on being ginger

"Only a ginger can call another ginger ginger." Tim Michin 'Prejudice'

A red-haired child's mother corrected me saying ginger is a spice not a colour. The word, it seems, has become a curse. But the hair colour isn't red or orange or yellow or copper or auburn, the colour is ginger but use the word carefully. All hair from strawberry blonde to deep red lies on the ginger spectrum but I can say that because I am a ginger!

What’s it like being ginger?

Cue lots of abuse and online trolling. Gingers are common fodder for idiots. Gingers, they tell us, are stupid, ugly or degenerate. Its a recessive gene so by extension we are mutants in the bad sense. Not in the mutant hero, super-powered, X-men style mutants. If we could do that stuff no one would mess with us. All we can do is look great and reflect the sun with our porcelain skin.

Scotland has the highest percentage of ginger people in the world. Recently it was announced that Edinburgh is the world capital of ginger hair with 40% of the population carrying the gene. Only 13% actually have the blessed hair so we are still a small minority and a group that needs documented.

Stories tend to be clinical and focus on the genetic basis of the colour, its impending extinction (not true by the way) or the enduring cultural persecution. I want to build on that and make this personal. This story is asking ginger people in Scotland what its like to live with the rarest hair colour on planet earth.

Heirs of historical hair

Scotland is synonymous with ginger hair. The 1st century historian Tacitus referred to the people in this land as “red-haired”. Clearly he wasn't ginger. In the Scottish National galleries I noticed paintings of a ginger Jesus and Mary (see these examples by Bottichelli, Poussin and Raphael ). I asked a member of staff why Jesus had ginger hair but they didnt know. Perhaps they were bought by patriotic Scots?  I have been told a number of theories- its because the paint pigment degrades or its a visual trick to draw the eye or its a crown of gold to show symbolic importance. 

That moment triggered this project. I am interested in asking what's so special, or not, about being ginger in Scotland today. 

Be part of the story

"I’d say I’m British because dad is Irish, mum is Scottish and I was born in England. I have lived in Scotland for nine years. I don’t know what I am!"  
Caitlin, 20, Dumfries 

"People ask why is your hair that colour? Do you drink a lot of Irn-Bru? Mum says its very helpful to find me in a crowd. No-one in my school year has red hair which means I could get in trouble because I am easy to spot." 
Stewart, 9, East Kilbride

"I describe my hair as highland auburn but it only appears in my beard. A few mates have it and our dog- Pixie the destroyer. She is a rehome and was going to be put down. I wanted a dog to go with my beard!"    
Dez, 31, Rothes

"Luckily, I have never had a problem with bullying and it was more a problem with my mum. She didn't like two girls with red hair and kept it short if possible. “Really?”, she would say “you can’t wear that colour, it will clash with your hair!”   
Kirsty, 45, Perth

"People usually say we have a fiery temper but I have always been the opposite, level-headed and calm and friendly. My experience is most red heads are quite placid, keeping their heads below the parapet."  
Davie, 43, Glasgow

We are looking for more gingers to be part of this story. If you are ginger and live in Scotland there are sessions happening across the country in the coming months. Get in touch:


a picture is worth a thousand characters

Bee-eater, found at Xemxija, 20th April 2011 suffered gunshot injury to its left side of the body.

Still life (natur mort) is a grimly accurate description of this dead Bee-eater lying on a vet’s steel table. Found at Xemxija on the island of Malta, 20th April 2011 the cause of death was due to gunshot injury on its left side. Hundreds of thousands of birds return north every spring from Africa and are greeted with a storm of gunfire. Three main avian motorways guide birds across the Mediterranean, over nation’s with unsustainable hunting cultures. Malta is a stepping stone on the central route that continues up through Italy. Gibraltar and Cyprus mark the western and eastern flyways, respectively. This work documented the birdwatchers who watch the hunters watching the birds on Birdlife Malta's Spring Watch camps. Malta’s 11,000 permitted hunters give the island the highest per head in Europe backed by a powerful political lobby with guns! No where is birdwatching so countercultural and subversive. In northern Europe millions are spent on habitat conservation yet birds may never return. Turtle dove and quail can be shot in limited numbers but everything from eagles to herons are been seen falling from the sky every spring.

subjects: behind the photo  stories


the perfect picture

Many millions set out into the world of photography. Thousands linger in the limbo of technical forums, many content themselves to sit and contemplate the aesthetic. But to be a rounded and complete practitioner you must cast out into the dangerous waters of meaning. Even the word will have postmodernists throwing up over board.  

There are three main areas involved in making the perfect picture. Two are familiar- the technical and the aesthetic. How to take it and what it looks like. The third is the elusive and often ignored element of meaning. This trinity allows us to dissect and judge the near-infinite possibilities of photography. We develop and improve our work advancing toward the centre where the three elements find balance. We may not ever find perfection but some images close to transcendent. In them this trinity holds together. 

1. Technical 

Techniphobes are people who value the idea more than the machinery. Thoughts are more valuable than things. Concepts more than contraptions. 

