This is a very different Richard Dunwoody. Twenty years ago he was a Grand National winning champion jockey. Ten years back he had walked to the North Pole and was planning the impossibly arduous feat of dragging sledge 680 miles unaided across the Antarctic to the Geographic South. Now he has a ground breaking photographic exhibition in Trafalgar Square. He is 50 on Saturday. Not a bad half-century.
The bell tower of St Martins in The Field looks out past Nelson’s Column to Admiralty Arch and Buckingham Palace. Its last racing connection was ringing out the peals at the Dick Francis Memorial Service and while Richard Dunwoody is now in the Crypt Gallery it is not as a racing man. The billing on the brochure is significant. No mention of Grand Nationals, jockeys championships, or that now so McCoy wrecked record of 1699 career winners; just the simple citation “through the lens of the talented photographer -Richard Dunwoody MBE.”
This is exactly as he, and more importantly as The Brooke, the International Animal Welfare Charity that commissioned the exhibition, have wanted it. Their mission is to bring aid and understanding to the 600 million people, 9% of the world’s population, who depend on working horses, donkeys and mules for their existence. “Richard’s photographs show how vital the animals are,” says The Brooke’s Rachel Bhageerutty, “and they drive home our work’s importance in preventing animal suffering and improving equine welfare for generations to come. These images will inspire people which is exactly what we wanted to achieve.”
They were not easily gained. Over four weeks Richard tracked the Brooke’s work across India, Pakistan, Egypt and Guatemala, where over 7 million equines are in daily, always arduous and often appallingly ignorantly tended labour. There are just 19 beautifully lit pictures amongst the Crypt’s ancient columns and rough red brick walls but they are of people and animals reliant on each other to breaking point. There is a horse being made to gallop up a dual carriageway with 55 empty oil barrels balanced behind it, a donkey staggering under its load in a Delhi slum, a wide eyed boy and his blind pony helping a Guatemalan Steptoe’s rag-and-bone cart to market. The trip was hot, tough, challenging and had a really fine ambition, even if the finishing line was a famous church not Cheltenham. It was exactly what Dunwoody had been waiting for. Mind you we have to go back awhile.
For it was twenty years ago this November that Richard travelled the long road north for what seemed a supremely unsuccessful afternoon at Carlisle. His first ride was eighth, the second was last, the third was pulled up and the fourth, the reason he had driven to within 10 miles of the Scottish border, was backed down to 11/8 favourite and could only finish fifth. But the horse, Distant Echo, was owned by racing photographer Mel Fordham for whom Richard’s then wife Carole worked as an assistant. When he was not riding Richard went down to the last fence with Mel, borrowed a camera, fired off some shots and said, “this looks an easy number.” He has come to know different.
“I have always been interested in photography,” says Richard, “there was a dark room at my boarding school and I remember going down to Newton Abbot and taking pictures of Scu (Peter Scudamore) who was my hero. When I was racing I was great friends with Mel, had huge respect for Ed Byrne and loved Ed Whittaker’s work. Afterwards I always had a camera with me but was not taking it seriously. I wish I had the knowledge and equipment I have now when I did that trip to the South Pole. I saw some amazing things and took pictures but they were all pretty basic.”
The world, the Guinness Book of Records and, briefly, the Strictly Come Dancing audience, came to know Richard as something of a hair shirt adventurer seeking Grand Nationals of another kind. But in the background there was beginning to be some method in the madness. He had joined the Fulham based Wild Frontier travel company and was leading tours to some of the remotest parts of the globe. “I found I loved to travel, to see different places, different cultures and was always thinking that I wanted to do something involving all that. Then I heard about this course in Paris. I flew over for an interview and took it from there.”
The Speos International Photography Institute is not for happy snappers. Dunwoody’s course was five days a week for 9 months with a break from Christmas Eve to January 6th. After three months he took the photo-journalism rather than studio route and taking sports as a subject was in the dug-out at the Stade Francais for Italy/France rugby, on the touch line watching Joe Cole and Edin Hazard play for Lille against Compiegne in football, and closer both to the Institute and his previous calling, he went to Auteuil in the Bois de Boulogne for the jump racing.
“It was hard work,” says Richard whose previous attitude to schooling had always been how to get out of it, “but I really enjoyed it. It was crammed, we had to learn all the mechanics, how to frame shots, how to transmit, how to sell photos, how to think. There were exams at the end and I have my diploma. It has been invaluable.”
