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On Friday, someone who’d looked up my blog asked me why I stopped being a professional photographer and ended up a television producer. I’ve been asked that question many times and it always seems loaded, like there is a judgment in the question. My offpat answer has always been that I got lonely as a snapper in the Highlands and Islands.
Inspired by the question, I picked these pictures to illustrate the idea of my romantic isolation and then realized that apart from the canal picture, the other two are actually collaborations. The picture of Malcy Maclean on the beach was a joint project with his national Gaelic arts project in the 80′s. We made a series of posters attempting to highlight the perilous state of the Gaelic language at that time in Scotland.
The images of the Burka clad women in Kabul Market was taken for another collaboration. This time with writer Henry Naylor, when we produced a play called ‘Finding Bin Laden‘ (starring Nina Conti and Dave Lamb, now better known as Mr Come Dine With Me) at the Edinburgh Festival to draw attention to the conspiracy between the military and the media in Afghanistan in 2003.
So it seems that even as a photographer I’ve been drawn to working with others to create images and longer-form narratives. Looking back, the move into television – the business, the teams, the way moving images and words come together in scenes, shows and series – was inevitable but there is nagging doubt that I have betrayed a true love.
Recent pics from filming in -35C. Fun.
My work life has always involved travel. The past year has been epic and the last month even more so. LA three weeks ago; Portland, Oregon two weeks ago and last week, filming in the far north in minus 35C. I’m not at liberty to say where we were but it was awe inspiring, savage and unbelievably beautiful.
Still, as I head into the dusk on my way to my Dad’s 91st birthday and I peer through rain-streaked train windows at black Scottish mountains, I am minded to hang up my cowboy boots for a while. Stationary living appeals, domestic experience to be embraced, a little inertia welcomed.
I’ve spent the last week in edit struggling to tell a complicated story in a simple way. I have a maxim that I try to apply to all my TV work, which is ‘simple stories well told’; it’s difficult to achieve sometimes.
I’d always thought this motto applies more to producing and directing films, because the process of making a coherent, entertaining story that works for a broadcaster’s audience is inherently complex.
But when I looked at the still photograph of Drew and Tiree, I see the maxim at work again. I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures that are contre jour. When colour and texture are removed, the essential is isolated without the detail.
So this is what has been obsessing me for the last year and why most of my friends and family haven’t seen me for ages. I’ve been producing 10 x 1 hour documentaries for Discovery Channel in the US. The series is called Gold Rush Alaska. You can see the promo here . The show follows the fortune of a gang of unemployed men from Oregon who head north to Alaska in search of gold. It’s been a rock-n-roll shoot and edit but there’s a good buzz about the series. The subject has genuine and profound jeopardy and with gold prices going through the roof , unemployment rising and the recent swing to the right in the US it’s very current. I hope it does well not least as recognition for all those who went above and beyond to get it on the screen against all the odds. It premieres on Friday the 3rd of December at 10pm EST on Discovery in the US. It’s a Raw TV production of course.
It’s an odd old life at the moment that doesn’t lend itself to blogging, or much else outside of work or travel for that matter. My summer has consisted of long days and nights in the edits intercut with sharp sojourns to Alaska. Crazy commutes to location are part of the job but this one is a classic. It’s three flights and two days to get where I’m going in SE Alaska.
Also known as the Pan Handle of SE Alaska, is actually on the west coast of continental North America, (confused?) check it out here. Being on the west coast, the weather is unpredictable. After a flight north from cool Seattle, the final leg is up the coastal canal from Juneau to Haines, skirting glaciers and overflying whales.
The journey should be on a small single prop plane on ‘Wings of Alaska’. But often the weather is so changeable that I end up taking alternative methods of transport. I’ve taken a fast cat, cessna, chopper and slow boat so far. I head back to Alaska soon. Who knows, I may get to kayak home yet.
One recent diversion took me back through LA for the premiere of a show that’s part of ‘Locked Up Abroad‘ , a long running TV series that I look after at Raw TV. In this episdoe called ’The Real Midnight Express‘, Billy Hayes re-lives being incarcerated in a Turkish prison in the 1970s. His story inspired Alan Parker and Oliver Stone to make the film ‘Midnight Express’.
It took Billy an enormous amount of courage to take part in this film. He had to stand by his life-changing and costly mistakes in front of a theatre of TV critics, friends and subsequently a national TV audience. When it aired, it rated off the scale. I was delighted for Billy and the teams at Raw and National Geographic.
