Letter From Billings, Montana
In between ignoring the now ridiculed advice of the UK Foreign Office and regularly enjoying all that Moscow and Russia has to offer, we had always planned to spend several weeks on assignment in Africa in the first half of 2018 - though the heavy rainfalls in parts of Kenya and Tanzania in the spring meant that we had to adapt to the circumstances. If a photographer or filmmaker requires a predetermined narrative and a rigid schedule, they should stick to an indoor Hollywood studio, not arrive in a bush plane on a marooned grass airstrip in the plains of East Africa. This part of the world is not a good friend to those that like to stick to either a preconception or an itinerary.
Nevertheless, in 2018, we have spent scheduled time in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and most recently Zambia. None of these places now offer much to surprise me - they are a Shakespearean cocktail of the good, the bad and the corrupt. Russia surprised me in 2018, Africa did not.
But whilst the bad in Africa is shockingly bad (we did spend four days filming with a notorious gang in Nairobi), the ability of small pockets of this continent to throw up opportunities for artists remains unrivalled. This is a known known and I offer no insight other than my acquiescence of a populist belief that Africa, for all its issues, does deliver with content. Equally, the continent is simply so vast that I am loath to make generalisations and therefore I have just one.
I believe Africa is fairly even handed in its distribution of visual opportunities - the more time employed, the more likely it is that at some stage the constituents necessary to take a powerful photograph will converge. Over a few days filmmakers can be unlucky, but over time something almost always happens.
I think we have done okay in terms of new original content and we have added about the right number of images to our collection. If we had added 20 images to the overall library, that would almost certainly suggest that our bar of what was strong was too low and if we had added just two that would be a rather miserable return from many quite challenging days on assignment.
According to our records, I have taken about 2,000 photographs in Africa so far in 2018 and looking through the downloaded files, I think we have about six strong new pictures and perhaps a further three that I am particularly pleased with. My sense is that all of this is about right. Intuitively the threshold of what is transcending should get higher as your process matures and the back catalogue gets broader - it is certainly harder for me to take a picture that gives me a visceral rush than it once was - and that’s probably healthy. Maybe I am just getting old, grumpy and difficult, but the edit always gets more fastidious. As my friends at Victoria’s Secrets instruct - “be tougher on yourself”.
It is up to others to decide their own favourites from our assignments in Africa this year, but in this monthly I do think there are some evocative portraits that are immersive, intense and technically solid. Black leopards and hippos are not mainstream for me and it is always good to be outside one’s comfort zone and testing new approaches. With both animals there are many obstacles to proximity and getting low, and on the whole, we failed. Tweaking our approach is an iterative and never-ending process, but this is not peculiar to photography - it surely pertains to almost every profession. In retrospect, there was nothing hugely scientific going on - it’s hard to conclude that the results are much more than just the random interface between experience and luck. We were not “splitting the atom” down on the Zambezi.
In the first half of 2018, I took a total of 81 flights - a big number and one that I doubt I will match again soon. It’s been an intense six months of travel and going through check in and then sometimes two tiers of security is really just about the only part of my life that I now consider to be work. If all this photography lark goes to pot, one option may be to write a definitive guide to flying around the world.
Like many, I find the actual flying bit okay - it’s refreshing not to be pestered and it allows time to reflect. Equally, I found the 17 hours on the Auckland - Dubai express, a test of my appetite for Bollywood movies - I started three and finished none. I love film, but I have seen almost everything (mostly on a plane). Cinema viewings are something of a treat for us all in 2018 - this is unfortunate as great movies require a big screen to be as cinematic as they were intended. An iconic film, such as Jaws, Gladiator or Titanic, cannot be watched on a plane, as no matter how big Emirates can make the screen in front of you, in flight movie watching is a lame experience. It kills time rather than provokes thought.
Until recently I thought South African security was the most casual and speediest in the world. Roads are more dangerous than skies in South Africa and a dust down in Cape Town or Joburg is akin to brushing past someone on the London underground. It must be one of the most perfunctory security searches in the world and hints at bigger domestic issues outside the airport than safety issues inside.
But then I journeyed through Christchurch Airport, New Zealand - and that is indeed a novel experience. I think you could drive through the screening in an armoured personnel carrier and the big guy the other side would ask you whether you had enjoyed your time in South Island. If security control is indeed run by the country’s tourist office, it is a clever initiative - it is simply one last way of saying goodbye. New Zealand is the safest place in the world and the airports are consequently a joy and a breeze.
On the flip side to Christchurch, I have my least favourite airports in the world and we visited them both in the first half of 2018.
The international airport in Harbin, Northern China is soon to be demolished and rightly so. However, when we tried to take a flight to Japan in early January on the most deceptively named Spring Airways, the terminal was very much alive and kicking. The problem is that it doesn't actually work and passengers have to do much of the checking in process outside the building. I am all in favour of that in most conditions, but in Harbin in January the outside temperature can be as low as -40 degrees (Spring Airways is a mockery). When passengers finally get inside the 1950s building - the only access through security is procured via long distance verbal communication of your flight number and they don't speak English up there. I will never know how on earth we managed to get on that flight.
