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.

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