John Harrison died today. I had known him for many years and was speaking to him only a few weeks ago in Stormont. He was greatly admired and loved by all who worked with him. His passing is a deeply sad moment.
I wrote a profile of John at the end of August last year. This is an excerpt.
When John Harrison founded Harrison Photography in 1994, he didn’t realise that it would lead him to working with the Queen, three US presidents, and receiving an MBE having witnessed some of the most horrific moments of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.
His aim was to do PR photography at Press speed. He knew that would give him the edge over his competitors and with his experience and reputation, he knew he could deliver. In more than 30 years as a photographer, John Harrison has seen many dramatic changes in his profession and witnessed the best and worst in life on his patch; Northern Ireland.
From cycling to assignments as a 16 year old, to travelling with official While House photographers, John is one of the few who can properly be tagged with word “Legendary”. He has a list of awards including three times N.I. Press Photographer of the Year and six Sports photography awards. He has photographed three US Presidents, the Queen, many media personalities and all the major Northern Ireland politicians.
John started his career with the Ballymena Guardian. Like most local newspapers, awards dinners were a staple diet, sometimes four a night. “You had to learn to work with people. Then there were the school photos. I was allowed to be as creative as I liked, but the Editor wanted 30 school kids’ faces in every photo – we reckoned that boosted the Guardian’s sales almost three time for a schools photos edition.”
Like many journalists and photographers who covered the Troubles in Northern Ireland, John does not dwell in the past but brushes over the worst days with a few examples that have made a deep impression. “I remember my first bomb in 1977. It was in Church Street and killed a lady. The housing estates were, shall we say, ‘vibrant’. There were murders and sectarianism.” Still a teenager, John was in the middle of angry crowds being sworn at and dodging petrol bombs. “You learnt to work with the crowd and not get hurt.”
From the Ballymena Guardian, john moved to the Pacemaker press agency in 1983 where his first assignment was to photograph a murder. “It was my first murder. You hide behind the camera. It’s your job, it’s nothing personal. It was not until the print was developed that the full impact hit me.” Again, John does not dwell on this period.
It was that same kid on the bicycle who became the official Northern Ireland Office photographer on the Clinton and Bush Presidential visits and most recently was in the Oval Office with newly elected President Obama. Over the years John has built lifelong relationships with leading politicians including Rev. Ian Paisley and John Hume.
John has seen the culture of Photography change as dramatically as the culture of Northern Ireland
“Today photographers can have a picture with an editor or client in moments. In my Ballymena days the photograph was printed, captioned and wrapped in time to get it on the 3.00 pm train to Coleraine for the printers. We now use sophisticated software tools and the internet to work with clients rather than just for them”
John has seen another culture change. Moving to PR from Press, he has realised that he must manage the relationships as well as the assignments “When the photographer comes in to the office after a shoot, he or she will download all the photos. We have kept everything on our servers and backed up since 1994. Then they will chose the best two or three and transfer them to our new Aetopia system. The client has immediate access to the system too and they can request changes and choose the images (prints or downloads) or issue instructions such as ‘route that one to the Times.’ This is a tremendous advantage compared to sending contact sheets or in email. The viewer is so much better and the client can really see what they want.”
John exudes energy and enthusiasm for his work and how technology has changed it. “The whole process got faster. The normal turn round for a PR shoot was two or three days. I decided to do PR at Press speed. If someone wants something in 10 minutes, they get it.” It was this attitude and his natural ability to work with people that landed him the contract to cover the first Bill Clinton visit to Northern Ireland as the official Northern Ireland Office photographer. He was to travel not with the Press Corps, but the White House team. “It was huge. You get your Secret Service badge, and the most important advice is ‘Don’t lose your badge’ or you’re out – no questions asked. But I did lose it. The camera knocked it off and there were three of us running round a car park looking for it. The secret it turns out is you pin it to your shirt collar – that’s what the White House photographers do.”
John advice to aspiring PR photographers is “manage the relationships and give great customer service."