Robert Frank, the American photographer and filmmaker once said, “The eye should learn to listen before it looks”.

In our soundbite world of social media and disposable imagery, I think many of us have lost sight of this simple fact these days. We will happily snap away at things with our mobiles, without really appreciating the subject matter. Modern life, it seems, doesn’t exist for many unless it comes via Facebook, Youtube or the latest iPhone apps.

In the last couple of months I have had to trawl my way through over a century of family archives, ranging from birth certificates and wedding memorabilia to boxes of old photographs. Amongst these historical gems I found a few intriguing snapshots of a simpler age; a time before selfies and Twitter feeds, when the creation of a photo required some time and effort from all involved.Mum

Someone once described the photograph as a door into the past. Amongst old biscuit tins and dusty cupboards I found doors aplenty; doors that opened up onto corridors stretching back to the turn of the last century. Many of the faces that stared back at me were complete strangers, inhabitants of a sepia-toned world of starched collars and cloche hats, without a selfie-stick between them.

Normally I can’t be bothered with more than a passing glance at the usual plethora of Instagram pics that assail us on a daily basis, but give me a dog-eared photo of someone’s Auntie Mabel on her wedding day in 1927 and I am hooked. Old photos, by their very nature, seem to acquire an allure and a fascination that is sadly missing in their digital offspring today.

I want to know more about these people, but sadly there is no one left to ask…

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Reservoir Grannies!

Family - Unknown?

Dad - army

Family Seaside Charabang!

Grandad Gibbs - RAF

Grandads - Butlins

On May 6, 1959, six Hopi Indians travelled to the United Nations building in New York, They had come to warn the world of the approach of a cataclysmic struggle between the forces of good and evil.

…They were told to put it in writing.

I came across this sobering message whilst clearing out some old books recently. It was in an appropriately titled gem, called “God’s Chosen People of America”, by a woman with the magnificent name of Zula Marion Clegg Brinkerhoff…Yes, really. I remember being given it by an old Mormon about 20 years ago, whilst I was working as a wrangler on a horse ranch in Utah.

Now, I will be the first to admit that this is not my usual choice of light reading and, much as I am open to other belief systems and cultures, I do tend to take, with a large pinch of salt, prophecies about the end of the world and the demise of the human race. Let’s face it, you don’t need to be Nostradamus to see that we are hurtling towards our own destruction with a sense of purpose that would make even the Almighty prick up his ears like a startled meerkat! I was however intrigued enough by the picture of the aforementioned Mrs Brinkerhoff to start picking over her musings: any woman who is prepared to pose in an Indian headdress and beaded top, whilst wearing a pair of natty 1950s glasses, deserves some respect.

It would appear that the Hopi’s visit to New York in the late 1950s was then followed up by the Six Nations of the Iroquois, who, twenty years later, produced a document called, “A Basic Call to Consciousness: The Hau De No Say See Address to the Western World”. In it they stated that mankind was facing a question of its very survival. Western Civilisation, it seemed, was heading towards its own doom.

For centuries, the American Indian has been dismissed as a savage. Popular culture for years viewed them with a mixture of condescension, incomprehension and contempt. Since Christopher Columbus initiated the extermination of the Taino people on the island of Hispaniola 500 years ago, civilised society has vainly held itself up as advanced and developed, whilst branding the tribal peoples as backwards and primitive.

The history of the Americas has seen the inexorable spread of progress overwhelm the Indians. Many tribes and cultures were decimated, even obliterated, by the avaricious onslaught of the Europeans. But in recent years there has, apparently, been a revival of the old traditions and a renewed effort to recover sacred tribal land. The tribes are gathering once more, in readiness for the day of purification, when the Great Spirit will return to lead them to salvation and they will once more take their rightful place in the great scheme of things. The ancient prophesies have foretold it and those same ancient prophesies are beginning to bear fruit, as we head ever further down the slippery slope of corporate greed, political corruption and climatic change.

