An interview with Lord Snowdon from the BJP archives

In 1961 he jumped at the chance to work for the new Sunday Times colour magazine, briefing writers and photographers and covering some of the assignments himself. Aware of the delicacy of his position, he avoided assignments that seemed to give him an unfair advantage, told Fleet Street that he would not scoop other photographers, and had his pictures credited simply to ‘Snowdon’ in modest print.
Documentary photography, besides adding a new dimension to his work, revealed a deep social awareness within him. “If I can photograph the less fortunate in our society, hopefully in a way can get something done, I am delighted to contribute…
“[But] if I’m photographing behind closed doors the effects on children, the problems of disability or of mental health, I am treading a difficult line. I cannot take somebody’s photograph and take it for granted I can use it…One must not invade privacy or exploit.
“I want to know the relationship between nurse and patient, and all the love and care involved. Not do-gooding pictures…but pictures that simply inform people and to encourage them to think more deeply about things that are too often swept under the mat.”
The “year’s illness” during his schooldays was the time when, at 14, he was struck down by polio, which virtually immobilised him for a year. But thanks to good nursing care, a fighting spirit, a wheelchair and a walking stick, he was back on his feet. Through this setback he has identified with the disabled, has deep feeling for a wide range of human problems and a will to turn feeling into action.
Influence in the Lords, inventive and mechanical skill, has helped to bring about easier and safer mobility for the chair-bound. His branching out into TV documentaries has brought further human problems to light. And throughout his marriage to Princess Margaret his professional fees went into a trust fund, later established as the Snowdon Award Scheme, which continues to benefit handicapped students.
For the record: resulting from Snowdon’s feature on the Middlesex Hospital, the hospital received a much- needed donation. And who can tell how many others have been moved to charity by his images? But compassion is frustrated by commerce, namely the shrinkage of available magazine space for features on the underprivileged. The campaigning photographer and journalist can do little against the drift to consumerism in the Sunday magazines.
“Foreign assignments? Not as glamorous as they seem. It means living out of a suitcase in a hotel, going to bed at two in the morning then getting up at three when it’s too early for breakfast. And I can’t start work without breakfast. I must have a boiled egg, a bit of bread and some coffee. So I boil my egg in a percolator and live mostly on Marmite.
“Once I’m doing the work I love it. But for economic reasons time is so limited. ‘Go and photograph India,’ they tell you. ‘You have three weeks.’ So the results are essentially superficial. Out of desperation I’ll photograph anything that moves.
“I was wandering around Detroit, which is no place for walking in. To be seen walking on any street immediately arouses suspicion. When I photographed a man being arrested, the police didn’t like it. They asked to see my passport, which was at the hotel. I don’t carry my passport around when abroad. Do you? So they arrested me as well and shoved me in a cell.
“A few hours later I remembered I had a visiting card from a policeman I had met earlier. This changed everything, and I ended up being photographed with the police sergeant by the man who arrested me.
“Cinema stills? Difficult. On film sets you’re a very secondary figure with no control. The film crew are doing you a favour by letting you be there. As the film camera is always in the best place the background is always wrong from your angle. It’s better when I’m allowed to take actors off the set and photograph them in my own way.
“While doing Death on the Nile in Egypt I bought a felucca sail and made it into a tent where I could photograph the actors and actresses during their spare moments. Bette Davis didn’t think much of having to make a film in the sticky heat of Egypt and couldn’t understand why they hadn’t just built the set somewhere outside Los Angeles. It was unnerving to photograph her.
“I’ve admired her as an actress for as long as I can remember; a great lady and tremendously professional. You get nervous of people you admire don’t you? In fact I find it very frightening to photograph anybody. And it doesn’t improve with age. It gets worse.”