A note from south-eastern Ukraine

Many of my friends are from the south-eastern regions of Ukraine with large Russian populations. I had noticed that there was a steady stream of posts on Facebook by people from the region, and reading the comments on these posts, both posts and the many comments seemed, as far as I could see, overwhelmingly*, against Putin's actions in Crimea, and afraid of further Russian intervention. But the opinions of friends-of-friends on Facebook can't tell the whole story, so I asked a friend there, Irina whether there is any significant support in favour of Putin. This is an excerpt from what she replied (translated from Russian):

Where we are (in Kherson, Odessa, Nikolaev) even the 80-year-old communists are in horror at his [Putin's] actions. No one expected that he would intervene militarily in Crimea, and later, perhaps even in Donbass. At the moment my Russian-language acquaintances are gathering signatures for a petition to Putin, to tell him to get lost: "from the Russian-language population of Kherson Oblast on the removal of troops from the territory of Ukraine!" Despite the fact that, until these events, Russian language people were grumbling about those who were asking them to respect the Ukrainian language, nobody remembers about this now.

I know only one journalist who is pro-Russian, they say he even has a Russian passport, but in this situation even he is astonished by Putin's impudence. They say here that Putin must have fallen ill with schizophrenia and power mania, and that his advisers are idiots. In all, I don't know anyone who approves the actions of Putin - on the contrary, people are organising civil defence units..

So, what about the pro-Russian demonstrations that we have been seeing? While no doubt many of the demonstrations, especially earlier on, must have been genuine, there were reports (and video clips) of buses with Russian licence plates bringing in demonstrators for a few hours at a time. And this report from Ukrainskaya Pravda http://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/03/3/7017384/ shows still captures from video clips showing the same individuals reappearing at the demonstrations in Kharkiv in the East, and Simferopol/Sevastopol in the Crimea. Ukrainskaya Pravda humorously refers to them as 'touring performers'.

 *for different points of view, see the 'comments'  below


Balaklava, Crimea

A comment on the situation in Ukraine

This is my personal perspective about what has been happening in Ukraine, the awful events of the last few days. I'm not there now, so can't claim to be a first hand witness of what's happening in the protests. But I think there is some background that isn't so well known, probably even by many people involved in the protests, which helps understand what's going on and why. It's worth digging into the both the Russian and the Ukrainian constitution a little bit (I'll try to make it painless!), and make a brief journey back to the 1990's. There have been two key issues at the centre of the conflict in Ukraine:

  • how much power the Ukrainian president should have;
  • how much influence should Russia have over Ukraine.

The two issues are really two sides of the same coin, and it's important to understand why.

There are other issues in the melting pot too - a general disillisionment with politicians (hardly surprising), geographical tensions East/West within Ukraine, whether Ukraine should integrate closer with Europe...  But I'm going to leave these aside for now.

A (very) potted description of what happened in Russia in 1993


Bear with me, this is really worth understanding to get what is going on now. In 1993, Yeltsin got into a fight with Russia's first democratically elected Parliament. The fight was about many things, but most of all, it was about a new Russian constitution that Yeltsin was trying to force through, which concentrated power in the hands of the Russian President, at Parliament's expense, allowing the President effectively to rule the country with a   minimum of interference from Parliament. At the time, it was widely regarded as a necessary temporary measure, to help get Russia out of an economic hole. Not surprisingly, Parliament didn't appreciate being bypassed and refused to approve the new Constitution, but eventually the President adopted it anyway, by signing it into effect himself. Which was of course illegal - one individual cannot adopt a new Constitution, but this is what happened anyway.

In the resulting battle which amongst other things involved tanks shelling Parliament, the Western media overwhelmingly supported Yeltsin, because he was seen as the reformist, and parliament had been rather slow at allowing economic reforms to be pushed through. The Parliamentary deputies were made out in the western press to be hardline communists, reactionaries - which some undoubtedly were, but some of the key leaders of the parliament, in particular Rutskoi had supported Yeltsin a couple of years earlier against the attempted 1991 putsch and became Yeltsin's Vice President. And don't forget that this was Russia's first democratically elected Parliament since the Revolution.

In short, Yeltsin won the battle, Parliament was left a largely burnt out shell (the building it was in, the White House, became popularly referred to as the Black House because of the charring on the facade), and the constitution giving overwhelming power to the President was recognised. Six years later, Yeltsin retired as President and Putin took over.

