I WAS AN ODD LAD. That proved to be very good training for my later career as an odd adult. Odd in the sense I never really felt I fitted in. I wasn’t athletic enough to be one of the sporty crowd, not bright enough for the geeky academic lot, not religious enough for the youth group, and I certainly wasn’t hip enough for a place in the school’s cool elite. I’d like to say that it was because I was an independent individual happily walking to the beat of my own drum. In reality, I just didn’t know how to fit in; coupled with glasses, acne, anarchic hair, wrong brand jeans, and crippling shyness, I felt like an immigrant trying to fit into a new culture – even when that culture was supposedly my own.
A more relaxed, confident teen could have just gone to a party and enjoyed it, but I needed an alias, a justification for being there. Thank heavens for my camera. I hid behind it. The hundredweight of photographic equipment I lugged around gave me a bona fide reason to be inserted into a huge range of events and activities I would never have been part of otherwise: sporting events, parties, concerts, plays … if anything was on, I was there, clicking.
My camera got me to some unlikely places for a dull lad. For a while, I worked as a newspaper photographer, and in 1979, I was sent off to the first Nambassa Music Festival –
New Zealand’s own little Woodstock. Sixty-five-thousand people enjoying music, sun and a hippy vibe under a haze of funny-smelling smoke. This was a very cool place for a tragically uncool person like myself to be, and I felt definitely out of place. If you scan old festival photos online, maybe you can spot me: amongst the sea of beards, bikini tops, long hair and tie-dyed tee shirts, you might see a guy in a button-up shirt and a cardy.
The TV reports emphasized the nudity at Nambassa, so at the next staff meeting back at the newspaper, I yelled “Ow!” when I sat down, leaping up and clutching my backside. “Sunburn!”
I doubt any of my workmates really believed their staid and nerdy photographer had spent the weekend cavorting in the altogether with stoned hippies. But I desperately wanted to be thought of as at least a little naughty.
I also went snapping to the first Sweetwaters rock festival a year or two later: much louder, muddier, and boozier. A notice went out over the PA: “Can anyone operate a movie projector?” As a nerd, of course I could, so I ended up on the top of a scaffolding tower as the projectionist for the outdoor all-night movies. The first movie went well; I started the second (a Monty Python), and the projector jammed. Howls from the drunk crowds below. It jammed again. And again. There was a clamour and crashing below. Security guards fought the crowd trying to light the bonfire of rubbish bins they had pushed up against the base of my tower. Handling this was definitely not in the Projectionists course I did.
I photographed a lot of weddings. Good experience, but I don’t think it quite prepared me for the Black Power convention at Ambury Park I got asked to cover. I bravely approached a group of gangsters: “C–c–can I t–t–take your photo?” Quite unlike a wedding, they grabbed me in a headlock, wrestled me to the back of a beer tanker, thrust a beer hose in my mouth and turned it on. Hospitality, I suppose. After said refreshment, I wobbled home, relatively unscathed, with most – but not all – my camera equipment.
So the camera worked as a prop. But what a pity I thought I needed it. Here’s a little mental exercise I do – more of a daydream, really: what if tomorrow I wake up and I am 15 again, back in my old home and my old school. What would I do differently, with the benefit of decades of hindsight? Armed with the knowledge that I really wasn’t much inferior to my peers, I could drop the self-crippling shyness, and I could charge into things without my camera.
Maybe I’d get better glasses and a good haircut, but the big difference would be the confidence. And, maybe, this time around, the sunburn would be genuine.
AFTER DECADES STUDYING FAMILY LIFE, JOHN NOW FOCUSSES ON THE ‘PRIME-TIME’ ISSUES OF LATER MIDDLE AGE. CHECK HIM OUT ON JOHNCOWAN.CO.NZ – ESPECIALLY IF YOU NEED SOME WRITING, EVENT SPEAKING, VIDEOS MADE, OR SOMEONE TO HAVE A COFFEE WITH.