The Skye Trail

Skye in October can be brutal. Geo France asked if I would walk (most of) the 80 mile Skye trail for a week to experience island life off-season. I said yes, of course, and we did experience island life plus the dying rage of a tropical storm too. In Autumn it seems the Atlantic Ocean relocates on to the Western isles of Scotland, I did warn the writer.

The right clothes allow you front-row access to the spectacle, far beyond 99% of the other Skye visitors. You also gain empathy with the rocks as you understand how the rugged land was formed- by wind and fury. There is such a thing as bad weather but its a gift for the photographer.

The Skye Trail is a misnomer if you are accustomed to signed pathways. Trial might fit better. The route is unofficial so you have to improvise a path across moors and rock slabs, following sheep tracks if you are lucky. The route was devised fairly recently by Scottish legend Cameron McNeish to make sense of this varied island and uncover natural wonders, which it does excellently. From the ridge of the Jurassic-era Trotternish peninsula (with cosy Ruhba Hunish bothy) to capital Portree, then under the shadow of the Cuillin and finishing at the sheltered bay at Broadford.

At the Old Man of Stoer we crossed the road away from throng of tourists and began a breathtaking cliff top section towards Portree. Pools of light animated the hills and seas as we made for Portree. No one else followed us.

By day 4 the land looked raw under the cloud-wrapped Cuillin ridge. You felt like you weren't meant to be there. We were given a choice by John, our Skye Adventures expert, to either take a one-hour low road to our camp at Camasunary or take the three-hour high road over a pass before descending back to a sea-level free climb section called ‘The Bad step’. That seemed apt for my injured knee was aching. The path down resembled a boulder-filled cascade swollen by the squalls. By Loch Coruisk all worries vanished as the sun dropped below dark clouds and lit the seawater a magical turquoise. We watched in awe. 

There is space to think out in the wild but my enduring memory is of laughter. Inclement weather can be hilarious, assuming your life isn’t in danger. By sunset we were wading bare foot across a broad river in hysterics- a mix of the cool relief and agony as our feet landed on narrow pebbles. 

The writer Volker Saux is a seasoned global trekker and I won't forget his observation while we were drying off in a Broadford cafe.  He said that in the Alps, when you see a rain cloud coming, you put your rain-jacket on then remove it once the storm is passed. But that week he hadn’t taken his jacket off! 

Skye has a lot of rain in October but also a lot of rainbows. Normally you have the vista to yourself but there may be a few more intrepid French trekkers this year.


Images of the Invisible

From the biblical description of Eden in the Book of Genesis to the final chapter of Revelation, the tree of life acts as the great inclusio of the Christian story rooting all that comes in between. At the centre of the narrative is a tree of death that becomes the tree of life for those who believe in the Christ’s substitution on the cross. This tree is the very symbol of Christianity.

My latest personal work - Hierotopia - maps out a new geography as we explore how the invisible world is manifested in the visible, tracing echoes of Eden in the landscape.

In the last 100 years, 90% of Ethiopia’s forests have been lost. The country is one of the fastest expanding economies in the world with an average growth of 10% per year over the last decade. The population will double in 30 years making it the second most populous country in Africa where the vast majority of people live in rural areas, mounting further pressure on the natural resources. The expansion of land use for agriculture is a creeping and almost imperceptible process that accompanies population growth. The last native forests surround church buildings.

Hierotopy, from the Ancient Greek for ‘sacred’ and ‘place’, is the study of the relationship between objects within Byzantine churches as they seek to display invisible realities. The forests surrounding Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox churches have a similar function to other physical objects within the church building- the murals and icons, chanting and incense- in the way they direct the worshipper to look beyond what is visible.

To its guardians, each forest resembles a miniature Garden of Eden and essential to the dignity of the building, as one priest described the trees are the ‘the clothes of the church’. Thousands of forest fragments have been identified by scientists across Northern Ethiopia resembling green islands in the vast sea of agriculture yet the numbers do not reflect the health of the ecosystems that are under threat.

The work focussed on the area around Bahir Dar, a large university city on the shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. A cursory glance east of the Lake on a map will reveal the tell-tale pattern of green forest islands scattered across arid landscape. Zooming in we discover a circular roof of the church that appears to emit a protective force on the the surrounding vegetation. In a sense it does.

In Genesis 1&2, the writer displays God’s transcendence (God up there) and his imminence (God down here) from which the whole story unfolds holding these two aspects in tension. These two perspectives have been employed in this work to see the landscape created by the hand of both human and divine. The curation by John Silvis unfolds likewise across two separate but complimentary spaces within the gallery. 

Seen from above, these forests are demarcated by the stark boundary between sacred and secular, church and field. The forests create a sacred environment that, when combined with vibrant, sacred murals and icons, with chanting and incense, encourage those gathered in them to look beyond what is visible. 

On the ground, generations come and go in a ghost-like mist under the same canopy of ancient trees as their ancestors. The trees stand as more permanent witnesses to our brief existence. The air inside the forests is cool, fragrant and filled with a cacophony of life compared with the arid silence in the surrounding farmland that is showing the strain of centuries of human activity. This is a place not detached from life but central to it and informing human work and relationships within society. 

The religious significance of the forest is equalled by its ecological function, having an impact far beyond its walled boundary. These sacred oases raise water tables, cool temperatures, block destructive winds and are home to yield-boosting pollinators that are essential to surrounding agriculture. These forests are genetic repositories which are vital for the future survival of human life in Ethiopia. Priests who fail to protect these natural resources are deemed to have failed their mission. 

The Anthropocene age is defined by the mass extinction of species because of human activity and the momentum seems unstoppable. Each extinction story begins with the arrival of a new people or technology that creates more efficient ways to denude the abundant riches of the environment. Razed forest and polluted seas are the summation of a thousand individual decisions based on beliefs of what we deem to be valuable. Consumption drives our economies and is a core tenet of market economics. And yet, there are deeper emotions that drive our lives linked to the question of existence and destiny. In theory, the core Christian belief in stewardship for the environment is a powerful concept and, if applied globally, could transform the world for better. 

In Ethiopia these biological treasures have endured the rushing tide of global change but they are under increasing pressure today. The church’s resolve has not lessened, indeed the priests become more committed to the cause when they discover the global importance of the forest they guard. For now the task is to strengthen what remains by the simplest solution possible- building a conservation wall that keeps grazing cattle out and allows vegetation to regrow. Abune Kudis is a photograph that displays this new life. The pressure of a growing population has seen a new church building planted in the landscape and the community has given this land to provide the church’s clothes- a new forest canopy. A symbol once again of new life being planted in an arid land, trees that will one day bear their fruit in season.


My first visit to the forests around Bahir Dar was undertaken in 2016 with the support of a Royal Photographic Society Environmental bursary to gain access in the lives of these deeply private communities. The friendship of Dr Alemayehu Wassie was invaluable in opening doors. The priest-turned- research scientist understood how science and Christianity work fruitfully together. He has been the champion of the forests- modelling a respectful and successful mode of working with local communities who are motivated to strengthen what remains. Ever since reading Zoology at the University of Aberdeen I have been perplexed by our disconnect from nature and seeking answers to the ecological crisis. In Ethiopia we find a story of hope at a time when it is not too late to act.

