Hello! And thank you to everyone who offered suggestions on how to get into the holiday spirit here in warm and sunny SoCal. I hauled all of our decorations out of the garage today — the kids will be thrilled to get started this evening.
I am excited to share my preview of a new royal exhibition, along with an interview with one of the three photographers featured. Zak Hussein has photographed some of the most famous people in the world, but because he grew up around the royal family he says he never gets starstruck. More of our chat below.
Have a wonderful weekend.
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Did you know there is a family of photographers who have been documenting the royals for more than four decades? You might not recognize the names of this father-and-sons trio but I promise you love their work. From the classic shot of the Queen clad in blue wrangling her corgis to the iconic snap of Harry and Meghan in the rain, Anwar, Samir, and Zak Hussein have captured some of the most memorable royal moments in recent memory.
Now the Hussein family (professional!) photo album is on display for the first time in a traveling show. “Princess Diana: Accredited Access” opened this week in Los Angeles and Chicago, and is coming early next year to New York. It’s part of a new trend of pop-up exhibitions taking advantage of vacant retail space. (Just to set your expectations: this has a more temporary feel to it than, say, something you might find in a museum.)
I previewed the installation in Santa Monica earlier this week. My heart fluttered as I walked through the series of larger-than-life images; it was surreal to be surrounded by such familiar faces. The show bills itself as Diana-centric, emphasizing Anwar’s incredible archive. But it also feels quite contemporary, weaving in images of the Queen at the beginning and Kate and Meghan throughout. I loved seeing how the organizers paired different moments together, finding connections between the generations. (This is something I spent a lot of time thinking about when working on my book, it's harder than you'd think!)
The accompanying audio tour might have been my favorite part. Zak and Samir voice behind-the-scenes stories about the images and their adventures as royal photographers. The format feels quite personal, intimate even; if you go, I recommend you take the time to listen to each of the 40+ recordings. One that stands out is a story of how Anwar protested the photographers’ placement at an engagement. The press was situated behind Diana. “What the hell have you brought us here to photograph?” Anwar said loudly. “Do you expect us to take pictures of her back?” The princess turned around and gave a huge smile (seen in the above Instagram post, at left). The picture went on to be featured on many magazine covers, Samir says, a memorable shot “from a situation where he thought he couldn't get a useable photo.”
Zak also tells the story of how he asked a press officer during the Sussexes' tour of New Zealand to have the couple walk on a certain path during their final stop. ”It wasn't part of the plan, but the next thing I knew, Harry and Meghan are walking hand in hand directly toward me,” he recalled during the audio tour. ”I remember Harry smiling at me as they passed.”
During my visit, I had the chance to talk with Zak about the family business, the pressures of the job, and what he thinks of the Diana moment happening now.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What was it like growing up as the son of a royal photographer?
Zak Hussein: It was something that we were surrounded by the whole time, ever since we were born, really. My dad used to take us to the polo matches sometimes when Diana would be there with William and Harry, who are a similar age to us. And when you’re in those kinds of situations as a kid, you don't have that kind of nervousness that you might see if you just saw them the first time as an adult. It really helped us to not be starstruck and just concentrate on trying to get the best possible pictures.
Did you always know you wanted to get into the family business?
ZH: It was a natural progression for us. We started off, my brother and I, doing more entertainment type pictures. I’m really into music, so I used to cover my favorite bands. And then I did celebrities and red carpet events. And then moved into royals. Going back to what I say about being starstruck, you don’t get that when you are photographing these big stars all the time. It gives you the confidence to do the job.
Was your father supportive of you following in his footsteps?
ZH: Yeah, of course. Supportive. Critical. (Laughs) He’s influenced our work and style. We photograph the royal family in a more candid way, which you'll see in this exhibition. Not these kind of stiff looking, posed-up pictures that used to happen before Diana. What you'll see in this exhibition is a lot more natural looking pictures of the royals.
Why did you want to do this exhibition now?
ZH: My dad's never done anything on this scale but also, more importantly, the stories behind them. He’s 82 years old and it seems such a shame not to get these stories out there because there’s so much interest in the royal family. And why not include my brother and I in there as well? He’s passed the baton onto us, covering the younger royals.
Talk about life as a royal photographer. Listening to your experiences on the audio tour, the pressure of the job really came through.
ZH: I think people sometimes think that we turn up, bang, shoot it and then go home and that's it. But no, it's not like that at all. We have to get there super early, a long time before they’re due to arrive. And you're working in all elements, in the rain, the snow, the heat. And on tours, it can be really grueling. You are going from one place to the next, you’re jet lagged, you’re tired. You’re literally going back to your hotel room, trying to edit, then you're up at six o'clock the next day. So it can be quite difficult at times.
And on top of all that, you also have to go there and get good pictures. You can’t take all that time, give up your day or week, to not get images that you’ll be proud of or that will sell. You want these pictures to be published because you want people to see these pictures.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the relationship between the palace and the press. What has your experience been like?
ZH: You have to gain the respect of the palace. They won’t give access to any photographer. It’s photographers they get to know over time. So you have to build up a relationship and prove yourself to the palace that you are the right guy to do the job.
How do you do gain the royal family's trust?
ZH: You’ve got to be respectful. You don’t do paparazzi pictures or anything that would upset them that's not official. You don't want pictures where it’s not flattering or anything like that. You're not trying to take pictures where they look stupid. You're trying to take nice pictures of them that people want to see. Not tabloid stuff. You want classy pictures. And that comes across. Because these guys buy magazines and newspapers, of course they do. They see all these images of them that are being published.
(As we were walking through the exhibition, we came to the shot of Will and Kate debuting baby George on the steps of the Lindo Wing). How do you make the most of staged moments like this?
Something like this, with William and Kate with a royal baby outside the hospital, of course, you know it's going to happen. So it's a posed-up picture. But you don't know that much. You don't know how long they’re going to stand there for. You have to make decisions very quickly about which lens you’re going to use. Are you going to go tight on the baby or are you going to do it wide so you can see more of the atmosphere? There are different elements of all these pictures that are tricky.
(Then we reached a photo of Meghan and Harry on the sidelines of a polo field). This moment would be quite different, I assume.
ZH: Candid stuff like this, where you really don’t know what’s going to happen and things can happen in a flash, you need to try and catch it. Whether it’s a little kiss or it’s just something that really shows a human side to the royals.
I imagine you look for those moments whenever possible? Diana certainly introduced a lot of that.
ZH: She definitely changed what’s acceptable for royals to do, like hugging young children. Experience is an important thing as a photographer. You turn up at something like this (gestures to a photograph of Diana shaking hands with an AIDS patient) and you notice straight away, “Oh, she's not wearing gloves.” You realize, at the time, how important that is and what a moment that is.
Why do you think Diana is having such a resurgence right now?
It’s almost like a new generation of people have discovered Diana. They weren't around when Diana was alive and I think they're really intrigued. The Crown has obviously really been a big deal, but they're starting to discover her story and what happened in her marriage with Charles. And it's probably quite shocking to a younger generation.
Do you notice any parallels between Diana and the younger royals?
ZH: Diana definitely revolutionized the royal family, but that’s allowed them to be the way they are now and make the choices they make in their lives. I think they also do their best to carve out their own legacy and not try and ride the coattails of Diana so much.
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