"Dogleg" - 24th February 2019
This is the story of the photograph that won me Street Photographer of the Year at the 2020 British Photography Awards, and my subsequent search for the dog in the picture.
Amazingly, a quiet walk along the seafront in Brighton would be the start of a story that would end with the Savoy, multiple press interviews, a cold meeting on the seafront and a packet of dog biscuits. But sometimes it’s the smallest things that can make a difference. And this year-long chain of events started with a bright, Sunday afternoon in late February 2019.
It was an obvious day to head down to the coast and spend some time with my camera, and after parking west of Brighton I began my walk along the seafront towards the centre. The clear blue sky and unseasonal sunshine had brought the weekenders out of winter hibernation to enjoy the summery atmosphere. On the hunt for a shot, I noticed the people sitting on the green benches that back onto Hove lawns. Specifically, I noticed a calm, gentle-looking chocolate labrador. She and her owner were sitting together on one of these benches, taking a quiet moment to watch the world go by in the sun. An older dog, she was having a bit of a mid-walk break. Her brown coat combined with her owner’s distinctive purple trousers against the green of the bench was what first caught my eye. I thought that could make a promising shot.
The thing about these rather distinctive green benches is that they have a kind of wooden side to them, acting like a windbreak at either end. If I’m honest I can’t remember my exact thought process, but I didn’t take that first shot I noticed. Instead, I walked right across the path and photographed the bench almost side on, using the bench to get that combination of the dog’s head and the man’s legs you see in the final image. I crouched low and fired off a number of shots - the dog was relaxedly looking around at the passers by (and probably the photographer crouching to her right), so I was lucky to have plenty of time to get it right. I waited until I got her head in the position I was happy with, before walking off and continuing my search for further photographs. I didn’t think much more about it at the time. Looking back at my unedited shots from the day, this was the 14th photograph I took in Brighton out of a total of 71, in just a 2 hour session. The photograph on my "prints" page of the boy reaching for the bubble, titled “Reach”, was in fact also taken on the same day less than 15 minutes later. So it was a short but enjoyable day’s shooting, and a pleasant way to spend a sunny late afternoon on the coast doing what I love.
My usual process is to download my photographs, single out the ones I’m happy with, and upload those to Lightroom to make any final adjustments. I then store the images on my Google Drive ready to for me to decide whether or not I upload them to my website or Instagram. This is unlikely to be straight away. Some of them sit on my drive for many, many months before I decide whether I’m happy to display them. Others I’m confident with almost immediately. But I find it incredibly difficult to judge the potential popularity of my own photographs. I’ve frequently been wrong - shots I’ve hesitated over for months have been more successful, whilst shots I’m personally the most pleased with have been comparatively less popular. I may write more about this in due course, but Instagram is a good way of instantly measuring the relative popularity of any particular photograph you take in relation to the rest of your work. Admittedly this is more useful from a commercial than an artistic point of view - but useful nonetheless. A sounding board for new images.
I was happy with "Dogleg", though, because I posted it on Instagram less than a week later. And straight away the likes started coming in. It was featured by Instagram collectives three times in just over a week, and more since. Just once is unusual for me. And the likes kept coming until Dogleg had, within a short amount of time, become my most popular shot by far. And it would remain so for quite some time.
In the summer I held my first exhibition of my street photography, as part of Surrey Artists Open Studios. For this, I produced postcards of my images that I could sell alongside my printed images. Dogleg sold out. It was my most popular shot there, and the one I found people remarking about most often. People loved the dog, and it was always fun to chat to people about this simple shot. I didn’t include it as one of my framed images, and I think this was because I felt (at the time) it wasn’t quite in line with the style and narrative of the other images I was displaying. In hindsight, though, I reckon I missed a trick there.
Later in the year, I decided to enter photographs into competitions. This, unfortunately, isn’t always cheap. If you want to avoid spending a small fortune, you need to be selective about your best images. But again, I find it genuinely difficult to know which of my own photographs are going to stand the best chance of getting noticed by any particular panel of judges. There’s plenty of advice out there on exactly this, if you’re interested. But I haven’t read it. I simply thought my Instagram-o-meter of popularity would be a good way to select. So as a popular image, Dogleg was one of my main choices.
In early December, an email popped up telling me that I’d been shortlisted by the British Photography Awards. I was absolutely delighted, obviously, and visited their site to check out the other shortlisted images in the street category (amongst others). I quickly realised the very high standard of shots I’d be up against meant I was unlikely to win. I thought the best I could do would be to let as many people as possible know about the “Peoples’ Choice” award. The overall street photography winner would be selected by the judges panel, but the Peoples’ Choice award goes to the image that collects the most number of public votes in an online poll for each category. By this point I had already realised that animal images were a good recipe for popularity with the voting public, and so maybe, just maybe I’d be in with a chance to win the Peoples Choice if not the main award.
This brought in a renewed interest in the photograph, as people I knew talked about it with me and (usually) told me they’d voted for it! By this stage I was so familiar with the shot, I had long been wondering just who it was I’d photographed. Who was the man with his dog? Were they local to Brighton? Would they ever see the picture? Would they like it? For now, it remained a mystery.
