A day at Erawan Shrine

Anybody who has visited Bangkok is likely to have passed by Erawan Shrine, even though they might not have realised.

Erawan sits on one corner of busy Ratchaprasong junction; a relatively small and tranquil spot, nestled between giant shopping malls and luxury hotels.

The shrine is home to a sacred and highly revered Brahmin statue, The Four-Faced God, worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists alike. Greatly respected by Thai people, Erawan is also a popular tourist destination.

Geographically and spiritually, it's fair to say that Erawan lies at the very heart of the city.

At 7pm on Monday, 17th August, 2015, a bomb left in a backpack inside the shrine exploded, killing 25 people and injuring scores more.


Evidence of Erawan's importance is apparent as you walk around the neighbourhood. Commuters rushing to work on the elevated walkway and on the streets around the shrine will almost invariably pause and offer a traditional "wai" gesture in the direction of the Brahma statue.


One week after the bombing, I spent a full day at Erawan Shrine.

Among the first to arrive at 7am are some of the Thai dancers who perform for those devotees who wish to offer thanks for prayers that have been answered.

The presence of a soldier is unusual. The metal barriers and the freshly-painted railings indicate where the bomb was located.


Inside the shrine, with towering buildings on each side and with the elevated skytrain and walkways, it's easy to appreciate how central this location is.


One face of the Four-Faced God statue was very slightly damaged in the blast.

On any day, there will be a steady stream of devotees, lighting candles and incense.


Devotees will typically pray and offer candles, flowers and incense at all four sides of the statue.


One week after the deadly explosion, the presence of soldiers, police and journalists made it clear that this was not an ordinary day.

A presenter from the public broadcasting Thai PBS channel gave regular, live reports during the breakfast show.

Groups from local businesses arrived to make offerings, also giving interviews to local and international TV stations.

Many groups wore shirts bearing slogans such as "Stronger Together" and "Bangkok Strong".


In the centre of such a busy, bustling city, Erawan provides a quiet haven for contemplation and prayer.

Many visitors were visibly upset as they offered their silent prayers and several shed tears and they made their offerings.


Between the pavement and the shrine, fresh cement and a new pillar indicate where the bomber left the device.

At 8:30am, dozens of staff from the neighbouring Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel arrived, each proudly wearing a "Stronger Together" t-shirt.

Prayers and offerings continued throughout the day. 


From 6pm, as the sun began to set, increasing numbers of people arrived at the shrine, gathering at the nearby Amarin Centre.


At 6:55pm, exactly one week after the time of the explosion, Buddhist monks led the group in prayer. The Thai national anthem was sung and a minute's silence was observed in remembrance of those killed and injured.

People, almost universally dressed in white, lit candles and offered prayers.


Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the bomb attack.

The bombing was, by any definition, a pointless, senseless act that has achieved no discernible advantage other than to enhance the sense of community in the city's residents.

To me, Bangkok hasn't felt any less safe since the attack but, even if it had, the resilience and resolve found in large numbers of people who are willing to show the strength of their conviction offers great reassurance and comfort.


Sharing, not taking.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2015

Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2015


Those of us who can claim a certain vintage may still remember our family photo albums. For some, printed photographs were fixed inside an album or scrapbook with "sticky corners"; small, paper triangles that could grip the corners of a photograph. Wonderful in theory, fiddly and largely ineffective in practice. No matter how carefully we placed those sticky corners around the prints, they always seemed to work their way loose.

More successful were the albums with pages covered in a sheet of clear, sticky plastic, beneath which we would carefully position the photos from family holidays and birthday parties. The covers of those albums, probably purchased in the local Woolworths, always seemed to have some sickly-sweet image of a couple walking hand-in-hand through a misty meadow or a gypsy caravan beside a field of sunflowers, reminiscent of that famous advert for Cadbury's Flake chocolate.

Regardless of whether you used sticky corners, Woolworths photo albums or an old shoe box, printed photographs had a value that I don't believe digital files will ever match. The printed photos told the stories of our lives, they encapsulated our childhood memories and documented the passing of time. We might claim that digital photographs do much the same thing but those printed pictures required an investment of time and money that gave them inherent value. Looking at the family albums was actually an event. We would gather round, all attention focussed on the turning pages, pointing out the same gurning expressions that we'd laughed at many times before. It was an experience I never grew tired of.

