots. Rare was the person actually watching, mourning, experiencing the event itself. Only the soldiers, police, and those actually in the procession seemed without a camera. And of course Maggie herself wasn’t snapping. She was THE Subject. I felt as though my images would be drowned in a deep sea of images. My saving grace was that my images would have a platform in the Guardian and the Observer.

This is why these days I tend to stay away from demonstrations and staged news events. Too many photographers around and I feel like I have nothing to add to all the noise. Instead I look for stories to tell and make images that I feel are distinctly mine that no one else is making. I think that is the saving grace of professional photographers in the journalism/documentary business. We should be storytellers and not news gatherers solely. I was once had the pleasure of working for a few weeks with Larry Towell and I remember asking him why he didn’t shoot colour or switch to digital etc etc..really dumb questions in hindsight. He looked at me and growled “I am a story teller, all these changes in photography have nothing to do with me. Those who tell stories will always have a role to play. Technology is irrelevant to me” or words to that effect…. I never forgot what he said.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to cover breaking news and work on big stories. I enjoy the part of my job that is journalistic and a recorder of history if I am lucky. I get commissioned to photograph some amazing people and events. But I think if you want your images to be seen these days you have to seek out those things that are rarely looked at, talked about and pondered upon. So on my own steam I will try to stay away from my colleagues.

The image above was the only one I really liked from the Thatcher funeral. I turned around while the funeral procession went by and saw this quiet moment. Mostly I like it because I know none of my esteemed colleagues took it. I hope.

I am doing a workshop on Street Photography for Guardian Masterclass. There is still few places left. I strive to make the workshop thought provoking, a chance to learn valuable skills and a lot of fun.

My thoughts on Street Photography

San Pedro Sula

meat market 1I was reading Stuart Freedman’s Blog yesterday about San Pedro Sula being the most violent city  in the world. The Guardian did an article on the city’s high crime rate and like Stuart, I thought about the city I visited on assignment for Christian Aid in the late 90s. Even then I remember being told that it was dangerous to go wandering around on your own and more so with a bunch of cameras around my neck. Of course I instantly rebel when told I can’t do something and I go wandering around on my own. The image above was taken in one of the city’s meat markets.

When I am on assignment I always end up seeing things and places that are not part of the story but want to photograph. I always do what my  colleague Peter Beaumont calls “Dawn Patrol”, meaning I get up at dawn or work late at dusk to look for images that sometimes lay outside the confines of the story. Those periods of the day tend to be when I am free from whatever assignment I am doing. In regards to San Pedro Sula, a city I have visited twice, yes it is dangerous but life goes on. It is mostly dangerous for the gangs vying for control of the drug trade. If you don’t inhabit that world your chances of being a victim reduce considerably. If I worried about being a victim of crime I probably couldn’t take photographs. One because I would be too frightened but more importantly if you view people with suspicion how are they ever gonna trust you to inhabit their lives if you don’t trust them.

Every place I have ever worked including London, someone always comes up to me and says “you really shouldn’t be walking around with those cameras showing, you could get mugged.” or something along those lines. The core of everything I do means that I have to walk the streets to make photographs. I want to make photographs of people. If you worry about crime you probably should stick to photographing puppies.

I am doing a workshop on Street Photography for Guardian Masterclass. There is still few places left. I strive to make the workshop thought provoking, a chance to learn valuable skills and a lot of fun.

My thoughts on Street Photography

Boxing

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I have always been fascinated by Boxing. Intellectually it is not a sport I can defend. On the surface its cruel and violent. People can get seriously hurt, it can cause brain damage and perpetuates the idea that the male needs to possess the skills to fight. And yet I love it. Not to say I follow the sport. I probably stopped following the sport in the 80s. Professionally its a very corrupt sport.

But at the amateur level it is fascinating. I have thought about what it is about boxing that appeals to me. I think partly its political social. It is one of the most obvious working class sports. It ranks have been filled by those escaping poverty, discrimination and the bad hand one was dealt by fate. The champions of the sport have been populated by working class heroes. The sport gives one a sort of martial honour that is rare in modern life. Young men can find a release to all that pent up rage that otherwise has no outlet except in negative ways.

Another thing I love about boxing is something that never comes across to those watching the sport on television. It is amazingly beautiful, graceful and balletic.Maybe this applies to all sport but I see it most in boxing. And maybe I am fascinated by the violence. I don’t think I would watch boxing on my own but having a camera gives me an excuse to inhabit/watch a world where brute strength coupled with balletic grace is honoured. The boxers I have mostly photographed are amateurs, kids and young men looking for a bit of a thrill that can be had in organised fighting. I have been to a few pro fights, most recently at the Olympics but for the most part I enjoy it more at the street level. Photographing boxing to me is photographing beauty. Maybe that is the real reason I am attracted to boxing.

I am doing a workshop on Street Photography for Guardian Masterclass. There is still few places left. I strive to make the workshop thought provoking, a chance to learn valuable skills and a lot of fun.