Just how one much can see by a quick glimpse at the Dunwoody website. The images are of people and places that few of us will ever see and they are taken with what is clearly a gifted as well as a now professional eye. “I am very happy for him and he certainly has a talent” said Mel Fordham this week, “what’s more I think he has changed as a person. For a time after he retired he seemed almost too driven, what with all those Polar projects and things. But now he has found something in which he can get creative satisfaction out places that few people in the world have ever seen. There is real fulfilment in seeing something, taking the picture, looking in the back of the camera and just occasionally being able to say ‘got that.’ Those are his winners now.”
Yet while the hard earned professionalism of his pictures was one of the reasons The Brooke called on him, so too was the still evident hunger for adventure which attracts him to places and situations that others avoid.. “Richard was great to work with,” says Ali Large who accompanied him for the Brooke, “he went out of his way to learn some basic language to help gain people’s trust and always tried to be inconspicuous when taking shots. If he wasn’t up on a roof or ladder, he was running along the road or hiding behind long strands of grass.”
Enthusiasm nearly brought an unwelcome reward at an open cast slate mine in Khanayara, India where 300 mules and ponies drag up to 100kg of slate a time 6 km to the road for transportation. “Everyone started whistling as we climbed up nearer the mine face,” remember Richard with a smile, “I just thought it was wolf whistles at the girls we had with us. Then we realised it was a warning that they were about to dynamite.” Empathy with the horses was central to The Brooke’s mission but there were times when picturing horses and mules foraging amongst the monkeys in the rubbish dump beneath the Indian mountain shrine at Katra, when anger is what comes foremost.
“This was one of the richest places we visited,” said Richard, “they can have up to 60,000 visitors a day. And yet here are these horses who at the end of the day carrying fat tourists 6 miles up the mountain are just let go to find food in the rubbish dump where they pick up all sorts of awful things like ropes and plastic which end up giving them colic, sticking out of their rectums and they just leave them there to die. Their culture won’t allow euthanasia in any form and if the Brooke vets did the merciful thing they would not be allowed in again. It does shock you.”
But the talk about danger zones, about his next project accompanying a travel writer into Sudan, of his wish to do a turn “embedded” with the army in combat, of the head of a suicide bomber which bounced over the fence and ended next to the sunbed of a hotel in Kandahar, make one still wonder if the old post racing madness has really gone away. Time was when Richard used to evade the question but now he takes it front on. “I don’t think I was ever really that unhappy,” he says belying some of the more traumatic passages of his best-selling memoir ‘Obsessed’. “I think going to the two Poles and climbing Aconcagua was quite a good effort and I now have a wonderful life. I have a flat in Chelsea, I travel the world, I see fascinating places and different cultures, I have a job where I can try and capture some of that for others, and my girl-friend and I are renting a lovely Spanish farmhouse high up in the hills an hour north of Sotogrande. I don’t think that is too bad.”
Chris Smith has long been renowned as one of the greatest of sports photographers and his timeless pictures of Muhammed Ali had their own exhibition in the Strand a couple of years ago. On Wednesday evening he spent an hour in the crypt of St Martins in The Field. He was there not as a racing fan belatedly realising that Richard Dunwody was something more than a still supercharged ex jockey but as one photographer judging another. “These are really very good,” said Chris not with surprise but appreciation, “most of them hardly need a caption. They tell the story.”
Smith looks at the image of the exhausted horse in Lahore and explains, “the picture shows you exactly how shattered the poor animal is and the sight of the load on the left shows you why. The horses is actually standing in the shade but Richard has kept attention on it by using some fill-in flash which is done with such subtlety that you don’t realise it has been used. What also works,” he continues as we walk across the crypt above which Evensong is just beginning, “is the way he has captured the relationship between the people and the animals.”
We have reached the photograph of the young man walking back behind his four line-abreast donkeys at the end of a brutal shift taking loads of up to 110kg (19stone) a time from the brick kiln in Gujranwala, Pakistan. “This is very interesting, and very well done, because you can see from the beads on the bridles, and the weary confidence of the donkeys that the man behind is proud of them. Richard has shot it on a medium telephoto lens with a fairly wide aperture which gets a three dimensional focus on to the animals. You see the harsh background, you see the man, but it is actually a very positive picture.”
“It really is impressive,” concludes Chris who doesn’t need to toss away compliments, “very professional, technically sound, bravely achieved and sensitively done.” Those were exactly the type of things people used to say about Richard in the earlier job he could never truly put behind him. But now he has found another life. It might even be a better one.