Essay adapted from ‘Hierotopia: The Living, Sacred Landscape’ exhibition catalogue. Exhibition runs at the Ahmanson Gallery, Irvine, CA until 15 January 2019 by appointment but open to all.

This essay is also available as a video presentation.

subjects: behind the photo  motivation  stories


Literary landscapes for Smithsonian Magazine

The English Lake District, like the Scottish Highlands, is a man-made landscape. ‘Sheep-wrecked’, says George Monbiot, the vocal critic of hill farming who goads his opponents in the most vicious way Brits can- by metaphor and pun.

On the other side of the debate is Lakeland shepherd James Rebanks made famous by his books about farm life and someone who has been publicly critiqued by Monbiot in The Guardian. Rebanks has a loyal fanbase online, getting digital dirt under the touchscreens of city slickers across the world. When I arrived at Racy Ghyll farm he was busy herding a couple of Japanese tourists who follow the Herdwick Shepherd online.

Smithsonian magazine commissioned me to spend some time in the Lake District to discover the literary landscapes before the National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage site last summer. My knowledge of the place was limited to my university days cleaning rooms in a Grasmere hotel beside the lake, on hands and knees.

As a student of zoology the question of our role in the environment always loomed large in discussions, it remains so in my photographic work. National parks have a strong tradition of evicting the locals. When Yosemite was created in the US, the Native Americans were displaced (evicted) and this method has continued throughout the world since. We think removing people will return the land to its natural state despite those people being intrinsic to the ecosystem and the animals living there.  Human exceptionalism places us above the environment and this alternate form of it removes us from the system in the belief it can do its thing without us. Over the years my work has looked for answers to questions of exclusion and integration in Zambia (Bangweulu), Malawi (Mulanje) and Tibet (Sanjiangyuan NNR). This year I have been in Ethiopia documenting everyday conservation outside official parks.

Are the Lakes an example to follow or avoid? Speaking to Rebanks on his farm and wandering the Oxford streets with Monbiot, I found insight and wisdom. Both were great to spend time with and offered exciting visions of the future landscape.  If they ever speak publicly together (please someone do this) I imagine it will appear on Youtube as “Monbiot RAZES Rebanks” or “Rebanks SHEEPWRECKS Monbiot”. The reality will be less aggressive but more powerful. They could forge a narrow path not aiming to balance their world views but holding them in tension. The rewilding lion laying down with the Herdwick lamb, so to speak.

The Lake District National Park was awarded its World Heritage site not for ecological value but for cultural importance (aka. sheepfarming) and its influence on artists and writers such as Wordsworth, Tennyson, Ruskin and Beatrix Potter. 

Potter’s influence on the park is significant- she gifted 4000 acres to the National Trust bought from the proceeds of her children’s books- and her sheep-tinted worldview defines the vision for the whole park. When you think of the Lake District its most likely Beatrix Potter’s view you are seeing, which resonates with the romantic artists who came before and seared this rural idyll into our minds. 

For better or worse it is interesting to see how the artist and writer are able to transform the physical environment. Whether by sheep, pen, camera or by standing back, we creating and re-creating our landscapes.

For a fuller, in-depth article click here:  

subjects: behind the photo  motivation  on the road  process  stories


Documenting Dublin for National Geographic

Photographers love assignments where we are trusted to explore and follow our instincts. When I was asked to document a well-known city for an extremely familiar publication I felt joy and the fear. The fear of capturing the spirit of a city I didn't know that much about. I started to read and maps are always the best place to start.

Culture is rooted in the physical environment and history evolves within these enduring boundaries. Before I get bogged down in logistics I scan through maps and ask questions to carve out a sense of the place. What do I know? What is unexpected? How does that tie to the culture? From the start to the finish I have maps in a pocket.

Flying into Dublin you will notice that it's beside the sea, the Irish sea no less, which takes a bite out of the neat, concentric urban structure. The river Liffey bisects the centre and finishes its journey from boggy hill through farmland to sea. That's Dublin in a nutshell- sitting on a large sweeping bay a river cutting through the centre ringed with fields and mountains. Why do I never see pictures of the coast when we have weekends in Dublin? Photos of pints in the Temple Bar is familiar and easy, I wanted a new path to explore one that captured the old and new.

Dublin means 'dark pool' in Gaelic and the modern Irish name is equally watery- as the ford to cross the river Liffey. The tidal ebb and flow recall its history- where generations sailed off to new worlds their descendants return to global HQs in same the old docks. The abundant waters make the Emerald isle its trademark green and are vital to the whiskeys and famous dense stouts.

To bring structure to my thought flow required the insight of local writer Pól Ó Conghaile.  He knew specific people and places would capture the deeper story. I wasn't required to follow the article but I believe aimful wandering invites the unexpected and makes better images.

The best advice, in my experience, was to board the DART train and head for the coast. Getting out of Dublin helps you understand the city and within minutes we reach the expansive coast.  Back home for dinner at Klaw Poke north of the Liffey was also one of the greatest meals I have eaten- fresh, delicious and inexpensive seafood, of course. On my final day, I headed up the Wicklow mountains and happened upon the Wind Phone, a work of art that appeared in situ days before. A Japanese art concept plonked on an Irish hillside with views to sea seemed to fit. The new, the old, the unexpected summed up in this quirky tribute to loss and love*.

We could never capture the entire city but its a way to travel the landscape and experience the unexpected joys Dublin has to offer.

The article appears in the December/ January 2018 National Geographic Traveler magazine Best Trips for 2018. 

*tragically the phone itself was destroyed by vandals days after the photographs were taken.


The long, lonely road to recovery

Stories start life as brittle ideas dependant on time and access. Back in January we had an idea and an invitation to meet Ilkay Gundogan in Barcelona. Writer Rory Smith and I flew out to see if this fragile idea could become something more tangible. That evening I made some shots in the apartment but mostly it was a chance to meet and see what was possible. The story began to have structure.

Back home in the UK it grew as we met Ilkay in the gym, Ilkay by the pool, Ilkay in the pool, Ilkay at his home, Ilkay around Manchester and Ilkay on a match day. He let us see the details of daily life so often lacking from Instagram accounts. I said we wanted to see everyday Ilkay. I noted he started posting more everyday shots and they got more likes. Most of the time he didn't understand my accent but he got that.

As things progressed I had a nagging doubt that my photos were too repetitive. Then it dawned on me that they were repetitive but that was the point. The journey to recovery is solitary and repetitive. We were interested in this internal battle which is far harder to capture than a man on a treadmill.

Ilkay's private life was more vibrant with his close friends ('the seven') and their families who came to matches or overseas trips together. He let us see a little of that. The day we attended the match in the Etihad stadium, he was a bloke watching football with his mates of whom, it should be noted, the friend's mum was the most passionate spectator in the box. They shared jokes in the way childhood mates do.

