Kate Kennedy and Lucy Major from the new (and already very successful) startup Urbanbundles. (click to see larger)
Amba Opa Dupa means Amba Gossip in Sinhala. This is a story I made on a trip in Sri Lanka earlier this year. Amba Tea Estate, nestled near Lipton's seat and Ella rock, is run by Beverly Wainwright, an english businesswoman with philanthropic plans. Backed by the estate owner Simon and colleagues, all international development experts, the estate is designed to be a model of improving a local economy and exploiting natural resources sustainably. Not only that - the tea produced here is amongst the finest money can buy.
Beverley took over the running of Amba just over two years ago. Previously the tea was sold to a large buyer, who would transport it to a distant factory where it was processed and packaged for sale. The amount of money being paid meant that the pickers (always women, and a mix of Sinhala and Tamil) were amongst the worst paid in the local villages. Two years later they are among the best paid, meaning further education for their children, bringing them untold opportunities.
Beverley removed the ‘KP’, the man employed to watch over, direct and protect the pickers, a move that was a little controversial. She also stopped selling most of the leaves to the lorries and started training herself and the pickers to hand roll the tea on the estate.
The idea was to empower the pickers, to help make more money for themselves and to add to the quality of the whole process by asking the pickers to be rollers, dryers and mixers too. Results have been excellent.
Through experimentation, trail and error, and through training, Amba Estate have started producing some of the best tea in the world, and it is already being sold at places such as Fortnum & Masons, and it's being bought by royal families and celebrated chefs alike.
The estate is not yet making profit, and the ongoing investment from international development specialist and estate owner Simon and his partners has been crucial. They view a successful tea estate as a very solid method of socio-economic improvement in the area. This is also why Beverley, a self-confessed 'tea anorak' takes the highly unusual attitude of sharing her methods openly, much to the delight of other tea growers around the world looking to independently further themselves financially.
As is so frequently the case in the sub-continent, the history of the Sri Lankan tea industry is a colonial one. Introduced from India by English growers looking for the perfect land after failed coffee plantations, the wealth it brought suddenly encouraged a surge of new estates, one of the most famous being Lipton's. Sri Lanka, and its colonial masters, were made extremely rich - Sri Lanka was the number one exporter to the UK. Some years after independence, however, the Sri Lankan government nationalised all tea factories. There was no longer any financial incentive for the tea growers and processors - the quality of the tea dropped dramatically and the prices remained high. The UK simply found somewhere else to source from, and Sri Lanka never recovered the iconic status.
In its heyday the tea had a unique flavour, Uva. This was considered lost to the world until recently, where Amba managed to rediscover the taste. One tasting expert actually shed a tear when he first tasted it - having grown up in what was then Ceylon, he knew the taste well but had not experienced it for a very long time.
Beverley's love for the job shines through in her work ethic. Without her this story would not exist, without the pickers it would not exist and without Simon and his partners it would not exist. This is the rare meeting point of many positive entities.
Tea has been the source of much global conflict; it is the source of Sri Lankan wealth historically and potentially for the future. To see it used in such a positive fashion shows that not all is bad in Sri Lanka: Tamils and Sinhalese work side by side, the local area is receiving more money than ever before and most of all they are already producing some of the best tea in the world.
Just digging out some old portraits from a project from last year. Here are a few from the selection. Occupy was on at the time but not all are from there. These were all taken on the street wherever we found ourselves able to put up a black background.
I am looking to do more of these so please let me know if you are interested.
In my last post I discussed the industrialisation of wildlife photography, the need for context, and how the market is struggling to move forward artistically. This post is more to do with how the technology is integral to the changes, and I look at comparisons between shooting and wildlife photography.
The technological advances are not to be underestimated; they are responsible for great leaps of change in photography. In 1987 Canon introduced the EF mount, a whole new system, with which came the "Four White Lenses of the Apocalypse". These were the first and fastest autofocus super-telephoto lenses, and marked the starting point in the surge in new technology, turning Nikon from market leader into also-ran for many years.
From that point and from the point of the introduction of digital cameras, the technology has flourished. Now we find ourselves in a position that relatively unpracticed photographers can produce images of startling sharpness, displaying apparent technical prowess. The (sometimes) insurmountable challenges of photography of yesteryear are suddenly very approachable, to say nothing of the simplicity post-processing techniques.
One might imagine that this would inspire a new breadth of creative photography, the barriers to entry being lower in terms of skill (albeit higher in terms of cash), but sadly it seems this is not the case. The legends from before are still successful, even more so now they can really push the boundaries of their vision, and the newcomers want to be the legends. The newcomers are making amateur mistakes though - emulating the pioneering old pros. This isn't pioneering any more; this is pandering to expectations of the paying workshop customer.
