Sunday, April 12, 2020

Eyewitness accounts

These days the Daily Express is an odd little rag, inconsequential in comparison with the Daily Mail and the Sun, but equally horrible and frequently more batshit. Once upon a time, though, it not only had significant stature but also the foresight to offer employment to a young freelance photographer called John Downing, who had just finished an apprenticeship with the Mail. He went on to be named British Press Photographer Of The Year on no fewer than seven occasions - and this Guardian gallery of images shows why.

Over the course of his long and distinguished career with the Express, Downing was sent on countless assignments to war zones and took pictures inside a Ugandan prison and in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. All photographers need the odd slice of luck, and he was certainly fortunate to be on the scene in the immediate aftermath of the IRA bombing of the Tory party conference in Brighton in 1984.

Interviewed by journalist Kim Willsher, who covered Chernobyl with him, Downing selected this picture of rebel soldiers in Afghanistan as his best. The composition is astonishing, as is the end result, thanks to his improvisation and ingenuity - though this being the pre-digital era, "I had no idea if it had worked until I got back home and developed the film". Equally good, though, are the images of pensioners being rescued from flooding in Surrey in 1968 (I love the way that, even amidst the drama, one is lighting another's cigarette) and of the nurse restraining a Bangladeshi child for vaccination (which says more about aid work, well-meaning white saviours and colonial relations of power than text ever could).

Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Downing died on Wednesday - and so Bluecoat Press' recent publication of Legacy, a crowdfunded book that collects together his finest work, was especially timely.

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