To commemorate the final publication of the Independent, I have brought out a small compendium of images taken on assignment or published by the newspaper from over 20 years of working for the title and its Sunday sister. Order your copy here.
To commemorate the final publication of the Independent, I have brought out a small compendium of images taken on assignment or published by the newspaper from over 20 years of working for the title and its Sunday sister. Order your copy here.
The rain seeps down the train window in flecked torrents. There are only five disparate passengers in the carriage, but the combined body heat forms a steamy fog on the glass, obscuring the view as we cut through the lush south Wales countryside between Cardiff and Port Talbot.
Awaiting us is a sodden spectacle. An early Saturday morning wash out. Shoppers are so scarce on the semi-covered pedestrian thoroughfare that one could be forgiven for thinking that some nuclear apocalypse had taken the steel town down. The bright lights of the up-and-at-‘em-early charity shops illuminate the watery pavements. Somewhere behind me, steam evaporating into the Tupperware sky, the vast Port Talbot steelworks belches and hums. An ever-present feature of the landscape, now threatened with the same fate which has befallen other steel plants across the United Kingdom.
Under a sturdy canvas canopy, sandwiched between a giant Tesco and the town’s shopping centre a group of people gather to shows solidarity, gather signatures and mutter darkly under the funereal sky about the fate of the plant. Interspersed between talk of saving the steelworks are more common complaints: “bloody weather. I can’t wait for summer,” intones one woman. “But summer’s just like this,” comes the retort from a man who looks as if he’s spent the morning in the shower, fully clothed. Competing with this throng is a man with a bicycle laden with onions for sale: ‘Last day’ reads a mournful sign attached to the bike.
I decide to grasp the soaking nettle and walk out towards the Tata-owned steelworks, by way of an arterial road which leaves the town behind me like a broody, surly neighbour. There’s not much to see, except the sights and sounds of industry: a faint wheezing noise and steaming plumes swirling towards the watery heavens indicate production continuing. But for how long, in the wake of 700 redundancies, it’s hard to know.
My next stop is the town’s homely little football club. South Wales football competes bravely against its more illustrious cousin rugby union. Nevertheless, the passion amongst the small, colourfully-hatted supporters of Port Talbot Town FC is tangible as they cheer their team on to a cup win on a pitch which has been lined using baking flour at the referee’s insistence in order that the match may proceed.
I learn that the club was formed by a Scottish family who came south to work in the steel industry. it’s a poignant discovery for me as it forms a link with my photographs from the project The Fall and Rise of Ravenscraig which I opened at Cardiff’s Millennium Centre two days previously. The parallels between Motherwell and Port Talbot are striking. Let’s just hope that their fates are not the same and that Port Talbot can survive the loss of part of its major industry with less damage and despair that engulfed Motherwell when Europe’s largest hot strip mill was closed in 1992.
I’m wished well and sent on my way by smiling football fans. Their team has won three-nil. A small slit in the sky reveals a short pause in the rain, however, it proves to be just a hiatus between downpours. By the time I board the train back to Cardiff, Port Talbot is fast disappearing into a gloomy gloam. Here’s hoping the sun is shining in more ways than one tomorrow.
During 2014, I spent time revisiting Ravenscraig, the location of the iconic steelworks in Lanarkshire, which was controversially shut down by the then Conservative government in 1992.
Four years after its closure I returned on commission for the Independent newspaper and photographed the destruction of the cooling towers and gas holders (above) in a series of controlled explosions one summer Sunday afternoon.
By the time I returned almost two decades later, grand redevelopment plans had come and gone, including an idea to build an entire new town on the site. In fact, in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, building projects had been small-scale and sporadic. By 2014 there was a new college, a shiny sports centre and a few houses peppering the largely derelict site which occupied the equivalent to 700 football pitches, or twice the size of Monaco.
In between was a burgeoning nature reserve, officially off-limits to humans, but what had become in fact a vast and informal recreational area. Plans continue to be made, but the charming topography of the place still reveals secrets of where Scotland’s industrial heart once beat.
I met and photographed people who had worked in the steelworks all those years ago, and those who are working, living and playing on the site now. History brought them together in one project.
