Behind the scenes – Photographer on the other side of the lens

I seldom seem to be on the other end of the lens these days. In fact, if you look at my personal Facebook page if you happen to have access to it (as opposed to my business one), you’ll see that I’ve hardly uploaded any photographs of myself since becoming a photographer back in 2010. It’s a funny thing, and I can’t quite explain it.

An exception came recently when photography students Natladaporn Sansanasuphaphong and Pattrawadee Sereesintinanon were invited by the Foundation for Older Persons’ Development (FOPDEV) to join me on my assignment for HelpAge International in Fang District of Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province. FOPDEV frequently engages volunteers to help them tell their story, and they hoped that a couple of them might learn some tricks from me!

When I got back to Chiang Mai after the fieldwork was done, I found a bunch of Facebook friend invites waiting for me. After I accepted them, photos of me in action started appearing on my timeline! Here’s a selection of these ‘behind the scenes’ images:

humanitarian development csr photographer robin wyatt in action 1 Behind the scenes   Photographer on the other side of the lens

Photographing Noom Padawan and her grandson Siwat.

humanitarian development csr photographer robin wyatt in action 2 Behind the scenes   Photographer on the other side of the lens

Shooting in the rain (left); showing the subject her image (right). The students also learn how to shoot and develop the ‘old school’ way, using an analogue camera and a darkroom.

humanitarian development csr photographer robin wyatt in action 3 Behind the scenes   Photographer on the other side of the lens

Interviewing Bua Kum Jongkam with the help of my Thai translator, Pim.

humanitarian development csr photographer robin wyatt in action 4 Behind the scenes   Photographer on the other side of the lens

Interviewing village ‘head man’, Chan Wipak.

humanitarian development csr photographer robin wyatt in action team 2 Behind the scenes   Photographer on the other side of the lens

Team photo with my wonderful team, after a job well done!

Giving through photography – CSR in Thailand

Do you remember I wrote about photographers giving back? That time, I was relating my experience of having met a charming old man named M Balasubramaniam in the South Indian city of Madurai. He had clearly touched so many hearts over the years, and people – including at least one photographer – had felt moved to ‘give back’ to him in whatever ways came naturally to them.

Today, I’d like to share a couple more glimpses of this wonderful gesture. I’ve been working in Fang District of Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province, close to the country’s hilly border with Burma (Myanmar). I’m on commission from HelpAge International, telling some of the stories of impact of the disaster risk reduction work done by them and their partners in this climate change affected region. Many of the beneficiaries are elderly people. A few of them recounted to me how a team of CSR volunteers, staff of Prudential from around Asia (‘PRUvolunteers’), had come to rebuild or strengthen their homes, so that they would be safer in the event of a future disaster.

While they were there, these young people had of course taken a lot of photographs to help them remember their volunteering experiences, and the bonds they’d built while working for these elderly people. These photographs were not just for them to take home with them. When they left, they gave a gift of one large size black and white image mounted on canvas to each of their hosts to treasure. See for yourself below.

humanitarian development csr photography thailand chiang mai fang helpage prudential elderly man photograph 35285 Giving through photography   CSR in Thailand

Moon Sompanjan, aged 88, proudly displays the image he was given of himself with his granddaughter.

humanitarian development csr photography thailand chiang mai fang helpage prudential elderly woman photograph 35497 Giving through photography   CSR in Thailand

Beaukam Inthasom, aged 76, with her photo.

Bravo to my mentees! En route to success as NGO photographers

I want to send a hearty “congratulations!” out to the mentees on my pilot eMentoring scheme, Daylin Paul and Gitika Saksena, who are both – I’m very sure – on the road to great things. If you subscribe to my monthly newsletter, you may remember Daylin and his work with Thai mother Maw from my March issue. And if you were one of the lovely people who pledged your financial support following my plea for backers to help Daylin finish telling Maw’s story, a tremendous “thank you!” goes out to you. You’ll be very happy to see this:

mentee daylin paul a mothers story funding success Bravo to my mentees! En route to success as NGO photographers

Well done Daylin! Click the image to read his note of appreciation.

 

From his e-mails, it was always abundantly clear to me that Daylin wanted more than anything to find a means of completing his work with a woman he felt a strong affinity for. Here’s an extract from his recent blog post on the subject:

For a while I really struggled to pin down why it is that I feel as strongly as I do for her, a woman I’ve only met on a handful of occasions but who has been graceful enough to allow my camera and I into her life. Being raised by a single mother who had to work hard her entire life to support my brother and I, I guess I feel a connection there. I saw what it was like for my own mother to survive and take care of us and I saw parallels with Maw’s own life.

