Posts Tagged ‘Interview’

Nick Smith interviews legendary ‘mad scientist’ Heinz Wolff in E&T magazine, October 2011

November 4, 2011

Heinz Wolff and the future of technology

After a high profile and life-long career in engineering and science, Professor Heinz Wolff thinks that technical innovation is only part of the solution to the challenges facing future society. Words and portrait by Nick Smith

nicksmithphoto portrait of Heinz Wolff, by Nick Smith

How the article appeared in E&T magazine, October 2011

Walking into Heinz Wolff’s office in Brunel University I can see that there’s an engineering crisis of sorts. ‘I’m fashioning a new set of spectacles,’ the 83-year old professor informs me with a twinkle in his eye.’ In fact, he’s recycling components from two broken pairs to produce one functioning unit. It’s slightly bizarre to see this variant of the Theseus Paradox performed by the hands of a man more used to solving complex scientific challenges on our television screens. But it’s a conundrum he evidently enjoys. He informs me that the original products cost no more than ‘£1.99 in Boots or something such,’ as though analysing a critical line in a project build-cost spreadsheet.

Proud of the economies made by the simple use of his hands, Wolff explains that ‘all western nations will have to adjust to what is essentially a war economy, where we will need to make things that last longer and repair what is broken.’ He tells me that he lectures at the department of Human Centred Design at Brunel, ‘where I explain that the future of design will be to make things better – maybe more expensive – but with the potential to have a longer life cycle and less waste of materials. All this without removing the adventure of having something new.’

We’re sitting in Wolff’s office surrounded by photographs of several generations of his family, gadgets he’s invented (including an early prototype electronic book) and a much-modified moped. I ask him if today’s universities have got it right when it comes to delivering opportunities for young engineers.

‘I tend to think of things ten years too early. But I do think that we might teach people the wrong things at university. Of course, we need to produce engineers to maintain the technology systems we already have in place. And we need to produce bright people, and the UK seems to be very good at that. But whether there is a real need to produce a lot of engineers that we are going to notionally employ in production of one form or another, I don’t know.’

But that’s not the real question, he tells me, because the issue is why schools don’t produce people who want to be engineers. ‘In the development of a child, when the brain is still plastic, the feature of their education that we neglect is to nurture the ability to manipulate things.’ After the brain, Wolff explains, the ‘most marvelous thing we have’ is the hand: an actuator that can thread a needle one minute or wield a sledgehammer the next without modification. ‘I firmly believe that the continual iteration of hand-eye-brain is how we became Homo sapiens. We started to make tools, acquired manual skills and could imagine a tool that would be better. And then there was a very important point in our development, which was that we could imagine a tool that could make a tool, which could then make something. This is a very sophisticated way of thinking.’ His obvious Implication is that this is the origin of engineering.

Professor Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Professor Heinz Wolff in his office at Brunel University. Photo: Nick Smith

His hands flash across a QUERTY keyboard. ‘Apart from typing, we don’t use our hands. Girls don’t embroider; boys don’t play with Meccano. With these things you effectively develop an eye at the end of the finger, and you do this when you’re seven years old. And it’s really very clever. But it’s gone.’

Wolff has lectured on the ‘death of competence’ and he thinks it’s brought about by the abandonment of micromanipulation – doing something small and critical with the hand. ‘Our engineering students can’t make things. They might be able to design things on a computer, but they can’t make things. And I don’t believe that you can be an engineer properly, in terms of it circulating in your blood and your brain, without having a degree of skill in making things.’ He explains that this is why apprenticeships were so good, because ‘you actually made things while learning a bit of the theory.’

In neglecting to teach basic manual skills we are producing a generation that carries within it the seeds of its own impotence. Wolff believes that while all teachers agree that children should be articulate and use language with precision and skill, ‘they don’t attach the same values to the use of their hands.’ Is this a health and safety thing? Wolff accepts this might be a part of it, ‘but even a three-year-old knows to stop sawing before his finger falls off.’

This is one of the reasons why our engineering capability is less highly developed than it might be. He knows he’s going to upset people when he says it, but ‘engineering isn’t going to be as important to your future as it has been to our past.’ Interest in SET subjects, he tells me, is in inverse proportion to the wealth and comfort of the country. ‘So in Japan it is quite low. And so also in Britain. In Botswana it’s enormously high. Maybe we’re just growing out of it.’

Professor Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Professor Heinz Wolff in his office at Brunel University. Photo: Nick Smith

‘I should state that I’m 83 years old and I joined the university late in career terms having worked on the Medical Research Council for thirty years.’ He saw the dark clouds of civil science coming under financial pressure gathering on the horizon. It was obvious that we he was going to run into ‘financial buffers and I thought that if anyone were going to trim my wings I would trim them myself.’

Wolff’s response was to head to the nearest university where he offered to found an institute that would be financially self-supporting. The Vice Chancellor agreed to the proposition and ‘I started off in two rather broken down Portakabins that you can still see at the other end of the campus. We did quite well financially because I was working a great deal for the European Space Agency where I had a split personality job: I was chairman of a number of policy committees, but I was also a contractor. We made things for astronauts to use to do science in space.’

As the project became more successful Wolff scoured Exchange and Mart for more Portakabins and ‘so started a village that we called the Brunel Institute of Bioengineering.’ His growing team set up space research programmes and also a project called Tools for Living. ‘I’d made a forecast that elderly and disabled people would require technology to assist them and at the time this kind of technical research seemed to be rather downbeat. We formed a company as well as a charity and we became an appreciable sized institute within this university.’

This burst of activity occurred in Wolff’s late fifties and by his mid sixties he retired ‘for the first of many times,’ and the institute became more absorbed into the university. The modern building that houses the faculty today concentrates on biosciences of ‘various kinds.’ The building, he informs me, only bears his name because ‘I have a certain degree of notoriety.’

Profess Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

Profess Heinz Wolff. Portrait by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto.com

‘If there were to be an epitaph for me and it had to appeal to the public, it would refer to the Great Egg Race. I was on the screen for the best part of 30 years. I would be remembered for that, and not as the scientist that worked for the Medical Research Council. This is unless I bring Care4Care off.’ (See box.)

Wolff cheerfully admits that he’s a ‘TV science boffin’, but is critically aware of the serious point that lies behind this: the advocacy of science to the wider public. I put it to him that in a world where the majority of young people have aspirations no higher than becoming a celebrity or a footballer, it’s vital that technologists are visible on television. ‘Yes, but it doesn’t happen any more. I used to get an audience of 2.5 million on BBC2. People interacted with it, some even recorded it and went into their kitchens after the problem had been set.’

Experience taught Wolff that ‘you don’t have to be a Nobel prize-winning scientist’ to be an effective communicator. ‘This doesn’t impress children or even adults. They have to like you. They don’t care two hoots about how famous you are. It’s much more about the frequency of exposure and a degree of trust. Of course, you need to have a certain talent for explaining complex concepts in a domestic analogy. But don’t have to be a great scientist to do this.’

I put it to Wolff that in the UK at least it is not very conventional to have a TV presenter who is a German Jew with a heavy European accent. With his unconventional hair and spectacles, the bow tie from another era and an apparently distracted manner, Wolff satisfies in the public the desire to be educated by an eccentric. We laugh as we agree that Albert Einstein wouldn’t be half so well remembered if he’d had sensible hair. Virtually everyone outside the technology community knows more about the photo of Einstein poking his tongue out than they do the Manhattan Project.

But what of Wolff’s appearance? ‘Oh I think I’m guilty of being a notorious eccentric. But, I don’t get my hair cut that way, if that’s what you’re asking. And I don’t put on my accent. I think in English. Although I might sometimes count in German. There are reasons for this connected with the archaeology of the mind. If you drill down into people’s memories you’ll come across a few words that were very important to them when they were young. The memory erodes in a certain way and concepts like this can be important in researching Alzheimer’s.’

Wolff on the end of technology in the western world

‘I’m not far off a century old,’ admits Heinz Wolff with allowable exaggeration. He was born in Berlin in the late 1920s and has clear memories of standing at the window of his family’s library in 1933 watching the torchlight procession that put Hitler into power. ‘I was five at the time and as such a conscious human being. And so I have an overview of what the world is about that a 20-year-old doesn’t have. For a 20-year-old even the Moon landing is history.’ He marvels at how something so recent to him, exploiting technologies that have been central to his career, can seem so remote. ‘It’s like a forgotten war. Exactly where did it come in the order of things?’

