I have always tried to set up my commercial assignments so that I’d be shooting things that I would love to shoot for myself.
That didn’t always work out, and when it didn’t, I bitched and moaned a lot. Years later, Greg Heisler, a good friend and one of the brightest people I know, gave me this advice, “Kill it and bill it.”
In 1975, I got a call from a client who said to me, “We like your work. We want you to go to several countries in Africa and shoot anything you want.”
Be careful what you wish for. This was the dream assignment of all time. I thought long and hard about what I should shoot. I tried to think what they would like. I tried to outguess them and went through all kinds of introspection. Finally, I said, “The hell with it. I’m just going to shoot whatever I want.”
Am I clever or what?
I had worked in Africa before, and I knew that if anything could go wrong, it would.
So, I told them I’d love to do it, but I wanted signed telexes (remember, it was the 70’s) from their people in each country saying they understood the importance of what I was doing and that they would cooperate in every possible way.
Fast forward to me walking in this guys office in Antananarivo, in Madagascar. I introduced myself, told him that I was here and raring to go.
He looked me up and down and said the exact words I did not want to hear.
“Who the fuck are you and why should I help you?”
I kept my cool, reached into my pocket and took out my signed telex from him.
He read it and burst out laughing. Between laughs, he said, “OK, you’re on the level, but they forged my name, and we haven’t used that telex form for years. The real problem is I’m leaving for Korea in an hour. I’ll give you my car and driver tomorrow, but that’s all I can do.”
The car and driver were wonderful, but nothing can screw up your relationship with the local population more than showing up to shoots with a car and driver.
So for the rest of my time there I carefully did what I always did. I hoofed it with no particular plan.
It was absolutely wonderful.
By the way, if you're wondering why they assigned me that great job. Well, they were planning to set up factories in each of these countries so they had no factories to shoot. They were smart enough to know that pictures of executives would be a bore and their product was fertilizer.
Ergo, I had a free hand.
Madagascar was wonderful. It was off the beaten track enough that I was as a shooter, a rarity. Nobody was fed up with me before I’d ever arrived.
The people were so different. The racial mix was such that at times I could see Asian, Mexican, Panamanian, and indistinguishable uncategorizable people everywhere. It was a wonderful treat and totally exotic for me.
Madagascar also has a similarly varied animal life, but I never was able to get a four-by-four vehicle to take me outside of Antananarivo.