Now we can make beautiful images with hand-held devices that also make telephone calls. It's really something of a miracle when you think about the changes we've seen in the last 30 years.

I'm all for the democratisation of photography. I love the immediacy of digital and the convenience that it provides. I'm not so ancient that I'm yet given to talking about "the good old days" with a shake of the head and a sad sigh. Nearly but not quite.

Fujifilm Instax MINI 90

Fujifilm Instax MINI 90

But I do wonder if the value of a single photograph has diminished in the digital age. Perhaps, to be truly cherished, a photograph has to be tangible. We need to be able to hold it in our hands and pass it to our friends, from one hand to another. Swiping an iPhone screen just doesn't seem to be quite as substantial. Convenient, yes, but it's one step removed from our physical selves and lacks that tangible quality.

For several years, I've carried a Fujifilm Instax camera on most of my assignments. (Full disclosure: I am not sponsored by Fujifilm and am in no way associated with them - I just like the Instax cameras). I've recently upgraded from a Instax Mini 50S to a Mini 90 but both do pretty much the same job. Each can carry a cartridge containing ten prints. A pack costs about $5, so each print is about 50¢.

Whilst a print costs 50¢ to make, it's fair to say that the value to the recipient often seems to be priceless.

I've recently returned from an assignment in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Kolkata, India where I've been photographing in schools and orphanages. For reasons that still escape me but which nevertheless delight me, the kids are always super excited when we arrive. I like to think it's my magnetic personality but I know it's much more accurate to say that it's my cameras which they find appealing.

Taking a photo of a SPLASH water station, with enthusiastic onlookers.

Taking a photo of a SPLASH water station, with enthusiastic onlookers.

The kids love to be in the photographs. Taking a photo of just one or two children can be virtually impossible because their friends will sneak into the back of the shot, appear from beneath desks or just leap up in front of the camera. Nobody waits for an invitation. Fortunately, I work with wonderful clients who have become expert at crowd control.

Occasionally, when time permits, I'll shoot a quick video and turn the camera around so the children can watch the movie. I'm sure that if I was able to magically levitate in the centre of the classroom or produce a rabbit from a hat, I could not conjure any more excitement than my camera LCD screen can create.

Children at a BRAC school in dhaka look a video made in their classroom

Children at a BRAC school in dhaka look a video made in their classroom

If you'd like to see the video they watched, you're in for a treat. You might not think that a small, dark, one-room school in a slum neighbourhood in Bangladesh would be a place where you'd find a lot of joy but you'd be mistaken, as these two girls demonstrate.

I've written before about the strange vocabulary photographers use. We "take" photographs. We "grab" a picture or "capture" a frame. It's accurate language, I suppose, but I've never felt fully comfortable with photography being a one-sided transaction.

When the work part of the assignment is done, I'll often hand my cameras over to the kids, which produces some fascinating results. They invariably appreciate the trust and confidence they feel has been placed in them and immediately launch into full creative mode, posing for each other and taking turns at directing the action.

My new best friend, the schoolgirl and wonderfully enthusiastic Yasmine Kaddour took this photograph of her schoolfriend below. Not only is it a fine portrait, it may also be one of the first photographs taken of a young lady who seems destined to be a famous photojournalist in the future. What a confident pose.

"Schoolgirl with camera" © Yasmine kaddour

"Schoolgirl with camera" © Yasmine kaddour

If it's practical, we'll use the Instax to make some prints to share. I'm not sure if it's me or the kids who get most excited about this exercise but it's fair to say that being able to share the photographs adds a really satisfying dimension to our time together.

The slideshow below contains just a handful of hundreds of images that I've taken with recipients holding their instant prints. These photos are as cherished by me as the prints themselves seem to be cherished. When returning to places where I've worked before, sometimes many years later, I frequently meet people who have kept their instant print in a wallet or pinned it to a wall in their home.