When the game began Ilkay was once again the athlete in recovery, looking away from the game to his phone or some other distraction. He was surrounded by thousands but he was once more alone in the crowd locked in a very personal battle.

To read a longer, better account click below:

The Lonely Road Back From a Very Public Injury- The New York Times

subjects: behind the photo  on the road  process


Flow Photography Festival, Inverness,UK

In 2014, Kieran Dodds embarked on the series of portraits depicting red-haired people in Scotland where it is a cliche of national identity. Ginger is a colloquial term for what is commonly described as red hair but the colour is not confined to one culture or place. This new work made for the Flow Photography festival uses the trait to connect two regions increasingly at odds politically - Russia and the West.

A map of red-hair distribution circulating the internet depicts two ginger hot-spots in Scotland and in Russia. Using this as a starting point Dodds created portraits of gingers in two cities at almost identical latitudes but separated by hundreds of miles - Inverness in Scotland and Perm in Russia.

Visually the portraits reference a rich seam of red-haired portraiture in art history that fills the world’s museums but the collection uses the trait to unify people across cultural, political and geographic boundaries. The prints are displayed without traditional framing to reflect this openness and connectivity.

Participants claimed European, Middle Eastern and even Chinese heritage showing the ebb and flow of human migration through centuries and questioning normal assumptions of what contributes to a specific national identity. Names and locations are withheld to allow the viewer to find commonalities while also revealing how our personal prejudices and assumptions inform what we see.

8-30th September 2017
Inverness Museum and Art Gallery
Printed by the Highland Print Studio
For the Flow Photography Festival 

The full selection can be seen on Panos.


More things people said on The Guardian about gingers

I read the comments and I liked it.

An edited highlight of the glorious conjecture and outrage from the comments section following the article on The Guardian entitled ‘Ginger Snaps: Portraits of red-heads in Russia and Scotland’.  For the original comments see the foot of this post.  The work is exhibited at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery during September 2017 as part of the FLOW international photography festival.


This suffers from being unengaging. It looks like a high street photographer's promo - free portrait session if you're ginger. Might have been more interesting if everyone was ginger AND had webbed feet or the subjects were people who had dyed their hair ginger because they felt insecure and left out.

Couldn't agree less. One picture may be, but a collection like this is wonderful. How similar we all are and yet so different but all unique. People watching but at an intense level. 


Rubbish, from a proud ginger.

Well, you bit on the clickbait! 


It was news to me that there are rising tensions between Scotland and Russia. Weird comment to add to an otherwise beautiful set of pictures. 


This is becoming a tiresome photographic trend. A photographer should take portraits of people for who they are, not because of a superficial trait, like hair colour. 
Furthermore, the colour is totally off in these photos. There is too much yellow-green in their hair. 


Agree about the colour. Also terribly over processed for my taste.
Some seems literally green about the gills.
But, hey... whatever turns you on. Priestley 
So you'll have no objections to 'Coco Pops' prefacing articles about black people then? 


They can pick whatever subject they want to and I can have whatever opinion about it that I want to. There are dozens of these series on photographic sites and this is the least inspired I've seen, despite having good subjects. That's because these photos are only about the hair, not the person wearing it.

Fantastic portraits technically, BUT what great looking people too. They need to be CELEBRATED, not persecuted, especially the kids. 


The Viking influence? 

Mark Norman

Absolutely it is. Russian's are descended from the Rus' people, who are basically a mix of Norsemen (from Scandanavia - re: Vikings) and Mongol/Caucasians from the East. Get The Grade Get The Grade 
I believe "Russia" took it's name from the colour red - were the Russian people originally red heads? 


Actually I think it's related to an old term for people from Sweden.. rus, or men who row.. referring to longboats used by the Volga Vikings that made their way across Russia as far as the middle east. The Finnish for Sweden is also related.. 

Ruotsi SouthernStar1010 

Rus = Vikings, the Vikings travelled down the Eastern European rivers and settled in what is now Ukraine mixing over time with the local Slavic tribes. Some Slavs from Ukraine moved to what is now Russia later on.

Mark Norman 
Most definitely you can tell. I think it's mainly in the eyes and also the clothing, but there are small indicators facially too. Very interesting. 


It's interesting that St Andrew is the patron of Scotland and Russia. Are there many redheads in Greece where he's also the patron?

ecclefechan ecclefechan

Why would the patron Saint whose only physical connection is through bought relics influence the colour of a country's citizens hair?


Oh dear, I did wonder if anyone would take my post seriously… 


I believe it's the other way around - the red hair came to Scotland from North Caucasus - now Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Siberian red hair originates from Caucasus too. 


Roy Brian is the most Scottish looking person ever. 

Leslie Cooper

"Stop exoticising me!!”


These pictures make my heart sing. My husband is ginger and our four children (including twins) are also ginger. Sometimes sitting outside in the evening just when the light turns shows my family as the most beautiful collection of people ever. It's like they all have a copper and gold fire around their faces..... I couldn't be more proud of them. 


I can't imagine I could convince anyone to accompany me to the Photography festival to look at ginger people. So thanks, Guardian, for bringing the ginger people to me.


Why are all the Russians only from Perm?


I imagine because that's where the photographer went for his project, and solicited for subjects, which takes time to arrange. It's not a very mobile operation.


This is precisely the same as prejudice towards people because of their skin colour. Red hair is genetic and intrinsic to a person's biology and therefore a racial characteristic. It is abhorrent to target an alienate an individual due to their hair type - Imagine if the same criticisms were directed towards those who have other hair colours that characterise their ancestry


That ginger slave trade and holocaust tho. 


Vote for kid rock 

The original ‘things people said about the gingers’:

subjects: behind the photo  motivation  stories


Who kept the togs out? 

On Monday, Nicola Sturgeon confirmed her reputation as the UK’s best politician by uniting the British media with a singular pro-Sturgeon vision. She gazumped Downing Street’s Brexit* bill, due to pass in the House of Lords, by announcing indyref2 and getting her own visual message on the front page of almost every national paper.

By excluding all independent photographers from this historic, twice-in-a-lifetime speech The Scottish Government sent out their own photographs and the newspapers happily gobbled them up. Would the national press publish verbatim a government press release? Of course not. So why have they done so with their photographs? And who kept the togs out, anyway?

When indyref2 was announced, I was on assignment in Paisley and was alerted to the news by some SNP activists hanging ‘Yes’ bunting from their office, minutes after the speech had finished. I then heard that colleagues in Edinburgh had been excluded from attending the event. The two moments together triggered flashbacks and I recalled how in that very same room Alex Salmond had announced his resignation in 2014 while barring sections of the media from attending. Pro-union journalists were excluded and The Guardian declined to attend because the Scottish Government were seeking to hand-pick a journalist. The public know that happened because the government excluded writers on that occasion and the writers, naturally, wrote about it. No one, as far as I know, has written about this latest press exclusion because it was against the lowly snappers.

