Friday, 25 June 2010

The fifth way.

A noisy but tuneful battle for territory between local blackbirds has meant any phone-call I make from my garden sounds like I'm calling from a aviary!

This morning, one has taken up residence on the roof outside my window and it reminded me of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Walace Stevens' 1917 collection of short poems.

They are all gently brilliant but this is my favorite.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

First night of a love-affair with news.

The Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, which was earlier this week, marks an important milestone for me every year. Covering the event for my local newspaper in 1989 was my first taste of proper news photography and one of the formative experiences of my professional life.

During the late eighties the monument was closed to the public due to fears about its condition. Consequently there were often confrontations between the traveling community (who sought to observe the longest day with a big party at Stonehenge) and the police who were trying to prevent anyone actually reaching the stones other than the small group of druids who practiced their religious ceremony there. In 1985 there had been violent scenes at what came to be known as the Battle of the Beanfield, and although that had been half a decade in the past, the animosity between the New Age Travelers and the Wiltshire police was still raw and bitter.

In the last months of 1987 I had taken on a job as an indentured trainee photographer and darkroom assistant with the Western Gazette in Yeovil. This, it has to be said, was principally motivated by the desire to see my then girlfriend more often and she lived nearby. When she left to go to university I found myself legally bound to the Gazette for three years, working evenings and weekends as a photographer and all day in the darkroom.

Yeovil is a small town in Somerset where, in the words of Peter Gabriel, "they think SO small that they use small words."

Nearly two years of photographing cheque presentations, council meetings and village fetes (Fete's worse than death we used to call them!) had left me desperate to leave newspapers altogether and get into music videos or cinematography or.... anything!

But the night of 21st June 1989 was about to change all that for me and as was often the case then, I never saw it coming.

My boss was a very dynamic and relatively young Chief Photographer called Peter Robins. He was in his mid-twenties and at least ten years younger than any of the photographers answerable to him. Having already worked for national newspapers, he was generous with the jobs and did not just ride-in to take all the plum assignments (if that is the appropriate phrase!). So it was not at all out-of-character when he told me to cover the Solstice. Looking back afterwards, I suspected he was probably trying to show me that there was more to the job and make me reserve judgement on my career choice.

Arriving at Amesbury, the nearest town to Stonehenge, I found my way to the pub where all the Big Boys from London had assembled to wet their whistle before the night's events unfurled. I was completely in awe of them. Many were the photographers whose work I saw each day in the national media while I toiled ingloriously in the provinces doing hand-shakes pictures at the Rotary club. They were rock-stars as far as I was concerned.

The Police had cordoned off section of the A303 leading past the monument and these were the points of resistance that provided the first flash-points. Reasoned debate soon became loud argument. Aggressive confrontation escalated to scuffles and arrests. The arrests in turn prompted more anger and the cycle started again. Little hot-spots fizzing and then subsiding and in each case my camera was almost magnetically drawn to the centre of things.

This was the first time I had experienced photographic compulsion. Time and again I found myself pulled almost involuntarily into the fray. Single-minded and hell-bent on capturing the action, making the picture, trying to wrestle the moment onto film.

It was a kind of religious ecstasy and combative too: like a mosh-pit! Most of the photographers were trying to get the same thing. There was a lot of pushing from protesters, police and media, but my unguided enthusiasm was winning me no friends.

Out of nowhere a police officer grabbed the metal hood of my wide-angle lens, tearing the Nikon F3 from my grasp and with three quick, powerful punches smashed the solidly built camera into my face. The third blow sent me reeling backwards and I flailed comically, trying to grab my kit and stop it hitting he ground as I stumbled. As it turned out I narrowly stayed on my feet - a helpful signpost had stopped me from completing the arc to the pavement.

Indignation rose in me as the initial numbness faded and the pain began. My hand went instinctively the the stinging around my right eyebrow and cheekbone and I was surprised and possibly disappointed that there was no blood. In one short moment much of what I had taken for granted in my sheltered upbringing was gone. Unsure which hurt most, my eye, my pride or the crushing realisation of my own naivety, I retreated into the midst of a cluster of photographers stood to one side.

Amongst them was George Phillips, a local legend and the Daily Mirror's south-west regional staff photographer. He beckoned me with an amused but sympathetic look on his face.

