I gave up my career as a professional photographer in 1994. My life as a photographer had undoubtedly been a vocation, a passion, a love – but I was entering a stage where I was employing many people and had to knuckle down to the world of business.
I do miss being a photographer. The combined elements of competition, creativity and camaraderie probably make it the best job in the world. However, if you want a work/life balance – forget it. Photography has to be an obsession that overtakes your life – otherwise, I don’t believe you can be excellent at it.
Last weekend, I dusted off my camera for its annual outing to photograph my son playing rugby. Let me explain. When I gave up taking pictures 17 years ago – it was like giving up smoking or alcohol. I had to get rid of the cameras – and not be tempted to pick them up. I’ve only owned a professional style camera again for the last 5 years. It’s difficult to explain to non-photographers, but those who have worked as professionals will know the feeling of blinkered focus that comes over a photographer when your duty is to take pictures.
When I got rid of the cameras, it was 3 years before the birth of my son. It might seem strange that when he was born I made a conscious effort not to pick up a camera. One of my proudest moments as a father (and as an ex-photographer) is watching him taking his first steps without any temptation to run and get a camera. That moment is still in my mind’s eye – and emotionally that’s the very best you can get.
However, I do feel I have a skill taking pictures still (although rather rusty). I have in me a “duty to record” – and quite frankly I really enjoy the challenge of trying to take good pictures. Last Saturday’s rugby meant that I came away from the afternoon having enjoyed taking the pictures, but feeling that I had seen none of the game. I’d not shared in that day like the other parents. All photographers will tell you how they don’t feel they “see” an event when they “record”. I’ve photographed World Cup Finals (football and rugby) and Olympics (summer and winter) – but couldn’t honestly tell you that I’d “seen” them.
I was pleased with the results. There were some OK pictures of Joe – and some good ones of his team mates. I shared them with parents, kids and teachers – and got some very kind feedback. It was nice to dust off this out-of-practice skill to please people – but I feel it’s difficult to make the choice between photographs and/or memories.
My mind has been whirring around this topic – and a BCC Radio series of 15 minutes interviews called “Picture Power: Portraits of Five Leading Press Photographers” jogged some thoughts. If you have the time, do have a listen. The producer Miles Warde (who I understand lives just down the road in Bristol) – gives a great overview of the work of individual photographers. Miles follows them to The Royal Wedding, Tottenham Riots, Tour de France, 9/11 Memorials in NYC and Rwanda.
The short audio clips brought back memories for me. Not all of them happy. Geoff Waugh talked of his coverage of the Tour de France from the back of a motorbike. Miles asked him about the danger – and Geoff recalled the death in the Milk Race of his friend, David Worthy. David was one of my staff photographers – and a friend. It was a tragedy when he was killed in pursuit of bearing witness for others.
Lewis Whyld recalled his coverage of the Tottenham Riots. How a call from the Press Association picture desk saying there was a car on fire in Tottenham had culminated in his pictures being used all over the world. That brought back memories of the Toxteth Riots 30 years ago.
Jane Mingay was followed through her coverage of the 9/11 Memorial Service at Ground Zero. She was emotional and sensitive to the plight of others. She did her job through tears – and her pictures helped create memories for others. Mike Goldsmith talked about his harrowing experiences in Rwanda during the genocide. He also recalled dangerous times in other trouble spots such as Serbia. I remembered many of the difficult occasions that I had to “record” as a press photographer – none worse than the Hillsborough Disaster.
All these interviews had a strong theme about bearing witness. How their role was to record so others could see. All seemed to go into “the zone” to record (and often a very dangerous zone at that). They were all international award winners – but their photographs were taken to be preserved in the memories of others, not for their ego.
My simple thoughts are if you are there – remember (don’t snap, concentrate and get the most important things in your minds eye). For those who cannot be there – be very grateful for those professional photographers who record the memories (good and bad) for us.