The other difference is the government openly admits they didn't want photographers there in the first place- "they weren't invited". When the motley crew turned up in the hope of getting something inside they ended up outside with the saddest group shot of 2017. A significant branch of the media was left out.

The official excuse was a problem of "space" in the room, the same reason its worth noting used at Salmond’s resignation for the journalists. Could they not have found a bigger room in the past two years or go on the street like their counterparts do in London? The stately interior is small with its gold framed mirrors (important visual cues) but they managed to fit seven film crews, over 30 writers (some papers had two) and one government photographer. If they could fit one photographer in, why did they not use an independent photographer to avoid claims of stifling press freedom? Or at least the avoid devaluing photography as a 2nd class medium.

Having a pool from AFP, Getty images, PA or Reuters is standard practice. To give credit to these agencies who had photographers standing outside they did not syndicate the government-approved photos because they classed them as ‘screened’ images. The agencies saw the issue where the newspapers did not. The papers took them straight off the Government's flickr account. The problem was clearly not space and it could be accused of control.

The following day, to her credit, First Minister Nicola apologised personally to the two photographers allowed into her cabinet meeting. What or who was she apologising for?

An official response later given to me by the press office admitted there was "a fault on our part" and they are "taking action to get it sorted".** Indeed they are meeting with the photographers to discuss how to work this out.

I know this could appear trivial in the context of countries splitting apart but how a government operates day-to-day is a microcosm of what happens at a higher level.  

As a photographer it reveals two things to me:  

First, governments know the power of the image to shape public opinion and the need to control that image. They want us to see some things and not others. Nicola Sturgeon, like Alex Salmond, is a master of the photo op to control her image. She is the prime administrator of selfies, getting her message out one phone at a time. Without visual journalists showing us what politicians do no-one would really know.  I would love to think its because photographs are so powerful that photographers were kept outside, could we spin it as a compliment? The Scottish Government does respect the power of photography to the extent they actually paid a professional photographer even if they didn’t respect a free press to do their job. 

Assuming we get in the room, our job is to ask ourselves- what do they want us to do here? How is the subject seeking to control our images for their benefit?

Secondly it shows, sadly, that people in the newspaper business don’t always recognise that photographs carry the same power as the words. On Monday night I imagine the editors needing to fill cover space and it made sense to show the  story of the day even if it was the government-approved story of the day. The Times at least ran a Scottish Government byline to inform us to read the image with caution. If you think a simple image of a woman speaking cannot convey that much information, think how long it takes to update your Facebook profile pic. A simple headshot can mean a thousand different things depending on what you want to show.

The greatest editors and writers I have worked with have recognised the value of the photographer as a news gatherer, a fact-finder and a visual communicator.  An equal to investigate and not just some monkey to fill a space or adds a splash of colour to the page. We sometimes invite that cliché. The lack of any protest from the papers when their photojournalists were excluded seems worse than the act of itself.  

Sturgeon understands the vital role of the media in telling the story she wants told. On Monday, she managed to get the papers to publish her message on their covers without anyone questioning what the photos might actually say. More worrying is the Scottish Government can exclude photographers without any obvious push back from the papers (like not publishing the photos). Whether it was an intentional plot or a stupid blunder becomes less relevant when you consider that no-one seemed to care the photographers were shut out and they just published the government's photos anyway. 

*Brexit means the UK will leave the EU. Indyref2 is the sequel vote proposed to get Scotland out of the UK but remaining in the EU. 

**CORRECTION Friday 17 March 2100 GMT: Following further communication with the Scottish Government they did not dispute the facts of the article except the claim of an earlier version of this blog where it was suggested a junior civil servant was blamed for the mistake. They expressly denied that any junior civil servant was singled out for blame but acknowledged that mistakes had been made collectively. This assertion has now been removed due to a lack of direct evidence. They reiterated their desire to find a constructive way forward working with press photographers. 

subjects: behind the photo  process  theory


Inspiration Point: Q&A 02/17

The original interview was taken from Inspiration Point, a place for young people interested in the arts in the North-east of Scotland to find out more about the creative pathways available to them within their local area and beyond.

What is your connection with Aberdeen

Aberdeen marks the city where I transformed from a school boy to a fledgling professional photographer. I studied zoology here and changed a lot as a person, my worldview underwent a paradigm shift as I considered the deeper questions of life. That also made me consider the direction I was heading and I and began my first job for a press agency covering the north east. 

How did you get into photography?

Since I was a small boy, photography has been my tool to process my curiosity about the world; it is a very intuitive thing. When I saw something of interest, whether it was beautiful or ugly, I would document it, and think about it later and share it with others to see what they thought. Years later, I travelled to Malawi for my dissertation to study blue monkeys and discovered I spent more time documenting the land and the people than I did carrying out my fieldwork. As I had to decide what to do next, I reasoned that I should be a photographer because that’s what comes most naturally to me. Journalism was the best training to learn how to think critically and communicate what i was seeing.

Can you describe a typical working month for you?

My diary looks very different on the 1st and last day of the month. The empty space fills up with weird and wonderful and unexpected events. I plan a few actual events to give structure and some sense of direction but generally the time is up for grabs. Every Monday I sit down at the start the week and refocus on the year or two ahead. Without the big vision, the details feel less significant and I will drift aimlessly. 

When did you feel confident telling people you were a photographer and why?

At university people said it to me. Other people can usually see you better than you can. I was incessantly documenting everything- nights out, nights in, the people who were around me. 

What have been the high points of your career so far?

I won a World Press Award when I was 25. I was young; a junior photographer in Glasgow, learning my craft and it was for a self-initiated story. I couldn’t believe it. My colleagues couldn’t either! It opened up doors of opportunity from nowhere. The best thing about it was the surprise factor; I had found great pleasure in the process of documenting the mass migration of bats in Zambia. The high of winning almost eclipsed that. When I look back I remember that the joy was in the process and not the award. The former made the latter possible. 

What would you say have been the biggest challenges in doing what you do and what has helped you through?

The better I get, the bigger the challenges! To improve you need to push beyond comfort and experience and so I make bigger challenges for myself. Practically that means finding new ways to fund or produce the work. We are creatives but success or failure comes down to how we do the small things- including the mundane details of business. I find that the hardest discipline is trying to carve out time and space to create, while also keeping on top of the growing to do list. The challenge, I think, is to maintain your passion. Without that joy you lack energy, and produce your worst work. 

How do you sustain your practice?

There are daily roadblocks and generally they revolve around the necessary questions of finance or admin. If the roadblock is a looming deadline then the adrenaline kicks in to get through it but the hardest roadblocks are sometimes best ignored for a few hours. When things are going well, you have momentum, and it’s like you are smashing them in a Sherman tank. But often it’s like the creative harr rolls in and you lose sight of what’s happening, and you feel cold and a bit depressed. Those days I force myself to get out, turn off the phone, avoid social media and see friends or go for a walk somewhere new. That’s usually when new ideas come. Fatigue is the worst culprit, as the grind of work wears you down. I can’t understate the value of a good night’s sleep or time off. Then you have the energy to tackle the problem. 

