This year marks 10 years since London played host to the Olympic Games which, for me, was perhaps the most magical and unifying event I’ve ever experienced. Yes, it was expensive and yes, there were plenty of naysayers who couldn’t see the point, but when Games began in late July 2012, the overwhelming moods were of joy and excitement, coupled with the recurring thought “I wish I had tickets for that”. Ticketing for the event was through a nationwide ballot and when the registration window opened, my wife applied for pretty much every event going. At the time I thought she was quite mad, but soon changed my tune when the results were in. We had been offered lots of tickets, but most importantly, they included Saturday’s athletics event at the Olympic Stadium. Only with hindsight can we really appreciate what became known as Super Saturday. By the end of that day, the British team had won a slew of gold medals in track & field and Usain Bolt had set the stadium alight in the 100m. Our session was the morning, where there were less fireworks, but we were still able to see our heroes in action.
At the time, I was just 2 years into my renewed interest in photography and using my first ever DSLR. I had yet to do any formal training to improve my skills, but I had the next best thing, all the gear. When we left for London, I had packed every piece of camera gear I owned. Camera, long telephoto lens, monopod, loads of memory cards etc…etc. I wanted to shoot everything, just as long as I could get into the events themselves. The London Games had been dogged by issues in preparation, one of which was the bizarre shortage of staff to man the entrances to the venues, an apparent recruitment and training miscalculation. To ease the embarrassment of the company who’d made the error, British Armed Forces personnel were drafted in to help. As we approached the stadium in Stratford, East London, I could see a large Army contingent checking bags. No chance, I thought. To my surprise, however, I was allowed to take my mountain of kit into the stadium with the simple instruction to ‘not get in anyone’s way or spoil their enjoyment of the event’. Result.
I shot continuously throughout the day, with each exciting event yielding opportunities to capture a piece of history as they went. I was pretty rubbish at that time and my long telephoto lens was, at 300mm, not really long enough to get good frame-filling compositions. Still, I did get some shots I was (and still am) proud of. The thing is, when I reflected on the day immediately afterwards and in the years since, all I can really remember is taking photographs. For example, I can’t really recall the experience of the atmosphere when a ‘disguised’ Bolt snuck onto the track largely unnoticed. I had spotted him but was immediately consumed with taking a picture as he made his presence known. It occurred to me that this was a disappointing outcome to my Olympic experience and it was something to do with being a photographer.
Usain Bolt offers a fist bump to his box carrier. He was the only athlete to show appreciation, as everyone else prepared for the race
Fast forward to a Diamond League athletics meet in Birmingham a few years later. I now had my new camera and what I considered to be a better lens. I’d learned more about the basics of photography with regard to the technical camera settings and composition, so I thought this would be an opportunity to show off a little. The first hurdle was a conflict with the marshalling staff at the venue – long story short, they confiscated my camera and I only got It back from the head of security when I pointed out that they’d have to pay many thousands of pounds if it was lost or damaged by the muppets on the gate. Perhaps it was the stress of that confrontation or the memory of London, but once inside, I actually didn’t want to take pictures of the event. I just sat and watched instead.
Why am I rambling on about all this? Well, I’ve been on holiday this past couple of weeks and during that time, I’ve visited many tourist attractions. Holidays present a challenge for me with my collection of 52 cameras, principally which one(s) to take with me. For this trip, I uncharacteristically chose to ‘travel light’. My Nikon D300 (that very first DSLR), which is light enough to carry around with me and good enough to do some of my study work on, and my Hasselblad that I talked about last week, were selected. I took the latter with me because I had a project that I wanted to shoot specifically on medium format film. This choice of minimal gear not only made my wife happier, but it also meant that I would be forced into accepting that I could not shoot every subject or setting that was presented to me during our trip. This started thinking about not taking pictures when it’s better to just watch what is happening, when we visited the wonderful National Centre for Birds of Prey, near the town of Helmsley. The centre had three flying sessions throughout the day, during which a variety of falcons, eagles and owls demonstrated their amazing aerobatic and hunting skills. As I didn’t have any of the right gear with which to shoot the display, I just watched in amazement with the other spectators. It then dawned on me how much we miss when we are focused on what might be about to happen in front of us. The camera gives us a perspective through a small rectangular viewfinder which, even with a wide-angle lens fitted, restricts our ability to see everything that our eyes would normally. In the case of the birds, a long telephoto shot of a bird in flight is much like any other and, while impressive details can be revealed, we don’t get any sense of its behaviour or plan of attack if we just see it flying within a narrow field of view. That’s not to say that I am against this style of wildlife photography, far from it. It’s just that when the action is fast and furious, our attention is all about the split-second decision to shoot rather than being immersed in the moment. By stepping back from this method of photographing we observe more, so that when a less frenetic moment presents itself, we can still get a picture.
A mischievous Kite lands for a quick pit stop, photographed by the ubiquitous camera phone
As with the Olympics, I was witnessing something really special only this time, without my camera, I was able to experience the anticipation of the action in front of me. We are continually surrounded by this phenomenon of ruthlessly capturing what we can from an event, because our trusty camera phones are always available to us. People visit the Museé du Louvre in Paris every day and take a camera-phone picture of the Mona Lisa, not because they believe it is a good representation of the painting, but just to say they were there. I often wonder what they do with the pictures beyond sharing them on social media. Do the print them or keep them as a screensaver on their computer? Doubtful. Perhaps if we consciously decided to just experience the moment once in a while, without the need to document it, we’d enjoy it more. Or perhaps our perspectives really are being more and more defined by a squarish window.