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Thirty-Five Years Later, Photography Still Beats Working for a Living
Posted By Mike Sheil On February 13, 2007 @ 9:00 pm In Photojournalism | 1 Comment
Zagreb, Croatia — Wow! Just arrived into country No. 62, which is a tad over one for every year of my life.
I once commented to a picture editor at National Geographic that spending so much time away from home was pretty rough. He looked at me and in a very lazy Southern drawl commented, “Being a photographer is one helluva life — and just be thankful you’re leading that life.”
Wherever you are, Bob Madden, thank you for something that has always sustained me against the slings and arrows of modern travel.
A Call from Black Star
I can still recall my first commissioned overseas trip — a late-night call from some weird guy with a machine-gun delivery working for what appeared to be a revolutionary organization called “Black Star” to go to Belfast the next morning for some magazine I had never heard of called the “New York Times.”
If this sounds a little stupid, this was 1972 when a call between the USA and the UK, where I am based, meant calling a telephone operator to book a call. You then waited about three hours, and they would call you and connect you to your chosen number. No reply? Start all over again!
And here I am 35 years later, still working for Ben Chapnick and seemingly still having to use the same grotty departure lounge at London’s Heathrow airport.
I am not sure that modern communications have made us any closer. Indeed, we almost seem to be more suspicious of each other. And certainly modern travel, although faster in the air, is slower and more traumatic on the ground! Booking travel on the Internet is all very well, but one needs a nimble mind to work around all those “Fly with us to amazing destinations for just $50!” promises only to discover there is just the one seat at that price. Not to mention being charged $120 per extra checked bag — and what photographer takes just one case of equipment?
Travel in Hope
Still, travel in hope — and Croatia certainly has that in spades. The hotel is just gorgeous; this is the kind of place I could all too easily become accustomed to given half a chance, with smiling and helpful check-in staff who seize my bags as I arrive and almost apologize for asking for my credit card. The lovely 1930s art deco interior features huge mirrors; tonight, they’re reflecting an extraordinary press launch with beautiful models posed as green mermaids in the lobby!
And as Samual Pepys wrote, “And so to bed.”
Day 2. The city is full of helpful people speaking excellent English, seemingly learned in the late 90s in North America while escaping the excesses of the war, and the only problem comes late in the day when I have to take a shot of a rather stunning building that turns out to be “intelligent.” This means that the lights are environmentally friendly and only activated by human movement. And everyone has gone home at 5 p.m. and dusk is not until 5:30. So some poor security guard behaves like a demented hamster — keeping the lights on throughout a five-story building.
Another lesson learned!
A Centuries-Old Pharmacy
Day 3. I start by shooting in a pharmacy that has been on the same site for 600 years — but which is only the second oldest in the country.
This is a proud country, and this shop is just great with lovely wooded cupboards and plaster busts of famous medical pioneers along its walls. There’s a lovely staff and an old cleaning lady who brings me an exquisite Turkish coffee from a cafe around the corner. We then proceed to shoot in a bio-pharmaceutical clean room where one has to strip one’s clothing and work in a white “goon suit” with rubber gloves. I’m left with only my camera and tripod — all liberally daubed in some alcohol-based disinfectant that makes my eyes smart.
But all that stainless steel and glass make for great images, and the guy in the inner sanctum is playing Petula Clark’s “Downtown” — so across 2,000 miles and 40 years there is some serendipitous link as I shoot him through a glass screen.
My cup runneth over! A tobacconist sells me a great Havana cigar for about a quarter of what I would pay in London, so the day and (sadly) the assignment ends on a real high note.
As they say, it surely beats working for a living.
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