Short-lived blossom was thinning out and daffodils were wilting.. The sky sagged a harmless grey, like it couldn’t quite muster the will to drizzle over the constituency of Cardiff North and its excitably burbling groups of Labour party supporters.
On the first floor of a large house beyond the park a young man sat at a window ledge with a camera, feet dangling nonchalantly. Just above head-height of the people on Whitchurch Common there bobbed a few red Labour balloons. People milled about, arriving, cheerily greeting each other, chatting, preparing their banners and signs for the appearance of party leader Jeremy Corbyn. A short distance away from the main throng of people, kids played football.
Prime Minister Theresa May had announced a snap general election on the previous Tuesday and now the political party electioneering had begun.
There was a small dog wearing a rosette, a pram with a quirky sign, a good number of people wearing red as they had been asked. There were familiarly earnest faces photographed by me several times before; people who loyally turn up at these things time after time, ardent Corbynites.
[Licence images of Jeremy Corbyn at the Cardiff North rally for editorial use via the Composed Images photoshelter website]
[Read the Composed piece: Jeremy Corbyn leadership rally: August 2015]
A clutch of about half dozen photographers and media people mingled around the front-centre patch of park, cameras swinging about their bodies. I recognised most but stood back, as is my usual inclination.
News and sport photography can be an awkward world to work in. As photographers, you are all competitors to a degree. But there is a clear hierarchy of sorts. Once you know who other togs are, the agencies they shoot for and a little about their careers – some of which are enviably long, well-travelled, distinguished and decorated, you might understand why they don’t easily fraternise with everyone. We tend to operate in separate bubbles.
Despite this, an instinctive common social courtesy still tells us to openly look at people’s faces the first time we encounter them in a professional setting: be friendly, perhaps smile and say hello, make polite conversation. If they don’t return our glance, after a time we look away and go about our business. People might be shy, or having a bad day, absorbed in pressured work, or simply not bothered enough to speak. All are excusable. But with a few of them your glance is never returned over months and years.
There are even some who, when it can’t be helped, will glance at you with what appears to be pure contempt, undisguised derision, as if you are daring to tread on sacred territory to which they are fully entitled and you are absolutely not. The shocking chill breeze of haughtiness can slice through you at first. Again though, you eventually acclimatise to the icy silence. Repeated countless times over a sustained period, you relax into an exasperated sigh or bewildered giggle, depending on your mood. If you were a nicer person of inexhaustible patience and forgiveness, if you were the Dalai Lama or Gandhi, you might look at them and smile and be willing to engage in conversation on every single encounter. You would not mind that they ignored you on every occasion, nor care that they tirelessly disdained you, regarded you like vermin. But if you are not that godly person, you just try to ignore them more comprehensively than they ignore you.
It should be said that there are also some (though seemingly fewer) who do return your glance and smile, and easily chat.
As discovered as a younger man, sometimes it’s easiest to just stay off the dancefloor.
[Read the Composed piece: General Election Day 2015]
Whitchurch Common presented several other personally known faces amongst the several hundred attracted by Jeremy Corbyn on the General Election 2017 trail. A guy I played football with, a woman with whom I once had a clumsy sort of thing, standing with her Dad, a former colleague. I quickly scanned their faces and moved away again.
After several orbits of Whitchurch Common and one chat with an amiable photographer, I slowly edged into the media pack. Wedging between two video cameras on tripods, I resigned myself to shooting at head-height and high, rather than shooting from ground level, as most agency togs did. It was a passable position, providing I could wriggle my lens between heads.
Jeremy Corbyn was due to arrive around 4pm, the time most of us were in place for. But it felt like around 4.30pm by the time he and the First Minister for Wales Carwyn Jones arrived.
After an introduction from Jones, Corbyn took the small red step, giving him an added elevation over the crowd of around one foot.
[View more and licence images of Jeremy Corbyn at the Cardiff North rally for editorial use via the Composed Images photoshelter website]
After a speech of around fifteen minutes a lady hugged him gratefully and Mr Corbyn moved away from the red step. The openness of what followed could be observed in stark contrast to Theresa May’s appearance a short distance away in Bridgend the following week. That would be a highly controlled and ringfenced affair with invited attendees and media only. All media reports, online, television and radio, obediently wore the unspecific location tag “South Wales” before the Prime Minister presumably made her way back to South England.
Here though, after his speech, Jeremy Corbyn began trying to weave through the crowd, in the direction of a vehicle. He stopped and spoke to many people, members of the media and members of the crowd. He had selfies taken, appeared to engage conscientiously with everybody and ignore nobody.
He could never be a photographer.
This went on for about another fifteen minutes. Taking my lead from a fellow freelancer – probably the most championed, best connected and well followed freelance press photographer in the city; so cool and secure he often wears shades on his head while working and rarely posts work images, (always ignored me up to now) – I squeezed myself out of the crowd a short distance to start processing images to send to newspapers and a photo agency.
Kneeling on a grass verge, laptop atop backpack, a policeman approached me from behind and looked at a few images. He said some complimentary words which I modestly shrugged off, then started backing away again. Before he’d gone too far I asked “do you know which one’s his vehicle?”
“Silver one on the end,” the policeman replied, pointing about fifteen yards away. He paused for a second, possibly wondering if he should have told me that, before shuffling off. Nobody else appeared to have heard our exchange. The amorphous blob of people with Jeremy Corbyn its epicentre had shuffled its way closer by this point. I decided to pack up the laptop and continue shooting.
When Corbyn was only twenty yards or so from his car, I sidled up to the passenger door. Fortunately, after seeming to want to enter a rear door, he came around to the front passenger side. I crouched before him and shot up his nose while he gave a final goodbye wave to supporters.
It seemed to pay off. This frame of him getting into the car was used by The Guardian a few hours later. Thanks, Mr Policeman.
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