Nairobi airport is a second home to me and it is close to my vision of hell. When the main terminal caught fire a few years back, some travellers felt conflicted - was it good or bad news? In retrospect, “Dante’s Inferno” was very much the latter, as the rebuilding was a challenge and the airport simply got worse - if that was possible - before it got better.
The city of Nairobi has suffered two terrorist atrocities in the last 20 years - Al-Qaeda - on the US Embassy in 1998 and the Al-Shabaab attack on Westgate Shopping Mall in 2013 - with combined casualties of over 300 people, so a heavy security detail at one of Africa’s busiest airports is understandable. But from arriving at the outskirts of the airport to going down the plane’s gangway, a passenger is scanned four times - which seems perhaps one too many. As many will know, BA lost its lounge in the fire and so anyone that is fortunate enough to have a BA card, and time to spare after all the security checks, is accommodated in the Turkish Airline lounge, which unfortunately is halfway between Nairobi and Turkey. I will never forget Sir David Attenborough's (or God as we know him) reaction to being asked to remove his shoes and belt for the 4th time in Nairobi. It would have made for best voice over ever.
Many of my 81 flights this year have been domestic ones in the US. No country has tighter screening to the gates and we all know why. Passengers are shouted at and engaged with on the most impersonal and charmless of levels - it is effectively Starbucks with a conveyer belt. But we accept it and it is what it is.
After 9/11, no one should grumble about the time taken to get through security or certainly no one can or should take issue with the body check. Those in uniform hold the high ground in American airports. By virtue of a hip operation which introduced some metal into my body when I was just 18, I will always set the machine off and then be diverted away for a most comprehensive body medical. Equally I know it’s coming and I am prepared for it - particularly in the big airports like JFK and LAX. However, America is vast and every state has its own character and rules.
Indeed some of the regional airports in the old Wild West can be quite fun, because it still is the Wild West. Montana has a few airports - such as Bozeman and Billings, but they are rural and quirky. There are probably more guns in Montana than there are people and this does seem to have rubbed off on the behaviour of airport staff - who have a “seen it all” look. I have a suspicion that going through security in Montana is an opportunity to show off rather than be nervous.
Montana is my favoured destination to tell stories about The Final Frontier. It has it all - stunning mountains to the west and south and then prairie land to the east and north. However, it is the people of Montana that lend the State as much of an edge as its natural beauty. They have been the key constituents behind my photographs such as The Wolf of Main Street and The Usual Suspects.
Marijuana is of course now legal in many states in America and indeed the whole of Canada. It is not legal in Montana and this seems surprising as more than a whiff of laid back behaviour characterises the lives of many of the people I have met up there. Montana also has seven Indian reservations and it would not be unfair to suggest that these communities have - from time to time - enjoyed the odd puff!
A few years back, I came across a great character in the mountains near Ennis who knew everyone and nothing was too much trouble for him. For much of the year, he travels between Mexico and Montana and in between times he pours a few beers when he needs to in the ghost town of Virginia City. We became friends - albeit there was much we did not know about each other. It was only recently - for instance - that I discovered he had served two years for being caught in the one of the bigger marijuana busts in Montana’s history. But he is now our fixer in Montana and is quite brilliant.
He did his time in a local state prison where he - true to form - befriended most of the inmates. This included a good number of Crow Indians who kept him safe and protected him from the few trouble makers. They taught him many Indian skills and there are not many things he can’t now make from a horse’s tail.
In June 1876, the Battle of Little Bighorn - commonly known as Custer’s Last Stand - was played out not far from the location of my friend’s penitentiary. The battlefield is the epicentre of what is now the Crow Indian Reservation in South East Montana. For Americans of all ethnicity - who have a thirst for history - Big Horn has become something of a pilgrimage.
The US 7th Cavalry Regiment suffered significant losses in the two-day battle - over 300 men and the bravery of General Custer has become the stuff of legends. But so too the Crow Indians - who celebrate the occasion every year on its 25th June anniversary. The names of the Crow Chiefs are now ones we are all familiar with - Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Lame White Man and Two Moon. Arguably no battle in the history of the world has been of greater inspiration for naming pubs and nightclubs than The Battle of Little Big Horn.
The Crow Indians remain revered and, as result of my friend’s prison networking, I had the opportunity to photograph the current Crow Chief - a direct descendent of the those that fought Custer 140 years ago. Bulltail was an older man of great dignity and whilst he spoke some English, it was clear that Crow was his language of choice - as well it should be. It was a huge pleasure to be in his company.
On my way back to London - a four-hour drive through Montana, then three flights home, I reminded myself that one of the great joys of what I do, is the people I get to meet. Crazy Horse, crazy fun.