But I think now, more than anything, it was Maw’s own willingness to share her life, her home and even her food with a stranger who could only communicate with her through body language, broken Thai and the help of a translator that really made me feel in a way I haven’t for a long time.

Collaboration

We humanitarian and development photographers are tremendously fortunate when we get to know such people while starting out on our careers. It takes time to tell a compelling story, which means they really need to let us into their lives in a significant manner. In their own humble way, they often give us far more than they realise could be possible. It would not be an exaggeration to say that they can really help us make our careers, in turn ensuring that many an organisation and the beneficiaries they support will gain from the funds our talents can open doors to. In that sense, they are unsung heroes.

Telling these important stories is a collaborative process between photographer and subject. Few photographers are sufficiently independently wealthy, especially when just setting out on their paths, to be able to pay the costs of this work alone. When people like those who have backed Daylin here pledge their support, they too become collaborators. Thanks to the magic of the Internet and crowd funding, this is today easier than ever. Yet times are hard, and we must make our cases more and more convincingly.

gitika saksena cry children of raichur Bravo to my mentees! En route to success as NGO photographers

A beautiful moment captured by another of my mentees, Gitika Saksena.

 

Non-profits are often the first to remind us that times are hard. One really has to demonstrate the ability to add value in unusual and special ways if one is to secure paid work ahead of an apparent army of aspiring NGO photographers willing to shoot pro bono. Having said that, the opportunities we get to shoot for free during the early days are our chances to shine, build our portfolios and gain credibility. I did that with organisations such as Save the Children in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in Kenya during the East African drought. And I never looked back.

A lot of people grumble about having to work for free in order to get a foot on the ladder. A lot of NGO photographers also grumble about those that work for free preventing them from getting paid work. When Gitika asked me whether or not she should do this, I explained why I thought she should. So she got on with it. She made contact with the India-based children’s NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) and worked conscientiously with them in order to produce The Children of Raichur.

Enablers

Again, this was an act of collaboration. Collaboration between photographer and subjects, but also with enablers. While for Daylin these enablers were people like you who donated from a distance, for Gitika they were CRY and its local partner NGO, Sneha Jeevi Samsthe, who opened the door to one of their project areas and gave her easy access. Support from people a community trusts is worth more than its weight in gold, allowing humanitarian and development photographers to get up close and personal in far less time than could be possible while working alone.

The photo essay she’s since produced will in turn open further doors for Gitika. It’s already been picked up by The Alternative (the link will take you to where it features on the site of this online social development platform), and the former India Country Director of Oxfam GB Murray Culshaw has since commented on the piece, saying “Good writing linked to fine photographs. We need so much more of both and especially when combined to help communicate the work being done by so many fine organisations”. Gitika has since been in touch with Murray, now an independent communications for development consultant, directly. She’s on her way!

So as the title of this piece says, “Bravo to my mentees!”. Your hard work will pay off, of that I’m very certain.

The Photographer’s Workflow – Essential reading by Gavin Gough

My decision to become a photographer followed a lot of soul-searching, as my regular readers know well. I didn’t feel satisfied in my earlier career, but for a long time didn’t have clarity on what I should do instead. I had a checklist of things that I wanted from my new career, which you’ll find in one of my earliest journal pieces, So I decided to become a photographer…. #6 on this list is the one I’ve found hardest to achieve: “It should not involve constant computer usage”. I can confidently place a tick by all the other ten requirements on this list now that I’m a photographer, yet I still spend the bulk of my time in this career staring at a computer because there are so many tasks to complete after the pressing of the shutter button on my camera before an image is ready for my client.

So for me, Gavin Gough’s new eBook, The Photographer’s Workflow, was just the ticket. ‘Workflow’ doesn’t exactly sound like the most inspiring subject for a 130-page book, but Gavin has clearly spent considerable time making his creation a pleasure to read. It’s full of his compelling and uplifting imagery, step-by-step idiot-proof instructions illustrated with screenshots from Adobe Lightroom 4 and exercises to help you practise the time-saving and efficiency-gaining things you’re learning. And it’s more than just an eBook: in the package you’ll also get links to a number of free online video tutorials, 65 Lightroom 4 development presets to help give your processing a more consistent linear structure and a series of Lightroom ‘smart collections’ that pretty much copy-paste Gavin’s years of experience in building a step-by-step workflow for managing his digital photographs right into your own copy of Lightroom. That’s quite a privilege! All for only $30.

gavin gough photographers workflow cascade The Photographers Workflow   Essential reading by Gavin Gough

If this is something that interests you, chances are you’re a photographer, whether professional, aspiring professional or amateur. As a photographer, I think the chances are also good that you’re more of a visual person than someone who’s keen to read a lot of text. So rather than me continuing to wax lyrical about what this book has to offer, here’s a great little video that Gavin himself has put together:

Trials and tribulations of image backup, Part II – Say NO to Backblaze!