I've often said that if I were only allowed to keep one of my cameras, I'd be very reluctant to lose the ability to make and share instant photographs. The inexpensive Instax might win out over the Canons and the Leica gear. That's no exaggeration. It might not earn me a living but if Fujifilm ever want to sponsor me to travel the world, handing out instant photographs, I'd be delighted. #fujifilm :)


Here's a link to information about the Fujifilm Instax.
In Dhaka and Kolkata, I've been working with the really inspiring crew at Splash. If you'd like to be involved with an organisation that improves the lives of children in many parts of the developing world, I can really recommend that you take a look at the work that Splash do.

Tuoro sul Trasimeno


Possibly the finest combination of sentences ever to appear in a walk description.

"...you pass through a double row of cypresses and umbrella pines and the track now heads downhill through an olive grove. At this point you can climb the steps in front of you and go into the town centre where you will find two bars in the piazza."

This is from the rather excellent "Circular Walks on the Tuscany Umbria Border" by Martin Daykin.

Olive Tree, Tuoro sul Trasimeno, Italy

Olive Tree, Tuoro sul Trasimeno, Italy


Lubina's Journey - from earthquake victim to treatment


Lubina is seven years-old. She was caught by falling rubble when last week's earthquake hit Nepal. Her legs and pelvis were crushed and fractured.


During a post-earthquake inspection of local schools for Splash (www.splash.org), Ritesh Adah found Lubina and her parents in a classroom where they'd been staying since the earthquake. Lubina had received very basic medical attention but despite her severe injuries, local hospitals did not have the capacity to treat her more fully for at least a week.

Breaks to both legs can be seen in her x-ray.


The following day, when I accompanied Ritesh to document the damage done to Splash installations in Kathmandu, he took me to the school where Lubina and her family were staying.

Lubina was sleeping most of the time.


But when she woke, the effect of the pain was clear to see - and hear .


Seeking advice on the best course of action, Ritesh and I took the x-rays to a Mercy Malaysia field-hospital, just outside Kathmandu.

I've learned this week that broken bones don't kill. It's the resulting infection and other complications that can be life-threatening.

Doctors advised that Lubina be brought to them as soon as possible.


It was clear that her right leg had become twisted at the hip and we still did not know what internal injuries she might have sustained.

This morning, Ritesh was able to arrange for an ambulance to take Rubina to the Sushma Koirala Memorial Hospital in Sankhu.

Having spent over a week on the classroom floor, Rubina was understandably scared at the prospect of being moved.


Eventually, with assistance from Ritesh, the paramedic was able to transfer her to the ambulance.


Understandably, Lubina didn't want to let go of her mother's hand.


Lubina hadn't seen bright sunlight for nearly a week.


She held her grandmother's hand all the way out of Kathmandu until we reached the hospital.


Doctors from the hospital were joined by volunteer orthopaedic and paediatric surgeons from Mercy Malaysia.


Very soon, Lubina was inside a treatment room for an initial assessment.


From there, doctors took her quickly for new x-rays.


After the x-rays, Lubina was moved to a Recovery Room for sedation before a more thorough examination in the Operating Theatre. She was clearly still in a lot of pain and discomfort.


The official death toll in Nepal exceeded 7,000 today with many more injured. Lubina's case is one of many, many thousands.

Volunteers at the Mercy Malaysia Field-Hospital have treated up to 250 patients each day since the earthquake. Doctors and nurses at the nearby Sushma Koirala Memorial Hospital have been working day and night to cope with the influx of patients.

Eventually sedated, Lubina drifted in and out of sleep. She will have surgery to repair her broken bones tomorrow and there's a good chance that, in time, she will be able to walk again.


All across Nepal, other international teams continue to treat patients and save lives.

Lubina benefitted from the expertise, dedication and professionalism of the doctors from Mercy Malaysia who have flown into the disaster zone voluntarily. They really were excellent and it's so reassuring that Lubina and many others like her are now in their expert care.

Thank you to orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Shue, paediatric surgeon Dr. Lai and all their impressive colleagues at Mercy Malaysia, together with Medical Director Dr. Jaswan Shakya and his generous staff at the Sushma Koirala Memorial Hospital, the anaesthetist, ambulance driver, paramedic and all the people who collaborate to provide essential care to patients. Thanks also to Farah Ali who made an important connection after seeing an Instagram photo I posted earlier in the week. Thanks also to Ritesh, his friends and colleagues at Splash for their pro-active approach to helping Lubina in what might literally have been a life-saving mission.


