Enrique Meneses: Acclaimed photojournalist

 

The uncanny ability of Enrique Meneses to be in the right place at the right time was never as evident as when he produced one of the 20th century's greatest examples of photo-reportage – the first by any journalist from Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains of the incipient Communist uprising in 1957.

En route to Costa Rica to try to prevent a female cousin from being forced into a planned marriage, Meneses was instructed by one of his employers, Paris-Match, to stop off in Cuba because, as he was memorably told, "some hairy blokes are trying to start a little revolution. Take some pictures, it might be fun."

Never one to resist a challenge, with the assistance of Raul Castro's future wife, Vilma Espin – "Deborah", who headed the Communists' spy network – Meneses smuggled his cameras past checkpoints manned by President Batista's security forces in a crate of whisky. Then, passing himself off as one of the tens of thousands of Galician immigrants, he wangled his way behind the rebel lines, fell asleep in a hut and when awoke, found himself staring into the heavily bearded face of a man who introduced himself as Fidel Castro.

The result of his month-long time with the rebels were some of the most evocative pictures taken of Che Guevara and Castro – the latter riding a horseback mid-river with a rifle slung across his back, or both of them shaving or slumped in tents reading books by lamplight. Eventually smuggled out in the lining of a pair of women's corsets, the photographs earned Meneses a spell in Batista's prison when published. But they also were the first images taken by any journalist of a revolution that would inspire similar rebellions across the developing world throughout the second half of the 20th century, and gained Meneses a permanent niche in the history of photojournalism.

Meneses was born in Madrid in 1929; his sense of adventure became evident as early as 17 when he heard over the radio one evening that Spain's most legendary bullfighter, Manolete, was dying in a hospital after being gored in Linares, a city some 300 kilometres to the south. Meneses rushed out into the streets and hailed a taxi to take him to Andalusia, which cost him 450 pesetas – a small fortune in those days and three times what he earned from his report on Manolete, filed in the small hours on his return to Madrid to a small news agency. But the report launched his career.

For such a free spirit, there was little chance of his staying shackled under the grim censorship of Franco's Spain. As he told El País in his last interview, in November, "Spain was a sordid country, with coarse, provincial journalism, in which they only wrote about three things – football, bullfighting and soap operas. Maybe that's why I went for Manolete." In 1954 he went into self-imposed exile, buying a one-way ticket from Marseilles to Alexandria and then surviving in Egypt selling newspaper stories, taking photographs and teaching.

After that there was no stopping Meneses, with his temerity, huge personal charm and an obsession with getting eye-witness access to world events, no matter how dangerous. After a four-month, 27,000 kilometre odyssey from Cairo to Cape Town without taking a single plane flight to try to record the rapidly changing face of Africa in the 1950s, his reports and photography ranged from the Suez Crisis and Cuba to the 1963 March on Washington and wars in Angola, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. While working for Paris-Match he also published regularly in Life and The New York Times, as well as the newspaper ABC in Spain, later forming part of Spain's top reporting programmes, Los Reporteros.

In 1993 he lied to his partner Annick – "I didn't want her to worry" – and told her he was on a safari in Kenya, when in fact he was criss-crossing the streets of Sarajevo, unable to run from snipers' bullets because of encroaching emphysema but still determined to get as close to the action. This was partly due to his innate curiosity and was partly practical, given that, as he put it, "If you're two metres away, they're less likely to shoot you than if you're 200 metres away." By the time he retired, he had more than 15,000 photos in his archive, and not only of conflicts: actors such as Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston all featured.

Living on a tiny pension in Madrid and struck down with cancer for a third time, Meneses never gained the recognition he deserved. But he was surrounded by friends to his last days, became an active blogger and ran his Twitter account with 10,000 followers until a few days before he died.

He also wrote, among dozens of books, a biography called, with his typically laconic style, Hasta Aquí Hemos Llegado ["This is as far as we've got"]. The door to his 13th floor flat was always open to younger journalists; there he would happily pass on practical lessons. Perhaps the most important was that "if you realise the world is your home, you can work wherever you want."

Enrique Meneses, photojournalist: born Madrid 21 October 1929; married Barbara Montgomery (died 1977; one daughter); partner to Annick Duval (one son, one daughter); died Madrid 6 January 2013.

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