Phil Coomes, Picture editor

Phil Coomes Picture editor

Exploring the world of photojournalism, photos in the news and BBC News' use of photographs, including those by our readers

A community's tales

25 July 2014

By their very nature, portrait photographs are silent, mute, allowing the viewer to layer on their own meaning and even to conjure up the personality of the sitter. One photographer, Damian Drohan is tackling this by creating a sound-portrait, which is simply an audio recording of the subject shown alongside their portrait. He has used the technique on his latest project that looks at residents of Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, Ireland, and here he explains what it is about this approach that appeals to him.

Richard Avedon once famously said: "All photographs are accurate - none of them are the truth." He recognised the limitations of the medium, or at least its descriptive abilities. He pushed the descriptive abilities to a level seldom, if ever surpassed.

Is it better for the viewer of the portrait to be left in some doubt? Should the photographer's role end at describing with sensitivity and accuracy what someone looked like, under a particular set of circumstances? As a portrait photographer, or documentary portrait photographer, these are some of the "whys" which constantly play on my mind.

Temporary window display of the work in Carrick-on-Suir
Temporary window display of the work in Carrick-on-Suir

Why large format? I tell myself that it's not an affectation, an expression of "scarcity thinking". I like to think the finer detail allows the viewer more time, and greater scrutiny of the person in front of them. The lines in their faces, creases in their clothes, how long since they shaved. The pace of the encounter is slow, and encourages a very intense gaze, on my part, the sitter's and hopefully the viewers'. My hope is that somewhere in that meeting, a record of the encounter will be formed.

Why audio? It's the richness and timbre of the voice, or strength, or frailty or musicality. It's the wonderful surprise of an austere concurrence turning into a rich human encounter. The laughter, or bittersweet remembrance. In three out of five encounters there may be glimmers but no gems. And when I'm ready to give up on recording interviews, a tall, thin man, taciturn and reserved tells me how he met his soulmate at the age of 72, and about his 20 years religious service as a hermit and the daily meditation and inner silence which still accompany him. The local curate reveals a deep love of tattoos - he has 22. An accomplished artist tells how he walked the breadth of Waterford City, in a day, searching for the girl he wanted to ask out. They're simple, universal tales of love, loss, and ambition which have been generously shared.

Negatives hanging to dry
The pictures were shot in a former chemist's shop

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Chinese foot binding

16 July 2014
Bound feet

Close-up shots of people's feet may not be the first choice of subject for a photo project, but Jo Farrell's pictures of the last remaining women in China with bound feet act as both a link to the past and a fascinating portrait of those involved.

Foot-binding is believed to have begun during, or just before, the Song Dynasty in China around the 10th Century, and became widespread within a couple of hundred years. Bound feet were seen as a status symbol for wealthy women who did not need to work, although eventually the practice became widespread.

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Tour de France and the selfie

7 July 2014
Katie Holroyde took this selfie with the two Tour de France favourites
Katie Holroyde took this selfie of the two Tour de France favourites from the side of the road

For fans of any sport, close to the action is where you want to be. Why watch from a distance when you can reach out and touch your sporting hero?

For some events, that's not practical - but in others, there has always been a desire to get close, one being the Tour de France.

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American always, Scottish forever

30 June 2014

On 18 September, voters in Scotland will be asked in a referendum whether they want the nation to become independent from the rest of the United Kingdom. Yet, across the Pond, there are many Americans with Scottish ancestry, something celebrated at California's Highland Games season. Here photographer Stephen McLaren sets out his take on the event and shares some of his portraits.

Despite President Obama's hopes for Scotland to remain in the UK, the Scottish cultural spirit - which includes pipe bands, sword-dancing, tossing the caber and sheepdog trials - is alive, well and independence-minded in California. An annual calendar of around 20 Scottish festivals and Highland Games brings a mix of recent Scottish emigres and those for whom Scotland is an approximate but proud source of their family heritage.

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Outlaws on the open road

19 June 2014
Crossing the Ohio, Louisville. (c) Danny Lyon Courtesy of Etherton Gallery (USA) & ATLAS Gallery London

In the 1960s Danny Lyon photographed the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, not as a passive observer, but in close, as part of the gang. The resulting photographs capture a subculture from the inside and form one of the defining photographic documents of that time, influencing many photographers who went on to record the decades that followed.

Lyon was born in New York in 1942 and first started photographing in the early 1960s as a staff photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the University of Chicago. His earliest photographs were published in a book on the southern civil rights movement, and since then he has continued to produce work that aims to shape and change opinion.

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Exploring the George Rodger archive

18 June 2014
Kordofan, The Nubas, Sudan. 1949

Photographic archives hold a fascination for photographers and those interested in the medium, not just for the images they preserve, but the background information that goes with them.

One student who has been delving into a number of photographic archives, both online and hard copy, is Kate Green, who, for her course at Coventry University, has focused on the material held in the George Rodger Archive.

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Photography Today

4 June 2014

Is photography art? Today the answer is simple, indeed photography is more popular than ever and arguably the visual art of choice for the masses, but half a century ago the debate still raged.

In a new book, Photography Today, writer, artist and lecturer Mark Durden analyses more than 500 works by 150 artists from the past 50 years, exploring the impact of various genres, from pop art to documentary.

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Sunday soldiers

3 June 2014
Squadron Sergeant-Major Nick Gibson, Royal Engineers

This week sees the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces landed in northern France and began the campaign that would end the conflict in Europe against Nazi Germany the following year. American photographer Daniella Zalcman moved to the UK recently and began a project to make portraits of people who take part in military re-enactment. Here she talks about the work.

When I moved from New York to London in November 2012, I immediately began looking for a photo project that would allow me to get to know the UK. I grew up in the Maryland/Virginia area of the US, where civil war re-enactment is an exceedingly common hobby, and I loved the idea of it — though I found it slightly ironic that most participants' families probably weren't even in America yet during the Civil War.

A table with gloves and chess pieces

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The Apology

26 May 2014
After the Apology, Susan Moylan Coombes

Photographer Aletheia Casey recently returned to Australia after living abroad for five years and began work on a project looking at the process of reconciliation and apology to indigenous Australians. To mark National Sorry Day in Australia, Casey writes about the work.

Shortly before I left Australia in 2008, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology to the First Peoples of Australia and recognised the ongoing trauma and dislocation that the colonisation of Australia has had on the Indigenous Peoples of this land. He also made a specific formal apology for the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their homes which occurred from the 1920s until well into the 1970s in Australia.

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Photographing the Monaco Grand Prix

23 May 2014

On the eve of the Monaco Grand Prix, photographer David Davies reveals what it is like to cover the prestigious motor race.

As a photographer for the Press Association (PA) I have covered all sorts of events, but the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix is without doubt my favourite. Other events do not even touch the noise, smells and atmosphere of a couple of hours in May, when the streets of Monaco are lit up by the blur of F1 cars blasting round the principality.

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About Phil

Phil has worked in the photographic arena for many years, as both a photographer and picture editor, primarily at the BBC where he has covered news stories, features and audio slideshows, both in the UK and abroad.

He obtained a BA (Hons) in photography from the University of Westminster where he studied under Andy Golding, Tom Ang and Gus Wylie, the latter of whom instilled in him his love of the colour photographic document and street photography.

Despite the obvious advantages of digital photography in news, Phil can often be found running film through his old cameras and spent 64 weeks shooting a project to mark the end of Kodachrome in 2010.

Phil is a member of the British Press Photographers Association.

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