Life through Harry’s lens

Harry Benson
Harry Benson

He toured with the Beatles, was there when Senator Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and was tear gassed during the James Meredith March with Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

But for Harry Benson, it was all in a day’s work.

The Glasgow-born photographer, whose images feature at a new exhibition at the Scottish Parliament, nearly didn’t take the job that helped cement his name as one of the best in the business.

He said: “The Beatles were at the very start of a journey and at the time I was working for the Daily Express. I was assigned to document the rise of Beatlemania as it spread through Europe and America.”

It might seem a dream job to many, but Harry wasn’t too taken with the task at hand.

“The night before I joined them in Paris, I was supposed to be boarding a plane for Africa to record the continent’s decolonisation. But if you’re a news photographer, you do as you’re told.”

And thankfully he did.

Harry has photographed 11 American presidents from Eisenhower to Obama, witnessed first hand the upheavals in Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan, and has captured world leaders and celebrities throughout his career.

Benson said that he photographed Robert Kennedy’s assassination as it was his job.

“I was friends with Bobby Kennedy and I followed him right through to his death,” he said. “You can also see pictures of his wife Ethel holding her hands up to stop photographers taking pictures of her dying husband in the exhibition. That was someone I knew, and still know, but you’ve got to do your job.”

There were many times when Harry’s work put him in danger, such as the time he was on manoeuvres with the IRA in the 1980s.

“You just had to be careful,” he said matter of factly. “These were dangerous people, but I wasn’t frightened of them. I had the CIA and the British calling me up after the assignment was done, asking me to chat with them. I said, ‘You must think I’m off my head! You think I’m going to talk to you about the IRA?’.”

It was Harry’s role at Life magazine that helped open doors for him.

“You were part of a group considered to be the best photographers around,” he explained. “You got further with Life in your back pocket, it could get closer. My whole idea of photography was to get as close as I could ... I did spend quite a while with Michael Jackson, Bobby Fischer, and a long time with Nixon, Carter and Reagan. I’m showing off now...” he laughed.

But there is one man he still wants to get on film.

“I’ve captured some amazing moments in history and the one really I would like to do is Putin. He’s a real character on the scene. I think what he’s asking for is some respect.”

So what motivates him to keep going?

“It isn’t money. It has never been what motivated me. Never. If it was money I would be doing advertising. And advertising just bores the hell out of me. It’s like being back at school!

“I like doing jobs that I don’t enjoy – I find them challenging, and whenever it gets hard, I tell myself ‘pull yourself together, fail tomorrow, not today’.

“Photojournalism is history. Photographs bring total recall of events and the surrounding times to those who lived through them and hopefully will bring an understanding to those too young to have been there”.

‘Harry Benson: Seeing America’ will be on display at the Parliament until December 3.