My Blog by tag: Alex Thompson

Survivors

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One of my most interesting and exciting recent commissions  has been this project for Survitec, a global leader in survival and safety equipment.

Survitec’s origins lie in the formation in 1920 by Reginald Foster Dagnall of RFD. RFD was a manufacturer of life rafts and dinghies which later combined with the Beaufort company, founded in 1852, manufacturer of the first lifejackets and the “Mae West” life preserver used during World War II. The Survitec group has subsequently grown through the acquisition of other leading manufacturers and brands specialising in the fields of marine safety and protection and survival equipment generally.Products range from Marine lifesaving equipment through bullet proof vests to flight suits.

The Survitec Group has been going through a period of rapid expansion and growth culminating in the establishment of a new head office in the City of London.

My long term friend and client Carl Leek of 22 Creative had been tasked with a brief to design a graphic display for the new boardroom which would somehow illustrate the company’s proud history and dedication to saving lives. Carl’s idea was to create an exhibition of portraits of individuals who owed their lives to the safety equipment that the company produces but also to show how they had gone on to live their lives afterwards.

The company holds a database of such individuals and the stories behind their experiences were fascinating.

I was given a list of 7 individuals who had expressed a willingness to take part in the project. Five of these were living in the UK plus one in Canada and one in the USA.

Our first subject was to be yatchsman Alex Thompson , the youngest skipper ever to win a round the world yacht race and recently, despite his boat being severely damaged, finished second in the prestigious Vandée Globe. Alex, who is sponsored by Hugo Boss, is a celebrity within the yatchting fraternity and was making various appearances at the Southampton Boat Show but allowed us a short time slot for our shoot. We were grateful to Ancasta International Boat Sales who provided a Beneteau Catamaran for our exclusive use.

Alex was really keen that we captured the perfect image but was obviously busy and keen to move on so I had to work quickly and my challenge was to use the boat as a background for the portrait in a dynamic and exciting way. I found myself scrambling across the decks and clinging perilously to the superstructure to get the best angles.

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Following on from Alex we were to meet four more UK based survivors from a military background

In Lincolnshire we met Art Stacey. Art, now retired, had been a pilot flying a reconnaissance mission in an RAF Nimrod when an engine caught fire. The fire began to burn through the wing spar leaving Art with no choice but to ditch the aircraft in the sea. With tremendous skill Art managed to land the aircraft on its belly miraculously keeping the fuselage intact allowing the crew to safely escape into their life rafts and await rescue. During the fraught and tense minutes leading to the landing Art was thinking about his daughter’s wedding in 10 weeks time, would he be there, who would give her away if he wasn’t ?

Thanks to inspired decision making, superb piloting skill, a Survitech life raft and a Sea King Rescue helicopter, Art was at the wedding.

When we met Art we already had the idea of using the church where the wedding took place as a backdrop. I wanted to try and create, in the imagination of the viewer, an image of the wedding party entering the Church behind him.

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The blazer and Goldfish Club tie were Art’s idea. The Goldfish Club is a worldwide association of members who keep alive the spirit of comradeship from the mutual experience of surviving “coming down in the drink”. They hold regular meetings and many of their members survived through World War II.

Nearly 400 miles away at the huge RNAS base at Culdrose near Penzance we met another Goldfish club member, Jason Phillips. Jason had been one of the crew of a naval Sea King helicopter searching for sunken wreckage when a hydraulic fault caused a fire, Jason attempted to put out the fire but was unsuccessful and the pilot decided to ditch the aircraft. On hitting the water and in order to extinguish the flames, the pilot rolled the aircraft under the sea and the crew were trapped inside. Jason along with his bulky survival equipment managed to squeeze through a tiny hatch and escape, thankfully,  to be reunited with the other crew members who had also escaped and who were already on the surface.

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Jason’s portrait was the one where I felt really in control, the camera mounted on a tripod with a prime lens, all perfectly considered.

Jason is still in the Navy and he and his wife have had three more children since. Not officially a councillor but scores of airmen have been to see him to talk through their own experiences as survivors of incidents or as student pilots.

