Foals play a triumphant gig at London’s cavernous Royal Albert Hall touring their highly-acclaimed third album Holy Fire. Pictures originally published in issue 85 of Clash magazine, April 2013.
An interesting trial carried out by the Embedded Metadata Manifesto shows that most social media sites are pretty terrible at maintaining creator, copyright, credit or caption Exif and IPTC image metadata – despite the fact that posting and sharing is essentially what social media is founded on.
Facebook performs predictably badly, stripping all Exif and IPTC data from uploaded and downloaded images. This is doubly ridiculous because Facebook’s image processor already reads that same information and displays it as image captions and titles. Why not just leave it there?
Flickr fairs just as badly – outrageous considering it’s supposed photographer-friendly stance, but probably no surprise to long-time users who have watched dejectedly as Flickr’s star has faded over the years, with zero investment of either money or ideas since Yahoo bought it.
At least Tumblr and Pinterest leave metadata intact, but don’t show it, as with common Twitter image hosts Yfrog and Img.ly.
Google Plus is the surprise winner, respecting all uploaded metadata, showing it on the interface, and preserving it in downloaded images. Shame nobody uses it – not even Googlebosses.
[Photos originally published at Clashmusic.com]
Three months has gone by quickly, quick enough to remind me how quickly time passes even when you’re not having fun, and actually doing really mundane things.
Just walking around this city makes me realise how much I like it, even while realising how little I’ve scratched the surface of Montreal, or the huge expanse of Quebec – Canada’s largest state – outside the city limits. The broad streets lined with bare-branched winter trees, improbably wide North American cars, and the brick triplexes that are unique to this city (a housebuilding split into three flats with a presumably lethal-when-iced stairway to each); the alleyways between streets one can look down that keep going for miles through block after block; the cafes and bars whose names I don’t know and never visited, and all those I did; the 1960s metro, filled with modern art and stained glass, with trains running inexplicably on rubber tyres instead of rails; the easy beauty of your womenfolk, and they way they can veer from restrained European chic to dancing drunkenly on tables and bars in the blink of an eye, the tip of a cocktail.
I’ve loved the view from your mountain, la montagne, paths of crunchy russet leaves opening onto views of the steel towers of Montreal’s once important but now eclipsed business district, and behind it Buckminster Fuller’s dome for Expo ’67, the Habitat 67 housing blocks beyond the port, like a jumble of Lego blocks fallen mismatched, overlapping each other, and beyond that the vast expanse of the St Lawrence valley.
I was startled by the Olympic Stadium from 1976 – a year before I was born, it’s scandalous sweeping concrete curves and towers still conjuring the optimism of a future that was imagined decades before, still hoped for despite wars in Vietnam, the oil crisis, hyperinflation, economic and environmental decay.
I loved your powdery snow, snow so fine it clung to everything yet still failed to infiltrate my shoddy footwear, and I loved your crisp, wintry days – such a change from overcast Britain – where a cold winter’s day could still bring sun and blue skies and send the ladies who lunch from Outrement scuttling out to bask around coffee at café tables. I loved speaking your names in your language, like “Mo’rey’el” and “Aray-anne”, and just speaking your language in general, or hearing it percolated through a slew of different dialects and regions; Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire.
I met local lunatics dressed as Jimmy Hendrix, dancing jerkily like they were plugged into the mains; Frenchmen by the score looking for work; Anglophone students from Alberta exhausted from defending themselves just because they hailed from the oil-rich west; and endless folk espousing the excellence of the Montréal bagel over the New York bagel, or viande fumée over pastrami.
But in the final analysis you wouldn’t give me a job, you bastards, and if I can’t work I can’t stay. I feel I can blame the government in part – Canada is the world’s second largest country, but has a population of 30 million. There are more people in London than in Quebec and all the Maritime provinces put together, so it seems to me there’s room to spare. Schoolboy French, a glass ceiling and a culture of jobs-through-contacts didn’t help either.
(The “working holiday” visa that would have made this process much easier is only available up until age 30 – unless you’re French or, curiously, Irish. Perhaps it’s because they’re Catholic.)
