PA’s group head of pictures Martin Keene has said now is a “great time” to be a photographer ahead of his departure from the agency after 35 years.
Keene started at PA as a photographer when the agency was still based on Fleet Street, with highlights including royal trips to Mount Everest, Mongolia and the Taj Mahal.
He then held the role of group picture editor for 25 years, overseeing staff and freelances and a team of editors. He will leave at the end of the year but continue to work part-time as editor of major ceremonial events, initially helping to plan coverage of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
Keene, 64, told Press Gazette that despite the changes to technology that have transformed his working life photographers have remained “storytellers with cameras” which he said is the “best part” of the job.
“Our job is still to go out and find something interesting, and show it to a wider community.”
He said there are fantastic showcases for photographers now across print and digital, including Mail Online with its huge use of pictures and the Guardian’s Eyewitness spread in print.
“It is a great time to be a photographer and it is a great time to be a picture editor,” he said. He felt it was time to “let someone else pick up the reins of one of the best jobs in British journalism”.
Speed of delivery ‘beyond comprehension’
The biggest change since the start of Keene’s career is the “speed with which pictures have gone from camera to transmission on the wire”, which he said was “completely beyond recognition”.
Gone are the days when photographers would have to get film back to the office as quickly as possible, perhaps by giving it to a dispatch rider, sending it on a train as a red star parcel or even asking a passenger to look after it.
Keene said: “The idea now that a photographer can take a picture, review it on the back of their camera, transmit it into the office and have it on the picture desks of newspapers or websites within a small handful of minutes of it being taken is astonishing.”
Keene also worked through the change from black and white photos to colour and then to digital, which he said at first was often not about the best photo “but who could connect their laptop to a modem in a far-off country and tinker with it well enough to be able to transmit a picture”.
Away from technology, Keene said there is now a “huge demand” for standalone pictures that tell an interesting story, requiring photographers and picture editors “to be constantly researching, thinking, planning scheming”.
Most notably, he said weather and landscape pictures were “very rare” at the start of his career but now “any photographer worth his salt will have in his or her diary when the next full moon will be… and that’s huge fun”.
‘Incredibly privileged’ career
Asked for his career highlights, Keene, who was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order in 2007 in recognition of his work covering the royals, shared several stories from his time as a photographer.
He travelled last minute to Mount Everest to cover the Duchess of York’s 1993 trip and had to take a generator for electricity and a satellite phone to file pictures. The equipment was carried by yaks and Sherpas, and Keene had to file from local people’s homes by drying his film over wood-burning stoves, transmitting pictures from halfway towards base camp.
Keene, a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, said there was something “amazingly special” about being in a place where he would have to walk for several days before he could get a plane home.
In 1992 Keene photographed Princess Diana in front of the Taj Mahal during a royal tour to India. He remembers being in a “heaving” throng of 20 photographers “all trying to get the best angle because you actually need to be right in the middle to make that picture work”. “That was just one amazing day,” he said.
Similarly, he enjoyed going to the Gobi Desert – a place he said he had never even heard of from his school geography lessons – to photograph the Princess Royal in 1993, hitching a ride with the Army to get to one of the locations she visited.
“You just think ‘that is astonishing’,” he said. “No one should ever forget that the job that we do has the most enormous privileges and opportunities that come with it and I think I’m lucky to have had some of those opportunities and privileges.”
As group picture editor, Keene remembers being involved in the team that photographed every torchbearer across the UK ahead of the 2012 Olympics. He said there was “something amazingly special about touring the length and breadth of the country” to see the crowds out in all weather.
Some of his “best moments” involved the royal weddings he helped organise the picture coverage for “simply because every time one of these events happen there is always a need or an urgency to get the pictures back to the office faster.
“What viewpoints can we offer? How can we make everything work better? How many editors are we going to have? How many photographers are we going to have? Where can we cable up so that people don’t have to rely upon mobile phones? What’s going to produce the best pictures?
“They are known about in advance so there are therefore huge opportunities to plan, huge needs to plan, just to make sure on the day everything goes off without fault. And to be involved in those is – that’s a real privilege to do that, that’s something to look back on and say, I wasn’t there but the team, who I’ve been really proud to support over my time at the PA, they were there. And those were their pictures.”
‘Tremendous thrill’ as picture editor
Of the change from photographer to picture editor, Keene said: “When you become a picture editor, you have to put aside any idea that you can go and take pictures as well.
“I have been lucky to work with an extremely talented bunch of photographers over that period of time, and it would be totally wrong to go and do all the good jobs, because that wouldn’t be fair on everybody else. And if you didn’t do a very good job they’d say ‘look you can’t hack it any longer’.”
Keene, who did continue to take some photos if something happened near the PA’s old Victoria office, or on his commute, or at weekends, added that if there was a day that was so “desperate” the picture editor has to go and take pictures, then the planning had probably gone wrong.
Instead he always enjoyed the “tremendous thrill” of watching pictures arrive from a job and the “good discussion” about the best shots.
PA editor-in-chief Pete Clifton said: “Martin has been a brilliant leader of our picture operation and I am very sorry he is standing down.
“Our outstanding picture coverage of major events, both planned and unexpected, has always had Martin at the heart of it. I am absolutely delighted that we will be holding on to him to assist us with more of those major events.”