Shot! Brighton Pride Festival 2016

Hotter than hell! The biggest and best Pride yet

Since it started in 1992, Brighton Pride has got bigger and bigger every year. Today, it’s still the biggest Pride event held in the UK and this year it’s said to have attracted around 300,000 visitors to Brighton, the most I believe the city has ever seen, for any event. That’s big!

If that figure is to be believed (and as it came from the Brighton Argus, one has to be a little dubious about its accuracy), it’s almost twice the number who came in 2014. It helped of course that the weather was hot and sunny, but it’s even more impressive considering Southern Rail had advised people not to travel by train due to its ongoing dispute with the rail unions.

It may be big, but many remain unclear as to what exactly Pride is. Still best known for its parade which travels from Hove, along the seafront and through the streets of Brighton, Pride actually consists of a number of different events, everything from a dog show to various street parties. That means everyone’s Pride experience going to be different. For me, the biggest draw has always been the Pride Festival that takes place on Saturday afternoon and evening at Preston Park. Unlike the parade, it’s a ticketed event and one I’ve covered two, maybe three time in the past. I missed it last year, so I was pleased to be back this time.

With so much happening on one day, it’s impossible to even attempt to cover everything that takes place, so rather than shoot the parade, I headed straight to Preston Park. The reality is, with so many crowding the pavements, it’s hard to come away with shots of the parade that are much better than anybody else could get with their iPhone. And anyway, my interest was the festival. And that’s a good description of what it is. Indeed, it’s quite similar in layout to Love Supreme, with a main stage and several huge tents, a number of massive fairground rides and a raft of catering outlets.

Of course the big difference between this and other festivals is the audience and their exuberance. According to the Argus, there were 52,000 wristband holders in the park, including Brighton’s biggest YouTubers Zoella and Alfie. I can’t vouch for the number, but as far as I could see, they were a lot less extravagant than previous years. It is of course, much more difficult to shock people these days, although seeing two young girls walking around topless got my attention, as well as that of many others!

Whilst I was there primarily for the music, another big attraction for me at Pride is shooting the drag queens in the Legends cabaret tent. Unfortunately, you can’t be in two places at the same time and as most of the artists on the main stage played really short sets, moving between the two areas really wasn’t viable. I did manage to get some great portraits of three or four queens and have posted those images in a separate edition of Shot!

Since I last was at Pride in 2014, the main stage has moved to the opposite end of the park and whilst I may be mistaken, it did look bigger than past years. The line-up was also bigger, although arguably more in the number of artists than in their calibre. These days the reality is Pride shows, which are now a regular occurrence across the country and around the world, attract a certain type of act. Generally they fall into one of two camps, young, up ‘n’ coming artists mainly drawn from TV talent shows, and veteran names reviving past glories. This year it was the turn of Sister Sledge to headline the event.

Now it’s debatable just how big a name Sister Sledge are. Whilst most will know their biggest hits — We Are Family, Lost In Music and He’s The Greatest Dancer— I doubt many would recognise any of the sisters if they passed them on the street. That said, there is a huge boom in nostalgia acts right now, so the organisers probably got that decision right.

One of the downsides of shooting festivals is most of the acts are onstage during daylight. That means although they still use lights, they don’t really have much of an effect on the performers. As a result, the photographs are less dramatic than they would be under lighting. The upside however, is there’s a better chance of getting good shots. Usually at gigs, you’re only allowed to shoot the first three songs from the pit, but at Pride we were able to shoot the whole set. In most cases, three or perhaps four songs was the set. With most artists seemingly have around fifteen or twenty minutes stage time, it felt like one of those X Factor tour shows (not of course that I’ve ever been to one!)

The first act I shot was BRIT School alumni Imani Williams. The 16-year-old Londoner had great hair (proper corkscrew curls) and, like all the performers on the main stage, the kind of unbridled enthusiasm one usually only sees on a TV talent show. It means having loads of energy and being able to project it onstage, especially in your facial expressions.

Next for me was Anne-Marie, someone I’d seen before when she sang with Rudimental last year at Wild Life. Again, she was good to shoot, although just like Imani wearing a bikini top meant she looks like she’s just wearing a bra in most of my images.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of her brief set was when, encouraged by the crowd, she chugged much of a big bottle of WKD. A lot of people predict big things for Anne-Marie and whilst she’s certainly a good singer I’m not so sure she possesses sufficient star quality.

One person with no doubt that he has it in abundance is Seann Miley Moore, one of the most memorable contestants from the last series of X Factor and someone many predicted would be the winner. Despite his flamboyance, the genderqueer Australian singer (not my words, but those of The Telegraph) exited the show in controversial circumstances.

A Pride audience was always going to be the perfect platform for him and he didn’t disappoint, entering wrapped in a giant fur coat. That was soon discarded to reveal a very revealing leopardskin number and towering heels. He appeared to have beefed up since leaving X Factor and to be honest he looked more like a drag queen without their wig, than a bona fide pop star. He definitely has a market, but again I can’t see him escaping this kind of camp performance. For Pride though he was the perfect choice and Queen’s The Show Must Go On the ideal song choice for him.

Next on stage was Dua Lipa, perhaps the artist I was most looking forward to seeing. The 20 year-old Londoner, originally from Kosovo had just jetted in from playing festivals in America and was the first artist to bring with her some actual musicians. She was, for me at least, also the first to have some strong songs. I Can Be The One and Hotter Than Hell have been two of my most played tracks this summer and based on those alone, I think she has a big future. She’ll need to work on her stage presence however, because as good as she can sing, she is still somewhat anonymous as a performer. A little more make-up (she was hardly wearing any) and a better choice of outfit, will help. Hotter Than Hell could well of been the anthem for this year’s Pride.

