Jeff Overs: Photographing VIPs for the BBC

Jeff Overs in the Cabinet Office Capturer becomes the captured: Jeff Overs in the Cabinet Office

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You may not know his name but you will know his work. BBC News photographer Jeff Overs has taken pictures of many dignitaries for the BBC, including Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

He has had surreal experiences ranging from moving furniture in the wood cabin of Russian President Vladimir Putin to getting hugs from the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

After working at the Coventry Telegraph and Brighton Argus - at a time when local newspapers could afford to have six staff photographers - Overs joined the BBC in 1990.

"The week I arrived, Margaret Thatcher resigned, so I was thrown right into all that, which was very exciting."

He is now the only contracted photographer at BBC News, and mostly works with The Andrew Marr Show. During his 24 years, he has also overseen the transition from film to digital, witnessed the downsizing of the once large photographic unit, and managed the BBC's ever-growing database of library photos.

"We live in a world now where everyone's a photographer, we've all got cameras, but what I bring to the party is that I've been doing it for a long time so my brain has grown in a certain way. You tend to look at juxtapositions of things and people. You also sort of get some predictive powers of anticipating that."

He even made a rare appearance in front of the camera five years ago on The Andrew Marr Show after being stopped by police for taking photos near Westminster.

Below he shares some of his favourite photos and the stories behind them.

'Flamingo legs'
David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown at a 2010 election debate; Clegg and Brown both have their left legs flicked up as if in synch David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown at a 2010 election debate

Much about photography is about being in the right place at the right time, says Overs.

"The best one was the prime ministerial debate. It worked like clockwork, it was late at night, and it was right up against the newspaper deadlines.

"The three party leaders came out, and I just saw [them] limbering up before the programme started. The call went out 'one minute to air', and at that moment they started puffing and stretching, and I saw their legs go up like a flamingo."

And although both Clegg's and Brown's went up together, in perfect synchronisation, Overs wasn't sure whether he'd managed to capture it - especially as all the photos were being immediately whisked off to the agencies to beat the newspaper deadlines.

"I was driving back that night from Birmingham and the news headlines came on at midnight and they were talking about my picture because it had made the front pages. So that's complete bliss. That doesn't happen very often but it all worked like clockwork."

'Are you alright my friend?'
Nelson Mandela Nelson Mandela in 1997

"I've taken Mandela a few times. This one was an hour interview at the Dorchester and we all turned up with a copy of Long Walk to Freedom in our bags. It was 1997, so he'd been out [of prison] for a while and I'd done him before.

"You couldn't use flash with Nelson Mandela because the bright light on Robben Island from the quarry [where they made them work] had pale stone and it damaged their eyes. He had bad eyesight and you couldn't use flash, so he was lit.

"I couldn't shoot during the interview - and it still often happens like that - so you're squeezed into the seconds that the interviewee sits down, and then as it finishes maybe. Normally I get about 15 seconds. I'll get 20 seconds if I'm lucky, especially in those days.

"Mandela was just as you'd expect, he was delightful. Very worried about the lighting man, though. We had a member on the lighting crew who always looked a bit serious and he kept going over and touching his arm and going, 'Are you alright my friend?'"

Thatcher not allowed inside Chequers
Margaret Thatcher at Checkers

"One does find oneself in some very surreal situations," says Overs.

Within a year of joining the BBC he spent a day at Chequers with Margaret Thatcher, who was having a retrospective documentary made about her years in power.

"We stood on the terrace and a car arrived with Dennis [Thatcher] and he started practicing golf swings, it was like something out of a comedy. He started going on to me about golf, and I don't know anything about it but he was practising golf swings, looking up at Chequers' long avenue. 'It's the finest driving range in Europe,' he said.

"Meanwhile Margaret Thatcher appeared with canapés and it became apparent that she wasn't allowed to go in [the house] because the Majors had now taken over and, of course, the last thing they wanted was her going in.

"So they kept saying 'it's being renovated', but it was just being redecorated. So she wasn't allowed in the house."

'He'll virtually dance down the street'
Nigel Farage smiling with a backdrop that makes it look as if many colours are coming out of his head in all directions Nigel Farage in a BBC studio during the 2013 local elections

"Whatever one thinks of Nigel Farage, what's interesting about him to me is that it's very difficult to photograph politicians and party leaders these days because they're so guarded, they're so managed.

