From the Negative Facespace series. This psychopathic looking character is a child's toy from the 1960s about 15cm tall. Because it predates by decades, it is entirely uninfluenced by the character from the 2019 film, despite the strength of the caricature.
This jovial fellow is Fernandel. He was a native of Marseille and a much-loved comic actor. He seems to have had a liking for cafés because I saw this same signed portrait in several cafés around the city. All were recommended by Fernandel.
The title of this image is exactly what this girl said to me in a street in the medina of Sousse in Tunisia. So I took some photographs (as you can see, she was a natural in front of the lens) and I gave her a few dinars. But by doing so, I’m well aware that I (yet again) opened an ethical can of worms, at least in the eyes of some photographers. It's commonplace in many developing countries to be approached by children for a photograph in return for some loose change. Several decades ago, many children off the beaten track in North Africa would ask photographers for a stylo or bon-bon and they would actually be surprised and delighted if you gave them money. They would be touting for no more than small gifts, mere trinkets, and the look of joy on their faces when we all gave them some coins! Nowadays, however, dirham and dinar seem to be their sole currency.
The problem is this: On the one hand, we have an opportunity to photograph some aspect of local culture not explicitly intended by conventional mass tourism. You don't see ordinary kids in the street asking for photographs in the glossy brochures and TV ads advertising places in developing countries as holiday destinations. No, you get what the local authorities want you see, i.e., their cultural confectionery. And many people are happy with just that. I'm not, I want to see their culture more broadly, warts and all. On the other hand, giving money (or even sweets) to children in developing countries is said to encourage them to beg and to view foreign tourists as little more than cash cows. In some of the cities and larger towns that see many tourists, children may even quit school for what they see as a potentially lucrative career hustling tourists. This is a real dilemma for me because I value education very highly, both for its own sake and for its undoubted ability to lift whole generations from the economic and cultural dead ends of menial jobs, early marriage and childbearing, often fuelled by worldviews based largely on superstition.
But is it fair to blame tourism entirely for this situation? I would argue not. Many developing countries already have thousands of children from poor families skipping school to do menial work, regardless of whether there are tourists with cameras wandering the street or not. You only have to go outside the main towns on a school day to see young kids sewing carpets with their tiny hands, or lugging cartloads of cloth or looking after the family goats. For some of these kids, hustling tourists is undoubtedly more financially beneficial for themselves and their families than either staying at school or doing menial work and, like the goat herders, they'd struggle to survive without it. This was their reality before I came along with my big camera. And they certainly aren't going to stay in school because some visiting Johnny Foreigner with a camera thinks they should.
A common complaint is that photographing children in developing countries is akin to treating them as if they're in a zoo. Again, I disagree. If you go to a zoo and observe the animals, whether you photograph them or not they are still living in a zoo. Similarly, whether you photograph children or not, they are still living in a Nepalese mountain community, or a remote Saharan desert village, or a back alley in a Maghrebi medina. My presence doesn’t change that. If you go around taking photographs of another culture but stop yourself taking photographs of local children, are you really capturing the local culture? What culture has no children? What culture has no children who like to be photographed? I’ve yet to encounter one, even when the adults themselves are reticent. What culture has no children who like to receive gifts? The real difference for me is not whether I should capture their image or not, it’s recognising which children want to be photographed for the sheer fun of it and which want to be photographed to make a quick buck.
Some photographers have devised an ethic that reasons this way; if you wouldn't photograph a child who wasn’t a personal acquaintance of yours in your own country, then you shouldn't do it an another country and you certainly shouldn't put the images on a website. This, despite the fact that Facebook and other social media is awash with photographs of their own children and their friend's and neighbour's children who similarly haven't given consent to their daily lives being archived for posterity on the web. So the problem I have with this view is that it seems to be inherently one of a sense of entitlement; a chauvinistic attitude, best locked in the hotel safe along with all their other precious things. It's basically the attitude that the 'superior' interpersonal ethics devised and sometimes legally implemented in our own more 'developed' societies should be foisted on other societies. And make no mistake, when children are following you around a maze-like medina repeatedly badgering you for a photograph, and you refuse to go along with their game, foisting your ethics on the people of another culture is exactly what you're doing. Are they really such unsophisticated yokels that they don't realise that the image might end up on a website? How patronising. Having visited many developing countries over four decades, not once have I had a parent, or any other adult for that matter, complain when I've photographed a child and then given them a few coins.
