Let me introduce myself…

I’ve written before about my work with students from overseas, and the way in which Asian students have a tendency to adopt “western” names.  Although it makes my life easier, I have mixed feelings about this.  Many Anglophones rely upon the fact that English is a universally accepted language to make not effort to learn another language, or even to reach for the phrase book when travelling abroad.  Deplorable as this may be, not being willing to try to pronounce another’s name seems to be just rude.

It isn’t just Asians who encounter this problem – at first sight many Polish surnames seem to contain more consonants than the tongue can handle, yet by taking the time to ask every Pole I meet how to pronounce their name, any fears have been dispelled.  I have some way to go with Sri Lankan names yet though!

The name of course is part of our identity, and in expecting others to change their names we meddle with who they are.  I am adopted, so the name I have used for the last 54 years was not the one given to me at birth.  I still remember how alien my “birth name” seemed when I first viewed my birth certificate.  I’m a Paul, not an Ian.  Also I use my middle name, because the first name given to me by my adoptive parents was also my father’s and grandfather’s first name, so Paul became the name of choice to avoid confusion.  The other name is meaningless to me.  Perhaps this explains my sensitivity to the name changes that others take on.

An article that I read in the Korean Times however suggested that the practice is perhaps not undertaken reluctantly.  Adopting a Western name gives many a feeling of being progressive and global, and so become like nick names, representing another facet of an individual’s personality.  We also forget that there a Christian communities around the world, and so many are actually christened with these names.  A hangover from the cultural imperialism of European missionaries, and one which is not exclusive to Asia as we shall see.

Many of the students this week heralded from Lyon, and it is unusual for us to have more than one or two French students on the course.  It seemed appropriate (though incorrect in terms of gender) that one of the Vietnamese students should have adopted the name Bon.  Bonne n’est pas?  Three letters though; couldn’t be simpler.  However that is also true of her Vietnamese name Thi (pronounced Tea, and meaning poem).


It is also probably another sign of my cultural ignorance that I found myself saying “I love African accents” this weekend too.  I wouldn’t say; “I love European accents”, I’d say German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish (or as my female colleagues seemed to prefer this weekend: French).  However to my ear, which has been attuned to a few words of Kiswahili, but certainly no Yoruba or Setswana and yet regardless of the hundreds of miles that separate the nations I couldn’t tell distinguish a Tanzanian speaker of English from a Nigerian or Botswanan.

Anyway the bearer of the accent was Nigerian, with a fine Yoruba name.  I liked the catch lights in her eyes as much as the tones from her mouth so she agreed to be photographed too.  She has another name apart from the Yoruba.  This is Clara.APW_8587-Edit


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Roker Requiem

Summer is over, at least in astrological terms, and from the perspective of those who have returned to school, so seaside resorts take on a different character.  There’s an air of sadness and resignation about the place as people come to terms with the heatwave that didn’t happen again this year, and the days that grow ever shorter until the winter solstice.

The park bandstand lies silent and empty, the boating lake is unperturbed by boat or bird,

and the bowling greens live up to only half their name.

The sand pit craves attentionthe civic beach cleaners have no deadline for completion,and there’s more than enough ice cream to go around.With no one to disturb them the scavengers arrive to clean up.

The place feels as discarded as these sandals, waiting in vain to be loved once again.

And then, like an Indian summer, there is a fresh spark as Ruth stops me to admit to camera envy.  A student from Nigeria, she is touring the country having completed her studies in Wales, and with that smile she will bring brightness wherever she goes.

“a little fermented curd will do the trick”*

As I approach the half way point of my year long quest to capture a portrait per day I’ve noticed that men and women approach the process differently.

Most men have agreed to have their picture taken without question – I almost have to force the information upon them about my blog and the project.  I was going to say that I could only think of two who had refused, but as I typed their stories a third sprang to mind, and then a fourth.  Rather than turn this into something akin to Monty Python’s Spanish

Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition
Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition

Inquisition sketch, lets just accept that they have been less frequent than women.  Not very scientific, but that’s the impression that I have.

Women are more likely to respond with the “hate having my picture taken” riposte, or occasionally the “not without my make-up on” defence.

A lot of the guys just stare straight down the lens almost as if refusing to contribute to the process.  Ironically I tend to get more out of these pictures as without a cheesy grin I’m left with a face that betrays more about their normal demeanour.

Women almost inevitably smile.  Would they do the same if I was a female photographer?  I don’t know.  Is there a woman out there doing the same thing who could share their experience?  I’d be interested to know.

Anyway the point of all this is that today I was surprised when the young Nigerian girl I had found for today’s picture asked me whether she should smile or not.  I told her I didn’t mind and that she should just give me whatever look she felt comfortable with.  When she hesitated I suggested she smile, shot a few frames and then asked her for a more serious look.  This can sometimes have the reverse effect of producing uncontrollable laughter, but in Ola’s case she had a moment of inspiration, turning her head to one side and hitting me with magnetic eyes that were a little reminiscent of Sophie Okonedo. 

Makes you wonder why photographers have historically gone to such lengths to get people to say cheese.

