My 47 years as a press photographer: Brian Harris interview
June 24, 2016
Wanted: tenacious photojournalist for national broadsheet newspaper. No qualifications necessary, but experience essential. In return, you’ll receive an arsenal of photographic kit, a company car, a competitive salary, a pension
and travel the world for free.
Interested? To apply, all you need do is invent a time machine and travel back four decades. Even then, you’ll find that a young Brian Harris has pipped you to the job.
Fast-forward to today and the career of the seasoned photographer, who has racked up nearly half a century shooting for the press, is the stuff of legend.
‘I’ve been an observer of history as it was being made,’ says Brian. ‘These events were high and low spots in everybody’s lives, but I’ve been privileged to see them happen right in front of me, and be paid to photograph them.’
The end of the civil war in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe, the aftermath of the Falklands War, the famines of Ethiopia and Sudan, the first stirrings of unrest in Serbia and Kosovo, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, the fall-out after Tiananmen Square, the first elections in Nepal, the demise of Margaret Thatcher, the rise of Tony Blair, four US presidential elections… Brian documented them all – and more.
‘Photography has been wonderful for me, but it’s not a career I would want to start now,’ says the 63-year- old. ‘It’s a new world out there. I wonder how young photographers who are fresh out of college get into editorial photography. I don’t know how they can make a solid living doing really interesting work, because the business has changed so much. The decline of the newspaper business means budgets have been cut and the major agencies offer photos to newspapers for pennies. It’s just unsustainable for a photographer.
‘Yes you may get something online or post something on social media, but how do you pay your mortgage with that or even buy a pint of milk? You can’t make a living out of that. To earn a professional income of £50,000-£60,000 is unknown now. The days of a salaried newspaper photographer with a company car and a pension just don’t exist.’
In the beginning
Back when Brian was trying to break into the industry, youngsters showing self-motivation and initiative were considered to be as qualified as those with a formal education. This attitude gave Brian, a working-class London lad, the chance to go from shooting for local newspapers as a schoolboy to being an apprentice- style messenger boy for press photo agency Fox Photos, just yards from Fleet Street, the beating heart of Britain’s newspaper industry.
By the age of 20, Brian had learned the ropes and became a photographer, entrusted with equipment that, he jokes, was worth more than his parents’ house. On top of that, he got the keys to his first company car: a red Mini. Five years later, aged 25, he joined The Times as its youngest-ever staff photographer, but left in 1984 to freelance through Impact Photos (which sold picture stories to international news magazines including Time and Newsweek).
In 1986, he joined The Independent, the new kid on the block, becoming its first staff photographer. He played a key role in forming the renowned ‘Indy style’ of ‘intelligent editorial photography’. It was during these 14 years that Brian travelled the world, witnessing many of the 20th century’s most dramatic moments first hand. One of these was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Brian was one of the last photographers to experience and record East Berlin before the first brick fell.
‘We didn’t know what would happen,’ he says. ‘It was such a tense time and all very uncertain. The Wall came down on 9 November, but I’d been through it a few days earlier. It was like going through the back of a wardrobe to Narnia. To get to the east side you had to go around all these concrete roadblocks with barbed wire and past formidable armed guards. It was bloody scary.
‘One of the first things I noticed about the other side was the light. When you were in West Berlin it was like any other European city, but when you went to East Berlin it was like someone had turned the lights out. They were using 30-watt light bulbs in the street. It was like going back to a time I never knew: pre-war Berlin but without the gay lights. It was weird and spooky.
‘I stayed in a hotel there and the next day I went out with one camera, a wide 24mm and 105mm, and half a dozen rolls of film. It was so quiet because there was no traffic. The light was muted and soft because the air was filled with pollution from the cheap brown lignite coal they were burning in the East. It was surreal – like taking pictures on a film set.
‘Three days later, the wall came down. It was pandemonium. How was the East German government going to react? Were the Russians going to send in the tanks? Once things became clearer, it was wonderful. You could just walk through holes in the wall. We got a lot of coverage with those pictures.’
Risks of the job
Although he encountered many high-risk situations during his five decades as a press photographer, Brian claims he rarely felt in mortal danger. However, he recalls feeling pretty nervous covering events in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), in 1980.
