Editorial Feature

Photographing the legacy of the modern monarchy

Getty Images Royal Photographer Chris Jackson on life on the road

While you might not know the name Chris Jackson, you’re bound to be familiar with his work, which has been regularly featured on the front pages of newspapers and magazines including The Times, The Telegraph, The Washington Post, Tatler, and Newsweek. Jackson is the Getty Images Royal Photographer and during his 15 years with the agency, the photographer has travelled all over the world documenting Royal weddings, births, christenings, and every major royal tour with the British Royal family over the last decade.

Jackson first took up photography at university where he was the photographer for his student newspaper while he studied physiology at the University of Wales, Cardiff. After leaving university, the need for a creative career followed Jackson and after work experience at Reuters and PA he applied for a job at Getty Images as an account executive. “I thought if I could just get in this prestigious agency somehow that would be great,” the photographer says. After looking at the work of incredible photographers coming in, he was more determined than ever to become a photographer at the agency.

“I got a graduate loan and I bought all the digital equipment I needed. I started to shoot before work, after work, whenever I could,” Jackson explains. “Soon I was lucky enough to win a New Photographer of the Year award and that eventually enabled me to get a job as a staff photographer at Getty, after begging for one basically!” Fifteen years later, Jackson has developed a documentary style of photography that feels personal and candid, and portrays the ways in which the Royal family has adapted to life in the 21st century. Here the photographer discusses the importance of his role and some of his favourite moments from the Royal calendar.

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall at Royal Ascot by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh leave Buckingham Palace by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)

Why were you drawn to the role of Royal photographer?

I’d been on a few Royal engagements and for me it really fitted the bill. I love to travel and the fact you’re taking these images people around the world are interested in was really appealing. There's also the historical value, you're creating an archive of images that people will look at in 10, maybe even 100 years time. That was, and still is, a buzz for me. I also love the idea of building up relationships and specialist knowledge within this one genre of photography over the years.

As Her Majesty The Queen is handing over responsibility to younger members of the royal family and those members are becoming certified royals, I find myself becoming incredibly busy keeping up with every engagement. I try and spread myself across all members of the Royal family as much as possible.

The Prince of Wales in Crete, Greece (2018) by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in Sydney, Australia (2018) by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
Prince George of Cambridge looks at his sister Princess Charlotte of Cambridge in her pram by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)

What do you see as the role of a Royal photographer?

I very much see my role as an observer documenting the British Royal Family in an official capacity, across all members. I see myself as a gateway, showing the public essentially what they're up to.

To me, good photography is very important within this role, because if you capture someone's imagination or generate a response in the viewer then you are making them sit up and listen. The Royal family is in an incredible position where they can shine a light on the things they're passionate about and their charitable endeavours and as a photographer, you play an integral role in highlighting those messages.

There's also the historical element. You are there documenting the Royal family, who have been there for centuries. You are creating a record of events such as births, weddings etc. Hopefully it'll be something that lives on in history. I also try and capture the more human side of the Royal family. I'd like to think there's more interactive and fleeting moments I capture, be it Prince Harry engaging with people from the Invictus Games, or the Queen laughing with her daughter at the Royal Albert Hall, you know little moments which I think people enjoy seeing.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex cheer on sailors on Sydney Harbour during the Invictus Games, Sydney 2018 by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry race at Head Together charity event by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
Prince Harry visits Phielsanong Children's home in Lesotho by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)

What do you enjoy about portraiture and reportage?

Other genres of photography such as fashion, you often shoot in one particular style. What I love about photographing the Royal family is the fact it's such a diverse range of different types of photography. I might be doing a portrait one day and the next I’m working as a fly on the wall, adopting a reportage style of photography. It keeps the job fresh and interesting.

In the same way, you're also capturing the different members of the Royal family, so I can go from photographing Prince George one day and HRH The Prince of Wales the next. The difference in subject alters your approach to photography in that moment. It's a real privilege to be in that position, both capturing the historic moments and the quieter engagements.

And specifically, what do you like about photographing The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall?

Photographing the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall is always a great experience. Since the start of my photographic career I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world on Royal tours with them as well as documenting their day-to-day domestic engagements. They take a real energy to their public duties and are always game to get stuck in and try something new inevitably making interesting and animated photographs. They always seem to be ‘on’ and rarely, if ever, have an ‘off’ day. It's their passion for environmental and charitable causes that always make for interesting engagements that will often create a picture when you least expect it!

What are the challenges of being a Royal photographer?

They're incredibly busy and travel the world, so trying to keep up with everyone is very difficult. I try and cover as many members of the family as I can but trips often overlap and of course it's very frustrating as a photographer to miss things, be it on the day or just not being able to attend because you're somewhere else.

What does it feel like to have so many people see your images?

It's one of the most appealing things about being a Royal photographer. The interest around the world is always there – it’s incredible to see what powerful ambassadors they are for the country. It's a privilege to be a part of that. I love my role, trying to take as good a picture as I can to generate global interest.

The Queen and Prince of Wales watch the 2017 Braemar gathering by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex visit Sussex (2018) by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)

Have there ever been any images that went out into the world and you weren't quite happy with?

