Saturday, 2 April 2011

Meeting expectations

Mostly, when you actually meet and photograph a public figure you quickly find yourself changing your previously held opinion of them. The side that seldom emerges in the spotlight of the TV camera often reveals itself in the more relaxed environment of an interview or portrait shoot.

This is probably never truer than in politics. So much currently rests on public perception and so many of those around power feel the need to exert their influence that the gap between how politicians appear in the media and how they are “one-to-one” frequently leaves me unsure of how anyone could juggle such disparate personas.

For most of the nineteen-eighties I was a teenager. It was a time of great social polarisation and upheaval and one of the biggest beasts in the politics of that era was Norman Tebbit. He was the kind of hard-line Conservative that was a magnet for the right and a figure of genuine hatred for the left.

A couple of decades later and he is, to quote Gill Scott-Heron, “no longer so damn relevant!” but he remains active in politics and an undoubted thorn in the side of the current Tory party whose desperation to shed the past image often borders on illness.

When I got the commission last week to photograph Lord Tebbit of Chingford on the eve of his Eightieth birthday, two thoughts went through my head: The first was inevitably the caricature of him as a skinhead thug on the TV satire Spitting Image. The second thought was, “there’s no way he can possibly be as reactionary as he seems”.

Accompanied by writer Matthew Bell we met in the central Lobby of Parliament, the brief walk to an interview room in House of Lords led through imposing splendour past one of the greatest under-viewed art collections in the UK to a manned elevator whose interior is so ridiculously small that it was barely possible to fit all three of us in one trip without crushing the cheerfully knowledgeable West African lift operator.

With the interview underway, Lord Tebbit seemed only too happy to talk. Although, “happy” might not be the word.

Everything about the modern world seemed to irritate him and stand as proof of how much better it all was when he was younger. His sharp intellect and amazing life experience (Fast jet pilot and journalist amongst others) seemed at odds with several of his more illogical assertions.

He is sceptical of the contribution made to UK life by immigration but staunchly denies any racism - hilariously citing the fact that he is friends with Bishop John Sentamu and Nasir Ali and seeing this as proof-positive of his open-mindedness.

He hates the BNP (British National Party) with a passion but mostly because he believes them to be socialists and they advocate centrally planned economic policy - a fact of which I was unaware but which most would consider the very least of their faults as a political party.

He loves nationalism in all it's forms and seemed blithely unaware of the terrible violence that it often spawns. But most of all he hates multiculturalism.

Not so much a, "Glass half full or half empty?” sort of guy. More of a, “Better keep hold of that glass or some scrounger will come over here and drink the rest of it!”

Matthew did his best to challenge some of the relentlessly negative statements but I never got the slightest sense that even the most rational argument could persuade him to reconsider any of his views.

As time came to do the photos he unhelpfully asserted that, “photographers just take as many pictures as possible and one of them is bound to come out!” which did not endear him to me - but, in fairness, there is no earthly reason why he should care what I think.

The wallpaper in this particular room was fantastic, classic and yet contemporary, reeking of pomp and taste and still somehow slightly kitsch. I instantly knew that I wanted it to be an integral part of the picture rather than just the backdrop.

A true blue Tory caught in a thicket of Labour red and Liberal Democrat yellow.

Ordinarily I might get the subject a little way forward and let the wallpaper fade out of focus and out of the light but I have been doing an little too much of that recently and I wanted a punchier, more aggressive look to the lighting and the final image.

Using the 30cm square diffuser for my Q-flash, without the front baffle so that the silvered innards were visible, I taped a small piece of white card in front of the bare bulb to act as a rudimentary bowl and spoon. I knew this would give me a slightly harsh, almost ring-flash look to the light as long as the reflector was close to the camera.

Pressing my unfortunate writer into service as an impromptu assistant I shot a series of expressions both to and away from camera but as often happens it was a bit of luck that gave me the idea for the best picture. Mathew’s slight frame was not built for the rigours of holding a flash on the end of a pole above his head for long periods of time and it slipped lower and lower as his arms started to ache.

When his muscles eventually gave way there was a strong shadow across the top of the background. Looking at it on the back of the camera I thought I had accidentally jogged the shutter beyond its synch speed. The minute that his arms were working again I reset the light – lower and pointing a little downward giving an effect rather like the light you might see in the smoky backroom of an old gangster movie.

Somehow it seemed appropriate for a man who was once a political enforcer for Margaret Thatcher. The harsh light illuminating his eighty years of life experience. Every crease of his face by now pressed into a hard stare.

So here he is, exactly as unreconstituted as he appears. Not worn down by age or the tide of public opinion that seems to have been running against him for decades. An immovable object, a man of conviction and strongly held beliefs - but not my beliefs.