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The Big Issue in the North experience

It is 6 months since a group of dedicated OCA students volunteered to take part in a publishing initiative with The Big Issue in the North (BITN). We thought it was time we shared the experience on We Are OCA and showed you the images that the editor has chosen so far.
The Big Issue in the North partnership is giving OCA students in the north the opportunity to work on a brief agreed with the magazine’s editor, Kevin Gopal. The original brief posed two main challenges. Firstly, working on a brief itself demanded having to fulfil the needs of a third party, which is a defining characteristic of professional editorial photography. This means prioritising someone else’s visual communication and aesthetic requirements and making your skills and style responsive to the client’s needs. Secondly, the original brief specified that photographs should have a topical interest.  This was a concept that most students contributing to the BITN found more challenging than anticipated. By topical we mean anything that has a connection with current issues of widespread public interest, particularly anything that is newsworthy. In the case of the BITN there also was also a local interest added to the topical slant because images had to have been taken in the regions where the BITN is sold – in the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside. Finding out what was topical the week before the weekly deadline set by the BITN meant doing a fair amount of research and journalistic work, which added value to the students’ participation but also demanded time and dedication.

Example of metadata in Adobe Lightroom

However, things never stay the same for very long on a magazine’s editorial desk. It is one of the responsibilities of the editor to ensure that a magazine is dynamic in terms of content and layout, which means that minor changes to briefs are not only to be expected but also necessary. A few weeks into the partnership the brief changed and a topical take wasn’t a requirement any more. Instead, Kevin Gopal would be expecting to receive eye-catching images that attracted the readers’ attention; these would be chosen exclusively for their individual artistic merit. Most of the photographs published so far, which you can see in the gallery below, were taken on the revised brief. While taking away the topical requirement freed up students to produce images according to their own individual styles and artistic judgement, offering more scope for creative output, students still had to write concise, journalistic-style captions and embed then in the metadata of the file. IPTC Photo Metadata standards built on an XMP platform provide essential information about a digital image such as description, author and copyright status. The information embedded in the metadata can then be read and extracted by pre-press and layout programs automatically. This completely eliminates the need to write image captions in an accompanying Word document.

What you won’t find on the above tear sheets are images which weren’t chosen by Kevin Gopal, obviously. And it is the images that didn’t make it into the magazine that provide an insight into the editor’s decision-making process.
© Jeff Hurst 2011

A sensitive case was triggered by an image taken by Jeff Hurst, which shows three characters with blackened faces. I personally pre-selected the image for the BITN. It has strong visual appeal, almost operating as colour popping but without Photoshop trickery. The image is also gently humorous; it is difficult not to find the three skirt-clad men in it amusing. However, Jeff’s photograph was rejected because of its uncomfortable connotations of Black & White Minstrels. Aware of these connotations, and pre-empting a strong reaction by the magazine readers, the editor of the BITN decided not to publish the image, which was a legitimate course of action.
However, what Jeff’s photograph is actually showing couldn’t have been more disconnected from the Black & White Minstrels. Yes, the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers have little to do with the American Minstrels as we know them. But an editor has a responsibility towards their readership, and they are accountable for whatever is said or shown in a magazine. The interaction between the photographer, the editor and the magazine readership is a complex one. And one can hardly blame an editor for erring on the side of caution.
So imagine you were given the chance to be a magazine editor for a day, a magazine with a circulation of over 17,000. Would you publish Jeff’s photograph?

Posted by author: Jose
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9 thoughts on “The Big Issue in the North experience

  • A fascinating collection Jose. It’s good to see tham all together. I am particularly struck by the inclusion of Nigel’s piece, showing that images which are not documentary in a straghtforward sense might be included also. I’ve not used metadata in this way befroe now but can see its value and will consider it going forward, in any images that I post online or send electronically.
    I would have been inclined to post the Coco-nutters image, with a suitable caption, but can understand the editor’s reservations. I think it could have made a really interesting talking point, and suspect that the Issue’s readers might have enjoyed it. The Nutters’ eclectic costumes and dance rituals, taken from a variety of historical & cultural sources, remind me of some of the pictures we saw in Facts and Fictions – the Xhosa men in their Burberry suits, or the Zulu youth in mini-kilts and dress shirts.
    I hope that in due course the project will be judged a success and perhaps be extended to other parts of the country.

  • I enjoyed looking at each page and seeing the variety of colourful images which all the students have produced. Congratulations to all of them. Also an excellent experience for them to include in their CV/Portfolio. I know about exif info but hadn’t realised the potential expanse of metadata.
    The pages are small here but, even so, the photographs look clear and bright so I’m assuming good quality paper has been used. One of our local newspapers has a monthly supplement showing photographs from their Flickr stream but the paper is like blotting paper and doesn’t show the photographs to good advantage.
    I would include an image such as the Coco-nutters if it was alongside other images which clearly identified the context. After all, there are lots of Morris dancers who also black their faces. In fact, the photograph made me wonder if they were linked with the coal mines in some way. Surely there can’t be that many of us around who remember actually seeing the Black and White Minstrels but obviously their legend lives on. Anyway I’ll be interested to read further comments.
    I hope the collaboration will continue to provide an opportunity for students to have images published and for OCA to get excellent publicity.

