Friday, 17 September 2010

Shoot fourteen: Dr Evan Harris and Sabrina Chevannes

When we decided to do all the shoots over the summer, I was a bit worried they'd all look a bit, well summery (not so great for depicting November or March). Thank goodness for British Weather because it BUCKETED down for shoot number fourteen.

Evan crouching

Our subjects here were a pair of chess geeks: Evan Harris and Sabrina Chevannes.In his 13 years as an MP, Evan gained a reputation for more than just party politics. A qualified medical doctor, he is well known for campaigning for civil liberties, human rights, evidence-based policy, secularism, parliamentary reform and, of course, libel reform, where he headed the parliamentary campaign. He also recently launched a science policy blog as part of the Guardian's new network of science blogs.

Sabrina's played chess for England, and recently helped launch Chess in Schools and Communities, a charity hoping to get a million children playing by 2015. Sabrina was also once on the Crystal Maze and her website has a photo of her standing over a chess set with boxing gloves (by this we mean Evan's great and all, but Sabrina is a bit cooler).

Other stars of the show: the AMAZING chess set, lent to us by the London Chess Centre, and our location, British Medical Association House. Behind-the-scenes, as well as usual Geek Calender team of art-director Louise, photographer Ben and videographer Greg, was chess expert Malcolm Pein.

After giving up on the idea that the rain might stop, we set up the game in the courtyard of the BMA. Here Evan and Sabrina shake hands before the start of the game.

Evan and Sabrina shake hands

Chess was a very appropriate theme for Evan's shoot. Not only because he is a massive chess geek (seriously: that is possibly the geekiest thing on youtube), but because Chess is such a game of political tactics.

The whole shoot had rather a political flavour to it. Evan told us his "favourite geek" is fellow-calendar star Simon Singh, because of the way he helped get scientists active in political campaigning, as Evan put it, the way Simon "turned geeks on to libel reform". Evan also talked about the mechanisms and processes involved in the history of the libel reform movement; the ways in which science and fee speech groups connected, the way the moment in the political cycle was caught.

Evan's tie

The other big theme of the shoot was fashion. Aside from everyone admiring Greg's trainers, we also had the umbrellas Louise speedily sourced from under her desk nearby (Evan's, sadly, was broken, it seemed to funnel water over him, so he was possibly even wetter that he'd have been without one... sorry Evan). There was also Evan's amazing chess tie, which he wore specially for the occasion. He admitted that had it since his was twelve, but has never had a girlfriend who would let him wear it in public.

I think Sabrina won the battle of geeky-chess clothing though: here she is using the chess board as a cloak (from the start of the shoot, before it got soaking wet).

Sabrina and Evan

Sabrina won the chess game too by the way, hands down. As Malcolm said, Evan's a top player, it's just that Sabrina is better.

Thanks again to Evan, Sabrina and Malcolm, the Chess Shop and the British Medical Association.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Shoot thirteen: Petra Boynton

Shoot number thirteen, unlucky for some? Especially spooky as we were shooting by an old graveyard.

Pah! Superstition! Thirteen is lucky for us, because our geek number 13 was the most-awesome and amazing, Dr Petra Boynton.


Petra, if you don't know her, is a psychologist. She lecturers at UCL, teaching doctors, nurses and other health professionals. Her research focuses on issues of sexual health, including the effects of pornography, women involved in street prostitution, policy and practice in sex education, evaluating advice giving in the media, sexual functioning, and modernising sexual health services. She is also an expert in research methodologies, a keen campaigner on evidence-based healthcare, and the UK’s first evidence-based Agony Aunt.

Recent posts on the 11 year olds on the pill stories or how to be an agony aunt (or uncle) should give you an idea of some of the work she is famous for. We can also recommended this video of Petra discussing science and sexuality in women's magazines, and her bit in the Guardian Science podcast recently, after her appearance with Guerrilla Science at the Secret Garden Party.

Our location (Petra's genius idea) was at the gates of the Cross Bones cemetery. Colourful, no?

Memorial gate, Crossbones

Cross Bones' exact age is unknown. There is a reference in 1598 to it as the "Single Woman's churchyard" (a euphemism for prostitutes). Excavations conducted in the 1990s as part of the Jubilee Line extension found an extremely crowded cemetery, with bodies piled on top of one another. It's likely that by the late 18th century, it seems to have become a more general paupers' cemetery and up to 15,000 people are believed to have been buried there.

This part of town lay outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, so Londoners would cross the river to enjoy its brothels, theatres and bear baiting (all illegal in the City itself). That's why the Globe Theatre is there. It's also why one of the roads by the Globe is called "Bear Gardens" (look closely, and you can spot the remains of the hook the bears were attached to).

