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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Degrees of Unrest

It’s that time of year again when I’m spending my weekends in the company of post-graduate business students, most of who are from overseas.  I love these weekends, though the days are long (up at 6.00 to cycle and 15 hours later I’m still processing the pics I took today in readiness for sharing with the students tomorrow.

One of the things that we’ve discussed today has been about where personal values originate.  In most cases this is with our parents, but if you ignore that source where would you say your values were most influenced?  For my part in the discourse I mentioned the impact that travel has had upon me, not just in my love of the history and culture of many of my European neighbours, but also in the contrasting riches I encountered in Nepal and Tanzania.

Weekends like these though are great for meeting people from other cultures without clocking up the air miles!

I’m not so crass as to keep a tally chart of nations whose people I’ve met, but I was lucky enough to meet two outstanding students today who each represented countries that were new to me.

Yusif is Bahraini, originating from the small island country of the Persian Gulf, a country that received a lot of attention from the world’s media during the uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring.  Protests were quashed resulting in calls for planned Grand Prix races to be cancelled.  This happened in 2011, but the race was reinstated the following year.  As far as the outside world is concerned the protests are unresolved, yet Yusif felt that after a short-lived flash point the conflict had dwindled to relative insignificance.  The world’s media had more important issues in Syria to focus upon and Bahrain has resumed its relative anonymity.

All of the students in my group introduce themselves with a very brief presentation and Yusif was so expressive I caught a series of candids that I really liked so he gave me permission to share them here.


APW_1489-EditIn contrast to the Bahraini situation, the human rights restrictions experienced by the second student featured here have been well documented, thanks to the actions of a small but remarkable woman.  Kay is from Burma, now known as Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi has fought the military junta to bring democracy to the nation for many years.  Her political party won 80% of the seats in a democratic election over 20 years ago, but the military refused to give up their power.  Kept under house arrest for most of the period since then, she has recently begun to garner political power once more.

I asked Kay if she would have been allowed to study abroad during the height of the Junta’s power, and learnt that in contrast she had no choice but to do so as the universities had been closed by the military, so her parents sent her overseas to be able to continue her education.   In the spirit of paying it forward while studying here, she also undertakes voluntary work to support those seeking political asylum.

Sometimes my work feels like a privilege.APW_1564-Edit

Nominally British?

The British journalist Sangita Myska recently produced a programme about British attitudes to “foreign” names, based on her own experiences and those of other prominent Brits who can trace their roots to other cultures.

The inability of many of us to cope with these less common names can make even the most straight forward of tasks a challenge, and in the programme there are recordings of attempts she makes to book a table at different restaurants.  “Did you say Francesca?” being one response to her name.  Whilst it is understandable that anyone may have difficulty in pronouncing or understanding a name of word that they have never encountered before, it is the accompanying attitude that concerns.  A name is part of our identity and something to be treated with respect surely, yet the attitude often seems to be that “It’s your fault for having a difficult name.”

And then there are the prejudices that names can trigger.  An engineering company in Birmingham is run by a Richard Brown.  Nothing out of the ordinary there, until you discover that Richard is actually Shahid Iqbal, a Muslim who found that applying for jobs in his real name led rejections, yet doors were opened to the same applicant when he adopted a more Anglicised approach.  He continues to use Richard Brown now when approaching new clients as it gets him past initial barriers to the point where he can meet clients and promote his company.

While he is happy to take this approach, many others feel very uncomfortable at having to “abandon” their identity to make it easier for the ignorant.  I’m not sure which is the answer.  Over the last decade I have worked with hundreds of overseas students, many from South East Asia, who find it easier to adopt Western Names when in this country rather than put up with the mangled consonants that result from our attempts to pronounce their Chinese, Vietnamese or Malaysian equivalents.

I feel bad at not taking the time to correct this, but in a room of 10 students with tight timescales to work to I would quickly find myself behind schedule if I learnt every name with its correct pronunciation, only to have to begin again later in the day when we change the team compositions.  So when these students arrive armed with names like Winnie, Eric, Tim, Celia, Tommy and so on I’m happy to use them.  Interesting that so many of the names chosen, although very traditional, would probably not be used very often by English speakers today.

Today’s portrait is of one of my colleagues who has also delivered this training for a number of years and whose name is Janet.  At least that’s what I’ve always called her…


Having photographed people of many different nationalities during the course of this project one of the challenges has been getting skin tone exposed correctly. I have a good sense of what looks right for Caucasian skin, and for most of the South East Asians that I have encountered, but for those of African origin, or from the Indian sub-continent, there are so many shades that this is more difficult.

In simple terms, a camera that automatically sets an appropriate exposure level does so by measuring the light coming in through the lens and comparing this to some expected average, and adjusting accordingly so that the bright areas and dark areas of your picture considered in total match that average value.  This is where some digital correction may be required later, but of course the more extreme that correction the more the quality of your picture suffers.

I encountered this issue at the weekend when I was shooting group photographs that included Edwin, who is of Nigerian descent.  Against a white background my camera decides that it has quite enough light thank you, and so under exposes which leaves Edwin as a silhouette and captures little of the detail of his wonderfully expressive face which is why when we had a short break I asked him for a portrait.

The sloping windows in the roof gave the only natural light in the room, but at six foot six I was able to position him under one of them to put him in some good light pretty easily.  (He chided me for referring to him as the gentle giant so I was tempted to write about Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, but that might have been too obscure a link even by my standards!).  I was happy with the portrait as was one of my colleagues who viewed it on my camera back.   This was how Eddie should look.

