Nelson Mandela attending the CHOGM conference, in Edinburgh. Photograph © Colin McPherson, 1997 all rights reserved.

Nelson Mandela attending the CHOGM conference, in Edinburgh.
Photograph © Colin McPherson, 1997 all rights reserved.

The absolute best thing about being a photographer? A front row seat.

Whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Oasis in concert, being in touching distance when Scotland’s centre-forward scores the winning goal, or being able to see the whites of the eyes of politicians or celebrities as they hold court, there’s no better feeling than knowing you are closer to the action than anyone else in the world at that particular moment.

Even since the announcement of the death of Nelson Mandela yesterday evening in South Africa, there’s been acres of writing and pictured printed about the life and legacy of one of the 20th century’s most notable and influential political activists and leaders. There have been poignant tributes and fond recollections from people who knew him well or were fortunate enough to meet him. As a photographer, our relationship with someone in such elevated public gaze is somewhat removed: we share the intimacy of the space, but rarely get to interact with them. Yet our pictures must convey the sense, the mood and the gravitas (or humour!) of what is being said.

My sole encounter with Mr Mandela came at a media conference he gave during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Edinburgh in 1997. I was detailed to be in the meeting, so didn’t photograph the arrival or departure that day as he sped from meeting to event to function. And there was a condition to photographing him in that somewhat dingy conference centre: because of the damage sustained to his eyesight during his years of incarceration, we were forbidden to use flash guns to illuminate the great man. The result on that pre-digital day, was a series of grainy, rather static images. Nevertheless, there was no doubting his power as a speaker and his presence in that room filled more than just the front row where I was sitting.

It was a privilege just to be there.

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