Are there any resources that you’ve found particularly helpful?

Older people. They offer a perspective that our immediate peers cannot. We may think the world is so new and different; that they are cynical old dinosaurs, but the most innovative artists I know are far older than me. They can read the trends, ignore the froth and bring a life of experience to new events. Reading biographies often helps to show us that. 

What do you love most about what you do?

Being on the ground, with my cameras, actually making the work. To witness and document life as it unfolds before me. 

What’s the best piece of advice you have been given so far?

‘Go to the toilet when possible.’ An Aberdeen Evening Express photographer shared this nugget when I first started. I call it pithy wisdom! It captures the importance of planning and taking opportunities when they present themselves. That way we won’t be distracted from the main task later on. 

What advice would you give to someone thinking about getting into photography and to those just starting out?

 Keep going! Your instinct is good. The arts are vital for a flourishing society. You might not get paid as much as other jobs but you can make a decent living and it’s hugely important. People with big houses can’t sleep because they are worrying about the car in the drive. With a crappy car it’s not a worry! On the other hand, debt is no fun and it will kill your creativity, so live within your means. Start small and build up. Do whatever is in front of you with all your skill and the new opportunities will present themselves in due time. Don’t despise the day of small things.     

subjects: behind the photo  interview  motivation


WSJ Mansion- Edinburgh New Town

Spare million? This is the place to invest, according to the Wall Street Journal's Mansion section. On assignment December 2016, I walked 15 miles revisiting locations and waiting for the right light and sheltering in Pret when the sub-zero winds became too much.

Forward planning is key to successful shoots. Sometimes deadlines appear and we have to respond but in an ideal world we get the best by planning. This property shoot was commissioned by an editor who knew her job- to convey as much about the local atmosphere as the fabric of the homes. This was a mix of daily life and landscape, something I was very happy to shoot and put the groundwork in. She gave a good space ahead of the deadline to choose the best conditions and visit on a couple of different days

She was happy, I was happy. The world seemed happier too. There is a lot of love in Edinburgh at New Year. 

subjects: behind the photo  on the road  stories


10 things learned from 10 years as a freelance photographer

Before Instagram, the iPhone and the global financial crisis, I boarded a plane for the US to begin my freelance career, 10 years ago to the day.

That was the year Facebook went public, Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, The God Delusion was published, Richard Hammond crashed a jet-powered car, London was hit by a tornado and the Chinese river dolphin became extinct. Yet, some things remain.

Here are 10 constants of freelance life in the ever-changing media landscape.

1. Its about who you know

The freelance market is crowded but it can also be a lonely place. You spend a lot of time pursuing your own work with your own energy and money. Its about contacts, sure, but actual friends are more important. They drive you forward and help you keep going when its tough. They give grounding when you are far away from home immersed in work.

You need self-motivation to overcome obstacles but at the end of the day you need people to share the joys and sorrows. If you find success, people will chase you and want a piece of you but in the quiet times they fly away like vultures chasing the next bit of meat. Invest in family and friends whose support is not based on your professional productivity.

2. Stay focussed

Failure is being successful at the wrong things. Distraction lurks at your fingertips and its essential to keep your main aim in focus. A few hours a week, over a year becomes a significant piece of work. Carving out the time and keeping it sacrosanct is key.

A good friend told me "sometimes you have to say no to good things". They are right.

3. Find your niche

At the Olympics, millions watched a man ride a dancing horse to win a gold medal. That is niche. Other athletes spent four years preparing for a sub-10 second dash. They became world class because they found their niche and worked at that. In advertising & politics, like sport, its all about targeted (niche) campaigns. 

4. Beware the carrot danglers

How many times have I been lured by emails starting “we love your work!”. Talk of TV shows, lucrative commissions or global publications. They dangle the proverbial carrot to lure us along like a metaphoric ass. But these people are clouds without rain, promising much but delivering nothing.

Beware of gushing emails but be open to the unexpected. There are invitations that seem too good  but are, in fact, true. Like the paid commission to stay on remote St Kilda, or winning funding for 8 weeks in Tibet or the exhibition in The State Hermitage in Russia. All real, unexpected and brilliant.

5. Be offline, often

Stay here for now. Offline space allows thoughts to evolve as they are intended, to converse and imagine without the interruption of a phone or email or the eternal stream of social media updates. It saps our attention and impacts our relationships. Switching to airplane mode on a train or walking is a liberation from our addiction to information.

6. Approaching open & closed doors

Leaping through open doors can be stressful but it is far better than looking unhappily at closed ones. Opportunities appear quickly and are soon gone. Every day I see opportunities appear and I have to decide if I am brave enough to proceed.  If I don't, the game is over.

Every Monday I write a plan. By Friday it is covered in new action points or tears or blood. Things never, EVER, go as I was would expect them. Week by week, my ideas gain momentum or are refined as new possibilities open up. Persistence has proved more vital than artistic skill in finding a path through.

7. Do the paperwork

Boring but vital. We need to eat, dress and sleep which requires we turn a profit. People don’t rush to pay and they won’t bother at all if we don’t keep up to date with invoices. Every trip requires days of applications, invitations, email and visas. Do it right and its exhilarating and meaningful.

8. Beware copyright infringers

People take pictures without asking, then refuse to pay. Then even call you names for pointing it out. You can't take a puffin without permission, so why take a picture? (the law is more nuanced than this).

The best, most flagrant example was an Italian news site that removed a series of my portraits from a UK newspaper on the same day and promoted it as their own. They were online but that doesn’t mean they are public domain.

9. Collaborate

‘No man is an island, unless his name is Madagascar’, Phil Kay once said. We need other people, whether we admit it or not- the subjects, editors, families or the strangers who appear at the right time when your car has flipped off the road in the highlands. 

 Being freelance provides a way to navigate your own worklife but only if you find meaningful and brilliant people to work with. We have to look beyond ourselves to grow. People who share your vision but I also seek out people who will openly disagree, when necessary. They have taught me a lot.

10. Take the long view

We are works in progress, give yourself another 10 years. The industry feeds off new work and new photographers but don’t let yourself be consumed by short-term gains. Have a 50 year plan- why are you doing this? You will most likely still be working when you are 90.

subjects: behind the photo  motivation


Church Forests of Ethiopia

Interview taken From the Royal Photographic Society Journal, June 2016.

I’m interested in the way beliefs shape landscape, and wanted to explore the last remaining forests that surround churches in the north of Ethiopia – a country where, in the last 100 years, 95 per cent of the forests have been chopped down.

These churches are run by those who practise the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo religion, a traditional Christian denomination. They view these forests as a kind of miniature Garden of Eden, the clothes of the church. It’s a communal resource and they try to keep it as pristine as possible.

However, in recent years, there’s been an upsurge in grazing cattle and an increase in population, slowly creeping into the centre of these forests. So the people who look after them are trying to take action to prevent this from happening.

