The acclaimed Fleet Street photographer John Downing MBE, who survived interrogation by Idi Amin’s special forces and documented war zones around the world, has died aged 79.
Downing visited more than 100 countries including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Rwanda and Uganda during a distinguished career, bringing harrowing images of conflict to newspaper front pages in the UK.
He hitch-hiked on lorries along Central America’s infamous Road of Death, photographed the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and was shot at from helicopters while on often dangerous assignments.
Downing was also the only photographer present at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when an IRA bomb was detonated during the 1984 Conservative party conference.
His exclusive shot of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband Denis being hastily driven away from the scene of the blast that killed five people was printed all over the world.
Downing, who hails from Llanelli in south Wales, was diagnosed with incurable cancer last year and died on Wednesday.
Starting as a photography apprentice on Fleet Street aged 15, he worked for 38 years at The Daily Express, during which time he won the prestigious British Press Photographer of the Year award a record seven times.
In 1972, Downing had travelled on assignment to Uganda, where the country’s dictator Amin had declared all journalists to be spies. He was captured and brought by the army to Kampala before being imprisoned and interrogated by 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?’ Downing recalled in a 2019 ITV documentary on his life.
‘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.’
Remarkably, Downing’s camera wasn’t confiscated when he was captured and he subsequently photographed the squalid conditions he and his fellow captives endured in the Kampala prison.
He also covered the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, recalling a harrowing encounter with a boy in Bosnia whose leg was blown off by a landmine as he fetched a football kicked into a field.
Downing saw first hand the horrific consequences of the Rwandan genocide and, in 1983 along with Express reporter Ross Benson, dressed as tribesmen to cover the Afghan war against the Russians.
Away from the battlefield, Downing covered countless other momentous events, including the 1981 engagement of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer – where he forgot to get a close-up of the ring.
The Beatles also posed for him at the launch of their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and he snapped the Queen Mother on Royal duties.
Award-winning Reuters photographer Peter Nicholls, who often worked alongside him, told The Daily Express: ‘His work from Afghanistan and Bosnia is some of the bravest and most visceral you will ever see.
‘There was no better professional, either photographically or journalistically.’