A Clear Vision
The decision to take on the challenge of photographing the Siberian Arctic winter led Paul Blackmore to a busy decade shooting editorial assignments in Europe and paved the way to a number of major personal projects.
In 2001 I read an article about the Siberian mining town of Norilsk, the world’s northernmost city and the second largest inside the Arctic Circle. Here people live and work in temperatures that regularly plummet to minus 50 degrees Celsius. The photographs that accompanied that story were mesmerising. In black and white, they told of a world I couldn’t conceive. At the time I was working in documentary film and sent the photographer, Paul Blackmore – who was based in Paris then – an email asking if I could use some of his images in a pitch I was working on. I had the ambitious idea to film a documentary in this remote outpost.
Fast-forward to December 2013 and again images of Norilsk came across my desk, this time taken by Russian photographer Elena Chernychova, who had spent the best part of a year living in the mining town that more than 170,000 call home. Elena’s images were vivid in their pop art colours that were almost surreal against the white of the snow and the blue ice backdrops.
Seeing these images made me recall my earlier project. I dug out the folder, found the original article that had sparked my interest and also the correspondence I’d had with Paul Blackmore. I kept rattling his name around in my head. I was sure I’d come across other work of his. And, of course, I had. Earlier that year I had written about Blackmore’s exhibition New Beirut. These photographs – shot in brilliant colour – were so different to his work in Norilsk that I hadn’t put the two together. I made contact again and in February 2014 I finally sat down with Blackmore this time in his studio in Sydney where he now lives, to talk about his work including his most recent book which is called At Water’s Edge.
Going To Extremes
But first I had to get Norilsk out of my system. Sitting in his Surry Hills studio on a typically humid Sydney day, Paul Blackmore recalled the story of how he came to shoot this photo essay, which became a catalyst for his career in Europe.
“I had just moved to Paris and was looking for ideas,” he explains. “I’d read in the newspaper about this town [Norilsk] and there was this great description of a guy coming home after working 12 hours, and he’s in the bus and it’s minus 40 degrees. It is a completely bleak story and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do that’. So I teamed up with an American writer based in Moscow and we went up there for a few weeks.”
I ask how he managed to get access as this had been the major barrier to my pursuing the documentary film concept. He agreed it was difficult and entry limited. His trip had been possible simply because the journalist he collaborated with was already working in Russia.
“Once we got there we were such a novelty,” he laughs, recalling the faces of the locals when he stepped off the plane with only a wool beanie on his head. He quickly learned why fur caps are essential in that part of the world.
“The local newspaper did a story on us, and people were really helpful. We went into the local kindergartens and schools and churches and we got invited to these amazing Russian weddings. People were curious about us and happy to share their lives with us. It was an ideal scenario.”
Paul says his intention with this project was to capture “…the extreme nature of the place and how the Russian economy had failed the Russian people again. It was 1999, the Russian banking system had collapsed, and the Oligarchs were pillaging all
the state- owned companies. Norilsk had been in state hands, but was now privately owned also”.
Norilsk was created under Stalin’s rule, part of his edict “metal at all costs”. Around half a million political prisoners were sent to Norilsk to build the city in conditions that are inconceivable for most and totally alien to us Antipodeans.
Paul agrees, “It is so extreme. It’s minus 40 degrees and, in under a minute, your camera stops working. I had three cameras with me. At times I couldn’t even push the button through my ski gloves, and you think that people built roads and buildings in these conditions for ten hours a day”.
He shakes his head in disbelief and for a moment we fall silent, thinking about the thousands who died in that one labour camp alone.
Then he adds, “It is so cold that your eyes start freezing. We were there in January and at midday it’s almost dark. It was the first story I’d done outside of
I think with the galleries, festivals, books, exhibitions and blogs, there are lots of ways to get your work out there if you’re committed to telling a story.
Australia and I guess the extreme nature and cold made it such a foreign story for me”.
