The Writing on the Wall

Haiti 21 October 1794 and today, 21 Octber 2015

On 21 October 1794 Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the Haitian independence movement during the French Revolution, captured the cities of Saint-Michel and Saint-Raphaël from the Spanish for the French during the War of the First Coalition.

North central Haiti 1987

North central Haiti 1987

For very unexpected reasons I’ve been way away for about a week.  Coming back has been interesting.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1987: Police wait to react to a demo

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1987: Police wait to react to a demo

I note the date in Haitian history because yesterday I woke from a dream of Haiti where I was almost 25 years ago.  I don’t know why I had this dream but I do know that like all of us in the business of documentary photography/journalism we make it with the help of others.  It was in Haiti I meet Maggie Steber who I am sure no more remembers me now than she knew who I was then. But hearing I had not been able to find US representation referred me to people in London and said use my name.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1987: Anti government demonstrators

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1987: Anti government demonstrators

As so often happens, the events of last week could not have occurred at a worse time.  At the beginning of this year I opted out of a long running contract because the work had deadened my soul as it turned deeper and deeper into PR.  I committed to changing my working style, cashed in some money, bought the Leica and started.  And it seemed to be working: the photos were getting better and I pretty quickly found a project idea to help me “focus”.  But then I was interrupted first by camera repair and then by events of last week.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1990: Supporters of Jean-Bertrand "Titid" Aristide wait for his return

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1990: Supporters of Jean-Bertrand "Titid" Aristide wait for his return

In any event now I’m starting up again and perhaps that is why Haiti has popped up – it was in Port-au-Prince through a random connection I found with a fellow photographer that I finally found some acceptance and a feeling of home in London.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1990: Security for an Aristide and others moving from one site to another.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1990: Security for an Aristide and others moving from one site to another.

As some of you know for about 25 years, predating “social media” by some time, I have put out photo cards, first as mailed hard copies, then as e cards.  Now I have 2 websites and a twitter account but the cards continue to go only to a small number of folks and appear nowhere else. Eight days ago my new card series was to go out but then… Instead it went out Monday. Yet another beginning I suppose.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1990.  Rally marches to the cemetery.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1990.  Rally marches to the cemetery.

Robert Gumpert 21 October 2015

It's been 8 months

I was a freelance photojournalist my entire working life, at least up to 10 years ago.  At first it was bad pay but good stories.  Then it became bad pay for vacuous stories.


I come from labor and when I was offered a yearly freelance contract with a labor/management partnership I jumped.  It was a chance to return to my roots and see change from the inside.  The organizational structure was loose and thoughtful stories were possible.


Like all gigs, there were ups and downs to the work.  For a number of years the ups dominated.  But as time went on that changed.  The gig became one uninteresting straight corporate PR job after another.  It was painfully obvious that my journalistic and story telling skills were dying.


In October 2014 I let the client know it would be my last quarter.  I began to think about a new project/s to do. (“Take a Picture, Tell a Story” continues, and will continue) and two things became clear:


1)   Indeed what limited journalist and story telling strengths I had, had declined and were barely surviving.

2)   I had truly become a “professional” photographer: making good, useful images in any situation, they were safe, risk free and soulless.  They never asked to be “touched”.  The images didn’t speak, let alone sing.


I needed to relearn how to take photographs that spoke, that demanded touching.  I needed to relearn to think, to see implications and connections, to investigate.


January 2015 rolled around with no work in sight, and no ideas for a project.  I put off trying to devise one and hit the streets with the intention to rediscover, and relearn how to create images and tell stories.


It’s 8 months in.  There have been more frustrations than success.  And still no real project has reared its head.  There has been progress here and there.  An occasional shot that at least whispers, and a reminder here and there that my take on stories/projects is often a bit askew from what others see.


With nothing on the horizon finished and ready to post, I am instead turning the opening page of TAPTAS into a “work in progress” and invite folks to come along for the ride.


16 August 2015

Back from London

Martin's mockup

Martin's mockup

Back from London and my pop-up show: “The Bridge and Black Walls”. 