"When Cameron walks into a studio, his people are on me immediately. They're very much about dos and don'ts, cans and can'ts… and with Nigel Farage you can do what you like. He'll virtually dance down the street for you. I can follow him into make up, follow him to all the places you could never go with any other politician. In a way, it's quite refreshing.

"He just doesn't care. It's the same with Boris Johnson. You get carte blanche with them and it doesn't seem to do them any harm."

'It's like an eclipse'
Ed Miliband in silhouette against a red light

"Everyone looks for something graphic. This is just [Labour leader] Ed Miliband pausing at the corner of a studio in silhouette. But he's also been known as 'Red Ed' so you just see the potential instinctively.

"You can only photograph what's in front of you and often things [you might want] don't happen, but when they do it's like an eclipse, it all comes together. Sometimes you see it and then it happens and it's very satisfying."

An unlikely fan
Alice Cooper and Theresa May

One of the great things about working on a show like The Andrew Marr Show is the access and range of guests, says Overs.

And with diverse characters thrown together you can never predict what might happen.

"A few years ago Alice Cooper was on the Marr show and so was the Home Secretary Theresa May. And who knew that she'd be a fan?

"Someone suggested snapping them together and she was thrilled."

Putin's wood cabin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

"I took this photo about 10 years ago with David Frost when we went to Putin's dacha (country house) in a wood outside Moscow. He has this cabin and we were there moving furniture around with a KGB goon standing in the corner.

"He had a malachite desk set that we were moving around in his office. David Frost was standing in the corner watching us. I did his programme for about 10 years, almost every interview, and he had amazing access.'

When Putin arrived hours later, he was very formal, recalls Overs.

"I've just come back from taking pictures of Putin in Sochi. On this occasion we went up in a cable car to a mountain top and it was like a James Bond movie."

'Let's find the Falklands'
Margaret Thatcher and Charles Powell in front of a globe

On the hottest day of the year one June, Overs received a message saying that Margaret Thatcher, who was making a Radio 4 documentary with her former foreign affairs secretary Charles Powell, was saying "no" to stills.

So off he went to Wimbledon in more than 100F heat. But upon switching on his mobile briefly, he found a message saying "Jeff! Jeff! She said yes to stills but you have to be there by 5pm."

It was 4pm.

"So I drive like the clappers, run up the stairs, open the doors and it was surreal - she was sipping tea under a portrait with Charles Powell, and she started cross-examining me about tennis.

"I was standing in my shorts - it was like a dream sequence where you're in pyjamas and meeting a famous person - and suddenly I'm in the room and I was thinking, where the hell should I photograph her?"

As it was for a programme about France, Overs suggested taking a photo by the globe.

"And she said: 'Come on Charles, let's find the Falklands.' So I was on my knees with her spinning the globe looking for the Falklands Islands. It was ridiculous. Two minutes later, I was back out on the street driving away thinking, did that happen? Luckily I had the photograph to prove it."

Arafat the Hugger
Don Maclean and Yasser Arafat Former children's tv presenter Don Maclean with Yasser Arafat

"I once got hugged by Yasser Arafat. Not everyone can say they've been hugged by Yasser Arafat.

"One of the hosts from Crackerjack was called Don Maclean, and in his second career he ended up presenting a religious programme on Radio 2.

"It was coming up to Christmas and bizarrely they'd got an interview with Yasser Arafat to be broadcast on Christmas morning. I'd been [shooting Arafat] that morning so Don Maclean asked me, 'What's he like?'

"I said, 'He'll hug you.' And [later on] Yasser burst in and hugged everyone.

"He was overwhelmingly friendly, he was all smiles and hugs. Maclean got a hug on the way in, and I got a hug on the way out. We all got a hug.'

Richard III

But one of Overs' favourite shoots was of a slightly different type of leader. One who had been dead for more than 500 years.

When Richard III's bones were discovered in a Leicester car park last year, Overs accompanied the BBC journalist who had followed the story from its beginning - and therefore got privileged access.

"The woman who made the discovery laid out Richard III on black velvet for us. And it was just his spine. The skeleton was all in bags and she laid him out like a jigsaw puzzle.

"And out of all these bags emerged Richard III."

Skeleton of Richard III laid out in bags, except for the spine
Skeleton of Richard III laid out in full

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