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The Gulls:

As Gaivotas, Baía Sul, Florianópolis, SC Brasil

It was our final week in Brazil. On 26 October friends drove down from Blumenau to Florianópolis to say goodbye. Hearts were breaking, really. Some of us went for a drive in a loop round the south of the island, returning via the road through the military base, just south west of the airport. The weather was a cool October drizzle – most un-Brazilian, but it suited the mood.

Driving north beside the bay, the sea, supremely sheltered here anyway, was calmed to an oily smoothness by the light rain, whose stipples on the surface only underlined the overall lack of movement. Coming to a wooden jetty we stopped and got out of the cars.

I started photographing – a fishing boat, rocks in the sea, and gulls on the jetty. After the first couple of shots of the jetty, I knew I had to get lower. I jumped down a metre or so onto the beach. Slightly shingly, my clatter startled the gulls, most of whom took off, curving down over the water and away, before sheepishly returning to base.

A military vehicle pulled up. Soldiers, guns at the ready, jumped out. Yes, the road was a right of way, but we weren’t allowed to stop and certainly not use cameras at all in the area of the base. Then they found I wasn’t Brazilian. Visions of incarceration as a spy at the very end of my decade in Brazil flashed before me. But we talked it through, and went on our way. And my magic Lumix box had these images stored away.

Just before I jumped

The next four frames from my camera

At five megapixels and dreadful noise at any ISO above a miserly 80, the Lumix FZ20 might seem a very limiting camera. But back in 2005 (when I bought it) it was extraordinary. The 12x zoom Leica lens maintained f2.8 throughout the range, and was screamingly sharp. Our home is largely decorated with prints taken with this camera!

These shots were taken in a slow burst at f4, 1/1640, ISO80 and a focal length of 6mm – the equivalent of a “full frame” 36mm, which was as wide angle as it would go.

I have sold prints of that first frame, shot on autopilot as I regained my balance on the shingle. There have been various edits, various attempts to deal with the fundamental problems of low pixel count and noise from that old Lumix sensor. I have got used to very different cameras since then! But it was an inspirational camera and taught me more than any other camera in my life. And I knew it, back to front and inside out.

People have asked me if I photoshopped one gull in several times to create that swooping curve. But no – this is what the birds did, and the other frames bear testimony that the birds weren’t committed to formation flying.

Aside from that first frame, I have not edited these images until now. Fifteen years they have sat on hard discs – fifteen years of improvements in software! Here is the penultimate frame in the sequence, just a second or so after the original, edited just this weekend.

Of all the photos I took in Brazil, these are the least Brazilian. No colour – these aren’t black and white images – this is how it was. Grey on the sea and grey in our hearts and that swoop and swirl of life as the gulls took off.

Out of the little group – two carloads – who watched the gulls that day, two marriages have broken up and one of us has been killed by a bullet. I can’t see the image without a return of pain, and yet I love it.

This is the first image in what I hope will be a series – favourite pictures with their stories. The camera used is more or less irrelevant, though I will include the data. If anyone wants a print, drop me an email or use my contact form.

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