And that might have been that, had Celia, a pretty Vietnamese student not asked to have her photograph taken too.  At approximately 18 inches shorter than Edwin she was never going to reach the same pool of light, so taking the inverse square law into account the picture has much flatter lighting which to my mind doesn’t do her justice so well. 

Luckily I had another picture taken as a candid earlier in the day which I processed in monochrome. For me, that moody look leads to a more beautiful image.

Am I missing something?

In my discussions with students yesterday, the subject of my blog came up and I was asked about how people react to being asked for a photograph.  I replied truthfully about my finding that in general the following rules apply:

  • Men more often than not will agree, and frequently without asking me why I want their photograph
  • Women of other nationalities usually ask what the picture is for and then agree
  • British women are the most reticent.

I’ve tended to assume that the reason for this last category is twofold:

  1. I frequently shoot people when they’re out walking on the beach, when, to their mind, they may not look their best.  Understandable, but why don’t men react similarly?
  2. There may be a degree of caution about a strange man who wants to take your photograph.  I could be a stalker after all!

Yet there must be more to it than this.  This weekend I encountered two young women, Jessie & Laura who were both reluctant to be photographed, yet neither of these reasons could explain their refusal.  Both were beautiful, one whose dark hair provided a frame for the broadest of smiles, the other a slim blue-eyed blond with great bone structure.  Neither was caught unawares or without make-up, and they were in a safe environment where my credentials had been established by the university.

Ironically they were both part of the same team, which emerged as winners of the activity my colleagues and I were running and so were obliged to be part of the team photo at the end.  Even then they each chose to retire to the back row to minimise their presence as you can see above.

I accept that there are some people who just don’t like being photographed, but why does it seem to be disproportionate between the sexes?  I’d be interested in other people’s theories about this, so please leave me a comment below if you have a view to share.

Almost inevitably when I got home this afternoon I went to the beach, approached the first man I spotted and within 30 seconds I had a portrait of Anthony.  QED.

Bondage in a new light.

Bond films are supposed to be entertaining hokum, good fun not to be taken seriously, and this is probably reflected in the fact that the films though enormously successful have never won an acting Oscar.  Maybe Dame Judi will put that right.

Skyfall requires just as much suspension of disbelief as many of its predecessors, but it is noticeably better on so many counts.  Craig and Dench have of course played off each other in the previous couple of outings for 007, but add in Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes and you have a cast that can punch their weight just as effectively as the character Daniel Craig plays.

It’s not the plot of the acting that I really want to wax lyrical about though.  The cinematography is outstanding.  From the opening scene where Bond prowls down a shadowy corridor to pause where a small pool of light illuminates only his eyes, the lighting in this film is spectacular.

Is this the photographer in me paying more attention than before?  Probably, but there were so many visual treats in this film; the night scenes in Shanghai, culminating in a brawl in a glass skyscraper where every wall and window gave off shadow and reflection in ever-changing combinations.  Knowing that challenges of lighting reflective surfaces this was superbly done.

And the casino in Macau; presumably a set at Pinewood, but as Bond is arrives by boat the place is a paradise of lanterns mirrored in the black waters outside, and a riot of candle light in the Komodo dragon pit inside.

Then there are the final scenes, played out with the key characters bathed in a pulsating glow from a burning building far across a Scottish moor.

If you haven’t seen it go just for the imagery.  The rest is pretty good too, but hey this is a photography blog.

Today’s portrait is of Tara, one of the students I’ve been working with today.  Good name for a Bond girl that.

Eine schöne Türkin

Recent  football headlines have been dominated by an issue that many had thought was in an advanced state of decline.  Racism.

John Terry‘s mealy mouthed denials were not believed by the Football Association, England players were subjected to “monkey chants” in Serbia, and “Kick it Out“, the campaign which aims to end racism in soccer has come in for criticism for not doing enough to speak out against the issue.

Things have improved over the years certainly.  The same moronic Newcastle United supporters who once threw bananas at visiting black players are now doubtless delighted by the performances of Demba BaPapiss Cissé and even Shola Ameobi when he scores against local rivals Sunderland.  Sadly it seems that the improvements are not so great, the outward behaviours still mask the discrimination beneath.

I had an interesting discussion about racism yesterday with a German girl.  German, because she was born in Germany, educated in Germany and has her home in Germany, yet despite this she was branded a “foreigner” whilst at school because her ancestry is Turkish.

In the same way as the UK encouraged an influx of West Indians to meet demands for labour in the decades that followed the Second World War, so Germany created its Guest Worker programme at the beginning of the 1960’s.  The Germans thought this would be a short-term influx, the Turks (and other nationalities who came) saw it as a temporary way of generating an income before returning home after a few months of well paid work.

Life of course is not so rational.  People put down roots and 50 years later there are third generation Turkish Germans.  The German national football team is testament to the significance of the Turkish community there with players such as Mehmet Scholl and Mesut Özil making their mark, and whilst Wikipedia’s list of famous German Turks is dominated by footballers, many are still made to feel like outsiders and so choose to play for the Turkish national team instead.

Yasemin’s experience of racism seems not so far removed from that of Muslims in the UK.  The problem is a global one that we must all tackle.

One of the contributors to our discussion was a young Namibian guy called Rex who predicted that in 50 years the world would be far more accepting of different races and cultures. Perhaps he’ll be proved right.  Yasemin may not be what was historically seen as an ideal German, but this intelligent and beautiful young woman demonstrated this weekend how much she has to offer.  I hope she is given the opportunities to fulfil her potential.