Searching for two sisters in Nepal


Earlier in the week, I posted the following "before & after" images to my Facebook page.


The image on the left was taken on the 22nd April, 2009. Almost exactly six years and one week before the image on the right. They show the same street in Bhaktapur, one of Nepal's most historic cities, before and after last Saturday's earthquake.

In 2009, whilst photographing for a magazine feature, I spent a while photographing these two sisters on their way home from school. One of the images appeared in my first exhibition.


Returning to Nepal this week under less happy circumstances, I found myself, by complete coincidence, at the same spot. Recalling the time spent at the end of that narrow alleyway in 2009 was bitter-sweet in the face of the damage and destruction. I wondered what had happened to those charming, cheerful, carefree young girls.

So many people have lost their lives in Nepal this week. So many more have been seriously injured. Having seen dozens and dozens of buildings reduced to piles of rubble, having heard so many stories of loved ones, relatives, friends and neighbours lost to the earthquake, I have found it difficult to get the image of these two girls out of my head.

 Bhaktapur, Nepal

With a couple of hours free at the end of today's assignment and with copies of these photos on my phone, I took a detour to Bhaktapur, intending to search for the two sisters. A fool's errand perhaps.

I'm pleased to report that I found them, both alive and well.


Yamuna and Jamuna are eleven years old now. Sadly, they lost their home and have been sleeping outside with their older sister, Saraswati, since Saturday.

They showed me what remains of their home, no more than a pile of bricks just a few steps from where these photos were made.

Their parents have gone to stay with their uncle in order to protect their few remaining belongings. I've heard several reports of opportunistic thieves operating at night, which were confirmed to me by the local police.

There is not enough space for the girls at their uncle's house. They eat from a simple, open-air community kitchen twice a day and there's been a water tanker delivery each morning. They have almost no money and are relying on the charity of neighbours. Yet their situation is no different from that of so many others and is better than some.

Yamuna and Jamuna were quiet and withdrawn today. Shell-shocked, I suppose. Not quite the happy-go-lucky, skipping five year-old children I encountered previously, although seeing pictures of themselves on my phone did make them laugh together, which was a happy sound. I did what I could to improve their situation and they are much better equipped now than they were this morning.

Whilst it was really pleasing to find the girls alive and well and I know they'll have a more comfortable night tonight, you have to multiply their story tens of thousands of times to get an idea of the current situation in Nepal.

Aid agencies are doing what they can but the lack of infrastructure, the difficult terrain and the weather all conspire to make delivering help where it's needed a truly monumental task.

Many remote areas have yet to see any meaningful support nearly a week after the initial earthquake and the evidence is that the majority of people are fending for themselves with what little they have.

Global Giving has a Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund.

Splash are providing water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure in Kathmandu.

Charity: Water also have a Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund.

Each of these organisations are providing essential, potentially life-saving services where they are needed most.


Nepal Earthquake


I'm working on assignment in Nepal this week. After Saturday's earthquake, the destruction is visible at every turn. Buildings are reduced to piles of wood and rubble, people are devastated. The lucky ones are homeless. The unlucky ones did not survive.


The survivors want to share their story. In Bhaktapur, during a torrential downpour, I met Rajan. He and his family have been sleeping beneath a tarpaulin since Saturday. Their home is destroyed from the first floor up. What little remains is unsafe. They have no family who can accommodate them elsewhere. All are homeless.

Rajan's son, Rian, is 4 years old. His daughter, Rianna, is 8 months. As Rajan's wife fed their daughter, the rain began sweeping in through the open sides of their temporary home. As he spoke to me, Rajan shielded his face from his family. The telling of his situation to a stranger had brought him to tears. Both of us, truth be told.

Somehow, his wife managed to smile for a photo. I really don't know how. I can't say what's next for Rajan and his family.


When the rain finally stops, survivors search through the rubble. Many are leaving what's left of their precarious homes. I spoke with brothers Rajiv and Ujjwal as they took a break from loading an old truck with salvaged possessions. They have family in the countryside who can accommodate them. Most are not so fortunate.

