On the other side of the lens

Jason Fraser sold his first picture at the age of 14 and is now undisputed king of the paparazzi. Britain's most notorious press photographer defends his profession to Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

When Jason Fraser walks out his front door he can see the pink blossom on the trees in Kensington Gardens. From the window of his office, a short walk away, Kensington Palace, the former home of Diana, Princess of Wales, stands before him. And when he goes for lunch at the Italian restaurant around the corner where he eats four times every week, Diana is all around him, because she used to dine there, too. Her name is on the steps of Da Mario's pizzeria and a large painting of the princess hangs on the wall, close to Fraser's favourite table.

When Jason Fraser walks out his front door he can see the pink blossom on the trees in Kensington Gardens. From the window of his office, a short walk away, Kensington Palace, the former home of Diana, Princess of Wales, stands before him. And when he goes for lunch at the Italian restaurant around the corner where he eats four times every week, Diana is all around him, because she used to dine there, too. Her name is on the steps of Da Mario's pizzeria and a large painting of the princess hangs on the wall, close to Fraser's favourite table.

The career and current status of Britain's most famous press photographer owes a great deal to the relationship he had with the woman he followed around the Mediterranean in the last days of her life, a distant but invited guest, photographing her with her lover Dodi Fayed.

It is no great surprise to find out that when an auction house offered for sale what is probably the last private letter Diana wrote before she was killed in a Paris car crash in 1997, Fraser successfully bid £1,700 for it. That business, done from his bath, has potentially earnt him several thousand pounds (although he says he bid for sentimental reasons).

Fraser, 37, who grew up in Kensington as the son of a foreign correspondent, made a great deal of money from photographing Diana and built a reputation that allows him to exert an extraordinary influence over the way tabloid newspapers are illustrated. Diana may be gone, but when Prince William holidayed with a student girlfriend in a ski resort recently, it was Fraser who brokered the controversial publication of pictures in The Sun. And when Diana's tabloid-princess "successor", Victoria "Posh" Beckham, suffered this month as revelations surfaced of her husband's alleged infidelity, Fraser flew to Switzerland to photograph the couple making a show of togetherness as they walked in the snow.

He has been called "the Charming Paparazzo", but hates being described by the P-word, despite having an original poster of Fellini's Dolce Vita (which coined the expression) above his bed. "The word has a lovely ring about it. In every country in Europe it's used fondly, except in Britain, where it's used pejoratively," he says. "I've taken paparazzo pictures, but just because you drive a car doesn't make you a taxi driver, even if you've given friends a lift."

Fraser's kitchen is decorated with original prints of the Sixties movie Blow Up and he says that seeing David Hemmings in the star role as a photographer was his "Road to Damascus moment". He talks of cradling his Olympus in bed like other kids cuddled a teddy bear. When he was 14, he snapped Margaret and Dennis Thatcher after gate-crashing an event at the British Museum and sold the picture to Private Eye, which used it on the cover.

As a young multi-lingual news agency photographer, he donned a wet-suit to get the first pictures inside the Herald of Free Enterprise after the 1987 Zeebrugge disaster, and snapped the wanted terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Then jobs on The Sun and The News of The World led him to the celebrity diet on which he continues to feed.

The chief accusations against Fraser relate to opposite extremes of photographic etiquette. Sometimes he is derided for intruding on the privacy of subjects by taking shots without their knowledge; at other times, critics say he colludes in stunted pictures that have no value in news.

But Fraser says he found the Beckhams' chalet "through that old cliché, good old-fashioned journalism" and went straight to their security guards to announce his presence. The couple went for a walk and raised no objection when Fraser started taking pictures. "This idea that I was there with a loud-hailer like Cecil B De Mille, orchestrating the pictures, is a load of tosh," he says, claiming another national newspaper found the chalet but missed the shots.

The William pictures came to him through the French agency Eliot Press, which he represents in Britain. "The photographer is an ex-member of the French national skiing squad. He assured me he had stood in the snow in full view of bodyguards, equerries and, most importantly, Prince William. Compared to some of the photographs of Prince Charles running out of the water in his early twenties with busty blondes on Australian beaches, these pictures were positively chaste."

His involvement in the press began as a 15-year-old at London's French Lycée when he landed a scoop by selling The Sun pictures of the bullet-ridden car of Stephen Waldorf, gunned down by police in Kensington in a case of mistaken identity.

Despite public concerns over press misbehaviour (largely centred on the activities of tabloid photographers), Fraser claims things have got better. "There were things published in the Eighties that would never be published now," he says. "There were photographs on private property of people in rehab, photographs of people in hospital beds. The newspapers still want to beat each other but they won't go to the lengths they used to. The depiction, usually in BBC dramas, of photographers ramming their feet in people's doors and making sly remarks is a load of old cobblers."

In fact, he claims unseemly photographer scrums are a sign of a healthy democracy. "It's because we have a huge, diverse press, that's all it is. They're elbowing each other to get the picture but they're down the pub together later having a drink. The idea that they are behaving like animals is tosh."

The photographer, divorced with a nine-year-old daughter, claims he has "mellowed". Three years ago he stopped drinking and for the past eight months he has been off the cigarettes. He now prefers studying Tudor history to flying planes.

The suggestion that people in the public eye are harassed by photographers annoys him. "Ninety-five per cent of what I shoot is with the consent of the people I am photographing," he says. One reason he gets consent is that he deliberately takes flattering pictures. "I don't want to get a picture of Victoria Beckham first thing in the morning after she's woken up."

Not everyone would agree with this account - notably the Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox, who embarked on a bitter legal battle with The People, which bought covertly taken pictures from Fraser showing her naked with her husband on honeymoon. But many celebrities undeniably benefit from a man who claims 70 front-page tabloid pictures already this year.

Fraser claims his career has turned out "even better" than he envisaged when watching Blow Up and promising himself a life of risks, glamour and pretty girls. But beneath an apparent supreme confidence lies an insecurity borne of his early years in the game, when older photographers would bully him into fetching them pizza.

This self-consciousness is evident on the rare occasions he is captured on the other side of the photographer's lens. "I don't want to look smug," he says."I don't want to look like I'm looking down my nose at people."

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