Head hunt: how the search for Elvis signals a threat to journalism

Article originally published in the December 2019 editor of NUJ Informed.

Each September, Porthcawl is alive with white jumpsuits, improbable sideburns and gyroscopic hips as 40,000 Elvis impersonators descend on the Welsh resort. “Arrests are very rare, the whole event is like a huge Elvis party,” says Peter Phillips organiser of the 20-year-old annual event. Even Cliff Richard fans enjoy a warm welcome, he adds. 

For the past three years, however, as the “Elvises” have encouraged the jailhouse to rock, South Wales Police (SWP) officers have discreetly filmed revellers and utilised facial-recognition software to sift the resulting feed for ‘undesirables’.

And while combing the tribute acts for terrorists probably risks no more than ridicule, the potential threat to journalism of the unregulated use of such technology is all too real. 

“As soon as it became possible to use phone data to identify individuals, police forces started using them to search for journalists’ sources,” says NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet. “The cases of Mark Bulstrode, Tom Newton-Dunn and Sally Murrer are but a few of many instances. Today, facial recognition is almost entirely without legal regulation. I would be amazed if journalists have not already been targeted.” 

Stanistreet is not alone in raising concerns.

Paul Wiles, the government’s Biometrics Commissioner says: “We desperately need fresh legislation that regulates use of these second-generation biometric identification, and those rules need to enshrine journalistic rights to protect sources.”

His counterpart the Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Palmer is similarly worried. “The first court case [relating to the use of facial recognition by the SWP] is now subject to appeal. It will ask is whether there is a legal framework to use that technology in the first place. The court has said that it could be decided on a case-by-case basis, but the common law can be quite fluid.” 

Whatever the outcome of the current election, the issue may struggle to gain traction. Against this backdrop, a multi-party campaign calls on UK police forces and private security companies to immediately stop using live facial recognition for public surveillance. Supported by MPs (at the time of writing) David Davis, Diane Abbot, Jo Swinson and Caroline Lucas, it is also endorsed by numerous civil liberties groups, academics and lawyers. 

The clamour for regulation has been joined by the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham. “The absence of a statutory code that speaks to the specific challenges posed by LFR will increase the likelihood of legal failures and undermine public confidence in its use,” she has written. “[My] key recommendation is [for the] government to introduce a statutory and binding code of practice on the deployment of live facial recognition.”

Notwithstanding these concerns, SWP’s “facial recognition vans” have become a familiar sight at sporting events, concerts and demonstrations in Cardiff. And the Welsh experience is not unusual.

In Leicestershire similar kit was used to check fans at a heavy metal festival against a Europol database. Meanwhile the Metropolitan police surveilled the crowds on Remembrance Sunday to try to weed out stalkers and people with mental health issues.

In London the private landlords of the development behind King’s Cross station were given access to the Met Police facial recognition database to scan shoppers’ faces. This scheme was abandoned after a public outcry

Similar technology is also thought to be in use in the Irish Republic. The Garda Síochána’s Modernisation and Renewal Programme 2016-2021 specifically committed to its use. 

SWP makes a robust defence of the use of automated facial recognition, both in public and it court. Chief Inspector Jason Herbert, Operations Manager for Bridgend says: “Facial recognition software helps detect risk more efficiently than standard CCTV. Officers on the ground can also identify early opportunities to prevent crime and reduce anti-social behaviour. We are very aware of concerns about privacy and we have built checks and balances into our methodology to reassure the public.” 

SWP says that it is searching for individuals on a “watch list” drawn up specifically for each event. At the 2017 Elvisfest, for example, there were 472 names on the list. All were either “suspected of crimes in South Wales, or had outstanding arrest warrants”, says Deputy Chief Constable Richard Lewis. 

The compiling and sign off for this list is made wherever possible by the most senior officer on the ground at the event (in police jargon, the Silver Commander). According to SWP’s own operational manual, however, there is no systematic process for review or inspection of that list by more senior officers, or anyone else. 