On a nearby street another family were searching through the unlit interior of a house that looked likely to topple at any moment, throwing what they could find into the street below. Their waiting children gathered the possessions and stacked them into boxes.


Calculating the loss for a single family is hard enough. Multiply it by tens of thousands across the country and it becomes impossible to comprehend. This is not a wealthy country. Most people have very little and survive from day to day. When even that is taken away...


Many times today, people came up to me to point at nearby piles of rubble. "Two people died there". "One person died in that house". "Four of my neighbours died here".

It's not hard to appreciate that what they're really saying is "But I didn't die. I don't know why or how but I'm still here".

The absolute randomness of the damage is despairingly apparent and there's a palpable but silent acknowledgement that the survivors escaped by a twist of fate which spared them and cruelly took their friends. It could so easily have been different.

Outside her home, this woman pointed at the adjoining house and turned away. "My neighbour, she died".


Amidst the rubble there are poignant reminders of how swiftly lives were changed - and lost. Dinner plates with half-eaten meals of rice and vegetables...


In Patan, a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site where I have spent many happy afternoons, wandering through the alleyways, pausing for a cup of chai and a chat, waiting for the light to change, several of the impressive temples have been destroyed. It's a popular place for locals and tourists to hang out. There's a bench outside the museum where Nepali men sit in a row and gossip. They were not there today.

Soldiers and police have begun what appears to be the never-ending task of removing and sorting the rubble by hand. Local people of all ages are helping. Great pride is taken in the heritage that is so very accessible in Nepal and I was somewhat taken aback to hear the museum curator tell an Indian TV interviewer, "Come back in three years, we will rebuild it".


As the sun began to sink behind the clouds of dust, the slow, steady salvage operation continued.


If you would like to lend support to the aid efforts in Nepal, there are many agencies who are working on the ground. This is a list of just seven you might like to take a look at.

Nepal has always been a very welcoming place to me and, I know, to so many other people. It's not unusual to hear foreigners claim that "Nepal is like home from home". I feel something similar. Nepal provided my first real taste of what we now call "adventure travel". I remember staying in Kathmandu on my way to Tibet, many years ago. That experience ignited my passion for travel in a way that has never diminished. They say that you never really forget your first love. Nepal would be mine.

It is with great sadness that I find Kathmandu so broken. But I do not doubt that the Nepalese people will rebuild it. Those impressive mountains breed tough characters.

My confidence was reinforced as I left Bhaktapur this afternoon when a striking young girl in a baggy purple top, her hair slick and curly from the drizzling rain, stepped in front of me and gave the most graceful "Namaste" greeting.

It seemed to me, in my fanciful way, to be a gesture of resilience. I hope the future is kinder to her than the recent past has been.


Talad Noi

Talad Noi is one of the oldest and most photogenic parts of Bangkok. It's always a good location for a Sunday afternoon photo walk.

I've been working on a Lightroom preset which emulates the look of Kodachrome 25 and Kodachrome 64. It's a starting point for post-production rather than a one-click solution but I think it's getting close.

The Generosity of Bislam

 Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

I keep a 100 Indian Rupee banknote in my wallet. It's been there for years. As of yesterday, I'll be keeping a 100 Burmese Kyat note beside it too.

The notes are reminders of the generosity of strangers. Actually, they're more like mementos because generous strangers cross my path almost daily so token reminders really aren't necessary.

The 100 Rupee note is one I offered as payment to an Indian motor mechanic. Miles from the town of Pushkar in Rajasthan, my rented motorbike had seized-up, leaving me contemplating a hot, dusty and wearisome walk back to town, pushing an unwieldy and recalcitrant motorbike. However, in India, you're never alone for long. A helpful and apparently psychic group of people appeared over the sand dunes within minutes. Many hands helped wheel the bike towards a jumble of dwellings. I was offered hot, sweet chai and after taking portraits for an hour whilst the local mechanic repaired the broken bike chain, he dusted it down and proudly offered it back, fixed and ready to ride.

I asked, "How much?" He shook his head. I offered a handful of 1,000 rupee notes, happy for him to take whatever he wanted. His adjustable spanner and expertise had saved me an enormous amount of trouble. He beamed a toothless smile, wobbled his head in that indecipherable Indian way and declined. No amount of cajoling would persuade him that payment should change hands.