We need a new wave of wildlife photographers, we don't need another line of people who are chasing the visions of established photographers who, frankly, can do it better. If and when they achieve that skill level, the realisation will come that most of the photos they are chasing have already been taken - what does that say for an artistic (yes it is artistic) endeavour?
This is the key with wildlife photography. Much of it is not a creative entity at the moment, but a recording one. It used to be the overcoming of the elements to bring us something amazing, maybe something we've never seen before. Not only that, but it was also perfectly composed, focussed, beautifully lit, in the most adverse of conditions. This is no longer enough, simply because most of it's been done already.
Formerly the demand for new imagery was voracious, this is now dwindling, partially because people can get these images themselves - they can pay for the elusive experience as well. To quote Pete Cairns on his Northshots Blog (quoting another photographer Danny Green from a while back), "wildlife photography will be the new golf".
Killing aside, and in terms of the surge of amateurs, I argue that it is
the new shooting and hunting. We control and cajole local species into
being more numerous, then set up permanent structures within their ecosystem to
take our trophy. The animal isn't killed of course, but the action of
photographing and the build up to making that opportunity happen is such that
it totally undermines the 'wild'ness that the image is communicating.
The paying customers are complicit in
the control and domination, undermining themselves in
What's more is the new amateur paying public is startlingly similar to those who took up shooting after the invention of the shotgun. Shooting was initially something for only the skilled as the guns were hard to use and dangerous, making successes few and far between. Shooting was really for food, with a few skilled enthusiasts in there. The inventions of the shotgun made all this relatively easy, and, coupled with the major commercialisation of shooting after the Highland Clearances, a fresh influx of interest, money and people flooded into rural UK. In some cases railways were constructed across Scotland with stations right outside the gate of the shooting estates, delivering paying clients from London. This commercialisation was the starting point in the disastrous proliferation of shooting to far far beyond the requirements of food into grotesque slaughters, and it has had profound effect on the landscape (for better or for worse, but this is to be discussed another time).
Of course I'm not claiming that wildlife photography is going to do the same, but I am lamenting the commercialisation, something that can take on a life of its own and can eventually be taken far and beyond the control of those interested in preserving the ecosystem for the ecosystem's sake.
Estates are now looking to exploit growing interests in photography and want to run workshops, the once pioneering industry is being taken over by business, integrating green initiatives with public demand. Taking the photograph has become a more authentic experience than the experience itself. The chance encounter of a predator isn’t interesting; it is too much of a risk to not see it - we are results (trophy?) driven nowadays. Clients want the best chance to see the animal but they won't spend the time and effort, they want someone else to prepare it first.
Of course this means that the quality of the equipment used bears on the process as well. There are nearly as many posts on blogs about equipment as about the imagery - what does that say for an ecological movement?
I can't tell the difference between the images taken on a Nikon D4 or a Canon 1d-X, no more than I would ever be able to afford one. Nor would I care - there is too much airtime given to such discussions, we'd all be far better off talking about the images. The same goes for many high-end cameras, often made famous by the professionals. Think of Leica, made famous by photojournalists worldwide - Salgado, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, all Time Magazine photographers, Tom Stoddart to pick a few off the top of my head - that now costs £15,000 for a top end body/lens set up, and most of these old pros used at least two with more lenses spare. So who on earth is buying these cameras now, and why?! Doctors, lawyers, bankers? Where do the photographers fit in? What's our contribution?
Our contribution will be the time we can give, the intellectual interrogation of our images and the images of our peers. Our attention is required at the cutting edge of an ever-growing medium; critical awareness and a healthy cynicism are absolutely key.
Wildphotos is coming up. This is the big annual conference on wildlife photography, with photographers from all the world's wild places. It is self-congratulatory across the board, sometimes where they are due, sometimes where they might no longer be due. It doesn't ask the awkward questions of photographic intent and meaning. It claims realism in a medium where we simply aren't getting enough of the whole picture. The picture is real, the context is often not. Although there will be inspiring photography, it sits very uncomfortably under the weakest of questioning.
Wildlife photography is beguilingly beautiful, but beware lack of context.
This is the first of two posts about wildlife photography. This covers the changes in attitudes towards our own natural history that run parallel to the medium’s progression, and the subsequent industrialisation of the experience. The second is mainly about technology and how that has driven the changes we have seen.
This is not to call into question the skills of the photographers - the photographic quality of top wildlife photography is outstanding. The intent is to ask questions of what is being produced, and why, on a critical level.