The NUJ will campaign for proper regulation, including safeguards for journalism, of facial recognition technology (as well as other second- generation biometrics such as voice and iris recognition). As soon as a new NUJ all- party Parliamentary Group has convened, this will be on its agenda. Members can raise the absence of regulation with candidates in the general election. 

In the meantime, however, an academic evaluation of SWP’s experience with facial recognition provides some pointers for journalists who wish to avoid their encounters being the subject of CCTV scrutiny and facial recognition. 

The researchers found that the system used by British police forces, NeoFace, manufactured by NEC, had some clear shortcomings. Low light forces the camera’s sensors to use higher ISO settings (increasing their sensitivity), and produces images too grainy for effective analysis. Hats with brims, scarves and sunglasses also reduced the system’s capacity for recognition. 

The efficaciousness of self-adhesive side burns, quiff wigs and rhinestone belts as disguise were not specifically considered by the academics. It is worth noting, however, that in 2019 SWP deployed two facial recognition vans for both days of the Porthcawl Elvisfest, and managed to identify not one person from their watch lists, nor did they make any arrests. Perhaps had the constables concentrated on the music instead of their surveillance screens they could have enjoyed themselves rather more and avoided the very trap warned of by the King himself – suspicious minds. 

Qatar solo: labour reform leveraged from Gulf state’s isolation

Tweets bring little news worth cheering. One last Wednesday from Qatar was an exception, however. Abdullah bin Nasir bin Khalifa Al Thani, prime minister of the gulf kingdom, announced a reform of the country’s employment laws. He promised a "full commitment to the fundamental rights relating to labour” and a meaningful minimum wage.

The plight of the thousands of so-called ‘guest workers’ who have toiled, in abominable conditions, to construct Qatar’s World Cup 2022 infrastructure were on my mind. But so was the NUJ’s modest role bringing about this change.

The new laws won’t take effect until next year, but the Qatari’s commitment was enough for the International Labour Organisation to offer three cheers. The reforms will bring to an end the ‘kafala’, or sponsorship system. This gave the employers of many of the 2.3million non-Qatari’s working in the country extraordinary power over their workforce, including the ability to prevent them changing employer or leaving the country.

Credit for the NUJ’s role in this lies squarely on the shoulders of Jim Boumelha, one of our longest-serving National Executive Members and the former president of the International Federation of Journalists. Long ago, he recognised that Al Jazeera’s arrival in London presented a slender opportunity to help engineer change back in Qatar.

First journalists at Al Jazeera’s London studios sought recognition – not easily achieved, but it was a bridgehead. Next Boumelha put to the Gulf broadcaster that it should sign an ‘international framework agreement’ with the IFJ. In this, the Doha-headquartered broadcaster committed to media pluralism, human rights, journalistic professionalism as well as internationally accepted labour relations conventions.

Such agreements – between multinational companies and international trades unions – are a relatively new concept; fewer than 100 exist worldwide, despite there being more than 80,000 international corporations.  This is the first to be concluded with a global media employer.

The decisive moment came, however, when Qatar became the focus of Saudi Arabian anger. Qatar’s borders and ports were blockaded (and continue to be) because of the Kingdom’s alleged ‘support for terrorism’. Among Saudi’s outrageous demands was the immediate closure of Al Jazeera. Qatar needed allies.

Six weeks after the crisis began, Boumelha convened an extraordinary conference with more than 500 participants, in Doha, and under the auspices of The National Human Rights Council (of Qatar). 

Speakers came from the four corners of the globe – the NUJ’s acting general secretary Séamus Dooley and I among them, as well as Mick Hodgkin and Brian Ging from the NUJ chapel at Al Jazeera London. Perhaps the most significant, however, was Younes M'Jahed, the IFJ's senior vice-president (and now president) who called for trades union rights in Qatar and said that, as well as the media, freedom of expression should be applied equally to poets, bloggers and civic society. That his contribution was in Arabic gave his contribution a particular resonance with our hosts.

Of course journalists were not the only ones putting pressure on the Qataris. The International Trades Union Congress, for example, has long made the country a focus and had previously submitted a complaint about its legal code to the ILO.