There's very little of Cross Bones left, all there is to see really is the gate. This is a modern one, not part of any original structure. Indeed, it would be hard to tell there was anything special if there weren't so many ribbons, mirrors, toys, flowers and notes attached to them. Since 1998, on the 23rd of every month a vigil meets to mark "the outcast dead" and add these "trinkets" of remembrance (6:45pm if you want to join them). We saw a reference to someone who had died in 1752, and a note about a man who died in a workhouse at 87 (amazing that someone would have lived to that age in workhouse conditions, it makes you wonder about his story, no?).

The riverside bit of Southwark has all the glamour: Tate Modern, Christopher Wren's House (just tucked beside the Globe, built for a view of St Paul's) or the giant stained-glass window devoted to Shakespeare at the Cathedral. But here, just a few minutes further south, people of today have taken time to celebrate this lesser-known people of the area's past, and celebrate with colour too.

The set

Although it was a lovely location it did make for a slightly complex shoot: this was the middle of a central London street after all. Even though it was quiet and traffic only flowed one-way, we had to keep shifting the lighting equipment at every cry of "car!". Still, as the light faded, our photographer managed to do pretty things with headlights in the background and the results were some very atmospheric pictures.

We worried that Petra's coat might look a bit like a labcoat. Not that we have anything against labcoats, but it would have been a bit odd in this context. However, if anything, it made her look a bit more like a police investigator. Petra and I were both reminded of Prime Suspect, but art-director Louise thought it was more like Dana Scully. Looking over the final photos, I think Louise is right (though Petra has better hair than Scully).

The shadow of Petra

I'll leave you with a snap of the gate as it stood, still in the night, as we were leaving. An amazing bit of town: do drop by if you are in the area.

Redcross gate, Crossbones

UPDATE: Petra's written a lovely account of her experience of the shoot over on her blog.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Shoot twelve: Simon (and Hari) Singh

Our twelfth shoot is one of our most anticipated: the hero of the Libel Reform campaign, Simon Singh.

Daddy, tell me the story about how the universe began...

Author, journalist and TV producer, Simon is one of the UK's best known science writers, penning the likes of 'Fermat's Last Theorum', 'The Big Bang' and 'Trick or Treatment?'. His misfortune kickstarted the libel reform campaign: in getting sued by the British Chiropractic Association, he raised awareness of the UK's misguided libel laws and the widespread outrage led to a strong movement to reform it.

Simon's victory in the case gave hope for the future of free speech in the UK, one that bodes well for the next generation, including young Hari Singh. Born a month before his father's triumph, Hari is an inquisitive fellow, wide-eyed and eager to discover as much about his world as possible -- no time to keep still Daddy!

Father and son

Our location was Hari's nursery in the Singh house. And what a lovely room to have. The first thing that struck us walking in was the wonderful murals on the walls, including a very topical appearance of space and dinosaurs....

The dinosaur mural was hand-painted by Hari's mother and grandmother - such a lucky boy!

It wasn't just space and dinosaurs: another had an undersea theme, followed by robots and bears, then a scene of monkeys. Being the geeks that we are, Team Geek Calendar couldn't help but speculate at the 'evolutionary' ordering of the murals, with the monkeys followed by Hari's cot, then robots, and back to space.... coincidence?

Robot! With bear!

They say you should never work with animals or children, but Hari was a perfect subject, attentive and full of wonderful expressions (he has a great range, from 'fascinated' to 'distracted'). He offered few problems for Daddy, apart from trying to climb into a copy of 'The Big Bang' ("He's trying to get into the book," said Simon, "something many of my readers struggled with...")

Both father and son were decked out in the finest Libel Reform 'propaganda' -- the idea for this shoot being that libel reform safeguards the future of free speech, a future that will hopefully allow Hari, and those of his generation, the freedom to express himself like his father.

We had great fun with Hari's toys, including a zebra who does a stunning rendition of 'I Dreamed a Dream' from Les Miserables. So what did they name this zebra? Susan Boyle!

The endangered animals corner

I'll leave you with with a few other photos from the shoot, including Hari's impressive reading list. As always, these and other behind-the-scenes shots are on our Flickr page.

Physics? Oh bother...

The boy reads well above his age...

Yoo-hoo, Hari!

Thus our twelfth shoot was completed.

But we're not done yet! You're getting more than just 12 months for your buck, so stay tuned for the next exciting Geek Calendar shoot, and don't forget to pre-order your calendar!