The project, entitled The Fall and Rise of Ravenscraig, was part of the artistic collaboration between Document Scotland and our Welsh photography colleagues A Fine Beginning. It was first exhibited at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow in the autumn of 2014 as part of the Common Ground show, before moving on to Cardiff in February 2016, where it would be shown at the Millennium Centre.
The work was made possible due to the generous support of Creative Scotland and the University of St. Andrews Library’s special collections department.
This is a period of political and social change in Germany. Voices from the Right have been loud in denouncing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door refugee policy. There have been violent attacks on individual asylum seekers and the places where they are living. Away from cosmopolitan and multiracial cities such as Berlin, local peoples’ fear of immigration polarises opinion and causes concern. On the other side, there is a pride that Germany is leading the world in its response to the refugee crisis and allowing people from war zones such as Syria, Iraq and north Africa a place of safety and the opportunity to rebuild shattered lives.
The volunteer army which assembled spontaneously last summer and has continued its work throughout the long, bleak winter months came together largely through social media. Without a developed charity sector in Germany, it was left to people to collaborate, share ideas, pool resources and skills and set to work organising collections of clothes and other essentials, provide frontline medical care and develop networks of social care which afford refugees the chance to participate in everyday activities, such as trips to the cinema, playing sport or having access to German language courses and other education.
There is still a need for help with the basics, especially during the freezing German winter. Whilst there has been a drop off in numbers volunteering to help, their activities have become more organised and professional, which in turn is taking some of the pressure off. And as the German government announces a toughening and tightening of the rules allowing people into the country, the focus will slowly turn towards integrating those who have arrived over during 2015.
In the meantime, the volunteers continue their work, unheralded. It’s hard to know numbers involved, but one website talks of 36,000 volunteers who have contributed 112,000 working hours across Germany. And that’s likely to be just a snapshot, as a trawl through Facebook reveals individuals, friends, groups and organisations offering all types of help and support. What is in no doubt is that it is people of all ages and backgrounds who are involved, across the length and breadth of Germany.
As Germany comes to terms with the consequences of its government’s policy of welcoming and accommodating almost one million refugees who have found sanctuary in the country over the last year, I met and talked to a number of volunteers whose mission has been to help and assist those fleeing war and persecution and who have found themselves in Berlin.
Each volunteer spoke about their determination to “do the right thing” and how they felt it was a moral obligation for people across the Western world to offer a safe haven and support to men, women and children many of whom have arrived in Germany following traumatic and harrowing journeys from their native lands.
Here, five young, creative Berliners talk about their experiences of those remarkable months when the face of Germany began to change forever.
Monique Fritzsche, 28, a textile designer from Berlin started volunteering in summer 2015 as the first wave of refugees came to the city. She is currently involved with a group called We Picknick, cooking and handing out food for newly-arrived refugees who have not yet registered with the authorities and therefore have no entitlement to state assistance.
“Getting involved was all my own initiative. In August I was at home ill, lying on the sofa and watching all the television footage of the refugees arriving in Germany. I thought to myself: ‘It’s time to do something.’ You cannot just be a spectator.
I put some clothes into an IKEA bag and went to LaGeSo, the administration facility for health and social welfare here in Berlin, where thousands of refugees were arriving to be registered. The place was full of asylum seekers and volunteers. As it was the holidays, there were students and even school pupils all helping out. I started by sorting out clothes and other items which had been donated. But that felt insufficient. So I began to work more directly helping in a more hands-on way. I was really scared to start with. The fear came from not knowing what to expect. And from the language barrier too. I soon realised that I could communicate using sign language and that the refugees were really thankful.
I remember the first time I saw refugees coming off the buses which brought them to Berlin. What made an impression on me was that here they were arriving without any possessions. No luggage, no suitcases or rucksacks or anything. I saw young kids on their own and thought: ‘where is your mama?’
Later, through Facebook, I got involved with We Picknick, a volunteer group established to feed newly-arrived refugees who have not yet been registered and so don’t qualify for any food or meals. We meet at the weekends in the park opposite LaGeSo and helping there feels like being part of a little family. You are never asked: ‘how often do you do this?’ or: ‘what job do you do?’ It’s all irrelevant because in that moment you are helping so everyone is equal. People are so supportive and tell you how cool it is that you are helping out. Then there’s the atmosphere with the refugees. You should not expect too much. You don’t go there to get some kind of award or official recognition – that’s certainly not what I want. I mean, many refugees are so ashamed to be in this situation, taking handouts of food. But the reward for me is just to hear them say: ‘thank you’ or: ‘that’s great’ to you – that’s the greatest compliment you can get from these people.
