Saturday, 4 February 2012

An open mind

I met Donald many years ago in Upstate NY.  He will be 89 next week. I visit from time to time and we keep up a regular correspondence. I send him cards and photos from UK and France. He replies on wafer thin 'air mail' paper, or stationer decorated with stars and stripes and writes in meticulous loopy handwriting. He is the historian in a village in upstate New York, where he still writes a regular column for the local paper - on an old typewriter, resisting all attempts to persuade him to use a computer. Don is a real old fashioned gentleman, neat and courteous - a regular churchgoer, with strong views and opinions but no harsh words about anyone unless they have given him good reason. I tease him when I ring - "come on Don, tell us the gossip on the streets....." he always chuckles as he tells me he doesn't have any.
I received a letter from him recently that really made an impression on me. 

"My church has fallen under the state mandate of same sex marriages being performed... Father A's  fervour towards "opening up" is most reflected during the Holy Week of Easter, at which time any person, be they male or female, young or old, white or coloured, be invited to become baptized regardless of denomination, or who may be delinquent of any denomination, or who many choose this sacrament as a means of returning to church.....whilst I personally abhor even the thought of same sex marriage, I feel I must try coming to grips with myself in believing such unions be permitted existence. 
If both partners, in conscience, believe they are doing the right thing in the face of their God as they understand him, then who am I to judge their right to wed?  
There is a well known prayer that begs assistance and eventual serenity in accepting those things we can never possibly change. If I can in some spiritual way, accept without reservation, the presence of someone or something I could never change, even someone I dislike vehemently, this just might be the discovery of the profoundest meaning of humility that I have never before experienced. "

Sunday, 29 January 2012

pearls of wisdom you might not find in a book

Thinking about various friends who are in difficulties, and reflecting on a recent blog about my trips to Ukraine made me think about this couple, George and Marion Mills.  Down to earth east Londoners, they gave up a successful business, relocated to Essex and started a charity British Aid for Deprived Children. They have worked tirelessly for over 20 years, taking aid to eastern Europe, most noticeably to Ukraine, where they have been instrumental in setting up and building a hospital for children in a town 30 miles from the site if the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
I could write a whole post about them, and their work. That may come later, but what I want to share are  words George said to me on my first trip to Ukraine in 1994. They resonate because I sometimes find it difficult to balance the urge to help and be needed with a tendency to overcompensate by giving too much of myself and not really helping at all !
I had spent my first couple of days out there taking photographs in the huge delapidated old hospital and visiting families outside the town who were living in abject poverty with their sick and disabled children - many unable to leave their homes as they had no transport or even wheelchairs. I was pretty traumatised by what I saw, and when I found myself one evening in a pizza restaurant with a group of aid workers, eating and drinking and generally enjoying ourselves,  I found my food sticking in my throat. Turning to George, I asked him (probably rather accusingly!) how he could do this, how he could know that these children and families were struggling, that they were not even eating salad, let alone pizza.....that I had seen things so sad and troubling and was now expected to behave as normal. I was beside myself with grief and anger.

George tuned to me calmly and said - "Pen, if you are sitting on a bench next to a man with no legs, the last thing you need to do is to cut off your own legs to be like him - what you need to do is to go away, make your legs really strong and then come back and help him..."

I may have finished my pizza. George certainly finished his. I try and remember those words when I am feeling so overwhelmed by concerns over others that my own life goes on hold......sometimes I even succeed!

see link to their charity on the right

Friday, 27 January 2012


Sad news today. The latest young man to have killed himself in a young offenders' institution was someone I worked with recently at a summer arts programme, one aimed at trying to keep the most troublesome youth off the streets in the holidays. Alex was 15. He was times near impossible...each success offset by a provocative or downright stupid act. He was a bully, a baby, bright, challenging. He certainly made an impression on us all.  I gained a great deal from working with him, and even if I didn't always show it,  learned patience and restraint as we struggled with his behaviour.  Despite the challenges I am happy to have met him.