The show was more than I could have ever dreamed off – thanks to a number of great friends who need to be named:

First and foremost

Martin and Michele Colyer and all the people they somehow brought along with them on this endeavor.  The strength of the show came from their collaboration and their help.  It was just a damn fine experience and without them it never would have happened.  They did all this: designing, arranging, PR, hanging while also working jobs.  I am in awe.

And there are more:

Christine Toomey for spending time and effort she could ill afford

Nick Freand Jones for a video

Tony Guest for the framing

Hedda, Jordon, Hollie for social media consultations

Ben Leask at Ben’s House (Link)

Gabe and Jordi for bar tending and crowd control

Jules for appearing out of nowhere and helping with the installation

The staff of the Menier Gallery (Link)

Moo, Solopress, and Western, all printers.

Sam and Michele for being the biggest surprise of a great opening

Sandy for keeping me inline and focused - and catching me when I fall

An overheard conversation gets me thinking

For the last 4 days I’ve been in London where I delivered prints for The Bridge and Black Walls show. Martin, Michele and I brainstormed the look and further content for the show and as Martin said, there are few things better than working collaboratively, and it was been a joy.

Returning about 10 pm last night, for reasons unknown, I had a jones on for a big American style breakfast, and I knew just the place to get it this morning.  Great breakfast and the place is deserving of it’s rep. But I won’t rant on about my meals, and except to my son, I don’t send images of them either.

For me eating out, especially when alone, is an occasion to overhear, to easy drop, to invade peoples privacy in a more passive way than when I work.  Today was no different.  In front of me the table for 4 had the usual array of late 20’s early 30’s people, maybe from tech, that SF has so many of.  One, like me, had just been to London and had flown on someplace using a “budget” airline.  For those not familiar with them, amazingly cheap, only a seat and toilet come with the airfare.  The US carrier Frontier has adopted a similar model ("we have unbundled so you pay only for what you want").  So why this post, a comment from another member of the table about what a great idea these “no frills” airlines are, having only to pay for what you want.

I am well into my 6th decade and while my bones hurt a bit, and I get stiff, what follows is not based on my current circumstances.  When I was less than half my age I am now and working for unions, I learned negotiations were tricky – not the usual pushback from the company but the internal membership issue of age:  the young with no families, no health problems - either seen foreseen, and no sense of 40 years down the road needing retirement, wanted their money upfront.  Those starting a family saw the benefit of expanded health benefits and a bit more money up front.  Those near the end wanted bigger and protected pensions, and continuing healthcare.  The conflicts of perceived age related interests is also a prevalent topic in the “marketing” of private health care plans, not to mention the negotiations around the ACA.

How does that relate to this morning’s breakfast table conversation and the talk of how great it was to have a low price to fly, paying you only for what you want/need - it is the same as with the union negotiations I witnessed 30 or 35 years ago, and “rate” setting policies I witnessed much more recently, only you are sold the bill of goods directly.

If you are young and rail thin small seats are just fine.  Hell no seats, a proposal by more than one airline, maybe just fine as well.  You probably won’t need the bathroom either as the young “hold their water” better than those hovering around my age.  Or if you are traveling with kids, well the singles and or those without kids, why should they have to pay for the bathroom they don’t need so others might have it.

And am I the only one that finds it strange that I now pay extra to sit in the emergency row where I will be called upon to assist in an emergency?

Where is the line of “the choice is yours”, all you have to do is pay the fee?  Booking is free but you are charged for everything there after: the boarding pass, the luggage, the carry-on - starting at 1 item, water, seat (not placement but the seat itself), seatbelt, the order of getting off the plane (getting on is already a matter of fees).  Note that if this happens there will be further fees such as: injury due to no seat belt.  After all the fault will be yours because you did not purchase “insurance” when opting for not purchasing a seat belt.  How about a charge to jump the line in the automated information reservation system?

All these are tactics designed to play sides against one another for the benefit of a few “owners” bottom line. 

More importantly they destroy a sense of society, that we are all in this together.  The idea of union is “all for one, one for all” and it is the same for any society, be it a family, a neighborhood, a city, state or nation.  And as we are finally beginning to realize because of global warming, it is true for the world as well.