He can’t remember the author, but he can remember the title of the book. The prediction made in Der Untergang des Abendlandes (‘The Downfall of the Occident’, by Oswald Spengler), Wolff tells me was that the West would cease to be the epicentre of science and technology, as it migrated to the East.

‘There still seems to be an overwhelming conviction that the way to alleviate the economic problems of this country is to intensify technological research.’ He tells me that while a lot of clever technology will be developed in the UK, ‘I suspect that, because of the numerical superiority and enormous investment the tiger economies are making in technology and education, we will face considerable competition in innovation.’

But it is not so much the challenge of the East that bothers Wolff, so much as the societal trends that affect the way we think about technology. ‘If I had to explain this in historical terms, you could see it like this. Clearly Britain and other parts of Western Europe had the Industrial Revolution, with their spinning Jennies and steam engines… and we got through that. And then we had the information revolution and we largely speaking got through that to the point where – and many people won’t like me saying this – much of the communication equipment that we produce are simply toys.’ He looks at my iPhone and pronounces it ‘a fantastic device, but I wouldn’t argue that the world can’t live without it.’ Increasingly, technology is being driven by what people want, rather than what they need.

Now we are at the beginning of what Wolff calls the Human Revolution. He tells me that in one of his lecture presentations he shows a slide ‘which I use to annoy my engineering colleagues.’ It’s the one that says: ‘Innovation in the 21st Century is not going to be in science and technology, but in the way in which society organises itself.’ He tells me that he’s reached the conclusion that if his career is to have a lasting and beneficial effect on society, ‘it’s unlikely that it will be by devising some form of technology. It’s much more likely to be achieved by assisting in real cultural change.’

Social engineering – reciprocal care

‘Three or four years ago I made a resolution that was almost like a religious conversion,’ says Wolff. This was when he reached the conclusion that the problems facing Britain, in terms of caring for an increasingly aging population, wasn’t one that could be solved by mechanisms, but was going to be solved by ‘pairs of hands.’

‘I’m now working on a scheme called Care4Care, the basic idea of which is that we have to produce more resources, which the country can’t afford.’ Essentially, this is a credit system where younger people provide care for older generations in order that their care further down the road can be paid for by credits they’ve already accrued.

‘And so it will go on. And we have produced a resource without putting up taxation. There is now real interest in this and I’m spending virtually every waking moment propagating this. This is because for a nation where we are used to the state doing virtually everything for the past three generations, this is a major cultural change. We will have to become much more prepared to become much more self-supporting. This seemed to be in line with the idea of Big Society, which has largely disappeared.’

Because of the way in which modern career structures tend to move people about geographically, ‘we have to overcome the reduction in kith and kin care, and the way to do this is to get people to take out insurance. But this insurance needs to be paid in kind: you invest hours and not money.’

Wolff thinks that this is going to be ‘possibly the most important thing I will have done in my life.’ He admits he hasn’t ‘got many years left to get this to happen,’ but as we sit at his desk he tells me that there is someone coming to see him this very afternoon ‘from the banking system that deals with alternative currencies.’ Wolff explains that the ‘hour’ is an alternative currency with the merit that it cannot be inflated or deflated.

For further information on Care4Care visit www.care4care.org

For further reading, go to Nick Smith’s other interview with Heinz Wolff:

Nick Smith's article on Heinz Wolff in IET Member News

Nick Smith interviews Heinz Wolff in IET Member News. Photo: Nick Smith

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‘Travels with Paul Theroux’ | Nick Smith in conversation with Theroux in the August 2011 edition of Geographical magazine

September 13, 2011

Arguably the finest travel writer of his generation, Paul Theroux has spent as much of his life in the world of books as he has on the road. By Nick Smith

Paul Theroux saunters onto the stage in a dark grey chalk-stripe suit and a white straight-from-the box Nehru collar shirt. His circular tortoiseshell glasses complete the image of the metropolitan intellectual. Urbane and media-groomed, he pauses to stride across the boards, pours himself a glass of water. If he has notes he doesn’t use them, preferring to tell a string of apparently unconnected anecdotes about his favourite travel books. For an hour he weaves the threads of his immense knowledge into a richly textured fabric. The packed house is enthralled.

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith

The following afternoon Theroux and I meet for a drink in the courtyard of his swanky hotel in Buckingham Gate to discuss his new book The Tao of Travel. Looking relaxed, he admits he ‘winged it last night. I don’t do a lot of public speaking and it can be very stressful.’ It’s hard to imagine how the author of such classics as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonia Express and Riding the Iron Rooster could find sharing his passion for travel literature with 750 well-read geographers as anything other than an easy stroll. But then again, he’s never happier than when on the road. Or to be more precise, travelling by train.

In his lecture at the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje theatre, Theroux midway through his delivery, makes the observation that as a traveller, ‘if you go to an island, you can only be up to no good.’ This seems like a good place to start: after all, he lives part of the time in Hawaii and here we are in the British Isles. So what’s he up to? ‘Nothing.’ This isn’t quite true, but at the time, neither of us could have known that before his promotional tour of the UK was over, Theroux would be patching up a 15-year feud with his nemesis V.S. Naipaul. A historic handshake in Hay on Wye. ‘I’m sorry. I miss you,’ said the 70-year-old to Naipaul.

It comes as no surprise that Theroux loves decent travel writing, although he admits ‘felicitously written, well-observed books are rather rare.’ As an example of one of the best of its genre he cites Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. ‘I mention that not just because it’s stylish, but because the voice is so consistent, so right, so measured.’ I mention that this might be in some way related to Cherry-Garrard being George Bernard Shaw’s close friend and neighbour. Theroux says: ‘Yeah. He looked closely at Cherry-Garrard’s book.’

In his wrapping up statement at the end of Theroux’s lecture, the Society’s President Michael Palin took a positive view of the state of the art, saying: ‘rumours of the death of travel writing have tonight been proved to be greatly exaggerated.’ Theroux agrees. It’s not all bad: ‘it’s just that publishers fear a certain type of book won’t sell. But that’s not a reason not to write it. And it doesn’t mean that people won’t do proper travel or write proper travel books. It just means that it’s going to get harder for them to get published.’

He goes on to argue that in this respect ‘the future of travel writing greatly resembles the past’. But the future of books doesn’t. ‘That’s the $64,000 question. No one knows what’s going to happen to books. We never foresaw the effect of the internet, or e-books or Kindle. We’re in the middle of some kind of revolution, but I’d like to think that the book with a binding and a jacket, that’s full of good writing, will endure. And I think it will, only maybe there will be fewer.’

The problem with making predictions, says Theroux, is that everything looks superficially identical to how it used to. ‘Sitting here in London today it still looks pretty much the same as when I first came here in 1965. When people write science fiction the first thing they do is change the look of a place, but actually places look the same. It’s on the inside that real differences happen.’

This can be especially true of returning to a place after a long absence, and I ask Theroux what happens on a writer’s return. Is it the writer or the place that has changed over time? ‘The truth is I’ve changed and I’m a different person when I go back. It’s a wonderful and educational experience to go back to a place, because you see what the future will look like elsewhere. In general the quality of life is vastly different and yet not as good.’

Ideal travel books have the gifts of description and a human element, says Theroux. For sense of place Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, ‘is wonderfully written, dramatic.’ But that’s not a travel book. ‘He’s not travelling, but he’s in a foreign place. It’s an experience of solitude and confinement. Not a lot of people think of that as a travel book, you’re right. But I think it’s terrific.’

This is important for Theroux, and the demarcation lines between genres are endlessly fascinating for him. As with two other great travel writers of his generation – Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban – he’s also a novelist. And these two existences, for Theroux at least, are not entirely separate or separable. He says that writing novels is – just like Levi’s book – all about confinement, stuck in a house, stuck behind a desk. At the end of typically eighteen months ‘you really want to get out and do something.’ While travelling to South America for The Old Patagonia Express, Theroux passed through Costa Rica and came back with the idea for his novel The Mosquito Coast. Recently, while in India for Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he developed the idea for The Elephanta Suite, three novella which ‘I think are great. I loved writing them.’

It is this combined affection for travel and literature that led him to crystalise his vast reading in The Tao of Travel. There are plenty of literary anthologies in print, many with generous travel sections, but Tao is much more than simply a commonplace book of interesting snippets. For Theroux it deconstructs his reaction to people ‘who don’t travel alone. A lot of people who write believe that they have to come up with a certain type of book. They conceal the fact that they didn’t spend as long a time in a place as they should have. They conceal the fact that they were doing other things or were with another person.’

