Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cutting through indifference

First an update of the site building project: things are going well, if we wanted to could be launched in two months, However, there's no need to hurry and right now me and Mr X are gathering more ideas and trying to find the balance between a fully screened site and an on-line gallery that gives members more freedom to present their works. One thing I never liked about 1x was that one couldn't show what he wanted, instead 1x showed what they found most popular. A huge difference.

Anyway, right now I want to record some thoughts I wanted to clear for a long time. It's about documentary and portrait photography. More accurately, two things: how to photograph people in misery without exploiting them and becoming demagogue, and how to make such a photo work.

As a starter, here's one I took of charming little Sapuna in Nakho, Northern India.

It's a decent photo IMO but something is missing. She looks stern beyond her years and her chaffed skin also tells a tale about life in a Himalayan village so remote even God needs a geo-tag to find it. But no self-respecting photographer (and on my better days I claim to be one) wants to produce pictures which gain impact only from the misery of their subjects. Nobody wants to get those "OMG, what a poor-poor child" reactions. No need for condescending and a fake feeling of superiority.

The other issue is that viewers are smart. More often than not they refuse being manipulated by a photograph appealing to their social conscience and compassion. Too many images of this kind; maybe we are not cynics after all just saturated.
Compassion is the keyword - getting connected with the subject. How to achieve this? What technique or detail could get past sobriety, the very understandable self-defence of "oh no, I'm bored of photos of poor and sick people" and so on?

Looking at a photo by my friend Zoltan Huszti, whose cheerful character doesn't prevent him from an occasional dive into the deepest bowels of Bulgarian society, I got a step closer to the solution. Let's have a look at this:

We see the village fool, a retarded woman and if we look closely we can even see the lice crawling on her arms. The reaction could be: "uhm yes, life is difficult, poor woman and all." A photograph that aims very directly at our tear sacs and we don't like such direct messages.

I edited this and cloned out a little detail. Here's the original:

For me, it's that rose that makes the big difference. A little embroidery to to make her rags just a little fancy. The aim to display something beautiful like we all do. Some got Zegna ties or Prada shoes - she got that rose. In my eyes this is the detail that connects me with her: call it vanity but for me this is the eternal human longing for being beautiful. And when there is such a detail that connects, any condescending attitude gives way to compassion.

Too bad there's not always such a detail, but honest people photography has never been easy.

It reminded me to a photograph I took a decade ago.

Look at that funny duck with the sombrero. Maybe now I better understand why I framed it this way; now I would include more of that duck. Anyway, that was in 1999 and hope to see her again soon. Just like Sapuna and my favorite "model", Priyanka. I'm a cold-hearted bastard but somehow she got through to my soul.

This time next week I'll be in India again, trying to use all the good things I've learned from the pictures of Zoltan, Andre and many, many other friends.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Let's build a new site (or die trying)

Photo sites are like eating out: even if you dine at a three-star Michelin restaurant each day, sooner or later you'll get the desire to prepare something at home just the way you like it, or maybe to add that extra flavor you've always missed from the menu.

I mean: no matter which site you prefer, one day the idea arises why not to create your own photo community site with all the good features found and all the things you've been missing or seen ignored elsewhere?

Of course copying an idea from here and there is not the proper way, and there's always the question what makes a site particularly attractive and special. How to spice up the basic idea of photographers presenting their work with extra features in order to promote their vision, provide them with feedback on their works, extend their network or even let them make money.

I've been nurturing this idea for a while but 1x had made me a little lazy. But now the bug in my ear started to buzz again and consulted a few programmers how much money, time and efforts such a project would require. I even visited a really big name in the business and to my surprise soon found myself talking to their CEO. I expected a conversation like this:

- Mr CEO, sorry for my sweaty T-shirt but I'm on holiday. I want to have a site like, with the evaluation features of and the interface of, but of course not just copying their stuff but everything made better and smarter and sexier, playing Johnny Cash every time I open it and providing me secret access to the telephone numbers of Barbara Taurua's female models should she ever publish photos there. Oh yes, and of course full Facebook connectivity and promotion features that make members become dirty filthy rich from all the photos they sell.
- No problem, sir. We will do that in two weeks, development and hosting will cost you 50.000 euros, maintenance etc only 15.000 per month. According to our cost/benefit calculations you will see money from this in 2055.
- Errr.... thanks for the coffee and your time but I need to go and feed the tuna in my fridge.

