Published On: Mon, Sep 9th, 2019

John Downing: Our former chief photographer on capturing history


John Downing

Former Daily Express chief photographer John Downing (Image: NC)

Widely acclaimed as one of Fleet Street’s finest snappers, many of his shots made front pages around the world. From Afghanistan to Rwanda to Bosnia, John could reliably be found at the world’s most notorious trouble spots. He was equally prolific working in the UK, the only photographer in the Grand Hotel Brighton when the IRA tried to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet with a bomb attack in 1984. Having joined the Express in 1962, he won British Press Photographer of the Year an unprecedented seven times and was made an MBE in 1992. 

Married for 12 years to Anita D’Attellis, a classical pianist. He also has a son, Bryn. Now 79, and suffering from terminal cancer, John, from Llanelli, Wales, said: “I’ve been very lucky to have had such an exciting and varied career – I never knew from one day to the next where I would end up – was it going to be Southend, or South Africa? I thought of myself as the ‘eyes of my readers’.” 

Acclaimed photojournalist Tom Stoddart said: “John Downing’s wonderful images and awards during his long career at the Daily Express are rightly celebrated, but when press photographers gather together it’s his generosity and kindness that they speak of. He mentored and inspired many raw young photographers upon their arrival in Fleet Street.” 

A crowdfunding appeal to publish a book of John’s most iconic photographs has already attracted more than 400 people pledging more than £25,000 (three times the target). The resulting book, John Downing: Legacy, is due to be published by Bluecoat Press later this year. 

Visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/jd19/john-downing-legacy to pre-order John Downing: Legacy due to be published later this year by Bluecoat Press. 

Boy hurt during the Bosnian War

This photo was captured during the Bosnian war (Image: John Downing)

BOSNIAN WAR

I was in and out of Bosnia at least a dozen times during the Bosnian war.

This boy had been playing football, the ball went into a field and he ran after it. A landmine went off and took his leg with it.

We were in a hospital that was being shelled by the Serbs. most of the patients were in the basement.

I was walking around when I saw the kid just sitting there. His head went down and I thought it was a very touching picture. I don’t know what happened to him, sadly. 

Orphaned children after the Rwandan genocide

Orphaned children after the Rwandan genocide (Image: John Downing)

RWANDA

People always get the wrong idea about this picture. It looks terribly sad, but this was taken in a UN camp where they’d brought orphaned children after the Rwandan genocide.

These are the lucky ones. They’d been washed and laid in the sun on a canvas to dry off.

They were going to be safe, although they’d almost certainly lost their parents.

Photo taken in Afghanistan

Photo taken during the Afghanistan resistance to the Russian invasion (Image: John Downing)

AFGHANISTAN

I visited Afghanistan on numerous occasions covering the resistance to the Russian invasion. 

I took this shot during the first assignment with reporter Ross Benson. We were there from August to October 1983.

We’d start walking at 4am and then layover at around midday for a couple of hours to avoid the heat.

This photo was taken in the mountains in a mud hut where we’d stopped for a break. The mujahideen are all massive tea drinkers.

I saw this guy passing a teapot through the window and underneath was a stack of land mines they’d brought up into the mountains by donkey. It seemed a nice contrast. 

Queen Mother during St Patrick’s Day parade

Queen Mother during St Patrick’s Day parade (Image: John Downing/Getty Images)

QUEEN MOTHER 

Every year it was traditional for the Queen Mother to present the Irish Guards with shamrocks at their St Patrick’s Day parade.

It was a boring picture, she did it every year! But as I was leaving on this occasion, I noticed the Guardsmen all lined up for a regimental picture.

The Queen Mum came out, sat down and just for one moment looked to the right, towards me, and that made it.

I was shooting through the railings of the old Chelsea Barracks. We always called the photograph “My boys”, imagining what she was thinking. 

Margaret Thatcher sitting with Saudis

Margaret Thatcher in Saudi Arabia (Image: John Downing)

SAUDI ARABIA

This was April 1985 and quite literally the first time a woman unrelated to them had ever sat down with the Saudi royal family, who ran the country then and still do.

Margaret Thatcher was on a tour of the Middle East and I’d tagged along for the paper.

Foreign trips are expensive and you never know what they’ll throw up so I think I was the only British photographer there that day. In fact, it proved absolutely historic. It was a nod to Mrs Thatcher’s importance.  

Photo of a young man being arrested

Photo taken in Southend (Image: John Downing/Getty Images)

SKINHEAD

I often wonder what happened to this young man.

There has been trouble over previous Bank Holidays with skinheads and greasers, as we used to call them, fighting. So I was sent down to Southend.

It all kicked off and these youngsters were causing trouble on the beach. Luckily this lad was handcuffed to the policeman or I think he’d have torn me apart.

Later the officer rang me to ask for a copy of the picture after it was published. He said once he got him down the station, he was quite a nice chap. They were the same age, the skinhead and the policeman.



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