Theroux says there’s a virtue in travelling alone, but it’s difficult; there’s a virtue in travelling for a long period of time, but that’s difficult, too. ‘It’s much easier,’ he says, ‘to travel for a month than a year. And people conceal this. They conceal the fact that they have to pay bills, they’ve got a family and there’s someone on the other end of the phone saying come home. I don’t know where it will end.’

It’s this artifice of concealment that rankles with Theroux, who confesses not to understand why authors write books that ‘appear to be one thing when they’re really another. In Tristes Tropiques Claude Lévi-Strauss makes out he’s travelling alone, but he’s not. He’s travelling with a whole expedition. And his wife.’

Theroux is equally critical of his former enemy V.S.Naipaul, whose A Turn in the South is an exercise in this type of concealment: ‘his mistress is driving the car and yet she’s never mentioned in the book. He paid her $40,000 to drive, find restaurants and fix tickets, while his wife is back in London. As a reader you don’t know that. And that’s kinda interesting, but it’s not what the book is about.’

Despite a literary career in which he’s often blended fiction with reality –sometimes with legal and emotional consequences – when it comes to travel writing, ‘the truth is always more interesting than what’s made up. This is my objection to some travel writing and this is what informs my selections in Tao.’ Theroux says he wanted to expose other writers’ concealments, and so one of the tasks he set himself was to compile a league table of how long famous travellers claim to have spent on the road and then to hold their claims up against reality. One of Theroux’s ambitions was to dissect and atomise travel books in ‘my own eccentric way of evaluating the truth.’

As the conversation threatens to become a metaphysical disquisition of the nature of truth, Theroux suggests that too many travel writers get hi-jacked by an unknown reader that increasingly requires the writer to have travelled alone, suffered, had moments of great incident and enlightenment. He goes on to say that publishers get bothered too when these boxes don’t get ticked. As a consequence, the writer is often tempted to take the path of least resistance and fabricate an experience that conforms to these expectations. I ask him if there’s an absolute relationship between the travel writer and the literal truth? Theroux adjusts his Ray-Bans, considers the question, before restating the challenge that has tripped up virtually every travel writer since the dawn of the genre. ‘You have a great duty to tell the truth, without being boring.’

At this point the sky turns black with helicopters and our voices are drowned out. ‘That’s Obama,’ shouts Theroux reminding me that we’re a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. ‘I think he’s staying with the Queen tonight. Great president. Nice guy. I just hate his political decisions on things like Iraq and Afghanistan.’

Soundbites: Travelling with Paul Theroux’s books

Tearsheet of Nick Smith's interview with Paul Theroux in Geographical magazine

How the interview appeared in Geographical magazine, September 2011

The difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows – The Great Railway Bazaar

A train isn’t a vehicle. A train is part of the country. It’s a place – Riding the Iron Rooster

The best of travel seems to exist outside of time, as though the years of travel are not deducted from your life – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

A landscape looks different when you know the names of things, and conversely, can look exceedingly inhospitable and alien when it seems nameless – Fresh Air Fiend

In countries where all the crooked politicians wear pin-striped suits, the best people are bare-assed – Dark Star Safari

Villages endure destitution better than towns, and rural poverty can perversely seem almost picturesque – The Pillars of Hercules

The nearest thing to writing a novel is travelling in a strange landscape – Sunrise with Seamonsters

When something human is recorded, good travel writing happens – To the Ends of the Earth

Travel, which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion the opposite. Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture – The Happy Isles of Oceania

Nothing is more bewildering to a foreigner than a nation’s pleasures – The Kingdom by the Sea

Quotations taken from The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton £16.99

Nick Smith interviews the Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science, Chi Onwurah, MP

May 24, 2011

Aiming to make things work better

Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science, MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah, is a passionate advocate for economic regeneration through science, engineering and technology. Interview by Nick Smith

To get into Portcullis House in Westminster you need to pass through the sort of rigorous security procedures similar to those at Heathrow airport. There are metal detectors, luggage scanners and password-protected revolving doors. Someone takes a photograph of you before presenting you with a bar-coded visitor badge. A junior official collects you and will be in your presence for your entire visit. Photography is not permitted and there are armed policemen everywhere. I’m surprised my digital voice recorders make it into the building.

If this all seems a bit intimidating then the Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science quickly puts you at your ease. As Chi Onwurah and I take out seats in Meeting Room ‘O’ she points out that I have two identical DVRs, with a look of mock horror suggesting this might be over-thorough. I reply in the affirmative, explaining that I’m making a contingency for one redundancy failure. She laughs. ‘That’s right,’ she says: ‘you’re from the engineering magazine, aren’t you?’

We’re sitting in one of the most expensive office blocks in London. Home to 210 MPs, Portcullis House is on the north bank of the Thames, literally overshadowed by the Houses of Parliament. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, especially considering that its design included a new interchange for the Jubilee Line beneath it. We have exactly one hour, and given that I want the new Shadow Minister’s views on everything from women engineering to skills shortages, there’s not a moment to lose. But first I want to find out how Chi Onwurah – a remarkable woman of unremarkable origins – became Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, holding one of the key opposition roles in the SET sector.

‘I always was interested in science, although I seem to remember at the age of about five I had a brief interest in becoming an artist and got my mother to buy me some oils that I then never used. But, I’ve really been interested in science all along.’ She pauses as she tries to recall what initially inspired her: ‘no one in my family was a scientist or an engineer and so I had no real exposure to that world. But whatever it was, I’d do scientific experiments in the bath, and my ninth birthday present was a microscope.’

The big question for Chi was how to pursue that interest, whether as a pure scientist or an engineer. As she came to choose her A-levels it became clear to her that what she really wanted to do was ‘make the world a better place, and that for me is what engineers do.’ She was further inspired by the famous words of one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century, Albert Einstein: Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been. The die was cast. For Chi the world of engineering was a land of imaginative opportunity: partly a chance to be ‘involved in the progress of the human race, and partly it was simply an intellectual challenge.’

Chi’s background is hardly conventional for a person holding high office in public life: a black kid from a council estate in Newcastle, and the product of a one-parent family that had very little money. But, undeterred, she forged ahead, and here at the seat of British political power she remembers with pride and affection the reason she was able to become an engineer in the first place: ‘I benefitted from great local schools with great teachers who supported me in my choices.’ She remembers that there was a general assumption at the time – one that she too once believed – that girls couldn’t be good at science. But thanks to her teacher – Mr Dixon – this assumption was overturned. And with that her expectations changed. ‘I became good at maths because I was told that I could.’

This was a defining moment, because for Chi there was no structured careers advice on offer and there was little understanding at her school of what a career in science and engineering might mean. She remembers her work placement in a laboratory, testing sausage rolls for their meat content (‘I think it was 23 per cent’). But that was the closest her school could find to giving her exposure to the scientific environment. Even so, her comprehensive school played its part. A strong-minded female headmistress encouraged the SET subjects, while in Chi’s physics class there were more girls than boys. But her options were limited. In the classroom she was solving simultaneous equations, while in the real world she was finding out that not everyone wants to know how sausages are made.

What followed next was a ‘very bad time’ in the early Eighties reading electrical engineering at Imperial College, a place she describes as a white, male, public school environment. She felt that neither her professors nor her contemporaries were able to interact with women on an intellectual level, which she found ‘unhelpful in terms of encouraging me into the profession. The only women these people seemed to have met were their sisters. I’ve since been told that they were frightened of me.’ At one point she considered diverting her career towards the legal profession that she fleetingly though might be more suited to a black woman from a northern comprehensive. But she persevered with engineering.

The result of which was that in 1987 Chi became an engineer, and in the career that followed she played many roles including hardware and software engineer, as well as product manager. She eventually found herself European Market Development manager for an American company during the Dotcom crash. As with so many others, she found herself out of work for a time, but she managed to reset her career trajectory as a consultant in Nigeria; a country she’d often considered working in, not least because her father was Nigerian. At that time in the Western world there was ‘a lot of disillusionment and cynicism about technology, whereas elsewhere you could see how it was helping development.’

In Nigeria she assisted in the expansion of the telephone network, where the existing fixed line had a penetration of only two per cent. Within a year of Chi’s involvement this figure had risen to ten per cent. ‘We were literally improving communications, and that had an exponential effect on improving the economy and society.’ One of Chi’s proudest moments was when she handed her father the first mobile phone in the city where he lived. ‘I could see the difference we were making to people in the Nigeria and I wanted to bring that sort of change about in the UK.’ Chi returned to the UK in 2004, ‘looking for a job in public service.’