My hope now is that reform in Qatar ripples around the Gulf states. What a good thing it would be if this example creates pressure for other states to adopt labour laws owing more to the modern age than the middle ages. Such a clear case of effective international solidarity should also inspire trades unionists at home. However insular domestic politics might seem, focussing on issues beyond our shores can, on occasion, contribute to real change.

Photo: Al Jazeera's Doha headquarters and studios © Tim Dawson

Global transmission: London booms as world tv hub

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 edition of NUJ Informed

Walking into the Chinese state broadcaster’s gleaming studios, Mick Hodgkin passes a galaxy of other media outlets. The offices of Yanga! (serving African markets), Aparat Media (TV content producer), Arab News, and Iran International are all close by.

Elsewhere on Chiswick Park’s sparkling new, university-style campus are the Discovery Network, Walt Disney and Paramount Pictures. Settling down to continue work preparing for China Global Television Network’s (CGTN) planned London launch, programme editor Mick Hodgkin is among hundreds, possibly thousands, of media staff now working in this west London enclave.

It is but one of the international TV hubs that have made the English capital possibly the world’s most significant global broadcasting centre. “Britain has always had a strong international broadcast sector,” says Simon Spanswick, chief executive of the UK-based Association of International Broadcasters.

“The rise of streamed broadcast content and a more general migration from radio to TV, allied with the falling entry costs to produce television, have brought a host of new entrants to the sector in the pastfew years.” He cites some of the factors drawing broadcasters to the UK (he believes that nearly 1,500 are now based here): Heathrow; a flexible and highly-skilled broadcast workforce; multitudinous established international communities; and the desirability of London life.

Most significant, however, according to Simon Spanswick, is Ofcom. “It is widely perceived to be the strongest and most transparent regulator whose work, unlike some regulators elsewhere in Europe, is not politicised.”

The UK represents 21 per cent of the European TV market output, according to a 2018 report by the European Audiovisual Observatory, with 1,203 TV channels of the 3,005 in the EU based in the UK.

Ofcom currently has 893 licences in issue that can be used to broadcast on cable and satellite; for digital terrestrial TV they have issued 135 licences.

Mick Hodgkin’s career trajectory gives some sense of how skills networks are key to this burgeoning sector. “I started at Reuters TV, spent nine years at Chanel Four News, and spent several years atAl Jazeera.”


Estimates of how many journalists CGTN is planning to hire vary from 150 to 350. There is no question, however, that state-funded broadcasters, such as Al Jazeera, Press TV and Al Araby, provide the bulk of the new employment. They are not alone, however. They have been joined by scores of much smaller operators, many of them dissidents, who choose to make programmes in London for broadcast to audiences elsewhere in the world.

Jobs created by this sector are welcome, they also provide an NUJ organising opportunity. Recognition at Al Jazeera’s London centre in 2013 was followed in 2018 by a 6 per cent pay increase and
3 per cent the following year. Constructive talks about NUJ recognition at Al Araby, where about 400 people (not all journalists) are thought to work, are in progress.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, is optimistic about opportunities in this burgeoning sector: “It is London’s talent pool that is drawing broadcasters here. We have shown what a difference NUJ organisation can make to those staffing these stations, so I am confident that, in time, we will have a string of recognition agreements in this area.


“We will also be ensuring that NUJ members don’t find themselves pressured to let standards slip.”

Her concerns are well founded – broadcasters controlled by repressive regimes can be unedifying. A string of Ofcom judgements shows how standards can slip.

Press TV’s licence was revoked in 2012 after it broadcast an interview with a Chanel 4 journalist conducted “under duress”. RT, the Russian-government-controlled channel, has been the subject of several regulatory investigations for lack of impartiality and several stations have been sanctioned for broadcasting jihadi content.

Troubling as these are, this regulatory attention is assurance that there is some check on standards and, for those who have experienced the decline of much of the UK’s traditional media, it is comforting to think that at least one part of our industry is enjoying a boom.

