As a very young photographer working on London’s Fleet Street in the 60s, I was lucky enough to be engaged as a retained freelancer to United Press International. It was at a time when colour supplements were burgeoning and because I had more experience shooting colour than the staffers, I began to pull regular feature assignments targeted to this new market.
Charlie Cowan, UPI’s features editor was a hard task master. No matter what you laid out on the light-box, he always seemed to be able to find some gap in your picture story; something you hadn’t thought to photograph. His eye and his judgment were superb and I made it a personal challenge to produce stories that he could not find fault with. It would be the rare occasion when he was totally satisfied. I was very lucky to have Charlie as my mentor.
After one story briefing, just as I was about to set out on the shoot, he called from his office, “…and don’t forget to photograph their hands!” Sometimes, when I threw a set of pictures up on the light-box, Charlie would say “but, you didn’t photograph their hands!”. He drummed this mantra into me until it became second nature for me to include a picture of someone’s hands.
He was right, of course. You can tell a lot about someone from their hands…and a picture of hands is always a useful image for a layout artist to break the visual rhythm of a story about a person, while still adding information about the subject.
A few weeks ago, it was with Charlie’s mantra still echoing in my ears, that after photographing Scots-born, ship’s engineer, George Currie for my documentation of work (This Working Life), I went back to photograph his work-worn hands against the background of his welding scorched sweater. I told him the story of Charlie Cowan and his advice to me as a young photographer. As I finished my explanation, George pushed up his sleeves, saying in his broad accent, “This’ud be whut ye want, then.”