At the very least, I would pay for the chai that we and his neighbours had drunk whilst he worked on my bike. But no. He wouldn't dream of it. So my final offer, a 100 rupee note, proffered more in hope than in expectation, has remained in my wallet ever since.

There are so many stories of tourists being scammed, online forums filled with complaints and warnings of touts and dangers, annoyances and pitfalls. All of which may well be accurate. But my experience over the last thirty or so years travelling to over sixty countries doesn't really meet with that picture of the world as a dangerous place. There are dangers, of course, and one shouldn't ignore or minimise those but they are relatively few and far between. I'm more likely to be invited into somebody's home and offered tea than I am to be the victim of an artful scam. I find that people are as interested in me as I am in them and that an exchange of information about where we are from, who is in our family, whether we are married and what the weather is like at home is sufficient payment if it's offered genuinely and accompanied by a smile.

People who travel widely, regularly and unassumingly will usually report similar experiences. From South America to South-East Asia and at all points North, East, South and West, I've been welcomed and treated with generous hospitality by people who have much less to offer than I.

This happens regularly. It happened to me yesterday. Documenting the railway that circles Yangon, I was greeted with friendly smiles, as is always the case. Even in Myanmar, with its curious political history, there's little evidence of suspicion or a reluctance to engage.

After an early-morning departure and an hour on the train (which, if I'm honest, saw me dozing more than photographing), I hopped off the train on to a platform at a small village north of Yangon, where I photographed a market set up along the tracks.

A young man selling fish introduced himself as Bislam. We chatted as best we could with a combined shared vocabulary of about nine words. I took some photos. I gestured towards the sun, indicating that it was very hot, knowing that my mime for "I'm melting" usually prompts a laugh, which it did.

I went back to photographing. Two minutes later, Bislam approached me again and held out a one-litre bottle of mineral water, which he'd purchased from a nearby vendor and for which I was especially grateful. I don't always remember to stay hydrated.

"Thank you. How much?", I asked. 

He smiled. "No problem."

Knowing the usual price, I fished a note from my wallet and held it out, "100 Kyat?"

He smiled more broadly. "No problem." He walked back to the railway line and squatted beside the fish he was selling.

He didn't try to profit. He didn't ask for 500 or 1,000 Kyat although I would have happily paid that. He didn't ask for anything at all. He didn't follow me. He didn't try to scam me, steal from me, take advantage of me or do anything beyond buying me a bottle of water. That may not seem like a lot but to put it in the context of Myanmar's often bewildering economics, a three-hour train journey costs 500 Kyat and one of the fish he was selling costs a lot less. A 100 Kyat bottle of water is not insignificant. I've learned that the joy of giving is often worth more than the financial cost to people who have little material wealth. I've also learned to accept it with good grace and not to try and force the issue of payment. 

And so the 100 Kyat note will remain in my wallet as a memento of that simple exchange. In a world which might seem to increasingly reward cynicism and suspicion, I find these simple acts of generosity to be quite moving.

No doubt there are bigger and better brains than mine at work in the political boardrooms where the UK Independence Party plan their anti-immigration manifesto. Perhaps the Australian plan to deny immigrants entry to that vast, sprawling country and send them instead to under-developed, poorly-resourced Cambodia is a plan with a genius too advanced for me to comprehend. Yet I can't help wondering if the politicians who dream up these parochial schemes might benefit from an hour wandering along the railway tracks of Yangon or the dusty back roads of Rajasthan. Perhaps Bislam, taking a break from selling fish to offer them a bottle of precious water, might prompt them to consider whether a willingness to share might not make all of us wealthier in the long run.

Who knows? To steal and alter a quote by Steve McCurry, If I was going to be something, I'd probably be a politician. I'm just a photographer. So here are some photos of Bislam instead.

William Albert Allard - Beyond the Frame Workshop


23rd to 28th JANUARY, 2015

Bangkok, Thailand


A recent edition of The Telegraph carried an article reporting that Italian scientists have been studying a phenomenon known as Stendhal Syndrome. It's said that visitors to the Italian city of Florence can be so overwhelmed by the beauty of the artwork that they "swoon".