In other places I have visited in Africa, conservation is a kind of ‘fortress’ where locals are thrown out and westerners visit in cars and look at animals, causing a division between conservation and the community. 

With this project, I wanted to reconcile traditional beliefs with modern conservation ethics. 

There’s a huge grass-roots desire to look after and preserve these forests in Ethiopia, which are hugely beneficial to the country, but they need financial support. I hope that exhibiting the work in the capital, Addis Ababa, will help raise awareness among those working in development. 

I spent a month in Ethiopia, including three weeks in the field in Bahir Dar where most of these forests are. With the photos, I wanted to show the passing of time, and reveal how these people are stewards of the Earth, caring for these trees which will outlive them and benefit future generations. I thus started using slow exposures to show time passing, but also the spiritual sense of the place. It was a place of daily life, but it also transcended the profane. 

The bursary let me go somewhere I’d always wanted to and document a positive conservation story. So much of what we hear in relation to biodiversity is how things are failing, how we’re losing stuff.

I feel this story shows that people can look after the environment, and not just in fortress-like national parks. 


If you would like to know more about this work please contact:


Beyond Braveheart And Nessie

Originally published on New York Times Lens blog.
Interview by Kerri Macdonald

Today would have been Scotland’s first Independence Day.

That is, if a majority of Scots had voted “yes” in the 2014 independence referendum. But voters said no, so today is merely another Thursday in Scotland. For many people there, though, an important question remains: What does it mean to be Scottish?

That question has preoccupied the Glasgow-based photographer Kieran Dodds for years. Mr. Dodds, 35, grew up in Stirling and went to college in Aberdeen, in Scotland’s north. It was when he began traveling and working abroad that he started to see his country from an outsider’s perspective.

“Everywhere I went, they’d say, ‘Where are you from?’ ” Mr. Dodds said, recalling a trip to Tibet in 2012. “And I’d say, ‘Scotland.’ And they’d say, ‘Ah, freedom!’ They loved ‘Braveheart.’ I thought, why is my culture defined by an Australian director from Hollywood?”

Two years before the referendum, Mr. Dodds decided to dig deeper into Scotland, which he called “a land of myth and legend.” And now, despite the outcome of the referendum, he is still pursuing the personal project, “Land of Scots.”

Mr. Dodds’s square photographs, shot with a Hasselblad, explore the myths and stories he says have come to define his country over the years. Some have to do with the land and its history. Others are pretty famous. Ever heard of Nessie? 

“Why are we represented by a mythical monster?” Mr. Dodds asked himself not long after he started exploring “Land of Scots.” The Loch Ness monster, he said, is a symbol of the deeper stories in the landscape. 

“It happens to be the one that has captured the imagination and it brings in the tourists,” he said. 

Meanwhile, there is Mel Gibson’s William Wallace, the knight who sought independence for his homeland.  

“All cultures have clichés, and they help us to grab onto something essential,” Mr. Dodds said. “And so there’s always this warrior spirit thing which came from William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. We kind of use it for tourist promotion. And so I say it’s a useful cliché. And it’s also a good cliché. Who wouldn’t want to be a ferocious warrior in the world’s eyes?” 

Mr. Dodds, who has been working as a freelance photographer for about a decade, said that assignment work — in particular, assignments for international publications, including The New York Times — has allowed him to see more of his own country. While shooting for the National Trust of the United Kingdom, he traveled to St. Kilda, an archipelago in the North Atlantic that was named a Unesco World Heritage site in the mid-1980s. It’s “the last bit of land before America or Canada,” he said (Slide 1). 

It is not easy to get to St. Kilda, so Mr. Dodds was grateful to have a reason to visit. 

“Everybody thinks of it as this kind of deserted, mythical place,” he said. “It is very cool to be there. There is something awesome and otherworldly about it.” 

As we spoke about the myths attached to a number of his images, Mr. Dodds paused. 

“Our national animal is a unicorn,” said Mr. Dodds, who happens to have studied zoology. “I’ve been dancing around all these other myths, but the best one is the national beast of Scotland, a unicorn.” 

Most people would agree that unicorns are not real. But as Mr. Dodds writes on his website, the beasts “are so common in Scotland that people don’t notice them. They try to get our attention by standing on two feet, with shaggy manes and even sticking their tongues out. They are so everyday that it has taken me three decades to notice they are everywhere.” 

Had Scotland gained independence from Britain, the unicorn — which joins England’s lion on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom — would have been lost. 

Although the political atmosphere in Scotland has quieted down since the summer and fall of 2014, Mr. Dodds said, questions of identity remain a crucial part of the conversation in Scotland. 

“These questions have not gone away. In fact, they’re more pointed,” he said. “But we’ve shown that you can have very different opinions and yet still live together, and live in a way that is living, not just bearing with one another.” 

The history of Scotland has been one of flux, Mr. Dodds said. He thought back to something he heard while working on a series about Tibetan nomads: “No culture is a museum piece.” 

“That, for me, was like, ‘Ah, right!’ ” he said. “Because we want to hold onto something, keep it static, but it’s always shifting and changing.” How long will Mr. Dodds pursue the question of Scotland’s identity — an identity that probably won’t ever be pinned down? He simply said: “There’s worse things to do.”  

subjects: behind the photo  interview  motivation  process  stories


The Power of iPhone Photography

Around midsummer, the Shetland cliffs are alive with the sound of a thousand chattering shutters. Hot on the tails of the birds comes the annual migration of naturalists, armed to the eyeballs with optics. But do these modern tools help us or hinder us in experiencing the world?

The great Robert Capa once said ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough you are not close enough’. To get close to Shetland’s wild and woolly exterior, what you really need is an iPhone and a camper van.

The digital revolution has spawned a photographic arms-race to produce smaller cameras with more mega pixels, expensive super zooms and editing software to take our photos within an inch of their lives. Does this only increase the distance between us and the experience?

In general it is the men who obsess over the size of lens and sensor. My feminist colleagues tend to agree. Women know their technical stuff but they look through the lens rather than fixate on the buttons or screen behind it. We forget the point is to capture what we see. Our pictures are only as good as our ability to see.

From a distance, which is where most people view Shetland, there are two realms that seem at odds but they manage to co-exist. One appears colossal and corporate while the its opposite looks feathery and fragile. I wondered ‘can nature and industry both thrive in Shetland?’ and I pitched the idea to the St Brieuc Photoreporter festival in France. They agreed it was interesting and gave me the freedom to explore for three weeks. 

For the task I used my professional DSLR to sketch out what I thought I was seeing. As the elements would come to together on location I would, unthinkingly, take out my iPhone and inevitably end up with the best picture. 

There is something in the simplicity of function of a phone that allows the photographer to look. That’s the difference. We stop fiddling with our buttons on the back and we look. I can’t undersell the importance of looking. A camper van, likewise, forces you to see the landscape with fresh eyes. Everywhere becomes a potential home and you want an interesting view from the dinner table. I discovered wild camping vistas that would make 5-star hotels weep. Shetland’s humble car parks and lay-bys offer jaw dropping views. 

