First of all, yes, this Queen’s Guard looks to have been out late enjoying one too many pints the night before. He’s standing at attention but with his eyes closed. I love this for so many reasons, starting with the fact that we all feel this way at one point or another. Sitting in a meeting at work, exhausted, wishing we could be there in body but not in spirit. And here he is, this soldier who is among the best of the British Empire – and yet he’s altogether too human.
Not ten minutes earlier, I was charged by one of his brothers in arms, loaded assault rifle in hand. I don’t have a picture of that, but some lucky tourist does. To this day, I’m sure that that tourist occasionally trots out the snapshot of me toe-to-toe with an angry Queen’s Guard. I must have looked ridiculous in the moment. I sure felt that way once I realized what was happening.
Several years earlier, I was in a small hill town in Ethiopia – a funeral procession was taking place and it seemed as if the entire village had turned out and was walking in the procession. I shot with a basic Pentax film camera back then and carried with me one lens, a 35-70MM that allowed me to go from a slight zoom to a slight wide angle. I remember looking through my lens, zooming in and realizing that I could capture a few good images from a respectable distance. I took a few steps into the road, knelt down and captured an image.
I can only surmise what happened next. I must have gotten lost in my viewfinder, fixated on the scene and the potential for great images while losing sight of where I was. At the same time, I must have scooched further into the middle of the road for a better angle and to best fill my frame with the procession. The marchers, all on foot, came closer and I, again, not conscious of what I was doing, zoomed out as the mourners got closer. My ears filled with the wails of distraught people and I felt their pain and tried to capture it with my camera, me kneeling down, camera prone against my eye. That’s when I received the well-deserved humiliation. I was kicked in the back by one of the mourners.
If it’s not already clear what happened – I had started taking pictures from a fair distance, but got absorbed in my viewfinder and lost touch with reality. The result was that I (very inappropriately) positioned myself in the middle of the road and (extremely inappropriately) neglected to get out of the way as the mourners approached. The net result of which was that I ended up being both a physical and disrespectful nuisance in the midst of their march. I deserved the kick in the back and then some, and realizing my error, I felt ashamed and quickly slunked out of the road, offering”Yiqirta” (apologies) to anyone who would listen as I did so.
Cut to a couple of years later – I was in London capturing images of a wide range of landmarks including, of course, the changing of the guard. During the pageantry, a regiment of the Queen’s Guards leaves their barracks down the street from Buckingham Palace, walk down Birdcage Walk, take a left onto Spur Road which leads them directly to the gates of Buckingham Palace. Imagine if you will, I had stationed myself along the edge of Spur Road in perfect position to capture images of the marching troops.
The band played. The troops marched with the musicians in front, the armed soldiers behind them, all in perfect formation and perfect cadence. I watch the musicians pass without taking a single picture. I had film – 36 frames before I needed to re-load. I was waiting for the guards with the automatic weapons. Much more dramatic and fitting.
Then there they were – marching five abreast, their loaded weapons held tightly across their chests. I pressed my eye to my viewfinder, only the angle wasn’t quite right. And so, as in Ethiopia, I unconsciously took a half step off the curb. Today, I believe there are ropes that hold the crowds in place. But back when I was captured this image, there were no ropes in place, just a system of common sense and courtesy. Of which, it turned out, I was lacking in both.
Like the scene in Ethiopia I described above, I slowly pulled my lens from full zoom to wide angle as the troops got closer. And like the scene in Ethiopia I described above, in an effort to get the right angle, I scooched slowly out into the the road where I had no business being.
Unlike Ethiopia, this time the angry people who’s space I had invaded were armed. I watched through my tiny viewfinder as one of the guards broke ranks, took two steps ahead of his mates, turned 90 degrees to face the crowd and, as it happened, to face me. What luck, I thought. Perfect positioning. I clicked off a frame or two. The guard began high stepping in my general direction and I feared I wouldn’t be able to pull the lens back quickly enough to keep him in the frame. As I struggled to get the framing and the focus right – I felt a half-step behind as the Queen’s Guard came, let’s face it, running, knees in his chest, directly at me – I noticed that he had taken his SA-80 Assault Rifle off of his shoulder and held it out in front of him – business end, still pointing to the sky, but nonetheless one step closer to action.
The guard’s knees hiked up sharply as he double timed directly toward me. Honestly, I wasn’t fast enough to get a decent shot, but I was excited at the possibilities. After all, what were the chances that a guard would break formation right in front of me and head not just in my general direction, but directly toward me? Yes, I was indeed that dense.
As the guard drew nearer, I could hear him yelling. To this day I have no idea what he said. It was mostly a military grunt of some sort with a strong British accent to boot. I had no idea what words he was speaking. But when he came to a halt inches from my camera and basically yelled in my face, the penny finally dropped. I pulled my camera away from my face, looked up and realized that I had ventured ten feet out into the street – ten feet past the line I wasn’t supposed to cross and ten feet into the sacred space that at that very moment belonged to the Queen’s Guards.
I would love to find a tourist who has a snapshot of me in all my glory, out where I didn’t belong, and lucky to have gotten off with only a browbeating.
The guards continued unabated into the Palace grounds, behind the fence and stood in formation for a range of music and drills. I quickly got my adrenaline under control and squirmed my way up to the front of the fence where I pointed my camera at the troops that just minutes before had nearly run me over, or worse.
That’s when I captured this image that I affectionally call “The Sleeping Guard.”
Rest assured, the guards were not actually sleeping that day, even if this particular chap needed to get some additional shut eye before his shift.
My biggest challenge with this image is that the closed eyes are everything in the shot, but they are also a relatively tiny part of the overall image. The result is that one has to look quite closely to get the joke. One day before long, I’ll print this picture very large, life size perhaps, and put up on a wall where his shut eyes can’t be missed. That said, the moment is timeless and, I believe, a human moment that each of us can relate to. And for that reason, more than any other, I do love this image.