Congratulations to China on this momentous day; or dare I say it ‘great leap forward’. China has announced that the one child policy is now a two child policy; so says the BBC. I thought It would be a nice occasion to publish some of the pictures from a story done a few years ago made with writer Katy Regan where we explored the policy pretty much coming to the conclusion that things would need to change; read more here.
Today’s Guardian’s Global Development site is publishing a story I produced ( with Journalist Zoe Flood ) looking at the extraordinary conditions for the mothers and children of Eldoret in Kenya forced to scrape a living from the municipal dumps.
For Guardian readers interested to discover more, please click/scroll as appropriate:
My Website, Louisquail.com
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Phrases I’m unused to hearing include, ‘Louis get in the car there is a Hyena behind you!” Or “Close the windows or the monkeys will get in”( they did) . I am not used to this level of wildlife. This is the first time I have been to Kenya. I am here on assignment but am squeezing in a family Safari. Highlight of the trip to the world famous Masai Mara game reserve includes having tea with a lion ( well almost). We got as close as the jackal and vulture waiting nearby, anyway, as you can see here…
The Work With charity Mary’s Meals
Africa is an amazing country with some amazing places to visit and wonderful people but also complex problems. One of the reasons for my visit is to document the work of Mary’s Meals.
Their charity’s mission is simple: to feed children in schools. In places where there is extreme poverty like Eldoret, this means children who would otherwise be forced by their parents to work, instead of attending school, have the advantage of being fed and educated at the same time. Buying food accounts for the majority of the weekly wage for poor families so for them it’s a no-brainer. The children get fed and educated and very often, respite from some tough conditions at home.
A teacher working in one of the supported schools offered an explanation as to why Monday was the favorite day of the week for one child: “For this seven year old, Monday lunch was probably his first meal since the last day he attended school on the Friday.” In chaotic households, with parents often using drink and drugs, the children often have to fend for themselves.
Me and the journalist were won over pretty quickly by two of the girls who would go to school during the week and work the dumps over the weekend .
They are included in the feature. Bright, cheeky and ambitious, ( ‘ I am going to be a journalist like you when I grow up”) Lucy even had the nerve to ask for a pair of shoes. One has to be very careful to avoid such obvious requests for handouts because of unforeseen ramifications; and it can be frowned upon. So of course we said yes.
It was worth it and then some, to see the look of pleasure on Sarah and Lucy’s faces.
In our report we concentrated on the mothers forced to work the dumps of Eldoret to make a living. We worked largely on the main dump. It never occurred to me there would be a problem covering an important story with an established charity; until of course we were picked up by the police.
This ended the photography at the dump, something to do with the right papers, blah blah, permission, etc etc. Ultimately, someone somewhere was looking for a handout . I suspect money exchanged hands simply so the charity could continue its work, or face the possibility of being kicked out of the country. NGOs and their reputation for fair play are not always welcome in a country famous for corruption.
Don’t take my word for it Here is a link to an article to a friend of mine about Police corruption. Apparently the police kill more people than even the armed robbers .
What I did discover was that Kenyans do not get the best deal from their government and the work of charities like Mary’s Meals is still vital. What I also learned, is that despite many risks there are many Kenyans campaigning against injustice in Kenya.I was fortunate enough to meet and photograph several brave and tenacious activists. Boniface Mwangi , well known for his anti corruption activism, is one of the most well known. He is pictured here at the offices of his company http://pawa254.org/ . Forced into some kind of retirement for his own safety, he is directing his energy into art as an instrument for social change.
Like I said Kenya is an amazing if complex country. My time here was mixed: uplifting, shocking and inspiring in equal measure. But perhaps the best memories are those of the Masai Mara. As this is ( predominantly) a British audience, maybe it is fitting to end ( in practice with internet tradition) with a picture of a cat.
In April this year, I set off to China to complete a story on the one child policy. I went with my son and my son’s mother (we are not together but we get on well and we wanted our son to have a family holiday). Holiday is not the right word really. We were to complete an assignment for Stella magazine (Fergus Mum, Katy, is a journalist, that’s how we met); a travel story for at least two magazines, the deal was that we would also find time to be tourists with our child. It was not going to be a picnic, or really a holiday for that matter, but we hoped it would be a little adventure.
Did I mention we were also going to throw in four provinces, interview and photograph twelve families? Not really that relaxing then! We were also dealing with a child who is jet-lagged and desperate for fish fingers. In a country where there are virtually no English speakers ( even in the hotels) or even English signs. It was a challenge at times.
It worked though, we managed to have a great time, even though Fergus was jet lagged for a week…..We had to point to food in photographs quite often,( it’s hard to tell donkey from beef in a picture you know but then we thought it was about time Fergus expanded his diet) And he did. Duck was added, donkey maybe, and lots of other strange things of which I can’t tell you the names. Dim Sum in Hong Kong was a highlight, you get to choose food from waiters wheeling trollies of exotic delights. In Shandong, however, they eat pickled cabbage for breakfast – what’s that all about – and no coffee., would you believe it? This was an outlandish and hostile environment to be working in.
On the plus side they did have this great food concept called ‘hotpot’ where you pick and cook the food you want to eat on the table – for example lobster. Very often, restaurants were like an aquarium. This is a definite plus for two parents trying to entertain a six-year-old boy.
