Anne Laing is by now used to courting baffled glances. Or being singled out in a massive crowd. She has been the odd one out for long enough,lugging along her trusted camera to sporting venues around South Africa.
The backpack covers the 55-year-olds spine that has already undergone two major operations. The zoom lens that accompanies her is almost the size of the veteran photographer. But Laing is unrelenting. Her roving eyes hardly miss a good shot while her two hands work with clockwork precision. On Wednesday,as India and South Africa face each other in the third ODI,Laing will complete 30 years of what has been an illustrious career.
During that time,Laing,who now works for South African Cricket magazine,has been counted among the top snappers in the country. More importantly,shes paved the way for many sports-loving women like her to get behind the lens professionally during a three-decade long career where shes shot over 300 international cricket matches and an equal number of rugby games.
Along the way,the pioneer had to fight severe discrimination,mainly on the basis of her gender.
I was refused a job at the Cape Times newspaper in 1984 just because I was a woman. As luck would have it one of their regular staffers fell ill and I was asked to fill in. Within six months,I was the head of the department there, says Laing,her wrinkled face breaking into a cheery smile.
Despite the early break,holding her own in a field dominated by men wasnt easy. And it took a lot many path-breaking assignments for her to convince the industry that women too could hold their own on the sidelines of a sporting contest.
South Africas return from isolation in the early 1990s brought international sport back to the Rainbow Nation and Laing was ready with her trusted camera. Through this epoch,she was a regular at cricket and rugby stadiums around the country. At the turn of the century,word about her work had spread across the globe. But then,in the winter of 2000,came her biggest assignment yet,when she became the first photographer to click a picture of disgraced South African captain Hansie Cronje after he had gone into hiding post the match-fixing scandal.
I was hired by an Australian newspaper who flew down a reporter. And for two weeks,we were in hot pursuit of Hansie at the plush golf resort of Fancourt,where he was living. Then one day we caught him entering the house. It was like a slap-stick comedy,two people in a golf-cart chasing a BMW, recalls Laing.
She continues: Luckily the watchman had gone for a toilet break and we snuck in,knocked on the door and as Hansie opened I clicked a few pictures of him,the first since he had disappeared.
While she reminisces about the Cronje capture like an adventure,two years later,Laing was the most sought-after freelance photographer in the country. During a Springbok-All Blacks rugby match,she managed to click the only frames of a burly fan,Piet van Zyl tackling the referee,an incident that made newspaper headlines across the world.
Laing insists that her preference as a sports fan has always been for rugby. But from a photographers point of view she believes that cricket provides her with much better frames,mainly because of the many intricacies of the sport.
On the ground,her vantage points keep shifting. During the course of an ODI you might find her in seven to eight different spots,snapping away and always in sync with the beat of the action.
Firstly,the helmets used provide this nice natural shadow-like effect. And there are so many elements to a cricket match. I love taking snaps of fielders making dives,taking skiers and dropping them. And a bowling action like Ryan McLarens,which is side-on,is perfect for the camera, she explains.
Shooting late night games in certain parts of South Africa does come with its own risks,she admits,especially for a woman. Laing came close to disaster when she was nearly mugged a few years back. But the pioneer is a tad disappointed that not enough women have really followed her path in South Africa anyway. And she remains an oddity.
For the FIFA World Cup,out of some 450 photographers only 17 were female. The number is growing but not at an alarming rate. There is no dearth of women who love sports but I hope I have more company very soon, says Laing.