Letter From Johannesburg
The summer filming is wrapped and now it’s show time. As I pen this from a hotel room in chilly Johannesburg, I find myself looking at two dusty camera cases and the disorderly contents of a smelly suitcase full of even more dirty clothes than normal. It’s one big mess, but I kid myself that it is simply because I have been behind enemy lines. The flight home marks the end of quite a significant chapter in this journey.
It has been a relentless five weeks with studio work in LA coupled with assignments in Alaska, North Korea, Scotland, South Africa and finally Namibia. It’s a peripatetic lifestyle that I have signed up for and there is no complaining, but equally I am looking forward to coming home to my family, having a long bath and then preparing for the shows in London and Oslo in the weeks ahead.
None of us are getting out of here alive and if we are not here for a long time, let’s at least be here for a good time. In my old days in finance, I had little fondness for the summer, as I almost always wanted to be somewhere I wasn’t. Now, by and large, I am where I want to be and it does not feel much like work at all. As a veteran PR man said to me in New York the other day: “What most men in the middle of their life crave most, is to be useful.” This resonates with me and I am certainly of more use now, than I was sitting at a trading screen on a summer’s day. I now know what I will do for the rest of my life and I am blessed to have that certainty.
There is another dynamic that enriches my life and that is simply the breadth of people and situations to which I am now exposed. More implausible stories accumulate in a month than I could remember happening in a year in my old trading days. My eight day assignment in North Korea always had the potential to deliver from a storytelling perspective and one particular evening will always stay with me.
In the 1970s, hijacking planes was seen as kind of cool. If you could not play in a rock band, or were not Vitas Gerulaitis or Bjorn Borg, but wanted fame and membership of Studio 54, nicking a plane offered one possible game plan. Andy Warhol would welcome you to The Factory with open arms.
And so it was that in March 1971, Japan Airlines Flight 351 from Tokyo to Fukuoka was hijacked by nine members of the so called “Japanese Red Army”. Idealists, rather than today’s kind of terrorists, and armed with samurai swords rather than firearms, they took 129 hostages and tried to fly to Cuba. That’s an ambitious journey in “economy” never mind in someone else’s plane, but the fuel tank only got them as far as Seoul. The South Koreans rather churlishly refused to refuel the plane and the hostages were released.
So the sword wielding Japanese hijackers took off again and landed a few minutes later in Pyongyang, where they were offered diplomatic asylum.
There was no road back to Japan for Mr. Wakabayashi and his rebels, so they simply took up residency in North Korea, where they were lauded as rock stars. 46 years later, I found myself sitting next to the surviving five at a modest beach restaurant on the east coast and totally oblivious to their storied past, we pulled tables together, got the whisky out and sang Liverpool songs. (Mr Wakabayashi – a devoted Liverpool fan – is the only man in North Korea able to watch the Premiership games on cable – albeit a day late). When their story was told, I remember my next whisky being a reasonably quick one. Then it was back to Gerry and the Pacemakers.
"None of us are getting out of here alive and if we are not here for a long time, let's at least be here for a good time."
Give me this dinner any day over a smart dinner in Chelsea with idle gossip and endless public school or headmaster comparisons. I can’t be alone in finding these conversations energy draining and vapid? It is surely far more enriching to be in North Korea eating dodgy squid with five veteran hijackers than to be discussing the refurbishment of Annabel’s or Hedge fund returns for July.
Of course I am biased and there is probably a negative skew towards much of the world I left behind. I do miss many kind, intelligent people in my old world, many of whom have been so supportive of my new direction. The wonderful thing is, that some of them, recognising that I have better access than most, are now joining me on assignments.
That August evening in Wonsan, North Korea, however, I was very much on my own.
In the field, it can be a singular job and to an extent this must always remain the case. I have to continue to go to places that are a bridge too far for others, as my goal is always to garner original content.
It is instructive that senior providers of original content are very much the darlings of the digital age – the success of Netflix and Amazon Prime has changed the way we watch content for ever. In the world of still photography, fresh content should be right on the critical path of the forward thinking practitioners. It is not just that originality is the corner stone of editorial work, or contemporary fine art, it is also that strong content helps bring status which can secure status affirming collaborations at a corporate level.
This was always my game plan, but the back book and distribution model had to be built first. In August I have signed worldwide agreements with two iconic and market leading brands – Land Rover and Nikon. I am delighted to be made a global ambassador for the iconic British car brand and with Nikon, I was honoured to be one of four professional photographers worldwide asked to test and showcase their ground breaking new camera – the D850. I look forward to the content of this collaboration being released.
It has been a rewarding summer. Come to the shows! We will be in London, Oslo, Turin, Chicago, Cincinnati, Toronto, New Orleans, Paris, Amsterdam and Moscow in the months ahead.