David Ofield, Picture Editor of the London Evening Standard, has held the job for almost three decades, and through seven editorships. He tells a trusted colleague about the refined skill of telling a story through pictures, a craft less treasured than ever before by our newspapers.
It’s five-o’clock in the morning, and Britain’s longest serving picture editor is racing through the empty London streets.
David Ofield has already checked the late night picture editor’s log for national and international stories. On the journey, his chief photographer Jeremy Selwyn has already checked in from his car to go on the story of the day, or go straight to the office.
In almost three decades of 5am starts, the quietly spoken, unassuming doyen of Fleet Street’s Photo Editors has pored over multi millions of images.
He has covered seven General Elections, seven Olympic Games, seven World Cups. And he has served up thousands of dramatic front page ‘splash’ pictures for seven different editors.
Known universally as Dave O, the man who began his newspaper career as a 15-year old messenger at the Sport and General Press Agency has overseen iconic photos from every major news story and disaster around the world.
The 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Princess Diana’s shocking death in Paris and the 7/7 suicide bombers who claimed 52 innocent lives in the heart of London are just three of the history-making events he has witnessed from the picture editor’s chair.
“No one day is ever the same as the one before, which is part of the appeal,” Ofield says as he looks forward to finally retiring in early June.
Tuesday March 22 most definitely wasn’t the same as the day before.
It was the day Jihadi suicide bombers detonated their explosive devices at Brussels’ Zaventem Airport and the city’s Maalbeek Metro station killing 35 and injuring 270 – just as Ofield was putting his picture schedule together for the Standard’s 8am morning conference.
He took up the fast-moving story.
“Everything was going smoothly and then all hell broke loose with the news from Brussels the bombers had struck at the airport and on the city Metro.
“The first pictures began to drop on Twitter just after 8.15am,” he recalls.
“The first edition deadline is brought forward to 10.45am when a big story breaks because we need to get the paper out on the streets.
“On the day of the Brussels bombings, we were aiming for a print run of nearly a million copies, so a quick turn around was essential.
“By 9.30am a good selection of pictures had run on AP and Reuters backed up by the smaller agencies – but there was no real impact picture for page 1.
“We thought we may have to go with what we had but then, just before deadline, a picture cam in from AP of two shocked and bloodstained women who had been wounded at the airport”
The pace in the Standard news room was frenetic.
“The picture was perfect for the front,” Ofield said. “Real impact that brought home the horror of the attack, but I paused for a moment and said to myself ‘Would this picture offend people?’
“The answer was ‘probably’ but it was too good to ignore.
“The Editor has the final say and she was good with it – so it was a wipe-out front page across six columns.
“The pictures were coming in thick and fast and just as the first edition went, another belting picture of the bombed Metro carriage dropped.
“So for the second edition we changed the splash.
“The second edition went bang on time at 12.30 and, most importantly, the Editor was happy.
“By 5pm nearly 5,000 pictures had run on the bombing.
“And the following morning our circulation department told us we had shifted 950,000.
“A record for a Tuesday. Brilliant.”
Great stories – and great pictures – have been Ofield’s life. He said: “I’ve been very lucky. I always tell people a picture editor is only as good as the photographers he employs.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some great photographers. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
The Standard’s chief photographer Jeremy Selwyn laughed: “Dave’s been my boss for nearly 30 years – and there’s not many people who can say that!
“He’s been tremendous. But he always lines up one last job of the day for you and says, “It’s sort of on your way home …”
Ofield’s first year picture-editing the Standard in 1987 was a baptism of fire with three major stories. Thirty-one died in the King’s Cross tube fire, deranged gunman Michael Ryan shot 17 people dead in the Hungerford massacre and the UK was hit by the Great Storm.
The following year brought the terrorist downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. Ofield, 66, said: “We ran the first picture of the fuselage on the ground in the Standard. We got the call the night before and sent a photographer to drive through the night to Lockerbie.”
In 2001, came the devastating 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, killing 2,977 victims.
“We had staff photographer Cavan Pawson covering New York Fashion Week when the first plane slammed in the Twin Towers. We quickly diverted him from a show and, within the hour, his picture of the collapsing tower was in the paper.
“An unbelievable picture …”
Happily, Ofield’s 30 years at the Standard haven’t all been death and destruction.
He said: “Showbiz photographer Dave Bennett is an absolute must for a paper like the Standard. He has a small team working with him, they go to several parties every night and his pictures are vital for some brightness in the paper – especially the diary page.
“Dave is on first-name terms with all the A-list movie stars like George Clooney and Eddie Redmayne and models like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.
“One of his most famous pictures launched worldwide interest in Liz Hurley when she wore ‘that dress’ – a plunging black Versace number held together with safety pins – when she attended the premiere of Four Weddings and A Funeral with Hugh Grant”.
And there had been lighter moments when Princess Diana made a Royal visit to the Standard in 1996 and, a more recent one, when Prince Charles and Camilla visited in January this year.
Then there was the day in June 2012 when former Prime Minister Tony Blair dropped in to “guest-edit” the Standard.
Smiling, Ofield recalled: “He was fine. I ended my picture schedule with a Coronation Street story and he chuckled at that said ‘Cherie will be interested in that one…”