‘Kicking Against The Pricks’: photographing Nick Cave

I was so pleased that Nick Cave allowed photographers in the pit for one song only. A practice that, had it been another artist and had I been given a photo-pass, I would have probably been annoyed at, truth be told. Of course, how are we supposed to do our job in six minutes? But what kind of job is this anyway?

Not having a photo-pass at Beauregard festival was an eye opener. I saw pro’ photographers photographing bands without consideration for those who had paid for their ticket and came to enjoy live music. Standing on the security barrier, their sweaty backs, lined up, formed a wall which blocked our view. They jumped on the barrier, pushed our bags, photographed us like animals in a zoo, as if, empowered with their press pass, they were superior to us. At some point I tapped on a shoulder armed with an expensive camera and lens, and said: ‘don’t you realise that you’re in the way?’, to which I was given a: ‘Nah! … only for a song anyway’. He knew as well as I did that this was a lie. The arrogance of pro’ photographers was getting on my nerves and all we could do was wait until they’d gone. Photographers took photographs, but in so doing they also took our views and a bit of our ability to enjoy the music.

As Nick Cave was waving good-bye to the photographers, at last we were able to enjoy the concert fully and take a few photographs ourselves. I’m saying ‘we’, as I’m including the group of fans around me. We had been waiting for over an hour and talking about our favourite bands. So when Cave was to the left of the stage and the person to my right wanted to take some photos with her camera, I ensured she had enough space to do this and moved back myself. We shared the moments, allowing each other to take a few photographs. We didn’t know each other, and we’ll probably never see each other again, but during that one hour we looked out for each other, ensuring we would enjoy the show the best we could. This means that I missed a few photo opportunities. But so what? To me, enjoying the concert with like-minded fans was more rewarding than taking a few more photographs.

Not having a photo-pass has many drawbacks when you want to take photographs. First of all, you have to smuggle your camera in and take the risk that, should you be found out, it may be taken away from you. Given that security had to check around 50,000 bags, I banked on them being more preoccupied with glass, sharp objects and alcohol being smuggled in rather than a DSLR camera. This meant that I was limited in the choice of equipment. I opted for a 105mm lens: a modest zoom that fitted in my small rucksack – because the smaller the less conspicuous.

If you want a good spot just by the front of the stage, you have to plan your moves in advance. I strategically placed myself to the right of the stage three hours before Nick Cave was due to come onstage. I looked out for a space, and came closer and closer at each opportunity that arose. And when I finally found that perfect spot, I hoped that my rationing of water would pay off and that I wouldn’t need the loos! So while pro’ photographers were most likely enjoying cool refreshments in their VIP tent, I was hoping that my urethra could hang in there for a couple more hours.

The other drawback I can think of is that once you have that perfect spot, you stay where you are. This means that unlike photographers in the pit, you cannot move from one end of the stage to the other to take photos from different angles. You stay put – no room to manoeuvre – you’ll take photographs from that spot until the end of the concert. So I had to rely on Nick Cave to do all the work. And he did – superbly! He even took my hand and sang to me for a few seconds. My husband immortalised the moment: Nick Cave’s hand holding mine. He also took a photograph of Nick Cave’s shoe. These two photos have been much talked about in our circle of family members and friends – more than my own photos! These two photos are typical snapshots. To me they act as a reminder of these pride-filled moments in a fan’s life, just like a typical family snapshot, which ‘captures a piece of experienced reality, a slice of time and possesses it forever’, so that we can ‘retrieve it and re-experience it at any time’ (Chalfen, 1987: 136).

The leather-sole shoe points to the precarious situation in which Cave put himself when he jumped on the barrier, relying solely on the strength of my hand and his inner balance to remain standing. ‘The slice of time’, those few seconds where I was fortunate to make physical contact with one of my favourite artists, is encapsulated in those two images. Yet, they mean little to those who were not there, those who do not know me or those who are not engrossed in the music of Nick Cave.

I look at the photographs of Nick Cave that I took and I don’t get the same sense of immediate closeness as with the ones my husband took. Perhaps this is due to the actual physical distance: Cave could not have been any closer to us when he took those photographs. My photos, on the other hand, show Cave onstage, probably eight to ten metres away from where we were.

It would be presumptuous on my part to believe that I could capture the man onstage and the persona in one photograph or two. I can only hope to seize a minutiae of the persona, a tiny fragment of the emotion and performance he gave to his audience. Each fan, like me, will hold a tiny piece of the live and lived experience in their camera, whether SLR, compact or phone. Every image will have a story behind it and a life of its own – that of the fan’s. His songs are part of what I am today, his music having an impact on me since the late 1980s. For example, I cannot listen to the song ‘Oh Lord’ without thinking of my brother who took a walk and came back in a hearse three weeks later.

‘Oh I hate them all for what they went and done to you. Oh Lord. Oh my Lord’ 

(Cave, 2001)

While we, fans, may be, consciously or not, trying to emulate famous photographs of our favourite artists, we should look at our photographs for what they are: ‘packaged nostalgia’ (Chalfen, 1987: 136). Because what matters to me is the impact Cave had on me, and those around me during his concert – how his performance moved me. Our snapshots, however poor technically, capture that moment we shared among fans. We see in these snapshots what we want to see, but we also see in them what is not in the image because we see in them the memories we want to remember, and not necessarily what the camera actually recorded. It is the collective volume and diversity of our photographs that could only attempt to recreate the live and lived experience.

