The best photograph I didn’t take

EVERY photographer has a story about a great picture they missed.

Famously 150 photographers had their lenses trained on Charles and Diana on the Buckingham palace balcony but only three got the shot of the half hearted kiss that would define the unhappy Royal’s coming relationship.

Knowing how many pictures I have missed I would say that far from being rare and elusive ‘decisive moments’ happen all the time in different context.

What is rare is for a photographer to be in the right place with the right lens and the presence of vision to capture that moment.

I was in Basra, Iraq, 2003 the day after Saddam’s soldiers fled the city when I came so close to taking my ‘best picture’.

The mood in the city was joyful, it’s too simplistic to say that the mainly Shia Iraqi’s had been liberated, but there was certainly a mood in the air that with the Ba’athists gone life would get better.

It has been well documented how brutally Saddam treated Iraqi’s in the south, in Basra most Shia were excluded from public hospitals, schools and government jobs.

With their oppressors gone the Basrans were quick to show the media the government buildings where dissenters were tortured and worse.

As the city adjusted to this momentous change small groups of British soldiers patrolled with the intention of maintaining some law and order.

I was with a small group of embedded media, Bill Neely from ITN, Terry Richards from the Sun, and Richard Edwards my colleague from the WDP when we chanced across Samantha Sheppard from the 2nd light tank regiment.

Clearly a female, blonde, British soldier was quite a thing to see in the Middle East so we hung around for a bit to get some pictures and ask some questions.

Then, from the corner of my eye I saw an Iraqi man running towards our group, he was holding a flower, it didn’t take a genius to see that a decisive moment was about to happen.

I had no more than a couple of seconds to run a circle around our group to get in the right place to get the shot, no time to change lens or settings on my Nikon D2h.

Sure enough the man presented the small pink flower to Samantha.

Who knows where in the rubbish strewn, dusty, poverty stricken town the man found the flower, but it was a lovely moment, a human moment and I had a single sharp frame.

So what’s the problem then? Well I look at the picture and all I can see is Terry Richards the Sun photographer stood in the background.

Terry had endured some awful conditions on his tour of Iraq and took some amazing pictures but he hadn’t spotted this one.

If I had had the presence of mind to move Terry as I moved myself he wouldn’t have been in my background and wouldn’t have ruined my shot.

My picture still got used, and used well, it is still a good shot but in my humble opinion seeing another photographer somehow suggests it wasn’t as spontaneous a moment as it actually was.

In the way that theatrical actors must not break the fourth wall, news pictures often carry their message most powerfully when they don’t distract the viewer into thinking about how the picture was taken.

It doesn’t really matter that I didn’t get my best picture, it does matter that the British and American governments did so little planning for a post-Saddam Iraq, that the hope we saw in those early days descended into crime, fear and yet more poverty.

But, great news photography teaches use who we are, that is the responsibility of the news photographer, and that day, I know, I didn’t get it quite right.