The beliefs of the American Indians are ancient, even primordial, reflecting a unified understanding of the cosmos that is both physical and spiritual. Nature, the landscape, the cultural traditions, all are an inseparable part of an integrated spiritual way of life. To them, there is no clear division between the spiritual and the material worlds, they exist in a natural harmony that is manifest in nature itself. They believe that it is our role to mediate between these worlds, to maintain the balance and order of the cosmos.

Many of their ceremonies and rituals reflect this view. Their songs and chants form part of a liturgical cycle that mirrors the belief in this universal parity. The purification rites of the sweat lodge reiterate the elemental and ceremonial aspects of the cosmos – stone, fire, wood, air, water and earth. Their Sun Dance is based on the concept of sacrifice, just as many of the rituals of the Vedic, Christian and Judaic religions. To them it is a means of manifesting the blessings of the creator on the earth.

This of course conflicts with the predominantly scientific and materialistic view of the modern world, which has no room for the ‘heathen idolatry’ and ‘show dancing’ of pagan rituals. It would appear that what we have failed to realise though, is that what the American Indians have to tell us speaks directly to the fractious world in which we live today. Our modern crises – social, economic, ecological and religious – are a direct result of our flawed vision of progress and a self deluding myth of our own superiority. To quote from the Hau De No Say See:

“…The air is foul, the waters poisoned, the trees dying, the animals disappearing…Our ancient teachings warned us that if man interfered with the natural laws, these things would come to be. When the last of the natural way of life is gone, all hope for human survival will be gone with it…”

The modern world has, for too long, lacked the depth to understand the concepts of the sacredness of nature and the hierarchy of being. Only now are we beginning to realise the consequences of that denial; a fractured, secularised society, hell bent on destruction. It is not too difficult to see it all around us. We are stripping the land, fouling the seas and poisoning the very air we breathe. Global warming, ozone depletion, de-forestation, pollution, famine and the senseless destruction of our natural world are all symptoms of that self same flawed vision of progress that is such a dominant factor in our modern lives.

The prophecies speak of the end times as a pivotal moment when the sacred ways have been overcome and mankind is living in a fragmented and secular world. The Hopi have waited and watched for centuries for the portents to be fulfilled. Their ancient prophecies told of the coming of the white man, of his technology and his wars. They told of a gourd of ashes that would be dropped from the sky, destroying everything in sight. They foretold of terrible storms and earthquakes, tornadoes and floods. Of climatic changes, famine and pestilence.

Essentially, the American Indians believed in four distinct ages or cycles: Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron. The Golden Age was seen as one of serenity and harmony, when mankind still lived at one with the cosmos. The Iron Age meanwhile was seen as one of fragmentation and ecological destruction. We are currently living in the last days of that age now…our time cycle all but complete. The Sioux equate it with the sacred buffalo, which in ancient times stood proud and sturdy on four legs but which today balances precariously on just one leg!

Native American traditions represent a rich and important part of our human inheritance. In an increasingly cynical world, maybe their beliefs and myths do offer some solutions to many of the problems we face today. I don’t for one moment advocate that we all hold hands and sings songs to the trees, but you don’t have to be some tree-hugging hippy to see that the healing of the earth and the healing of the human spirit have become one and the same thing these days.

Maybe we should listen to them, before it is too late…It’s what Zula would have wanted…


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Train_SnapseedThe first wave hit at 0758 that morning. There was no warning, no chance to run, not even a chance to say goodbye. It tore through buildings, trees and lives with equal savagery. The train had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, ripped from the tracks by a ten-metre wall of water that had hit the coast at some 800 kilometres per hour.  Nearly 1500 people lost their lives on the train that day.

