Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The “Big Issue” Issue

Last Wednesday, I received an e-mail from OCA Photography Course Leader, Jose Navarro, asking me if I would like to be the second OCA student to take part in a collaboration with ‘Big Issue in the North’.  Not fully aware of the requirements, I nonetheless said ‘Yes’, and Jose said he would send me further details in another e-mail, which I received later in the day.  The opportunity to have one of my images published in this magazine – bigissueinthenorth – felt genuinely exciting.  I have never had anything published anywhere before and, as I travelled to a business meeting that day, I was pondering which of my images might fit the bill – something from the recent street work, perhaps?
To be honest, Jose’s second e-mail caused me some trepidation.  It spelled out the brief, which was to supply 10-20 images, by Monday, on ‘one or several topics relevant to this week’.  There was more detail and supportive advice, but it was the thought of producing 10-20 topical images that alarmed me.  I certainly interpreted it as meaning new images – how else would they be topical, unless I was very lucky – and time was limited (not least because I had family commitments for most of the weekend).  The opportunity was too good to miss, though, and I’d said ‘Yes’, plus there is nothing like taking on a challenge!
On Wednesday night, I did some research, some thinking, and some consultation with family & friends.  The nearest I got to anything specific happening that I could go and photograph was a ‘Green Fest’ in Huddersfield, but it sounded as though I might already have missed the opportunity.  However, I decided that I would pursue it in the town next morning.  I woke early, still concerned as to what I had let myself in for, and whether I could deliver.  I had an idea for an image on the subject of ‘sales collapsing in the High Street’/’recession in a Northern town’/’the reputation of the banks’ – nothing fancy, but I thought there must be somewhere that I could get a shot of a bank reflected in the window of a closed High Street shop (Yes, sounds like a cliché, but I needed to start somewhere!).
My supposition about the ‘Green Fest’ turned out to be correct – no sign of anything – but I did get my shot of the bank in a shop window, plus a few other possibilities.  I began to home in on the idea of ‘Two sides of the story’ – finding other ‘recession-related’ images that showed winning and losing/ups and downs.  I didn’t have a lot of time that morning, but felt that I might not have made a bad start with these.

There were no ‘stars’ but I resolved to keep going on this idea.  I went back to Huddersfield for two more short visits and one longer one, fitting them between business and family commitments.  I knew, by the time I completed the last of these sessions, on Monday lunchtime, that it didn’t feel to have gone well.  I couldn’t honestly say that I had one image with which I felt confident.  I probably had almost 20 that I could have put together as a sequence, and which would have provided a good narrative – in a magazine article, on a wall, in a book – but this was about producing one ‘stand out’ image.  On top of that, when I did the rounds of internet sites that afternoon, the publicity was out on the first OCA submission for this collaboration – here – and it was clear that there had been a very different approach with Ben’s image.  It is a carefully thought through assignment image, well-constructed, well-lit, and a credit to his creativity, which has been captioned to give it topical reference.  I, on the other hand, had been looking for visually interesting, well-observed street shots.  Nothing wrong with that in principle, of course, except that I hadn't found many and didn’t feel confident about the outcome!
Unfortunately, with a deadline to meet, I didn’t have any alternative.  I captioned a selection of the images as best I could, and sent them off to Jose – the five above plus the seven below.  I have not included the captions and titles, for the sake of brevity.  I did also express my concerns in an e-mail to Jose, of course.

The eventual decision, in an e-mail this morning, is to select the second of the first batch of five above – ‘Destiny and Revival’ as I had titled it.  Its topicality will be improved by producing a caption that links it specifically to news of struggling High Street sales, and it will be cropped, as below.  This is partly to focus the message and also to make its proportions more suitable for publication (though the original image, before I tightened the crop myself, might have overcome that anyway).

So, I will have one of my pictures published in ‘Big Issue in the North’ next week commencing 11th April.  How do I feel?  In truth, (and there is little point completing a learning blog unless it contains the truth!) disappointed.  Why?  I don’t feel it does justice to me, OCA, and my fellow students.  It’s a photo of a shop front!!  OK, I know that it has an eye-catching quality and I know that it probably works, and I’m going to reflect on the 'how and why' of that in a moment – but, in the end, it’s a photo of a shop front!  I spent quite some time agonising over how I would deal with this challenge, and quite a lot of time pounding the streets of Huddersfield in the last few days taking all sorts of images, and the outcome is a photo of a shop front!
Right, I’ve got that off my chest, now to look at the learning aspects and to draw some positives from the experience.
·         The reason that this image can, potentially, work in the magazine is that it has a strong, clear message that is bound up in the unfortunate name of the shop and the uncompromising nature of the posters they have chosen to put in their windows as they face their demise.  It is what stopped me dead in the street as I passed it, and it is what can catch the eye on the page of a magazine.  I might feel the need to go all ‘artistic’ (sorry) and get upset that I’m not having the opportunity to demonstrate my creative skills, but an editor of a news publication wants images that get a message across.  Welcome to the world of journalism, Stan!
·         There are, I suggest, broadly two ways that one can approach the brief for the Big Issue collaboration – to look for/take a creative, ‘quality’ image, which has the potential to be captioned in a way that will link it to a topical news item; or go out and photograph something that you know will link to a topical news item.  I chose the latter, but on reflection, didn’t have a sharp enough idea of what I was looking for.  I think the notion of '10-20 images' intimidated me and I set out for quantity over quality.  Without a very clear idea of what I was photographing, that was always going to be difficult.  Knowing that there is an event or a demonstration, or something specific to go after is the ideal way to follow the second approach.  But ‘topicality’ is vital – and the caption can have almost as much to do with that as the image itself.
·         I have learned what it feels like to work under pressure and to a deadline – some of the pressure self-imposed, in truth.  I don’t actually mind that, and I didn’t mind it on this occasion, but I wish I could have felt more satisfied with the outcome.
·         At a more trivial level, I now know about Dropbox, and I’ve seen a few corners of Huddersfield that I hadn’t seen before!!
·         And, of course, I will have a picture in The Big Issue next week.
Thanks, Jose and OCA, for the opportunity. I really do wish I’d done a better job of it and I can’t help a sense of frustration – but there we go.  I hope these notes are helpful to others who want to take up the challenge.  Good luck, and I look forward to seeing some fantastic images.


  1. Congratulations Stan...a very apt image given the state of the economy...not an easy challenge at all. I'm up next...gulp!!

  2. Congratulations for getting your image out there, and it will all be good practice for later in PaP...

    As for the image, I like it. Maybe I would have tweaked the processing a little, but that would be just to my personal preference rather than anything else. As an image it tells the story, and every credit for doing so on a deadline.

  3. Congratulations Stan (and good luck Penny). I think the chosen image works very well. I am sorry that you are feeling disappointed. I think you underestimate the impact of the image. You had a clear concept and spent some time finding images that fitted that concept. The chosen image is one of the more visually straightforward and graphic pictures you took, which in part I am sure reflects the demands of magazine printing. I don't think you should feel unhappy about meeting the brief.

    Anyway, I am sure that this learning will help with your future work.

  4. Thanks, all; hope you've got a cracking image lined up for next week, Penny.