Roles in opposition

Today Chi is a Member of Parliament as well as Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science. She describes the latter position as being two jobs in one: ‘in opposition your role is to hold the government up to account. That’s important because the government is taking decisions that are going to determine our economic future.’ She elaborates, explaining that part of this role is to examine policies in innovation and science, drawing out the implications of proposed cuts in these fields, and to make clear to the electorate what are the implications of these issues. But the second part of her role – ‘which is more positive’ – is to assist in the development of her party’s policies on innovation and science.

This is important too, for several reasons. Central to Chi’s political philosophy is that the route to escaping the economic consequences of the current financial crisis is through growth: ‘you don’t recover from a crisis just by cutting back. You recover by growing. And a huge part of the engine of growth is science and technology, and the new industries that can secure the recovery in a sustainable way’ (see sidebar). Another reason is that there is ‘possibly for the first time in history’ currently a cross-party consensus that the SET sector is a critical part of our future. ‘For decades we have seen ourselves as part of a service economy – an explicit policy during the Thatcher government – and this has become an increasing part of our culture. But now everyone seems to agree that we need to grow our industrial and manufacturing base. And this is a great opportunity for science and technology to take it’s place at the heart of our economic life.’

But isn’t this exactly what great academic and scientific institutions such as the IET have always wanted? ‘Definitely. And it’s something that most engineers and scientists want as well. But my background in engineering and politics probably gives me a unique understanding of how this can be achieved. Engineers and scientists need to stand up for what we do more. We concentrate too much on hard skills – ‘what is the answer to the equation?’ – and we don’t concentrate enough on communicating the importance of what we’re developing. Another aspect of this is to champion the sector in politics and policies generally. But perhaps most important of all is the development of policies that will enable innovation and science to flourish. And that’s complicated.’

Chi goes on to explain that one of the ways of doing this is through the Technology and Innovation Centres, which she feels are not being supported by the coalition government, while RDA-funded centres are closing due to lack of funds. ‘So there are concrete policies we can support – or expose – that are having an impact on our innovation capability. Part of my job is to show that.’

Women in engineering

If science and technology can be seen as one of the components of economic growth, one of the obvious obstacles is the much-discussed skills shortage time bomb. ‘If you look at the IET report that I helped to launch in September 2010, one of the findings is that half of employers don’t think we’re going to have the skills we need for the new economy. So it’s clear that we’re not attracting people into engineering and technology further education. And that’s a huge issue.

Chi says that the responsibility for getting new blood into the sector lies with everyone, from the government through to industry and the institutions. ‘We should be more engaged with young people and schools. I think the image people get of our industry is often formed by the time you’re halfway through primary school. So while communicating with teenagers is important, we need to do more for younger age groups.’ The reason for this is that developing skills ‘is a long-term game, and we need to do more to change and improve our image. But to do this we need to look ahead, five, ten, fifteen years.’

To demonstrate how we’ve failed in this area the Shadow Minister gets out some figures. When she went to Imperial College in 1984 the proportion of women reading electrical engineering in tertiary education was an embarrassing 12 per cent. ‘And now, today, it’s exactly 12 per cent. Nothing’s changed in a quarter of a century. If you factor in that two-thirds of women don’t return to STEM after their maternity leave, we have a profession that is not representative of society.’

For Chi this is a major issue, primarily because we’re unnecessarily and artificially reducing the skills pool by not tapping into women – and ethnic minorities – as a resource. But also she sees the exclusion of women, for whatever reason, from the sector as a barrier to SET taking its place at the centre of our society, and in so doing providing stimulus for economic growth. ‘My experience as an engineer of 23 years is that there are aspects of the scientific and engineering culture that put women off. I have quite often felt excluded by being the only women in a boardroom like this.’

Changing the culture of an industry isn’t an easy task, Chi acknowledges. ‘We’ve been trying to do it for half a century. There isn’t a silver bullet, and any one expecting there to be a situation where in the next few years 50 per cent of all engineers will be women will be disappointed. But I have a sense of urgency about this that many in the profession don’t share. So many in our sector are complacent. We have to go out there and engage with society in a more positive way. We have STEM ambassadors and so on, but we’re not doing enough.’

The clock has wound down and Chi needs to get to her next appointment. But I’m allowed one more question, and so I ask if the plight of women and ethnic minorities would be helped if there were more parliamentarians with an engineering education. ‘There are more lawyers in parliament, or members with PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics] degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, than there are those with a background in science. So it probably would help. But what I’d say to our profession is we need to engage with the public through schools, industry and politics. And we need to emphasise that a career in engineering is a good starting point for other careers. The analytical mindset that training in engineering gives you is incredibly useful in other areas. As an engineer I like to focus on what I can do and change for myself. It’s every single engineer’s job to champion the profession that they are part of.’

I wonder what advice Chi would give to the parents of young children who may not know what a career in engineering may hold for them. For her it’s simple: ‘engineering and science are all about finding out and discovering and making things work well. And that is part of what we want to do as a human race – part of our natural fight for survival. But it can be great fun too, because we’re always answering questions. One of the greatest threats to existence is boredom, and a career in engineering means you’ll never be bored. There’s always a question to answer, and you can always make things work better. The world is not perfect.’

Innovation: The engine of progress

Speaking at the Annual Conference of the Professors and Heads of Electrical Engineering on 12th January 2011 at the IET’s headquarters at Savoy Place, Chi Onwurah highlighted some of the challenges facing the SET sector today. Here are some extracts from her speech.

‘Standing still is not an option. If government and industry can work together to invest in innovation I see a strong future. We need to be more commercially ambitious… But I am concerned at the messages going out to school students now as funding and support are cut… It is absolutely essential that all those involved in the profession shout out loud and clear how important engineering is to our country’s future; particularly to creating the quality jobs of the future and securing a sustainable recovery.

‘Properly regulated industry in a fair society, innovation should be the engine of progress for all. We need new industries if we are to have a balanced economy; one which is resilient to future crises. The financial crisis showed us the consequences of putting too many economic eggs in one basket.

‘I think the answer is around four main themes – a competition environment, infrastructure, skills and finance… Government should be active in ensuring a level playing field. For example, agreeing standards in audio visual encoding, developing a supply chain for wind power or rolling out the next generation broadband…

‘Government has a role in education and therefore helping put in place the skills we need. We need to ensure we provide the skills for the future as well as addressing any current shortfalls. We need more engineers and technologists, scientists and entrepreneurs. We need great engineering education if we are to continue to be world class in the face of increasing competition. ‘

This article first appeared in the Member News magazine of the Institute of Engineering and Technology

Nick Smith interviews American philanthropist Greg Carr in E&T issue one, 2011

February 7, 2011

Bringing new life to Mozambique

A main player of the voice mail revolution, legendary American CEO Greg Carr amassed a colossal personal fortune. But then he turned his back on the business of technology to become a humanitarian. Interview layout

‘If you want to get anything done here you’ve got to stop thinking like an American CEO’ says Greg Carr, looking out over a small car park where field scientists, engineers and biologists are packing up their Land Rovers in the early morning African sun.

We’re sitting in the bar of Chitengo lodge, drinking iced-tea, while the soft hum of insects and the purple glow of neatly trimmed bougainvillea make this a pleasant place to be. ‘See the swimming pool over there?’ he says pointing through a stand of acacia trees where weaverbirds are busily building their nests. ‘That used to be a prison during the Civil War.’

Carr was one of the most influential American CEOs during the digital technology revolution of the 1980s. And the rewards were substantial as he amassed a colossal personal fortune. But here in the middle of Mozambique – the world’s poorest country – he has no Croesus-like delusions of grandeur, while pioneering telecommunications is a world away. There are no power trips, status symbols or trivial luxury. ‘If you look at the organisation chart, you’ll see I’m not even the boss’ he says, before explaining that what he does now, in partnership with the Government of Mozambique, this is his most rewarding challenge to date.

And it’s made him a national hero. Having once made a living from hacking through the lianas and creepers of the corporate jungle, he’s now dedicated his professional life to restoring a real jungle – Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. His aim is to return to Mozambique its ‘crown jewel’ in pristine condition, and in doing so provide sustainable employment, education and health for local people whose economy has been destroyed by civil war. Understandably, for the village people of this rarely visited country his new career is far more important.

