michael hughes’s blog

The making of… The Gateway of India

Posted in Uncategorized by michaelhughes on September 22, 2010

Gateway of India

Gateway of India


When I began writing this piece I just wanted to write about the trip I made and how it had taken place under the shadow of my father’s death. Associations kept popping up and it started to dawn on me that death had woven many different threads through my life. My impression had been that death is something which society keeps hidden, except on TV, of course, where you can get 30 corpses a night. Death is implicit in photography, even when it is not photographing death itself. Every click of the shutter imparts the gift of immortality and kills at the same time. The invention of recording machines has meant that the world has been taken over by ghosts. Nothing dies any more, it moves on.


Travelling the world, one is closer to death than usual; a scheduled flight to Zürich crashing in two weeks after I was on it, the collapse of an airport terminal in Paris a month after I passed through on the way to Texas and the Taj hotel.  Four photographers I knew have died. One in a plane crash while being flown by his father, another in a diabetic coma, a third hung himself in a graveyard, the fourth died in a war zone.

When I took this photo of the Gateway of India, at the beginning of an assignment which would take me from Mumbai to Muscat by plane and on to Dubai in a Toyota Landcruiser across the desert, I stayed for two nights in the Taj Mahal Palace in 2002, the scene of the terrorist attacks of 2008.

The trip stood in the shadow of another death. My father had died three months earlier. Just before Christmas he had gone into hospital in Spain where he was spending his retirement for what was to be a routine operation. I had talked to him on the phone in hospital and he told me he expected to be out in time for Christmas. The way we understood it, he would have an operation and be back home for convalescence. Soon afterwards I got a call that he was back at home which meant that all was going to plan. The preparations for Christmas began to roll and so my attention to what was going on in Spain was diverted. Spanish society works differently to the societies I, his wife and my sister are used to. Spanish hospitals send you home to die so that you can be in the bosom of your family. I had completely misinterpreted the signals. His wife, having no intention of caring for an incontinent man who had been deposited in her sitting room, demanded that he be sent him back to hospital. I wonder now if he realised at this point, the nature of the deal which he had entered into. His marriage with my mother had been tailored to fit him. It covered his weaknesses, gave him a role which brought him respect and, above all, neutralised the disadvantages of being an emotional illiterate. My mother helped him through her own death, soothing him and preparing him for the time after her. Even having to explain how the savings were structured, how to get money out of an ATM. It was no wonder, then when his mourning had run its course, that he should seek someone to cover the side of him which had been suddenly laid so bare. He found her in the figure of the woman who he had hired to redecorate his apartment. Typical that he should take the relationship which presented itself, not knowing how to go about it any other way after his life of (presumed) monogamy with my mother. It was a little disturbing to hear him call her by my mother’s endearment, “Darling” or to see her wearing my mother’s jewelry, but who was I to question what he perceived as his chance of happiness?  After all, he had forced me to choose between himself and my mother by demanding that I make no reference to cancer in her presence. The silence he imposed around the approaching event extending to his zapping away of TV channels which showed illness or sexuality (my mother had breast cancer). A silence of collusion in which they returned, I think, to the beginnings of their journey together, his head bowed, she consoling, I see them in a pose they never took. I had decided to forgive him, it would have been illogical to stand in his way.

That the subsequent marriage which he had entered upon, was a hollow shell is not something which would have crossed his mind. The imperative of drowning the voices of uncertainty led him into it, the luxury of not having to do his own house-keeping and occasional, while diabetic, sex, assuaged him. Existential questions would be peppered by the double-barrelled shotgun of exasperation and scorn. He was even prepared to compromise a little. His new spouses dogs were allowed to sit on him while watching TV (them and him, I imagine). He would sometimes help with the shopping. Attempted to punch the doctor as they carried him to the ambulance, a faint smile raises itself on my inner face. Just like him! A week later on the way to his funeral, I was reading his last will and testament. In the preamble he had stated that he had one child, my sister, by my mother. Eight years earlier we had had an argument in a restaurant in London. The occasion had been to introduce myself and my sister to the woman who was later to become his wife. At some point during the meal she had made some casual racist remarks about the Japanese to which I had taken umbrage. It had obviously been enough to enrage him to the extent that he had disowned me, although he had not seen fit to tell me. I was so shocked at this metaphoric assassination that it threw me into a deep depression. I was still working through this when the call came to do the last part of a round-the-world reportage and the reason why I was staying in the Raj.

The two Brigitte teams meet in Mumbai

The two Brigitte teams meet in Mumbai

The stay in India was to be short; we were supposed merely to pose for a photograph which had our reporting team taking over from the previous one, I had little time to find a Souvenir or an alternative to the Gateway of India which stood, handily, in front of the hotel. The assignment was really interesting but difficult. We were celebrating the 50th birthday of the leading German woman’s magazine “Brigitte”. The idea was for teams of reporters to circle the globe, like a relay, passing the baton at the end of each stage. The team before us had driven by taxi across India, meeting us in Mumbai. We were then to fly to Muscat and from there, explore Oman, eventually crossing the desert and finishing off in Dubai, from where we would fly home. The meeting in Mumbai was an indulgence for the sake of the one picture, so you can see how much money some people have to burn if they want to.

Our plane landed at night in Mumbai, we then took a taxi through the darkened streets to the Taj. The first sights of a new country, particularly one such as India, whose relationship to my homeland, Britain is so intense and complicated, are really exhilarating. Seeing families sleeping together on traffic islands, the cows wandering the streets of this metropolis, the yellow sodium lights, the mad traffic and bustle, was something special. Waking the next morning at the Taj, I looked out of the window through the green mosquito netting and watched the sun come up over the Gateway of India. I bought a postcard at the reception desk and went out into the sunlight.

Crows flew from their perches as a horse and carriage passed, I remember seeing a crippled girl, about eight years old, begging, her tenacity and cheerfulness, extraordinary.

In front of the Taj in Mumbai
In front of the Taj in Mumbai

I must have been about seven or eight years old when the contents of a book of photography first informed me that the outside world was not as safe as I thought. Playing with a friend in the sitting room of their house one day when his parents were out, we found behind the sofa on a book shelf right at the bottom, a book which had been covered with brown paper. I must have been at least slightly aware of the unsalubrious nature of its subject matter, because I seem to remember anticipating something to do with sex. We opened it to find those ghastly pictures of the German concentration camps, probably photographed by George Rodger, although I can find no record of him having produced such a book. The awareness, seeping into my brain that this had been done by human beings, the casualness of doing death, the sheer incongruousness of this actual subject matter which made clear to me one of the fundamentals of photography as defined ny Roland Barthes that;

“For the photograph’s immobility is somehow the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute to Reality an absolute superior, somehow eternal value; but by shifting this reality to the past (‘this-has-been’), the photograph suggests that it is already dead.” 
Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography)

From that day I knew that there were forces out in the world who would destroy me if they could, that death was the living who had turned away from us, that one day I would die and would be as defenceless as those in the pictures pitched willy-nilly into those human heaps. That there had been a photographer there to record this reality, that there is no „inhuman“ just „human“.

