Travel retrospective 3 – thinking in the light

Thinking in the light

Deep in thought

I recently gave a short talk illustrating different ways in which photography is communication and used this image as an example of paying attention. By that I mean that there’s an aspect of communication involving the photographer through paying attention to the subject. For me this happens at least three times. First of all in the original taking of the photograph, considering the framing, composition, lighting and exposure; secondly in the editing process, and again in any viewing of the photograph.

This photograph was taken in Afghanistan in 2003, soon after NATO had taken over security in the country following years of conflict and Taliban rule. The taking of this photograph happened very quickly as it was one of those quickly spotted opportunities. In paying attention to the subject I was struck by the thoughtful reflective pose of this older man as he sat among some friends. I particularly noticed how the light was falling across the upper part of his head, coming from slightly behind and that his eyes were looking down, essentially away from the light. Given this man’s apparent age and the recent history of the country, I wondered what his eyes had seen and what his thoughts might be. I found it easy to imagine that he was thinking about things he’d seen, things that had been visible to him because the light fell on them. He looked to me like he carried the burden of his thoughts and I wondered if this meant he was a little discomforted by the light.

Originally shot on colour film this image was transferred to a digital format allowing me to work on it in Lightroom where I decided to convert it to monochrome in order to make the feelings it evokes rather more stark. I needed to pay attention to the subject again in the editing process in order to reconnect with my thoughts on taking the photograph and to get the tones and balance right in the mono conversion.

It’s a personal favourite, and was an easy choice to include in my retrospective.

Travel retrospective 2 – Caring

A young Afghan girl holding a child

Afghan girl and child

This photograph was taken in Afghanistan in December 2003. On the last day of filming, my BMS World Mission colleagues and I were in a village high above Kabul when I came across this young girl holding a small child. I have no way of knowing, but I assume there is a family relationship here and that perhaps the girl is a sister or aunt to the child. It struck me as an example of the natural caring that continues between people in even harsh and challenging circumstances.

I think the contrast of light and shade illustrate the juxtaposition of conflict and caring. For that reason it’s in my travel retrospective.

The photograph was taken on Fuji 800 Pro film stock. Unfortunately I don’t have a record of the exposure details but in processing, as well as having negs and prints, the photos were all converted to digital format as JPEG images.  The original image was in colour and the reprocessing to monochrome was done exclusively in Lightroom 5, with minor adjustments to tone and contrast.

Travel retrospective 1 – A symbol of freedom

Afghan boy with kite

Afghan kite

I was going through my library recently and decided it would be interesting to do a retrospective of some of my favourite photographs. Inspired by Don McCullin’s book, simply titled “Don McCullin”, I decided that all the photographs for the retrospective would be converted to monochrome. To keep a sense of scale and focus, I decided to limit the retrospective to my travel photographs.

Here, then, is my first offering in my Travel retrospective series.

I visited Afghanistan in December 2003 with colleagues from BMS World Mission as we did some filming there. NATO had taken over security earlier that year after Taliban control of the country effectively ended in 2001 under US retaliation for the twin towers attack. At that time it was a very beleaguered country. There was a lot of war damage visible in Kabul. Many buildings were bombed-out shells and walls were riddled with bullet holes. There were no street lights.

Flying kites has been popular in Afghanistan for a long time and ranges from being a common hobby to sport and even an art form. The Taliban outlawed kite flying during their time in control and it only resumed after the collapse of their regime.

This photograph was taken in a mountain village where we were filming and was one of those opportune, unplanned moments. I spotted this young boy flying his kite and it struck me as a symbol of new found freedom. The interesting thing is that this was about freedom to return to a traditional pastime. In many ways it symbolises for me the way in which repressive regimes are not merely anti-western, though there are those that present that face. Rather those regimes are about controlling the population for their own ends rather than the for the good of the people and here was an expression of freedom to resume a national tradition.

Being high in the mountains and having the perspective of looking up at this young kite flyer, I had a real sense of the freedom of flight. He’ll be eleven years older but I hope this young man, as he will be now, is still flying kites.

The photograph was taken on Fuji 800 Pro film stock. Unfortunately I don’t have a record of the exposure details but in processing, as well as having negs and prints, the photos were all converted to digital format as JPEG images.  The original image was in colour and the reprocessing to monochrome was done exclusively in Lightroom 5, with minor adjustments to tone and contrast. I also cropped the original to improve the overall composition.

