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Friday, 27 July 2007

The Floods

Photojournalists; we're a strange breed indeed! I found myself driving at speed, windscreen wipers at full blast up the barely visible motorway towards Gloucester. The local radio station was constantly asking motorists to stay off the road, and letting people know that Gloucester was in peril. Months of torrential downpours had come down in a matter of days and parts of the country were underwater. Rivers had burst their banks all over the place. The radio again told me to stop and turn around; instead I planted my foot down a touch harder and carried on making my way to the flooded town.

My main worries were if I'd be able to get through, to get access, or will the situation be so bad that my 4x4 won't get me in close enough. Will the Police do their best to stop me making pictures. Increasingly over the years it seemed to me that the Police’s priority had switched from fighting crime, to stopping photographers doing their job. Then, most of my thoughts drifted to my waders which I had bought on route from a fishing shop; will they really be waterproof?!

My new best friend, a voice at the local radio station told me that my target, the electricity power station which supplies half a million people across Gloucester and Cheltenham was at risk of being flooded. After following the calm female voice on my navigation system I finally got to Gloucester. I turned off a round about and found a street completely under water. Finding a few men just standing at the water's edge in disbelief, I got directions to the power station, followed by "mate, I wouldn't go there, its flooded". They didn't realise that unlike “normal” human beings, we actually seek out these places that the majority avoid. Wars, famines, riots, disasters.....flooding - yep, on my way.

I passed the road closed sign, and as I got closer to the power station, the number of emergency vehicles grew. This road was also flooded. I cursed myself at not reading my car’s user’s manual; I had no idea what depth I could drive through without flooding the engine or the passenger area.

Once I arrived at the side road leading to the power station I was astonished. The Fire Brigade, Army, Navy and Highways Agency were in full swing. There was a human conveyor belt of sand bag makers. These were being filled at full speed and loaded onto pallets to be taken inside the grounds of the power station to battle the force of mother nature.

I finally managed to get access and hitched a ride on a truck. Thoughts drifted to the fact that I was sat in a metal truck surrounded by water; the same body of water which was inching its way into an electricity power station - is this really a clever thing to do?!

All the delays in getting to Gloucester and eventually gaining access meant that I had to work quickly. I had deadlines to meet and the AFP picture desks in London and Paris had already been on the phone a couple of times. Spotting pictures as we went closer towards the power station, I began switching between cameras, making images. Soon enough I had the images I needed. Grabbing a ride back out of the flooded access road and straight to my car and my MacBook Pro and Aperture. Plugged in my card reader into the Firewire 800 port and my images started to download with the needed haste. In no time I'd edited, captioned and made all my image adjustments. As luck would have it I logged onto 3.5G (HSDPA) cellular signal and my images were making their way back to the office at speed.

The voice of my best friend on the radio had changed as presenters had handed over; however, the information was as good as before. As we’d all expected, the historic university city of Oxford was the next place to be. A quick chat with the picture editor at AFP and I was on my way.

It was night fall. People had already been evacuated and taken to the football stadium and the neighbouring hotel. Having switched to the local radio for Oxford, I found another new best friend. Listening to the commentators and more importantly, local residents calling in with up to the minute reports kept me up to date with what to expect. I headed straight for the football stadium and the hotel. The Red Cross and St John Ambulance Service were at high alert and had already homed the evacuees in hotel rooms. There were now reports of Abingdon flooding around 11pm. I decided to head for Abingdon and then return to Oxford. Luckily Abingdon didn't flood too badly. After making some pictures I headed back to Oxford , but only after discovering the joy of learning to drive in pitch black flooded tiny and bendy country lanes. There's a first time for everything! Having found a room for the night it was time to edit and send the pictures I'd shot from the evening in Oxford and Abingdon. 

After a few hours sleep I was back at the hotel and the neighbouring football stadium. There were many tens of elderly evacuees having breakfast and being looked after by the Red Cross. I spent the next couple of hours photographing what was going on. After another editing and wiring session, I headed towards Osney, a part of Oxford right by the river Thames which had already partly submerged. There was a lake in the middle of the main road. I was astonished. The side roads which led to housing were also flooded; not as badly, but the environment agency was predicting that tomorrow would be the beginning of the some real flooding.

The story had grown. There was a lot of international interest too. What had begun as an overnight assignment turned into a five day and night, damp and wet job. The few hours of sleep each night were at a variety of tiny hotel rooms around the city.