I had hoped to have a chat with Dua Lipa at Pride, but despite all my efforts to arrange an interview through her PR, they never even responded to my emails. That was a shame because I think she’s an interesting artist. Arranging artist interviews is way more difficult getting photo passes, but it’s something I’ll keep pushing for whenever there’s someone I think is worth having a conversation with.

From an artist that most people may not even have heard of, to one that everyone would know: Alesha Dixon. To be honest, I had thought the Britain’s Got Talent judge no longer did gigs, but here the 37-year-old was accompanied by some male dancers. With her hair scraped back and worn in two top knots, she was also sporting a different look, one I’m not sure she carried off. I can’t say I liked her outfit either, cutoff denim dungarees. That said, once again she was really good to shoot.

The first ‘big’ name on the bill was up next, although I’m not convinced Carly Rae Jepsen is the big name she once threatened to be. Curiously, she had significantly more stage time than the previous arts — with 13 songs, it was almost a full set. Of those, only three were what I’d call hits, but each of them were perfect for Pride: Good Time, Really Like You and of course her huge smash, Call Me Maybe. She brought with her a band, the first artist of the day who appeared to be creating all (or at least most of) the sounds live.

One thing that did impress me was that all her band’s instruments were wheeled onstage having already been set up on risers with wheels. That makes for a much speedier changeover, a problem that often besets many festivals, but not Pride.

Like those who preceded her, Carly Rae gave a high energy performance and was arguably the artist who best connected with the crowd, even coming off stage to embrace some of those at the front. I can’t say I cared for her red and silver sequined outfit — I thought it looked a bit pants — but I’m glad she wore it because it photographed brilliantly. Indeed, the 30-year-old Canadian gay rights activist (who incidentally started out by coming third on Canadian Idol) was probably the best artist to shoot as she has such an animated face. With her jet black pixie hair and bright eyes, what’s so interesting about photographing her is quite how different she looks from one image to another.

It was then the turn of Fleur East, another former X Factor contestant— she was runner up last year. Now I’d seen here before at Shakedown a few years ago when she was the featured singer with DJ Fresh, so I knew she was going to be great to shoot. With her huge hair — maybe even out-Ella-ing Ella Eyre for sheer quantity — she not only stood out visually, but she had a big voice as well.

Personally, I thought it was shame she resorted to going on X Factor, but I was pleased she got a big hit out of it — remember, she was the first to release Uptown Funk. Her performance, complete with half a dozen or so female dancers, was pure X Factor, with its dance routines. I think she’s better than this and I’d like to see her break free of the Simon Cowell school of performing. She also needs another hit, as song-wise her set was a lot less memorable than her appearance.

One of the big advantages of being able to shoot the entire set is simply that you can take more pictures. The truth is you may not get too many that are vastly different from each other, but experience teaches you that a great live musician image is ultimately about the artist’s pose (the shapes they throw), what’s happening in the background of the shot (avoiding things like parts of other musicians, bits of instruments and unsightly items like exit signs) and, perhaps most important, their expression. You can take ten shots in quick succession and perhaps only one captures that person perfectly. Conversely, the slightest change in expression, or the way changing light or shadow falls on someone’s face, can ruin an otherwise good photo.

Interestingly, of all the hundreds of shots I took of her, only a handful have her eyes closed. Theses days, so many performers sing with their eyes shut, which in most cases makes for a less than interesting photo. The only downside of shooting Fleur (and Carly Rae) was being hampered in getting to the edge of the stage because of the pyros. For me, getting great stage shots is all about the angles, but the combination of staying clear of the pyros as well as a tracking video camera, meant I couldn’t move about the pit as freely as I’d have liked.

Fleur East was the penultimate act of the night — DJ Fresh was supposed to have been on the bill, but wasn’t listed on the programme and I’ve no idea why he was missing. To be honest, I wasn’t that bothered with the headliners Sister Sledge. Yes, they had a few big hits back in the day and those that Nile Rodgers was involved with still stand up today, but like so many, Southern Rail’s shenanigan’s meant I needed to head back to the station early to stand any chance of getting a train home.

I’m not a great fan of nostalgia acts, artists who only seem to still exist to play songs from the past. Often, they’re sad to look at, sometimes completely unrecognisable from their heyday selves. I’m not disappointed I didn’t catch Sister Sledge, although they were the only artists to benefit from darkness and how that transforms stage lighting. I’ve seen some great shots of them taken looking across the audience and I’ve heard they were really good.

Fortunately for me, I came away with an abundance of great shots and no regrets. This year’s Pride (at least the main stage part of the festival) was a fantastic festival to shoot and the gloriously sunny weather meant it had a great vibe. Musically it certainly was a varied palate of performers, although as I said, this year’s line-up was a little too X-Factor for my taste.

Being that it’s in Brighton, I would’ve thought it needs to be a little more quirkier, a little more out there. Right now it all feels a little too safe, a little too predictable. With so many other festivals taking place throughout the summer, rather than it being an identikit event, it’s important that Brighton Pride focuses on its own identity. That said, you can tell from my images that this year’s performers enjoyed playing as much as the audience enjoyed watching them.

With so many people have such a good time and such good vibes throughout the city, this year’s Pride was a day Brighton should be proud of.

“To me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image.”

Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens. Shot at Preston Park, Brighton on 6 August 2016.

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See ‘Shot! The Drag Queens of Brighton Pride’

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