At the other extreme, we have the technophilic photographers, often found in camera clubs and on-line forums.  Focal length and megapixels are the two iron-fanged snares that trap herds of photographic enthusiasts early on. And generally the male sex.  I know many brilliant women photographers, many feisty feminists who could attack this observation but it seems to hold true so they don’t. This is not to say women don’t learn technical practice, they do but they use it to make pictures rather getting lens envy.  Men, and some women, love talking about the latest technology- f-stops, photoshop plugins or those age-old existentialist problems- Canon or Nikon? Mac or PC? Analogue or digital? So let’s resolve this once and for all and move on- Canon, Mac and both.   

Technical mastery deepens the artistic endeavour and is a vital foundation and the driver of innovation. This must become second-nature, the camera becomes something to look through rather than our adversary. In one day I can take photo newbies from ignorance to shooting manual on complex DSLRs not by Jedi mind tricks alone but by clearly outlining the interplay of light through the shutter, aperture and on the sensor.  There is delight in this understanding and so begins the journey of photography. This technical discipline is essential.  

2. Aesthetic 

The first element we notice in a photograph- what it looks like.  The composition of objects in the frame, the balance and tone of colour, placing of focus, motion and direction of light and choice of subject. All work together to produce the visual element of a work but it is not just gloss on the surface.  

Recently, the glass on my cooker hob cracked. The warranty people refused to fix it because the damage was “cosmetic” not “functional”.  So I asked, if I remove the glass can I cook my quails eggs? “No!” they exclaimed in shock at my refined but dangerous ways. “Well its functional then?” I replied, shocked by the power of my logic. My point is this- the look of an image is functional not cosmetic.   The aesthetic conveys both physical and emotional information. The awesome mountainscape is both awesome (emotional) and mountainous (physical).  The angry protesters are both angry (emotional) and protestors (physical). 

The aesthetic conveys this function across a range of subtle levels. Often we see the aesthetic as the thin gloss to bring out the technical skill. Often it is the motive to take a shot- “that looks nice!”. But the aesthetic also functions as narrative. 

Within this realm we talk of people having an ‘eye’ for photography.  A natural gift at seeing what is beautiful and arranging it in the frame to communicate that to the viewer. But I think it can be learned too.  We may need to unlearn our styles. 

Photography is about our worldview and it is deeply personal.  The best actors can understand the subject they are imitating but they also interpret.  But if we imitate another photographer’s style by aesthetics alone we are more like a poor mime serving canapés at a party. If we connect to the photographer's thinking we can avoid plagarism and find our own voice.  

Aesthetic has a narrative function, it can be learned and is the second member of our photographic trinity. 

3. Meaning 

“We don’t make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies, we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved” 
Ansel Adams

This is Meaning with a big M building on the emotional and physical meaning the aesthetic has already conveyed. This is the forethought or driving motive behind all our work. It may be simply “I think that looks nice, do you agree?”.  Or “thousands of innocent families are dying in civil war”.  Meaning matters to give photography its power. 

Photojournalism and fine art are close kin in this regard. The only tangible difference seems their family tree or the context in which they work (publication or exhibition). Their lives overlap.

If I can return to my vomiting postmodernist for a moment, who may have died at my continued assertion of a perfect standard. The aesthetic is the design of the ship that helps it function The technical practice is the engineering that holds it all together.  Meaning is the rudder and sails to direct us to the destination of the perfect picture. 

Meaning drives the photographic endeavour. Without meaning people perish.  And so does art. 

PS.  I have never taken a perfect picture.

subjects: process  theory


free scotland/ the political landscape

When a taxi driver in China asked me if Scotland was to be independent I thought I had missed some big news. That was 2007 when the SNP (Scottish National Party) had managed a landslide victory in a parliamentary system designed to prevent one party majorities. The SNP were surprised, Alex Salmond was surprised but my Chengdu driver was not. He had seen Braveheart. Everyone I meet traveling has seen Braveheart. It's my passport to acceptance globally, except in England. The movie may lack historicity but it resonates with human desire for freedom, whatever that means.

Here lies my current dilemma. I want to tell Scotland's story to a world that is passionate about the Scotish people but I fear they are in love with a fiction. My new work is motivated by the desire to connect to the deeper story without dulling the senses using works like historical or nuanced or stereotypes. I also want to avoid the temptation to cry 'Freedom!' while wearing my kilt to satisfy the appetites of publications.  

Editors often come at Scottish stories from two extremes- the beautiful or the beastly. The beautiful involves the romantic land of film and fiction. The noble savage and their wild world epitomised by Braveheart. Severed heads and war are beautiful in this definition.  Which is odd, I agree.

The beastly side of Scotland comes in the form of alcohol, drugs and poverty. We have world records in this kind of thing and its chronically depressing. A decade in Glasgow have shown me all the worst areas and confronted me with hard questions as a fellow citizen. But I have seen stories of hope and humanity in adversity. People make Glasgow  the marketers tell us.  They are right but not every person will make it into the advertising or should.  But my work can include them.