I believe Germany can cope with this influx of refugees. They will integrate into society. Yes, it will take time and it will be difficult but it will happen. So it’s important that we carry on volunteering.”
Finn Pelke, 33, an assistant film director from Berlin works up to three days per week as a volunteer sorting boxes of clothes and other items donated to Kreuzberg Hilft, established in the summer of 2015 by a group of citizens to help alleviate the refugee crisis in the city.
“I think Germans, given our history, like to see ourselves as open to the world. After the 2006 World Cup here there was a lot of talk about how welcome the world felt coming here and how well it all went. Even seeing the German flag being waved in a friendly manner was a good thing.
Kreuzberg is a particularly mixed area of Berlin. There’s more openness to outsiders and refugees here. If you live in more rural places or somewhere which has a population of a couple of thousand then I totally get it if people are worried about the impact of 500 refugees suddenly coming into that community. The impact is going to be far greater than 50,000 coming to Berlin with its population of 3.5 million. But there are examples of small villages where refugees are now contributing by, for example, opening new businesses. Germany’s population is getting older and older and many people are saying it’s a good thing that new people are coming in. There’s always two sides to it and of course there’s fears that it could all be too much to cope with.
If you want to see problems then there are problems, but if you want to see the possibilities and chances then they are also there. And I prefer to stick to the positive side.”
Tobias Muhlbacher, 35, a volunteer doctor working with newly arrived refugees at LaGeSo, the Berlin administration facility for health and social welfare. A trained children’s doctor, he has been working as a volunteer two to three days per week since October 2015.
“I am here because I believe that these refugees, many of whom have undertaken such difficult and dangerous journeys have a right to good care, especially good medical care.
Many people have had to wait for weeks, months even to complete their registration and are therefore only entitled to the emergency treatment we give here at LaGeSo. As a paediatrician I am particularly concerned that the children are looked after, although if there are no children to examine at a particular time, I’ll see anyone who needs a diagnoses.
One problem we have at the moment is that refugees have to re-register again after three months in order that we can continue to provide care for them. This often means sick or injured people queueing up overnight in freezing conditions in order to be first to register the following morning. That’s not a nice picture.
The atmosphere amongst the medical team is good. There is now a mix of volunteers and permanent staff from a local hospital but we all cooperate as we are all here because we want to be. There’s no sense of competition.
I will continue working with the refugees alongside my regular hospital job and will make myself available when the need arises for as long as necessary.”
Berlin-based professional storyteller Britta Wilmsmeier, 37, helped establish the Phoenix-Gruppe of volunteers with fellow artists, teachers and other people in the creative industries to utilise art, therapy and cultural connections to reach out to refugees.
“I heard about all these refugees and thought that no-one would ever choose as a family to do such a journey without a good reason. I was thinking about these women, these mothers, sitting in there with hundreds of other people, with no privacy. I thought one way of keeping them sane and keeping them entertained – which is also important – is by telling them stories.
A colleague and I developed a story which we tell to audiences in German but have objects and use gestures and sounds to communicate. It’s not only about them learning German. We want to learn their language too. It’s a dialogue we want, so that they feel we are interested in them too. Storytelling is a very good way to give people stability because the story always comes back to something good in the end.
People are happy to have a concrete reason to help. We are safe and secure here and have enough generally, so we are happy to share what we have. Through my storytelling, I can help them in my own way. I can give them some sort of release. It’s what these people need: some hope, a spark of hope.”
Born in Mexico, Hector Marroquin, 32, is a music composer and volunteers at Kreuzberg Hilft, where he acts as the group’s press officer. In addition, he helps out at a home for asylum seekers and accompanies groups of young Syrians on trips and outings such as to concerts and rock climbing.
It got really big, really quickly. Within one month from September 2015 we had around 40 refugee houses and homes where we would drive to every day to deliver things like clothes and other essential items.