Six months later I stood before the mangled wreckage of what had once been the Galle-Colombo express, now a twisted and permanent reminder of the Asian Tsunami that had rocked the world on 26 December 2004. An unstoppable and unquenchable wall of water, it had ripped apart the lives of millions, from the western coast of Thailand, to the shores of Somalia in eastern Africa. The human tragedy had been incalculable. Estimates…

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Pere-NoelBefore you get too carried away with the mince pies and brandy, you may want to reconsider the idea of letting some corpulent old pensioner down your chimney this Christmas. Don’t be fooled by the fluffy beard and jolly demeanour, Santa, it would seem, has been spending his downtime with some seriously dubious characters…

Growing up on the mean streets of Birmingham, I was always led to believe that the worst that was likely to befall an errant child over Christmas was a possible substitution of coal for that shiny wrapped present under the tree. To the best of my knowledge though, cannibalism, kidnapping and the harassment of livestock was never mentioned! Little wonder Santa spends his time holed up in some remote and frozen corner of literature…the man is a magnet for the dregs of medieval folklore!

Take the Krampus for example, a bloodthirsty and slightly unhinged member of…

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Birthdays have a way of focusing the mind. As the relentless march of time and the inevitable onslaught of middle age take their toll, past adventures provide a nostalgic distraction from the painful realisation that the chocolate cake isn’t the only thing that is rapidly disappearing. Thankfully, after over three decades of travelling around this planet, I seem to have acquired a lot of distractions…

It is fair to say that I have amassed a fair amount of ‘stuff’ over the years. Some of it was bartered, some of it was bought and some of it was just picked up…quite literally. I have geodes from burning sands of Arabia and rocks from the frozen heights of the Himalayas, and in a drawer somewhere I have a bag of Saharan sand that I am not quite sure what I am ever going to do with. Maybe I’ll just take it back to the desert one day and release it back into the wild. Every piece though has a story attached to it. Hell, after 30 years, some of it might even be worth something! Three of my favourite pieces though are truly priceless, not in monetary value, but in the memories and stories attached to them.

Sri Lanka Boat 1The first was given to me by a survivor of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. I was in Sri Lanka about 6 months after the Boxing Day tsunami, working with groups of volunteers helping with the rebuilding programme. I was based close to a small fishing village called Peraliya, which lay along the country’s southwestern coast. It had been one of the worst hit areas and the sense of loss and devastation still haunted the scattered remains of the village. The authorities claimed that 1,000 people had died here, but local aid workers and residents put the figure closer to 2,500. Many of its survivors still lived in tents or makeshift shelters and some, like Manjou, were crowded into small wooden shacks around which were gathered their few remaining possessions.

Manjou could probably have been described as one of the lucky ones – he had survived after all – but his story was to become an all too familiar lament during my time there. The first wave had deprived him of his home, his job and, tragically, his younger sister. The second wave hit whilst he and his two brothers were out looking for her. That was the last time he ever saw them. Manjou was swept two kilometres inland by the force of the water and by the time he returned to his village everything he had ever known was gone.

A qualified electrician, he had been reduced to spending his days making small wooden boats, which he sold to buy rice to feed what was left of his family. Over the course of six weeks I got to know Manjou quite well and regularly turned up at his shack with unwanted clothes and people eager to see his boats. He managed to sell every boat he ever made whilst I was there and on the day I left he presented me with this as a thank you. He wouldn’t accept any money for it and hugged me when I left. I never saw Manjou again. I wrote to him, but I never heard back. I hope he made it though.

Whale VertebraeThe second piece has probably had the longest journey. It came to me from the frozen wastes of the High Arctic, by way of an Inuit bone carver I met in Canada two years ago. Bob Kussy is one of the most remarkable characters that I have met in recent years. A man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Inuit history and culture, he was married to a quite extraordinary woman who, it turned out, is also one of Canada’s most celebrated Inuit artists and an ambassador of Inuit art and culture around the world. I went to visit Bob as part of a photo essay that I was working on with a photographer friend. I was looking for an insight into Inuit life in the Canadian Arctic. What I ended up with was an incredibly personal and insightful introduction to two generations of Inuit history and culture.

