The golden light was stunning and it covered the wheat field like a wizard’s cloak. I pulled to the side of the road and grabbed my camera from the front seat of the car. As I stood at the edge of the field a slight breeze caused the wheat stalks to dance and weave like ballerinas. I moved in close with a wide-angle lens so I could capture the whole scene. The wind had started blowing harder, which caused the wheat to flutter and flop about. “Keep still, don’t move”, I said to the wheat. “Hold it, hold it,” I exhorted. And then I realised there was somebody standing behind me. I turned to a farmer who was bobbing up and down trying to see who I was speaking to in the wheat field. Even on an outback stretch of road in South Australia a photographer is never alone.
Most of my career I have worked solo and I’m quite used to it being that way. But when I think about it I’m rarely alone.
Recently I worked on a project in Iran. I wanted to document life there thirty years after the revolution that had turned the country into a theocracy.
I had been there many times in the early days of the revolution including at one stage, during the Iran/Iraq war, through the bombing of Tehran. I always thought of myself as being alone in Iran but in truth my guide/fixer was there with me most of the time. When I met up with him again recently he told me that the government had wanted me to spend more time on the warfront documenting the battles they were having with Saddam Hussein’s army. These messages were never relayed on to me, which leads me to suspect that the guide was more intent on not risking his life than he was on helping me with picture opportunities. I’m sure he would have been quite happy if I had travelled alone on those occasions.
One time when I did go down to the warfront I took an assistant, not my guide. He was great and his presence made it easy for me to concentrate on my work. That is until a missile went off near him. At that moment he decided that this style of photography was a bad career choice for him.
When working alone a photographer needs a fixer, an insider, to get inside and close to what is going on. On my recent trip to Iran I was told by an Iranian contact about a famous mosque in Tehran that could possibly be interesting. She took us into the mosque during the funeral of an important man. Even though I wandered around by myself shooting images of the event, I still needed her expertise and local knowledge to gain access.
Part of my brief in Iran on this trip was to travel to the countryside and get a feel for village life. We hired a car that came with a driver. There was also a guide and my companion who was interested in visiting a country still seemingly transfixed by a religious revolution. Sometimes it felt more like a coach tour than photographic shoot. On one journey we collected a companion of the driver who informed us he knew where all the best villages were for us to photograph.
It was magical afternoon with the sun sparkling on the green shoots of the rice paddies. I saw a woman in the distance cutting the stalks of the rice and reached for my camera. “Stop, stop, she doesn’t want to be photographed,” the driver vigorously asserted. The woman was two fields away and could barely see me so I have no idea how she knew I was there let alone how she knew I was taking her picture. For some reason, I don’t know what, he was playing the part of censor. Perhaps he was from the government.
I walked away alonga track hidden from my fellow travellers and took pictures of other women working in the rice paddies. Away from minders, guides and companions I was alone at last.
On an earlier occasion in Iran, not long after the revolution, I managed to get out of the hotel without my minder/guide and set off to photograph women window-shopping. An innocent enough project but considered definitely anti-Islamic by the government. I had no sooner fired off a couple frames when a car pulled up and two men leapt out and arrested me saying I was breaking the law. According to these security men, women must not be photographed. They tried to drag me into the car and I started yelling which alerted a journalist in the shop. He rushed over, started dragging me out of the car and I became the centre of a tug-of-war. Suddenly, with a hostile crowd surrounding the car, the security men thought it might be wiser to let me go. On this occasion I was glad not to be alone.
The Grand Bazaar in Tehran is one of the largest markets in the world; its corridors run for ten kilometres. It’s easy to get lost in the sounds, scents, crowds and energy of the place. At one crossroad shafts of light pushed through the skylights, bouncing off the heads of the shoppers and creating rim lighting around the chador-clad women. I stayed in the area shooting pictures of traders and customers as they stepped in to the luminous square as if onto a movie set lit with spotlights.
I jumped as something hit my head, then my back and my neck. A group of young men were slinging sticks, stones and orange peel at me to relive their boredom. Jim, my companion, helped me out by coming over and chatting to them, taking their pictures and generally distracting them so I could get on with my work.
There is a freedom that every photographer feels about being out on the streets alone. Looking for images, waiting for the light and finding an interesting situation. But in the end it’s often the guides, minders, fixers, drivers, assistants and companions who make the photographs possible.
Let’s face it… even the Lone Ranger needed Tonto!