A break in choreography on the campaign trail

May 4, 2010

On tightly-choreographed campaign trails there aren’t many photo moments that haven’t been carefully planned beforehand by spin doctors, so when Gordon Brown made an impromptu visit to a hair salon in Oldham, there was a ripple of excitement.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown accepts an invitation from Sue Fink to visit her hair salon as he speaks at the Honeywell Community Centre in Oldham, northwest England April 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Such unscripted moments create great opportunities for photographers because they offer a glimpse of reality and inject a human element into often monotonous days of speeches, handshakes and platitudes.

Brown had been pressed into visiting the Academy hair salon by owner Sue Fink, a brassy woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer when she collared Brown at a community centre. Brown, appearing embarrassed, mumbled his consent.

So Brown’s entourage traipsed over the road to the salon, where his minders – clearly wary of straying from pre-arranged programme – tried to stop the press entering. Fink was having none of it, throwing open the salon door and inviting them all in.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks to staff and customers as he visits The Academy hair salon in Oldham, northwest England April 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

The spin doctors needn’t have worried; it was a rare moment in which a chuckling Brown, warmed by Fink’s good humour, offered a genuine flash of the human being that he often struggles to project.

It made for great pictures. Working the campaign trail is often about trying to find the photograph of the day and in bottle-blonde Sue Fink’s lively encounter with the fusty prime minister I thought I had nailed it.

I was impatient to get back to the “battle bus” (the coach that transports the Brown camp from place to place) to file these pictures, so it seemed a bit of an inconvenience when he spent time talking to a pensioner.

Perhaps it was the success of the salon visit that prompted Brown’s press people to arrange the impromptu chat with Gillian Duffy, who compared to Fink, cut a rather drab figure – not exactly a thrilling photographic subject.

Nevertheless I shot a few frames of the encounter. As was shortly to be proved in dramatic fashion, it never pays to miss even the smallest moment on the campaign trail.

After Brown drove off, I raced to the bus and began filing my salon pictures. There were no more activities scheduled for the afternoon, and satisfied I had my photo of the day I wanted to get them out as soon as possible and head for a well-earned lunch.

I was engrossed in cropping and writing captions when news that Brown had been taped calling Duffy “bigoted” started to buzz through the bus. By the time we had arrived in nearby Manchester, he had been filmed talking about it, head in hands.

Suddenly, the hair salon photos paled in significance. Relieved I had shot anything of the encounter with Duffy, I started filing a steady stream of photographs. The picture of the day had clearly changed.

There was little time to catch breath – let alone lunch — after that. As the Duffy incident emphasised, the story can change in an instant and, photographers chronicling the campaign can never let their guard down.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks with resident Gillian Duffy (L) during a campaign stop in Rochdale, northwest England April 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaks with resident Gillian Duffy (R) during a campaign stop in Rochdale, northwest England April 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Brown’s subsequent snap decision to visit Duffy’s home resulted in a nail-biting 45-minute taxi ride hot on his trail, trying to catch him emerging to make a contrite statement to the press.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown leaves the home of Gillian Duffy in Rochdale, northwest England, April 28, 2010.   REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Since the police had blocked the road leading to the house, this finished in an agonising quarter of a mile sprint, with cameras bouncing off my shoulders. Out of breath, I made it just in time.

Still the day wasn’t over. Returning to Manchester and finally sitting down to a lunch that had been delayed by five hours, I got word that Brown was making another unscheduled public appearance near the city’s station.

As it was, the photos didn’t amount to much, but on a day when the dull campaign trail script had been torn up and thrown to the wind, it wasn’t worth taking any chances. Lunch had to wait.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah leave after a visit to Piccadilly rail station in Manchester, northwest England, April 28, 2010.   REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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