Following the Afro-Asian Games in 2003, David Guttenfelder, my senior and friend at The Associated Press (AP) commented, “Not Olympic material yet.” As a mentor, his words mattered, and thus began a dogged pursuit towards becoming ‘Olympic material’. Eventually, when the prospect of covering the games in Tokyo presented itself, after a three-decade-long career as a photojournalist, I was determined to go.
This assignment was a watershed moment in my career. As a team leader at the Hindustan Times for five years, and now, at Press Trust of India (PTI) for four years, I have had fewer chances to pick up my camera, as I have always prioritised my team members for shoots. Although I am a photographer at heart, my role inadvertently tilted me towards the managerial aspects of the operation.
COVID-19, however, had other plans. The Tokyo Olympic 2020 was postponed to 2021, and as the number of cases grew exponentially, the possibility of the Olympics taking place decreased in parallel. Amidst all the uncertainty, I picked up the baton late from my colleague, who chose not to go considering the risks and uncertainty. Thus began the elaborate paperwork needed for adhering not just to the regular Olympic paperwork, but also the added COVID protocols. It wasn’t easy. A cursory calculation tells me that I spent 50% energy in ensuring the multiple layers of permissions, approvals, COVID-19 tests being in place, 40% in reaching the various venues that were far apart, and a mere 10% on actual photography! Having said that, and in hindsight, it was totally worth it!
The other major sports events that I had covered were for AP, where an entire team was dedicated to paperwork and logistics work, as is the case for all international newswire agencies. So whether it was the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and New Delhi, the Asian Games in Guangzhou, or the multiple cricket matches covered across the sub-continent, all I had to do was pack my bags and go. So now, filling the paperwork and unravelling every nuance of the travel and other formalities was a first for me, and I struggled. There were unexpected hurdles that kept delaying my applications for the clearance that I needed before visiting Japan. There came a point when I just gave up and felt that I may not actually be able to go.
Then the first of the many ‘divine interventions’ happened. Jewel Samad, a brilliant photographer, who also heads the South Asia photo team at Agence France-Presse (AFP), guided me on many fronts. Whether it was the RT-PCR tests that needed to be done in a certain format mandated by the Japanese government or reassuring me when there was a delay in my immigration and games related clearances, he gave me much-needed hope, for which I am eternally indebted to him.
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