It’s been a month since I wrote my last blog. The time has flown by in a giant jumble of family, friends, travel and DIY. However, all good things must come to an end and in this case they are being replaced a with great new challenge. As of next week I start at Raw TV as an Executive Producer. It’s big job with brilliant people and lots of scope and I’m delighted and daunted in equal measure.
Despite the precarious nature of being a freelance Series Producer, one of the benefits (especially if you have your next contract lined up) is being able to take long breaks. In all I’ve had six weeks off and it’s been utterly memorable. After returning from France in what Jen and I reckon was one of our best ever holidays, I spent just a day to in London before heading north to the Hebrides with my Dad. The Maynard and Maynard tour of the Highlands is becoming something of an annual event. My father is an astounding ninety years old in February so these are precious journeys. Last year we circumnavigated Scotland but this time we concentrated on family and friends in Lewis and Harris.
I detected a positive vibe to the islands that I hadn’t felt for many years. There are some inspiring examples of young people returning to the islands and getting on with plasterboard and projects. Nickolai and Beka Globe have made a fantastic new space for their pottery and photography at their converted Mission House Studio. And my old friend Ruraidh Beaton continues to build the legend of Am Bothan in his magical bunkhouse in Leverburgh. The advent of the long overdue Sunday Ferry and the reduction in ferry fares to the Islands through the Scottish Parliament’s revolutionary Road Equivalent Tarrif (RET) initiative have had an enormous impact on tourism. The roads were busier than I’ve ever seen them, lots of cars with surfboards on the roof and ever more dreaded camper vans in their wake. Ah well progress always comes at a price.
Talking of progress, my last day on the Island was spent at the helm of the Jubilee, sailing out of Loch Stornoway as the new Sunday ferry steamed past…bizarre. The Jubilee is fully restored 80 year old ‘Sgoth’ that I last sailed fifteen years ago. It’s another sign of renaissance in the Islands. The Jubilee, which was one of the island’s last serviceable traditional wooden sailing boats is now one of a fast growing number of this class of boat being built sailed regularly by locals and visitors alike.
Returning to London, I concentrated on getting the new kitchen installed interspersed with lots of catching up with friends in London. Amongst the highlights was the launch of Phil Stebbing’s massively ambitious ‘Lifeline’ project in Hyde Park. Phil is trying raise funds to send three teams of people around the world. Their mission is to meet others who are trying to live sustainably and build a Digital Ark filled with the secrets of sustainability. I did say it was ambitious.
Another memorable event was going to the one day England V Australia cricket match. Even to a relative newcomer to the game it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t a brilliant match, and England got soundly beaten. But nonetheless, great company, good weather and enough beer to last a lifetime more than compensated for the poor performance.
So that’s it. The holidays are over and the work begins. Bring it on.
Wrapping the edit up at the wonderful Envy after nine months and leaving everything shipshape was harder than I imagined. But in the end I was really pleased with the series. It’s been doing well in the US and is going to go out soon in the UK on five. The upshot of this final push was that I left the show more than a tad tired after some very late nights.
And then there was the actual last night itself when I should have done what any mature and sensible man would do and that is go home and fall into the arms of his neglected wife. But not Sammy, no, instead after a couple of pints at the Toucan we headed to Zoe Brewer’s 40th party.
Now anyone who knows the Brewers knows that a night there, never mind a night as big as a fortieth, is going to be (how should I put it?) an occasion for celebration. Consequently we lived up to our joint expectations, did our very merry duty by Colin and Zoe and returned home a little after 6am. Again, most sensible people would have spent the day in bed but I had to clean the flat before my grandaughter and her mum arrived off the train from Scotland for a week’s entertainment in London.
We had a brilliant time but the days were busy and the nights were late as we saw the sights and talked the talk into the wee sma hours. When Jen and I finally boarded the Eurostar for two weeks in the South of France the omens weren’t good either. The carriage suddenly filled with many uniformed red Americans ‘doing Europe’. They were all very excited about going under the English Channel and getting a good seat, (to view the darkness I presume).
However my fear of uniformity proved unfounded (I had a tough time in the Scouts); our American cousins were models of decorum. After arriving in Paris, yoga in the Jardin du Luxembourg, a pit-stop in our favourite Cafe Tournon (expensive, non? Charcuterie, fromage, pain and cafe creme – 50 euro/nearly quid – but well worth the experience), a mad dash across the city to Gare de Lyon, a whisk on the TGV and a thirty minute drive we found ourselves at the amazing Mas Dagan. It’s been a complete delight since then and exactly what a holiday should be, nothing and everything.