My thoughts on Street Photography

 

Angola

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Angola in Crisis

I am always asked what was my rewarding commission ever. I am usually inclined to say my trip to Angola in 2001 with the journalist Peter Beaumont. We went to cover what was then the longest war in Africa with the largest number of internally displaced peoples in the world. We spent a few days in Luanda after a flight from Paris on a chartered plane full of oil workers. Angola was about to become an oil giant and the continuous war it had suffered since its war of independence from Portugal in the early 60s seemed to be coming to an end. After sorting ourselves out we got on a UN flight to Kuito which had been labelled the Stalingrad of Africa. It had been under continuous siege by UNITA for about 8 years when we visited. Our plane had to make a corkscrew descent into the city to avoid anti-aircraft fire. The city was indeed symbolic of war with every building scarred by shelling. But during my time there Unita had been pushed away and the city was safe to wander around. Something I did for days as we waited to get on a convoy to the front line. Eventually we managed to get to the frontline towns of Cuemba and Camacupa. We were greeted by the sight of thousands of people on the move away from war. The Angolan army was carrying out a deliberate policy of emptying out areas of people that had been UNITA strongholds.

My abiding memories from the trip are how kind and generous everyone I met was. I expected Angolans to be angry from years of war and conflict but nothing could be further from the truth. I remember a landscape emptied of trees. I remember how every tree still standing seemed almost a magical apparition and how everyone seem to gravitate toward them as though they held a secret to survival. During our travels we saw the wreckage of years of war and I kept wanting to stop and take photographs. Destroyed tanks, armoured personnel carriers and jeeps littered the roadside, something i would only see again in Afghanistan and Somalia. I still think about the millions of dollars wasted on these battlefields just rusting away. But rarely did we stop as the threat of mines was still quite high in the rural areas and it seemed every field on the roadside was labelled with a skull and bone sign warning of mine fields and death. I remember sleeping on concrete floors, the clearest night skies, drinking in very dodgy bars full of soldiers in the middle of nowhere. I remember long talks with Peter about our looming personal dark clouds. We both sensed we were witnessing the end of a long war. And I still get angry when I remember being tackled to the ground by an over zealous NGO worker when I tried to photograph a column of Angolan Army tanks as they scattered refugees from the road. He said it was against the law to photograph tanks !!! It still pisses me off years later thinking of the amazing photograph I never took.

Peter and I had heard about a head on a stick on the River Kwanza near a destroyed bridge. It seemed something out of the Heart of Darkness and I wanted to photograph it to illustrate the savagery of the war. On reaching the river, the head was no longer there but instead we were greeted by languid soldiers guarding a chaotic mass of steel that was once a bridge. It was as far as we got and soon we were headed back to Luanda. It is one of my goals to one day go back and see the country  properly. We did spend a day on an unspoilt beach south of Luanda in awe that such places still existed on this over commercialised and developed world.

A month after we returned to London the world was turned upside down by 9/11 and the world forgot about places like Angola. Not that it really ever had the world’s attention. A year later Jonas Savimbi, the UNITA leader was killed in battle and his death marked the end of Angola’s 40 years of war.

A gallery of my Angolan photographs

Peter Beaumont’s Observer Piece

 

Talking About Hipstamatic, iPhones, etc

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I did a blog for the Guardian Website recently about using the Hipstamatic. The links are below. Read the comments left by readers.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/photography-blog/2013/mar/01/hipstamatic-smartphone-photo-antonio-olmos

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2013/mar/01/antonio-olmos-derry-hipsta-in-pictures

A Desperate Journey

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In 2011 I had an exhibition of my Nicaraguan Refugees photographs for the Amnesty International Human Rights Festival in Jersey. The photo essay is now a new gallery on my website. Below are the words from a short speech I gave introducing the photographs.

A Desperate Journey

“In 1989 the reporter Guy Gugliotta and I joined a group of 42 Nicaraguans who had sold or pawned everything they had to buy a ticket on Central America’s underground railroad. A journey that would take them to the United States and hopefully a better life. They travelled through Guatemala and Mexico by foot and bus guided by 3 ‘Coyotes’ and eventually they crossed into the United States through Brownsville Texas.

The 1980s had impoverished Nicaragua as the United States funded the Contra War against the left wing Sandinista government. The hopes of the 1979 revolution had turned to dust as Nicaragua struggled to cope after 10 years of war. In 1989 tens of thousands of Nicaraguans rushed to get to the United States to beat a March 1st deadline because immigration rule changes meant that Nicaraguans would no longer be considered for political asylum if they reached the American border.

The journey from Central America to the United States that I documented in 1989 is still taking place today. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, Central  and South Americans still make the journey today. They brave corrupt police and army, dodge arms and drug smugglers and criminals hoping to exploit the vulnerable migrants. Once in the United States, they will join families and communities from their own countries and begin the process of starting a new life.

Having been born in Mexico, I had a strong affinity to the 42 migrants whose journey I documented. I was a young boy when my mother took me and my sisters and crossed into the United States. In my 20s I returned to Mexico and lived in Mexico City. In my 30s I came to the United Kingdom to work as a photojournalist, basing myself in London. I have been an immigrant all my life.

 The photographs  hopefully will remind you of the struggles that human beings voluntarily take on to seek a better life. Migration is the history of human beings. The photographs document one small journey of the many that take place every day around the world.”