« Clair-obscur et photographie impressionniste… »

roygunnelsClair-obscur, or “Chiaroscuro” in the Italian, is a passion of mine…it fits my personality I think…As a photojournalist or documentary photographer your work has to be literal, I see so many photographers describe themselves as “storytellers”, and I sometimes wonder how literal their work really is.  So, after returning from living in the Middle East, I first began the documentary project “Texas Gothic: Where The Wild Things Are”, which has grown to become much more than what I first anticipated or envisoned with the original “biker” series, “Outlaw In Texas”.
I’ve described my experience working with my model in other blog posts, so just as a reminder, we worked on six shoots together over a period of seven months.  Also at the beginning I had acquired new processing software, so during the past two years I’ve become adept at using it, “skillful” I think, and more importantly, I have refined my aesthetics towards the work with her, what I want to show, the feelings and emotions I want to emphasize…I have processed selections in clair-obscur and just recently begun processing some as impressionistic.  I like the idea of not being “literal”, of having the viewer participate in interpreting the image, the emotions, the models or my own, or both of us, as well as what I desire for them to take away from it.  I think that can be the adventure in viewing a fine-art photograph of this style!
I would also like to do more low-light, grainy work, for the same reason, it doesn’t explain everything, it requires the viewer to use their imagination, to either interpret the image or to accept the delicious mystery of it…RG

“Photographing poverty…”

#RoyGunnels (60) - CopyToday I received a comment on an image I had posted on LinkedIn, well, a rather vociferous and emotional criticism.  The image itself was taken in Cairo, Egypt, and a part of my major documentary of Muiz Street.  It shows what is apparently a homeless man sleeping on a stone wall.  Now, if you have read my blog you know that I choose very carefully what images I show publicly, or what images I even keep, but the struggles in life are evident to all of us, and if I am to show a fair representation of what I “see” and “experience” in a country, then that becomes part of it.  The majority of images I show from my years in the Middle East and East Africa reflect courage, perseverance and beauty I believe, and yet that is not all I have seen, nor all I show.  I choose a balance of images based on my personal experience. I am not a social worker, I do not have an agenda other then to reflect what I see in a fair and balanced way.
Now, the person who criticized me is an “international artist”, who frequently posts pictures that all look like stills from a Disney movie fairytale, bright colors that do not exist in nature, scenes of tranquility that do not exist in the world we live in! So, if that appeals to you, that kind of escapist image, and it seems that it does to many, then i’m happy for you, but don’t criticize my work for jostling you out of your dream for a few minutes. Another person left a comment on the picture today, “Sad”, and for fear of being flippant my answer to them was “It’s a sad world…”.  In every country I have worked when assembling the images into a visual narrative for publication, I always accentuate the beauty that I have seen, but there is a contrast to that which exists all over the world, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, etc, and it is my responsibility and my choice to fairly show that as well.  RG
*The image is entitled “Sleeping On The Serpent’s Back”, from the photo-documentary, “Muiz: A Pastiche Of The Street”


#RoyGunnels #RoyGunnelsPhotography (17) - CopyI was processing an image tonight, one from Ethiopia, an image I have processed and posted before, but wanted to take another look at it, see if I could coax some more out of the image, see what had changed in me that would be reflected in how I presented it.  I had entitled my series from Ethiopia “Hearts of Gondor”, but really, it is “Faces of Gondor” to me, because each face I see in the images I’ve taken all over the world reflect a “heart” to me, a person, someone I do not know and yet captured their image.  Some of them were angry, some frightened, or happy, or indifferent, some in pain…most of those things are usually hidden from the camera, of course.
My last post I mentioned shooting portraits, it’s all about faces to me, I love shooting them and not sure why.  At this point in my life I am not interested in introspection, it is what it is, I am who I am, my work really speaks for itself, and I am not sure how comfortable I am sharing my feelings about it, but I continue to do so here.  You know, I never read a blog entry after I have posted it, for fear I might be tempted to edit it, or even delete it.  I like expressing myself in a raw, unedited way about my work because it’s real, there is no agenda guiding my posts, other then to be completely free expressing my feelings about it.
In Egypt I was shooting “scenes”, I spent years walking Muiz Street and it was the vitality of the street, the interactions, shopkeepers working or people talking, I was looking for that part of vivid humanity that gave that street it’s character, and had before Medieval times. I regret I didn’t focus more on the faces of Muiz…I don’t compose my work now the way I did then, I shoot close now, I want to see a person, a face, in detail, intimately, I want my camera to really see things, to capture the beauty, the intimacy, of the person I am photographing! I do think portraits are invasive, they are powerful expressions of who a person is, they cannot show the heart, but perhaps they can show just a part of it, a twinkle or a blink or a sigh…If my camera shows one small detail of truth about who a person is, truly, it is an amazing thing to me, and gives me great satisfaction.
I just felt like writing about faces tonight, I’ve been thinking about it for several days, what I am really trying to do with my portraits, the emotion and effort and hope that I put into them…god I love being a photographer!  RG

