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Detail from New Synagogue, Oranienburgerstrasse, Berlin, Germany

One of Berlin’s finest pieces of 19th century architecture. The Neue Synagoge was built between 1859 and 1866 as the main synagogue of the Berlin Jewish community. It is the eastern Moorish style and has a resemblance to the Alhambra of Granada. On 9 November 1938, colloquially euphemised as “Kristallnacht”, the Neue Synagoge was set ablaze by a Nazi mob. The present building frontage is a restoration of the original.

I pass the synagogue often, and this was a shot I’d been weighing up for sometime, waiting for the low sun to rise sufficiently above the city buildings to pick out the ornate golden inscription in Hebrew. When the weather and time was just right, I got the shot, the ‘warm’ light of the low sun complementing the building nicely.

The sun is very often our only light source, and few things are more important to taking good photographs than understanding the movement of the sun and the differing quality of light it produces. I can recommend Tristram Gooley’s excellent book, ‘The Natural Navigator‘, as well as this Sunposition Calculator, a fantastic tool for learning the sun’s arc through time and space.

Molecule Man, Berlin, Germany

Jonathan Borofsky’s giant aluminium creation, Molecule Man is one of the great symbols of Berlin, installed in the late 1970s, but to me expressing the new optimism and unity of the contemporary city. It is hard to visualise its form from afar, but closer up you see the ‘Molecule Man’ is in fact three interlocked figures. The artist’s intention was for the holes to represent “the molecules of all human beings coming together to create our existence”.

Technique: The photographic effect was achieved by biaising exposure toward highlights (the streak of intense reflected light on the River Spree), and then recovering shadow detail by dodging, and pushing the contrast in post-production.

Raindrops, Hyde Park, London, UK

Taking convincing pictures of rain is extremely difficult, you really need an intense tropical downpour for rain to be at all visible to the stills camera. Raindrops make a satisfactory alternative. In this shot I was attracted to the contrast between the internal reflected light within the raindrops and rich green of the trees beyond the window.

Technique: The abstraction of the image is achieved by setting the camera to manual focus, setting the focus to its minimum distance (just over 30 cms on the lens I was using), opening the aperture to maximum (f2.8), and achieving image focus by moving the camera body rather than the lens, all the time visualing keeping the camera sensor in the same plane as the window (as this range even minor deviations would cause uneven focus in the plane of the objects). Finally recognising that it would not be possible to get the entire range of objects in absolute sharp focus, rocking slowly back and forth to work out the combination of focussed/unfocussed objects that would seem to work best in the final image. The image was finshed off by increasing saturation to boost the green to what I took to be my proper ‘real perception’ of the colour of the trees as I first noticed the shot.

Disabled Football Match, Monrovia, Liberia

One afternoon I went down to one of the poorest quarters of Monrovia, around Gurley Street in the central district, to see a game of disabled football (it’s a different game, with modified rules about the use of limbs) being played. The game was played on a tiny sand pitch, in the middle of a slum, with hundreds of excited members of the local community watching on. Most of the players would have lost their limbs as child soldiers during the periods of civil conflict that swept Liberia between 1989 and 2003. Needless to say, Liberians are tough people and the bravery and intensity of the play was unforgettable, young men dripping with sweat were routinely throwing their heads into places where it was being kicked by others, as well as taking the points of metal and wooden crutches in the face. I hope this image captures some of the intensity of that afternoon.

Technique: Sports photography is all about anticipation. Getting good images requires real concentration, your eye and mind getting sharper as the game goes on. This is an unusual sports shot, being taken on a standard 50mm equivalent lens (an old East German Zeiss manual focus) rather than usual big heavy telephotos. This was only possible because I could get so close to the action (the ball narrowly missed the photographer, as it left the pitch). Technique wise, I had lots of light so I preset the aperture at f11 and the focus at about 3 metres out, and fired at anything that came close to filling the frame. The lighting was horrible for photography, midday, deep shadows, full glare of the sun. Made B/W and recovered highlights in post-production.

Local Kids, Gurley Street Community, Monrovia, Liberia

Children are everywhere in most African countries (returning to Europe you are conscious of how old everyone looks). Whip out a camera and soon smiling kids are staring curiously down the barrel of your lens. Turn the camera around to show them their image on the LCD and they’re immediately wheeling around, screaming with joy. This is one of the best feelings you can have as a photographer on the continent.

Former Mount Coffee Hydroelectric Station, Arthrington, Liberia

This image is representative of what happened to Liberia during the period 1989 to 2003, where the country effectively died as a modern state. In July 1990, rebel forces under the command of Charles Taylor reached Liberia’s largest power station, the Mount Coffee plant, shutting off electricity and water to Monrovia. In the civil conflict that followed, the plant was looted and every non-structural element was taken, depriving the capital city of grid electricity until 2005.