In reality, the short meeting turned out to last well into the evening with lots of features and ideas discussed and a more or less affordable sum mentioned in the end.

Bottomline: a new site will be born, more or less in the spirit I mentioned in the beginning of this post.
If someone ever thought that the true winners of photo sites are those who get there first, now would be a good time to drop me an email at After all, the site will probably need screeners/curators and a core crew (oh yes! now this is the time to turn the table :)). The name is not fixed yet but several domains have been acquired already. It would be good to have a catchy name attracting lots of visitors, so my pick includes,, and of course Jokes aside: we snatched some good stuff with all the new .co domains made recently available, and a few .coms and .nets too. I said "we" because special thanks go to the first brave soul who joined me in this, and whose name I prefer not to tell yet.

The site project is still in embryonic stage but if only half can be realized of what's possible, this will be something really big. Maybe we end up dining out in the end but at least let's try to cook for ourselves for once...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

From threads to threats

The full story behind, just to finish this for once and all. Longer, bigger, uncut version.

Here it goes: the core idea of is to feature screened images only. If something goes wrong, the root of the problem lies with screening. I became an member in February 2009 and by now realized that the coveted front page, where new additions appear, had gradually lost its magic. Too much mainstream, too much middle of the road in general and too many images with technical or other flaws in particular. This used to be an exemption before but recently became a daily issue. The forum was zombified with community life in the state of 911.
How to shake things up? First things first: let's get back to core values. I opened a thread titled "I'm missing Onexposure" to discuss the present situation; as you know, was it its upcoming phase when most of us joined it. Threads and posts telling misgivings about site features, providing technical and/or content suggestions are usually suppressed but the crew somehow let this topic live. Many well-meant suggestions were made and although we didn't all agree about front page becoming dull, there was an overall understanding that adding new screeners wouldn't harm. Appointing new screeners was supposed to work twofold: to give the crew a helping hand in the daily selection routine - 6 screeners are making the final decision about the submissions of about 5500 members, which is mathematical nonsense - and to have screeners for street, documentary, portrait and creative edit channels where the crew (as one of them admitted) are less strong than in other genres.
This initiative enjoyed the support of one of the two founders (Jacob Jovelou) who even encouraged it.

So far, so good.

Then Kevin, head moderator, told me in his most polite way that the "Missing OE" thread will be closed because it was getting off-topic. Kudos for him for doing that. I agreed, and to keep the momentum opened another thread, this time for making members aware that now it's their time to contribute and apply as screeners or recommend others.

Following the screener selection procedure set out by Jacob himself in the first thread, a list of candidates was drawn up and sent to him in OEmail. This thread was also closed and reasonably so, since it was a call for new screeners and no discussion thread.

However, shortly because it was closed, night owls could witness something weird. Ralf Stelander, the other founder appeared and said: this is all a misunderstanding, 1x is not looking for new screeners, and even if they would, crew already has its own list of members they would pick as screeners. This was in total contradiction to everything what was told in the "Missing OE" thread by the crew (Ursula) and Jacob. Surprise surprise, after a little exchange of fire he rescinded and apologised for his mistake.

This was late in the night and for a moment I was thinking that there will be a new dawn for 1x.

So far, still good.

Then, on 14 July (you know: allons enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé, contre nous de la tyrannie l'étendard sanglant est levé) I wanted to check out "Missing OE" just to check if there was anything I oversaw, and oups - it was gone. Deleted. Exterminated. Without any malice, I posted in the dull old "What ruined your day today" thread: "To find the 'I'm missing Onexposure' thread deleted."