To become a fast jet pilot is the dream of many recruits but only a tiny percentage make it through. Simon Greenhalgh is one such individual. On a training mission flying an RAF Tornado, a fault caused an engine fire which threatened to engulf the entire aircraft.  Simon’s only option was to abandon the £40 million jet and eject into the freezing cold North Sea. Six weeks after the rescue and of course partially due to the quality of his survival equipment, Simon was flying again and now trains pilots at RAF Valley on Angelsey North Wales.

I had in my head an idea of somehow using a reflection in a window showing what Simon has gone on to achieve. I’m really pleased with how this shot came together, Simon observing from the control tower, two trainee pilots walking out to their fuelled and waiting Hawk trainers.

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We met John Peters at Welbeck College, an Army sixth form college where John was to address an audience of potential recruits. John presented the shocking story of how he and his navigator were discovered by the Iraqi army after they baled out in the desert, beaten and tortured and held in the most appalling conditions and then forced to appear on Iraqi TV in front of a global audience. I really enjoyed meeting John and found his account fascinating and inspiring. I was grateful to him for his patience as I struggled to get the perfect balance between my Speedlight and his projected image of the iconic Iraqi TV picture that defined the Gulf war. John now works as a motivational speaker and management consultant and was the sole reader representing the British Armed Forces at the National Gulf Memorial Service, in front of Her Majesty, The Queen.

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In September 2009 16 year old Lauren Unsworth was due to embark on a huge adventure, to spend a whole year aboard a Tall Ship. When the ship departed from the port of Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, Lauren was unaware that nearly six months into the journey, off the coast of Brazil, a freak weather event would capsize the craft throwing herself and 47 other students into the sea.
Luckily four life rafts were easily accessible and able to be inflated automatically. Lauren, the crew and her friends were all able to safely clamber aboard the rafts. The Tall Ship Concordia sank minutes later, everyone survived but it took a further two days before a rescue aircraft spotted them and shipping in the area was alerted to pick them up.
We arranged to meet Lauren at Lunenberg for our portrait session. Lunenberg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a very picturesque waterfront with distinctive colourful clapboard buildings and narrow streets. There was luckily one remaining Tall Ship in the harbour as the season closed and with its distinctive masts and rigging it seemed the perfect backdrop for our portrait. Lauren has not been discouraged by her experience and has been to sea again. She intends to pass on her knowledge by working with groups of troubled teens, teaching them teamwork and self respect through fun, hard work and discipline.

Our final subject for this series was to be Steven Callahan, author of the book “Adrift”. In this fascinating book Steven recounts the story of how, sailing single handedly across the Atlantic, his boat was wrecked forcing him to take to his life raft. He only managed to grab a few lifesaving supplies before he was separated from his sinking craft. Then began his perilous 76 days adrift surviving on what barely drinkable water he could save and living off what raw sealife he could catch.

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Carl and I travelled by car through Nova Scotia Canada, a land ruled by our Queen with place names such as Dartmouth, Yarmouth & Truro  to Maine USA, a land of Uncle Sam, Hot Dogs & Coca-Cola. We travelled through some stunning fall scenery and experiencing the polite officiousness of the US Border Service who thankfully waved through our visas.

Steve now resides in Maine USA at a place called Mount Desert near Bangor. He lives in a timber house in the forest built by himself and the style of fixtures and fittings and immaculate standard of finish gives away his background as a boat builder. After a long chat with Steve about his life we were taken on a tour of the house. Upon seeing his office I immediately knew this was where we should do the portrait, natural light flooded through the windows, we were surrounded by neatly arranged photos and memorabila.

I excitedly grabbed my camera and we began to set up the shot.

Steve had  been asked by film Director Ang Lee to act as consultant on a film he was making from the novel “Life of Pi”. Lee had wanted Steve to add authenticity and realism to the script. Steve mapped out wind, wave and sky conditions for each scene helping the technicians to accurately recreate conditions at sea.

In one scene Steve advised on the design of a makeshift raft Pi used to spend time away from his sailing companion. Anyone who has seen the film will know that this was a full size Bengal Tiger.  In our portrait of Steve, the three brushes, alongside some production sketches represent the actual raft that Steve designed, and alongside this is a copy of the book.

I would like to thank Carl Leek for having the confidence and belief to commission me for this project and to Gemma Franklin of Survitec for her enthusiasm in making the idea a reality.