West Cork-based photographer who captured iconic image of Diana Spencer tells of vivid memories of the princess

John Minihan photographed Lady Diana Spencer just as she was catapulted onto the world stage. Sarah Horgan hears why he still thinks of her every day
West Cork-based photographer who captured iconic image of Diana Spencer tells of vivid memories of the princess

Photographer John Minihan at the farmers market in Skibbereen, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

AT A time when Princess Diana was being snapped by paparazzi the world over there was one photographer who stood out from the rest.

Almost 24 years after her tragic death the memories are as vivid for West Cork-based photographer John Minihan as they ever were. It was just a few days after the now industry legend captured the famous image that introduced Princess Diana to the world and appeared on the front page of the London Evening Standard.

Now, she was sitting on a wooden bench in Barkley Square crying, after becoming overwhelmed and distressed by a swarm of photographers. John was among the crowd but refused to photograph Diana after seeing her tears. Instead, he made a bold move, prioritising morals over professional success. He immediately phoned his editor and abandoned the assignment.

“Diana had been surrounded by a posse of photographers and journalists of all descriptions from all over the world,” he revealed.

“She got out of her car and sat on the park bench before putting her head in her hands and crying. I immediately called my then editor and told him that I couldn’t bring myself to take Diana’s photograph. It was an appalling situation. I told him that she was sitting on a park bench surrounded by photographers and crying. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, given that I wasn’t the one being paid to make these kinds of decisions.”

Princess Diana at a Pavarotti concert in Hyde Park, London, 30th July 1991
Princess Diana at a Pavarotti concert in Hyde Park, London, 30th July 1991

Even after she left, John found it difficult to shed the image of Lady Di crying.

“I left it a few hours and then bought a dozen roses to bring to her apartment. When I rang the doorbell she looked out and saw it was me. She instantly recognised me and came down. I handed her the dozen roses and said “these are from the bonafide Fleet Street photographers”.

She apologised for crying and told me that she felt silly.

“That was the last time I saw her. Over the years I’ve learned that there are certain times when you don’t take pictures. Sometimes you have to cherish a moment, rather than photograph it. Looking back I know it was the right thing to do.

“Not everything is photographable. I’m glad I have that memory now and that I wasn’t part of the paparazzi who, to some degree, ruined her life. You never know what’s going to happen when a camera gets into the wrong hands. They are as much a testament to your guilt as your innocence.”

The photographer, who is also famed for his images of playwright Samuel Beckett, described how the publicity around Princess Diana, took a sinister turn.

“When I met Diana she had found her prince and was madly in love. She loved music and was a very special person. What happened down the road I wasn’t there for.

Diana, Princess of Wales. Pic:John Stillwell/PA Wire
Diana, Princess of Wales. Pic:John Stillwell/PA Wire

“She had revitalised the magazine industry and before long, there were people taking pictures of her that had never picked up a camera before. I was never a foot-in-the-door photographer and knew what direction I wanted to go in.”

He recounted the shock he felt after learning of her death two years after leaving the newspaper industry to move to Ballydehob in West Cork.

“I found out the way the rest of the world did - through cable television. I can remember switching on Sky News at 6.30am in the morning and seeing that she had died. I was completely heartbroken. For those two weeks I spent with her I found her to be the human face of the royal family.

“There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about her. Diana wanted to bring her children up in a grounded world. By the end of her life, she didn’t know who were her friends and who were her enemies.”

John is glad, however, to have caught a glimpse of the princess during happier times. He cast his mind back to the first time he photographed her at the kindergarten in Pimlico where she worked.

“A lot of people dropped their children off early in the morning and it wasn’t unusual to see cars pulling up outside at 6.30am. There was a story in the Daily Mail saying that Prince Charles had relinquished his relationship with Sarah Spencer and was now seeing her younger sister Diana Spencer who worked in a kindergarten. It was only 6.30am and I knew the kindergarten wasn’t far. I was there by about 7.10am when I spoke to the headmistress. It was just me there at that point. I told her that I wanted to speak with Lady Diana Spencer.”

Their first meeting still remains prominent in the photographer’s mind.

“Within a couple of minutes Diana had come to the door. She was vivacious and bubbly. They had been expecting the press and were very accomodating. At that time the children at the kindergarten were very much a part of the story so I asked if we could have them in the photograph as well.

“By around 7.30am that morning they had got permission from the parents for them to be in the photo. When I looked through the viewfinder and saw her legs being illuminated by the sun I knew I had something. The image made the front page of the Evening Standard. That was the day she exploded onto the world.”

The photographer worked with a number of royal family members during his time in the UK.

“I’ll never forget the day I was photographing the queen mother and my flashgun went. I had to wait 30 minutes for it to recharge but she just graciously looked at me and said ‘take your time’.

A statue of Diana, Princess of Wales, commissioned by the Duke of Cambridge and Duke of Sussex, is set to be erected in the Sunken Gardens at Kensington Palace on what would have been her 60th birthday this July 1.

John Minihan’s famous photograph of Lady Diana Spencer was secured by UCC along with the rest of his photo collection which is said to boast some of the most iconic photographic images of the 20th century.

More than 30,000 original photographic negatives of Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Francis Bacon, Edna O’Brien, Jimi Hendrix, The Who — among other literary and cultural figures — now form part of the university’s library.

John Minihan was born in Dublin in 1946 and raised in Athy, Co Kildare. He moved to London with his family at the age of 12 and became an apprentice photographer with the Daily Mail. At just 21, he was the youngest staff photographer for the Evening Standard.

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