And now comes the nasty part. I admit I don't remember everything in full detail (after all I do have a life in contrary to a certain enthusiastic moderator) but I write all this in full honesty and to my best recollection, because I have no reason to make my own acts look better or the moderator's and crews' worse than they actually were. Unfortunately I can't reconstruct every post - because the "What ruined..." thread was deleted as well.

So: my post, and the reactions thereto by other members (some of them asking the founders very straight questions which of course remained unanswered) made our most enthusiastic moderators go berserk in the best "Silence! I kill you!" style with unprecedented arrogance and a brilliant display of small-scale dictatorship. You know this kind of paranoid character: give him a hammer and he'll see a nail everywhere.
This was the point when I had enough of their little games. I summed up my feelings in three words:


(I don't want to tell his name because 1x'ers know him and after all he's just a tool in the hand of the crew, so it doesn't matter. I know he's now busily concocting vicious plans against me like a little Gargamel.)
Of course I was banned from posting in Critique and forum in about 30 seconds. Although at this point I couldn't care less about posting at anymore, I was really pissed off - no, I was enraged, furious, berserk and reaching out for a fire thrower (but only spilling some coffee into my keyboard - too bad, it was a good one. I mean the keyboard. Our espresso machine sucks.) I wrote him a few OEmails and took extra special care to let him now my opinion about him as a moderator, a character - or better: his lack of it -, his actions, and the incredibly arrogant attitude of which he so eagerly represents. Of course I should have known: he already told me once that is not a community site but a business, and he will do what his bosses want him to do.

I exchanged a few sad OEmails with Jacob. He was quick to condemn my "agressivity", but if you ask me, all this could have been prevented if he (or Kevin or anyone else) stepped in and replied to the questions other members asked him about the deletion. You know what? They could even had made me apologise to the moderator. God knows I was willing, if in exchange they admitted to have screwed this up even if only in an OEmail. But no, nothing like that.

Probably Jacob wasn't aware of what's going on, but I'm fokken tired to give him the benefit of doubt (which of course I do) and play this "Comrade Stalin is good and fair, it's only his vicious advisors who are evil" kind of game. No way. I was sick and tired of their attitude.

But never ever asked him or anyone else to delete my gallery.

Surprise surprise, next afternoon I try to log in and find myself exterminated from the site. Home page, published photos, OEmails, everything.

That's the end of the story. Just to add a little spice: I had still about 690 days of bronze membership which I received from Ralf as a thank-you (and as I wrongly believed, a token of friendship) in exchange for drafting the user agreement* to the new photo book. Of course I could have argued because the terms of service don't give them the right to cancel a membership like that; but at this stage I couldn't care less about my membership. I doubt that anyone in my position would have.

So folks, that's the end of it. And probably a beginning to many good things as well. Thanks for your support - it would be flattering to think it's about me, but I know it's about just that last little straw that broke the camel's back. When the "Missing..." thread came to a standstill and all was looking bleak, I wrote something nasty and when a few minutes later Jacob appeared and gave us his support, I happily deleted it quickly and wrote instead: I LOVE YOU ALL. This is how I felt and that's exactly what I'd like to tell you here and now. I love you all and thank you.

And one day we will kick some ass. 2x will come. Until then, see you in Sherwood Forest.

