Why good photographers are still worth their weight in gold

Sentinel photographer Steve Bould with a selection of images taken by Sentinel photographers over the years which were displayed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in an exhibition entitled 'Dear Happy Ghosts

Sentinel photographer Steve Bould with a selection of images taken by Sentinel photographers over the years which were displayed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in an exhibition entitled ‘Dear Happy Ghosts’

I’m sure it’s not just me that is still wowed by touch-screen technology and who thinks that cameras on telephones are a novelty.

To the current generation of teenagers who know no different, taking pictures of yourself pouting in the mirror and then uploading said image to Facebook is par for the course.

In contrast there are very few pictures of me or my friends at high school or college because the generation which grew up in the late Eighties didn’t carry cameras around with them. Most of us didn’t have one.

If someone took a photograph there was generally a good reason for it. It was an occasion, an event, a gathering. It had a purpose.

Nowadays every oik with a mobile telephone can take a picture of his or her takeaway tea and display it to the world within seconds.

Don’t get me wrong, I am genuinely in awe of the fact that my six and eight-year-olds are able to use a mouse and navigate their way around an iMac screen and use the internet.

I can also, of course, see the huge benefits of hand-held devices which are part computer, part camera and part phone – even if they have killed the art of conversation for many.

Nowhere has the march of technology been more pronounced than with photography.

You used to walk in someone’s house and there would be the obligatory wedding picture in a frame – given pride of place – along with a few pictures of the kids, maybe a shot of grandad’s 70th birthday bash and a recently-departed pet dog.

Nowadays photo frames are electronic devices – winking at you from the mantelpiece or coffee table as they change from Christmas Day to last year’s holiday in Majorca.

Working in the media, of course, image technology has had a huge impact on the way some of my colleagues work.

I started as a cub reporter at Smith Davis Press in 1989 – the same year as Steve Bould began his career as a photographer at The Sentinel.

Now the most senior man on our picture desk, he’s one of the few photographers who recalls the momentous changes that have taken place over the last quarter of a century.

Back in the late Eighties, of course, cameras used rolls of film.

We would take our holiday snaps to a shop to be developed and every media organisation had its own dark room where a kind of a magic happened.

Even though I was a scribe, I spent many happy hours (though not as many as Steve) chatting away to colleagues under the eerie red light as negatives – or ‘negs’ – were developed (‘devved’).

I watched in awe as images materialised on prints in the trays.

It was a time-consuming process whereby the photographer didn’t really know just how successful or otherwise a particular shoot had been until he was able to view his or her negs back in the safety of the dark room.

In those early days I developed a healthy respect for ‘snappers’ (they hate being called that, by the way).

The importance to me of images chronicling everything from major events locally – from job losses, major crimes and football club successes – to the minutiae of people’s lives cannot be overstated.

That’s why I am so in awe of the treasure trove that is The Sentinel’s library and archive – with its row upon row of folders of prints, negatives and cuttings.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then this newspaper’s archive boasts billions.

It was, of course, the advent of digital cameras which ended the dark room’s domination and consigned camera films to the nostalgia pages.

In 1996 The Sentinel’s digital archive began and, to be fair, it’s a terrific, immediate resource.

When I began working as a journalist in the Eighties photographers, the vast majority of whom were men, at newspapers like The Sentinel would travel to just three or four jobs in a day – because they needed the rest of their shift to come back and ‘dev’ their work.

These days, photographers on your average regional daily newspaper will be expected to do six, seven or eight jobs in a day – often uploading the images to a laptop and emailing them back to HQ, thus removing any need for them to return to the office.

They may do more jobs but they also, of course, have the luxury of being able to view images as they take them – re-shooting if they are unhappy with the results.

Steve said: “I guess it’s swings and roundabouts. Photographers will do more jobs these days but the technology at their disposal is far superior to what was available 20-odd years ago.

“The job has changed. Some skills are no longer relevant.

“However, even though most people have devices which can take pictures these days it doesn’t mean the pictures they take are any good.

“Most people don’t have the technical ability to take a decent photograph or lack the courage to ‘get in there’ and get close enough to whatever is happening.

“Simply posing a group of people properly or creating an interesting image from a fairly dull subject matter – that’s a real skill.”

He’s not wrong. That’s why a good photographer is worth his or her weight in gold: Because they know a picture of a takeaway tikka masala isn’t that impressive after all.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

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Exciting, exhausting… and I wouldn’t change a thing about my days as a cub reporter

We bought an iMac at the weekend after our computer died. Literally. Other PCs are, of course, available but I have to say it’s a great piece of kit. Stylish, powerful and – most important of all – a brand that is intrinsically-linked to my days as a cub reporter in the Mother Town some 20-odd years ago.