I've certainly covered events where I haven't been happy with how it panned out. A situation might have potential for great photography, but then the light just falls the wrong way, which is incredibly important. Or you think someone might do something but the situation changes and it doesn't happen. Things don't always go to plan, even the weather can have an effect.

There's always an element of luck in my job. You try and minimise luck by preparing as much as possible, making sure you've got your camera charged, all those sorts of things. But for me, that element of luck is one of the most exciting things. A lot of the time you have no control and it's something you have to thrive upon. You can have days where you're a hero and days where you're a zero.

What can people expect from your new book, Modern Monarchy: The British Royal Family Today?

Having been doing this for 15 years now, it sort of occurred to me that now is a good time to put all of it together into a book. Essentially the book will give someone an intimate insight into life in the Royal family today.

For me, the title of "modern monarchy" really fits the bill because we're looking at a Royal family in transition. We've got HM The Queen, this incredible anchor who's been a figurehead of the family for many years and she's in the process of handing much of the responsibility to the younger members of the royal family. We're seeing new ways of the family communicating with everyone, we're seeing younger members take on new duties and tackle social stigmas in a way that only the Royal family can.

I’ve categorised the book into the big historical moments, the ones everyone gets behind like weddings, births, and christenings, as well as the day-to-day events and ceremonies of the Royal family. Rather than doing 15 years of the royal family in chronological order, it's very much a snapshot of the family today in all the areas of life they're involved in. I'm taking a personal perspective on this, there's been some wonderful adventures in the past and I've been fortunate to put a lot of that personal element into the book.

The Prince of Wales visits the Dyson Technology Centre by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)

What's been the benefit for you as a photographer to see all this work in one place?

I've been well supported by the Royal Photographic Society, the amazing team at Getty Images, and my publisher, Rizzoli. I was a bit overwhelmed at the start trying to choose images, as it just blew my mind. You're looking for details, things you've shot over the years that tie into the theme. At points I thought I was never going to get together a collection, but everyone has been a massive help in getting me focused.

It's amazing having it all in once place because now I can refer to it, I can pull it out at future jobs and use it to show examples of what I'm trying to illustrate to people. I'm grateful for the amazing response I've had from everyone so far. I hope people just find it interesting.

How do you approach your photography when on assignment with the Royal family?

The basic skills translate, but for me I think it's important to take a considered approach to my photography. I hold back until I actually see an image to take – I'm not mindlessly snapping away. I'm pre-empting what's going to happen, which is what a lot of the job involves. By preparing as much as possible, you can sort of imagine where the best pictures are going to be. You need to be intelligent about your photography in certain situations and not be in someone's face all the time.

How do you gain the trust of your subjects?

Over the years I've become a daily occurrence at these engagements. I've been working across the board with the Royal family so they recognise me, and I'd like to think for the reasons I mentioned earlier, taking what I hope is a sensitive yet relaxed approach to my photography so that I create a sense of familiarity. Their job is to be at those events, speak about that particular thing, highlight that platform, and my job is to document it.

The Prince of Wales and Zara Phillips at Royal Ascot by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
The Queen celebrates 100 years of the Women's Institute by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
Prince Harry shows children a photograph by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)

How do you want your photographs of the Royals to differ from ones taken before?

The historical element of what we're doing is incredibly important. If you look back at the incredible royal photographers of the past, people like Lord Snowdon and Cecil Beaton, I'm certainly not up there with those guys, but I endeavour to try and take a little from what they've done. I suppose what's slightly different about what I do these days is that I'm also very much documenting the daily lives of the Royal family.

What’s your favourite picture you’ve taken of The Prince and The Duchess?

It's incredibly tough to choose! I’ve been photographing most of the Royal family for 15 years so there is a huge amount of material to draw upon. I have to say I think the family picture I captured for the Prince’s 70th birthday is probably my favourite image of recent years. The fact that all the family are together and so relaxed in each other’s company is really what makes this shot so special. More often than not I am capturing them at more formal Royal engagements so it’s a real privilege to document this historic moment in such an informal atmosphere with the youngest and sweetest members of the Royal Family with such big smiles!

What’s been your favourite image you’ve taken of the family as a whole?

I could probably narrow it down to about 20! It's tough to choose, but I love photographing the younger members of the royal family. It's a privilege to capture the children, like there’s a picture I took of Prince George while his dad is blowing bubbles at a garden party in Canada for instance. He has this child-like awe as he looks at the bubbles and he's totally not taking any notice of the fact that I'm there with my camera, it's really candid. Those sorts of shots are what I love.

I've also got photographs of HM The Queen that just make me smile, they're very natural where the soft light has fallen in just the right way. Then there’s the royal wedding of the Duke of Cambridge, we had a team of photographers and we had a 2-month build up where everyone was talking about the wedding and getting excited. Also my trips to Africa with Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex are very special to me because when you go back you see the same children and you see them grow up – it’s incredible. That's the running theme of the royal family, 99% of the things I photograph are positive things or highlighting things for good. So it's a great feeling of playing a part in that.

The Prince of Wales' official 70th Birthday family photograph, September 2018 by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
Prince George of Cambridge plays with bubbles (2016) by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
Queen Elizabeth II (2017) by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
The marriage of TRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge by Chris Jackson (From the collection of Clarence House)
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