A chance encounter near North Berwick

North Berwick was famous for its witch trials at which over a hundred witches were accused.  It all started because James VI, while returning from Denmark in a ship, was hit by a storm. Many of them confessed under torture to meeting the Devil and attempting to sink the ship, and were burned. It was reputed that witches sailed to sea in a sieve. Or as Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth:

“Aroint thee, witch!” the rump-fed runnion cries.

Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o' th'Tiger;

But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,

And like a rat without a tail,

I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

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© Sylwia Kowalczyk and Simon Crofts

Alnmouth

Every time I take the train to London. I look out of the window of the train as we pass Alnmouth and always think "I must go there one day'. And of course, never do. Well today, we did.

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An impromptu Rembrandt-style portrait of Sylwia in nearby Ellingham Hall

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Sylwia

The harbour entrance is idyllic

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When we arrived, we joked that there was bound to be a big white van parked in the middle of the harbour view. There always is. So we went for a coffee, sitting outside in the cafe's yard with a view out across the golf course to the coast. And a minute later, look what parked in front of us (and incidentally on top of the 'Keep Clear' sign)

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A football pitch, Northumberland style

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I must down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

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And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by

The trail is actually from a horse:

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... who wasn't welcome on this path:

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Many houses in the town suffer from obsessive-compulsive hedge trimming. While we loved the town, and the hedges were truly impressive, we're glad we live in a nice big city.

We had a chat with a local who asked where we lived, and of course we told him Edinburgh. We turned the conversation to Alnmouth, and told him how lovely it was. Every time we did, he nodded in agreement, then added wistfully: "Edinburgh's nice" and "I really like Edinburgh" and "I do love to visit Edinburgh" and "how long does it take on the train to Edinburgh?"

Maybe we won't move just yet.

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Beltane Part 2 - the preparations

I have made a small selection of some of the pictures that Sylwia and I took of the preparations for Beltane. An enormous amount of effort, dedication and organisation went into the weeks in the run up. It is fascinating to see these Celtic pagan traditions being kept alive, and reinterpreted, in a modern context - Beltane is not a historical reenactment, but a living, constantly evolving collective experience: All images © Sylwia Kowalczyk and Simon Crofts

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Beltane 2013 preparations
Beltane 2013 preparations
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Beltane Fire Festival

Last week Sylwia and I photographed Beltane, the ancient Celtic festival welcoming the onset of summer (or spring, depending on your point of view  - anyway, the relatively warm part of the year) as part of a project that we are working on at the moment. We photographed some of the preparations as well as the night itself - I'll do a separate post with a selection of preparation images, but here are some from Beltane night itself. The whole thing was an impressive and extraordinary spectacle, and an awful lot of fun to take part in, hard work and exhilarating at the same time, and an interesting technical challenge - because for most of the night there is very little light except that from torches and bonfire. All images © Sylwia Kowalczyk and Simon Crofts

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Beltane 2013 Acropolis Sequence View from the Nelson Monument
Beltane 2013 Acropolis Sequence View from the Nelson Monument
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A handfasting ceremony under way:-

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KISS

I like this philosophy in photography: Keep it Simple, Simon. Or for that matter, Sylwia. Talking of which, this is a portrait of Sylwia. Actually, it was a test photo for another picture, with Sylwia standing in to test the light. It doesn't matter why it was taken, I like it for its simplicity and honesty, the lack of manipulation, the strands of hair that have gone astray, and of course a pretty girl - my wife!  

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Sylwia

"We buy human hair"

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A mannequin head in a shop window in Krakow, Poland
A mannequin head in a shop window in Krakow, Poland
Window display on Ulica Dluga in Krakow
Window display on Ulica Dluga in Krakow
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Whenever I passed this window in Krakow and noticed a change, I took a photo, starting nearly ten years ago. Styles have been subtly evolving (and the sign placed in the window reads "we buy cut hair"). I haven't photographed it for about four years now, but plan to pass through Krakow in June hopefully, and will do so then. It'll be interesting to see what's changed in the last four years.

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Tanya in the Trust Room, Chernigiv AIDS Centre

Tanya has the unenviable job of letting people know the results of their HIV tests. This is the room where she tells them, called the 'Trust Room'. Because of discrimination against people with HIV, people lose their jobs, can be ostracised from society, and even lose access to social services such as healthcare if news of a positive status leaks - so the testing and the results have to be confidential. "Here in this Trust Room I conduct before and after testing consultations. Anyone who wants to can come here and be tested – either anonymously or in their own name...

The most important thing is to tell them what HIV infection is, the means of transmission and prevention. I recommend taking a test for HIV, as it is extremely important to know one’s status so as to take treatment at the early stages. Sometimes 15-20 people come every day. Some come also for post-test consultation.

It’s difficult when someone received a positive diagnosis. It’s difficult when a person realises that he/she is HIV positive and must fight it. The most important thing is to explain that life carries on. So that they don’t withdraw into themselves. To find a person who could give support.

It’s very difficult for yourself, you yourself live through it with that person. On the one hand, you feel sorry for them, on the other you try to make sure that they keep going. My first patient was a girl. Of course it was difficult. She was of my own age – young."

