NOT MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS land a Vogue front cover by accident but then Brian Aris is a unique individual. Travelling with Princess Anne to Ethiopia in the 1970s, one of his pictures of Her Highness was picked up by the fashion behemoth – much to the young photographer’s chagrin.

“Being on Vogue was the last thing I wanted,” recalls Aris. “I wasn’t interested in fashion photography at all.” He wanted to photograph the famine and he returned to do just that, ultimately being smuggled out of the country by plane to prevent the government confiscating the pictures that would become front page news around the world.

A decade later, Aris returned to Ethiopia with Bob Geldof for Band Aid. He was no longer a news photographer, having become disillusioned by the lack of interest in his pictures of the Vietnam War. Instead he mainly photographed musicians: name an icon and Aris has probably captured them. Bowie. Madonna. Queen. The Queen. Ahead of a new exhibition, we spoke to the man himself about his remarkable life.

SM Could you tell us about the firemen?

BA I was about 15 and I was hopeless at art. A teacher suggested photography. So I had a camera and on a Sunday morning, some fire engines came past the house. I decided to go and photograph the fire. I didn’t know at the time that it was a horrendous fire and a baby was inside. They couldn’t save the baby. So it was a very emotional half an hour. My father, who was an avid Daily Mirror reader, decided he was gonna drive me down to the Daily Mirror and see if they would use the pictures.

The picture editor came out and shook my hand and said, “Congratulations. You’re not gonna be in the Daily Mirror because it’s a bit of a parochial story but you must give it to the local newspaper. What are you doing?” I said, “I’m supposed to do my GCEs.” He said, “I would leave. I can recommend an agency you should join in Fleet Street.” And that’s what I did. I joined Central Press Photos as a runner.

In those days, you started as a runner boy, then you went into the dark room on the dish, then you became a junior printer, and then a printer. And then they gave you a camera. It took seven years. I lasted about nine months; I couldn’t wait seven years. Yeah. So I wrote to a local paper and they gave me a job and sent me on a training course.

I met a guy called John Rogers, who had an agency called North London News Agency. He had the policemen and firemen and ambulancemen on tap, getting a little money for every tip. He put two radios in our cars so I drove around with the radio on, waiting for the tips. There was a shooting in Acton, one body on the pavement. I got there literally as the first police officers arrived, and the photo made front page of the Evening Standard.

SM You shot the Beatles right at the start of your career – how was that experience?

BA When I was on the local paper. It was 1963 and the band played at the State Ballroom in Kilburn. Because it was on our patch of the local paper, I would get sent along to shoot the pictures. I wasn’t very keen on pop music so I had very little idea about the Beatles. We just got ’em backstage, did a few shots, thank you very much. I wrote in my diary that they were nice lads and I spent some time talking to John’s girlfriend. It didn’t impact me very much. That’s not what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be chasing fire engines. 

SM Tell us about Northern Ireland…

BA John wouldn’t cover Northern Ireland so I went back to the Daily Mirror, where I was freelancing a bit. I kept asking to go over there and eventually the picture editor got worn down: “There’s your tickets. Go Friday.” Because the riots tended to be on the weekends so you’d go on Friday, shoot through the weekend, come back Sunday night.

I read a book when I was about 14 called Shoot First, written by a guy called Ronnie Noble. He was a newsreel cameraman. That’s what I always wanted to do. I had no desire to do anything else. The biggest story on the block was Vietnam but the next biggest story was Northern Ireland and the Troubles. I went weekend after weekend after weekend – and the rest is history. That kickstarted everything.

SM Do you have any defining memories photographing the Troubles?

BA I was sitting having a drink with a Belgium news reporter in a Londonderry Hotel. He called his office in Brussels and they said, “You’re in the wrong place. You need to be in Belfast.” So we got in his VW Beetle and we drove up to Belfast.

We knew we had to go to the Falls Road, got there about midnight. All the lights had been shot out. There had obviously been a major riot. So we drove up about 500 yards, stopped and decided maybe this isn’t so clever. As we were sitting in the car, two guys appeared, one on either side, with balaclavas and guns. They tapped on the window. We put press cards up immediately because they respected press cards in those days.

These two guys said, “Right, who’s who?” And I said, “I’m the photographer.” “Where are your cameras?” “On the back seat.” “Get ’em out, put ’em on the road.” So I got ’em out, put ’em on the road, the Belgium guy got his tape recorder out, and they took the car and left us there.