In early January I got another email telling me my photograph had been nominated for the awards, either due to being selected by the judges or through collecting the most number of public votes. I was genuinely surprised if my image had been selected by the judges - but with my relatively small Instagram following and modest social circle, I was surprised about public voting too. So apart from feeling rather honoured, I didn’t quite know what to think. I simply looked forward to a swanky free meal and a black-tie evening out at the Savoy. That alone would be a great end to a story that had started with a beachfront stroll almost a year ago by this time.
So, as a man in a hired suit who’d taken a photograph of a dog, I arrived at the Savoy on 4th February. There were about 30 tables. I was on table 30. Ahh... well, that’s nice, I thought. Last table's fine. I'm ok to be right at the back. Out of the way of the celebs and the people who actually owned their black tie get-up. I settled in for a lovely evening and world-class cuisine. I chatted to Dawn, a nominee from the fashion category to my left and Andrew, a nominee from the landscape category to my right. And then something rather surprising happened.
Four people from my table won an award. Perhaps the “table-30ers” had been put there to allow a longer walk to the stage, and therefore a slightly easier job for the people who were videoing us. But myself and Andrew, the landscape photographer sitting next to me, were among those four winners. When the street category came up on screen, host Anita Rani read out the names. I just about had enough time to notice my photograph was not the Peoples Choice award - I had actually been shortlisted by the judges. Then my name was read out again, and I was standing on the stage and we were not sure exactly what we should be doing because the event photographer, ironically, had temporarily gone AWOL.
After various press wall photographs, a short interview backstage, and a spot of dancing with some achingly glamorous models, the evening eventually came to a close. The next morning I had to get up early and set off to work, still finding it hard to digest that I had actually won the award.
I could have left it there, but I wanted to take things further. I felt as if I had a debt of gratitude to the mystery dog and its owner, who had so unwittingly found their way onto the big screen at the Savoy. So I decided to find them. I had no idea if I would - they could have been visiting from another part of the country. But I was sure that a feature in the local press would help track them down. And I thought the papers would be more interested in a real-life search for a mystery dog, than they would be in a more straightforward “local man wins award” kind of headline. So the search was on.
The story got into the Brighton Argus newspaper and website. And not just into the paper, but in prime position right above the headline banner of the front page. “Woof! Who is this?” it said, with the familiar site of the green bench and labrador’s head for all to see.
Within 24 hours, one person who had seen it, and got a bit of a shock (but a nice one, as she put it) was the dog’s owner, Sheila. Sheila was not the one in the photograph - her friend Robin had been walking her dog that day, and is the one sitting on the bench. And the dog’s name was Susa. She’s a nine year old chocolate labrador. A friend had spotted the dog in the paper and got in touch with Sheila. Despite the initial surprise of Susa randomly appearing on the front page of the paper with someone else's legs, Sheila got in touch.
She emailed me and the paper, and followed it up with more photographs of Susa for me to see. It was wonderful to be able to put a name to a face after all this time. Susa and Robin - stars of “Dogleg”. And really touching to see more pictures of delightful Susa, a dog I’d become so familiar with. It was unquestionably her. And by an extraordinary coincidence, one of Sheila’s photographs had been taken by Robin, sitting on the bench, at pretty much the precise moment I took my own shot. The exact same people can be seen in the background of his shot as are visible in mine. So it’s quite possible that Susa was, at that moment, being photographed by Robin sitting next to her - and by me, crouching on the pavement a few feet further back.
The same morning that Susa’s photograph had been posted on the Argus’s website, BBC Radio Sussex noticed it too. So the next morning, about the time Sheila would probably have seen Susa in the newspaper, I was in BBC Radio Sussex’s studios being interviewed on Neil Pringle’s breakfast show about my photograph, and street photography in general. It was great to get the opportunity to explain about street photography as a genre, as well as my own personal search for the dog and owner.
Meanwhile, I was also contacted by Simon on Instagram, a friend of Sheila who actually co-owns Susa with her. Simon’s Instagram account gave me an even bigger selection of Susa’s photographs - and whilst he wasn’t available to meet up, thankfully he too was delighted to see the photograph. All this was within about a day or so.
But I knew I could meet up with Susa, Sheila and Robin, the owner of the legs in the photograph, on Brighton seafront. Not only would it be great to meet them, but I could also give them a framed copy of their photograph and a packet of dog biscuits to Susa, as a thank you.
Bad weather and general lack of availability led to a delay, but on a cold and windy March morning, we finally met up at the same benches I’d photographed just over a year beforehand. It was lovely to meet them all and to be able to “give something back”, so to speak.
When first I arrived at the seafront, I made my way along the promenade keeping an eye out for them. I didn’t know exactly where they were, but as soon as I saw Susa in the distance, her profile was unmistakeable. She is a lovely, gentle dog who loves people. It was very funny to meet such a familiar animal after such a long time. And of course, it was lovely to meet Sheila and Robin too. I really appreciated the effort they made to arrange a time to come out and meet me on the seafront. Not only had they enjoyed seeing the photograph, as had Simon, Susa’s co-owner - but they actually thanked me for tracking them down and making them aware of it. So often it’s impractical - if not impossible - to track down your subjects from a street photograph, so I hope that this counts as a happy ending to this particular street photography adventure.
Thank you if you voted for my photograph as part of the Peoples Choice award, and I hope you have enjoyed reading this story about my photograph “Dogleg”.
Susa, Sheila, myself and Robin at the Hove lawns bench, March 2020
Susa with her picture, March 2020
The newspaper feature that made it happen