On Sunday 20th October I was lucky enough to hear that the London Arba’een Procession was happening later that afternoon, and headed straight for Marble Arch. I took my Nikon FM2, which still contained the first of it’s test rolls, Fujifilm C200. I don’t usually like the idea of test rolls (I know some photographers who seem to exclusively shoot test rolls, and I’ve yet to see a “real” roll from them) but I had just replaced the light seals and wanted to be sure everything was in order.
I’ve shot a few rolls of C200 before – at £5 for a pack of 3x 24 exposure rolls it’s one of the best bargains in colour photography. The colours are often saturated and reliable, and it’s worthy as more than just testing the camera – reasonably sharp results with my Nikon 50mm f/1.4D, and low grain when exposed correctly or one stop over. I think I prefer Kodak as a brand overall, as well as the look of their cheaper films, especially the exaggerated golden tones of Pro Image 100 – but the C200 works out at 0.06p per frame, and the Kodak at 0.13p based on a five pack of 36 shots at £24.
My goal for the day wasn’t really related to any images or scenes specifically, but rather to improve at my focusing with a split prism, something I really dislike, and also to get used to the manual focusing direction of Nikon lenses, also something I dislike. Fast manual focusing is essential to my work, and takes practice to maintain; especially when it’s with a system that I’m not familiar with. I really want to use my Nikon FM2 during some upcoming travel, so the practice will hopefully go a long way. I shot at f/1.4 and f/2 wherever possible, overexposing where necessary; despite being overcast it was still quite a bright day.
One of the best things about a cheap film is that it allows me to relax a little with my usual frugality and shoot with more of a snapshot mentality. At an event like this it can take some time for me to “warm up” and the first couple of frames are usually wasted on settling into the environment, getting some establishing scenes, and getting a feel for the mood of the crowd.
Arba’een is a procession which takes place every year in Iraq, to commemorate the life of an Islamic figure, Al-Husayn ibn Ali. As far as I’m aware the event in London is one of the largest Muslim gatherings in Europe, and it was a fantastic environment to photograph in. The crowd was dense, and there was a lot going on to catch my attention.This was a photograph I was certain I had underexposed – I forgot to change my shutter speed after moving between lighting conditions – but the C200 managed it well, and I was able to bring out a little of the detail in Photoshop. I was really glad I nailed the moment the pigeon took flight – really makes the scene in my opinion!
When shooting in crowds I enjoy the scenes that can be found on the outskirts. There are usually some interesting characters who use that space almost as sanctuary after being in such a confined space.
I think this kind of event is fantastic to photograph, a really unique environment to work with, which makes any image that much more special by association. Such a display of tradition in the heart of London, right next to the iconic Marble Arch, featuring a culture so often vilified is a combination that can be used to produce some intimate documentary work – a real reminder of the power of photography for social change.
Photographing other cultures can be a really fascinating experience, and there are lots of different ways to go about it. The journalistic approach is usually to research beforehand, to interact with the people and ask questions when appropriate, and to shape the story of the images around that context and those encounters. However I tend to go towards the “street” approach, which requires a little more spontaneity and a little less in the way of preconceptions. As much as I’m eager to learn about all the different mechanisms and rituals I find that sometimes knowing too much about a story can influence the way I shoot it. It can add bias and expectations, which I would prefer to do without.
Instead I go a little more bare-bones, in terms of pointing myself in a direction and seeing what happens; doing very little in this environment than I would in a normal street situation, and allowing my compositions to unfold before my eyes. I can then do as much reading afterwards, and educate myself as to the “true” nature of my images. I think this prevents me from deliberately avoiding images, or making others in certain ways that would feed into existing narratives. If it turns out I haven’t been respectful or tactful after the fact then I can make the conscious decision not to publish those images, although this is rarely the case.
It was a real shame that so few other photographers were around documenting this day. There were so many opportunities, and I only scratched the surface with my own exploration. I did see another photojournalist working these scenes, Emily Garthwaite, who has been working on a project documenting the pilgrimage in Iraq in her wonderfully colourful style – I definitely recommend having a look at her work for a more intimate perspective on this culture!
I was pretty happy with quite a few of these images, but most importantly I gave myself an excellent start towards thinking about how I’ll address this event in the future. I’ll definitely be back next year, and I think I’ll definitely have something wider to go along with my 50mm. Shooting in this crowd definitely called with something in the 24ish-mm range, and I’ll definitely be prepared to capture some more context in the scenes. I also want to work on capturing a bit of the motion in the crowd, rather than the stagnant figures seen here.
There really was some great energy, especially in the procession itself, and I can definitely focus on some slow-shutter speed interpretations of that. Colour was a nice break, but to remain consistent with the rest of my work I’d like to try this on HP5+, which I’ll likely push due to the overcast conditions. I think this will give me an interesting aesthetic, and really allow me to pinpoint the most minimal interpretations of events rather than being limited by the limited colour palette I search for when shooting the full spectrum.
Thanks for taking the time to read this “5 Frames With…” article! You might enjoy some of the other writing I’ve done here on 35mmc, or my Instagram for a steady feed of my work. I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.