Consider the photo above which is similarly ambiguous. Is it a statement of fact or a rallying call to revolution? I assume they mean revolution but a lack of exclamation mark doesn't help. The revolution shall not be punctuated. Tolerance in society is marked by a lack of definition, we agree on statements but don't actually ask what they really believe.

My ambition is to define Scotland connecting both the beautiful and beastly to show how often both are present in the land. I have been surprised, shocked and amazed by the deeper national story. The landscape is where the culture was born and where it is continually reformed. Culture is not a static thing or a museum piece. Landscapes likewise change.  Landscape photography tends to focus on natural beauty but I see no Scottish landscape devoid of human influence. My work, I hope, will capture landscapes that display the national story from historical battles to the significant landscapes today where people live, work and explore. 

The land offers the narrative to ask who are the Scots today? What landscapes tell Scotland’s story? Submit suggestions or support the work here:

subjects: behind the photo  motivation  stories


the three A's of freelancing

Africa - KDA lone fisherman drifts through a channel of waterlilies.

PING! *checks email*

“Anti-aging secrets” DELETE.

“Oceans bounty” DELETE.

“Checking your availability for a trip to Peru* next week?”


Freelancers, I am told, need to be Able, Affable and Available. I got that from a doctor, who probably got it from a businessman who I expect got it from a freelancer. The sad reality is- if you are available the other two don’t really matter. There are gaps needing filled and your responsive frame can be mashed to fit. If you are not available the conversation is over. So whether a goodie or a baddie, you have to ask what happens when you have plans?

Do I answer:

A. “Yes!” I will change everything because it sounds amazing. Or because I need the work.

B. “No!” I am sorry I am working on a self-initiated stories that might become nothing but dust in my hands. Or I need to worm my dog that week or be at a cousin's wedding.

C. “I’m interested!” Wait and see if it will actually happen, plan how to change everything and try somehow to juggle meantime to maintain peace and harmony in the world.

I find C the hardest. There are clients I will drop everything to work with and try and keep the door open as long as possible. At some stage we need to arrive at A or B but until then I have to maintain availability. I may turn away work or cancel personal appointments but that's my choice. Waiting is frustrating but its the cost of being freelance. I wish I had a softer solution for you but suck it up champ, that’s life!

*insert country here. I have never been or asked to be in Peru but would like to go.


Big in India

The World's most prolific recording artist is Indian-born composer and musician A.R.Rahman pictured at the Blythswood Hotel in Glasgow, UK.

A new website brings a flurry of interest from across the world but among all the pie charts and line graphs in my analytical war room I discovered something surprising this week- that I was big in India. Thanks to a portrait of super megastar A.R.Rahman and his fans.

He has sold more records than the Beatles or Elvis and he is still going strong. Most people in UK will know him, if they do, for his soundtracks including the Oscar-winning 'Slumdog millionaire'.  One article described this “Mozart of Mumbai” as the “most prolific recording artist in the world”. And by extension the universe. Superlatives scare me before a shoot so I only glanced briefly at a biography before I met the man. 

The portrait was scheduled in a hotel after the journalist's interview.  I arrived early, chose a suitable suite and waited for my allotted time. The limiting factor in most shoots is the subject and how much time and effort they bring to the shoot so preparation is key.  The brief was brief- use a colourful background because the paper is pink in colour. Lighting was simple- a flash head shot through white umbrella. But what about the subject?

Many have attested that fame makes people monstrous. Mind you, so can obscurity. Gladly AR was courtesy and very obliging. We chatted about cameras (he uses Canon if you must know) but I refrained from sharing my ambition to star in a Bollywood film. Its a new but true ambition.

I can’t claim to have looked into his soul but I discovered this- he is refreshingly normal. I don't mean it as an insult, his musical talent is clearly stellar. But he behaves like he is a human and he knows you are one too. That is the highest praise I can give. That must explain why he has legions of adoring fans across cyber space, the same fans who repost my work across their sites. 

PS to fans, please ask before nicking the photo.

Portrait shot for Financial Times Weekend.

subjects: behind the photo  on the road  process


putting the free back into freelance

Freelancers must learn quickly to define time off or else they will burnout. Everything is work or nothing is work. We will be trapped by work rather than liberated for work.

As a freelance I am always trying to create the kind of work that will maintain my passion under pressure. When time, money and life constrain the creative instinct. The experience is restorative and pushes me forward.

I experienced the restoration this weekend on a wind-blasted frozen expanse. The conditions in the highlands are remarkable for skiing this year so me, my wife, my best man and his family ventured onto Cairngorm mountain. At the top, I wrestled against gales to take a light meter reading, adjusting the focus with my gloves and took a few clunking exposures on my hassleblad. I felt alive, like I was made to do this. I returned home ready for the week with another picture in the bag for one of my current Scotland stories. I felt I had put the freedom back into freelance.  