SM It’s nice they left your equipment…

BA They were very considerate! We sat in a doorway for about three hours, not knowing what to do. And then the specialists started coming down in their little armoured cars, firing into the Divis Flats, where they killed about three people – including a young child who was standing at the window. Then we realised we were right in the middle of something major. And throughout the night, it built and built and built.

We were photographing boys emptying milk floats of all the milk bottles and filling them with petrol. One of them was shot through the head by a sniper, a 17-year-old boy. Then they set fire to half the Falls Road factories, and they were all blazing away. And lo and behold, the British troops came marching in with fixed bayonets. I had the most extraordinary set of pictures, from that one night in August.

SM Are you scared in such situations? Or does the camera act as a barrier of sorts?

BA The camera gives you confidence. It gives you a barrier between you and the action, what’s going on. You’re concentrating on taking pictures. That allowed me to do some things that probably without the camera, I wouldn’t have wanted to be there.

Bob Geldorf by Brian Aris

SM You travel with Princess Anne to Ethiopia – and one of your photos makes the front cover of Vogue…

BA Ridiculous! I joined Camera Press for syndication work, and they got me on that trip to Ethiopia and Sudan with Princess Anne. I’d been doing some work for Save the Children, which she was involved in. Haile Selassie was still on the throne; he had this limousine he sent for her and I just fired off a couple of frames. I wasn’t interested in that stuff, really, because when we were at banquets, just down the road was the famine. That’s what I wanted to get to, but we couldn’t at that point. Camera Press gave one of these images to Vogue and next thing I know, we’ve got the cover. Being on Vogue was the last thing I wanted – I wasn’t interested in fashion photography at all.

SM How did you return to Ethiopia?

BA The first time I went back, I went on my own. Camera Press said, give it a try but it’s gonna be difficult. I flew to Addis Ababa, rented a Hertz car, and drove up to an area called Dessie, which was a camp that we knew was particularly bad. They had armed guards. They didn’t wanna let me in. Oxfam were running the camp, and they were pretty dreadful. They were losing about eight children a night through malnutrition. Horrendous scenes. But I got in, and I photographed. Then I got a call.

The Oxfam guy came over and said, “We’ve had a call from the Mirror Group and they’re sending a plane to pick you up. Because if you go back through Addis Ababa, your films will be confiscated.” So a little Cessna arrives with an African pilot and the political editor of the Sunday Mirror and the editor of the Sunday Mirror, both in safari suits. Got me on the plane and flew me out. As we circled and banked away, I saw the Hertz car sitting down there. I thought, ‘That’s gonna be an interesting collection!’ The political editor had a heart attack on the flight. It wasn’t lethal.

When I printed all the pictures, no one would publish them. We wanted the Telegraph. They said they were too horrific. I went to The Sun picture editor, a great guy called Len Hickman, and The Sun published them. They raised more money for Save The Children than the Telegraph would’ve ever raised.

I look back and think maybe I was a bit naive because I really did think it would change things. When I got involved with Bob Geldof and we did Band Aid, it did change things. I went back with Bob in the 1980s to look at what Band Aid had done in Ethiopia. We flew the whole length of Africa, down to Mozambique, and there was significant progress. I went back to the camp with Bob and I couldn’t recognise it. There was one hut left and the whole hillside was covered in saplings. A priest said every single sapling represented a person that died in the camp. The one hut was kept as a memorial.

SM Did the experience change you? Or were you able to switch off?

BA I don’t think you can switch off. I always thought the most boring thing in the world is when you sit at a dinner party and people start waxing on about situations that they have no experience of. If I’m gonna talk about it, I wanted to have that experience: to know what the place smelled like, what the noises were. As time went on, I got less naive and more frustrated because we’re in these situations 45 years later and they haven’t changed that much.

SM And you eventually made it to Vietnam at the end of the war?

BA I went in 1975 to photograph the orphanages and the children in Saigon. We knew the North Vietnamese were very close and no one knew how they would behave when they got into Saigon. I had a lot of pictures of the evacuation and I managed to get on one of the last planes out to Paris, two days before the North Vietnamese took Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh city. I sent films off to New York; the agency sent ’em back and said, ‘Not interested. Wars over, we’ve lost and we don’t want pictures.’ I got very demoralised then.

Bryan Ferry by Brian Aris

SM Is that why you moved into music?

