Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Have camera, will travel

It's little more than a week since I got back from Newcastle – and it feels less – but just as I've managed to catch my breath, I'm preparing for another trip; to Belfast, this time.

It's funny – I never really imagined traveling for work. But our new editor – well, newish now, after a year in the job – is determined that I should not be officebound. And it's one of the surprising points about the last three years that, where previously my career had developed so that I had become a 'humble' sub editor who could also write, I now have an all-rounder tag, with photography becoming almost as important a part of my work as the other two aspects of journalism.

Now that's something I never expected.

I first picked up a camera back in 1982. Or to put it more accurately, a college friend foisted a couple of lenses on me (charging me a nominal amount), after she'd managed to bust her own camera body under her car and wanted to upgrade to a different make.

The body had been a Zenith EM – Soviet made and a sort of T34 tank of a camera: so solid that she must have gone some to bust the body with anything other than a tank. Thus, on a trip from college in Leicester to London, she carted me into a shop at London Bridge and organised my purchase of a new Zenith body.

You may gather from this that I didn't have much of a mind of my own at the time, although I will add, by way of some explanation, that she was a mature student.

Any mind of my own had been absorbed, for some years, by chasing my dream of a life in the theatre. So, banned from even attempting to get into drama school, I was studying for a degree in performing arts at Leicester Polytechnic, majoring in drama. The year was a disaster: I was booted out at the end of that time – for having had the temerity to suffer a nasty back injury at the hands of one of the leaders of a 'voluntary' workshop, and then being signed off by my family doctor for a further week after the Easter holiday.

I wondered about legal action – but my parents were not remotely interested (I suspect they considered it some sort of a divine blessing, wrenching me away from theatrical types) and the students' union was no help either.

My plans were in ruins. But the almost-unshatterable Zenith stayed with me for years. Not that I did much with it. Film was expensive and developing costs even more so. Particularly for someone with a negligable income, as I lurched between poorly-paid work and the dole. This was a decade of two recessions – both of which hit the North West hard.

When I did pick up the camera, it was as mysterious as an archeological relic covered in runes. I hadn't the first clue about aperture or shutter or measuring light or anything else. I could point. And I could shoot. And if I was very lucky, I might get a picture worth looking at. Actually, if I was lucky, I might get a picture that you could actually see.

Some years later, after I'd moved to London and was living in a squat, the camera was stolen from my room. To be honest, I didn't really miss it. Holidays – such as they were – in the coming years were recorded in standard snapshots, with basic Kodak jobbies and even, on one spectacularly broke occasion, staying with an old friend in Anglesey, with pencil and paper.

Then, just over four years ago, my ship came in when an elderly relative left me some money. The old computer took one look at the cheque and died with a fine (if theatrical) sense of timing. Having replaced that, it seemed sensible to invest a small amount in a compact digital camera. I got an Olympus from Boots. For half the original price and with a load of loyalty card points as an extra bonus. And then I put the camera away until our first jaunt to France and Spain, around six months later.

Free from the fear of spiraling developing costs, the pictures were surprisingly good, although even then, I didn't pay much attention to that.

It was another few months down the line, planning a job, that I realised that taking the camera to an event would allow me to do an illustrated vox pop, instead of expecting the 'official' photographer to follow me around. Without realising it at the time, I'd set a snowball in motion.

Eventually, the sensible thing was to get a more serious camera – an SLR. Gradually, I began to understand and pick up the technical stuff; but the crucial thing was the realisation that I have 'an eye'.

All those years ago, when I was battling, heart and soul, to carve out a life treading the boards, my teachers had firmly expected me to go into art. Specifically, into graphic art. My training and career had been mapped out. In detail.

Yet somehow, the girl who couldn't refuse to buy an unwanted camera from a domineering college friend managed to refuse teachers and parents. But even if unappreciated or simply hidden, 'the eye' remained.

And next week, before flying out to Belfast – dragging a heavy rucksack of camera gear through security in the splendour of Heathrow – I'm slated to cover an event at Westminster to do with supporting families and young people. With cartoon character Peppa Pig and 'Mum of the Year' and former glamour model, Melinda Messenger.

One things for certain: it's a long way from that Zenith EM and complete photographic illiteracy.


  1. Congratulations on finally carving a niche for yourself as a one-girl photo-journo, sounds like your life is shifting into the fast lane all of a sudden !

  2. Cheers! It certainly doesn't do any harm in terms of career to be able to have greater flexibility and more skills. And as a result, I'm currently (crosses fingers) popular with the Big Boss. And as a freelance, I am well aware of what side my bread is buttered on! :-)