Recently, I wrote about the trials and tribulations of online backup. Today, I feel duty-bound to give some more strongly-worded advice on this. But if you don’t have the time to read what follows, then I think the following graphic pretty much says it all:

backblaze liability Trials and tribulations of image backup, Part II   Say NO to Backblaze!

If you thought Backblaze was a great solution for online external hard drive backups, PLEASE think again.

What I mean to show with this graphic is that Backblaze offer a service that they say will guarantee one peace of mind about the security of one’s data, yet the reality couldn’t be further from this ‘guarantee’. The images of the computer, the first arrow and the Backblaze vault are theirs. If one opens the Backblaze panel on one’s system, this is what it shows, together with figures that show the amount of data they’ve backed up. I have added the second arrow and the external hard drive in flames. This is because, on 10th September 2012, I opened my Backblaze panel to find that the several hundreds of gigabytes of data – the RAW files of all my precious images – were no longer showing as backed up. In place of the previous number was a rather small yet conspicuous zero. And that zero remained.

Zero

I’ve been through this ‘zero thing’ before with Backblaze. I knew that when an external hard drive is removed, Backblaze registers the data as – in effect – deleted. I understood what they’d told me (and what I’d read on their site) clearly enough: one must plug in one’s external hard drive(s) at least once every 30 days after the application detects that the drive was unplugged to ensure that the data remains backed up. After re-plugging in one’s external drive, Backblaze will see the data it had earmarked as deleted (but not yet irreversibly junked) and ‘deduplicate’. So I waited for this ‘deduplication’ to happen.

It was to be a long wait. And, guess what? It never happened. Their best practices section says to “run Backblaze continuously for five hours once every two weeks”, especially after re-attaching an external drive. Well, firstly, there has never been a time when Backblaze has not been running on my laptop; and, secondly, I left it running continuously not just for five hours, not even for ‘only’ 24 hours (as customer support had suggested), but for several days after starting my system up and seeing that zero. To no avail.

Take your money, and go!

In my last post on this subject, I mentioned in the comments section that I was in touch with Backblaze’s head developer, the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of the company. Brian Wilson is a very nice man, I must admit. But he had no solution to my problem. In fact, he urged me again and again to accept a full refund and to leave Backblaze! That’s not really an optimal solution, after having spent 10 months backing up using his application, to the point that my backup was 99% complete. He said the only alternative was that I could re-push all my data.

Ok, so I’d been pushing all this data gradually over ten months using what most Americans would now regard as ultra slow Internet connections, as I’ve been in countries of the Global South (formerly known as the ‘developing world’). Backblaze, or a service like it, may not be the best solution for people like me, who need to guarantee their clients that their large files are safe while they’re on the move. Mr Wilson kept pointing to the best practices statement that “Backblaze should be able to complete your initial backup in 30 days. If your initial backup is estimated to take longer, then Backblaze may not be the best solution for you”. However, at this stage, my broadband speed was no longer even relevant, as the backup had pretty much been completed. The relevant fact was this: Backblaze thought I had 0 bytes of data. That’s all. Simple. So what could they do about it?

Apparently, nothing. “You must re-push”, he told me again and again. Yes, they had all my RAW files in their data centre (or did they?! I’ll come to that in just a moment), but after 30 days had elapsed, these would be ‘securely’ deleted. If I suffered data loss locally during those 30 days, I could recover my files. After that, they would be gone forever. Re-installing Backblaze was not a solution (I tried it multiple times). The application had clearly malfunctioned, and the greatest technical mind at the company could offer me no answer. He sent me a list of four possible causes for what had happened, and I know for a fact that none of the first three of these had occurred in my case. The fourth, however, seems like a possibility: “Something [could have] triggered a Backblaze bug where it executed the code that normally runs only when a drive has been unplugged for 30 days”.