On the front page of the Daily Express was a picture whose significance took longer for me to assess. My father had begun subscribing to the Express as our daily newspaper after he had become disappointed with the Labour party after the second world war. Soldiers of the Britsh army had become so dislillusioned with their (Conservative) officers that Churchill had been displaced in 1945. Now he had begun to enjoy the benefits of a new class mobility and changed his alliance accordingly. A spell as conservative councillor in Three Bridges in Sussex had been an expression of his political alignment. The choice of a middle-of-the-road conservative paper was its logical outcome. The daily arrival of the paper, thrust through the letter slit of our semi-detached, with an exuberance which often damaged the outer skin, by a bent over man with the characteristic half-moon profile caused by missing teeth, was a reminder of our new-found status. The dark tones of the picture that day suggested early morning and rain, the subject of the photograph a two-storey, semi-detached house, much like our own, standing in a road with other houses of a similar style, repeating themselves outside the frame invisibly, infinitely, inevitably. Essential suburbia, a scene to be found all over the British Isles, a gimcrack, British version of the American way of life. In a headlong embrace of splendid isolation, the middle classes retreat to the suburbs. But this particular house had no roof or upper storey, its fate was that it was situated precisely under the approach path to Heathrow Airport. An aircraft, approaching too low, had shaved off the top. In a way the image symbolised many things; not having a roof over ones head, exposure to the elements, the ruin of something which had been completed, even the collapse of the family, the epitome of middle class aspiration, undone. The owner’s child, having a bedroom downstairs, survived.

The victims turned out to be friends of my parents. I seem to recall having met them once. I sometimes wondered what had happened to the child afterwards, was it adopted? We never spoke of it again. Searching for information for this crash to see whether I had remembered correctly, I received this information from Ronan Hubert, an historian at ACRO in Geneva. On 2 September 1958 – A Vickers 621 Viking flying for Independent Air Travel crashed shortly before landing at Heathrow. While performing the cargo schedule London – Nice – Brindisi – Athens – Tel Aviv, the registered G-AIJE aircraft was carrying a crew of three and cargo. The aircraft left Heathrow airport at 0554LT and fifteen minutes later, the captain informed ATC that he encountered engine problems and elected to return. The aircraft eventually stalled and crashed at Southall, five kilometers from runway at 0632LT. The aircraft destroyed several houses and all three crew were killed as were eleven people on the ground. Fifteen other people were injured. The real cause of the engine problem was undetermined but the aircraft stalled due to low speed.

Snow flurries are discernible on the black and white photograph my sister took of me in the garden of our house in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Taken from slightly too far away because she was unaccustomed to the wide angle lens which I was using, I am standing in the garden my mother loved, wearing a borrowed suit and shirt a few sizes too big for me. The occasion, my mother’s funeral. The earring I used to wear in my left ear is missing, out of a weird understanding of respect.

The night before, at my father’s behest, I had visited my mother at the mortician’s to take my leave. In those days, my photography was very strongly documentary. At significant moments I would make images, so I toyed with the idea of taking my camera on this last visit. It was as well that I did not and not just because of the possible interpretation of impropriety. Alone with my mother, I circled her body, taking in the details, her lips, slightly parted and falling away from the teeth, gave her an expression which I had never seen while she was alive. Her stillness revealed to me that life is, essentially, movement. Like a photograph the scene is still present in my memory, my distanced viewpoint out of the corner of the room, her lying parallel to the walls on the bier in a pool of subdued, yellow light, a few flower arrangements, a door. Silence. Taking my fathers arm during the cremation, I had felt his body contract with the single sob which he struggled to contain the shame of his grief, but which welled out of him in a single desperate growl as my mother’s coffin was engulfed by the flames. Why is that when we weep we always end up weeping for ourselves?

In Oman, the coughing which were the remnants of a head cold had become chronic, turning to pneumonia. I fought my way through the reportage as best I could. Chinese medicine identifies mourning as the cause of lung illnesses. One night, in the desert after sand-duning with the Landcruiser we were invited to a meal of dates in the family tent of a Beduin. We had our own tents but I chose to sleep out that night on the dunes. I wrapped myself in a heavy blanket and looked up at the stars until I fell asleep, turning over the events with my father. The morning light revealed the footprints of a fox which had walked past me in the night.

Carrying 15 kilos of camera gear in 50 C heat, gasping my way up a dune in a miasma of the finest wind-borne sand, the photos I had made became the double page spread. Walking along the ridge of a dune, her arms outstretched, her feet leaving blurry footprints in the talcum powder-fine sand, I had taken pictures of the woman journalist who was with me. The photo suggested to her the motif of the story which she was finding hard to formulate: that we journey through the world without understanding or goals leaving signs which are momentarily engulfed by infinity.

Sea of sand

Footprints blown away



Israeli Souvenirs

Posted in Other People's Souvenirs by michaelhughes on August 23, 2010

What is wrong with this?

Israeli ex-soldier says Facebook prisoner pictures were souvenirs

Eden Abergil brushes off criticism as veterans group says ‘victory pictures’ widespread practice among soldiers
See more of the Israeli soldiers’ ‘trophy’ photos

Rachel Shabi in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 17 August 2010 17.09 BST
Article history

Eden Abergil sparked outrage when she posted pictures of herself with Palestinian captives on her Facebook page. Photograph: Getty Images/AFP

A former Israeli soldier who posed for pictures with Palestinian detainees and posted them on her Facebook page defended her actions today, as more images emerged of Israeli service personel posing alongside blindfolded detainees and dead bodies.
“I still don’t understand what I did wrong,” Eden Abergil told Israeli army radio. Abergil, a reserve officer with the Israeli army who completed compulsory military service last year, provoked outrage over photographs in which she posed next to handcuffed, blindfolded Palestinians.
She told army radio: “There’s no violence or intention to humiliate anyone in the pictures. I just had my picture taken with them in the background. I did it out of excitement, to remember the experience. It wasn’t a political statement or any kind of statement. It was about remembering my experiences in the army and that’s it.”
The pictures have provoked a furious rection from Palestinians, who compared them to images of US soldiers abusing of Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad in 2004
“This is not very different to what was exposed at Abu Ghraib in Iraq,” said Mustafa Barghouti, secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative. “It is not an individual act, or a personal act or a lack of judgment, but a part of the constant racist behaviour that is implanted in the Israeli army and a whole philosophy of discrimination against Arabs and Palestinians. The most important characteristic of this treatment is humiliation.”
An Israeli army spokesperson described the Facebook photographs as “shameful behaviour”.
Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group of army veterans that documents the experiences of soldiers serving in the occupied West Bank, released more photographs to demonstrate that the practice is widespread.
The group said its preliminary batch of graphic pictures, some featuring Israeli soldiers posing next to dead bodies, was collated over the last decade and that a few of the images were from the Facebook pages of active soldiers. It asked the Israeli army to “clarify that this is a widespread phenomenon, not an unusual incident by one soldier”.
Yehuda Shaul, one of the group’s founders, said: “This is commonplace. Don’t you take pictures of your everyday life? For these soldiers serving in the occupied territories, this is what they see 24/7 – handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinians.”
Shaul described the photographs of Israeli soldiers standing next to what appear to be dead Palestinian men as “victory souvenirs”. “Being in a place where you cannot see Palestinians as human beings is the default when you are serving in the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Khalida Jarar, a Palestinian politician and director of Addameer, the Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association, said: “There are many more violations and abuses of Palestinians, without photographs. The soldiers take these pictures to show that they can do anything they want to Palestinians.”

