“Minister! Minister!” What’s it’s really like to be a press photographer

Press photographer Martyn Wheatley has his images published all over the world is always where the news is – but it’s not a job for the faint-hearted.
A huge crowd of people at a protest/demonstration

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

Writer & Editor – Canon VIEW

“So, I’m standing there, and just felt a blow to the midriff. I looked up and this man had taken a flying kick at me! I didn’t fall over because all my gear stabilised me, but I stood there and thought, ‘did he just kick me?’ I looked down and there was a footprint on my t-shirt. ‘He did. He just kicked me!’”

Martyn Wheatley tells this story as though someone just barged past him in the supermarket and didn’t apologise. At the time, of course, he was furious, and quickly reported the man to the police. But in this kind of setting – a huge anti-vaccination protest march in central London – it was something he and plenty of other press photographers are familiar with. Each day they head into the thick of everything from protests and politics to courts and crime scenes. They negotiate with police and security guards and, as we’ve already learnt, are often on the receiving end of angry members of the general public. It’s an occupational hazard that stems from an enduring misconception that press photographers and paparazzi are one and the same.

It's understandable, to a degree. Both are often thick-skinned freelance photographers, unafraid to get up close and personal with tricky and sometimes volatile situations in order to get that perfect shot. We see them on the TV, a scrum of photographers shouting at the newsworthy figures of the day or dangling precariously from railings and windows – even lying on pavements, cameras held aloft. They carry the trademark backpack stuffed with professional camera equipment and an air of someone who is entirely unshockable. Certainly, this is the case for Martyn, who has been in the industry for some decades and has the dark humour and back trouble to prove it. “I get called a pap a lot and I’m not,” he says. “It really infuriates me. I just refer to myself as a news or press photographer.”

A cat sitting on a step looking at a reflection of itself

Larry, the resident cat at 10 Downing Street is a frequent model for the regular contingent of press photographers, as they wait for the arrival and departure of visitors to the Prime Minister.  © Martin Wheatley

“Some [paparazzi] have press passes, some don’t,” he explains. “Often, though, they’re not even photographing celebrities. It’s more people who’ve been on reality TV.” This means, happily, that their paths don’t constantly cross. However, Martyn inevitably finds himself side by side with them when a celebrity hits the news. “What the paps will do – this happened recently with [a high-profile celebrity court case] – is go to the celebrity’s hotel and then try and block other people from getting the shot afterwards”. It’s a tactic some use to minimise the competition and maximise the amount their images are used in the press – making them more money. “For example, when you’re outside a court, the security will threaten to shut the gates if you don’t leave plenty of space for access,” he explains. “I once saw a pap then deliberately lay down on the floor in front of the gates. And, of course, they shut them and that was that. No one got the shot. But it turned out that this fella had already got his.”

Even when you’re not on the receiving end of physical assaults, a considerable amount of verbal abuse, and being scuppered by paps who don’t want anyone else to have a fighting chance, it’s certainly not a job for the faint-hearted. News never sleeps, or so the saying goes and the competition to be in the right place at the right time for the shot that sells is very real indeed. “I can’t plan ahead,” he says. “I hear things right at the last minute.” There is, however, a certain unspoken code of conduct among London’s press photographers. Yes, they are very much in competition, but it’s clear that they are in this together and have a shared view of the world. “We organise ourselves so that everyone gets a chance at a shot,” he says. “But there are a lot of cliques. You have the wires, like Getty, Press Association, Reuters, and then there are the smaller agencies.” And, after all, they are at the same place, at the same time and it’s a race to get their shots to the picture desks of the nationals before the person next to them.

And to do that, they have to stand out. Which is pretty hard when there are dozens of people shouting “Minister! Minister” at whichever politician is strolling into Downing Street. Martyn, however, tends to be a little cheekier, shouting their names in comedy voices and being chastised by officials (“You can’t call him Bob! Why not, that’s his name, isn’t it? Yeah, but you can’t call him Bob!”). The aim of the game is to get them looking in your direction. “You need to get them to look at you, eyes on. I got one of [President] Biden pointing, I don’t think he was actually looking at me, but in the picture, it looks like he is.”