And so I shall see in 2012 in New York City, returning only to Toronto for a couple of weeks before heading west to Detroit and Chicago. I won’t “see the real winter” as Montrealais keep reminding me, although I’m sure that continental Illinois and Michigan are not going to be exactly tropical by comparison.
My French has improved, for sure, but not enough, and not well enough to cope with the local dialect spoken at speed and against the backdrop of pub noise. I bought some dresses for my niece and chatted to the shopkeeper for some minutes before the question of where I was from came up, and she explained she’d only been in Montreal for about as long as I – she was Parisienne. This made perfect sense as I could actually understand her, instead of just looking increasingly baffled until the inevitable switch to English, as with the locals.
I never found my groove, my niche, my social security number nor job to get up for in the morning. Which made for a funny sort of visit, neither touristy nor living and working. The most I had to show was a morning spent doing psychological clinical trials for $100 and three days of painting and decorating.
So I leave not a penny, nary a sous, richer. But richer for the experience.
Pripyat, a city near the Dniepr river in northern Ukraine, was built in 1970 to house workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, just three kilometres away. Almost 50,000 people lived and worked there.
When Chernobyl reactor no. 4 exploded just after 1am on April 26, 1986, the 1,000 ton concrete containment lid over the reactor was blown aside like a paperweight, blasting out ionising radiation and chunks of radioactive debris. Exposed to the air, the graphite and fuel rods inside the reactor to burst into flames.
Despite dangerous levels of radiation, it was more than 36 hours before the Soviet leadership decided to evacuate the city. By then, sixteen weddings had taken place in Pripyat, and the firemen who attended the fire that first night had begun to die. Men, women and children were told to take only a bag for a few nights, that they were being evacuated as a precaution. They would never return. Pripyat was abandoned, a 30 kilometre exclusion zone was established around the site, and a further 300,000 people in affected parts of Ukraine and Belarus were resettled.
In the days and weeks after the disaster, tens of thousands of men – volunteers, young army conscripts, helicopter pilots, firemen, even miners brought in to reinforce tunnels under the reactor – fought to extinguish the fires and clean up the radioactive debris. With only the most basic protective equipment, they were known as ‘liquidators’.
In the West we know it as the ‘Chernobyl disaster’ or ‘accident’, but in Ukraine and Belarus it is known as ‘the Catastrophe’. It is very difficult to gauge the lasting effects of Chernobyl, made more difficult by incomplete records, a mobile population, conflicting findings and political stonewalling. But Pripyat, empty for years, has become an unlikely tourist destination, the setting for computer games, music videos and films. People now walk among the ghosts.
Through interviews and photographs taken in March 2010, a little of Pripyat’s story is revealed through photographs and the words of those that lived and worked there.
With many thanks to Evgeney Gagushkin, Lyudmila Starodubtseva, Jeanne Rumiantseva and Roman, and Linda Walker of the Chernobyl Children’s Project who made this possible.
The city sign on the road to Pripyat (При́пять in Russian). Flowers and wreaths are a common sight on the statues, signs and plaques that remain in the zone. They have become memorials to what was lost – the city itself; two-thirds of the population were graduates, Pripyat represented the pinnacle of Soviet modernity and achievement.
“I was maybe three years old. There were many children born there, it was a beautiful, happy city. Schools, swimming pools, cinema, everything there was the best. When people came from Moscow to Pripyat, they used to say we lived in a resort. It was a very clean city, designed by a very good architect, built according to modern town planning theories, using the latest designs.”
“We lived in a high-rise flat near the centre, by the culture palace near the main square. After graduation in St Petersburg we got to Pripyat in 1975. We had three bedrooms, everything we needed, all mod cons. We lived there for eight years. it was the best place in the world.”
“Once we saw the damage I was depressed, because the no one else realised the extent of the problem. I realised that no one would ever be coming back. I realised there was no hope for Pripyat.”