"Staff at Florence's Santa Maria Nuova hospital are accustomed to dealing with tourists suffering from dizzy spells and disorientation after admiring the statue of David".

Don't you just love that? The art in Florence is so abundant and gorgeous that medical staff are regularly caring for people made dizzy by the very sight of it.

I'm only surprised that Italian scientists are actually studying the phenomenon. I would have thought it more likely for Italians to be studying the responses of visitors who do not swoon at the sight of Michelangelo's "David".

What is about art that can affect our sensibilities so profoundly? Art does not sustain or protect our physical selves. Music will not clothe us. Paintings cannot provide shelter (unless you have a lot of sturdy frames). Admiring Michelangelo's statue will not feed our bellies. Yet we respond to great art with our most fundamental instincts and emotions. Soon after we have found sources of food, water and shelter, we seek art. We need art. Perhaps where food and water can sustain us and shelter protects us, art connects us.

Florence, which can boast a greater concentration of evocative art than anywhere else on the planet, is the visual equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Is it a surprise that visitors require medical attention after feasting to the point of bursting? 

Girls Running Home

My guess is that most of us have experienced bouts of Stendhal Syndrome when coming face-to-face with great art. It happens to me all the time. I remember unwrapping a Christmas gift from my good friends, Sabrina Henry and Ray Ketcham, a couple of years ago and revealing a copy of William Albert Allard's impressively hefty "Five Decades" retrospective book. I stood at the dining table and leafed through the pages, anticipating some undisturbed free time ahead when I'd be able to really concentrate on the images. I recall very clearly the moment I first saw the image below, which still induces a sense of dizzying admiration every time I see it.


Girls Running Home. Béhorléguy, France, 1967


The photograph doesn’t show an event of historical significance, it’s not a portrait of a famous person, it doesn’t document a disaster, it’s not a photograph of a Kennedy or Monroe. It wasn’t taken in Vietnam or Beirut and it doesn’t show a rare natural phenomenon. It’s a photograph taken on what appears to be a sombre afternoon on a country lane in rural France. Not, you might think, a place where such a memorable image might be made.

The photograph shows two girls, running along a lane towards a village in the distance. The lane curves gently from the bottom-left corner of the frame, disappearing from view as it rounds a corner towards buildings. A hint of a mountain is visible beyond the village and the hills form a background against which one white building is highlighted.

Much of the photograph is monochromatic, there’s a hint of muddy red in the distant rooftops but, otherwise, it’s an image of largely dark and subdued greens and browns.

But there, in the centre of the frame, no larger than the end of your thumb, is a splash of sunshine yellow and two spots of vibrant red. A girl’s yellow jacket and red shoes. Her arms are outstretched and her feet have lifted from the ground and… in the words of the photographer…

“…the two girls were not running, they weren’t skipping; they were weightless, floating in the air, as if forever suspended in grace and innocence.”

It takes a fraction of a second for your eye to fall upon the yellow jacket in the centre of the frame and a fraction more before you realise that the girls are “floating, weightless”. That time is enough to leave you feeling that you’ve discovered a secret treasure in the image. It’s not just a photograph of a rural scene, it’s not simply a road and village at dusk, it’s indisputable evidence of magic! The magic of childhood innocence and liberty. In the moment we realise that the girls are floating, we are children once again. We know that childhood sense of believing that we can fly. We can recall that lightness of being. Perhaps it is because we now inhabit bodies which are weightier, fully grown, and because we possess minds which tell us that it is impossible to leap up and fly that we might feel a sense of affectionate, nostalgic longing when we look at that photograph.

On one sombre afternoon in 1967, near a village in rural France, two girls running towards their home were momentarily weightless. And William Albert Allard captured that scene.

As you look more carefully at the image, you might begin to wonder about the perspective. The photographer appears to be looking down upon the scene. To capture the two girls, the lane and the village from that angle, he must surely have been fifteen or twenty feet above the road. The only logical explanation is that he too was floating. Sure, some might suggest that he could have been standing on a rock or on a bridge or a gate or on the top of a double-decker bus… But those are disappointingly practical and unromantic notions.

