Throughout my working life my public profile has been that of a writer – a journalist and an author. But it’s time the truth is out: I’ve been harbouring a secret double life. As a photographer.
I’ve never made a big noise about it, despite having a couple of exhibitions of photos I took years ago in India and Papua New Guinea along with publications in the news media. From my early teens, when I spent my school holidays working in a photo-processing lab, grabbing small, square prints as they tumbled off huge stainless steel drying drums, I’ve been snapping away with generations of cameras.
I’ve owned Russian Feds (a copy of a Leica rangefinder) and Zenits, a Rolleicord, before moving on to SLRs of just about every brand and more lenses than I care to think of. There have been magazine spreads, double page spreads in the Daily Mail, and book covers.
Now with a snippet of my secret life revealed it’s time to talk about a passion that has grown on me – street photography. How easy it would have to be, I believed, to just go out into the streets and fire away because there were subjects everywhere. Easy? Not at all. The moment has to be perfect, the light and shadows have to dance together and, more often than not, you have to ensure you’re not spotted (although sometimes a face staring straight at your camera can add strength to the image). Good composition helps, but it’s not always possible. But most of all the picture has to be interesting. You want the viewer to look into it, to feel what you felt when you took it. Street photography has been a progression, just as, years ago, I was able to confidently put away my light meters in the days of manual film cameras and estimate the settings required for my favourite Tri-X black and white film, which I would later develop using D76 developer before exposing the image onto contrasty Kodak or Ilford paper under my Durst enlarger. Later I needed only to develop film in some hotel bathroom and slide the negatives into a film scanner before adjusting the image on a 180C Mac laptop.
How the world of photography has moved forward since those days of the 1960s and ‘70s. With a top-rating phone your camera, darkroom and transmission device are in your pocket. Good cameras with wi-fi also allow for instant transmission to a phone, iPad or laptop for further editing.
But what attracted me to street photography? I don’t think I realised it at the time, but I owe it all to the man whose name (among others) is synonymous with the art – Henri Cartier-Bresson. Inspired by his work in Japan in the mid-1960s, I packed my bags 10 years later and followed his footsteps hitch-hiking around the country to the places where he’d taken his famous pictures. Sadly, my negatives have vanished, but I still have a few prints, one of my favourites being at the top of Mt Aso (which he’d also visited), where I found another photographer, covered in volcanic ash, waiting with his huge box camera on a tripod to take photos of non-existent tourists.
Street photography is a fun world, without the pressures of having to rush a news picture off to a newspaper or magazine. And what do I use? I had loved my small back-up film camera – a Ricoh GR – and when digital cameras found their feet I bought the digital version. Sadly, it was stolen from my bag as I flew to Nepal to cover a tour there of the actress Joanna Lumley.
Today I shoot ‘small’. I carry almost exclusively a Panasonic LX100 which has superb quality but if I need something longer I still have a Canon SLR and a dust-covered 100-400mm lens. And then there’s my smartphone – the LG G5, which produces incredible images, its wide-angle camera ensuring a virtual ’no miss’ when shooting from the hip.
How do I edit my images? Principally it’s Lightroom or Photoshop – but if I’ve transferred pictures to my iPad it will be mainly in VSCO, Snapseed, or Photogene. Too many? Maybe. But I do enjoy jumping around a bit as I’ve found that one app might do a better job with a particular image than another. Although that’s not always the case. I do also edit on the phone, but there’s no doubt that a larger screen is preferable.
Just thought I’d say hello now that my secret double life has emerged.
It – or I – will be back….
Six weeks have now passed since elderly Betty O’Pray vanished after setting out from her home in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales for a stroll along a bushland track. She’d been along it numerous times, a trail that would take her over a mostly hard surface, with a busy road on one side and thick undergrowth on the other.
The walk would also have taken her along a quieter suburban road with views across farmland where horses graze. Although hilly, it’s an easy route – and Betty would have had no reason to divert from it. At least no reason that we know of.
But she’s gone. Vanished. And police tell me that her disappearance is a mystery. They haven’t given up, though. Although there appears little hope of finding her alive if she did indeed stray into the bush, she has to be found for the sake of her distressed family, some of whom live in the same small community of Medlow Bath, west of Katoomba, that Betty was from.
I’m told that police are keeping an open mind into every possibility, including her making it all the way to Katoomba – some 7km from her home – and getting on a train. That’s remote, but she is reported to have suffered from mild dementia and gave one resident who met her on the path one day weeks earlier the impression that she was slightly confused.
The possibility that Betty came off the bush path and wandered into a suburban street has been considered, evidence of that being the teams of police who knocked on doors in and around Katoomba asking residents to keep their eyes open for the elderly lady. That added hundreds more eyes to the search, but her whereabouts remained a mystery.