‘In those days, as a member of the press armed with just a camera and a press card, you tended to be respected by both sides in any conflict. You might be collateral damage but you were never targeted in the way the press is now, particularly in places such as Syria.
‘Back then it was different. For example, in Rhodesia I was sent off to photograph the troops of the Patriotic Front (PF) coming in from the bush in the Zambezi valley as part of the negotiated settlement to end the war. In they came but they were so armed up – rocket launchers, Kalashnikovs, grenades and God knows what else – they looked like extras for a really bad movie. It was really tense, and I was still quite inexperienced, but then their commanding officer said, “This is my friend, Mr Brian Harris from The Times of London. He is a very important journalist,” and that was it. After that, they all wanted to be photographed!’
Admirers of Brian’s work have often commented on the serenity and calm of his pictures. He says these qualities are partly explained by his personality.
‘I like gentle, rather than aggressive, pictures,’ he says. ‘I tend not to do that sort of thing. Maybe I’m not brave enough, maybe I don’t get in close enough, or maybe I’m not quick enough, but I like to make gentle observations. I’ve never been a hard news photographer. I’m sure there are those who would say that my vein of photography is “fluffy bunny work”.
‘I like to shoot news with a twist. Particularly when I’m photographing something that shows the pomposity of politics or the state, putting a wry smile into the photograph can expose the nonsense. It’s why, in 1986, I started using very wideangle lenses. It meant I could photograph in a way that wasn’t necessarily what the public relations officer wanted.
‘Once, at an event to photograph Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, I stuck on my wideangle lens and got her with her bodyguards. Most photographers would have just gone in tight on her. By doing what I did, I made the picture into more of a piece of theatre, so people could see she wasn’t there all on her own; she was surrounded by five detectives, and a policeman with a gun.’
As the century came to an end, so did Brian’s time at The Independent, when he was made redundant as part of a cost-cutting drive. He’s since worked as a freelancer, a situation that, he says, allows him to be more creative. It’s a privilege that his successors in the press industry no longer enjoy, he says, and the reason he keeps taking pictures.
‘In the old days, employers gave photographers greater freedom to document purely off-diary stories,’ says Brian. ‘Now, if a newspaper photographer is sent to cover a big story, they are expected to cover not only what the agencies are doing, to make sure they’ve got it in their back pocket, but also to do some off-diary stuff as well. It’s very difficult to do both well, though. I don’t think today’s newspaper editors are committed to intelligent news photography. I think that nowadays most staff photographers are covering case studies, which was not what I joined the army to do.’
At 63, Brian says retirement is not on the horizon. In fact, he has ramped up his work schedule to produce a tell-all autobiographical book rich in imagery and anecdotes.
‘About five years ago my mum’s partner, Bertie Stimpson, a retired Daily Mail sub and copy taster who had all these wonderful stories, was diagnosed with dementia. It made me think that maybe I should write mine down before it’s too late.’
Five years, 70,000 words and 320 pages later, and he finished Brian Harris… and then the Prime Minister hit me…
‘I did it to clear my hard drive of a brain, I did it for posterity and I did it because I’m not stupid. I’m well aware that I have had the most wonderful life in photography, and I feel – I hope – there has been a lot in it that people would be interested to read about.’
After 50 years of photographing people, Brian is clear who were his most and least favourite subjects. ‘Charles Kennedy was my favourite,’ he says. ‘He was just a really nice guy, and remained so after he became leader of the Liberal Democrats. He was the politician I had the most regard for.
‘The most insincere person I photographed was Tony Blair. He was just too smarmy. I didn’t believe a word he said. In fact, the picture editor of my book pointed out that I don’t have any pictures of him in it, and I said, “I don’t want a picture of Tony Blair in my book.”’
Just 750 copies of Brian’s book have been produced, 200 of them numbered, limited-edition copies in a slipcase and including a signed photograph of the photographer’s choice. To read more of Brian’s jaw-dropping adventures, monumental mishaps and life- changing experiences, plus discover which Prime Minister is responsible for the book’s title, go to www.impress-publishing.com/and-then-the-prime-minister-hit-me.html. Visit his website at www.brianharrisphotographer.co.uk