Article 107 of this new Russian constitution gave the President the right to reject any law adopted by the Russian parliament. Once rejected the law could only be passed if parliament re-adopted the law this time by a two thirds majority. In most situations, unless parliament has a very serious disagreement with the President and is not constituted of deputies largely from the President's party, a two thirds majority is a very high barrier. For most practical purposes, this gave the President a right of veto over Parliament's laws, and means that Parliament would only challenge the President in the most extreme circumstances. Normally, there would be little point in Parliament fighting to push through laws that it knew the President would veto.

That aside, because the Government (which because of the constitution, effectively meant the President, because he also had given himself the right to appoint the Government) had control of most of Russia's media outlets, the President had the possibility to maintain his popularity through the careful control of news. Putin adopted a systematic policy of suppressing or taming the relatively few mainstream independent outlets.

That was Russia - what relevance does this have to what's going on in Ukraine?

The loss of democracy in Russia twenty years ago (with vital help from western governments, who must be kicking themselves now), provided a nice model for Putin/Medvedev to bring Ukraine back under the wing of Russia. A President who has power concentrated in his hands, could be brought more and more under the heel of Moscow, using financial incentives - $15 billion in aid, plus the stranglehold Russia has over gas supplies to Ukraine, a carrot-and-stick approach. If there was an unpredictable and stroppy Ukrainian parliament in the way, no central control by an individual who could be brought to depend on Moscow, and no effective manipulation of public opinion, Russia would be wasting its money. If it could be done in neighbouring Belarus, with a complete stranglehold by President Lukashenko (who really depends politically on Moscow), then why not Ukraine?

The Russian and the Ukrainian constitutions have an awful lot in common. The writers of the Ukrainian constitution read the Russian one closely.  Article 94 of the Ukrainian constitution contained a provision very similar to Art 107 in the Russian constitution - giving a Presidential right of veto over Parliament's laws. On the face of it, the Ukrainian parliament ought to be as emasculated as the one in Russia. But in Ukraine, because the media is not as closely state controlled as in Russia, and because after 2004 the Government wasn't (for a while) appointed by the President, there was still a possibility of striking some kind of balance short of complete power - popular opinion can still be vitally important and is not easy to control in Ukraine.

In 2004, after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, popular demonstrations managed to get some limitations imposed on the Ukrainian Presidential powers. These limitations didn't reduce the impact of the critical Article 94, but they did at least take away the President's power to appoint the Prime Minister and to dismiss the Cabinet. And without the direct ability to control the Government, an essential leg of President's absolute control is taken away. Since 2004 President Yanukhovich has managed to get these limitations on Presidential power overturned using rather dubious methods. Reversing this accretion of Presidential power has been one of the key demands of protestors (and earlier today, the President agreed to reinstate the 2004 constitution, removing his ability to control the Government so directly).

So Putin/Medvedev think they need Ukraine to have a strong President and a weak Parliament, just like in Russia, or Belarus. It is their only hope of getting Ukraine back under their wing. In any case, this is the Russian model, comfortably familiar - the hackneyed old chestnut that 'Russia needs a strong Tsar'. That was why Medvedev's response to the bloodshed on Maidan was that "the active authorities in Ukraine need to be legitimate and effective, not a doormat for everyone to clean their feet". Which was not only a rather likely to alienate a lot of Ukrainians, but also contains an implied insult to Yanukhovich, which seems, apart from anything else, politically inept. By 'active authorities' of course, Medvedev meant the President. Presidential power meant Russian power - Putin's power. Without an all-powerful - and necessarily ruthless - Ukrainian President, there could be no Russian aid to Ukraine.

Fortunately for Ukraine, while much of the media is state-controlled, the Ukrainian government has little prospect of gaining such an effective stranglehold over mass information as was possible in Russia. Ukrainians are too close to Europe, especially to Poland and Germany, for this to happen. Information and travel is much more porous across Ukraine's borders than for Russia. Journalists have had a longer time to get used to thinking for themselves. The Putin model can only work in a situation where it is possible to manipulate public opinion, and where the Presidential power is reinforced by the economic power given by gas and oil production (which Ukraine lacks - it has instead dependency on Russia). And there is the issue of Ukrainian nationalism, which makes domination from Moscow far more difficult.

Personally, I doubt whether Putin/Medvedev have fully appreciated why their own model could not work in Ukraine. If they are beginning to understand it, it is ten years too late. Yanukovich at least is close enough to know this, which is why he hasn't dared (so far) to act decisively - doing so could only end in disaster, civil war. Which could quite likely spread to Russia. Putin's policy of dominating Ukraine is I think ultimately doomed to failure and counter-productive for Russia, but the question is what the cost of Russia's ineptitude will be.