So I don't buy into this righteous indignation. Instead, I try to treat the local kids as equals. I don't walk around aloof and po-faced, and believe me, that exactly what some photographers look like when confronted by these budding street entrepreneurs. On the contrary, I smile when they jovially call me 'grandfather' or something else I don't understand, and I try to happily join in their game. If they ask me to photograph them I do, even if I don't particularly want the photo. I always carry coins and always offer them afterwards. I show them the image. Maybe zoom in and watch them laugh at the close-up of the pimple on their nose. But, importantly, I only do this if they instigate it. I let them control the situation because it's their territory, their streets, their game and their rules. Nor do I ask them to pose or feign emotion, or otherwise influence them. I just let them do their thing and be real. Whatever the reality they choose to portray. And I always make sure to thank them in their own language. For often, they have given me far more than I have given them, even if they don't realise it.
Another version of this post along with more images can be found here.
Ask any street photographer what their favourite city is and invariably one rolls off their tongue automatically. For many, that city is Istanbul. Ask why and they'll usually tell you it's the enticing mix of east and west, Europe and Asia. Alas, not for me. I really don't see the appeal. I just don't get it. To me it's too much like southern Europe with a mosque on every corner. Far better to have one or the other, rather than some hybrid.
I did however, enjoy the inner city poverty stricken neighbouring suburbs of Balat and Fener. Balat was originally a middle class Jewish area while Fener was the corresponding Greek area. Both, following the loss of nearly all the Jewish and Greek inhabitants in the 1950s, have spiralled downward into a mix of cheap rent, run-down apartments often lying next to derelict mansions whose legal owners are probably unaware they even exist. The result is a congenial shabbiness of ruination, higgledy piggledy wooden buildings with balconies seemingly in danger of imminent collapse. It's somewhat reminiscent of a badly decayed San Francisco, or the backstreets of Naples after a special offer on the most colourful paints at the local hardware store. All of these modes of architecture share the love with a plethora of satellite dishes.
There's also an quiet ambience to this area that is hard to find in the rest of noisy, hectic Istanbul. For a start, no doubt because of the poverty, the streets are relatively car-free and so much the quieter for it. There's none of the annoying buzz-saw sounds of scooters and mopeds which characterise places like Marrakech or Sicilian old towns. Children are able to play all day in the middle of the road and photographers don't have to dodge cars. And there are very few tourists. Those that do find their way here tend to have a purpose that involves having a decent camera around their neck. So there are no carpets or trinkets on sale. Hardly anyone speaks English, or any other modern European language for that matter. Everyone just ignores the weird guy with the camera. But attempt a few words of Turkish, buy a coffee or a pastry and people quickly become your friend and shake your hand. And genuinely, not just for your money.
It won't last though. Both areas have been designated UNESCO heritage sites and European Union money has started to arrive along with artist's studios and a handful of trendy Western European-style coffee shops, especially noticeable around the area bordering the Great Horn. In 20 years time no doubt it'll still be worth seeing, but not for the same reasons.
More of my images from these streets can be found here
A clock shop in Sfax. The title refers to the common term used to describe the modern number system. It was inspired by a recent poll in the USA which showed that 56% of people thought that 'Arabic numerals' shouldn't be taught in schools. More accurately modern numerals should be described as Indian-Arabic or even Western-Arabic as Arabic cultures do use their own numeral notation, of which only 1 and 9 are similar to those displayed in this image. However, modern numerals are also widely used in Arabic countries and, judging by this shop, seem especially important for waking up in the morning.
A doll with an understated but all too obvious pissed off look with manic intent. Usually it's the eyes that convey the manic nature; when the pupil is positioned dead-centre of the eye socket and is staring straight ahead we recognise the stereotypical sign of movie-style madness. In this case, however, the fixity of the mouth accentuates the effect of the eyes. This expression on this doll is as close to human as they get. Another from the 'Negative Facespace' series of images.
Elsa from the Disney film 'Frozen' gets the 'Negative Facespace' treatment. Because much of popular culture passes me by, I had no idea what this doll was when I set up this image. My only thought was that she looked suitably eerie. My granddaughters enlightened me and even sang the songs, but I still think she's unnaturally sinister. I mean, check out that eye!
The bus station in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the capital city of the Canary Islands. I'm acrophobic (have a fear of heights). The floor in this new bus station was so highly polished I actually felt queasy walking across it because the reflection of everything above the ground was so clear and vivid. It felt like I was walking over a mirror universe.