During the next few days, my most important piece of equipment wasn't my cameras, lenses or laptop; it was my trusty pair of rubber waders! Having the freedom to move around was liberating. All I had to worry about was falling down submerged and invisible man holes (their covers having been moved by the power of the moving water). I'd been in a mine field before so was accustomed to being wary of where I tread, but had never thought that a man hole could ever be a source of equal worry. As the pressure of the flood water flowing into the submerged man holes was so strong, I was told by the Fire Brigade how deadly these were.

During my four days in and around Oxford, I spent most of the time in Osney. I’d decided that it was better to tell the story of this little community would be a good mirror of what everyone else was going through. AFP had another two photographers covering the story from other towns. As I began to get to know the locals, I discovered their hatred of the media as they swooped in for half a day, made their hurried pictures, interviews and pieces to camera. Often exaggerating things to make their stories more sensational, and leaving for the next “scoop”. Over the days I began to get a little bit more access and respect. People started to talk to me and give me an insight into what they were going through. I ended up spending my birthday in Osney and was touched when a couple of residents bought me a birthday cake!

During the assignment, I ended up shooting 3240 frames. Every moment of every day and night, every corner, every city and village had yielded new moments to document. I’d ended up with an edit of 166 images during the week which had been edited, captioned and wired. I’d made several national papers  over the days and news magazines too. Time magazine had even used one of the images in its “Pictures of the Week” slideshow.

The last thing I needed during the week was equipment or software issues. I’d feared the dampness or the occasional rain shower might give me trouble. However, everything kept working smoothly. All I had to worry about was making pictures which conveyed the story...and not sink down man holes.


Thursday, 28 June 2007

Apple Aperture 1.5

Press photographers are a creature of habit. We find a system that works (cameras, favoured lenses, computer hardware, software and transmission methods) and stick with them until absolutely necessary. This way we can concentrate on breaking events and the equipment is just an extension and just works. As a result, the decision to switch to a new computer platform or software doesn't come easily.

Working for the wire services and newspapers, for me speed is of utmost importance. In this day and age of evening papers, national and international clients, there are always deadlines to meet. Speed means publications.

I used to shoot RAW for around 15% of my assignments. These would be features or portraits for the papers when the deadline was days away, not minutes away. That's when I came across Aperture. Shooting RAW has its obvious advantages but its always been just a little too slow to process. My old work flow for RAW used to include five different software packages. Now with Aperture I've cut this down to three. I use Aperture to download the card of images, caption, edit, apply corrections (colour, density, sharpness, cropping) and then export into Photoshop for finalising the image (any selective changes like dodging or burning). Lastly the image is sent via FTP to the client.

Initially I had a bit of a steep learning curve to conquer. Aperture did things differently to the way I worked. However, after a week of using it, I was smitten. I sold my PC laptop, embraced my new PowerBook Pro and added Aperture to my arsenal.

Perhaps the biggest UK assignment this year happened on June 27, 2007. Prime Minister Tony Blair was to finally step down and hand over the reigns of power to his Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Amongst the hundreds of media, squashed into the tiniest of spaces and with international deadlines looming, I would never have ever considered shooting RAW before; but I did. I knew my work flow was going to be speedy. I'd already written my captions the night before and saved them as a template in Aperture. All that remained was to shoot the job.

I counted my blessings on the day. I switched all three cameras into RAW; I had a 24-70, a 70-200 and a 300mm all fixed and ready to fire. I shoot 99% of my assignments in manual mode (to my colleagues amusement I even use a hand held light meter for most jobs!). I had set my exposures and was ready for Tony Blair on his return from the House of Commons. He came back, got out his Jaguar, stood by the door to Number 10, waved and went in. Great; the shots were good but the main shot would be when he left number 10 for the last time. Soon enough, he came out with his family, hung around for a short while for the gathered media and then drove off to the Palace to formally resign. Why am I counting my blessings? Well, around a split second after the Blairs came out, the sun shone out from behind the clouds which were hiding it so well. It was harsh with terrible shadows. I was so deeply concentrated in making an image from what proved to be a very dull moment (but historically of significance) that I'd over exposed a few of the initial pictures. Well, to say that shooting RAW and using Aperture came to my rescue would be an understatement. Using a combination of the exposure control, the highlight and shadow recovery and the levels modules the overexposed images were rescued, captioned and sent.

After I'd wired the images of Blair, it was Gordon Brown's turn. He was driven into Downing Street and took a short walk to a microphone, made his speech, stood by the door, a couple of awkward waves and he went inside to run the country. Frame after frame in quick succession, swapping cameras and in a few moments it was all over. Within minutes my first images were wired to Polaris in New York.

I was still a bit concerned by some of the overexposed Blair pictures. A call to the picture editor proved that I was worried for nothing. “Good job Edmond; nice shots”.