At 9:20am on the 18th January 2017, a good friend of mine sent me a frantic message asking for a photo. Will was, at the time, editor-in-chief of one of Cambridge University’s biggest student newspapers, and was looking for a photo to go on his cover. I was honoured: a front page of a publication - little old me?! I had an essay due that evening, plus a corporate event to photograph at 8pm. So I’d probably pop out sometime tomorrow or the day after, stroll around the town, take some snaps, do a little editing...
‘When are you publishing?’ I asked at 12:43 pm.
‘Tonight’, was the response at 12:43 pm. ‘Ideally, would need it by 8:30ish, and the picture would have to be fairly light, so preferably outside’. That gave me about 4 hours of daylight to take the shot. Then minutes to edit the photo, finish my essay and head over to the next shoot.
I got very lucky - a perfect reflection and a perfect sunset meant that I got the snaps I needed within an hour of searching. A quick touch-up, and on they went. A pretty tree for number one, and what I thought at the time was an interesting take on the public’s obsession with King’s Chapel, with a second shot focussed on the photographer of the landmark rather than the landmark itself. They were fine, I guess - nothing special, but it felt nice to be published.
Just over a year earlier, a similar manic request came through - Jon, an editor at a rival newspaper, asked whether I fancied getting up at sunrise the next morning. I was terrified - it was one of my first ever photography gigs, and I was still a fresher - I was so wet behind the ears it looked like I was permanently caught out in the rain. But I dragged myself out of bed at 6am nonetheless, and got the chance to meet my college master and generally impressive human Lord Chris Smith (and take a very poorly composed and exposed photo of him), was invited to climb the tower of Sidney Sussex college, and, most importantly, got to document a little part of Cambridge history, as the LGBT flag flew strong and proud around the city.
Now I know what you’re thinking the lesson is going to be here: ‘take all your opportunities, no matter how difficult they may seem’, ‘keep striving for perfection’, ‘be the change you want to see’.
Nope, absolutely none of that.
I raise the above anecdotes because these manic moments, probably a total of just over three hours, were literally the only times in my degree that I went out to photograph ‘Cambridge’ - the city I studied in for three years. A city that attracts 8.1 million tourists a year, travelling thousands of miles. And I gave it a mere three hours - and coerced, last-minute hours at that.
Part of that is utterly normal. Indulge me, if you will, in another spurious anecdote. August 2017 - about 4am. Myself and two good friends had been guided for six or so hours in pitch-blackness up Ol Doinyo Lengai (an active volcano in North Eastern Tanzania), to witness sunrise from 10,000+ feet above the Serengeti. The trek had been scraggy and dangerous, Becky swore she heard a mountain lion (not confirmed), but we’d finally reached the summit. Having lugged my camera up with me, I naturally began snapping away at what I described to friends afterwards as ‘what kids imagine heaven to look like’. Below us, a blanket of cloud stretching to the horizon, above us, another blanket moving in parallel - and between, the burning sun, sliced in two. I promise you the picture does it no justice at all.
And I will never forget the the puzzled face of our Tanzanian Maasai guide (who we called Rafiki because it means ‘friend’ in Swahili and also because, as much as we tried, we could not pronounce his real name without insulting him) who stared utterly bewilderedly at me, as I attempted to desperately capture the landscape as if to say ‘what’s the big deal’? This was, admittedly, a fleeting look - he very quickly lay down, placed a hat over his head, and fell asleep, without even glancing at the sunrise.
I am not, of course, equating Cambridge to an active volcano - although I’m sure many before me have.
Is the truth of it that you can simply not live a productive life if you are constantly staring around at you wide-eyed and open-mouthed? Is that whole ‘carpe diem’ schtick an impossibility? After all, Rafiki could not possibly take in the awe-inspiring nature around him every day, and still be an effective mountaineer. If he truly listened to countless self-help bloggers and truly ‘looked up at the stars’, he’d fall off the side of a volcano.
Equally, if the average Cambridge student (myself included) spent their entire time gaping at the 13th-century university around them, replete with spires and gowns and cobbled streets, then they’d never get any work done, and would be quickly booted out of said university. If it hadn’t been for two frantic messages, I likely never would have photographed the city in which I spent three years of my life studying. And yet strangely I don’t feel too guilty.
Perhaps one day I will.