I had a photography portrait assignment last week for an editorial client, through in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was given the barest of details of the background to the story and why I was going to be photographing this guy, but I was given the contact details, set it up and went through.
All I knew was that the person I was to photograph, James Bannon, had been an undercover policeman and he had a show on at the Edinburgh Festival. But hey, I’m a working professional, 23 years of editorial photography experience, I can operate on the briefest of briefs and fill in the blanks as I go, and not let my client down.
So I get there early, after James Bannon had pointed out on the phone that he hated being late for people, as do I. And I hate people being late for me, time is precious, and it is disrespectful to be late I feel. I like to arrive on jobs early, park the car, check out the area for possible photography locations and backdrops, and if there is time, get a coffee, think the job over, collect myself and not have to rush in all a fluster.
So I’m there early, reading a review hanging on the railings, of James’s festival show. James Bannon, undercover policeman at age of 21, infiltrates the Millwall Football Club fans known as The Firm. Yes, those Millwall FC fans, the football hooligan ones which are infamous in popular football culture. So let me get this right, at age of 21 a policeman infiltrates them and ‘runs with them’ for two years whilst informing on them. Jeez. And then just as I’m reading the review, this voice speaks in my ear “allwright fella?”. I turn round to face the soft voice. It’s James. But it could be James Morrison of The Doors. Beside me was James Bannon, and his beard and hair, looking nothing like the clean shaven, head shaven face on his festival poster…I later find out that that was just a model, posed up for the book cover.
So the portrait shoot takes place, we use a few locations behind the theatre where James had his show running. We get on fine, the pictures go fine. I have James looking out from behind doors, and inside from outdoors, trying to give that ‘man on the inside looking outside undercover cop’ kind of vibe. Hey, you do what you can, right?
James was a gent, answered my questions, posed up no questions, happy to do what was required. And then, at the end, as we’re getting ready to go our separate ways, he reaches into his bag “I’ve got a book for you”, and duly signs his new book, ‘Running With The Firm‘, which had only been out two days, and hands it to me as a gift. I know I’ve been in this game for 23years and counting, but I was honestly moved and touched by the way he did it, there was no need. I was there to shoot an assignment, no gift needed.
So over the next couple of days I read the book, a good enjoyable gripping read, not without some page turning moments, such as when James gets accused by the Millwall fans of being “the old Bill”. Scary stuff. But what struck me whilst reading it was the similarities between being an undercover policeman and being a photographer. The need to be a chameleon. The need to meet people and get them to trust you, to assimilate into their world and to not stand out. Working on reportage stories photographers need to be accepted, even on short editorial assignments we need to be accepted to get the pictures we want or our client needs. So we become a chameleon, we mirror those around us in order to be accepted, to create the access we photographers need for images. Just as James dressed like a football hooligan, I also need to tailor my dress to the relevant situation, be it a suit in boardrooms or jeans on the street. The way you talk, the subjects you talk about, the swearing or lack of it, all helps you blend with your photography subjects and be accepted. And in other situations, you buy them beers, you laugh at their jokes, you do what you can to forge a relationship in the short time your assignment or project allows. Slight difference is that I wasn’t then informing on the people and they’d perhaps be arrested, and this is what lays on James’s mind during his time undercover, he became pals with the people, grew fond of them, informed on them and ultimately they…well, you’ll just have to read the book, won’t you.
Photographs of James Bannon, former undercover policeman who infiltrated Millwall FC football hooligan fans, author of ‘Running With The Firm’, now held and available for licensing via Getty Images.