"A word in your shell-like," he said in a well-spoken, paternal tone.

"Look" he said, "I admire keenness but there is no point whatsoever in getting beaten-up or arrested. If you lose your cameras or your pictures, you will be doing nobody any favours, least of all yourself."

"Try to be a bit smarter, a bit more impartial." he added warmly.

In the proceeding eight hours I followed his advice. Picking my moments a little less blindly. And despite a few close calls with militant travelers and overzealous police, I managed to get through to the morning without loss of camera, liberty or film.

After the obligatory bacon sandwich with some of the others at a little roadside van, I drove the hour or so back to Yeovil. I'd not slept for 26 hours but felt no tiredness. Still on a high from the night's work, I was filled with a new desire. This was the kind of photographer I wanted to be: Taking real, visceral, newsworthy photos.

Although my pictures were not that great (charitably described as a creditable first attempt!) they were good enough for the front page of the Western Gazette and Peter had succeeded in educating me - all thought of being anything other than a photojournalist was gone that morning.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Getting something honest from the master of Spin.

Recently I did the portraits to accompany an interview with Alastair Campbell, the notorious former Chief Press Secretary to Tony Blair. Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of British politics will know that he was associated more than anyone with the tireless control of the government's public image during some of the most dramatic and important times of Blair's term in office.

The moment the call came in I started to wonder how to approach photographing someone who has such an acute awareness of, and fluency in, the power of public perception. Added to the problem was that as a former veteran journalist he has already forgotten more than I will ever likely know about "the tricks of the trade" and so an unguarded moment of candor did not seem likely.

The session was arranged to happen at his home so I arrived a little early and tried to imagine what the space and light would be like. I decided that, while it was a reasonably large house, the rooms themselves might not accommodate much lighting. Using natural light might also make it less formal and save a little time. So I parked up and grabbed the 85mm 1.2 and the 35mm 1.4 - my "weapons of choice" when shooting available light portraits.

The interview was just drawing to a close when I rang the doorbell. Alastair ushered me through the house to the back garden where he and John Rentoul were seated around a table taking advantage of the balmy morning (something never to be taken for granted in Britain!) and finishing up the last few questions.

As we decided where to take the pictures I recalled the last time we had spoken. It had been at a photographic awards night in 2003 and I was surprised that he instantly recalled it.

"At the Guildhall wasn't it?" he replied.

He had been the guest speaker and responsible for handing out the gongs. His speech had been a few anecdotes about his time at he Daily Mirror including a funny but not entirely appropriate story about legendary news photographer Kent Gavin and the lengths he had to go in order to get one particular illustrative picture. It involved a small dog, a cricket pitch and a length of fishing line... best not to ask!

As we talked about the legends of old Fleet Street, I recounted a story about another photographer who had been called into his managing editor's office after submitting his expenses from a trip to Italy.

"Do you speak or read Italian?" he was asked.

When he replied that he did not, the managing editor said, "It may interest you to know that I do. Would you like me to read you what it says on this restaurant receipt?"

The photographer shrugged and nodded.

"It says, This man is a lying bastard" he exclaimed. Evidently the photographer had left too small a tip when asking for the hand-written receipt.

Campbell roared with laughter and I got my only chance at unguarded candor.

Or maybe that's just what he wanted me to think.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Compare and contrast.

Last weekend was a bit of an odyssey with two assignments, one after the other, that took me from Saturday night to early Sunday morning. There cannot be many people who attended the both the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation Gala and the Bizarre Ball last weekend. In fact I'd be willing to bet that I was the only one.

Ordinarily shooting two jobs for different clients at nearly the same time is to be avoided. But it seemed like there would be plenty of time between both when the briefs were initially discussed.

First up was quite a formal occasion which I was shooting for the Independent on Sunday whose new owner Alexander Lebedev was hosting the evening fund raiser at his home in Hampton Court. Because of tight deadlines I was being helped with the production editing by UpandComing a bright young photojournalist who is gathering experience with a number of agencies, photographers and publications in order to give him a better idea of which direction he will eventually pursue.

Arriving at the house in the middle of the park was quite stunning. A balmy early summer evening stretched out as we walked past a herd of deer to a press accreditation tent to collect passes. Some wristbands meant standing in a fixed point and some had the roaming option. We were the latter and when in roam....

