I was taken by surprise when my scruffy application form to the Poly of Central London led, very promptly, to an invitation for interview. When I sniffed at the other applicants I nearly went straight home. My competitors were already university or college lecturers; I think one was even a head of department. But I thought I’d stick around, if only to see again the place where once I’d been a bad student, dropping out of a part-time diploma course.
Well, blow me down if I don’t get introduced to the interview panel (which included the regal Michael Langford) as not needing an introduction. Great start!
I pulled out lots of tear-sheets and made up a lecture series on the spot. Cut a long, purple-hazy story short, I was offered the job. The Head of School apologised that the starting salary was lower than my last job (picture editor on the Sunday
Despondent Correspondent magazine), but after a year, he promised, it would be nearly the same. He concluded his call with a diffident ‘Would that be alright? Cheekily, I asked for the weekend to think about it when, of course, the answer was already in the speech bubble in big letters.
Sharing what I know
If all my work comes from the photograph, it comes out primarily as teaching. But I don’t like the term very much. There is too much of a power structure embedded in the term: it implies an intrinsic superiority which discomforts me. ‘Educator’ is a little better, though it sounds like a dictator trying to disguise true intentions by dressing in pink (one thinks of the despotic idiot, Ceausescu). ‘Sharer’ is nearest though it sounds twee and awkward. But the act of sharing is something we all understand and value, and I like to share what I’ve learnt, what I’ve worked out, what little of all of this I understand. (Make no mistake; I know enough to know how little I know.)
That I was offered the post is all the more remarkable because at the time I’d taught at only the odd summer school and workshop. I expected to get some training for teaching, but the only training I received was on the administrative structure of the institution, learning the meaning of acronyms like SMG and HEI.
My first assignment was a final year that had been all but given up as a basket case: I did not know they’d been firing petitions into close- and mid-field on one grievance and complaint after another. I remember, ever so clearly, the looks on the faces of one class when I commented that a shot was ‘beautiful’.
Sorry, was it something I said?
They looked at each other, then one explained “In all the time we’ve been on this course, we’ve never heard that word. Beautiful.”
It took me several years to become anything like a decent teacher, by which time I had worked out that the job was really about sharing.
Sharing is not confined to the campus of a university or college. Arguably, the largest part of that work did not take place during my twelve-plus years at a higher-education institution (that’s what HEI stands for) but through my books. For a number of years, I limited the workshops I would take because I did not want to tie my schedules down by a single day here or there.
We persuaded University of Westminster to support a trip to Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our first visit, to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and even Kazakhstan, established that what universities wanted was training in accountancy, international finance, auditing. Nothing I know anything about. We will tell that story some time, but suffice to say that we learnt that if corruption was a feature of post-collapse Russian satellite states, it was also present in the Business School of the University of Westminster. A more successful project was the up-dating of journalism training in the Kyrgyz Russian Slavonic University in Bishkek. With funds from the Know How Fund, we gave workshops in journalism and radio journalism and helped to bring the syllabus up to date.
Imagine me, Anti-Bureacracy from birth, giving lectures on how to create course documents. Well, I did, and our colleagues picked up quickly, adopting my suggestions. In fact, other departments picked up the ideas and before too long we heard later, the whole university had adopted the measures. We transformed their idea of a course document which amounted to no more than course title, professor’s name, room and time to a fuller description that included aims, deliverables, assessment, reading list and the rest. We managed to under-spend – pretty much unheard in NGO projects – so we funded the printing of some books with the surplus.
I have given workshops in Salzburg, London, Cape Town, Manila, Dubai and I’ve coached groups in Auckland towards a group exhibition. A part of sharing is to help others. For example, I worked on the start up of the Sony World Photography Awards – also known as the World Photography Awards – SWPA or WPA. I have also judged the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY or WPOY) twice. And, most recently, I’ve been for the jury for the Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA). My relationship with HIPA has been particularly enjoyable and rewarding, with being asked to give talks in Dubai, Sharjah and also the workshop in Manilla.