Well known for his championing of humanitarian causes, Carr has signed a deal with the government in a ‘classic public private partnership’ that sees US$40 million of his own money ploughed straight into the project. Both parties hope that in 20 years time the Park will be a self-sufficient business that will put much needed economic activity into the country’s tourism sector with benefits for all. With the project still in its early phases, local people living around the Park have started to benefit from Carr’s corporate acumen. They now have jobs. And Carr has helped provide the local village of Vinho with water pumps, medical facilities and a school. But it’s only the start. ‘We need 750 medical centres’, he says referring to the other villages surrounding the National Park.

Carr is best known in the world of digital communications as one of the protagonists in the emergence of voice mail, a technology that informs so much of our everyday business and social lives that, as with other basics such as email, we never really stop to consider the engineering behind it. But the story goes that, inspired by the breakup of AT&T, he founded Boston Technology, one of the earliest organisations to market voice mail systems to telephone companies. Carr served as the chair of Boston until Comverse Technology bought it out. He went on to become chair of Prodigy, an early global Internet service provider.

These were good breaks for Carr and by 1998 he retired from ‘for-profit’ business an extraordinarily wealthy man and made entrepreneurial philanthropy his full-time job. Today he spends half of his life in Mozambique, and as he describes his new job it’s clear that, while success in the world of digital technology was a major milestone in his career, it’s what comes after financial success that really matters. ‘I’m a human rights guy’ he says just in case you might be thinking he’s still a hotshot CEO. What you really have to do is listen to what the people want. So what did they want? ‘Bicycles’ he says. That was the most important thing for almost everyone. As the employees took home their first wage packets from the restored Chitengo Lodge, most of them invested in a set of wheels. It changed their lives.

In the 1960s Chitengo was a hip hangout for cool and trendy (and very rich) South Africans who wanted to go into the bush to see elephants and lions at close range. Businessmen in their smart new Mercedes-Benzes drove up in, well droves, to visit a National Park that had arguably the densest population of mega fauna – lions, elephants, wildebeest – that Africa had ever seen.

But when the Civil War rolled in, Chitengo became popular for a different reason. Strategically placed on the Beira Corridor that links the Indian Ocean seaboard with Zimbabwe, it was also the only brick-built permanent settlement for miles around. The competing political factions Renamo and Frelimo were fighting one of the bloodiest battles seen in this part of Africa. They both wanted Chitengo as a military stronghold. Before long, or so it seemed, all the animals were dead and Chitengo was just another war-blasted ghost town. Meanwhile the war killed a million humans.

There’s still plenty of evidence of the war today. As Carr and I walk around the lodge he shows me bullet holes in the walls and gates, grenade damage to the water towers, while the path we take to the ferry to the nearest village Vinho threads its way through a cleared minefield. Cleared or not, you don’t stray from the path – just outside the chicken-wire fence enclosing the compound there’s a post close to buildings that were once used for interrogation. It’s riddled with head-height bullet holes.

But the mission the Carr Foundation is not one of a truth and reconciliation committee; rather it is to restore the park to its pre-war glory. The theory is simple: Get the land in shape and the animals will come back. Get the animals back and the tourists will come back too. Tourism brings money and the money, if fed properly into local communities, will bring health, education and employment. Or as Carr says: ‘sustainable economic development.’

For the visitor the most pressing question is that of where the animals have gone. Although there are lions and elephants today they’re present in nothing like their former numbers. ‘There have been two wars – civil conflicts – here in Mozambique in recent times’ says Carr. ‘The first, the War of Independence, didn’t affect the ecosystem that much. Mozambique got its independence from Portugal in 1974. And so the National Park in the late Seventies was in good shape.’ But then followed a civil war between the resistance movement Renamo and the liberation movement Frelimo. ‘That really got going in the Eighties, and there were battles fought here at Chitengo, and it changed hands a couple of times. The camp was shut down to tourism as it was occupied by the militia.’ He tells me of a local ranger working at one of the local who was held prisoner in that swimming pool.

It’s easy to imagine the scenario. Two factions competing for a place where the main military benefits were the occupation of permanent buildings and unlimited bush meat to feed the soldiers. While there’s no doubt Chitengo became a flashpoint because of the protection it gave, the bush meat issue is more complex. ‘The real carnage came at the end of the war’ says Carr. ‘This was when professional hunters saw an opportunity and raced in here with weapons and vehicles. There was a massive slaughter and they wiped out the buffalo and sold the meat. It took us a while to figure that out, because we just thought that the soldiers had eaten the animals. But it was more of an organised commercial activity than that. It’s true that ivory was being taken into South Africa and being traded for guns, but the problem was the commercial hunting.’ Carr says that when he first came to Mozambique he was told there were no elephants in the park. ‘But in fact there were 300 in hiding, and now we think there are 400.’

This was all a far cry from the heyday of the Sixties when, according to Carr ‘this was paradise and tourists were coming from all over the world and people loved it.’ But something else was going on at that time too: with so many tourists coming to Gorongosa, the National Park was also was also the economic engine of Mozambique. ‘I’m a big believer that if you do it right, National Parks can protect nature and create a lot of jobs. Good jobs too, because what does it take to run a national park? It takes a lot of knowledge. So you need scientists, biologists, engineers with certain skills, service industry people and guides.’

But it’s not always been done right. National Parks don’t have a good reputation for protecting human rights. In the bad old days it was like this: phase one, let’s have a National Park, if you’re not an animal please leave. But, says Carr, at Gorongosa ‘we have a rights-based philosophy, and that’s the new way of thinking.’ But not new for Carr, who’s always been more interested in human rights than making money in the business sector. ‘I was a human rights activist before coming here – I created a human rights centre at Harvard University and my philanthropy was based on human rights too. When I came to Mozambique to choose a humanitarian project I thought that restoring Gorongosa was a great opportunity for helping people.’

But when Carr arrived in 2004 post-war Mozambique was a wasteland. He waves his arm around as he surveys Chitengo: ‘everything you see here was rubble. I didn’t even know that there was a swimming pool here for the first year because the grass swamped everything. It was so overgrown it was difficult to find what used to be the flow of human beings here.’ He says that when he took his first game drive around the region he simply didn’t see any animals. ‘Maybe you’d see a warthog. Maybe you’d see a baboon. But you could drive for days and not see any animals. But, it turns out that they were hiding, because all of the human activity that had been going on had been bad news. But animals are smart and they do figure out who’s who.’

Within a few years the wildlife ‘started to calm down as they realised that nobody was shooting at them.’ And part of the success story of Gorongosa is that, as it is an unfenced park, animals can make their way back whenever they want to, while the Park authorities reinvigorate their protection. ‘Today if you’re lucky you’ll see elephants and lions, impala and magnificent birdlife.’ He’s right. I was woken up one night by a female lion roaring outside my tent. Nerve-wracking as this might have been, when I told Carr this, he smiled. ‘They’re coming back.’

And it is this return that means the tourism product will flourish and that the cycle of economic activity will gather its own momentum, requiring less and less stimulus from agencies such as Carr’s philanthropic foundation. But there’s work to do if this is to become a genuinely self-sustaining ecosystem: ‘What we were missing most are bulk grazers – big buffalo, zebra, wildebeest – of which there were thousands and thousands. You need them because they eat a lot of grass. We really need 10,000-20,000 grazers for the proper functioning of the park.’

As Carr leans back it’s hard to see him as a trailblazer in the digital world. But as his story unfolds it becomes clear that the challenges are familiar to him, and the citizenship values that make the wheels of good business turn well are transferrable to life in the bush: ‘I’ve got 20 years to make it work. We’re two-and-a-half in and we’re getting there. I think that the government of Mozambique is open to healthy relationships with international partners. They invited me here and that’s a very critical point – they said to me let’s do something together. I couldn’t turn up in someone’s country and just say here I am. It’s about partnerships. This is a new philosophy in aid and philanthropy. It must be done together. If you look carefully at this organisation chart you’ll see I’m just a member of a committee. I’m not here as a big cheese.’

Case study: Local people made good

According to Greg Carr, roughly 80-90% of the workers hired at Chitengo or otherwise in connection with the Gorongosa National Park are locals, many from the village of Vinho, a few miles away. ‘They get a salary, but what’s important about this is that it might be the first formal salary they’ve ever had in their lives.’