*from Monty Python Cheese Shop


Air miles

As I write today’s thoughts I’m overseen at my left shoulder by a highly lacquered papier-mâché elephant; a present for my daughter Megan from Kathmandu.  Behind me three Masai women huddle together beneath the trees from a small batik that I bought for her in the Masai Market of Arusha in Tanzania.

Megan and her sister still enjoy the excitement of travel, though they are completely unfazed at the prospect.  They have grown up exposed to different cultures and languages, predominantly in Europe, and through contact with their cousins in Canada have clocked up a few hours over the Atlantic too.

Our generation have become used to globe trotting in ways that our parents never dreamt of, and the benefits of our exposure to other cultures are great (so long as we take the trouble to experience them, rather than sheltering in all inclusive hotel complexes with armed guards to keep the locals at arms length, so that the profit remains with the hotel chain).

Can this growth in travel be sustained?  The world economy and the price of oil are currently making the “staycation” a popular alternative, and then there is the question of how much air travel affects global warming.  With so many vested interests it seems impossible these days to get a straight answer on the effects of any hydrocarbon fuelled activity, but increased air travel can’t be doing the planet a lot of good, whatever the other benefits that it might bring.

Will our global adventures be a short blip, never to be experienced again at their current level or is the genie out of the bottle, never to be returned at any cost?

These are significant questions for my portrait subject today; Lateefa, a young student born in Nigeria and relocated to London, not because of her personal migration but because she is a student of Travel and Tourism here in Sunderland.

I was heading through the underpass on my way to the Wear Bridge once again, when her dazzling smile caught my eye, or was it her outrageous earrings?  She and her friend Nadja were on their way from college, and whilst Nadja, as an Azerbaijani would have been a great addition to the incidental “portraits of all nations” aspect of this blog, she was full of cold and insisted on revealing only her eyes between a woollen hat and a polo neck pulled up taut over her lower face.

Lateefa proved to have the vibrant personality to match her jewellery and as I ran off a handful of shots was so full of energy that everyone offered something different, so I decided to take a different approach today.  I combined some of my favourites into what might be called a quadtych, and here it is:

Trouble was I couldn’t help but feel that the second from the left was too beautiful a shot to be diluted in this way, so here’s that smile in all its glory. 

Definitely one of the benefits of travel.


The Gateshead International Jazz Festival is one of the important annual events on the calendar at The Sage, and has played host to a diverse range of artists who fly the flag for jazz over the years.  My personal highlight was seeing Bill Bruford play one of his last gigs before retirement, improvising duets with Michiel Borstlap.  I still live in hope that he will reconsider his decision not to play again.

Andy Sheppard, Treibhaus Innsbruck 2009, conce...
Andy Sheppard, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it comes to British Jazz, there are two names who have been standard bearers for the last quarter century; Andy Sheppard and Courtney Pine, and last night they shared the same stage, though not simultaneously.  Though each is a virtuoso on both soprano and tenor sax that is pretty much where the similarities end.  Pine is a giant of West Indian origin, with a greying goatee and immaculately conditioned dreads, he could easily pass for the audition for the next Predator movie.

Courtney Pine - Fri 22 July 2011 -0232
Courtney Pine - Fri 22 July 2011 -0232 (Photo credit: The Queen's Hall)

He is gregarious and fun loving with a flamboyant playing style that reflects his personality.  Recent gigs have seen him turn to the bass clarinet over his trademark saxes.

Sheppard is physically smaller, but no less a talent.  He favours anonymous grey suits and shirts which blend with his trademark crew-cut, although these days this is predominantly silver.  His playing style can be just as frenetic, but more often that note embodies a breathy, smoky, mellowness that matches his understated stage presence.

Each was on great form last night, but it was the remarkable musicians with them that drew my attention.

Sebastian Rochford (jazz drummer)
Sebastian Rochford (jazz drummer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve seen Seb Rochford playing with Sheppard before and he is a huge talent (and as a drummer perhaps an heir to Bruford’s crown), though he is visually as fascinating.  He sports an incredible head of hair, like some oversized, lop sided afro, which barely moves in performance, such is the apparent effortlessness with which he produces his rhythmic interventions.  He plays a minimal drum kit, yet with sticks, mallets, brushes and bare hands delivers more than many would believe possible.

If Seb’s hair is notable, then so is that of Zoe Rahman, pianist in Pine’s current line up as

Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman
Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

well as leader of her own trio.  Born of Bengali parents, she is an Oxford graduate who has only recently begun to explore her ethnic roots though her music.  Seated at the piano this frail looking girl with finely sculpted features seems unremarkable until you notice her hair, a black cascade which falls beyond the piano stool supporting her.  When she plays any thoughts of frailty are lost; she is a powerhouse of technique and seems completely at home in an otherwise Afro-Caribbean band.

When looking for someone to photograph today then I knew I must find someone with great hair to continue the theme.  You have no idea how difficult that is on a Sunday in Sunderland.  The early morning beachcombers generally care less for their appearance than for exercising their dogs, and as for the town centre shoppers… the less said the better I think.  Even a stakeout at Marks and Spencer proved fruitless.

I gave up on the town and was returning to my car when I spotted Pam on the Wear Bridge and my prayers were answered.  She is the third Nigerian to have featured in my portrait a day project and is a student in computer engineering at Sunderland University.  Great hair, great smile, great personality – more Pine than Sheppard!