Free doesn't refer to fees, as some cheeky people think. So what does it mean? Free allows us to make the kind of work that keeps us passionate in busy times when deadlines all collide and we can't board the private jet for Mauritius. Work that makes us feel alive. Work that can be both restful and useful. And usually work we care about.

Free also can involve asking your wife to carry the camera bag because you are a novice skier and keep falling.  Thanks love!

The shot above was taken on my phone.

subjects: on the road  process  theory


the children are their future

Seventy politicians, civil servants and business people are standing trial in Malawi charged with stealing $100 million (£60 million) of government money months before a general election in May 2014. Foreign powers, who provide 40% of the nation’s budget, the largest part from the UK, are withholding $150 million in foreign aid until this scandal (dubbed 'Cashgate') has been resolved. Below this depressing crisis, however, lie the promising shoots of a grassroots movement that is bringing hope to vulnerable families is one of Africa’s poorest nations.

Tumpe Kire was 10 when she was sold to pay for her own medical bills. Her father, unable to pay the 20,000 kwacha (£30) fee, gave his ill daughter to the traditional healer to settle the bill. For six months she lived and laboured for the man; the length of time which, by local custom, she should have qualified as the healer’s wife. Before this happened, a local Mother and Father group discussed the case and pressurised the father to sell some of his livestock to buy his daughter back. This is but one example of the pioneering work by the Livingstonia Synod Aids Program (LISAP), a local charity, which focussed on helping the 16,000 children most at risk from underage marriage, child labour and other harmful traditional practices in northern Malawi. Word is spreading with more and more community groups keen to see change.

Against unenviable odds, one woman and her small team of workers have a successful solution that appears tantalisingly simple- showing local people how to take action for themselves. Mphatso Nguluwe began her work when she came upon a girl selling home-made beer at a road side. The former nurse was working for local humanitarian charity LISAP when she saw the need to go deeper to challenge the traditional beliefs that lock children into the cycle of poverty associated with HIV/Aids in the most remote regions. Underage marriage traditions predate the arrival of missionary explorer Dr David Livingstone- the man who ‘discovered’ Lake Malawi over 150 years ago. This natural wonder covers a quarter of Malawi’s surface area and draws tourists to watch from the shore as fishermen undertake their nightly commute into dangerous waters over the horizon. Below the surface of this placid scene, however, lie stories of children as young as nine paddling to the point of exhaustion through lethal offshore currents.

The recent discovery of oil in the lake bed underlines the fact that this small country is blessed with an abundance of riches. But Malawi's majority subsistence farming population remains untouched by the profits from exports of tobacco, tea and sugar. Development is stunted by systemic poverty as harmful traditional beliefs prevent children from going to school, sometimes enslaving them in early marriages. Mother and Father groups are part of the Girls and Boys Empowerment project, revolutionising the lives of children through positive pressure of parents and life skills education for children. Elders and local chiefs are encouraged to create bylaws that allow the necessary leverage to bring about change. Chief Mwakaboko, a strong opponent won round to Mphatso’s vision, knew of only five educated women in his area when this work began. Now he hopes that this will change. “They are not putting money in their pockets but putting money with the people” he says encouragingly.

Story commissioned by Tearfund UK and published in The Herald Magazine. See the wider edit on Panos Pictures site or here.

subjects: behind the photo  stories


a picture is worth a thousand characters

Ronnie’s eyes glaze over as heroin creeps into his brain. Addiction is one story photographer’s are drawn to. It is a graphic horror too easily exploited. I was reluctant about doing this story but was convinced by a good friend, himself a former addict. I wanted to show the hollow life in which individuals are trapped and which the addicts so eloquently describe. It was a cold January day when I met Ronnie and his flatmate Dave. They had signed up to a detox programme and were being documented through the process. We sat around watching daytime TV quiz shows, drank tea and went to the supermarket with this calm normality interspersed by drug sessions. The drugs were the symptom of a deeper problem- for Ronnie the boredom of unemployment in a former mining town. Drugs offered escape and a community. Heroin numbs the user’s emotions like ice and the thaw of detox brings a flood of emotions, guilt and fear. The terror drives them back to be comfortably numb.

subjects: behind the photo  stories


a picture is worth a thousand characters

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Winston Churchill

The power of persistence is vital as an independent photographer. After a month in the Zambian bush I felt ready to move on. In many ways it was an ideal place to live but the incessant diet of beans and omelettes combined with fatigue had affected my mind. Aware of this I forced myself to get out of bed on the last morning. One last shot of Kasanka’s bats was needed. Edmund fired up the plane and took us above the canopy. With the door off, cool air filling the cabin before the sun burst through the clouds. The peat land had been slowly smouldering for weeks and its smoke created a diffuse light and a sweet, smoky smell. I was astounded but kept shooting. One of those rare moments you work for. Often the best pictures come right at the end when you are ready to give up. Note to self never give up, never give in!

To suggest a picture please email:

subjects: behind the photo  motivation  on the road


7 reasons to shoot film in a digital age

For my latest work on Scotland I am returning to my roots- shooting film. And this is why...

