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Press photographer visits the Gurkhas - James Vellacott went to Nepal with Joanna Lumley to capture some spectacular images of the Gurkha's country.
The Daily Mirror and Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley have been instrumental in fighting for equal rights for the Gurkha soldiers who have been recruited for the British forces. Part of the successful campaign was to allow these Gurkhas to settle in Great Britain after serving in our armed forces - seems fair to me.
|Photo by James Vellacott: Joanna Lumley.|
Joanna and her lawyers had invited the Daily Mirror to accompany them to visit Nepal after their success in the High Court. What we were not expecting is that word had got back to Nepal and state visit style arrangements were being made.
I was sent the timetable for the trip and traveled with Mirror feature writer Anton Antonowicz to the Capital Kathmandu, we arrived a day early to get set up and check the locations and communications etc.
After a bumpy ride through the bustling streets in what appeared to be two cars welded together, we arrived at the relative comfort of the Hyatt hotel. Proclaiming to have a wireless Internet connection I sent my usual test photograph of a palm-treed Mallorcan beach scene to the Mirror picture desk. The wifi seemed to work well, I had brought a Bgan satellite phone with me as a back up, the power in Kathmandu was well known to be intermittent.
Three other British newspapers also arrived a day early. We all arranged to meet at what would be Joanna Lumley's hotel for a meal and a chat about what we all needed from the trip. On assignments like this there are rarely any exclusive angles to be achieved and it is good to be organised so you keep ahead of the Nepal based news agencies and local media.
|Photo by James Vellacott: Joanna Lumley arriving in Nepal.
The next day we went up to Kathmandu airport to cover the arrival of Joanna Lumley. There were huge crowds of Nepalese, holding banners proclaiming ‘Goddess Joanna.' There were fifty or so local news crews, photographers and journalists all trying to get a position at the arrival door.
Knowing from experience that the current situation had the potential to get out of hand, I spent sometime explaining via our interpreter to the local police and airport security that the arrival pictures needed to be shot airside from a sectioned off area for all media. The security chief explained that he was in charge and there would be no problem as his officers would be controlling the media and the crowds.
|Photo by James Vellacott: Joanna Lumley.
||Photo by James Vellacott: Joanna Lumley in the middle of a happy crowd!
It was about 3pm when Joanna finally came through the arrival doors. I had achieved a position where I could cleanly photograph her arriving on my 70-200mm and expecting the impending scrum, I had also fitted the second Canon body with the 16-35mm. Within 15 seconds of her appearance the first Nepalese photographer ran past the cordon - gloves off time, here we go. The Mirror was expecting a strong arrival image from me and I needed to make sure I was in there. Tossing the 70-200mm over my shoulder I joined the crowd of photographers, cameramen and locals into the affray. It took 25 minutes for Joanna and her companions to cover the 35 meters to their vehicles. The police and security were completely overrun by the crowds and it was down to the party to fight their own way through. I decided to move ahead of them and wait for them to reach me. Many of my images had to be captured by holding the camera above the cliché photographer’s pose. For this, you need to pre-focus and preset the exposure then try to aim the camera as accurately as possible. Believe me, it’s not always as easy as it looks on TV.
|Photo by James Vellacott: The banners and people waiting for Joanna Lumley to arrive.
After being forced to one side I had to get ahead again and go through the same procedure again and again to get as much material as possible. This is not our preferred way to operate but unfortunately necessary in this situation. Despite the melee, Joanna held herself with such dignity as she donned more and more scarves and garlands. In every frame she was smiling and seemingly overcome by the “warm welcome” as she put it.
| Photo by James Vellacott: Joanna Lumley
We were beckoned inside to the PM’s office to be met by a wall of media who all bundled forward as she met Prime Minister Madhav Kumar. I looked at my British colleagues, we were all thinking the same thing. We walked out of the office leaving the PM’s flustered security team forcing a table into the local media to hold them back. The handshaking picture though momentous, would not make an amazing image for the papers and I was happy to leave it.
For the next few days Joanna was to travel around Nepal to meet outlying Gurkha communities. The media had settled down a bit and there were some lovely images to capture. Reporter, Anton and myself had achieved three good-sized articles in the Daily Mirror but the story was becoming a little old now. To keep it publishing we decided to move away from Joanna Lumley and look for something different. I had traveled to Nepal on a Gurkha story 10 years ago and was staying in Pokhara, a large town half an hour’s flight from Kathmandu. At the time I was told about the Doko run. This is part of the selection process in which a would be Gurkha has to run 3 miles up and down a mountain carrying a basket or doko filled with 26kgs of rocks using a strap around his forehead. We were in Pokhara for the last couple of days of the trip so we spoke to one of the ex-Gurkhas there and asked how often they train for the run. There are about 200 Gurkhas a year selected from 20,000 applicants for the British forces. We were told that there is regular training sessions going on around the hills of Pokhara. Anton and I arranged to accompany a group as they trained for the Doko run. We had to meet training instructor and ex-Gurkha Ramesh Thakali. He took us to the edge of a hill where he regularly trains his applicants.
|Photo by James Vellacott: Applicants wanting to join the Gurkhas carrying 26kgs of rocks.|
I met four lads who all were desperate to join the British Gurkhas. They had their dokos filled with rocks and were ready to run. I had my Think Tank camera back pack filled with 15kgs of kit, and reporter Anton had his pencil. We agreed to go on ahead up the mountain so I could capture the guys as they attempted the run. They did the run a couple of times, which allowed me a few different angles. They were completely unfazed by the monsoon rain, which was causing all sorts of problems with my equipment. Droplets on the lens and eyepiece made focusing difficult and despite…erm, borrowing a towel from the hotel, I had nothing else left to dry the cameras with. Eventually the display screen refused to light up so I carried on shooting as the old days without the luxury of seeing the captured image immediately.
|Photo by James Vellacott: The training continues.
After stopping at a local store on the side of a hill for a quick group shot, I removed the batteries from the sodden cameras to avoid any short circuiting and we made our way, wet and exhausted, back to the hotel.
|Photo by James Vellacott: Group shot outside a local store.
There was no available internet link at Pokhara so I sat in the hotel garden and set up the Bgan satellite phone. This is a great piece of kit that will give you a broadband speed internet connection from almost anywhere in the world allowing me to FTP the images straight into the Daily Mirror's picture desk computer. The plus 4 ¾ hours time difference was an added luxury so the pictures were waiting for the picture editor on his arrival to the office.
The last night we had was back at Kathmandu, Joanna had invited the British media for drinks at her hotel. My three photographer colleagues and myself presented her with our four favourite images of her from the trip along with a cd of the rest of the photographs. A group shot of the four of us with Joanna was the last image taken before our flight home the next day.
|Photo by James Vellacott: Joanna Lumley and some members of the British media.|
I very much recommend Nepal for a photo-holiday. The western hotels are very comfortable, there is little or no crime, you are rarely hassled on the street and it is very cheap to travel and live. Nepal relies heavily on the tourist trade so you are made very welcome wherever you go. It’s a spiritual place.
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