I’ve been writing this particular blog about my adventures with Mark and Olly for some time now. To see the rest of the blogs in sequence click here. But if you haven’t the time to read the backstory, here is the story so far. I produced a series of eight one hour documentaries for Travel Channel and Discovery in the remote rain forests of West Papua two years ago that was great adventure.
Along with explorers, Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds, a production crew from Cicada Films and many local ‘Yali’, porters we climbed into the mountains of West Papua in search of the ‘Mek’ people. This elusive tribe have had little contact with the outside world for thousands of years.
The previous year, Mark and Olly had lived in with the Kombai people in the swamps of West Papua. During their three months there, the two explorers became aware that things were changing fast for the native people of Papua. Money, religion, politics, education, logging, military action, disease, metal goods, converse sneakers, tee-shirts, cheap chinese lighters; all these things and many more were flooding into these remote and ancient cultures, altering them irrevocably.
Spurred on by this experience, Mark and Olly decided to go to West Papua again, but this time they were to go high into the montains to make a series of films see with the Mek people. It was a big ask. The territory was ferocious and there was little guarantee the tribe would allow them to stay for the four months the two explorers and our film crew needed to really get under the skin of village life.
The Mek tribe of around two thousand people had been known to the outside world for many years. But there were small villages on the edge of Mek territory that we hoped still stood on the cusp of modernity where we could still learn of the old ways while witnessing how the tribe adapted to the new.
The blog picks up after we’d been four days into the expedition and just spent an uncomfortable night in a village called ‘Tohamak’. Our guide, the ‘Legendary Bob Pelege’ had hoped the villagers might let us stay. But in the end it was a rather disappointing encounter. The villagers were Mek people but they had moved further into modernity than we’d hoped for. This was demonstrated when they asked us for $800 dollars to kill a pig for a feast of welcome.
Our porters were from the Yali tribe and the Mek are their traditional enemies. The tension in the village was palpable as we tried to sleep in a village where not so long ago we would have been killed and eaten for such a transgression. Come first light we head further into the mountains. Bob planned to take us to the village of Merengman. It was two days walk away through ever worsening territory but it was there that he believed we’d find what we were looking for. I was sick with nerves by now. Months and months planning were hanging in the balance.
Day five’s march was awful with leeches, vertical walls of vegetation, torrential rain and a gnawing uncertainty about whether I was leading the expedition towards disaster. A night camp made in the pitch black under what seemed like a waterfall didn’t help the mood either. But on day six when we encountered a staff of pigs jaws we knew we were nearing what we hoped would be our final destination. This frightening totem marked the territorial edges of Meregman. I felt exhausted, worried but elated mostly. All the hard work, all the blood sweat and tears had all lead to this point.
The following day, after little sleep, we edged closer to the village. Bob knew that by tradition, no stranger would be allowed to enter the village without a show of strength. Less than two hundred meters from the village a tribesman who turned out to be the chief himself, leapt from behind trees and challenged us to leave his territory. We spoke English, the porters spoke Yali and and Indonesian and a few words of Mek. Between, Bob, Olly, Mark and the porters, we managed to get the Chief, Markus, to allow us to enter the village.
It was an amazing sight. The villagers looked on with a mixture of anxiety and curiosity. Ed Kelly, the camerman and director allayed people’s fears by letting them see and hear what we were recording. We’d decided that if we found somewhere that would let us stay we would share our world with them as we hoped they would do with us.
Chief Markus called a meeting of the elders and after some debate they decided to let us stay and see what we were made of. Exhausted but elated we started to make camp and prepare ourselves for what we hoped would be the long haul. We were in.
I’m cleaning up my old laptop to move everything to the shiny new Mac that should be arriving any day now (yes I’m becoming one of those people).
In an effort to quell my excitement about the imminent defection, I thought I’d post this very cool video that I found on my old PC desktop. It’s an advert that National Geographic Channel made for the new series of ‘Locked Up Abroad’ that I’m producing for Raw Television.
The ad was shown on a huge video billboard in Times Square, New York, which is definitely a first for any series I’ve made. The UK version is called ‘Banged Up Abroad’ and can be seen on National Geographic Channel in the UK on Sky, Virgin and Tiscali. Find out when on the Nat Geo website.