1. to see

A wise man once said, “If you see the picture you have already missed it.”. Maybe it was a woman who said that. Either way its wise and tell us that photography is about predicting the moment. Its all about timing and being ready. The discipline of having 12 frames before changing a film forces brevity in picture making. We begin editing long before we press the shutter. Analogue film forces us to look up and look out from the camera rather than hunching chimp-like over the screen looking for digital fleas.

2. to be

The most famous photographic mantra is “f8 and be there”. But with digi we are tempted to f8 and blog more. Our minds are distracted by the outcomes of social networking even in the most remote parts of the world. I was the first Westerner to email from a remote village in China's Qinghai province after they received a new phone aerial. The local Tibetans gained a data network that is the envy of Glasgow residents but something was lost for the traveller. Don’t get me wrong, the internet does make life better and is a great way to get the stories out there but it has gone too far where we forget what it is to be. This mindfulness of shooting analogue will inform my digital work- to f8 and actually be there.

3. to slow down

The Italians have the slow food movement to savour the flavour and make central the social function of eating. My therapy in a frantic world is the slow photo movement. I may have just started that movement now. Using film today is the photographic equivalent of speed bumps on roads. We spend thousands of years evolving our roads to become smoother and slicker so we have increasing efficiency and then some fool puts massive obstacles in your way to slow you down. But we do it because people are more important than simple efficiency. Viewing people as machines tends to have been harmful to humanity. Slowing down may actually be beneficial? 

4. to take fewer bad photographs

If you take fewer frames you will take fewer bad ones, right? Even with percentages, film is still the winner. On a shoot with 1000 frames, let's say, my first edit gets me down to 100 then I can whittle it down to 10-30 depending on client and how good a day it was. Thats 1-3% success rate. With film I expect 1 or 2 good ones in each roll of 12- thats at least 8%. Film increased efficiency by 800% just by slowing down! BOOM!

 5. to enjoy life more

Malawian driver said how it must be wonderful in the UK because of our greater comfort and healthcare. I agreed its a privilege to have free cures for preventable diseases but we Brits don’t enjoy it and instead fill our time with moans about being busier and more stressed than before. The UK has an epidemic of stress-related disease and the irony is Mr Malawi (not his real name) was the most pleasant, relaxed but industrious man I had met in months. He drove slowly but we still got there on time. Somewhere between Malawi’s pace and that of the UK could work. Maybe the pace of an independent Scotland? Or maybe not. 

6. to celebrate imperfection 

What analogue lacks in electronic wizardry it makes up in soul. Sorry if that sounds fuzzy but it is true. Like canned salmon compared to a fresh one wrestled from the Highlands' finest rivers.  The result tastes better somehow. Or playing a vinyl record compared to a pristine mp3. The imperfect crackles and pops offer a more authentic rendition of reality in some respects. Remember in The Matrix they had to add flaws to the programme because people were getting suspicious? Ergo...Vis a vie...concordently!

7 to be cool 

Film is objectively cooler than digital. This fact is based on the evidence that my local lab process scores of rolls per week thanks to the trendy students in Glasgow’s west end. Mind you, paying £11 per roll of E6 is uncool. Thats where the analogue mail service works better than its digital brother.  

subjects: motivation  process  theory


why are you a photographer?

A Tibetan family watch the horse racing at the Qumalai horse festival in Yushu prefecture. The horse festivals were historically a test of skill and manhood and have experienced a resurgence in recent years, encouraged by the Chinese government keen to promote a harmonious society. "Sanjiangyuan- The three rivers headwaters". The Tibetan plateau is the world’s third pole, producing fresh water for billions downstream. In China, the future of the nation depends on how this water tower is conserved. Where the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers begin, Tibetan nomads are moving to protect the land, its wildlife and in the process their ancient culture from melting away in the face of resettlement and urbanisation.

Seven answers to the first question every photographer must ask themselves.

1. Creativity

Werner Hertzog’s epic Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores the paintings of people 30,000 years ago and how they saw value and purpose in visual art. Creativity appears to be a universal and fundamental human instinct. One reviewer commented- the Chauvet people of southern France found meaning in something bigger because anthropos is the “upward looking one” from which we get anthropology, the study of who or what we look up to. Today, photography offers the quickest method for discovering where people find meaning, what intrigues and defines them. Arguably photography its the most ubiquitous form of human creativity in the 21st century. But creativity isn't necessarily a good thing.  The inventor of dynamite realised the destructive legacy of his work and decided to leave a more life-affirming form of creativity. So, Alfred Nobel created global prizes that continue to inspire human flourishing. Will our creativity benefit or inhibit life? Will our work bring hope or cynicism?