When Pripyat was built a statue of Prometheus, the god that gave man the secret of fire, was erected in the city centre. It seemed apt, with nuclear power representing man’s mastery of nature’s most powerful forces. After the accident, it was moved to a new home by the Chernobyl Exclusion Area administration offices, outside the city. Like this monument to the liquidators only a few hundred feet from the reactor, today the only statues inside Pripyat commemorate the brave and the dead.
“Since we worked at the power station, when we were called to clear up we did what we had to do, we did our duty. We realised that the consequences of not doing it were terrible. We realised it was very serious and that we could die from the radiation, but it was no use thinking about it.
“We were ordered to stop the chain reaction in reactor no. 3 and we did. The pilots flew sortie after sortie in helicopters because it had to be done, but it killed them all.
“The fire was put out on the first day, but the reactor core was giving off such heat and light that it seemed as if it was still on fire. You could see it at night, bright, many different colours. Like an electric fireplace, glowing, pulsing with light, all the colours of the rainbow. It was beautiful.”
One of the tallest buildings in Pripyat, it was from here that people watched the multicoloured plume of burning blue, yellow and green fire from the reactor light up the night sky, unaware they were receiving a potentially lethal dose of radiation.
Throughout Eastern Europe, symbols of the Soviet Union and statues of Lenin or Stalin have been torn down. But in Pripyat, where the year is still 1986, the beady eye of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin still watches visitors to the city, and the wreathed hammer, sickle and star of the USSR still adorns buildings.
Not everything in Pripyat remains the same – like the trees that force themselves up through the concrete or the tourists that come to gawp, the present day forces itself upon the city, acquiring 21st century graffiti unimaginable during Soviet times.
Chernobyl has become a major source of tourist income for Ukraine, with proceeds funding a government ministry dedicated to the post-Chernobyl clean-up.
Former residents were allowed to return to collect belongings in the mid-90’s, and guided tours began a few years later. Widespread looting of metal, wood and electrics has been a problem for many years. For a decade after the disaster the city retained a Marie Celeste sense of abandonment – tables laid for dinner, hospitals with beds still unmade. Now the buildings are largely stripped, empty and decaying.
Pripyat’s first and only supermarket – due to open on May 1st 1986, it never did. Signs still mark the frozen section, and trollies still clog what is left of the aisles.
One of 15 abandoned schools in Pripyat, still strewn with books, musical equipment, toys and propaganda – not least the banners painted for May Day parades but never used, the impact of the images of illustrious Soviet leaders fading like the paint’s colours.
Few schoolchildren during the 1980s could boast such familiarity and experience with gasmasks.
So many curious eyes have passed through School No. 4, so many photographers looking for a lasting image, the sense grows that what you see is not the ruined city as it was left 24 years ago, but instead what those unnamed and departed visitors wanted to see, by means of any props found to hand: gas masks, pictures of Lenin, colourful children’s books in bold cyrillic, ragged dolls.
Signs of Life
In truth, Pripyat is not a ghost town – around 4,000 people work in the exclusion zone monitoring the decaying reactor, radiation levels and wildlife. A new city, Slavutych, was built outside the zone after the disaster to house the workers, as Chernobyl’s remaining reactors were still producing power until 2000, when the plant was shut down as part of an agreement with the EU.
Some workers don’t relish the commute from outside the exclusion zone, however, and set up home inside the small town of Chernobyl from where the power plant takes its name, further than Pripyat from the reactor but still inside the zone.
Lyudmila and Evgeney lived in Pripyat. Lyudmila was evacuated while Evgeney, a technician at the plant, stayed behind as a liquidator, and continued to work at the plant until its closure.
“We were working on the third reactor because we were scared that it could be destroyed as well, a chain reaction. The structure was badly damaged, and it was a very thin wall between one reactor and the other. We had to make hundreds of trips to the reactor to cool it down with sand, it took five days to cool down the fuel rods. Only one man had a dosimeter [to measure radiation] and he was crying ‘faster faster faster!’. There were thousands of rads [unit of radiation] in there, we had to run back and forth, eleven of us, wearing only cotton boiler suits.
“Three died there. Others have got various diseases. There are disabilities that can’t be seen, I have high blood pressure and headaches, there have been organic changes in the brain. Lyudmila had an operation in 1985 to treat cancer, after working at the reactor.