BA I had a lot of friends in the music business but I’d never been in the studio, I didn’t have a clue about lighting. But I thought, ‘Why not?’ I found a rundown place in Old Street, East London and bought some equipment – I didn’t know what I was buying to be truthful. One agent called up and said, “We’d like you to photograph a singer. We’re calling her a ‘punk princess’.” And that was Debbie Harry. We got on like a house on fire. She was fabulous. And that face was amazing.

SM Did your background in reportage help you navigate this new world?

BA I think it did. Once you’ve done that other stuff, it puts celebrity into perspective. I never thought it was very important. I was gonna go back to news. Photograph models, people in the music business for a year or two, have a break and then go back. But the music business was exploding at that time – I was getting call after call, “Photograph this person, that person.” And I started getting booked all the time. And then we hit the eighties and I had 10 years working solidly all the time with one person coming in after another.

SM Did the world of music not feel a bit frivolous after those years covering these seismic, historical events?

BA Yeah, it was incredibly frivolous. But I always wanted to stay very grounded. I didn’t want any egotistical stuff going on in the studio. I used to put a sign at the studio door: “All egos to be left outside – except the artist.” I met makeup artists, hairdressers, and I loved that collaboration. I discovered I loved working with a team. And I loved sitting in the dressing room talking to the individuals.

David Bowie’s sitting there and you are one-to-one with him in the dressing room. A lot of people don’t ever have a chance to do anything like that. I was reasonably shy, but I found that if I sat in the dressing room and chatted away, when we came out of the dressing room into the studio, it became easy. Because we knew each other.

I always worked the same way. I would take one Polaroid, show it to the artist and you’d have their confidence. That psychology really fascinated me and it paid dividends. I photographed Anthony Hopkins and we were sitting in the dressing room talking for an hour and 15 minutes. The PR came in and said, ‘He’s going to lunch. You’ve got 15 minutes remaining to take the pictures.’ He laughed, I laughed – because it’s 125th of a second to take a picture. We don’t need that long!

You’ve gotta build up that rapport because it’s a very intimidating experience having your photograph taken. Even for people who have been doing it for years. Everyone has a hang up about the way they look. You’ve gotta overcome it, and I found that really interesting. So yeah, although it was frivolous, it worked for me because I was enjoying it. I was enjoying meeting these people.

David Bowie by Brian Aris

SM Did you have any go-to icebreakers?

BA Well, golden rule, don’t be sycophantic. These individuals don’t suffer fools. They don’t want to have their time wasted. It’s not something they can avoid doing voluntarily; it’s a part of what they have to do. Be professional, have professional people around you, and no sycophantic behaviour. I’ve photographed so many people over the years and there are maybe two or three examples where that hasn’t been appreciated – where the ego of the individual has been too great.

SM Any examples?

BA Montserrat Caballé, the opera singer, refused to sit. Elizabeth Taylor said the same thing when I was photographing Liza Minnelli’s wedding to David Gest – “I’m not sitting.” That was a mad lineup. That’s the craziest wedding I’ve ever done.

They kept everyone waiting in the cathedral, which was about 90 degrees, for an hour because Elizabeth Taylor’s shoes had gone missing. No one would go in the dressing room. In the end I said, “To hell with this!” and went into the dressing room. There was Michael Jackson sitting, holding hands with Elizabeth Taylor, and Liza wondering how much longer she’d have to wait before she could get married. It was just bizarre.

We had a studio set up next to the ballroom for the evening. Someone from Rogers & Cowan kept bringing people over. The first person he brought over was Buzz Aldrin. Then Anthony Hopkins came over to me and said, “Can I ask a favour? My mother wants to meet Michael Jackson. Do you think you could take her over to the top table and get a picture?” So I went over to Michael and he said, “Of course. Bring her over.” I went over and got Anthony Hopkins’ mother and took the picture of her with Michael. How bizarre is that?

SM Amazing! And you shot Madonna quite early in her career… 

BA A PR called me and said he had two artists coming in: one was called Madonna and the other one was called Cyndi Lauper. I plunged for Madonna because I thought the name was interesting. She had an entourage of young, very brash New York guys – probably dancers looking back. She was great. She knew exactly what she wanted, was good fun and very receptive to ideas. The entourage were a bit of a pain to be frank.

Madonna by Brian Aris

SM You mentioned Bob Geldof – how did that friendship come about?

BA Well, Paula Yates came to see me when she was 17 and wanted to be a model. And I said, “No, you’re too short.” She said, “I’ll prove you wrong.” A few months later she rang me and said, “Right, you wanna photograph me now because I’m going out with Bob Geldof from the BoomTown Rats.” Sure, that sounds like fun. That started our relationship. I went all over the world with Paula, with her acting as a model. Magazines loved her.

