Things I learned being a real photographer for a week

Story-making and picture-taking on an Instagram assignment

At Manchester’s velodrome I asked this guy for a picture because I liked his t-shirt. Turns out he lives nearby and has been riding the track ever since it was first built for the Commonwealth Games in 2002. You don’t find out if you don’t ask.

I’m trying to dip my toe into a few more creative side projects this year, so when I had the opportunity to take over Manchester City Council’s Instagram account a few weeks ago, I jumped at it. It’s not got the world’s biggest following, but it’s a lot bigger than mine.

The City Council periodically lets local Instagrammers take over its account for a week to pursue a given theme. I pitched the idea of exploring some of the city’s sports venues — and the people who frequent them. The idea was to approach my takeover week as a series of mini assignments. So I arranged to visit five venues across the city — the National Cycling Centre, Manchester Climbing Centre, Manchester City Football Club, Champs Camp boxing gym, and the National Speedway Stadium. I hoped I’d find enough interesting material — and be able to do it justice.

Now let’s just be clear. When it comes to photography, I am very much a keen amateur. I have a decent camera, but only half a clue how to use it properly. I just love the idea of using pictures to tell a story.

Here’s what I learned during the course of the week.

1. You just have to ask

I wasn’t really sure how people would respond to me asking to come and take pictures in and around their venues. But I found most people are only too happy to welcome you, show you around, and tell you about what they do. Could I come along to Friday’s speedway meet (without paying for a ticket) and take some pictures? Sure, we’ll get you a press pass. Could I come a little early and see the riders setting up? No problem — there’s free tea and coffee in the pits, and this guy will explain everything you ever wanted to know about speedway. Could I hang out in the centre of the track where the pros take their best shots? Here — borrow this hi-vis bib, and follow that bloke. It’s not just that folks are friendly in Manchester (though they are); it’s more that people respond in proportion to the interest you show. As the week went on I found I got better at knowing which questions would elicit the most interesting responses. ‘What first got you into it?’ ‘What do you like about it?’ ‘Has there ever been a time when…?’ If you’re helping to tell a story about a place / team / sport they love, people are only too happy to share stories.

This speedway fan clearly knew the importance of bagging your seat early and being kitted out right.

2. People want to believe in you

I’ll admit I felt a bit self-conscious calling venues and telling people I was a photographer doing a project for the City Council. I was sure they’d see through me straightaway: ‘You mean, you just take a few Instagram pictures? You don’t actually do this for a day job? Hold on, you’ve never even been trained?’ I also found it a little disconcerting being immediately identified on arrival as The Photographer. Weirdly, rocking up with a half-decent camera and an air of (assumed) confidence seemed to be enough for nobody to question my know-how. On reflection of course, this shouldn’t have been that surprising: in our day-to-day lives we trust all sorts of people solely on the basis of how they look and how they describe themselves. But stepping out of the comforting shadows of amateurism was strangely empowering. After all, if someone else believes you can do something, why shouldn’t it be true — at least for this week? Along with that though, comes a compulsion to raise your game — to prove yourself worthy of the expectations you’ve raised.

3. It’s good to put your work out there

Projects like this are great for people like me who are hesitant about sharing their work. When you’ve got nobody to answer to except yourself, you can make all sorts of excuses about why not to write that story, or post that picture. By agreeing to take on this project I committed to sharing four pictures a day, and there was no way I was going to let anyone down. So I just had to get on with it, and not worry about whether anyone would like them.

Halfway through the week was the assignment I was most looking forward to: visiting a boxing gym in Manchester’s tough Moss Side district. Right from the start though, things didn’t go to plan. Even by checking the screen on the back of the camera I knew that my pictures were coming out badly. I couldn’t work out what was wrong, I couldn’t seem to fix it, and I had nobody to ask. I was The Photographer, remember?

When I got home later and went through my shots, there were indeed many terrible ones that went straight into the bin. But there were also a small handful which, though they weren’t quite the images I had in my mind, did at least seem to have caught something of the atmosphere of the place. I found four that would have to do. Coupled with the captions I wrote, they managed to tell a story. Without the enforced structure of the project, those pictures probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. But looking back, I’m glad I put them out there.

In this photo, the focus should have been on the coach’s face, not the boxers looking at him. But there was something about the picture I still liked enough to include it.

4. My strength is in story-making, not picture-taking. And that’s OK.

My plan was never just to submit a bunch of pictures and hope that they spoke for themselves. I was always going to caption them carefully, and share them in a set order, and try to use them to unfold a story. So I became comfortable with the idea that not every picture had to be exhibition quality, and stand up to expert scrutiny, or be a thing of beauty in and of itself. I embraced the idea that all my pictures worked in conjunction with written copy, much more like an old-fashioned journalistic photo story.

It’s about more than the picture: not a great shot, but the caption helps tell the story

The week confirmed that my main interest is in story-telling, and that photography is a means to do that, rather than an end in itself. The good thing too is that there are very tangible ways to get better at making pictures — taking a course, watching tutorials online, or getting tips from people better than me. I’ll be working on that.

5. Taking pictures is a great way to meet interesting people

By the end of the week I’d met loads of interesting people who I would never normally have come into contact with: the first black goalkeeper to play in the top flight of English football; a former British light-heavyweight boxing champion; a freelance photographer with a passion for ice speedway; even a man wrongly accused of multiple murder. As an introvert, I don’t find it easy to make small talk with people I’ve never met before, but being The Photographer gave me a reason for being there, and a license to ask questions that cut straight to the interesting stuff. It sounds simple, but you never know who you might meet, or what their story might be, unless you go and say hello.

6. It’s not about the likes

Before I started this project, I’d pored over the work of previous takeover photographers, and seen the kind of responses they’d got on Instagram. I hoped to do better, and to increase my followers over the course of the week.

But I soon realised this wasn’t going to happen. My pictures got very modest numbers of likes, and I didn’t pick up that many followers. Far from being deflated though, I found myself surprisingly un-bothered. Anyone who’s spent a lot of time on Instagram has a pretty good idea of the kinds of shots which attract easy likes. But I found that I really wasn’t that interested in the numbers. I certainly answered questions and comments, and appreciated feedback, but I didn’t feel I was letting anyone down by not breaking any engagement records. I was challenged enough, and interested enough, to stick with the story-based approach — and the feedback I got from the City Council supported that. And there’s no harm in taking a different tack.

The turf at the Etihad Stadium gets some TLC from Head Groundsman (and lifelong Manchester City fan) Lee Jackson.

Looking back, my takeover week was a brilliant experience: a steep learning curve, a chance to explore new places and people, to test an approach, to see what skills I need to improve. It also sparked a lot of new ideas I’d like to turn into further side projects at some point. It was fun to play at being a real photographer, because sometimes it’s only by jumping in and playing a role that you find out what it’s actually all about, and which bits you enjoy. And at the same time, of course, a ‘real’ photographer is just any photographer who’s trying to take a decent picture and tell a good story.

Thank you to everyone I met during the week, and to Manchester City Council and the @igersmcr group for making it happen.

You can see the rest of the pictures I took during my takeover week on Manchester City Council’s Instagram feed, or mine (between 10th–14th October 2016).