So we set-up the laptop and fired off a test transmission to make sure all was working. All good, UpandComing fully briefed as to how and what we were doing, so I went to take some pictures.

To be honest, these kind of things are not really my strength but fortunately a couple of the more experienced events and society photographers guided me through who everyone was and made sure I didn't miss anyone vital.

The Raisa Gorbachev foundation and Marie Currie Cancer care were the two equal beneficiaries of the evening and there was a very good turn-out of actors, designers, musicians and artists along with prominent business leaders from both the UK and Russian community.

There was also the star of the show, president Mikhiel Gorbachev himself, marking the memory of his late wife Raisa. I was caught off-guard by what an honour it felt to shake his hand as he was introduced to the assembled Photographers before posing for the official group shot. Here was a man that probably did as much to change the world as any single person of his generation and while it is easy to become blase about the politicians and world figures we photograph this was a genuinely moving moment for me.

The feeling was short-lived however as I was soon on the receiving end of a slightly fraught call from Sophie my picture editor at the Inde On Sunday. No pictures had arrived! Not good! The first card had been whisked away by UpandComing more than 15 minutes earlier.

I sidled out of view of the guests and sprinted round the outside of the house to the room where we were filing. UpandComing was disturbingly laid back - bad sign! If things go wrong calmness is important but a sense of urgency and purpose are better. I realised I had not briefed him adequately. As first edition was going to press we were being handed a beating by Getty's slick operation that had managed to file a string of pictures while mine were still sat on the ftp server and not showing up at the desk. Good lesson for me, technology will let you down at crucial moments and even bright capable people need guidance when doing this kind of thing for the first time.

An hour or so later, with last edition safely tucked up (and order restored with mostly my pictures replacing the early Getty interlopers!), I made the dash across London to the Bizarre Ball in Elephant and Castle.

Arriving later than I had wished, it was already well underway. Tom, the picture editor at Bizarre had given me a very nice brief; "Full access, get the atmosphere, just want to see your take on it." was his request. This is a rare pleasure, an open assignment, no restrictions, the lighter side of life and a chance to just enjoy the photography.

The Bizarre Ball is also not something I have experienced but everywhere you looked people were having a great time, dressed amazingly so it was hard not to make pictures.

The award-winning American photojournalist Porter Gifford once taught me a great lesson when I asked why he did a lot of documentary wedding photography. He had said, "If you were in Hong Kong and you saw a wedding, would you take a picture?" As I nodded he said "it has everything that we look for as photojournalists; human emotion, pageantry, colour and life. So why would you not shoot a wedding just because it's on your doorstep?"

This felt similar in some ways. It is all too easy to get into a mind-set of only wanting to tackle serious issues and cover important world events. But human experience is so much richer and varied. I have always tried to photograph the uplifting, the mundane, the tragic and the extraordinary with equal effort.

What struck me the most was how open and all-embracing everyone was. There were no divisions, no factionalism, no snobbery of any kind, inverted or otherwise. The "Killer Clowns", "Zombie Bitches" and "S&M Vixens" turned out to be software engineers, bicycle messengers, accountants, or council administrators, all submitting to their inner freak, united here in a way that they would never be in their nine-to-fives.

After it was finished I had a few surreal moments of standing outside at nearly five in the morning with many of the people I had photographed. While I was trying to get the final pictures of cabs and buses taking them home, I thought about the two events, not so much the obvious differences between the clothes and make-up, but more the contrast between exclusive and inclusive, between expectation and realisation.

Charities achieve great things but you shouldn't underestimate the divisions that can be broken down by a good night out. I love the fact that photography gives me a passport to so many aspects of life.

Back.... quietly.

Unlike most things in life, Blogging is way easier to get OUT of than back into. For more than a year now my weblog has been silent and the reasons are too many and maybe too feeble to discuss but suffice to say that 2009 was a very difficult year.

It is hard to feel inspired to document the process of chasing clients for money or being buried in paperwork or an endlessly delayed and eventually cancelled assignment that held the promise of creative and financial redemption.

Nobody wants to read these things and it serves no purpose to spend time writing about them. 2010 however has been better and this renewal means that there are positives to share and a little humour too.

So this is my attempt to get back on the horse so to speak.