The Making of… Disneyland, Paris

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on March 4, 2010
Micky mouse

The bump in the continuum

The first film I ever recall seeing was “Greyfriar’s Bobby”. Made by Disney in 1961, the film, is about a little dog (a Skye Terrier) who, when his master dies, conducts a lonely vigil at his grave for 14 years, earning himself the title of the film. The film made me so sad that I cried uncontrollably not only during the film but all the way home on the bus. I have a picture in my mind of that ride home. We sat in the lengthways bench seat at the back of an old, open-door Routemaster and I am looking at the backs of the passengers in the dingy yellow light as outside the dark, rain swept streets went past. I was nine years of age at the time and a sensitive child but it probably convinced my Glaswegian, upwardly mobile and ambitious, American-dream-of-the-suburbs-in-post-war-Britain mother that I needed hardening up.

The only positive effect the film had was that it made me aware of a bump in the continuum, the residue of a defect which had not been camouflaged carefully enough, the insight that cultural artefacts like film are made for reasons other than entertainment. I also asked myself the question: why did Disney want to manipulate me like this? Why would anyone in their right mind want to twist the facts (the film is based on a true story) into this tear-jerker? The answer, which has stood the test of time, is that Disney is a concern whose kitsch sentimentality and tastelessness is its defining philosophy and whose money-grubbing instincts know no bounds.

There is a saying (possibly Cicero): “de gustibus, non disputandum est ” (thank you Curt Sampson, http://www.cynic.net/~cjs/index.html) which, to those of you ignorant of Latin, translates to “There is no arguing taste”. My cussedness drives me, to the exasperation of my family, to reverse this into “Taste has to be argued about”, although I am tempted by Chekhovs “de gustibus, aut bene aut nihil”, which could be translated as, “Taste: you have it or you don’t.” None of these views on taste interest our children, whether in the question of music, friends, entertainment, or, in this case, Disney.

So it came to pass that in the summer of 2003 our family was on its way to Brittany with a stop-off for three days at Disneyland Paris. As usual I was cast into the role of villain because I had made it quite clear to my family about not being enthusiastic about giving a lot of money to Disney. Nonetheless, in the back of my mind, the Souvenirs idea is always present so I went along with as much grace as I could muster. Arriving at our designated hotel, the first shock was that our dog had to go into the Disney kennel. This was the first contradiction to me; how could a company which had made its money from anthropomorphising kitsch animals refuse our dog entrance? If we had appeared with a tame deer, a mouse or a duck, would we have been turned away? What if we had come with a Skye terrier? So off we went to the kennels and delivered him, which made him really sad (and me too). The next day we found out that he was refused entrance to the whole area, only humans looking like animals were allowed, so I spent the time walking to and fro comforting the dog and taking pictures. Next to a hedge in the huge parking lots where the kennels are situated, I noticed a dead rat and could observe through my frequent visits over the three days that no one made any effort to remove it, all the while being serenaded by the loudspeaker system which instructed the public on a never-ending tape not to forget where they had parked their cars.

mickey mouse

Lick a mouse

I felt pretty much vindicated by this time in my opposition to our visit but did not let this get in the way of my thirst for new Souvenirs. It was Marcus, one of our sons, who came up with the ticket suggestion which you can see in the picture. I had bought a lot of stuff; fridge magnets and the like, but the idea of using the entrance ticket came from him. In the pictures you can see one of the pavilions which were stationed around the park where the Disney characters would assemble at designated times and give autographs to the waiting children. I am sorry to say that my daughter collected all of them. The characters were accompanied by ushers who job it was to make sure that nothing got out of hand. The pavilion was kept clear of people, the head of the queue would be let forward to get their autograph and be cuddled in a photo-op for the proud parents. I remained outside the pavilion too and got one of the shots where you can see the hand of an usher holding a blue slip with the words ‘Photo Souvenir’ which I thought at the time would be the one. It was just about now when I noticed that the ushers were beginning to cramp my style. It seemed accidental at first but it soon became clear that while pretending to be oblivious they were actively trying to spoil my shot. Obviously my intentions had become suspicious and their brute stupidity inspired them to act against me in this bovine way. Exactly this kind of action is guaranteed to get my dander up, so soon I was leaning into them and telling them in execrable French to get out of my way.

I was pretty certain (this is before the time when I could check on a display) that I had got what I wanted, so I allowed myself to be cajoled back into the herd by Marion and the kids who were beginning to find me embarrassing. The moral of the story? I was right about Disney.

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Interview by Forrest MacCormack on Skype

Posted in Uncategorized by michaelhughes on March 3, 2010

Forrest MacCormack did a Skype interview with me – listen to it at: fsmphoto.blogspot.com/2010/02/interview-with-photographer…

The making of… the camels of Giza

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on January 14, 2010

The camel narrative battle

The camel narrative battle

Lawrence Durrell, Lawrence of Arabia, so many Lawrences which have formed my image of the desert and Egypt. The needle on the embankment near the Houses of Parliament in London, The curse of the mummy, Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Nile”, the mask of Tutankhamun, all tenuous connections to a mystery realm stretching back thousands of years to the beginnings of civilisation, beyond even the Romans and the Greeks of my education. A state based on the flood plains of the Nile, existing in the middle of the desert, stretched along those banks, secure in that aqueous flow producing miracles of engineering; the pyramids. Next to the river, in those times, was the plateau of Giza where the pyramids were built overlooking the ancient city of Memphis. Now they are on the outskirts, but slowly being eaten up by, the Moloch Cairo. A city of chaos and humour, weighted down by the oppressive heat and the smog of its buses and cars, packed bumper to bumper and door to door, flowing viscously along three-tiered motorways through the middle of the city, there are meetings full of wit and circumstantial acquaintance as the accidental neighbour takes sudden garrulous interest in your country of origin. Beneath it all there is the hum of a deeply engrained dirt so intense that it teeters on the brink of smell and taste, much like parts of London or New York, but more overwhelming while borne up on the fierce heat.

