As another season of party political conferences draws to an end I thought I’d pen a little piece on my experiences this year covering The Conservative Party Annual Conference which took place in Birmingham, “Dancing Queen” and all.
Following last year’s shennnigans when a rogue comedian managed to present The Prime Minister with a “P45” during her Keynote speech, during a coughing fit and as bits of the normally carefully managed stage set literally fell apart we all knew it was going to be us photographers that paid the price. Sure enough a strictly managed exclusion zone was in place in front of the stage and we were under no circumstances (under pain of expulsion) to enter it. The space we have available to work in in front of the stage is always too small and we are constantly scrambling over whoever is sat in the front row as we move around and try and frame our pictures. It is possible to get a spot and stay there but you end up with pictures that all look the same so we tend to shoot a particular angle then move elsewhere for variety. The “Photo-managers” are never interested in helping us do anything other than keep out of the way and not annoy the delegates. One of the best ways to avoid this is to allow access elsewhere such as at the back of the hall or on one of the upper floors but on this occasion these options were not on offer on day one. Day two we were told we could go to the back, but not square on to the podium and then the handlers on the floor hadn’t been told so we were once again stopped. Various permissions were sought, often agreed too then reneged on, it was looking like the main event ” The Leader’s Speech” was going to be a nightmare. As always we worked around the rules as much as we could and managed to cover the speakers as best we could. By all accounts in contrast to this The Labour Party had been very generous with access allowing photographers pretty much wherever they wanted to go as long as they kept off the stage, fair enough. After much discussion (pleading really) it was agreed that for The PM’s speech we could use the back of the hall and the first floor balcony. I lugged my ancient 600mm lens down to the conference on the last day and set about finding a spot on the balcony. First reaction was ” no your not allowed” eventually we got in then were told the position wasn’t square on and it was at the back of the balcony so you couldn’t see May walking out of the auditorium…No use at all. I headed downstairs to find a spot at the back of the hall…nothing Square on…No use at all. So as with all the best laid plans I threw them out the window and opted for a rubbish position down the front directly in front of the podium. This may sound like a good position but it wasn’t. We were on the floor, May would be on the stage and the podium was so high that we’d struggle to see her face. I’d tried on day one to shoot from this spot and you can see what I mean from my picture of Liam Fox, it’s the one with the outstretched arms but no head. I sat there for about an hour before she was due on, opting out of the traditional photocall of her and her husband crossing the bridge from The Hyatt Hotel on their way to the hall. I waited and waited wondering how I was going to squeeze in somewhere else should another photographer move on after the first few minutes. The Attorney General spoke before May and he was very good. His speech style was variously compared to Winston Churchill and Brian Blessed and he didn’t stand stuck behind the podium, he moved around booming across the hall and actually making good pictures. I turned to the phtographer’s next to me on the floor and said “He’s bloody good, she’ll have a job following that” to which one replied “Maybe she’ll dance”. He finished and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” started up. I was watching the door through my 70-200 when it happened, The PM came dancing out the doors and across the stage, we were gobsmacked. (Boring technical interlude) I was shooting manually at 2000 ISO and there was very little light by the door. I’d set my exposure for the podium so had to rack down the shutterspeed to adjust for her position then up again as she boogied into the light. Thankfully she did two or three bursts of her jig because the pictures I shot by the door were far from perfect. By the time she’d started her speech we’d realised that we were not going to beat the dancing pictures.
As with all the things luck plays a big part, in my case it was a mix of bad and good luck in not being allowed to go where I really wanted. I just got lucky in choosing my third position.