“Who I am as a photographer is who I am as a person…”

#RoyGunnels blog“Your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really sees.”
The quote is by Paul Strand, the Modernist American photographer.  I had been viewing his very stark portraits, after a shoot last week, comparing them to my own, thinking about what I really want to show with my work, and why I love doing portraits so much.  I never connected well with people in my life, I once described it to a friend as “people come into and out of my life”, rather matter-of-factly, with little emotion, just stating it as more of how life is and I accepted that.  And I began to wonder after the Strand quote and reflecting on it, perhaps that is why I love portrait work so much…faces!  Anyone who knows my work or has read my posts about working know I shoot a lot of images, I don’t have a “team” to set my shot up so I can click the shutter and go have a glass of wine, I want more than that from my portraits, I want to show, to take, or capture, everything I can from a face, I want my portraits to be read like a book!  I am passionate about them, I work my ass off shooting them, whether beautiful or harsh or something else, I want the viewer to see all there is to see in each image.  I don’t always achieve that, but it’s what i’m trying to achieve, show what’s behind this face, the person, because there is value there and I want to show that.  More to come on this subject, I understand my blog posts are more like rants, but it’s passion for what I do speaking, so bear with me.  RG

“Thoughts on how I work…”

#RoyGunnels  #GondorEthiopia #DocumentaryPhotography #Frontline #RoyGunnelsPhotography  (10)First, each photographer has their routine, mine is my own, and here are a few thoughts on how I work.  Shooting, whether on the street, in the field, revolution, poverty, joy, or shooting a beautiful model in a studio, it’s work!  It’s “work” to me, it’s stressful.  In the field i’m waiting for the image to present itself, or continually trying to spot opportunities for a great image!  I wish every image I captured in the field and street was great, it’s not, my work in the multi-year documentary I accomplished of Muiz Street in Cairo, Egypt, my major work to date, each days shoot of several hours resulted in about a 3% to 6% rate of what I considered “great” images, but I was satisfied with that.  If I wandered the street for 2 or 3 hours and got a single “great” image, I was thrilled, they are few and far between, so whenever I got one I was thrilled! I have gone many days wandering the streets in the Middle East or East Africa and came back with nothing worthwhile.  You just have to know that there are great images waiting for you, and you will be the only one there to record it when you see it!
I don’t use Photoshop, I don’t manipulate my images, I don’t retouch, no one processes or touches my images but me!  That’s my choice, I like to think my style of minimal processing doesn’t disturb the “purity” of the image.  I treat them with respect, I think of each of them as a gift, as a privilege to have recorded this scene or visage, or person who lives and breathes and one way or another has worth.
Shooting a model in a studio is another story.  I find it the most stressful kind of photography, personally, because every issue is mine to decide, makeup, hair, and each subtle change in expression I ask of her, “look at me”, “look down”, “open your mouth just a bit”, “close your eyes”, “tilt your head back a bit”, on and on…I have walked with protesters down the streets whilst being tear-gassed in Cairo during the revolution and found it much less stressful then standing in front of my model and directing her! And yet it is exciting, to create your image in that way, to see what your heart and mind says to you is beautiful, or poignant, graceful or sensuous! And to see what you are capable of coaxing from your model, her looks and feelings and emotions, what you can draw out of her, again, it’s very challenging and very exciting!
I began this by saying how stressful the actual photography was to me, and it is…on the other hand, post-processing is something I love, it’s where you bring your image to life.  I seclude myself, put on the earphones after I have picked a song, and then listen to it repeat for hours while i’m working. Many of my series are named after the title or a lyric from songs I’ve listened to while processing them…of course, I might change it later, I love finding the perfect name for a photo-series, so I will change it if something happens to stir in me that I have found a better title…I love the narrative of a proper title, it sets the tone to the viewer for what they are going to see, and what the photographer is trying to show and tell them with the work.
I will add to this post as needed, but I wanted to get a bit of information on my site.  Self-reflection is good at times.  RG

“Warflower” Memories of the Egyptian Revolution 2011

#RoyGunnels #RoyGunnelsPhotography #TahrirSquare #EgyptianRevolutiion #ConflictPhotography #Frontline #DocumentaryPhotographyI had been in Cairo for over a year, working on a documentary of the ancient Muizz Street, when the revolution began in Tahrir Square one night, like many others, except this night it was a rout of and brutal attack on the protesters occupying it, by hundreds of black-clad State Security officers. The revolution had begun!

One afternoon I was processing new work on the laptop, in the distance I heard chanting and instantly knew what it was, another protest march moving through Zamalek on their way to Tahrir Square, the heart of the revolution. I grabbed my camera bag and headed out the front door, listening to the chant and finding the march as they moved along the side of the Nile. I began shooting images while walking and after awhile the march paused in some confusion, and then it hit me, we had been showered with CS gas, and as my eyes were involuntarily closing I saw a thin tree and reached out to steady myself against it.

After a few minutes I forced my eyes to open and focus, and began shooting again, tears streaming down but only temporary pain that was gone quickly. I was so energized and motivated to be in the middle of this all I was thinking about was getting the pictures! We paused about 30 minutes as dusk settled over Cairo, then the group split, some going on to Tahrir and many others filtering down the streets for home. The announcement had been made by one of the organizers that there was a new 6pm curfew in affect, and as such we were all violating it at that time.

This was the same night all of the police officers had walked off the job and vowed not to return for a variety of reasons. A city the size of Cairo with no police on duty, it was just amazing thinking about it. The bawab of my building gathered some other men and built a fire in a can in the street. I lived across from the Spanish Embassy housing and the Australia Embassy housing was just down the block, but the embassies and embassy housing had all been evacuated days earlier. At each corner and intersection citizens had set up makeshift checkpoints, there was no traffic and stores and businesses of all kinds had closed.

The night was filled with a myriad number of sounds, the government flying jets low over Cairo to intimidate the population, or military helicopters, shouts, gunfire and running feet! I sat with the men in front of my building, all of them armed with guns or makeshift weapons of every description, sober, serious men, all of them. The next morning I wandered the neighborhood, seeing that overnight the military had moved in tanks and set up their own checkpoints.

During the days that followed I was arrested/detained by the Egyptian military numerous times, accusing me of being a spy, and usually of being a Jewish spy. They always insisted on viewing all of the images I had on my camera, if I had any of military vehicles or personnel they would make me delete them, or thought I had deleted them. The government cut the cable feed for awhile, so we had no internet, and stopped cell phone service. The only thing that worked was landline phones, fortunately I had one in my flat.

It was really masterful how the Egyptian people responded to the police walking off the job. They were policing themselves and their neighborhoods, preventing rioting and theft and assault all over Cairo, just as they did in my own neighborhood and on my own block.

Before the police walked off the job and the revolution became more tense, I was trying to get across the Lion Bridge, through a military checkpoint, but was detained for being a foreign journalist, interrogated by an officer, who refused to let me cross the bridge into Tahrir Square. I hailed a taxi and as we headed back to my flat I could tell the driver was terrified having me in his cab. He asked if I had a cell, and asked for it to hide it in his sock, then told me to hide my camera bag…of course, he couldn’t do anything about my face, I was obviously foreign!