*As a little reward to you for having read all this, a bonus warning: if you consider being included in that photo book, read that agreement very carefully... ;)

A blissful day

Hola Hombre -

I was supposed to tell you something about your photo titled "Blissful day"but didn't quite feel up to the task, so tonight I hooked up with Praefect on the Corvin rooftop - you know that surreal place in Budapest. Hollywood stage set designers are paid lots of bucks to invent something that's been existing there for years already. Anyway, we didn't get wiser together.
On the one hand, your photo is beautiful - no doubt about that.
On the other hand, to tell what it actually is about - at this point we couldn't quite agree and had to ask the pretty waitress to bring us more wine.
It's an everyday setting with an exotic model (for us, that is) but the environmental portrait line is disrupted by the dysfunctional props: the fake pearls and the camera.
Honestly, we failed to solve the riddle. At least on the "to me, this picture is about...." level. But then we agreed that it's not necessary for a photo to tell a full story from A to Z, which might have been due to our tongues made lazy by the wine and I tell you, after one litre of wine one's tongue finds dealing with photo-aesthetic expressions difficult, but even so, Praefect managed to utter words like "epitheton ornans" and I think he even said something about Kant and the sea, but maybe it was the sweat on the back of the waitress he was thinking about as far as the sea was concerned while I was preoccupied with the girl at the next table whom I thought to have seen once in a lesbian porn movie but wasn't quite sure as I was focusing on your image with half of my brains and couldn't make up my mind after even ten minutes of staring. In any case she had long brown hair and beautiful tits and might have been called Daphne but this didn't bring me any closer to solve the riddle of your picture, and because we met to discuss your photo I turned away from her and the boy she was sitting next to and who was much more handsome than me anyway, having the only comfort that at least she wasn't with another woman.
And then probably after seeing the rocking hips of a tourist girl the word "elegance" came to our mind but I'm not sure we actually said this because we had too much wine and couldn't quite spell such complicated words but we agreed with a mutual nod that it's an elegant photograph, because all its elements are bound together by such naturality and precision that makes us believe everything you wanted to tell and of course the opposite of all that too, and that we are blessed to sit in that café thinking about your photograph and enjoying a blissful day. And I want to thank you for showing this photo and saving us from just another boring evening spent with staring at waitresses and porn actresses and unknown butts by giving food to our hungry souls. You photo saved two lazy souls - for today. Keep'em coming, keep'em up.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A few words about - Onexposure

Since February 2009, (or Onexposure, as it was called before) seemed to be the perfect site for a committed photograph. The basic idea - not just feature everything that's uploaded but screen them and display only the best selection - is not new or unique but since the humble beginnings, 1X successfully turned it into a hype claiming to feature the "best photos on the web".

I loved this site very much until our relation ended rather abruptly before a few days, and now I'd like to add my own two cents without anger or fondness.

But first of all, an advertisement.

1) Does 1X really feature the best photos on the web?

I don't think so, simply because no site does. There's too much good photography on the web. But before we dismiss their slogan as pure marketing, let's admit that someone coming from Flickr & Co which display just about everything that's uploaded may find the 1x front page and galleries a veritable oasis for the eyes. This is also due to the puritanistic, no-nonsense and ad-free(!) design. However, if you compare their front page and galleries to some pools and groups on Flickr, or the selection channels on competing sites like, the "1xperience" ((c) by Alex O'Brien) is less striking. Let's face it: as such, stuff on 1x is not that better than what you see elsewhere but displaying selected work only does the trick. The hype works, at least in the beginning.

Some say the site developed like a U turned upside down: there was an early phase with lots of images that were mediocre at best, then there was a peak time with many truly outstanding photographers and now there's a downward phase with many purely eye-candy shots, self-repeating motifs and boring escapism. I don't want to go into this because everyone can form his own opinion who knows the site; suffice to say, 1x is for me personally no longer the source of inspiration what it used to be. It might have been "searching for the sublime" in the beginning, but as it grew 1x seems to have forgotten what it's actually looking for.

2) Feedback and critique

There's lots of feedback channels around from photosig to devArt et cetera, but in my roamings I found 1x's Critique section the very best. One receives lots of detailed feedback from very good photographers in relatively short time. It's give and take so one has to write four critiques to gain an upload slot but this is just about fair.

And now the bad news. Most images in Critique had been rejected and the critics' approach is (almost) always "It was rejected. This means it's not good. Let's find out why". In truth, there are many excellent photographs there and the difference between dozens of "wow great shot" comments and dozens of "crop it, sharpen it, add more contrast" critiques is only where you see the image - published on front page or submitted to Critique.

