This is the (long) story of the day Germany ‘invaded’ America and abused it’s citizens, offended the British, but were thwarted by the gracious intervention of the noble citizens of Japan. It’s a tale of friendship, sharing, light and shadows. But at its heart it’s about that blackest of shadows, bullying and intimidation, behaviour I utterly detest in all its ugly forms.
I was leading a tour group of British photographers in the USA, wandering through Utah and Arizona for a couple of weeks exploring Canyonlands, Bryce and Zion Parks amongst others. We stopped in Moab, Utah for a few days and on the day we departed for Arizona decided to take in a pre-dawn trip to Mesa Arch and the view to The Washer Woman rock feature beyond. A 4.30am rise and quick van pack got us to the site in the pitch dark, and we slowly worked our way to the arch by torchlight to await the sunrise. It was beautiful as the predawn glow began to tinge the eastern sky, and we had the place to ourselves until several American photographers arrived. They were obviously dismayed to see my group lined up in all the best spots along the line of the surprisingly small arch.
Seeing the disappointment on their faces I quickly called to my group to pull back, but to leave their tripods, and told the Americans to feel free to use them, because as luck would have it nearly all the Americans had Arca-Swiss compatible mounting plates just like us, and this would save time taking down tripods and setting up again, crucial because the light was changing fast as the sun came up. And so we’d a lovely friendly, sharing experience with everyone swapping spots to get differing perspectives, sharing lenses, telling stories, and eating shortbread from the giant packet I’d taken with me for ‘breakfast’. As a start to the day it could not have been better. Sharing light, space and camaraderie.
Many hours of driving later, in the evening, we were in Arizona at Monument Valley to witness the sunset. I was completely whacked – long flights to the US, days of working with the group, providing evening entertainment, and doing all the driving was taking its toll, so I let the group out at the viewpoint to go off exploring and slumped on the ground and just stared, enjoying the warm sun on my back.
It was astonishing, the light was low, colours rich and vibrant, and the view across the valley was utterly sublime. I watched a hawk circle on thermals far below, and dust clouds from a 4×4 on the valley floor catching sunshafts, then wisping off into the growing gloom. There was a murmur of awe and appreciation from the gathering crowd around me, a gentle and tangible human response to this scene of natural splendour. A quiet murmur that was suddenly interrupted by a guttural yell, rudely awakening me from my reverie. Looking around I noticed a woman hastily retreating from a man wearing a white baseball cap and backpack who was standing not far in front of me. I puzzled over the reasons and tried to get in focus what was happening. The lone man was standing, surrounded by people with cameras, all keeping their distance. Odd I thought. So I perked up and watched. Another young man approached to take a photo and immediately MBC (Man in Baseball Cap) bawled angrily at him with a strong german accent, waved his arms aggressively and drove him away.
Intrigued I stood up, and as I did so, in the low evening light, my shadow raced across the ground and straight past MBC who immediately turned and screamed furiously at me. Now I’m a pretty laid back kind of guy, and was still puzzling over precisely what was going on, so sat back down slightly bemused, but intrigued, and just watched. A familiar voice to my left caught my attention and I turned to see a few of my group coming towards me. As I watched I heard another angry yell and looked round to see Mary, a lovely genteel elderly lady from my group being roundly abused by MBC. So I stood up and of course my shadow shot across towards him once again, and once more he gave me a mouthful of abuse. So I just replied “Oh be quiet will you. And stop abusing my friends, I’ve had enough of it.” To which he responded with a tirade to the effect that I could go somewhere else and leave him alone.
I walked over to Mary and asked what had happened and she relayed what one of the Americans standing around MBC had told her, that the guy had been waiting in this spot for ages to get the sunset on the buttes in the distance but crucially also capturing the last rays of sunlight hitting two large boulders quite close in front of us. The trick being (because the sun was directly behind him) to get his own shadow neatly in the small gap between the boulders, and a wash of unbroken low warm red light on the two boulders either side, but the problem was he had to keep other people out of the way so their shadows didn’t interfere with his photo! And all he had was a small compact camera.
As Mary spoke there came yet more wild screams as MBC got laid in about another of the elderly members of my group, a delightful silver-haired gent, who was now hastily retreating. That was it, the red mist descended. I can put up with a lot, but seeing an elderly person being bullied by a thug was too much, so I picked up my very large tripod and walked straight down in front of MBC and set it up, plonking my large camera on top and, turning to the by now growling man, smiled. He did his angry thing, and I grinned even more then turned my back and carried on sizing up the scene and taking a few images.
He was livid and started an unbelievable rant, in broken English and lapsing into German swearwords (most of which I understood) but which he delivered to the back of my head. I gave a few polite responses such as “Oh please go away” and just laughed and waved him away contemptuously. Realizing it wasn’t working he ran round in front of me and continued his abuse, his face inches from mine, temples throbbing. I smiled. When it became obvious he was likely to get physically violent, I decided it prudent to withdraw.