The purchase got me thinking about those crazy early days of my career as a journalist.

While studying for my A-levels at Sixth Form College in Fenton I got a Saturday job working for the Smith Davis Press Agency in Tunstall – shortly before they moved to Burslem.

I was 17 and had applied for a full-time job I wasn’t eligible for just to get a bit of work experience.

The directors – two ex-Sentinel men called Peter Davis and Dave Smith – took pity on me and had me in at the weekends.

I made tea, fetched and carried and got to go to Port Vale and Stoke City games with writers who, unlike me, could string a sentence together.

Most importantly of all I was taught the basics of journalese – in other words, how to write news, sports and features stories.

I thought I could write. I was wrong. I could cobble together history and English Literature essays and the odd bit of (bad) creative fiction but that didn’t mean I could write in the real world.

At Smith Davis I learned how to construct a story and to avoid repetition.

I learned about the who, what, where, how, why and when questions. I learned about drop intros and the need to check your facts with more than one source.

Those lessons in the basics, from a couple of veteran newsmen, were backed up by rollickings from the news editors from national newspapers who would shout very loud and turn the air blue if there was a single error in the you copy you had filed down the ‘wire’.

Let’s just say anyone who has had me as a news editor really doesn’t know they’re born. Suffice to say I learned quickly. It was a case of having to. It really was sink or swim. It didn’t matter that I was part-time at first and it certainly didn’t matter how old I was.

I had it drummed into me that you were only as good as your last story.

I did OK. Well enough, in fact, to be offered an £80 a week contract when I left college – which led me to turn down offers from three universities and enter the world of work at 18.
No-one tells you what to expect when you walk into a newsroom.

You have an idea in your head based on television and films but the reality is, in fact, a world away.

It’s seldom glamorous, often laborious, and certainly does not involve sitting in a pub all day.

Indeed, you’re more likely to spend the day with a telephone attached to your ear – like yours truly in the picture above. Back in 1989, the industry was very different to the modern day media world.

The internet was in its infancy and wasn’t yet on our radar. There was no email, no mobile telephones and no 24-hour TV and radio news.

Agency reporters – or stringers as we were known – really were (and still are) the dog soldiers of journalism. I worked Monday to Saturday and was on call 24/7 and carried a beeper – just like a hospital doctor – which would wake me up at all hours of the day and night.

I ran with the national ‘pack’, did regular work for Central TV, Granada TV and Signal Radio, and cut my teeth on Vale and Stoke match reports and the occasional exclusive for nationals – ranging from The Times to the Today newspaper and even the Daily Sport.

I was fingerprinted in a murder inquiry, tailed back to the office by special branch, went undercover at General Election time (can’t tell you), was threatened with a shotgun, met and photographed royals – including Princess Di, went clubbing with Vale players (those were the days) – and broke a couple of major national stories from which I’ve still got the clippings.

Looking back, I recall it was exhausting, exciting and I wouldn’t change a thing. I realise now that those five years were the best possible training a hack could ever receive.

Then one day we upgraded to new computers – funky new Apple Macs – and my colleague Andy Jackson started talking about something called the internet and electronic picture transfer which he said would hit our industry ‘like a train’.

He was right. Andy often was. Suddenly the landscape changed and newspapers were under threat from digital communications.

Some people will tell you that the print media is doomed. They’re wrong.

Take it from someone who’s had newsprint on his hands for two decades or more.

People like having something tangible in their hands. Something they can pass around and show their missus or their mates – something they can cut out from or keep.

There’s something reassuringly familiar about the product I am privileged to help create – my home town newspaper – which is what convinces me there will always be a need, a demand for its vital, grassroots kind of local journalism.

It’s been a long time since I’ve run with the pack and in recent years my profession has taken something of a pounding. What’s more, the technology involved and the demands and challenges we face are greater than ever.

But I still believe in the ethos of the job which I picked up in those early days: That our role is to inform, to educate and to entertain and that journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy.

I certainly wouldn’t still be doing it, if I didn’t. And I wouldn’t be doing it at all if it wasn’t for those boys at the agency in Boslem.
This one’s for you, gents.

This article is dedicated to some wonderful colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from over the years – especially the late John Hollinshead (Smith Davis photographer), the late Jeff Henderson (sub-editor with the Chester Evening Leader) and the late, great John Abberley of The Sentinel.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia