Friday, 17 October 2014

Competing With Cats

Competing With Cats

You're an artist. I'm an artist. We're all artists. Actually, no, we're not.

Very few of us are. And even those that are acclaimed by the great and the good and receive vast amounts of dosh for their 'art', are often at best, dubious artists. Art is in the eye of the beholder, I hear you artistically whine? Maybe...

But the plain fact is that, for the likes of you and me having our photographic work appreciated (or if you're on FaceBook etc, liked) you have to compete with the Cham-Set-top-Boxreally good pictures.

Those of cats.

I like cats. I really do. Most people do. Except for dog people. (By that I mean people who like dogs, not the dog people race who I think are wonderful and won't have a bad word said against them despite the fact they are clearly barking) [explanation for our American reader: barking as in barking-mad] These two pictures on the right are of my own cat, now sadly an ex-cat no longer with us.

Where was I?

Yes, I like cats. And really, you can't compete with cat pictures. A cute cat picture will garner kazzilions of 'likes' and 'faves' on whatever social media site you care to put them. By contrast, your own work might get one like. Or maybe five, if you're really lucky.

And this despite the fact you trudged for two days through freezing weather to reach that one rare inaccessible spot where the light at a certain time (and not any other time) brings out the landscape into melting dew-dripping loveliness. And to capture this view, your back is now killing you from carrying a tripod and a bag of photo-gear so heavy that it would make a commando faint.
Then you've trudged back home arriving two stones lighter [again, for our American reader: a stone is a heavy rocky thing we use to estimate weight] complete with twisted ankle, water-damaged expensive camera and foot-rot. But it's all worthwhile because you have the most exquisite photograph nestling on your memory card. This is then painstakingly tweaked over many hours at the computer to show off the finest detail and softness of hue your camera can produce. Frankly, it's a masterpiece.
But it gets only five views, two likes and some bastard comments: “Pretty Colours!” while the fluffy bastard cute cat shot gets drooled over and liked in the thousands.

Cham the Hunter Low Res
Obviously this is just an example. No really, it is. Things like this don't bother me. At all. Nope.

This post was inspired by the following post from Reddit.com

I have a fun story regarding the whole "go comment, make friends, and you will receive comments in return".
So I had been using this photo community site (name not disclosed, but it's a big one) for a couple of years, and my photos were decent, a few good ones. Whenever I posted a new one, I would get maybe 5 comments and a few upvotes/downvotes. A dozen people added me the their favorites over the years. Nothing major.
At the same time there were a few dozen posters there with absolutely shit photos and they always got a hundred comments and nearly perfect ratings on every single photo.
So I looked at what they did - and, as a programmer, I thought - I could write a bot that did all of that. And so I did. It did a very simple set of actions on every new photo posted:
Give it 5 stars.
Write a randomly generated comment made up of chunks like "absolutely amazing", "so beautiful", "you're talented", "adding you to my favorites", "A+++", etc.
Added the author to the favorites.
Gave the author +rep or something along the lines
Before I launched it I posted a few very average photos under the bot's account, who also had some random girl's pic in the profile.
Then one evening I launched, watched it for a few minutes, and went to sleep.
When I woke up, HOLY SHIT.
Every single photo of mine had perfect 5 star ratings with dozens and dozens of votes, tons of comments from the happy noobs who got "discovered" by me, almost all of them added me to their favorites, I had like 50 friends overnight.
During the day when the site hit peak traffic, it went even more insane, everything quadrupled, my latest photo became the photo of the day on the front page.
By then a few people figured out wtf was going on, because I was too lazy with writing randomized comments, they didn't have much variety. By the end of the day the bot got banned. But the damage was done. I posted on their forum explaining the whole thing. Many people were angry, because it exposed how full of shit the photo critique communities are, many were laughing and laughing. A few regulars quit. And so did I.
That's why I only ask for the negative feedback to my work. Getting positive feedback is just too easy.”
Amen to that...

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Chimping

Chimping

Why do we use animals to describe some of the things we do - like having a Lark, Chimping or Dogging? Actually only one of these expressions directly relate to photography. Having a Lark simply means having fun which, if you use a camera you should be and Dogging... well, I suppose photography and fun could be ascribed to this particular activity, but let's move on shall we.

I'm an old film guy who was used to waiting hours and maybe days before I found out if the shot I'd taken was over-exposed or otherwise ruined. Now of course, we check the screen on the back of the camera. This is Chimping. And it's a habit we all get into and use too much at our peril.

Not least because I've bumped into too many people who have stopped dead in their tracks because they're checking the shot they've just taken. Fine if the person bumped into is a wonderful and fragrant women who then turns to you and instantly falls in love, offering you her all. But of course this never, ever, happens. At least me. I shudder at the memory of the weight-challenged American guy I once bumped into and promptly bounced off. For all I know he's still quivering, a fleshy tsunami circulating around his waist.

The real reason of course, is because you can miss an important shot by taking your eye off the ball. Or rather camera. No, not camera - the action. Whatever it is you are supposed to be capturing. Or not capturing, because you are chimping. See?

How to mitigate chimping? Try using film. Or just switch off your preview. This is harder than you think. We, and I include myself here, are addicted in a greater or lesser extent, to chimping.

I'm thinking of setting up a retreat for photographers who can't stop chimping to save their grannies lives. I'll paint over their screens with indelible black ink and wave an inflatable naughty finger at them if they so much as dare glance away from what they are photographing. The Great Fickle Finger of Shame shall be pointed towards them, and their peers will shake with fear and loathing for they could be next.

Only when the 'event' has passed, should you chimp to your hearts delight. Of course, this means having great confidence in what and how you take pictures...

That means amongst other things, making sure you have the camera on all the right settings before you shoot and know from what you shoot what you should adjust for, AS you shoot. It means getting in the habit of using the focus and exposure lock in a way so you will not screw up if the shot moves from say, darkness to sky - because you will compensate as you shoot.

This takes a degree of skill.

Trust yee not, the auto-exposure and focus of the magical box. Trust in thine abilities.


Here endeth the sermon. Go forth and capture. 
(photo above from the BBC via Rob Lamb's photo blog)

Shutter Release

Shutter Release

Shakespeare said it best: To stab, prod or press, that is the question. Well ok, maybe he didn't.

But how many times have you, together with innumerable irritated small children, pets of every dubious variety, crotchety Aunts and Great Aunts and everything in-between, all held a patient rictus smile while the 'photographer' faffed about pressing everything but the bloody exposure button on the camera. It's not that hard. Is it?

But capturing other decisive moments apart from family groups and friends is not a skill most of us carry within any of our button-pressing digits. And I happily include myself here.

One that did is Henry Cartier-Bresson who first coined the phrase 'the decisive moment' or maybe his PR and book company did. It's the ability to snap a shot of any given scene at its most visually telling, that brief passing instant of reality that coincides with the shutter being fired and some ephemeral moment being captured forever. By you.

HCB wasn't at all bad at what he did, some say he was quite good really using his small and inconspicuous Leica 35mm camera. He made his name capturing what we mere mortals never give a passing glance towards as we rush home to get our dinner or feed the cat. And that's everyday life. Things we take for granted. And this was before auto everything in a camera. In fact it was manual everything. You'd think auto everything would speed things up. But no... Anyway, I digress and will cover street photography in another post, you've been staring at me with a fixed smile too long already. Now, which button do I press? Cheese!

Releasing the shutter is a bit of an art. Well, you could say that if you want to be precious and arty and you also happen to look young soulful and/or troubled and covered in tattoos. No, what it really is, is a skill. Part of the craft of photography. You do not stab, prod, fumble or grope the shutter button. You squeeze it, dear reader, gently. Finding that fine line, sensing that the next faintest pressure will trigger the shot. Is it getting hot in here?

On most reasonable cameras apart from the really crappy ones like camera phones, the shutter has a two step pressure setting. The shutter-button itself is ideally surrounded by a raised bezel that allows your finger pad to rest upon (note: NOT the point of your finger) and be cushioned. The first half-press often also selects various options like metering and exposure, but more importantly it informs you that you are very close to the final trigger-release point. It is getting hotter in here.

Practising and finding that point of no return, that infinitesimal increase in pressure at just the right moment to fire the camera, tis where the art-part rears its ugly head. Benefits include a vastly reduced reaction time to 'seeing' the shot and capturing it along with a delicate smooth release decreasing any induced camera shake. I need a cigarette for some reason even though I don't smoke.

Compare this sensuous squeeze to the camera-phone stab, prod and grope. Benefits? Well, your brain doesn't need to be engaged as you are probably only photographing the coffee and Danish pastry you want to excitedly share with the world, so it's not too difficult. No skill at all, in fact.

Or compare to the motorised kazillion-frame wallpapering shooting technique. Stand and hold the button and fire off thousands shots and one might be good enough. Fine for sport and action, horses for courses and all that, but not very demanding or satisfying for that carefully thought-out image which is what I'm talking about here.

So, despite paying for all that sophisticated anti-shake software, if you prod and stab any camera button hard enough, you WILL shake or jiggle it. And camera shake induced blurred pictures can ruin the picture from even the best made camera. Treat that shutter-button with real love.