A friend, Hassan, who owns a restaurant in my home town, Berlin had agreed to reschedule one of his annual trips home and accompany me to work the magic that is “Souvenirs” in the country on the river. We first flew down to Luxor. The Temple of Karnak and Luxor, situated in and adjacent to the town, remain in my memory as cleanly swept complexes where my anticipation of the awe which I supposed would envelop me failed to materialise. A night visit to Karnak where a dismal light show accompanied by a theatrical commentary elicited more amusement that wonder and the avaricious guides who pandered to my conceit by spiriting me through the tourist masses to the best view points and ducking me under tape barriers, wanted, naturally, not to selflessly serve art but expected generous remuneration despite the best efforts of my Egyptian companion and his pithy vernacular to dismay them.

It was the next day when our hired minibus took us over the Nile and towards the Valley of the Queens, past the Ramasseum, to Gurna and then on to the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut that I began to get a taste of the country. Stopping to buy tickets for our onward trip, I left the minibus to walk across a huge triangular area of waste land towards a village which was clustered onto the side of the mountain. I was fascinated by its lack of services in this merciless heat, the water tanks on wheels parked around the place, the donkeys, a dog and one human who had ventured out of the shade. Most particularly I was struck by the cubist impression the village made, its houses painted in sundry shades of yellow, ochre and blues. I learned immediately afterwards in Spain that house are painted with blue walls as a deterrent to insects. The picture I made of the village with my trusty Plaubel Makina 6×7 camera hangs on our living room wall. Hassan and the driver drove around the triangle to pick me up, fearing that a lone tourist might be a target for inhospitable Egyptians, a species I never came to meet.

Cubist desert village

Cubist desert village

We stopped at the Ramasseum and then drove to the Temple of Sethi. By this time I was pretty hot and despite copious amounts of water, the enterprise was beginning to pale as there was no apparent chance of doing any Souvenirs; the choice was limited to entrance tickets this far away from the tourist centre of Luxor. We stopped at the Temple of Sethi 1st. looking more for a rest than yet another tour of baking hot ruins. We were greeted at the entrance by the guardian, an older man who, when asked, emphatically affirmed his knowledge of English. Hassan was getting tired of translating and expected this government-paid custodian to give us a detailed tour of the temple. It soon became clear that his English was limited to saying “Sethi” in an English accent but one of those strange and wonderful things had happened which one can never predict; somehow he and I took a shine to each other. I think we shared a sense of humour because I read the way he was talking to Hassan and the way he then looked at me with an impish expression. Hassan was a little irritated but I felt like being showed around by this man so we did the tour, saw the paintings on the walls and learned a little about Sethi. Our guide, on the way back to the gate, asked whether we would take tea with him and I, because I liked him and did not want to insult him, agreed. We were invited into his gate house which turned out to be his dwelling, there was a bank at the side of the room where a few blankets were laid out where two young men were sitting cradling their Kalaschnikovs. Assuming the two to be friendly, we smiled at them and watched our guide make his preparations for tea. An amphora, half buried in the ground, was filled with water and from this he transferred, cup by cup, the water into a high-sided aluminium pan out of which a red painted wooden handle protruded. Carved into a piece of sandstone, were fitted the filaments of a cannibalised electric kettle. Two nails sticking out of the wall were connected to the mains by way of wires. He took the two thick copper wires from the kettle elements which were each formed into a hook and hung them over the live nails. The elements began to glow and he placed the pan on top of them. A bundle of fresh mint was taken and the appropriate amount put into each glass which he had rinsed in the amphora.

Boiling water for tea

I am not a squeamish man but it was obvious that the hygienic possibilities open to my new friend did not in any way correspond to those I took for granted. Hassan, who had seen this situation coming long before me, looked at me sideways in the gloom of the hut. I ignored the clamour of injunctions my brain was firing at me, took the glass with the proffered tea and drank. Delicious and very refreshing and with no after effects.

Two days later we flew up to Cairo. I would have preferred to hire a car and drive up but we took heed of security warnings which would have required us to travel in convoy and took the safer and speedier alternative.

I had booked in at an hotel near the airport which was a few hundred metres from Hassan’s sister’s apartment. He stayed with her, her husband and the three children. First thing, the next day, Hassan turned up with a car he had borrowed from his uncle and we set off to the pyramids at Giza, on the other side of Cairo. I had bought a couple of things from the Hotel shop; the toy camel and a postcard but wanted to see what the local shops had on offer. We found one at the bottom of the incline where the Sphynx stands and which marks the extent of the spread of the city. Hassan told the owner what we were doing and he allowed us to take our pick. We put them into a bag and drank the cold coke which he offered us. His generosity extended beyond the coke; we were allowed to take the souvenirs and photograph them without payment, not even a deposit.

I photographed the Sphynx, both with the Plaubel and with two different Souvenirs, Hassan took the photo of me which is on Facebook. There is an incline up to the the Cheops pyramid. Walking in the heat with my fully laden camera bag, I began to feel funny and so ducked into the shadow of a ruin and waited half an hour to stabilise myself. Camel riders were waiting in front of the Great Pyramid, leaving Hassan with the plastic bag containing the rest of the loot, I strode up to them clasping the toy camel in my hand. Immediately sensing business, one of them started talking to me, it was interesting to see how he interpreted the toy camel I was holding. I was not sure what I wanted to do. It was clear fairly quickly that I could not do the classic Souvenirs shot with my camel replacing his, so I reverted to the Windmill picture idea in Holland, inserting an extra camel into the landscape. The narrative of the picture became my camel meeting his camel in front of the Great Pyramid. This narrative did not suit the erstwhile camel man who wanted to impose upon me his narrative for the photo; a camel rider (who would be paid for his part) holding my camel while sitting on his. Hassan had my back here; as the rider during our narrative wrestling became aware that his narrative would not get beyond the cutting room, began to get abusive Hassan gave him a blast of vernacular Egyptian. I know this sounds unfair, I used the man to get my photo, but what do you pay a man who holds your toy camel?

Back at the souvenir shop after our tour, almost fainting with heat stroke, we returned the Souvenirs, bought two as a recompense and received yet another can of coke.

A footnote

The day before I left I came out of my hotel to meet Hassan and was directed by a plain clothes policeman to go behind an informal barrier which had been set up in the side street next to the hotel. The main motorway which ran past from the centre through the residential district of Government Officials and out to the airport was completely empty. Obviously road blocks were in place, so I assumed that a VIP would be coming through. On the surface Egypt seems to be an easy-going place, but even the slightest scratch reveals an authoritarian society, stiffened by military and police, distanced from its people, revelling in its power and glory. A khaki minibus careened by on its way to the airport, its windows were open and forearms clutching AK 47s sticking upwards could be seen. For a long time there was silence, the people which had gradually accumulated around me and myself, moved slowly forward trying to catch a glimpse of what would come next. The policeman who was responsible for this crossing made no sign to wave us back. We had all resigned ourselves to waiting for what we assumed would be Mubarak’s convoy, when we could go about our business again. An SUV pulled up and a big man, wearing a sports jacket which would never in its most optimistic dreams meet its partner lapel over the bulging mass of the man’s belly, leapt out and started waving at us and screaming at the plain clothes policeman. It was obvious that we had been allowed too far forward and Mubarak’s security had been breached. The sheer violence of his verbal attack was untrammeled. The authority he wielded over this unfortunate man, absolute. The man made no effort to defend himself, explain or even retaliate. It was the perfect example of a society in which authoritarianism ruled absolute, a demeaning spectacle that knew no criticism, no boundaries. The big man left and we were ushered back to our places by the policeman. The most shocking thing about it was; that I was the only one who was shocked.

