Diana, Princess of Wales, is riding a resurgence in pop culture. Fans are eagerly awaiting the fifth and sixth seasons of popular Netflix series “The Crown“- which will address the reign of the late royal – while Kristen Stewart plays the role of Diana in the biopic “Spencer” and “Diana, the Musical” opened last month at the Longacre Theater in New York City. In the wake of these productions comes the immersive show centered on the photo “Princess Diana: accredited access exhibition” at Santa Monica Place which runs until March.
The man behind the lens of the visual exhibition is Anwar Hussein. For six decades and longer, the photographer and native of Tanzania, who is 80, has captured some of the world’s most memorable images of the British Royal Family, depicting Princess Diana with Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and their offspring . His photos of Diana, in particular, disturbed the public view of the Royal Family with a spontaneous and relaxed approach and were translated into royal postage stamps and greeting cards.
Following a similar path, Hussein’s sons – Zak, 41, and Samir, 43 – are also official royal photographers, making names for themselves with famous shots of Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge and their families. children, as well as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, before the couple split from royal life.
Before Diana’s untimely death in 1997 at the age of 36, Anwar must have taken “potentially a million photos” of her, her son Zak told The Times. “Everything archived, in transparencies, stored in cupboards,” he adds.
It was therefore no small task to land on the 142 images that make up the exhibition. The imagery – a compilation of the work of Anwar and his sons – is a mix of hero photos, published around the world, and recently unveiled stock photos. Eight sections delve into various aspects of Diana’s life, from family to fashion. As Diana moves from teaching to princess, and ultimately from star to icon, evocative imagery documents her compassion for others and, simultaneously, her isolation within the royal family and her own marriage.
The exhibition, billed as “the world’s very first documentary experience”, aims to “take people back in time, make them feel like they’ve stepped into history itself,” said the curator Cliff Skelliter. This immersive idea translates into enlarged photos taken by the trio, Nikon cameras used by Hussein to photograph Diana, intricate paper riffs on royal headgear by Canadian artist Pauline Loctin, and a detailed audio guide that reveals untold stories behind each image.
These personal stories, stemming from the relationship of trust between Anwar Hussein and Princess Diana, shed new light on one of the most photographed women in the world. Anwar “felt like the time had come in his life to share these stories,” Zak explains. “They are spreading to a new generation of people discovering Diana for the first time, while the older generation are still mesmerized by her.”
On the evening of the press premiere, Anwar sat on a picnic bench by the pool at the Shore Hotel in Santa Monica to speak with The Times.
Have you ever imagined that your work would reach so many people?
No! I come from a very small village in Africa, from a very poor family. We walked to school without shoes. At that time, the only photo I had seen of the queen was on a stamp. I didn’t even know what the royal family looked like. Fifty years later, I count four or five photos of me that they used on the stamp. It’s amazing to think about it. Not only that, but I have six photos in the Royal Collection [historically significant works of art].
So it’s an incredible contrast. When you get older you think, “How did I get to where I am now? Thinking back on my life, I am absolutely surprised. Stunned. When I came to England in the 1960s, it was very difficult to be a person of color and to find a job. Things were difficult. I survived!
The way you capture people so naturally on film is an art. Is that part of the timing?
If you are connected with nature, then nature tells you to wait for something to happen. It’s the same with human beings, in fact. Beyond royal photos, I did show business photos with people like Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. But I never felt overwhelmed meeting President Reagan or the Queen or Muhammad Ali or anyone else, because I treat them like a person. Once you get interested in the idea of ”This is the President!” Or “She’s the queen!” you lose the personal touch. When I first took to photographing the Royal Family, I didn’t like the usual photos – tiaras, fully clothed, looking into the camera. I wanted them to look and feel more like humans, so that other people could connect with them more than as a prince, king, queen.
I find it so interesting that you were the first to photograph a royal from behind.
Yes. Everyone said, “Why did you do it? What’s that photo with her looking at her from the back? And I said, “But look what she’s trying to say!”
She turned around and looked like, “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll give you a smile.” It was a few seconds, but it was enough for me, because it gave me a better image. It was a very impromptu take, I’m telling you. I could have missed it. But, like I said, the instinct was there all of a sudden.
Which images from the exhibition speak to you most personally?
I have photographed several times [Diana] where she found a nifty way to dress to express her feelings, whether happy or unhappy. Other times she would isolate herself, and I managed to have several on a polo field. You very rarely see [members of the] royal family alone. They are always surrounded by people. But she would withdraw, and I captured her several times. It shows his loneliness and his desire to be alone.
There is also her favorite photo [mentioned in the exhibition] in Pakistan in a cancer hospital, where she holds a child in her arms. It was unbelievable. She just clung to him. And although the boy is blind, we can see the connection between them. I think she had natural instincts, the compassion she gave without even making an effort. The boy literally died about a week later, and she was very upset.
Image choices like this that showed her compassion helped create an icon.
I tried to show all the emotion, whether it was laughing out loud or crying. Once, when someone gave her roses in Scotland, I asked her, ‘Why are you crying? Why are you upset? Did I do this with the photo? And she said, “Because Charles never gave me a rose.”
You must be missing Diana.
Yes of course. Yesterday I was looking at the photos and I was almost in tears. When I look at a photo it affects me because I spent as much time with her as I did with my family. I would take my camera and go where she was going. I photographed her before she met Charles, then when they were together, through engagements, weddings, honeymoons and all over the world in different countries. She had so much empathy. She changed very quickly from an innocent and shy Di to a very courageous and positive person.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.