Having been working in London for seven years, it’s been odd to think that this is the first general election that I’ve actually covered. Back in 2005, I was working for The Times and as far as my archive shows, I appear to have been assigned the all important mopping-up duties by the picture desk. This results in a fine collection of images from under-attended Christie’s photo-calls as the senior photographers jet around the country with the action. Those of you hoping to break into this industry, take note. Thankfully the gap between elections has allowed me to sneak up the ladder and actually be in a position to cover the political story this time.
With the starting gun fired on the 6th of April, I had the extra bonus of being the first of the pooled agency photographers to travel with Conservative Party Leader David Cameron for three days as he began his official campaigning.
As is the way with elections of recent decades, if a newspaper or agency wishes to travel on the branded battle-bus of any of the three main parties, they have to pay for the privilege. This fee is designed to cover the travel costs and any expenses that crop up during your time aboard the good ship Politic. This is pretty understandable but puts a real limit on who can actually afford to pay the fees set by the parties. With both Labour and Conservative seats priced at over £13000 for the month with the Liberal Democrats charging £7000, it’s certainly not the kind of amount that most freelance photographers could afford to find.
The second problem comes from the fact that once you are on the bus, you are totally at the mercy of the press officers. If they say no pictures, you don’t shoot. If they say it’s time to go, you run for the bus. Most of the time this is fine as when a party leader is travelling on the same train, coach or plane as the media, he certainly doesn’t want to have to be posing for pictures and answering questions as he prepares for the next event. However, the downside comes at moments such as when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was recorded calling a supporter a “bigoted woman” on an overlooked radio microphone. I wasn’t with Labour at this point but, as the story broke, those on the bus were being driven away from the area and when asked if Brown would be returning to see the woman, were told that it was unlikely. In the meantime, the media who were following the appearances individually, gathered at her home to see the shame-faced PM return to the house to apologise. The only photographers from the battle-bus who caught the moment were those who got off the bus and jumped in taxis for the long and costly journey back to where they’d come from.
Life on-board did have it’s advantages though as on my final day with Cameron, I was offered 2 minutes (read 13 seconds) for a portrait session following a speech in Plymouth. I spent the last few minutes of his address rushing around the college venue, desperately looking for any form of clean background. Thankfully, after an initial suggestions of a science lab (“Yeah, that’s it Mr. Cameron. Just peek around the bunsen burner”) I managed to find a long corridor so threw on the trusty 50mm (See #16) and grabbed my only one-on-one portrait of the whole campaign.
One clear difference that I experienced over the month was the way in which each of the party’s press officers handled the media that they were working with. From talking to other photographers, there has been some dispute which has been the worst and which the best but I have to say that the Conservative PRs proved themselves most helpful through a combination of openness to suggestions from photographers and willingness to adapt at speed when faced with problems during events. This was clearly demonstrated at the launch of the Labour and Conservative manifestos. Held in the as-yet unopened wing of a hospital in Edgbaston, Birmingham, the Labour event saw all of the photographers held in a room out of the way until minutes before the event started when we were suddenly released to dash into the stage area. By this time, the seats were all full of supporters and the broadcast crews had taken position at the back resulting in a ridiculous situation whereby we were told to stand up in front of the audience but not to get in anyone’s way. Within milliseconds, middle-aged women in bright red coats were crying foul calling for stewards to come and remove the photographer from their view. On realising how impossible it was to work in this area, anyone attempting to get to other positions was told that the event had now begun and we weren’t allowed to move.
In contrast to this, at the start of the Conservative launch at Battersea power station the following day, the head PR led all of the photographers into the room first, told us that we were allowed to go anywhere at all apart from one pool position and then, on the slightest suggestion from a photographer, removed the whole front row of seats so that we’d have more room to work in.
Now the cynic in me screams that anyone who wants to get into power will do whatever they can to get onto your good side while those in power will be filled with the paranoia of fearing having rogue meeja-types roaming all over the place. I know, I know. I should trust more. Unfortunately, in the back of my mind, I have the memory of the fact that when Labour were trying to get into power in 97, they apparently promised that conditions for working media in Downing Street would be improved massively if they got in with a roof being installed over the press pen and power points and toilets installed. 13 years got us a plug. I rest my case.
On the night of the first televised leaders debate, AFP sent photographers to various places to try to capture the public interest in the novelty factor. Being unassigned, I followed the digital/online side of things with a few pictures of the twitter community battling it out over who was best, who was worst and who could come out with the funniest random comment on the evening’s events. As it turned out, the winner of most outrageous online comment of the evening went to the Sky News homepage where, immediately after the debate had finished, led with the headline “Public opinion in: Cameron wins debate!” while a scrolling ticker of the public opinion results scrolled at the top of the page showing “Clegg 50% Cameron 28% Brown 22%”. Way to go, pre-prepared impartiality.
On the day of the third leader’s debate, I was sent up to Birmingham to capture the events surrounding the show. With no access requested for inside the venue, I spent the morning shooting rather uninspiring little protests and features around the university campus before deciding to try to get inside. Using all of my Northern charm, I convinced the security that the lack of my name on the list was clearly some kind of small but embarrassing (for them) oversight. Once inside and full of buffet food, the show began. The lights dimmed and the PA boomed into life as the glow of the laptops lit the faces of the journalists sat at the rows of tables across the room. With a giant screen at the front and smaller plasmas dotted all around, the faces of the three main men stared into the room from all sides. News anchors tweeted away as others marked the highs and lows of each leader’s comments on digital charts.
With the debate coming to a close, Mandy stalked into the room and the spin began in earnest. Within minutes, representatives of each of the parties were talking to anyone with a camera or a microphone, insisting that whatever we thought we’d just seen, they knew better. Somehow each leader had managed to display their statesman-like skills at the expense of their rivals. Whenever a new politician or spin doctor appeared, a huddle immediately formed around them as they launched into a speech of glowing praise of their boss’s performance.
The morning after the third debate, Gordon Brown headed to a district on the other side of Birmingham for the launch of his latest poster campaign. Breaking out the members of his cabinet, the handful of people that make-up the faces of the Government stood in unison as the took turns to explain why Gordon was the man that the country needed. As Mandy was wrapping up his statement of support and just before the PM gave the speech that would hopefully put the whole “BigotGate” (I feel like scrubbing my fingertips after typing that) disaster behind him, lady luck yet again managed to get lost on the Birmingham ring-road and fail to reach him in time. The crew of a passing bin lorry began shouting insults out of the window of their cab as they passed, lost control and swerved across the road, causing a passing car to pull out of the way and plough straight into a bus shelter. Just imagine that for a second. This guy is already in third place and gets recorded calling a lifelong supporter a bigot and then as the nation’s media presses record and he draws breath, what sounds like track 6 from volume 3 of the BBC sound effects album, “car crash inc. skid sounds and comedy tinkling glass” fills the air. Within seconds, the press pen is empty as TV crews, journalists and photographers rush out of the car park to see what’s happened. After shooting the wreck and seeing that the driver was OK, I turned to look down to the car park to see Brown making his speech to a virtually empty press area. Ouch.
Following all of the hoo-ha of the televised debates, I was sent to what was being hyped as the “unofficial fourth debate” at Westminster Methodist Hall in central London. Unlike a true debate however, the leaders would not be on stage at the same time but follow one another in having the chance to address members of the Citizen UK group on why they should be the best Government for a civil society. With ten minutes to speak, the leaders would then be asked a number of questions by community leaders with the audience actually allowed to show their support or disapproval, unlike the tv debates. All went as expected with Cameron giving the same speech that I’d heard so many times on my three days on the bus, Clegg slightly failing for the first time with a few stumbled words and the odd apparent loss of direction to his words but then Brown took to the stage. With Labour WAY down in the polls and a lot of people already writing him off, he pulled out a truly incredible speech. Pounding the lectern, gesturing with huge expansive movements, pointing at the audience and bellowing his message of support for the Citizen UK’s policies, he’d got the room in his hands within minutes. Photographers around me at the front were gunning their cards as he produced picture after picture with his sweeping gestures and dynamic stances. The audience whooped and applauded as he showed his support for the community’s achievements.
Then, as we all should have expected, it happened yet again for poor old Gordon; a man that is well recognised among photographers as that annoying guy that refuses to move out the back of your pictures outside the High Court appeared from nowhere, walked onstage and started shouting about ending nuclear power in the UK. Security were caught napping, Gordon’s train of thought was clearly derailed and the photographers filled their cards with the moment. In one short moment, the news had changed from a possible comeback for Brown to yet another story of misfortune for the tabloids to savour.
With the voting only two days away, I went out into the streets of Islington with the local Liberal Democrat candidate Bridget Fox. How people of any party can do this type of cold-calling for days on end is completely beyond me. I was with Fox and her two assistants from around 20 minutes and by the time I left, I was feeling like Marvin the Paranoid Android and yet they just keep on going like masochistic Duracell bunnies. Working through a list of undecided and Lib Dem voters, they knocked on door after door to be greeted by either silence, a thin crack in the door with an eye peering around it or, at best, nervous looking people wondering who the hell was disturbing them. Bravo to all candidates and and party faithful of every type who are prepared to give up their time to do this kind of thing, particularly in seats that you have little chance of winning. My hat is well and truly off to you.
Election day Eve was mark-up day in Downing Street. Now you may think that this would be a reasonably simple affair but what started at 10am ended at noon and all that it entails really is members of each organisation marking the spot on the stands where they will be working from on the following day. With the teams divided into newspaper or agency, the names were put into hats and picked alternately, allowing a representative from the group to scurry off and grab a spot of their choice. So much thought has to be put into this that it really becomes quite a stressful challenge. Will I have a clear view to the door? How close to dead-on to the door can I get? Where should I put my second position? Will I have enough room? Do I need ladders? Where should I mark the third position? Am I missing anything regarding positions that no-one has noticed yet? Is there an option to use a remote camera? All this to take a photo of a man stood in front of a door.
What really topped it all off is that this time it had the real possibility of being a hung Parliament, meaning that there was no real winner and all of this may not happen for days to come. Ah, the joys of the job.
Polling day saw me on bomb-watch in town, shooting random polling booths, quirky features and just generally being on hand in case anyone decided to do anything dumb to mark the day. Starting on the King’s Road, I decided to go for a bit of traditional London tourism with a voting Chelsea Pensioner. After a huge bust-up with the security on the gate who threatened to call the police just for being on the pavement near the hospital, all was resolved with a marvellous chap in full scarlets. Every time I’ve shot there, the men and women that live in the hospital have been absolute gems. Bravo, old dudes.
From here, I headed out to the Anglesea Arms for another burst of prime feature; a traditional English pub with hanging baskets and tables in the sun that was, for one day, acting as a polling booth. As is the way when covering voting, any requests regarding shooting inside the station are directed to the Returning Officer who, unfortunately, wasn’t that up for allowing many options so I had to settle with an external view. Boo..
With everything now quietening down, it was time for an early night in time for tomorrow’s big day..