2. Love 

Even cynics love being cynical. Consider for a moment the object of your affections. A person, a thing or pleasure? Look at your photographs. What are you drawn to? Is it the subject, the aesthetic, the process or the personal discovery? There is a pleasure in creativity which is addictive and hard to unpick. Love of creating or communicating can be the end in itself. Perhaps love for the subject of your work is the key motivator? Or you love praise as measured in Facebook likes or Guggenheim fellowships? Love is perhaps the strongest motivating factor but its hard to dissect.

3. Curiosity

Kills cats but is more beneficial to people. We ask questions looking for answers. Some answers will elude us but curiosity is another unshakeable urge. People often love chatting about what they know and showing others what they don’t. But at its best we want to share what we care about and think is good so others may appreciate it too. Curiosity is not the end in itself but the direction to travel in. The proverb writer may have been warning humans against the dangers of curiosity or maybe she was teaching us to look after our cats? Or at least to be prepared to film their hilarious antics for youtube?

4. Change

The news business has taught me there is something wrong in the world. There is suffering and pain, from political states down to personal relationships.  We ask, we create and we think to overcome and adapt the world to make it better. Science tells us entropy is increasing, we will be swallowed by the sun and the universe will burn out to death. But in the meantime we want to make the journey to that heat death a little more enjoyable. Do something good for others, make a change. Photography helps inform, testify and explain our world. Most effectively it acts to change my stupid mind toward something better. Ultimately that is all I have power over- my mind- but even that is a battle!

5. Power

Photojournalism is a particularly vital strand of photography, the root from which branches grew. Early pioneers documented the world, like realist painters, before creating more expressive and impressionistic styles but it was orginally rooted in record. Photojournalism gives voice to the weak and oppressed, as a unavoidable witness to their leaders and oppressors. Perhaps we are driven to right some wrong, raise a voice of dissent or remember the overlooked. Revenge and retribution are hugely popular motivations for life but so are restoration and redemption. How will we yield the power given to us?

6. Money

A world-class war correspondent once commented that most journalism students she taught were hoping to be rich and famous. I laughed and thought she was joking. Her face suggested she wished she was.  A few do achieve this but most don't. Is greed good for art or journalism?  Personally my worst work has come from hunting money. The images, like the paper they are printed on, are wafer thin and functional, forgettable and superficial. As such the work only connects at a superficial level. But money is very good when I need to pay for a roof, food and the occasion round of golf. Money helps you raise the profile of meaninful work, put on exhibits and keep going! In large quantities it can also bring fame, that fickle and unfaithful fruit tree Nick Drake sang about.

7. Fame

Social networking puts us at the centre of the universe and makes us feel nice. Well for a while, then we are forgotten about and we feel sad. I have seen many use fame to reach a vast audience and lobby for good but others crave it to support a brittle ego. In reality if you want lots of likes put up a new baby pic or a cute kitten or a cloud that looks like Elvis. The problem with fame as a key motivation is the way it will eat away at the photographer's artistic soul and play to the gallery. When photographers are driven by their own passion (which could rightly be for kittens or clouds) it shows up in their work and the viewer will be swept along in your excitement. 


What have I missed?

subjects: motivation  process  theory


the first question to ask every photographer

Design guru Neil Wallace of agency Ostreet.

The wrong question

On discovering the noble profession to which I am called, people always ask "What kind of photographer are you?" After some um-ing and ah-ing and wondering how to define myself I might reply- "I’m a poor/ I am an amazing/ I am an amazingly poor photographer”. They laugh. Or stare. Then they try again, "What kind of things do you take photos of? Weddings? Or wars? Or wildlife?" (If you really want to know then read my profileBut I think people miss the more interesting question, one that is far more revealing- why are you a photographer?

Our lives are limited

Steve Jobs gave this sage advice to encourage a class of the world’s most promising graduates:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life” (1)

Stay with me on this, it a sobering but liberating truth. Jobs was asking the 'why' question - "Why will you do what you are planning on doing?" We don’t want to admit it and I wish it wasn’t so but its the ultimate statistic- 100% of us die. And that will change the way we work if we resist the urge to run from the fact. Your photographs are numbered. Maybe its one thousandth of a second or one thousand million frames but there is a day when what you will shoot will be your parting shot.


The best photographers I know of, dead or alive, all had a clear idea of what they were about. They have known where they have come from and where they are going. And that shaped their work. To survive as a professional you need a drive- something bigger to strive for. And that’s what I am getting at.


What pushes you to overcome the inevitable roadblocks and rejections. And where will that drive take you? What is driving you and where is it taking you?

I mean this lovingly. With a disembodied, electronic kind-of-love. Not like the worried parents or dismissive editor wondering why are you a photographer? The ‘why’ question is an antidote to artistic stagnation, mediocrity and produce your best work. So, why do you take photographs?

I ask it daily. Its fundamental to everything I do.  This simple question will change how you photograph, where you photograph and what you photograph.  Why are you a photographer? 

subjects: motivation  process  theory


meeting face to face

In the digital world its always better to see people in person. And the quickest way to get around them in Paris is by scooter. Colin from Rea said he has been driving these streets since he was 12 and managed to squeeze between trucks, wing mirrors and pedestrians like a pro. My hierarchy for contact, if you are interested and from best to worst: in person, video call, phone, email, twitter, text, facebook.

subjects: on the road  process


smithsonian magazine q&a

Kieran’s photograph of the Touch Bionics iLimb Ultra graces the cover of the current issue of Smithsonian. He corresponded with the photo editor Jeff Campagna below:

What intrigued you about this assignment?