I could see I was really helping but at the same time it wasn’t enough for me. When we were helping the refugees I was only spending something like 10 minutes with these people and then not seeing them again until the next time we turned up. I wanted to know who they were as they just seemed like normal, cool people to me. Of course they needed our things, our money, but most of all they just needed time with people like me, rather than with the authorities, or officials or the police. So I started to work at a refugee house and now I divide my time one-third composing, one-third at Kreuzberg Hilft and one-third at the refugee home.
In the home there are 54 boys, all here without parents, or family or friends. So they are here alone, just waiting for their government interviews which will decide if they can stay in Germany. This might take anything up to six months. In the meantime, by taking them to concerts or sporting events – normal free-time activities for young people – it will help them integrate into German life if they are allowed to stay here.
People have come here because they want to start a new life. They want to be part of Germany. They want to integrate.”
Last week saw the 26th anniversary of the historic events of November 1989 when a popular uprising by citizens of the German Democratic Republic led to the opening of the Berlin Wall, which had stood and divided friends, families, a city, Germany and Europe since it was constructed in 1961.
I started photographing the Wall in 1985 during a visit to the city and have returned at regular intervals over those 30 years to look at the changing natural and built environment along the course of the Wall. No-one could have dreamed 30 years ago that the Berlin Wall would fall in such dramatic and sudden circumstances. But rather than looking at those momentous events, my photographs show how the Wall occupied the physical space between two halves of the city and now, years after it fell, where the traces and scars can still be seen on the landscape.
Berlin Now and Then is an ongoing project and has been exhibited and published down the years. I am currently in Berlin and once again have set out to capture the the continuing changes which make much of the Berlin Wall nothing more than a distant and barely visible memory.
With the football season in full flow and gathering pace, I am delighted to announce the launch of a new creative venture in partnership with one of north west England’s finest and most historic non-League clubs.
With the help and cooperation of Marine FC, I have created a special souvenir postcard, depicting the club and its supporters during a match this season against Ilkeston at the Marine Travel Arena in Crosby. The first in a series called Football Landscapes of England, the postcard reflects what I love most about non-League football: intimacy and informality mixed with passion and commitment.
Chairman of the Marine Supporters Association, Dickie Felton, was instrumental in supporting the venture and getting it off the ground. He told me: “We are thrilled to work with such an acclaimed photographer as Colin on this project which captures the unique atmosphere of our club. The images on the postcard are wonderful and they will be a big hit with not just our fans but anyone who loves the beautiful game.”
From my base in the North West, I have covered matches at home and abroad for the monthly magazine When Saturday Comes for the last decade. And although there’s little that beats the thrill and excitement of internationals or Premier League football, non-League football is the game’s beating heart and the environment I am happiest photographing.
A first edition limited run of just 250 postcards costing £2 each will go on sale at Marine’s FA Trophy match against Kidsgrove Athletic this coming Saturday, 14th November, kick-off 3pm. It will be available exclusively at the club shop and social club and the aim of this partnership is to promote Marine FC and my own football photography.
One of the immediate consequences of the gathering refugee crisis engulfing Europe is the effect it is having on the reunified Berlin.
Echos of 1989 permeate the city. For those, like myself, with an intimate knowledge of the modern topography of the city, the slowly-healing scars of division are still visible. After the fall of Berlin Wall, the city came together. But that sense of reunification didn’t immediately translate to a mass movement of the population from East to West, or vice versa. Indeed, as they say here, there are many people who still haven’t visited the other side since those fateful days of November 1989.
Into this comes the question of the refugees. Arriving in their hundreds every day, they are dispersed to around 90 locations city-wide which accommodate them in varying degrees of comfort and security. The whole question of how Germany integrates some one million additional people is starting to be raised. There are answers, but not enough to satisfy some.
And into this mix comes politics. And on Saturday, November 7, a march by 5000 supporters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) took place through the Berlin streets. Whilst not massive in number, it was another symbol of the concerns some have about the process, and a chance to wrestle German patriotism from the political centre. Opposing this odd assortment of activists was a coalition of anti-fascist campaigners determined to expose the rhetoric of the right as dangerous and xenophobic.
Trading on the notion that Germany is being re-divided for the first time since the Wall came down, these flag waving nationalists had one target in their sights: Chancellor Angela Merkel. Speeches and chants all laid the blame on Germany’s response to the current situation at her door. And whilst they talked of one, united Germany, like so many – both left and right – the rhetoric was of chaos and division.