I also walked away with part of a whale’s spinal column…complete with polar bear teeth marks and lichen! Bob presented it to me as I was leaving, pulling it out of a bin under his workbench which contained what looked like a build your own whale kit.

DragonThe final piece is a walking stick that I picked up in a market in southern China nearly 20 years ago. It is probably the least expensive thing I have ever bought on my travels, and yet it probably generates the most comment from everyone who sees it. Ironically, I never even intended to buy it. I made the schoolboy error of making eye contact with its previous owner, a fatal mistake which resulted in a chase through the streets and a panicked offer to buy at a ridiculously low price. And suddenly I found myself the owner of a three and a half foot dragon!

I ended up sending it home by post from Hong Kong and was reunited with it, surprisingly, two years later. I think it cost me about £5 at the time and it still makes me smile every time I look at it. It has watched me disappear on countless adventures and its disapproving glare is usually the first thing I see when I walk back in again. Over the years it has become a sort of talisman, something that keeps drawing me back to those carefree days of adventure.

We have grown older together over the past two decades. Sadly, as the years pass, the dragon seems to be weathering the passage of time better than me. With a bit of luck though, it will still be giving me disapproving looks for a few more years yet…

BS 3One of the pivotal decades of the 20th Century, the 1980s brought Britain, Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War, the rise of greed and the fall of the unions. It was a decade of remarkable contrasts, that began with IRA hunger strikes and inner cities riots and ended with the invention of the World Wide Web. These were serious times, predating the arrival of Twitter and smart phones and the annoying banality of the ‘celebrity’ culture. Nuclear war was still a very real threat and the only bulwarks we had against Communism back then were Ronald Reagan and John Rambo!

During those early years I found myself living in Coventry, a city with a bad attitude and a pulsating ska soundtrack. This was the heyday of 2 Tone and bands like Madness, The Specials and Selector were making black suits and pork pie hats essential fashion accessories. Mods and skinheads were everywhere and street violence was at an all time high in the city. Meanwhile, around Britain, the inner cities were burning as copycat riots erupted across the urban landscape. And against this backdrop of inner city decay and urban fragmentation, The Specials released Ghost Town, one of the most iconic records of the decade. An anthem for a lost generation, it pretty much summed up the broken Britain of the early 1980s.

…It also gave me an idea…

At the time I was studying graphic design and was scratching around for an idea for a final year project that had some bite to it. One evening I happened upon a performance by John Cooper Clarke, a man described as…”a cross between Sid Vicious, Ken Dodd and Allen Ginsberg”. The ‘Bard of Salford’, he had an incredible talent for observation and regularly toured with the likes of the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, the Buzzcocks and Joy Division. His poetry was cynical, witty and very hard hitting and one piece in particular, Beasley Street, really captured the mood of the time.

That one poem became responsible for me spending weeks trawling through the urban underbelly of Coventry and Birmingham, hunting out the homeless and the desperate. I wandered the streets with a camera, searching out people and places that most folk tended to steer well clear of. On more than one occasion I found myself running through the streets, being chased by irate tramps and hungry dogs. By the end of those first few weeks I had rolls and rolls of black and white film and hundreds of still images, which I then spent even more weeks animating together to the Beasley Street soundtrackthe old fashioned way…25 frames a second!

…The only people with flash computers back then were NASA!

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That was over 30 years ago and many of the photos have rarely seen the light of day since. This was probably my first real attempt at any sort of serious photographic endeavour and a lot of the images reflect that. Their faults are many, but they do, I think, mirror the gritty reality of those early years. Looking back at them now though, it saddens me that the subsequent decades have seen little change for the better. Thatcher may be gone, but her legacy remains. Greed, apparently, is still good. Immigration and the Cold War are back with a vengeance…and Rambo, it seems, is still the only hope we have against the Russians!

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