Dangerous Souvenirs

Posted in Uncategorized by michaelhughes on December 15, 2009

Haroon Siddique and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 15 December 2009 11.47 GMT
Article history

A Silvio Berlusconi supporter holds a banner reading ‘Berlusconi, you are a great man, a myth, you will remain in history. Thank you for what you do for our country, the stars are with you” outside the San Raffaele hospital where the prime minister is recovering after the statue attack in Milan.

Silvio Berlusconi models with blood on their faces on sale in Naples. Photograph: Roberto Salomone/AFP/Getty Images

The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is to be kept in hospital for another night as he recovers from the attack in which he was struck by a model of Milan’s cathedral, his personal doctor said today.

A statement released by the San Raffaele hospital said the 73-year-old, who suffered a broken nose and two broken teeth in Sunday’s attack, was in pain but his condition was not worrying. His doctor, Alberto Zangrillo, said he was unlikely to return to work for 10 days.

Italy’s interior minister, Roberto Maroni, said the “actions” of Massimo Tartaglia, 42, who threw the souvenir at Berlusconi during a political rally outside Milan’s gothic cathedral, were premeditated, saying the attacker had been “developing a rage against the prime minister for some time”.

Maroni said Tartaglia had been in the square from 11am on Sunday morning and, as well as the plastic model cathedral, obtained from a stall nearby, was carrying pepper spray and a resin crucifix.

In a letter to the Italian leader, Tartaglia expressed his “heartfelt regret for a superficial, cowardly and rash act in which he did not recognise himself”, the attacker’s lawyers said. They added that their client, who has a history of mental health problems, acted alone and did not have a political agenda.

Berlusconi was shaking hands and signing autographs when he was struck. He was taken to hospital with his face bloodied.

There was condemnation of the attack from across the political spectrum but the Italian media has suggested the incident reflected the prime minister’s polarising effect on the public.

Italy’s best-selling daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, said it was indicative of the “civil war” going on in Italian politics.

Berlusconi’s popularity has fallen after a year in which he has been embroiled in sex scandals detailing his alleged use of prostitutes. He has also experienced legal troubles with the constitutional court throwing out a law that granted him immunity. That could open him up to a series of trials for fraud, tax evasion and bribery. But despite his troubles his approval rating remains just over 50%.

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The making of…Alkmaar Windmills

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on April 22, 2009
Windmills at Alkmaar, Holland, October 2002

Windmills at Alkmaar, Holland, October 2002

Anyone who fears that global warming, melting ice caps and rising sea levels will destroy civilisation as we know it, can take heart. Holland ties with Denmark in having the lowest level of land of any countries of the world; 7 metres below sea level. If it wasn’t for the presence of the dykes 27% of what is now Holland would already be underwater. In fact dykes and holding back the sea has been a major preoccupation with the Dutch for 2000 years, despite setbacks, they have even managed to create a new Province called Flevoland from land reclaimed from the sea in 1986.

Land reclamation is a slow process, dykes are built and canals and pumps used to move the water into rivers which then drain to the sea. In the 1200’s windmills were harnessed to do the pumping. The enormity of the task can be judged by the amount of windmills which were built whose distinctive silhouette on the flat line of the Dutch horizon became inseparable from the image of the country which we have today. There are still more than 1150 working windmills in Holland and that number is rising because the past ten years have seen many extensive rebuilds take place.

Never one to be afraid to take on a cliche, I had my eyes open for a souvenir the moment I touched down in Schiphol Airport. I had been commissioned to do a reportage by Merian, a travel magazine in Jahreszeiten Verlag, well known in Germany for its exquisitely photographed stories. I had been trying for a couple of years to get a foot in the door and this time they thought that my ironic (and maybe “iconic”) style of photography would be a good way to illustrate the billiard table attributes of this horizontal country. The journalist would hire a bike and I would accompany him through Noord Holland. The only uncertain aspect of the undertaking was the weather, it being October 2002 and in the north sea coastal region meaning that we could not be certain of blue skies. This appeared not to be so important because the ironic approach meant that we needed to pay less attention to the classical aesthetics of travel photography. The souvenir would be easily found to ice the cake with.

Hiring a bike was not as easy as we had thought because when we arrived the tourist season was over and most of the bicycle shops were already closed for the winter. The weather was mixed but not catastrophic so we travelled around the countryside picking appropriate spots to do a little photo shooting. I was using a Mamiya RZ67 for the reportage and had my F5 for the souvenir opportunity. You can see the reportage at  http://www.flickr.com/photos/michael_hughes/sets/72157594535336208/One of the first photos I made was in one of the few remaining places which smoke fish on the Ijsselmeer; there was a young man sitting at a red oilcloth covered table, cutting the heads off sprats with a pair of kitchen scissors. This rather macabre picture put a spin on the story which we could never quite shake off. Soon I was photographing a man with an eel and, on one of our cross-country excursions, we found whole dead sheep sticking out of dustbins at the side of the road. Less macabre but bizarre were the Korean tourist’s children dressed up in Dutch national dress on a bridge at a museum showing the Dutch way of life in the middle ages.

I was starting to get a little jittery about my souvenir, so we stopped in Alkmaar at a souvenir shop and I bought myself a beauty of a toy windmill. It was clockwork, rendering “Tulips from Amsterdam” while rotating the vanes and would light up when plugged in. The real windmills were not long in coming. There is a museum of windmills just outside of Alkmaar and over the main road, up a side road we found two wild windmills standing next to canals in a perfect landscape. The sun was starting to set so the sky was luminescent, arching across the scene. I tried holding my pet windmill in front of the nearest in the picture in classic “Souvenirs” fashion but then quickly decided to try something different. For the first time I decided to integrate the souvenir into the picture in its own right. Instead of replacing a landmark I introduced a new similar object to those already existing in the picture. It was important that at least two other “real” windmills could be found in the picture because just one would have given the impression that I was merely comparing them:- which was not the point.  Algy Batten of Fivefootsix, (the design agency which produced the “Souvenirs” book in September 2008) refused the image for the collection because the object did not replace the original. For me the picture is as much about commenting an ideal Dutch landscape as it is just about windmills. I wanted to convey the feeling of belonging; three windmills just hanging out at the end of a long but productive windmill day…

The weather broke up soon after this and I seem to remember that we came back two days earlier than planned. Giving back the hire car at the airport and faced with the task of getting my windmill onto the plane I gave it to the guy at the counter, telling him to give to someone he hated. One of the few occasions that a Souvenir failed to make it back to camp.