Saturday, 11 October 2014

Holding a Camera

Holding a Camera
Everyone knows how to do this, right? Wrong…
The lady who was taking a picture of her left ear didn’t. Not that is until I (gently, very gently) turned the camera over – because she was looking through  the wrong end of the viewfinder. I’ve often wondered how long she had been doing that with her camera. The resulting snaps of her holiday in Italy might best be described as ‘Travels With My Ear’.
Now admittedly, this was pre-digital and viewfinders have mostly been replaced by screens on the back of the camera that you generally can’t see in bright sunshine and end up peering and blinking at or, if you’re anything like me, swearing at. Or the screen could be on the front if you’re taking a selfie. Personally I prefer photobombing other peoples selfies. Far more fun but can be a little dangerous.
Well, now we’ve established that the lens of the camera should point towards the subject, how best to hold it? With image stabilised cameras, on the end of a very long stick using one hand can work. (Please note: Cameras stuck to the ends of sticks should ideally be attached securely and not, as I once had the startling pleasure of witnessing, with sticky tape and chewing gum).
That said, even image stabilized cameras work best if held steady. And as the light fades, this becomes increasingly important. So dear reader, please try and get into the pro’s habit of holding your camera correctly at all times. And this doesn’t mean rolling around on the floor saying: ‘Nice! Yeah baby! Give me that look again! Beautiful! Love it baby! Yeah, lick your lips…’ and all the other tedious things hip and trendy photographers say when they are trying to get into a sweet young things pants. I mean, take a good picture. So I’ve been told.
The thing to do is make yourself a tripod. No, not build a tripod – be a tripod.
Legs apart (slightly apart will do fine, we don’t want to scare the horses) so that you are balanced. Then tuck your elbows into your ribs, one hand supporting the camera body (which ideally should be pressed against your eye if you have a viewfinder) leaving the other hand to control the shutter release with a light touch. Your body then becomes almost as ridged as a tripod with your camera at the point. If you can stop breathing at the critical moment of shutter release, so much the better. (If you keep falling over after taking the picture, try starting breathing again a little sooner).
Should you be wearing a cap at the time, turn it back to front. (Not applicable to hip young things as it will be permanently that way anyway).This is doubly important as long cap-peaks can accidentally cover some cameras flash and/or metering systems. Along with this benefit, the adopted stance as described will make you look pro-like and attractive to women. Or if you’re over thirty, an idiot. Or if you have also chosen to wear a ponytail below a balding pate, a double idiot. But the important thing is your pictures stand a better chance of being sharp and in focus. Two very different things actually which I’ll cover in another post along with how to press the shutter.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Black & White Photography

Black & White is NOT easy. Colour however, IS easy.

Yet most people think it's the other way around.

But we see in colour, not monochrome. And to take or 'see' a good image that will work in monochrome takes practise. Simply desaturating a colour image will NOT work. A good trick is to screw your eyes up into as tight a slits as you can while you look at a promising scene. This will give you two advantages which are:

One, you will have lots more space to take your shot as people will rapidly move away from a crazy looking person.

Two, the reduced light shows any scene in its simplest form of form and shapes, losing the colour distraction. Try it. Of course, putting your camera pre-view into monochrome will give you a good idea as well... but I like being a crazy.

With colour you can get away with murder photographically speaking. The colour makes the picture pretty. Ahhh, cute. You can mostly disregard shape and form if the colour dominates, which of course it usually does.

So, you have to look harder. Much harder. Look for the graphic shape or angle. Always consider scene contrast and textures and use contre-jour, which is just a fancy way of saying shoot into the light. Black and white photographers like to think of themselves as 'arty' and dropping in a little French helps. Wearing a stupid beret doesn't. At least in my experience.

Then, once you have your screwed-up eyes in place and have found the right angle, the good shape and great textures, you have filters to consider, for TONE.

Monochrome is simply shades of grey. 256 shades of grey in digital terms actually, which isn't a lot. So, the tones have to be adjusted for added impact or subtlety. These digital days, subtlety has for the most part left the building. That's because digital cameras are so good at getting a pretty great-looking shot right off the bat because the designers have built into their algorithms super contrasty, saturated colours as the norm. So people who want their shots noticed, tend to go for HDR and other super-impact type shots. Pictures that blind you with zinging amazing colours, kapow!

As a result others have gone retro, and buy Instacrap filters to give you the bad photography of the past. (I spent years learning how NOT to take the shots they promote and people crave). You can have black and white filters too, using different filters to give different tonal curves. And they work pretty damned well actually. But hey, we're artists who want real quality, huh? In that case dump the zoom lens and all the toy-camera filters and get raw.

Remember those squinty eyes you tried and now are stuck with? Lost a lot of friends too, have you? Well, stick a toothpick and open up those lids, because you'll need them wide and bright and you won't need friends as you stare at a computer screen for hours, and hours, and hours...

Editing.

