Central London is packed. No one moves. A man sobs, another coughs, birds flutter, silence returns. It’s just after 9am on September 6th 1997. A giant screen in Hyde Park shows a gun carriage taking the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales on a four-mile procession to Westminster Abbey. Every minute of the journey a single bell chimes. On top of the Royal Standard draped coffin are lilies from her brother and sons, Princes William and Harry, a poignant card reads ‘Mummy.’ After the service, I joined the route of the funeral cortege that would take Diana on her final journey to the Spencer family home in Northamptonshire and waited for the shot.
I had been in London for just over a year trying to find my vocation as a photographer. I thought an iconic image of the hearse would be a valuable addition to my portfolio, to show commitment, dedication and the ability to identify important historical moments. As I waited, the price sticker on the sole of a shoe worn by a woman kneeling nearby caught the eye. I crouched to frame, there was quiet applause and the twirl of tossed long stem roses, a whoosh, and the hearse had gone along with both picture opportunities. On the long walk to find the nearest open pub (it was on Upper Street 3.5 miles away) I photographed the flags flying half-mast and considered whether breaking news photography would be my discipline.
Two years later confirmed it would not. On assignment for the Sunday Times Magazine shooting reportage on the Queen’s Royal Tour to South Africa I travelled around with the royal press pack. On one occasion we arrived at a school classroom in Alexandra Township outside Johannesburg. The pack rushed from the coach to secure a similar vantage point and waited. I was unfettered to explore with my camera. Hours later Betty arrived. The townships children were everywhere; they danced and sang to the Queen and waved her off with their little flags. A man in a suit then collected the flags and boarded the coach. A departing scuffed huffed cloud of dust erased any evidence we had been there.
It is with good cheer then, that I anticipate the more joyous occasion of the Royal Wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton. A two-day reportage for the Telegraph Magazine has been in the diary since January removing the pressure to be officially involved and delivering a handsome payday. I even had to turn down German news magazine STERN when a dual-shoot compromise couldn’t be agreed. My brief for the reportage is to document the commoners that line the route; to do a ‘Dench’, reveal the gritty underbelly of life as a royal supporter and produce the antithesis to the inevitable schmaltz to be paraded across the pages of the Daily Mail and Express newspapers. Well, that’s how I interpreted the brief and it’s right up my Mall.
At 10am on the day before, I meet Jessica who will be writing detailed captions for the photographs. This could be irksome for Jessica, a respected staff member deployed to shadow a snapper. If she is irked it doesn’t show and we strut as equals towards Buckingham Palace. I tried to convince the editor to let me do the words and pictures. I’m glad she declined. Jessica is thorough and discreet and the company is welcome. On the way I learn heavyweight photographers Zed Nelson and Simon Roberts will also be contributing adding a bit of friendly competition for page space. I repeat-remind myself to shoot verticals to try and nail a cover.
Along the route we gather micro-features from the royal nutters with Roald Dahl character names embedded on the front line of Great Britain. Americans, Christine and Olivia Wofford carry a large Yellow W and K around to photograph at picture postcard locations. Rosalind Lumb and Wendy Huffwaite peruse a book of Royal Wedding poems. Dulwich Public Schoolgirls Amelia Coe and India Marlow-Prince quaff fizz in their customised pink ‘Will & Kate Forever’ T-Shirts while across the road, tiara topped Amelia Asquith and Charlotte Dunsmore pay their respects at the memorial of the Queen Mother. Opposite Westminster Abbey a more fevered crowd lay in wait. Cynthia McAllister propels a giddy cackle at her husband Phillip whose war medals clink together. Further along, Darci Richards entertains Granny with a strum on the guitar. The mood has been jolly and the 7000 accredited press respectful. We wait for the American news channel CNN to finish their broadcast before our turn with one fanatical family. Presenter Tim Vincent waits for his with Amelia and India.
The alarm bell rejoices at 05.45am. Like before any big day, it has been a fit-full nights sleep. Jessica and I have decided to dress smart and meet in the last carriage of the 06.30 Victoria line tube train at Highbury and Islington station, a plot scene worthy of An Affair to Remember. We are concerned about access and movement so have decided to get in early. Vacate the tube at Victoria and make our way through St. James’s Park to the south side of the route where we will work between Parliament Square and the Mall. Photographing yesterday was crucial. The tents have now been packed away and the rows are deep. I shoot and weave amongst the royal masks, maple leaf bunting, sleeping men, women dressed as brides, the alfresco plastic urinals and the occasional outburst of royal rage as late arrivals encroach on established viewing positions. We pause to talk to the impeccably suited Harry Arthur (8) and brother Rory (5) and the more dishevelled Berry Collins and Gloria Doherty, who slept under the stars and have ‘appropriated’ a tent for shelter. They complain that unlike at a wedding in their community, they haven’t even been offered sandwiches and a drink.
As Big Ben tocks towards wedding o’clock I decide the best place to photograph will be from Parliament Square. There’s a massive cheer, Dalia Yousif is hoisted onto the shoulders of Panos. I snap some frames of his thigh-clenched face and ask what Dalia can see. It’s the litter pickers on one final round. Another cheer and she grabs a frame of Prince Harry. It’s the first I’ve seen of the A-list wedding guests. As William took Kate up the aisle, I was probably only a straight 100-metres away. Cocooned in a living cordon I photograph what I can. 10-year old Callum Lewis uses a ‘Blighty’ periscope to scan for action. Ben Fowler and William Fox-Staeton picnic on the grass. Mr Higgins chuffs his pipe, 21-year old Rhyll de Teglia has a solitary moment and a woman picks up dog-poo. There’s a little Britain-village fete-Henman Hill kind of feel to the proceedings.
Over the two days I shoot 686 frames, FTP an edit of ‘as shot’ 82 to the Telegraph Magazine and head off for a day clay pigeon shooting in the Oxfordshire countryside. On return the TM has edited 13 images to be delivered as polished, ready-for-publication files. This is encouraging. My hopes are for six consecutive pages with a double-page opener. I text my friends and call my Mum. Finally, I think she will have something to be proud of produced by her son to frame and hang in the spare bedroom. I asses Martin Parr’s effort on the Magnum website and think perhaps, I may have edged it on the day.
Saturday 7th, the day the Telegraph Magazine Royal Wedding souvenir edition is published. It’s with leaden feet that I head out to buy a copy. Three days after the wedding I received a call delivering the “AWFUL” news. None of my photographs would be published; zero. nought, nowt, nada. I’ve been around long enough, just, not to take this personally and got proactive, called STERN to see if it was too late to send some their way. The subsequent elimination of Bin Laden had squeezed out wedding pages. I get six images on to the CORBIS website for syndication and upload 50 to ALAMY but it all feels a little bit late. 20 are posted on my website, I Tweet the link and put an album on Facebook. Responses are good: Martin O’Neill thinks them “Most amusing”, Sam Christopher Cornwell, “Great stuff.”
Wincing back a double vodka tonic I find Zed’s 6 images over two pages and Simon’s one image over two pages treading water in the Getty pool publication. Slightly embarrassed at my exclusion, I text my friends and call my Mum with the news. It seems even the staunchest cynics have been seduced by the occasion (except me). And the wedding is to be remembered and revered as a right royal fairytale (except by me). I now know, why I don’t officially shoot weddings. You wouldn’t want me at your wedding, and in all honesty, I probably wouldn’t want to come. I raise a glass to the hundreds of millions that watched TV coverage of the wedding and consider instead, the next royal funeral.
More Royal Wedding photos - www.peterdench.com