As employees they are trained in a range of park management skills, learn languages and advance their education. But it’s the salaries that really count because this takes hard cash back into their village, where only five years previously the economic model was subsistence farming. ‘I’ve got to tell you’ says Carr ‘that it’s hardly the Champs-Élysées now, but five years ago you never even saw a bicycle. Now one of the first things they do when they get their first pay packet is buy one. They ride their bike to get water or go to the market or get their kids to school. It’s changed everything.’

The bikes have created an entrepreneurial buzz in Vinho. Once there were no markets, but now there’s transport to collect goods and set up shop close to home. The real entrepreneurs set up bike-fixing workshops, and the mechanics wear football shirts and baseball caps. ‘They used to be in rags – now people are starting to dress better.’

‘The other change I’ve seen in Vinho is that the farming has increased and diversified to meet the demands of the sustainable tourism. Also in our 20 year agreement with the government we’re obliged to the communities by Article 8 to build them a school, a health clinic and so on. We also share 20 per cent of the Park gate revenue with them. We talk to them to see what they want – maybe a new roof for the school – we listen.’

For more about:

Gorongosa National Park visit http://www.gorongosa.net/

Visit E&T magazine online by clicking http://eandt.theiet.org/

Nick Smith’s interview with Georgina Cranston in April 2010 Outdoor Photography magazine

March 23, 2010

Out of Africa

From gritty reportage on social issues to highly original travel photography, Georgina Cranston has a stunning and diverse portfolio. Nick Smith hears her story…

Women displaced by post election violence in Kenya, including one who fled a torched church where at least 18 people died. Photo: Georgina Cranston

British Photographer Georgina Cranston began her career in 2000, focusing on documentary photography of humanitarian issues. For the past decade she’s travelled the world on assignments for NGOs such as UNICEF and broadsheet newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Times.

Working on a diverse range of subjects including slavery, leprosy and communities living in exile, Georgina has a personal interest in women’s issues. Recently working in the Congo’s gold mines she focused on the extreme conditions faced by women working as ‘human mules’ deep inside the disused mines, carrying up to 60kg of rocks on their backs, at times when eight months pregnant.

Georgina became a professional photographer as soon as she graduated from university and has worked in the industry ever since. She is currently based in London having lived in East Africa for the past three years, working across the continent.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Georgina Cranston: I always had a camera with me when I was younger. After university I had this idea I wanted to work in the charity sector, but I ended up a photographer working in social issues. As I started getting more jobs and I thought maybe I could make a living at this.

NS: What was your first camera?

GC: Other than a point and shoot? It was a Minolta Dynax 500Si 35mm SLR. The first one I got the hang of was a Nikon F100. I took it with me on my first job, and every time something flashed I had to dive behind the sofa to read the manual.

NS: What formal training do you have?

GC: I’ve got a degree in psychology, but as for photography I’m self-taught. I learned on the job and also did assisting to get an insight into different types of photography.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

GC: I do think it’s important, but in order to survive in the industry as it is at the moment you need other strings to your bow to earn a living. But I am going to specialise in women’s social issues.

NS: What is the best assignment you have been and so far?

GC: I went with a newspaper to see the gorillas in the Virunga National Park in the Congo – tourists don’t get to go to the Congo at the moment, so to see the gorillas there was pretty special. The millennium celebrations in Ethiopia was special too – it was bizarre to celebrate a second millennium in my lifetime.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

GC: The thing I probably struggle most with is spending a lot of time on my own – airports, computer and so on. I don’t think that’s healthy. Having a balance is probably the essence – if you’re always doing assignment photography you’re always on the move.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

GC: I use digital and it helps in the work I do – transmitting images to newspapers from overseas. Logistically it makes life easier. When I taught photography in Kenya I used film. I miss the way of working with film, not knowing what’s in the camera at the end of the day.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

GC: A friend of mine once encouraged me to show my work to him. It took me a while to pluck up the courage, but once I’d done this I realised how beneficial it was. It makes you look at your work in different ways.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

GC: I’ve always been fascinated with people and cultures and photography has been a great way to learn about them. Maybe that’s why I did psychology at university. An important thing for me is to capture emotions or the essence of where you are. But it’s also about transmitting these things and evoking emotion in the person who’s looking at it.

NS: What makes great travel photograph?

GC: The thing that I think that makes a good travel photograph is the energy of people or places – peaceful, highly excited, whatever. The great ones are the ones that give me that feeling.

Georgina’s golden rules

1) photograph what you’re fascinated in

2) establish relationship with subject

3) shoot RAW files

4) research your subject

5) don’t be afraid to have fun

Georgina’s kit

Cameras: Nikon D3, Nikon D700

Lenses: 17-35mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.8

Check out Georgina’s work at www.georginacranston.com

Nick Smith’s ’10 Questions’ with adventure travel photographer Aldo Pavan as published in Outdoor Photography magazine February 2010 edition

January 22, 2010

10 Questions – Aldo Pavan

With his experimental style and background in philosophy, Aldo Pavan is the ‘thinking man’s’ outdoor photographer. Nick Smith hears his story…

Aldo Pavan is a journalist and freelance photographer specializing in travel reportage. He’s been on hundreds of assignments in five continents, publishing books and working with magazines. He has taught photo-reportage in Milan and is dedicated to photographic experimentation, crossing over into the role of artist.

Born in 1954 in Treviso, Aldo has been a painter since he was young, becoming interested in aesthetics and experimenting in the dark room. After graduating in philosophy, he began writing for the local newspaper Tribuna di Treviso. Since then he’s worked on countless magazine and book projects.

In 2003 he began working on a series of hugely popular photographic books about the rivers of the world. The Ganges, The Nile and The Yellow River are published by Thames and Hudson, with The Mekong and The Danube, lined up for the near future. Another project he is preparing is entitled The Routes of Man, a series of books dedicated to the great trade routes of the world.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Aldo Pavan: I have always been interested in visual media. I used to paint and draw a lot. My parents had many cameras and I started taking pictures for fun. After my university degree, I began writing for a local newspaper and using my photographs to illustrate my words.

NS: What was your first camera?

AP: With the money I got from my first job I bought a Canon FT 35mm film SLR. I remember that the first reportage I did was about a gypsy camp, but it has never been published because it was too strong. After that I photographed and interviewed a doctor who carried out abortion, which was illegal at that time in Italy. It was a small scoop.

NS: What formal training do you have?

AP: I have a degree in philosophy and I am self-taught in photography. I never took a specific course about it. I studied aesthetics, attending semiotics courses by Umberto Eco at the University of Bologna. I think that to be a good photographer you need to study a lot, as well as working on the field. Studying Roland Barthes is not wasted time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

AP: I should say that it is very important, but I never did. I had to adapt to what my clients were asking for and sometimes keep my passions quiet to make them happy.

NS: What is the best assignment you have been and so far?

AP: I am doing a series of books about the big rivers of the world. It’s a huge work, first at home and then on the field. To photograph each river I needed from 5 to 8 trips, at least two weeks long. And after shooting I spend two months writing and laying out the book.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

AP: I’d like to answer ‘nothing’. It’s a big game for adults… it’s fun. How can we compare this to some really hard jobs, such as miners, surgeons, judges. I spend too much time away from my family.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

AP: Digital, of course. We don’t use horse carriages to go from Venice to London any more because there are faster, better, more modern means available. There is no competition between film and digital. Digital has endless benefits that give more space to creativity.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

AP: I spent hours studying the forms of Chagall, the colours of Matisse and the portraits of Francis Bacon. I love the shadows of Caravaggio, Titian’s reds and the backdrops of Giorgione. Photography has taken the place of the paintings that illustrated the history of man.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

AP: Photography is a language that works along with traditional media like text and words to form the human being and the society we live in. Working with it is a great privilege.

NS: What makes great travel photograph?

AP: Walking and walking. Good photographs do not come out alone, you have to look for them, chase them. You can get there with patience and research, plus a lot of obstinacy.