Police are now reasonably certain that she did not come to grief in the bushland between her home and Katoomba because, as I was told, scores of searchers scoured every possible place she could be, a hunt that saw experienced personnel abseiling down cliff faces in case she had stumbled through the bush and fallen over. ‘It was a very, very, thorough search,’ I was told. It went on for three weeks, when the expected life span of staying alive without food would have expired.
A team of State Emergency Service volunteers I met on one of the tracks as a helicopter flew overhead admitted they were stumped as to how a 77-year-old lady could become so lost that no-one could find her. It is possible, of course, that she didn’t set out to walk towards Katoomba, but instead headed towards another bushland area to the north of her home – but again, that was searched thorough.
The sad reality is that today we are no closer to knowing what happened to Scots-born Betty or where she ended up. But mention her name in a hotel or a cafe in Katoomba and people will immediately ask if there has been any news. I’ve heard numerous scenarios, all kinds of guesswork, any of which could be right or wrong.
One day we might learn.
Eight other orang-utans have died there in the last seven years from ill-health – mostly tuberculosis – according to conservationists, leaving Bujang to live in misery against the shrieks of laughter from tourists enjoying the surrounding theme park.
His diet and the stress of looking out at the surrounding forest where he should be playing is so bad that he is now losing the hair on his back – and animal lovers fear he too could die unless he is rehabilitated.
But Bujang is not the only animal in the zoo at the Sinka Island Park in West Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo island – a visiting team of conservationists were moved to tears at the plight of Cika the elephant, chained up for 24 hours, seven days a week.
And there are horses, their rib cages showing through lack of food and nourishment.
‘This cruelty to the orang-utan, the elephant, the horses and many other animals such as a lonely baby sun bear in a tiny cage must end immediately,’ Mr Gunning Gea, director of Scorpion Wildlife Trade Monitoring Group, insists.
‘Quite simply, either these poor suffering animals have to receive immediate treatment, improved living conditions – or they have to be removed from there. This cannot go on.
‘This zoo should be ordered to stop the cruelty that we have seen.
‘The option is to move the orang-utan to a better place, to a rescue centre, and be given the chance to live in a wild habitat.’
Mr Upreshpal Singh, director of the Malaysian-based Friends of the Orangu-tans, who visited the zoo recently, admitted he was moved to tears at the plight of Bujang and Cika the elephant.
‘These are nightmarish conditions. It’s a daily hell for them. This zoo needs to be shut down and all animals relocated,’ he tells me.
‘I have to say that the treatment of Cika, who is about 12 years old, and nine-year-old Bujang is eye-watering.
‘I took photos of her chained up. She can hardly move. She is suffering severe stress and urgently needs to be saved.’
The zoo, part of the Sinka Island Park located some five miles from the regional capital of Singkawang, is privately owned and while Chinese-Indonesian proprietor was not available for comment a keeper told the visiting conservationists: ‘What’s the problem? They (the animals) are all OK. No problem.’
But animal lovers insist there is a major problem.
‘In 2009 there were at least nine orang-untans at the zoo,’ said Mr Singh. ‘Another conservationist recently informed Nature Alert UK that all but one – Bujang – died from tuberculosis and poor care.’
Where is Betty O’Pray?
How can an elderly lady, 77 years old, vanish into thin air as she strolled along a fairly well-worn track in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales??
Elizabeth – Betty to her friends – is believed to have set off for a walk along the track that leads from her home in Medlow Bath to the main Blue Mountains town of Katoomba, some 6km away, on Monday March 7.
A family member spoke to her on her mobile phone at about 11am that day but by 11pm she hadn’t returned home – so the police were alerted. They managed to contact Betty by phone but then lost the connection. In that brief conversation, she was not able to tell police exactly where she was, but said she was all right, although she was running out of water. She was in a clearing, she said.
In following days, helicopters flew over the area where she might have been, based on calculating the signal from her phone to its the connection with a mobile transmission tower. Teams of searchers grew, but there was no sign of the elderly lady, who had been born in Scotland but had lived in Medlow Bath for a number of years.
By Monday, March 21, Betty will have been missing for two weeks – and that’s a long time for an elderly person to be lost in the bush. She might be able to find water, particularly as it has been raining occasionally, but she certainly doesn’t have any food.
So where is she? Searchers have combed virtually every inch of the bushland alongside the track she regularly walked along. It wends up and down, but it’s virtually impossible for anyone to lose their way because it’s wide and runs beside a fenced-off railway line, which in turn follows the Great Western Highway. The sound of large trucks is always within earshot of the track.
For Betty to become lost after setting out that day she would have had to step off the main path and head into the bush. And while there are minor tracks she could have followed, search teams have been through them and also broken away into the thick undergrowth. They’ve called her name, they’ve shouted ‘Coo-eeee!’ – then listened in the hope of hearing a reply from the missing woman. But nothing.
There were reports of a resident living on a plateau hearing cries for help from the bushland below, but another thorough search failed to find any sign of Betty and there is the possibility that the cry had a reasonable explanation – such as searchers shouting to one another.