That's my perspective on what has been happening anyway.


In the Land of Endless Expectations being featured in Solas Magazine

Just what it says! Tomorrow at Streetlevel Photoworks Gallery in Glasgow there will be the launch event for a new print magazine about photography in Scotland called "SOLAS: New Photography in Scotland". SOLAS's Facebook  page is here. The first issue feature "In the Land of Endless Expectations" and I'll be giving a short talk at the opening. If you're in Glasgow please do come along!


William Gilpin' rules of the picturesque, and my own Rear Ends of Sheep, Kherson

I've just been reading about William Gilpin's rules of the picturesque. In case you don't know him, he was an 18th C. curate/schoolteacher who came up with a set of rules to define what made a pretty picture, so that the aristocracy going on their Grand Tours of Italy and Scotland could be sure to make sure they could paint a work of genius that demonstrably conformed to the rules of what was good and what wasn't. I'm not sure what he has to say about sheep's backsides, but I hope he would have approved:



The UK Government wants to sell your Facebook photos without your permission

The UK Government is at the moment pushing a bill through Parliament called the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which includes an audacious attempt at the collectivisation of private property. Lenin and Molotov would have been proud. Of course there have been ongoing attempts within the creative industry to fight it, and the latest news is the threat of a court challenge. But while all this is bringing photographers and other creatives out in a sweat, what few seem to have noticed yet is that it also aims to give the Government the right to sell private individuals' pictures posted on social networks like Facebook without their consent or knowledge.

If that seems incredible - it is, but it will become law in the UK in a few weeks time unless someone stops it. Facebook users are going to be particularly vulnerable to having their private snaps sold, because the images posted on Facebook are not indexed by Google Images. And if you think that making your profile private will protect you then think again - paradoxically, it may make you more vulnerable to having your pictures used without your permission.

So how does it work? The problem is with the proposed Section 68, which deals with what are rather enigmatically titled 'orphan works'. A photograph is an orphan work if someone somehow obtains a copy of it, but can't work out who the owner of the photo is (or perhaps even, conveniently forgets).

If the Government has its way, if one of your private Facebook photos finds its way outside your account, perhaps copied or shared by a friend, or copied by a friend-of-a-friend, then you have lost control of it. Once that happens, anyone can use that image for whatever purpose they want. You could find your photo on advertising campaigns, or promoting extreme political, racist or homophobic organisations, or in anti/pro abortion publicity materials. The person who wants to use the image just has to make an effort to find out who is the owner of the image, and if they can't find you (and especially if your Facebook account is private, there is no hope of finding you) they will be able to pay a Government body a fee to use your picture, and go ahead and do so. In the unlikely event that you ever find out about it, your only recourse will be to ask the Government to pass the fee on to you - you won't have the right to object to the use or claim damages.

In the meantime of course, for the vast majority of people who never find out that their images have been pinched, the Government will be making a fortune in licensing fees that are never reclaimed. You can see the attraction of the wheeze.

[The room in the Intellectual Property Office where the Bill is thought to have been dreamt up]

Of course, the law isn't only going to apply to Facebook images, it will apply to any images that you either post anywhere on the internet, or simply hand out copies of to anyone at all, whether they are prints or in digital form. But Facebook users will be particularly vulnerable since their profiles are usually private, so any picture that makes its way outside the account and away from immediate friends will almost automatically become an 'orphan work'. And there is no way that the Government can exclude the likes of Facebook from the scheme - because by their nature, no one knows where an orphan work comes from, there's no way of knowing if it came from Facebook or not. So even if the Government wanted to avoid scandal by excluding the likes of Facebook from the scheme (and they've shown no indication so far that they want to) they simply couldn't.

Here is the current text of the Bill. I've underlined the core bits to make it a little easier to digest. They deal with orphan works and what is called "Extended Collective Licensing" (which also gives the Government the right to license out your pictures without your consent). You can see the full text of the Bill, and its progress through Parliament, on Parliament's website here.

Upcoming lecture at ECA

I'm a little overawed to have been asked to give a guest lecture at the august Edinburgh College of Art this Tuesday, in the main lecture theatre, on the topic "Haggis and Vodka: working as a documentary photographer in Scotland and Russia." ECA nowadays is part of Edinburgh University. What an opportunity to talk 'at' a semi-captive audience about things that interest me! The plan is to tread a delicate line between keeping the audience awake but not actually have them stampeding for the doors. I'll be talking about my own work, but also about some business aspects of working as a photographer - negotiating with clients, running personal projects alongside earning a living, that kind of thing. I am looking forward to it!

