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Feature: Carl de Souza self-assignment produces remarkable steel mill photos  
Wednesday, April 6, 2011 | by Eamon Hickey
Last December, editors at the UK’s The Guardian newspaper selected a series of eleven fascinating photographs by Agence France-Presse (AFP) staff photographer Carl de Souza to showcase in a featured slideshow—the sort of special limelight that doesn’t come along all that often in a wire service photographer’s life.

Shot a month earlier inside a steel mill in Islamabad, Pakistan, the images show workers making long steel rods that are extruded from machines like “big molten spaghetti,” as de Souza describes it. Once cooled and cut into shorter lengths, the rods are used in building construction.

Molten Spaghetti: Nikon D3S + Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2, ISO 1600, 1/400, f/2. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

Despite their exotic look, the pictures are straightforward available light images shot at typical action-stopping shutter speeds. To compress and harden the steel rods during the forming process, workers use tongs to guide them through a sequence of multiple pressing machines, and the superheated strands twist and coil in the factory’s limited space. Combine that with the building’s overhead skylights and dark, smoke-filled interior, and you have the makings of some remarkable images.

Playing with light and smoke and dark

“I had seen pictures from steel mills and that kind of ream of luminescent molten steel was fascinating to me,” de Souza says. “I was hoping for that. But I didn’t imagine the light coming from the skylights and the smoke. As a photographer, that’s really exciting to be able to play with the light and smoke and dark. It’s just amazing. You’ve got this light that comes in from the ceiling, and you’ve got steel coming at you from both ends. Nothing was shot with flash—everything you see [in the photos] is really interesting light pouring in from the skylights or reflecting off the floor.”

De Souza shot the photographs over the course of one day and the next morning using a Nikon D3S. Most of the images were shot with a manual focus Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2 lens (ZF mount version), but he also used a Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VR IF-ED and an AF-S 50mm f/1.4G. (One of his steel mill images shot with the ZF 28mm lens recently took second place in the Carl Zeiss Photo Contest 2010.)

Self-assignment

This was the second trip to Pakistan for de Souza, who was born in Sweden and raised in the UK. Currently based in London, he’s been shooting full-time for AFP for seven years, first as a stringer and, for the last four years, as a staff photographer. De Souza’s first Pakistan trip, in 2007, ended abruptly when AFP pulled him out of the country after he narrowly escaped serious injury in the explosion that killed Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan. The steel mill images were a self-assignment, one product of a coveted open-ended gig that AFP hands out to staffers in turns.

“It’s a rotating position that [AFP] has,” de Souza explains. “Every three months a foreign photographer will go and work with the local guys [i.e. Pakistani bureau photographers] to come up with feature ideas. In our world, to have someone say to you, ‘you can go and shoot whatever you want’—it’s kind of every photographer’s dream, a fantastic opportunity. One that I relished.”

Once in Pakistan, De Souza set out specifically to find a steel manufacturing plant. “I wanted to show the working lives of these people. How they work. What they work with. It’s very, very hot in that mill. They can only work for an hour [before taking a break]—in some of the pictures the workers are having showers.”

With the help of Pakistani journalists from the local AFP bureau, De Souza contacted many steel mills but most were suspicious and unwilling to letting him shoot in their facilities. Even after he found one that was open to his presence, it didn’t last long. “Initially, they were very positive and helpful,” de Souza says. “But the next morning, they became suspicious that we were there to expose a bad safety record or something like that and asked us to leave.”

Refreshing danger

“You could never shoot this set of pictures in the UK,” de Souza adds. “Health and safety regulations would prevent it. You just can’t shoot anything. You have to wear a hard hat, and you have to stand 200 meters away because they’re so worried about lawsuits. The days of photographers taking the risks themselves, teetering on ladders, are gone [in Europe and the U.S.]. I had to look out at both ends to make sure I didn’t get seared by one of [the extruding rods]. For me, it was refreshing to be able to work in that way.”

Gallery

Neon: Nikon D3S + Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2, ISO 1600, 1/320, f/2. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

Shape: Nikon D3S + AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G VR IF-ED at 78mm, ISO 2000, 1/320, f/3.2. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

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Hot: Nikon D3S + Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2, no exposure information. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse) Wrangle: Nikon D3S + Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2, ISO 2000, 1/320, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

Break: Nikon D3S + AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, ISO 2000, 1/400, f/1.4. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

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Carry: Nikon D3S + Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2, ISO 2000, 1/400, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

Eyes: Nikon D3S + Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2, ISO 1600, 1/400, f/2. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

Rest: Nikon D3S + AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, ISO 1250, 1/400, f/1.4. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

Up: Nikon D3S + AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, ISO 1250, 1/320, f/1.4. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

Form: Nikon D3S + Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2, ISO 2000, 1/320, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

Shower: Nikon D3S + AF-S 50mm f/1.4G, ISO 800, 1/320, f/1.4. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

Nap: Nikon D3S + Zeiss Distagon T* 28mm f/2, no exposure information. Click to enlarge (Photo by Carl de Souza/Agence France-Presse)

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