The first police checkpoint I was pulled out of the cab, the driver was ordered to the side of the street, and we were both questioned. They wanted to see the images on my camera, which included those of tanks and military personnel I had taken of those blocking the entrance to Tahrir. I was concerned the whole “spy” thing would come up, but surprisingly, they smiled, handed me my camera back, and told the driver and I we were free to leave. My feeling was they weren’t actually sure what they were supposed to be looking for with foreigners, just anything they might find suspicious. RG


About “A Pastiche Of The Street”

#RoyGunnelsI originally relocated to Egypt and leased a flat in Cairo to work on a documentary about the extraordinary street, Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah, or simply, Muizz, located in the area of Islamic Cairo.  I spent several years walking Muizz, both the almost pristine north side, and the south side which is the opposite, rich and raw with sights and smells and sounds of life there, engaging and seductive to a documentary photographer.

I recall standing on the top level of Bab Zuweila many times and looking back north the way I had just walked, and thinking of it as a winding river of sand, a pattern of ancient minarets standing tall as sentinels, showing me the way I had come. There is no stone pavement here, just a dirt path that continually narrows and widens, angling left or right, sometimes splitting only to rejoin itself a bit further.

I am a photographer who agrees with the caveat about remaining aloof from the subjects you are capturing. thereby assuring a certain objectivity in your work, and yet here on Muizz I disregarded that at times, finding great personal value in sharing a few words and a cup of hot tea with a resident or shop-keeper, gaining a feel for the emotions and disposition of those that inhabited this street and I was accomplishing this documentary about and for.

If I arrived early the north side of Muizz would be bustling with activity, shopkeepers opening their stores, arranging displays outside, or setting up the backgammon table on the side of the street, as one of my favorite places was wont to do.  The south side did not rise early, the well-trampled dirt street empty except for the occasional vendor laying out hot bread on the brick fence to cool, or the feral cats roaming in the early morning shadow looking for a morsel to eat.  A different rhythm and a gulf of distance between the two sides.
As I have said, Muizz heading south would diverge at times then converge again and form a single lane or path.  Heading “down” Muizz during a shoot I would always choose the more narrow right path and on returning would choose the left.  One of the shops, it was really just a large closet that the owner would open, an ancient wooden door painted a fading yet bright sky blue, with handprints of dried blood from the original ceremony to ward off the Evil Eye from decades earlier.  I noticed the owner one day and as I snapped a few pictures he smiled, then he reached to the side and took a small, framed,  black and white photograph off the wall and handed it to me.  It was him as a boy with his father, standing in the same place as he was now, perhaps 40 or 50 years earlier.  RG

“Life, Beauty And Humanity On The Streets Of Cairo”

#RoyGunnels #DocumentaryPhotography #CairoEgypt #MuizzStreet #RoyGunnelsPhotography (14)As I have said in other posts, I spent several years working on a documentary of Al Muizz Street in Cairo.  I wandered other streets and areas as well, never tiring of the amazing array of life, beauty and humanity in this great city.
I would watch the ladies setting up their vending trays on the side of the streets, carefully arranging each peach or stalk of grapes with such delicacy and grace. Early in the morning I have seen another laying out hot, fresh bread to cool on the low, stone fence of a neighborhood mosque.
I glanced in the window of a modest shop down some forgotten street off of Muizz one day, noticing a man sitting at an ancient sewing machine.  He looked up and his eyes met mine, and he motioned for me come in.  I asked if I could take some pictures of him working and he nodded yes, quietly sewing inexpensive slippers as the sun streamed in the window and the only sound was the gentle drone of the machine. Later he would make us a cup of hot tea.
My friend and I were taking pictures from the roof level of Bab Zuweila when we decided to climb up the ancient minaret.  It was pitch dark and choked with thick dust and we held each others hand tightly as I led, taking each step carefully till we arrived at the top, where a small opening allowed the sunlight to stream in and show us we were there. When we walked down and out of the minaret, intending on continuing our walk and shoot, the caretaker saw we were covered with dust, and hurriedly brought us wet towels to freshen ourselves.
I was in my flat one day in Zamalek and I heard a voice from the street outside singing, or what I thought was “singing”, it was so beautiful and pure, and yet as I listened it seemed more a lamentation. I was transfixed, just standing there and listening, letting each note wash over me. I went to my bedroom where the windows were swung open wide and saw her, an older lady in a black abaya, moving slowly up the street as she sang.  I called an Egyptian friend and held the phone to the window and asked her what the meaning was, and she said it was indeed a kind of lamentation, for the lady was blind and she was asking for alms.  By the time I had dressed properly and run into the street she was gone….but I will never forget the sound of her plea in the quite of a late Cairo afternoon.
My first year in Cairo and well before the revolution I would arise each morning and walk down to the Costa for coffee.  There were two police officers I became familiar with, we would greet each other, and shake hands. One day they were standing at the side of the intersection having a modest meal when I passed, mashed up beans spread across bread, and they asked me to join them. I would never have refused such a gracious gesture, and we three stood there eating in the bright sun of a mid-morning Cairo.
#RoyGunnels #CairoEgypt #StreetPhotography #DocumentaryPhotography #Zamalek #RoyGunnelsPhotography (8) I regularly walked by a bulding with a bawab sitting out front and he would greet me warmly and smile.  He was from Upper Egypt, tall, dark and lean with huge hands and a majestic bearing.  I asked one day if I could shoot his portrait, something I rarely did because ‘posing’ can ruin a street image, but this was different, I wanted a formal portrait of this man. He nodded in agreement, not changing his demeanor or posture at all, looking almost kingly with just a hint of how absurd it was that I wanted a picture of him. I offered him some cash after I had taken the portraits and he politely yet proudly refused.
I have so many more anecdotes and memories from my years in Cairo.  It had an affect on me, my experiences good and bad changed me into a better person I believe, and a more emphathetic man, and a better humanistic photographer.  RG