The illustration is The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Small step ends a long journey

Review of the exhibition 'Moon' at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London 19 July 2019 – 5 January 2020 ★★★★☆

I was four when I watched the first moon landing with my mother. Not long after Neil Armstrong’s boot alighted upon the lunar surface, my mother went to the living room window. My two brothers and I joined her upward gaze. “They are up there – now,” she said, pointing. Half a century on and I can still hear the wonder in her voice.

At the time it seemed like an important beginning. Surely soon humankind would journey to Mars; living complexes would orbit the earth; and space would become a place of adventure, as it was in my, then, tv favourite, Bleep And Booster?

Enjoying the National Maritime Museum’s ‘Moon’ exhibition, I realise just how naive was my reading of Apollo 11’s moment. The years between 1969 and 1972, when there were moon walks, space buggies and golf among the craters, marked far more of an end than a beginning. 

The quest for people to go further, higher and faster can be traced through Stevenson’s locomotives, to the Wright Brothers and von Braun’s rockets. The NASA’a manned moon missions provide the full stop not only to this, but to the entire age of discovery, that began when de Gama, Magellan and Columbus encircled the globe.

Moon’s view of our celestial neighbour opens with a stone tablet carved in Mesopotamia in 172 BC recording lunar eclipses. Orreries, early atlases and painted lunar likenesses continue the story of human relationships with the illuminator of the night sky. Of course the Apollo missions provide the exhibition’s big ticket items, but the story carries through the the current day. Moon missions from Japan, India, China, Germany are either pending or in the recent past.

All, however, are ‘unmanned’. They are collecting rock samples, seeking out water reserves and evaluating the affect of differing light levels. Perhaps this is the commercial and scientific consolidation of the Apollo era. In narrative terms, however, it is thin gruel.

NASA budget cuts did for moon visits, but they are emblematic of a broader change in priorities. Cheap, inclusive and less wasteful became the new guiding principles of technological advance.

It is perhaps this absence of a big story that has made the landings half centenary such a big event. Of course they were spurred by the Cold War, consumed vast resources and employed distinctly analogue-era technology. They were, however, the living definition of heroic, and were delivered in the British homes on prime time tv. If the broadcast epoch had an epic moment, it was this.

Since then, technology has shrunk in scale and purpose – at least when considered across the piece. We carry in our pockets computers of greater power than those available in Houston 50 years ago, but their principal deployment is taking selfies and sharing pictures of cats.

Missions with big rockets and cool space suites provides seductive nostalgia in which to wallow. From children’s toys, to Chinese communist posters, by way of magazine covers and fabric celebrating the spirit of the age, the exhibition is strong on cultural contextualisation. I didn’t hear David Bowie’s Space Odyssey playing, but doubtless that is being saved for an ‘evening at the museum’ event.

Christian Stangl’s film ‘Lunar’, an engaging composite of NASA images, plays on a loop. Only the impatience of my two-year-old daughter stopped me from watching it four or five times over. If you don’t plan to visit Greenwich, you can see it here.

Lunar, by Christian Strangl

Were the floorspace larger, I would have loved to have seen more about the moon’s metaphoric role. The enduring use of ‘lunatic’ as both insult and diagnosis is testimony to its potency. And the amount of actual material from the space program is slight. In the context of the available gallery, however, there was sufficient to transport me on a journey through the ether for slightly over an hour.

Adult admissions are £10 each, with discounts for online booking.

Flight of fancy: Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour Museum is an atmospheric triumph

Far the greatest thrill at Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour Museum, is the building itself. It has the vast, mysterious quality of a Ken-Adam-designed James Bond film set. Its scale and proportions are those of a modernist cathedral on steriods with a shadowy atmosphere to charge the imagination.

Standing on a strategic outcrop of rock in the Gulf of Finland, it comprises three vast, interconnected concrete domes, each large enough to house aircraft. The submarine that is the museum’s prize exhibit, is a minnow in this vast, sparsely-lit cave.