Twenty-four hours later a stroll through central Berlin reveals no trace of the marchers and their slogans. On a bright and cheerful winter’s afternoon, Berliners of all races, creeds and faiths go about the city with no outward signs of division. Some even may have made it across the line of the former Berlin Wall!
The young Iranian refugees excitedly show me footage on their mobile phones of the accommodation they have got used to since arriving in Germany.
With barely a word of English, let alone German, between them they show me a large hall, bedecked with tents, mats and blankets. People shuffle possessions about, men and women share the mixed facility and it’s hard not to escape the impression that these are typical young people on an exciting camping trip. But this is no holiday adventure. This is Berlin, at the chilly beginning of November. The winter may be drawing in, but still they come: from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and north Africa. A seemingly ceasless tide of humanity, washed up by conflict at Europe’s door.
Now their homes are in the cavernous expanses of former hangars at the now-defunct Tempelhof Airport in the heart of the German capital. The famous airfield, constructed in 1923, then expanded and renovated by the Nazis and subsequently used for a million-strong rally, came to prominence after World War II as the site of the American airlift during the Soviet siege of Berlin.
Now partially occupied by a private university and a venue for various cultural events, the city’s administration has begun converting the empty hangars into tented shelter for almost 1000 new arrivals. And it won’t stop there: plans are already afoot to expand capacity at the airfield.
The accommodation is off-limits to the prying eyes of the media. I was given my marching orders by several hefty security guards, but I will return, permission slip in hand and look at the role played by a legion of German volunteers who are keeping the whole refugee situation under control at present.
In the meantime, I spent the day roaming the outskirts of Tempelhof, looking for the signs that the refugee crisis is still very much with us here in Berlin.
With almost comic timing, just as a mini-retrospective of my Scottish football photography is about to open, When Saturday Comes magazine commissioned me to cover a match back where it all began for me.
In less than a fortnight, my contribution to Document Scotland’s The Ties That Bind exhibition will launch at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. My project is entitled When Saturday Comes after the publication which has allowed me to cover matches from internationals to non-League over the past decade.
With all the photographs selected, printed, framed and ready to go on to the wall at the prestigious Edinburgh venue, last Saturday was back to business: a Scottish Championship match between Hibernian and visitors Alloa Athletic at the city’s Easter Road Stadium. I have been there many times before: as a photographer, as an away fan (I jumped ship for neighbouring Meadowbank Thistle in 1979) and, as a young lad, an ardent supporter of the Hibees.
Set against the backdrop of the forthcoming exhibition, walking down Easter Road seemed poignant and timely. I tried to recall as much as I could about what it was like back in November 1974, when, at my dad’s side, we made our way to see my favourites take on Morton in a top tier Scottish League match. So much has changed, but so much remains the same. The boyish enthusiasm of other young lads is the same as it ever was. Swaddled in green scarves, hurrying over the Crawford Bridge, the raw pre-match excitement is tangible. A whole week’s waiting is over. Seven days’ anticipation since that last game nearly at an end. Conversations snatched, the quickening pace towards the ground, then the shuddering halt and the seemingly endless queueing to get in.
Easter Road, the main artery which brings columns of fans to the game is eerily familiar. The difference is the colour and light spilling on to the pavement from assorted shops and stores. Back then, everything save the pubs would have closed down Saturday lunchtime. The smell of ale from Middleton’s reminds me that football was much more a man’s game in the 1970s. Denim flares, swearing and a hard-but-silent aggression permeated the air. Trouble lurked, not in fixtures against Morton, Clyde or Arbroath, but games against Hearts, Rangers and Celtic which would be off-limits to me for the time being.
I am reminded of how Edinburgh and Scotland continues to change. Mobile phones, kebabs, penthouse flats. If we could even imagine what these were in 1974, it was because they inhabited the realms of science fiction, Tomorrow’s World or the sort of exotic holidays few people ever ventured on. There’s a mix of peoples too. The Polish deli is busy, black and Asian faces punctuate the crowds, as supporters mix with locals at the corner of Edina Place. The past unfurls in front of me in a whiff of tobacco smoke, another habit changing with the times.