This is the former main hall of the plant. It once housed three turbines (located in the three large wells sunk into the floor), and produced 64MW of electrical power (about 1/16 of the power of a single typical European coal plant). Local people told us that men arrived with the necessary equipment to remove the large turbines and put them on lorry. It is believed they were taken to Ghana, where one can only speculate what happened to them.

It was a sobering experience being in the great hulk of the former power station, a strange feeling like we were engaged in some kind of recent human archaeology. Our Liberian friend, a tough man, found it very shocking. He’d never seen the power plant before, but was old enough to remember the days when the plant was functioning, and Liberia was a different land.

Technique: the challenge of the shot was to capture the internal shadow detail whilst not completely burning out the foliage in the world beyond the giant window (in order to still convey a sense of the power plant’s location in the rural landscape). It was the middle of the tropical day, the worst time for photography, so post-production focused on manipulating exposure, contrast and saturation, then burning in the foreground (particularly the first well), and dodging the brighter left half of the image together with the green foliage in the distance, to achieve a more realistic impression of what is seen as one enters this sad, but still impressive, space.

Proverbs, Ducor Hotel, Monrovia, Liberia

Unsurprisingly for a society recently exposed to unimaginable cruelty, hardship and human suffering, religious graffiti in Liberia often strikes a decidedly desperate (and sometimes menacing) tone. Like almost all Sub-Saharan African countries, religion is a massively important part of Liberia’s daily communal life, Christianity is the most widely practiced of the major religions, followed by Islam. In practice, religious observance in West Africa is often a highly syncretic mix, which may incorporate familiar mainstream ritual, animist beliefs, superstition, and even traditional witchcraft.

This picture was taken inside the shell of the Ducor Hotel. High on a rocky promontory above the city, it was once one of Monrovia’s grandest buildings. Until at late as 2007 it was home to a large community of several hundred, otherwise homeless people. Clearance of the building debris began in 2010, readying it for its redevelopment as a hotel. However, given that the lease for redevelopment was signed by the now deposed Government of Libya, the project is in a very uncertain state.

Technique: the challenge was to rescue an interesting but rather low key, low contrast, digital negative. Post-production involved making the image black and white, in order to be able to ‘push’ the negative harder for exposure (together with contrast and saturation adjustments) whilst still retaining a naturalistic image.

West Point, Monrovia, Liberia

West Point, a large slum built on a sandy spit close to downtown Monrovia, is one of the city’s poorest and toughest neighbours. It has a youthful population, and is a stronghold of Liberia’s main opposition party, the Coalition for Democratic Change (recently defeated in the 2011 General Election). Although Liberia’s slums are undoubtedly some of the poorest and most challenging urban environments on the continent of Africa, slums are not the seething mass of total chaos and degradation that people in the rich world often imagine they are. They have their own internal logic, structures and rules, together with community institutions and facilities (churches, schools, clinics – run privately or by NGOs). However, one of the most challenging aspects of living in a dense slum like West Point is the current impossibility of accessing utility services such as grid electricity or mains water, which are instead expensively provided by means of small generators and by manual transportation of water tanks.

Beyond West Point, enclosed by two 2km long breakwaters, is the Port of Monrovia. A great deal of Liberia’s food supply is dependent upon imports, and as the country’s largest and most developed port, this facility is critical to the security and integrity of not just Monrovia, but the entire country. Recently, a public-private partnership deal was signed with the Dutch company, APM Terminals, to redevelop and modernize the port, and bring it up to international standards.

This image was taken from the ruin of the former Ducor Hotel.

Solitary Expatriate, Buchanan, Liberia

Standing upon a large rock, a man considers the sea, on an isolated beach close to Liberia’s second city of Buchanan. The city saw very heavy fighting during the civil conflicts that convulsed much of the country during the period 1990-2003, and parts of the beach front were mined (I hesitate to advise how successfully they have been de-mined – exercise caution if you visit). We were essentially visiting this broken town and its lonely beach as ‘tourists’. A significant indicator of the capacity of an expatriate to endure prolonged stints in challenging environments is their individual capacity to make entertainment from the unconventional.

Technique: The image is a simple silhouette. Even on a relatively overcast day, the light of the tropics is sufficiently intense to easily achieve a full silhouette by exposing for the sky. A little contrast work and cleaning up was then done in post-production.

Waterside, Monrovia, Liberia

The dilapidation of Waterside, one of Monrovia’s oldest districts, is evident here. However, the area is still commercially very important, containing one of Monrovia’s busiest and most vibrant markets.