But how far could Betty have got, had she indeed struck off into the bush for an unknown reason (perhaps because she had become disoriented, as she is reported to have suffered from mild dementia)? She is unlikely to have been able to travel far into the undergrowth, which grabs at the face, entangles itself in legs, snares feet and has steep slopes that can easily provoke a fall.
Experts have rappelled down cliff faces on the off chance that Betty was down there but the result has been the same – no sign of her.
Teams of police, firemen, State Emergency Service volunteers and civilians have all contributed tirelessly, knocking on doors in a wide radius in the hope that someone might have seen Betty somewhere – perhaps as she walked into a built up area. Police have also asked for anyone who was in the Medlow Bath vicinity to provide them with photos they might have taken in the days before, during and after Betty first went missing in the hope that they might glean something from the direction she was walking.
A resident who lives beside the path told me that she spoke to Betty recently on one of her walks and the elderly lady seemed a little confused. The resident asked Betty if she was all right and she assured the resident she was fine, thank you, and carried on her way.
Perhaps there’s a clue there – that on the day she set out she ended up becoming disoriented. But it doesn’t explain why she can’t be found.
The search appears to be winding down. But it is to be hoped that everyone in the region remains vigilant. It would be wonderful to run a headline along the lines of ‘Miracle in the Mountains’.
Investigators in Australia and Malaysia are expected to soon announce the results of their probes of ‘possible MH370 parts’ found off Mozambique – but already serious doubts are being raised by aviation and ocean experts.
If the parts – strongly believed soon after the announcement of their discoveries to be from the missing jet – are proved to be unconnected, then a new and disturbing scenario arises: trickery has been afoot.
In particular a large piece presumed to be part of a Boeing 777 flap fairing and bearing a stencilled code 676EB, which is stamped on that model of plane, would cast serious doubts on the MH370 investigation should it be found to be too clean to have been in the water for two years.
And already respected aviation writer Jeff Wise and marine biologists he has spoken to are suggesting today that the part found off Mozambique in February by US lawyer Blaine Gibson and the larger piece discovered by South African teenager earlier this month, also off Mozambique, could not be from MH370 because they lack evidence of long-term immersion in sea water.
In fact Mr Wise now concludes that ‘it is entirely possible that one or both of the Mozambique objects were never in then ocean at all.’
And he insists that it is incumbent on all the relevant authorities ‘to make public the details of a close examination of the parts in order to determine how these objects could have arrived in the western Indian Ocean.’
With a third piece recently discovered on Reunion being discounted as having come from the missing jet, it is now appearing that the only aircraft part that has been confirmed as being part of the plane – although a 100 per cent final confirmation is still being awaited – is a barnacle-covered flaperon found on Reunion in July last year.
As MH370 was the only Boeing 777 to be lost in the Indian Ocean region – ever – there appeared little doubt that the part found by South African Liam Lotter, with its Boeing identifying stamp, had to be from the missing jet.
But why is it so clean? No sand particles, no barnacles, no algae, no evidence of any sea life or growth whatsoever.
It has been suggested that Mr Lotter might have cleaned the part up, but biologists said there are too many tiny parts in the honeycomb linings for it to be so exceptionally clean. And a poster on Mr Wise’s blog says he has asked Mr Lotter if he had washed the piece and he replied: ‘No I didn’t clean it at all.’
Mr Wise points out that during a survey of debris in the Pacific, marine biologist Miriam Goldstein collected 242 objects and found that all of them had organisms growing on them, apart from two that were just one inch square.
Another biologist, Mike Gil from the University of Florida, also carried out a similar survey in the eastern Pacific and apart from minute objects ‘we didn’t find any clean debris.’
Photos of the Reunion flaperon and the Mozambique pieces show an extreme contrast, with the flaperon being covered in barnacles and the Mozambique parts displaying only clean surfaces.
Mr Wise, a former pilot, says that a comparison of the size of barnacles found on a boat that had spent eight months drifting from Australia to the western Indian Ocean island of Mayotte and the barnacle size on the flaperon suggests that the wing part had been in the water for between four and six months.
Another ocean expert spoken to by Mr Wise has also cast serious doubts on the length of time the pieces found by Mr Gibson and Mr Lotter could have been in the water.
Sam Chan, who studies invasive sea species at Oregon State University, estimated the amount of time the objects had been in the water ‘could be a couple of weeks. It’s certainly not indicative of something that has been in the water for multiple years, let alone even half a year.
‘If there’s no fouling, was it even in the water?’
Mr Wise’s findings on his latest blog has resulted in a flood of writers adding their doubts about the pieces found off Mozambique.
One writer, Ed Metcalfe, said that while he is not a conspiracy fan ‘this situation smacks of human intervention regarding the distribution of the debris.’
Another poster said that ‘it would seem there are few ways to explain the absence of biofouling that do not suggest some sort of human intervention.’
Only time will tell what the next step will be in this baffling aviation mystery.