Well, naturally, I am prejudiced against robots (due their potential to take over the world) but at this moment a bionic hand beats a new smart phone any day! Having studied animal physiology I am aware of the complexity of organic systems so I wanted to see how far people have come to copying nature's blueprint.

 How did you initially approach it? 

 We took a while to work out the different gestures and then translate the most suitable into two dimensions. We tried different lighting, background and props but in the end the cover shot actually came once the 'safe' shots were in the bag and we were messing around with the hands. 

 What was the most interesting thing you learned from the photo shoot? 

 Hands are amazing! The technology sheds light on how incredible are human hands–the range of movement, the balance of sensitivity to strength and their fine-tuned controls. But this technology is life-changing for the user, and I am excited to see how it develops over the coming years. 

So besides shooting robotic hands, what kind of projects have you been working on recently?

 I am just back from a story on child exploitation in Malawi. I have been overseas for my personal work in recent years, but I will be focusing on Scotland in the coming months. The Independence referendum in September 2014 is making me think a lot about our national identity and its place on the world stage. 

And what can we expect to see from you on Instagram this week? 

 I want to take you on a tour of unseen Scotland like a friend from overseas. I am going to continue the theme of innovation and try get as far away from whisky and kilts as I can! Expect science labs, heavy industry, some bonny (pretty) landscapes and maybe a panda or two. 

 Characterize your style using three words, using no adjectives. 

 words fail me


the third pole- china's water tower

A Tibetan monk watches the horse racing at the Qumalai horse festival in Yushu prefecture. The horse festivals were historically a test of skill and manhood and have experienced a resurgence in recent years, encouraged by the Chinese government keen to promote a harmonious society.

“Education will ruin our culture” laments Dorje, a local Tibetan teacher describing how compulsory education is driving the resettlement of nomads. “These lifestyles are endangered. You rarely see people on horse back nowadays. To improve the living standard depends on education but to save [culture] more depends on the people”

The Tibetan plateau is the world’s third pole and its waters influence the lives of 40% of the global population downstream. Sanjiangyuan or ‘The Three rivers headwaters’ reserve is China’s water tower, in the eastern plateau and home to the last Tibetan nomads. “The waters from Sanjiangyuan sustains life for 600 million people downstream but in recent years this vast water tower is under threat,” says Dr Marc Foggin, a conservation biologist who has studied life on the plateau for 15 years, “and what affects China affects the world.”

In 2000, Chinese officials reacted at the sight of dried-up lake beds and grasslands turning to desert near the Yellow river source in Guoluo county. China’s so-called mother river and the nearby Yangtze, function as the nation’s two major arteries flowing through its industrial heartland. The third source rising in the vicinity, the Mekong, flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The future of the nation and surrounding region depends on how this water tower is conserved.

Climate change is thought to be the main cause of rangeland degradation with the plateau warming at twice the world average with China overtaking the USA as the world’s largest polluter in 2007 .  Officials also blamed a burrowing mammal called a ‘pika’ and the overgrazing  of nomadic herd for the erosion. China created a major new reserve encompassing the three rivers headwaters in Qinghai province covering an area the size of England and Wales at an average elevation of 4000m.  

The aim was to halt erosion and protect human life downstream but at the cost of removing one of the world’s last nomadic populations.    While outside the official Tibet Autonomous region, the majority of the residents are Tibetans with few Han Chinese.   Areas of Tibetan majority covers the official TAR but also includes large swathes of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces. 

By 2014, over 530,000 nomads in Qinghai province are to be resettled under the Ecological Resettlement’ programme, though the trend towards sedenterisation of nomads begun much earlier in the 1960s. as part of the ‘Great leap forward’. Ecological resettlement is the latest and possibly last phase of the process  threatening the end for this ancient way of life. 

 The Tibetan identity is rooted in the land and the herding of yak.  Traditionally this would be moving a tent but this today is almost exclusively from a permanent winter home into a summer tent. Nomadic pastoralism, refers to people who undertake seasonal migrations to graze their herds.    Now, ecological resettlement is producing a generation of educated but rurally-illiterate Tibetans in search of a new identity.  

“The yak is intimately associated with whole of religion and culture of this region.”, says Gerald Weiner, a UK-based animal geneticist who co-authored the book ‘The Yak’ for the UN. “Yak are the most wonderful animals for sustaining life in the region- they provide milk for butter, yoghurt and cheese, are a source of meat, hair for weaving into tents and rope with the finer fabric made into clothing. “  

The late Cai Li, a Chinese professor and yak history expert from Chengdu in Sichuan province, was of the opinion that without yak dung, the only fuel available, no people or civilisation could have colonised these vast mountainous regions.  