His piece on Norilsk caught the attention of the French publications and it wasn’t long before he joined Agence Rapho in Paris. In between flitting across the northern hemisphere shooting photo essays for the likes of Time, L’Express, Le Monde and Geo, Paul Blackmore also spent time thinking about the personal projects he’d like to explore.
One thought that persisted was the relationship between human beings and water, the essence of all life on earth. He travelled to Russia, the Middle East, South America and Japan, and spent time on the sub- continent and island nations as well as his homeland. He photographed religious festivals, urban environments, remote communities and leisure activities, all the time expanding the concept of our relationship with water, “while I was shooting I was thinking about how, in a
globalised world, water ties us together. We are now so interconnected and that’s one of the elements that I tried to bring into this project,” he explains.
In Bangladesh, he witnessed first-hand the endemic pollution that is directly linked to the West’s predilection for outsourcing manufacturing in the name of cheap labour and high profits. As he saw the toll of these practices, both on the health of human beings and the planet, his work began to speak of environmental degradation also.
This body of work became At Water’s Edge which has toured the globe as an exhibition and was published in 2012, the culmination of years of work. Shot in black and white, the dramatic contrasts of dark and light undulate across the paper, rippling like water itself, lapping at the edges of thought.
Paul Blackmore’s photographs are both lyrical and documentary in their composition. He has shared what he has learned, not only what he has seen, in the thoughtful framing of each scene. From the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to the toxic black waters of the Buriganga River in Bangladesh; from the voodoo pilgrimage in Haiti, to the holidaymakers bobbing in the Black Sea; from the water pipes that carry fresh water to Mumbai’s elite to the squalid lives of refugees in Ethiopia, At Water’s Edge reminds us that, no matter our race, gender or the size of our bank account, we all rely on fresh water for our very survival. It is a precious commodity and yet the devastation of our fresh waterways and oceans continues apace. While these photographs are in part celebratory, they also serve as a warning.
When Paul was based in Paris, he took full advantage of being able to easily travel to other countries within Europe and also the Middle East; a point not lost on Australians who understand the tyranny of distance.
One such trip was to Beirut, where he says he “…fell in love with the Lebanese people. The centre of Beirut has been so beautifully rebuilt with such care and dedication that it has really inspired the people. I think it is one of the great cities on the planet. I went there to photograph the nightlife and street life. I spent a lot of time with Hezbollah and toured the southern suburbs, schools and mosques. It was such a rich story, all these incredible contrasts right next to each other”.
He continues, “One day I was photographing in the Palestinian refugee camps and then, an hour later, I was at some funky beach club five kilometres away. It’s phenomenal that these two worlds coexist like that. For me, that contrast was part of the story, with one image informing the other with this tension between the two. It was a conscious decision to bring these contrasts together. Lebanon is such a diverse grouping of people and cultures all living side by side… 15 years of civil war showed the difficulties of this complex arrangement so it was vital for the story to reflect that diversity”.
When Paul was there in the mid-2000s, only certain parts of the city had been rebuilt. His photographs from this period reflect the rebirth of the city as well as remembering its scars, found in the bullet holes and mortar wounds that mark buildings and neighbourhoods.
He showed his New Beirut series in both Melbourne and Sydney where the Lebanese communities turned out in celebration.
“They really got behind it. So many who came to see it were saying, ‘I know that café. I know where this is. That’s my cousin’s shop’. But now many of the buildings I photographed no longer exist.”
New Beirut was the first story Paul Blackmore shot in colour.
“The Mediterranean light and the beautiful hues of the old buildings lent themselves to shooting in colour… I embraced it and loved it.”
Paul Blackmore no longer shoots editorial assignments – it’s a market that is so much tougher now than when he first started. But he is still committed to working on personal projects and has another book planned.
“I think with the galleries, festivals, books, exhibitions and blogs, there are lots of ways to get your work out there if you’re committed to telling a story,” he concludes.