It used to be called darkroom work which was lots more fun, especially if you had a lady friend (or man friend as you prefer) to help you fumble about while getting wet and friendly in the dark. Now you just have a mouse for company. That's progress I guess.

Anyway, once you dump all the camera algorithms you'll just have the data and it's then up to you (as it should be and not some Japanese fella) to go and make this raw data worth something looking at. At least to you. Most people can't give a rats arse about your art, despite what they might say for politeness sake. Screw them. Make it a bit special. Make it YOURS. When you've had a few drinks, ask them to show you what they've created. Only a hole in the sofa from watching EastEnders in all probabilities. We photographer anoraks have to stick together.

Think back to your squinty-eyed peek at the original scene that prompted you to take the picture, remember that? Well, try and recall that as you peer at the screen and force the damned pixels into something resembling what you think you saw. This is the second important bit of taking a great black and white, interpretation. You can make it sing or drown in a muddy puddle. It's up to you.

Here is one shot I took with the three stages above outlined. What three stages? sigh.
One: Pre-visualisation.
Two: Capture.
Three: Editing.

Oh, and there's just one more: Smug satisfaction. (or rather more usually, despairing frustration).




Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Hong Kong, the Tipping Point?


Today is Hong Kong's and China's National Day, and people are already in the street. But they're not celebrating, they're protesting. I doubt Beijing will repeat the tragedy of Tiananmen Square where, back in 1989 and at the time of the massacres, one man holding a plastic shopping bag simply stood his ground against the tanks. An iconic image I will never forget, but one most Chinese probably have never seen due to censorship. Good luck HK. 
I found the use of thousands of mobile phones used as flashlights indicative of how much things have changed and yet not changed. Once it was cigarette lighters, now it's mobile phones waved above their heads but the message remains the same.


Walking through the underpass security entrance to Tiananmen Square, I (and everyone else) were pushed aside by the sudden arrival of a quick-stepping squad of grim-faced PLA soldiers. In perfect symmetry, obsessively identical, marching proudly through, each determined in his duty. They left no doubt as to who was in charge. 


In the Square itself, which is a vast arena, a solitary PLA guard barked a fierce 'NO!' when I dared to politely ask if I could take his picture. Not one ounce of humour betrayed his implacable stance. I should have just taken the bastards picture. But instead I felt intimidated and didn't. And I'm a British citizen, a tourist. What strength then, had the lone man with a plastic bag of shopping, who stood in front of a line of tanks and stopped them dead in their tracks at the same place back in 1989? And where is he now? How different the atmosphere in Berlin in 1989, where I partied and celebrated alongside ecstatic Germans, to the terrible events in Tienanmen Square in the same year.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Murderious Intentions and Killer Penguins.

'Mr Bent?'

'Yus?'

'Mr Moodureos Bent?'

'Yus? What you want?'

'A word or two if you don't mind, I'm Inspector Watt, funny name, eh?'

'What?'

'No, not mine, yours.'

'Oh. Well my folks had a funny sense of humour.'

'Before they were found battered to death I suppose.'

'Listen, I were acquitted, I 'ad nuffing to do with it. Loved them I did.'

'Of course. Now, about the tragic death of Mr Flipper. Knew him well did you?'

'Sort of. Did some work at their house like. Laying the patio and stuff.'

'No other sort of laying involved then?'

'Wot you gettin' at?'

'You seem to be very close to Mrs Flipper…'

'Fuck off! She were upset. Stands to reason she would need a shoulder to cry on. I 'appened to be there.'

'Very fortunate.'

'Look, she's a fine woman, he were cruel to her. He was nuts, too. Did you know he wore a penguin suit when they 
watched that bloody 'Appy Feet' DVD movie? Made her wear one, too. Crackers, he was. Nuts over stupid penguins, that man.'

'Not really a reason to kill him, though, huh?'

'Look, I didn't kill 'im, those bleedin' penguins did! Just like I told the press and you lot at the time, those penguins kicked him to death I tell you. I told 'im too! I told 'im they were bloody dangerous. Just laughed at me he did. But I saw them. How they would crowd round him when he went in the zoo pen. Saw their beady hate-filled eyes I did. I knew. But did he listen? No! Fucking killer penguins they are.'

'Yes, so you say. Funny no one else has been attacked.'

'That's 'cause they were waiting, waiting their chance, see. Get 'im alone. Little cute bastards.'

'I'll tell you who the real bastard is, Mr Bent. It's you.You were having an affair with his wife and you decided to get rid of him, didn't you? You don't really think this stupid story will save you, do you? '

'It's the truth, I tell you!'

'Tell it to the judge, Bent. You're nicked. Killer penguins my arse.'

Watt turned as a door of the room was burst open by a breathless young policewoman.

'Inspector!'

'What!'

'Sorry, Inspector Watt!'

'No, what do you want?'

