Making it Happen. Photographing the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble by Olaf and Gavin

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My iPhone pinged and purred. The message was from Chris Marrington of Charlie Bravo Advertising in Johannesburg. It read, ‘Olaf, when are you back in the UK? Got a job that might interest you but it may not be possible to pull it off in time’. As I was chilling in the sun on the very lovely Church St in Burlington, Vermont the option of work didn’t seem too attractive but the idea of a challenge was too intriguing to pass up.

The brief was to arrange a video/stills shoot for the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble who would perform in a public space in London on July 18th, the to celebrate the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday. They had just completed a UK concert tour funded by the Client, South African property investment company, Redefine. Buskaid raises money so that impoverished children in the township of Soweto can learn to play classical stringed instruments.

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Ideally the space would be Trafalgar Square as it is close by South Africa House. There were twenty eight musicians and two singers. The four cellists needed chairs and they needed to be on the bus to Heathrow at 10.00. The date of the message was July 2nd. Time to spare 🙂

With the Client in Johannesburg and me in Burlington we needed someone on the ground who could make this happen. And here all credit goes to my good friend, Leica Meet co-founder, DJ and music industry photographer Gavin Mills. A couple of Facebook msg’s and the game was on.

Gavin, over to you…….

……. organising this event was clearly a challenge. But after looking at online videos/info about the ‘Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble’ and finding out the great work they do, I wanted more than ever to help make this happen.

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First job. Get permission. With a professional group and corporate sponsorship, we couldn’t take the risk of turning up and being told to move on. I discovered that Trafalgar square is managed by two separate bodies. The GLA (Great London Authority ) control the Square while Westminster Council look after the terrace and the area around the square. The Terrace seemed right. A classical string orchestra with the National Gallery as a backdrop, a good match.

Getting the licence was a little more difficult than imagined. In July, the events department were inundated with Summer fixtures. I completed all the appropriate forms but the waiting times were too long for our deadline. I must have driven them mad, calling every day, (I was on first name basis with most of the department by now) but there was now only a week to go.

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Meantime I organised the film and sound crew. I called Mark Kemp (link below) who specialises in short promotional films and covers events for companies like Agent Provocateur and Fashion TV as well as some of my own music events. Mark introduced me to sound recordist, Jassim (link below) who had one of the most difficult challenges of all, recording a full string orchestra in an open air space full of traffic and tourist noise, with only minutes to test sound levels. He was up for the challenge.

All we needed now was a licence and we were all set. Disaster struck when, with less than a week to go, the council refused permission.

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After all that work, we weren’t going to give in and I spoke with the decision makers. They explained they already have problems with too many buskers, many of whom are illegal.

I countered that Buskaid is different. It is a good cause, our musicians had performed for royalty at Queen Elizabeth Hall the previous night. All we were asking for was thirty minutes on a Friday morning to celebrate Nelsons Mandela’s Birthday. The council gave us permission. Perfect!

We had our permit and our team. It felt like the Magnificent Seven, except we were six. Mark and Kathy on video, Jassim and Joao on sound. Olaf and I on stills.

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Olaf chose a 24mm Summilux and 90mm APO , whilst I had my Voigtlander 15mm and a choice of 35mm lux/50mm Cron for a standard lens.

Although we both shoot with Leica M series cameras, our different approaches, meant we captured different aspects of the performance. Olaf is a ‘less is more’ kind of photographer, images telling a story in a less obvious way. Using a 90mm he would get close up shots of the band as individuals.

My brief was to capture the Orchestra in our majestic surroundings as an entire scene as well as catching special moments.

It was useful working as a pair with so many musicians and so much action. We couldn’t be in the right place the whole time. Instinctively if Olaf was shooting a particular angle I’d think that was covered and find another shot. It seemed to flow naturally. Perhaps because we already photographed together at Leica Meet events.

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Olaf, back to you…….

……. Our one nightmare was the weather. There is no shelter on the part of Trafalgar Square where we were performing and the stringed instruments couldn’t get wet. So waking on July 18th to pale grey skies and drizzle looked like a bad omen. Our team arrived early and we started setting up. We were supposed to film the musicians getting off the bus for the start to the video, but the call never came. So our first introduction was when a group wearing white Buskaid T shirts and huge smiles ambled across the square to say hi.

 

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The mood immediately lifted. The spirit of these talented young musicians filled the air and refused to dampened even when rain threatened. We improvised a new opening introduction by the Buskaid organiser and magically, right on cue, the sun broke through at 9.00, the time our permit allowed us to start filming. It is impossible to put into words the positive energy generated by the Soweto String Ensemble.

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Their enthusiasm is infectious, a foot tapping crowd gathered within minutes and there were four TV station interviewers present. Ordinarily, in spite of having a permit, we might have expected trouble from the authorities or stewards but when I explained what we were doing to a police officer, he replied, ‘Its great, take as long as you like mate’.

This was one of those commercial jobs which is both a pleasure and a privilege. It all came together seamlessly. A pro team, a great Client and a very worthwhile cause.

Somehow I couldn’t resist the thought that Nelson Mandela looked down and smiled upon us that day

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Here’s a link to the video we shot in You Tube

 

You can find out more about Buskaid’s great work here. https://www.buskaid.org.za/

Here’s the agency which had the original idea: charliebravo.co.za

 

With thanks to our team:

Mark on video: http://www.mkproductions.co.uk/

Jassim on sound: http://www.soundgood.biz/

Gavin: http://www.gavinmillsphotography.com/

Olaf: http://olafwilloughby.com/

We can make your brief happen, contact us at: gav@gavinmillsphotography.com and olafwilloughby@gmail.com

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