"We need to become 'wise before the event' and avoid locking up our most vulnerable young people in our bleakest institutions”
Juliet Lyon. Prison Reform Trust
So true, and we can and will point fingers at HMP Cookham Wood, social services, parents, society, peers, yet never really know the truth behind Alex's pain. What I DO know is that  governments  have been steadily stealing funding away from early intervention with at-risk young people, and were doing this well before this latest recession. There are many many organisations doing fantastic work with children of all ages who are falling between the cracks educationally, socially and emotionally - and these groups have lost much or all of their funding.
Of course I miss the money too - working with these small groups and Youth Offending Teams has been a source of income for a few years... but it is far more than this. I miss this funding because these children and young people have very few chances to turn their lives around or glimpse a better way of being, and once these all too slender lifelines have gone, they will have absolutely nothing.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The E-Myth

The E-Myth -  a free ad...even though they don't need it !

If you are a creative person, run a small business....or want to run one, this book is an inspiration.
As a person with a variety of talents, I have struggled all my life to turn what I do best (photography/coaching/teaching) into a viable and profitable business without working for others or “losing my integrity”. Ha!
There are many days when I have to hold my hands up and admit that I have run out of steam, lost the plot....”I just can’t quite earn enough money”. This may be just my own inate inability to make enough money but I suspect (and hope) that I am not alone. It’s hard to face every day as a self-employed person – to do the PR, make connections and still actually earn a crust. If I get a ‘proper job’ then I am taking time away from my main purpose and when I need to book in freelance work ahead of time, it isn’t always easy to work this around your proper job.  I know - this sounds like an excuse for just not being able to let the world know how talented I am and what I have to offer. I drive myself crazy with this....and I know I am not alone !!
Somehow I stumbled (whilst busy with my daily googling I suspect) on The E-Myth revisited (by R Gerber), and it has been life changing. The ‘E’ stands for Entrepreneur, and its premise is around the illusion that because we can DO something, that we can turn this skill into a business. Not so. We need a Business, not a Product, ..we need not to be the Technician, but the Entrepreneur, and this book lays out how we can get there....from having a skill to running a viable business.
If any of this resonates, then find this book. It is a really enjoyable read. Don’t be put off that some 15 years on, the author now has a huge franchise...he is in his 60’s and may have ‘sold out’ to cushion his pension. I suspect I would do the same, but the value of the book is still the same. I am not yet making millions, but have definitely moved on.

“The purpose of going into business is to expand beyond existing horizons...our business can provide us with a mirror to see ourselves as we are, to see what we truly know and what we don’t know – to see ourselves honestly, directly and immediately”

Saturday, 21 January 2012

I wish I had written this

"The Invitation" by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It doesn't interest me what you do for a living
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.

It doesn't interest me how old you are
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love
for your dreams
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon...
I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life's betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your
fingers and toes
without cautioning us to
be careful
be realistic
to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand on the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn't interest me
to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after a night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn't interest me who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the center of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.
photo: penny millar

Thursday, 19 January 2012

I am not a photojournalist

I went to the Don McCullin exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last week. It was incredibly intense and moving. After 3 hours of Don and the holocaust exhibit I was wiped out. The whole museum is very troubling really. Huge tanks, weapons, war toys - would women design these if we ruled the world? Discuss.
Anyway it got me thinking about my claim that I "could never be a photojournalist". I find it extremely difficult to take snapshots or portraits if my subject and I have not formed a rapport, and if I can't promise them they will get copies of the photographs.  I wonder if I am just egocenric, or maybe I can be less harsh on myself and say that it's my own passion for capturing who people are and how they are feeling that drives my photography. McCullin developed his passion for war photography from a desire that people should know what is happening in the world, by showing the horror and injustice and hoping that might stir some positive action.
The nearest I have got to McCullin's world would be my trips to Ukraine - to a town 25 miles from Chernobyl. Here, 90% of the children were sick and dying, as were their parents. Seems like the ones to suffer less from the effects of the radiation were the elderly. Most of he children I met were very disabled and disfigured, and most were dying of cancer. I trawled the huge run-down hospital corridors, photographing children, doctors, patients, treatments.....I saw impossibly difficult things and managed to take photographs. I went with doctors visiting terribly poor families outside the town and families with disabled children who never ever left the house because they had no wheelchairs, or transport of any kind....and what I did, that Don didn't (I don't think!) was to carry a piece of paper that read, in Ukrainian, "If you come back to the hospital next month, you can have your photos". I believe almost all the photos got distributed, and there were hundreds of them. I made calendars and cards back home which I sold, and sent the money to them. I did what I could do within my own emotional abilities.
So when I saw Don McCullin's work I managed to resist feeling somehow inferior and just admired him for what he chose to do with his skills. Bottom line, we do what we can do. Anything is better than doing nothing, and sometimes we just need to respect our own motives.
One child who has stayed in my mind is Olya. She was from a dirt poor family with countless children and by all accounts a pretty miserable life - but all of them looked straight at me when I took their picture -  even the teenagers, who despite being filthy and badly dressed had a proud directness that I'm afraid surprised me. I can never decide whether Olya's face shows strength or despair. I'd like to think it is hope.

