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Meet the Welsh photographer who documented some of the biggest events of our time

A Welsh photographer who dedicated his life to bring us stories from around the world has had his life’s work published in a book following an incurable cancer diagnosis. 

John Downing, who was born in Llanelli, has dedicated more than fifty years of his life to documenting some of the most significant events of recent years.

But John Downing’s photography didn’t come without its risks, as he tells Welsh Lives on ITV Cymru Wales.

In 1984, he was sent on a routine job to photograph the Tory party conference in Brighton. It resulted in what would become one of his most recognisable photographs.

Credit: John Downing

John recalled: ‘’02.54am, boom! Off went the bomb”

The explosion was an assassination attempt by the IRA, on Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. John was downstairs at the hotel where they were staying when the bomb went off.

“I climbed out of the front window and then I saw coming down the fire escape, Maggie and all the people fussing around her,” the veteran photographer continued.

“They got in the car and I know this was it, and she went past me and I banged the window with the camera.

“We got the exclusive that night.  We got the story out. So it’s not a great photographic picture but it was a really important picture on the night.’’

Credit: John Downing

The explosion killed five people and left more than thirty injured.

John also tells of an earlier brush with death.  He was imprisoned in Uganda in 1972 when covering the story of the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, who banished all Asian people from the country and declared all journalists were spies.

Credit: John Downing

Amin’s army had brought him to Kampala, where John recalls an encounter with one of Amin’s Guards.

‘’He pulled his pistol, he pushed it against my head and forced my head onto the table and said ‘Why you spy on our country?’”

“I just thought I could start weeping and whining and begging for my life but I thought, I’m not going to do that.

“I said ‘I’m not spying.’  I’m here and I’m a journalist and he just took all his soldiers and left.’’

By a stroke of good luck, John had been captured and held, with his camera.

As a result, he was able to take a series of exclusive images that documented the conditions that he and his fellow captives had to endure, while in their Kampala prison.

Credit: John Downing

On a happier occasion, in 1981 Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announced their engagement. John was sent to their first official photocall.

It was a moment which he recalls well as the soon-to-be princess saved him some embarrassment.

“I thought she’s standing in kind of a peculiar way and then I realised she was showing me the ring.

“Of course we were all men, and us blokes never thought about it but she put it in the picture!

“Of course the first thing when I got back was ‘where is the ring’?

“Oh well we will pull it up off this one here!” added John, knowing he could zoom in on the pictures he had taken.

The success of John’s career didn’t go unnoticed. He won British Press Photographer of the Year an unprecedented seven times and was made an MBE in 1992.

Since retiring, John has been diagnosed with an incurable cancer.

‘’The doctors won’t give you a time but I can see by the weight I’m losing and appetite and so on that, it’s running away, the sands are running out.

“My life was just great and then I was struck down by this, but you know what, I just couldn’t feel down.’’

When news broke of John’s cancer diagnosis a crowdfunding campaign was arranged to fund the publication of a book of his life’s work.

“I always said I’d love to take a picture that will last beyond my lifetime – to take one which will be historically interesting in other words.

“You won’t know until I’m gone really if I’ve taken a picture like that but I feel there are a couple of pictures I’m proud of.”

The programme is a part of the Welsh Lives series on ITV Cymru Wales. The series first hit our screens in Spring 2019 and documents the extraordinary stories of a number of different Welsh personalities.

“Working with John is an experience I will never forget,” said producer Alun Jones.

“His many fascinating stories kept the production team and me captivated for the entire time we were with him.

“He is a true gentleman and a man I will always be proud to have worked with.”

Welsh Lives, Thursday 28 November at 8.30pm on ITV Cymru Wales. Available afterwards on itv.com/walesprogrammes