Blasé

As a company that’s accepted the responsibility of playing custodian of thousands (tens of thousands? Hundreds? More?!) of people’s precious data, I must say that the man at the top when it comes to all things technical is exceedingly blasé about what this responsibility means. He thought that offering my money back and just walking away from the mess his company had potentially left me in was ‘generous’. In fact, let’s look at the precise wording of what he said:

In all honestly it felt generous to me. Your backup used up disk space in our datacenter for 10 months, we will just absorb that cost to make this right. The drives use up electricity we paid for, we pay security guards, all of that we will simply absorb to make this right. You used datacenter bandwidth we just lost money on to make this right. We have interacted by email with you quite extensively, paying each employee that exchanged emails with you a wage, again, all this cost absorbed by Backblaze. And in addition to all of that cost, we will simply give you back all your money you have ever paid to Backblaze to make this utterly financially free to you. FREE!!

I could write a whole essay in response to this paragraph, but I don’t think I need to. Suffice it to say, as I pointed out, that if they offered telephone support then all of the voluminous communication that both sides spent many hours (days?) on could have been saved with one phone call. Mr Wilson told me that offering this would ‘bankrupt’ the company. I suggested they offer it as a premium service. He wasn’t interested.

Ultimately, the point where anything could have been done (30 days after ‘the incident’) passed and Backblaze’s mirror of my external drive’s data was gone forever. It is of course decent to give a refund under circumstances like these. But under circumstances like these, where all the images I’ve ever shot professionally are suddenly rendered vulnerable, it is also decent to go the extra mile. Backblaze were least interested in stepping up to the mark.

Moving forward

So what now? Well, I’ve done a fresh round of research and found what seems like a decent alternative. I’ve started to re-push, not to the imbeciles at Backblaze but to the seemingly responsible and professional folk at CrashPlan. In addition to replying to e-mails over the weekend (unlike Backblaze), they DO offer phone support, and they don’t seem to fear these things bankrupting them. Indeed, they don’t feel they need to charge more for such service; their offering actually costs less than Backblaze’s.

And what about external hard drives for Mac users? (Carbonite, as I mentioned in my previous post, offer an excellent service, but Mac users cannot back their external drives up to them.) Again, CrashPlan seem to talk sense. “Could you tell me how long this external drive can be unplugged before Crashplan regards the data as deleted?”, I asked them, with memories of the Backblaze madness still so fresh in my mind. The reply: “The external drive can be unplugged as long as you want and the data will never be removed. CrashPlan will maintain the backup as long as you have an active subscription”. Now isn’t that so much more sensible? Compare it to what Backblaze’s CTO told me about the system he himself designed:

There exists a trade off whether [sic.] Backblaze should pounce on any hard drive that is plugged in and scan it as quickly as possible (the behavior that would have helped you), or have Backblaze VERY SLOWLY figure out 30 minutes after the hard drive is plugged in that it needs to be scanned, then SLOWLY index the drive over a 2 – 3 hour period (this behavior dramatically helps lower the impact of Backblaze on your system). After this 30 minutes and 2 – 3 hours, then Backblaze needs to transmit a few files it finds, and then 4 hours [sic.] of transmitting at VERY VERY MOST, Backblaze transmits the “status” to the datacenter which says your hard drive was plugged in.

Wow.

Of course, only time will tell whether CrashPlan is as good as it’s looked during the first few weeks I’ve been trialling it. I am at least far more hopeful and relaxed about my data than I used to be with Backblaze. So far, almost all of 2012′s images have been backed up to the CrashPlan data centre, and – as I always did – I have everything I’ve ever shot additionally backed up on another huge external drive that I try to keep separately (though that’s not always possible as I’m on the road so often, which is why online backup is so essential to me).

For those who live in the US or Australia (and, soon, Europe), it’s even possible to seed one’s backup to CrashPlan. This means that one pays a bit extra and they’ll send an external drive to copy all one’s data to and send back to them. Naturally, this is a whole lot quicker and will not eat into your bandwidth, nor encroach upon your Internet provider’s fair usage policy. Again, no hint that this sensible service will make the company bankrupt!

Oh Backblaze, what an all-round disappointment you’ve proven. When I first started with you, I tweeted that you were a globally mobile photographer’s dream. Now, I hope that no such photographer will ever make the mistake of choosing your so-called ‘service’ again, at least not until you correct the serious flaws with your product and also stop being so cynical towards your customers.