Here's a copy of the poster:

Open Photography Talk -Simon
Open Photography Talk -Simon

Diary of a Lawyer in Moscow III - an ethical question, and the importance of cucumbers

Sometimes my lunch breaks as a lawyer at Linklaters were longer than they strictly should have been. I always carried a camera with a lens so sharp you could shave with it in my coat pocket or lawyerly briefcase. If the KGB ever followed me, they must have put me on their distinctly dodgy list, and wondered about the significance of the apparent innocuous scenes that I was clandestinely capturing. In this first picture, tucked away at the bottom of the frame, there is a figure sitting on a horse. He's the only statue in the scene - the workers erecting the scaffolding are real live people! The man on the horse is Zhukov. Not many people can claim to have saved western civilisation as we know it, but Zhukov can - or rather, could. He was responsible, probably more than any other person, for the defeat of Hitler. He rode a white horse that was famous for trotting in an odd way, with its feet on either side hitting the ground more or less simultaneously rather than alternately. Or so I heard.

The bronze of the statue had weathered to almost black. I was standing next to it when a babushka (little old lady) exclaimed to an accompanying child "The statue is all wrong, Zhukov's horse was white!" I turned to her and blurted out: "I believe Zhukov himself was white too".

Usually the witty riposte occurs to me five minutes later, five minutes too late, so I felt smug for at least a day after that. And in a foreign langauge too! In fact, still feel a bit smug, over a decade later.

The second picture speaks for itself. I used to find it hard to look at, but then again, I don't see why I should, and now it no longer bothers me. But it is a disturbing image. Am I exploiting the woman in the picture? On the one hand, I'm giving her money, which can't be a bad thing, but maybe I'm only doing it to take her picture - would I have given her the money without taking the picture? So maybe it's exploitation. And I'm also taking her picture without her consent. The fact that I am wearing a jacket, apparently well dressed, doesn't help - and she is kissing my hand. There is something shocking about that. But why should there be? Is it shocking to wear a suit? Or to give money? Or to take someone's picture? Or to kiss someone else's hand? Or the combination of all these? Maybe the picture is uncomfortable because it puts in front of us something that we would rather not see? Who is at fault here: the photographer (me) for taking the picture, the owner of the hand (again me) for wearing a suit, the babushka for abasing herself, or the viewer for not liking to see some kind of truth?

I'm sure there's a PhD in there somewhere.

And the third picture - babushki s ogurchikami - for good luck. I find the smile and eyes of this babushka mesmerising, hundreds of years of babushkina bonhomie and supply of pickled cucumbers distilled into one look. It was taken at Novie Cheryomushki Market. Cheryomushki is a kind of cliche for a 'new' Soviet district in Moscow. Shostakovitch orchestrated a song about it which involves a chicken which doesn't want to be cooked which I sing from time to time in the bath.

And I think everyone understands the significance of cucumbers. No, not that significance, the other one: cucumbers = zakuska = bite on it to accompany a shot of = vodka. Cucumbers could be a kind of symbol of Russia in transformation, the engine that powers the drinking Russian muzhik from one end of the day to the other. A bit like potatoes for an Irishman, only with more vodka.


Diary of a Lawyer in Moscow II

In some ways these pictures reinforce a preconception about Russia. Harsh winters, alchoholism, poverty. Everything in shades of grey. It's Grim up North. Moscow has changed a lot, last time I was there, it looked more like Las Vegas with dazzling arrays of neon lights. It's easy to see where global warming is coming from - the lights around GUM Department Store themselves must surely have contributed 0.1 C or so to global temperatures. But in 1993 Moscow really did feel more black and white than now. Photographing in colour would probably not have made much difference. Everyone wore dark leather jackets or dark brown furs. Anyone wearing anything bright had to be a foreigner. There were few neon signs - most shops were still called things like "Meat No.9" or "Bread", and the only thing you could guarantee about their produce was that it would be meat or bread, and that it would be stale. Irish House on Arbat held Moscow's only western style bar, the Irish Bar, until Rosie O'Grady's opened a year or two later. The shop in Irish House was the only western style shop, and the only place in Moscow that sold milk that hadn't gone off. It was brought in fresh all the way from Ireland more or less daily. How it was made it through the notoriously slow and bureaucratic Russian Customs fast enough to keep fresh was a mystery - some Customs official somewhere must have become very rich.