How might we also make such a beautiful image? If you’ve ever picked up a camera and tried to take a “great” photograph, you’ll know that the results can sometimes be disappointing. There can be a gulf between what your eyes saw, what your mind envisaged and what the resulting photograph shows. I’ve taught photography for many years and it’s very common during review and critique sessions to hear students eagerly providing a commentary on the circumstances surrounding their image-making. “Well, the light was much more golden than that”, or “A second before I took this, he was laughing”, or “It doesn’t look anything like I remember”. We are all familiar with that discrepancy between the final image and the scene as we recall it in our mind’s eye. Nevertheless, we continue to pick up our cameras in the hope that we might successfully capture something which conveys a moment as we saw it.

Sometimes, if we're lucky, we might find ourselves looking through the viewfinder and feeling certain that we have found the most evocative light, organised the perfect composition, waited patiently for the decisive moment and… click… our senses come together in that instant and we firmly believe that we’ve captured something truly memorable. In that moment, when all the ingredients conspire in a fraction of a second, we might feel giddy, weightless. I think that’s what happened to William Albert Allard on that country lane in France in 1967. I believe that he looked through the viewfinder, composed the scene, waited for the girls to run into the perfect spot and, realising that he was about to capture an image of magical beauty, simply lifted from the ground to float above the earth, weightless.

I accept it’s a fanciful notion but I’m an artist so fanciful notions are in my job description.

Great art connects us. It reveals our humanity, illustrates our vulnerabilities, describes our aspirations and defines the human condition. Great artists, it must follow, are those who are most willing to reveal their humanity, showing us their vulnerabilities, sharing their aspirations and wearing their hearts firmly and proudly upon their sleeves. When you look at the work of William Albert Allard, you quickly realise that you are not only looking at photographs of this place or that place, this person or that person, you are seeing a reflection of the artist himself and Allard's passion is soaked deeply into every image.

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to attend a photography festival in Cortona, Italy, which included three memorable days with William Albert Allard. Perhaps it was the heady infusion of medieval architecture, golden light and a rather perky lunchtime Chianti but when I suggested to him that we ought to offer a photography workshop in Bangkok, he was immediately and unreservedly enthusiastic. I'm delighted, therefore, to announce our Beyond the Frame Photography Workshop with William Albert Allard.

You want to know the secret of making great images? It's got very little to do with cameras or lenses. It has even less to do with apertures or shutter speeds, focal lengths or megapixels. It has everything to do with your approach, your integrity, your determination, patience and your authenticity. Great images are a product of undiluted passion.

That is why we're calling this workshop the "Beyond the Frame Photo Workshop". Participants will be helped with the technical aspects, for sure, but, more than that, we will be exploring what it really means to be a photographer. We will be looking at what happens behind the scenes when we prepare, research and plan. We will examine intentions and see how our expectations can influence the outcome. We aim to look at much more than the final result, hence, Beyond the Frame.

It was noticeable that in my three days with William Albert Allard, we did not discuss cameras or lenses even once. We did not compare notes about apertures or metering modes. We walked into Cortona and we looked, observed, waited and, eventually, photographed. When we paused for lunch or dinner, we talked about light, texture and form. We shared our experiences, talked about people we'd met, places we'd visited and the photographs that got away. We talked about being present, about patiently waiting and about living inside the story. I hope that we will have an opportunity to share similar conversations in even greater depth in Bangkok next year.

Beyond the Frame Photo Workshop

William Albert Allard has been a National Geographic photographer for over fifty years. I'm not about to find any more eloquent words about the man and his work than these:

"Mention the name Bill Allard and images that are indelibly inscribed on my memory instantly appear in the foreground of my mind. And so do words - soulful, idyllic, muscular, elegiac, textural, human, authentic. Allard is more than a master of his medium, he is what he photographs."

James Nachtwey, Photojournalist

"He shows us the potent magic of living, the luminous mystery of the transitory, and all with a deftness and compassion unique to his vision"

Sally Mann, Photographer

"How would I define William Albert Allard? He is a master of content, color, light; a poet; and a great artist"

Mary Ellen Mark

I hope that you will be able to join us in Bangkok for our Beyond the Frame Photography Workshop next year for what promises to be a memorable learning and sharing experience.

Places will be limited so please register early.