Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Dench Diary - December 2010

5th I’m dozing clothed, wrapped in a blanket. Empty beer cans nibble at my feet. A skirt bustles. An unfamiliar perfume strokes the nostrils. A beautiful woman whispers in my ear. “Seat up and fasten your belt please, Mr Dench.” I remember this. I’m only on a bloody foreign assignment. Touchdown Namibia. Hello Africa, the land where Daily Mail readers fear to tread. Welcome to the Dench Diary Overseas Africa Special starring TV producer and ‘Mr Incredible’ lookalike Ollie, soundman Stevie and cameraman Kess ‘Wolverbean’ (the hair of Wolverine, chin of Mr Bean). Let’s hope no one gets drunk enough to discover a best boy grip. I’m on stills duty. We are here to shoot reportage on a sports programme being implemented in the Osire refugee settlement 250km north east of the capital, Windhoek, where we land. The objective is to promote the benefit of participating in sport without distinction of tribe, nationality, politics, religion or other opinions. The previous few days had brought a welcome buzz of anticipation. Googling the destination and researching the story, logging on to the trusted website and getting an arm pumped full of inoculations. Days before departure every sense is heightened. Life is more poignant. I frequently laughed out loud for no real reason. I waved jovially from the bus to the children in the local school. They didn’t wave back. Food is tastier, beer crisper, loved ones lovelier, even Sandra Bullock films are entertaining. From -3ºC to +33ºC. It’s good to be back on the road, the road to Osire.
6th Buoyantly out of bed for a 4am start. Days dealing with poverty are ahead. For once it’s not my own. As the sun breaches we reach the Osire camp, guests of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of the camp’s population of 8,500 originate from Angola (around 69%) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (22%). The rest arrived from 21 other African countries. Today we are mainly shooting colour for the reportage and looking for a few suitable protagonists to build the story around. The camp residents rise with the sun. Driving into a clearing we hit a photojournalist’s jackpot. Women exercise on a concrete clearing. A jujitsu lesson tucked in the corner. Statuesque men balance on chests. Children box. Everything is brushed with the quality of light only an African morning can provide. I shoot for three hours without hesitation. Moving on to photograph at the medical centre proves more unsettling. Stevie tries to defuse the tension by handing out sweets. Unfortunately, the girl he hands them to has a bandaged jaw. I peel off and silently steal some frames. The morning is a success and provides a wealth of strong material in the digital bank. We pause for lunch. I pass on the fish heads and opt for the fried chicken and reflect on how good it is to be shooting again in Africa. You don’t have to be polite about noise levels in the cubicles here (if you can find one). Apart from an eye infection Senegal and a plane bursting a tyre on landing Liberia, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid being or injured abroad. My health generally improves in Africa; more a reflection on my home habits than cautions applied. My big dilemma is having to wait four hours after popping anti-malarial Malarone before I can take an antacid. I have to think very carefully which one takes priority. The Continent can be as dangerous as it is exciting. Checking the Foreign Office website travel advice to the region flagged familiar concerns: Carjacking, drunk drivers, armed gangs, disease and snakebites. I can add another, the unwashed tomato. During lunch Stevie comments that he’s feeling a little peculiar. Two hours later he’s in hospital being impregnated with antibiotics and stacked with rehydration packs. His decline is as rapid as it is brutal. The team, from experience, understand it could happen to any one of us. Stevie is simply unfortunate. We are temporarily a man down. In the afternoon we rally. Kess deals with the sound and I’m drafted in to shoot cutaways on the Canon EOS 5D MkII, my in-at-the-deep-end video debut. Set ISO (less than 3200), aperture (f5.6+), auto white balance, manual focus, shutter up, press button and roll. Job done. The real skill seems to be able to shoot, move and frame with speed. We take a break from the sun. The nearest beer is more than 100km away, so I ask Kess for a video tutorial. It takes him 10 minutes to impart what many workshops stretch into a morning and he doesn’t charge £200. After a productive afternoon, exhausted but content, the team piles into the Out of Africa guesthouse for a DEET-infused dinner. I pass on the seafood platter and opt for the fried chicken. The waitress must think all Westerners smell of insect repellent, the same way the Queen thinks everywhere smells of wet paint.