"I get called a pap a lot and I’m not. It really infuriates me. I just refer to myself as a news or press photographer.”

When there are that many cameras, all pointing at the same thing, seeking one killer shot, it feels like it shouldn’t be viable as a career. And, the truth is, it takes a certain kind of person to do this for any sustained period of time, such is the lifestyle. Martyn jokes about living on takeout and sausage rolls, and most people would struggle to carry his intimidatingly heavy kit bag for ten minutes, let alone ten hours. There’s not a moment to spare – not even for editing, most of the time. Not that he is permitted to even do much of that. “We’re allowed crop, dark, light and contrast. That’s it,” so pretty much everything he files is sent directly from his camera.

And he files indiscriminately. Even shots he thinks have zero chance of being picked up and used. Time has taught him not to try and predict what picture desks are looking for. “I get really surprised at some of the things they’ve used and disappointed at some that don’t.” He recalls uploading a shot that he then felt unhappy with and so deleted it, only to discover it had already been picked up and used – all in under a few minutes. Now he just instinctively gets every shot up onto the wires immediately and doesn’t think too much about it. “After all this time, I’m always surprised when I get something in. They chose me?” he laughs. “It’s when I see the sales report that I notice I’ve got more stuff in print than I realised.”

It’s paradoxical to what we expect of photographers generally – where the end goal is to secure the perfect shot. That is, one that ticks all the boxes for sharpness, composition and technical proficiency. Yes, press photographers would like to be able to deliver all these things, every time. But the truth is, stuff happens. People happen. The world simply does not always deliver an easy, unimpeded route to the necessary photograph for tomorrows front page – or even that moment’s push notification. Ironically, the one time the world became more predictable for Martyn was during the pandemic. Exempt from lockdowns as a newsgatherer, he came and went from Downing Street press briefings every day on empty trains, very occasionally being stopped by police, and knew more or less exactly what to expect every day.

And with no real standard going rate for a picture, you have to grab something golden to add some zeros to your paycheck. Like a politician up to no good, for example. He knows of a photographer who saw an excellent payday for such a shot during the pandemic. But overall, the days of freelancers selling photos to the press for high sums are over. Despite this, he’s never been tempted to take a job as a staff photographer. “A salary would be nice,” he chuckles. “But then they can tell you where to go and what to do.” After years of being his own boss, that’s simply not an option.

The back of a man wearing a hi-vis fluorescent yellow vest with the words ‘ASLEF OFFICAL PICKET’ printed on it. © Martin Wheatley

Strikes, protests and marches are just another day at the office for Martyn and dozens of other press photographers.

However, one thing that increasingly frustrates him is being told that his beloved kit will be replaced by cameras in phones. Pointing at the back of his Canon EOS R5, he brings up an image of the underside of a helicopter, taken as it flew over 2000 feet above his head. “Look!” he says excitedly, zooming in to the display. “You can see a man’s legs sticking out the back! And his face!” He acknowledges that many media outlets have dropped their standards and will publish screenshots from videos taken on phones, and sometimes even phone photos themselves, but there are clear limitations. “Because for the most part everyone says, ‘you can do this on a phone, you can do that on the phone’, but if you want good access to someone over a distance…” he points at his camera again. “Do that with your phone.” And in his line of work, you simply can’t compromise. A powerful camera pays for itself in its ability to deliver the news that the nation sees across print and digital every day.

He has endless anecdotes of close shaves, near misses and comedy moments that are peppered with some of the world’s most famous names and events. He will chuckle and begin, “when Zelensky came over…” or “I got into a rut with Rishi…” and even “have you noticed how protest photos are always pensioners in handcuffs?” and the tale always ends with laughter and disbelief. No two days are the same and, like anyone, he has his off days where he wishes he’d stayed in bed. Like the day he forgot to check his settings and realised the timer was on just as two Prime Ministers were about to meet. And often he doesn’t realise he’s had a good day until he’s back home with a quiet moment to reflect. With the understatement and humour typical of a press photographer, when asked what his friends and family think of his job, he answers, “They think it's really exciting.”

And is it? “Well, you know, it's quite boring. I do a lot of waiting.”

Marie-Anne Leonard Writer & Editor – Canon VIEW

Read more articles like this from Canon VIEW