The stadium gleams, bathed in autumnal light, a temple of modernity and functional design. Gone is the corrugated, dark green main stand, a menacing hulk stalking the touchline. And swept away too is the vast open terracing, so large it once helped accommodate 65,000 people at a 1950s derby match. Today the crowd is a much more modest 7,774, including 79 boisterous away fans from Clackmannanshire, housed in splendid isolation at the old ‘Dunbar’ end. This is second tier football, a recognition that this club which eternally promises much and should deliver more, has but a couple of League Cup successes to its name since those heady days of my youth and Turnbull’s Tornadoes.
As with some many clubs I visit, the past is repackaged in a constant reminder of sweeter times. There’s a Famous Five stand, populated by unregulated and unruly kids, who spend most of the match running up and down and imploring the Hibs substitutes to sign autographs. Nostalgia is in plentiful supply, but fans of Hibernian FC still demand that things are done in a certain way: winning is not enough, it never was. Hibbies demand victory with panache and style.
Today they get the former spiced with a little of the latter. At times it’s like a training match as Hibs cocoon their opponents in their own half, and but for some profligacy, the winning three-goal margin would have matched the five-star performance of Pat Stanton and co. that day in ’74.
Proceedings complete, we shuffle along Albion Road into blinding sunlight. Happy Hibbies heading home. I reach the corner of Easter Road and remember the sweet shop which once stood opposite. Much to my bemusement as a 10-year-old, it sold its wares by the ounce, not in packets. It was charming, old fashioned and slightly eccentric. Not that different from the football team it shares Easter Road with, really.
The match will feature in the November issue of When Saturday Comes magazine, which will hit the newsstands around 10th October 2015.
You’ve listened to the song. You’ve read the magazine. Now, see the exhibition.
When Saturday Comes, a collection of my photographs from around the grounds of Scottish football, opens later this month at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
The selection to be shown was chosen by the gallery’s Curator of International Photography Anne Lyden and helps form an exhibition entitled The Ties That Bind which presents the work of the four members of Document Scotland, the collective I helped form in 2012.
The title of my collection comes from the name of the football magazine which commissioned me to take the photographs. Over the last decade, I have been fortunate to work as one of the main contributing photographers for When Saturday Comes. My involvement with the monthly publication actually started in the 1980s, long before I took up a camera in anger, when I wrote occasional features for them. As co-editor of a notorious football fanzine, my views on Scottish football found a wider audience with the magazine’s UK-wide circulation. Ten years ago, I covered fans’ team FC United of Manchester’s first-ever match for the Observer and the photos came to the attention of When Saturday Comes. Since then, I have been to matches on their behalf at home and abroad, covering everything from Champions’ League and internationals to the lowest rungs of organised competitive football. My heart is always in the lower and non-League game, and this is reflected in the content of When Saturday Comes, the exhibition.
One of the most interesting aspects of the curatorial process of putting together the When Saturday Comes series, was that Anne Lyden is not a football fan, therefore she approached the subject from a different perspective to me. Her choices were fascinating to see but very much reflected my main interest in the sport: the smaller clubs in Scotland, often sustained by a hardcore of dedicated administrators, volunteers and supporters, whose commitment to their teams is something I am familiar through involvement with my own club, Edinburgh City.
I hope you can find time to visit the exhibition: the contributions of my Document Scotland colleagues Jeremy Sutton Hibbert (Unsullied and Untarnished), Sophie Gerrard (Drawn to the Land) and Stephen McLaren (A Sweet Forgetting) form part of a unique and diverse view of life in Scotland today, and look at our nation and its identity through the common riding festivals in the Borders, the life and work of women farmers and the links between Scotland, Jamaica and slavery.
The show opens on Saturday 26th September, 2015 and there are artists’ talks that day by all four Document Scotland photographers. The show runs right through until 24th April next year and takes place in the Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery at the SNPG. Admission is free.
Document Scotland: The Ties That Bind is part of the IPS (Institute for Photography in Scotland) 2015 Season of Photography, a series of exhibitions and events taking place across Scotland from April to September 2015.
Colin McPherson and Document Scotland would like to acknowledge and thank Creative Scotland and the University of St. Andrews Library’s Special Collection for supporting the making of the work for The Ties That Bind.