Frank's photoVoyage

Film maker. Now quite disabled but losing nothing of his inner spirit and determination. This remains  one of my favourite portraits.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

My current mantra

Books, blogs, exhibitions, work possibilities...aagh so many ideas. On a good day I am thrilled, on others, daunted. So I repeat this mantra

"Our deepest  fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our own light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous. Actually, who are you not to be ? "  marianne williamson

and this is me on a good day! Photo by Maggie Impey

Saturday, 14 January 2012

If the world was sometimes in Black & White

“If the world was sometimes in black and white”

She fills the room, this girl of 14, full of rage and indignation. She has that wonderful hair of urban black women – a halo of carefully arranged frizz, and a fringe completely covering one eye in a slick shiny curtain; impeccable makeup in shades of pink, lip gloss you can see your face in, and countless jewelled piercings. “Queen Latifah is my idol” she tells me with pride.

Then she gives me the full force of her fury “I don’t know why I’m f****** here. I don’t know you and I don’t want my photo taken.....why we doin’ this?..... I won’t smile.....”

I keep my cool. I have to. This girl is part of a project for young offenders and I am being paid to work with them - helping them raise their self-awareness with the use of portrait photographs and facilitated conversation.

I keep her moving and chatting during the photo part of the session, afraid she will disappear out the door. I ask if she could move her hair a little so I can see both eyes. “You know how long it took me to get my hair like this?” she explodes. Somehow she warms up, forgets her attitude for a moment and we chat while I shoot. The curtain moves enough that I capture both eyes.

I download and edit the photos fast while she twirls impatiently on a swivel chair, gazing out at the local square that seems to be full of drunks. I put 20 pictures on a rolling slideshow. She sits impassively beside me. The photos scroll through waiting for her to comment.... they scroll again... and again. My confidence is faltering  ”I can delete any you don’t like.” I hear myself sounding apologetic. Silence.

“Keep them all. I like all of them”  she commands, looking intently at the screen  “ makes me want to cry when I see myself smiling like this - it reminds me of when I was a little girl.....and that’s me when I am bored. I eat and get unhappy and get into trouble....”

Relieved, I point out that I managed to photograph both eyes. She smiles! I also remind her that she told me she didn’t want the photos to be in black and white, but they are, and she is happy with them.

“If the world was sometimes in black and white, then we’d all see the truth” she declares solemnly.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

a spot on your nose

You wake up, look in the mirror and there it is - a spot on your nose ! You then spend the entire day covering it, apologising for it and generally ruining any chance you may have had of happy relaxed interaction with the world....and as we all know, if you hadn't drawn attention to it, chances are nobody else would have noticed.....
Self confidence and self esteem are so crucial. I hate to think how many people grow up being told they are rubbish and believing it...then schools and peers and the general public endorse this self-belief and they become a self fulfilling prophecy.
No this isn't a Daily Mail rant. I am just introducing the thought that most of us are far better than we think we are, and this self belief is inside us, not in the mirror. It also comes from hearing positive things from other people. BUT we need validation of who we are, not merely how we look.
See how many people you can pay a genuine compliment to that doesn't mention their appearance, but rather something they do, or say. It's harder than you think.
It is also hard to accept compliments, so if they try and deflect your kind words, try smiling sweetly and telling them you really mean it and would they just accept it.