Contained within the 36m x 36m structure can be found traces of much of Estonia’s recent past. The seaplane harbour itself (as the hanger is known) was built from concrete to an innovative Danish design in 1916. With independence in 1919, the ‘harbour’ became home to Estonia’s fleet of Short 184 seaplanes. Manufactured in Belfast, supply of these came with the UK’s military support for the fledgling Baltic republic, one strand of British attempts to turn Russia’s revolutionary tide.

How effective were these open-cockpit biplanes at patrolling the Gulf of Finland is anyone’s guess. By the time the Soviet union annexed Estonia in 1940, the 75mph seaplanes were well past offensive usefulness. For the half century that Estonia was a Soviet Republic, the hanger became part of a vast military annex occupying much of Tallinn’s waterfront.

The Red Army sold the complex in a fleeting moment on the cusp of Estonia’s independence. There followed a bizarre nine-year dispute between the state and developers. The state triumphed eventually and a €14m transformation commenced, 70% funded by the European Regional Development Fund. It opened as a museum in 2012, and won the EU cultural heritage prize the following year.

The exhibits include an eclectic selection of maritime pieces. The ice yachts are beautiful and opened my eyes to an unfamiliar sport.  For a chilling transport into the lives the 32-man crew who steered its course beneath the waves, Submarine Lembit provides a memorable, climb-on-board, experience.

Built by Vickers in Barrow-in-Furness in 1936, it is the only remnant of Estonia’s pre-war navy. For much of its existence, it served in the Soviet navy and became a museum ship well before the collapse of communism. 

The exhibits and installations distinguish themselves in two ways. 

There is much that is interactive, from flight simulators, to shoot-em-up video games using real artillery pieces and a boating lake featuring a scale model of the ice-breaker Suur Tõll moored outside the museum.

And, the projection on the side of the submarine is as beautifully realised as it is thought-provoking – an object lesson in the imaginative use of an exhibit. The only pity is that there is little to signal that the projection is underway, with the result that many visitors apparently missed it altogether.

Moored outside the main building there are also a fascinating assortment of historic craft that provide further glimpses of Estonia’s maritime past.

Seaplanes no longer perform military roles and none of the Short 184s survived (although the museum does have a replica). Their former home, however, in an outstanding example of reinterpreted military space deployed to promote intelligent cultural engagement. For those seeking a contemporary example of swords beneficially repurposed as ploughshares, Tallinn’s waterfront is a great starting point.

Baltic exchange: Europe’s journalists’ confer in Tallinn

A report on the general meeting of the European Federation of Journalists in Tallinn, Estonia 9 – 10 May 2019

Listening to Estonia’s president (pictured above), it would be easy to feel optimistic about press freedom and media plurality. Kersti Kaljulaid’s address to around 100 attendees at the European Federation of Journalist’s (EFJ) general meeting was, from a head of state, a refreshingly unambiguous commitment to the need for unfettered reporting and openness.

She basked in her country’s impressive 11th place in the Reporters Sans Frontiers 'press freedom' rankings, and made it clear that retaining such a position required determination and bravery on the part of legislators. “Without the open windows of a free media, a society quickly becomes musty”, she said.

Just hours after the president’s speech, however, the Estonian journalists’ union, EAL, painted a significantly darker picture of the state of their national media. It raised current threats to limit media freedom that are more quickly evident in smaller countries. It drew attention to the open talk of closing the Estonian State Broadcaster or taking its content under political control and the calls for critical newspaper journalists to be punished. Those Estonian politicians who refuse to engage with critics in the press were highlighted, as were faltering economic models and struggling freelances. EAL’s motion concluded that without significant additional action, Estonia faces an ‘Orwellian future’. 

The distance between those visions represents, in microcosm, the EFJ’s challenge – and, indeed, that of all of use who advocate for free journalism. We must find ways to represent the deeply challenging conditions in which we produce honest journalism in an environment where being beguiled by comfortable platitudes is easy.

Retaining a sharp focus on this task has tested every one of Europe’s journalist unions. Dramatic headcount losses in newsrooms brought on by tumbling circulations and free-falling advertising revenues have dominated the landscapes for the past decade. Unsurprisingly, it has been no less an issue for our European federation.

EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregard

On the basis of the outcome of the meeting in Tallinn, most European affiliates are satisfied with the current leadership’s approach to this. It certainly represented a personal triumph for Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, the Dane who defeated Italy's Anna Del Freo, to be elected EFJ president for a third and final term. Critical voices were eliminated from the EFJ’s steering committee, however, with a ruthlessness that looked defensive and may well be interpreted as hostility by some affiliates.

To the untutored eye, discerning the fault lines between the factions that vie for influence in the EFJ is not easy. For most of its recent history, the federation’s leadership has been dominated by an alliance of Scandinavians and Germans. The core of the opposing block is drawn from the UK, France, Italy and Spain.

One of the few points where ideological differences were exposed came in discussion of a motion of the EU’s recently adopted Copyright Directive. The original motion, submitted by SNJ-CGT (France), EAL (Estonia), NUNS (Serbia), FSC-CCOO (Spain) included the line: “A call to open the text to amendments was lost by just 5 votes”.

This referred to an attempt made, very late in the passage of the Copyright Directive, to completely reopen negotiations on its contents. Those who supported this position argued that the directive might yet be improved. Opponents of reopening the text said that limitations on legislative time would mean that that ‘reopening’ would have the effect of shelving the Directive for a decade or more.

Even though these events are now historical, reference to this initiative hit a nerve. The implication of this line was that the EFJ would have preferred the text to have been reopened. The motion’s proposer and his opponents were dispatched to confer in private. Half an hour later, agreement to delete the offending sentence had been reached.

Such a slight point of contention might be interpreted as an organisation at ease with itself. That the meeting stuck on that wrinkle, however, even for just a moment, showed up the separating contours. On one side a more corporatist, consensus-seeking Scandinavian approach, on the other one shaped by a sense that workers’ and employers’ interests rarely coincide.

Along the way, good motions were adopted that called on the EFJ to intensify work to protect journalists from violence at work, support Belarusian freelances, oppose the jailing of journalists in Turkey, support the independence of news agencies and develop a fresh strategy to deal with the media’s gender divide. Attention was also drawn to such individual cases as the murder of Lyra McKee, and the imprisonment of Swedes Gui Minhai in China and Dawit Isaak in Eritrea.

Such a. meeting provides only limited opportunities to better understand a host country’s culture, alas. The importance of Estonia’s recent story to its national consciousness, however, was shown up in a tiny tableau that I witnessed as I picked up my conference credentials.

The desk was staffed by long-standing activists from the Estonian Journalists Association. As one of them stuck the conference passes to attendees’ lapels, she asked with a smile “when was your association founded?” In most cases, their answer allowed her to observe that the EAL, having been founded in 1919, pre-dated them. Her evident pride in her union’s longevity was heartwarming. Indeed, reflecting on her repeated question, I wished that I had affected ignorance that the NUJ is 12 years the EAL’s senior.

I can’t imagine a British NUJ activist troubling to make a similar point. But, perhaps, were we not so complacent about our national narrative, the UK’s current trajectory would not be quite so convulsed in confusion?

I attended the conference at the invitation of the EFJ's steering committee to be a member of the three-person presidium that ran the conference. I was joined in this role by Gregor Kucera from GPA-djp (Austria) and Dominique Pradalié from SNJ (France).

Images © Tim Dawson

From leave to remain: new rules for EU nationals post-Brexit

New entitlements have been created for EU nationals who already live in the UK and wish stay here. Alison Stanley, the head of immigration and asylum at Bindmans solicitors gave NUJ members an overview of these, focussing on their impact on self-employed workers. Speaking to London Freelance Branch on 11 March 2019, she also answered members' questions. I made this audio package of the presentation.i

Image: Alison Stanley, head of immigration, Bindmans solicitors © Tim Dawson

Sauce For The Goosesteppers

Review of As A Man Grows Younger at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre 19 – 23 February 2019

Calling out resurgent fascism is a recurring trope on the left. Some manifestations uniform themselves unambiguously: the National Front, the British National Party and Tommy Robinson among them. Others are opaque and conjectural – ‘Trump’, ‘Brexit’ and ‘Universal Credit’, for example.

