We’ve all been there – especially in the age of phone-photography. You see a brilliant moment start to unfold before your eyes and then, while you’re still struggling to get your ‘camera’ out of your pocket, the lights have changed, the smoke’s blown clear, the child has gone from gorgeous grin to total meltdown. And [...]


The ones that got away

A.S.H. Smyth introduces a new and nearly-photographic series

We’ve all been there – especially in the age of phone-photography. You see a brilliant moment start to unfold before your eyes and then, while you’re still struggling to get your ‘camera’ out of your pocket, the lights have changed, the smoke’s blown clear, the child has gone from gorgeous grin to total meltdown. And then you tell your friends about it, and sound just like the fisherman with his unverifiable stories of ‘the one that got away’.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these near-misses do indeed involve the animal kingdom – birds, particularly. On the day that I first pitched this article I had not only narrowly missed a photograph of two crows weirdly crashing into one another on my balcony, but had also been reading an article by a friend of mine in Argentina describing a similar incident on his balcony in Buenos Aires. Today, I’ve been reviewing a book in which the author, a conservationist, missed a recording of the only great gray owl he’d ever heard about in Eastern Russia… because he couldn’t get his phone out of his waders in time.

The fault, these days, may well be in our expectations – that we are all ‘photographers’, and can all take gallery-worthy pics of anything and everything, all of the time. In which belief, of course, we are no doubt too often supported by astonishing advances in technology and/or rewarded with outrageous flukes. And then there’s Instagram.

Of course, a great many things can still go wrong.

I’m not much of a photographer; but plenty of my own examples spring to mind, alas. An Ethiopian petrol station full of cows at dusk (flat batteries). A pair of eagles – birds again!! – fighting in the sky above the Kruger Park, seen, perfectly framed, through the sunroof of a 4×4 (driving the 4×4). The lashing, ten-foot black snake I nearly ran over while on a motorbike to Adam’s Peak (too busy screaming). A magical double- if not triple-exposure of the French walled town of Carcasonne (album lost: no explanation). A strange little ground-level statue of the Norman bishop-architect Gundulf, set in an eight-inch stone niche, at 90º to the road, in my home town (impossible to photograph). Another herd at daybreak on a KwaZulu-Natal farm, haloed with dust, like an antique sepia shot (no camera). A man out painting in a South London park, complete with beret and easel, the whole autumnal treescape duplicated on his four-foot canvas (I had the dog on a lead, and couldn’t risk a sneaky snap in case the guy realised and I had to explain that he looked like Johnny the crazed, melanophiliac painter from The Fast Show).

I take no pleasure in the knowledge that it is not just me. My mother-in-law recently set up a camera (a real one, on a tripod and everything) in her apartment in Mount Lavinia, to catch a kingfisher – damn birds!!! – which had been bathing in a water tank atop a nearby roof. No fewer than three of the colourful creatures duly arrived the following morning, and she heard them, and set about taking some wonderful pictures – beep, beep, beep – until she discovered that that beeping noise was actually the camera telling her the memory card was in some other place entirely.

Near misses, roads not taken, not having your camera on you (barely even ‘a thing’ these days, to my wife’s routine frustration); lens-cap still on, fingers in the picture, darkroom screw-ups; archival fires, digital corruption, your box of glass plates falling through the Antarctic ice; the FBI kicking your door in and demanding you surrender all the negatives, or just your five-year-old son opening the camera and exposing all the film of the family holiday to Zululand in 1993. These things have happened to the best of us.

But a couple of conversations over the years here in Sri Lanka had led me to wonder if professional photographers must surely not also experience their fair share of ‘almost-Pulitzer’ catastrophes. An unfair share, in fact, since they’re out there taking pictures that much more than all the rest of us? And wouldn’t they, more so than we mere mortals, have terribly acute and bitter memories of what it was they’d nearly photographed?

So I began to ask the handful of photographers I knew, and sure enough… For that, though, you’ll need a copy of next Sunday’s newspaper.

The shot that he got

Till then, one more, unusual way to ‘lose’ a photo.

In January 2014, just after I got engaged, my wife-to-be and her parents and I all went on a trip to Wilpattu National Park, in the hope, of course, of seeing leopards. We took a couple of half-day drives, and saw the obvious things, but not the other obvious things, and then, as always, as it was starting to get late and everyone’s backsides were getting tired, some other vehicle suggested there might have been a leopard sighting in the area. We pulled over beside a shortish, bushy tree – to turn around, or cut the engine, or what I don’t know. And we were all still staring down the track when one by one we became aware that a young(?) leopard was sitting not five metres from us, on the right side of the Jeep.

There was theatrically-hushed chaos as everybody tried to get their cameras ready asap; but surprisingly the leopard didn’t budge. And for about five minutes more, he sat up statuesquely, yawned, showed off both profiles, and then wandered round the front of the vehicle and, crossing the sandy road, lay down and rolled around a bit for all our benefits. Amidst all this, my father-out-law (a keen and capable photographer) and I were snapping away furiously on both of his two ‘proper’ cameras, except that one apparently had the wrong type of lens on, so every half-dozen shots or so we’d swap, to make sure we’d got all the bases covered. And then we drove back to their house in Colombo, feeling very pleased with ourselves, and all the image files went onto an external hard drive, and the next time I saw that leopard it was printed and framed and quite literally had my father-in-law’s name on it. (Perhaps he knew one day I’d try to claim it in the papers.)

And so that photograph was got – only possibly, allegedly, not by me. Still, it doesn’t do to take these things too seriously: so above is the picture of Panthera pardus kotiya, in Wilpattu, as taken by the late Gamini Molligoda, 1942–2018.

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