The reaction to what we had produced was muted to put it politely. While we were away a recession had hit Germany, resulting in a nosedive in sales for almost all magazines and periodicals. Merian was trying to correct course by going for safe, which meant that they asked me to send them green fields and cloudless skies; a bucolic paradise, photos which I had not made (because I had been asked to do something else), could not make (because of the time of year) and therefore could not deliver. Readers who look at the set on Flickr will see that almost all of the pictures are with blue skies; this is what I had to deliver. These days young picture editors are so used to seeing digital blue skies, that the presence of grain in a film photograph (film does not cope well with light, solid areas) makes them believe that the photography is not up to quality. That is like preferring plastic to wood because it has no grain. The resulting bad blood meant that neither I nor the journalist ever worked for them again. That aside; the publishing house is presently in a fight with freelance photographers because they have tried to impose a contract on those working for them which takes away all of the rights of the picture for ever, thereby robbing the photographer the chance of earning in the future on his work and also the photo agency to which he or she belongs. To date over 1700 photographers in Germany have undertaken not to sign this contract. It has lead to them having difficulty finding people to adequately photograph their assignments.

I signed too.

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The Making of… Our Lady of the Foresaken

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on April 6, 2009

The Ofrenda; Our Lady of the Forsaken at the Falles Festival in Valencia, Spain

There’s nothing wrong, in my view, with spirituality. On the other hand, ever since my intellectual awakening when I was fifteen, when I immediately dispensed with the services of a God, I have never been a religious person. My parents sent me to Sunday School once and I fell down on the way back and cut my eye open, I never went again. Nor did my parents, who considered their Christian duty done having married in a church and christened me. My sister never was (married in a church or christened). It was left to my school to try and inculcate the fear of God into me and they did so with a man who, for eleven and twelve year olds was the incarnation of fear and God. Nicknamed “Jake”, this wizened, bent-over apparition, his collapsed half-moon face permanently stretched in a rictus of anger strode up and down the desks in the classroom, banging with astonishing energy with his walking stick whenever we, his pitiful flock, failed to pay attention. He was a man whose default mood was anger. I can’t remember learning anything from him and as I saw no reason to make allowances for him, my School Religion was a complete washout. I was taking my spirituality to the rational point of the compass; Jean-Paul Sartre and the Existentialists, that was my favourite band, Camus and the Outsiders the backing group.

Photography was the path I took, tolerance became a way of life. The photographers I tried to emulate; Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and Koudelka, always involved people in their work. My interest has always been in people and their narratives but I used to be very shy and found it difficult to approach people. Walking through a park with the intention of taking a photo involving people would invariably end up with each potential subject registering my presence in some intuitive way thereby thwarting my intentions. I noticed that walking through the same park without intention, people completely ignored me. What was the difference? Slowly I came to realise that it was because I was not clear about myself. I had put myself on the back foot; I assumed that because I was finding it difficult to approach people, my strategy had been to try and do it without approaching them, effectively “steal” the photo. In turn, this gave me a guilty conscience and this made me act as if I was doing something wrong and this was what was communicating itself to the people in the park. I discovered that people are incredibly sensitive to what is around them, something which, strangely enough, they appear to be unaware. Intuition is a form of human radar whose working is so subconscious as to be wholly transparent, much as speech functions almost without us noticing how we achieve this fantastic trick of translating, on the fly our thoughts into words. After many years of mulling this it was clear to me that I had no intention of doing anything to harm the people I wanted to photograph – in fact I had no intention of hurting anyone at all.

This clarification had two effects; people stopped worrying about me being around and I decided that I would offer anyone finding me photographing them a smile and a possibility to speak to me. I opened up. Soon it became a habit of asking people if I could photograph them when it was clear that they were the real subject of my attention. People seldom say “no”. I have found that many photographers (usually amateurs) think that the best photos of people are when they are unaware of the camera. I utterly disagree; for me photographing people is about a conscious meeting with them, I want them to be looking at me and the future viewer directly in the eye. Later, looking at the picture, the viewer will automatically look at the eyes first, meeting the portrayed person as a person and not as an object which merely supports the composition of the picture. Try it for yourself; find a picture of a group of people – your eyes will invariably be drawn first to the people in the picture who are looking directly into the camera.

It is impossible to photograph people sensitively when one dislikes them or their beliefs. It becomes important to suspend one’s own position and open to another person’s. Fortunately I have never had to photograph Nazis sensitively but I imagine there I would draw a line. One woman insisted I photograph her in an Orgone box (Reich and William Boroughs), which looked pretty funny afterwards, but generally speaking I found that when I respected people and their beliefs that the session would end up mutually beneficial and enjoyable.

Valencia City in Spain had invited a large, international group of journalists to cover their yearly Falles Festival. There is a series of events which culminates in a firework orgy and burning down of the figures which each Falla has built during the course of the year. These are judged and the winner this year (2009) was rumoured to have cost the local Falla committee in excess of €900,000, which shows just how important an event this is. Men and particularly women, roam the streets dressed in silk looking like medieval characters, while the local youth let off fire crackers in a continuous stream. The whole city takes part from the deafening Mascleta’s to the processions from each district carrying flowers to make up the cloak of the Virgin of the Foresaken to the burning of the figures on the last evening. The day before, during my first reconnaissance in the town I had spotted a model of the Virgin on sale, checked that it generally corresponded to the one in front of the Basilica, asked my guides for confirmation, paid €33 and put her into my camera bag; my first Souvenir was ready. There was a feeling of public holiday in the air. The dressed up women, the cool but sunny weather, families gathered around tables in front of the chocolate shops where women were deep-frying buñuelos ( a pumpkin fritter) for customers to eat with their coffee, the occasional explosions set off by excited children, Valencia was at its best.

The next day the press group was bussed around the city, getting orientated and making notes on where to be at which event, press passes at the town hall and then out to the outskirts for a late lunch. It’s fun being in a group of people, getting to know them, exchanging ideas but my Madonna was beginning to burn in my bag and there was no apparent urgency for anyone else in the group to go to see the Ofrenda. I set off on my own, using my press pass to get onto the street which was kept clear for the communities in their fancy dress to parade through the streets, carrying their offering of flowers for the Virgin. A tradition called the “Ofrenda”. I had the ultimate press pass which allowed me to go anywhere at any time, it was in two pieces and even had a colour photo of me on it. The Virgin stands in the middle of a medieval plaza surrounded with ancient buildings. There is a fountain and a small park at the top end. Standing in the middle of this space, shadowed with blue and white tarpaulins stretched across the plaza stood the Virgin of the Foresaken. She stands about 25 metres high and is made out of latticed wood which a team of “flower-stuffers” fill out according to the design which makes up the Virgins robes. Atop this tower is the head and halo which is combined with the figure of the baby Jesus. Columns of people in traditional clothing made their reverent way to where the men took their flowers and tossed them in a sportive manner to the men positioned up the flanks of the Virgin to the stuffers, who beginning at the top, worked their way down to the bottom. This is all scheduled to take place over two days and involves great gardens of flowers to be brought to the plaza. Over-bidding themselves in fervour, some communities bring not just the flowers to be stuffed but also floral arrangements of baroque taste and proportions. Flowers and arrangements that are left over are given to old people’s and children’s homes, hospitals and asylums. To get an idea of the scale of the operation; a continuous column of people, five and six abreast and about three metres apart flow from the different communities of Valencia and beyond, starting at 13:00pm in the afternoon and ending at 2:00am in the night, for two whole days, each of them carrying flowers.

I arrived about six hours after the Ofrenda had begun. The columns of people were progressing, a few square metres of Virgin had been clothed, some excess flower bunches were lying around, it was early days and the atmosphere was that of the beginning of a Marathon. The lighting was a bit tricky because, standing directly in front of the Virgin (who was facing south) the setting sun was lighting up the sky still and the Virgin was already in shadow, the searchlights had just been switched on. Some other photographers were there but not many and I observed how they weaved in and out of the arriving groups taking their pictures. I was standing in the space between two flows of arriving people those coming up behind me veered to the left to go around the (my left, her right) side of the Virgin to drop their blooms and the stream from the right was being funneled about twenty metres to my front and right. I was in the lee of movement and pretty much alone. I took some general shots of the scene and then pulled out the Madonna. Holding it in the time-honoured fashion in my left hand I began adjusting the shot. The first shot of the Virgin shows 19:32:50 and the last of the first series (36 shots, again, a roll of old film) at 19:34:57, so just over two minutes. I was aiming to get the Virgin lined up with the background so that the flower stuffers left and right on the real Virgin would appear to be hanging off my model. You can see how few people there are, none between me and the Madonna because the crowds were tethered behind fences at the perimeter of the plaza. Nonetheless one of the organisers, a bearded young man with a fallas.com windcheater, asked me to desist, “I was getting in people’s way.” Flashing my press card I told him there could be no question of that and to let me get on with my job. He told me to go and stand behind a fence and to take my photos from there and because I wanted to look at the shots I had taken I moved in that direction and he moved off.

At 19:44.30 I was taking the next set of shots of the Virgin, getting off 27 shots ending at 19:45:08 in less than a minute before retiring to my position to check the results. (Exif information makes this reconstruction so much fun.) A scant five minutes later at 19:50:24 I am making my next shot, four shots later at 19:50:29 and five seconds into the shoot my man in the red windcheater is gesticulating at me and rips off my press accreditation, disappearing through the flower bearers to the side of the square. Stumbling after him with two cameras and a camera bag I tried to grab it back off him so we arrived at the side of the plaza in something of a shambles. He calls for a policeman who comes out of an office and grabs my arm. I have discovered that there is a universal sign language when you want a policeman to take his hands off you; stand still hunch your shoulders, raise your arms away from your body, not in surrender but rather with the suggestion that these implements could turn into bludgeons of steel should anyone try anything silly. It worked; the policeman let go and I found myself in a dual language shouting match with one irate and three interested Spaniards and one irate Englishman on the other. A Spanish photographer who had heard the altercation came over and in a collegial way offered me his services in translating, not before telling me that the Ofrenda is a very sensitive occasion and implying that I had somehow not conducted myself in the manner that was expected of me. My nemesis claimed that people had complained and there is no way to disprove this, but, given my position, the light and the arcane nature of what I was actually doing; holding a 24cm high figurine up to a figure one hundred times bigger – I doubt if anyone, even my interlocutor, knew if what I was doing offended the sensibilities of the people of Valencia.

I got my pass back by saying that I would leave the area. I knew that I had my picture, the last shoot was just the perfectionist in me, speaking. I shook hands with everyone, and went on my way. I write this as honestly as I can and I have tried hard to see the other side, but I can only interpret the event in one way; it was obvious that I was no Spaniard and the not-knowing what I was doing was enough to rouse the suspicion that no matter what it was, it was better to stop me doing it in case I might have been insulting the Virgin.

Perhaps this is precisely the reason that making a photograph is always a highly charged act when it tales place in the public arena. The public decision to make a photograph always raises the question of the intention of that act. When a person is being photographed it is relatively easy to establish a mode of conduct, but when it is a question of symbols, the photographer has a tough time giving good reasons, particularly when he or she belongs to the “outsider” group.

I have to accept the argument that what I was doing, no matter how respectfully I was doing it, would be felt to be disrespectful by the religious of Valencia. So I hereby apologise to the people of Valencia for offending their sensibilities but not for taking my pictures.

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The making of… Pisa and the Lollipop

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on February 15, 2009


12.04.2000 Pisa, Italy. View of the Leaning Tower obscured by rainbow lollipop

12.04.2000 Pisa, Italy. View of the Leaning Tower obscured by rainbow lollipop















You can now buy this photo for just €1,00 at;



It is probably the most famous tower in the world and one of the Souvenir classics; the leaning tower of Pisa. Begun in 1173 and finished 177 years later, the tower is actually built like a banana; the builders compensating the angle over the years to try to keep it upright. Engineering work during the nineties strengthened the tower and slowly pulled it back to the angle it had had in 1838. In 2001 it was reopened to the public. 

Eight hundred and twenty-seven later, in Easter 2000, my family and I were travelling through Pisa on the way down to Tuscany. After Loreley, New York and Berlin, Pisa was the next Souvenir on the list. A friend of mine, Heinz Krimmer, who runs and owns an agency for funny photos had given me a resin table-lamp in the form of the tower to take to Italy out of his collection of strange objects. I was pretty pleased with the lamp because already a serious problem was beginning to manifest itself; the necessity to find interesting objects to replace the originals in the photos I was collecting. 

