A career in press photography

John Redman started his press photography career with The Harrow Observer, firstly in the dark room before being provided with a camera. He was indentured for a three year period and during that time he completed the very first NCTJ course for press photographers in 1964. His dream as a trainee was to work for The Associated Press.

John progressed to the Cambridge Evening News, where he spent several years before becoming freelance. He researched and created features photos which would be publishable in a national newspaper and took them around Fleet Street – hard prints all fully captioned. The pictures editor on the Daily Mail – John Lyne – liked the photos and bought loads of them.

Horst Faas (probably best known as a war photographer, spending years in the Congo and later in Vietnam, where he made his name), twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, had been made European photos editor for the AP in the late 1970s.

He saw John’s feature photos in publications and started buying in from him. Thereafter, every month John would visit the AP office, then in Farringdon Road, and offer Faas a selection of features. Faas was on a controlled budget and would buy 10 photos each month and suggest to John he bring the others in his next month’s batch. John was beginning to get his name known in Fleet Street and often accepted commissions from the papers, in addition to his features work. These commissions included The AP.

Then the magic day arrived. Faas invited John to lunch and asked him to be a staff photographer on The Associated Press!!

“The AP during the 1980s was a very exciting place to be. Not the best paid in Fleet Street, but probably the most influential international news/photography agency in the world and envied by many other photographers. The AP only covered the top international stories of the day and travelled the world. There were wars and conflicts – Libya for the Americans bombing, Libyan war against neighbouring Chad in the deep, deep south of the Sahara, Iran and Iraq war; Royalty and their overseas tours; sport and politics; meeting and snapping every world leader – Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev, Arafat, Ghaddaffi and many, many more. Wimbledon tennis every year; formula one motor racing; the Open Golf.

“A note on wars – do not wear a white shirt or take pictures from your hotel balcony without first checking the balcony above. A close friend, during my first day in Beirut, did not look above and was shot dead. Too late to learn a lesson.

“Travel abroad meant taking two picture transmitters as well as enlargers and full darkroom equipment. And plenty of blackout plastic. Hotel bathrooms would often leak in vast amounts of light. This as well as your step ladders, and full camera gear with a battery of lenses. Apart from your own travel bag you would be expected to travel with a dozen or more big boxes and cases. And editing gear. Plus a tool kit – screwdrivers and crocodile clips for telephone communications.

“To stay ahead of any competition, the AP snappers – there were four based in London as well as loads of others in various capitals around the world – would have to work fast. That meant not using a motor drive unnecessarily. Take fewer pictures. But make sure they are good ones!! Easier and much quicker to edit a few frames than reels of film.

“Top tip to anyone on today’s NCTJ course for press photographers – stop using your motor drive (continuous shooting) and start using your eyes. Learn to take your picture at the right time. Submit the fewest number of photos to illustrate the story and yours will be a name to remember. Picture editors will have less work to do and will appreciate you.

“Some years ago at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, an American skater was expected to win gold and he was tipped to be doing the airborne splits in one corner of the rink. Just the once. I was there with 44 other photographers crammed in to space for just 15 and I was the only one to take the photo of the skater performing the perfect mid-air splits – with just one frame. The other 44 thought they could do it with motor drive – they ALL missed!!

“I could go on and on about the laughs – Ireland north and south was always good in that respect – the dramas; the intrigue; how when necessary the Pentagon worked hand in glove with the AP; being taken to a ‘safe house’ for my own security (I declined the offer); shielding an Israeli general who had no wish to persecute the Palestinians, in my flat in London – enough stuff to fill a book or two. The AP was involved in the release of hostage Terry Waite. Heady days.

“Now I live in the country with my wife and my life has changed. We have two Jack Russell terriers, chickens and over one hundred sheep scattered over various fields at our farm in south east Cornwall.”

John Redman