From the age of 14 I played the drums and was passionate about jazz music. When I came out of the army Rock and Roll had taken over but I didn’t want to play that seven nights a week, and decided that I should get myself to America where jazz was very big. I worked out that if I became an air steward I would spend four days a week in New York followed by four days in London and could play jazz in both countries which would be perfect. When I applied to British Airways to be a steward they told me that it was much easier to get a job with them if I was already employed in some capacity by the airport and so I ended up taking a job with the airport photographic unit. I wasn’t interested in photography at all, it was simply a means to and end.
I thought that geniuses took photographs; I didn’t think it was something you could learn. Then I met Peter Campion who was a very shy, unassuming man who had a huge passion for photography. He must have seen a spark of interest in me because he started to bring in books on photography and made me read them. Slowly his passion for the subject rubbed off on me and I became fascinated with what a camera could do. We would look at photographs and talk about how they’d be taken. He taught me the nuts and bolts of photography; how to use a camera and what the different lenses were for. It wasn’t just the technical grounding I learned from him however, the most important thing he taught me was to fill the frame with what you want to say and I’ve always done that – people point a camera at a person sneezing and there are four things going on in the photograph, the important thing is the person sneezing and that’s all you need.
At that point I came across the work of the photojournalist W. Eugene smith which was very different form anything I’d seen and I really identified with it. He had been crippled for a year and couldn’t leave his house and took photos through a window. His work made me aware of different possibilities.
I had to go to art school one day a week as part of the job and I was given assignments to do. One was to take photos of people at the airport. I saw a man wearing a pinstriped suit; he was sleeping and was surrounded by African chieftains. I thought it was quite a funny photo. A photographer from The Sunday Disptaches approached me and told me that the man in the suit was Rab Butler, the foreign secretary and proceeded to organise for his paper to buy it from me and that was the start of my career.
Influenced by W Eugene Smith and of course Peter Campion’s advice of filling the frame, I began to take photos of celebrities but in a different way. Rather than the run of the mill photo of someone emerging from a plane, I’d take a photo of a man watching Petula Clark sitting in curlers putting her make up on.
Another important thing I learned from Peter Campion was that a photographer should fade into the background and should never be noticeable. In my career this has been invaluable advice. When Frank Sinatra agreed to let me follow and photograph him, he ignored me the entire time and that’s the biggest compliment a photographer can be paid. A photographer coming into a room and taking over is all wrong.
I don’t know how my life would have turned out had I not taken that photo of African chieftains; it’s amazing to think that one photograph changed my life and that wouldn’t have happened had I not met Peter Campion. I feel very fortunate.
Sinatra :Frank and Friendly by Terry O'Neill published by Evans Mitchell Books £30