Aldo’s Golden Rules

1) Avoid cliché and break aesthetic rules

2) Always look for new ideas while you are shooting

3) Don’t be satisfied – you can always do better

4) Establish good relationships with your subjects

5) Don’t ask your subject to pose – look for a spontaneity

Aldo’s Kit

Cameras: Nikon D300 and Nikon D700

Lenses: 12-24mm, 24-120mm, 35-70mm, 35mm f2.8, zoom 70-200mm, 300mm

Flash: Nikon SB800

Tripod: Manfrotto

Notebook and pen

Check out Aldo Pavan’s work at  www.aldopavan.it

Nick Smith interviews BBC wildlife photographer Doug Allan in Outdoor Photography magazine

December 1, 2009

Into the cold, wet world

BBC wildlife cameraman Doug Allan spends his life in remote, freezing places, quite often underwater. All in the pursuit of that magical image. Nick Smith hears his story…

Doug Allan is a freelance wildlife and documentary photographer and cameraman working underwater, on land and especially on the polar ice. Born in Scotland, he graduated with a degree in marine biology from Stirling University in 1973. This was to propel him into a career in field science that gradually transformed into one of wildlife photography. Today he is one of the leading wildlife photographers of his generation with a feast of credits including the BBC’s  ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Planet Earth’.

Doug was working as a diver on an Antarctic research station when he met David Attenborough in 1981 while the BBC was filming polar sequences for ‘The Living Planet’. For Doug that was the ‘decisive moment’, as it dawned on him that the cameramen he was watching weren’t doing anything physically that he couldn’t. With his specialist knowledge and prodigious abilities as a diver, all he had to do was ‘work on my photographic skills’. And so a career-long relationship with the legendary presenter was launched.

Much of Doug’s wildlife photography involves physically overcoming the environmental harshness of some of the world’s wildest places and then waiting for his subject’s behaviour to reveal itself. ‘I do like working in really wild situations’ he says. The advent of digital has improved his life no end – he can spend more time underwater without having to surface to reload film. As for processing, he remembers Kodachrome film taking a year to get from Antarctica to a UK lab and back.

Doug has won the underwater category in Wildlife Photographer of the Year twice as well as the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Photography Medal. He has also won Emmy and BAFTA awards for his moving images.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a wildlife photographer?

Doug Allan: When I first went to the Antarctic in 1976 I was thrown into an overwintering environment with only about 15 other people on base. Most were photographers and some had a very good eye. With the penguin colonies and the seals on my doorstep a serious interest was kindled.

NS: What was your first camera?

DA: A Petriflex given to me by Dad in 1971. It was a very simple SLR. I don’t think I had a wide- angle lens, just a standard 50mm. For underwater photography it was the old faithful Nikonos II – it was the most advanced then, but no electronics at all.

NS: What formal training do you have?

DA: I didn’t have any. I feel almost more in need of formal training now with digital than I did back in the days when we used to do our own processing. Now there is so much you can do in post processing, and you have to be careful if you want your digital files to be around in 30 years time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

DA: I’m a specialist in wildlife and wild places with an even narrower niche of cold weather environments both underwater and topside. I don’t shoot weddings. Well, I shot a wedding once as a favour and it was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever done in my life.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

DA: It’s hard to pick one or two. What I’m interested in is ‘difficult-to-get-behaviour’ from genuinely wild animals. That’s where I get the buzz – being in the wild and seeing things happening for real. What turns me on is being in the company of big mammals. You can’t hide from a polar bear – he hears and sees as well as you do, and yet his sense of smell is better than a bloodhound. In those situations your body language, behaviour and even what you’re thinking are ultra important. It’s like you have to talk to your subject in a non verbal way.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

DA: It can be frustrating if you’ve put a lot a lot of effort into a shoot and you feel it’s not been given the best chance on screen because the editing or production is sloppy or misses the point. But, mostly I’ve had the chance to work with high class production teams.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

DA: Digital encourages experimentation and as a stills photographer the field is absolutely wide open to interpret whatever you see in whatever way you can imagine. Shooting with film teaches you  the basics very well, with each press of the shutter having an associated cost. There was no alternative when I started. Digital frees you up creatively and the sky’s the limit.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

DA: I just went the classic route – the base I was on in the Antarctic subscribed to National Geographic. We’d look at the pictures and admire them. I’ve always preferred the wide-angle from up close rather than the telephoto. I liked Ernst Haas with his long exposures to experiment with blurring movement. We used to try that on base and quickly realised it was much harder than it looked. Also the early Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass books influenced me a lot – the idea of exploring the undersea world with a camera.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

DA: I realised after 10 years in Antarctica that photographing and filming animals encapsulated so much of what I enjoyed doing. Travel, adventure, being part of a team, doing something you think is worthwhile – all those things come together in what I do.

NS: What makes a great wildlife photograph?

DA: You have to take yourself to exciting landscapes or put yourself in front of inspiring animals. Unless you’re really interested in your subject you’re not going to catch that special magic.

Doug’s 5 golden rules

1 Look around and find out what impresses you

2 Ask yourself what your shot is trying to convey

3 Stand on the shoulders of the great photographers

4 Get out into inspiring landscapes

5 Underwater, remember: the closer the better

Doug’s gear (stills)

Canon EOS 1Ds-Mk II,

Lenses: 14mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, 24-105mm IS f/4, 100-400mm IS, 600mm IS f/4

Seacam housings

http://www.dougallan.com

 

Nick Smith interviews fine art photographer Stuart Klipper in ‘Outdoor Photography’ magazine

November 6, 2009

The art of outdoors

Stuart Klipper is an American fine artist who shoots the world mostly through a Linhof Technorama 617. He tells Nick Smith about his search for the ‘wide-field’

New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Library of Congress, The National Museum of American Art… just a few of the many organisations to have exhibited or collected Stuart Klipper’s photography.

An American fine art photographer with an international reputation, Klipper has spent decades travelling the planet in order to ‘seek out order’. His vision is expressed through a battered old Linhof Technorama 617 that he keeps in a battered old gadget bag. He wears rings of turquoise, sapphire and Navajo silver on every finger. He says the weight of the rings ‘helps to keep my trim on an even keel.’

Stuart Klipper doesn’t take photographs. He prefers to use the word ‘make’ in the way that an artist makes art. His images are panoramas in the 617 format, which he shoots on film. When asked why he prefers the ‘wide-field’ format he simply says ‘because it’s wider’. Sometimes he shoots verticals, but most of the pictures – from North Pole to South Pole and (even rarer) all 50 states of America – are horizontal panoramas.

Nick Smith: When did you first realise you going to become a photographer?

Stuart Klipper: Photography was a hobby among many. I went to college at University of Michigan and I read [John Van Druton’s] ‘I am a camera’. I realised I had a predisposition to seek out some sort of order. I realised I am a camera and so I decided to use one.

NS: What was your first camera?

SK: My dad documented my life with excess beyond even a presidential documentary photographer. Cameras were everywhere, mostly Kodak. My first real camera I got at 13 with my Bah Mitzvah money, a Rolleicord twin lens reflex.

NS: What formal training do you have?

SK: I’m pretty much an autodidact, but I hung around after my degree and took a few courses in the art school there: Phil Davies taught a very technical introduction to photography. There was another fellow that taught the aesthetics and design end of the spectrum.

NS:  How important is it to specialise?

SK: Of all the things I’ve been called in life one of the things I enjoy most is ‘a generalist’. I look at everything with equanimity. I don’t think anything is intrinsically more special than anything else. Everything’s fair game.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

SK: Give me some assignments please. About a dozen years ago someone from the New York Times commissioned me to shoot a story about a small city in South Dakota that was remarkably economically successful. I was just going around town photographing street scenes.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

SK: You travel a lot and you mostly travel alone. There are certain aspects of the unsought solitude that can get to you. It’s finally started to become a bit corrosive, but you do your work no matter what.

NS: Film of digital why?

SK: I’m not a Luddite and I’m not old fashioned. Film is what the Linhof uses. A consignment of film arrived recently and the rolls all tumbled out. I was surprised by the feeling of looking at all these photographs waiting to be made.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

SK: The two photographers that sum it up in one sentence are Ansell Adams and Garry Winogrand. For over 30 years I’ve been a close friend of Lee Friedlander. We hardly ever talk about photography, but there is something osmotic coming through about how to live life as a photographer.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

SK: I have an extremely broad range of interest, and if there is one place where I can synthesise what I know about the world it’s through photography. It’s the most important way of getting a handle on the world, how we all can.

NS: What makes a great photograph?

SK: Photography isn’t about photography; it’s about the world. I just make pictures. There are no rules. Find your own vocabulary.

Klipper’s 5 Golden rules

1)   Find your own vocabulary

2)   Photography isn’t about photography

3)   Know who came before you and what they did

4)   Your equipment is only the toolbox

5)   There are no rules

Klipper’s gear

Cameras: Linhof Technorama 617, Mamiya 7, Konica Hexar

Film: Fuji Provia 100F 120 roll film and Provia 35mm film

Stuart Klipper’s new book of panoramic photography The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole has just been published by Chronicle Books and is available on Amazon.

 

 

Nick Smith interviews extreme photographer Gordon Wiltsie in Outdoor Photography magazine

October 15, 2009

The Call of the Wild

Dangling off a craggy cliff face in the name of work is not a daunting prospect for adventure photographer Gordon Wiltsie. Nick Smith hears his story…

After more than three decades as a professional photographer, Gordon Wiltsie is known as one of the best adventure and expedition photographers out there. Brought up among the wide-open spaces he started off as a keen mountaineer studying chemistry, before a chance meeting with Galen Rowell lead him to his true vocation. He quickly switched his academic interest to the creative fields, but before long realised that he simply wanted to be in the mountains with his camera.

After a ‘long hold-out to film’ Gordon switched to digital two years ago and says he’ll never go back. But it’s not as though he’s a newcomer to digital because he’s been scanning his old transparencies for a decade now, in order to supply them to magazines, and to build up his photographic library – Alpenimage – a famous resource for art directors on the lookout for unusual adventure images.

Gordon has ‘done a lot of work for National Geographic and Geo’ as well as broader cultural photography, and has recently won the 2008 Lowell Thomas Award for best Magazine Travel Photography for his piece in National Geographic Adventure on Russian reindeer nomads called ‘Vanishing Breed’. He has contributed to many books, and his most recent is To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Gordon Wiltsie: When I was 17 I met a guy called Galen Rowell. He wasn’t even a famous photographer at that time, but he’d had stuff printed in various magazines, and I thought: ‘wow, if this guy can do it then so can I…’ To make that kind of assumption was a bit ridiculous.

NS: What was your first camera?

GW: I got a Brownie when I was 8 and I had some ancient Kodak bellows camera from the 1920s. But finally my parents bought me a Pentax Spotmatic and I’d say that was my first real camera which I had until I accidentally backed my car over it.

NS: What formal training do you have?

GW: I started off as a political science major and then I became a chemistry major and then I wanted to go to Nepal, which was a life dream. So I changed my major to creative writing and photography. But I’d say I’m largely self-taught.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

GW: It’s important to be known for something. For a long time I was known for ski, mountain and adventure photography. Going to really wild places that no one had ever really been before was my niche. If it was cold, miserable and dangerous, editors would send me.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

GW: There are two actually. My assignment to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica was probably the best adventure because it worked so well for me as an expedition leader as well as photographer – it was my first cover story for National Geographic. The other one was a story I did of a migration in Mongolia. It was an unbelievable human story experience.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

GW: Uncertainty. Because I’m freelance my employer is me. Also, with the advent of digital photography and easy-to-use cameras the supply of photography outstrips the demand and as a result quality falls off as some magazines realise they don’t have to pay so much for photographs.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

GW: I used to always shoot film because I thought that it gave a better image in the long run. I do a lot of lecturing and I thought slide shows using real film looked better than digital. Bt the latitude you can get out of digital compared with film is astonishing.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

GW: I went on to assist Galen Rowell and he became a bit of a mentor. I learned a lot from him, but the most important thing was always ‘be ready with your camera set to go’. Other photographers who really inspire me are Steve McCurry, Reza, Bill Allard. They’re all trying to capture a moment in time with their own different way of seeing things.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

GW: For me it is a means of communicating a human relationship with a natural world that is beyond description in words. People sometimes call me a landscape photographer, but I’m not. I’m a people photographer.

NS: What makes a great travel photograph?

GW: Two things here: one is a travel story where there are ten different pictures that add up to something. But a single great photo needs a human element, it has to make you want to me there – or not want to be there – and it has to have some emotional component to it.

Gordon’s FIVE golden rules

1 Use the simplest lightest gear

2 Be prepared and ready for action

3 Simplify things – home in on what is important

4 Patience is important – wait for the shot

5 Build trust rust is important in cultural photography

Gordon’s gear:

Cameras: Nikon FM-2, Nikon D200

Lenses: Nikkor 12-24mm f/4, 35-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 400mm

Accessories: remote switch, monopod, polarising filter, split ND filter, flash

***

To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer by Gordon Wiltsie is available on Amazon

Nick Smith interviews polar photographer Martin Hartley in Outdoor Photography magazine

June 19, 2009

Following in the footsteps of his heroes Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting, Martin Hartley literally walks to the ends of the world in search of the perfect photograph…

Put simply, Martin Hartley is one of the leading expedition photographers of today. His extraordinary images are drawn from the Polar Regions, deserts, mountains and other remote corners of the world. He is fascinated by landscapes and the people who live in them.

As an expedition photographer he often ends up covering more ground than the actual explorers. ‘I hate the phrase Yorkshire terrier’, he says ‘because I’m from Lancashire. But I do end up doing a lot of running around.’ He ruefully admits that because of his job he ends up having ‘more cold dinners than most people.’

Inspired by the great explorers of the Golden Age of Scott and Shackleton, Martin has been on plenty of tough expeditions. And yet he refuses to call himself an explorer: ‘Too many people use the word when they’re little more than adventure tourists.’ He prefers the word ‘photographer’.

Martin’s work has recently featured in Land Rover’s ‘Spirit of Adventure’ Exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society and ‘Face to Face’ at the Scott Polar Research Institute. This exhibition of polar portraits – which is the subject of a forthcoming book of the same name – also includes historical expedition hardware, including Martin’s battered, gaffer tape covered Mamiya 645 Pro-TL. He also has a permanent exhibition on display at the Royal Geographical Society.

When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

When I realised I wasn’t going to get four straight ‘A’ grades at A-level, and when I came runner-up in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 1993.

What was your first camera?

It was one I coveted for quite a while. It was my Dad’s old Pentax ME Super. The thing I liked about it was that it had two little buttons to change the shutter speed, which I thought was pretty tasty. He gave me that when I was about 17, and it was probably my first serious camera. Somebody at my college nicked it, so I didn’t even have a camera when I left college.

What formal training do you have?

I did a National Diploma at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. At the time it was the best photography course in Europe. I didn’t learn much about photography, but I did have a great time being among other photographers. The freedom of the course was the most important element. You were allowed to do anything you wanted to do. You could really experiment.

How important is it to specialise?

Unless you’re extremely good at one particular thing you can’t afford to specialise because you won’t get the work. I’m an expedition photographer, but last Saturday I photographed an 85th birthday party and I had a great time. It was a great brief and I was able to roam free and take photos of anything I liked. And I got paid the day after. The days of the specialist are over. If I were an athlete I wouldn’t be doing the 100 metres… I’d be a pentathlete.

What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

I’ve done a couple of jobs for National Geographic. Doors swing open and opportunities arise because you’re working for these people. But there is a lot of pressure to come up with the goods all the time. I did Brazil and Yemen for them. The beauty of those jobs is you’re working for a prestige magazine, you know you’re going to get paid, and you go to very interesting places.

What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

I find it quite hard to understand why certain magazines employ you, print your pictures and then refuse to pay you. There’s one in particular that does this and then even hides your credit in the gutter. That to me is a magazine that does not respect the value of photography or photographers.

Film or digital? Why?

They’re different. You can’t compare red wine with white wine and you can’t compare an oil painting with a watercolour. Digital is another tool in the toolbox. If Herbert Ponting or Frank Hurley were alive today, they’d be shooting digital and probably film too, because they would want to achieve what the client wanted. Ponting and Hurley were way ahead of their time.

What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

It was from a book by Galen Rowell called ‘Galen Rowell’s inner game of outdoor photography’, where he talks about pre-visualisation, which is thinking about the shot before you take it. On the basis of that I always gather a shot list in my head before going on an expedition.

What does photography mean to you?

The camera is a better passport than a passport. You can use your camera to get into places that no one else can. I love the expedition photography best. I know a lot of photographers that earn a lot more money than me, but I have the best job in the world.

What makes a great travel photograph?

A great travel photograph is one that makes you want to be a travel photographer.

Martin’s 5 golden rules

1 Make sure you have a shot list

2 Shoot RAW. Don’t mess about with jpegs

3 Use proper gear – cheap stuff falls apart

4 It’s okay to shoot weddings and parties

5 Photograph what the client wants

Martin’s machinery

Nikon D3, Mamiya 645 Pro TL, Fuji Provia 100 F220, Fuji flash cards, Gitzo tripod