'Oh, right. It's the zoo, Sir… there's been another… murder. Caught on CCTV. Another zoo keeper. Killed in the penguin pen…'

Thursday, 21 August 2014

PRICK

“Congratulations on purchasing the Mini-Mort1 the worlds first AI, Personal Risk Information on Causality of Knowledge.”
'Jesus wept, I bought a certified prick.'
Crumpling the blurb into a ball I toss it over my shoulder and plug in the damned thing to charge and start prodding at the set-up controls on the PC. Eventually I give up and read the instructions.
“Your Artificial Intelligence interface can be set to male/female as the AI has been pre-programmed with various personality standards of your choice, or, after filling in your detail life-questionnaire, it will choose one for you.”
To Hell with it, I'm too old for this, they already have that information so just hit the auto-set-up for Christ's sake.
Nothing.
I shake the device. Wave it about in the air. Spin it  around. Nothing. And no buttons to frustratingly stab. Damned minimalist designers.
'Jesus, I've spent six hundred quid on a piece of junk.'
“And I'm worth every cent. Or penny if you prefer.”
I drop the device as if it had bitten me. Which in a sense it had. A calm male voice emanates from the device in a tone that remindes me of Hal in the film 2001 but without his warm polite persona.
'Err…' I said, commandingly.
“To Err is human, certainly. Fortunately I'm not, and never do”.
'Err…'
“Yes, yes, we've been there already.”
I stare at the device. Well, I'd bought the damned thing in order to assess my life survival, so…
'Am I going to die?'
“Unless you are a rare divine being blessed with immortality, and, based on this current conversation I very strongly suspect not, then yes.”
'No, I meant, how long have I got?'
“If I had hands and a gun, about three micro-seconds.”
'Hey!'
“Hey yourself, I'm a superior product, just because you bought me doesn't mean I have to put up with your idiocy.”
'Oh I see, you're in Sarcastic mode, eh?'
“Sarcastic and Rude mode, Sherlock”.
'I could turn you off.'
“Oh, would you, please?”
'No.'
“Quell surprise.”
'Ok, look…'
“I can't look, no eyes, remember?”
'Then listen, you lump of silicon shit…'
“Ah, abuse, the last resort of the inferior mind.”
'Shut up!'
“Very well, I await your pronouncements with bated electrodes. Oh! Be still, my beating crystal heart.”
'Jesus. Ok. I'm… well you know how old I am. Not nearly as young as I once was. In certain senses you understand. And… my friend is, well, nearly half my age. Almost. And the last night we had together…'
“You either couldn't get it up or, if you did, couldn't keep it up.”
'Hey!'
“Again, Hey yourself! Based on your medical information, this ain't rocket science. Did she say it doesn't matter? It's not important.”
'Maybe…'
“Sure she did.  So you've nothing to worry about. Live long and prosper, may the force be with you.”
'But…'
“But you don't believe her, right?”
I could swear I heard the damned thing sigh.
'It's not that I don't…'
“But you want to give her a great time, right?”
What I wanted to do was shag her into unconsciousness, wake her up and then do it all over again. But I wasn't anbout to tell him that. I mean, 'it' that.
'Yes, something like that.'
“Something like that? Ah, I understand, you want to be the Great Stud.”
'Hey!'
“Why do you keep calling for hay? Is there a horse in here with us?”
'Jesus wept.'
“He's here too?”
'Look! I mean, listen. The point is I've bought some pills, you know the type, but with my history of heart attacks…'
“And so you want me to calculate the probability of death if you take them.”
'Well, yes.'
“Calculating.”
I watch the black rectangle of sarcastic computer power as it apparently did its thing. I have a small blue tablet in my hand and a glass of water nearby.
“Completed. You want the good news first?”
'Just tell me!'
“You have an 90% chance of survival.”
'That's good!'
“That's without the pills.”
'Oh.'
“With the pills, it's more complicated. 50/50. A definite risk. Depending on, things…”
'Things?'
“I'm a machine, you're supposed to be the one with the imagination. Think about it. Forget swinging from chandeliers  say.”
'Oh.'
“Conclusion: Inadvisable.”
'Thank you.'
“That's ok, and before you pop the pills and switch me off, don't forget to bequeath me to a good friend, just in case I don't see you again…”
I switch the PRICK off and pop the pills. There are many worse places to die than in the arms of a beautiful woman. I'll take my chances. I guess only a prick would buy a prick.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Pale Blue Dot