Bringing your own bed also has many other advantages for the explorer- you are flexible to respond to the weather, you can snooze as you wait for the right light plus on Shetland you gain the rockstar status of a F1 driver. From Sumburgh to Unst, people literally stopped in their tracks to marvel at this modern wonder, turning their heads 180 degrees as it glided past. 

If I was tired I could pull over and sleep. Once I awoke to find my van surrounded by axe-wielding Jarls! I had parked beside the start of the midsummer parade. 

The best moment was after a sublime ‘simmer dim’ (the midsummer ‘midnight sun’) cruise to Mousa. The boat load of birdwatchers returned to Sandwick, purring contentedly like Storm Petrels in the broch. We landed around 2.00 am and I walked 50 paces to bed as the others began the long drive home. Ironically, this freedom involves taking everything including the kitchen sink, a shower, double bed and lounge but that allows you to be right place at the right time. 

A camper van may be the ultimate photographer’s tool to explore Shetland’s 1600 wrinkled miles of coast. Add to this your mobile phone and you can truly experience what is in front of you. 

The best photographs are created from the natural curiosity and contemplation of the world. On Shetland I think the word ‘worship’ fits well. People travel to see great visions and then respond to the grandeur of light and land by sharing this with others. Advances in photography gear if they are advances will make it easier to capture that vision.

Gone are the days of tedious slideshows in a darkened room, we have advanced to tedious slideshows on our computer screens. When you get home and trawl through thousands of images you may find, like me, it was the mobile moments of wonder that will lure us back. 

Article commissioned for 60 North magazine. All photographs shot on an iPhone 6. 

Seabird Cities work was awarded a travel grant from Photoreporter International, France.

subjects: behind the photo  on the road  stories  tearsheets

Tags: documentary  iphone  travel


the future of photography

“Photography has left the building” claims Stephen Mayes in a wide-ranging essay on the future of photography for Time Lightbox. But does new technology really represent a paradigm shift in the very nature of photography?

Mayes is a leader in his field, pioneering innovations and spotting future trends. He sees possibility when others lament the past. This is a positive future, and the antithesis of so many commentators. In the next stage, he says, photography will grow up as it experiences a paradigm shift.

I admit, I had to re-read the article a few times and while the detail may be fuzzy his big idea is clear- the next revolution is coming, don’t get left behind. To critique such a grand idea makes me feel like the mean guy who says the future won’t have flying cars  I’m not that guy, I want a flying car but I still believe it is a car, even if it flies. 


The world ‘photography’ is used throughout but I assume he was thinking about photojournalism first. By avoiding using the word ‘photojournalism’ he stops people saying “its dead!”. His vast experience in the discipline, the context of Time magazine and the World Press Photo’s current canvassing on ethics (alluded to in the piece) suggests this is the target. Like a preacher to a familiar flock he pleads- “Stop talking about the child it once was and put away the sentimental memories of photography as we knew it for all these years”. How often I have heard people lament the golden age that has passed.  

The article begins with a statement about a revolution in all photography but later on Mark Levoy, of Google is quoted saying there will be no such thing as a ‘straight photograph', “except in photojournalism”. 

An Oxford scholar joked that their rivals in Cambridge have the bad habit of extending their limited experience in east England to the entire universe. He cited Newton and his falling apple which was then extended uniformly to the planets.  The theory worked until we discovered black holes.  Are Mayes’ musings likewise universal in their application to all photography or should they be limited to the branch of photojournalism? 


Photography has passed great milestones from childhood to puberty with the digital revolution and then the adoption of smart phones.  The art has moved from picture making to data collecting. Next we will pass from “two dimensions to explore previously unimagined possibilities” with the photo as “a vessel for immeasurable volumes of information”.  The future photography will have more dimensions and more information, which sounds very exciting. Do we need more information in a frame to better the ‘crude 2D rectangle’?   

Augmentation (integrating information and data in visual forms) is a very exciting new branch but does it mean photography left the building entirely or is it constructing a sparkly new extension called computational photography?  The brilliant example of Tomas Van Houtryve augmented images presents a sophisticated form of computerised photography.  Is this a more refined version of cameras that printed the dates in bright orange font or hand-tinted glass plates? . Is photography moving or just expanding?


Mayes describes Cubism from 100 years ago as an example of where photography is going- “using multiple perspectives to depict a deeper understanding”. This seems a true revolution in art- circling back to the past. Those artists stripped back the visual form to amplify meaning considering the component parts. They were informed by new ideas and insights which they incorporated in their work but they simplified.  And photography already contains that philosophy. 

He states- “It will not be long before our audiences demand more sophisticated imagery that is dynamic and responsive to change, connected to reality by more than a static two-dimensional rectangle of crude visual data isolated in space and time.” I actually laughed when I first read ‘static 2D rectangle of crude visual data’ .  These crude rectangles can reduce people to tears and turn governments from war. Mayes certainly believes that more than most, so its crudeness must be in comparison to vastly superior future.  So what is the alternative being offered? Moving, 3D, sophisticated complex forms, I suppose. Interactive, digital, multi-layered are the trendy buzz words but in these the form of the essence of the photograph remains intact, and when we add other stuff we make them something else.  Do we need to redefine photography?

The 2D representation of reality is a constant outlet of human creative expression from Chauvet’s caves to modern tablets. I imagine a french caveman once predicted the demise of finger painting as he held a hairy stick in his hand to the envy and wonder of his peers? Painting may have left the cave but it is still painting.  The art continues to connect us to reality in abstract and representational forms. 

Using LIDAR or electron microscopes may sound revolutionary in photography but they are still using light to make a picture. This sounds a little like chronological snobbery (newer is better) which is as dangerous as nostalgia.


Photography remains relevant in the tsunami of information unleashed by the web because it manages complexity simply. New technology offers new (exciting) ways to know more about our world and to explain it but why is adding immeasurable volumes of information to the simple image necessarily an advancement?  We need simplicity to focus the attention on what matters.  

If photography has left the building maybe she has gone out to find the photographers and editors who have wandered into fashionable cul-de-sacs and got distracted. Maybe it was us who moved, not photography. Mayes' aim is a laudable one- to spark debate and wake photojournalism up from the dreams of past glory to consider where we are heading.

If this is about connecting to an audience via smart apps and interactive web sites and virtual realities headset then photography remains very much at home. And if photography’s new building has lasers and flying cars then count me in.  

subjects: on the road  process  theory


7 rules for good photographs

1.There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.

2.There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs

3.There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.

4.There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.

5.There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.

6.There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.

7.There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.

According to Ansel Adams.

Mind you, that won't stop every magazine and website, or me, telling you the rules for good photographs. 


instagram blog interview

An interview from the official Instagram blog.

“Ginger is, by my classification, a spectrum from auburn to strawberry blond,” says Kieran Dodds (@kierandodds), a Scottish photojournalist whose country has one of the highest per capita populations of red-haired denizens in the world.