In 2004, I resigned from the senior lecturer in photographic practice post at the University of Westminster. A big ‘thank you’ to the toxic individuals who ensured it was suicidal to remain. It was the first time in some years I did not have a contract for a book. So I had no safety-net for stepping out into the abyss of unemployment.
While I was sad to leave, I knew it was not the time to stay and fight the racially inclined stupidities of management and, because, the institution seemed no longer interested in students or learning but in bottom lines and managers in protecting their own bottoms. I was going to miss the students; and they complained they would miss me (bless them) but I thought that would last for perhaps as much as a week. And when the only worker on campus who makes any sense, who makes you smile and feel it’s good to be alive is a blackbird singing from the tree outside your office, you know it’s time to go.
Two months of blissful exemption from traffic jams later, I received a call out of the blue. It was from the BBC. Would I be interested in being a consultant for a digital photography programme? ‘Yeah, well; it depends.’ was what I think said, but what I thought was, of course ‘Yyyesss!’
When I met them, they put me through a screen test. I wasn’t expecting them to do that, and neither were they. To their surprise, I think, I passed with flying colours – I talked to the camera without flinching – and even took charge of a trial interview. Well, that should not have been so surprising: I’d been talking to classes for a dozen years and before that I’d interviewed students for places and photographers for magazines. Not only that, the bigwigs liked my screen presence too.
In short, I was taken on for the ‘Digital Picture of Britain’ series. It was for BBC4 to accompany a mega-series on BBC1. Its proposition was to hand photographers a digital camera and make them shoot an urban, rural and industrial subject to create a ‘digital picture of Britain’, in parallel with the fine-art-based ‘Picture of Britain’ on BBC1. It was a time, remember, that the majority of professional photographers were snooty about digital cameras, and the nearest they got to handling a digital camera was built into their cell phone … which they never used. It was wicked, but we enjoyed giving cameraphones to photographers known for their use of large-format cameras.
After the excitement of passing the screen test, the real deal was a gruelling exercise. We filmed in the British winter, and the toughest thing was having to sit around for hours in the cold eating rubbish food like crisps and chocolate bars while waiting for my call. Then I’d have to do an interview or perform a piece to camera with barely five minutes’ warning or warm-up. But I loved it. (Can;t you tell?)
I met and worked with lots of lovely people, and saw parts of Britain I’d never ever have seen – or ever wanted to visit. Unfortunately, my own photography took a back-seat to that of the other photographers, so my shoot wasn’t as rich as I’d have liked.
The first series, complete with a competition and the spontaneous creation of a Flickr group called ‘Buildings of Britain’ was a success. So BBC4 commissioned me for a second series. That was much more fun to work on as I knew more, had learnt some tricks, and had received some presenter training.
Scene City Singapore
This gave me a taste for TV work which Wendy was keen to encourage. So she prompted Emmeline Yong, of Objectifs in Singapore. Emmeline put us in touch with the producer Lionel Chok. With a lot of pushing (nearly a year’s worth, I think) from Lionel, we won a commission from Channel News Asia for an eight-part series which became ‘Scene City Singapore’.
Although successful in Singapore, and even after winning an award at the New York Film and TV Festival, and being sold to six countries plus European distribution, we haven’t been commissioned for a second season. Which is deeply disappointing.
The shooting style for the TV work is rather simple if rather unhelpful: stay out of the way. So you have to grab what you can when you can. The prime responsibility is for the TV crew to get the footage. So even if you see a fantastic shot, you don’t step in front of the camera (well, maybe if it’s really and truly amazing you might be forgiven; but you’ll get yelled at first). And getting in the way doesn’t just mean simply staying out of sight of the TV camera lens. It also means staying out of line of sight too, so that you do not distract anyone being interviewed or doing something for the camera. More, you also have to stay out of sound too: no impressive bursts of motor-driven shots anywhere near the microphones.
When you get used to that dictatorship – I mean directing discipline – it’s all great, good fun. I love it; and if no-one’s going to commission another series, we might just have to do it ourselves!
Return to Who is Tom?