So just because the ticket is cheap, or at least cheaper, on a airline providing  nothing but “choices for purchase”, we all, together, must remember there is always a price to pay, it will come due now or in the future, but it does come due.

And just to be clear, I don’t think the answer is paying exorbitant prices so that the “owners” can have ever increasing paydays.

Exhibits open

"From Take a Picture, Tell a Story"

"From Take a Picture, Tell a Story"

From "I need some deodorant. My skin’s getting restless”

From "I need some deodorant. My skin’s getting restless”

“I need some deodorant. My skin’s getting restless” and “Take a Picture, Tell a Story”, my two photo exhibits at St. Mary’s College Art Museum opened yesterday with presentations about incarceration and mental health by Raphael Sperry, an architect concerned with human rights and his profession and Dr. Terry Kupers, among the foremost national experts on the mental health effects of solitary confinement.  The shows will be on view until March 15, 2015 at the Art Museum - 1928 Saint Mary's Road, Moraga, CA 94575

Between work and the holidays

Between work and the holidays I’ve been on the road – airports, planes and time to catch up on reading.


Thanks to my friend Hardy Green I read the following essay from the January 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Under Western Eyes” by John Gray.


“… With the worst public infrastructure in the advanced world, a disappearing middle class, a higher proportion of the population incarcerated than in any other country, and a government gridlocked by corporate power, America and it’s political system are seen as a model by no one outside the United States.”


Reading the piece means buying the magazine, Harper’s is a pay site. Along with the essay there are at least two other good reads: “Come with us if you want to live: Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley” by Sam Frank and “Love Crimes: What liberation looks like for Afghan women” by Jen Percy.


Also highly recommended:


Music in the everyday world by Martin Colyer”


Action movies move into reality

The Shaolin monks have been famed for their martial arts for centuries in BBC story about “commercializing the temple”

The Shaolin monks have been famed for their martial arts for centuries in BBC story about “commercializing the temple”

An Indonesian Marine tank fires in mid-air during The 69th Republic of Indonesian Military Anniversary on October 7, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

An Indonesian Marine tank fires in mid-air during The 69th Republic of Indonesian Military Anniversary on October 7, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

The photographer Angel Franco

Over the years that I have been reading the NYT there have been a lot of images to look at.  Frankly they are often not worth pausing for.  That is not unique to the NYT, and unfortunately good work that makes you pause and ponder seems increasingly scarce.  But the NYT photographer Angel Franco, whose work does not seem to appear that often, always makes me stop and think.  Take a look here

So what now?

Just north of where I live, down the hill towards downtown, there are parking lots and freeway overpasses. It was an area of warehouses and distribution centers when SF was a port. In short just the sort of area attractive to the homeless as living space. But now the area is known as SOMA.  It is a center for tech, web business, and upscale art and interior design and the homeless make them uncomfortable.  
A meeting has been called - what to do about the tent communities. The public has been invited.  The police and pols will be there. Residents will also come.  There will be much talk about what can and should be done with “these” people.  But even though this is where the homeless live, my guess is they won’t be there and no one will be asking for their input.

For a year between 1995 and '96 I spent swing shifts - Fridays through Sunday - riding with the Tenderloin Task Force here in San Francisco. The TLF’s coverage area included the TL, one of SF’s poorest neighborhoods,  and one of SF’s premier shopping and tourist areas, Union Square.  Periodically “The Word” would come down from the Mayor to the Police Chief to the TL Captain - move the homeless out of Union Square, to anywhere else. The order delivered, this became job number one for the beat cop.

That was almost 20 years ago. San Francisco has gone through the dot com boom, bust and tech revolution. A baseball stadium was finally built downtown. The SF 49ers have left Candlestick and became the Santa Clara 49ers.  And while the Mayor has changed, the homeless are still here.  And they are still being pushed from one area to another, safe in a location until those with money and power decide it is time for it to be some other neighborhood’s problem.