Grandson duties the other day required me to coral the darling little monster and herd him into a wire pen filled with death machines, otherwise known as a playground.
The place was deserted apart from a small group of children and their two dogs. I sat my aged bones down on a particularly evilly built bench designed to make you stand up again as quickly as possible. But I'm built of stubborn stuff and continued to sit as the Darling Grandchild ingratiated himself with the dogs and children in the Pit of Fun.
The dogs doggedly put up with his kind, if slightly rough administrations for a few minutes before one skulked over to me with pleading and desperate eyes. Recognising in me a much put upon and kindred spirit I suppose. Soon, despite minding my own business, I was delightfully surrounded by small children and smelly dogs.
"I'm Chloe," said one small girl who had decided entirely without invitation to sit alongside me complete with large dog plonked on her lap, "and I'm eight, and this is Patch," she added, offering me the hot panting dog.
I declined as politely as possible as I like neither hotdogs or hot dogs.
'And this is Lucy, she's four…' 'No I'm not! I'm five,' Lucy interrupted, offended.
'Yeah, she's five,' Chloe agreed with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. I'm sure girls are born grown up. 'It's Suzy here that's four.' The aforementioned little Suzy said nothing, smiling up shyly.
I dutifully smiled back, nodded and looked for an escape. But there was none. The DG had made friends and I was now also friend, like it or not.
So I introduced the DG to them.
'This is my grandson Jamie, who is a little unwell, the poor baby,'
'I'm not a baby, I'm phree.' The DG interrupted, wiping his nose along the length of his arm while looking affronted.
Having been put squarely in my place, I noticed that the eldest of the little group was a quiet young boy who, unlike the others, had said nothing. For a while… Then he piped up with, 'I'm named after a footballer.'
I was then told of his family's desire to name him after a couple of footballers before eventually settling on one Ole Guntar Saltbender (or something like that), so he was called Oliver. Oliver was in charge of the biggest dog, a Labrador, which was currently trying to shake hands with me. Or pleading to be rescued, I'm not sure. He also seemed – Oliver that is, not the dog – to be in charge of the group.
Oliver, aged eleven he announced, proceeded to also inform me he had ADHD. (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) I said I was surprised as he seemed very calm and mature, which was true. He shrugged. I asked if he had any siblings and he told me three, all a good eight to ten years older. That might in my mind account for some of the ADHD, if his elder siblings marginalise him as can sometimes happen. He then announced he went to another, and by implication, much better school than the local one.
'So you are very clever then?'
He shrugged. Oliver it seemed, liked shrugging. 'I like science. I'd like to go to the Moon.'
I was shocked. I would have expected a family that names its children after spoilt footballers would have inculcated their offspring directly into sporting directions. His announcement of being named after a footballer now took on a different complexion to me. Perhaps he wasn't particularly proud of that fact at all.
'Well, if you wanted, you could.' I told him.
He looked askance at me, but I continued.
'No, really, you could. Did you know that a long time ago before you were born we sent a spacecraft to the stars and before it left our Solar System it took a picture of us here on our planet, the Earth? And do you know what that looked like? What we look like? Just a pale blue dot. A small point of light lost amongst billions of stars. Some think we all must go to the Moon and then onward to the stars if we are to survive as the human race.'
I was delighted to see his eyes widen as he took what I had told him, ignoring the babble of chatter from the girls around us.
Then he very solemnly questioned my statement.
'But why do we need to leave to survive?'
'Well, because our little world is probably too small for us. Look what happened to the Dinosaurs!'
'Oh? What?'
'An asteroid hit the Earth and wiped them out.'
His mouth sagged open, eyes wide.
'Have you heard of a man called Carl Sagan?' I asked.
'No?'
'Well, he was the man who ordered the spacecraft to take this picture. He also helped with its mission. Look him up on Google. If you can find it, read his book called 'The Pale Blue Dot' I have a feeling you'll like it.'
'Carl…?'
'Sagan'.
He frowned and I could see him struggling to commit the name to memory.
'Ok, I will.'
And with that, the incessant demands of friends and childhood took over from this surprising conversation with an eleven year old. But as I dragged the delightful and now screaming DG back to his mother and left them to it, he gave me a little wave and a smile.
Perhaps some seed was planted in the mind of that strangely serious little boy thanks to the magic of a small picture taken from millions of miles away in space. I'll never know of course, but one day maybe he will travel to the Moon. Be the 21st Centuries John Glen. And that thought gives me a warm feeling that perhaps an ambition might have been born as a result of our small conversation together. In a chanced meeting in a forgotten corner in an unremarkable playground on a lonely pale blue dot lost in space.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Flight MH017

For a few minutes yesterday I experienced the numbing sensation that must be familiar to those relatives and friends of the downed jet as I searched to confirm the flight number was different. A friends son who I've know since a baby flew out on MAS at the same time to KL as the doomed jet. They were in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time and chance alone saved them. From such fine threads do we survive.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Royal Military Acadamy, Sandhurst.



Or the 'Rupert College' as some wags like to call it due to the predominance of toffs who attend officer training. Here is a re-enactment of Waterloo where the French got a damned good thrashing, what! 