I sat down and watched as person after person was roundly abused by MBC. I looked around the faces surrounding the scene, all of whom wore expressions of incredulity mixed with sheer disappointment, except one woman who was glaring at me with barely concealed fury. So playing a hunch I ambled slowly over and stood close to her but not intrusively so, several feet away. A good respectable, normal distance that would exist between strangers. And she leaned towards me and hissed violently at me, actually shaking as she did so, saying “You are a horrible, horrible man, go away, go away”. I smiled and replied, “I beg your pardon, did you say I’m a horrible man? It’s your husband who is abusing people and being totally unreasonable, insensitive and selfish. If you agreed with what he’s doing you’d be standing beside him. I think it’s rather telling that you’re over here well away from him.” At which point MBC, his senses on high alert, noticed where I’d gone and went completely and utterly bonkers, screaming at me to get away from his wife shouting “You cannot stand there, get away from my wife, leave her, you cannot stand there!”. The irony of this outburst was lost on him, but was not lost on the amused onlookers, several of whom burst out laughing.
I smiled and replied “My friend as you so ably demonstrate one may stand where one pleases.” Which elicited a variety of curses, the words ‘english’ ‘pig’ ‘arse’ and ‘kiss my’ figuring prominently, some in german but mostly in english, to which I amiably responded: “Scottish actually pal, and if you get your own bottom over here into the carpark and out of everyone’s way, I’ll gladly consider kissing it”.
His furious response was to curtly order his wife to leave and go back to their campervan which was parked close by. She obliged and scowling menacingly at me as she marched off, slamming the van door behind her.
I I sat down again and sighed, deciding this was a completely ridiculous situation and that I’d had enough and would keep my mouth shut. And so MBC carried on his abusive ranting unchallenged in front of me as the sun slid lower to the horizon and the golden moment approached when the reds were intense, shadows at their longest. Behind me I heard an engine racing as a car hared up, skidded to a halt, its doors flung open and two young women who’d obviously desperately tried to get there in time for the sunset dived out, one sighing ecstatically “Oh my gawd, oh my gawd, look Becky, ohhhh myyyyy gawwwwdd, its beeeoootiful, my my my!!!” And ran excitedly past me clutching her camera…..
…..straight into the shadowlands.
MBC erupted violently, his carefully guarded space invaded yet again, but now so very very close to The Moment, HIS Moment, and the glorious expression of utter rapture and wonder on the young woman’s face faded to dismay, then fear as he ranted and raged at her. The moment of joy she’d experienced on seeing this remarkably lit natural scene in front of her, evaporated, as she was forced instead to look into the furious purple face of a ranting madman. Cowed, on the verge of tears and utterly perplexed, she and her friend retreated, joining the frustrated onlookers forming a semi-circle around the madman.
I have to confess I could not tolerate it any more, I was utterly outraged. Shaking.
It was clear that as the perfect moment of light was approaching, he was not taking any prisoners and any further personal intervention on my part was highly likely to elicit an unpredictable and potentially violent response, if not towards me then perhaps someone less able to defend themselves. Not that I was too concerned about dealing with that sort of behaviour, but spending a night in jail for flooring someone didn’t appeal to me, given my group responsibilities, and scrapping with another tourist would not do our tour company’s reputation any favours. But as I fumed and considered my options I heard the sound of a tour coach quickly approaching, its big engine throbbing, and as I cast a glance towards it I noticed the faces of the tour group peering out its windows and excitedly pointing.
Japanese tourists. Literally dozens of them. Aha!
I quickly ran over as the coach pulled up, the guide stepping quickly out, I bowed deeply and asked if he spoke English. “Yes, a little” he replied. So I carefully pointed to MBC and said “You see that man with the white baseball cap and backpack? He is the man marking the place where you MUST take your group to get the best photograph. You must all go there – but quickly quickly before the sun disappears. Go now, quickly.” The tour guide quickly shouted these instructions to his group in Japanese.
MBC had got wind of something happening from the murmur of people behind him who’d watched me suddenly run over to the coach and he turned to see me pointing towards him just as the horde of Japanese tourists armed with cameras poured out and headed in his direction, unstoppable.
I smiled cheerily at MBC, grinned the happiest grin I could muster, and stuck up both thumbs. Then bowed to him, a long graceful bow. In seconds he was surrounded by 50 Japanese tourists. Very few of whom it appeared could understand english. Fuming, ranting in german and english he roundly cursed me, waving his fist at me as he fought his way past them, storming through the carpark barely able to contain his rage. Uttering the vilest and most outrageous slurs he could, he charged past me, almost pulled the door of his campervan off its hinges, slammed it and thrashed away down the road leaving a long cloud of dust and spray of gravel in his wake.
Then there was silence. Which slowly filled with the low hum of reverential voices and the sighs of awestruck people freely moving to and fro, happily chatting, then the clicking of shutters, a trickle that became a veritable clatter as the sun finally dropped over the horizon behind us and the shadowlands disappeared into night.
Given the wonderfully friendly way the day had started, I was really upset at the way it had ended. I sat staring dismally out across the canyon, and watched my group make the most of the fading sunset afterglow. Foremost in my mind was the fact that there was no ‘victory’ in what had just occurred. Yes the scene before me was beautiful, but I felt the magic had been stolen, that we were all losers. The afterglow slowly disappeared, red sky tints swallowed by the approaching darkness, and the creeping chill of night.
The crowd began to thin, then an American woman came over and sat beside me, said she was outraged at MBC’s behaviour which she’d watched unfold, but simply said “Thank you for doing something, it was all you could do, but so much better than doing nothing.” Several other onlookers then wandered over and seeing the look of utter misery on my face one said cheerily “Thank goodness for the Japanese invasion of America!”
Which made me smile. And then we all laughed, and the warmth of the friendship of strangers washed over me. And I realized we were not the losers, that whatever magic this place held, we had brought it, and we had shared it. And it remained.