‘Bob Marley turned up in a bad mood’ – Esther Anderson’s best photograph

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‘To loosen him up, I got him to run. When he got warm, he took his top off. The camera loved him and he loved to show off’

In the autumn of 1972, I had just finished filming A Warm December with Sidney Poitier. I was in New York at a party hosted by Island Records, and that’s where I first met Bob. He and the Wailers had recently signed with the label and he was in the city for promotional work.

I was at a stage in my life where I was fed up of repeating other people’s ideas and voices as an actress. I wanted to find another way to express myself. I had been learning the craft of photography through my friend Francine Winham, and I decided to put aside my acting career to document Bob Marley and the Wailers for their forthcoming album Catch a Fire. My then partner, Chris Blackwell – co-founder of Island – asked me to guide the group and help transform them into international artists.

I travelled with Bob to Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti soon afterwards. We began to develop a very close relationship that involved us writing together, including the lyrics for Get Up, Stand Up. He was serious about being an artist, and was desperate to get his voice out to the world.

When we got back to Jamaica, I suggested that we go to Hellshire Beach for the shoot. It’s a part of the island famed for its beautiful white sands, clear water and the Blue Mountain in the backdrop. I wanted to show Bob as himself, a young artist coming out of Jamaica, on his own terms. It was paramount to demonstrate how important Rastafarian philosophy and its way of life was to him. I knew that Bob’s Covenant, as he called his “Rasta tam” (his cap of red, gold and green), was the connection. I sought to show that without the Rastafari tradition there was no Bob Marley.

I wanted to photograph him in the light of Jamaica, showing the colour of our skin the way it should be shown

Back then, Rastafari was not considered part of Jamaican culture, and people on the island were disenfranchised and ostracised for being Rastafarians. Having dreadlocks often prevented access to white collar jobs. I wanted Bob Marley and the Wailers to be a catalyst for a change in the perception of Rastafarians both in Jamaica and worldwide, and to associate the tradition with the beauty of reggae.

On the day of the shoot, Bob had had a disagreement with Chris and was in a bad mood. To loosen him up, I got him to run on the beach. He got very warm so he took his shirt off. All the while he was jogging, feeling free, I was getting shots of him.

I wanted to photograph him in the light of Jamaica, showing the colour of our skin the way it should be shown. I remember him saying: “Gosh, you’re taking many pictures of me!” The camera loved him and he loved to show off – he photographed like a dream. By the time he stopped running, the evening sun had fallen and reflected like burnt gold on the surface of the water. I went in for a closeup, and that’s when he clasped his hands.

To me, the photo is like a prayer, as if Bob was saying: “I am looking out at Babylon and I trust you.” The pose was completely natural, but I knew as soon as he did it that here lay the decisive moment.

I used a Nikon with a 200mm lens. I adore the grainy quality that it gives a photo – I particularly dislike pictures to be completely flat. The image depicts the very essence of being comfortable in one’s own skin, and how self-expression is born out of being true to self.

Esther Anderson’s CV

Born: British Jamaica, 1943.
Trained: with photographer Francine Winham.
Influences: Hiro, Richard Avedon, Jerry Schatzberg, Robert Freeman, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray.
High point: “The success of my album pictures for Catch a Fire and Burnin’. The Burnin’ album was chosen by Time magazine and the BBC to be placed in a capsule in the Metropolitan Museum in New York to be opened on the night of the year 3000.”
Low point: In 1974, after the release of the Catch a Fire album, the Jamaican police raided my home and studio taking away my film and photographs including the cover image of Bob smoking a big spliff. They were never returned to me.
Top tips: “Secure your copyright. Only work in the discipline of photography if you are passionate and really love it.”

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