China, like the food, is a country of extremes. In a third world country where the average income is equivalent to that of the Republic of Namibia, who could imagine cities like Shenzhen? A commercial metropolis exploding from nowhere – twenty years ago it was a fishing port – Or Beijing where four lane superhighways and gleaming skyscrapers have almost erased all the history of an ancient city in the time it takes to decide that an ancient culture is almost irrelevant. (I think they were lucky to hang on to the Forbidden city and managed this only because of the economics of tourism.) Planning permission is not an obstacle for development in China.
It’s a ruthlessly pragmatic communist country where the bottom line is more brutal than in Wall Street. If the Americans put the $ into CAPITALI$M then the Chinese put the ¥ into MONE¥. Every thing has a price, its not surprising they are tipped to be the world’s next super power. I guess corporations are all mini dictatorships so when China embraced capitalism it had all the systems in place to be one vast, Chinese Corporation.
But in China there is always the antidote. An overnight and evocative train ride away from Shenzhen and you are in the rural province of Guangxi. Even though I had to pay every time I wanted to photograph a water buffalo around the ultra touristy Yangzhou, it was hard not be seduced by the amazing iconic mountain ranges along the River Li, and even bartering on the streets of this reassuringly quaint Chinese equivalent of Windermere was great fun.
Back on the river, we discovered that having a picture taken with a cormorant fisherman was also chargeable. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry really, the octogenarian even had his own business card but then in China, economic success is progress of a sort, why work all day to get a few fish when you can make £15 in two hours? Especially as there is no state pension. Still, how many British six year olds get to pose with a real life piece of Chinese history? The photo we have of Fergus on board the Cormorant fisherman’s raft, is one to treasure.
Down the road In Guilin though I was happy to part with my Yuan when I picked up some lovely Chinese paintings after a demonstration of this ancient art form in the museum, we even had a stamp carved with Fergus name on and Fergus taught the technique by a master artist, a personal highlight of the trip.
So there you are: China: ancient and modern, crass and cultured, rich and poor, communist and capitalist, and is a country where despite many similarities with western culture, is truly an exotic, mystical place, full of surprises.
In between all the touristy stuff above we did manage to complete the intended assignment, which I will publish in the next blog: ‘China in Our Hands’ a report on the One Child Policy. Fergus was my mini assistant, carrying my equipment, loading film and so forth. Ha! Was he heck, but he did play with the children and our ‘only’ child was a great ice breaker for all the families we met with their ‘only children’ so really very helpful.
I hope he will have fond memories of this trip, after all he got to see pandas, climb the Great Wall, meet a cormorant fisher man, bike along the river Li, catch minnows at Splendid China (a huge miniature recreation of all of china’s amazing sites )but maybe not quite as many as I would hope. After retuning he had a weekend with his grand parents pottering around the shores of North West Lancashire. “Dad” he said, “I had a great time in China, but I had a better time with nana and granddad.” Brilliant!
Well the house is still a work in progress but liveable in (Did I say it was almost finished in April? What a fool! )
It was a big project but still, I thought, you know, a couple of months and we’ll be having a housewarming. Sadly, this was not the case: (Note to self: when you are trying do everything yourself including a loft conversion it is likely you will run over expected completion date) . The point is, it’s been very distracting but now my time is (almost) my own again, so here I am, blogging and obviously photographing as I would choose to do were it not for a house that was falling around my ears . For those of you vaguely interest interested in this sort of thing here are some before and after’s:
He is the artist who persuades hundreds, in fact thousands to strip naked in the name of art. In Mexico he had the pleasure of 18 000 muses ( beat that Picasso). The brief was to photograph Spencer in situ with his naked people and think about a possible cover shot. Fat Chance! Despite much wrangling with PRs and Spencer himself, the fact was he simply didn’t want to be photographed in a way that had him manipulating his own volunteers for publicity. Fair enough really. I knew nothing I could say was going to make him change his mind, he was a nice guy and I respected his views so I relaxed and got on with the other part of the assignment which was to photograph some of the volunteers. We did them in situ (and later at home) to find out what motivated them. There was this amazing, buoyant euphoric atmosphere that comes I guess when you have 850 people stripping naked and painting themselves bright colours. Anyway, as I photographed the group I thought if I could get them to call out Spencer’s name he might just take part. One very loud “SPENCER”! later and he, much to my amazement, strolls over and joins us, all be it for only a couple of minutes.
The lesson here I guess, is to relax. I realised he felt ok because he had been invited but this was a relatively rare event and I cannot find him anywhere else, online, doing this kind of shot. Anyway after all that the Pope got the cover. Typical! But here are some shots:
Sometimes the ingredients come together either by design or chance to make a good set of images or at least pictures that seem to happen easily. Recently I was commissioned by Iceland to photograph backstage on the set of one of their TV commercials, for a mini Ad campaign. In the campaign they used real mums, cast through a competition.
It worked well. They had so much energy and spirit and were genuinely loving their experience; not just pretending to love it because they were being paid. They were also beautiful in a way that comes from people who actually eat 3 square meals a day and are happy in themselves. Put those mums in Can Can dresses in the very photogenic Rivoli ballrooms in South London and you have the ingredients for some really lively pictures. Anyway the TV ads are out now anyone who watches ‘I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here” will be seeing them on a very regular basis and maybe my press ads somewhere as well.
So continuing the pattern of random posting here’s a portrait taken over the summer. He has an audience of 20 million and is broadcast in over 20 countries in his role as an anchor man on Chinese TV, but was very down to earth and if you excuse the cliche a very nice chap. I photographed him with his parents and also a Chinese ex-pat club in Tower Hamlets for a feature on the British Chinese returning to the birthplace of their parents- reverse immigration. There were also some great characters in the club that didn’t make it to the magazine so feel free to have an exclusive peek.