THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
Friday and Saturday in Eze, Monte Carlo, Mougins and Tourrettes-sur-Loup

Wednesday and Thursday in Nice and Mougins

We had our first class on Wednesday morning. Each of us students contributed five or so photos, with no particular theme, to give the faculty an idea of what kind of photographers we are. If we had been on courses with Joe McNally and the team before (as most of us had) then they would also give them an idea of what progress we had made. Joe went through them in front of us all and offered each photographer some critique. Mine were mostly portraits and went down quite well. It was more interesting for me to see what my fellow-students had submitted. Their work was of a pretty high standard.

Our brief this week is to pick a theme and shoot a photo story around it. I rashly chose one that will be hard for me – because of psychological, rather than technical difficulties. Past courses have taught me that I find it hard to approach strangers to photograph them. Even in countries (unlike France) where photographers are legally entitled to shoot anything they can see from a public place (or a private place they have permission to be) potential subjects are often reluctant unless thoroughly flanneled. There is some pride in me that makes it hard to ask a stranger for a favour. There's also some English reticence about approaching a stranger at all!

Many potential subjects think they have a right to privacy on the street (a contradiction in terms, as they're in public, which is the literal opposite of private). In France, where the law on the subject is, let's be polite, illiberal they actually DO have a right! Working with friends, models or other volunteers, I actually enjoy the social aspect of portraiture; directing and playing with them to get the expressions and poses I want. However I certainly don't enjoy the mild aggression of "stealing" a candid shot, or the social embarrassment of chatting a stranger up to persuade him or her to pose. My final product from this workshop will therefore either be a flop, or I will have grown – and perhaps not just – as a photographer.

The idea is that it's time for this experienced body of students to move on from f-stops, photographic and lighting techniques and to get down to serious photographic work. On previous courses the faculty has produced a video at the end featuring our best work. I have usually hosted them at this site and published a link in my travelogue. This time they will produce one for each of us – effectively the final version of our photo essay.

Joe kicked off by showing us examples of great photographic features from the past, such as W. Eugene Smith's "Country Doctor" from Life Magazine in 1948 and John Loengard's "The Shakers". All his examples included an "opener" to draw the reader into the story, general shots to set the scene, detailed shots to drive the story on and a "closer" to end it. We are supposed to produce something along those lines this week, about a theme of our choosing. The only rule is that it has to be about Nice and the Cote d'Azur as that is where we are, in effect, "on assignment." This is quite daunting.

After class, we headed out on or own or in groups of friends to shoot on the Promenade des Anglais. The light was beautiful, as the skies were overcast, but, in the absence of the sun, there was not much doing on the beach. Council workers were setting up barriers and a finish line for some kind of running event (ironically called "No Finish Line") so the promenade itself was like a construction site. Amongst this mess, holiday-makers and locals were going about their business. 

I've been coming to the South of France every year on business and pleasure for over three decades and had decided to focus on a particular kind of "character" that is often to be found here. The Cote d'Azur is a high rent sort of destination and visitors are often stylish and even glamorous. Among them however there are those who lay on the glamour too thickly. They have one or more too many pieces of jewellery. If they are men, their watches are out of scale with their wrists and their dress sense is not the most tasteful. All unaware of this they stroll about (or buzz about in their Lamborghinis) to amusing effect. The French have a word for strollers, loungers or loafers on city streets. It is flaneur. It means almost the same as boulevardier, but has a slight connotation of vaguely disreputable idleness. A boulevardier may or may not be louche, but a flaneur almost certainly is. I decided that my photo essay would be about the local flaneurs

I hadn't reckoned with the fact that the best strategy for getting subjects to cooperate – being honest about your artistic intentions – would not be available to me! I am aiming to do a photographic hit job on these, perhaps a little vain or vulgar, but essentially harmless types. I can hardly saunter up to someone and tell them I plan to hold them up to photographic ridicule! I did find a couple of shots that might fit the story. I have the rest of the week to find more. I took care to shoot in a way that my subjects can not be identified from the photos (although they would of course recognise themselves if they happened upon them).

On Wednesday evening I left early to drive to my favourite village in France, Mougins, to visit some old friends for dinner. There had been an accident on the autoroute and the usually agreeable drive wasn't. It was also  raining so the roof stayed firmly up. Nonetheless I had a splendid evening in their company – for the first time ever without any drink as I am off alcohol for the time being. They had invited some other friends, a retired English lawyer who had actually worked at one of the same firms as me (though our times there didn't overlap) and his delightful Iranian wife. I found my way back to my hotel in the early hours of Thursday morning and set about editing my pictures for tomorrow's critique. I finally got to bed at 03:15.

I bunked off the early morning photoshoot on Thursday in the nearby market to get an acceptable amount of sleep, joining the group for breakfast followed by our next class. After lunch we set out to shoot in the Old Town of Nice; a warren of narrow streets packed with tourists and the shops, cafes etc. that cater to them. I had no raincoat, never having needed one in this part of the world before. That was an error. Rather than shooting on the streets, I ended up sheltering first in a church and then a cafe. I kept my camera drier than myself and managed to get some shots, but I don't think any  serve my story, even tangentially.

Tomorrow we are off to the village of Eze and then to Monaco to shoot around the Casino at Monte Carlo. I think I can reasonably hope (weather permitting) for a good few specimens of the "type" I am hunting around there. The casino car park is usually full of their kind of vehicle!

We shall see.