My big break
Press pro Karwai Tang describes how a shot he took when he was 19 helped launch his career
The Queen’s 90th birthday, in 2016, was marked by pageants, concerts, galas and street parties. Some 26 years earlier, the Queen’s own mother was fêted in a similar way for her 90th birthday. Tradition had it that the public would gather outside the gates of Clarence House in London on the morning of the Queen Mother’s birthday, waiting for her to step out and greet them. On the morning of her 90th birthday, around 40 press and official photographers were assembled in a closed-off area ready to photograph the historic occasion. They were joined by an unknown teenager with a camera and telephoto lens. This teenager was Karwai Tang.
“I was 19 at the time and working as a runner for one of the picture agencies in Fleet Street,” Karwai recalls. “It was the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday so I took the morning off. I didn’t have accreditation for the press pen in front of Clarence House, but I remember climbing on top of the security barriers and balancing one foot on a photographer’s ladder and one foot on top of the police barriers.”
The Queen Mother soon appeared, and Karwai used a 300mm f/4 telephoto on his Nikon F-301 – loaded with Ektachrome E6 slide film – to snap her as she talked to well-wishers and accepted cards and flowers. Minutes later he climbed down and rushed to his agency, Universal Pictorial Press, to process the film. “They agreed to syndicate the picture on a 50:50 split. There had been 30 or 40 photographers there but my picture got picked up all over.”
Later that year, royal photographer Lord Lichfield – the Queen’s cousin – published his commemorative book Queen Mother: The Lichfield Selection. The hardback featured 160 pages of photographs chosen by Lichfield, documenting the Queen Mother’s 90 years. For the cover image, Lichfield chose Karwai’s portrait taken outside Clarence House.
“I don’t know why my picture got picked out for the Lord Lichfield book. I was just lucky,” Karwai says. “It was so exciting for me to have someone so prominent as a photographer pick my picture.” The photograph was also selected for the Martini Royal Calendar. “She was Miss August!” Karwai laughs.
The publication of the book marked the turning point in the 19-year-old’s career, and it wasn’t long before his duties at the agency included more photo assignments and fewer errands to run. Karwai soon turned professional and a quarter of a century later he is now firmly established as one of the UK’s most acclaimed celebrity, royal and sports photographers.
Karwai Tang began his photography career at the age of 17. He won the UK Picture Editors’ Guild Royal Photographer of the Year award in both 2003 and 2006, and its Olympics News Photographer of the Year award in 2012. He specialises in celebrity, royal and sports photography. See more of his work at www.karwaitang.com