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Photographer Nick Hedges's best shot

It was 1966 and I was living in Handsworth in Birmingham. I was a big jazz fan, and I found out about this pub, the Cross Guns on Soho Road, where there was a Caribbean jazz night. Back in those days, Handsworth had nothing like the racial tension that came later on.

The musicians weren't famous or anything – just a group of local men playing because they enjoyed it. It was a tiny room; the band took up at least half the space. The guy bent over in the middle, with the light-coloured raincoat, was the sax player and the band's leader. There's another guy with a banjo on his knee, and the one on the left was playing a mouth-harp, I think.

But the person whose presence I was most aware of was the guy with the double bass. He was taller than everyone else, and he had a very quiet, dignified air. I saw he was the group's focal point, and by placing myself behind the other musicians, I put myself in their eyeline, looking through them towards him. The only light was a couple of bare bulbs shielded by a nicotine-encrusted lampshade. I used a moderately wide-angle lens, probably a 35mm – anything wider and you'd lose the sense of crowdedness and intimacy, and then the shot's gone. It was very atmospheric – and it was great they were wearing those porkpie hats.

I was a 22-year-old student when I took this, and it set me on my way to being a professional photographer. I think documentary photography is a particular combination of craft, skill and curiosity about your subject. With this picture I was still learning, and shooting in very low light, so it was a useful experience.

I was lucky. I never had to work to a pressing deadline, so I had time on my side. If you can wait, you can observe situations as they develop, and encapsulate them. You have to be confident that what you are doing is true to the people you're representing, and the situation they are in.

Nick Hedges's Working Life archive is at


Born: Bromsgrove, 1943. Studied: Birmingham College of Art. Inspirations: "Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, W Eugene Smith and Robert Frank." High point: "A project I did in the late 70s about people who work in factories. I put on an exhibition in the works canteen." Top tip: "In talking to people you'll discover that everyone is fascinating." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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