Monday, 1 September 2014

Kim Ayres - At the base of The Wickerman

The Wickerman 2014 - a willow sculpture, 40 feet high, created for the Wickerman Festival held in SW Scotland in July every year.

Off in the distance, Del Amtri are playing the last track of their set - a cover of Motorhead's Ace of Spades. The sound randomly seems to get louder and quieter depending on the direction of the wind. 60 meters away up to fifteen thousand people are starting to gather behind a dry stane dyke in anticipation of the highlight of The Wickerman Festival.

Press photographers are filing through a gap in the wall to a fenced off corral so they can get an uninterrupted view of the event. I am standing at the base of the 40 foot high willow sculpture in the shape of a highland dancer.

View of the Festival from the base of The Wickerman (click on images for larger versions)

Since the festival began 12 years ago, every year Trevor Leat and Alex Rigg ( spend about 3 weeks building a giant wickerman, which is then ceremoniously set fire to at midnight on the Saturday of the festival. Each year has a different theme, and this one was tying in with the Homecoming Scotland initiative. In order for the dancer to be able to balance on one leg, the drape over the shoulder was reinforced with 2 long steel poles.

As Trevor and his assistant, Xander, are putting the last preparations in place - straw at the base, fire rope around the leg, and pouring diesel onto the straw, I am in the unique position of being the only photographer right up there with them.

A sense of scale as Trevor and Xander make last minute preparations

Further down the hill there are professional press photographers who would have chewed off their right arm for the opportunity to be standing where I am. Fortunately for me I've known Trevor for several years and have done lots of photography for him before. Using his special status he's managed to take me up there with him.

Despite this being the 4th time I've been in this position, I still get a childlike thrill when the lights go out. For about 20 minutes I'm just watching Trevor and Xander moving around with wee head-torches bobbing in the darkness. The rain from earlier in the evening has stopped and a few stars are showing through the clouds. Periodically an excited voice carries over the noise of the crowd as someone screams, "BURN IT!!!"

The crowd is gathering

I remember I have a camera over my shoulder and start fiddling with the settings.

"What time is it?" asks Trevor. I pull my phone out my pocket.


Over the next three minutes, I'm asked again about 4 times. The anticipation is building and building. The crowd is getting louder, with sections of it chanting.

"Ok, it's midnight!" I say.

Trevor and Xander light their long poles and walk round behind the sculpture, aware the crowd will see the movement of light. They take up position either side and stand for a few moments, building the tension. Then they turn and place the flaming torches onto the straw.

It catches immediately.

We move away as the flames start shooting up the legs.

I'm now firing off the camera at an extraordinary pace, constantly checking the small images on the back, continually making adjustments to the settings.

Because the fire is so much brighter than the surrounds, the basic problem is if you expose for the flames, then the wickerman doesn't show up, but if you expose for the willow, then the fire just becomes a white blur.

It doesn't hang around - I only have a few minutes to get as many photos as I can at as many different exposure settings as possible in the hope that some of them will work.

Fireworks are now going off too, although at this point, it's difficult to get a good photo containing them and the wickerman together as I'm so close. The press photographers down in the corral are in the prime position for that - and it is their photos that will be filling the papers over the next few days.

Kim Ayres

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