It’s been quite a while since I was in London during the whole of March. Being here reminds me that the month has a certain optimistic countenance that January and February can never aspire to. The sight of fresh blossom and daffodils in the parks and avenues heralds the expectation of new beginnings and the anticipation of warmer gentler temperatures. Traditionally, it is a time for celebration and festivity.
Last year, at this time, I was in India where the subtle changes in seasons are more difficult to measure. I was at the super charged Sikh festival of Hola Mohala in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab amidst crowds that swell into the millions and the celebrations last for four days. It is, like the Hindu festival of Holi, always associated with the coming of Spring. A year on, I am in another place and working at another festival. The contrasts between the two could not be greater but I used the same simple photographic principles I always rely on.
On the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day, London hosts one of the biggest street parties of the year, an extravaganza of all things Irish including, of course, singing, music and dance. It kicks off with a traditional parade of floats draped in all things green, marching bands of drums and pipers and a vast snaking procession of smiling good humour. Once the procession reaches its destination in Whitehall, the crowds make their way to Trafalgar Square to listen to a host of Irish bands which provide some stomping traditional tunes.
Working as a photographer in this sort of lively fun atmosphere is an enjoyable experience because participants expect to be photographed and indeed positively relish the experience. This made negotiating the large crowds, the officious security personnel, the poor weather and the low light a whole lot easier. For me though, the biggest challenge at these festivals, whether in India or elsewhere, is not so much overcoming the practical obstacles you always encounter, but finding, then photographing, the rare unregimented moments that help to produce fresh and impactful images. We are all so over familiar with pictures of colourful carnival creations trundling passed in the street or the outlandishly dressed characters that pop up on these occasions that they have lost all the elements of surprise. Part of the responsibility of the photographer is surely to interpret the familiar in a fresh way and convert that viewpoint to the finished image. I always look out for the unusual so I tend, at some stage during an event, to gravitate towards the fringes away from the core activity. It is often at these places I will find what I am looking for.
This is exactly what I did when I reached the starting point of the Irish parade. I was early and so I wandered in and out of the assembled masses and away from the expectant crowds lining up on the pavement. Up a narrow side street just off Piccadilly I found, slightly incongruously, the Thomas McDonagh Pipe Band from Tipperary, in all their uniform finery, warming up for the big occasion. I love the sound of massed pipes and drums and in the confined space of a London street they struck a sonorous heart swelling note. For a few minutes it was virtually just me and the band as they played and sheltered from the lightly falling rain. Here, right then I found a moment.
The organised concert, after the parade in Trafalgar Square, did not provide for such a moment but it wasn’t meant to and nor did it matter. Irish musicians have a raw passion for their music and they play like it really matters. Here the challenge was to capture that emotion as they played on stage in front of thousands of people.