The week before the 2012 Olympics started, I received a phonecall from Sibi Cole at the Africa Channel asking whether I was available to take portraits of the Ghanaian Olympic and Paralympic team. It quickly transpired that the I.O.C in Accra hadn't taken any official portraits before the team left West Africa. The Africa Channel were doing a documentary on the team and it made sense to organise the shoot once the team were in London. A plan was hatched and 2 days later I arrived early at the Ghanaian High Commissioner's palatial residence in St John's Wood with an invite to the official welcome party for Ghana's finest athletes.
Armed with a couple of lights, softboxes, a few trusty modifiers and wanting to keep the pictures simple, I scouted around the residence for a suitable backdrop. Dodging service staff, security detail and various sponsor's interests, I stumbled upon an annoying restriction; no photography of any kind inside the mansion. Strange, as these were official photographs of the very people the party was arranged for.
Sibi and I liaised and came up with a back up plan in a sweet spot near the servants entrance, away from the main party, with a gorgeous wall acting as a 'neutral' backdrop. All good to go, I set-up the equipment, ran some test shots and was suitably happy. For the next hour or so I relaxed, absorbed the lovely early evening light and observed the fantastic range of colour on display with chiefs, elders, beauty queens and what looked to be London's entire Ghanaian elite starting to pour into the walled garden. The party livened up.
1 hour past their appointed arrival time, there was no sign of the athletes. Sibi, who's Ghanaian herself, explained the reality of 'Ghana Time' - a new concept for me. I ate some extremely tasty curried fish.
2 hours pass and still no show. More food, more drink and loud beats blaring from an ambituous DJ's speakers; the guests were having a great time. The warm evening light was fading fast.
3 hours and word gets round that various drivers had lost their way from the Olympic village in Stratford. For readers not familiar with London, that's an pretty direct east to west drive of around 30 minutes over about 10 miles. No biggy.
3 hours and a bit, around half of the athletes arrive. Everyone waits a little more. At the 4 hour mark, with the news that not all the athletes were going to make it, the decision is taken to start the speeches from various dignitaries and the High Commissioner himself, all of which were especially poignant due to the sudden death 2 days prior of Ghana's progressive President John Atta Mills.
Sibi, her team and I agree to abandon plans and call it a night. We grabbed a few drinks and headed home.
2 days later we hatch a new plan and met at the Ghanaian Embassy in Belgravia.
We arrive at the embassy at 5pm and are shown a perfect room - a suitable mix of expensive furnishings and decor with various traditional statues and paintings adorning the walls. Throw in 3 metre high ornate balcony windows and I'm in picture heaven. The embassy manager, the African Channel and I agree on a shoot the next day at 9am, to take advantage of the morning light pouring in through the balcony windows.
The next day, with equipment in tow, I'm pretty well at the embassy door at 8.15am to set up when I receive an urgent call from Sibi saying that the Paralypians were not happy with decision to shoot at the embassy and firmly request a different location. Emergency stations, as there were now quite a few people involved from athletes, omnipresent managers to PR and a film crew hanging around at the Africa Channel's HQ in the traditional media hub of Soho. I grab a taxi to dash across rush hour central London.
In the AC reception lobby I meet the team and immediately start looking around the office space spread over several floors for a suitable place to shoot; nothing inspiring. The film crew started interviewing and I'm left thinking that Ghana Time was running away from me. I then stumbled on a tiny 3 x 4 square metre room with freshly painted walls and wooden floor (shown in the iPhone snap above). Yep, with 1 large softbox coupled with the bright daylight filtered through the blinds, I could turn the room into a lovely soft, near shadow free studio space. With no more than 10 minutes with each athlete and with no time to spare, I grabbed help and rapidly emptied all the furniture into a service corridor. All set with an Akan translator to assist language barriers, I start shooting.
Of all the athletes, 26 yr old Power Lifter Charles Narh Teye was particularly inspiring. After developing an infection at only 1 week old, Charles received a double transtibial amputation in his 4th week of age. At the age of 4 Charles finally received his prosthetic legs and was subsequently ostracised at school, as his peers believed they would catch his disability.
Charles and I exchanged some great banter during our few minutes together and it was only after his photo session that I learnt from the team manager that Charles never smiles; a very serious man. All I witnessed was immense pride and achievement radiating through his entire being.
Ghana Time proved fruitful.