Traces of presence

Traces of presence


Is it possible to have a favourite photograph? This is a question I have been pondering as I work on my personal photo book for 2014; a collection of images that hold personal memories from the year.

As is the case with my taste in music, the concept of “favourite” has a temporary nature and often depends on the mood of the moment. Choosing a favourite image from 2014 became a challenge and as I browsed through the year’s catalogue of photos I began to find it a very difficult one. There were simply too many options from family, to creative images, to places visited. I finally gave up on the idea of a favourite and settled on choosing an image that spoke to me in a meaningful way. And this is the one I chose.

I like its simplicity and the way it captures a range of colour from the warm tones of the sand to the cool blues and whites of the sea and sky. Many of my landscape images have a clear uninterrupted horizon and I think this is a reflection of the fact that my preference is for open spaces where I can simply “be” and feel a connection with creation which I find is blocked out by the busyness of modern life.

For me, however, the most striking feature of this photo are the footprints on the sand which emerge from the sea. In one moment, they evoke a sense of arrival, presence and passing. They are a reminder that we leave traces of ourselves as we journey through life and that we ought to aim to leave positive traces wherever possible. These footprints in the sand also remind me of Genesis 3: 8, 9 where it tells of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I know a beach is not exactly a garden, but equally the garden of Eden is a concept rather than some classically formal 17th century horticultural setting. Adam and Eve heard God walking in the cool of the day and decided to hide as they had disobeyed him. So, for me, this image carries a sense of comfort; the footprints representing God’s unseen presence with us. It also, however, serves as a reminder that we cannot hide from truth as we leave echoes of ourselves wherever we go and that’s not a bad thought for Christmas.

The photograph was taken on the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland and was shot at 1/320 sec at f18 on a focal length of 29mm.

Ordinary people

Afghan girl

Afghan girl and child

British troops finally left Afghanistan in late October 2014 ending a 13-year campaign in the country as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). I was prompted by this to reflect on my own visit to Afghanistan in December 2003 as part of a BMS World Mission filming team. This was only two years in to the presence of British forces and, based in Kabul, we were daily reminded of the devastation that country had faced through many years of bitter conflict and occupation.

Many words have been written about Afghanistan but this particular photograph sums up much of what I remember of my time there. As many writers, politicians and military commentators have focused in more recent years on the activities of Al-Qaeda and the terrorist threat to the west, it’s easy to forget that Afghanistan is populated by ordinary people trying their best to live a peaceful life.

My abiding memory of the people we met is that they were warm, friendly and very hospitable. What makes this one of my favourite photos from Afghanistan is that you can’t really tell it was taken there and that, in a way, expresses a sense of ordinariness. Here is a young girl holding a small child, probably a brother or sister. I can only imagine what she may have seen or experienced in her young life but her eyes hold hope and there’s a hint of a smile not very far away.

It reminds me that in conflict situations there are always ordinary people who are caught up in it, innocent victims of the violence of others. Ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives, just like us.

Today, 11 November, is Remembrance Day when millions of people stop what they are doing and observe a two minute silence at 11am in memory of those who have been affected in all conflicts. Traditionally the focus is on the men and women of the armed forces who lost their lives in the defence of freedom. I’d like to also remember the ordinary people who, through many conflicts, have also lost their lives and been otherwise affected.



egg plant


What came first; the chicken or the egg?

I was quietly reflecting on this recently after watching a TV documentary about cosmology (as you do) in which the narrator commented, with no further explanation, that at “the big bang” the universe exploded out of nothing. Call me naive if you must but I’m sure I’ve heard scientists say that something from nothing is impossible, yet here was a statement effectively saying that everything came out of nothing. That’s quite a leap of imagination.

So, this had me reflecting on the old philosophical question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Inherent in that question is the assumption that anything must come from something but, I wondered, can one thing ever give rise to something completely different? I also started to think about how that thought might be illustrated and came up with this image.

As the egg is a vital element in the philosophical question, and we are accustomed to eggs giving rise to chickens, it seemed to me a logical element to feature in the image. I then wanted to consider the possibility of the egg being either a seed or fruit and that led rather logically to trees, and so I ended up with the combining of plant life with animal life.