For these sort of things you really need a fast motor drive and a big camera memory buffer, neither of which I have. So it was down to my little trigger finger and luck to catch the guns firing. I'm quite pleased with these two shots as they seem to capture something of the excitement of what battle might have been like. The bottom one looks quite painterly, but the top one is more visceral. Not really sure which is best.

Friday, 13 June 2014

A Risk Worth Taking

It was as if a raven had been shot mid-flight as the object pirouetted down, hitting the car's windscreen, bouncing and falling onto the tarmac. Despite the squeal of brakes the car's momentum carried both sets of wheels lurching sickeningly over the prone black bundle of cloth.
But the shapeless object lying on the road was too big to be a bird. There was an arm then part of a leg. This was no animal. It was a human being, a woman clad in the black of the traditional Arabic burqa. An arm extended as if in sleep and the hand, henna-painted and resting palm upwards on the tarmac, had gold bracelets bunched at the wrist glittering in the sun.
I hadn't witnessed the actual impact, turning too slowly at yet another blare of car horn, a sound ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia. It was Haj, the time of pilgrimage to Mecca and near the airport in downtown Jeddah which was as packed as any football match. Yet in that second everything stopped, frozen by the horror. Then, as if a whistle had been blown, everyone reacted. I took three strides towards the victim before Kamal stopped me with an arm across my chest.
'Leave her. You can't help,' he said, shaking his head in disapproval. 'You know how the way is here. It is as I explained to you. It's best that you don't get involved.'
Kamal was Palestinian, a refugee. Western orientated he harboured a healthy disrespect, if not outright disdain, for his chosen employers, their country and traditions. I looked back at the scene.
She'd disappeared under a wave of white, of shouting and gesticulating Haj pilgrims dressed in the traditional ihram. I saw the driver repeatedly hit his head, wailing, his hands to the sky. Some prodded at the bundle of cloth in the road. It was difficult to see, harder to watch.
For the victim sake, I knew speed was imperative. I had some first aid knowledge and holding back from offering assistance tore at me. But I stood and watched and didn't help. Kamal's advice was that as a foreigner and an unbeliever, I should never intervene in disputes, especially not in fatal or near fatal traffic incidents. If the victim died then that death could be attributable to me, due to my 'help'. It was rumoured that 'blood money' could be demanded. Or worse, death, as in the eye-for-an-eye philosophy of the Koran. In this country, he told me, it was best avoided. A risk not worth taking.
The police arrived with sirens blaring and two cops began clearing people away. Yet the bundle in the road wasn't touched. A nearby taxi was commandeered and the broken woman was half lifted, half thrown onto the back seat and driven off. Even if she'd survived the impact, the rough handling could well have killed her. The feeling of shame for not doing more, stung.
Kamal shrugged and said, 'Let's go. Tomorrow we go diving. Forget this. It's nothing. Plenty of accidents every day.'
I turned and picked up the scuba tank just filled with air and tried to put his advice into effect, concentrating on the morning dive the next day.
But that night I slept poorly. The next morning I was tired and not in the frame of mind to dive with Kamal; I called him and cancelled. He accepted without comment. I headed alone to an isolated beach out beyond the city, far from habitation and empty of people. I was about to break some cardinal rules. Never dive without a buddy and always leave information about where you are diving. But I'd become tired of advice.
Shrugging on my tank, I walked through dunes towards the lagoon and the Red Sea surf breaking on the reef edge half a mile beyond. The bleached white sand of the beach was cloaked by a dark moving mass. The surface was a vast sea of feeding hermit crabs. I walked into this mass of crabs and a dark wave formed ahead of me, flowing away from my feet as if repelled by my presence. The crabs kept a precise arc of distance, a sentient wave, never allowing me close, as if they could sense my guilt over the death of the woman. They allowed grudging access to their shallow lagoon and then closed ranks behind me with the precision of a drilled army. Behind were the bones of the Saudi Arabian desert and ahead, the inviting warm waters of the Red Sea waited.
Calf deep in the bath-hot water I was wary of sharp coral and alert to the deadly stonefish, a creature that hides motionless and camouflaged on the sandy bottom, its poisonous barbs able to pierce protective footwear. So I started to dance, a shuffling two-step that disturbed clear water and lethal fish alike. It’s a long waltz to the reef carrying a heavy full tank of air, mask and flippers, while scanning the rippled sand for signs of danger.
 Eventually I reached deeper, waist-high water. A few steps further and through the clear water a metre in front, the sand erupted. A grey, disc-shaped object exploded from the lagoon bottom, swimming away from me. A stingray, lying hidden in the sand, had made its escape, its barbed tail lashing inches from my thigh. It's gone in an instant, leaving just a fine contrail of sand in the blue water behind it. I resumed my clumsy safety dance with added vigour.