Today, motorbikes and smart phones are essential tools for the modern nomad but yak herding remains at the heart of Tibetan identity.  The resettlement of nearly all of Qinghai’s nomads will fundamentally redefine the Tibetan cultural identity forever. 

”Nomads have started thinking the grass in greener in the city! “ explains former nomad and conservationist Tsera. “Grassland life is a lot of hard work . But here [in town] they have no job, no money and they have an identity crisis.  They always ask me “what shall I do?”. At first people think its a good choice but after a while they realise they have to buy meat and yak dung, pay to build a toilet and don’t have enough money to move back.”  

Children begin their first term at a rural school in Qinghai with military exercises on nearby grasslands but many will graduate unable or unwilling to return to these ancestoral pasturelands. Families are provided with a new home and living subsidy to bring their children to town for education, few return to the old ways. 

“Life is perfect” says a father-of-five taxi driver, resettled last year.  Superficially his new home resembles a idyllic suburbia except for running water or power for street lights. His village is used for official visits to showcase the success of Ecological resettlement and is more attractive than the most common concrete grids.    “I like the government. I never went to school but I hope they [my children] may go to university one day”.  The resettlement villages are branded “thief schools” or “ghettos on the grasslands” by critics.  

Despite their high aims of improving education and healthcare, they bring inner-city problems to the rural landscape.  A few find new opportunities but 70% of resettled Tibetans remain unemployed relying on government handouts, feeling hopeless and even suffering culture shock.  This sense of frustration and despair has been used to account for spate of self immolations since 2009 by Tibetans living in China that have dominated western media news of the region.  During the recent Party congress [Dec 2012], 6 nomads took their lives with even more in recent weeks. 

In 2010 an earthquake destroyed Yushu town, the largest in the Three Rivers reserve, with the loss of over 2600 lives lost.  While most buildings crumbled, a statue of Tibet’s mythic leader and hero King Gesar remained standing in the centre of the city, a symbol of the people’s enduring spirit even in the midst of tragedy and the tectonic shifts in culture. Beijing pledged to rebuild Yushu, as an ecological city centered on King Gesar square and the re-built hill top monastery- twin totems of indigenous Tibetan culture.    An airport and 800km of dual carriageway the provincial capital will bring tourists from home and abroad seeking an authentic cultural experience.   Horse festivals on the plains near Yushu town are resurgent in popularity, despite government restricting large gatherings in the province.  Nearby resettlement villages have their own regulars races between locals, perhaps a reaction to their new settled life. 

“No culture is a museum piece,” says conservationist Dr Marc Foggin of NGO Plateau perspectives who work with nomads to sustain livelihoods and conserve local wildlife  “Tibetan pastoralism will continue to create and recreate itself .  There is a creativity in us that has allowed humans to survive in harsh habitats.” 

Ancient lifestyles become ancient, Foggin reasons, by surviving and evolving to a changeable environment. For millennia the nomads have looked for their survival to the wildlife and so too today.  

The Three Rivers reserve is a haven for rare wildlife including snow leopard, Tibetan antelope and black-necked cranes. Government-funded roads can allow herding cooperatives to get their product to the lucrative eastern markets while bringing in ecotourists seeking a wilderness experience, epitomized by the nomadic Tibetans. Of the world’s snow leopards,  half live on the Tibetan plateau and China wants to protect them.  Nomads, working as wildlife monitors can gather scientific data and deter poachers while remaining on the land. In November 2012, authorities announced  paid positions for nearly 10,000 ‘keepers of the grassland‘, an official endorsement of the value of herders.  The wild yak and plateau wildlife now offer a means for the continued survival of the Tibetan culture in this harsh landscape. 

Pastoralism may be a fringe lifestyle but it always has been, clinging to life in the harshest livable environment on earth.  Under the torrent flow of China’s economy, drive for urbanization and the policy of compulsory education, the end of Tibet’s nomads appears inevitable. But herding remains the plateau’s most sustainable lifestyle and nomads are best placed to conserve the wildlife and land, offering a slender hope of survival against overwhelming odds.   

In Dorje’s classroom the children settle down to read English and Tibetan. Outside, the sounds of drills and trucks remind us that the school is a work in progress as the authorities desperately try to make space for the flood of new pupils.  Tibetan motifs adorn freshly painted walls while children shriek through unfinished corridors due to chronic understaffing- a living metaphor of the new society being forged here. 

“There is no need to be nostalgic for a past time,”says Dorje, himself a product of voluntary settlement. “Whether the culture survives depends on the people.  Every individual has ability to do something to save traditional culture.  “I think it will change, yes. There will be less people in 5 years and even less pastoralism in 10 years but the earth needs people to take care of it, it can’t be deserted.” (Names changed and exact locations withheld)  

Published in The South China Morning Post Magazine 9 Jan 2013.
© kieran dodds 2013

subjects: stories

Tags: china  conservation  essay  tibet  wildlife