Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Thursday 8 December 2011

Cheeky monkeys.

THERE are a group of people without whom not a single newspaper would ever be produced.

They are regarded as the very worst denizens of Fleet Street, lower and more unpleasant than the clich├ęd hack in a dirty mac prepared to steal a picture of a dead baby out of its weeping mother's hands: photographers.

Also variously known as toggies, snappers, phots, monkeys (they tend to gibber and scratch themselves) and far ruder terms hurled by police, the public, bouncers and celebrities they are quite possibly the least understood part of my trade. And not just because they're always talking about apertures, popping focus and light levels, which might as well be in Mandarin for all the difference it makes to me and my biro.

They don't shove cameras in people's faces, because the shot would be blurred; they back away as they shoot to maintain focus. They don't spend hours digitally removing girls' underwear, because most papers don't use those shots and snappers never have the time. They can sit in blacked out white vans in 90-degree heat for 20 hours at a time relieving themselves in water bottles and ZipLock bags, they can be unbearably disgusting, they can be lazy and smelly and miss the shot so you have to do it all again tomorrow, but I've never met one who was anything but bright, clever, and funny.

They are often called paparazzi, when in fact they're a different species entirely. Paps work for themselves and agencies, earn only for a shot, and therefore do anything to get a shot that will earn. The guys who shift for Fleet Street get paid whether something happens or not, just like the hacks. They're more professional, usually trained up through local papers, and the best today can take, edit and wire a picture in minutes while lighting a fag, slurping a coffee, filching a receipt without breaking stride and reminiscing about the time they had to 'dev' their own film in a hotel broom cupboard with some duct tape and household chemicals while taking enemy fire and saving some idiotic reporter from themselves.

Back in the day some papers would have up to 100 staff photographers on the payroll, kitted up, expensed and pensioned at The Proprietor's cost. As times changed, budgets were cut and more expensive digital equipment came in those snappers were put out to grass. Today you might get one or two staff phots on a paper, and a couple of dozen ever-changing freelances who graft eight days a week and buy their own gear - starting price around £20,000.

Kate McCann recently claimed snappers hit her car with their delicate lenses to get her attention; not at that price, they don't. What does happen, when you get a lot of snappers in one place, is a bunfight where the guys at the back push and shove the guy at the front into the car they're all trying to take a photograph of. I've never seen a snapper intentionally hit anything with his camera, but I've seen plenty of times where they get shoved, bust a lens and then turn around and punch the guy responsible.

I've seen tiny snappers lifted off the ground and pinned by the throat to a wall by a bouncer twice their size, who'll straighten his assailant's tie and ask him out on a date. I've thrown myself between a man with a lump of wood and the snapper he wanted to batter, I've cried on their shoulders, taken them to hospital, shared luxury and dysenteric hotel rooms with them, and given up teaching them how to spell. In return they generally try to poison me with Jagermeister and ask me to write their captions.

Monkeys are my mates. A hack and a snapper will pair up on a story and, whether you're sharing a car for 18 hours on a doorstep or hurtling around Africa trying not to get killed, that's your wingman. You are comrades, not just colleagues, and few stories get in without a picture to back them up.

I love photographers individually and as a whole, but when a group of them get together on a job it's, well, special. The collective noun is a 'circus', and if you imagine the music and behaviour of half a dozen clowns with a miniature fire engine you wouldn't be far wrong.

In April 1984 WPC Yvonne Fletcher was shot during protests outside the Libyan Embassy in St James' Square. For days afterwards the square was on lockdown as suspicion focused on her killer being a member of embassy staff, and police snipers crawled all over the roofs to get a clear view into the embassy windows.

Alongside them on the less-useful roofs were the crack shots of Fleet Street, armed to the teeth with sidepacks of film, long lenses and brick-sized mobile phones.

Unfortunately as the siege went on the plane trees in the square burst into bud, obscuring the snappers' view. Undeterred the inventive little tykes called up a tree surgeon and instructed him to come and cut a couple of branches down. The poor chap scaled a trunk only to fall off, pierce his foot on a metal railing, and be carted off to hospital.

The lads cursed, and called another landscaper who arrived but then announced he was scared of heights. The painters-with-light were probably wondering which hack they could force to shinny up there to do it when the first tree surgeon came back, bandaged and limping, and was ordered to finish off the job. With snappers on the roof shouting instructions into their new mobile phone, and police snipers watching it all with shaking heads, the chappie cut a window in the trees so the cameras could get a decent view of the front door.

You might be forgiven for thinking these dedicated gentlemen of Grub Street then sat on that roof, day and night to get their picture, their poor forgotten wives sending up home-made sandwiches and blankets to keep them warm.

But no. Instead they lined up their cameras so they'd all get the same shot, set the focus, wired them together so they could be fired simultaneously, and buggered off down the pub while leaving the youngest member of their troupe on the roof with the instructions: "If anything moves, press the button."

Oh, and they each claimed for the full cost of hiring a tree surgeon.

Shortly before taking an extended refreshment break... clockwise front to back Dave Hill (Sun), Crispy Bacon (PA) Chris Barham (Mail) John Marks (Times) Francis Rosambeau (Time / Life) Mike Moore (Standard) and Peter Wilcock (Star). With many thanks to Wilco for letting me use it.