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The story of an icon (HIV/AIDS in Ukraine)

Irina, Child Virologist, Kiev AIDS Centre. As Irina told the story, she was clearly distressed, and she cried. It felt like an intrusion to take her picture, I felt bad about it, but nevertheless I thought it was important to do so. To take the portrait was an intrusion, not to take the picture would be worse: "A little girl began to fall seriously ill when she was six, but nobody could understand why. Grandma and Grandpa were her guardians as the mother had died when the girl was 5 months old. They went round all the doctors, but since this was a well-off family, it didn’t occur to any of the doctors to test her for HIV. And in the end, when they tested her, she had lost 8 kilos over 5 months – they discovered that the virus had already developed into AIDS.   The girl of course didn’t look her age at all, she was very thin. Thanks to the fact that she had such good grandparents she was still alive… When they came to us at the Centre, we began ARV therapy with her, but two months later she died. Before this, her grandfather… came and gave me this icon. The icon is the Virgin Mary, who looks over children."

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"What upsets me? That is when people stigmatise our children. When they don’t want to take our children into nursery, or boarding school, it upsets me that the system of education is not ready, and that nobody knows when it will be ready. And how can you teach youth today when the country has an epidemic? Workers and teachers themselves don’t know about it. It upsets me when they don’t want to take children into nursery schools. It upsets me that medical staff themselves know little about HIV infection, and in places where preventative measures should be taken, they don’t take them…"

An unlikely angel

I'e been revisiting the images from "Time Out in Holiday Street", about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Ukraine. When I took them, I wasn't running a blog and so only showed the images with short captions. But the words of the people I photographed (interviewed by the wonderful Oksana Shved - the dodgy translation however is all my fault) deserved to be quoted at much greater length. So I'm making up for lost time by letting them speak here. I will post several hopefully over the next few days. First is Volodya. Ever since I met Volodya, with his piercing eyes and bald pate he stuck in my head as my idea of what an angel might look like if one ever descended to Earth. He was running a needle exchange programme at Kiev AIDS Centre, on Holiday Street:

"People come here with problems and I try to help – many come with a ‘diagnosis’. People come in great distress. I don’t try to preach to them, instead I try to explain. Sometimes we sit for four hours. Also, many HIV+ people come, and I help them. When I’m ill, I feel bad, and when you are ill – you, you, you, and you - are in no way better than me, and in no way worse or better than him. And the problem is this: that this person was living, having fun in life, and then they tell him – you have AIDS… And he loses it – is completely lost in a moment.

And when I show them a whole pile of examples and people come and say “I too am HIV+ and I live like that and do this and I’m improving”. I had girls in here who came out giggling, and people asked me “what on earth were you doing to them?” I answer: “I slept with them!” It’s difficult to explain, that I talk to the person so much that he himself has already forgotten about HIV/AIDS. At least, I have softened the blow. Some take a year, others take months."

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Holiday Street

"I’m a tactile, communicative person, and address everyone as an equal. Never as “you, my son”. I work as an equal among equals. I never say that you are bad because you are a drug addict and are HIV+, while I’m good because I’m not a drug addict and not HIV+... For me, all people are good.

When I see syringes lying around, they all have caps on the needles – that is a very great achievement. Not long ago we opened a drug den – all the syringes had caps on them. A drug addict who is “in the shit”, he doesn’t give a damn… and here they all are, in their caps! I was astonished. My eyes popped out of my head, and I realised, that there is a point to it all.

Earlier, when I began working in the provinces, syringes were lying around everywhere. You go into an entrance door, look in the post box… and can you imagine, a child sticks its hand in, or you try to pick up your newspaper and there… is blood, and hepatitis! And everything… you receive everything in the world."

Taking pictures just for myself, getting up in the morning, and The Wreck of the Hesperus

Sylwia might have the right to feel a little insulted by the wreck bit, but I mean the ship, not her. This morning we did something that we haven't done for a long time - got up horribly early, and set out on a train ride to a particular place to take a particular photo. I had seen this place some time ago, and had meant to visit it for ages. Without actually being there I couldn't be sure it would be interesting, and it seemed a long way to go on the off chance, and it never seemed convenient. Last night I decided I had made enough excuses, and since we had to go to Glasgow to meet a client anyway, we could get up earlier (a word not usually in my vocabularly) and take my picture first. It's so refreshing to set off to take a picture, just for myself, with no ulterior motive (eg. money) in view! Sylwia not only served as the core (maybe I should say: corr!) of the picture, but also brought me the vital first cup of tea in the wee hours of the morning that got me out of bed. I almost never take any portraits of Sylwia - I don't know why, I certainly should. Sometimes it's hardest of all to take pictures of the people who are closest to you. This was as good an occasion as any to make up for lost time. So as soon as I had taken the picture without her that I wanted, this was time to take a portrait or two. Or three or four.

There's something about being a photographer that makes you blind, and of course it was much more important and fun to take pictures of Sylwia than some mouldy old ship. But both pictures needed to be taken.

I still have to develop the films from the Mamiya, it'll be interesting to see how they compare, but here is a preview of some of the pictures taken on the Nikon. We were there for an hour, before we had to dash for a lunch meeting with clients in Glasgow.

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