“We have a son, 28, he has thyroid problems, He was eight years old when he was diagnosed with a disease that leaves white spots on skin, checkups revealed the thyroid problems too. He went to Cuba on the exchange program for children of Chernobyl.
“When the reactor exploded the concrete cover deflected the stream of neutrons into the forest. But it could have deflected it the other way, towards Pripyat. No one would have survived.”
“The level of radiation was so strong the pine forest turned reddy orange, it supposed to be green but it became orange in only six hours.
“After we were evacuated we were afraid for our friends and family who were still there. We tried to call them but the lines were dead, there was no news, no information. Everyone had to go to May Day celebrations – in Minsk, in Kiev, even with the radiation from Chernobyl spreading in the air we had celebrations with all the children and families out on the streets. The bigwigs in the Communist Party were there showing their devotion with their families, despite knowing the dangers.
“Though there was no official information, people were trying to leave or get to safety, whatever they thought safety was. There was panic. In the Soviet Union, when you hear nothing, you know it’s bad.
“What happened, happened. No matter how the party misbehaved, they also helped people, they were helped to resettle and recover, given flats and houses and jobs.
“We went back only once, in 1995. We had an opportunity to go there and we were curious. The grass grown tall, the place was dirty and destroyed. I didn’t want to go back. Too many memories.
“Before the catastrophe and after the catastrophe – it is like before the war and after the war. No one will ever forget, nothing is ever the same again.”
When we try to imagine the conditions of the British poor during the industrial revolution it is the words of Dickens, Owen or Engels that provide us with the imagery to convey the cramped squalor and terrible poverty they endured.
But as early as the mid-19th century, the new medium of photography was being used by journalists and social reformers to reveal the plight of the working classes.
In 1890 the Dutch journalist Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, his photographs of New York’s Lower East Side slums where 340,000 people lived crammed into a single square mile. In 1902 the American author Jack London came to London and, spurred on by the socialist instincts his difficult upbringing had inspired in him, pursued a similar project.
Posing in a common man’s clothes as a runaway American sailor, London spent six weeks in the slums of the East End, living with and suffering the same privations as her inhabitants. His experiences became The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, a searing journalistic portrayal of the conditions of the urban poor.
Less well known are the photographs London took of the workless, homeless poor – the workhouse, the doss-house, the Salvation Army barracks, or “carrying the banner”; tramping through the night half-starved looking for food or shelter, prevented by the police from stopping on the street, only to resume the futile search for work the following morning, whether or not sleep had been snatched in a doorway or park bench.
The remarkable images show frankly and without sentiment the drawn faces of men queuing for a free meal, women huddled in all their clothes on park benches, or the pitiful sight of figures sprawled across Green Park, soaked to the skin and exhausted. They could be dismissed as images from a different age with different values, until one stops to consider that such sights are not uncommon today.
These and many photographs from London’s other travels have been hardly seen in a century, but are collected in Jack London: Photographer, published by the University of Georgia Press last month. One of the book’s authors, photographic archivist Philip Adam – a native of San Francisco like Jack London – experienced his own brush with homelessness after being laid off in 2003.
“They had hired me ‘without benefits’ – not as full-time staff, without the protections that provides,” Adam said. “There were homeless people sleeping in our doorway – you’d literally walk over bodies to get to work in the morning – so I started photographing the homeless people in San Francisco. I was a working professional without security, and I thought, there but for the grace of god go I, because there’s not much difference between someone working like that and someone homeless and down on their luck.”
Having lost his studio with the job, after 30 years in San Francisco Adam left town. “I’ve been homeless ever since, though friends and people who know me have been very generous, so I’ve not been out on the street,” he added.
In an effort to make San Francisco’s chronic homeless problem less visible, the city council are to criminalise loitering on park benches or doorsteps. With the echoes of the punitive measures taken against the poorest and most desperate members of society in 1903 still ringing in 2003, a century after London’s photographs were taken the precarious nature of work and the capricious attitude of governments toward the unfortunate remain powerful dividing forces between the haves and have-nots.
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, November 2010]