The meeting with be on the 19th, next week.  All this week I have seen the police and cleaning crews moving “residents” on.  The latest at 8:30 last night.  I don’t know where they go.  

What I do know is the powers that be will say they don’t have the money to deal with the entire problem. That even if they did, it would only bring more homeless to SF.  That housing is being built as fast as possible. And besides “many” don’t want help even if it was available.

I also know that the area at the base of the hill is more prosperous than it has been since we moved here 30 years ago.  And it is still physically what it was for the ports: open space with now real or faux converted warehouses doing day business with those with money.

It seems to me that with a bit of imagination and commitment to a better society, some of that space could supply real housing and real services to those in need without putting undo burden on those doing business alongside.  Ideas abound: here; here; here; from a simple search at one magazine.  It is not like having to reinvent the wheel.



Average monthly income for a homeless individual  $348
% of homeless that do not get enough to eat daily  28 %
% of homeless that did paid work during the past month  44 %
% of homeless that have problems with alcohol, drug abuse, or mental illness  66 %
% of homeless persons that have been sexually assaulted  7 %
% of homeless that have been homeless for more than two (2) years  30 %
% of homeless women that are unaccompanied / have no partner  40 %
% of homeless women claim to have been abused within the past year.  25 %
% of homeless women who claim domestic abuse as the reason for their homelessness  22 %
% of homeless population that are Veterans / Vets  40 %
% of homeless persons who are employed  25 %
Number of Americans who now live in hunger or on the edge of hunger  31,000,000
Percent of people in a soup kitchen line who are children  20 %
Number of families who are lodging nightly in city shelters in New York City  6,252
Number of children in the U.S. who live below poverty level.  12,000,000
Annual number of food stamp recipients who are children  9,300,000
% of cities surveyed that identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness  46 %
% of the adult homeless population that suffer from a severe and persistent mental illness  22 %
% of homeless persons who have a mental illness that requires institutionalization  6 %

From Statistic Verification
Source: National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
Research Date: 7.1.2014  quoted here


According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy U.S. energy efficiency ranks 13th among the world’s 16 largest economies.  Germany ranks first.

The report is based on measurements in a number of areas, vehicle fuel standards being one.

Americans drive more miles per year than in any other country in the survey. Not a surprising fact given the geography of the country and the fact that only 10% of the population uses public transit. That is a tie with Canada for the least use, and well below China whose residents use public transit 72% of the time.

From the week of 18 August 2014

Karem Abdul-Jabar on Ferguson, MO;   Time Magazine    "In Ferguson, Photographs as Powerful Agents";   NYT Lens    "Sixteen, Alone, 23 Hours a Day, in a Six-by-Eight-Foot Box";    "Ananda Rose: The Journey of Bones";   Guernica    Richard Williams' always fine the   blue moment   follows up on Martin Colyer riff of this week in his   Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week   blog for Wednesday 20th August  "The New Racism";   The Atlantic   10 August 2014

Karem Abdul-Jabar on Ferguson, MO; Time Magazine

"In Ferguson, Photographs as Powerful Agents"; NYT Lens

"Sixteen, Alone, 23 Hours a Day, in a Six-by-Eight-Foot Box";

"Ananda Rose: The Journey of Bones"; Guernica

Richard Williams' always fine the blue moment follows up on Martin Colyer riff of this week in his Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week blog for Wednesday 20th August

"The New Racism"; The Atlantic 10 August 2014


20 August 2014

Relentless Deadlines

Perhaps this was a particularly busy batch. Or perhaps it is our son is coming in today and his life is one of the most hectic I know of. But whatever it is, I've been thinking of the Relentless Deadline that has been a feature of my entire working life.

I rarely miss work related deadlines. In fact I can think of only one in 40 years and it still haunts me. But for the last two years I've missed every deadline to update or revamp  Deadlines for "Take A Picture, Tell a Story" and the "Stansbury Forum" (which I take care of) have been no problem. Rather than continue to beat a dead horse I have decided to move on and launch a new site, this site, and consign the old to whatever world old websites inhabit. Hopefully I will respect the new set of deadlines, but….