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.


Drew Gardner said...

Hi Justin

The older I get I realise that the best part of the job is the passport into other peoples lives, whatever and wherever they are.

A passport I cherish

Sounds like you had on hell of a night!



Justin Sutcliffe said...

I did, thank you Drew