Roger Coulam: “Thinking Image”

An appreciation by John Cogan ARPS on Roger Coulam’s lecture to Durham Photographic Society February 2018

Some few years ago I wrote an article for Tony Griffiths and the DPS Website about Roger’s last visit to Durham PS and his evening with us (link).  How the wheel turns.  Here I am again putting my fingers to the keyboard, writing a second piece.  Is there much change from that first article that warrants a second one?  I believe so.

The first section of the evening was a look at his storm-chasing images.  Even for those of us who remember them from last time Roger visited, they hold a power to inspire awe.  My personal favourites are the black and white cloudscapes.  This is where the use of a monochrome film wins, the tones and textures are, without doubt, monumental.  No pun intended.

The following sets were advised by Roger’s passionate commitment to document photography.  The scenes at the Sunderland Air Show, potentially a Martin Parr pastiche, were underscored by Roger’s critical and compassionate eye.  The chaos of “ The mad melting pot” of Mackams disporting themselves provided a context for their young children being shown how to handle service-issue weapons.  Possibly the most shocking image was one of the sequence featuring the seriously wounded mannequin.  This particular image featured a legless model wrapped in bloody bandages.  Standing by and looking on were two young girls restrained, on leads, by their young mother.  During the Falkland’s Campaign I can remember news footage of a Para being lifted off an Army Wasp helicopter, his left leg shattered.  It was only once that the sequence was shown before it disappeared.  That image was real but not nearly as horrific as the dummy and the fake blood.

Roger’s choices of images (and I feel certain there are many more in his files back at home) reflect a passion and a commitment to follow in the footsteps of many of the great humanitarian photographers.  Likening him to Martin Parr does Roger a disservice.  Parr is an observer.  His images are not editorial.  Roger, however, follows in the footsteps of the Humanist photographers of the past, those whose images hold a deeper truth.

Roger’s last section took us to the coast and Blast Beach, Seaham in particular.  Each image added to an overall story of misuse and decay.  The area he chose to illustrate was once a dumping ground for whatever was discarded by the pit, built on the cliff top above the beach.  Over time, since the pit closed, erosion and weather has sought to reveal whatever it finds.  Brought down to share the foreshore with amputated plastic dolls’ legs and seabird skulls these pieces of flotsam and jetsam offer Roger a chance to gather them us and construct a collage of waste.  Looking at the slides projected onto the screen it became a sequence of wonder, juxtaposed items arranged so that one piece would act as a counterpoint to its neighbour.  The crab claw segueing into the piece of plastic which, in its turn, leads the eye to the gannet leg (stench and all). 

Roger brought the same commitment and passion to the collections from the beach that he had brought to his critique of those who are exposing young children to violence.  Whether you agree with him or not, that he is involved in these two projects is a salutary lesson in how photography can become a conduit for expressing  hopes and aspirations.  For those of us who have left our youthful stamina long ago, even we can use the camera to look out at the world and make our voice heard.

John Cogan ARPS


Pictured: Sunderland International Air Show. Roger Coulam



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