My big break

Press pro Kar­wai Tang de­scribes how a shot he took when he was 19 helped launch his ca­reer

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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.”

Royal ap­proval

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.kar­wai­t­

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