EPUK Editorial Photographers United Kingdom and Ireland. The private mailing list and public resource for editorial photographers

Penal Colony Number One - Jeremy Nicholl, 2004

29 August 2010

This was shot in 2004 for Der Spiegel. We were doing a story on how the Uzbek state was using the USA’s war on terror as a means to control its own population under the guise of fighting Islamic extremism. The Uzbeks gave us access to the prison to interview a supposed local Al Qaeda leader. That was of course a deadly dull picture shot during the interview, but after some persuasion they let me wander around the prison, although they kept a close eye on me.

The guys in the picture had nothing to do with terrorism: they were what we call in Ireland ODCs – ordinary decent criminals.

I bought my first camera when I was 8 years old: a very fine Kodak Instamatic I used to torture my parents during rainy holidays on the Antrim coast. Later I honed my eye by nicking a collection of Picture Posts from the school library; and picked up darkroom skills by skipping maths and Latin classes and instead mixing chemicals in the school’s otherwise unused darkroom.

The Instamatic was a bit limiting though, so by the time I’d moved to London in the early 80s I’d upgraded and started selling photos on spec up and down Fleet Street. This was still the days of proper newsrooms: clouds of tobacco smoke, clacking typewriters, and a bottle stashed in every hack’s desk.

Pretty soon I was being offered shifts on The Times, then I moved sideways onto The Sunday Times. Harold Evans was editor, the ST had always been my paper of choice as a teenage news junkie, and they had a legendary team of photographers. So working there was a privilege, and felt like it, albeit one I was happy to abuse as much as possible.

In 1986 I joined The Independent pre-launch as a contract photographer and stayed for a couple of years, leaving after a blazing row during which I stood on top of a camera case in the newsroom and abused a perfectly reasonable picture editor.

In 1989 I visited Russia for the first time professionally. Within five minutes two things were clear: the Soviet Union was over, and this was a great place to make photographs. So I returned to London and told anyone who would listen that the USSR was about to disappear, and it was the only place I was interested in photographing. That got me more laughs than assignments, so I just started visiting on tourist visas and travelling wherever looked interesting.

I’ve worked on assignment for, or been published in, most of the big UK and international publications. The most unusual publication was when my blog was recently quoted during the debate on the Digital Economy Bill in the House of Commons: as a result the blog is now in Hansard, which is Crown Copyright. The Queen has grabbed my copyright: they’re all at it these days.

Jeremy Nicholl’s early career included working shifts for The Times and then The Sunday Times under legendary editor Harold Evans. He joined The Independent in 1986. In 1990 he moved to Moscow where he produces The Russian Photos Blog.

Photographer since 1981, EPUK member since 1999.

See more work by Jeremy Nicholl

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