Friday, 15 July 2011
There's been a lot in the news recently about News International journalists bribing corrupt police officers to provide information.
I don't suppose it was exactly bribery but I was once involved in acquiring information from a police officer for a newspaper article.
Back in the mid '80s, I was a fully paid up member of the NUJ (the British Journalist's Union) and I was working regularly for the Sunday Telegraph. I got commissioned to go to Edinburgh to work on a story about the huge number of heroin addicts they had in the city and the way that this was contributing to the AIDS epidemic.
The plan was for me to photograph prostitutes, junkies in 'shooting galleries' and some of the doctors, research scientists and health workers that were struggling to cope with the situation.
On being briefed, my first question was "how exactly are we going find the prostitutes?"
My second question most probably would have been "and how are we going to avoid getting arrested?"
I didn't get around to the second question because of the answer to the first. We were going to be shown around town and introduced to various individuals by a senior policeman. A Superintendent or Chief Superintendent if I recall correctly. But it may be better if I'm not too specific anyway.
The journalist and I went up to Edinburgh with a big wad of cash, which we knew would all have to be strictly accounted for.
But this is the interesting, or at least relevant, bit. We were told that under no account would the policeman himself be able to accept any money for helping us, least it be construed as a form of bribery.
This struck me as odd, since he would not have been doing anything illegal for us but simply introducing us to people which we could probably find ourselves, given enough time. Who knows, bearing in mind the way many heroin addicts finance their habit, maybe they would have found us first.
But, we were advised that it might be just about acceptable to buy the police officer a bottle of whisky, as a token of our appreciation for his help.
Which we did.
On meeting him, in his office, he was very much a Central Casting version of a policeman who really could have stepped right out of an episode of Taggart. He was big, world weary and very plain speaking. We'd only been with the guy for four or five minutes before he declared that my kind "made him sick". In those days I was a Labour Party activist and I may have had a slightly negative view of the police in general (so he probably had a point).
Nevertheless, despite his view of me, I immediately took a shine to the guy. He was sharp, very amusing and, as far as I could tell, sincerely seemed to care about the job he was doing.
I assumed he'd keep the bottle of whisky for Christmas or at least when he was off duty.
How little I knew.
As soon as he got it, he opened it and fetched three glasses.
I had a decent three fingers of it myself as did the journalist I was with. The policeman drank almost all the rest and after about 40 minutes, when we left his office, there was only about two inches of it left in the bottle.
He then took us out for tour around Edinburgh's main vice district, with him driving.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the streets were fairly deserted. It was at a time when the pubs were still not allowed to open on Sunday afternoons. We parked outside one pub that had absolutely no sign of any life. The policeman walked over and knocked twice on one of the window shutters, the door opened and we were admitted to a loud, brightly lit pub full of drinkers. Inside it was just like it was a Friday or Saturday evening. We bought some drinks and sat at a table in a corner. No one seemed to bat an eyelid at our presence. One by one, people came over to greet the policeman and have a brief chat. Everyone there seemed to know him and he confided to us that, at one time or another, he'd "put away" most them. Nevertheless, they all seemed pretty friendly.
Later on, after a few calls had been made and some appointments fixed, we left the pub and drove over to meet a prostitute in a dingy flat on a nearby council estate. The room she lived and worked in contained virtually nothing, save a mattress and bedding on the floor. There was no actual bed. She had a radio, a fan heater, some cigarettes, a mug and a paperback book. And that was just about it.
She looked absolutely nothing like any fictional depiction of a prostitute like, say, the one in Pretty Woman. Without wishing to appear in any way ungallant, this woman was not pretty. She was short, dowdy and rather plump. Instead of the fictional high heels, suspenders and stockings, she wore only a large, baggy shirt.
She seemed unhappy, undoubtedly with very good reason. In another room was a baby, about nine months old, in a cot. We were told before we arrived that they both had AIDS. The baby seemed content enough and looked exactly like any other nine month old baby.
It was all desperately sad. I can't even type these words twenty five years later without it bringing a tear to my eye. No one should really have to live a life like that.
Afterwards, we drove back to the policeman's beautiful flat in a much nicer part of town and spent the evening talking and drinking. At no point, during the time we were with him, did the policeman appear at all the worse for drink. I'm afraid I can't say the same for the journalist or myself. I woke up the next day with the most monumental hangover.
Over the next couple of days, I met up with several groups of heroin addicts. They all seemed to me like fairly normal, happy teenage boys and young men. In chatting to them they all came across as intelligent and articulate. They claimed to know about the risks they were taking but gave the impression of being totally resigned to what might not be a particularly long or fruitful life. They didn't have to share their needles, they just didn't seem to care much either way. I'm no psychologist but it appeared like they didn't think they had very much to live for anyway.
Since I did this particular assignment a quarter of a century ago, I'd never really looked back through the prints or negatives again, until a few days ago.
I didn't mind doing that kind of work. I've shot other depressing subjects, like the homeless or parents of murdered children for instance (for Time Out) and I was happy to do those kind of jobs because I felt it was somehow worthwhile.
But I'd be lying if I said that I was always as keen to photograph subjects like that as I was to work with actors and pop stars. And I suppose it's true to say that my photographic priorities were probably not always what they should have been. To shoot star portraits, which are basically just a small part of a PR campaign for a film or a record, is not in any way important or life changing. It’s sometimes useful to remember that.
Having spent the better part of the last 30 years engaged in exactly that kind of photography, it's probably something I ought not to dwell on.