Generally speaking, postcards are the main Souvenir which people take home or send. Apparently John P. Charlton of Philadelphia patented the postcard in 1861, selling the rights to a certain H. L. Lipton. Nine years later the Europeans followed suit. The US Post held the rights to pre-stamped cards until 1901, prohibiting companies from calling their cards “Postcards” thereby forcing them to use the name; “Souvenir Cards”. The “divided back” card – the form we know today with the left side being used for the message and the right for the address, first came into use in the US in 1907. In 1910 who else but the French would invent the erotic postcard? Photography and the postcard are interdependent and mark the beginning of popular culture where the mechanical reproduction of the representation of something becomes arguably more important than the thing itself. This underlying fact is what enables my Souvenir series to have meaning and be enjoyed by so many people. Availability and ownership of cheap industrially-produced copies of things for a new mass audience had a profound effect on the world. Travel which had been the privilege of the upper and middle classes became accessible to the emerging popular culture. The new fame of the landmark, made possible by mechanical reproduction no doubt fuelled the desire to travel. Associating ones’ self to a famous place or thing by buying its image, thereby proving that one had travelled to see it, confirmed the meaningfulness of ones’ own life. A bit of the glory rubbed off.  On the other side, the replacement of a famous landmark with a cheap imitation implicitly pokes fun at the landmark for having been reduced to a mere sign at the same time as it makes fun of the tawdry imitation. the advent of mass-photography has made the camera into the souvenir-machine per se, as evidenced by the phenomenon of individuals pretending to hold up the tower while being photographed by friends, a sport which I also witnessed at the pyramids in Egypt where people would pretend to hold them in their hand from the vantage point of the parking place to the west of the site. Since then the cameras in mobile phones have made the practice even more popular, I have heard of swarms of tourists with glowing mobile phones held aloft catching a fuzzy view of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

The western Capitalist societies have diversified their products in every aspect of daily life, so too with souvenirs. Representations in the form of commodities have taken new forms to pluck the tourist’s money form their pockets. Around any tourist site and throughout any town, a collection of kiosks and shops ply their trade. Despite the quantity of shops and goods on offer, the actual choice is severely limited. It was the realisation of this which had led me to pack the resin lamp as an example of a quality example of Souvenir representation as I did not expect to find anything in Pisa to match my expectations. At the same time it was the expression of my self-made pressure to produce interesting photographs for the collection.

Consequently, I was experimenting with the resin lamp in front of the tower and having a great deal of trouble making the photograph work. It was my first confrontation with the transparency problem; if the resin copy entirely covered the tower of Pisa the photo made no sense. We are only familiar with the tower itself and not with the plaza where it stands. I remember feeling surprised when I saw the tower for the first time after parking the car, asking myself if this was the actual tower and not a copy put up in a place suitable for tourists, similar to the statue of David in Florence. The medieval structure of the town in which the tower stands was unusual for me and forced me to rethink what role it had played as it was being built. Marion (my wife) had been hunting the stalls at the edge of the plaza while I was photographing and came rushing over to me with something in her hand. She triumphantly presented me with the rainbow lollipop, wrapped in cellophane. Immediately it was obvious that this was the real thing and I immediately packed the lamp into a carrier bag. The first shots with the lollipop are with the cellophane still on, it seemed to me that giving the tower a sanitary wrapping was a kind of comment in its self. I tilted the frame of the camera to give the impression that the tower was straight as a further little joke. The nice thing about kids is that they are always a source of inspiration and the simple putting two and two together of my daughter (aged six at the time) and the lollipop was a tiny step which was to influence many of the Souvenirs in the future. My hand (a finger) is barely visible in the photo, in fact this picture has less of my hand than in any other, and is only there to help my daughter Lea hold the lollipop precisely in place. The transparency problem was resolved by allowing the real tower to appear around the outline of the lollipop. The grey tinged with mauve, overcast skies helps pick up the colour saturation in the lolli and is a welcome change from the ubiquitous blue skies so loved of picture editors the world over. I was trying to compose a picture which would look like an accident, which would have spoiled the series had I succeeded. The idea formed then of trying to integrate passers-by into the composition as if they were interacting with the object that I was holding, which can be seen in Abbey Road, the telephone kiosk, the policeman’s helmet, etc.

We then went off to eat a fantastic cheese risotto where the last piece of the puzzle fell into place; I decided that in future the rule must be to look for and find a souvenir at the place itself. Bringing objects seemed to me to be too calculating and unproductive, one must be prepared to be open to the situation, even at the risk of finding nothing.


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The making of… The Policeman’s Helmet

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on February 15, 2009
The Policeman's Helmet

Houses of Parliament, London. Combined pencil sharpener and bell in the form of a policeman's helmet















One of the favourite stories of my childhood is the one of the boy asking the (English) policeman if his head goes right up to the top of his helmet. It is the combination of naivety and cheek which I really like. For me this picture epitomises this attitude, it is also a real photographer’s picture. 

Sometimes I travel with my daughter Lea to London to visit art galleries and museums, usually Marion comes over for the weekend to do some shopping and we fly back together. This trip was 2001 and, as usual, we had lovely weather. We took the tube down town from my friend Don’s place in Islington and got off at Oxford Circus to walk down to Hamley’s. Quite soon we found a Souvenir shop and, although I hadn’t necessarily intended doing any photography that day, Lea was enthusiastic and we ended up buying a load of stuff. Different kinds of cut-out postcards, a plastic pencil case in the form of a London bus, a fridge magnet telephone kiosk, a beefeater teddy bear and a pencil sharpener in the form of a policeman’s helmet as well as a few other things which never got into the frame.

The first shot I set up was the pencil case/London bus. A few yards down from the Souvenir’s shop was a bus stop and I held up the case getting the man apparently climbing off the case. Later on a comment on Flickr asked me if I knew that the pencil case bus not only stopped at that stop in real life but also it was travelling in the right direction, I didn’t but am grateful having it pointed out. Once we’d got that in the bag we ambled down to Piccadilly Circus where we grabbed a MacDonalds. From there we walked down Regent Street to where it crosses with Charles ll Street. On the corner there are two telephone kiosks and I got my shot of the man getting out of the fridge magnet. Striking east along Pall Mall we hit Trafalgar Square and we decided to head towards the Houses of Parliament by way of Downing Street to photograph the cut-out postcards we still had. I had practically forgotten about the pencil sharpener; I had only bought it because the idea of it was preposterous, who thinks up these things and then manufactures them?

The sight of two policemen at Trafalgar Square reminded me of the helmet and on the off chance, I approached them to ask their permission. It was extremely difficult to explain to them what I wanted to do; I was thinking along the lines of a portrait with the pencil sharpener, despite my innocent looking daughter, they declined, I am sure they had no idea what I was talking about. Undeterred but footsore we walked down Whitehall, past Downing Street to the Houses of Parliament. There is an entrance on St Margaret Street where uniformed policemen were standing guard, fending off tourists and I suddenly saw my chance. Sneaking up around the sandstone columns with the helmet and camera at the ready, I quickly sneaked off a few shots. It felt quite cheeky, but I had no intention of warning them by asking their permission and I assumed that they would not have any idea what I might be doing, let alone see what I was holding in my hand. I must admit that it was only later that I saw the shadow of my hand on the man in the picture’s back and how wonderful that he was wearing a light-coloured jeans jacket! The policeman in the background is taking notice but he did nothing to stop me, so I assume he thought me harmless.

The shadow makes the shot because the helmet fits so perfectly in scale one would not be able to see if I was holding something at all. Looking carefully one can see the striker of the bell which this astounding object also is, the angle of the sun throwing the shadow conceals it. All in all a truly satisfying picture and a great reminder of a day out with my daughter, Lea.

 Lat 51°30’1.95″N
 Long 0° 7’33.81″W

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