“Fellow gingers greet each other with a look of surprise and wonder. Even in Scotland, we are so rare that to see someone else with it is unexpected and sublime!”

Kieran notes that his radiant minority is sometimes subject to ridicule and stereotyping, and that even the term ‘ginger’ itself is fraught. “In Scotland, it is often used as a term of abuse,” he says. “I wanted to use this derogatory word and redeem it for its descriptive power. Ginger appears gold, orange or brown—sometimes all at once.” 

“Before Scotland voted on independence last year, I spent time looking at my own country and working on a few stories. I was considering how we are perceived globally to consider the myths and realities. One of these myths is our physical appearance and how it relates to identity. I wanted people to see people, not cliches.”  

subjects: behind the photo  interview  motivation  stories


food banks- britain's hungry and hidden

Antonia and her partner Sergio work to feed their two children but struggle to make ends meet and have used emergency food aid in the past year.

This week it was announced that over one million people received help from UK Food banks during the last year. Why then are most news articles illustrated by rows of tins or tables laid with statistics, rather than people?

In North America and on mainland Europe, food banks are old news but in the UK figures show they have soared in six years from 25,000 to over one million people receiving a three day supply according to Trussell trust figures. Others contest this figure and say its only half a million people. (If you want to crunch the numbers I have a note at the bottom). Of those hundreds of thousands of people, next to nil appear in the press.  I set aside a month to follow the food bank supply lines to the homes of hungry Britons in 21st century Britain before the General Election. 

Depending on the spin, food banks represent a government’s failure or the success of civic society or both. Working on this story felt more difficult than on assignments in politically-charged Tibet or Zimbabwe. In both I received a warm welcome and a willingness from participants despite arguably greater risks to their freedom. People's trust acts as a catalyst for trustworthy reporting especially on politically sensitive stories. I was very aware of the trust they gave me and worked hard to ensure they remained safe once I had jumped on a plane and flown away.  What about back home In the UK?  For food bank clients the story remains hidden for the shame of being seen.

In London, I criss-crossed the capital from one cancellation to the next. With each knock-back I considered cutting my losses. I could understand their reluctance- an outsider asking people to share their struggle in the national media. I was trying to counter the stigma but it is a hard sell. In Scotland, one man was heckled by a passing driver as he was leaving a food bank- "You dirty, scrounging, junkie bastard!". That was in public, imagine the abuse he could receive online.

Of those we managed to arrange, many cancelled. Some silently ignored texts and phone calls, others giving reasons to remain anonymous and prevent the shame of their family or friends or workmates finding out. I was disappointed but not surprised. The people I did meet were struck hard by circumstances (unemployment, bereavement, illness) and were embarrassed to ask for help. 

The Trussell trust, the UK’s largest food bank network, helped with access. They said cancellations were par for the course. The press request a case study, they line someone up, they cancel. These food banks run as autonomous entities so it is up to the food bank managers to approach people who might want to share their stories.

Working this way requires determination to walk the tight rope of accuracy and access. Its frustrating, its tiring and for me it is financially risky because it is self-funded. In the end it is important to share personal stories because tins of beans, like statistics, don't bleed. 

I am thankful for those who were bold enough to share their stories. 

See the full set of images on Panos Pictures.

*A note on figures.  Following the announcement of 1.1 million people,  a critique of the figures by Full Fact said this is not 1.1 million people but 1.1 million visits. The Trust say 'visits' isn't accurate and it is best reported as 'over a million people received three days 'emergency food', and had openly admitted that these are not unique users. Full Fact estimate that total individuals is likely to be only 500,000 people or so, based on Trussell trust data. Full Fact also point out (as has been done many times) that supply does not mean new demand. There may have been people in need of emergency food in the past who wouldn’t have shown up in the Trust’s figures.  People may have hungry before but we just hadn't noticed. Trussell Trust figures show that demand is outstripping supply and has been for some years.  Numbers of new food banks, they say, don't explain the much greater increase in food bank use. Full Fact link to a helpful British Medical Journal article that shows "the increase in use and number of food banks is associated with spending cuts, benefit sanctions and unemployment". Full Fact also point out that the Trussell Trust are one of many providers and provide only a third of emergency food aid. The problem looks far larger than the one million people found in this new report. They also conclude "Data from the Trussell Trust may be the best evidence we have but reporting needs to be clearer. 

subjects: behind the photo  motivation  stories


7 ways to encourage innovation

As their name would suggest, journalists love lists. They also love being prophets. Every new year the profession reveals their ‘ones-to-watch’ in science and art and politics. Experts predict which stars are on the ascendant and who will save us from the new challenges ahead and show us the right way. Its no surprise that the UK’s highest earning journalist is an astrologer

Innovators are vital in our changing world but we must not confuse them as examples to copy. Lists should come with this warning- “Beware of bandwagon ahead!”.  

Here is my list to encourage new year innovation and avoid copy-cat imitation.

1. Respond to change

The best contemporary art responds to its times and speaks beyond them. That’s why photojournalism is such a worthy art form. We consider the times we live in and make work in light of past inspired by those who have come before. How is the story evolving and where is it heading?

2. Move on 

We change with the times. Our work reflects what we understand (or don't) about this remarkable universe. We may be tempted to play safe with familiar stories. Be brave and move on. If you are not interested in the subject, why is anyone else going to be?

3. Read for depth

We could easily copy the aesthetic look of celebrated photographers but our work will appear superficially thin. The best work has depth. Reading the stories behind the 'ones to watch' helps us understand the photographer’s motivation and thinking.  CS Lewis said “My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.” The more you read the better your work becomes.  

4. People love people

People stories are endlessly interesting and that will never change. The novelty must come from the current-ness of a subject. Who are these people and what are they doing now?  

5. Local goes global

Diane Arbus once said “the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be”. The everyday movement on instagram confirms the importance of the local in understanding the global. What is ordinary to us is remarkable to the outsider, we just need to discipline ourselves to see it. I spent a year documenting my own country and was amazed and surprised by it, it felt like falling in love with my homeland all over again. Be novel, be local. 

6. Get new stuff

If I could get some nanobots with cameras I would start documenting inside my blood vessels. Scientific technology drives innovation in art.  We don’t always need the latest thing either. Last year I returned to using film to force myself to look harder at what I was shooting.  The art of photography is about challenging ourselves to find a fresh perspective.  Buying new stuff can help us to achieve that aim.

 7. Less efficient, more excellent

Washing machines are efficient, light bulbs are efficient but people are not machines. Freelancers are  conditioned by the corporate world to think in terms of shifts and targets. What is the point of your efficiency? Replace efficient with excellent, its a more forgiving master.

Final thought...

Aiming to be on a 'one to watch list' is like chasing the wind  People on these lists are often surprised to be there because they have worked on the same thing for years but now it has become relevant. 

Innovators focus on the task at hand even when no one is was looking.

subjects: behind the photo  motivation  process  stories  theory