Tough assignment photographer

THERE IS A TIME when everyone's else preservation gene screams in their ear to duck, run and get the f**k outa there. For many, that gene kicks in well before trouble arrives. Mine is a bit sluggish and I have, over the years, found myself with the reaper tapping my shoulder and whispering it might be time.

Thankfully he has not caught me yet, but it got me thinking about my photographic career and how often I have undertaken risky, tough or dangerous assignments. I don't mean warzones. I've only ever found myself in one of those and I was relaxing on the back of a boat several miles away with a cold beer watching opposing artillery take pot shots at each other. So that doesn't really count, but I seem to have become a go-to guy for cold, wet, muddy and potentially life ending photography assignments and I love them.

As an editorial underwater photographer, I took a step away from the usual pretty fish pictures and sea snot in search of more eye catching imagery. A few years ago (back in the film days) I worked off Aliwal Shoal, South Africa with Blue Wilderness Adventures. At the time few people had ever knowingly dived with a tiger shark to photograph them and I was excited right up to the point of the first fin breaking the surface. That's when that self preservation gene tapped my shoulder and asked if perhaps doing something this idiotic was a good idea. Thankfully I didn't listen and slipped into the water and enjoyed two hair raising weeks photographing several tiger sharks to help people better understand the behaviour of these stunning creatures. Now the practice is common place in South Africa, Bahamas and Australia.

Few people had ever knowingly dived into the water with a tiger shark

Next came the Police. I'd earned a reputation as a tough assignment editorial photographer so was commissioned by a police magazine to photograph the TSG, or Tactical Support Group. A few portraits of men and women in riot gear and off home I thought - easy. Except I was assigned to work with them through a Saturday night in Yorkshire. I met the team at 6pm as a bright eyed photographer keen to get some awesome police portrait photographs and left at 3am wondering how someone could call the police because of a domestic row and end up hurling bricks over a house at them. It was manic with drunks hurling abuse as they patrolled, People urinating in the street and a lot of loutish behaviour. Oh and the domestic where the wife who phoned for help turned on the police with her husband and lobbed bricks at the people sent to help her.

Because of that assignment I went on to photograph police forces around the UK and while most of it was set up portraits and 'at work' images; flying down the road in a Police Evo; diving in the River Taff and staring down the barrel of a MP5 machine gun were the highlights.

REALLY WILD... IF NOT LIVID!

Since I was a boy I have loved wildlife and not minded getting cold, wet and muddy, which was an advantage when a British NGO wanted to document the destruction of the Indonesian rainforest in Borneo. People and wildlife are being decimated because of palm oil. So I set off to the coalface of a plantation on a wet, dark day and found a digger ripping the hell out of a piece of once primary forest.

With tough land and water assignments in my portfolio I was approached by Greenpeace International as it was looking for a photographer with experience both underwater and on land and was happy working on a ship out at sea for several weeks. None of that was a problem, but little did I know that within 48 hours of joining the ship in Turkey I would being lifting off in helicopter at sea for the first time, flown by the pilot also lifting off a ship for the first time and coming under attack from angry, bloated and hideous Turkish blue fin tuna fishermen. It was a hell of a first day that saw the helicopter smashed up and lead weights being thrown at my head. However, within three days my images had hit front pages around Europe.

The next year Greenpeace commissioned me to the Mediterranean again, this time to dive the Skerki Bank, a shallow patch of sea miles from land. That was a bit sedate, so they also asked to drag me backwards from a RIB following a plankton net deployed to catch microplastics. That's OK, I thought I'd done something similar when photographic beluga whales in Churchill, Canada.

After a couple of years campaigning and getting not very far, Greenpeace stepped up their efforts to save the critically endangered blue fin tuna in the Mediterranean and took some direct action. I was stationed in the lead boat. The action leader, next to me, took a grapple hook to the leg thrown from a French Seine netter. It pierced his leg and for once, I dropped my camera to help. I perhaps shouldn't, but I have a compassionate gene that is more awake than the self preservation one.

Within three days my images had hit front pages around Europe

Back in the UK, the tough assignments kept coming. The Port of London Authority needed a photographer to update its image library on the work on and around the Thames estuary. Everyone was friendly and there were no fishermen shouting at me, throwing punches at me or shooting flares. There were no big animals trying to defend themselves, but I did have to hang from the side of a container ship in the Thames estuary, wade through the thick mud around Kew Bridge as well as follow the Olympic torch down the Thames on the opening day of the London 2012 Olympic games. Not a tough assignment per say, but it started before sunrise and finished as David Beckham barreled out from under Tower Bridge in a speed boat. I was exhausted, but as the last few drops of fireworks fell onto the dark water, I was uploading images for immediate use.

DORSET PHOTOGRAPHER

Since I moved to Dorset, life hasn't got less cold, wet and muddy. Last year I found myself waiting below a fractured Meteor crater waiting for the sun to shine through the crystal clear water in Mexico's Cenotes. I also head out to the beach in horrendous conditions when most people at tucked up by the fire as I have a project on bass lure fishermen.

So far in my career I have been knocked over by a bull shark in Cuba; got lost in a shipwreck in Sudan; slept next to a camel for warmth in Djibouti; photographed a fishermen from a helicopter with just his pants on as he was trying to escape the authorities after illegally longlining Mediterranean swordfish; probably entered a few countries without permission; photographed things powerful people hadn't wanted me to and laughed and cried more times than most.

Life as a photographer can be hard, but if there's a chance of making it harder with unpredictable animals, water, boats, planes, helicopters, illegal activities, mud, wind, rain, obnoxious people and lovely people, then I will always want to be there.

Taking eye catching, throught provoking images has been my life for many years and I hope it remains that way until the grim reaper taps me on the shoulder and shows me the way to the afterlife many years from now.


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