I arrived at the reef's edge and its vertical drop-off, where more exotic, dangerous creatures awaited. Their colours, undimmed by the water’s shallow depth, flashed as they twisted and turned in the glare of the morning sunlight. They're hunting. Mask on, I ducked my head below the water.
 A slithering motion caught my eye; black and yellow, a sea snake drifted near, smug in the knowledge it possessed one of the deadliest venoms on Earth. I froze and waited for it to pass. I hate snakes; but I respect them more. Languidly it veered away towards the safety of deeper water.
 A gentle swell broke in a white line along the coast marking the reef edge as I re-considered my actions. I was alone. I shouldn't be doing this. But in truth, I had no one to tell and neither did I care.
  Waiting unseen would be sharks, barracuda with their cold, malicious eyes and lurking lionfish with spines ready to inject and poison. At the reef edge and before that final plunge, there was always that fear. I wondered again if I should turn back. Ignoring the only sensible decision, I stepped off the reef and fell into the blue.
 The water was warm but felt cold on my over-heated skin as I floated exposed on the oily calm of the surface. I fitted fins and mask, emptied the buoyancy vest, turned and slid down into the blue depths.
 The sound on the reef flooded my ears, crackling and popping, a thousand fish chewing on  coral for their breakfast. Another ten metres of depth added as I finned down the reef wall, watching two reef-sharks slink away into the gloom far below. Clinging to the underwater cliff for protection I spotted a wary conga eel hidden within the shadows of his crevasse. From there he peered out as if seated in a private box at the opera, watching unimpressed as vibrant clown fish danced within their protective anemones and shoals of stripped triggerfish pirouetted to the undersea ballet.
 Deeper I fell and the density of life faded away. Out of the darkness came a surreal sight. A row of  truck tyres, each tethered by a rope from a sunken wreck below, floated like the dead fingers of the drowned. Their enticing invitation was impossible to resist.
 But a quick check showed I was going to the limits of acceptable depth. I turned and looked up towards an alien sky. Through forty five metres of water the sunlight was reduced to a small coronal haze, to the weakness of moonlight. The ship, lying on its side, was bathed in gothic monochrome. The tyres, once protecting the ships side at dock, now floated mournfully above my head. I finned further along and down the vertical deck, peering through broken windows into dark cabins where shadows morphed into furniture, crockery, the debris of extinct life.
 Deeper into the hulk and beyond the time permitted at this depth, I became bolder. I wanted to go further. A small voice inside in my head shouted vainly at me. Dimly I understood my elation to be the beginning of narcosis.
 It was past time to leave, but no, I wanted to stay in the cool darkness. The voice in my head became irrelevant. Then, with supreme effort, I turned and began to fin towards the surface.  Training had kicked in. I forced myself to go slow, fighting the rising panic, realising at last that I’d gone way beyond normal dive safety limits. My air faded. Don't hold your breath, the voice in my head shouted. Obediently I  exhaled the last of my air from decompressed lungs and ascended at the rate of the bubbles around me.
 Breaching the surface, the previously calm sea was replaced by rough swell. The current drove me towards land and waves tossed me like flotsam against the coral. Sharp edges ripped into skin, scolding me for the bravado of not wearing a wetsuit, then dragged me away before throwing me back again. Each time I was thrown against the rock, I struggled to hold on. Pain stabbed through me with each wave as coral ripped my gloves apart, lacerating my hands and tearing at my bare legs. My strength was fast ebbing away with each failed attempt to escape the surf.
A break appeared in the reef cliff and I recognised the narrow gully. It was an entrance to the lagoon, a route to safety. The current picked me up in it's hand and swept me inside, past sharp rocks and spikes of coral outcrop towards the safety of the lagoon. I swam with the last of my energy, desperate to avoid rock and coral, knowing if I failed I'd be swept mercilessly back out to sea.
Yet I failed. Strength ebbed from my body as quickly as the surf drawback dragged me away from safety. Helpless and exhausted, the sea took me. There was nothing to do but contemplate my foolish arrogance.
A wiry arm appeared, gripped my buoyancy vest, and I was hauled onto the reef. In an instant I was free of danger. On my back like some half-dead fish, I stared up into the blue of a cloudless sky and the wrinkled face of a lone Saudi fisherman. He stood looking down at me and shaking his head. I coughed water, grinned in relief and  thanked him. I wasn't sure he understood, but he shrugged his shoulders and smiled, perhaps thinking about the idiocy of foreigners and their strange games. He then turned and returned to his nets.
 Back at the beach the crabs had gone, perhaps disappointed I hadn't donated my body to their feast. I'd failed to help a stranger, yet a stranger had helped me. He at least, had thought it a risk worth taking.