My photos and all the photos I have seen of Cave performing at Beauregard can only betray the performance because they show what we didn’t see and they don’t show what we felt. We didn’t see the facial features so close, the wrinkles and the sweat, and most of my photos show these, yet I cannot see the raw energy and superb performance in them – only a glimpse, but not the complete picture.

My favourite photograph is the one where my camera catches Cave resting for a few seconds between two songs. It is not in focus but it is this photo, where the artist is catching his breath that reminds me of the authenticity of the performance. There is no movement in this photograph – there is no movement in my photography in general anyway. This photo shows Cave still, and it is perhaps the lack of focus as well as his posture that make me believe that I might have perhaps photographed Mr Cave himself, rather than the persona or the performer.

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My photos are a representation of what was unfolding before our eyes, an interpretation of the performance, but not the performance itself. What happened between Cave and his fans during that one hour I could not have framed in a 2D image, and by the looks of it, photographers who had a photo-pass did not manage this either.

If, according to Chalfen (1987: 136), the main function of our shots is to remind us of the moment to relive it, then why are my photographs of value to fans who didn’t make it to the festival? I have shown my photos to two Nick Cave fans who didn’t go to the festival. Both commented separately: ‘great photos, great man’. Both have seen Cave perform several times, and my photos were enough of a prompt for them to relate to the artist once again, to fill in their own fan’s stories. My photos offered them a glimpse of what awaits them when they next see Nick Cave live or perhaps a nostalgic reminder of how they remember Cave from the last time they saw him in concert.

I hope that my photos will please fans, those who have attended the festival and those who could not. I think for me, it’s more about the thrill of taking photographs and hoping that I’ll get a few decent shots. I hope but invariably get disappointed when I look at them in the quietness of the morning after. One week has now passed since the festival. Looking at my own photos now, I find them banal. I cannot reconcile the immense pleasure of seeing a charismatic Nick Cave and some of the platitude and ugliness that came out of my camera. I took 431 shots in one hour, and I have published 13 images. Of course, I know that it is the photographer with low self-esteem talking here, and I can only hope that the fan will look at these in the future ‘with the intoxicating sweet melancholy of past times’ (Giordano, 2013), just like my two friends have.  The photographer gets fixated on the empirical truth present, or not, in the images, while the fan welcomes the medium for its hermeneutic and dialogical functions. In other words, the fan can look at my images, interpret them according to their relationship (often imaginary) with their object of fandom. From there, the imagination of the fan fills in the blanks, in and between my images (cf. ‘Fan text’ by Sandvoss 2005).

This is how I believe that images of bands and artists have a life of their own: through the eyes and imagination of their fans.

I held Nick Cave’s hand while holding my camera with my other hand; without it something would have been missing – badly missing. For me, I cannot conceive of being at a concert without my camera. It’s a habit I have indulged in for over twenty years. Like all habits, it’s one difficult to kick. This brings me back to my previous question: What kind of job is this?

I cannot answer for professional photographers, but for me, I see my job as sharing with like-minded fans some special moments, through images that are clear enough but not overpowering in photographic style – with my poor technique strangely helping here. What I believe makes my images worthy is not the actions (the intentions) leading to the photographic event – these are a necessity. Anything prior to the photographic event is rather utilitarian in nature and frustrating: requesting a photo-pass, chasing up PR companies, record companies, tour managers, talking to venue staff who can’t even be bothered listening to me… Yes, frustrating. So why do it? First of all, I do this only when strictly obligatory. I know the venues I go to. I know whether I have good chances to smuggle my camera in, or even speak to the band in advance of the concert. Sadly, these venues are fewer and fewer with corporations such as Live Nation and O2 taking over the live music circuit. Luckily, on occasions I can rely on people like me who are passionate about music and work ‘independently’, either as record label or festival owners or live promoters. My ability to take photographs is either negotiated with professional representatives of the music industry or enabled by kind acquaintances. There is simply no other way to take my camera inside a venue.

It is what happens after the photographic event which is fascinating in my mind. It is what happens to the images once they have been published which is of real value to fans. Not only have I no vision as an author (like a true amateur) but I believe my job is not to be a photographic author so that the meaning of the text in my photographs remains polysemous (Bull, 2010: 140); in other words so that other fans can see their own experience and stories in them. The inner voice of the photographer is really that of the fan who wants to record their experiences as a fan with a camera and display these for other fans to look at – to me, a logical extension of the fan/collector. When I select my photos, it is the fan who does this. It is the fan who gets attracted to such and such emotion or posture in an image, not the photographer in me. Sometimes, it happens that the image has photographic quality as well, but I see this at a later stage. Sometimes it is the photographic quality that brings to the fore a particular emotion that the fan has noticed. But often it could simply be a shadow, a gesture, or a gaze that sparkles my imagination, the imagination of the fan.

To view the photographs I took of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Beauregard Festival, click here

REFERENCES

Bull, S. (2010), Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Chalfen, R. (1987), Snapshot: versions of life. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Sandvoss, C. (2005), Fans: the mirror of consumption. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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