Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Image over substance

What’s the difference between the Burma Cyclone and the Boxing Day Tsunami?

And the answer is not a joke.

The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, which killed 230,000 people across South East Asia, shocked people across the world into donating £3.5billion (USD 7 million).

The recent Burma Cyclone had a far more immediately devastating effect and the final death total is expected to exceed 500,000 – more than twice that of the Tsunami.

So why are our TV stations and newspapers not full of wall-to-wall pleas for donations like they were after the Tsunami?

The difference is, with virtually no photographic images and TV footage of the devastation, the media has not had the raw ingredients to produce stories which pull at the heartstrings.

The Burmese government, who have refused access to their country of both the press and aid agencies, have to take their share of the blame for that, especially as their needless stubbornness undoubtedly caused the needless death of thousands more of its people.

But the situation has highlighted how important images – be they still or moving – and journalists are in the world today. No press, no exposure, no public sympathy, no financial support.

Just because we can’t see rotting corpses and starving children after a disaster does not mean that disaster is any less tragic and worthy of aid. But because we can’t see so many images of it does mean that it will get less attention and less aid.

It’s a basic principle, but one that works. It’s why there are advertisements, it’s why journalists like me get invited on trips abroad for free. Attention is everything, even the suffering need it to help stop the suffering. Not very funny but it’s true.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

O my God (Hates America)

The Westboro Baptist Church, better known as or Those Awful People Who Picket The Funerals of Dead Soldiers, are a strange set indeed.

Out of all the interviews I’ve ever done, this lot have generated the most interest. And, let me tell you, I’ve interviewed Jim Bowen. People can’t wait to ask what they are really like.

I was fortunate enough to spend the day with Shirley Phelps, the motormouth unofficial leader of the gang, and her oldest daughter Megan. The rest of the kids – Bekah, Libby, Luke, Noah, Jonah, Zach, Isaiah, Gabriel and Grace drifted in and out during the day. And that’s not even all of them.

And what did I think of them? Well, like a thesis on the molecular deconstruction of photoreceptors which sprout anomalous neurites that reach the inner plexiform and ganglion cell layers, it’s difficult to explain.

I stayed in Topeka with one of the nicest (and largest) families I have ever met. I can’t rate Shirley (pictured) highly enough. I have some great photographs of this remarkable woman with her kids. I’ll have to send her some copies. But what I learned is you can’t separate this family from their burning religious beliefs. Their religion is their existence.

Some of the things they said to me were hideous, unpalatable and uncomfortable. They are acutely aware of this, but have total belief in the reasons they have for saying it.

Fred said ‘taking it up the rump’ so many times I nearly laughed. I don’t think Shirley noticed.

Whether condemning the paedophiles, America or me, they always did it with warmth, generosity and with a smile on their face. And that’s the most important thing. It’s the American way. I say: God bless America (even though God hates America).

Be shocked, appalled or join them at and

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The cost of photography and mobile phones

So, you spend weeks planning your trip, saving money wherever you can, sleeping in people's couch's for free and sharing hotel rooms with French students. Your plane tickets are the cheapest in the world, your car hire in America is a bargain and your hotel room in Tobago is free.

Then you get home and two weeks later a 99GBP mobile phone bill drops through your letterbox. Two minute call = 5GBP. Bloody Nora!

You can't budget for everything. Cheap calls through the brilliant Vyke Pro program ( just didn't work in Tobago. Ditto 18185 - the pre-call system which is supposed to cost you 1p a minute.

Cheap flights have revolutionised consumer travel but it seems when it comes to our must-have-can't-do-without cell phones, the companies are still able to take the p***. Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone: be ashamed.

BY THE WAY: This photograph is of Manhattan Island, New York. It was not taken with my mobile cell phone.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Great Uncle Ernie

Sometimes all you have to do to take a great photograph is point the camera and press the button. Rest in peace.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Hands of God


The first batch of interviews have been completed for my remarkable book, Outsiders.

While I am keeping the identity of most of the subjects close to my chest, I can reveal that my latest interview took me to the land of America.

I spent some time with a man who is the leader of a church, commands respect, has incredible knowledge of the scriptures and who works tirelessly to spread the word of God around the world.

Sadly, Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Catholic church, turned down my offer to be interviewed and photographed.

But Fred Phelps, head of the Westboro Baptist Church, and his family did invite me round for the day to their home in Topeka, Kansas.

And I have to say that I've never had a day quite like it. As an all-American family they tick all the boxes. Loving, generous, warm, friendly, respectful. Their family life is as perfect as you can get. They are amazing.

The bit about everyone going to Hell for either being homosexual or being accepting of the practice is a bit hard to swallow. As is their policy of picketing funerals of pretty much anyone, no matter how tragic the death was because (they say) tragic death is God's way of punishing fag lovers. But, apart from that, they were terrific.

The family are notorious for their picketing of funerals of dead American soldiers. You can discover their fairly forceful beliefs at and

I have several hours of taped interviews, plus a photographic documentary of their routine daily life of laughter, love and pickets in Topeka. I met them again in New York.

Interesting fact: Fred Phelps used to run marathons.