7th A 7am start and I’m ready at six. I can’t get out of bed this easily at home. Today is the main event. Namibian hero and Olympic silver medallist Frankie Fredericks will be hosting the Osire Athletics event. En route we pull over for snacks. I grab the local paper. The reason there’s no Daily Mail equivalent in Africa is the fear is real and not merely implied. It makes grim reading. Namibian Cluedo must be fearsome: ‘Native in the post office with the broken bottle’. ‘Vengeful husband in the street with the petrol bomb’. Kess bumped into guesthouse security this morning. They casually mentioned armed robbers being shot at the previous week. To be honest, I love it. TIA my friends, This Is Africa. On arrival in Osire we are handed a programme of events. A 400m running track has been painstakingly carved into the parched red earth. First up is the long jump where a pit has been meticulously destoned. Fifteen participants are scheduled to leap. Thierry Beya is the first to make his mark. It can’t be measured as there is no tape. Voices are raised. There’s a bit of push and shove. In the melee Thierry’s mark is scuffed over. Thirty minutes pass. Someone from the crowd wryly observes, “too many chiefs”. Four more jump before the event is abandoned in favour of the running track. Each race has a false start. There will be only three 100m races before the event dissolves and half the programme dismissed. Two-thirds of the track goes unused. TIA. Another satisfying shoot day and as the sun dips its chin we head for Windhoek for a long anticipated night out in the capital. A good driver and guide is a crucial part of the team. Stay near the vehicle, keep it clean with a full tank and be ready to leave. Simples. On a previous trip, Ukrainian driver Andrey Valdman, a former policeman in the organised crime prevention unit, set the standard. A unit so dangerous you retired on full pension after only 18 years. Retired at 36 but keeping busy, he showed the AK-47 bullet wounds in his legs. He was a good driver. I would follow Andrey anywhere. I open the door to our Namibian car, nestle among the litter, wait for our driver to finish a personal call and settle down for a nap. Ollie’s curt inquisition cuts through to consciousness. For some inexplicable reason, our driver has forgotten his overnight bag and is returning home to get it. Even more inexplicable, he thinks we wouldn’t notice heading two hours out of our way. We pull over for a confrontation. The scenario is the rest of the journey can be spent with four people hating one or one hating four. The maths is clear. We make the decision. The driver arrives home to collect his bag.
8th We ended up spending the night back at the Out of Africa guesthouse rather than suffer a surly four-hour drive. Today is a 7am departure (UK time) for a 9am arrival tomorrow. When asked where and when I am happiest, I, of course, reply at home with my family. More accurately it would be at times like this. A good job done and nothing to do except booze our way home. Stevie’s back and on the beer. We crack a six-pack and toast his health. It’s been gruelling, exciting, troubling, rewarding and enjoyable. On one African adventure with a more uncertain outcome I was advised to put my affairs in order, just in case. I wrote a letter to my then three-year-old daughter explaining why I thought it necessary to continue on risky foreign assignments. I hope she doesn’t ever get to open it and we can read it together one day as adults. This is where a photojournalist belongs, on the road, limbs aching, embedded with dirt, witnessing something new, striding the world to provide for one’s family. Briefly I am a hunter and a man. Feels good. It’s regrettable that many closest to me will never observe what I can be. The journey to the airport is good banter, camaraderie at its finest and we bond, stopping frequently for Windhoek Draught. Our driver is slowly forgiven.
10th I have 1,000+ frames to edit, process, tweak and caption. The deadline is soon. First priority, my daughter’s school play. Photographer and model father Richard Baker (@bakerpictures) tweets some advice: “Take Kleenex in case it gets too much. Watch out for divorcees on the pull #nativitycougars”. Antsy mums, soppy dads, recorders, camcorders, babies, snot, ABBA, no wine, kill me. My daughter’s Dancing Queen is, of course, brilliant but I’m distracted. I didn’t shed a tear in Osire. Rarely do. Then it happens. An androgynous angel pirouettes on stage and performs a ballet solo of such purity and innocence a salty drop cracks my sunburnt cheek. I exit stage left. Next scene, the interior of the Villiers Terrace pub. My wife joins me after a works lunch. The dulcet tones of Andy Williams nudge the air. I begin to relay tales of my African adventure. She slowly slips from her chair and plops on to the floor. I’ve been home a day.
11th I’ve earned enough from the Namibia trip to meet my monthly minimum with beer money to spare, invoice and wait. Life can be that easy and it used to be. However, last month was a wage vacuum and I’m playing catch-up. From Premium Economy to Peter Economy. Tom Stoddart once described photography as a champagne and chips lifestyle. Chips at the moment seem a luxury. I start clearing a backlog of emails hoping for good news, mostly Pizza Express vouchers and notification of no stock sales. I try the post, mostly pizza menus, an amendment of my Photo lease agreement increasing the payments and the result of my Criminal Records Bureau check. I’m allowed to be around children.
18th Snow blizzards, long johns on and off on assignment for a men’s magazine to cover the student protests in London. On paper the event looks good. A flash mob is to occupy Topshop. At exactly four minutes past one a PE lesson will break out with three-legged, egg-and-spoon and sack races. On the ground at exactly four minutes past one a man strips to his football kit and bounces a ball. He is prevented from entering Topshop. There’s more press than protesters and progress is slow. Events like this are good for street photography. You can shoot around the periphery. I stick it out and gather enough images to justify an invoice. Swing by friends on my way home to collect my wife from prolonged teatime drinks. I begin to relay tales of my capital adventure. She drops from my side and plops into a snowdrift. TIE my friends, This is England.
You can hear Peter in person each month on the Professional Photographer podcast, available on iTunes or on our website at

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