Howard Colyer’s one-hander, As A Man Grows Younger, is a visceral transport into the life of a writer struggling against the backdrop of Mussolini’s rise. Italo Svevo is today best known for his friendship with James Joyce; the setting for this drama is 1920s Trieste where the two writers lived.

Trieste at that time bore the enduring stamp of an Imperial Free City – a cultural and commercial crossroads of plural ethnicities and an international identity. Fin de Siècle artists and thinkers were drawn to this Viennese seaport in an atmosphere far removed from Mussolini’s reactionary populism.

Svevo’s monologue describes the haphazard trajectory that has brought him literary success, and to the brink of psychological collapse. Joyce is invoked to sprinkle stardust and a couple of good gags. The real off-stage interlocutors, however, are Il Duce and the disintegration of a multi-ethnic supra-national state.

David Bromley delivers a kinetically compelling 70 minute, performance, brimful with the contradictions under which his character struggles. He dotes on his wife, but she is an enthusiastic fascist fund raiser. He fears the secret police, but goads the authorities in his work. His greatest success is stopping smoking – so he does it repeatedly.

The contemporary parallels are clear, although the take home is nuanced. Vigilance is vital when reaction pulls on its jackboots, but the gulf between a handful of thugs and the horrors of interwar fascism is mercifully wide. Recognising the difference is a genuine challenge. 

The play’s most resonant line, is the reported nostrum of Svevo’s wife. “When everyone is being foolish, it can be foolish to act sensibly”. That is surely a clarion call to those who might allow reaction to flourish in the benign glare of relativism? Reassuringly, such a thought-provoking performance as this is at least a modest bulwark against that possibility.

Double magnum: the conception of Robert Capa and photojournalism

Review of TARO, at the Brockley Jack Theatre 19 January – 16 February 2019

The defining moment of darkroom photo processing occurs in the tray of developer. In to this pungent liquid slides a white sheet of paper revealing no sign of infused light, or the anticipatory anxiety that wills its transformation. Seconds tick by before shapes and grayscale emerge. Form and detail often make an uncertain start, but eventually a semblance of that originally spied through the camera’s viewfinder appears in sharp relief.

It found myself reflecting on this antique process as I watched Ross McGregor’s TARO, produced by the Arrows and Traps Theatre at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.

The play tells the story of Robert Capa, the arguable father of photojournalism – or more precisely the Jewish exile couple who invented ‘American photojournalist Robert Capa’ as a disguise from behind which they could achieve better rates for both their work. 

The cast of eight conjure the story Gerda Taro and her relationship with Endre Friedmann through fragmentary scenes, choreography and conceit. Enjoyable as these are, I spent a good portion of the 95 minute performance wondering if this dancing collage of grey and white, dreamy episodes and moments of fantasy could possibly coalesce. But as the conclusion approached, the subtle beauty and power of the whole revealed itself in a distilled moment to equal those for which Capa himself become so famous.

Historical narrative supplies the play’s furniture, but its theme is identity and its capacity to be at once self-determined and rooted in our backgrounds. Capa, of course, was a figment from the outset, but there were plenty more. Neither Taro or Friedmann were observant Jews, yet heritage, and anti-semitism shaped their imaginations.  And though they played instrumental roles in creating modern photojournalism with its apparently shocking veracity, both knew well how sometimes deceit is necessary to tell a powerful truth.

Issues of dispossession, identity and representation animate contemporary life every bit as much they did in the middle of the twentieth century. If TARO has a shortcoming it is that this continuum is not clearly signalled. That does not detract from the quality of this work, however, nor of the energetic and eminently capable cast.

Today, of course, few darkrooms remain, and the revolutionary impact of lone photographers framing our world view is subsumed by a tsunami of phone-captured snaps.  A reminder of the human gaze behind every recorded image, however, is all the more impactful for focusing on a time when a single exposure could change the world.