Cardiff After Dark

Yep, there's a reason why photographers the world over like to shoot a protest. 

There's the feel of adrenaline in a documenting a protest, even in a peaceful and well-behaved one where the police are left to pleasantly think about the overtime they're clocking up. And not only that, it gives you time and opportunity to really practice photographing up close the trickiest of subjects - people. These images were taken in Cardiff Queen Street, amid jostling shoulders and banners both witty - and frankly - sometimes a little crude. The next few paragraphs cover some thoughts and feelings of mine on the matter of the protest, paragraphs which you can feel free to skip to get to the meat of the photographs, which in a way consists of the first proper dose of pure night-time street photography I've done. After the images you can read about the look I was going for, and a couple of photographers who inspired me. But first, if you're interested, why they were there...

Shot with the X-Pro2 - 16mm f/1.4 WR and 35mm f/1.4r

What happens over there affects us over here. The United States is our brother across the seas. Every single day I've spent over there has been a source of quiet joy for me; the treasured moments I've spent with the everyday people in the small towns, the smell of sagebrush in Oregon, the dive bars of Pennsylvania. As a people we're caught up in the great American story, it dominates our culture, is inevitably part of who we are.

But love is not always blind. There are many in the UK who feel that our Prime Minister was reckless in her offer of a state visit to the US President. That time should have passed to see the true colours of the new administration, that we should learn the character of the man in the White House and his advisers and policy-makers before extending an invitation. A state visit is never a given; only two US Presidents in the current Queen's long reign have been invited with the full pomp and regalia, and on both occasions it was not offered until more than two years of their office had passed. Many feel that this invitation was given without forethought, without consultation with parliament or the Royal Family and during a time of deep crisis in American politics not seen since the age of Nixon. On both sides of the political spectrum in the UK there are ministers very dissatisfied with this move. 

The march in Cardiff last night was born of a petition, not to bar the US President the right to visit Britain - many US Presidents have come to have dealings without the pomp and ceremony of a state visit - but to send a message that the current inflammatory invective, aggressively divisive policies and habitual expression of untruths voiced by the current administration are - to put it bluntly - not something some of us are happy to give the impression of officially endorsing as a nation. 

I've never hit the streets to protest about affairs in America before, truthfully. Not even when Firefly was cancelled. I've seen good in administrations both Republican and Democrat. But things have changed and so there I was, last night, wandering and taking photos...

Image Making & Inspiration

In fast-moving night-time street photography of this nature, unless you're at the top of your game like a Magnum photographer, there's only one option I reckon and that's black and white. Sure, I've been shooting a lot more of it lately, but the sickly green and yellow cast of the street-lights in Queen Street meant that it was the only way I was going to shoot. These weren't images I wanted to coddle, to tease details out of, so I decided to shoot JPEG, which handily fitted in with my New Year's resolution to place more faith in Fujifilm's JPEG engine. I punched in the Acros black and white film simulation setting, set the highlights to +2 and the shadows to neutral and got shooting. I was actually pretty gentle with the noise-reduction as well, I like the grain. In the main I shot at a shutter speed of 1/125 at f/2. In Lightroom I made a preset for the JPEGs, consisting of the black slider being slid down to get some inky darkness going, boosted the contrast and tweaked the tone curve for cloudy shadows and creamy highlights. 

The resulting images had the contrasted look I was after, drawing attention to the faces. The other day I picked up Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu's book Chewing Gum and Chocolate' and I was struck by that very look in his photography. Shomei also played with abstracts in his images, cutting into people's faces through reflections and blocking elements - something I wish I'd had the gumption to play with more on the night.

Another inspiration was the work of William Klein, who lived in France and who photographed quite a few protests in his time at all ends of the political spectrum. Again, inky blacks and gorgeous stark contrast - a real raw energy too. He was never shy of filling a frame with a face either, again a trick I forgot to take advantage of despite every opportunity, leaving me with the somewhat more conventional images you see above. I really should take it as a lesson to up my game.

Finally there's a book I haven't really paid enough attention to yet that's been sitting in my collection for quite a while and that's Vanishing by Antonin Kratochvil. He's an Eastern European photographer who documented the eventual abject failure of communism and its aftermath. The tones are muddy, the expressions haunting, the pictures often savage and fearful. But damn if there isn't a mesmerising dream-like aspect to the ugly ruined landscapes within. To a beginner like me, more than anything, the book is a lesson to that shadows are the photographer's friend. 

It's been an interesting experiment in photography, I have to say. I'm not quite where I want to be with it, but it's kind of promising. Whether I find myself drifting back to predominantly colour soon... well, it's going to be interesting to find out.

Thanks for reading. Have a muffin. Next up flash photography with the closing of Dempseys, the beloved Cardiff pub, and the Indie disco Twisted by Design. Most likely followed by a trip to London to see the work of the great American topographic photographer Joel Sternfeld - at this stage anything rather than another semi-political post!