I absolutely loved her to death. Everyone that knew Paula would say the same thing to you. She was just adorable. And she broke the glass ceiling. She broke the rules. She was great. Never took drugs, never had a drink until Michael Hutchence came on the scene. It was like a Shakespearen tragedy, really. But she totally proved me wrong and she always reminded me of that constantly. We had some marvellous times together.

SM You shot Band Aid a decade after you first visited Ethiopia and captured the famine. Did it feel like a full-circle moment?

BA Yeah, it did. Nobody knew who would turn up that Sunday morning. I sat with Paula, looking out the window and she said, “No, they will turn up. I’m sure Sting will come up and I’m sure George Michael will show up.” Of course, everyone turned up. The musicians hadn’t met one another. When we put the group shot together, they couldn’t stop talking to one another. That Sunday morning changed a lot in the music business.

SM How was the shoot?

BA We tried to get the group shot at Live Aid. So we set some lights up backstage. A lot of the artists were on stage but a lot of the artists were there. We literally pulled them all together and said, “We’re gonna try a group shot.” We switched the lights on and the entire backstage area went into complete darkness. I thought it was the stage as well – ‘I’ve just completely screwed Live Aid.’

Everyone took out lighters: they all thought it was very funny. I didn’t. This roadie came running out of the darkness with these huge cables. He said, “Five minutes, that’s all you got.” And he literally rammed these cables together and brought the lights back up. I think we shot about eight, nine frames. Then they all decided they had enough. I still didn’t know what had happened on stage. Nothing, thank God. It had only been the backstage area, which was on a different circuit.

Annie Lennox by Brian Aris

SM Did you see the Queen performance?

BA From the side of the stage. For the last couple of numbers I went down into the pit. It was out of this world. He was a genius. I photographed the band backstage at Live Aid but I never photographed Freddie, one to one. I’m sorry that I never got that chance.

SM But you did photograph David Bowie…

BA I got the best of him. I met him at Paula and Bob’s wedding – and for the next 20 years. There is a very sophisticated and cultured man who really knew his stuff on literature and art. I was doing news work when he was doing Aladdin Sane and all that nonsense. I got the grownup. And my goodness me, he was a phenomenal guy.

SM You did that amazing photo of him with his daughter on his chest…

BA Yeah, Lexi. During that shoot, while I was photographing Iman, he somehow managed to get a picture of me laughing. I never found out how. And when we came back out of the Iman shoot, he came out of his office and gave me a ten by eight colour print of me laughing with hieroglyphics all over it, signed as a thank you. He managed to get that picture, go to his office, make a print, sign it, and give it to me. He was a seriously good guy.

SM And you shot the Queen as well – including a famous image of her laughing…

BA I shot the Queen a few times. The first time, I thought I’d be pretty nervous, but it seemed I was OK. But then everyone left and closed the double doors; I looked around and it was just me, Patrick my assistant, and Her Majesty. And it really got to me. I started fiddling around with the camera and it dropped off the tripod. Patrick managed to catch it and said, “Mr Aris, you shouldn’t be doing that.” The Queen just fell about laughing. I managed to fire off two frames and that was the image.

I did another shoot with Prince Philip. We did about four changes of costume, the official costume. And I was really having to work quite hard. The Queen suddenly stopped and said, “Right, let’s give Mr Aris a cup of tea. I think he deserves one!” And then she giggled. She was wonderful. I did the golden wedding pictures as well. Philip was fantastic. Didn’t suffer fools – you had to be on your A game. But he had a great sense of humour.

The Queen by Brian Aris

SM Do you have a favourite memory?

BA I think covering the troubles in Belfast. It was everything I wanted to do. I know what CS gas smells like. I know what seeing someone shot in front of you looks like. I understand all of that now and the memory never leaves you.

SM And a favourite photo?

BA Well the Queen laughing is one of my favourites. But my ultimate favourite is from an IRA funeral in Belfast. We were always trying to get pictures of petrol bombers and violence and brutality. But I photographed this group of ladies who were just waiting for the cortege to come through. All the faces, the juxtaposition of those individuals, it just came together. That’s the result of all the violence etched on those faces in that picture

At the exhibition preview, so many people came up to me and said how much they liked that image. One person who came up to me had been raised in Londonderry. She had tears in her eyes. And she said, “That made me incredibly emotional. Congratulations. It sums up everything as you said it does.” So that was a thrill. 

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