The conundrum in this image is the question of which gave rise to which. Did the egg put down roots which grew the trunk and raised the egg off the ground, or did this tree produce an egg as a single large fruit? I found that visual puzzle quite satisfying in terms of questioning beginnings but I felt there was still something missing. The appearance of one large egg atop a tree limb with no foliage seemed just too odd and also left the question of what next?

Just as trees lose their leaves in autumn, I wondered what might happen in terms of a continuing life cycle and considered that there might be a season of change. I decided to express this with the egg fragmenting and scattering its parts to the wind and I decided that the pieces of egg would be leaf shaped. Given that the egg is rather closer to an autumn colour, I decided to make those departing leaf fragments green in a final act of transformation.

All of this is mildly entertaining but behind it lie deep philosophical questions, and I think that’s what really irked me about the throw-away statement on that TV documentary about the universe exploding out of nothing. At that point, science has nowhere to go, because if there really was nothing before there was anything, there is nothing to observe and science operates on the basis of observation, experiment and measurement. And at the point where there is nothing there are still questions, which is why science alone cannot be sufficient to answer everything.

There is a popular feeling among some scientists to dismiss religious faith, specifically Christianity, as irrelevant. This is a disservice to the many capable and very senior scientists who are also Christians and have no issue in reconciling faith in an intelligent creating God and the scientific process which seeks to better understand creation. Each can actually enhance the other and lead to a better understanding because while science can often explain “how” it can never explain “why”.

I hope to have explained the why of this image. As for the how – a little time and effort in Photoshop CC (2014) working mostly with layers and masks.


A personal reflection

Landscape and sculpture composite

Sculpture composite

This composite shot is a personal reflection on Scotland, so I’ll explain the different elements.

Let’s begin with the main feature, the wooden sculpture. The actual sculpture is a wood carving located in Balbirnie Park near Glenothes in Fife. My wife and I occasionally pushed our first child in her pram through Balbirnie Park when we lived in Glenrothes. The beach is at Leven, Fife and is said to be the location for Jack Vettriano’s paintings which are set on a beach.  On the horizon to the left of the sculpture it’s possible to make out the small bump that is the Bass Rock out in the Forth estuary. The words are from a wall inside the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh and speak of hope and equality.

For me one of the defining features of Scotland is it’s vary varied coastline, dramatically different between the east and west coasts, not to mention the many islands of the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. Fife and Edinburgh are important to me. I was born in Fife and lived there until age five when we moved to Edinburgh. Later, I returned to live in Fife for a short time with my wife where we had two of our three children.

The sculpture speaks to me of the Celtic heritage of Scotland as it very much looks like a Celtic eternal knot and there is something about eternity that resonates with a distant horizon which is what prompted me to select a beach scene for the major background. I also liked the idea of taking the sculpture out of context and giving it a different aspect.

On a visit to the Scottish Parliament this year I was impressed by the Great Tapestry of Scotland which was on display and covers the history of Scotland from neolithic times to the present day. It reminded me that Scotland has given so much to the world in terms of inventiveness in many fields of endeavour which has brought good things to the world. Finding the words etched on a wall inside the Parliament building was a discovery that seemed to echo this sense of hope and equality so it was something I felt I needed to include in the composite.

Seemingly hovering above the horizon is what looks like another landscape of bare trees. This is, in fact, an image of one tree which I turned sideways so that the bare winter branches look like trees rising from this mysterious other-worldly landscape. This, I hope, reflects the sometimes mysterious, atmospheric nature of Scotland’s history.

All the original images were shot in colour but I converted the composite to monochrome before adding a slight colour treatment to add to the atmospheric nature I was trying to create.

It’s a personal reflection, and I have tried to give at least a brief account of what inspired it. But photographs, whether straight faithful shots or created composites, should tell a story. I wonder what story this image might relate to you? If you can spare the time, I’d love to know if it speaks to you, so please leave a comment briefly relating whatever story this inspires in you.

The technical aspects of the various components are below, though I honestly can’t recall which tree image I used in the composite, so those details are missing.

The sculpture was shot on 01 April 2005 at 1/400 sec at f2.8 on an ISO of 100.

The beach was shot on 17 June 2013 at 1/400 sec at f8 on an ISO of 100.

The words were shot on 27 August 2014 at 1/30 sec at f5 on an ISO of 800

The composite was constructed in Photoshop using layers with minimal adjustments to the main image elements.