It’s not every day you get a call asking you to photograph the Prime Minister but that’s what happened one Thursday in early March this year when the editor of the Saturday Times Magazine called me. I was being invited to be part of Gordon’s unofficial election campaign inner circle for the day, to travel on the train with Gordon and entourage to Birmingham and beyond.
Unfortunately, ‘Inner circle’ didn’t translate into ‘feel free to snap away’ – that would have been too good to be true – In reality I had about 3-4 minutes when I was allowed to photograph the PM in a way that felt intimate. The rest of the time I was thrown in with the other photographers in the various locations around Staffordshire but I still felt privileged, definitely a story to tell the grand-children – a fascinating combination of the surreal and the mundane.
The day kick-started with tea in the 10 Downing Street Café. What a great thing to have a café in your front room! Was that Gordon’s idea or maybe Margaret Thatcher’s brought about by an attack of the munchies whilst pondering the sinking of the Belgrano perhaps? There’s a mildly surreal label on a water jug saying ‘Free water’, some kind of spin I guess, a hangover from the Alastair Campbell years, a need surely to offset the fact that we have to pay for the bacon sarnnies.
The plan for the day is to go to Birmingham to see a site for a new high-speed railway station, followed by a memorial service at the National Arboretum and then onto Burton-on-Trent to visit a new care centre. So, after tea, we all get in the convoy to Euston station.
On trains, the PM travels First Class but apart from that he seems to travel like a normal citizen give or take the odd very discreet security guard and the fact he parks his car on the platform, (Maybe I’ll try that next time I’m late). The carriage is open to all which is nicely demonstrated by an irate passenger who tries to squeeze past Gordon as he is introduced to the journalist, ‘Excuse me’ she snaps only double taking once she has barged by and hears our giggles.
The trip is a whirl of rushed photo opportunities and speeding convoys: “If you are not in the car when the PM gets in his car, you will be left behind.”
“So I can’t take a snap of Gordon getting in his car then?” I said. “No!” the PR explains.
When you are working in these situations as a photographer you are always looking for an opportunity, a mercurial moment but the pace is often frenetic, and those moments few and far between. You may not even be in the right place when they happen. I have just Googled the ‘Prescott Punch’ perhaps one of the most famous political photo opps of recent times and can see no stills which implies red faces and sharp words from photo editors and no award winning snaps.
Hopefully, for me, I missed no amazing moments and took my opportunities as they presented themselves.
The day ends with an oddly mundane and paradoxically surreal train journey back to Euston with me sitting opposite Sarah Brown as the journalist interviews the PM, both of us tapping away on our laptops.
“Do you want me to move?” I asked Sarah.
“No you’re fine” she said.
“Does the Prime Minister get bothered by snappers tagging along?”
“No he’s used to it“ she said.
Right then! Tap tap tippity tap.
Actually, the Prime Minister’s wife seemed very approachable but it just didn’t seem right to engage her in small talk, much as I was tempted to raise the small matter of anti-terrorist legislation and how problematic it was that policemen across the land feel obliged to harass tourists and photographers snapping bus stations or chip shops. I think she would have agreed..
We arrive back. The PR asks if I need a lift anywhere.
“No I’m fine” I reply, then suddenly they are gone and I am left in the carriage and it’s back to just an ordinary, non-surreal, journey home.