Wildlife photography has had a gilded history, and few other genres get more unquestioning praise and adoration from their ardent followers.
The formerly lucrative business is meeting its first stumbling blocks though; industrialisation and democratisation are leading to a lack of progressive creativity and originality, coupled also with the invasion of skilled amateurs. Originality must now come from the professional photographers; on a very simple level because the rates of evolution of the animals are such that they do not change within ten lifetimes, let alone one photographer's career! Admittedly of course the habitat will and the numbers of the species so I guess there's a little change to document.
The main objection I have is towards the glut of animal portraiture. While it might be a profitable business model to produce this imagery, it simply isn’t adding to the photographic world. It decontextualises and idealises the subject, rendering unrealistic expectations of the rural, miring us in fantasy. The majority of the voting public is in the cities nowadays, this is how the outdoor/rural world is represented to them through photography. When the expectations and the reality meet, the reality is inevitably disappointing. In our disappointment, we look for someone to blame, but actually we weren’t told the truth in the first place.
Wildlife photography used to be the pioneering front line of the new love for the outdoors, the new appreciation and understanding of biodiversity, a reflection of the burgeoning conservation-concerned population, also a reflection of a newfound British love and accessibility to the outdoors. Now it is not so exciting, it has stagnated; only a handful of practitioners out there in the UK are breaking the mould, or at least trying to, or adding the context that is so essential (Pete Cairns, Mark Hamblin and Andrew Parkinson are good examples. Globally I can’t think of anyone telling nature stories better than David Chancellor and, at times, Brent Stirton).
Wildlife photographers of the 1980s and 1990s were much praised and lauded for their efforts. And efforts they were - heavy manual focusing lenses, film and poor weather protection on cameras all made the task nigh on impossible. It took time and skill to capture the image, guile and patience too. Weeks of planning and scheming would bear fruit in one image perhaps, one moment. Often no fruit at all, but it didn’t matter, it was in the pursuit of something elusive, untamed and unpredictable. And Wild.
They were, rightly, rewarded for these efforts. They were paid in admiration and, for the best amongst them, remunerated handsomely. What really struck me though was the fantasy of living the life they lived, I wanted to go on the adventures they did. I wanted this escapism. I found it in the books, but I have been consistently disappointed in the reality. It’s nothing like what we have been shown. Nothing at all. Perhaps I was naive, but where else can I get my expectations?
There was a mixture of changes after the boom. Some photographers became too entrenched in the photography that sold - the idealistic portraits and meaningless postcard-cheesy landscapes. Some of the photographers themselves became as well known as their work, eating into the conservational message, whether through their own volition or others' (I think mostly others to be fair).
Initially hunting was as much a defence mechanism as it was a foraging method. The vast stretches of woodland were mythologised and feared – and they were potentially dangerous places. With increasing dominance over what used to be the wilderness, we started to hunt for sport, to take on these dangerous beasts in displays of strength and dominance. Rumour has it that the last wolf was killed by Sir Ewan Cameron in 1680 by throttling it. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant - the mere fact this gruesome anecdote survives is testimony to how the battle of wild and man was perceived.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, curtailed only by the events commencing in 1914, wealthy landowners exploited the land to grotesque proportions. It showed that with sufficient effort we could generate vast numbers of a chosen species for hunting (by killing predators principally). It was 'our land', no longer just 'land', it was a celebration of the loss of fear of the wilderness.
More recently, and I will cover this more in the second post, species have returned to their former hunting grounds (by hook or by crook). This return of species is great to see, but we must be cautious with the implications of what we are doing. This isn’t an equal and opposite reaction to old attitudes, returning us to a wilder Britain like we think, this definitely isn’t a new initiative in rewilding. We mustn’t kid ourselves, this is deeply managed land. These species have been cajoled into renewed vigour thanks to the interference of humans. In actual fact industrialising wildlife photography is the final stage of control, and an extension of a long history of incrementally increasing dominance.
All of this is not a bad thing - much of our dominance was borne of necessities that we can't possible fathom from modern perspectives. My problem is the way we deal with this information and the fact we are very unrealistic about it.
As conservationists we have been left a legacy that we cannot abide, but we must be very cautious of the legacy we are going to leave behind. These ecosystems are deeply dependent on human intervention, and they are not always as sparkly as the images inform us. While the money coming in from wildlife photography excursions is a good thing and can support the ecosystem, it is not the solution if it continues to grow.
In an increasingly homogenising industry, we must become less trusting of photography, we must interrogate it more and we must pursue and demand wider contextual references.
Part 2, Technological Advances and the Rise of the Amateur, will be published here on August 30th.