Friday, 25 June 2010

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.

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