And you know how it goes... if you want you can find flaws in even the most successful photographs. Doisneau's Kiss is badly composed, McCurry's Afghan girl is just a photo-shy girl without the context and it turns human misery into an eye-candy, Robert Capa's Death of a milicist was (caugh, caugh, errr...) probably staged and it's quality is awful - and so on. No photograph is ever flawless. Besides we don't photograph to please other photographers anyway.

There's also a tendency to over-analyse photographs which is strenghtened by the paranoid moderation: one can't just write "To me this is a perfect photograph which doesn't need to be improved" because such comments are deleted at lightning speed. One always has to find flaws even if there are none worth to mention.

Even worse, sometimes you can see photos on the front page which would rightfully be blown to pieces in Critique but were published anyway. For example, look at the cloning trails here. It's not the photographer's fault in the first place but of the screeners who sometimes screw up in their search for the sublime. (Why the photog didn't upload an improved version after publication is a different matter...).

Anyway, it's useful for beginners desperately looking for some real feedback but once you start to judge your own photos with a trained eye there's not much to learn there.

3) Community

There's lots of diversity on 1X and members from all over the world, which is of course great; politics and other sensible subjects which could be the source of conflicts are gracefully avoided in the forum. People on 1x treat each other well in general and 1x was the beginning of many beautiful friendships but what truly matters in the end is how the site crew treats its members.

Now... photographers can be difficult people with all their vanity and big egos, including me of course, and people maintaining a site for photographers should be capable of dealing with this. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There is a paranoia over the site: any feature suggestion, no matter how benevolent in its intentions and polite in its tone, is verboten and gets deleted pretty soon by the crew. Or even worse: just dismissed as "whining over rejections". As if anything apart from "wow what a great site how happy I am to be here" would be considered dangerous for scaring away new paying members. Suggestions by members are usually neglected completely, or first neglected and later implemented without any credit to the guy who came up with it. Add a healthy amount of arrogance from the founders and trouble is guaranteed. Needless to say, the screening procedure and its decisions - the very core of the site - are taboo and any attempt to talk about it results in deleted threads, usually communicated with an arrogance that's unbelievable for any business living out from their paying membership.

Anyway... when I joined 1x in early 2009, there was a buzzing community life in the forums, with IRL meetings and lots of fun. Not anymore. But members are still free to congratulate themselves for being 1xers and of course giving thanks to the crew for everything; and oh yeah, you can even tell the others what music you are listening to right now. Ain't this fascinating?

4) Copyrights

One last but important point. Once you upload an image and it gets published, you can't delete it. Again: published images cannot be deleted. You can ask the crew to delete them of course and if they agree, they'll do it. This is a very strange practice and stands on weak legal grounds, as for a long time this wasn't even mentioned in the user's agreement (which was legally seen not a very professional contract anyway compared to other sites). As one of the founders tried to explain: "If we deleted all photos by a photographer, many hours of unpaid work by screeners and other members (giving critique and commenting photos) would be gone." Sorry but this is no legal argument for not letting a photographer execute his most basic rights over his works. Once the photos are published, one can't do much about them: they can't be organised into sets, galleries or series. It's possible to do that in the home page that comes with paying membership but frankly, while the home pages are decent and lot of efforts was put into them by the site's programmer they are not why people want to be on 1x.

Talking about copyrights: the system automatically adds a tag to images with a huge 1x logo to make using stolen photos a little less easier. Imagine, they even indicate the photographer's name - in small letters one quarter of the size of the logo, just to show who is more important. Isn't this generous? I left this for last because it's so much typical for 1x in general: such a cool idea and such badly realized.

Bottomline: is it a good site or not? In my very subjective opinon: if you look for a challenge and good learning opportunity, yes it is. If you already know how to tell a good photograph from an average one, go elsewhere and save yourself some frustration.