A year in the life of a press photographer: Leon Neal

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In the first of a week-long series by guest bloggers, photographer Leon Neal selects his best shots from 2011, and offers an insight into the varied working life of a press photographer.

Leon is currently a staff photographer for Agence France-Presse (AFP) having worked as a freelance for a number of years following completion of the NCTJ Photojournalism course, and a scholarship at The Times newspaper in London.

Working for the AFP news agency means Leon might be assigned to cover a wide variety of events at short notice, from sport to hard news. His pictures are supplied to a wide range of clients via the AFP wire service, including the BBC, and have graced the pages of many publications around the world.

Here is Leon's pick of his photographs from 2011, along with his reasons for choosing them.

Caption competition?

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Leon: "During the visit to Britain by US President Barack Obama, I was covering a number of the meetings inside number 10 Downing Street. It included this one between the president, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron. I have absolutely no idea what was said, but I love the body language between the three subjects. While the prime minister had moved out of the way to allow us to photograph Mr Clegg and President Obama, the combination of the apparent giggling fit on the left, and the rather stern look from Mr Cameron, makes for an amusing caption competition shot."

The kiss

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"The day of the royal wedding was truly one of the most stressful days of my life, but in the end it was saved by bridesmaid Grace Van Cutsem. The young girl became world famous after she covered her ears to protect herself from the noise of a fly-past, just at the point of the royal kiss, creating one of the moments of the day. I was very grateful that we were shooting from so far away, as if I'd been closer I may have tried to crop in really tight on the kiss and would have missed Grace's moment."

A single tear

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"Michael Forever was the tribute concert held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in memory of Michael Jackson, and featured an eclectic mix of artists from across the world, performing songs from Jackson's back catalogue. One of the key moments of the show was when Michael's three children took to the stage to introduce a video performance by Beyoncé. While Prince and Paris are slightly older, and were happy to stand in front of an arena audience, nine year-old 'Blanket' Jackson looked less comfortable, so I paid close attention to him, and just as he was about to leave the stage, a single tear appeared in his eye."


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"I had mixed feelings about including this one in the set, but I like the image aside from the story behind it. On the day of the eviction of some of the residents from the Dale Farm travellers' site, media crews from all over the world descended on the area to record what was set to be a violent clash.

"After police entered the site, thick smoke began to pour from a caravan that had been moved into the middle of one of the roads. While everyone dashed towards the smoke it quickly became a rather embarrassing situation with photographers and camera crews stacked on top of each other to get the shot. When a woman brought out a crucifix to hold as she stood in front of the blaze we quickly realised how set up the shot was becoming.

"Unfortunately, this is one of those situations that members of the media have to face sometimes. While you are sadly aware of how you're being led into a picture, you have to shoot it. Those that are unhappy with shooting any staged event during a live news situation will often miss out, as the papers want the 'big shot' of the day, even if it does feel contrived at the time of capture."

First time at Wimbledon

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"Never having shot Wimbledon before, other than a few of the features surrounding the event, I got to cover the actual play this year with this shot being my favourite. After a long and frustratingly close rally, French player Benoit Paire threw his racquet while diving as he played against Spanish player David Ferrer."

Bundles of cash

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"While covering the on-going fighting around the town of Bani Walid in Libya, AFP journalist Dominique Soguel and I started chatting to a group of National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters as they sheltered from the midday sun on a dried riverbed running under the road. After shooting a few portraits of them, a senior figure in the NTC army arrived with a reinforced briefcase filled with wrapped bundles of tens of thousands of Dinar and started to pay the troops. With the fighting dragging on longer than hoped, the fighters were struggling to survive with families at home in need of income, so supporters had raised money by selling their possessions and sending the funds to the front line."

Wheezing heap

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"During 2011's ongoing phone-hacking scandal, the Chairman and CEO of News International Rupert Murdoch flew in to the UK to appear before a committee of MPs to address allegations that were levelled at a number of his newspapers. With Mr Murdoch having tight security around him pictures proved quite hard to come by. His vehicles either had heavily blacked out windows or simply drove at very high speed to stop photographers from getting a picture. After a few close misses I began to see it as a personal challenge to get a decent shot, so I prepared myself to run after the car in the hope that it would hit traffic at some point. Thankfully it did, and I got a frame before collapsing into a wheezing heap."

Get the children to safety

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"The London riots saw some incredible images on the news wire from all agencies, newspapers and freelance sources. While I captured a good share of the flames and violence, my personal favourite picture came on the first night as I was leaving Tottenham to edit my photographs. Just as I was about to go I glanced over my shoulder and saw a woman carrying two young children through the rubble and broken glass. The blue lights from the police vans lit her face as she walked towards the line of armoured vehicles and riot police. A few hundred metres behind her the police were still clashing with rioters and missiles were being thrown in all directions. Being in that situation was scary enough, but as a father I can only imagine how scared this woman must have been for the safety of the children."

Double rainbow

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"I was sitting in the office of Agence France-Presse, the news agency that I work for, on a particularly quiet day when I noticed the end of a rainbow over the financial district of London. I grabbed my camera and began taking pictures of the rainbow that could be used to illustrate a future business feature or story, when I noticed that it was starting to get longer. Within a few seconds it had become a full arc, and shortly after a second rainbow appeared over the top. By this time I'd called everyone over from their desks and they stood and watched the incredible light show as I frantically snapped away from under my coat (to cut out reflections from the glass of the office window). Then, as fast as it had appeared, it was gone."

Comic Con

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"The MCM Comic Con convention in east London turned out to be one of my favourite jobs of the year to shoot thanks to the ridiculous amount of pictures that were there to be taken, as nearly everyone attending was dressed in some type of costume. One of my favourites was Lindsay Vincent from Cumbria who dressed as US singer Lady Gaga and was happy to take time out to pose for me in front of the passing crowds."

Down but not out

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"Like my earlier shot of Benoit Paire diving for the ball at Wimbledon, this is another of those lucky moments when I happened to be looking in the right direction at the right time. Ko Sung Hyun (seated) of Korea was forced to return a shot to Mohammad Ahsan and Bona Septano of Indonesia (not pictured) during the men's doubles semi-finals from a rather unconventional position at the World Badminton Championships at Wembley Arena."

For those interested in Leon's work his blog offers further pictures and insights in to his working life.

Tomorrow photographer Philip Wolmuth asks: Is it still possible to survive as a freelancer?

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