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BY PETER DENCH

Olympus Visionary and renowned photojournalist, Peter Dench, explains how he powered up his flash and went on the hunt for photo-stories to save his career during the pandemic.

As a photojournalist, it’s my job to document change. At the height the COVID-19 pandemic, many sectors of photography were paralysed. Fortunately, I was able to go about my job as change was happening every day. At first, my movements were largely restricted to within a walking distance of where I live in central London. I documented the closure of, well, pretty much everything. The Guardian and WIRED picked up on one set of pictures about the red social distancing tape entwining the capital.

As lockdown began to ease during May, the geographical hunt for stories widened. The temperature was hotting up and the hottest day of the year was forecast, raising concerns of overcrowding in public spaces, a potential news story. I checked the map and decided Southend-on-Sea would be a great destination to witness what would happen.

I regularly work for Getty Images as both a contributor and stringer. As a stringer I get a flat day rate and surrender copyright on the edit. As contributor, I shoot on-spec, deliver an edit and get a commission on any sales – I think that’s how it works! I called Getty and told them about my plans for a trip to the seaside and asked if there were any particular shots they were on the look out for. They said they’d be happy to put me on duty for the day as a stringer. I accepted, as I needed cash, bills were due.

The train out of Fenchurch Street station was empty, gradually people embarked the nearer to Southend it got. En-route I saw a cow out the window and was surprised by how surprised I was, having not seen one in months, I even sent a photo to my wife. The once normal had become exotic. 

Southend beach was jammed. People jostled for space along the promenade. Skin blistered in queues for the toilet. Take-away food outlets thrived. I was photographing well and it was interesting to see social distancing measures in place outside of London. Most people thought I was trying to catch them out flouting social distancing regulations. I was cautious to keep my Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-100 mm F4 IS Pro Lens Lens at around 18-25mm. I didn’t want to distort the perspective of crowds on the beach. 

I openly wear a press pass around my neck, to keep who I am and what I’m doing as obvious as possible. It’s sensible when photographing in spaces with families and helps satisfy those ‘why are you travelling during a pandemic’ glances from workers on public transport. As the day progressed and the alcohol consumption of day-trippers increased, so did the sense of menace. After a few prickly encounters, I felt uncomfortable enough to leave.

When the images went live on the Getty website, I sent the link to various publications and news outlets I work for, to show I was shooting, keep me on the radar. The Sunday Times magazine (STM) responded and commissioned me to shoot a bespoke set of photographs for them on England’s beaches, a feature to show what a summer staycation might look like.

I visited eight beaches across three counties over five days: Eastbourne, Brighton, Hastings, Bournemouth, Herne Bay, Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate. The profile is southern but at the time, travel was restricted and overnight stays at hotels and B&Bs unavailable. I can but don’t drive so was restricted to train travel, a day-trip to Blackpool or Skegness was unrealistic. 

People generally don’t wear a face coverings at the beach. The fresh air and sea breeze presumed to be Coronavirus free. There was plenty to photograph – the seagulls were rampant, bars and recycle bins full and an astonishing amount of ‘laughing gas’ being inhaled. 

My beach odyssey concluded in Bournemouth the day a ‘Major Incident’ was declared. The irresponsible behaviour and shocking actions of some visitors stretched the services trying to keep everyone safe. Police patrolled the beach and scuffles broke out among groups. The temperature was nuclear and I kept my kit to a minimum; one body, one lens, one flash – keep moving.

The STM published 11 pictures over five pages and asked if I had any more ideas for photo-features. I did. One on Project Restart, the nickname being given to the Premier League’s attempts to resume the football season interrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic in March. I was curious if there would be any die-hard fans to photograph turning up at football stadiums during matches.

The STM liked the idea and asked for ‘first refusal,’ meaning they wouldn’t commit to a paid commission but were interested in being the first to see the results – understandable as I wasn’t sure if there would be any fans! First refusal was encouraging, it gave me confidence in the idea, motivation and purpose. It’s the next best thing to the protective cloak of an actual commission. 

The story needed to be national but as payment for the story wasn’t guaranteed, I had to be cautious with expenses. I decided to cover as many stadiums in London as possible and also visit Villa Park in Birmingham, Old Trafford, Manchester and Anfield, home of Liverpool FC who were nailed on to win the title. I calculated expenses at around £200.

As project restart kicked off, pubs and bars remained closed and strict social distancing regulations were in place. The government warned supporters to stay away from stadiums. On a gloomy Friday night I headed to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for their match against Manchester United. It was deserted. Police patrolled the area and signs instructed fans to leave and watch from home. It seemed they had complied and the story was a non-starter. 

Then I met United fans Michael, Michael and Gaz who had driven the 200 miles from Manchester to watch the game on an iPad opposite the stadium. I took some good photos. Then I met 83 year old lifelong Spurs fan, Joyce, who had broken 93 days of home confinement to get on a bus from east London for a spin around the ground with her son, John. I took some more good photos. It was a positive start, slim pickings but enough to believe the project could work.

Unable to access BT Sport to watch the game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa fans Jordan and Jess drove to Villa Park to listen to commentary on their phone within earshot of their team. Siobahn walked her dog Cleo around the ground as she did every match day, waving a hurling stick in tribute of Villa midfielder Jack Grealish who played the sport as a teenager.

Outside Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, six friends who had travelled from Glasgow, watched the match against West Ham on their mobile phones. A family of nine had travelled from Belgium to be near their idols, another family of four from Hong Kong, the story was shaping up.

As pubs reopened on Super Saturday, the 4th July, a flavour of the terraces returned. 24 year old lifelong Chelsea fan, Nicholas, watched the match on TV with friends in a private function room at The Chelsea Pensioner pub, a few hundred meters from Stamford Bridge stadium. The Park pub opposite Anfield was rammed with socially distanced fans enjoying the game alongside cardboard cutouts of their heroes. The STM accepted the story, publishing 12 images over six pages. The fee was enough to cover my rent and bills for the month. Two photo-stories placed in a major news outlet during the pandemic, I was happy. 

As the country locked down in March 2020 and opportunities for photography were squeezed, like many of my colleagues, I initially felt there was no choice but to put my Olympus away, write off the year and apply for a job at Tesco supermarket. I couldn’t do it. My Olympus was the defibrillator that shocked my instinct to survive to life, to continue the perpetual hunt for photo-stories, day by day, hour by hour, frame by Micro Four Thirds frame. That’s why I love Olympus.

Dench’s Kit: OM-D E-M1 Mark II, M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-100 mm F4 IS Pro Lens, FL-900R Flash.

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