“In The Field And On Assignment”

#RoyGunnels #CairoEgypt #DocumentaryPhotography #Photojournalism #MuizzStreet (1)

I have rarely avoided taking a picture while in the field or on assignment, no matter how emotional, or intimidating the circumstances were.  That said, if you’re human and have human feelings, you’re going to be affected by what you see.  Other photojournalists have seen far worse then I, and I have no idea how they deal with what they’ve seen, I only know my own feelings.  That doesn’t mean I want to see those images again, publish them, or put then in a book.  The people we photograph in dire circumstances deserve some amount of respect…I’m not debating journalistic ethics here, just telling you how I feel.

I was on assignment in northern Ethiopia, and among many other requests was for me to shoot in a ward at the teaching hospital in Gondor.  There was no air-conditioning, the windows were open, it was hot and the odor was overpowering.  There were families crowded around each patient’s bed, glaring at this foreigner with a camera as I walked in, and I was unnerved.  The head of the department was directing me to shoot pictures of it, of the room, the patients and their families, the “scene” itself.  My instinct was simply to say “no”, but I had always done my job, and did it this time as well, although I didn’t feel good for having done so, I felt just the opposite.

One of the challenges of being a documentary photographer or photojournalist…if you’re on assignment for someone else, a news organization or even an NGO, and not working freelance, you have an editor or a rep telling you what to shoot…that’s the way it is.
Cairo has over two million homeless children, an astounding figure…I was walking down a busy sidewalk with a friend one day, another photographer who I frequently collaborated with, and there in the middle of the sidewalk was a child, a boy, of around 7 or 8, in a dirty gelabaya, shoeless, and covered in flies, and he was fast sleep. The street was busy and the sidewalk crowded with people hurrying by, stepping around or over this child.  I paused, and my partner asked if I wanted to try and take the picture but I hesitated.  It was a very sensitive situation and those passing had no problem walking by the child but most certainly would have objected to a foreign  journalist taking a photograph.  Street crowds can form very quickly in Cairo, and my shooting partner was Egyptian, and she would have bore the brunt of any ugly scene, so I made the decision to walk on.  This was one rare exception to me not shooting an image when I wanted it.
While shooting my documentary of Muizz, particularly on the southern side, I frequently encountered homeless, both men and women.  I did shoot these images, but very carefully captured a single image and then went on my way.  I’ve had fists shaken at me and various things yelled at me for taking pictures of scenes such as this, but i’m shooting a documentary, and a fair account of what I experience is what i’m going to show.  Uncomfortable conditions at times are a part of shooting on the street or in the field. Get used to it… RG