The artist and director Steve McQueen recently appeared on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to chat about his latest art project Tate Year 3 Project which strives to capture a traditional school class photograph in each London school to represent pupils aged 7-8 (a milestone year of their development). Whilst listening to Steve I was reminded of my work in schools across the UK, formerly driving a fresh visual narrative for the highly successful Musical Futures initiative and more recently with Royal Opera House Bridge, where I was commissioned to make a celebratory portrait series of the key creative partners in the Royal Opera House Bridge’s region covering Bedfordshire, Essex Hertfordshire and Kent.

The photograph above features pupils of East Tilbury Primary School & Nursery in Essex, located right on the edge of the Thames Estuary. The pupils’ involvement with Royal Opera House Bridge was led by the Assitant Headteacher Dr Deola Emmanuel, who fostered an amazing creative writing course, in addition to the school’s regular curriculum. Although one can research and plan a portrait in great detail, sometimes some serendipity is required to allow a brief to really shine.

Deola and I had a few telephone calls prior to my visit to ensure that the school understood the more formal nature of the picture I was intending to create and also to marry a theme the pupils could relate too. Once on the ground and receiving a tour of the school, I discovered that the pupils were interpreting different emotions through written word. After finding a prime location (and adhoc space used by teachers to teach outside in good weather), I had a lightbulb moment whereby I spilt the class into different groups, each of which would act out an emotion to describe their chosen word.

To ensure a truly inclusive process, I nominated two pupils who were particularly keen about photography to be my assistants. They took their roles seriously by helping setting up the lights and climbing surrounding trees to rope back stray branches that were obscuring the camera’s view. Once all set, the pupils embraced their emotions feverishly and the struck ‘right’ pose within 3 frames.

I love the formality of a classroom photograph (a truly universal portrait), not only to serve a timeline of a child’s development but also acting as a time capsule representing uniform, clothing and hairstyle trends. Having the opportunity to create a different take on the classroom photograph, whilst retaining formality, was a real pleasure to be part of.

I wish the Tate Year 3 Project success #Year3Project

Chance Experiment in Automation

I’ve worked with the supremely sonic Beats & Pieces big band for a number of years to develop visual narratives for their album artworks, tour posters, social media feeds and press kits. Big bands are by nature, big on numbers, and with 14 members at any given time in Beats & Pieces, photographing concepts that prove practically flexible enough for a myriad of different media formats is rather tricky. Although democratic as a creative force, the ensemble is led by the group’s director Ben Cottrell and he is very aware of the group’s size and realistic limitations, so his super collaborative mindset allows us both the freedom to try different photographic ideas.

One of the ideas Ben and I have looked at is to try and inject a suggestion / vibe of human automation into the band. During one of our shoot days, we tested one of these variants in a converted warehouse space in Manchester’s old quarter. Upon arriving on the 2nd floor, I noted a very ugly industrial carpet that seemed to move a little underfoot. Pulling a large section up revived the old warehouse floor and the letter ‘C’ marking well used concrete (I later learned that the building was a large tobacco storage facility). This discovery created a vision of a factory floor and the presence of automated humans coming off the assembly line. Without props, wardrobe or make-up, we decided to see if the 14 members could act out, dare I say it, a replicant vibe.

To ensure a constant production line-like quality, I set up a 3 light set up to shape the frame and add a little contrast, pulling their faces out of the glum, yet keeping the scene looking natural and still. Marking the floor for identical body, chair and instrument positions completed the flow of photographs.

For an impromptu test dummy trail, Ben and I were pleased with the results and may well return to the idea with more precise and prepared production values. It is healthy to experiment and our afternoon in Mancester certainly mirrored the improvisational element all 14 members of Beats & Pieces carry out in their daily musical journeys.

Head over to the big band’s online portal where you’ll find a treasure of merch and music spanning more than 10 years. 

The Barents Sea

As a child looking through copies of the National Geographic I was always drawn to stories about the Arctic with its remoteness, challenging weather and rapid seasonal change and sunlight. One of the areas that looked particularly distant from my teenage years in Stevenage was the Barents Sea, with its currents allowing prosperous trading routes between Tsarist Russia and western sovereignties and then providing a perfect propaganda tool and strategic military playground during the Cold War.

As a photographer, I’ve been lucky to visit the Arctic, both in Canada and Europe, yet the Barents Sea has eluded me - until this year. One of the lovely outcomes from the publication of my Generation Geilo: Portrait of a Community was a request to join a 9 week assignment to produce a multi media package for Visit Varanger to promote the Varanger Peninsula’s rugged beauty. Split into 3 parts, the project is capturing the feel & look of summer, autumn and the long winter to best reflect the transitions in light, abundant flora & fauna and, of course, the epic coastline.

My role is to create a portrait series highlighting noteworthy people that are passionate about what Varanger offers. Although born and raised in the region, many of the people have sort further education and young careers away from the north and have then returned to forge new business ventures, from king grab fishing and husky tours to running guest houses and providing bespoke bird watching experiences. Joining Sven-Erik Knoff and Jørgen Hjelmsøy producing video & aerial imagery, I’m also capturing landscapes, details and of the beguiling, yet calm and peaceful vibe of Varanger.

Varanger is located in East Finnmark, an expansive area of wild terrain running along the Russian border from Grense Jakobselv in the north east down to Pasvikdalen on the tri-border of Norway, Finland & Russia, up to the mainland via Tana and Varangerbotn, branching out to Vardø and Hammingberg at 30º East to Kongsfjord and Berlevåg sitting comfortably above 70ºN.

Local, cross border relations with Russia are very positive, with communities straddling the border proud of their trading heritage and mutually beneficial migration, resulting in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes boasting a permanent native speaking Russian population of over 10%, with official dual language signs everywhere.

I type this post towards the end of stage 2, with the rapid autumnal shift in the Arctic over within just 2 weeks! The project is generating quite a lot of interest as this distant region of Norway normally plays second fiddle to the Instagram friendly topography of Troms, Nordland and the Lofoten archipelago in the west (see another essay I made called 68º 69º Parallel North).

My aim in making the photographs in Varanger is to convey the sense of peace and calmness emitted across the land and seascapes and running through the small communities dotted across the region. Completing the assignment in March 2019, here are a few teasers from summer and autumn shoots. Click any to view large. Enjoy 😎

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