In short, to a foreigner, who always had the option of leaving the place when it got too much (which it did frequently), Russia felt exotic and romantic, a living and breathing Le Carre novel, where anything might happen, and often did.

I rented my first flat at Taganka, opposite the avant garde theatre which had constantly been at odds with the Soviet authorities, where Vysotsky had been a lead actor. Vysotsky was a kind of Soviet superstar singing poet - something like the Beatles rolled up into Louis Armstrong (his voice had something in common) rolled up into T.S. Eliot. When he died and was laid out at the Taganka theatre, the Soviet authorities tried to keep news of his funeral quiet, but tens of thousands of people turned out to attend - so many that the attendance at the Olympic events that were in full swing dropped noticeably that day.

After I had been at Taganka a year or so, there was a general renovation of the appartment building, which involved taking out the pipework, and rats began to run around in the flat using the holes left by the pipework, one of them strolling casually through the kitchen during tea and another waking me up by running across my bed at night. I moved from there shortly after, not so much driven away by the rats as by a lunatic landlord who insisted on visiting regularly using his own key.

Red Square in winter
Red Square in winter

Westlicht Photographica print auction - Richard Avedon, Cindy Sherman, Cartier-Bresson, Sanders and, errr... Crofts!

I just couldn't resist putting my name in that list :) Roll up, roll up, the Westlicht Photographica print auction, based in Vienna, has just gone online, and they have a couple of my prints in it :) The bidding ends on 28th May.

It's an amazing feeling to be having prints offered in such august company - along with some lesser known names too (eg. me). Bids can be made online, so if you know anyone who has a few bob to spare please pass the link on, it's an easy way to invest in some amazing artworks.

Some other big names that sprang out were Terry Richardson, Horst P. Horst, and Elliot Erwitt. So even if you don't feel like acquiring a Crofts, there's plenty of other potential early Chrissie pressies to buy yourself.

LvovBallet 00131
LvovBallet 00131
LvovBallet 00428
LvovBallet 00428

Crazy magazine


The latest issue of Lunatic Magazine is out, and it includes a short, rather whimsical, text I wrote introducing the work of Felipe Russo.

I didn't know Felipe or his work at all until I was asked to pen those sentences, but really enjoyed it - not only the security booth series, with their typology aesthetic, but also his other projects. I think there are times when a typology works well, and times when they can be tedious - the security booths work really well for me, because they have this sense of surreality - the Tardises that I mentioned in my text. But Felipe's other projects prove that he has other tricks up his sleeve too, and isn't a one trick pony (sometimes it's good to mix metaphors). His website is well worth checking out.

After I wrote the intro for his work, by chance I bumped into Felipe in Paris. I was browsing around the tables at the Portfolio Review open night, and the security booths drew me across the room. It was great to be able to associate a smiley face with the pictures, the very best thing about attending photography festivals is putting faces to photography that you have fallen in love with, and discovering that behind great photography are normal, interesting, kind human

The Queen in Paris, and a puzzle

I have heard that French law is very strict when it comes to publishing photographs of people, even if it's just street photography or in a bit of art. Henri Cartier Bresson would have had his socks sued off if he were unfortunate enough to be photographing nowadays. So it seems even odder that Hotmail managed to use the Queen's portrait in an advertising campaign promoting a commercial product all over Paris. How on earth did they manage to persuade her to sign the model release?



Holiday Street 1
Holiday Street 1

I have an exhibition of  Time Out on Holiday Street in London, at Woolfson and Tay, near the Design Museum in Bermondsey, opening this Tuesday 12th October, with kicking off with a talk at 7pm. Entrance to the talk is £5 (£3 for concessions), entrance to the exhibition the rest of the time is free. The exhibition will run until 7th November 2010. Hope to see you there!

Press release


Interview by Bartosz Klaczkiewicz

A couple of weeks ago I headed down to Portobello beach with Bartosz Klaczkiewicz, who is a student of Media Studies at Napier University, to put together a 3 minute interview. Bart was amused by the idea that he had come to Scotland from Poland and had encountered me, a Scotsman with an unhealthy obsession with everything connected with Eastern Europe and Russia. I think Bart did a great job - I like the framing with its sense of space and the idea of the interview with me talking off into the distance rather than confronting the camera. The whole experience was very relaxing and a great day out. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjnFIdIEksI]

Scans 054b
Scans 054b

While we were down there I took a picture or two: