Biggles and the art of photography
We've just returned from an amazing week's holiday in Cornwall. Jen and I stayed at a place we’ve returned to again and again. Trelowarren is an old estate on the Lizard that rents out lovely cottages deep in a forest. Besides brilliant woodlands to walk away the stresses of work, they also have an excellent restaurant, pool, spa and tennis court. We always go out of season. Then we have the run of the place for walks and snuggling in front of the wood-burning stove while watching endless episodes of The West Wing or The Sopranos.
I love cycling in london. I hate dog shit.
I swear there's some SUV driving Pit Bull owner in Grays Inn Road taking revenge on us red-light-running-tin-heads by getting their studded rex to drop his meaty load right in the middle of Ken's (sorry Boris') green lanes.
And so it was, on a mad dash from one side of London to the other - there it was. A steaming pile of dog poo or a busted shoulder at best. Splat was the only option, but what a stinking one. Shit everywhere. The bike and my trousers were so splattered that even at top speed I couldn't out-cycle the stench.
Arriving at the office, I abandoned the bike at the door, rushed two floors, emptied a litter bin and refilled it with warm soapy water. Took four stairs at a time, whipped the bike back onto the street and was cleaning the evidence off my frame in no time.
Two window cleaners from the office below sussed it and laughed. That was bearable. But when a dispatch cyclist pulled up and asked me if I could clean his bike next, that's when I lost it.
So here's the deal. If you own that meaty Pit Bull. Do the squishy warm plastic bag thing and I promise, I'll sit patiently at every red light between Baker Street and Hackney.
I’m trying to get my old PC and scanner up and running so I can begin to tackle digitising my enormous archive of negatives and transparencies. Lo and behold when I finally got the PC up and running, I found a disc of images from Mission Africa (MA) in the CD drawer. I’ve mentioned MA before in my blog. Mission Africa resulted in a series of documentaries for BBC 1 (there are lots of clips on You Tube) on the trials and tribulations of building a game reserve for the Samburu people of Sera in Northern Kenya.
I can’t remember seeing this disc of pictures before but looking at them now, I’m reminded of how crazy the project was. Fifty degree celsius heat, wild animals, seriously remote locations with real life bandits and a show to make every two and half days were just a few of the problems we had to overcome. I was employed as series producer but with so many shows to make and too few able bodied personnel I had to pick up the camera as well.
With about two weeks to go before we finished filming on location, we had to dart a mature bull elephant to fix a tracking collar round its neck. Darting this enormous beast with tranquilisers was tricky. Trying to follow a fully grown drunk elephant rampaging through the bush was dodgier still. But it was when we finally found the animal that the real fun began.
It had eventually succumbed to the tranquilisers and had stumbled and crashed to a halt amongst trees on the side of a steep hill. As I ran through the bush, checking all the time to make sure my camera was running and I was ready to capture the scene, I was stopped dead in my tracks. Nothing prepares you for five tonnes of wild animal legs akimbo, snoring louder than twenty old men in a dormitory. I was overcome with emotion. Stunned by the magnitude of what lay in front of me.
The group caught up and all stopped dead. No-one moved until the Rangers from Lewa broke the spell and started shouting orders. Although the animal was blissfully unaware of its predicament, it was actually in mortal danger. The dose of tranquilisers required to knock out an elephant has to be so powerful that an antidote must be administered quickly or the animal will die. It lay awkwardly with it’s legs uphill and needed to be rolled down hill so the collar could be slipped under its enormous neck.
It’s not something you get taught in first year at school, but while some of the rangers attached ropes others gave a crash course to our trainees on how to flip an elephant. Soon, some were pushing from above and others from down below.
The sight and the sounds were incredible. The animal snored and grunted as they shouted and heaved. I raced around trying to get as many angles as I could. My heart was in my mouth as I ran to the down-side of the hill to capture that final moment as the elephant finally reached its tipping point.
I looked at the animal, working out its likely trajectory and stuck my eye back in the viewfinder. Looking through lenses is a rewarding but dangerous job at the best of times. It’s a well known phenomenon that a photographer's sense of danger is diminished by the act viewing rather than participating. This is exacerbated by the myriad of decisions that go through the filmmaker's head. Am I running? Am I framed and sharp? Do I need an establisher again? Which of the characters is telling the story best? Is that a boom in shot? Where is my sound recordist? Have I all the shots I need to do the story justice? Where should I be next? How much tape do I have? How will I wrap this scene…crash.
We used the shot in the title sequence. The elephant reaches its tipping point, starts to roll toward camera then, woosh, there’s a blur of colour and light. I may have positioned myself to miss the animal but I failed to notice that its huge sharp tusks were lying on either side of a tree. The momentum of tonnes of elephant flesh snapped the tree at its roots and hammered it down on my head.
Apparently I came to quite quickly. Took the viewfinder which had been smashed off the camera stuck it back in my eye and started filming. The only problem was, it wasn’t attached to the camera. I have vague recollections of plugging it back in and getting the camera working after a fashion. My AP tells me she held me round the waist as I alternately filmed and blacked out. You can watch what was broadcast of this event in a clip on You Tube - keep an eye out for 2:05, which is the tree landing on my head.
I still have little memory of the rest of the events of that day. Even the following day when we were darting lion I was still blacking out.
From then on until the end of the shoot two weeks later, it’s all a bit of a blur. There is a book in the adventures we had on this shoot but on the last day, when the people from Sera gathered to take possession of their new lodges, wells and animals it all seemed worth it… or at least I think it did.
One of the places in England I have got to know reasonably well is - probably unsurprisingly - Cornwall.
It's a place I'd always wanted to go to, drawn by the idea of a Hebridean-esque landscape, but a tad warmer.
In reality, the Cornish landscape is really quite different from the Hebrides, but still notably celtic. In the Lizard in the south of Cornwall, where this picture taken, there are lots of little creeks and inlets where wildlife abound. We have stayed several times at Trelowarren, an ancient forested estate that is re-inventing itself as an ecologically sound holiday location.
When I was there at Christmas time, I saw a rare turquoise flash of kingfisher in the same spot as these swans had performed their ballet a year previously. The moment was somewhat ruined by my lovely wife trying to have an earnest debate about the advantages of fixed rate over variable rate mortgages.
The Samburu people live in the northern territories of Kenya. There is very little water, and the tribespeople have suffered for many years from drought, disease and attacks from Shifta bandits. Here a Samburu warrior digs in the dried river bed for water for his goats. The Samburu sing while they dig, hence the reason this area is called the singing wells.
I took this picture three years ago when I was on a recce for a series I made for the BBC called 'Mission Africa', presented by Nick Knowles and Ken Hames. We took 15 young apprentices from the UK to this luga (a dried river bed) in the Sera Wildlife Conservancy. Over six weeks, they helped build lodges for wildlife tourists, new water wells and started re-stocking the area with animals such as giraffe. We had partners such as Lewa Conservancy, Tusk Trust, Born Free, Scottish Water to name but a few. You can watch a clip on You Tube.
I like making shows where the legacy isn't just the television programmes, but real lasting value. In this case, we set out with the aim of leaving the Samburu people a sustainable source of income. And from what I hear, that's what has happened.
I suppose the highlight of making the series was being knocked out by a five-tonne bull elephant that had just been darted. Not many people can claim that honour.
Here is a video I took at the same time of the tribesmen digging for water.
Two shepherds from the island of Harris on a sheep rescue mission to the remote Shiant Islands. Rural areas in the Hebrides are 'crofting' communities. Crofting is a a method of small-hold farming. Its a precarious living so its likely that a crofter will have another source of income besides what can be earned from their croft.
Sheep lie at the heart of the crofting economy. European Union Agricultural reform, food hygiene regulations and changing diet are damaging sheep farming. Consequently there is less money coming into these already fragile communities.
A young crofter with his sheepdogs in the Lochs area of Lewis. This man was one of the first crofters to gain his land under a scheme which encouraged the transfer of crofts from tenants who weren't working the land to those who were eager to.
There has been a steady increase in the number of whales and dolphins beaching themselves on the West Coast of Scotland. This is blamed variously on chemical, radiation or noise pollution. This pod of 10 pilot whales stranded themselves on Dal Mor, a beach on the west coast of Lewis in 1994. Some were saved, but the majority died, and their carcasses were taken to the dump by the council.