  • Yes, there are connections with ceremonial rituals from other parts of the world. The Hain ceremony of the Selk-nam of Tierra de Fuego, Patagonia, is one such ritual. This photograph shows two individuals with blackened bodies
    Disguising one’s body by blackening it up seemed to have been a strategy for temporarily entering the spirit world without their noticing you, a kind of camouflage. If you read the info on the Coco-nut dancers website you’ll realise the dancers also blacken their bodies for similar reasons. This book is an excellent visual ethnography of the Patagonian peoples

  • The editor was so right not to publish this photograph! This is nothing personal Jeff, but I wouldnt have published it either.
    This image does have negative connotations despite the context. The stereotypical behaviour of the Black and White Minstrels was the reason why the British show was axed in 1969. There are many cultures around the world who paint their skin, but in a modern western society it’s just got too much stigma towards a time when black people were not viewed equal to white people. And despite any entertainment factor, it’s just not right.
    I am a white person who was born many years after the show. I have never seen it and these sorts of images have negative connotations for me. They may not for others, but there is a reason why these sorts of images are not broadcast or published anymore.
    I’m sorry but the whole Coco Nutters thing is very ambiguous. This is a paragraph from their site as to why the black out their faces:
    The dances they perform are actually Folk Dances and the custom of blackened faces MAY reflect a pagan or medieval background which was done to disguise the dancers from being recognised by evil spirits afterwards, it MAY also reflect mining connections.
    It also MAY be a bunch of men taking the piss.
    Here is one of their poems from their site to prove my point.
    My Brother is a NUTTER, but its not such a bad thing.
    Him and his mates gat all dressed up and dance around in a ring.
    They blacken up their faces and dress up in skirts and hats, put coconut shells on their hands and knees.
    They look proper tits.
    You can watch them Easter Saturday all dancing in a row.
    They go to all the pubs nearby, the crowd they grow and grow.
    Then follow them in merriment as up and down the street they sing and dance and strut their stuff.
    They look a proper treat.
    … Sorry lads, not for me Im afraid and its seems not for the editor of the BIN too.

  • Jose, may I ask a question please, it’s nothing to do with any of the posts above, sorry. And apologies if it’s something really stupid.
    I notice in the screen shot of the metadata above, the File name is not the same as the Headline. I don’t know on Apple, but on my Windows PC the file name shows in folders, not the title… this is in the properties.
    Is this normal and acceptable? Do you keep the file names that you create when importing photos + keywords from camera / disk, and change the Headlines when using the workflow software, or does publishing standards ask for the file name also to be changed.
    This is something in the new PWDP course, and I’m little confused.

  • On Boxing Day this year and I may well repeat the shoot on this coming Boxing Day, I went to see a Mummers Play which was performed in the middle of a country village in front of an audience. One of the central characters known as The Black Knight who symbolises Winter, had a blackened face; there was a dark side to the drama yet it was punctuated with humour.
    One of my favourite images from the event was of The Black Knight smoking a ciggy outside the pub afterwards.
    Had this image been offered to BITN, it would apparently have been refused because of possible associations with a once popular BBC TV programme of more than 40 years ago: another photographer would have reminded me of how politically correct the editor’s decision to refuse it was.
    To me, this kind of image does need a caption to explain what is going on so that misunderstandings do not arise and something is learned but to refuse it on colour grounds is surely redolent of the kind of prejudice that is at the root of the problem.
    “Black is bad, white is good!” is a widespread morally poisonous biblical view and to ignore those who challenge it is not healthy. As photographers we need to question the norm rather than submit to it.

    • I think you have a very valid point here Amano. Good, thought-provoking photography asks questions, often awkward and inconvenient ones. However, we mustn’t forget that photographers are also bound by commercial considerations, and it is the editor who has the final say on whether a photograph is published or not. Ignoring this aspect of photography can be commercially counter-productive for the photographer.

      • Jose
        Thanks for this!
        After writing the above I felt the need to qualify what I had said; do not wish to suggest photographers should follow some kind of moral code other than that imposed by law.
        At the OCA, we can discuss photography as art but of what value is that if our images never get seen!? Holding down a job in photography must be the aspiration of some on the course so why let idealism compromise that.
        I do however feel that there is a hypocritical streak in media political correctness and it was that I found myself objecting to. The image in question is of a kind quite popular in this country thanks to photographers like Homer Sykes and there are quite a few photobooks about pagan rituals in the UK. People blacking their faces takes place not just in the UK but also in India where people are already coloured.
        An editor is of course quite right to take a stance if he wants to. Personally, I would consider the general content of a publication before contributing towards it and pagan ritual is not a subject that springs to mind for The Big Issue although it’s vendors might be part of a contemporary pagan ritual!?

        • another comment on the above (I seem to be getting into deep water) is that I do not think the law necessarily imposes a moral code … but that is another topic which I don’t think is appropriate here!

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